Saturday, June 22, 2024

Dousing the Fireball

With the possible exception of magic missile – which, ironically, didn't appear until a year after the original game's release – I can think of no more iconic spell in Dungeons & Dragons than fireball. As most of you will no doubt already know, fireball (or fire ball, as it's rendered in OD&D and the 1981 and '83 D&D Expert Sets) first appeared in Chainmail, where it's one of two types of missiles a wizard can throw, the other being lightning bolt. In Chainmail, a wizard can seemingly throw a fireball at will and its function is as a form of battlefield artillery that immediately destroys any target within its area of effect weaker than a Hero. Even if you've never played Chainmail, I hope my brief summary makes clear just how potent a fireball is – and that's the problem. 

When the abilities and spells of Chainmail's wizards were translated into the terms of OD&D, there were inevitably going to changes and alterations, big and small. In the case of fireball, these changes included a slightly larger burst radius and damage that increases with the level of its caster or, as Men & Magic explains it, "A 6th level Magic-User throws a 6-die missile, a 7th a 7-die missile, and so on." These changes explain, I suspect, why fireball became the iconic D&D spell and the one that nearly every magic-user hoped to learn as soon as they were of sufficient level to do so. Taken together, the fireball of OD&D and all subsequent TSR versions of the game is one of only a handful of spells whose damage-dealing potential has no upper limit. Coupled with its large area of effect and easy reach for most characters – a magic-user only needs to be 5th-level (20,000 XP) to potentially acquire it – fireball is a must-have spell when it comes to damage-dealing.

Spend enough time in online D&D circles and the subject of the relative power of fighters versus magic-users will inevitably come up. This is one of those perennial topics that simply will not die, because, unlike many such topics, I think there's some substance to it. Fighters, even when equipped with potent magic weaponry, can never dish out as much damage as can even a fairly low-level magic-user. Over the years, various solutions have been proposed, such as weapon specialization in AD&D, but none of them has met with universal acceptance – quite the opposite, in fact. 

That's why I've lately been thinking about either eliminating or modifying spells whose damage-dealing effects increase with the level of their caster. If you look at the original spell list from Volume 1 of OD&D, both fireball and lightning bolt are odd men out, mechanically speaking. Most of the game's "offensive" spells, like sleep, cloudkill, or disintegrate do not become more effective as the caster rises in level. Any variability they have in terms of damage or overall effectiveness is usually independent of level (there are exceptions). That feels right to me somehow and offers a better model to emulate in rethinking spells in OD&D and similar games.

On the other hand, simply removing fireball, lightning bolt, and comparable spells might be simpler. This is what Lamentations of the Flame Princess did long ago. Many of that retroclone's deviations from OD&D were introduced specifically to strengthen the fighter's role as the most potent combatant and damage-dealer, which is a worthy goal. Furthermore, by eliminating and/or weakening the number and scope of magical damage dealing, this approach carves out a different role for the magic-user, that of a seeker after knowledge and controller of the environment. It's a far cry from the role people now tend to associate with D&D magic-users, but is that necessarily a bad thing? It's closer to the pulp fantasy conception of sorcerers and wizards than to the cartoonish, video game-y vision of them flinging fireballs and hurling lightning bolts.

I don't know. I'm still thinking about this, especially in light of my evolving thinking about magic in Secrets of sha-Arthan. I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on the subject, especially from those of you have regularly play fighters and/or magic-users. How do you perceive their relative strengths when it comes to damage-dealing or do you make changes to rebalance things?

Friday, June 21, 2024

Two More

In my post on the pictorial history of goblins earlier this week, I inadvertently forgot to include two more goblin images. Here's the first one:

It's an illustration by Jim Roslof from the AD&D Monster Cards, which came out in 1982. This places it, chronologically, right between the 1981 Tom Moldvay-edited Basic Set and the 1983 revision of the same by Frank Mentzer. Roslof's version of the goblin is broadly in keeping with what came before and after, though it looks a bit less monstrous than most of the other depictions. Notice, for example, that this specimen lacks fangs or pointy teeth. 

1982 also saw the publication of a translation into French of The Keep on the Borderlands, which I first saw a couple of years later. Apologies for the poor quality of the image, but I wanted to blow up the portion where the goblins are present. 

Again, you can see a very broad similarity between these monsters and all the other images I posted in the earlier post, including Holloway's own prior efforts. What's most fascinating to me is just how varied goblins appeared in old school D&D art. Aside from being short, there was actually a fair degree of diversity in the way they were drawn, even when the same artist drew them for different products. In that respect, they're a bit look like orcs, whose depictions likewise lacked consistency.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Retrospective: The Triangle

In the comments to last week's Retrospective about Trader Captains and Merchant Princes for FASA's Star Trek the Role Playing Game, an anonymous reader mentioned The Triangle, which he called "bar none ... my favorite RP supplement." The comment was fortuitous (and prescient), because I had already intended to look at The Triangle this week. Though usable for any type of Star Trek RPG campaign, it's an especially good fit in my opinion for merchant-based campaigns, which, from what I gather, is what most people who owned did with this 92-page supplement.

The Triangle takes its name from an area of space that lies between the territories claimed by the United Federation of Planets and Klingon and Romulan Empires. Consisting of a little more than 120 class M worlds, most of which are independent of any of the aforementioned great powers, the Triangle is a contested area, filled with danger, mystery, and lots of opportunities to turn a credit. That makes it an ideal place to set a campaign, especially if you're interested in interstellar intrigue in the Star Trek universe – or at least FASA's interpretation of that universe.

That's an important thing to bear in mind. The Triangle was first released in 1985. At that point in time, there were only three movies and The Next Generation was still two years in the future. And while there were a good number of novels and comic books, the concept of a Star Trek "canon" as the word is used today was very loose, almost to the point of non-existence. Consequently, each licensee was largely free to develop the setting in whatever way it chose and without regard for – and sometimes in contradiction of – how any other licensee did so. I know it's hard to imagine 

FASA took full advantage of this creative freedom to flesh out their own unique take on the Star Trek universe, one that, in retrospect, has a decidedly Cold War edge to it, with the Federation standing in for NATO and the Klingons and Romulans for different aspects of the Warsaw Pact. It wasn't quite as overtly militaristic as, say, Starfleet Battles, as it tempered its power politics with elements sincere idealism, but it also wasn't quite as wide-eyed as The Next Generation regularly was. It was a vision of the 23rd century that reflected the tensions and concerns of the mid-1980s and so probably would feel a bit dated to some today. At the time, though, I loved it.

The Triangle makes the most sense when viewed in this context. This is an area of space filled with mostly independent worlds whom each of the three nearby major powers wishes to sway to their side, whether for noble or cynical reasons, reminiscent of the way that the United States and the Soviet Union used Third World nations as pawns in their Great Game. But because no one wishes to ignite an interstellar war, they must act with caution – and often covertly – lest they light the spark that throws everything into chaos. As I said, it's a great place to set a campaign.

In addition to the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans, The Triangle introduces us to several other regional powers. The Affiliation of Outer Free Worlds is a Federation-friendly – but still independent – coalition of planets. The Orion Frontier Mercantile Association is a front for moneyed Orion interests to exploit the worlds of the Triangle. The Imperial Klingon States is a breakaway Klingon government headed by an admiral who failed in his attempt to seize the throne. The Mantiev Colonial Association is another coalition of worlds but one whose fractious politics have brought to the brink of civil war, with each faction backed by one of the major powers.

In addition to fleshing out these regional powers, The Triangle details every individual world, along with significant NPCs, new alien races, and corporations. There's also information of trade routes and black markets, both of which are essential if it's used in conjunction with Trader Captains & Merchant Princes. Of course, the Triangle works just as well as the setting for campaigns focusing on Federation or Klingon ships and characters. The book provides lots of hooks for referees looking to run almost any sort of adventure you can imagine in the Star Trek universe – exploration, rescue missions, espionage, diplomacy, and more. It's jam packed with ideas. Even if you find only a few of them of immediate interest, The Triangle has more than enough to keep a campaign moving for months or years.

I had a lot of fun with The Triangle after its release, using it as the basis primarily for merchant adventures. Unfortunately, I didn't use it for very long, though mostly for reasons having nothing to do with the supplement itself. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I had hoped I'd get the chance to referee a long-running campaign in the region. The book certainly provides enough ideas on which to build such a campaign, which is my usual metric for determining the value of a gaming supplement, hence why I think so highly of The Triangle. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #30

With issue #30 of Polyhedron (July 1986), we reach the final issue I ever owned or read. My subscription ended that summer and, with my final year of high school approaching, I was so preoccupied with other matters that I elected not to continue reading. To be fair, I let my subscription to Dragon lapse around the same time, but I'd still pick up stray copies of the magazine to keep abreast of the latest news about D&D and other RPGs. Consequently, this will be last post in which I do a recap of Polyhedron's contents. I'll do a summation of my feelings about the RPGA newszine next week before moving on to a new regular feature the following week.

As has often been the case, this month's cover is drawn by Roger Raupp. It depicts the six characters from Christopher S. Jones's "Nienna & Friends," the first installment in "The New Rogues Gallery," which is "a continuing feature ... through which members may share their most interesting characters and NPCs." In truth, this is just an outgrowth of the "Encounters" column that began all the way back in issue #8, which had already morphed into something akin to this. In any case, "Nienna & Friends" presents write-ups (including AD&D stats) for the half-Drow fighter/magic-user Nienna, her human cleric mother, Rhodara Larith, and their protector, the Grey Elf magic-user Zered Camaron. Zered's son, Elerion, along with Nienna's evil Drow father, Tray-Dor, and his drider companion, Day-Ron, complete the group. In general, I like articles like this, if only because they give me some sense of what happens in other people's campaigns. I know "let me tell you about my character" is supposed to be cringeworthy, but I genuinely do enjoy this sort of thing (and occasionally indulge in it myself).

"In Search of the 12th Level Mage" by Roger E. Moore is a good article on the much-vexed question of demographics in Dungeons & Dragons. Moore takes a look at the population information provided in the revised World of Greyhawk boxed set and plugs it into the information found in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide regarding the makeup of NPC adventuring parties to arrive at a possible answer. His conclusion is that high level characters of any class are quite rare, especially so for magic-users, who number only about 200 out of every 1000 people (who are themselves only one-tenth of every 10,000 people). Of those 200, only 1 is 8th-level, meaning that the mage of the title would be a special NPC created and placed by the referee. Of course, the question of how many NPCs have classes/levels is itself an interesting one without a definitive answer. Even so, speculations like this are fun and an important part of worldbuilding in my opinion.

Brian Leikam's "In Defense of the Lowly Fighter" is, as its title suggests, a look at the fighter class in Dungeons & Dragons and how to make it more appealing to players. I wrote a post about this article three and a half years ago, so I won't say much more here. However, I largely agree with Leikam that fighters should be more common and better appreciated in D&D, especially nowadays, where the human fighter has more or less become synonymous with "boring." 

"Ravager" is the first part of an AD&D adventure by Jeff Grubb. Though it doesn't mention it anywhere, I assume this was a RPGA tournament scenario at some point, since most of the adventures that appear in Polyhedron began life that way. Its premise is that a bandit-king, the eponymous Ravager, has arisen and, thanks to ancient magic, has made himself effectively immortal. The goal of the characters is to raid a tomb in the Grey Desert that might contain information on how to reverse this magic and render the Ravager mortal again. The tomb is small and filled with traps, tricks, and puzzles, in addition to monsters. I expect it would be a challenge to navigate it successfully. Included with the adventure are six pregenerated PCs whose names could well be Asterix characters: Necromantix, Logistix, Goldbrix, etc.

"The Treasure Chest" returns in limited form, offering just back issues of Polyhedron and four RPGA adventures written by Frank Mentzer, like To the Aid of Falx. There's also a similarly abbreviated "Fletcher's Corner" by Michael Przytarski, in which he muses about crossbreeds among the various D&D races, another much-vexed topic in gaming circles. Przytarski offers no new insights or answers here. Slightly more useful is Jeffrey A, Martin's "Beware the New Golems," which offers up four new golem types: copper, oak, brass, and shadow. The last one is notable, because it's a golem that can only be made by illusionists, something you don't see very often in AD&D, where the illusionist was, in my opinion, and underused and under-appreciated class.

Preston Shah's "Little Miss Sure Shot" was unexpected. It's not just a Boot Hill article, but a history lesson as well, providing historical details and game information on using Annie Oakley in your games. I like articles of this sort, but then I'm also a fan of historical gaming, so I'm probably not a good gauge of how well received articles like this would have been received. "New and Old" by James M. Ward is a one-page preview of some aspects of the upcoming new (third) edition of Gamma World. He also reiterates the oft-repeated promise that TSR planned to do a new edition of Metamorphosis Alpha to tie into it as well. That didn't happen, of course, but I don't doubt that it was planned. 

"Dispel Confusion" is reduced to one page and tackles only AD&D questions, nearly all of which are highly technical in nature. With hindsight, this is one of those aspects of the TSR era of D&D that seems baffling. At the time, though, a fair number of gamers, myself included, really did care about "official" answers to rules questions. Finally, there's Errol Farstad's review of Timemaster, which he thought had "potential to be very enjoyable," even though it still had a few "rough spots." That's a fair assessment, I think.

And that's all folks – the end of my re-reads of Polyhedron. Next week, as I stated at the beginning of this post, I'll share some final thoughts about the more than 20 issues I read during my time as a subscriber. There's frankly a lot to say on the subject and I think it's deserving of its own post.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Shrine of the Sword

A regular reader asked for assistance in finding more information about an obscure, self-published fantasy adventure scenario entitled Shrine of the Sword, written by Paul Mercer and Kevin Conklin, with illustrations by the latter. Here's its cover:

Not much is known about the adventure, not even its date of publication. It's so obscure that there's not even an entry on RPGGeek for it, though there is a very limited one at, of all place, PuzzleGeek. The interior of the adventure is similarly primitive:

Aside from the fact that it's for "higher level characters," Shrine of the Sword is interesting, because it includes eight illustrations intended to be shown to players as an aid to visualizing items and locations within the scenario, much like the illustration booklets included with Tomb of Horrors and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Here's an example of one of them:
It's a long shot that anyone reading this post knows anything more about it, but I know quite a few of you have been in the hobby for far longer than I and have good memories for historical curiosities like this, so I thought it worth a try. Please share your wisdom in the comments. Thanks!

TSR's Latest, Greatest, Science Fiction Thriller

While searching through the Players Manual of the 1983 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set for illustrations of goblins for today's earlier post, I came across this advertisement on its inside back cover.

As you can see, it's an ad for Star Frontiers, TSR's 1982 science fiction RPG. SF – a fortuitous abbreviation – was not the company's first foray into the genre, it was the first into what is popularly imagined by the words "science fiction," which is to say, space opera filled with jumpsuits, robots, aliens, spaceships, and laser guns. On that score, Star Frontiers delivered. Though I was (and remain) a Traveller man, I nevertheless had a lot of fun with Star Frontiers, especially its Knights Hawks starship combat expansion.

What's amazing in retrospect is how well supported the game was. Over the course of four years (1982–1985), TSR published a little more than a dozen modules for it, in addition to the aforementioned Knight Hawks, a referee's screen, character sheets, and then, finally, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space. That's more than Gamma World has ever received in any of its many editions. Despite this, TSR seems to have simply given up on Star Frontiers after 1985, while Gamma World kept re-appearing every so often (to increasingly little success, to be fair). Why was that?

Over the years I've entertained numerous theories, but I have no real evidence of any of them. The most likely is that Star Frontiers simply didn't make enough money to justify the effort. That's not to say it was doing badly, only that it wasn't doing as well as TSR hoped it would do, especially when compared to RPGs like D&D or even Marvel Super Heroes, both of which had a much higher return on investment during the same time period. TSR was never a particularly well-run business, it's true, but I suspect even they would recognize when their resources might be better spent on other more lucrative projects.

Again, I have no idea if this theory is true. It's just as plausible that someone in the company simply disliked the game and wanted it canned or that the main movers and shakers behind it moved on or could no longer devote much effort to developing it. Whatever the reason, it's a shame, because, as I said, Star Frontiers was fun and had some interesting setting and game mechanical elements. I would have liked to see how it evolved if it had been given the time to do so. Ah, well!

A (Very) Partial Pictorial History of Goblins

During the course of looking into the pictorial history of kobolds last week, I noticed that, starting in the late First Edition AD&D era and extending into early Second Edition, kobolds started looking more goblin-like in illustrations. This was particularly striking in light of Dave Sutherland's original depiction of them as short, horned, scaly dog-men, a depiction unique to old school Dungeons & Dragons. Thinking further on the matter, I began to ponder just what I meant by "goblin-like." Had my notion of a goblin in D&D been similarly influenced by the depictions of them to which I'd been first exposed during my entrance into the hobby of roleplaying? Given the popularity of my kobold post last week, I thought this a question worth investigating.

So far as I can tell, the very first depiction of a goblin in any Dungeons & Dragons product is this one from the original 1974 release of the game. Drawn by Greg Bell, this early goblin looks to me more like a deranged dwarf than a monster in the usual sense of the term:

Dave Trampier provided the illustration for goblins in the AD&D Monster Manual (1977) and I suspect this is the ultimate source for my own imagining of what they look like:
In the same year, Minifigs in the UK produced a series of Dungeons & Dragons miniatures that included goblins among them. Here's one that looks to be quite similar to Trampier's art, right down to the little horned helmet:
In 1980, Grenadier Models produced its own take on goblins, which, again, are broadly consonant with Trampier's depiction, though, to my eyes anyway, they seem slightly more feral. 

1981 is the year Tom Moldvay's D&D Basic Set is released. Though the rulebook does not include artwork for any of the game's traditional humanoid enemies, it does include this Dave LaForce – were all of TSR's early artists named Dave – piece from the alignment section in which there's a bound and gagged figure whom my childhood friends and I assumed was a goblin. He certainly matches many of the characteristics associated with goblins, though he seems to be taller and less stocky than previous depictions.
Like the Moldvay Basic Set, Frank Mentzer's 1983 revision does not include any illustrations of its monstrous humanoids. However, in its solo adventure, there is the following piece of artwork (by Jeff Easley) that, from context, would seem to depict goblins. Once again, they wear horned helmets.
The same year, the Doug Niles D&D Basic adventure, Horror on the Hill, was published. The adventure's primary antagonists are goblins and hobgoblins. Jim Holloway provides numerous illustrations throughout the module, but, aside from a couple of contextual clues, it's not at all clear (to me anyway) when he's depicting a goblin and when he's depicting a hobgoblin. A big of why that's the case is that the two races look very similar to one another. Are these two goblins or hobgoblins? Regardless, I think they're representative of Holloway's broader take on these humanoids.
In the third and final season of the D&D cartoon, there's an episode entitled "The Dungeon at the Heart of Dawn" that features a character who looks very much like Dave Trampier's original Monster Manual illustration of a goblin, though he's not explicitly called a goblin. He even has – yet again – a horned helmet, although, in this story, the horns serve to focus a magical blast that he shoots from his helmet. 
Second Edition's Monstrous Monstrous Compendium (1989) gives us a different Jim Holloway take on goblins. You can definitely see in this piece an evolution of Trampier's original, right down to his pose. He still wears a small helmet, albeit one without horns. This goblin is a bit more wizened in appearance than his 1e counterpart, which, strangely, calls to mind Greg Bell's dwarf-like OD&D version.
Finally, there's this goblin image from the 2e Monstrous Manual (1993) by an artist I can't quite identify. He's vaguely reminiscent of Holloway's goblins from Horror on the Hill, but also seems vaguely "fairy tale-ish" in his attire, particularly the oversized shoes. 

As the title of this post implies, this is an incomplete examination of the evolution of goblins in TSR era Dungeons & Dragons. I am sure there are other illustrations depicting this classic evil humanoid to be found during the period between 1974 and 2000, but I've presented here only those with which I am most familiar. If there are other examples from this period you think are particularly relevant to this discussion, please feel free to post them in the comments. This is especially true if the depiction differs radically from what we see above. My own take on goblins from the Dwimmermount and Urheim setting of Telluria owe a lot, I think, to the illustrations I saw in the TSR products of my youth, which just goes to show how important evocative artwork is in bringing a game and/or setting to life.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Retrospective: Trader Captains and Merchant Princes

FASA's Star Trek the Role Playing Game was one of my favorite RPGs in my youth, eclipsing even Traveller in my affections, if you can believe it. One reason for this is that Star Trek was my first fandom. I was initiated into the mysteries of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future by my paternal aunt, who was a teenager when I was born. She was thus old enough to have been a fan of The Original Series during its initial broadcast and to be close enough to my own age that we shared a lot of interests (she also took me to see Star Wars in 1977 and introduced me to Kolchak: The Night Stalker). 

Before she married, my aunt still lived with my grandparents, which I visited nearly every Saturday. That was also the day when a local independent TV station showed reruns of Star Trek, which we'd watch together. This weekly ritual, started when I was quite young, made me a devoted fan of the series, long before it became heavily merchandised (though there were still a few tie-in products kicking around). My earliest conceptions of science fiction were thus strongly influenced by Star Trek.

Another reason is that FASA's RPG adaptation is a very good one that, in my opinion, did a great job of capturing the vibe of what Star Trek was like in 1982, when what is now a bloated, sclerotic franchise devoid of good ideas (James, tell us how you really feel) was still as wide open and rife with possibilities as the Final Frontier itself. Recall that, at that time, we had only The Original Series itself, its short-lived animated continuation, two movies, and a fairly small number of comics and novelizations. That was in the process of changing, of course, but, upon its publication, Star Trek the Role Playing Game still felt like it belonged to the looser, more freewheeling era of fandom my aunt had introduced to me.

So, when FASA released the Trader Captains and Merchant Princes supplement in 1982, I immediately snapped it up. I've mentioned my love for it previously, but, until now, I've not had the chance to talk about it in any detail. Where Star Trek the Role Playing Game was (obviously) devoted to Starfleet characters and their exploration of the galaxy, this 52-page book focused on civilian characters, specifically "traders, privateers, merchants, con-men, and rouges [sic]," as its back cover boasted. If you're the sort of person who ever watched "The Trouble with Tribbles" and wondered what other shenanigans Cyrano Jones might have gotten up to or imagined what life was like for Harcourt Fenton Mudd as he perpetrated his illicit schemes at the far corners of space. this is the supplement for you.

For myself, all of that was compelling, no doubt, but what really grabbed my interest was simply learning more about life on the fringes of the galaxy's Great Powers. Up to this point, everything we'd seen of Star Trek was about Starfleet and the Federation, leaving me to wonder what else there might be to do out there among the stars. Characters like Jones and Mudd hinted at the existence of people living on the edge, doing what they needed to turn a credit while trying to stay ahead of any authorities that might look too closely at what how they earned their livings. Roddenberry had, after all, originally pitched Star Trek as Wagon Train in space, so it only made sense that there'd be futuristic gamblers, rustlers, and snake oil salesmen out there somewhere. This supplement let you play them.

In addition to new character generation options, like the Merchant Academy, Trader Captains and Merchant Princes also offered both new personal equipment and new starships. The latter were especially interesting to me, because they were all small craft, with a crew complement of no more than a dozen, which made them both the perfect size for a "party" of civilian characters and a nice counterpoint to the huge vessels of Starfleet. The book also included rules for trading, running and maintaining small ships, taxes, tariffs, piracy, and playing the stock market. Topping it off were guidelines for refereeing merchant adventures and campaigns, as well as a sample setting, the Twilight Nebula, an unclaimed area of space at the fringes of the Klingon Empire. 

I'm a big fan of supplements that expand the scope of a RPG, opening up new avenues for fun and exciting play. Trader Captains and Merchant Princes really did that for Star Trek the Role Playing Game, at least for me. I ran a merchant campaign for my friends in parallel with the missions of the USS Excalibur aboard which their Starfleet characters served. I even recall that one of the Starfleet characters spent time undercover as a merchant, operating under an assumed name to learn more about the Romulans' activities in a region of unclaimed space. We had a lot of fun and this supplement gave us the rules and inspiration to make it happen.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #29

Issue #29 of Polyhedron is another April Fool's Day issue, though it actually appeared in May of 1986. The issue features a cover by Tom Wham, which is always a delight. I wish the same could be said of its content. I readily admit that I'm not an ideal audience for issues like this, but that's not because I lack a sense of humor. Rather, I simply dislike forced humor and this issue is full of it. Needless to say, I didn't enjoy re-reading this one. Apologies in advance if my frustration gets the better of me.

"Notes from HQ" is typically ephemeral and focused on RPGA matters. The only genuinely interesting thing in it is the announcement of the Gamers' Choice Awards. "Unlike other gaming industry awards, for which the winners are chosen by manufacturers and special panels, these awards are given to those companies whose products are judged the best by the most qualified judges of all – the gamers themselves." I must be old, because I don't recall ever hearing of these awards before. On the other hand, I was never much of a con goer, so that might explain my ignorance. 

Skip Williams gives us "The Lighter Side of Encounters II," a sequel to his article in the previous year's April Fool's Day issue. Like its predecessor, what makes the article interesting is not so much its content as the origin of the content, namely AD&D campaigns run by the Lake Geneva staff of TSR, in this case Williams himself and Frank Mentzer. Williams presents two different encounters, one involving a mad dash through a dungeon and another about trying to prevent a pit fiend from regenerating, that aren't exactly humorous in context, but that seem so when presented in isolation. They're the kinds of things that happen in any RPG campaign played with friends and I love them for that reason. This article is probably the best in the issue and it's because it's the most "serious."

"The Camel's Nose" by Mike Selinker is an AD&D adventure that takes up 16 pages – half of the issue. It's a humorous scenario for six pregenerated player characters, all of whom are valley elves with ridiculous names like "Tattieboggle Spauldrocky" or "Arglebargle Collieshangle." These characters are tasked with protecting a talking camel (a cleric of the Camel Lord, Camelopardus), on his journey across the Burning Desert to a shrine of his deity. He brings with him a sacred rock called the Camel's Nose and ... well, I think you can probably guess where this is going. The adventure is filled with puns and humorous allusions and general silliness, like the Camels Oasis shopping center. I'm sure someone might find it funny, but that someone is not me.

Selinker returns with "The Ecology of Tiamat," which is a rambling dialog between Feargall the All-Noxious and Greenhorn the dim as they "humorously" discuss Feargall's many encounters with Tiamat. It's strange, self-referential, and fourth wall-breaking and, again, I just found it tedious. Your mileage may vary. "Fractured Spells" by Rick Reid is a collection of goofy spells for all magic-using classes, from neutralize person to detect chum to continual lice and more. As you can see, they're all based on puns or misreadings of pre-existing spells. I'll give the author points for cleverness, but not much else.

"The Gods of the Gamma World Game" by James M. Ward is a very strange article. Ward presents five larger-than-life characters from the setting of Gamma World, each of which represents "a different ideal." For example, Ren – there's that name again – is the archetypal scientist, while Tobor the Unstoppable is the archetypal robot. If I squint, I can sort of see what Ward's getting at with these characters. They're more akin to "tall tales" like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill than "gods" in the usual sense. That's kind of interesting. However, Ward saddles them all with absurd Gamma World game stats akin to what you'd find in Deities & Demigods and serendipitously provide additional insight for my recent post about that very book and the drawbacks of its presentation.

The issue ends with Roger E. Moore's "Savage Sword of Lugnut the Barbarian," another "humorous" story, this time about a mighty-thewed barbarian and his quest to save a princess from Skuzzdrool the Ultra-Necromancer. It's not very funny, even as a parody of Conan, but's thankfully short, which is more than can be said of "The Camel's Nose." I still cannot understand why half the issue was devoted to that adventure ...

Oh well. One more issue to go before this series ends, which is probably for the best. My patience is wearing thin, especially after this issue.

Monday, June 10, 2024

The Adventure is Yours

Throughout 1982 and into 1983, I regularly saw this full-page advertisement for the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets in the pages of Dragon.

The ad is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, the image at the bottom left, showing five people sitting at a table playing D&D (with the cover of Keep on the Borderlands clearly standing up in front of the DM) seems to depict the same group of people who appear in a TV commercial from around the same time. That suggests that this print ad was part of a larger, multi-prong effort to introduce "the world's most talked about role-playing adventure" to a wider potential audience. 

Second, the ad features artwork in a style quite distinct from that of any artist I associate with D&D of that era. Since there's no obvious artist's signature, identifying its origin is difficult. It's possible that this question has already been resolved. If so, I'd love to know the identity of the artist. Beyond that, it's also noteworthy, I think, that the illustration depicts three characters (who appear to be a thief, a magic-user, and perhaps an elf) walking/riding at night through the streets of a fantasy setting rather than something more obvious, like a party fighting a dragon or some other monster. Perhaps the marketing people felt this was redundant in light of the inset pictures of the two boxed sets, one of which shows that very scene.

I have no idea how effective this advertisement was in its intended purpose, but I've always liked it.

I Did It Again

I have a regular problem: I sit down to write a post and then discover, as I am adding links to other related posts, that I've already written about the topic in question. In some cases, the previous post is from last year or the year before that, but, in others, the previous post is from more than a decade ago. It's very frustrating, but it seems increasingly inevitable. After so long and so many posts, the odds of my doing this at any given time are pretty high. At the same time, I take the fact that I don't do it more often as a good sign, since it suggests I still have some new thoughts left in me.

I'll do better tomorrow; I promise. 

A (Very) Partial Pictorial History of Kobolds

One of the things I've long appreciated about early Dungeons & Dragons is the way that it took vaguely defined folkloric, mythological, and literary monsters and made them distinctive to the game. The pig-faced orcs of the Monster Manual are a good example of what I'm talking about, though there are many others, like kobolds. In folklore, kobolds don't have a clear and universally accepted description. From what I recall, they're short and vaguely dwarfish. That's probably why Holmes, in his Basic Set, calls them "evil dwarf-like beings" (and why I opted for something similar in my Dwimmermount and Urheim setting).

Within the history of D&D, however, the image immediately below is (I think) the very first time we're shown a kobold. It's from the AD&D Monster Manual (1977) and is drawn by Dave Sutherland, based on an exceptionally vague description that speaks only of their coloration, small horns, lack of hair, and red eyes. 

The MM also includes a second Sutherland kobold illustration, this one a full-page piece.
I like this second illustration a lot, because it gives a sense of how, despite having only 1–4 hit points each, kobolds could nevertheless be dangerous foes, because of their numbers. The illustration is also useful in showing the little monsters from several different angles. I suspect, more than any other, this piece is responsible for my early conception of kobolds and their physical characteristics – short, scaly dog-men with horns. Precisely why Sutherland settled on this appearance, I have no idea, since there's nothing in either folklore or the Monster Manual's own description to suggest it.

That same year (1977), Minifigs in the UK picked up the license to produce official Dungeons & Dragons miniatures. Though the company didn't produce as many figures as did Grenadier later (more on that below), it produced enough that they're often worth examining for insight into the beginnings of D&D as a product line. Take, for example, this figure of a kobold, which looks rather similar to the creatures depicted in Sutherland's illustrations, particularly the second, full-page one, right down to the harness he's wearing.
1980's Rogues Gallery features a very memorable depiction of kobolds by Jeff Dee. As you can see, Dee's kobolds look very similar to Sutherland's – almost identical, in fact. In this rendering, they're still short, scaly dog-men.

Deities & Demigods was published the same year as the Rogues Gallery, but offers up a somewhat different depiction of kobolds. The entry for Kurtulmak, the supreme deity of the kobolds, is accompanied by an illustration drawn by Erol Otus. He's described as looking like a "giant kobold (5½' tall) with scales of steel and a tail with a poisonous stinger). This suggests that what we see below is, more or less, what a kobold looks like. Though there's a very broad similarity with the Sutherland/Dee illustrations, we can see that his face has been flattened into more humanoid proportions, thereby lessening its canine associations.
Just below the Otus illustration in the DDG is another one featuring Kurtulmak, this time by Dave LaForce. As you can see, the four kobolds depicted in it look like smaller versions of their god, albeit without horns or scales. To me, LaForce's kobolds look almost simian in apperance. 
Interestingly, 1980 is also the year that Grenadier Models first started producing official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons miniatures under license from TSR. If you look carefully at this photo, what you see are three kobold miniatures whose appearance is not too dissimilar to what we see in the art of Otus and LaForce above. Pay close attention to their flat, humanoid faces and lack of horns.
The next year (1981), Otus provides a different illustration for a kobold, this time appearing in Tom Moldvay's D&D Basic Set. This illustration accompanies an entry that describes kobolds as "small, evil dog-like men ... [that] have scaly rust-brown skin and no hair."
This version has neither horns nor a tail, but its canine head is unmistakable. I find it notable that the module Keep on the Borderlands, included with the '81 Basic Set, has a rumor table that makes mention not just of "hordes of tiny dog-men" (i.e. kobolds), but also "big dog-men" or gnolls, suggesting a connection between these two monsters that I don't believe I've ever seen developed in the entire history of D&D. 
Above, we can see Jim Roslof's illustration of a kobold from 1982's AD&D Monster Cards. This illustration looks to me to be a further development of the Otus/LaForce version of kobolds – flat faces, no horns, no visible tail. In fact, they look rather like the goblins depicted in that same product, which makes for an interesting call-back to OD&D (and Chainmail before it), which seems to treat kobolds as if they were simply a species of goblin, or at least a closely related type of monster.

The first appearance of kobolds in AD&D Second Edition is in the Monstrous Compendium (1989), with this illustration by Jim Holloway:
Holloway's kobold is a kind of two-steps-forward-one-step-back version – broadly consonant with Otus/LaForce/Roslof one but regaining the horns of Sutherland/Dee. Though there's no visible tail, the description in the Monstrous Compendium suggests that they do indeed possess "non-prehensile rat-like tails." It also notes that they "sound like small dogs yapping" and smell like "a cross between damp dogs and stagnant water." This perhaps suggests that the writer (David Cook, Steve Winter, or Jon Pickens) was attempting to restore a bit of the canine connection of early 1e while retaining the overall look established by its later artists.
Lastly, there's this illustration from the 2e Monstrous Manual (1993), provided by Tony DiTerlizzi, who's probably best known for his distinctive contributions to the Planescape setting. This version restores the elongated, muzzle-like face of early AD&D, though, to my eyes, it looks more rat-like than canine. The accompanying description is the same as in the earlier Monstrous Compendium, so it's not as if any of DiTerlizzi's alterations were required by a revised text.

Despite my recent musings about Third Edition, the post-TSR editions of Dungeons & Dragons are beyond the scope of this blog, so I won't be discussing the subsequent development of kobolds. That's probably just as well, since I'm not a fan of their metamorphosis into small lizard/dragon-men. Nevertheless, looking over the pictorial history of this low-level monster has opened my eyes to just how ill-defined the kobold actually is. My own preferred version is heavily indebted to that of the first version I ever saw and I suspect that's probably true of most other D&D players. 

Do you have a default vision of kobolds? If so, what does it look like?

Friday, June 7, 2024

Translation and Design Opportunity

This notice appeared in issue #68 (December 1982) of Dragon:

Though the notice doesn't explicitly say so, I assume the job on offer relates to the project that would eventually become Oriental Adventures. Of course, it could also have been about translating Dungeons & Dragons (and other TSR RPGs) into Japanese. I recall that the first Japanese edition of D&D appeared in 1985 and was a translation of Frank Mentzer's 1984 edition. The fact that the contact person is Cheryl Gleason, a name I've never seen before, doesn't make the matter any clearer.

Does anyone out with better insight into the history of TSR know any more?

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Kirktá? (Part III)

When last we left him, Kirktá and his clan-mates were wrestling with the recent revelation that Kúrek Tiqónnu Thirreqúmmu, lord of the city of Koylugá, was somehow aware of the fact that the youthful scholar priest of Durritlámish was, in fact, a hidden heir to the Petal Throne. Further, Kúrek was finalizing the arrangements for the upcoming marriage between Kirktá and his niece, Lady Chgyár – a marriage that no one else, least of all Kirktá, knew anything about. The characters naturally suspected that Kúrek wished to enter into a political alliance with someone of importance within nearby Tsolyánu. Even if Kirktá chose not to participate the Kólumejàlim or "choosing of the emperor," never mind win it, the mere fact that he is the son of the reigning emperor brings with it a host of potential benefits. Marrying his niece to Kirktá thus made a lot of sense. Even so, there were lots of other unanswered questions. 

The characters decided that, rather than continue to ponder these matters with insufficient information, they should take the Chlén-beast by the horns. They composed a brief letter to Lady Chgyár, asking if they might speak with her this evening. She replied that she was happy to receive them for an evening meal, during which they could talk. Together, the group made their way to the Thirreqúmmu palace, which served both as the ruling family's domicile and the province's seat of government. After being led through a maze of chambers within the building, they found themselves in a dining hall, where Chgyár and her servants welcomed them.

The young woman wasted little time getting to the point. Chgyár imagined they'd come to see her because they were surprised and perhaps a little shocked by the marriage contract, as well as mention of Kirktá's Tlakotáni lineage. She explained that, despite appearances, she was not actually interested in marrying Kirktá, nor, for that matter, was her uncle. Rather, the contract was meant as an encouragement of compliance in her uncle's political designs. Kúrek is very ambitious. He hopes, upon the death of King Griggatsétsa, to ascend the Ebon Throne as Salarvyá's new monarch. To do that successfully, he needs allies within the kingdom, specifically the Gürüshyúgga family of Tsa'avtúlgu, currently leading a revolt against the capital.

What does any of this have to do with the characters? The Gürüshyúgga family, you see, are worshipers of a deity known as Black Qárqa, a Salarvyáni version of Sárku, the Five-Headed Lord of Worms after whom the House of Worms clan is named. Lord Kúrek believes that the characters, as outsiders, could act as "neutral" intermediaries in the current conflict between the Gürüshyúgga and the King. Of course, their true purpose is not merely to end the conflict but also to make sure the Gürüshyúgga understand that it was Kúrek who engineered its cessation, so that they would, in turn, support his bid for the throne. It is hoped that, because the characters are themselves devotees of the same dark god as the Gürüshyúgga, they might have greater influence than would he or most other Salarvyáni.

If the characters agree to attempt this, Lord Kúrek will keep Kirktá's true lineage a secret. Neither will he have to marry Chgyár, who, for her part, says she "has someone else in mind" for her future husband. The marriage contract is simply a useful prop in the event that the characters do not agree to help. Kúrek can not only reveal that Kirktá is a hidden heir but also that he "toyed with a young woman's affections" – a charge with enough plausibility that it might well be believed by enough people to blacken the reputation of not only Kirktá but his comrades as well. 

Before sending them on their way again, Chgyár provided as many answers to their characters' question as she could. Most important among her answers was that the conflict between the king and the Gürüshyúgga stemmed from the former's desire to seize certain devices of the Ancients that the latter reputedly possessed in large numbers and that may well be the source of their own power (the Gürüshyúgga being renowned as sorcerers and stalwart defenders against the dreaded Ssú). She then implied that, if the characters were successful in securing an alliance between her family and them, the Gürüshyúgga might reward them with a few choice items from their arsenal. She then sent them on their way to prepare for the meeting with Lord Kúrek the next morning.

Naturally, the characters still have a lot of questions. Among the most significant concerns how they choose to respond to this. They do not like being strongarmed by anyone, least of all foreign aristocrats. At the same time, their desire to keep Kirktá's imperial status secret places them in a very real bind. If they don't help, Kúrek will reveal it and numerous unhappy consequences may arise from it. How much of a risk are they willing to take? Or is it simply better – or at least safer – to serve as emissaries to the Gürüshyúgga on behalf of Chgyár's uncle?

So many questions, so few answers.

Look the Part You Play

Another interesting advertisement from Dragon, this time from issue #67 (November 1982):


Aranalar by Luigi Castellani
Aranalar ("Indomitable") is a sword +1, +2 vs the Unmade forged from alchemical steel. Its blade is single sided, forward curving, and, like all Kulvuan osuna, intended to be wielded from the back of a teteku, The blade itself is approximately two feet in length and bears a maker’s mark (not visible in the illustration) that identifies it as a product of the famed Bejanakoru workshop of lost Onoritash, though it is unlikely that its enchantment took place there. The grip is wrapped in ridzor-leather, while its pommel bears an early example of a nasha-charm that would later become commonplace on Kulvuan imperial weaponry.

Aranalar possesses a single magical ability, from which it receives its name. So long as the sword is held, its wielder is completely immune to the melee attacks of any Unmade of equal or lesser level than himself. This immunity does not apply to either ranged or magical attacks, however. The ability has no duration and is usable at will, so long as the sword is held. Sheathed, Aranalar no longer provides this immunity. Likewise, this immunity extends only to the current wielder of the sword and to no one else.

The precise date of Aranalar’s forging is unknown. However, its magical ability suggests that it was created for use during either the Consolidation of Light (1:1–4) or the Daybreak Wars (1:15–25). The third book of Samakan’s Lesser Chronicle of Dawn makes mention of the warrior Besu Tankuli, who, during the Siege of Itixtar, emerged seemingly unscathed after facing off against “an Unmade host the likes of which none have seen since the Epoch of Shadows.” Samakan notes that Besu wielded “a mighty blade, whose enchantment protected him against the twisted creations of the Unmakers on that day.” General Daljan Chayusi (1:301–2:5) unambiguously wielded Aranalar during his career, most famously at the Battle of Uchiran (1: 344). Upon his retirement, he gave the sword to his son, Dalen (1:326–2:3), who was murdered by persons unknown, possibly for his role in the Second Archontic Succession Crisis (1:358).  Aranalar was then stolen and disappeared from history, though rumors of its location or current wielder continue to this day.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Criticism and Commentary

I think it's fair to say that Gary Gygax had a very thin skin when it came to criticisms of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game line, even when the criticisms weren't aimed at a book or module in which he had a hand. A good example of what I'm talking about can found in the "From the Sorceror's [sic] Scroll" column he penned for issue #66 of Dragon (October 1982). There, Gygax responds to criticism of Deities & Demigods.

Before getting into the substance of what Gygax says here, a little background. The "critical piece" referenced in the paragraph above appeared in issue #19 of Different Worlds (March 1982). It's a review written by Patrick Amory that ends by stating "Deities & Demigods [is] fit only for the trashcan." Gygax claims that he only heard about Amory's piece after "reading a letter of agreement" written by a "disgruntled ex-TSR game designer." This second letter appeared in issue #22 of Different Worlds (July 1982) and its author is Lawrence Schick, who served as the editor of Deities & Demigods. 

If you follow the link to Schick's "letter of agreement," you'll see that it's both lengthy and thoughtful in its criticisms. Though he clearly disagreed with the direction James M. Ward took the book, he does not seem to bear any ill will toward the man he calls "a real nice guy." Likewise, that he "really liked the AD&D system and wanted the AD&D products to be the best possible." Schick's criticisms, for the most part, boil down wanting DDG to have closer to Cults of Prax in its approach. That's an absolutely fair criticism in my book, but I'd of course say that, since it's pretty close to my own opinion on the matter. Regardless, I don't think anything Schick wrote is worthy of the intemperate and petty response Gygax offers.

Sadly, Gygax doesn't stop there. He continues his verbal assault against "this capable and knowledgeable individual" in a very bizarre fashion.
Given Gygax's frequent and vociferous disavowals of the influence of Tolkien over his vision of AD&D, I think it's pretty rich of him to turn around and try to use the (admittedly true) lack of religion in Middle-earth as evidence that the kind of book Schick would have preferred is somehow inappropriate for the game line. His references to the works of Howard, Leiber, and De Camp and Pratt seems less disingenuous (and more in keeping with his pulp fantasy preferences), but I'm not sure it serves his original point. If anything, in his flailing attempt to deflect Schick's fair criticisms of Deities & Demigods, he comes close to suggesting a book about gods and religion is unnecessary for AD&D.

This line of attack is all the odder, because Gygax's own articles about the deities and demigods of his World of Greyhawk setting were all quite good and included many of the details that Schick wished to see. He even acknowledges this later in his response, adding that this is appropriate "because they are part of an actual campaign," while DDG was never intended as anything more than "raw material upon which to build a campaign." He then suggests that expecting Deities & Demigods to be more than that is tantamount to "want[ing] someone else to do all your creative thinking for you." What an odd – and condescending – thing to say!

In the end, I think Gygax would have been better off not saying anything at all. I can only assume the fact that Schick, a former TSR employee, publicly offered his own firsthand thoughts about the shortcomings of an AD&D volume stung. I can certainly understand his feelings and might well have felt similarly were I in his shoes. Nonetheless, his response seems disproportionate and, worse, small-minded. Compared to Dragon, Different Worlds had a very small circulation and I doubt that many people were unduly influenced by its negative review, assuming they even saw it. If anything, an immoderate tirade like this one might well have had a greater negative effect on potential buyers.

The Unmade

An Unmade Brute by Zhu Bajie
The Unmade (or Omajya in the Onha language) are the unnatural servitors of the Unmakers. Transformed by iniquitous sorcery, the Unmade are frightful demonstrations of where the Unmakers' nihilistic philosophy leads if unchecked. They are also a potent threat to the civilized peoples across sha-Arthan (except the continent of Alakun-Tenu, where the priesthood of Ten long ago extirpated them).

Like their masters, the Unmade first appeared during the Epoch of Strife. Though none can say for certain which of the many Unmaker prophets of those days first twisted Men and beasts to serve them, the names Arkatzo and Trene are often cited by scholars. Arkatzo figures prominently in the legends of Jalisan of Churuga, while Trene is associated with the ruin that bears her name to this day, Trene's Bastion, laid waste by Hejneka during the latter days of the Pechra War. 

An Unmade Martinet by Zhu Bajie
Like their ultimate origins, the process by which the Unmade come to be is not well understood, even after all this time. Large scale alchemy is almost certainly involved, as is metamorphic sorcery of a type unseen since the Epoch of Wonders. Indeed, it has been suggested by some, such as Badisa Selmis in his Compendium of Universal Knowledge, that the Heritor Lords were the first to perfect a method of re-shaping living beings, a method the Unmakers would later improve upon. Others, such as Ajana Solokat theorize that the weird energies of the False World are another important component.

As one might expect, there is wide variability in the forms of the Unmade. Nevertheless, there are three broadly recognized classes of these beings. The first is by far the most common. Known as Brutes (or Travesties), they are nightmarish mixtures of many types of creatures given humanoid form. No two Brutes look exactly the same but all are aggressive, bestial, and hulking. This type of Unmade periodically gather in hordes to menace city-states or even entire realms.

An Unmade Discarnate by Zhu Bajie
The second type is slightly less common but can often be found serving alongside Brutes, where they act as leaders. Called Martinets (or Taskmasters), these Unmade are humanoid in shape, their head replaced by a phase stone that grants them the ability to use one or more sorcery spells, depending on its size and color. Compared to Brutes, Martinets are very intelligent and free-willed, making them a much greater threat.

The third and final type is the rarest – and most dangerous. The Discarnates exist simultaneously on sha-Arthan and the World Between. This not only enables them to move quickly from place to place, it also makes them difficult to engage in physical combat. Their dual existence grants them access to sorcery even more potent than that of the Martinets. Fortunately, Discarnates are few in number and seem to serve as special agents or even lieutenants to Unmaker prophets.

As noted above, other types of Unmade may also exist, but are sufficiently uncommon that they lack for widely accepted appellations.