Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Polyhedron: Issue #15

Could the cover of issue #15 of Polyhedron (December 1983) by Keith Parkinson be any more 1980s if it tried? Like most recent issues, the illustration depicts a character from the "Encounters" feature, in this case an 8th-level Dungeons & Dragons fighter named Edrie Solo. Edrie is the player character of Randy Solo (no relation), who was the second-place winner of the RPGA membership drive announced all the way back in issue #3. His prize included an illustration of his character by his favorite artist (Parkinson), as well as a brief scenario involving her, written by James M. Ward. My teenage self thought that was a pretty cool prize – and it is.

The issue marks the department of Kim Eastland as publisher of Polyhedron, a role he took over from Frank Mentzer about a year and a half prior. Eastland is, for me anyway, one of the more mysterious members of TSR's staff. I remember his name, but, until I started re-reading Polyhedron, I don't think I could have told you what he did at the company. Looking back over his credits, he wrote or contributed to a number of modules for TSR RPGs throughout the '80s, though, as I said, until I made the effort, I don't think I could have recalled any of them. That probably says more about my aging memory than it does about him.

Issue #15 also marks the end of the RPGA catalog as part of Polyhedron. Apparently, like me, many readers felt that it took up too many pages that could have been more profitably used for gaming content. From this point on, all RPGA merchandise was sold exclusively through the Dungeon Hobby Shop in Wisconsin. I remember this shift, because I suddenly started receiving a copy of the DHS catalog in the mail a couple of times a year. I adored the catalog, because it included both gaming products I'd never heard of before and those I of which I had heard but never seen in the wild. I wish I still had my copies, because I suspect they'd be a treasure trove of information and nostalgia.

The letters page is mostly ephemera, but one letter and its response stood out:

While I don't doubt the sincerity of the response, I nevertheless find it odd, because, so far as I can recall, no other periodical, then or now, includes copyright or trademark symbols when printing the name of a product that's under legal copyright. As a practice, it's something I only ever recall seeing in TSR's '80s-era magazines and publications. I really can't fathom who advised TSR to undertake this approach, because it's absolutely obnoxious.

"Dispel Confusion," as always includes a wide variety of questions about all of TSR's roleplaying games. The only one that really caught my attention was the following, since it pertained to a favorite adventure of mine.
As I stated in my original retrospective post about Murder in Harmony, its central mystery is difficult to unravel, but it's far from impossible. I find it amusing that someone actually bothered to write into Polyhedron, hoping that author Mark Acres would confirm the identity of the murderer.

"The AD&D Game Exam" by Philip Meyers is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in issue #47 of Dragon. Polyhedron editor Mary Kirchoff mentioned earlier in this issue that she'd be reprinting articles from Dragon that would otherwise never seen reprinting in, say, The Best of Dragon anthologies, no doubt in order to find more material to fill the 'zine's pages now that the RPGA catalog had been removed. The exam presented in the article is pretty tough, bordering on the obsessive in my opinion. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about AD&D, but many of the questions asked here are beyond my feeble intellect. 

"Do It Yourself" by Roger E. Moore tackles solo adventuring in AD&D. Like all of Moore's articles, this one is pretty good, touching on a lot of matters that are of relevance to its subject. Moore spends time discussing arena combat, dungeon delving, and wilderness adventures as options. In each case, he provides not only ideas for how to proceed but points the reader toward existing tools, like the random tables in the Dungeon Masters Guide, that would be of assistance. He also, wisely, I think, suggests that characters used in a solo campaign should not be integrated into a "regular" campaign, because of the differences in style and outcome. I suspect many solo characters acquired a much more impressive array of magic items, for example, than would be typical in a well-refereed multi-player campaign.

Moore returns with an installment of "Notes for the Dungeon Master" aimed at high-level adventures. Again, lots of solid and useful advice here. Though I rarely had the opportunity to make use of any of his suggestions, I nevertheless recall wishing I could have, because he made high-level adventures sound like fun. I also recall the article for its delightful accompanying illustration by Larry Elmore:
To this day, I make references to Sir Kay Mardt from time to time. No one else seems to know what I'm talking about.

"Mas Day in New Hope" is a bit of Christmas-themed nonsense for Gamma World by James M. Ward. The scenario involves an "X.M.A.S. Unit" – a robotic Santa Claus with a grav sled pulled by similarly robotic reindeer – that's been modified to act as a weapon of mass destruction attacking a peaceful village. As I said, it's nonsense but amusing enough, if you're in the right frame of mind. "House Rules In" by Mike Carr looks briefly at some Dawn Patrol rules variants that players might find useful. Carr notes that house rules are often the test bed for eventual rules changes, so there's nothing inherently wrong with them, so long as all the players are on board with them.

There are two Gangbusters articles in this issue, starting with "The Vesper Investigation" by Antonio O'Malley. This is a short, two-page scenario intended for one to three private investigator characters. Ostensibly an investigation into the disappearance of a young woman's uncle, the adventure turns into more than that – including, possibly, a ghost story. David Cook's "Casin' the Joint" looks at sources of literary inspiration for Gangbusters games, particularly pulp novels. Among those he suggests are the stories of Doc Savage and other globetrotting heroes, like the Shadow and the Spider. Taken together, the two articles point toward an alternate future where Gangbusters broadened its subject matter to include a wider range of interwar subject matter, not just cops and robbers.

"Cash & Carry for Cowboys" by Glenn Rahman is another reprint from Dragon, in this case issue #54. The article is a listing of historical prices for various items not listed in the equipment list for Boot Hill. I love articles of this sort, especially so back before the Internet made it possible to find this sort of information with relative ease. Finally, there's Merle Rasmussen's "College Courses and Vital Statistics," which presents a series of courses Top Secret agents can attend – and their costs and the time required to do so. These courses increase an agent's skills and abilities once completed. I've always liked the idea of characters undertaking training in-game to improve themselves, so this article had defnite appeal for me. I wish I'd had the chance to use it when I last played the game.

Polyhedron continues to transition into something. Based on various comments in this issue, it's clear that, like me, a lot of its readership wanted to see more gaming material in its pages rather than updates about conventions and other RPGA activities. At the same time, it's also clear that the 'zine's staff was not prepared for this shift in focus, hence the reprinting of Dragon articles to pad out its page count. As I recall, the staff eventually gets the balance right and Polyhedron became something quite good and distinctive. How long that process takes is something I'm keen to see, as I continue to re-read these issues from my youth.


  1. Another TSR style guide annoyance for me was putting 'game' after all of the trademarks. "My friends and I had a great game of GangbustersTM game the other day."

    I think it was the Monster Man podcast that referred to the TSR house style as hopelessly square and stodgy.

  2. Surprised how well I did on that "exam." Also a little embarrassed by that as the entire point of my play these days is to NOT know that much. I guess the stuff you cram in your brain at 13 really does stick.

    The answers the draining the ocean and river problem really stuck with me.

  3. Rasmussen's "College Courses" article also made it into the Top Secret Companion, one of the things in that supplement which were worth adding to the game.

  4. I remember using an ancient mail order catalog my grandparents had inherited to figure prices for Boot Hill gear. Historical reference can't be beat.

    That illo of KMart and Lord & Marshall must have appeared elsewhere, since I never read Poly and clearly recall it. Refs to KMart in general don't work very well in 2023, they're down to a whopping two locations last I looked and have been a fading joke for well over a decade now.

    Also, if we're being honest, the vast majority of PCs in both TSR and WotC D&D look a lot more like KMart there because of the way the rules push you into accumulating trinkets and hoarding consumables for emergencies - not to mention the way AC functions. Unless your game includes nakedness bonuses to AC you aren't walking around in a loin cloth.

  5. In regards to copyrights and trademarks: back-in-the-day of the 90s startup haze, our IP lawyers advised us to put those annoying trademarks on EVERY mention (not just the first on the page) of the name we were seeking to claim, and that trademarks were to be treated as adjectives ONLY (so Kleenex is always Kleenex(r) tissue, not just Kleenex) so Boot Hill (r) game is the safest of safest bets for a company recently (?) sued by people claiming violations, and involving other's IP to boot in a publication. As the author/editor of every published word our startup put out, this fell on me to implement, so I spent a lot of time on find/replace to make sure it was all there. I can't imagine the "pressure" back in the day before universal word processing to get it right.