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. 


  1. I'm assuming this Bob Blake is the same who penned a few tournament adventures for JG? Of Skulls and Scrapfaggot Green, and Gen Con IX Dungeons, IIRC.

    1. I thought as much. I wonder whatever became of him, if he's still working on RPG stuff. Etc.?

  2. The Zargon answer is interesting. It sounds like that "fact" was made up for this question! It would have made a nice addition to the "expanding the adventure" section of the module.

  3. "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."

    Umm...that is obviously an in joke there, for anyone who didn't get it already. "Ish Kabibble" was the working name of a reasonably famous 20th century comedian (real name Merwyn Bogue) who appeared in a number of films in the 1940s. He derived the name from a 1913 novelty song with a phonetically similar title, where "isch ga/ka bibble" is a faux-Yiddish term supposedly meaning "I should worry?"

    I've seen a few of his films, and he's not bad as goofball klutz comedians go.