Friday, May 31, 2024

How Do You End a Campaign?

As regular readers should know, I am an advocate for long campaigns, so much so that I feel that RPGs are best enjoyed when played in that way. Even so, that raises the question: when do you end a campaign?

I think about this often, because my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign is now several months in to its tenth year of weekly play, with a stable group of eight players, four of whom have been playing since March 2015 and one player who's played for almost as long. After nearly a decade of play, House of Worms is a perpetual campaign or very nearly so. There are so many character-driven goals, world events, long-term intrigues, and meddling NPCs to provide us with another decade's worth of play should we desire it. Whether that will actually happen is a separate matter.

More than likely, House of Worms will end much sooner than that, probably for mundane reasons, such as players having to stop playing due to real world obligations, changing schedules, etc. If so, it's quite possible there will be no "end" to it. Instead, it will simply stop in medias res. Would that be a bad thing? Would it be preferable to arrange something more conclusive and, dare I say, more satisfying? I'm honestly not sure. On the one hand, putting a proper cap on the campaign might feel better, in the sense that no one involved will have regrets about things being unresolved. On the other hand, I worry that such an approach borrows too heavily from literature or drama, which are very different kinds of entertainments from roleplaying.

Most of my past campaigns, both recently and in my youth, simply ended, usually due to boredom or distraction. For example, my Riphaeus Sector Traveller campaign, which I ran for three years, ended because I was exhausted and lacked the endurance necessary to run such an open-ended campaign at that particular time. The characters were in the midst of dealing with several different problems within the setting. When I announced I wanted to end the campaign, I didn't make an effort to wrap anything up; we simply ceased playing. No one involved seems to have minded, but I must admit that I occasionally think back with some regret on how abruptly the campaign ended. Of course, I'm not sure how I could have wrapped things up, since it was, as I said, a very open-ended campaign without a single contrived narrative. 

I'm curious to hear what others think about this. I'm especially curious about others' experiences of ending campaigns that have run for a lengthy period of time (a couple of years or more). Did they end because they'd reached a natural stepping off point? Boredom? Real world issues? Did they end because there was a decision to end them? If so, how did they end? Did they simply cease or was there some kind of resolution? If there was resolution, was that resolution a consequence of prior events or was it engineered in order to provide a sense of closure? 

This is a topic about which I'd really like to know more, so please share your experiences, stories, and insights, if you have them. Thanks!

REVIEW: Basic Roleplaying Universal Game Engine

When it comes to venerable roleplaying game systems, the percentile skill-driven one first introduced in 1978's RuneQuest is unquestionably one of the most enduring and influential. Two years later, Chaosium released it as a separate 16-page booklet entitled Basic Role-Playing, which it then used as the foundation upon which to build many other classic RPGs, from Call of Cthulhu to Stormbringer to Worlds of Wonder. In the years since, many other games published by Chaosium and other companies have either directly made use of these rules or have been inspired by them. Like D&D's class-and-level system or the point-buy system of Champions, there can be no question that BRP is a mainstay of the hobby.

Consequently, I was not at all surprised when Chaosium announced last year that a new edition of the game system would be released and released under the Open RPG Creative (ORC) License so that third parties could freely produce their own RPGs using this time-honored system. Of course, this latest iteration of Basic Roleplaying – take note of the disappearance of the hyphen – is a lot beefier than its original iteration. Weighing in at 256 pages, this latest version of the game is, in some ways, a bit more like GURPS in that it offers a large menu of rules options to choose from in creating one's own skill-driven RPG. This is a toolkit and not every tool is needed for every BRP-based game or campaign. 

Despite the wide array of options available, drawn from an array of sources, the fundamentals of BRP remain largely the same since their first appearance more than four decades ago. Characters possess seven characteristics – Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity, and Charisma – and a number of points with which to purchase skills. However, how those scores are generated, how many skills points are available, and so on are subject to multiple options. There are even optional characteristics, like Education, that a referee can choose to use if he so desires. The skill list, too, is customizable, as are the "powers" available to characters, like magic, mutations, or psychic abilities. This level of customization sets the tone for the entire book, hence my earlier reference to GURPS.

It's important to point out, though, that Basic Roleplaying includes lots of examples and advice throughout, in order both to illustrate the range of options and the pros and cons of making use of them. This is important, I think, because the book is dense and I can easily imagine that its density might be off-putting to newcomers. Even with all of the examples and advice, this probably isn't an easy book for inexperienced roleplayers to digest. There's a lot within its 256 pages and, while clearly written, even I found myself frequently flipping back and forth between sections to make sense of what I'd just read. I don't mean this as a damning criticism, but it's a reality nonetheless.

Ultimately, this is a danger all "universal" game systems must face. In an effort to include rules and procedures for anything that might come up in genres of games as different as fantasy and science fiction or modern-day and ancient world, the page count will inevitably rise. This is especially true for a game system like Basic Roleplaying, whose overall philosophy tends toward simulation, especially with regards to actions like combat. When one takes into account all the options available for nearly everything – including options that simplify the rules – the end result is undeniably ponderous. 

Again, I say this not as a criticism but rather as an observation. Anyone who's played more than one BRP-based game knows how much they can differ from one another, in terms not just of content and focus but also in terms of complexity. Combat in RuneQuest, for example, is vastly more complicated than in Call of Cthulhu, never mind Pendragon. Yet, all three RPGs share unmistakable similarities that make it easier to pick up and play one if you already know how to play another, despite their differences. Basic Roleplaying provides rules, options, and guidance for building games as distinct as these and many more. I was genuinely amazed by the range of alternatives presented in this book, which is indeed a great strength. With this book, a referee would have no need for any others in constructing the BRP RPG to suit him and his players.

As a physical object, Basic Roleplaying is impressive, too. I own the hardcover version, which is sturdy and well-bound, with thick, parchment-like paper. The book is nicely illustrated with full-color art throughout. The layout is clear but dense, with the text being quite small in places (praise Lhankor Mhy for progressive lenses!). I haven't seen the PDF version, so I can't speak to its quality, but I cannot imagine it's much different. Since almost the entirety of its text has been released under the ORC License, you can take a look at its System Reference Document to see exactly what the book contains. If you do so, I think you'll understand what I mean about its density. At the same time, I'm very glad I own a physical copy of the book, but then I'm an old man who hates reading electronic documents, particularly long and complex ones like this book.

All that said, Basic Roleplaying is an excellent resource for anyone interested in using BRP for their own campaigns, regardless of the setting or genre. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Keeping It Rolling

A commenter to my Retrospective on From the Ashes wrote the following:

It's a known problem in fantasy worlds with metaplot that the stakes need to escalate until each new world-threatening villain and their attendant cataclysm is met with a yawn.

This is an accurate observation in my opinion and one that I've very deliberately tried to avoid in my ongoing House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. Escalation of the sort the commenter mentions is, in my opinion, poison to the health of a long campaign. To show you what I mean, here's a very incomplete list of just a few of the major endeavors of the player characters over the course of the last nine years of active play: 

  • A Funerary Mystery: The campaign kicked off in 2015 with the characters assisting their clan in attending to the affairs of a dead elder, who'd died at an advanced age. In the process of doing so, they uncovered evidence of a plot by foreign agents provocateurs to destabilize a border region of Tsolyánu.
  • An Extended Trip Abroad: The House of Worms clan sent the characters to neighboring Salarvyá to tend to the clan's business interests there. After a few weeks seeing the local sights and exploring places of interest, a magical mishap propelled them thousands of miles away to the northern land of Yán Kór. The journey back to Tsolyánu took more than six months, during which time they met new friends, made new enemies, and tangled with the dreaded Ssú for the first time.
  • Tsolyáni Politics: Returning home, they accidentally interfered with the plans of an imperial prince (Mridóbu). In return for his forgiveness, they pledged their future assistance to him, no questions asked.
  • Cult Investigations: In their home city of Sokátis, the characters looked into the disappearances and strange behavior of important local people, leading them to discover evidence of a secretive cult dedicated to one of the Pariah Gods, perhaps the fearsome Goddess of the Pale Bone herself. In the process, they come to realize one of the player characters was not who seemed to be but rather a magical copy employed by the cult. They rescued the real character and disrupted some of the cult's activities.
  • A Foreign Posting: Prince Mridóbu called in his favor and sent the characters to the far-off Tsolyáni colony of Linyaró to act as its administration. This posting is a "reward" for the characters' proven ability to disrupt hidden plots. Mridóbu believes something suspicious is afoot in the colony and the characters have the skills necessary to reveal it (plus he wants them far away from Tsolyánu, lest they cause more trouble for him there). 
  • A Journey by Sea, Land, and Sea Again: The characters then spend many months traveling by water before reaching the plague ravaged land of Livyánu, where they disembarked. They then trekked across its length to catch another sea vessel for the final legal of their trip to Linyaró on the coast of the Achgé Peninsula.
  • Showing the Flag: Having reached Linyaró, the characters must establish control over the colony and deal with several scheming factions, at least one of which was probably behind the murder of the previous governor. 
This list represents only the first two years of play – and I've left out plenty of smaller adventures. Over the next nine years, the characters traversed the length and breadth of the Achgé Peninsula, dealt with the rulers of several Naqsái city-states, explored a huge ruined city, tangled with the Temple of Ksárul, battled the Hokún, treated with advanced AIs, visited an alternate Tékumel, traveled to several of the Planes Beyond, prevented the Shunned Ones from altering the atmosphere of the planet, and dealt with one of their companions' deaths, among other things. That's not even taking into account all the social interactions and alliances they've formed, often through marriage, in the course of play. After nearly a decade, there are simply too many adventures, expeditions, and escapades to recount, even if I were minded to share them all with you here.

What I hope is clear, though, is that campaign events largely have not threatened the world as a whole. I dislike dramatic hyperbole. I feel that threatening to end the world makes for boring roleplaying sessions, not to mention making it difficult to continue playing after the supposedly world-ending danger is inevitably averted. The referee cannot keep upping the stakes and expect players to continue being interested in the campaign. After the first few times Armageddon is put on hold, players quickly come to realize that there are no stakes. This is why the characters – both player and non-player – generally drive the action: it keeps the players invested. They know that their actions have consequences and that events unfold logically from their choices. I doubt the campaign would still be ongoing if I'd opted for any other approach.

Retrospective: From the Ashes

At the end of last week's Retrospective on Greyhawk Wars, I promised I'd devote my next post in this series to taking a closer look at TSR's early 1990s attempt to reinvent Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk setting for AD&D Second Edition. While Greyhawk Wars kicked off that reinvention by plunging the Flanaess into a fantastical "world war," the heavy lifting of teasing out just what that war actually meant for the venerable campaign milieu fell to another product, From the Ashes, released in 1992 and written by Carl Sargent. 

Like the 1983 revision of the original World of Greyhawk folio, From the Ashes comes in the form of a boxed set containing a pair of softcover books (both 96 pages in length this time) and an updated version of Darlene's incomparable maps. However, it also contains an additional map (depicting the regions around the City of Greyhawk), as well as new Monstrous Compendium sheets, and twenty cardstock reference sheets. All in all, it's impressively jam-packed in the way that TSR boxed sets almost always were during the late '80s and early '90s. Depending on one's preference, that's either a good thing or a bad thing – but we'll tackle that question soon enough.

The first of the two 96-page books is the Atlas of the Flanaess. This is largely a rewrite of material found in the 1983 boxed set, updated to take into account the consequences of the Greyhawk Wars on the setting. There's an overview of the setting's history, with an emphasis on recent events. Then, we're given looks at the peoples of the Flanaess, their lands, important geographical features, and the gods (or "powers," according to 2e's bowdlerized terminology) and their priesthoods. The Atlas also includes sections on "Places of Mystery" and "Tales of the Year of Peace." The first are unusual, often magical, locales that hold special interest to adventures, similar to those presented in the earlier Greyhawk Adventures. Meanwhile, the latter are adventure seeds for the Dungeon Master to flesh out.

The second 96-page book is the Campaign Book. This volume consists of entirely new information, focused primarily on the City of Greyhawk, its surrounding lands, and its important NPCs. During the Greyhawk Wars, the City suffered much damage. Now, it is being rebuilt and serves as neutral ground between all the previously warring kingdoms and factions. This turns the City into a Casablanca-esque den of espionage and intrigue, as well as a convenient home base for adventurers trying to make their way in this changed Flanaess. There is a ton of information here, providing the DM with lots of fodder for an ongoing campaign. I'd wager that the Campaign Book alone probably contains more new details about the World of Greyhawk setting than had been revealed in many years, perhaps ever.

And that is one of the aspects of From the Ashes that makes it controversial in some quarters – the detail. For many, the appeal of the World of Greyhawk has always been its sketchy, open-ended nature. The original folio was, at best, an outline of a setting, one each referee could use as a foundation on which to build his own version of Greyhawk. While the later boxed set included more details, most notably about the gods, it was still quite vague in its descriptions about many aspects of the setting. This aspect of the World of Greyhawk made it a good choice for DMs who weren't quite ready to create their own settings from whole cloth but who also still wanted lots of freedom to introduce his own ideas.

From the Ashes changed this aspect of the setting, bringing more in line with TSR's growing library of AD&D campaign settings, many of which came to be exhaustively detailed. This is precisely what started to happen with Greyhawk, too. Over the course of the next few years, From the Ashes was followed up by a number of lengthy expansion modules that filled in other parts of the Flanaess. In addition, some of these modules further advanced the unfolding "story" of From the Ashes in a way that was very much in keeping with the growing interest in "metaplot" that suffused RPGs during the 1990s, most famously in White Wolf's World of Darkness games, but by no means limited to them.

The second aspect of From Ashes that makes it controversial is its perceived changes to the tone of the Greyhawk setting. As originally presented, the World of Greyhawk had a tone that I can only describe as wargaming-meets-sword-and-sorcery. On the macro-level, it seems apparent to me that Gary Gygax liked the idea of a crazy quilt of rival nations, each jockeying for land, influence, and power – the perfect backdrop for a medieval wargames campaign of the sort that gave birth to Dungeons & Dragons in the first place. However, on the personal level, Greyhawk seems very much indebted to pulp fantasy of the Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber variety, as evidenced by his own forays into fiction writing.

The tone of From the Ashes and its expansions focused too much, I think, on the former at the expense of the latter. The battles of kingdoms and machinations of powerful NPCs overshadowed everything else. The Flanaess became their world; your player characters were just living in it. This is a problem that came to afflict the Forgotten Realms as well, much to the chagrin of its own creator. It was certainly a poor choice for Greyhawk, which, as I said, had long been more of a blank canvas on which the Dungeon Master could paint whatever he wanted while taking inspiration from the loose ideas Gygax provided. From the Ashes transformed the setting into a much more detailed place, driven by NPCs and Big Events dictated by TSR's desire to sell more product.

My own feelings about From the Ashes are decidedly mixed. I recognize and largely agree with many of the criticisms of the boxed set, especially regarding its introduction of a metaplot into Greyhawk, At the same time, Carl Sargent put a lot of solid work into this and many of the details he provided are eminently gameable, from small dungeons and adventure locales to interesting factions and conflicts. It's true that the Big Picture of the post-Wars setting takes precedence, but there's still some room for smaller, more personal scenarios and Sargent put effort into highlighting some of them. From the Ashes isn't, therefore, a complete disaster, but neither is it an unqualified success. Instead, it's a well-presented muddle and I think both positive and negative feelings toward are justified, depending on one's preferences. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2024


About a month and a half ago, I opened up the comments section of the blog to readers without Google accounts, including those who wished to post anonymously. I'm pleased to say that this has actually been a boon to the blog, since most posts now receive many more comments – a lot more in some cases. That's good news overall, since I've wanted to foster discussion about the topics about which I write here, especially when my own opinion on a given matter might differ from conventional wisdom.

One of the drawbacks of allowing anonymous posts is that, in many the comments to many posts, it can be quite difficult differentiating one anonymous poster from another. That can lead to confusion and misunderstanding, something to which online written discussion is already quite prone. I don't know that there's a solution to this, but, if anyone has any ideas, I'd love to hear them. As I said, I'm mostly very happy with the reinvigorated comments sections, so I don't want to do anything that might stifle that. I simply wish it were easy to keep track of which anonymous poster was which.

Polyhedron: Issue #28

Issue #28 of Polyhedron (March 1986) features yet another cover by Roger Raupp, who, as I've remarked previously, seems to have been TSR's go-to guy for on-demand artwork in the mid to late 1980s. I never minded, because I liked his style, which I felt struck a nice balance between the cleanliness of Larry Elmore and the grubbiness of Jim Holloway while still remaining firmly within the realm of "fantastic realism." Given how often his illustrations appear during this period, I suspect Raupp must have worked quickly – a great virtue for an artist employed in the gaming industry.

"Notes from HQ" contains an update on "the City Project" first announced in issue #25. Editor Penny Petticord mentions that "the legal aspects of the project have not yet been completely resolved," but does not elaborate on precisely what this means. She might be alluding to the assignment of copyrights, given that this project will include submissions from many outside sources, though there are other possible explanations. Interestingly, Petticord makes no mention of the placement of the setting within the World of Greyhawk or any other setting. Gary Gygax's imminent departure from TSR might explain this omission. In any event, the project would eventually be shifted to the Forgotten Realms when Ed Greenwood's campaign setting became the default setting of AD&D in 1987.

"Adventure Among the Clouds" by Jeff Martin is an AD&D article that tackles the subject of cloud islands – floating "land" masses that can serve as adventure locales. The existence of such islands was first confirmed in the Monster Manual's description of cloud giants and elaborated upon further in module UK7, Dark Clouds Gather. In this article, Martin describes the origin, composition, and inhabitants of cloud islands, along with notes on how these magical places affect spells and magic items. His overall approach reminds me a lot of a condensed version of what Roger E. Moore pioneered with his "The Astral Plane" article in Dragon #67 (November 1982), though, sadly, less interesting. Cloud islands are potentially fascinating places and very much in keeping with AD&D-style fantasy, but Martin, in my opinion, treats them in a rather mundane way. It's a shame.

Back in the day, Frank Mentzer was a machine when it came to penning RPGA AD&D tournament adventures. This issue includes another one, "The Great Bugbear Hunt," intended for characters of levels 5–7. The set-up is that, while out in the wilderness, a passing band of bugbears slew the horses of a party of adventurers and stole all the items in the saddlebags. Among them is a magic-user's spellbook. Naturally horrified by this turn of events, he enlists the aid of others to venture back into the wilderness in an attempt to find the bugbears and retrieve it. The scenario is, in effect, a scavenger hunt in a wilderness filled with monsters and other obstacles. This one looks like a lot of fun, with plenty of varied and challenging encounters.

"The Specialist Mage" by Jon Pickens introduces a new idea for use in AD&D games: the specialist mage. Bear in mind, this is 1986, three years before the release of Second Edition, which formalized specialist mages as an option for player character magic-users. Here, the idea is presented as being for NPCs only – a common dodge employed in the pages of Dragon to justify its articles on new classes without running afoul of TSR dicta about "no new character classes." Pickens's version of the specialist mage receives XP bonuses if he employs more spells of his chosen specialty, in addition to having access to unique spells unavailable to non-specialists. In this issue, he presents numerous new necromancy spells, though they were intended only for use by "an NPC villain." Where have I heard that before?

Michael Przytarski's "Fletcher's Corner" is focused on the creation and judging of tournament scenarios, a topic that I must confess holds little interest for me. That he is given three pages to elucidate his thoughts on the topic makes it even less compelling somehow. Of course, this is the official newszine of the Role Playing Game Association, which sponsored innumerable tournaments at GenCon and elsewhere, so this is exactly the kind of content that should be here. That it holds no interest for me says more about my weirdness than it does about the article. Alas, I'm the one writing this post.

In terms of the number of articles, issue #28 has among the fewest in some time. That's probably due to the fact that "The Great Bugbear Hunt" adventure takes up half of the issue's 32 pages. Likewise, all the remaining articles, with the exception of "Notes from HQ," are at least three pages long. I probably wouldn't have even commented on this if any of them had any of them stood out as notable in some way. Instead, they're mostly fine if unexceptional, so I took greater note of how few there were than I otherwise might have.

Sadly, the next issue is the April Fool's Day issue, so I don't think it'll prove much better ...

Monday, May 27, 2024

How Do You a Problem Like Kirktá? (Part II)

Since readers seem to have been genuinely interested in this particular aspect of my ongoing House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, here's an update on the situation I first mentioned earlier this month

Presently, the player characters are on an extended expedition to explore ancient ruins once inhabited by an intelligent – and magically powerful – non-human species known as the Mihálli. These ruins are far from the characters' native Tsolyánu. The quickest paths to the ruins run through the neighboring realm of Salarvyá, which enjoys a generally peaceful relationship (aside from some border skirmishes from time to time). Early in the campaign, nearly nine years ago, the characters spent several months in Salarvyá on a mission for their clan, so the kingdom is familiar to them and many of the characters speak Salarvyáni.

Their present expedition is funded by Prince Rereshqála, one of several publicly declared heirs of the emperor of Tsolyánu. Rereshqála is given to magnificent displays of noblesse oblige, sponsoring works of art and scholarship. Because the Mihálli are so mysterious and poorly understood, it is hoped this expedition will uncover new information about them, including the recovery of artifacts associated with them. If successful, the expedition would bring glory and fame on those who undertook it – and to their noble patron as well.

In addition to providing the expedition with manpower and funds, Prince Rereshqála asked one other thing of the characters: to return a young Salarvyáni noblewoman to her family in the city of Koylugá. The young woman, Chgyár Dléru by name, is a member of Thirreqúmmu family who rules Koylugá. Indeed, her uncle, Kúrek Tiqónnu, is one of the seven most powerful men in all of Salarvyá and thus a candidate for the Ebon Throne upon the death of its present king. Salarvyá, you see, has an elective monarchy and, while the throne has long been held by members of the Chruggilléshmu family, in principle a candidate from any of the mighty feudal families might be elected instead. 

Before entering Salarvyá, the characters had been warned that its political situation was growing increasingly fraught. The king is old and insane. Consequently, many of the great families were jockeying for position, so that, when he finally died, they could make their bid to rule. Likewise, the Temple of Shiringgáyi, the primary deity of Salarvyá, were flexing its own muscles by encouraging zealots to attack foreigners and rail against their supposedly pernicious influence. There were also reports of a large-scale military conflict between internal factions of the kingdom.

A map depicting the characters' possible paths through Salarvyá
Despite all this, the characters journey through Salarvyá was largely uneventful until the night before they were scheduled to have an audience with Lord Kúrek in Koylugá. They had already successfully returned Lady Chgyár to her family and decided to spend the afternoon and evening exploring the city. After sunset, they visited the Night Market, an emporium of oddities, where they acquired a few useful and interesting trinkets. However, the Market was eventually disrupted by Shiringgáyi zealots. Rather than risk running afoul of local authorities, the characters fled back to their lodgings to wait out the night.

That's when they received a message from Lord Kúrek confirming the details of their meeting with him the next morning. In addition to the expected subjects, the message also included a lengthy legal document detailing the terms and conditions of the upcoming marriage between Lady Chgyár and Kirktá! Needless to say, this caught everyone off-guard, Kirktá most of all, though he did spend some time trying to figure if perhaps had inadvertently done something while in Chgyár's presence that might have been misinterpreted as an offer of marriage. Even more alarmingly, the marriage contract referred to Kirktá by the name Kirktá Tlakotáni, Tlakotáni being the name of the emperor's clan. This made it clear that Lord Kúrek and his family knew of Kirktá's true lineage – but how? The characters had worked very hard to keep this information secret.

It's important to point out that Chgyár had originally been sent to Rereshqála by Lord Kúrek as a bride and, therefore, a token of friendship between a powerful faction within Salarvyá. However, Chgyár did not adapt well to life in Tsolyánu. She became so homesick that Rereshqála opted to send her back to her family rather than force her to remain in a foreign land. Consequently, the characters immediately theorized that this surprise marriage arrangement with Kirktá was intended to make up for the fact that she'd managed to let one imperial prince get away. Her family no doubt wished to be sure the same thing did not happen a second time. But, if so, how did anyone know Kirktá's secret? Further, how many more people might know? This was a potentially serious problem.

This post is already much longer than I intended it to be, so I'll end it here, with the promise to follow it up with another later this week. Suffice it to say that the characters spent a lot of time pondering how to proceed now that Kirktá's princely status had seemingly been uncovered by someone who intended to use it for unknown ends. Almost from its beginning in 2015, the House of Worms campaign has been fueled by the characters' interaction with the society, culture, politics, and religion of the world around them. They have goals and dreams of their own and they pursue them with gusto. Of course, the same is true of the non-player characters of the setting. The interactions between these two competing forces is something I continue to enjoy and that I hope will carry on well into the future. 

The Cost of Power

One of the many ways that fantasy roleplaying games differ from their pulp fantasy inspirations concerns the use of magic. With comparatively few exceptions, pulp fantasy depicts magic as, at best, wild and unpredictable and, at worst, as outright diabolical. RPGs, meanwhile, treat magic almost as a form of technology, an instrument that is neither inherently good nor bad and that, if used with appropriate training, rarely if ever presents any danger to its user. 

The most obvious exceptions that come to my mind are Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer, both of which explicitly caution against the use of magic by characters, precisely because of its inherent danger. A more recent exception is Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics Role-Playing Game. Of course, two of the aforementioned RPGs are based directly on foundational works of pulp fantasy, while the other self-avowedly looks to pulp literature for its inspiration. There may be a few other contrary examples here and there, but, for the most part, fantasy roleplaying games have followed the lead of Dungeons & Dragons in treating magic purely instrumentally – differing from safe, reliable technology only in esthetics.
Back in Dragon #65 (September 1982), Phil Foglio lampooned this to good effect in his What's New with Phil & Dixie. In this particular strip, Phil claims that the differences between medieval and science fiction RPGs can be summed up in one word: none. When Dixie objects, he then provides her with a series of examples to prove his point that, while tendentious, nevertheless contain a ring of truth. The comic even invokes Clarke's Third Law for additional support.
If you look at the history of the hobby over the last half-century, the paradigm of magic-as-technology has clearly been the most common. Whether that's because D&D set the pattern by adopting it or because it's just a simpler and perhaps even more fun way to handle magic, I can't say. Still, as a fan of dangerous magic, it's hard not to be a little saddened by how rarely it's been employed in RPGs over the decades. Perhaps it's time for a change ...

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Retrospective: Greyhawk Wars

I've never been much of a wargamer (take a drink). Despite that, I've always been interested in wargaming, particularly the hex-and-chit variety epitomized by Avalon Hill. Over the years, I've dabbled in wargames, such as my recent flirtation with the COIN series published by GMT, but I've never really committed to them in the way that many of my friends have done. I thus have a minor inferiority complex about this, feeling that my gaming "education" is somehow deficient because I haven't played wargames as often or as widely as my peers.

So, when TSR released a board wargame set in Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk setting in 1991, I took immediate notice of it. This was my chance to get in some much needed wargaming experience. Alas, things didn't quite go as planned on this score, but I'll get to that soon enough. For the moment, let's focus on the matter of the game's title. According to the box cover, one could be forgiven for thinking it's called Greyhawk Adventures: Wars. However, the text of the rulebook repeatedly calls it simply Greyhawk Wars, which is how I've always referred to it, though some online spaces (like BoardGameGeek) favors the longer, more ponderous title.

In addition to the possible confusion over the title, it's also worth noting that, despite being a wargame, Greyhawk Wars was released under the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition banner. This is in spite of the fact that it contains no roleplaying content whatsoever, not even the thin gruel provided by Dragons of Glory, another TSR strategic-level wargame set within a D&D campaign world. Of course, TSR had long been notorious about slapping the (A)D&D logo on just about everything, in an effort to build and expand its "brand." Compared to, say, wind-up toys or sunglasses, this particular bit of brand building was pretty innocuous and indeed could be justified in that it was intended to be the lead-in to a relaunch of the World of Greyhawk setting.

Though Gygax departed TSR for good by 1986, the company retained control of Greyhawk. Throughout the late 1980s, there were a handful of Greyhawk products released, most notably Greyhawk Adventures, but none of them, in my opinion, did a good job of carrying on the flavor and tone set by Gygax's original. If anything, they blandified the setting, reducing it to the worst kind of vanilla fantasy. Unsurprisingly, the setting's popularity – and, therefore, sales – declined, especially when compared to TSR's other two AD&D settings: Krynn and the Forgotten Realms

TSR probably recognized this fact, which is why, starting in the early '90s, the company attempted to better differentiate the World of Greyhawk in the hopes that it'd be more appealing to AD&D players. The first step in doing so was Greyhawk Wars. The wargame, designed by David "Zeb" Cook, concerns a massive war that engulfs the peoples and kingdoms of the Flanaess, one whose results upend the status quo presented in previous World of Greyhawk products. Whatever my personal feelings about the end result, it's hard not to admire the boldness of this approach. For years beforehand, Gary Gygax, in periodic Greyhawk updates published in Dragon, had been hinting at the possibility of such a large-scale "world war," but he never pulled the trigger on the idea, probably because he intended Oerth to be an open-ended "steady state" setting each Dungeon Master could customize according to his own desires.

Greyhawk Wars takes a very different approach. Instead of leaving the World of Greyhawk perpetually teetering on the edge of grand events, Cook opts to topple the whole structure, throwing long established peoples, places, and situations into chaos. At the end of the battles depicted in the wargame, a new order is established across the Flanaess, one where the forces of Good are battered, beaten, and on the defensive, while Evil, as represented by the Empire of Iuz, the Scarlet Brotherhood, and the successor states of the Great Kingdom is on the rise. The result is something that's definitely different from the original World of Greyhawk. Whether it's better is another matter.

As tabletop wargames go, Greyhawk Wars occupies a middle ground between being simple enough a newcomer can easily pick it up and so complex that only a hardened veteran of Third Reich could ever play it. The game rules are relatively short – only 8 pages – and straightforward. While there are lots of counters (representing military units), there are no hexes. Instead, the map of the Flanaess into movement "areas" of varying size, based to some extent on terrain. Also included in the game are a number of cards, some of which represent random events and treasures that can be used to augment the abilities of military units. Named NPCs (called "Heroes") play a role in the game, too, which lends it a slight roleplaying flair, though, for the most part, this is still very much a standard wargame. 

Greyhawk Wars is intended for 2 to 6 players, depending on the scenario, each with its own victory conditions. These conditions, though, are solely for gaming purposes and have no bearing on the canonical versions of these events, much in the way that a Confederate player in a wargame about the American Civil War can emerge victorious, contrary to history. The 32-page Adventurer's Book lays out the "true" conclusion of the Greyhawk Wars, the one I described above, with Evil ascendant and Good on the defensive. This is in contrast to the earlier Red Arrow, Black Shield module, which, while assuming a particular outcome for its world war, nevertheless considers the possibility of other outcomes and how they might affect ongoing campaigns. Greyhawk Wars allows for no such possibility and all subsequent Greyhawk products would follow the canonical version of history detailed in the Adventurer's Book.

As I alluded to at the start of this post, my own experiences with Greyhawk Wars weren't great. That's not a fault of the game, which is fine, if unexceptional. Rather, I had difficulty in finding others interested in taking the time to play any of its scenarios. Between setting up and playing, most took 3 hours or more – a short time compared to many wargames, I know – and that limited my pool of potential players. As a result, I don't think I ever played Greyhawk Wars more than a half-dozen times and rarely to conclusion. My perpetual quest for more wargaming knowledge and experience was thwarted once again.

All that said, I can't help but find Greyhawk Wars a fascinating window into the last decade of TSR's existence. The mere fact that the company published something approximating a classic hex-and-chit wargame set in Greyhawk is remarkable in its own right. That it was also the first part of a larger plan to reboot Gary Gygax's campaign setting into something they hoped would be more attractive to fantasy roleplayers in the 1990s is just as remarkable. I can't speak much about the success of the former, since, as I said, I didn't get the chance to play it much. As to the latter, that's the subject of next week's Retrospective post, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #27

Issue #27 of Polyhedron (January 1986) features yet another cover by Roger Raupp, this time depicting a clan of dwarves. Raupp was a very prominent artist in the pages of both Polyhedron and Dragon during the second half of the 1980s – so prominent that, for me at least, his illustrations strongly define the look of that era. I also remember Raupp's work on many of the later Avalon Hill RuneQuest books, which, as I understand it, are very well regarded among Glorantha fans. 

Leaving aside the forgettable "Notes from HQ," the issue properly kicks off with "Dominion" by Jon Pickens, which introduces a new type of spell for use by AD&D magic-users. Unlike previous collections of new spells by Pickens, this one looks not to magic items for inspiration but rather psionics. All of the dominion spells concern "controlling the victim's voluntary muscles and sensory linkages." This is not mind control but rather bodily control of another being (with the senses being considered part of the body). It's an interesting approach and ultimately, I think, a better one than AD&D's psionics system, which, in addition to being mechanically dubious, didn't really mesh with the overall feel of the game.

"The Thorinson Clan" by Skip Olsen presents five dwarves, related by blood and marriage, from his Norse mythology-inspired AD&D campaign. These are the characters Roger Raupp portrayed on the cover. They're an interesting bunch and I must confess I appreciate the fact that Olsen's campaign is multi-generational, a style of play I think is under-appreciated (and one of the reasons I think so highly of Pendragon). Almost certainly coincidentally, this issue's installment of Errol Farstad's "The Critical Hit" offers a very positive review of Pendragon, which he calls "the stuff of which legends are made." Needless to say, I agree with his assessment.

Next up is "She-Rampage" by Susan Lawson and Tom Robertson, a scenario for use with Marvel Super Heroes. As you might guess based on its title, the scenario involved She-Hulk but also a number of other female Marvel characters, like Valkyrie, Spider-Woman, Thundra, and Tigra. There's also an original character, Lucky Penny, who's based on the Polyhedron's editor, Penny Petticord. The background to the adventure is rather convoluted and involves alternate Earths where one sex dominates the others. The male-dominated Earth, Machus, has learned of the existence of our Earth and sees the existence of super-powered women as a potential threat to be eliminated. This they attempt to do by traveling to our world and then – I am not making this up – releasing doctored photos and scurrilous stories in the pages of "a girlie magazine known as Pander." Naturally, the superheroines take exception to this and it's clobberin' time. I have no words.

Michael Przytarski's "Fletcher's Corner" looks at "problem players." More specifically, he's interested in two different types of players who can cause problems for the referee. The first is the "Sierra Club Player," who's memorized all the rulebooks and uses his knowledge to overcome every obstacle the referee sets before him. The second is the "Multi-Class Player," whose experience is so wide that he tells other players the best way to play their class. In each case, Pryztarski offers some advice on how best to handle these players. Like most articles of this sort, it's hard to judge how good his advice would have been at the time, because most of what he says is now commonsense and has been for a long time. 

"Alignment Theory" by Robert B. DesJardins is yet another attempt to make sense of AD&D's alignment. Like all such attempts, it's fine to the extent that you're willing to accept its premises. DesJardins argues that "law versus chaos" is a question of politics, while "good versus evil" is a question of heart (or morality). He makes this distinction in order to fight against the supposed notion that some players believe Lawful Good is more good than Chaotic Good – in short equating "law" with "good" and "chaos" with "evil." Was this a common belief then or now? I suppose it's possible players who entered the hobby through Dungeons & Dragons might have carried with them echoes of its threefold alignment system, but, even so, how common was it? I guess I long ago tired of alignment discussion, so it's difficult for me to care much about articles like this.

This month, "Dispel Confusion" focuses solely on rules and other questions about Star Frontiers, which surprised me. Meanwhile, "Gamma Mars: The Attack" by James M. Ward offers up a dozen new mutants to be used in conjunction with the "Gamma Mars" article from last issue. Most of these mutants are mutated Earth insects, but one represents the original Martian race, whose members have been lying beneath the planet's surface in wait for the right moment to strike against human colonists to the Red Planet. I find it notable that Ward was long interested in introducing extra-terrestrial beings into his post-apocalyptic settings, whether Gamma World or Metamorphosis Alpha. I wonder why it was an idea to which he returned so often?

As you can probably tell by this post, my enthusiasm for re-reading Polyhedron is waning. I'm very close to the end of the issues I owned in my youth, so I may simply be anticipating the conclusion of this series. On the other hand, I also think there's a certain tiredness to the newszine itself. The content has never been as uniformly good as that of Dragon and it's become even more variable as it has depended more and more on submissions by RPGA members, few of which are as polished or imaginative as those to be found elsewhere. The end result is a 'zine that's sometimes a bit of a chore to read, never mind comment about intelligently. 

Ah well. I'll soldier on.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Ever Want to Be a Vampire?

As a kid, something I really enjoyed about reading Dragon magazine was looking over its advertisements. Most issues had a couple of dozen (or more), often from companies I'd never heard of offering products I'd never seen. In too many cases, the ads were vague to the point of being cryptic. Consider this one that I saw in issue #80 (December 1983):

What exactly is this advertisement for? Is Wizards World a roleplaying game or something else entirely? At the time, I had no way of knowing, since I wasn't willing to risk $10 (over $30 in today's inflated currency) on a whim. I wouldn't find out the truth until nearly three decades later, when Goblinoid Games acquired the rights to Wizards' World, making it available in both print and electronic forms. 

Wizards' World is nothing special. It's similar to many other independent RPGs produced at the time in being amateurish and derivative but nevertheless made with great enthusiasm. Still, I'm glad to have solved this particular mystery. Do any readers recall any other similarly enigmatic advertisements? If so, I'd be interested in knowing what they were.

Heretical Thoughts (Part II)

Was Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons really that bad?

I know that it has a poor reputation among fans of old school D&D, which is really to say, TSR D&D, but is that reputation deserved? Was it truly a bad edition of "the world's most popular tabletop roleplaying game," to borrow a phrase – or does it simply catch a lot of grief for things not directly related to it as a game

To place my thoughts in a little more context, let me provide a little personal history. I played Dungeons & Dragons – mostly AD&Dmore or less continuously from late 1979 till about 1996 or thereabouts. That's around the time TSR released the "Player's Option" series of books. By that point, I'd already begun to tire of AD&D and had started to spend more time playing other RPGs, but something about the "Player's Option" volumes really vexed me. They were, in my opinion, a step too far, contributing further to my growing sense that AD&D was bloated and directionless. 

During the period between 1996 and 2000, I largely abandoned playing Dungeons & Dragons in any form, in favor of many other roleplaying games. Late in this period, I also began to make my first forays into professional writing. One of my earliest employers was Wizard World, publisher of the magazine InQuest Gamer. InQuest initially focused on collectible card games, but eventually expanded to cover games of all sorts, including RPGs. 

Though I was a freelancer, I was often assigned articles that gave me access to people and materials that would otherwise have been hard to come by. In early 2000, for example, I was given a major assignment: write about the upcoming new edition of D&D. To help me with this, Wizards of the Coast sent me pre-release proofs of the 3e Player's Handbook. I spent several weeks reading the text and giving the rules a test drive with my gaming group. 

This was the first time I'd played any version of D&D in several years – and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that, after I'd written the article for InQuest, I kept playing a Frankenstein version of "3e" cobbled together from the proofs WotC sent me augmented by 2e books to fill in any gaps (like monsters and magic items). We continued playing in this fashion until all three of the 3e core rulebooks were released between August and October of that year. 

Third Edition brought me back to playing Dungeons & Dragons after a long hiatus. For that reason alone, I find it difficult to bear any ill will toward the edition. Then, as now, I had qualms about certain aspects of its design – its emphasis on "system mastery," for instance – but the fact that it reminded me just how fun D&D could be is a huge point in its favor. 3e simultaneously felt fresh and vibrant while also remembering its roots. Unlike late Second Edition, which was, to put it charitably, a chaotic mess without any clear sense of what it was about, Third Edition proudly advertised itself as a "back to the dungeon" edition. This restored to D&D a much-needed focus.

Of course, this wasn't the only way that 3e remembered its roots. A careful reading of the text of its three rulebooks revealed just how much of its verbiage it shares with previous editions, particularly when it came to the descriptions of spells, monsters, and magic items. This might not seem like a big deal, but it would prove to be very important. That's because Third Edition was the first "open" edition of D&D, most of whose contents (via its System Reference Document, or SRD) were made freely available for use by other publishers through either the Open Game License (OGL) or the D20 System Trademark License (STL). For the first time ever, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons was offering a royalty-free means to produce adventures, supplements – and even whole games – compatible with D&D.

The SRD and OGL quickly proved themselves very important and not just to the plethora of game companies that sprang up like mushrooms overnight to support 3e. By opening up the mechanical and conceptual "guts" of Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards of the Coast inadvertently gave birth to the Old School Renaissance. As early as 2004, independent publishers were experimenting with using the SRD and OGL to create RPGs that resembled earlier editions of D&D. The rest, as they say, is history, with the OSR quickly becoming both a movement and a genre, not to mention a permanent part of the larger hobby.

Now, one might reasonably argue that neither of these qualities has anything to do with Third Edition as a game either. That's a defensible position, though I don't completely agree with it, as I'll soon explain. However, I think historical context is important here. After the mess that was late Second Edition, 3e was a surprisingly clear, rational, and accessible restatement of the classic RPG. Most of its major deviations from TSR era D&D, like ascending armor class or new saving throw categories, served good purposes, even if I am no longer wholly on board with many of them. Nevertheless, they worked and facilitated play that, in my experience anyway, was quite reminiscent of how we played D&D in the early to mid-1980s. 

That's the important thing for me. Had Third Edition not played at the table as well as it did, I very much doubt that I'd have stuck with it. 3e brought me back to Dungeons & Dragons precisely because its designers wanted to produce a "modern" game that played enough like its predecessors that earlier materials were roughly compatible with it. Wizards of the Coast even released a short conversion booklet intended to help 2e players convert characters, magic, and monsters to the new edition. This demonstrates, I think, how seriously WotC at the time took its role as the new custodians of the original roleplaying game. The company wanted to retain old players even as it hoped to reach a new audience.

Of course, Third Edition had a lot of flaws. Like 2e, its presentation left a lot to be desired, particularly its absurd "dungeonpunk" art style. Likewise, several of its new mechanical elements, like feats and prestige classes, soon overshadowed everything else, to the point where the elegance of its core rules design began to buckle and burst. By the end of its run, Third Edition was every bit as bloated and directionless as its predecessor, to the point that I once again abandoned official D&D, this time for good. Fortunately, the SRD and OGL made retro-clones of earlier editions possible and my abandonment of WotC's subsequent versions didn't mean I couldn't keep playing a version of Dungeons & Dragons I still enjoyed, even if it now bore names like Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry instead.

In the end, I don't see how one can reasonably claim that 3e was either a bad game or a bad edition of D&D, except on the basis of very narrow criteria. I'm as curmudgeonly as they come – remember that I hate plush Cthulhus and fake nerd holidays – and even I am no more willing to indict Third Edition for its worst excesses than I am to indict First Edition because of Unearthed Arcana. From my perspective, 3e injected some much-needed vitality into Dungeons & Dragons at a time when it needed it most. This not only ensured the game's continued pre-eminence among RPGs, but also laid the groundwork for the OSR. That's a legacy well worth celebrating. 

That said, 3e's art really did suck.

Friday, May 17, 2024

The Flammarion Engraving

In the foreword to the Lorebook of the Void, one of the two volumes included in the original Spelljammer boxed set, Jeff Grubb talks about a bit about its creative origins. One paragraph of that foreword has long stuck with me.

When I first read this, I thought it was very cool, because, even at the time, I thought D&D could do with a little more genuinely medieval influence on its fantasy. Even if, in the end, the cosmos presented by Spelljammer bore only the most superficial resemblance to the conceptions of medieval thinkers, it was still (in my youthful eyes anyway) a step in the right direction. 

I spent some time in the early '90s trying to find these "medieval woodcuts" to no avail. This was before Internet search engines were very good, so I wasn't completely surprised that I might not find a good example of what he might have been referring to. However, some years later I did come across one image that looked like it might have been the kind of thing Grubb had seen.
This is the so-called "Flammarion engraving," which first appeared in the 1888 book, L'atmosphère : météorologie populaire, by Camille Flammarion. Apparently, its artist is unknown, but it became very popular in the 1960s as an illustration of psychedelic experiences, the opening of the human mind to new realities. Regardless of its original intent, it's a very striking and evocative image, so I can understand why it is that Grubb might have been inspired by it, if indeed this is the "medieval woodcut" that David Cook showed him all those years ago.

Looking around online, I discovered a blog post by Grubb from more than a decade ago in which he talks a bit about the creation of Spelljammer. It's a very interesting post, filled with plenty of details I didn't know. Among those details is Grubb's admission that, yes, the above image was indeed the one that inspired him, though he connects it to Daniel Boorstin's 1983 book, The Discoverers, rather than Flammarion. I'm glad to know that my guess was correct. Anyway, read the whole blog post if you'd like to know more about the prehistory of Spelljammer.

The Path to Adventure

I've commented in several previous posts that the period between 1982 and 1984 is a fascinating one for both TSR and its most famous product, Dungeons & Dragons. This period, I believe, represents the peak of game's faddish popularity, when the company was so flush with cash – and keen to ensure its continued flow – that it slapped the D&D logo on almost everything, from woodburning and needlepoint sets to toys and beach towels, to name just a few. Of course, this same period also saw the publication of the Frank Mentzer edited D&D Basic Set, the best-selling version of that venerable product that TSR ever released, whose sales no doubt contributed greatly to the company's bottom line.

Right smack in the middle of this same period is the premier of the CBS animated television series for which Gary Gygax is credited as a co-producer. The series, which ran for three seasons between 1983 and 1985 and a total of 27 episodes, was part of an effort to increase the pop cultural footprint of D&D beyond the realm of RPGs. So far as I know, the cartoon was the only fruit of that effort, despite Gygax's frequent reports that a Dungeons & Dragons movie of some sort was in the works. Readers more knowledgeable than I can correct me if I am mistaken in this judgment.

Because I was too old for its intended target audience, I never paid close attention to the D&D cartoon during its initial run. Consequently, I took even less note of the various cartoon-branded products released in conjunction with it. I could probably write several posts about this topic and perhaps I eventually will, but, for the moment, what most interests me are the six "Pick a Path to Adventure" books published in 1985 by TSR. As you might expect, these books are all very similar to the Endless Quest series (themselves modeled on the earlier and more well known "Choose Your Own Adventure" books), but drawing on characters and elements of the cartoon. 

As I said, I was completely unaware of the existence of these books until comparatively recently. I certainly never saw them at the time of their original publication. Even if I had, there's zero chance I'd have read them, given my superior attitude toward the series and its perceived kiddification of my beloved D&D. Now, I find myself somewhat curious about them, if only because some of them apparently introduce new characters (like Eric the Cavalier's younger brother) and concepts unseen in the series. In addition, each of the six books uses a different member of the ensemble cast as its viewpoint character, which is actually not a bad idea. (Take note as well that first book in the series was written by Margaret Weis of Dragonlance fame).

Looking into these books online revealed that, contemporaneous with the Endless Quest books (and a few years before the cartoon-branded books), TSR produced another series of "Pick a Path to Adventure" books under the Fantasy Forest brand. From what I can tell, they appear to have been geared towards a younger audience than the Endless Quest books. Likewise, these books don't carry the D&D logo anywhere, though some of them, like The Ring, the Sword, and the Unicorn, proclaim "From TSR, Inc., the producers of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS cartoon show." 

Once again, these are books of which I was completely unaware at the time and that I've not seen, let alone read, in the years since. If anyone among my readers has read them, I'd like to know a bit more about them, specifically whether they contain anything that connects them to Dungeons & Dragons. I would assume that they do, because what other purpose would TSR have had in publishing them beyond creating a potential new audience for its games? However, judging solely on the basis of the books' covers, they all look fairly generic. Their connection to D&D, if any, would seem to be limited.

TSR produced another series of "Pick a Path to Adventure" books – or should I say "Pick a Path to Romance and Adventure?" – the (in)famous HeartQuest series of fantasy romance novels. Unlike the other two series, I did know about these. I have a vague recollection of first seeing mention of them in the pages of Dragon, but, despite all my best efforts, I can find no evidence of this. In any case, I saw these in either Waldenbooks or B. Dalton sometimes in 1983 or '84 and had a strongly negative reaction to their existence. Their covers, reminiscent of the Harlequin romance books from the same time, certainly did nothing to endear them to me.

Like the Fantasy Forest series, HeartQuest does not seem to have been explicitly connected to Dungeons & Dragons, at least as far as branding goes. From what I've gathered, they're not actually bad books for what they are, though nothing special. I would imagine that they were another prong in TSR's attempts to expand the audience of their products (and thus their sales). Given that, unlike the Endless Quest books, which had several dozen titles, HeartQuest only had six, suggesting that, whatever its quality, they failed to achieve the goals TSR had set for them.  

I've sometimes jokingly called 1982–1984 the period when TSR was throwing a lot of spaghetti against the wall in the vain hope that some of it might stick. The company certainly tried many different approaches to expanding its customer base to what appears to have been limited success. On the other hand, these book series may well have played a role in helping to build up the company's publishing division. That division would eventually prove very successful – so successful, in fact, that, by the 1990s, it would become the cart pulling the horse of TSR's fortunes. That's a story for a different day (and probably a different writer, since I don't know enough about its fine details). Still, it's always fascinating to look into the forgotten corners of the hobby's history like the "Pick a Path to Adventure" books.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Retrospective: Spelljammer: AD&D Adventures in Space

Spelljammer: AD&D Adventures in Space is a guilty pleasure of mine. Written and conceived by Jeff Grubb, this overstuffed boxed set was first released in 1989, just as I was transferring between two colleges. For a lot of reasons, this was a very tumultuous time in my life and, as a result, my memories of it are very vivid, even thirty-five years later – memories that include purchasing Spelljammer from a Waldenbooks in a suburban mall and then poring over its contents for some time afterwards.

As its subtitle suggests, Spelljammer took AD&D 2e into "space," though not in the traditional scientific (or even science fictional) sense of the word. Rather, Grubb took inspiration from ancient and medieval conceptions of the cosmos, in which the stars and planets are embedded within celestial spheres made of ether. Rather than multiple nested spheres containing all the celestial bodies of a single solar system, as the ancients conceived, Grubb imagined each sphere as encompassing an entire solar system or, more to the point, an entire campaign setting, with all the spheres floating within a "sea" of flammable material called phlogiston.

Through the use of flying vessels equipped with magical "helms," it was possible for the inhabitants of worlds within one sphere to journey to worlds within another. This was the high concept of Spelljammer: the ability to travel between TSR's various campaign settings by means of magical "space" ships. It's a very clever conceit, one reminiscent not just of ancient cosmology but also of Jack Vance's Rhialto the Marvelous. In addition to facilitating transit between existing settings, Spelljammer also opened up the development of a "bridge" setting between them, namely, the larger cosmos of races, organizations, and even worlds that make regular use of space travel. 

In some respects, Spelljammer is the forerunner of both Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990) and Planescape (1994), two other TSR boxed campaign settings whose conceptual frameworks allowed characters from Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Krynn, and elsewhere to adventure side by side while also exploring entirely new locales created to flesh out the bridge setting. In the case of Spelljammer, that bridge setting includes a mix of the good, the bad, and the downright weird. There's the pompous Elven Navy attempting to keep the peace, xenophobic beholders at war with themselves and everyone else, mysterious mind flayers with their nautilus ships, the spider-like neogi, and mercantile arcane, just to name a few. As presented in Spelljammer, the cosmos was positively filled with all manner of space-faring peoples – and an equally large number of space-based locales and mysteries.

Chief among these mysteries is the titular Spelljammer, an ancient – and gigantic – manta ray-shaped space vessel with an equally gigantic citadel on its back. The origins and true nature of the Spelljammer are unknown, making it the subject of many legends. It's also the destination of many a spacefaring adventurer, as the citadel on its back is reputed to hold untold magic and wealth for those bold enough to venture within. The Spelljammer is thus equal parts the Flying Dutchman of space and an old school megadungeon, which is itself a pretty good high concept.  

Of course, Spelljammer was replete with high concepts – and that's part of the problem. In an effort to be expansive and easy to use to use with any existing AD&D campaign setting, Spelljammer is something of a curate's egg. I suspect that this was due less to Jeff Grubb's own preferences and more to directives from TSR regarding the boxed set's place within their larger publishing scheme. This prevents the bridge setting from having a strong flavor of its own, which is too bad, because it contains a lot of elements that I wish had been better (or differently) developed. Instead, the whole thing has a kind of underdone quality that fails to do full justice something I still consider to be a great idea to this day.

Spelljammer straddles the line between the end of the Silver Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age of Dungeons & Dragons, which, I think, explains a lot. Like the products of the Silver Age, Spelljammer is an exemplar of the era's "fantastic realism," itself a metastasis of Gygaxian Naturalism. At the same time, Spelljammer heralds the start of AD&D's "boxed set era," when TSR cranked out new boxed campaign settings (and expansions thereof) almost on a monthly basis – a seemingly never-ending parade of good ideas not given sufficient time to germinate. There's reason why so many gamers of a certain age have such affection for this period of AD&D's development. For all of the flaws in their output, almost all of these boxed sets contained good, imaginative ideas that inspired a lot of us, Spelljammer included.