Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #24

Issue #24 of Polyhedron (July 1985), with its cover illustration by Roger Raupp, is another one I remember very clearly from my youth – and the cover is a big part of the reason why. When I first saw this odd collection of characters, I honestly had no idea what I was looking at. Were they supposed to be orcs or half-orcs or something else entirely? As I turned out, my guess wasn't far from the truth, but that initial perplexity compelled me to read the issue with great interest. Nearly forty years later, I still remember it.

"Notes from HQ" can be quickly dispensed with, since most of it concerns RPGA matters of little lasting interest. The main thing worth discussing is a note indicating that, in response to pleas from the editor in previous issues, there have been a number of submissions from RPGA members. Indeed, Penny Petticord states that "we have not rejected a single article." She quickly adds, though, that submissions are still very few in number and that "only a fraction of the so-called active membership has contributed." At the time there were supposedly "over 8000" RPGA members worldwide, so I can sympathize with Petticord's lament about the small number of submissions. 

"Letters" is quite interesting this issue. First, there's a letter in which a reader complains about the heavy D&D focus of Polyhedron, as well as the lack of support for Marvel Super Heroes. In response to the first part, the editors explain that Polyhedron can only publish those articles that are submitted to it, so, if anyone wants to see more non-D&D content, they'll need to make it happen themselves. As I think I said before, I wish I'd paid more attention to this sort of stuff when I was a subscriber, because I probably would have had better luck getting published in Polyhedron than I ever did in Dragon. In answer to the second part, the editors point out that, because MSH is a licensed game, Marvel itself must review and approve everything it publishes for the game. This makes it harder for any writer, especially those outside the TSR staff, to produce new articles to support it. Also among the letters published are a couple discussing the bad publicity Dungeons & Dragons is getting in their area, a consequence of the ongoing Satanic Panic. If I hadn't lived through those times, I'd hardly believed such things happened!

"Secrets of Success" by Steve Null offers tips on playing in RPGA tournaments. Never having participated in RPGA events, I must say I only briefly skimmed this article and saw nothing worthy of comment here. "Unofficial New Magic-User Spells" by Jon Pickens continues what he began in issue #22. The selection of new spells continues to focus replicating the effects of AD&D magic items, which is fine, but I'd have liked a little more variety myself. More notable, I feel, is that, like its predecessor, it includes the word "unofficial" in its title – a reminder that nothing that appears in Polyhedron carries the official TSR seal of approval. 

Part I of Frank Mentzer's AD&D adventure, "Needle," appears in this issue. Designed for characters of levels 8–10, this is another tournament adventure offered for the delectation of readers of Polyhedron, like most of the adventures published in its pages previously. The adventure concerns an expedition to locate and examine a powerful magic item – the titular Needle – that is found in a ruined city located in a far-off land. The characters are all members of an adventuring guild called SMART, which stands for Syndicate of Master Adventurers for the Recovery of Treasure. All the pregenerated characters have what I assume (hope?) are merely nicknames, like Slim, Smiley, Blondy, and Blaze. To be honest, I found this nomenclature detracted from my enjoyment of scenario, which is otherwise decent, filled with lots of challenges and puzzles. Maybe it's just me, but I prefer a slightly more serious tone when it comes to things like names.

Errol Farstad's "How Reviews are Done" is an overview of how RPGs and RPG products will be reviewed in Polyhedron, since such reviews are a new future in the newszine. All games are given a Difficulty rating from 1 to 4, with 1 being the easiest to learn for a newcomer and 4 being the hardest. Then, the product is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 in three other categories: Packaging, Rules and Explanations, and Miscellaneous. Taken together, these four ratings contribute to its Overall score, rated from 0 to 4 Stars. With the explanations out of the way, Farstad reviews Star Trek the Role Playing Game, to which he gives an overall rating of 3 Stars out of a possible 4. He had some minor (and frankly nitpicky) complaints about the game, which did not detract from his otherwise very positive opinion of it. Being a big fan of the old FASA game, I could not disagree with his assessment.

"The Grond Family & Friends" by Roger E. Moore is the first installment in a new series called "The New Rogues Gallery." Like the book after which its named, this series is intended to present write-ups and illustrations of characters from people's home campaigns – basically "Let me tell you about my character(s)" in written form. The eponymous John Grond is a half-ogre and it's his friends and family whom Roger Raupp depicted on the cover of this issue. Half-ogres were briefly described as a possible player character race by Gary Gygax in issue #29 of Dragon (September 1979). Moore apparently liked the idea enough to adopt and adapt for his own use. The article presents six characters, ranging from Grond himself (a 16th-level fighter) to his wife (a 4th-level half-ogre cleric) and followers, like Boron the Moron, a full ogre of limited intelligence.

"Fletcher's Corner" by Michael Przytarski – and people say my name is hard to spell – is the start of a new column devoted to "solving the everyday problems faced by anyone who judges role playing games." In short, it's another referee's advice column. Consequently, I expect it'll be filled with lots of good insights and advice that will be genuinely useful to someone who's sitting behind the screen for the first time but rather dull to the veterans among us. That's OK: there are always newcomers in need of advice and that's good for the hobby. For his inaugural column, Przytarski takes up the topic of introducing new characters (and, by extension, new players) to a campaign. It's a good topic and his advice is solid, though nothing I haven't heard before (or come to understand through years of play). It'll be interesting to see what he tackles next and whether I find it useful.

Concluding the issue is "Dispel Confusion," with answers to questions about D&D, AD&D, and Marvel Super Heroes. Sadly, none of the questions piqued my interest, because they were all very banal. Most pertained to discrepancies between two sections of the rules or details that had been inadvertently left out of the text – in short, the kinds of rules questions about which you can't say very much else. Personally, I've always enjoyed questions that afford the responder to pontificate a little about a philosophy of play or game design, but that's just me. Maybe next issue!

Monday, April 29, 2024

REVIEW: How to Make a Fantasy Sandbox

There were two great obsessions at the dawn of the Old School Renaissance: megadungeons and sandboxes. Each was a distinctive element of many of the foundational roleplaying game campaigns of the 1970s, like Blackmoor, Greyhawk, and Tékumel. Their rediscovery and promotion are among the lasting impacts of the OSR – so much so that both massive dungeons and open-ended hexcrawls are now permanent fixtures of the even wider RPG scene. 

Of the two, I'd say that megadungeons are probably the better understood and more commonly used, thanks in no small part to the many examples of them now available in print. Furthermore, a megadungeon is, in many ways, just a scaled-up version of a dungeon and almost everyone who's ever played a fantasy RPG, whether tabletop or electronic, knows what a dungeon is like and how it's constructed. However, sandboxes are, in my experience, both less common and less well understood. There are no doubt many reasons for this, but a big one, I think, is they require more preparation beforehand by the referee and preparation of a less formulaic sort than what's employed when designing a dungeon, regardless of its size.

Fortunately for those of us who enjoy fantasy sandboxes – my ongoing House of Worms campaign, for example, is something of a sandbox – there are resources out there to aid in their creation. The very best of them has long been Rob Conley's twenty-four part series on "How to Make a Fantasy Sandbox," whose first post appeared in the far-off time of September 2009. It's a terrific collection of blog posts, filled with good ideas and wisdom drawn from years of refereeing sandbox campaigns. I long ago bookmarked many of the posts and refer to them often in my own work, such as designing the Eshkom District for Secrets of sha-Arthan. If you've never read these posts before, I highly recommend you do so.

An equally good – maybe better – option would be to purchase How to Make a Fantasy Sandbox, 180-page compilation of Conley's blog posts, rewritten and expanded with examples, maps, and artwork, available in PDF, softcover, or hardcover formats. In the book's introduction, Conley provides both a nice overview of what a sandbox campaign is and his own reasons for enjoying them:
One of my favorite things to do with Tabletop RPGs is to create interesting places with interesting situations and then let the players trash the setting in pursuit of adventure.

That certainly encapsulates much of the fun my players and I have had with my House of Worms campaign. He goes on:

My focus is not to create any type of narrative. Rather, I focus on helping my players experience living their characters' lives while adventuring. It's called a sandbox campaign because like in life, the players are free to do anything their characters can do within the campaign setting.

This wide-open world with unlimited choices can be very challenging as a Game Master/Referee. The key to dealing with this challenge is organization. A systematic approach is needed to break down the enormous task of dealing with an entire world. Organized into bite-size chunks that one can do in the time they have for a hobby.

Once again, I think Conley has done a fine job here of distilling the essence and unique pleasures of a sandbox campaign, while also recognizing that creating and maintaining such a campaign is not always easy, hence the need for a guide such as this one. 

With that out of the way, he first describes and then elaborates upon thirty-three distinct steps in the process of designing a fantasy sandbox, from creating the map to placing settlements and lairs to choosing a "home base" for a new campaign. It's all presented clearly and methodically, so that it's easy for even a neophyte to follow. Best of all, Conley includes lots of examples throughout, drawn from his own experience of making fantasy sandboxes. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that these examples are among my favorite parts of How to Make a Fantasy Sandbox. They not only serve as illustrations of design principles, but they also give some insight into Conley's own gaming past, which I found delightful and inspiring.

Throughout the text, the Isle of Pyade serves as the main example of how to implement the thirty-three steps to creating a fantasy sandbox setting. I found this very useful, because it's eminently practical and concrete rather than merely theoretical. If you follow the steps through, one by one, you'll see Pyade grow out of a blank hex map into a fully-fleshed out and complete location. Whether you're a novice or an old hand at this sort of thing, you'll learn a lot from the example of Pyade.

By the conclusion of How to Make a Fantasy Sandbox, the Isle of Pyade is now ready to use. However, many of its details – maps, NPCs, encounter tables, etc. – are scattered across its 180 pages, making it less suitable for use as a reference. Should you wish to make use of Pyade yourself, a better option might be the separate The Isle of Pyade book (available in electronic, softcover, and hardcover format), which takes all the relevant details and consolidates them in one place for greater coherence and ease of use. There's also some additional content in the form of artwork and color reproductions of the original maps Conley made in the late 1980s. If you're fan of RPG "archeology" as I am, this only adds to the value of The Isle of Pyade.

How to Make a Fantasy Sandbox is a very good book, one I am very happy to own and one I am certain I'll refer to and make use of in the years to come. In addition to all the thoughtful insights and clear instructions Conley provides, he "shows his work," which is to say, he lays bare how he works and why, right down to including very useful appendices of resources, hexmapping guidelines, travel and encounter rules, and information about the process behind creating Blackmarsh, his earlier published sandbox setting. Aside from some minor quibbles about editing, I have only praise to offer about this book. If you have even the slightest interest in creating and refereeing a sandbox campaign, consider picking up a copy. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Retrospective: Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms

I remember being very excited about the imminent release of the Oriental Adventures in 1985. Aside from the obvious reason – the introduction of playable ninja and samurai into Advanced D&D – I was quite keen to see "the Oriental lands of Oerth," as promised in the "Coming Attractions" section of Dragon #102. However, when OA was released in November of that year, there was no real evidence in that book that Kara-Tur, as its setting was called, had any connection whatsoever to the World of Greyhawk. This fact was further demonstrated when the first adventure module for use with Oriental Adventures, Swords of the Daimyo, came out the next year. Though it included a gazetteer of part of the land of Kozakura, there was once again no evidence that it had any connection to Gary Gygax's campaign setting.

None of this really mattered, of course. Though I was a big fan of the World of Greyhawk, the connection (or not) between it and Kara-Tur had no impact whatsoever on my ability to use the rules of OA or my enjoyment of Kara-Tur. Even so, when TSR finally got around to releasing a boxed dedicated to detailing this vast continent and its peoples, I was more than a little baffled to see it had suddenly – and definitively – been placed in the Forgotten Realms setting. In retrospect, this made sense. In the aftermath of Gygax's ouster from the company, TSR had turned the Realms into the setting for AD&D. Everything that could be (and quite a few things that couldn't) were jammed into Ed Greenwood's brainchild, often to its detriment. 

That didn't stop me from buying it, of course. Even in 1988, I was still very much a fanboy of TSR. Plus, I have always been something of a collector of campaign settings. Consequently, there was pretty much no chance that I wouldn't buy Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms when it was released. Furthermore, it truly was an impressive product, consisting of two 96-page books and four double-sided, color maps of the region, all for $15 (about $40 in today's debased currency) – a steal! In addition, the books were amply illustrated by the late, great Jim Holloway, along with cover art by Jeff Easley. All in all, a terrific package and I'd have been foolish not to have picked it up.

The two integral books are unusual in that they're essentially a single book split into two volumes, right down to sharing page numbers. Volume I covers the lands of Shou Lung and T'u Lung – analogs of China during centralized and Warring States periods respectively – as well as Tabot (Tibet – ugh!), the Plain of Horses (Mongolia), and the Northern Wastes (Siberia). Volume II covers the lands of Wa and Kozakura – analogs of Japan during the Edo and Sengoku periods respectively – along with Koryo (Korea – ugh!), the Jungle Lands (Indochina), and the Island Kingdoms (Indonesia and the Philippines). It's an impressive amount of material, covering nearly every aspect of these lands that you can imagine, from geography and history to religion and politics. In addition, each realm gets NPCs, monsters, adventure ideas, and sometimes even new spells and magic items. 

What's interesting is that Kara-Tur has no single author. Instead, different authors cover different lands, with the whole thing "coordinated" by David Cook, primary author of Oriental Adventures. The authors are a diverse bunch of people, most of whom were not employees of TSR at the time: Jay Batista, Deborah Christian, John Nephew, Michael Pondsmith, and Rick Swan. I'm not sure how common such a practice would have been at the time, but it strikes me as unusual, at least compared to many similar projects, which were usually the work of a single author. Consequently, Kara-Tur has a somewhat uneven feel to it, as if each author had a slightly different vision of what he had in mind while writing. 

This unevenness comes through most clearly when you look at certain lands, whose histories, societies, cultures, and names(!) are lifted almost entirely from the real world, while others are a bit more fantastical. That's probably my biggest problem with Kara-Tur as a setting: it leans to heavily on the real world, particularly when compared to the larger Forgotten Realms, which is largely unmoored from any specific real world inspirations. Some of that, I suspect, has to do with the relative unfamiliarity of Asian history – and fantasy – in late 1980s America. It was probably much easier to look to the real world, file the serial numbers off, add some wizards, and be done with it. Unfortunately, the results are often quite mediocre, not to mention at odds with the overall tenor and feel of the Realms of which Kara-Tur was supposed to be the eastern half. 

It's for this reason that, while I proudly bought and owned Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms, I never really liked it. Compared to many of TSR's other campaign settings, this one seemed to me to be lacking in imagination. That's a great shame, because I feel like the cultures of Asia offer great fodder for the fantasy roleplaying games. Maybe that was a goal that was more difficult to realize almost four decades ago than it would be today, I don't know. Regardless, Kara-Tur falls well far of the mark of what I would have liked back in the day and even more so now. Alas!

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Coming Retractions ...

Speaking of weird little games, I stumbled across this in issue #101 of Dragon (September 1985):

This appeared at the end of the issue's "Coming Attractions" feature, which announced upcoming TSR game product releases. I've talked about Proton Fire on this blog a couple of times previously. In the first of those two posts, former TSR employee Steve Winter provides some additional context in the comments that's well worth checking out. 

Probably because it was a science fiction RPG and science fiction is my genre of choice, I've long had a mild obsession with Proton Fire, the game that never was. Knowing that it did, in fact, exist in some form, but was never put into publishable form only feeds my desire to know more about it. Alas, I suspect this is a desire that shall never be sated!

Polyhedron: Issue #23

April Fool's issues were a staple of my youth, but they're very difficult to pull off. Partly, that's because humor can be very subjective and, partly, that's because most attempts at humor, especially in writing, are simply not very good. Consequently, I greeted the arrival of issue #23 of Polyhedron (April 1985) with some trepidation, despite its delightful cover by Tom Wham (take note of the bolotomus and snits in the bottom lefthand corner). However, I'm happy to say that this particular April Fool's Day issue is (mostly) pretty good. In fact, there are a couple of articles that I still find rather amusing even now – not laugh-out-loud funny, but intellectually droll, if that distinction means anything.

The issue begins with another installment of "News from HQ" that explains the nature of this issue: 

If this is your first issue of the POLYHEDRON Newszine, I'd like to take this opportunity to welcome you to the RPGA Network, and let you in on the gag. Five out of the six issues you will receive with each year of membership will bring you club news, informative articles on your favorite game systems, and a chance to make a serious contribution to the hobby by sharing your ideas with other members. This is not one of those five.
That's the kind of humor I'm talking about. The editorial goes on to explain that this issue was "conceived in madness and dedicated to the proposition that there is room for levity in gaming." I wholeheartedly agree, as anyone who's ever played in one of my campaigns will tell you. Yes, even the ones occasionally featuring unpleasant stuff. Games are supposed to be fun, after all, and it's important not to lose sight of that.

Much less funny is "An Official Policy Statement," whose entire shtick is using $64 words to say silly things about, in this case, "the sex lives of monsters." As I said above, humor writing isn't easy.

Fortunately, Gary Gygax gifts us with "Ultimists," a new character class for AD&D. Described as "fighting wizard-priests," Ultimists combine the abilities of clerics, magic-users, and monks. While their ability scores are rolled using only 3d6, the result of that roll is made by recourse to a chart, with most rolls resulting in scores of 15 or higher. This section of the class description pokes fun, as Gygax makes clear, those "enthusiasts" who objected to his system for rolling up the abilities of the then-new barbarian class. Ultimists also make use of spell points, because "memorizing spells is tedious, and the selection requires reasoning and intelligence applied to the game." Ouch. I can't really blame Gygax for using the article as an opportunity to vent about critics of AD&D. I imagine he was quite fed up with them by this point in his life.

"Why Gargoyles Don't Have Wings (But Should) (An Alternative Viewpoint) by David Collins is an attempt to explain away Gary Gygax's concerns about the illustration of the gargoyle in the Monster Manual through a variety of vaguely humorous means. It's fine for what it is, but nothing special. A bit more interesting is Skip Williams's "The Lighter Side of Encounters" in which he presents a couple of humorous encounters from Frank Mentzer's Aquaria campaign as a way of demonstrating how humor sometimes finds its way into otherwise "serious" RPG campaigns. The encounters are all based on things that actually happened in Menzter's campaign, which is fascinating in its own right. Speaking of Mentzer – or, rather, Knarf Reztnem – his "Punishments to Fit the Crime" offer a pair of humorous stories whose conclusions depend on puns. They're basically Dad jokes in written form. Make of that what you will.

Frank Mentzer reappears with "New Magic Items," which offers up some fun (and funny) magic items from his Aquaria campaign, like the canister of condiments and the sweet tooth. Then, he reappears yet again – the man was a machine back in the day – with "Excerpts from the Book of Mischievous Magic," a spoof of his The Book of Marvelous Magic. This second article many amusing magical items like the awl of the above, cool hand lute, stocking of elf summoning, and practical yoke. It's all very silly, of course, but done with some real cleverness and an understanding that a good joke magic item isn't just a joke, but should also have some potential utility in a game. Mentzer clearly understood this.

Part 2 of David Cook's "In the Black Hours" AD&D adventure (Part 1 appeared in the previous issue) is the sole piece of "serious" material in the entire issue and thus feels very much out of place. Like its predecessor, it looks fun, reminding me a bit of something in which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or Conan, while working as a thief, might have become involved. "Dungeonsongs" is back to form, with a trio of humorous, RPG-themed songs set to well-known tunes, like "I'll Be a Wererat in the Morning" and "Green Slime." "Dispel Confusion" answers numerous important questions for D&D, AD&D, and Top Secret, like this one:
Bruce Heard pens "Zee Chef," another new character class for use with AD&D. A chef is designed specifically for NPCs "devoted to the culinary arts and learning more about native delicacies." It's a spellcasting class, with a host of new spells, including my favorite, edible glamour. Concluding the issue is "The Male of the Species" by – you guessed it – Frank Mentzer, which describes "emezons," the male counterparts to the amazons presented by Gary Gygax in issue #22. Some emezons are members of the new chef NPC class, while others are "exceptionally skilled at child raising, interior decorating, and hair styling." Hey, it was a different time.

All in all, not bad. Even someone as humor-impaired as myself chuckled a couple of times, which is quite a feat in itself. I'd still rather have had a "normal" issue of Polyhedron, but I can't deny the staff did a good job with their assignment. Well done!

Monday, April 22, 2024

Witch Hunt

Does anyone else remember this game? And, by "remember," I mean remember its advertisements from Dragon magazine?

I've looked into it and apparently, unlike other games I also saw advertised around the same time, Witch Hunt was actually released in 1983, along with an adventure module for it the following year. I've never seen it, but that's not unique to Witch Hunt. There are quite a lot of RPGs from the 1980s that whose existence I know only through advertisements. 

At the moment, the barriers to creating and selling a new roleplaying game on some niche subject are lower than they've ever been. Back in 1983, putting together and selling even a slapdash RPG involved a significant outlay of time, effort, and money. That's why there were so comparatively few in number and nearly everyone I knew in my youth all played games selected from a fairly small constellation of games. It's also why I find myself strangely fascinated by the few weird little games like Witch Hunt that somehow made it to print and sale. Clearly, it didn't do very well or else we'd all likely remember it from more than its advertising, but I nevertheless have respect for its creators for having been willing to take a chance on bringing their dream project to fruition. 

What is Roleplaying? (Part II)

During the Grognardia drinking game, I suspect my readers have thrown back a few whenever the 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set edited by J. Eric Holmes is mentioned. Because it was my introduction to the hobby, I still have a special affection for it over all the other D&D products I've bought over the years. Looking back on it now, one of the more notable things about its rulebook is that it doesn't include an explicit section in which Holmes explains the nature of a roleplaying game. In fact, the word "roleplaying" (or "role playing") only appears in its text three times, one of them being on the title page. 

To some extent, this is understandable, since the Holmes rulebook hews very closely to the text of the original 1974 little brown books, where the word "roleplaying" does not (I think) appear at all. Aside from the aforementioned title page, the two other places where the word appears are the preface (by an unknown author) and the introduction (presumably by Holmes). Here's the relevant section of the preface:

That's pretty simple and straightforward. It also makes sense, given that, even in 1977, when this rulebook was first published, the concept of a roleplaying game was still a very new one, especially outside those already involved in the hobby. For a basic rulebook, one might well expect it to "introduc[e] the reader to the concepts of fantasy role playing." The introduction, meanwhile, simply calls Dungeons & Dragons as "a fantastic, exciting and imaginative game of role playing" before launching into an extended description of its play:
It's not a bad description, but it's all a bit abstract in my opinion, particularly if you have no prior knowledge of what the actual play of the game might look like. I know that my friends and I were initially quite baffled by the nature of roleplaying, taking it to be closer to a strange new type of boardgame. Remember that we came to Dungeons & Dragons through Dungeon!, so I hope we can be forgiven our misapprehension. Furthermore, the title page of the Basic rulebook contains the following subtitle, which recalls the subtitle of the Little Brown Books: "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Role Playing Adventure Game Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures."

The section of the Holmes rulebook entitled "Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art" does include an example of play that features a dialog between the referee and the party's caller. This goes some way toward elucidating the practical details of roleplaying, but it's still not very explicit about the subject. The AD&D Players Handbook is even less helpful in this regard, lacking even an example of play (though a very lengthy one does appear in the Dungeon Masters Guide). The 1981 version of Basic D&D, written by Tom Moldvay, contains what is probably the most famous example of play in the history of D&D, but its treatment of roleplaying as an activity is still quite vague in my opinion and, in any case, we started playing before that version of the game was published.

When my friends and I eventually came to understand what roleplaying was, it was no thanks to any rulebook we had read. Instead, our knowledge was imparted to us by a friend's older brother, who'd been playing D&D for a couple of years beforehand. Once we finally got it, it was very easy to look back at Holmes and see what he was attempting to explain, however unclearly. I suspect our experience was not unique. Unlike, say, the 1983 Frank Mentzer-penned version of the Basic Rulebook, which does an excellent job, in my opinion, of explaining the nature of a roleplaying game, I find it almost impossible to imagine anyone picking up Holmes and then being able to start playing without any confusion or need for clarification from someone who already knew how to roleplay. I say this as someone with great affection for the Holmes Basic Set.

Nowadays, I think it's much more common for RPGs to include explicit "what is roleplaying?" sections and examples of play. Even so, I can't help but wonder whether they're any more useful to people than were the sections with which my friends and I had to contend in our youth. Of course, the concept of roleplaying is now much more widely understood, with many popular computer and video games making use of the concept. This fact might make such sections almost superfluous in the 21st century. Nevertheless, I find myself wondering about it as I continue to work on Secrets of sha-Arthan. Is there still a need for a lengthy description of roleplaying in a contemporary RPG or is the need for it a thing of the past? This is something I've wondered about before, but enough time has passed since then that I'd curious to hear what readers have to think about the topic in 2024.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Small is Beautiful

Like a lot of gamers, I've long had a bad case of cartophilia. Truth be told, my love of maps predates my involvement in the hobby of roleplaying. From a very young age, I would pluck atlases off the shelves and then spend hours staring at the maps within. I was especially fond of historical atlases, since I enjoyed seeing the way borders changed and countries grew and shrank according to the fortunes of war and other events. 

Once I became a player of Dungeons & Dragons, I naturally gravitated toward paying even closer attention to maps of the Middle Ages. What I noticed is that, during many periods of medieval history, many parts of Europe were divided into a crazy quilt of petty kingdoms and principalities. This isn't news to anyone with even a little knowledge of history, but it was positively revelatory to me at the age of ten. Growing up in a world of superpowers and large nation-states, this was contrary to my own sense of what the world was like or indeed could be.

In recent years, I've found myself thinking more about those maps of the Middle Ages, especially as I further develop the setting of Secrets of sha-Arthan. For example, the Empire of Inba Iro is actually made up of twenty districts, each of which is ruled by its own king, who, in turns, swears fealty to the King-Emperor of da-Imer. I've taken one of these districts, the Eshkom District, and fleshed it out for use as the starting area for new campaigns. The district is actually quite small – about 60 miles east to west and 45 miles north to south – because I think that's more than large enough to contain more than enough opportunities for adventure without overwhelming a referee new to the setting.

Over the years, I've drawn a lot of setting maps and I've fallen prey to the urge to "go big." I suppose that comes from having looked with awe at the maps of Middle-earth one too many times as a kid. There's something undeniably appealing about a huge map covered in evocative and mysterious names. Such maps seem ripe with possibilities. However, as I've gotten older, I've come to feel that, lovely though they are to look at, big maps rarely get used to their full potential. More often than not, they wind up being akin to those world maps in the Indiana Jones movies, marking only a handful of places the characters pass through on their way to the site of their next adventure. 

Nowadays, I'd much rather the characters spend more time in a smaller area, getting to know it better than they ever could if they were constantly flitting about from one end of a big map to the other. My Twilight: 2000 campaign, for example, has spent the last two and a half years of play within a fairly small part of Poland. Likewise, the Traveller campaign in which I'm playing has taken place entirely within a couple of subsectors in the Crucis Margin sector. This has helped to give it a "cozy" feel that I've come to enjoy. Rather than simply being a huge swath of Charted Space comprised of hundreds of planets, each one indistinguishable from the last, Crucis Margin feels like a distinct place, with its own unique feel. I think that can be important to the success of a campaign.

What's your experience with smaller campaign areas? Do you like them? How do they compare to larger areas in terms of contributing to player attachment to a setting? I'm quite curious about this, because, looking at the RPG settings that have been sold over the years, most of them seem to lean more toward the large and I wonder whether this has influenced the preferences of gamers. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

At Arm's Length

Though I write most often about my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign – understandable, I suppose, because of its longevity – it's not the only RPG I'm currently refereeing. Another is the Barrett's Raiders Twilight: 2000 campaign that began in December 2021. Though quite different in many ways, I realized the other day that there's actually one significant point of overlap between House of Worms and Barrett's Raiders: they both occasionally feature some unpleasant realities. In the case of House of Worms, those realities include slavery, torture, and human sacrifice, while in Barrett's Raiders they include all the usual horrors of modern warfare (not to mention the unique horrors of nuclear warfare). 

I've sometimes been asked about how I handle such things in my campaigns, particularly those in House of Worms. Even before the recent unpleasantness, Tékumel long had a reputation – somewhat undeserved in my opinion – for being a particularly brutal setting that included lots of aspects of pre-modern societies that, while perhaps "realistic," are usually glossed over, if not outright excluded from games like Dungeons & Dragons. The same, too, could be said of almost every RPGs whose setting is a time of war or strife, whether that setting be pre-modern, modern, or futuristic. How does one referee a campaign that contains such dark elements?

As with most aspects of my refereeing, I don't have any systematic answers, only anecdotes and examples. However, looking back over what I have done does, I think, provide something approximating an overarching philosophy that might be of use to others referees whose campaigns deal with such things. For example, let's look at a ubiquitous and indeed foundational aspect of most of the cultures of Tékumel: slavery. Abhorrent though it is, slavery is commonplace throughout history. Indeed, there's scarcely a human society that hasn't practiced slavery at one time or another. Though a fantasy setting, Tékumel draws on several real-world cultures for inspiration, like ancient Egypt, the Aztecs, and Mughal India, all of which practiced slavery, hence its inclusion in Empire of the Petal Throne. 

The player characters of the House of Worms campaign are thus all members of a slaveholding culture and do not question the practice. Their clan owns slaves and at least a couple of PCs have had personal slaves who became important NPCs (though one was later manumitted and adopted into the clan). Despite this, slavery has never been important part of the campaign. It's part of the "furniture" of the setting, something that's undeniable there, but that we've never really dwelt upon, because the focus of the campaign has always been on adventure, usually out in the wilds, far from any Tekumeláni civilization. 

Similarly, the major cultures of Tékumel all approve of human sacrifice to varying degrees, as have many cultures on Earth. The god most of the characters worship, Sárku, accepts such sacrifices as part of his rituals and so priestly characters have occasionally been involved in them, too. The same is true of the torture of prisoners, which is seen as a legitimate form of interrogation in Tsolyánu and elsewhere. So, again, these deeply repugnant elements of the setting have appeared from time to time, but they've never been its focus. When they have appeared, such as during attempts to invoke divine intervention (for which there are rules), we'd simply acknowledge it and move on – the equivalent perhaps of the cinematic "fade to black" of old. 

I could cite plenty more examples from both House of Worms and Barrett's Raiders, but I trust that's not necessary. What I have come to realize is that, unless it's absolutely relevant, I don't spend a lot of time going over the finer details of all the unpleasant things that happen in my games. This includes combat, by the way, which, as players of many old school RPGs know, is generally very abstract. Now, there are indeed times when the precise nature of a horrible injury is relevant – this has come up several times in the Twilight: 2000 campaign – and, in such cases, I don't shy away from the gory details. However, as a general practice, I avoid doing so, because my games are meant to fun escapes rather than luxuriating in the darker corners of the human soul.

I offer my experiences not as a universal prescription. Each referee and player will draw his lines in different places and that's as it should be. I personally feel that there's generally nothing wrong with including unpleasant realities in one's roleplaying so long as everyone's on the same page in this regard. I don't fault anyone who wants to keep his games "family friendly," but neither do I condemn anyone who wants to venture farther into the shadows. One of the things that's great about roleplaying is that it's a flexible enough entertainment that it can accommodate both approaches – and more besides – without any difficulty. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Retrospective: Cyberpunk

As I've explained before, I hadn't read many of the books in Appendix N of Gary Gygax's AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide before I first picked up that book in 1980. In fact, Appendix N (and the list of "Inspirational Source Material" that appeared in Tom Moldvay's D&D Basic Rulebook) played a role in introducing me to a wider world of fantasy and science fiction literature. Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu played a similar role, pointing me in the direction not just of Lovecraft but writers like Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and others with whom I might otherwise not have been familiar. This is part of why I'm such a proponent for the inclusion of bibliographies in RPGs: they can serve as literary gateways to the uninitiated.

I'm fairly certain that 1988's Cyberpunk, published by R. Talsorian Games, included a short bibliography of cyberpunk books that I would eventually find useful in much the same way as Appendix N had been for fantasy. Though I'd been a huge SF fan since I was quite young, most of my favorite stories and authors dealt with space travel, aliens, and galactic empires rather than more earthbound topics. Consequently, I didn't take any notice of William Gibson's influential 1984 novel, Neuromancer, or any of the other seminal works by him and others that both followed and preceded it. 

Truthfully, I probably wouldn't have noticed Cyberpunk either when it was first released. I was away at college at the time and, while there, I became friends with a student a year older than I, who was much more plugged into the current trends of SF. He was also, as it turned out, a big fan of the 1982 movie, Blade Runner, his dorm room down the hall regularly blaring its Vangelis soundtrack at odd hours. It was through him that I was introduced not just to cyberpunk literature but also to Cyberpunk "the roleplaying game of the dark future." He refereed several adventures for myself and our mutual friends that never quite amounted to a proper campaign. but we had fun and they succeeded in increasing my interest in and appreciation for cyberpunk SF.

Cyberpunk came in a black box that featured an illustration that reminded me somewhat of Patrick Nagel, whose distinctive line art will indelibly be linked in my memories with the 1980s. For that matter, cyberpunk – the literary genre, the esthetics, and the RPG – is, for me, a quintessentially '80s phenomenon, despite the fact that it's supposedly about the future. That's not a knock against it by any means. In my estimation, nearly every work of science fiction is really about the time in which it was created, but cyberpunk, with its mirrorshades, megacorps, and rockerboys (not to mention its American declinism and Japanese fetishism) somehow feels every bit as dated as the atomic age optimism of the 1950s. Though I regularly joke with my friends that we currently live in the worst cyberpunk setting ever, the world envisioned by Cyberpunk is now solidly within the camp of a retrofuture.

I say again: this is no knock against Cyberpunk. At the time I was introduced to it, at the tail end of the Cold War and the dawn of the Internet Age, it felt incredibly bold, fresh, and relevant. Plus, I was nineteen at the time and, even for congenital sticks in the mud like me, the lust for rebellion is strong. That, I think, is a big part of why Cyberpunk succeeded so well in establishing itself: Mike Pondsmith and his fellow writers had succeeded in making rebellion – or a consumer-friendly facsimile of it – the basis for a game that also included trench coats, neon signs, chrome-plated prosthetics, and guns – lots of guns. Say what you will about its plausibility or realism, but it was a brilliant stew of elements that somehow worked, despite the objective ridiculousness of it all.

Inside that black box were three booklets, each dedicated to a different aspect of the game. "View from the Edge" contained the rules for creating a character, including its "roles" (i.e. character classes) and life path system. As a fan of Traveller's character generation system, I really appreciated the latter, since it helped bring a new Cyberpunk character to life. "Friday Night Firefight" was devoted entirely to combat and to weapons. As I said, this was one of the big draws of the game, at least in the circles in which I traveled at the time. Finally, "Welcome to Night City" presents an urban locale that I took to be a stand-in for any dystopian megalopolis, though, as I understand it, was eventually established to be an actual city within R. Talsorian's official Cyberpunk setting. 

More than thirty-five years after its original release, it's difficult to overstate just how new this game felt upon my discovery of it. Some of that is, as I've suggested, due to my own limited tastes in science fiction up till this point, which made Cyberpunk feel even more revolutionary than is probably warranted. Still, there is something genuinely brash about the game, both in terms of its subject matter and its presentation. The artwork, for example, is frequently dark, moody, and violent, which set it apart from the increasing stodginess of, say, Dungeons & Dragons and perhaps even laid the groundwork for the coming tsunami of White Wolf's World of Darkness. 

Like a lot of games, I'm not sure I could ever play Cyberpunk again, though, in fairness, I'm not sure I could ever play any game in this genre anymore, since the real world is now frequently more unbelievable than anything a SF writer could dream up. At the same time, I retain an affection for this game, which served as my introduction to the genre. Further, I recently learned, completely by accident, that the older student who lived down the hall from me died almost a decade ago. We'd lost touch over the years and, while I'd occasionally think of him, I never made the effort to try and reconnect. Now, it's too late – but I still have many fond memories of late nights holding off security goons while our netrunner tried to break into a corporate data fortress. 

Rest in peace, Chris, and thanks for the good times.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #22

Issue #22 of Polyhedron (March 1985) features an interesting piece of artwork by Joseph Pillsbury. I say "interesting" not solely for the subject matter of the piece – a downed spacecraft – but because Pillsbury is an artist I mostly remember for his humorous comics in the "Dragon Mirth" section of Dragon. I can't recall his having done any "serious" artwork before, but it's always possible I've overlooked his wider contributions to the hobby.

Penny Petticord's "News from HQ" has two items worthy of note. The first is an announcement that Polyhedron is actively seeking submissions from readers. Petticord states that "only a few members" have thus far been making submissions and she'd like to change that. I wish I'd paid more attention to this at the time, because I made several submissions to Dragon while I was in high school and all were rejected. I might have had a better shot with Polyhedron, given the dearth of submissions. Secondly, Petticord warns readers that the next issue will a "special April Fool" issue, so "don't believe anything you read" in its pages. Fair enough!

This issue also features a large letters page, with multiple letters written in response to Roger E. Moore's "Women in Role Playing" essay from issue #20, While not all of the letters were critical, many of them were, largely because the readers felt that Moore had "belittled" or otherwise failed to understand female gamers. Though Moore apologizes for any unintended offense, he nevertheless stands by what he wrote, noting that it's an important topic in need of more frank discussion. Some things never change, I guess. 

Gary Gygax returns to this issue, writing yet again about marlgoyles and their reproduction. He provides AD&D stats for every stage of the creature's growth from hatchling to mature. It's baffling to me, but it's definitely in keeping the naturalism that's a hallmark of his worldbuilding. He also provides stats for a "monster" that was somehow left out of Monster Manual II – amazons. Amazons, in Gygax's vision, are a female-dominated society of barbarians, with menfolk in secondary or support roles. Beyond that, he doesn't have much more to say about them, which I found a little disappointing, because they're a great fantasy concept worthy of inclusion in D&D.

Frank Mentzer's "Spelling Bee" focuses on druid spells and abilities. Interestingly, Mentzer concern this time seems more focused on reining in druid abilities (like shapechange) that he thinks can be easily abused rather than on finding new and creative ways to make use of them. "The RPGA Network Tournament Ranking System" article is not especially interesting in itself, at least to me. However, the accompanying ranked list of RPGA judges and players is. Gary Gygax, for example, is the only Level 10 Judge, just as Frank Mentzer is the only Level 9. There are no Level 8 or 7 Judges and only one Level 6 (Bob Blake). The names on both lists include quite a number of people who either were at the time or would later be associated with TSR or the wider RPG world. It's a fascinating window on a particular time in both the hobby and the industry.

"In the Black Hours" is an AD&D adventure for levels 6–9 by David Cook. The scenario is unusual in a couple of ways, starting with its lengthy backstory about a high-level mage who learned the true name of the demon lord Juiblex and, in order to protect himself, was eventually forced to imprison the demon with a magical crown. That crown has now come into the possession of a merchant who wishes to protect it from would-be thieves (employed by Juiblex's demonic underlings who wish to free him). The characters are hired by the crown's present owner to protect it over the course of the night when he believes the thieves will make their attempt. There's a lot going on here and the basic structure of the adventure – mounting a defense against waves of attackers – seems well suited to a tournament set-up. If anyone ever played this scenario (or one like it), I'd be very curious to hear how it went.

"Away with Words" by Frank Mentzer is a 26-word multiple choice quiz that challenges the reader's knowledge of High Gygaxian words. It's a fun enough little diversion, though less hard now, thanks to the ubiquity of online dictionaries. "Unofficial New Spells for Clerics" by Jon Pickens does exactly what it says: offers a dozen new spells for use by clerics. Most of these spells are connected in some way to existing magic items, like the staff of striking or necklace of adaptation, filling in gaps in the spell list that, logically, should exist. While that certainly makes sense, it's also boring and exactly the kind of magic-as-technology approach that I've come to feel kills any sense of wonder in a fantasy setting.

"Dispel Confusion" continues to narrow its scope. This issue we're treated only to questions pertaining to D&D, AD&D, and Star Frontiers. Most of them are the usual collection of nitpicks and niggling details. However, one stood out as noteworthy (and indeed unexpected):

I have to admit that this answer surprised me – not because I didn't already know what it would say, but because I didn't imagine I'd ever read such a thing in a TSR periodical. In the past, these magazines tended to advance a very strong "by the book" line when it came to the rules, as evidenced by the fact that there's an official column for questions and answers. I can't help but wonder if perhaps this represented a change in thinking during the final years of Gygax's time at the company (he'd leave for good October 1986 – about a year and a half into the future).

"Of Great Ships and Captains" by Roger E. Moore is the second part of his "big ships" article for Star Frontiers. Unlike part one from the previous issue, this second part focuses on the fine details of running a campaign aboard a large starship. Moore takes a look at deckplans, crew complement, shipboard positions, and the kinds of adversaries and adventures that work in such a campaign. It's all very good stuff and, as I mentioned in my write-up of issue #21, I found it very inspirational in my younger days. The only real criticism I can muster about the article is that it does not include a set of sample deckplans for a big ship, as promised. Production delays apparently prevented their inclusion and, while Moore states they would appear in a future issue of Polyhedron, I don't believe they ever did. If I'm mistaken about this, I'd love to know.

The issue concludes with the return of "The Treasure Chest," the RPGA catalog of exclusive items that has not been seen in quite some time. The items available for sale are now mostly RPGA tournament modules that were otherwise unavailable at the time, along with some exclusive miniatures and back issues of Polyhedron. I wonder what occasioned the return of the catalog, since I can't imagine that it made enough money for that to have been a serious consideration. In any case, we're inching ever closer toward the end of my time as a subscriber to the newszine, meaning this series will likely conclude before we reach the summer months.

Monday, April 15, 2024

"Gimme a break!"

By the time the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series premiered in September 1983, I'd been playing D&D almost four years. I was also just shy of fourteen years old. Perhaps inevitably, I greeted the arrival of the cartoon with some trepidation, despite the involvement of Gary Gygax as its co-producer. That's because, at the time, I was increasingly concerned about the "kiddification" of my beloved D&D.  Consequently, I turned up my nose at the cartoon and only caught a handful of its 27 episodes when they were originally broadcast. 

Then, at the tail end of the 3e era, a DVD collection of the entire series was released in 2007. My daughter, who was quite young at the time, took an interest in it and so I bought a copy for her as a Christmas gift. It was only at this point that I ever had a chance to watch the show for any length of time and discovered, with the benefit of age, that it wasn't that bad. It's written for children, to be sure, but, judged with that in mind, it's certainly no worse than any other cartoon of its era and, in some respects, it's better

I bring all this up because my now-adult daughter asked me if the DVD collection had been placed in the garage, along with so many other childhood things. I went and checked and, sure enough, that's where it was. I brought it back inside and, over the last couple of weeks, we've been rewatching it slowly, looking to see if there were anything about that we might not have noticed when she was a child. So far, I can't say that there I've gleaned any particularly deep insights from this rewatch. However, I have noticed a few things worthy of comment. When I'm done with the whole series – perhaps in several weeks – I'll do at least one more post on this topic. If nothing else, I have some thoughts about this early attempt to broaden the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons beyond its original audience.

Fantasy Master: Michael Moorcock

Yesterday, Dan Collins and Paul Siegel of the Wandering DMs channel hosted a truly excellent interview with author Michael Moorcock, creator of Elric of Melniboné, among many other memorable fantasy characters. Regular readers of this blog – and lovers of pulp fantasy in general – will definitely find it worth an hour of their time.

REVIEW: A Folklore Bestiary (Volume 1)

An aspect of Dungeons & Dragons – and, by extension, all fantasy roleplaying games – that I find equally fascinating and frustrating is the way that it adopts and adapts the mythology and folklore of the real world in order to provide fodder for new spells, magic items, and (especially) monsters. I find it fascinating, because of how wide a net Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax, and those followed in their footsteps cast in establishing the canon of D&D. For example, how many of us reading this had ever heard of the tarrasque before seeing it in the pages of the Monster Manual II? On the other hand, I find it frustrating, because of how far D&D often deviates from its legendary source material. Again, consider the tarrasque, which bears very little resemblance to its Provençal inspiration.

It's for this reason that I was very excited by the release of A Folklore Bestiary by the Merry Mushmen, perhaps best known for their "adventure gaming bric-a-brac," Knock! "Inspired by folk tales and superstitions," according to its front cover, the Bestiary is a collection of almost forty creatures drawn primarily, but not exclusively, from European legends for use with Old School Essentials and other similar RPGs. With its focus on offering less well-known folkloric monsters as adversaries, allies, and enigmas for fantasy gaming, the Bestiary is a monster book seemingly written with my own peculiar tastes in mind.

With ten different authors credited, no two entries are exactly the same in terms of presentation. In general, though, each entry begins with the creature's name (including a phonetic pronunciation) and place of origin, followed by a short piece of in-setting fiction, like an excerpt from a journal or a transcript of an interrogation. The fiction is largely flavor text, setting the scene for what ordinary people might know or believe about a given creature. After that, there's an Old School Essentials write-up for the monster, sometimes accompanied by random tables useful to the referee, like rumors, motivations, and similar details. All entries also include a collection of adventure hooks involving the creature. Some include full scenarios, featuring a keyed map. Rounding out the entries is a full-page, full-color illustration (and some smaller sketches) by Letty Wilson, whose slightly whimsical artwork some of you might already know from Dolmenwood

A Folklore Bestiary is a 160-page A5 hardcover that is cleanly and attractively laid out. Compared to, say, Knock!, whose layout some have found cluttered to the point of illegibility at times, the Bestiary is much more conservative, though still distinctive. It's the kind of book that's equally useful as a reference and as reading material that one can flip through for inspiration. This could be off-putting to the more curmudgeonly among old school fans, since there's a lot more in each entry than the monster's game statistics and a basic description of its habitat and behavior. This is a book filled with creatures that live in a larger world and have connections to that world, potentially leading to much more compelling and even meaningful encounters.

Of course, this is also potentially a drawback. Because nearly all of these monsters are drawn from real world mythologies (a standout exception being Lord Dunsany's gnoles), they might not fit into a generic fantasy world as easily. For example, the dybbuk has strong associations with Jewish legends, while Jack-in-Irons is similarly associated with medieval Yorkshire. These associations are a big part of the appeal of the monsters described herein, grounding them in "reality" in a way that is often missing from standard fantasy monsters like goblins, zombies, and even dragons. Yet, they also make it mean that, unless a game is set in the real world, they might need to be stripped of some of their specificity, which could, in turn, genericize them, which would be a shame. Thinking about this now, I can't help but wonder if Gygax and company faced a similar conundrum in creating D&D's well-known menagerie.

Despite that minor point of concern, A Folklore Bestiary is a delightful product, filled with excellent and, above all, unusual new monsters to include in your fantasy roleplaying game campaign. It's also a good reminder that, even a half-century later, there's still plenty of myths and legends that have yet to be tapped for RPGs. Judging by the fact that this book is called "Volume 1," I can only assume that the Merry Mushmen have plans to produce more. If so, I very much look forward to seeing what strange new creatures they'll include.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

The True Birth of Roleplaying

Though I was not an avid reader of comic books when I was a kid, I did read them – mostly Star Wars, Micronauts, and the occasional Doctor Strange issue. Nearly as much as the comics themselves, I loved looking at the advertisements. I could (and probably should) write several posts about all the weird and wonderful stuff that was being hawked on the pages of comics in the 1970s, but the one that, to this day, still sticks in my brain, is the one to the right, offering 100 toy soldiers for a mere $1.75.

I never took the plunge and bought this. As alluring as it was, I had the sneaking suspicion that it was too good to be true. Plus, I already owned a very large number of toy soldiers – or "army men," as my friends and I typically called them – so there was no immediate need for more of them. My soldiers were all molded from camo green plastic and, from the look of them, were modeled on World War II era US troops. There came in a dozen or so different poses, including a medic, a sniper, a mine detector, and one aiming a bazooka. One of my friends had a collection of German soldiers molded in gray plastic, along with the Navarone play set that we all envied.

One of the main ways my friends and I would play with our army men was by finding a large, open space, whether outside or inside, and then arranging our toy soldiers in various positions. Many of them we'd place right out in the open, but some of them we'd secure behind "protection" of one sort or another, such as rocks, potted plants, or even other toys, like appropriately scaled military vehicles (jeeps, tanks, etc.). After we'd done this, we'd then take turns shooting rubber bands at one another's battle lines, with the goal of "killing," which is to say, knocking over as many of one another's soldiers as possible. We'd keep doing this until only one person had any army men still standing. He'd then be declared the winner of this "battle." Sometimes, we'd have longer "wars," consisting of multiple rounds of battles, the winner being determined by which army won the most battles.

This was simple, childish entertainment, but we had a lot of fun doing it. I can't quite recall when we first started using our army men in this way. We were probably fairly young, because I cannot remember using them any other way. Consequently, the rules of rubber band warfare slowly evolved over the years, as a result of adjudicating disputes and edge cases, such as what constituted being "killed" for soldiers, like the sniper, who was already lying horizontally or indeed just how horizontal a soldier had to be in order to qualify as "dead." In my experience, both as a former child and as a parent, these kinds of negotiated "house rules" are quite common, a natural outgrowth of the fact that no set of rules, no matter how extensive, is ever going to cover every circumstance. Kids intuitively understand this and act accordingly.

Another natural evolution was identifying with and even naming particular army men who'd survived multiple rubber band attacks and somehow, against the odds, continued to stand. I recall one soldier, who had a Tommy Gun and a grenade, who, for a time, seemed unbeatable. A combination of good luck and good positioning made him seemingly invincible. He belonged to a friend's army and, after the friend had one the battle in which the soldier had participated, he acquired a name: Sergeant Phil Garner, named after the mustachioed second basemen of the Oakland Athletics – don't ask me why. Sgt. Garner set a precedent and soon we were all naming and creating stories about the army men who survived or otherwise distinguished themselves in our rubber band wars.

I've always found it interesting that, when trying to describe roleplaying to those unfamiliar with the hobby, game designers will often analogize it with Cops and Robbers or improvisational theater – not because the analogies are necessarily wrong but because RPGs, as we know them today, grew out of miniatures wargaming. It's not for nothing that OD&D's subtitle is "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures." Though I was never, strictly speaking a wargamer of any variety, I cannot help but think that my early experiences fighting wars with army men and rubber bands served as an unintentionally excellent propaedeutic for roleplaying. I doubt my friends and I were unique in this regard.

Thank you for your service.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024


In the wake of my "Whither Grognardia?" post from earlier this month, I learned that a lot of readers find it difficult, if not impossible, to comment on the blog. That certainly explains why the number of comments per post has generally been lower than it was during the first iteration of the blog. In response, I did some poking around to see if the reported problem related to settings that I could change or if it was something else out of my control. 

I'm still not sure of the answer. However, I did make a few changes to the comment settings. If you're someone who has, in the past, had difficulty commenting, give it a go and see if anything has changed on your end. If so, I will be pleased. If not, I may need to look into the matter further.

[UPDATE: It would appear that most people can now comment without too much trouble, which is good. However, I should point out that all comments are still manually moderated, in order to stem the tide of spam (of which there is a lot). Consequently, a comment's not appearing immediately doesn't necessarily mean that it didn't go through, only that I'm not at my computer or otherwise haven't yet approved it.]

Retrospective: Prince Valiant: The Story Telling Game

When I was kid, I always looked forward to the Sunday edition of the local newspaper, because it had this enormous color comics section. Truly, there were dozens upon dozens of these strips – everything from Peanuts to Garfield to Hagar the Horrible and more. Also present were a number of "old" comics, like Mark Trail, Apartment 3-G, and Mary Worth, whose continued presence baffled me. Who read these comics? Certainly not I, nor any of my childhood friends. 

However, there was one "old" comic that I often did read: Prince Valiant. I did so partly because of the comic's subject matter, Prince Valiant was set, as its subtitle proclaimed, "in the days of King Arthur" and I had long been a devoted fan of Arthurian legendry. Furthermore, Prince Valiant was beautifully drawn and had a very – to me – strange presentation. There were no speech balloons or visual onomatopoeia, just lots of text arranged like storybook. 

I was never a consistent reader of Prince Valiant, but, when I did take the time to do so, I almost always enjoyed it. There was a sincerity to the comic that I appreciated as a youngster, as well as an infectious love of heroism and romance (in all senses of the term). I wouldn't say that Prince Valiant played a huge role in my subsequent fondness for tales of fantastic adventure, but there's no doubt that it played some role, hence why I took an interest in Greg Stafford's 1989 roleplaying game adaptation when it was released.

Stafford is probably best known as the man behind Glorantha, the setting of RuneQuest. For me, though, Pendragon will always be his magnum opus – and one of the few RPGs I consider "perfect." Consequently, when I eventually learned of the existence of this game, I was intensely interested. How would it differ from Pendragon? What specifically did it bring to the table that justified its existence as a separate game rather than, say, a supplement to Pendragon? These are questions whose answers I wouldn't learn for quite some time. 1989 was something of a tumultuous year for me; I was busy with other things, and it'd only be sometime in the mid-1990s that I would finally lay eyes upon Prince Valiant.

The most obvious way that Prince Valiant differs from Pendragon is revealed in its subtitle: "The Story-Telling Game." Now, some might immediately think that, in this instance, "storytelling" is simply a synonym for "roleplaying" and you'd be (mostly) right – sorta. The important thing to bear in mind is that Prince Valiant is intended as an introductory game for newcomers to this hobby of ours. Consequently, Stafford tries to use common sense words and concepts that aren't rooted in pre-1974 miniatures wargaming culture. Hence, he talks about "storytelling" rather than "roleplaying" and "episodes" rather than "adventures" or "scenarios" and so forth. The result is a game that's written in a simpler, less jargon-laden way than was typical of RPGs at the time (or even today).

At the same time, Stafford's use of the term "storytelling" isn't simply a matter of avoiding cant. Prince Valiant is, compared to most other similar games, intentionally very simple in its rules structure, so that players can focus on the cooperative building of a compelling narrative set in Hal Foster's Arthurian world. Additionally, the game provides the option of allowing even players to take over the story-telling role within an episode, setting a new scene or introducing a new character or challenge. The chief storyteller, which is to say, the referee in traditional RPGs, is encouraged not to ignore these player-inserted story elements but instead to run with them, using them as a way to introduce unexpected twists and turns within the larger unfolding narrative. 

The other clear way that Prince Valiant differs from Pendragon is its rules, which can fit on a single page. This makes them easy to learn and remember, as well as to use. Unlike more traditional RPGs with their assortment of funny-shaped dice, Stafford opted in Prince Valiant to use only coins. For any action where the result is not foregone, a number of coins are flipped, with heads representing successes. The more heads flipped, the better the success. In cases where a character competes against another character, such as combat, successes are compared, with the character achieving the most successes emerging victorious – simplicity itself! 

Last but certainly not least, Prince Valiant differs from Pendragon because of the pages upon pages of beautiful artwork derived from the comic. Not only does this give the game its own distinctive look, it also highlights its adventuresome, Saturday matinee serial tone in contrast to the heavier, occasionally darker tone of Pendragon and the myth cycles on which it drew. That's not to say Prince Valiant is unserious or "for kids," only that it's a fair bit "lighter" than its "big brother" and thus probably more suitable for younger and/or less experienced players. In that respect, it makes an excellent first RPG.

It's worth noting, too, that the bulk of Prince Valiant's 128-page rulebook is made up not of game mechanics but of advice and tools for players and storytellers alike. Stafford quite obviously distilled the lessons he learned from his many years of playing and refereeing roleplaying games, presenting them in a conversational, easy-to-understand way. Indeed, I've met many people over the years who've claimed that Prince Valiant's true value is not so much as a game in its own right, despite their affection for it, but as an introduction to roleplaying. True though this is, it's also undeniably an excellent game that I'd love to play some day.

That's right: I have never played Prince Valiant and am not sure I ever will. The copy I read years ago was owned by someone else and I've never found a used copy at a reasonable price. I recall that there was an updated or revised version published a few years ago. It doesn't appear to be available through the Chaosium website, alas. Mind you, I certainly don't lack for good RPGs to play; it'd just be great to give this classic one a whirl one day.