Monday, April 22, 2024

Witch Hunt

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

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

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

What is Roleplaying? (Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 19, 2024

Small is Beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 18, 2024

At Arm's Length

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Retrospective: Cyberpunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 15, 2024

"Gimme a break!"

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

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

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

Fantasy Master: Michael Moorcock

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

REVIEW: A Folklore Bestiary (Volume 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 11, 2024

The True Birth of Roleplaying

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your service.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Comments

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

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

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

Retrospective: Prince Valiant: The Story Telling Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Polyhedron: Issue #21

Issue #21 of Polyhedron (January 1985) features a cover illustration by Timothy Truman, who produced a lot of artwork for TSR throughout the 1980s before going on to greater success as a comic book artist. The piece depicts the protagonist of this issue's "Encounters" article, facing off against a creature of para-elemental ice, but, as I'll explain shortly, I have some questions. 

The issue starts with another "Notes from HQ" article by Penny Petticord. Her position is RPGA Network Coordinator, which I assume is the title of the head of the RPGA. However, starting with issue #22, Petticord will also be the editor of Polyhedron, taking over from Mary Kirchoff, who'd been on the staff of the newszine since issue #5. She would then devote herself full-time to fiction, writing numerous Dragonlance novels and later becoming part of TSR's book publishing division.

Next up is the aforementioned "Encounters" article by James M. Ward. The scenario sees a young paladin named Ren Grakkan on a quest to retrieve "the most potent of all artifacts," the white cloak of enchanting (or is it charming? The text is inconsistent) for his unnamed lady love. The cloak is found in a cave guarded by para-elemental ice monsters. As I noted, I have a couple of questions. First, Ren is described as a paladin, but he looks more like a classic sword-and-sorcery barbarian based on Truman's illustration. The text at least supports this, since he's described as wearing no armor but only bracers of defense (AC 4) and having Dexterity 18 (hence a –4 defensive adjustment). Even so, he looks nothing like what I'd expect of a "paladin," but perhaps I simply lack imagination. (I suppose it's possible the artwork depicts the cloak's original owner, a barbarian lord, who lost it in battle against the ice creatures, but then why isn't the cloak shown?) Second, this so-called "potent artifact" Ren is seeking makes its wearer's charm and illusion spells harder to resist, especially if the wearer is female. Could it be that Ren's "lady love" is actually a sorceresss who's charmed him? There's no evidence of this in the text, but the thought occurs to me. (Also, why does Ward keep re-using the name "Ren" for his characters?)

Sonny Scott's "Observations from a Veteran Gamer" is short piece of fluffy advice from a long-time player of AD&D who's also a stalwart of the RPGA. I don't mean to be so dismissive, but there's nothing here you've never heard a thousand times before. More interesting is Gary Gygax's "Why Gargoyles Don't Have Wings But Should." The article begins with classic Gygaxian boasting: he speaks of his association with Flint Dille ("Did you know his grandfather invented Buck Rogers?") and their upcoming joint projects. Then, he moves on to his dissatisfaction with depictions of both the gargoyle and the mar(l)goyle from Monster Manual II. The illustrations for both, Gygax says, lack wings and this should be corrected in "some future edition" of AD&D. For reference, here are the two illustrations in question: 

"Don't try to tell me those dark shadows are wings!" Thus spake Gygax.

Gygax also explains that the second monster's proper name is marlgoyle, with an "l," just as it's named in The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. This is one of those cases where, if one knows anything about geology, the error is obvious. In any case, I find this sort of thing fascinating – all the more so because the error was never corrected in any subsequent edition of the game. 

Roger E. Moore's "Take Command of a Titan!" is, by far and away, the best part of this issue and indeed one of my favorite articles ever to appear in any gaming periodical, not simply Polyhedron. In it, Moore lays the groundwork for a "Big Ship" campaign in Star Frontiers. By "big ship," he means a space vessel whose crew numbers in the hundreds at least, if not more. This is territory well covered by both Traveller and Star Trek, but it's not really discussed in Star Frontiers. Additionally, Moore provides lots of ideas on what makes a Big Ship campaign unique and fun. Back in my youth, this article, along with its sequel in the next issue, was a very inspirational one for me. To this day, I find myself longing for a science fiction campaign set aboard a Big Ship.

"Spelling Bee" by Frank Mentzer returns, looking at the ins and outs of a few low-level magic-user spells for AD&D. I'm always of two minds about these kinds of articles. On the one hand, I appreciate seeing the clever ways that people can make use of well-worn spells. On the other hand, some of these clever uses depend on very specific, nitpicky, and possibly tendentious readings of the text. It's a fine line, to be sure, which is why I can't be outright dismissive of articles like this, even as I, as a habitual referee, tend to grit my teeth at some of the more "creative" applications put forward.

"Witchstone" by Carl Sargent is an AD&D adventure for character levels 8–12. It's an odd adventure, because, at base, it's pretty mundane: a bunch of hill giants are causing trouble and it's up to the PCs to deal with them. However, the reason why the giants are more hostile than usual concerns a power play by a giantess wishing to make her son chief. This she does by trickery, pretending she is a witch and arranging for "accidents" to occur that support her false claim. It's certainly interesting in an abstract sense, but I'm not sure how much of this would be communicated to the characters involved in the adventure.

"Five New NPCs" is just what its title suggests: a collection of five non-player characters submitted by RPGA members. None of them are especially memorable. "Module Building from A to Z" by Roger E. Moore is vastly more worthy of attention. In this lengthy, four-page article in which Moore presents the guidelines by which modules submitted to both Dragon and Polyhedron are evaluated. It's a remarkable article for its insight into the culture of TSR in early 1985, as well as into the readership of its periodicals. There are already hints of the "TSR Code of Ethics" that would appear later, for example. The guidelines also allude to the relative popularity of various RPGs at the time, with modules for games like Boot Hill and Gangbusters being excluded "due to low reader interest." There's a lot here to consider; I may need to do a longer post dissecting the whole thing.

I could not bring myself to read "The RPGA Network Tournament Scoring System" – sorry! "Dispel Confusion" covers only three games this month: AD&D, Gamma World, and Top Secret, with AD&D questions taking up slightly more than half of the pages devoted to this section. That shouldn't come as a surprise, but I nevertheless find it notable. What does surprise me is how often the submitted questions amount to "In my campaign, can I do ...?" with the answer usually being, "Yes, if the referee will allow it." What a strange world! This seeking of permission from the publisher is bizarre. I wonder if anyone ever wrote to Parker Brothers to ask about whether it was OK to use Free Parking as something other than an empty space?

Monday, April 8, 2024

Barbarian, Scout, Tomb Robber

Initially, I modeled the character classes of Secrets of sha-Arthan on 4+3 structure of Tom Moldvay's D&D Basic Set, coming up with the following:

  • Adept: An analog to the cleric only in as much as it's a second "caster" class.
  • Chenot: A non-human class occupying a similar niche to the halfling.
  • Ga'andrin: An analog to the dwarf – a "tough" non-human class.
  • Jalaka: A non-human class that combines combat and sorcery – elf analog.
  • Scion: An analog to the thief only in as much as it's a "skill" based class but focusing more on social situations.
  • Sorcerer: Obviously, an analog to the magic-user.
  • Warrior: Fighter.
I was quite happy with this arrangement, because it kept the number of classes down to a manageable number and (for the most part) the classes were all distinct from one another. However, as I've developed sha-Arthan, both through preliminary playtesting and my own evolving sense of the setting as a place, I've come to realize the need for some additional classes – or at least I am seriously considering adding them. 

The proposed additional classes are:
  • Barbarian: Another "fight-y" class but distinguished in part by its "outcast" status, which is to say, coming from outside the major societies/cultures of sha-Arthan. The purpose of the class is to provide an easy "in" for players who don't want or don't yet feel comfortable playing a character who's part of one of the established cultures of the setting.
  • Scout: Since travel and "hexcrawling" are a big part of Secrets of sha-Arthan (including how secrets are acquired), I felt the need for a class whose niche was exploring (which is why I might use the name "explorer" instead). It's a very broad analog to the ranger class, but with more focus on survival and overcoming terrain hazards, in addition to the usual stuff.
  • Tomb Robber: Despite my alleged hatred of thieves, I nevertheless find myself drawn to (and creating) variants of the class. The Tomb Robber is yet another one, albeit one closer to the traditional D&D thief in terms of its abilities. Given the more "ancient world" of sha-Arthan, I felt like the Tomb Robber makes good sense and has a clear place in the setting.
I haven't yet made up my mind about the additional three classes. They'll require further thought and playtesting, but I feel like they all add to the game, as well as the setting. In fact, one of the biggest reasons I like them is that they all – even the barbarian – hook into the setting and kind of gameplay I find enjoyable. The question is whether they bring enough to the table to justify bringing the total number of "basic" classes to 10. (Alternately, I could eliminate the racial classes entirely, leaving seven classes and four races, but that's a much bigger change in my opinion).

Regardless, work on Secrets of sha-Arthan continues. With luck, I might even finish a complete draft before the next total solar eclipse!

Curse the Baggins!

I've long been a defender of amateurish old school art, but even I have limits. 

While re-reading some old Dragon magazine issues from the mid-1980s, I came across an advertisement Riddle of the Ring, a Middle-earth boardgame originally released in 1977. The ad mentions that a new edition of the game, from Iron Crown Enterprises, which, at the time, held the Middle-earth license, was in the works. However, a limited number of the original edition was still available from its original publisher, Fellowship Games of Columbia, South Carolina.

The only reason I even paid any attention to this full-page advertisement is that it included examples of the artwork found in the original edition, like this:

Or this:
To paraphrase the great philosopher David St. Hubbins, there's a fine line between charming and just bad and I find it difficult to judge either of the examples of Riddle of the Ring's artwork above as anything but the latter. Maybe that's unfair, given the relatively early publication date of this game and the likely limited resources of the publisher. I understand that they're not going to look as awesome as the Brothers Hildebrandt Tolkien calendars of the same era, but, surely, they should be better than this.

Am I wrong?

Can You Go Home Again?

Despite my preference for playing RPGs with a group of friends, I've long enjoyed video and computer games. In fact, over the past Christmas holiday season, I finally completed Legend of Grimrock, a computer game I bought more than a decade ago and never finished. The premise of Legend of Grimrock is that the your party of four characters have been accused of crimes they (probably) didn't commit and must serve their sentence within the dungeons of Mount Grimrock. If they somehow survive its dangers, they will be absolved of their crimes. Of course, no one has ever escaped Mount Grimrock, so the odds of their doing so are not good.

I had a lot of fun with Legend of Grimrock (and, earlier this year, its sequel). It's a tough, occasionally frustrating dungeon whose challenges are a mix of puzzles, traps, resource management, and, of course, combat. In fact, I had such a good time playing it that I experienced a little bit of sadness when I finished the game. I wanted there to be more and there wasn't, so I naturally set out to find other games that might scratch the same itch. Surprisingly, there weren't a lot of computer or video games out there that had quite what I was looking for – at least not current video games (by which I mean, games released within the last decade or so). 

Fortunately, fondness for and appreciation of the products of earlier eras is not limited to the realm of tabletop roleplaying games. Indeed, I suspect there is probably even more nostalgia for old video and computer games, if only because of their greater popularity and reach. In recent years, quite a few publishers have made their older games available once again, after making small updates so that they'll run on modern hardware. That's when the idea struck me: why don't I play one of those older games – go right back to "the source," so to speak? Surely that would help me over my feeling of letdown after completing Legend of Grimrock.

So, I picked up a copy of Pool of Radiance, a computer game for which I have fond memories. Not only was this the first computer game to make use of the Dungeons & Dragons rules, it came out during my time away at college. I never owned the game myself – I didn't yet have a computer, this being 1988 – but a friend of mine did. He kindly let me play it when he was in class and I recall enjoying myself. I never completed the game, so buying it now would give me the opportunity to do so, albeit thirty-six years after the fact.

Regrettably, it looks like I'll probably never finish Pool of Radiance.

The truth is that, for me, the game is too old, both in terms of its content and presentation, for me to enjoy. I suspected this might be the case, since, when I wrote my Retrospective piece back in October 2022, I had the chance to look at lots of screenshots and even the original manual. They reminded me that just how primitive the game is. Now, as an enjoyer of OD&D, there's nothing inherently wrong with primitive and, in fact, there can often be something very enjoyable about it. When it comes to technology, though, the matter is a bit more complicated, since it can be difficult to unlearn what you have already learned.

In the case of Pool of Radiance, its user interface is awkward and clunky, designed for use with computer hardware that no longer exists. Likewise, the graphics are often difficult to read/recognize on a modern computer monitor. That made doing almost anything in the game slow and unintuitive, thereby detracting from my enjoyment. Further, the game design is very tedious and grindy – almost as if the stereotype of old school tabletop RPGs were true! Rather than challenging my wits, the game challenged my patience and I soon found I was unable to play it with any pleasure.

It's a great shame, because I was looking forward to playing Pool of Radiance to its conclusion, after all these years. I wonder if the problems are really with the game itself or with me. It may simply be the case that I've grown so accustomed to the way modern games work that I can't get myself back into the headspace to appreciate older ones. If so, that makes me wonder if something similar might be going on with people who claim they can no longer play older tabletop RPGs. Is this a case where "technology," broadly defined, so alters our mental frames that it inhibits or even impedes our ability to make use of earlier versions of itself? I don't know if this is true, but it's a fascinating thought.

Regardless, I still don't have a good replacement for Legend of Grimrock. Any suggestions?

Saturday, April 6, 2024

REVIEW: Terror in the Streets

Allow me to say once again, as I always do, that I am a huge fan of historical fantasy. From what I can tell, my fondness for it is unusual, both among RPG players and among RPG writers and broadly for the same reason: the perception that it's hard to get right – especially when there are legions of know-it-all armchair historians out there positively salivating at the possibility of uttering the dread incantation Ackchyually the moment they detect even the slightest deviation from the historical record. Consequently, I don't blame anyone who chooses to shy away from venturing anywhere near real world history in their RPG sessions or products.

Nevertheless, I remain deeply grateful to publishers like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and writers like Kelvin Green for their willingness to sate my peculiar tastes for fantastic adventures set in this world's historical past. Terror in the Streets – no, I won't be using the acronym – is a clever, well-presented and, above all, fun example of just how you can use real world history as a backdrop for a fantasy RPG adventure without either getting too bogged down in pointless minutiae or giving that history its proper due. It's not perfect by any means, but Terror in the Streets is very good.

Before proceeding to the meat of this review, I should add that there are, in fact, two different versions of Terror in the Street. The first (and the one I'm reviewing in this post) is a 96-page A5 hardcover book featuring a cover painting by Yannick Bouchard. The second version, entitled Big Terror in the Streets – no, just no – is a boxed set that features a lot of additional goodies, like a map of the city of Paris in 1630, player handouts, cardboard cut-outs, and a large yellow six-sided Unrest Die (for tracking the progress of civil unrest), in addition to an additional book, the 48-page Huguenauts and Other Distractions. Unfortunately, I don't believe Big Terror in the Streets is available in any form any longer, though there may still be copies of it floating around in secondary markets. That's a shame, since Huguenauts and Other Distractions has much to recommend it and indeed provides worthwhile fodder for anyone who continues to worry that historical fantasy is hard to get right. (If I find that the book is available, I'll do a review of it as well.)

Terror in the Streets is a murder mystery set in early 17th century Paris – "Jack the Ripper, but 250 years early," as the author describes it in his introduction. There's a serial killer of children loose in the city and it's up to the player characters to stop him. Just how and indeed why they might do so is an open question, one of many ways that Terror in the Streets might be called a "sandbox" adventure. Other than a timeline that dictates when and where the killer strikes (along with other key events), the course of the adventure is largely determined by the choices of the player characters, as they investigate, interact with NPCs, and deal with random encounters. 

This is, in my opinion, the only way to structure a murder mystery adventure without resorting to a more heavy-handed approach. Yes, this structure carries with it the risk that the characters might get lost in the weeds, wasting too much time on red herrings – of which there are quite a few in Terror in the Streets – and other irrelevant complications. However, the advantage of this more open-ended structure is that it's much more forgiving to the referee trying to keep track of all the moving parts that make up the scenario. Plus, the timeline, which exists independently of character actions, serves as a useful way to nudge their attention back toward more pressing matters. And there are even guidelines for what might happen if the characters fail to stop the killer, which is quite refreshing.

While the murder mystery scenario is a genuinely compelling one that nicely leverages multiple aspects of real world history, like the tensions between political and religious factions within Paris, it's not the only appealing thing about Terror in the Streets. Equally interesting in my opinion is its presentation of 17th century Paris – its districts, landmarks, taxi service companies, encounters, and, above all, unique NPCs – in effect a mini-gazetteer of the city. Taken together, these elements give the referee everything he needs to keep the characters engaged while in Paris, not just for this adventure but for others as well. It's nicely done and, reading through it, I found myself wishing that LotFP produced more material like this in the future.  

The only aspect of Terror in the Streets that might be considered a flaw is Green's humor-laden conversational style of writing. This is not a book whose author takes himself or the material too seriously. Consequently, there are asides, digressions, and meta-commentary scattered throughout, usually to good effect. Green is quite open about his inspirations and the shortcomings/limitations of the adventure, which is genuinely refreshing and indeed helpful. However, there are also occasional moments of goofiness and sly winks at the reader, like a mad wizard with wild hair and a beard named Alain de la Mare. These don't necessarily detract from the scenario, but I can easily some players and referees finding them off-putting, particularly those who prefer their historical fantasies straight. For myself, I found most of these elements amusing and felt they nicely demonstrated that there's no reason a historical scenario need be unduly solemn.

In the end, though, this is a small thing and Terror in the Streets is one of the best things Kelvin Green has written for LotFP to date. It's also one of the best historical fantasy adventures I've read in quite some time. Reading it, I was left with a small sense of disappointment that I am not refereeing a game where I could easily make use of it. Terror in the Streets is a well written, well presented scenario that is probably a lot of fun to play. I can think of no better compliment.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Favorites

I've asked this question elsewhere, but it's worth throwing open to a larger audience: which Grognardia posts do you consider your favorites? Alternately: which posts, irrespective of your liking for them, do you consider essential

I ask because I've long considered the possibility of putting together an anthology or digest of Grognardia containing only my best and most significant posts. However, I'm not always the best judge of this sort of thing and can always benefit from others' perspective. 

Feel free to post your picks in the comments or, if you'd prefer, send them to me directly via email address included on the "About Me" tab. Thanks in advance! 

"Are We the Baddies?"

The House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign continues on each week, as it has for the last nine years. One of the things I most enjoy about it are the many opportunities it affords us to explore a fantasy setting that is quite unlike both the real world and commonplace vanilla fantasy settings. This is especially fun for me when the player characters act in ways that are perfectly consonant with the principles of Tékumel but nevertheless surprise their players. This happened in our most recent session and I thought what happened might be worth sharing.

To begin, a brief bit of context: the characters, having returned to Tsolyánu after several game years of having served in the administration of the far-off colony of Linyaró, are now in the employ of Prince Rereshqála, one of the potential heirs to the Petal Throne. They've recently begun to first leg of a very long journey that will take them into unknown lands and ultimately end with the exploration of ancient ruins associated with the non-human Mihálli species. Along the way, their ship put in at an island whose governor belongs to the same clan as Nebússa, one of the player characters. The intended purpose of the stopover was resupply and "showing the flag" on behalf of Rereshqála.

However, Nebússa soon became aware of the possibility that something nefarious might be afoot on the island, with the governor at the center of it. An early avenue of investigation suggested that the governor might be skimming an inordinate amount of money from his collection of taxes, perhaps funneling them toward sinister purposes. Notice that I wrote "inordinate amount of money." That adjective is important, especially in Tékumel. That's because, strictly speaking, there's nothing wrong with a little bit of peculation by a provincial governor. Indeed, it's expected and one of the perks of the job. The expectation that a civil servant wouldn't engage in the misappropriation of government funds is an attitude alien to Tékumel. It rises to the level of genuine concern when said civil servant embezzles too much.

Now, the players – and their characters – already know this. After nearly a decade of playing in the setting, they have a very good sense of how things operate in Tsolyánu and elsewhere. They've (largely) put aside their 21st Western morality and approach Tékumel from the point of view of a native. They might still comment upon it as an out-of-character aside – and frequently do, because it can be a source of humor – but none of them really need to be reminded anymore that the social context of Tsolyánu is not that of our world. Things are done differently here and that's that.

As their investigations continued, it soon became clear that the governor they initially suspected of duplicity was, in fact, being set up by someone else and that the strange things occurring on the island had nothing to do with his theft of tax money. They knew this to be the case when, upon examining the governor's books, it was clear he wasn't stealing enough. Sure, he was embezzling, but he wasn't embezzling as much as they would be in his position. Indeed, they soon came to the conclusion that he was basically honest but incompetent and that someone else was probably behind certain events on the island.

They were right. A political rival on a nearby island was responsible for much of what was happening. When they confronted her, she admitted as much without any artifice. The characters were surprised that she was so open and honest, but she explained that this was simply politics and no concern of theirs. Initially, they objected, claiming her actions undermined the Empire and that, therefore, they had no choice to become involved. She reiterated that her goal was strengthening Tsolyánu through the elimination of a weak rival and, once again, that this was none of their concern. She then offered to buy them off. What would it take for them to stop interfering, leave, and never return?

At first, the players weren't sure how to respond. As they struggled with everything the rival had said to them, they realized they'd been approaching this not as Tsolyáni, which is to say, as subjects of a fantasy empire with a very different worldview, but as 21st century men offended by political corruption. Soon, though, their perspective began to change; the offer held more and more appeal. A few rounds of negotiation and they had managed to obtain a fair bit of magical and monetary assistance in exchange for their silence. A deal had been struck and they were on their way, prompting one of the players to ask, "Are we the baddies?"

The session was a terrific one. Everyone involved had a lot of fun and laughed at what had ultimately transpired. I personally found it enjoyable, because I got to present Tékumel as a "real" place that operates according to its own rules, ones that are frequently at odds with those of our world. To me, that's one of the best and most vital parts of roleplaying: being able, if only for a while, to be transported to another place and to see that place through alien eyes. I wouldn't want to live on Tékumel, but it is an interesting place to visit.