Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Polyhedron: Issue #10

For reasons many and various, I've always had a soft spot for Gamma World, which was long one of my favorite roleplaying games, though I have not had the chance to play it at length for some time. Consequently, the Jeff Easley cover illustration to issue #10 of Polyhedron (February 1983) conjures up many fond memories of playing the game. It's also a good way to kick off what editor Mary Kirchoff dubs "the GAMMA WORLD® issue." That probably goes some way toward explaining why this particular issue of the 'zine sticks in my head after all these years.

The issue places its Letters page at the front this time rather than relegating it to the back, as was the case previously. I usually don't mention this feature, because the letters tend to focus on banal and/or ephemeral matters. This time, there's one letter I find intriguing. The writer takes issue with the oft-repeated statement that AD&D is "for adults." The writer explains that he doesn't "know one individual over 30 who enjoys AD&D or D&D®." He adds that he "wish[es] there would be more Dungeon loving Dads and Monster loving Moms." Kirchoff then addresses the "subject of getting adults involved" in roleplaying games. To this, Kirchoff replies:
My own early experiences of the hobby involved several adult players, including the father of one of my friends (who was a hex-and-chit wargamer), so it's an odd question for me. In fact, when I first started seriously playing D&D – this would have been early to mid-1980 – the impression I had at the time was that it was primarily an adult pastime, because I initially knew very few kids who played beyond those whom I'd personally introduced to the hobby. That started to change very quickly and, by the time this letter appeared, in early 1983, I suspect the demographics had skewed considerably toward younger players.

This issue's installment of Ron Shirtz's "The Knight-Error" comic hit home.
It's a much-needed reminder that, for all its connections to the fantasy literature that preceded it, Dungeons & Dragons doesn't really emulate any of them and is essentially it's own distinct genre.

"Tips for the Beginning GM" by Mike Price (author of Famine in Far-Go and co-author of The Cleansing War of Garik Blackhand) provides the first bit of Gamma World content for the issue. Like most such articles – especially short, one-page ones, like this one – it's advice is mostly very broad and equally applicable to any RPG. The main thing that Price suggests that I think is genuinely useful is his suggestion to photocopy a section of a present-day atlas to establish the locations of landmarks and ruins. Of course, this advice is tempered by the fact that Gamma World's apocalypse occurs centuries from now, making a 20th century map a shaky foundation on which to build a campaign map (but then this is a longstanding problem with the setting of the game).

"Dispel Confusion" presents questions and answers for most of TSR's RPGs from the time: AD&D, Boot Hill, Dawn Patrol, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, and Top Secret. The questions are the usual mix of genuinely unclear matters in the rules and obvious stuff that suggests the questioner has poor reading comprehension. My hat is off to the TSR employees given the job of answering these queries; they had greater patience than I could have mustered. The issue also includes another pun-filled "Reiga Nerd" story entitled "A Mad-Djinn-Airy Tale." I'm not a fan myself, but Gygax loved puns, so who am I to judge?

Frank Mentzer's "Mapping from Square One" is the first part of a three-part series focuses on, well, mapping. The intention behind the series is to win over "map-haters" to the joys – and benefits – of mapping in D&D and other RPGs. This seems a worthy goal, as I've often lamented the way that mapping has slowly declined in importance in D&D over the decades. The first part devotes itself primarily to establishing the basics of how to map, such as tools and terminology. Mentzer also suggests that it's the job of the referee to correct errors on the players' map if they're made due to error or inexperience. I think that's good advice, though it wasn't commonplace during my own early days in the hobby.

James M. Ward's "Encounters" presents a situation for Gamma World, in which a pure strain human is rescued from a band of mutant arks (dog men) by a member of a new mutant species, the flynns. The cover image above depicts the scene quite nicely. Frank Mentzer returns with another installment of "Notes for the Dungeon Master." This time he inveighs against treating the gods as high-level monsters that can be killed by appropriately powerful characters. It's perfectly sensible advice, of course, but it might seem to run counter to the approach of Deities & Demigods, which does include game stats for divine beings (though, to be fair, that book does indicate that no mortal being can slay a god permanently, even if he should somehow defeat one in combat). I remember lots of people back in the day whose campaigns include the defeat of deities by player characters.

"Basically Speaking" by Jon Pickens looks at (among several other topics) the vexed question of how the D&D and AD&D games differ from one another. Pickens claims that the difference lies in their "intended audiences." The gist of his explanation is as follows:
It's an interesting perspective and one I find much more congenial than Gygax's claim that D&D had become a "non-game." Mind you, I am biased: I much prefer the open-ended approach of D&D over the more cramped style of AD&D (even if I still adore many of its distinctive elements).

"Under Construction" is a new column that describes a room or location that can dropped into a referee's campaign. The premier example, by Mary Kirchoff, is a dungeon room cursed by a jealous goddess. The room, which has a rose theme, traps those who enter it unless they can puzzle out the meaning of a rhyme written on the floor. Though perhaps a bit overwritten in its description, the room is clever and very much in keeping with the kinds of chambers I remember in the dungeons of "killer DMs" of my acquaintance.

"Getting Started in Gangbusters Game" by Mark Acres offers up ten short tips for new referees, none of which are really unique to that game. It's filler content of no lasting value, alas. Even so, it's still more interesting than the two pages of "The Official RPGA™ Tournament Scoring System." I know Polyhedron is the RPGA 'zine, but come on! "Flight of Fancy" by Mike Carr is a brief Dawn Patrol scenario involving a zeppelin. Frank Mentzer returns (again) with another "Spelling Bee." His chosen topic is a good one: spell coordination. By this he means only that players of spellcasting characters should confer with one another before selecting spells, so that they might benefit from certain synergies. He provides several examples, which is certainly helpful. The remainder of the issue is devoted to another catalog of RPGA-only items.

Issue #10 is a very solid one and, as I said at the beginning of this post, a particular favorite of mine. I feel like the 'zine is now on much more solid footing, with a wider variety of content. That pleased me when I first received it, because I played multiple TSR games, not just Dungeons & Dragons. Looking back on it now, it pleases me even more.


  1. "My own early experiences of the hobby involved several adult players..."

    Ditto. The local kids in our rural town did game with each other a lot and our weird school district that put grades 7-12 in the same building meant a wider range of ages played together than many places, but those were "just" home games. The ones at the gaming club that ran on the weekends were what we all wanted to go to whenever we could get a ride, because those were the "serious" games. That club was full of adults, many of whom earned sainthood for tolerating the influx of kids that D&D brought on their previously-sedate nerd haven. I was in college before I stopped being one of the "young ones" at the table, and well over thirty before I started to be the "old man" in most groups.

  2. "This seems a worthy goal, as I've often lamented the way that mapping has slowly declined in importance in D&D over the decades."

    I'm of the opposite opinion. My suspension of disbelief has gotten weaker as the years go by and there are just too few times when D&D style mapping makes any sense in-game. Yes, if your dungeoncrawl is exploring a largely static "dungeon" like a heavily-trapped tomb complex with guardians that stay in place until disturbed, you could take the time to draw a proper map. Any archeology student can manage the basics of that duty.

    But a "live" dungeon where the inhabitants move around, patrol the place, react to intruders and sound alarms? You're not going to have the time to stand there sketching. Maybe your stealth specialists can scout the place to some degree, or you can capture someone you can interrogate or bribe for a floor plan, but mapping at the level of accuracy the game expects? Not happening most of the time.

    Go spelunking sometime and see how much time even a rough map takes to produce. Go to a big public building you aren't familiar with an hour before close and see how much you've mapped by the time the staff are trying to get you out. Now imagine they're carrying battle-axes and won't get written up for using them.

    1. Sure, in one sense mapping is unrealistic, but on the other hand, in real life we have a better sense of place and connection to other places than is reasonable to understand from a GM's descriptions. Plus, mapping can make for an interesting sub-game. That said, these days I load up my dungeon maps into Roll20 and slowly reveal them as the PCs explore.

  3. My gaming started with some high school buddies and then a college student joined our group and he invited me to an MIT games club convention and from there I was invited to join MIT's games club. With that I was soon playing with adults. But actually, my first interaction with an adult was when my FLGS owner introduced me to Glen Blacow (co-editor of the Wild Hunt, one of those in the early days talking about different player styles). We chatted, and then, later gamed together since he was also active in the MIT games club.

    But parents? They were never interested (though there WAS one father-son pair who showed up to MIT for a while, I never played with them, but I thought it was cool).

  4. My first exposure to DnD (blue book) was through a friend whose older brother was our DM. That was the most adult person I knew of who played it (and he was probably, at most, four years older than us which seemed like a decade's difference to me at the time). DnD was unfathomable as video games to all of the adults in my universe.