Sunday, June 30, 2024

Against the Black Priory

Back at the start of April, I wrote about my inability to replay the old AD&D computer game, Pool of Radiance. The difficulty lay primarily in its user interface, which was clunky and difficult to use on a contemporary computer. Likewise, the graphics, which looked fine on the screen in the late 1980s, did not translate well on a better monitor with a higher resolution. Consequently, I found it nigh impossible to play, let alone enjoy, Pool of Radiance again (or likely any of the other AD&D computer RPGs from that era). That's a shame, because I'm a fan of computer roleplaying games and am always on the lookout for enjoyable ones.

Fortunately, I stumbled across Skald: Against the Black Priory, a brand new (released May 2024) computer RPG inspired by the 8-bit CRPGs of old, while introducing aspects of modern design to make it more playable on contemporary machines. Though Skald no doubt took a lot of inspiration from games like Bard's Tale – likely explaining its title – one of the things that sets it apart in my opinion is the combination of sword-and-sorcery and cosmic horror of its narrative. Think Robert E. Howard's "Worms of the Earth" or Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea stories and you have a good idea of the kind of thing I'm talking about.

I've enjoyed my time playing the game. It's party-based (with up to six characters) and uses a top-down perspective, in keeping with its inspirations. There are lots of little details hidden throughout the game, both to assist you in your quests and to paint a picture of the overall setting. The game is quite unforgiving at times (again, in keeping with its inspirations). Not only are enemies tough, especially at low levels, but there are some choices you can make that result in automatic death. Though its interface is better suited to modern sensibilities, the game itself is quite old school in its deadliness (though there is an option for "narrative play," if you aren't interested in a challenge).

All in all, I have almost entirely positive feelings about Skald: Against the Black Priory. My biggest complaints are minor (the combat system can be grindy) and are outweighed by the game's cleverness and atmosphere. Playing through it has definitely whetted my appetite for more games like this. Now, I just need to find them ...

Friday, June 28, 2024

REPOST: Have Space Suit – Will Travel

[This is a repost of something I wrote almost four years ago. Last night, I found myself thinking about space suits in science fiction RPGs and decided to write a post about it. As usual, I soon realized I'd done it before. Rather than abandon the idea, I thought I'd repost this, since its initial appearance was very early after I'd returned to blogging and was therefore not widely read.]

When I was a child, I owned a copy of the Marvel Treasury Special adaptation of 2001 by Jack Kirby. I can't recall how I acquired it, though I suspect it was a gift by a well-meaning relative who knew that I liked science fiction. I am certain that I read the comic before I ever saw the movie (which wasn't released on home video until 1980). The combination of Clarke's story, Kubrick's visuals, and Kirby's art was a heady mix and I was equally enthralled and frightened by what I saw in those large newsprint pages. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I became a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey when I finally did see the film and it remains one of my favorite movies. I recently re-watched it; my feelings toward it are unchanged: I consider it not only one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, but one of the greatest films regardless of genre. 

Even if you disagree with that assessment, it's hard to deny how influential the movie is. Without even paying close attention, you can recognize imagery, set designs, costuming, even plot details that have clear echoes in subsequent motion pictures. Ash from Alien owes a lot to HAL 9000, for example, particularly in his having been given a hidden agenda at odds with those of the human characters. Likewise, the Enterprise's encounter with V'ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture would have been impossible without the final act of 2001, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite."

Growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo lunar lanading, astronauts and space suits were everywhere. 2001 has particularly stylish and iconic space suits – so much so that I am convinced the multi-colored thruster suits from the aforementioned Star Trek film are a tribute to those in Kubrick's masterpiece. Come to think of it, Alien also had remarkable space suits, but those are the work of French artist Jean Giraud, better known by his nom de plume, Moebius. 

On the other hand, science fiction like Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica didn't have a place for space suits – flight helmets, yes, but not full suits of the sort seen elsewhere. It's probably for this reason that I've subconsciously come to divide space-oriented sci-fi into space suit and non-space suit categories, with the former being more "serious" than the latter. The lack of space suits is something I associate with action-oriented space opera rather than idea-based science fiction. Obviously, this is a completely unfair distinction, one largely based, I imagine, on the prominence that space suits had in 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

Nevertheless, it's a distinction that's been lurking at the back of my mind since childhood, affecting even my feelings about science fiction roleplaying games. One of the most basic and ubiquitous skills in GDW's Traveller is Vacc Suit (though I've never discovered the origin of the second "c" in the word). Consequently, I've always seen the game as a sober, serious, and indeed thoughtful game, compared to, say, TSR's Star Frontiers, which, while I have a great fondness for it, didn't even mention space suits or their equivalent until the release of the Knights Hawks expansion a year later. Ironically, it was Star Frontiers that saw an adventure module based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, not Traveller, which only goes to show how arbitrary distinctions like this can be.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Peace Finally Comes

I've mentioned a couple of times previously that I'm currently playing in a Traveller campaign refereed by an old friend of mine. I first met this particular friend around 1990 through a Traveller fan organization known as the History of the Imperium Working Group (HIWG – pronounced Hi-Wig). HIWG's original purpose was to assist GDW in developing the Third Imperium setting during the MegaTraveller era, when the Imperium was in the throes of a succession crisis/civil war inexplicably known as the Rebellion. 

HIWG had a fanzine called Tiffany Star that was released more or less bimonthly, starting in January 1988. Its first issue included a map of the warring factions of the fragmented Third Imperium as they were five years after the start of the Rebellion, which I've reproduced below.

The map originated with Marc Miller at GDW and bears the title "Peace Finally Comes." The original idea behind it was that this map would represent the end state of the Rebellion, after its factions had become exhausted by years of open warfare between one another. What was interesting about it is that there were a couple of missing factions, which is to say, factions from the early phases of the Rebellion that had seemingly disappeared, leading to much speculation about the circumstances under which they were defeated or subsumed into other factions Likewise, many of the remaining factions had grown or contracted in their astrographic extent. 

Figuring out how this had all happened was part of HIWG's original remit. Certain members of the organization were "sector analysts," whose job it was to create and collate material pertaining to one of the sectors of the Imperium or surrounding space. In theory, this material would then be used by GDW in creating future MegaTraveller products. I was the sector analyst for Antares sector, while my friend was the sector analyst for Lishun sector to spinward. We became friends because we started exchanging letters – remember, this was in that benighted time just before the advent of the consumer Internet – and sharing information of mutual interest. Later, when I went to graduate school, it just so happened that I moved to the same city as my HIWG pen pal and we've been friends ever since. 

When I again saw the Peace Map, as we called it, for the first time in many years, I felt a huge rush of nostalgia, not just for MegaTraveller, warts and all, but for one of my earliest and most serious brushes with organized RPG fandom. Remember, as I said, that this was before the Internet was in widespread use. Almost none of us had email addresses, let alone a regular means of real time chat. Instead, we exchanged photocopied (or dot matrix printed) materials by post, occasionally meeting at conventions if they were geographically convenient. It was slow, inefficient, and occasionally frustrating, but also a great deal of fun. I made a lot of friends through HIWG, several of whom are still in contact with me.

Beyond that, the Peace Map represents a path not taken for Traveller. The whole point of the Rebellion was to shake up the staid status quo of the Third Imperium by creating multiple successor states suspicious of one another. This created many more opportunities for adventure, intrigue, and outright warfare. This greatly appealed to me and my preference for smaller settings. I was quite excited by the possibilities, especially for my beloved League of Antares faction. Alas, it was not to be. Instead, GDW opted to descend the Imperium – and, later, most of charted space – into a new dark age with almost no interstellar states and most worlds regressing both technologically and socially. What a waste!

I still have dreams of one day revisiting my own vision of a post-Rebellion Third Imperium setting, one where the fragments of the shattered Imperium survived and pursued their own destinies. I don't know that I'll ever get around to refereeing such a campaign, but a man can dream ...

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Retrospective: Monstrous Manual

In the course of writing posts about the pictorial histories of several standard Dungeons & Dragons monsters, I often consulted 1993's Monstrous Manual. This book, released four years after the launch of AD&D Second Edition was, according to its own introduction, "created in response to many requests to gather monsters into a single, durable volume which would be convenient to carry." The introduction goes on to say that, alongside the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide, the Monstrous Manual "forms the core of the AD&D 2nd Edition game."

Those unfamiliar with the history of Second Edition can be forgiven for wondering why it took TSR four years to publish what is essentially an updated version of the venerable Monster Manual or why this version carries a slightly different title than its predecessor, unlike either the PHB or DMG, whose titles remained the same. The truth is that the Monstrous Manual was a do-over, TSR's attempt to fix the grave mistake of the Monstrous Compendium, released in 1989 along with the other 2e rulebooks. Rather than being a hardcover book, the Compendium was a D-ring binder designed to hold loose, three-hole punched sheets of monster entries. The Compendium was an interesting high concept, its actual implementation proved impractical o multiple levels, hence the need for the Monstrous Manual.

The Monstrous Manual is a very large book, larger than either of its companion 2e volumes or indeed of any AD&D rulebook published up to that point. At 384 pages, it includes all the contents of Volumes One and Two of the original Monstrous Compendium, along with additional monsters imported from the MC volumes associated with the Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, and Dark Sun settings. By necessity, many of these entries are abbreviated in length from their original Compendium appearances, since, with a handful of exceptions, all are limited to a single page. Even so, the book uses a small type face and all the entries are quite dense. Like the MC, each entry includes an illustration – this time in color – but, unlike its predecessor, these illustrations are largely provided by a new generation of artists rather than longtime TSR hands like Jeff Easley or James Holloway.

The presence of these new artists, most notably Tony DiTerlizzi, gives the Monstrous Compendium a very distinctive look, one that stands out from earlier 2e releases. I remember being struck by this even at the time I originally bought the book. DiTerlizzi, for example, is best known for his defining work on the Planescape setting, which didn't come out until a year later. His illustrations in the Monstrous Manual are uniformly excellent and admirable – but they nevertheless represent a strong break with AD&D's artistic past, which had broadly favored artwork with a more "traditional" high fantasy/sword-and-sorcery esthetic. DiTerlizzi's work meanwhile has an otherworldly, fairytale-ish quality that works better for some monsters than for others. Likewise, it contrasts with the comic book-inspired illustrations of Jeff Butler and the dark moodiness of Thomas Baxa, two other artists whose styles are quite different from those of TSR's past. The result is, by my lights, an artistic mishmash that detracts somewhat from its content.

And that content is, by and large, quite solid. The Monstrous Manual is good and useful, eminently more suited to its purpose than was the Monstrous Compendium, if for no other reason than it is practical. As I mentioned above (and in my earlier Retrospective post about it), the MC was an interesting high concept that might have worked had TSR thought a little more about the details of its design. There is nothing clever about the design of the Monstrous Manual, but it at least served its intended purpose without much fuss. That it also included a very large selection of monsters – far more than the original Monster Manual – was another point in its favor.

From the vantage point of more than three decades after its original publication, what strikes me most about the Monstrous Manual is how it reminds that TSR never had a clear plan of what to do with AD&D as a game line and, even when it did, it often bungled those plans. From its original conception under Gary Gygax to its eventual realization under David Cook, AD&D 2e was always conceived as a way to correct, regularize, and improve upon the foundations laid by First Edition. However, for various reasons, those plans never fully came to pass. Instead, we got missteps, half-measures, and course corrections that, in retrospect, casts a shadow even over the best products of 2e, like the Monstrous Manual. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2024


In his comment to yesterday's post about bugbears, Jesse Smith connected bugbears to bogeymen, which awakened a forgotten memory of my childhood. During the Christmas season growing up, one of the local TV stations always broadcast March of the Wooden Soldiers, the abridged version of the 1934 Laurel and Hardy film, Babes in Toyland (itself loosely based on the 1903 operetta of the same name). The movie was a favorite mine and, in this era before videotapes made it possible to watch almost any movie whenever you wanted, I looked forward to its broadcast each year. 

The actual plot of March of the Wooden Soldiers isn't particularly important. It's a comedic fairytale film set in Toyland, with Laurel and Hardy playing two friends, Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, who work for the Toymaker, who, in turn, supplies toys for Santa Claus. Also living in Toyland is Silas Barnaby, the Crooked Man, who is also the town's richest inhabitant. By duplicitous means, Barnaby frames Tom-Tom the Piper's Son for the kidnapping and probable murder of one of the Three Little Pigs, resulting in his banishment to Bogeyland.

In the movie, Stannie and Ollie talk about Bogeyland and its inhabitants, the Bogeymen:

STANNIE: What happens to you in Bogeyland?

OLLIE: Oh, it's a terrible place. Once you go there, you never come back.


OLLIE: Well, when the Bogeyman gets you, they eat you alive!

STANNIE: What do they look like?

OLLIE: Well, I've heard that they're half man, and half animal. With great big ears ... and great big mouths. And hair all over their body. And long claws that they catch you with.

For reference, this is what one of the Bogeymen looks like:

As you can see, it's a pretty simple costume – little more than a loose, furry bodysuit with a rubbery fright mask and wig. On one level, it's kind of ridiculous and not at all frightening. On another, though, it's surprisingly effective, precisely because it's so crude and obviously fake. There's something strangely off-putting about its look, something that both frightened and fascinated me as a child. 

Unsurprisingly, the Bogeymen left a deep impression on my imagination, so deep that, until I read Jesse Smith's comment on yesterday's post, I hadn't realized the extent to which my conception of D&D's various monstrous humanoids owed to them. The Bogeymen are vicious, bestial things who obviously hate goodness and delight in chaos. Later in the movie, Silas Barnaby rallies them to his side. He leads a horde of Bogeymen in an assault on Toyland, where they wreak havoc upon its buildings and inhabitants. 

The scene where they come pouring out of the caves of Bogeyland is another image burned into my brain. The combination of both their numbers and their malice is so great that, for a time, it appears as if Barnaby will be successful in his revenge plot against the people of Toyland. What he didn't count on were the titular wooden soldiers, oversized toys mistakenly made at 6 feet tall instead of 6 inches. Ollie and Stannie activate them and, with their help, they push back the Bogeymen back to their caves. It's a great battle for such a silly film. 

So, yeah, I can see a lot of appeal of imagining bugbears as bogeymen. Honestly, I'd love to see Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy RPGs take more inspiration from unusual sources like this. We need to make monsters monstrous again.

Monday, June 24, 2024

A (Very) Partial Pictorial History of Bugbears

Since my recent forays into the artistic evolution of both kobolds and goblins (not to mention orcs) have proved popular with readers, I thought I'd continue to look into other well-known Dungeons & Dragons monsters for a few more weeks. This time, I'm looking at the bugbear, both because it's completely unique to D&D, but also because, with one very important exception, its representation in artwork has been very consistent – far more so than any of the previous monstrous humanoids I've examined so far.

Of course, that one exception is a big one. More than that, it's the original illustration of the bugbear, as drawn by Greg Bell in OD&D's Supplement I (1975). Look upon his majesty!

I actually really like this illustration, because it's just so weird. That pumpkin head – the result of a miscommunication between Bell and Gygax – makes it quite clear that you're dealing with a wholly inhuman monster, despite its two arms, two legs, and upright stance. These days, this is how I prefer my monstrous humanoids, so I may be unduly biased toward it. Regardless, it's an oddity and an outlier that no subsequent TSR era D&D artist has ever used as inspiration for his interpretation of it – a pity!

With the AD&D Monster Manual (1977), we see the first examples of what will eventually become the iconic appearance of the bugbear – little wonder, since it's by Dave Sutherland, the artist most responsible in my opinion for the esthetic of old school D&D

Here's another instance of a bugbear from the Monster Manual, this time drawn by Dave Trampier. I find this second piece interesting, because it's clear that Tramp is using Sutherland's illustration above as a model. These are clearly the same monster drawn by two different artists.
Speaking of Tramp, he drew another early bugbear illustration, which appeared in 1978's Descent into the Depths of the Earth. Once again, this is clearly the same monster as those depicted in the MM, but, this time, they have a slightly more cartoonish look to them, almost like characters out of Trampier's Wormy comic. 
Next up are some Grendadier Model sculpts of bugbears from 1980. As you can see, these, too, are in keeping with the basic appearance laid down by Dave Sutherland a few years earlier – big, furry brutes with wide mouths full of sharp teeth and large ears.
1980 was also the year in which Deities & Demigods appeared. Though bugbears as such do not appear in the book, we do get a depiction of their deity, Hruggek, as drawn by Dave LaForce. I'm not fond of this illustration, which I've always found a bit goofy. Maybe it's the grin, I don't know. Still, it's broadly in keeping with what we've come to expect of bugbears up till now.
In 1982, the AD&D Monster Cards include a bugbear, its illustration done by Jim Holloway. This may be the first piece of color artwork for the monster in the history of the game. 
Second Edition's Monstrous Compendium (1989) includes this artwork, again by Jim Holloway. While still largely in keeping with its predecessors, I notice that the bugbear's face is now arranged more like that of a human being. Both its mouth and ears are smaller, for example, though its nose remains large and broad.  
Finally, there's Tony DiTerlizzi's take on bugbears from 2e's Monstrous Manual (1993). I'm not sure what to make of this illustration. While it retains the overall look of Sutherland's original, I feel like it continues down the path laid down by the Monstrous Compendium of giving bugbears human proportions, which undercuts their monstrousness, something I've come to see as a mistake in the portrayal of D&D's humanoid monsters. 
I am certain I've overlooked several other examples of bugbear illustrations from TSR era Dungeons & Dragons. Feel free to point me toward others that you've found. I'm particularly interested in any examples of bugbears that, like Greg Bell's OD&D version, deviate greatly from the model laid down by Sutherland. My suspicion is that there won't be many (or any) such examples, because, for whatever reason, most old school D&D illustrators more or less followed in the footsteps of their predecessors, something we don't see in quite the same way with many other monsters. I wonder why that is.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Dousing the Fireball

With the possible exception of magic missile – which, ironically, didn't appear until a year after the original game's release – I can think of no more iconic spell in Dungeons & Dragons than fireball. As most of you will no doubt already know, fireball (or fire ball, as it's rendered in OD&D and the 1981 and '83 D&D Expert Sets) first appeared in Chainmail, where it's one of two types of missiles a wizard can throw, the other being lightning bolt. In Chainmail, a wizard can seemingly throw a fireball at will and its function is as a form of battlefield artillery that immediately destroys any target within its area of effect weaker than a Hero. Even if you've never played Chainmail, I hope my brief summary makes clear just how potent a fireball is – and that's the problem. 

When the abilities and spells of Chainmail's wizards were translated into the terms of OD&D, there were inevitably going to changes and alterations, big and small. In the case of fireball, these changes included a slightly larger burst radius and damage that increases with the level of its caster or, as Men & Magic explains it, "A 6th level Magic-User throws a 6-die missile, a 7th a 7-die missile, and so on." These changes explain, I suspect, why fireball became the iconic D&D spell and the one that nearly every magic-user hoped to learn as soon as they were of sufficient level to do so. Taken together, the fireball of OD&D and all subsequent TSR versions of the game is one of only a handful of spells whose damage-dealing potential has no upper limit. Coupled with its large area of effect and easy reach for most characters – a magic-user only needs to be 5th-level (20,000 XP) to potentially acquire it – fireball is a must-have spell when it comes to damage-dealing.

Spend enough time in online D&D circles and the subject of the relative power of fighters versus magic-users will inevitably come up. This is one of those perennial topics that simply will not die, because, unlike many such topics, I think there's some substance to it. Fighters, even when equipped with potent magic weaponry, can never dish out as much damage as can even a fairly low-level magic-user. Over the years, various solutions have been proposed, such as weapon specialization in AD&D, but none of them has met with universal acceptance – quite the opposite, in fact. 

That's why I've lately been thinking about either eliminating or modifying spells whose damage-dealing effects increase with the level of their caster. If you look at the original spell list from Volume 1 of OD&D, both fireball and lightning bolt are odd men out, mechanically speaking. Most of the game's "offensive" spells, like sleep, cloudkill, or disintegrate do not become more effective as the caster rises in level. Any variability they have in terms of damage or overall effectiveness is usually independent of level (there are exceptions). That feels right to me somehow and offers a better model to emulate in rethinking spells in OD&D and similar games.

On the other hand, simply removing fireball, lightning bolt, and comparable spells might be simpler. This is what Lamentations of the Flame Princess did long ago. Many of that retroclone's deviations from OD&D were introduced specifically to strengthen the fighter's role as the most potent combatant and damage-dealer, which is a worthy goal. Furthermore, by eliminating and/or weakening the number and scope of magical damage dealing, this approach carves out a different role for the magic-user, that of a seeker after knowledge and controller of the environment. It's a far cry from the role people now tend to associate with D&D magic-users, but is that necessarily a bad thing? It's closer to the pulp fantasy conception of sorcerers and wizards than to the cartoonish, video game-y vision of them flinging fireballs and hurling lightning bolts.

I don't know. I'm still thinking about this, especially in light of my evolving thinking about magic in Secrets of sha-Arthan. I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on the subject, especially from those of you have regularly play fighters and/or magic-users. How do you perceive their relative strengths when it comes to damage-dealing or do you make changes to rebalance things?

Friday, June 21, 2024

Two More

In my post on the pictorial history of goblins earlier this week, I inadvertently forgot to include two more goblin images. Here's the first one:

It's an illustration by Jim Roslof from the AD&D Monster Cards, which came out in 1982. This places it, chronologically, right between the 1981 Tom Moldvay-edited Basic Set and the 1983 revision of the same by Frank Mentzer. Roslof's version of the goblin is broadly in keeping with what came before and after, though it looks a bit less monstrous than most of the other depictions. Notice, for example, that this specimen lacks fangs or pointy teeth. 

1982 also saw the publication of a translation into French of The Keep on the Borderlands, which I first saw a couple of years later. Apologies for the poor quality of the image, but I wanted to blow up the portion where the goblins are present. 

Again, you can see a very broad similarity between these monsters and all the other images I posted in the earlier post, including Holloway's own prior efforts. What's most fascinating to me is just how varied goblins appeared in old school D&D art. Aside from being short, there was actually a fair degree of diversity in the way they were drawn, even when the same artist drew them for different products. In that respect, they're a bit look like orcs, whose depictions likewise lacked consistency.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Retrospective: The Triangle

In the comments to last week's Retrospective about Trader Captains and Merchant Princes for FASA's Star Trek the Role Playing Game, an anonymous reader mentioned The Triangle, which he called "bar none ... my favorite RP supplement." The comment was fortuitous (and prescient), because I had already intended to look at The Triangle this week. Though usable for any type of Star Trek RPG campaign, it's an especially good fit in my opinion for merchant-based campaigns, which, from what I gather, is what most people who owned did with this 92-page supplement.

The Triangle takes its name from an area of space that lies between the territories claimed by the United Federation of Planets and Klingon and Romulan Empires. Consisting of a little more than 120 class M worlds, most of which are independent of any of the aforementioned great powers, the Triangle is a contested area, filled with danger, mystery, and lots of opportunities to turn a credit. That makes it an ideal place to set a campaign, especially if you're interested in interstellar intrigue in the Star Trek universe – or at least FASA's interpretation of that universe.

That's an important thing to bear in mind. The Triangle was first released in 1985. At that point in time, there were only three movies and The Next Generation was still two years in the future. And while there were a good number of novels and comic books, the concept of a Star Trek "canon" as the word is used today was very loose, almost to the point of non-existence. Consequently, each licensee was largely free to develop the setting in whatever way it chose and without regard for – and sometimes in contradiction of – how any other licensee did so. I know it's hard to imagine 

FASA took full advantage of this creative freedom to flesh out their own unique take on the Star Trek universe, one that, in retrospect, has a decidedly Cold War edge to it, with the Federation standing in for NATO and the Klingons and Romulans for different aspects of the Warsaw Pact. It wasn't quite as overtly militaristic as, say, Starfleet Battles, as it tempered its power politics with elements sincere idealism, but it also wasn't quite as wide-eyed as The Next Generation regularly was. It was a vision of the 23rd century that reflected the tensions and concerns of the mid-1980s and so probably would feel a bit dated to some today. At the time, though, I loved it.

The Triangle makes the most sense when viewed in this context. This is an area of space filled with mostly independent worlds whom each of the three nearby major powers wishes to sway to their side, whether for noble or cynical reasons, reminiscent of the way that the United States and the Soviet Union used Third World nations as pawns in their Great Game. But because no one wishes to ignite an interstellar war, they must act with caution – and often covertly – lest they light the spark that throws everything into chaos. As I said, it's a great place to set a campaign.

In addition to the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans, The Triangle introduces us to several other regional powers. The Affiliation of Outer Free Worlds is a Federation-friendly – but still independent – coalition of planets. The Orion Frontier Mercantile Association is a front for moneyed Orion interests to exploit the worlds of the Triangle. The Imperial Klingon States is a breakaway Klingon government headed by an admiral who failed in his attempt to seize the throne. The Mantiev Colonial Association is another coalition of worlds but one whose fractious politics have brought to the brink of civil war, with each faction backed by one of the major powers.

In addition to fleshing out these regional powers, The Triangle details every individual world, along with significant NPCs, new alien races, and corporations. There's also information of trade routes and black markets, both of which are essential if it's used in conjunction with Trader Captains & Merchant Princes. Of course, the Triangle works just as well as the setting for campaigns focusing on Federation or Klingon ships and characters. The book provides lots of hooks for referees looking to run almost any sort of adventure you can imagine in the Star Trek universe – exploration, rescue missions, espionage, diplomacy, and more. It's jam packed with ideas. Even if you find only a few of them of immediate interest, The Triangle has more than enough to keep a campaign moving for months or years.

I had a lot of fun with The Triangle after its release, using it as the basis primarily for merchant adventures. Unfortunately, I didn't use it for very long, though mostly for reasons having nothing to do with the supplement itself. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I had hoped I'd get the chance to referee a long-running campaign in the region. The book certainly provides enough ideas on which to build such a campaign, which is my usual metric for determining the value of a gaming supplement, hence why I think so highly of The Triangle. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #30

With issue #30 of Polyhedron (July 1986), we reach the final issue I ever owned or read. My subscription ended that summer and, with my final year of high school approaching, I was so preoccupied with other matters that I elected not to continue reading. To be fair, I let my subscription to Dragon lapse around the same time, but I'd still pick up stray copies of the magazine to keep abreast of the latest news about D&D and other RPGs. Consequently, this will be last post in which I do a recap of Polyhedron's contents. I'll do a summation of my feelings about the RPGA newszine next week before moving on to a new regular feature the following week.

As has often been the case, this month's cover is drawn by Roger Raupp. It depicts the six characters from Christopher S. Jones's "Nienna & Friends," the first installment in "The New Rogues Gallery," which is "a continuing feature ... through which members may share their most interesting characters and NPCs." In truth, this is just an outgrowth of the "Encounters" column that began all the way back in issue #8, which had already morphed into something akin to this. In any case, "Nienna & Friends" presents write-ups (including AD&D stats) for the half-Drow fighter/magic-user Nienna, her human cleric mother, Rhodara Larith, and their protector, the Grey Elf magic-user Zered Camaron. Zered's son, Elerion, along with Nienna's evil Drow father, Tray-Dor, and his drider companion, Day-Ron, complete the group. In general, I like articles like this, if only because they give me some sense of what happens in other people's campaigns. I know "let me tell you about my character" is supposed to be cringeworthy, but I genuinely do enjoy this sort of thing (and occasionally indulge in it myself).

"In Search of the 12th Level Mage" by Roger E. Moore is a good article on the much-vexed question of demographics in Dungeons & Dragons. Moore takes a look at the population information provided in the revised World of Greyhawk boxed set and plugs it into the information found in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide regarding the makeup of NPC adventuring parties to arrive at a possible answer. His conclusion is that high level characters of any class are quite rare, especially so for magic-users, who number only about 200 out of every 1000 people (who are themselves only one-tenth of every 10,000 people). Of those 200, only 1 is 8th-level, meaning that the mage of the title would be a special NPC created and placed by the referee. Of course, the question of how many NPCs have classes/levels is itself an interesting one without a definitive answer. Even so, speculations like this are fun and an important part of worldbuilding in my opinion.

Brian Leikam's "In Defense of the Lowly Fighter" is, as its title suggests, a look at the fighter class in Dungeons & Dragons and how to make it more appealing to players. I wrote a post about this article three and a half years ago, so I won't say much more here. However, I largely agree with Leikam that fighters should be more common and better appreciated in D&D, especially nowadays, where the human fighter has more or less become synonymous with "boring." 

"Ravager" is the first part of an AD&D adventure by Jeff Grubb. Though it doesn't mention it anywhere, I assume this was a RPGA tournament scenario at some point, since most of the adventures that appear in Polyhedron began life that way. Its premise is that a bandit-king, the eponymous Ravager, has arisen and, thanks to ancient magic, has made himself effectively immortal. The goal of the characters is to raid a tomb in the Grey Desert that might contain information on how to reverse this magic and render the Ravager mortal again. The tomb is small and filled with traps, tricks, and puzzles, in addition to monsters. I expect it would be a challenge to navigate it successfully. Included with the adventure are six pregenerated PCs whose names could well be Asterix characters: Necromantix, Logistix, Goldbrix, etc.

"The Treasure Chest" returns in limited form, offering just back issues of Polyhedron and four RPGA adventures written by Frank Mentzer, like To the Aid of Falx. There's also a similarly abbreviated "Fletcher's Corner" by Michael Przytarski, in which he muses about crossbreeds among the various D&D races, another much-vexed topic in gaming circles. Przytarski offers no new insights or answers here. Slightly more useful is Jeffrey A, Martin's "Beware the New Golems," which offers up four new golem types: copper, oak, brass, and shadow. The last one is notable, because it's a golem that can only be made by illusionists, something you don't see very often in AD&D, where the illusionist was, in my opinion, and underused and under-appreciated class.

Preston Shah's "Little Miss Sure Shot" was unexpected. It's not just a Boot Hill article, but a history lesson as well, providing historical details and game information on using Annie Oakley in your games. I like articles of this sort, but then I'm also a fan of historical gaming, so I'm probably not a good gauge of how well received articles like this would have been received. "New and Old" by James M. Ward is a one-page preview of some aspects of the upcoming new (third) edition of Gamma World. He also reiterates the oft-repeated promise that TSR planned to do a new edition of Metamorphosis Alpha to tie into it as well. That didn't happen, of course, but I don't doubt that it was planned. 

"Dispel Confusion" is reduced to one page and tackles only AD&D questions, nearly all of which are highly technical in nature. With hindsight, this is one of those aspects of the TSR era of D&D that seems baffling. At the time, though, a fair number of gamers, myself included, really did care about "official" answers to rules questions. Finally, there's Errol Farstad's review of Timemaster, which he thought had "potential to be very enjoyable," even though it still had a few "rough spots." That's a fair assessment, I think.

And that's all folks – the end of my re-reads of Polyhedron. Next week, as I stated at the beginning of this post, I'll share some final thoughts about the more than 20 issues I read during my time as a subscriber. There's frankly a lot to say on the subject and I think it's deserving of its own post.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Shrine of the Sword

A regular reader asked for assistance in finding more information about an obscure, self-published fantasy adventure scenario entitled Shrine of the Sword, written by Paul Mercer and Kevin Conklin, with illustrations by the latter. Here's its cover:

Not much is known about the adventure, not even its date of publication. It's so obscure that there's not even an entry on RPGGeek for it, though there is a very limited one at, of all place, PuzzleGeek. The interior of the adventure is similarly primitive:

Aside from the fact that it's for "higher level characters," Shrine of the Sword is interesting, because it includes eight illustrations intended to be shown to players as an aid to visualizing items and locations within the scenario, much like the illustration booklets included with Tomb of Horrors and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Here's an example of one of them:
It's a long shot that anyone reading this post knows anything more about it, but I know quite a few of you have been in the hobby for far longer than I and have good memories for historical curiosities like this, so I thought it worth a try. Please share your wisdom in the comments. Thanks!

TSR's Latest, Greatest, Science Fiction Thriller

While searching through the Players Manual of the 1983 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set for illustrations of goblins for today's earlier post, I came across this advertisement on its inside back cover.

As you can see, it's an ad for Star Frontiers, TSR's 1982 science fiction RPG. SF – a fortuitous abbreviation – was not the company's first foray into the genre, it was the first into what is popularly imagined by the words "science fiction," which is to say, space opera filled with jumpsuits, robots, aliens, spaceships, and laser guns. On that score, Star Frontiers delivered. Though I was (and remain) a Traveller man, I nevertheless had a lot of fun with Star Frontiers, especially its Knights Hawks starship combat expansion.

What's amazing in retrospect is how well supported the game was. Over the course of four years (1982–1985), TSR published a little more than a dozen modules for it, in addition to the aforementioned Knight Hawks, a referee's screen, character sheets, and then, finally, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space. That's more than Gamma World has ever received in any of its many editions. Despite this, TSR seems to have simply given up on Star Frontiers after 1985, while Gamma World kept re-appearing every so often (to increasingly little success, to be fair). Why was that?

Over the years I've entertained numerous theories, but I have no real evidence of any of them. The most likely is that Star Frontiers simply didn't make enough money to justify the effort. That's not to say it was doing badly, only that it wasn't doing as well as TSR hoped it would do, especially when compared to RPGs like D&D or even Marvel Super Heroes, both of which had a much higher return on investment during the same time period. TSR was never a particularly well-run business, it's true, but I suspect even they would recognize when their resources might be better spent on other more lucrative projects.

Again, I have no idea if this theory is true. It's just as plausible that someone in the company simply disliked the game and wanted it canned or that the main movers and shakers behind it moved on or could no longer devote much effort to developing it. Whatever the reason, it's a shame, because, as I said, Star Frontiers was fun and had some interesting setting and game mechanical elements. I would have liked to see how it evolved if it had been given the time to do so. Ah, well!

A (Very) Partial Pictorial History of Goblins

During the course of looking into the pictorial history of kobolds last week, I noticed that, starting in the late First Edition AD&D era and extending into early Second Edition, kobolds started looking more goblin-like in illustrations. This was particularly striking in light of Dave Sutherland's original depiction of them as short, horned, scaly dog-men, a depiction unique to old school Dungeons & Dragons. Thinking further on the matter, I began to ponder just what I meant by "goblin-like." Had my notion of a goblin in D&D been similarly influenced by the depictions of them to which I'd been first exposed during my entrance into the hobby of roleplaying? Given the popularity of my kobold post last week, I thought this a question worth investigating.

So far as I can tell, the very first depiction of a goblin in any Dungeons & Dragons product is this one from the original 1974 release of the game. Drawn by Greg Bell, this early goblin looks to me more like a deranged dwarf than a monster in the usual sense of the term:

Dave Trampier provided the illustration for goblins in the AD&D Monster Manual (1977) and I suspect this is the ultimate source for my own imagining of what they look like:
In the same year, Minifigs in the UK produced a series of Dungeons & Dragons miniatures that included goblins among them. Here's one that looks to be quite similar to Trampier's art, right down to the little horned helmet:
In 1980, Grenadier Models produced its own take on goblins, which, again, are broadly consonant with Trampier's depiction, though, to my eyes anyway, they seem slightly more feral. 

1981 is the year Tom Moldvay's D&D Basic Set is released. Though the rulebook does not include artwork for any of the game's traditional humanoid enemies, it does include this Dave LaForce – were all of TSR's early artists named Dave – piece from the alignment section in which there's a bound and gagged figure whom my childhood friends and I assumed was a goblin. He certainly matches many of the characteristics associated with goblins, though he seems to be taller and less stocky than previous depictions.
Like the Moldvay Basic Set, Frank Mentzer's 1983 revision does not include any illustrations of its monstrous humanoids. However, in its solo adventure, there is the following piece of artwork (by Jeff Easley) that, from context, would seem to depict goblins. Once again, they wear horned helmets.
The same year, the Doug Niles D&D Basic adventure, Horror on the Hill, was published. The adventure's primary antagonists are goblins and hobgoblins. Jim Holloway provides numerous illustrations throughout the module, but, aside from a couple of contextual clues, it's not at all clear (to me anyway) when he's depicting a goblin and when he's depicting a hobgoblin. A big of why that's the case is that the two races look very similar to one another. Are these two goblins or hobgoblins? Regardless, I think they're representative of Holloway's broader take on these humanoids.
In the third and final season of the D&D cartoon, there's an episode entitled "The Dungeon at the Heart of Dawn" that features a character who looks very much like Dave Trampier's original Monster Manual illustration of a goblin, though he's not explicitly called a goblin. He even has – yet again – a horned helmet, although, in this story, the horns serve to focus a magical blast that he shoots from his helmet. 
Second Edition's Monstrous Monstrous Compendium (1989) gives us a different Jim Holloway take on goblins. You can definitely see in this piece an evolution of Trampier's original, right down to his pose. He still wears a small helmet, albeit one without horns. This goblin is a bit more wizened in appearance than his 1e counterpart, which, strangely, calls to mind Greg Bell's dwarf-like OD&D version.
Finally, there's this goblin image from the 2e Monstrous Manual (1993) by an artist I can't quite identify. He's vaguely reminiscent of Holloway's goblins from Horror on the Hill, but also seems vaguely "fairy tale-ish" in his attire, particularly the oversized shoes. 

As the title of this post implies, this is an incomplete examination of the evolution of goblins in TSR era Dungeons & Dragons. I am sure there are other illustrations depicting this classic evil humanoid to be found during the period between 1974 and 2000, but I've presented here only those with which I am most familiar. If there are other examples from this period you think are particularly relevant to this discussion, please feel free to post them in the comments. This is especially true if the depiction differs radically from what we see above. My own take on goblins from the Dwimmermount and Urheim setting of Telluria owe a lot, I think, to the illustrations I saw in the TSR products of my youth, which just goes to show how important evocative artwork is in bringing a game and/or setting to life.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Retrospective: Trader Captains and Merchant Princes

FASA's Star Trek the Role Playing Game was one of my favorite RPGs in my youth, eclipsing even Traveller in my affections, if you can believe it. One reason for this is that Star Trek was my first fandom. I was initiated into the mysteries of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future by my paternal aunt, who was a teenager when I was born. She was thus old enough to have been a fan of The Original Series during its initial broadcast and to be close enough to my own age that we shared a lot of interests (she also took me to see Star Wars in 1977 and introduced me to Kolchak: The Night Stalker). 

Before she married, my aunt still lived with my grandparents, which I visited nearly every Saturday. That was also the day when a local independent TV station showed reruns of Star Trek, which we'd watch together. This weekly ritual, started when I was quite young, made me a devoted fan of the series, long before it became heavily merchandised (though there were still a few tie-in products kicking around). My earliest conceptions of science fiction were thus strongly influenced by Star Trek.

Another reason is that FASA's RPG adaptation is a very good one that, in my opinion, did a great job of capturing the vibe of what Star Trek was like in 1982, when what is now a bloated, sclerotic franchise devoid of good ideas (James, tell us how you really feel) was still as wide open and rife with possibilities as the Final Frontier itself. Recall that, at that time, we had only The Original Series itself, its short-lived animated continuation, two movies, and a fairly small number of comics and novelizations. That was in the process of changing, of course, but, upon its publication, Star Trek the Role Playing Game still felt like it belonged to the looser, more freewheeling era of fandom my aunt had introduced to me.

So, when FASA released the Trader Captains and Merchant Princes supplement in 1982, I immediately snapped it up. I've mentioned my love for it previously, but, until now, I've not had the chance to talk about it in any detail. Where Star Trek the Role Playing Game was (obviously) devoted to Starfleet characters and their exploration of the galaxy, this 52-page book focused on civilian characters, specifically "traders, privateers, merchants, con-men, and rouges [sic]," as its back cover boasted. If you're the sort of person who ever watched "The Trouble with Tribbles" and wondered what other shenanigans Cyrano Jones might have gotten up to or imagined what life was like for Harcourt Fenton Mudd as he perpetrated his illicit schemes at the far corners of space. this is the supplement for you.

For myself, all of that was compelling, no doubt, but what really grabbed my interest was simply learning more about life on the fringes of the galaxy's Great Powers. Up to this point, everything we'd seen of Star Trek was about Starfleet and the Federation, leaving me to wonder what else there might be to do out there among the stars. Characters like Jones and Mudd hinted at the existence of people living on the edge, doing what they needed to turn a credit while trying to stay ahead of any authorities that might look too closely at what how they earned their livings. Roddenberry had, after all, originally pitched Star Trek as Wagon Train in space, so it only made sense that there'd be futuristic gamblers, rustlers, and snake oil salesmen out there somewhere. This supplement let you play them.

In addition to new character generation options, like the Merchant Academy, Trader Captains and Merchant Princes also offered both new personal equipment and new starships. The latter were especially interesting to me, because they were all small craft, with a crew complement of no more than a dozen, which made them both the perfect size for a "party" of civilian characters and a nice counterpoint to the huge vessels of Starfleet. The book also included rules for trading, running and maintaining small ships, taxes, tariffs, piracy, and playing the stock market. Topping it off were guidelines for refereeing merchant adventures and campaigns, as well as a sample setting, the Twilight Nebula, an unclaimed area of space at the fringes of the Klingon Empire. 

I'm a big fan of supplements that expand the scope of a RPG, opening up new avenues for fun and exciting play. Trader Captains and Merchant Princes really did that for Star Trek the Role Playing Game, at least for me. I ran a merchant campaign for my friends in parallel with the missions of the USS Excalibur aboard which their Starfleet characters served. I even recall that one of the Starfleet characters spent time undercover as a merchant, operating under an assumed name to learn more about the Romulans' activities in a region of unclaimed space. We had a lot of fun and this supplement gave us the rules and inspiration to make it happen.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #29

Issue #29 of Polyhedron is another April Fool's Day issue, though it actually appeared in May of 1986. The issue features a cover by Tom Wham, which is always a delight. I wish the same could be said of its content. I readily admit that I'm not an ideal audience for issues like this, but that's not because I lack a sense of humor. Rather, I simply dislike forced humor and this issue is full of it. Needless to say, I didn't enjoy re-reading this one. Apologies in advance if my frustration gets the better of me.

"Notes from HQ" is typically ephemeral and focused on RPGA matters. The only genuinely interesting thing in it is the announcement of the Gamers' Choice Awards. "Unlike other gaming industry awards, for which the winners are chosen by manufacturers and special panels, these awards are given to those companies whose products are judged the best by the most qualified judges of all – the gamers themselves." I must be old, because I don't recall ever hearing of these awards before. On the other hand, I was never much of a con goer, so that might explain my ignorance. 

Skip Williams gives us "The Lighter Side of Encounters II," a sequel to his article in the previous year's April Fool's Day issue. Like its predecessor, what makes the article interesting is not so much its content as the origin of the content, namely AD&D campaigns run by the Lake Geneva staff of TSR, in this case Williams himself and Frank Mentzer. Williams presents two different encounters, one involving a mad dash through a dungeon and another about trying to prevent a pit fiend from regenerating, that aren't exactly humorous in context, but that seem so when presented in isolation. They're the kinds of things that happen in any RPG campaign played with friends and I love them for that reason. This article is probably the best in the issue and it's because it's the most "serious."

"The Camel's Nose" by Mike Selinker is an AD&D adventure that takes up 16 pages – half of the issue. It's a humorous scenario for six pregenerated player characters, all of whom are valley elves with ridiculous names like "Tattieboggle Spauldrocky" or "Arglebargle Collieshangle." These characters are tasked with protecting a talking camel (a cleric of the Camel Lord, Camelopardus), on his journey across the Burning Desert to a shrine of his deity. He brings with him a sacred rock called the Camel's Nose and ... well, I think you can probably guess where this is going. The adventure is filled with puns and humorous allusions and general silliness, like the Camels Oasis shopping center. I'm sure someone might find it funny, but that someone is not me.

Selinker returns with "The Ecology of Tiamat," which is a rambling dialog between Feargall the All-Noxious and Greenhorn the dim as they "humorously" discuss Feargall's many encounters with Tiamat. It's strange, self-referential, and fourth wall-breaking and, again, I just found it tedious. Your mileage may vary. "Fractured Spells" by Rick Reid is a collection of goofy spells for all magic-using classes, from neutralize person to detect chum to continual lice and more. As you can see, they're all based on puns or misreadings of pre-existing spells. I'll give the author points for cleverness, but not much else.

"The Gods of the Gamma World Game" by James M. Ward is a very strange article. Ward presents five larger-than-life characters from the setting of Gamma World, each of which represents "a different ideal." For example, Ren – there's that name again – is the archetypal scientist, while Tobor the Unstoppable is the archetypal robot. If I squint, I can sort of see what Ward's getting at with these characters. They're more akin to "tall tales" like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill than "gods" in the usual sense. That's kind of interesting. However, Ward saddles them all with absurd Gamma World game stats akin to what you'd find in Deities & Demigods and serendipitously provide additional insight for my recent post about that very book and the drawbacks of its presentation.

The issue ends with Roger E. Moore's "Savage Sword of Lugnut the Barbarian," another "humorous" story, this time about a mighty-thewed barbarian and his quest to save a princess from Skuzzdrool the Ultra-Necromancer. It's not very funny, even as a parody of Conan, but's thankfully short, which is more than can be said of "The Camel's Nose." I still cannot understand why half the issue was devoted to that adventure ...

Oh well. One more issue to go before this series ends, which is probably for the best. My patience is wearing thin, especially after this issue.