Friday, January 26, 2024

Fifty Years Ago Today

I'm very interested in the history of Dungeons & Dragons, but I'm not a historian – especially when compared to someone like Jon Peterson. Consequently, if Jon opines that January 26, 1974 is the day on which D&D was released – and, therefore, the game's birthday – I'm inclined to trust his judgment. So, happy birthday Dungeons & Dragons! For the last half-century, you've entertained untold millions of people across the globe, providing them with a delightful means to exercise their imaginations together with their friends. 

Dungeons & Dragons played an outsize role in popularizing fantasy literature, ideas, and themes, as well as inspiring many of its devotees to create their own. Roleplaying, as a formal activity, owes nearly its entire existence to the phenomenal success of D&D. Even more remarkable is the extent to which the computer and video game industry, which is bigger and more profitable than the music and movie industries combined, owes a huge debt to the example set by D&D. If you play any game with classes or levels or experience or hit points today, that's because of Dungeons & Dragons.

It's slightly crazy if you think about it. Two wargamers from the American Midwest created an entirely new type of entertainment, one that, over the course of five decades, changed the world forever. That's no small accomplishment – and it's certainly worth celebrating. 

Monday, January 22, 2024

Conan and the Cup of Destiny

In the summers of my childhood, there were few delights more refreshing than 7-Eleven's Slurpee – the store's carbonated frozen ice beverage. During the 1970s, when I was growing up, it was not at all uncommon for Slurpees to come in a plastic cup festooned with images of professional athletes or folkloric monsters or Wild West historical figures. In a few cases, I'd hold on to the cup, wash it out, and then re-use it. For example, I held on to a cup featuring skeletal cowboys for quite some time, simply my younger self thought it looked cool.

In 1977. 7-Eleven produced a series of Slurpee cups that featured Marvel Comics characters. This was apparently the second such series, the first having come out two years prior, but I don't recall ever seeing the original run. In '77, I wasn't much of a comics reader, but I did like Spider-Man, thanks in large part to the 1967 show that I watched in reruns at an impressionable age. Consequently, I was quite keen to get a Spider-Man Slurpee cup and visited 7-Eleven multiple times during the summer in the hope of acquiring one.

Despite my best efforts, I was never successful in this endeavor, having to content myself instead with cups featuring characters I'd never heard of before, like Namor and Nova – and Conan the Barbarian. At that time – I would have been nearly eight years old – I'd never encountered the name Conan outside the middle name of the creator of Sherlock Holmes. He was completely unknown to me and I recall being very puzzled by his inclusion in a series of cups that seemed otherwise to include only illustrations of superheroes, such as my beloved Spider-Man. Because Conan meant nothing to me at the time, I didn't keep the cup and moved on to other things.

This being the summer of 1977, foremost among those other things was George Lucas's space opera, Star Wars. Like every other little boy (and quite a few little girls), I was obsessed with Star Wars, snatching up as many tie-in products with it as I could. Among those tie-in products was a Marvel comics series, initially written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Howard Chaykin. The series began by adapting the 1977 film over the course of six issues and then moved on to wholly original material whose quality varied, but which I generally liked enough that I kept reading it for several years, right up until the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980.

Most issues included an advertisement for subscriptions to Marvel comics. Though I never subscribed to any comics – I relied on the spinner rack at the local drug store – I nevertheless would glance over these ads to see what other titles Marvel had on offer. That's where I saw Conan the Barbarian once again, sometimes with an image of the mighty thewed warrior himself. Who was this guy? As before, I was baffled by his presence among so many superheroes. Mind you, I was equally baffled by the presence of Howard the Duck as well, so what did I know?

Some time later – I can't quite recall when but certainly before I was first introduced to Dungeons & Dragons in late 1979 – I stumbled across the name Conan again. This time, it was at my local library, which I visited regularly. Middle River Public Library had been my gateway to so many fantasy and science fiction books and writers, forming the basis for so many of my fondest childhood memories. One day, I took notice a spinner rack filled with white paperback books all of which bore the name CONAN in large, colorful letters. I still had no idea who Conan was or why he seemed to keep popping up, but there was he was once more. I wasn't yet ready to answer this question, as these paperbacks seemed a bit too "adult" for my tastes, judging by their moody painted covers.

My initial judgment over this Conan fellow eventually seemed confirmed when a friend of mine, on a visit to the drugstore to pick up the latest issue of Star Wars, pointed out that there were comic books for sale behind the counter, "behind the counter" being childish code, for the place where they kept those magazines. Sure enough, my friend was correct. I caught glimpse of a comic entitled Savage Sword of Conan, whose cover art reminded me quite a bit of those white paperbacks I'd seen at the library. I was now certain I'd never figure out the mystery of Conan and his connection to Marvel comics.

That's where things stood for some time. It wasn't until sometime in 1981 or thereabouts, by which point I was an older and more worldly twelve years-old that I took up any serious interest in Conan. The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide mentions the "Conan series" in Appendix N, along with its author, Robert E. Howard. Holmes also includes a mention of Howard and Moldvay's bibliography cites Howard alongside many other authors whose books I had already read and enjoyed. Furthermore, many of the older guys I knew who played D&D seem to love Howard and Conan. Maybe, I decided, it was time to finally figure out who Conan was and why he seemed to be everywhere I went. So, I went off to the library and grabbed one of those paperbacks off the spinner rack and checked it out. The rest, as they say, is history.

I mention all of this because today is the birthday of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan and many other characters who are now among the most famous and enduring literary creations of all time. It's funny to consider that I first became acquainted with both of them thanks to comic books published more than three decades after Howard's death by a company that didn't even exist at the time of his demise. I think that's a testament to just how remarkable was REH's imagination that a shy, nerdy, and prudish kid growing up in suburban Baltimore would one day come to love the products of it. So many other writers, who lived longer and wrote more, have been forgotten by history, but Howard – and Conan – live on.

Happy birthday, Bob.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Thoughts on the Occasion of Merritt's Birthday

The fine gentlemen over at DMR Books generously lent me their online soapbox on the occasion of Abraham Grace Merritt's 140th birthday yesterday. 

You can read my thoughts on the subject there.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #17

Issue #17 of Polyhedron (May 1984) is immediately notable for its cover, which features an uncredited 19th century engraving rather than an illustration by one of TSR's staff artists. Nevertheless, the engraving is being used to illustrate one of this issue's articles, a long "Encounters" piece by Kim Eastland about which I'll speak shortly. Because of hos different this cover looks compared to its predecessors, it's one that I remember well, even if I didn't recall anything about the article to which it's connected.

The issue kicks off with a long letter in which a reader comments that he is "not a member of the RPGA Network in order to get a second helping of articles every month. DRAGON does a good job monthly." Instead, the reader wants to hear the opinions and ideas of RPGA members rather than "professional writers." It's a fair criticism, I think, though, as I noted last week, it's not one I shared. Editor Mary Kirchoff explains that the preponderance of articles by TSR staff members is due to a lack of submissions by RPGA members. Reading this now, I must admit to some surprise at this. I would have imagined that members would have jumped at the chance of writing for Polyhedron, but apparently not. (Of course, given that I never submitted anything during the time I was a subscriber means that I have no room to criticize.)

Kim Eastland's "Encounters" concerns a ruined temple that the characters came across while traveling elsewhere. Outside the ruin is the servant of an adventurer whose employer left him outside while he ventured within to investigate. That was more than a day ago and the adventurer has not returned since. What then follows is a three-page description of the temple, its contents, and denizens, accompanied by illustrations that (mostly) are in the same style as the cover. Though lacking a map, the temple is quite fascinating, since it includes a number of tricks and traps within it, as well as some valuable treasure. I think it'd make an intriguing side encounter for an ongoing campaign.

The Knights of Genetic Purity are James M. Ward's "Cryptic Alliance of the Bi-Month" for use with Gamma World. Pure strain human supremacists, the Knights fall squarely on the side of villains, at least in most of the GW campaigns with which I am familiar. The article thus devotes most of its two pages to details of the alliance's personnel and weaponry, so as to aid the referee in using them as adversaries. We also get a couple of legends associated with the cryptic alliance, such as "Pul Banyon," a seven foot-tall mutant slayer and a king named "Art" who was betrayed by his "human-looking mutant" wife. I remember liking this article more than is probably deserved upon re-reading it. I don't think it's bad so much as uninspired, which is a shame, because I think the Knights of Genetic Purity make great adversaries for a Gamma World campaign.

"Variants, House Rules, and Hybrids" by Roger E. Moore, on the other hand, is a terrific article. Over the course of three pages, Moore looks at the merits and flaws of introducing variant rules into your ongoing RPG campaign, as well as presenting examples of such variants (critical hits, new classes, etc.). What's most remarkable about this piece is not Moore's advice, which is indeed good, but the fact that it appears in the pages of Polyhedron at all. Moore acknowledges, at the start of his article, that TSR's policy is that "it's better to game with the rules as they are," but he nevertheless feels that "everyone has different ideas on what makes a game fun." From the vantage point of 2024, this might seem non-controversial, but, at the time, for people like myself, who hung on every word that proceeded from the mouth of Gygax, it was a Very Big Deal and I am grateful for it.

"The Fighter" by James M. Ward is the start of a new feature, intended to present an "archetypical [sic]" example of a Dungeons & Dragons character class "to give a general idea of what characteristics and/or quirks a superior, balanced character in a particular character class would have." Ward presents Ian McPherson as his example of the archetypal fighter, detailing his personality, skills, equipment, and holdings. It's notable that the article is light on game mechanics, which surprised me. I would have thought we'd at least get game statistics for Ian, but we do not. Instead, the following article, "Two New NPCs," presents two brief write-ups of unique fighters, one a dwarf and one a half-orc, written by Ward and Roger E. Moore respectively. These write-ups do include stats and are thus more immediately usable.

"Disguised Weapons" by Nicholas Moschovakis presents six hidden weapons for use with Top Secret. This is a no-nonsense "meat and potatoes" gaming article of the sort that used to fill gaming magazines at the time. Likewise, Kim Mohan's "Wishes Have Their Limits" also belongs to a hoary gaming magazine genre, namely, articles about how to constrain and otherwise rein in the power of magic wishes in D&D. Mohan attempts to present, over the course of three pages, a series four "laws" for adjudicating wishes. His laws are all fine, if you feel the need for such things, but, these days, I'm generally quite lenient with wishes and reality warping magics, because I see in them the opportunity to inject a little chaos into the status quo of a campaign. Maybe I'm weird.

"DM Talk" by Carl Smith looks at the various approaches to refereeing D&D, offering thoughtful insights and advice. Though obviously geared more toward novice DMs, I think he still says things of potential interest to more experienced ones. In particular, I like his division of RPG players into one of three "levels," each of growing sophistication, with Level 1 being "roll playing" and Level 3 being a high degree of immersion. He then tailors his advice for the referee based on the current level of the campaign and the needs of its players. It's not a world changing article, but it's solid and looks at the subject from a slightly different perspective, which I appreciate.

"Dispel Confusion" presents the usual assortment of questions and answers related to TSR's various RPGs. The most notable questions this time around are one concerning the fact that the monster Zargon from The Lost City is stated to be "no god" and yet his clerics have spells. How is this possible? According to the answer, "there is in fact a greater evil force behind Zargon" and it is this mysterious being who is granting spells to his cleric. I have to admit that's quite intriguing! Another question concerns whether there are female dwarves, which the questioner apparently doubted. Obviously, the answer is in the affirmative. Did anyone seriously doubt this?

Issue #17 also includes another mini-module, "The Incants of Ishcabeble," by Bob Blake. It picks up from the mini-module included in the last issue and takes the characters to the abandoned tower of the ancient wizard, Ishcabeble. I have an affection for abandoned towers of all sorts, so I'm naturally inclined to like this one, too, which features a good mix of puzzles, tricks, traps, and combat. 

The transformation of Polyhedron continues, though, as I theorized previously, not all of its readers are entirely happy with its new direction as Dragon Jr. Of course, Polyhedron was, to my recollection, always in a state of flux, never quite knowing its niche within the larger constellation of TSR gaming periodicals. As a result, each issue was, to some degree, an experiment to determine what worked and what didn't. This one is no different in this regard and, as we shall see in weeks to come, quite a lot didn't work, hence the regular need to launch new columns and features that soon disappear, only to be replaced by others. 

Monday, January 15, 2024


While it's still possible to argue in good conscience about the precise origins or start date of the Old School Renaissance, I don't think there can be any serious debate that the major intellectual impetus behind the early OSR was the reexamination of original (1974) Dungeons & Dragons. That's certainly how I first became aware of the growing network of forums and blogs that formed the nucleus of one the most imaginatively dynamic movements within the hobby in some time. 

Of particular importance in this regard is Finarvyn's OD&D Discussion forum, better known simply as ODD74. At the suggestion of Philotomy Jurament (of "Philotomy's OD&D Musings" fame), whom I met through the Troll Lord Games forums, I registered at ODD74 in early December 2007 and began my own personal journey into reexamining OD&D.

Or perhaps I should say examining OD&D, because, while I had owned copies of the Little Brown Books and supplements since the mid-1980s, I'd never really read them carefully, let alone used them at the table. They were, at best, historical curiosities that had value as collector's items and little else. To my way of thinking at the time, OD&D had long ago been superseded by several later editions of the game, most notably Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which I held in especially high esteem. Through my interactions with the many knowledgeable and thoughtful gamers who posted at ODD74, I began to see just who wrong I was in thinking this way.

Among the many lessons I learned over the course of the next several months, during which I read and posted to the forum with obsessive regularity, the first was this: old ≠ bad. That might seem like a small thing or even an obvious thing, but, sad to say, it wasn't, at least to me. I'd fallen prey to the consumerist myth that newer is better, buttressed, no doubt, by the desire of RPG companies to sell me new editions of games I already owned and enjoyed. That's why I'd dutifully bought both the second edition of AD&D in 1989 and Third Edition (of what?) in 2000 (not to mention v.3.5 just three short years later). I wanted to stay up-to-date in my gaming and the only way to do that was to buy more stuff.

OD&D, even in its purest form – the three LBBs and nothing more – is a perfectly playable game. Certainly, it requires a goodly amount of interpretation by any would-be referee, but that's not the same thing as saying, as some do, that OD&D is incomplete, never mind unplayable. It's definitely not a "modern" RPG, lacking as it does definitions, explanations, and even occasionally consistency between its various sections. Instead, it's a glorious, extravagant mess, a veritable Pandora's box whose chaotic contents literally changed entertainment forever. There's an almost palpable power in those three slim, staple-bound booklets if you're willing to cast aside, if only briefly, the subsequent history of roleplaying. After all, this is where it all began.

I had initially come to study OD&D because I'd become dissatisfied with the direction of Dungeons & Dragons under the stewardship of Wizards of the Coast. I was driven by the paradoxical notion that the only way forward was backward, which is to say, that I felt D&D had become so changed that the only way I could conceive of fixing it was to try and turn the clock back, all the way to the very beginning. Anything less than that would be a half-measure, doomed to repeat the very same mistakes that had led Dungeons & Dragons to where it was in 2007 – overcomplicated and deracinated.

The second lesson I learned from examining OD&D was this: it contains multitudes. The same qualities that had led Gary Gygax famously to declare his first creation to be "a non-game" – its open-endedness, flexibility, and variability – were precisely those that I now found so appealing. Indeed, I saw in them an antidote to my dissatisfaction with the direction of contemporary D&D. What's more is that, as I interacted with others on the ODD74 forums (and, in time, OSR blogs), I discovered that, by design, OD&D could be played in a variety of different ways. The history of the early hobby attested to this and, in fact, proved to be the fertile seedbed out of which so many later roleplaying games would flower. 

I can't stress enough how emancipatory this was to me at the time. I'd grown up a TSR fanboy, hanging on the Word of God that descended from the heights of Lake Geneva. This meant that I tried to the best of my ability to play D&D in the "official" manner whenever possible. While this took a lot of the burden of rules interpretation off my shoulders, it also probably curtailed my creativity to some degree, prodding me to play the game in a particular fashion. I have no real complaints about this – I had a lot of fun playing RPGs in my youth, as evidenced by the fact that I still play them in middle age – but I have no doubt that I also closed myself off to other possibilities. Coming to OD&D with an open mind helped me to understand this.

This is why I think, even half a century later, that there is value in reading original Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, I think there's value in playing OD&D. This the game that started it all, the one that first taught the world what a fantasy roleplaying game was. Much like the details of the early history of the OSR, it's possible for men of good conscience to argue about the merits and flaws of OD&D's design, but I hope we can all recognize just how literally vital the three Little Brown Books are. They presented the world not merely with rules but with a new form of entertainment – one limited only by the collective imaginations of those who participate in it.

How many other books – RPG or otherwise – can honestly make that claim?

Saturday, January 13, 2024


Born this day in 1893

I am the spectre who returns
Unto some desolate world in ruin borne afar
On the black flowing of Lethean skies:
Ever I search, in cryptic galleries,
The void sarcophagi, the broken urns
Of many a vanished avatar;
Or haunt the gloom of crumbling pylons vast
In temples that enshrine the shadowy past.
Viewless, impalpable, and fleet,
I roam stupendous avenues, and greet
Familiar sphinxes carved from everlasting stone,
Or the fair, brittle gods of long ago,
Decayed and fallen low.
And there I mark the tail clepsammiae
That time has overthrown,
And empty clepsydrae,
And dials drowned in umbrage never-lifting;
And there, on rusty parapegms,
I read the ephemerides
Of antique stars and eider planets drifting
Oblivionward in night;
And there, with purples of the tomb bedlight
And crowned with funereal gems,
I bold awhile the throne
Whereon mine immemorial selves have sate,
Canopied by the triple-tinted glory
Of the three suns forever paled and flown.

I am the spectre who returns
And dwells content with his forlorn estate
In mansions lost and hoary
Where no lamp burns;
Who trysts within the sepulchre,
And finds the ancient shadows lovelier
Than gardens all emblazed with sevenfold noon,
Or topaz-builded towers
That throng below some iris-pouring moon.
Exiled and homeless in the younger stars,
Henceforth I shah inhabit that grey clime
Whose days belong to primal calendars;
Nor would I come again
Back to the garish terrene hours:
For I am free of vaults unfathomable
And treasures lost from time:
With bat and vampire there
I fit through sombre skies immeasurable
Or fly adown the unending subterranes;
Mummied and ceremented,
I sit in councils of the kingly dead,
And oftentimes for vestiture I wear
The granite of great idols looming darkly
In atlantean fanes;
Or closely now and starkly
I ding as dings the attenuating air
About the ruins bare.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Nothing New Under the Sun

The English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once famously remarked that the history of European philosophy consisted of a series of footnotes to Plato. By this, Whitehead did not mean that Plato had said everything that could ever be said about philosophy. Rather, he meant that Plato had set the terms for all subsequent discussions of European philosophy to such a degree that even those who disagreed with his conclusions were nonetheless thinking within a framework that he had created. I think something similar could be said of RPGs – to wit: the history of roleplaying games consists of a series of house rules to OD&D. 

We can debate the broader merits of this point of view another time. For the moment, my very specific point concerns the extent to which there's any point in creating "new" rules for a roleplaying game. At this point in history, a half-century after Arneson and Gygax forever changed the world, I feel very safe in saying that it's exceedingly unlikely that any game designer, no matter how clever, will come up with a rule/mechanic that hasn't already been conceived by many other designers before him. I'll go even further and state that it's exceedingly unlikely that any game designer, no matter how clever, will come up with a rule/mechanic that hadn't already been conceived within the first decade of the hobby. 

Given that, is there really any point, other than vanity, for a game designer to try and "innovate?" Hasn't nearly every possible configuration of rules been tried before? More to the point, haven't some configurations been found to be easier to learn and employ and thus more widely understood and accepted? Further, hasn't the configuration first introduced by Dungeons & Dragons fifty years ago – class + abstract experience-based advancement – been shown to be, by far, the clear winner in terms of widespread acceptance among players? One needs only to look at how commonplace D&D-derived systems are in computer and video games to see the truth of this.

Which brings me to Secrets of sha-Arthan, the exotic science fantasy roleplaying game I've been working on for the last two and a half years. While I've made a great deal of progress in developing its setting, its rules remain a moving target. Initially, I intended them to be a slight modification of those of Old School Essentials, which is itself simply a restatement of the 1981 Basic and Expert rules of Dungeons & Dragons. However, as I continued to tinker with it, I began to think, as no doubt many game designers before have, that I could reinvent the wheel. Slowly, my small changes to OSE started to become bigger and, with each change, the rules started to become more complicated and farther from the simplicity that has always attracted me to D&D and its descendants and clones.

Now I find myself wondering: should I just return to something closer to Old School Essentials? Certainly there will need to be some changes to accommodate the unique elements of the setting, but, by and large, Secrets of sha-Arthan is a game very much in the mold of Dungeons & Dragons and Empire of the Petal Throne (whose rules are themselves obviously derived from OD&D). Is there, aside from my own vanity, any need for the game's rules to deviate very much from the well-established template of D&D? Over the decades, I've played plenty of RPGs whose rules differed from those of D&D in ways both large and small, but how many of them, really, needed to differ so much?

I should add, by the way, that this critique applies even to many later iterations of Dungeons & Dragons itself, some of which make changes to the structure of OD&D that, to my mind, are unnecessary and even detrimental to play (I'm looking at you AD&D and your initiative system – among other things) but were likely introduced because someone believed he had a "great idea" to "improve" the rules. Yet, at least if my own experience is any guide, very few people ever used the AD&D initiative system as written, including Gary Gygax, preferring instead for the simpler roll-1d6-higher-goes-first of B/X. I don't think such people did so because they were stupid; rather, they did so, because they recognized that speed and intelligibility were more important than some abstract notion of a "better" rule. 

Nevertheless, the urge to tinker, to try and improve on a rules template that has stood the test of time is strong. It's a very difficult urge to resist, yet I am coming close to the perhaps inevitable conclusion that, aside from a few setting-specific tweaks, there's really no point in trying to one up D&D, because I will not be able to do so. Wouldn't my time be better spent in developing the setting and making it as compelling and accessible as possible? 

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #16

Issue #16 of Polyhedron (February 1984) is the beginning of a couple of new features for the RPGA newszine. First and most notably, the issue includes an 8-page removable "mini-module" in its center. I'll have more to say about this shortly, because it was a fairly big deal at the time. Secondly, this issue marks the start of James M. Ward's "Cryptic Alliance of the Bi-Month" series for use with Gamma World. I was (and remain) very fond of this series, so I'll likewise have more to say about it later in this post.

In her "... from the editor" column, Mary Kirchoff explains that the RPGA has decided to stop producing exclusive merchandise, including exclusive AD&D adventure modules. Consequently, each issue will no longer include a catalog, freeing up about ten pages for additional gaming material. This month, that means the aforementioned mini-module. Kirchoff also mentions that, with the increase in space available for game material, she's looking for more submissions from readers. This call will bear some interesting fruit in future issues.

The issue proper begins with "Encounters" by Doug Behringer. This Top Secret scenario pits "NATO agent" – whatever that means – Dean Wiles versus two GRU operatives (Mike Duplie and Gregor Campleliski – I guess these are supposed to be Russian ...) as he attempts to help an East German laser scientist defect to the West. Other than the cool illustration by Roger Raupp depicting Wiles flying a gyrocopter, there's not much to recommend this article. I wish it were otherwise, as Top Secret was a game I greatly enjoyed in my youth.

Much better is "The Followers of the Voice" by James M. Ward, which details the titular cryptic alliance for Gamma World. Ward begins the article by explaining that "90% of all the adventure that goes on in the GAMMA WORLD game" is instigated by cryptic alliances, which gives some insight into how Ward views the play of the game. For that reason, each installment of the series will provide information about history, leadership, goals, geographic locations, and legends associated with each alliance. It's a solid format and one that I appreciated back in the day. The Followers of the Voice, who worship computers, were never my favorite alliance, however, and reading this article did little to change that. Even so, there's something amusingly quaint about seeing the alliance's symbol from the vantage point of 2024:

There's also a legend about a Follower named Jony who scatters seeds that grow into trees whose fruits are computer programs. As I said, it's all very quaint.

"The Shady Dragon Inn" by Carl Smith is an expansion of the Dungeons & Dragons product of the same name, providing additional details about the eponymous inn. "Hot Shots and Cold Water" by Roger E. Moore offers advice on handling "hot shot" players and their over-powered characters. This is precisely the sort of question that led Gary Gygax to create The Tomb of Horrors. For his part, Moore counsels not simply trying to humble boastful players by killing their characters but rather trying to find new and interesting ways to challenge them that don't involve combat or even game mechanics – social maneuvering, politics, religious strife, etc. He also suggests that referees consider the role their own practices may have played in creating hotshots with high-level PCs and course correcting so as to avoid the problem in the future. Like most Moore efforts, it's a good piece, filled with solid advice clearly born of years of experience.

Kim Eastland pens a pair of articles this issue. The first, "Boredom," focuses on those aspects of play that can lead to yawning during a session and how best to deal with them. He briefly covers eight sources of boredom: 
  1. Impossible odds
  2. Mont Haul worlds
  3. Long-winded GMs
  4. Unprepared GMs
  5. Random encounters GMs
  6. Map-crazed GMs or players
  7. Overly creative GMs
  8. The "stuck-in-a-rut" campaign
Some of these problems are fairly obvious, while others are less so. For example, by "overly creative," Eastland means simply a GM who is constantly inventing new and unusual game elements that make it impossible for players to properly judge how to approach them, leading to a "why bother trying?" attitude that kills enthusiasm. 

Eastland's other article, "Research is Not a Dirty Word," is a kind of alternate Appendix N, focusing primarily on non-fiction books that Eastland feels offer inspiration to harried referees. For example, the Osprey "Man-at-Arms" series is given an endorsement, as is The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. As you might expect, it's a very idiosyncratic list and regrettably short, but it's probably useful, especially to younger referees who haven't read as widely as have us oldtimers. "Photo Session," on the other hand, is just a filler article consisting of public domain NASA concept art of space platforms and lunar rovers. The accompanying text (with no listed author) attempts to connect the illustrations to Star Frontiers by offering cursory ideas of how to use them as inspiration. 

"Monty Haul and the German High Command" by James M. Ward is another reprint from Dragon. It is, however, a very fun article, recounting a game of the World War II miniatures game to which fantasy elements, such as magic. Though mostly played for laughs, I found the article fascinating in the way it casually depicts the introduction of ahistorical and indeed fantastical things into a WWII game. I remember reading about many such incidents in the early years of the hobby. I'm not sure it was ever a commonplace practice, but the fact that it happened at all intrigued me, particularly given my own hidebound prejudices at the time.

"Dispel Confusion" continues to grow in size, taking up three pages in this issue. As is often the case, the questions often seem to arise out of a failure at reading comprehension. I suppose one could be more charitable and suggest that the real problem is that many rules were poorly or unclearly phrased and that's fair. RPG rulebooks have never been paragons of clarity. Still, reading these now, I find myself shaking my head at the things players actually bothered to ask TSR for "official" clarification. But that's the kind of mindset the company encoureaged and one to which I was myself sometimes prone.

Finally, there's "The Riddle of Dolmen Moor" by Bob Blake. It's an AD&D scenario that was apparently first used as part of a series of connected scenarios for use in RPGA tournaments. As a stand-alone adventure, it doesn't offer much other than fighting undead among some barrow mounds on the titular Dolmen Moor. However, it's got an interesting pseudo-Celtic flavor to it that I found intriguing at the time. It's being part of a larger narrative about the prophesied return of an ancient king was similarly novel. Consequently, I have a strange fondness for this "mini-module" and its sequels. They'd eventually all be collected into two AD&D modules that were published in 1985.

Issue #16 of Polyhedron marks, as I wrote earlier, yet another step along the road toward the transformation of the newszine into something more akin to "Dragon Jr.," albeit with its own unique flavor. I welcomed this when I was a subscriber, precisely because I was never an active member of the RPGA and cared little for keeping up with the latest news and views about conventions. I rather suspect that TSR came to understand that many of their subscribers were like me and so began to tailor Polyhedron's content accordingly. I wonder how this might have been seen by RPGA members who actually did care about cons and tournaments.

Monday, January 8, 2024

More on Mimics

In response to my post last week, several readers suggested that the now-commonplace image of a mimic as a chest with teeth might have its origins outside of Dungeons & Dragons itself. According to this theory, it was the artwork of Akira Toriyama – best known in the West for his manga, Dragon Ball – for the Japanese video game, Dragon Quest III (1988), that first popularized this image.

Dragon Quest is an immensely successful and influential series of video games in Japan. Its gameplay is heavily inspired by earlier Western computer RPGs, such as Wizardry and Ultima, which were themselves heavily inspired by D&D. Given how many D&D players in the '70s and '80s were also into the growing world of video and computer games, it's not a stretch to suggest that Dragon Quest might well have some effect on their conception of the mimic. The only snag is timing: Dragon Quest III wasn't localized in North America until 1991 (under the title Dragon Warrior III, to avoid confusion with the other DragonQuest).

While we're on the subject of Japanese portrayals of the mimic, I thought it might be worth mentioning the unique version found in Ryoko Kui's manga, Delicious in Dungeon. At its heart a cooking manga – yes, that's a thing – Delicious in Dungeon chronicles an adventuring party as they not only explore a subterranean labyrinth filled with monsters and treasure, but also the meals they can make of monster carcasses. In the manga, a mimic is a kind of crustacean akin to a giant hermit crab:
This take on the mimic isn't a shapeshifter at all, Instead, it uses real chests (and other items) as a hermit crab might use its shell. However, unlike the hermit crab, the mimic's "shell" is intended not as protection but as a lure to entice adventurers to get within range of its large pincers. In my opinion, it's a very clever spin on the iconic monster, one of several to be found in the manga's pages. If you're interested in an imaginative conception of a plausible dungeon ecology, you might consider checking it out.

Growing Pains

My House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign will celebrate its ninth anniversary in a couple of months. Interestingly, we just added a new player into the mix recently, bringing the total of active players up to eight. The campaign began with six players when we first met on March 5, 2015 and, while those numbers have briefly fluctuated downward, the general trajectory since the start of the campaign has been upward. I can't say whether that's unusual or not, but it's certainly welcome. The fact that this campaign, set in a weird, little known fantasy world, continues to attract – and retain – players pleases me greatly. If nothing else, it suggests I must be doing something right, which I imagine is something of which every referee wants to be assured.

My Barrett's Raiders Twilight: 2000 campaign is not nearly as long-running as House of Worms. Early December of the past year marked only its two-year anniversary. However, the campaign is still going strong, boasting seven regular players (down slightly from the eight with which it began in 2021). On the other hand, the Traveller campaign in which I am a player, started with five players in September 2022 and has since grown to six players. Again, not quite as packed with players as House of Worms, but still a decently large number of players who get together every weekend to roleplay together – especially by the standards of today, when smaller groups seem much more common.

As I have noted before, there are many distinct advantages to playing RPGs in large groups. I thought about this recently, as I contemplated adding another player to the House of Worms campaign. Initially, I must admit that I had some mild apprehension – not because I thought the potential eighth player would be deliberately disruptive, but because, after so many years of having a stable group of seven players, we were all in a nice groove. We'd spent so many hours together over the years that we all knew one another quite well, including our likes, dislikes, quirks, and foibles. By introducing a new player (and character) into the campaign, might this not upset our modus operandi?

Yes, it might, I concluded – but might that not be a good thing? 

The House of Worms players work very well together. Their characters have all found their niches within the party and they even have well-established "routines" when dealing with certain types of problems. Furthermore, each character has similar well-established interests and goals, many of which can be counted on to help direct the course of play during our sessions. This makes things easier for me as the referee, since I have some idea what to expect. Consequently, the House of Worms campaign practically runs itself at this point.

Introducing a new player into the campaign almost certainly will disrupt many aspects of the campaign. I can say this for certain, because that's what happened the last time I added a player into the campaign. Every time a new player has joined the campaign – or indeed any campaign – a certain degree of chaos follows in his wake. Everyone needs time to find a new equilibrium and, until that happens, old patterns are upended, including mine as the referee. Exactly how things will shake out is unpredictable, but I can be sure of one thing: the new status quo will be every bit as fun as the old one, perhaps even more so. As I said, I've seen this before.

A little shakeup from time to time can be good, especially in a long-running roleplaying game campaign. Introducing a new player can help clear out the cobwebs of one's imagination, as referee and established players alike have to contend with a newcomer who knows little or nothing of the previously established order. He'll bring with him his own ideas, interests, and goals, some of which may comport with them and some of which may clash. This is good. It's an opportunity to reinvigorate a campaign, to inject it with outside energy. No campaign, not even the House of Worms, is a perpetual motion machine. Without periodic infusion of outside energy, a campaign will die. I'm having too much with this campaign to let that happen.

Furthermore, a new player is a new friend. While I've "known" the new player online for a long time, I've never played an RPG with him, let alone done so week after week for an extended period. Over the years, I've made so many great friends through roleplaying, people without whom my life would be much less rich. For me, that's very much at the core of what makes this hobby is so wonderful. How often does one get the chance to make a new friend? When the opportunity arises, seize it.

Friday, January 5, 2024

Rakshasa Riddles

In response to my post earlier today about the appearance of mimics, a reader correctly commented that the rakshasa faces a similar problem. Though originally introduced in The Strategic Review (and then appearing in Gods, Demigods & Heroes), the first time we see an illustration of the monster, it's in the AD&D Monster Manual (1977) by Dave Trampier:

This is a great illustration, one of my favorites in the MM. I also like the inclusion of a bolotomus in the bottom righthand corner of the piece – a great example of the kind of whimsy that categorized a lot of old school fantasy. But how accurately does it depict what Gary Gygax describes in the text? The Monster Manual states, "Known first in India, these evil spirits encased in flesh are spreading." The text also notes that they are "masters of illusion" who use their powers of ESP to "create the illusion of what those who have encountered them deem most friendly." This last detail seems to me to be confirmation of the monster's having been inspired by the Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode, "Horror in the Heights," a fact Gygax himself readily admitted.

Of course, the question immediately arises: why, then, did Tramp choose to illustrate the rakshasa in this way? The Monster Manual says nothing about the native appearance of the creature, so why is it depicted as a tiger-headed humanoid in a smoking jacket and ascot? Is it because Gygax noted that rakshasas were "known first in India" and there's a strong pop cultural connection between India and tigers in the English-speaking world? On the other hand, the native form of Kolchak's rakshasa was a big furry thing reminiscent of Bigfoot, so what gives?

To confuse the question further, consider these miniature figures, released by Grenadier in 1980, that supposedly feature two rakshasas:

I used to own these miniatures and I remember being quite perplexed by their appearance, since one looks like a lizard man and the other an elephant man. After some thinking about the matter, my youthful self used these minis as license to stat up several different types of rakshasas, on the model of the various types of demons and devils. I wish I still had those stats, because I imagine they'd make for fun reading today.

Issue #84 of Dragon (April 1984) features an article by Scott Bennie entitled "Never the Same Thing Twice," which takes a similar tack, introducing several different kinds of rakshasas. According to Bennie, "rakshasas have no uniform physical appearance," stating only that "legend usually describes them as deformed and monstrous-looking." The types of rakshasa he introduces differ only in power, not in appearance. Nevertheless, the article is accompanied by the following illustration by Jim Holloway:
Beneath the illustration, there's some explanatory text that says it's based on a description from the Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. The dictionary in question describes the rakshasa as having "a big belly, fingers that curve away from the palms of its hands, and claws that are said to be poisonous." The text further states that the rakshasa is not using its illusion powers, "preferring to let the poor victim see what he's really up against," which suggests this is the monster's true form. To me, he looks a little bit like the Kolchak version, in that it's big, furry, and apelike, but ir's otherwise unique in the history of depicting the rakshasa.

The volume 1 of the 2e AD&D Monstrous Compendium describes rakshasas as having "no uniform appearance but appear as humanoid creatures with the bodily features of various beasts (most commonly tigers and apes)." It also notes that "hands whose palms curve backward, away from the body, seem to be common" and that "rakshasas of the highest standing sometimes have several heads." However, the accompanying illustration (by Jim Holloway), looks like this:
It's a rather laughably generic tiger-man in "Indian" clothing. I presume it takes its inspiration from the Trampier original, but it lacks all the style. More significantly, the Holloway rakshasa is a humanoid tiger, while Tramp's is (seemingly) a man with a tiger's head – look at his hands, for example.

The 1993 Monstrous Compendium includes a new rakshasa illustration, this time by Tony DiTerlizzi.

This one seems to occupy a mid-point between Trampier and Holloway, in that it's not quite a humanoid tiger (though it does have a tail), but it's also not simply a man with a tiger's head. Notice the backward hand, holding its skull-topped walking stick. DiTerlizzi's rakshasa undoubtedly has style, but the question remains: why is he depicted as a tiger? Is it simply, as my reader suggests, that the earliest art showing a rakshasa portrayed him in this way and all subsequent artists have been following Tramp's lead? If so, it's very disappointing, especially when dealing with a monster whose primary power is the ability to shapechange.

Illustrations, especially of fantastical things, can be very useful aids to one's imagination. However, they can also inadvertently limit one's imagination. The more I look at the history of D&D's artwork, the more evidence I see of the latter.

Mimic Mysteries

 Among the many monsters whose origins can definitively be linked to Dungeons & Dragons is the shapeshifting mimic, which first appeared in the AD&D Monster Manual (1977). Here's Dave Sutherland's illustration of the creature:

I'm both a fan of mimics in general and of this illustration in particular, because it accurately depicts the mimic punching the nearby adventure. The text of the Monster Manual states plainly that the mimic "lashes out with a pseudopod, delivering 3–12 points of damage per hit." There's no mention, let alone implication, that the mimic can bite its prey. 

The illustration accompanying Ed Greenwood's "The Ecology of the Mimic" in issue #75 of Dragon (July 1983) is similarly accurate to the MM description. Indeed, it also includes another detail from the Monster Manual description that is often forgotten: the glue a mimic's skin secretes and that holds its victim fast, thereby making them an easier target to pummel with its pseudopod.
Unless I have missed another example – and please tell me in the comments if I have – the above illustration (by Roger Raupp) is only the second time this iconic D&D monster had been portrayed in artwork. What strikes me about Raupp's illustration (no pun intended) is that it's completely in keeping with the text of the Monster Manual. If anything, it's even truer to the text than Sutherland's original, since it also highlights the creature's sticky qualities.

The next time we get a mimic illustration – again, unless I am mistaken – is volume 2 of the AD&D Second Edition Monstrous Compendium (1989).
This illustration, by Daniel Horne, interests me for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, this is the first time – if I'm mistaken, you know the drill – a mimic is depicted as having a tooth-filled mouth, though it's notable that the mouth here is not associated with the hinged top of the chest it's mimicking, as is commonplace nowadays. Equally notable are the secondary mouth and clawed finger and foot that also extrude from the monster's body, though I'm not certain what purpose they serve. The 2e written description of the mimic makes no mention of its ability to bite an opponent. Instead, there's still a reference to "lash[ing] out with a pseudopod."

For the sake of completeness, here's the illustration of the mimic found in 1993's Monstrous Manual (by an unknown artist, or at least one I cannot identify easily):
This one looks very similar to and possibly inspired by the one in the 1989 Monstrous Compendium, although it possesses only a single extrusion beyond the tooth-filled mouth. The accompanying text is, so far as I can tell, identical to that of the Monstrous Compendium of a few years previous, right down to its attacking with a pseudopod. 

What fascinates me is how limited our collective imagination of mimics has become over the years. Gary Gygax's original description of them in 1977 notes that "they are able to perfectly mimic stone or wood" and "pose as stonework, door, chests, or any other substance or item they can imitate." Greenwood's ecology article picks up on this, offering an example of a mimic that had assumed the form of a statue in a market square and then preyed on unsuspecting derelicts on dark nights. By contrast, the Monstrous Compendium description, while retaining the original's ability to mimic stone or wood, states only that "they usually appear in the form of treasure chests."

I won't go so far as to lay the blame for the popular conception of mimics as monstrous chests with big teeth solely on the Monstrous Compendium, though I'm sure it played a role. Rather, I think the fault lies with the simple fact every illustration of the monster from the TSR era of Dungeons & Dragons depicts it as a chest and that's proved a difficult image to shake – so difficult that that's what mimics are for most players of the game. They simply cannot imagine them any other way. Needless to say, I think that's a shame, but what can you do?

Wednesday, January 3, 2024


Today marks the 132nd anniversary of the birth of J.R.R. Tolkien. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Tolkien is almost certainly the single most important creator for the subsequent development of the fantasy genre as it has come to be widely understood – no small feat for an Oxford don specializing in Anglo-Saxon language and literature! 

Usually, on these occasions, I try to find some novel way to celebrate the occasion, but, after so many years of doing so, I must admit that it's become harder and harder to write something that has not already been written dozens of times beforehand and often more eloquently. That's why, this year, I will simply state that my own life has been inestimably enriched since I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1980. For that reason, I am forever grateful to Professor Tolkien, as, I suspect, are the countless others who have enjoyed his tales of Middle-earth over the decades.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

The Big Heist

I wrote a post at the beginning of last month in which I mused about the limited pop cultural footprint of Dungeons & Dragons as a game during the heyday of its original faddishness. My point was not that pop culture during the late '70s through the mid-1980s was entirely devoid of nods to the existence of D&D (or roleplaying games more generally), but rather that exceedingly few of those nods showed how D&D was actually played – or indeed made even a weak attempt to show it as a game at all. After the appearance of that post and the one on Labyrinth, I received quite a few emails from readers who directed me toward other movies or TV shows in which Dungeons & Dragons – or D&D productsappeared. I'm grateful for those pointers, since there are undoubtedly many examples of this phenomenon of which I was unaware.

A good case in point is the fifth episode of the fourth season of Diff'rent Strokes, which aired on November 26, 1981. The episode, entitled "The Big Heist," doesn't really involve D&D in any way, but it does feature a number of D&D and AD&D products in plain sight.

On the display rack to the right, you can clearly see the covers of the three AD&D ruleboks, the Players Handbook, the Dungeon Masters Guide, and the Monster Manual. Located between the PHB and the DMG is what appears to be a D&D Expert Set. What's on the bottom shelf is unclear, at least to my aged eyes. Here's another still that much more clearly shows the middle shelves of the rack.
I doubt I ever saw this episode when it was aired. If I did, I certainly had forgotten about it until readers alerted me to its existence. Looking at it now, I find it striking just how clearly these products are all displayed. Of course, I can't help but wonder how identifiable they'd have been to anyone who was casually watching the show. Perhaps some children might have recognized them, but would anyone else have known what they are? I'm skeptical.

It's a very strange thing. TSR was doing terrific sales on Dungeons & Dragons throughout this period. The game was a huge fad – and yet it had only the tiniest toehold in the wider popular culture. I've theorized that this is due to the fact that pop culture is generally made not by people close to the age of those who consume its products but by people a generation or more older than them. That's why, for example, the Marvel comics of the 1960s, while ostensibly written for the children and teenagers of that time, were in fact much more reflective of the world in which its creators grew up, which is to say, the 1930s and '40s. Consequently, it would take until the '90s at the earliest before the people who actually played RPGs during their heyday would become pop cultural tastemakers, which is precisely when we start to see more examples of roleplaying games in movies and TV shows.

At least, that's my theory. Perhaps you have alternative explanations.

Monday, January 1, 2024

Happy New Year

Somehow, another year has come and gone and, while I wouldn't go so far as to say 2023 was a bad year for me, it certainly was a frustrating one, filled with numerous unwelcome distractions that prevented my completing almost any of the projects I hoped I might. Rather than dwell on that, I plan instead to look upon 2024 as filled with possibility, including the possibility that I'll do this year what I was unable to do last year. 

To that end, you'll probably be seeing an increase in posts about the development of Secrets of sha-Arthan. I've been working on it on and off for the last two and a half years. Lots of progress has been made, but there's still a lot more to do. Because this is a passion project without any specific end goal, there's been no real incentive to finish it according to a schedule. Though that's still largely true, I very much do want to see it finished, at least in draft form, before the conclusion of this year (preferably sooner). Posting about it publicly might help me to do that, so I beg your continued indulgence as I do so.

2024 is also the half-century anniversary of the release of original Dungeons & Dragons and I plan to devote quite a bit of commentary to the game that started it all throughout the year. Though I am not presently playing OD&D, I have a particular affection for this edition of D&D, because it's the one that served as my gateway to what would eventually come to be known as the Old School Renaissance, which would, in turn, serve as the impetus to start this blog. Consequently, it's only right that OD&D should once again take center stage here at Grognardia, as I hope it will in the wider world of roleplaying.

Until then, I'd like to wish everyone a happy and fun 2024. Fight on!