Thursday, March 28, 2024

sha-Arthan Appendix N (Part II)

In Part I of this post, I shared the four authors whose stories and settings have most influenced my development of Secrets of sha-Arthan. In this part, I'd like to share the four roleplaying games I'd single out as having played a similar role.

Empire of the Petal Throne: This one should be obvious. The mere fact that I've spent the last nine years refereeing my House of Worms campaign pretty much guaranteed EPT would be included in this list, since it's the RPG I've played the most and most consistently since my youth. However, the game shares so many elements in common with sha-Arthan – secret science fiction, ancient history, baroque societies, weird monsters – that, on some level, it'd be completely accurate to call sha-Arthan "my Tékumel." Of course, sha-Arthan isn't just that, but it owes a huge debt to Tékumel, which is one of my favorite fictional settings of all time.

Skyrealms of Jorune: This is another important secret science fiction game and one whose influence over sha-Arthan is important to acknowledge. Though I never owned, let alone played the game when it was first released, I was entranced by the ads for it that ran in the pages of Dragon magazine. Replete with the evocative artwork of Miles Teves, Jorune had a wonderfully exotic setting in the form of the titular planet, where "magic" of a sort is possible, thanks to peculiar physical laws. Likewise, its many unusual – and completely non-terrestrial – intelligent aliens and lifeforms have served as inspirations as I imagined their counterparts on sha-Arthan. Amazing stuff!

RuneQuest: Right behind Tékumel is Glorantha when it comes to my favorite fictional settings. The main things I took from RQ was its non-medieval, more Bronze Age setting and its emphasis on the importance of culture and religious cults. Indeed, the alignment system of Secrets of sha-Arthan is directly inspired by the cults of Glorantha. I've likewise borrowed a couple of other elements from the game that I thought would fit in well with the setting I was creating for my own game. Beyond that, RuneQuest impresses me with its ability to take itself seriously but not too seriously and that's something that a lesson than an old stick in the mud like me needs to be reminded of often.

Bushido: This is another RPG that stresses the importance of culture and religious beliefs and thus inspired me as I developed Secrets of sha-Arthan. While there's not much of feudal Japan's DNA in the True World, there is something of Bushido's rules in my own game, in particular those covering "downtime." Characters in Secrets of sha-Arthan can engage in training, research, intrigue, and social climbing when not traveling or exploring ancient ruins and vaults. The inclusion of these options was inspired by Bushido, which is the first game I recall having rules for these kinds of activities. While other RPGs have subsequently included them, Bushido is the game from which I first learned them.

And there you have it: the four roleplaying games whose settings and/or rules influenced me in my own work. As Picasso is reputed to have said, "Good artists borrow; great artists steal." I make no claim to be a great artist, but I thought it only right to let you know from whom I've stolen, if only so that you might be introduced to some really terrific roleplaying games well worth your time.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Retrospective: MegaTraveller

Traveller is, without qualification, my favorite roleplaying game and has been since I first encountered it through The Traveller Book in 1982. Over the course of the next four years, I played the heck out of it with both my neighborhood friends and one of my high school classmates. Then, I stopped – or, more precisely, I grew bored with Traveller. Looking back on it now, I suppose it was simply a case of over-saturation. Even more than D&D had been my go-to game for fantasy, Traveller had been my go-to game for science fiction, the end result of which briefly abandoning it for GDW's other SF RPG, Traveller: 2300, which came out in 1986. (I would eventually come to feel similarly about Dungeons & Dragons, but not until the mid-90s.)

My love affair with Traveller: 2300 was comparatively brief, lasting only a couple of years. In only two years of playing it, my passion for the game burnt itself out. Not long thereafter, I discovered that, during my time away from it, GDW had released a new edition of Traveller, bearing the rather unusual (and cumbersome) title of MegaTraveller. This new edition boasted not just revised and expanded rules, but also a change in its official Third Imperium setting – the so-called Rebellion.

A quick aside for context: starting with The Spinward Marches in 1979, GDW slowly built up and developed Traveller's official setting. This setting was originally intended as a loose backdrop for published adventures. Over time, the Third Imperium setting, named for the large, human-dominated interstellar empire at its center, accumulated a wealth of details. This was a big part of its appeal to me and other fans. However, a common complaint about the Third Imperium was that it was too static, a holdover, I suspect, from its origins as a universal framework for a wide variety of campaigns. MegaTraveller's Rebellion – really a war of succession – was an attempt to end that stasis by throwing the Third Imperium into a civil war.

The Rebellion was a major reason why I decided to return to Traveller after my hiatus. I thought the political and military shakeup of the Third Imperium was exactly what was needed to add some dynamism and danger to a setting that felt very staid to me. Consequently, I snapped up MegaTraveller and dove back into the rules and setting I'd loved for many years beforehand. My hope in buying the new edition was that it was similar enough to the earlier edition rules-wise that I wouldn't have to relearn how to play, while also being changed just enough to make it more compelling.

On the first point, I was largely correct. Mechanically, most of MegaTraveller's rules were very close to the 1977/1981 versions I'd played before. Character generation was much as I'd remembered it, though there were a lot more skills and options for advanced generation methods like that found in Mercenary. The combat system borrowed elements from Azhanti High Lightning in an effort to streamline it. More significantly, there was now a codified, universal task system for the handling of both skill use and combat – a major innovation over the ad hoc approach to skills in the previous edition.

At the same time, there were major changes to starships, both their construction and combat systems. Classic Traveller had a simple, elegant system for starship construction. Its combat system was a bit more complex, making use of a realistic vector movement that I always found frustrating. By contrast, MegaTraveller introduced an extensive but unwieldy (and much corrected) construction system that required more or less demanded a spreadsheet to use properly. Its combat system seems to have been modeled on the personal combat system, which is either a positive or a negative depending on how you felt about the original combat system. 

Also included in the MegaTraveller boxed set was the Imperial Encyclopedia, which consolidated the two volumes of Library Data under one cover. There was also a map of the Spinward Marches sector. Released around the same time – but sold separately – was the Rebellion Sourcebook. This setting book laid out the various factions of the Imperial civil war for use in the game. Unfortunately, all of the information was very high level and there were no practical details, in this or in the boxed set, on what it was like to referee a campaign during this time of interstellar tumult. Its main utility for me came in the form of its credits, which thanks an organization called The History of the Imperium Working Group (HIWG), whose members were apparently dedicated to working out the details of the Third Imperium setting.

I found HIWG's address in a copy of Challenge magazine and sought them out. They were a collection of Traveller fans dispersed throughout the world who'd been consulted by GDW about the Rebellion and its development. At the time, they were quite active in producing documents about various in-universe topics, which they shared amongst themselves and with Traveller writers. Some of HIWG's members even wrote articles that were published in Challenge and elsewhere. I enthusiastically joined HIWG and used it as a platform to jumpstart my professional writing career. I also made a number of lifelong friends who also shared my passion for Traveller.

MegaTraveller was never a success. Many longtime fans, who'd wanted to see the Third Imperium setting reinvigorated, grew disenchanted with the Rebellion, which seemed both needlessly destructive and aimless. Newcomers were even more confused by what the game was about than they might have been during the latter days of classic Traveller's run. Matters weren't helped by the fact that GDW produced very few support products for the game, leaving most of that work to licensees like Digest Group Publications. The end result was a huge mess – not unlike the Rebellion itself.

Yet, for all of that, I have fond feelings toward MegaTraveller, largely because it served as both my entry into professional writing and because it introduced me to several people who've been very important to me over the years. It probably helps that, for all my protestations to the contrary, I adore setting details and MegaTraveller was an era when such details were at the forefront. From most perspectives, MegaTraveller might not be a great edition of Traveller, but it's one I nevertheless associate with many positive things. That's why it'll always have a special place in my heart.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

sha-Arthan Appendix N (Part I)

Last week, I pointed out a "problem" with Gary Gygax's Appendix N, namely, it's just a list without any explanatory apparatus, unlike its counterpart in the original RuneQuest. As I explained in that post, this is far from a damning criticism – Appendix N remains an invaluable guide to excellent fantasy and science fiction stories – but it does limit its utility in trying to understand Gygax's own thought processes as he created both D&D and AD&D. 

That's why I decided I'd do things differently in Secrets of sha-Arthan. Rather than simply include a lengthy list of all the books (and games) that had had even the tiniest influence over my own work on SoS, I'd instead present a smaller, more focused list, along with commentary on precisely what I'd taken from each source. The goal is not merely to honor my inspirations, but also to aid anyone who picks up the game in understanding where I'm coming from. 

The list, like the game itself, is still in a state of low-level flux. I've purposefully narrowed the list to just four authors, each of which wrote a series of multiple stories within those series. By keeping the list focused on those whose influence is strongest and most clear, I hope that I'll do a better job than Gygax of "showing my cards," creatively speaking. Obviously, other authors and books have inspired me, too, but their inspiration has been more limited. Rather than muddy the waters, I've stuck only with whose influence is most clear.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice: The influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs over the subsequent history of fantasy cannot be underestimated. His Barsoom novels in particular have played a huge role in establishing the broad outlines of that genre and the stories and characters that inhabit it. Everything from building a unique setting, with its own history and geography to populating it with all manner of exotic cultures and beasts to even presenting an alien vocabulary, it's all there in A Princess of Mars, a book not much read today but that I have come to love more the older I get.

In creating sha-Arthan, I often looked to Barsoom and Amtor for inspiration, particularly in my conception of the creatures that dwell upon it. Furthermore, the Ironian language is intended to be reminiscent of the Martian tongue as invented by Burroughs. I also imagine adventures in the True World to be swashbuckling affairs, filled with perilous danger, narrow escapes, and feats of derring-do, just like the delightful novels of ERB.

Smith, Clark Ashton:
Of all the writers whose work graced the pages of Weird Tales during the Golden Age of the Pulps, Clark Ashton Smith remains my favorite by far. His examination of the dangers of egotism and the ever-present risk of divine punishment combine with his black humor and imaginative dreamscapes to produce some of the most inventive – and often terrifying – fiction of the first half of the 20th century. Though I am fond of all his story cycles, it's those set in Zothique, Earth's last continent untold eons in the future, that I find most compelling.

There's more than a little of Zothique in sha-Arthan. Its ancient history, selfish sorcerers, and otherworldly daimons are all directly inspired by CAS. Smith's baroque and archaic vocabulary have likewise influenced the nomenclature and general tone of my writing about the setting. Though sha-Arthan is not as dark (or darkly humorous) as Zothique, it does possess some of the latter's world-weariness,
Tierney, Richard L.:
Secrets of sha-Arthan takes a lot of inspiration from the late Hellenistic and early Roman eras. That's a period of history that's always fascinated me, so that's no surprise. It's also the time period covered by the Simon of Gitta historical fantasies of Richard L. Tierney, some of whose stories I've discussed in the past.   

Tierney's stories deftly combine real world history and beliefs, particularly those relating to Gnosticism, with an unusual interpretation of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and swashbuckling adventure. This combination of elements is both unique and appealing to someone of my interests, which is why I consider the Simon of Gitta tales to be among the most important influences on my development of sha-Arthan as a RPG setting. 

Vance, Jack:
Rounding out this quartet of inspirational authors is Jack Vance, creator of The Dying Earth and its sequels, all of which have, to varying degrees, influenced sha-Arthan, though the original 1950 fix-up novel remains the most important. Like Smith's Zothique stories, I've looked to Vance for ideas about ancient, forgotten history, venal wizards, and cruel, otherworldly beings. However, the single most significant idea I've taken from Vance is that of secret science fiction, which is to say, an ostensibly fantasy setting that is, beneath the surface, based on scientific (or pseudo-scientific) principles. That's a big part of sha-Arthan and its eponymous secrets. 

In Part II, I'll talk about the other roleplaying games that have influenced the development of Secrets of sha-Arthan. For obvious historical reasons, this is something Gygax could never have done. However, I've played enough RPGs over the years that there's no question they've had as much of an impact on my thoughts about sha-Arthan as has fantasy literature. Revealing just what I've taken from them is, I think, every bit as important as revealing my literary inspirations.

Polyhedron: Issue #19

Issue #19 of Polyhedron (September 1984), like the previous issue, features a cover illustration promoting one of TSR's licensed RPGs, in this case The Adventures of Indiana Jones. The reputation of the Indiana Jones game has long – and somewhat understandably – suffered as a result of the game's narrow focus and presentation, squandering its real potential as a vehicle for pulp adventure. The scenario included in this issue, "The Temple of the Chachopoyan Warriors "(written by Doug Niles), does little to correct this. The adventure reframes the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark as a means of introducing the game and its rules to newcomers. While adequate to that specific task, it also reinforces the sense that the RPG would never really rise above its limited source material and that's a pity.

This issue's "Two Cents" is a rebuttal to last issue's rebuttal to another article, appearing in issue #14 – yikes! If nothing else, it's a reminder that roleplayers have always liked to argue with another about almost anything. It's also a reminder that my patience is very limited when it comes to such things, then or now. That said, this issue's installment, by Christopher Gandy, at least makes a few solid points, most importantly that, for many players, roleplaying is an escape and an opportunity to do and experience things they'd never be able – or want – to do in real life. There's nothing wrong with this and it can, in fact, serve a useful purpose.

"Lost Ships, Madmen, and Pirate Gold" by Antonio "Crazy Tony" O'Malley is a fun article intended for use with Gangbusters, Call of Cthulhu, Daredevils, or any other roleplaying game set in the 1930s (interestingly, Indiana Jones is not mentioned). The general thrust of the three-page piece concerns the care and feeding of pulp adventure campaigns. O'Malley covers a wide range of topics – legendary treasures, historical mysteries, gangsters, and ghosts, among others – with an eye toward offering advice on how best to make best use of them in play. The article is both creative and practical and I remember enjoying it when I first read it long ago, an opinion that didn't much alter upon re-reading it.

"... And the Gods Will Have Their Way" by Bob Blake concludes the "Prophecy of Brie" series of adventures begun back in issue #16. The adventure takes up the interior twelve pages of this issue and is designed to be removeable by bending back the staples that hold it together. Though I never mad direct use of it, I appreciated its attempt to provide a consistent cultural backdrop for the scenario, in this case, pseudo-Celtic, rather than the usual vague mishmash found in most Dungeons & Dragons modules at the time. On the other hand, the fact that this "mini-module" took up half of the issue's page count was a bit of an annoyance. As always, I suspect that the editors of Polyhedron were struggling with figuring just what the 'zine was supposed to be and how it differentiated itself from TSR's other gaming periodical, Dragon.

Frank Mentzer presents the results of the RPGA Network Item Design Contest, consisting of six winners selected from a pool of "almost a hundred." The items were judged in the categories of "usefulness," "originality," and "rules compliance." The grand prize winner, whose creator received a lifetime membership to the RPGA, is the talisman of the beast. Written for AD&D, the talisman enables its wearer to shapechange into the animal associated with it, as well as to speak with animals of the same type. Usable seven times a week, any attempt at an eighth use traps the wearer in anima form until the curse is dispelled by the Great Druid. With the exception of the taser rifle, intended for use with Star Frontiers, all the other winners are for AD&D – a reminder, I suppose, of just how much more popular it was than any of TSR's other offerings.

Tim Kilpin's "If Adventure Has a Game ... er, Name, It Must Be Indiana Jones!" is a two-page overview of The Adventures of Indiana Jones Role-Playing Game. It's essentially an advertisement masquerading as an article, though I do appreciate that there are some quotes from David Cook, in which he explains his intentions while designing the game. Alas, his intentions included not just a desire for "fast action" but also hewing as closely as possible to the characters and events of the two movies released at the time. Not to sound like a broken record, but it's a real shame that TSR either didn't (or couldn't – I've seen claims that it was Lucasfilm that dictated this) open up the world of Indiana Jones a little more, so as to include original characters and situations. Ah, well!

James M. Ward's "Cryptic Alliance of the Bi-Month" looks at The Created, a group of sentient androids and robots that believe themselves superior to the human beings who created them. The Created make for a great antagonistic cryptic alliance in Gamma World campaigns, which is why I like them. Compared to earlier articles in this series, this one doesn't add much to our knowledge beyond making The Created even more explicitly villainous than we already suspected (their leader is android/robot hybrid called V.A.D.E.R. X and, no, there's no explanation for that acronym). 

"The Laser Pod" by Jon Pickens is a nice – and very useful – addition to the Star Frontiers starship combat system found in Knight Hawks. One of the oddities of baseline Knight Hawks is that fighter craft are too small to carry any type of laser weapons. Instead, they're armed exclusively with rockets. While this makes sense within the context of the starship construction rules, it nevertheless felt a little disappointing to those of who'd grown up imagining fighters dogfighting with lasers. Pickens presents a clever little option that simultaneously stays true to the original rules while also giving us laser fanatics what we've wanted all along. Bravo.

Finally, there's "Dispel Confusion" with more questions and answers about TSR's various RPGs. While reading this issue's sampling, a few thoughts occurred to me. First, the AD&D questions are overwhelmingly technical in nature, which is to say, they're about how to interpret the text of the rules as written, whereas the questions for most of the other games are much more in the realm of advice on how to handle situations the rules don't explicitly cover. This might simply be a consequence of AD&D having more rules than other TSR games, but I suspect it may speak to the culture surrounding AD&D as well. Second, there are no questions in this issue about Boot Hill. I can't help but wonder if this is reflective of its relatively small fanbase at the time.

As always, Polyhedron continues to be something of a moving target. Every issue offers a different mix of content, coverage, and quality, which, I suppose, is fairly typical of a zine that is increasingly relying on outside submissions for its content. Still, I find the inconsistency a little bit frustrating, making my enjoyment of this series similarly inconsistent.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Memories of Death

For reasons I'll explain in another post, I've been spending a lot of time looking at the examples of play provided in earlier roleplaying games. While not all games from the early days of the hobby include such examples, a great many of them do, starting with original Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. It's easy to understand why this was the case: RPGs were a genuinely new concept and most people in the 1970s, absent being introduced to them through others, would have required some sort of guidance on how to play them. As a kid, I didn't pay close attention to examples of play, because I learned how to play D&D from a friend's older brother, who'd already been gaming for some time before we first cracked open the copy of my beloved Holmes Basic rulebook.

While OD&D includes an example of play occurs in Volume 3, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, I didn't see it until many years after I'd already started playing RPGs. The first one I ever encountered was found in the aforementioned Holmes rulebook and made a big impression upon me, forming my sense of how a session of playing D&D is supposed to go. Unfortunately, the example glosses over how combat is supposed to work (something it has in common with its OD&D predecessor, I'd later learn). However, Holmes does include two examples of combat earlier in the rulebook, which I also remember quite vividly, if only for the names of the characters involved in them – Bruno the Battler, Mogo the Mighty, Malchor (a magic-user), and the Priestess Clarissa. It's strange that, more than four decades later, I can still recall all four of these names, but, as I've said many times, the Holmes rulebook made a profound impression upon me. 

The first combat example Holmes offer is short and details Bruno the Battler facing off against a goblin. Bruno comes out on top, though not before losing half his hit points. In the second example, Bruno is not so lucky and dies "a horrible death" to the venomous bite of a large spider. This, too, left a profound impression upon me and my friends, because it shows quite clearly how easy it is for D&D characters to die in combat, especially at low levels of experience. 

The next example of play I probably encountered was the lengthy one found pages 97–100 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. As a young person, this was probably my favorite example of play, both for its level of detail and its shocking conclusion – "You see a sickly gray arm strike the gnome as he's working on the spike, the gnome utters a muffled cry, and then a shadowy form drags him out of sight ... You hear some nasty rending noises and gobbling sounds ..." Elsewhere, it's noted that the poor gnome was surprised by ghouls, who paralyzed and then quickly devoured him. Yikes!

The example of play in the 1981 Tom Moldvay-edited D&D Basic Rules is probably the most famous of this entire "genre." Though not as extensive as the example of the DMG, it's still quite longer, taking up slightly more than an entire page. What makes this example so well-known is the death of the thief, Black Dougal (who also seems to have died on another occasion, as reported in the Dungeon Masters Adventure Log). "Black Dougal hasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead." "I'm grabbing his pack to carry treasure in." Fredrik the dwarf is one cold dude.

What unites all these examples of play is, of course, death, specifically the death of player characters, which probably explains why they all had such a powerful effect on me when I first entered the hobby. My first experience of fantasy gaming was through the Dungeon! boardgame. You couldn't die in Dungeon! If your piece was defeated in combat, you lost treasure and had to retreat, but you didn't choose a new piece with which to play. But D&D was completely different in this regard. The fact that death was nothing unusual but simply a normal consequence of play was weirdly exciting to me. It implied there were actual stakes and that merely surviving a dungeon exploration was a true achievement. 

As a referee, I wouldn't say that I'm a soft touch, but, in general, I don't take it as my job to kill player characters, unlike my friend's older brother, who was often quite gleeful about doing so. At the same time, I don't shy away from killing off even longstanding PCs if the dice simply don't go their way. To me, death – even meaningless death due to a failed saving throw – always has to be an option or less why bother rolling dice at all? Why have rules? Why not simply engage in collaborative storytelling instead of playing a roleplaying game? I'm sure not everyone playing RPGs agrees with this stance, but it's deeply ingained in me, instilled long ago by reading the examples of play I found in my earliest copies of Dungeons & Dragons.

Friday, March 22, 2024

REVIEW: Hyperborea

When I first read Astonishing Swords & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, two things about it greatly impressed me. Most significant was that this roleplaying game of "swords, sorcery, and weird fantasy" demonstrated an obvious love for the pulp fantasies of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. Equally obvious was its love for Gygaxian AD&D. The latter should have come as no surprise, given designer Jeff Talanian's stint as Gygax's protégé and amanuensis for the uncompleted Castle Zagyg project. Still, both these qualities endeared AS&SH – an infelicitous acronym of there ever was one – to me. 

In the more than a decade since its initial release in 2012, the game has found a place for itself among fans of old school Dungeons & Dragons and its descendants, particularly among those, like myself, whose tastes tend toward the pulpy end of the fantasy spectrum. A second edition of the game was released in 2017 in the form of a single hardcover book. The new edition added some new material to the contents of its original boxed rulebooks, as well as new art and layout. Unfortunately, the second edition rulebook was over 600 pages in length and very unwieldy to use, either in play or as a reference volume. On the other hand, the many adventures published to support the new edition were both excellent and evocative of Weird Tales-inspired fantasy.

2022 saw the appearance of a third edition of the game, this time in the form of two, smaller hardcover volumes – a Player's Manual and a Referee's Manual, each around 300 pages long. In addition to their much more convenient size, these new volumes contain even more art than the two previous editions, as well as a cleaner layout and organization. The game also acquired a new title with this edition – Hyperborea. The combined effect of all these changes is, in my opinion, the best-looking and easiest-to-use edition of the game to date. 

As pleased and impressed as I am by the visual improvements of the third edition, its actual content is not significantly changed from second edition. Aside from combat, which is much simplified, most of the changes are quite small, small enough that I, as a casual player of the game over the last decade, had to dig around online to notice most of them. There are also new additions to the selections of monsters, spells, and magic items, not to mention playable human races. When combined with all aforementioned esthetic changes, I think this is more than sufficient justification for a new edition, but whether it's enough for any individual to replace their existing copy of second edition with it is for each person to decide himself. By design, none of the changes or additions make, say, adventures written with 3e in mind incompatible with previous ones, so there is no necessity in "upgrading."

Players of Gygaxian AD&D will immediately find Hyperborea familiar – six attributes, a plethora of classes and sub-classes (22 in all!), nine alignments, multiple lists of spells, etc. It's a big, baroque stew of often idiosyncratic but flavorful options, but it's never overwhelming. In large part that's because of Talanian's presentation of the material, but it helps, too, that Hyperborea is much more clearly a cohesive ruleset than a sometimes-contradictory hodgepodge built up over time, which only makes sense, given that Hyperborea came out decades after AD&D. Consequently, I consider Hyperborea the best modern restatement of AD&D

Of course, the real joy of Hyperborea is not its rules, however solid they are. Where it most stands out is setting. The titular Land Beyond the North Wind is a flat, hexagonal plane that was once a component of "Old Earth" and the source of many of its myths and legends. Inhabited by the peoples of many ancient cultures – Amazons, Atlanteans, Kelts, Kimmerians, Norse, Picts, and more – Hyperborea is a adventuresome, horror-tinged sandbox in which to set all manner of pulp fantasy adventures. If you read about it in story by REH, HPL, or CAS, you can easily set it in Hyperborea. The setting is sketched out with just enough detail that the referee isn't left entirely to his own devices, but neither is he hamstrung. Think of the original World of Greyhawk folio and you have a good idea of the level of detail I'm talking about.

If I have a complaint about Hyperborea compared to its predecessors, it's that the setting map is now presented in a softcover Atlas of Hyperborea, which is sold separately. Previous editions, including the second edition hardcover, included a very nice, fold-out map of the lost continent; the Atlas chops up that map into smaller (and much less usable, in my opinion) portions. It's a shame, because Glynn Seal's map of Hyperborea is lovely and deserves better.  

Hyperborea is a product of real passion and dedication, both to the legacy of Gary Gygax and to the imaginations of the greatest writers of Weird Tales. It's a good example of what can be accomplished by a designer with a singular vision and a dedication to seeing it realized. Certainly, Hyperborea is not a fantasy roleplaying for everyone. Its focus and authorial voice are distinctive, even a little out of step with what some may want. But if what you're looking for is a florid, flavorful take on pulp fantasy that nevertheless hews closely to the outlines of Gygaxian AD&D, you're in for a treat.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Should I Go to Gamehole Con Again?

Being shy and introverted by nature, I never developed the habit of going to gaming conventions in my youth. Nevertheless, I attended one Origins, back in 1991, because it was held in Baltimore, not far from where I grew up. I also attended one GenCon (2001), because I was, at the time, working quite seriously as a freelance gaming writer and I saw it as a good opportunity to meet people associated with the various publishers who'd employed me. In both cases, I had a good time and I still look back fondly on the experiences. For example, having the chance to sit in the Steve Jackson Games booth with the late Loren Wiseman to talk about Traveller for hours remains a cherished memory of mine to this day.

In the years that followed, I simply didn't have the time or, frankly, the inclination to attend any more conventions. I had young children at home, so my devotion to being a freelance writer waned, as did my desire to travel anywhere, never mind gaming conventions. My personal world contracted quite a bit – and I don't mean that in a bad way – and remained quite small until I started writing this blog. Through it and my involvement in the early days of the OSR, I started "meeting" more and more people who shared my interests and outlook. That, in turn, planted the seeds of the idea that maybe I should reconsider going to conventions.

I hate traveling, especially by air. Prior to September 11, 2001, air travel was barely tolerable. Afterwards, I couldn't stomach the thought of it and abandoned the idea of ever using it again. However, my good friend (and co-host of the Hall of Blue Illumination podcast), Victor Raymond, slowly convinced me to consider going to Gamehole Con. He told me that GHC was still fairly small in size and, even as it had grown, it retained a feeling of coziness that might be more amenable to an introvert like myself. "Small enough that you can find people you want to meet – and large enough that you can avoid those you don't want to," is how he put it.

Eventually, I took the plunge and first attended the con in 2017. As Victor had told me, I found it very much to my liking. I was finally able to meet a number of people with whom I'd been friends online for years, which was extremely gratifying. I also met numerous gaming luminaries of the past, which was a real treat. My experience in 2017 was so enjoyable that I happily returned the next year. The second time I attended was every bit as good as the first. This led me to believe that I might perhaps make this an annual thing. Indeed, the next year, I not only planned to return, but planned to participate in the Tékumel Track of events sponsored by the Tékumel Foundation. Despite my dislike of large gatherings and air travel, I thought I'd finally found a convention for me.

Unfortunately, in 2019, I was hit by a car just days before leaving for what would have been my third GHC. Though I was able to walk away from the accident with comparatively minor injuries, I had to cancel my con appearance. I nevertheless intended to return to Madison, Wisconsin in 2020 but the real world had other ideas. Though the convention eventually returned to its former self, the break – and my own lack of desire to be subjected to health theater in addition to security theater while traveling – put an end to my attendance at Gamehole Con.

Lately, though, I've started to wonder whether I should try to attend again. Several friends of mine, including at least one player in my ongoing Twilight: 2000 campaign, has mentioned that they'd be going to the con. Several more have suggested that they might go, especially if I were going to do so. Further, I've been considering the possibility of refereeing Secrets of sha-Arthan scenarios for people other than my friends, as a way of playtesting its rules and gauging reactions to its setting by a larger sample. Perhaps a con setting might be a good way to do that?

So, what do you think? Should I go to Gamehole Con this year? Obviously, my decision won't hinge entirely on what anyone posts in the comments, but I do like to hear other perspectives. I had a lot of fun at GHC in the past, so it's not as if attendance would be something wholly alien to me. At the same time, I'm (once again) out of practice when it comes to attending a large event like this, something my introverted nature instinctively recoils at. That's why I'm curious to know your thoughts on the matter. 

Stuck in the Past

As I've no doubt explained previously, I was never much of a comics reader as a kid – or, more precisely, I was never much of a superhero comics reader as a kid. With the exception of Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, which I picked up intermittently, the two comics I followed with any devotion were both science fiction titles, Star Wars (about which I've written many times before) and Micronauts (about which I don't believe I have). 

Nevertheless, like all American boys growing up in the 1970s, I was still very much aware of superheroes, thanks in no small part to their TV and movie adaptations, including cartoons. Perhaps because he was Marvel's most popular – and merchandised – character at the time, I had a special fondness for Spider-Man. I loved the terrible 1960s cartoon, which I saw in reruns, as well as the equally awful 1977 live action series, starring Nicholas Hammond of The Sound of Music Fame. I also remember watching the Adam West Batman series, various incarnations of Super Friends, the 1978 Superman movie, and probably others I've long forgotten.
As I got older, I retained a vague affection for the idea of superheroes, especially after I started playing RPGs. I can still vividly recall some of the adventures my friends and I had playing, first, Champions, and, later, Marvel Super Heroes. I remember, too, when we started to see big budget Hollywood movies featuring various costumed characters, starting with Tim Burton's Batman. The release of that movie in 1989 was a major cultural event and its success not only spawned three sequels but also paved the way for yet more superhero movies, a trend that has continued to the present day.

Despite not calling myself a fan of superheroes, I've seen more than my fair share of the superhero movies released in the last three decades, enjoying some more than others. One of the things that's always bugged me about these movies (and other adaptations) is how many of them continue to tread the same ground that their original source material did decades ago. There may indeed be nothing new under the sun, but did we really need to see another version of "The Dark Phoenix Saga?" For that matter, have there been any new superheroes or superhero stories produced in the last couple of decades with any staying power? Why are the biggest pop cultural characters all products of the 1980s or earlier?

I think about this often, most recently during a recent trip with my family. While perusing some weird snacks and candies in a store, I spied a tall, thin, red can featuring what looked to me like Larry Elmore's iconic cover painting for the Frank Mentzer-edited Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (1984). Drawing closer, it turned that, yes, it was Elmore's artwork on a D&D-branded energy drink calling itself a "Hero's Potion of Power." Intrigued, I bought the thing, but I didn't have the courage to try it. That job fell to my daughter, who declared it "alright, but nothing special." 

On the same trip, we went to a bookstore not far from where I grew up. I hadn't found anything to purchase, so I stood out near the lobby of the store while my daughter paid for a book. When I looked over at the checkout counter, I saw a display filled with little boxes sporting an immediately recognizable color scheme. I did an almost comical double take, because I was sure that my aging eyes must have erred in some way, because I couldn't conceive that I was seeing what I, in fact, was seeing – the familiar blue and brown palette of the AD&D Monster Manual.

Sure enough, that's exactly what it was. Apparently, the boxes contain one of a series of randomized plastic monster figurines based on the illustrations of the original Monster Manual. This, frankly, befuddled me almost as much as the Hero's Potion of Power, but then I've never really understood the appeal of these expensive, randomized "loot boxes." Beyond that, why were the figurines based on the artwork of Dave Trampier and Dave Sutherland rather than more contemporary designs? Did it have something to do with D&D's 50th anniversary? I'm honestly not sure of the answer. For all I know, there may be similar loot boxes available for the monsters of later D&D editions, but my gut tells me that's unlikely to be the case. (If I'm mistaken about this, feel free to correct me in the comments).

Of course, this past Christmas, my wife bought me a Dungeons & Dragons T-shirt that she unexpectedly came across while shopping. She knows I'm normally not a wearer of such things – I abhor the brandification of the game – but the fact that the shirt featured the Erol Otus cover painting of Tom Moldvay's Basic Set was sufficiently unusual that she decided to take a chance. She was right to do so, because I was positively tickled by the gift and often wear it as a sleep shirt (I'd never wear it while out and about – I'm too old for that sort of thing).

I can't help but wonder why it is that, in the pop cultural sphere, so much of what is being presented and sold to us are the products of earlier generations of creative minds. Is this simply the result of a lack of imagination or is it because, on some level, we know that we'll never be able to come up with anything better than our predecessors? If I were to travel back in time to tell my younger self that, decades from now, there'd still be new Star Trek shows and Star Wars movies – or that I couldn't care less about any of them – I doubt he'd believe me and yet here we are. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, but what does it mean when popular culture spends decades luxuriating in it? 

I'm as happy as anyone to see Erol Otus art on a T-shirt (even if he's unlikely to have profited from it in any way). At the same time, I think there's something not just decadent but even stagnant about endlessly recycling the pop culture of the 50s, 60, 70s, and 80s only even more vapid and rampantly consumerist than before. Have we simply run out of new ideas? Or do the new ideas simply lack the appeal of the older ones? What's really going on here and what does it mean?

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Number 9

A couple of weeks ago, my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign marked its 9-year anniversary. As I alluded to in a post earlier this year, the campaign continues to grow and evolve. I added a new player to our merry little band, bringing us to eight (plus myself, of course), and his character helped usher in a new phase of the campaign. 

Every time another anniversary is reached, I goggle at the fact that we've somehow managed to keep this going for so long. It's truly a wondrous thing and, while there's undoubtedly a good deal of luck involved, I think there are several other factors that have contributed to the campaign's continued success. In the interest of encouraging others who are interested in keeping a RPG campaign going for nearly a decade of continuous, weekly play, here's what wisdom I have to offer:

  1. Friendship: This is my number one insight: play with friends. Now, to be clear, at the start of the campaign, not all of the players were my friends. Indeed, I only met several of the players through playing the game. Within fairly short order, though, those of us involved in the campaign have become friends, spending time with one another outside the game and generally enjoying one another's company even when not playing. That's vital, in my opinion. Roleplaying is an inherently social pastime and only really works when played with people whom you like and with whom you enjoy a friendly intimacy. So many of the problems that arise in gaming groups do so, I think, because the players aren't friends or don't open up to one another. Without that level of camaraderie and, above all, trust, I'm not sure you can have a successful campaign of any length, let alone a long-term one.
  2. Consistency: A close second insight concerns the need for consistency. Meeting every week to play is important. I know all too well have distracting and vexatious the real world can be. However, if the players and the referee don't get together regularly, especially in the crucial first few months of a new campaign, there's little chance that it will last long. We play every week so long as we have a sufficient number of players to do so, which is a lot easier when you have eight players. Doing so builds the momentum a campaign needs to keep going under its own force. It also serves as a cushion against those inevitable times when the group doesn't meet to play. We often have such times, especially around major holidays and during the summer, so it's not as if we never miss a session. However, we make a point of playing consistently and it's paid huge dividends.
  3. Expectations: This one is important too. When you're playing on a weekly basis, not every session is going to be memorable – or even "good." Some sessions will be boring or a bit of a drag for any number of reasons. That's just the nature of anything that lasts for a long time. Keep moving forward, even through the "bad" stuff and I guarantee that you'll get to something much more enjoyable – so enjoyable, in fact, that you'll soon forget about the boring stuff. It's impossible to maintain a constant high. Not even the best referee, which I am not, is capable of producing a non-stop rollercoaster of fun. That's OK and to be expected.
  4. Flexibility: Similarly, don't be afraid to shift your focus or change gears. The House of Worms campaign has seen the characters engage in dozens of undertakings. Many of them have worked – some brilliantly – and some of them have not. When something's not working, there's no shame in moving on to something else. Maybe you'll come back to something you abandoned later; maybe you won't. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if there are "dangling threads" from an earlier part of the campaign, because a fun, long-running campaign isn't a movie or a novel. It doesn't need to be dramatically coherent or well structured. It should be a rambling, chaotic mess that's constantly in flux. 
  5. Detachment: This one is mostly for the referee, though it has some applicability to the players too: don't get too attached to an idea. As the saying goes, ideas are cheap. Over the course of the last nine years, I've had lots and lots of ideas for the campaign – but my players have their own. Consequently, the campaign is strewn with adventure hooks, rumors, and NPC patrons that I thought would serve to propel the campaign forward and that were never seized upon for one reason or another. Rather than trying to find some way to foist them on the players, I've come up with new ones that the players did seize upon. I doubt the campaign would have lasted this long, had I been hung up on my precious ideas rather than continuing to come up with new ones (or variations on old ones – I can be tricky that way).
Obviously, there's no single road map to maintaining a successful long-term campaign, but all of the points above have proven instrumental during the last nine years I've refereed House of Worms. I hope considering them might be of use to you as well.

Retrospective: Time of the Dragon

When I first started writing these Retrospective posts, I set myself some broad historical parameters, in order to pare down the absolutely immense number of potential games and gaming products about which I could write. Those parameters were (very roughly) the first decade of the RPG hobby, meaning the years 1974–1984, which maps pretty closely to what I've previously called the Golden Age of Dungeons & Dragons. Like all such parameters, mine was somewhat (though not entirely) arbitrary and, over the years, I've deviated from it when I felt there was a worthy product whose publication date fell outside that range of years. 

For the most part, though, I've stuck to my original framework, if only out of habit and some degree of stubbornness. However, a conversation with a very old friend of mine reminded me that the early years of 1990s were more than thirty years ago. Likewise, the first non-TSR edition of D&D was released just shy of a quarter-century ago, making it almost as old today as OD&D was at the time 3e was published. Shocking though these reminders were to my increasingly aged self, the served a valuable purpose in giving me some additional perspective on the history of the hobby. 2024, after all, marks the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and I'm still focusing very narrowly on a small sliver of that half-century. Perhaps it was time to expand Grognardia's gaze a little further into the future past – to the end of TSR's existence, at least.

And what better way to kick off the expanded coverage of the Retrospective series than a post about my favorite Dragonlance product, 1989's Time of the Dragon? Yes, you read that right: my favorite Dragonlance product. I know that I am well known as a Dragonlance hater, but the truth is that my feelings toward the setting and line of AD&D products is rather more nuanced than simple hatred. I don't actually hate Dragonlance itself so much as what its popularity and success did to the subsequent direction of Dungeons & Dragons, nudging it down the road toward whatever it is that it's become in recent decades. 

Time of the Dragon is the brainchild of none other than David "Zeb" Cook, which may explain why I've always had such an affection for it. It's also one of those glorious boxed sets that TSR produced in large numbers during the 2e era, something no one else in the hobby (with the possible exception of the Chaosium of old) has ever done as well. Consisting of two books – the 112-page Guide Book to Taladas and the 48-page Rule Book of Taladas, along with 24 full-color cardstock sheets and 4 poster maps – Time of the Dragon presents for the first time another continent of Krynn, the aforementioned Taladas. Like the more familiar Ansalon, Taladas suffered from the events of the Cataclysm, when a single huge meteor fell from the sky and nearly sundered the continent. However, Taladas has its own unique races, cultures, and history, not to mention relationship with the gods that set it apart from Ansalon.

That's a big part of why I retain an affection for Time of the Dragon. Whereas Ansalon and the modules focusing on the War of the Lance have a faux-Tolkien-meets-Ren-Faire vibe to them, Taladas is a darker, harsher place, owing in part to how it experienced the Cataclysm. The meteor strike caused massive terrain-altering earthquakes, resulting in lava flows and volcanic eruptions that blackened the skies. Survival in this environment required hard decisions by the peoples and societies of Taladas, making it a crueler, more pragmatic and occasionally xenophobic place. In some respects, Taladas anticipates many aspects of the later Dark Sun setting, though admittedly lacking in the more sword-and-planet feel of the latter.

Consequently, Taladas feels very different from Ansalon, almost to the point of feeling as if the continent were not located on Krynn. Its peoples and societies deviate from the standard assumptions of both AD&D and Dragonlance. For example, the majority of the elves of Taladas have a nomadic, horse-based culture quite unlike those of Ansalon, while a minority of the race are reclusive tricksters who steal human babies to replenish their own sickly stock. Similarly, the dwarves of Taladas do not dwell underground and, in fact, have a fear of subterranean locales. Kender – much disliked in many gaming circles – barely exist in Taladas and those who do lack the carefree attitudes of their Ansalon cousins. Taladas is also home to numerous new playable races, like goblins, ogres, lizard men, and minotaurs, the latter of which rule a Roman-inspired empire. Combined with several distinct human cultures, likewise inspired by historical antecedents, Taladas would never be mistaken for Ansalon.

Time of the Dragon is also notable for its various rules changes and alterations to 2e. The one I remember most are its kits, an innovation most AD&D players would probably associate with the interminable The Complete X Handbook series, but which, so far as I recall, debuted in this boxed set. At any rate, it's the first place I encountered the idea of kits and I was immediately taken with them. For those unfamiliar with them, a kit is a set of small tweaks to a standard character class to reflect the idiosyncrasies of a particular race and/or culture. For example, there's a kit for the horse-riding bowmen of the Uigan culture and another for the gnomish Companions of the Dead, an elite group of fighters. What I think works about these kits, as compared to those that appeared later, is that they're all very specific and serve to ground the character that possesses one in the setting, which is something I find very agreeable.

I don't get the impression that Taladas was very well received by Dragonlance fans in general, though, as I recall, there were a handful of supplements produced to support it during the 2e era. If my assessment is correct, I can understand why that might have been the case. Aside from a few high-level connections to standard Krynn, such as the influence of the three moons over magic, Taladas might as well be its own unique setting. Even the signature draw of Dragonlance – the dragons – are downplayed and re-contextualized so that, if it weren't for the DL logo on the box, one might be hard pressed to recognize it as taking place on Krynn. That might also explain why I was (and am) so fond of Time of the Dragon: it's a fascinating experiment in building a distinct and unusual AD&D setting that doesn't quite fit into the usual array of building blocks, which is itself a feature of the entire 2e era of AD&D.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Dice for Accumulative Hits

Recently, an acquaintance of mine asked a question about original, pre-Greyhawk OD&D (1974) for which I had no immediate answer: how are hit points determined when a character gains a level? That may seem like a very simple question, but consider the following chart from Men & Magic:

If you look at the second column, you'll see there's an uneven progression of "dice for accumulative hits" – 1+1, 2, 3, 4, 5+1, etc. Though the chart above is for the fighting man, both the magic-user and cleric charts are quite similar in this regard, which is why I was asked the question about how hit points are determined upon gaining a level.

If the player of a first-level fighting man rolls 1d6+1 to determine his character's hit points, what does he do when his character acquires the 2000 experience points necessary to gain level 2? How many dice does he roll and add to the total? OD&D's rules are not especially clear on this point, as we can see:

The example in the text is rather unhelpful as it does not describe the process of rolling additional hit points upon gaining a level. Instead, it simply presents how to roll the hit points of Level 8 fighting man divorced from any other context. 

Empire of the Petal Throne was first published in 1975 and its rules are clearly a variant of pre-Greyhawk OD&D. Consequently, when I have some question about how the rules of OD&D are to be interpreted, I often take a look at EPT. There's no guarantee that EPT's presentation is necessarily representative of the original intention (if any) of OD&D's rules, but, if nothing else, they usually offer some insight into how one person chose to interpret those rules, which is better than nothing. 

In this case, EPT suggests that, upon gaining a level, the player rolls the number of dice prescribed by the rules and totals the result. If the total is higher than his character's previous hit point total, the new total is used. If it's lower, then the previous total is retained. This approach makes a lot of sense to me, since, among other things, it helps to ameliorate bad rolls for hit points over time (provided the character survives, of course). It also provides a simple way to deal with the uneven progression of hit dice. Whether this approach is what was intended in OD&D, I simply have no idea.

Of course, it's possible I'm simply missing something very obvious or that this topic has been well explained elsewhere. If so, I'd love to be corrected, since it's a question that really stumped me when I was asked about it. Back when I was playing OD&D in my Dwimmermount campaign, I had already come under the sway of the EPT interpretation and made ready use of it. Later, we adopted Greyhawk's one additional hit die per level approach, so I never had to grapple with this area of ambiguity. 

Thinking about it now, I can't help but assume it's a topic that's been examined thoroughly by better exegetes than myself, but perhaps not. Please let me know what, if anything, I've been missing in the comments.

Polyhedron: Issue #18

Serendipity is a funny thing. No sooner did I mention my childhood affection for Spider-Man than I find that issue #18 of Polyhedron (July 1984) features everyone's favorite web-slinger facing off against the Scorpion on its cover. This only makes sense, of course, since TSR's Marvel Super Heroes debuted around this time and was a big hit for the company. In fairly short order, it seemed as if there were nearly as many adventures being released for MSH as there were for Dungeons & Dragons, though my memory might well be faulty.

Spidey and the Scorpion form the basis for this issue's "Encounters" article, written by none other than Jeff Grubb, the designer of Marvel Super Heroes. Like all previous "Encounters" articles, this one is brief, but Grubb nevertheless makes the most of the limited space, presenting a scenario in which Spider-Man must rescue J. Jonah Jameson from a subway car that's been commandeered by Scorpion. It's straightforward and simple but does a good job, I think, of presenting the kind of situation in which the Web-head often found himself.

James M. Ward's "Cryptic Alliance of the Bi-Month" focuses on the mutant mirror image of the Knights of Genetic Purity, the Iron Society. Also known as the Mutationists, the Iron Society seeks to rid the post-apocalyptic Earth of all non-mutated life, with pure strain humans being the primary target of their ire. Needless to say, this makes the Society an object of fear in Gamma World and I always felt that they'd be used primarily as antagonists in most campaigns. Compared to the Knights, who might excellent villains in my opinion, the Iron Society somehow feels a bit more one-note and the article does little to change my mind on this, alas.

"Remarkable, Incredible, Amazing" by Steve Winter. As you might guess from its title, it's an overview of the then-newly released Marvel Super Heroes RPG. It's basically an advertisement intended to entice gamers into buying TSR's latest product and, in that respect, it does a fair job. Much more interesting is Roger E. Moore's "Kobolds and Robots and Mutants with Wings." Over the course of three pages. Moore talks first about the joys of "hybrid" games that mix and match rules and setting elements, something that even the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide discusses briefly. He then moves on to talk about various hybrid games he's run, such as when AD&D adventurers made use of a well of many worlds to travel to the universe of Bunnies & Burrows to fight rats in thrall with agents of the Cthulhu Mythos. Finally, he presents a lengthy discussion of kobalts – kobolds who traveled to Gamma World's setting, were mutated by radiation, and then bred true as a distinct species. Moore stats them up for both GW and AD&D and presents lots of information on how they could be used in both games. As I said, it's a very interesting article and a reminder of just how imaginative a writer Moore was.

"The Magic-User" by James M. Ward presents yet another "archetypical" [sic] example of a Dungeons & Dragons class, including her personality, skills, possessions, and holdings. In this case, that's Delsenora, an older woman who uses potions of longevity to retain her youth, who has a particular hatred for powerful undead, like vampires and liches. She also has a passion for flying through the use of magic. Consequently, she's built her castle high in the mountains, in a place otherwise inaccessible to those without flight. Appended to the end of Delsenora's description are two more magic-users, one by Ward (named Lidabmob – Bombadil spelled backwards) and another by Susan Lawson, presumably a RPGA member.

"Two Cents" by Joseph Wichman is a rambling opinion piece in which the author, another RPGA member, covers a number of vaguely related topics under the header of "roleplaying." He begins by arguing, contra the "Two Cents" column in issue #14, that roleplaying is not the same as acting and that any referee who expects his players to immerse themselves deeply in their roles is being unreasonable. He also touches on "troublesome" players, evil characters, and player vs character knowledge – all perennial topics in the gaming magazines of my youth. While I don't disagree with anything the author writes here, the article is somewhat frustrating to read, since it bounces around from one subject to the next.

"Layover at Lossend" by Russ Horn, yet another RPGA member, is a short Star Frontiers scenario set on the titular planet of Lossend. The format of the single-page scenario reminds me a bit of the "Encounters" feature, in that it includes of player characters to be used in conjunction with it. The adventure itself isn't particularly worthy of comment, since it's very short and sketchy, leaving most details to the referee to work out. What is interesting is that Horn refers to the referee – the official term for the Game Master in the game – as "the DM."  This is obviously just a small slip-up, both on the part of the writer and the Polyhedron editorial staff. However, I think points to the extent to which the terminology of Dungeons & Dragons had become the defaults in RPG discussions, even discussions about other games.

"Money Makes the World Go Round" by Art Dutra – again, an RPGA member – is a thoughtful little piece about the role of money and treasure in an ongoing D&D campaign. Dutra's focus is primarily from the side of the referee, highlighting the ways that money can be used to both motivate and impede player characters. He points out all the costs that PCs can incur during a campaign, especially those that are overlooked, like training and converting gems into coins, among many others. Dutra is absolutely correct, in my opinion, that referees often fail to take into account the, if you'll forgive the pun, value of money as a driver of a campaign. My only criticism is that focusing on taxes, exchanges rates, hidden costs, and other expenses can very quickly become tedious, or at least that's been my experience. Finding a way to keep money in mind without degenerating into an exercise in bookkeeping would be truly worthwhile topic for an article or essay.

Speaking of tedious, this issue's "Dispel Confusion" is largely filled with very persnickety rules questions of the sort that bore to tears. Whether because of laziness or a lack of intelligence, I've always been much more of a rulings guy rather than a rules guy, so this stuff frequently baffles me. I'm especially baffled by questions that begin "Can I ...?" as if the sender felt he needed TSR's permission to introduce something into his own campaign. I suppose these are the inevitable fruits of the company's attempts to maintain tight control over all of its games and to discourage its customers from buying or making use of "inferior" supplementary materials.

Issue #18 of Polyhedron shows the continued evolution of the 'zine. Perhaps the biggest change is the inclusion of many more articles submitted by RPGA members. That's a welcome change, though the quality of those submissions seems to vary quite a bit. Over time, I suspect that, too, will change, but, for the moment, it gives the issue a much more uneven feel than some of its immediate predecessors. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing what future issues have in store. 

Monday, March 18, 2024

The Waydreland Mermaid

One of the things about this blog that continues to give me joy are the people I meet through it. Recently, I was contacted by artist Alan Howcroft as a result of my blog post about issue #31 of White Dwarf. Alan provided the issue with its evocative cover painting. Forty years after the cover first appeared, he put together an animated sequence featuring it, which you can see below.

Alan also told me that the animation shows more of the painting than was possible on the original White Dwarf cover. In addition, the animation corrects some color inaccuracies found in the print version, so, if you watch the video above, you're seeing the painting in its entirety, just as the artist intended it.