Monday, February 28, 2011

Decline and Fall

Over the course of the more than two years I've been running the Dwimmermount campaign, the number of players involved has fluctuated from month to month, with at least three players becoming irregular in their attendance or dropping out entirely, except for occasional "guest appearances." Now, unfortunately, one of the rocks of the campaign, Dordagdonar's player, has moved out of the city and, while he plans to come back into town as often as possible, it's unlikely to be more than once a month, at least for the foreseeable future.

That rather puts a damper on things. I'd originally conceived of the campaign as one where players could drop in or out without doing too much violence to the flow of things and that worked well enough for a while, but, as the campaign barreled on, Dordagdonar became one of the points around which a lot revolved. No one planned it this way, least of all myself, who did everything I could to keep the campaign as "open" and "loose" as possible. But as anyone who's run a campaign for any length of time knows, it's impossible to prevent the way that some characters (and their players) become essential to its continuance. Dordagdonar and his player are examples of such and so, for now anyway, the campaign will move much more slowly than I'd originally imagined it would.

That leaves me with some players left behind and several weekends free each month, so I find myself contemplating the start of another campaign to fill the void. I generally don't like the idea of "mini-campaigns" or "one shots," since I prefer that campaigns decide for themselves how long they run, not the players. So, if I do start up a new campaign to run in the gaps between now-monthly Dwimmermount sessions, there's always the chance that it could become something long-lasting, perhaps even rivaling Dwimmermount's 60+ sessions.

I'm still not sure that I'm even going to do this. I need to confer with my remaining players and see how things unfold. If it does happen, though, I'm tending toward science fiction this time around, perhaps using my Thousand Suns rules. I've become rather fascinated -- maybe "obsessed" is a better word -- with the fall of the Roman Republic and I've begun to think that a space opera set against a similar backdrop might be a lot of fun. I'm not a big fan of most contemporary SF (shocking, I know!), preferring stuff written in the 50s through 70s, a lot of which are set during the reigns of galactic empires. Now, galactic empires are cool, but I think declining galactic republics/federations are just as cool. Indeed, from a roleplaying perspective, I actually think there's a great deal more scope for adventure during the final days of a democracy gone rotten. That's probably why, for all their manifest faults, I still retain a certain liking for the Star Wars prequels. There's so much wrong with those movies, but the overall setting is not one of them.

Anyway, these are just idle thoughts at the moment. All I know for sure is that I'd very much like to keep up a regular RPG campaign of some sort. Without one, all the blather I engage in here rather loses its point and I'm not yet ready to retire my keyboard, much as I'm sure many wish I would. More on this as it develops.

Fritz Leiber Comic

I'm not an aficionado of web comics, so, if reader Griffin Pelton hadn't pointed me toward this comic on library-related blog, Unshelved, I probably wouldn't have noticed it. That is, unless my librarian wife didn't point it out to me first. Anyway, enjoy!

©Jim Zubkavich, Edwin Huang, and Misty Coats

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Ring of Set

Written in 1960 but not published until 1977 (in the anthology Swords Against Darkness), "The Ring of Set" is Richard L. Tierney's first tale of Simon of Gitta, the Samaritan gladiator-turned-sorcerer who lived during the 1st century A.D. Simon of Gitta is a fictionalized version of the Biblical personage Simon Magus, who appears as Saint Peter's antagonist in the Acts of the Apostles and after whom the sin of simony (the buying and selling of Church offices) is named. Tierney, however, portrays Simon is a largely positive light, turning him into a magical adept doing battle against the Cthulhu Mythos as reinterpreted through the lens of Gnosticism, with Yog-Sothoth standing in for the Demiurge.

Tierney is a fascinating writer. He has a long association with the writings of both Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, an association that comes through quite clearly in "The Ring of Set." Much of Tierney's fictional output was devoted to several novels (in collaboration with David C. Smith) about Roy Thomas's Red Sonja, a character Tierney and Smith tried to portray as someone more genuinely "Howardian" than her original conception. Whether they succeeded or not remains a matter of debate. Tierney also wrote a Bran Mak Morn pastiche (again with David C. Smith), as well as editing two collections of Howard's historical yarns. He's notable too for having been one of the earliest Lovecraft commentators to suggest that August Derleth had distorted the meaning and themes of HPL's stories, a position that was controversial in the early 1970s but has since become widely accepted.

What's interesting is that, while critical of Derleth's presentation of the Mythos, Tierney nevertheless makes some use of it, albeit from a skewed perspective. Tierney's Gnostic-tinged vision accepts that the Great Old Ones are in rebellion against the Elder Gods, but Tierney portrays the Elder Gods as distant and uncaring about humanity and the myriad other creatures that have arisen in the universe they have created. In this environment, humanity can expect no celestial aid against the Great Old Ones and must instead use whatever resources are at hand to preserve itself in a cold, unfeeling universe. Given that, Simon of Gitta's sorcerous adventures make a great deal of sense. As a "true spirit," who understands the nature of reality, he seeks out spells and ancient artifacts to aid him in his quest for transcendence.

"The Ring of Set" is thus a fun sword-and-sandal tale about Simon's efforts, on behalf of his current mentor, Ka-nephru, highest priest of Ptah in Thebes, to obtain a cursed ring -- the eponymous Ring of Set -- that has been stolen and put up for auction in Rome, where its eventual buyer is none other than the emperor Tiberius. Simon attempts to warn Tiberius of the ring's danger:
"The ring is old, older than all the nations of the earth. It was owned by Thoth-Amon, a sorcerer who lived ten thousand years ago in the land which is now called Egypt. The ring was old even then, but Thoth-Amon learned of its powers and used them to call up demons to do his bidding. His enemies died with the marks of fangs and claws on their bodies, and for a time none could resist his power.

"Yet the ring was not all-powerful: Once, Thoth-Amon invoked its power to destroy a king -- but the king had an ally who a greater sorcerer than even Thoth-Amon, and the ring's power was turned aside The king lived, and later Thoth-Amon died, but the curse was still on the ring and has never been lifted. Since then several kings have tried to wear the ring, but each died a terrible death, so that at last the priests of Egypt hid the thing beneath one of their altars -- and there it lay for nearly ten thousand years, until Diomed's curiosity brought it to light once more."
Tierney is here referencing the very first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword," where Thoth-Amon makes his only canonical appearance in the Hyborian Age. It's also worth noting that Howard himself used the Ring of Set outside of "The Phoenix on the Sword," placing it in the Lovecraft-inspired John Kirowan story, "The Haunter of the Ring."

Tiberius doesn't heed Simon's warning, instead arresting him and throwing him into prison. Soon, though, Tiberius' nephew and heir, Gaius, comes to Simon with a proposition:
"I do not mock you, Simon of Gitta," said Gaius, bending forward and speaking in a low, intense voice. There was a strange gleam in his deep-set eyes. "Tiberius pretends to scoff at the hidden powers of magic, but I am not such a fool. Do you know that the Emperor has fallen ill? Aye, it happened but an hour after he had left the auction-place, and though he vows it is but a passing sickness I can see death approaching in his eyes. The ring is responsible, Simon -- I know it is the ring!"

"What do you want of me, then?"

"The ring, Simon -- and the power to wear it. Old Tiberius has named me his heir, and when he dies I will be Emperor of Rome. Yet an emperor has many enemies -- his throne is never secure. With the power of this ring at my command I would never need fear their plots; my enemies would fall to the fangs of demons, and none could ever dare hope to dispute my rule!"
How Simon responds to Gaius' proposition and the events that follow make up the bulk of the story and an enjoyable one it is.

Tierney clearly has some axes to grind, both historical and religious. Indeed, some of them come across to me as somewhat puerile, the kind of thing an adolescent would do to tweak his elders' sensibilities, though little of this is evident in this story. That said, there's no denying that the mixture is Howardian swords-and-sorcery, Lovecraftian entities, Gnostic nonsense, and the ancient Roman setting is a heady one. Despite my dislike of Simon, who's arrogant and self-absorbed, Tierney has created something very compelling in "The Ring of Set" -- so compelling that I eventually read as many of his Simon of Gitta's tales as I could. Though, as I said, I didn't find Simon particularly sympathetic as a protagonist, the world he inhabits is a terrific one and great inspiration for anyone looking to find a way to blend Howard and Lovecraft or to create a dark historical fantasy (or both). Consequently, I recommend the story most highly, if you can find a copy.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Petty Gods Cover

Just in case you were wondering, work on Petty Gods is proceeding, albeit slower than expected. I'll have an update on that sometime this coming week, so please don't pester me about it. I feel bad enough for how long it's taken me to tie up the last few loose ends from it as it is.

In the meantime, though, enjoy this awesome cover image, produced by Thomas Denmark, which strikes exactly the right chord with me. I can't tell you how blown away I was when I saw it. Bravo.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Programming Help

I want to test out a fairly simple world generation system I put together for the revised rulebook of my SF RPG, Thousand Suns, but I'd like to do so by being able to generate a large number of worlds quickly. This suggests to me that a computer program of some sort would save me a lot of time. Unfortunately, I know nothing of programming in any form.

Given my ignorance, what do those more knowledgeable about such things recommend? How much effort would it require to slap together a program or applet that does about 10 random rolls in succession, with a handful of modifiers, and spit out the results in a specific format? I wouldn't think it'd be hard to do, but, then, as I said, I'm no programmer and couldn't do it myself.

Thanks in advance for overlooking my utter ignorance of the subject matter.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Traveller Map Help

I don't usually post anything on Fridays beyond my Open Friday question, but today I'll make an exception. Is there anyone out there who can either point me toward a program or some other method to generate nice-looking Traveller-style subsector maps? If you can, drop me a note either in the comments or by email.


Open Friday: More Envy

I mentioned yesterday that, despite the fact that I don't play Tunnels & Trolls, I'm nevertheless a little bit envious of its fans and the community that's been built up around their game. This made me wonder if anyone else felt similarly about a game they didn't play (or no longer played) and why.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Terminology Question

I'm sure this question has come up and been answered several times before, perhaps even on this blog. If so, please forgive my failing memory, but has anyone ever pinpointed the first (or at least, one of the first) times that Dungeons & Dragons was referred to as a "roleplaying game" in a TSR product or periodical? I don't believe that precise term is ever used in the LBBs or Supplements, but I could be wrong about that. My guess is that the term originated in a fanzine somewhere, possibly even The Strategic Review, but I haven't had the chance to look myself and I was hoping someone better informed than I could save me the trouble.


SIZ Matters

Basic Roleplaying, the "engine" -- how I loathe that word -- beneath the hood of all of Chaosium's RPGs uses seven ability scores, six of which are identical to those found in OD&D, albeit with Wisdom renamed Power. The one genuinely new ability score BRP introduces is Size (abbreviated SIZ), which is described thusly in the RuneQuest 2e rulebook:
This indicates the mass of a character. It affects his ability to do and absorb damage. Both large and small SIZ Adventurers have certain advantages. Large persons can absorb and deal more damage, but find it hard to defend themselves and hard to skulk in shadows. Small people have the opposite benefits and drawbacks. SIZ cannot be naturally altered.
In the pages that follow that description, there are many examples of these "certain advantages." For example, a very small SIZ character gains a +5% bonus to parrying attacks, while a very large SIZ character suffers a -5% penalty. On the other hand, a high SIZ grants a bonus to hit points, while a low SIZ exacts a penalty. Other examples following this pattern abound.

I have to say I really like this approach to ability scores. Ever since I noticed that, in Space Opera, having a low Empathy score can be beneficial in certain circumstances, I've been thinking that it'd be really interesting if ability scores worked similarly in more RPGs. That is, instead of granting a bonus only for a high score and a penalty only for a low score, what if there were bonuses and penalties associated with each end of the range? Suppose -- and this is just an idle thought -- that, in D&D, having a high Strength granted bonuses to hit and damage in melee but also imposed penalties to Armor Class, on the assumption that a very strong character is much more massive and less flexible? Suppose -- and, again, this is just an idle thought -- that having a low Intelligence, in addition to limiting a character's ability to read and speak, also made him more resistant to a magic-user's spells?

I don't like the way that, over time, ability scores in D&D became ever more important, to the point that the AD&D Players Handbook stresses the necessity of having scores of 15 or more in "no fewer" than two abilities. At the same time, I think that abilities in LBB-only OD&D are too sketchy and barely have any reason to exist as discrete mechanics -- one might as well randomly roll for a "Earned XP Bonus" and be dispense with ability scores entirely. But an approach like the one that RuneQuest adopted, extended somewhat, seems potentially fruitful to me (though it is worth noting that, unless I am mistaken, this approach was dropped in most other iterations of BRP in the years since -- is it found in any contemporary version of the rules?). It'd simultaneously end the tyranny of high ability scores and put an end to the notion of "dump stats," since there'd be trade-offs regardless of the extreme to which your character's ability scores tended.

It's worth pondering anyway.

Jim Roslof Gravely Ill?

I've seen scattered reports that former TSR artist Jim Roslof is gravely ill, but I can't find any confirmation of this. Can anyone out there in the ether direct me toward such information?



If, like me, you've ever imagined what it might have been like had Dungeons & Dragons not taken off and eventually become the plaything of a multinational corporation, a good model might be Tunnels & Trolls. T&T is still produced by its original publisher (Flying Buffalo -- man, do they need a new website) and is still controlled by its creator, Ken St. Andre, who remains very active in the game's community of fans, particularly through Trollgod's Trollhalla. Having had the occasion to interact with Mr St. Andre on several occasions, I can't speak highly enough of him. He's funny, self-effacing, and accessible -- an all-around stand-up guy.

Consequently, I feel more than a little envious of fans of T&T fans. In many ways, they have the kind of situation I wish D&D fans had: their favorite game in print in several editions, the differences between which are small enough not to have permanently splintered their community, and an engaged, down-to-earth creator always ready to communicate with his game's fans. D&D fans have had (and continue to have) parts of this situation, but not all of them and, over the last few years, Time has robbed us of even those.

Unfortunately for me, I'm a D&D guy and always will be. I've read Tunnels & Trolls many times and really appreciate its virtues (which are many), but it's never quite clicked with me, for some reason. I'm not entirely sure why, though I could venture some good guesses if I had to do so. I've hung around Trollhalla and visited several of the T&T-related forums and, as I've said, I've interacted with Ken. All of these things have made me envious of what T&Ters have and, although they're quite generous in offering it to me as well, I've never been able to take it up, since Tunnels & Trolls isn't "my game," if that makes sense.

Perhaps it doesn't, I don't know. All I can say is that I hope T&T fans appreciate what a wonderful situation they have compared to the enthusiasts of many other RPGs. I am envious.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Retrospective: Lords of Creation

An alternate universe I sometimes imagine is one where Avalon Hill, instead of passing on this weird little not-quite-wargame called Dungeons & Dragons, publish it and the center of the RPG universe becomes not Lake Geneva, Wisconsin but Baltimore, Maryland. It's an implausible scenario for a number of reasons, but it's fun to contemplate anyway, not least of all because I suspect my life would have been rather different had the publisher of D&D been in my own backyard rather than halfway across the country. Still, Avalon Hill did make a go, though something of a halfhearted one, at entering the RPG market and one of its more interesting products was Lords of Creation, written and designed by Tom Moldvay, the much-beloved editor of the 1981 Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons.

When I say "interesting," I don't mean that sarcastically. Lords of Creation really is an interesting game and I kind of regret now that I never played it when I had the opportunity to do so at the time of its release in 1984. Avalon Hill made a strong effort to secure a space for their RPG products. Lords of Creation, along with Powers & Perils, RuneQuest (produced under license from Chaosium), and James Bond 007 (acquired when AH bought Victory Games), were all readily available in toy stores, which is where a friend of mine first saw it. Also available were three boxed adventures that, for my money, are even more interesting than the game itself, if only because they show just what a Lords of Creation campaign would be like, something the rules themselves don't do as well as I'd wish.

In concept, Lords of Creation assumes that all PCs, though beginning as relatively ordinary people, have the potential to become a "lord of creation" -- an advanced being with the ability to warp time and space according to his whims. Indeed, the highest level a PC can attain gives him the ability to construct entire worlds, thereby providing an interesting segue for a player to himself become a referee, using the worlds his character creates as the basis for new adventures and campaigns. As I said, characters begin without any special powers, attaining them only through the expenditure of experience points. XP was granted "at the GM's discretion" for a variety of in-game actions, but the most prominent action was the defeating of foes, all of whom had explicit XP awards associated with them. Because, as in D&D, the amount of XP to reach high levels is often astronomical, players are always on the lookout for more sources of it, often leading (in my limited experience anyway) to characters scouring the universe for any and every foe to feed their insatiable XP hunger.

That's a shame, because, in concept, Lords of Creation is a delightfully trippy multi-genre RPG, combining fantasy and science fiction with glorious abandon. It's a game where a murder at a game convention might uncover time traveling aliens in league with the Norse gods who are battling a Voodoo cult led by a mutant dinosaur high priest. Literally, anything can happen and the game provides a perfectly viable rationale for it all in the form of the lords of creation, not all of whom use their powers for the same purposes. Thus, there can be magic, super-science, occult powers, gods, demons, fictional characters brought to life -- you name it. It's a bit silly, if you think too hard about it, but why would you want to do so? But this isn't Encounter Critical; it's not an affectionate in-joke about the hobby or geekdom or anything like that. No, this is a game where Detective Chimp would feel right at home and caters to gamers who understand that, just because you, the player, don't take seriously the notion that Easter Island is a scrapyard for Atlantean robot heads, there's not a good adventure for your character based around that idea.

I'm pretty sure that Lords of Creation was a terrible flop for Avalon Hill. I never met anyone who played it for very long and my own limited experiences suggest that, in 1984, gaming was already too self-serious and narrow in its genre conventions to embrace a game like this wholeheartedly. Goodness knows I was and I looked very skeptically at this game, despite repeated attempts by a friend that we start playing it. Nowadays, I think something like this would get a better hearing. We've seen enough "multi-genre" games not to find the concept so bizarre and I think gamers, while still often self-serious, are much more willing to give wacky ideas like this a try than they were in 1984. Or at least so it seems to me.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Pointlessness of a D&D Movie

The antithesis of weal
I realize, of course, that there's already been a Dungeons & Dragons movie -- two of them, in fact -- but I still myself wondering what the logic was behind the making of these films. How can you make a film of Dungeons & Dragons? It's a question I asked myself back in the days of the D&D cartoon too. What does D&D offer that can be transferred to the big (or small) screen? The obvious answer is that it has lots of stuff, which is to say, monsters, spells, magic items, and even terminology that can then be dropped into a script willy-nilly to give it some nebulous D&D "flavor." But is the presence of a wizard casting a "magic missile" against a "beholder" enough to turn a fantasy film into a "D&D movie?"

Speaking for myself, the answer is an emphatic no, but, clearly, someone somewhere thought otherwise, or else we wouldn't have these awful movies bearing the Dungeons & Dragons name. For them, the name is what's important, because it's a very recognizable one. Nearly everyone has heard of Dungeons & Dragons and has a vague sense that it's "some fantasy game," so having that name attached to your fantasy film theoretically gives it a leg up on its competition. (It'd help if the films bearing this name were actually any good, but that's a different matter entirely) Even so, I find myself wondering: how can you turn D&D into a film? I could understood a movie made about, say, Elminster or Drizzt or the Dragonlance novels or even one set in Eberron, but Dungeons & Dragons in a "generic" sense? What does that even mean?

I remember that, when Pixar made the first Toy Story movie, they approached Mattel about including Barbie in it, so that they could have a recognizable female toy as a character in the film. Mattel declined, because, in the words of producer Ralph Guggenheim
"They philosophically felt girls who play with Barbie dolls are projecting their personalities onto the doll," says Guggenheim "If you give the doll a voice and animate it, you're creating a persona for it that might not be every little girl's dream and desire."
Strangely enough, I feel the same way about D&D. There are no characters or stories inherent to Dungeons & Dragons except the ones you and your friends create at your game table. Unless you reduce the game either to its basic concepts or to a brand, there's nothing there on which to hang a film or a TV show, so why bother? I know the answer, but it annoys me nonetheless.

How to Do a New Edition

DunDraCon 35 just concluded yesterday and among its many seminars was one hosted by Chaosium, in which its president, Charlie Krank, announced that there'd be a seventh edition of Call of Cthulhu released in time for GenCon this August.

Listen carefully -- you hear that sound? That's the sound of Call of Cthulhu players across the world not rising up in anger or exultation that Chaosium has decided to release a new version of the venerable Lovecraftian horror. Why is that? Are Call of Cthulhu just more mature than D&D players? Are they less resistant to change? Are they just not as invested in their favorite game as D&D fans are? The answer to all of those questions, in my experience, is the same: no.

The reason CoC fans aren't incensed by this news is that each new "edition" of Call of Cthulhu is backward compatible with the previous one. With a few exceptions (such as the shift from 1st to 2nd edition, where Charisma became Appearance and Magic Points replaced Power Points), the biggest changes between editions are in terms of art, layout, and content. A new edition might include some new sample adventures or expand the list of Mythos entities or spells, in addition to incorporating errata and fixing typos. Otherwise, though, Call of Cthulhu hasn't really changed that much and it's perfectly possible to run a scenario published in 2002 with your characters generated according to rules published in 1983 without the need for any conversion. How many RPGs can say that?

Long ago in the pages of Dragon, Gary Gygax mused about the possibility of D&D eventually reaching the state where it could be considered "perfected," updated only periodically with new art, layout, and errata to keep it "fresh." That day has never come nor is it ever likely to do so. Perhaps because, unlike Call of Cthulhu (or indeed any other RPG), Dungeons & Dragons is a big business, the backward-compatible, incremental change model Chaosium has adopted just doesn't make business sense. I can't really speak to that, because I've never produced anything that made me millions of dollars -- alas! And given that Chaosium has, more than once, been on the brink of financial collapse, I'm not sure that its business practices can be held up as a model for anyone, let alone the caretakers of the only RPG ever to get its own Saturday morning cartoon.

I can only say that, as a player, I adore the way Chaosium has handled new editions of Call of Cthulhu. It's probably why I own so many of them, even though there was no necessity that I do so in order to "remain current." Maybe that's no way to run a "real" business, but I like it nonetheless, which is Chaosium continues to get my dollars and other companies do not.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Now, That's a Cover

Mike over at the Amazing RPG Fun Pad reminded me of the cover of the Book of Foes for Tom Moldavy's unsung Lords of Creation RPG, which I now reproduce for the delectation of my readers:

Is that not a terrific cover?

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Challenge from Beyond

In preparation for the third anniversary issue of Fantasy Magazine, editor Julius Schwartz -- yes, that Julius Schwartz -- conceived of the idea of a "composite story" called "The Challenge from Beyond." A "composite story" is what some call a "round robin" tale, where one author begins the story and another author continues the story to a certain point, after which yet another author picks it up, and so on. As Schwartz imagined it, there would be two versions of "The Challenge from Beyond," one written by authors associated with weird tales and another written by science fiction authors. For the former, the ultimately authors contracted for the work were C.L. Moore, Abraham Merritt, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long. For the science fiction version, the authors were Stanley Weinbaum, Donald Wandrei, E. E. "Doc" Smith, Harl Vincent, and Murray Leinster. As you can see, both versions of the story had impressive lineups of talent.

I can't really speak to the quality of the science fiction version, as I've only ever read it once and that was some time ago. The weird tales version, however, is a story to which I return regularly -- not because it's particularly good but because I simply adore the idea of round robin stories and see in them something of a parallel to the way many roleplaying campaigns are run. C.L. Moore begins the story by introducing George Campbell who, while camping in the wilderness of Canada, comes across a "queer, smooth cube" as "clear as rock crystal" that is "about four inches in measurement over each worn face." Much as I love Moore's writing, particularly her Northwest Smith stories, I can't honestly say that she does herself much credit in her contribution to "The Challenge from Beyond." Moore does little more than establish an enigma -- the queer crystal cube -- and devotes the rest of her part to musing about its age and origin and how it troubles Campbell's sleep with its luminosity.

Abraham Merritt, alas, does little better than Moore. His follow-up contains some rather amusingly melodramatic prose -- "He felt a chill of spirit, as though from contact with some alien thing. It was alien, he knew it; not of this earth. Not of earth's life." -- but Merritt does at least advance something of a plot. Campbell finds himself drawn into the cube, his ultimate destination left to Lovecraft to describe, which he does in the third part, which is easily three times as long as any other author's contribution. In it, HPL plagiarizes from himself, specifically from "The Shadow Out of Time," by suggesting that it is not Campbell's body but merely his mind that is transported through the cube, exchanging places with that of an alien being that comes to inhabit his human body back on Earth. The alien being is a centipede-like thing, whose civilization explores the galaxy by means of such metempsychosis such as Campbell has now experienced, the realization of which causes the protagonist to faint into unconsciousness.

Robert E. Howard's follow-up is delightful, if only because the turnabout he introduces into the story. Quickly recovering from the delirium brought on by realizing that his mind now inhabited the body of a centipede, Campbell decides to make the best of his situation:
What was his former body but a cloak, eventually to be cast off at death anyway? He had no sentimental illusions about the life from which he had been exiled. What had it ever given him save toil, poverty, continual frustration and repression? If this life before him offered no more, at least it offered no less. Intuition told him it offered more -- much more.

With the honesty possible only when life is stripped to its naked fundamentals, he realized that he remembered with pleasure only the physical delights of his former life. But he had long ago exhausted all the physical possibilities contained in that earthly body. Earth held no new thrills. But in the possession of this new, alien body he felt promises of strange, exotic joys.

A lawless exultation rose in him. He was a man without a world, tree of all conventions or inhibitions of Earth, or of this strange planet, free of every artificial restraint in the universe. He was a god! With grim amusement he thought of his body moving in earth's business and society, with all the while an alien monster staring out of the windows that were George Campbell's eyes on people who would flee !f they knew.

Let him walk the earth slaying and destroying as he would. Earth and its races no longer had any meaning to George Campbell. There he had been one of a billion nonentities, fixed in place by a mountainous accumulation of conventions, laws and manners, doomed to live and die in his sordid niche. But in one blind bound he had soared above the commonplace. This was not death, but re-birth -- the birth of a full-grown mentality, with a new-found freedom that made little of physical captivity on Yekub.

It's completely ridiculous, of course, but joyously so. Conan the Centipede! I honestly think, of all the authors involved, Howard acquits himself the best, as he clearly had fun with his segment and did much to liberate it from the plodding and introspective qualities Moore, Merritt, and Lovecraft had saddled the story with up until that point. Long concludes the tale by having Campbell become a veritable god among alien centipedes, never once regretting the happenstance that enabled his mind to free itself from the bounds of Earth.

As I said above, "The Challenge from Beyond" is, even by the standards of pulp fantasy, a poor tale, with one redeeming feature: it's an example, however flawed, of diverse writers working together to produce something that, in total, no one of them would have written but that draws on, to varying degrees, the contributions of all. That's my ideal for a well-run roleplaying campaign; it's what I strive to attain. Like "The Challenge from Beyond," most RPG campaigns are uneven in quality and tone, but that's inevitable when there are several "authors" who don't act according to a plan. On the other hand, that unevenness can sometimes lead to surprising, delightful places, such as Howard's transformation of George Campbell into an insectoid conqueror. I personally think such unexpected turns are worth the price of unevenness, which is why I have such a fondness for "The Challenge from Beyond." It's not great by any measure but it is fun -- just like RPGs.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

REVIEW: Realms of Crawling Chaos

I'm a Lovecraft snob. I hate plush Cthulhus. I think Pokéthulhu is an abomination. And I'm not looking forward to release of whatever the heck that comedy film about Cthulhu is called. You'll be hard pressed to find someone more annoyed by the way that the Great Old Ones have become, well, domesticated and turned into meaningless geek totems rather than being used as symbols of Lovecraft's cosmic horror.

Consequently, I tend to be very critical of most gaming treatments of HPL's work. Even Call of Cthulhu, which I consider one of the finest RPGs ever written and indeed a model for others to emulate, is not immune to my withering gaze of disdain from time to time. So, when I first learned that Dan Proctor was turning his attention to Yog-Sothothery for a supplement to Labyrinth Lord, I wasn't sure what to think. I'm naturally inclined to trust Dan Proctor, given his authorship not just of Labyrinth Lord but, more importantly, of Original Edition Characters and the Advanced Edition Companion, both of which have aided me immeasurably in the running of my Dwimmermount campaign. Even so, Lovecraft's creations are difficult to translate into game form, particularly when the game in question is Dungeons & Dragons. Despite the legendary status that the lost "Cthulhu Mythos" chapter of Deities & Demigods has among old schoolers, I'm of the (possibly minority) opinion that it's only Erol Otus's near-perfect artwork that gives it any worth.

It's worth noting that Realm of Crawling Chaos (hereafter RoCC) has a subtitle -- "Lovecraftian Dark Fantasy" -- that Proctor uses as the subject of a 4-page introduction that lays out his approach to the book's subject matter. In short, RoCC is an attempt to merge D&D's swords-and-sorcery with Lovecraft's horror to create "dark fantasy." The introduction then goes on to explicate the features of Lovecraft's horror, such as "the insignificance of man," "the vastness of the universe," "science as a double edged sword," and so on. Each feature of Lovecraft's worldview is treated briefly but clearly, undiluted by that of his pasticheurs (although a handful of works by Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith have been added to the mix). The result is, I think, a very "pure" vision of cosmic horror that sets it apart from that of many other RPGs treatments of the same subject matter.

RoCC first presents a number of new Lovecraftian races for use with Labyrinth Lord, in both race-as-class and "advanced" formats. These races are sea bloods (human-deep one hybrids), subhumans (human-voormis hybrids), white apes, and white ape hybrids. A number of new spells and formulae -- complex spells dependent on rare material components -- are described afterward, all of them drawn from Lovecraftian tales. The bulk of the book (20 of its 64 pages) are taken up by descriptions of the monsters, races, and beings of the Mythos, including such heavy hitters as Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep. Eldritch artifacts, which is to say, Lovecraftian magic items are treated too, along with an extensive system for randomly creating new ones. Rounding out the book is an excellent psionics system and a clever way to handle tome -- unfortunately misspelled as "tombs" in several places in the text -- in Labyrinth Lord.

Taken together, RoCC provides all the building blocks a referee needs to introduce as little or as much Lovecraftian material into his campaign as he wishes. I think, ultimately, that's the real genius of this book and the reason why I find it so appealing, despite my little quibbles and criticisms of Proctor's interpretations of Lovecraft in places. This is a toolbox, a word that tends to get overused in my experience, but in this case is very apt. Beyond the introduction, Proctor offers no philosophizing, no advice, no campaign setting -- only stuff to use with your Labyrinth Lord campaign. How that stuff is used is up to each referee to decide and he's free to pick and choose what he wants without being expected to take anything else. Want to add the deep ones to your campaign? Here's the stats for them and there's no expectation you'll also include Father Dagon, Mother Hydra, or Cthulhu, though he can, since there's stats for them too -- along with almost everything else you can find in Lovecraft's writings.

Realms of Crawling Chaos is a great book for do-it-yourself referees, who like to have a bunch of resources available to them from which they can borrow liberally. It's not "ready to play," though, since, beyond its introduction, it offers no guidance on how to use its material, trusting each referee to use it in whatever way he deems best for the type of campaign he runs. Personally, I wish more supplements adopted this approach and hope that the release of this product encourages others to release others in its vein.

Realms of Crawling Chaos is available as a PDF for $4.95 or as a softcover print book for $17.95. The book uses a simple, two-column format and is, except for the aforementioned confusion of "tome" with "tomb" in several places, reads well. The interior artwork is by Sean Aaberg and Mark Allen and includes several quite striking pieces, particularly by Allen, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite artists of the old school renaissance.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a smorgasbord of Lovecraftian races, monsters, spells, and artifacts for use in your old school fantasy campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You don't have any interest in introducing Lovecraftian elements into your fantasy campaign.

Legends and Lore

So, I woke up this morning to more than a few emails directing me toward this column by Mike Mearls, who's now the "Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development Team" -- whatever that means -- and asking me to offer my opinion on it. I'm not really sure my opinion means much on this issue, since I haven't bought a WotC D&D product since 2006 (unless you count PDFs of TSR products) and don't expect that to change anytime soon. Still, given that I received five separate emails suggesting I take a look at the column, I did so and I have a few short observations to offer, for whatever they're worth.

1. Flattering as it might be to assume that the old school renaissance has had any effect on WotC's bottom line, I rather suspect that Mr Mearls's paean to D&D unity is in fact directed more towards fans of Paizo's Pathfinder, who, even by conservative estimates, are a sizable number of gamers who are no longer WotC customers. If any group of gamers' dissatisfaction with D&D IV has had a noticeable impact on WotC, it's the 3.0/3.5 holdouts who've now sworn their allegiance to Pathfinder rather than people like me, who abandoned WotC before 4e was even announced. Granted, I am assuming a business motive for the column and perhaps that's cynical of me, but it seems the most logical explanation for the current head honcho of D&D making a public plea for D&D fans to recognize "that there are far more things that tie us together than tear us apart."

2. Ultimately, any appeal for "unity" is meaningless without a show of good faith above and beyond platitudes. If WotC is serious about trying to win back fans of previous editions of D&D, then it'd be nice if they did something to demonstrate that seriousness. A good first step would be making legal PDFs of out of print material again available for purchase. I don't expect that to happen, of course, but, if it did, it'd go some way toward alleviating the skepticism this column elicits in me.

As I said, my interpretation of the column is deeply colored by cynicism. Corporations rarely admit mistakes, preferring instead to leverage brand loyalty to paper over their missteps. That's what I see here. Mearls's suggestion that "Whether you play the original game published in 1974, AD&D in any of its forms, 3rd Edition and its descendents, or 4th Edition, at the end of the day you’re playing D&D" is an appeal to loyalty to a venerable brand without (as yet anyway) any reason for those of us who've abandoned the brand to return to it. Mearls himself even admits that
D&D is the moments in the game, the interplay within a gaming group, the memories formed that last forever. It’s intensely personal. It’s your experience as a group, the stories that you and your friends share to this day. No specific rule, no random opinion, no game concept from an R&D designer, no change to the game’s mechanics can alter that.
Once you've admitted that, what can WotC possibly offer those of us who got off their train years ago (or never got on in the first place)?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Choose Your Own Adventure Article

Reader Michael Fitzgerald pointed me toward this very fascinating article on the history and development of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series. Here's a particularly interesting quote from it:
Choose Your Own Adventure created a demand for interactivity among its readers, but the series itself was becoming less interactive as time went on. "In the early days of CYOA, we—when I say we, I mean myself and the other writers—had quite a few more endings than later on in the series," Montgomery says. "We had as many as 30 to 40 endings in the first 10 to 15 titles. We were burning up story lines like crazy with all of those different endings. And it was fun, but even if it only took six, seven pages to get to an ending, there wasn't a lot of room for character development, or plot development, or all the kinds of descriptive phrases that you need to build a scene."

It was a simple matter of page count, imposed by the physical restrictions of book publishing: A 118-page story can only let you deviate from the main narrative so far. "A Choose Your Own Adventure is almost the epitome of not giving you choices," says Lebling. "They're—what? One hundred fifty pages, max? So each page or every other page usually gives you two or three choices, and if you multiply that out that's not an enormous number of possible states." Christian Swinehart has charted how the number of endings declined as the series progressed, a sure sign that narrative was taking precedence over interactivity. But interactivity wasn't vanishing, it was evolving and books were no longer the optimal medium with which to deliver it.
I was never a huge reader of the CYOA books as a kid. In fact, I only ever recall reading three of them, Sugarcane Island, Deadwood City, and The Third Planet from Altair, none of which were, at that time (this would have been 1977 or 1978, I believe), marketed under the name "Choose Your Own Adventure," which happened only later, by which time I'd moved on and would soon by playing RPGs. Still, I'm certain these books played an unconscious role in preparing me and many others for later entrance into the hobby and the article is well worth a read, if you have the time.

A Motto for Old School D&D

Stefan Poag, over at Aldeboran, offers up a motto for old school Dungeons & Dragons via Dragonsfoot poster Evreaux:
We don't explore characters; we explore dungeons.
Like all the best aphorisms it cuts quickly to the heart of the matter and is easily misunderstood, which is why I expect it to be a source of much contention. But that doesn't make it any less true.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Open Friday: Anyone Remember This?

That's a piece of artwork associated with a rather obscure bit of D&D-related merchandise from the early 1980s, about which I'll probably talk more in the days to come. As I recall, this piece, along with several others by the same illustrator, were sold as posters through one of the catalog stores (Sears?). Does anyone else remember this?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

REVIEW: Hideouts & Hoodlums

I get a lot of requests for reviews, often of products I've never heard of or likely wouldn't have purchased even if I had heard of them. That's by no means an indictment of any -- well, most -- of these products. I mention it only because there is a happy side effect: I can be surprised. Such was the case with Scott Casper's Hideouts & Hoodlums, an old school superhero RPG based on Swords & Wizardry. I had some dim recollection of the game, based on having read a post on the OD&D Discussion forum (I believe) about it, but I hadn't given it much thought until I received copies of the three PDFs that make up the game.

In the interests of honesty, I'll admit that I initially wasn't very enthusiastic about reading, let alone reviewing, H&H. I'm not a huge superheroes gamer, I don't use Swords & Wizardry, and the PDFs are decidedly hobbyist products, being just a step above word processor outputs with some simple sketches and grainy comic panels inserted to break up the text. But, as I read the text itself, I found my initial, superficial reaction quickly melting away. It's true that Hideouts & Hoodlums could never pass muster as a "professional" product. Of course, neither could the LBBs and those amateurish staple-bound booklets remain among the most imaginative products of this hobby of ours. Hideouts & Hoodlums likely won't set the world on fire the way the LBBs did, but they contain enough of interest to old school gamers at a very low price -- $6 for all three PDFs -- that they shouldn't be dismissed simply based on their appearance.

Like OD&D, Hideouts & Hoodlums consists of three volumes, the first of which, entitled Men and Supermen, is 60 pages long. The first volume presents character generation, whose broad outlines should be familiar to anyone who's played any old school version of D&D. While the six randomly generated ability scores are identical to those of D&D, the class and race options are different. There are three classes: fighters, magic-users, and superheroes. Fighters are more or less as in OD&D and are intended to represent soldiers, police officers, and similar physically-oriented but otherwise normal characters. Magic-users, again, are similar to their OD&D counterparts, though the spells available are different and that affects the flavor of the class, which has more in common with stage magicians and "occult investigators" than with Merlin or Mazirian. Superheroes are a new class entirely, though they're clearly based on OD&D clerics, acquiring powers from a list as they advance in level (and starting with 0 powers at 1st level). Race options include humans, aliens (think Superman), androids (think the original Human Torch), and Mermen (think the Sub-Mariner).

Combat is much as you'd expect in an OD&D-derived game, with a few alterations here and there to accommodate modern weaponry. More interesting are the additions of simple morale and fatigue systems, along with a very clever saving throw system. Rather than using the traditional categories, Hideouts & Hoodlums uses five of its own: save vs. poison, save vs. missiles, save vs. science, save vs. spells, and save vs. plot, the latter of which is used whenever a player wishes his character to break a genre convention, such as giving away his secret identity or attempting to engage the villain before first attacking his henchmen. I'll admit to mixed feelings about genre emulation mechanics, but, at the same time, the plot saving throw is so elegantly done that I'm more willing to forgo my usual concerns. I should note, though, that H&H uses the single saving throw number from standard Swords & Wizardry and the categories I mentioned are merely conceptual ones rather than separate target numbers. Even more clever is the system for "wrecking things," which is available only to superheroes. The system consists of a table -- derived on the cleric's turning table -- that divides objects into categories of increasing difficulty, with doors at one end and dams at the other. To successfully wreck an object, a 1D20 roll is made and the table consulted. It's an elegant way to handle a common element of superhero comics.

Rounding out the first book are descriptions of a superhero's powers and a magic-user's spells. Many of these are based on OD&D spells, but many are original (like the 2nd-level power raise elephant, which allows the character to lift an object up to 8 tons above his head and has as a side effect convincing any drunks who witness the feat to swear off booze forever). Both powers and abilities are fairly low-key, or at least lower-key than one might expect if one comes to Hideouts & Hoodlums expecting a game of modern superheroics. H&H clearly aims to emulate the Golden Age of comics, with its masked mystery men and a Superman who could only "leap tall buildings in a single bound" rather than fly over them. In that context, I think the powers and spells succeed admirably and many contain lots of nice little bits of flavor, such as the one I mentioned earlier. My only real complaint is that superheroes must select powers beforehand like spells and, once used, cannot use that power again until the next day. I fully understand why this was done and can even see some justification for it within the source material, but it still feels off to me on some level, but perhaps this is just an area where I've too fully internalized modern interpretations of superheroes.

The second volume, Mobsters and Trophies is 70 pages long and describes a wide variety of opponents for use against the PCs, many of them familiar D&D monsters reworked comic book-style and others wholly derived from the source material, such as Fu Manchus, Half-Pints, and Ultra-Mad Scientists. "Trophies" are treasures of various sorts, from ordinary, if impressive, pieces of equipment to super-tech to outright magic items. I found trophies to be more of a mixed bag overall than the opponents, perhaps because I tend not to think of "loot" as important in a superhero game. On the other hand, a "trophy" is more than that, encompassing lots of objects and devices that do show up in superhero games. Regardless, the second volume really demonstrates the author's command of the source material, not to mention his ability to translate it into interesting game mechanics. It was, by far, my favorite of H&H's three volumes.

Volume three is Underworld and Metropolis Adventures and is, in my opinion, the weakest of the three. A good portion of the PDF's 42 pages is devoted to the creation and stocking of "underworlds" where criminals congregate and hoard their trophies. As you can see, underworlds are built on an analogy with D&D's dungeons -- an analogy that, for me anyway, just doesn't work. Certainly one can imagine a handful of such hidden lairs, where the PCs must fight their way through its mazes and traps to reach the villain, but how often can such a setup be used? Granted, a lot of people probably feel the same way about dungeons, but the point remains that the locales of superhero tales, even those of the Golden Age, don't really fit the model of a D&D-style dungeon, but perhaps I'm simply being too literalist. Fortunately, the volume also includes rules for creating and stocking a "metropolis," including a terrific list of "non-heroes" and locales to use for inspiration.

Taken as a whole, I found myself completely won over by Hideouts & Hoodlums, my initial apprehension about reading, let alone reviewing it, having evaporated. As I noted above, it's a very much a hobbyist game -- amateurish and rough around the edges in terms of its presentation and organization. No one is going to be wowed by its appearance, but its content is another thing entirely. What H&H does is show that the basic structure of OD&D can quite easily be used to emulate more than swords-and-sorcery dungeon adventuring. Indeed, what most impressed me was how little OD&D's rules really needed to be altered, let alone replaced, in order to present an excellent emulation of Golden Age superheroics. True, as with the underworlds, there was in my opinion to slavish a devotion to OD&D's conventions, but, even so, I don't think that devotion does the overall game much harm. If anything, it only serves to highlight how wonderfully flexible OD&D's superstructure is if you're willing to use a little imagination, which Hideouts & Hoodlums possesses in abundance.

Presentation: 4 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a cleverly-presented and simple ruleset for Golden Age superheroes.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in either Golden Age superheroes or a superhero RPG that uses OD&D as its model.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Lesson Learned from Detective Chimp

I know I said I wasn't going to make anymore The Brave and the Bold-related posts, but I've had an idea for a post simmering in the back of my brain for a few days now and using Detective Chimp to illustrate my point seemed apropos. Plus, I just like Detective Chimp, who, for those of you who don't know, is an intelligent, talking chimpanzee from DC's Golden Age who solves crimes. You can read all about him here if you're keen to know more.

I can already hear people rolling their eyes about a character like this and understandably so. A chimp sleuth is, on the face of it, pretty ridiculous, all the moreso when he teams up with Batman to take on an alliance of intelligent, talking gorillas -- Gorilla Grodd, Monsieur Mallah, and Gorilla Boss, for those who care -- who've taken over Gotham by turning all its inhabitants into apes. For a lot of people, Detective Chimp cheapens not only Batman but the entire DC universe by his existence and they'd just as soon he never be talked about, let alone be seen, again.

Obviously, the fine folks who made The Brave and the Bold disagree and not solely about Detective Chimp. One of the many signature elements of this cartoon series is the way it uses a lot of third string heroes and villains in its stories, characters like Bug-Eyed Bandit, Calendar Man, Kiteman, and Ultra the Multi-Alien and plays them completely straight. They're not presented as jokes, cynical jabs, and self-satisfied critiques of the DC universe. Instead, they're treated seriously as credible friends and foes of Batman, who considers a fight against the Polka-Dot Man just as worthy of his attention as one against the Joker.

But treating these characters seriously does not mean they're treated without humor -- far from it! What makes The Brave and the Bold such a brilliant cartoon is that its creators clearly understand that it's not merely villains like Killer Moth, sidekicks like Woozy Winks, or heroes like G.I. Robot who are absurd but even Batman himself. Heck, all costumed superheroes are pretty silly if you spend any time thinking about them. The notion that it's somehow inherently more reasonable for a man to dress up like a bat in order to fight criminals than for a criminal to call himself the Sportsmaster and undertake sports-related crimes is one only a certain kind of diehard fan could make. I love The Brave and the Bold, not just because it's a great superhero cartoon, but because its creators and voice actors did such an amazing job making me accept Plastic Man and Clock King on their own terms rather than trying to judge them based on criteria that, if applied fairly, would consign all superheroes and villains to the dustbin.

So what does this have to do with roleplaying games? My personal feeling is that most roleplaying game campaigns are a lot like superhero comics -- patently absurd to anyone who hasn't already invested in them. I say that not as a criticism but merely as a statement of fact. I shudder to imagine what someone who's not a fan of fantasy and doesn't play D&D would think if he read some of my Dwimmermount session reports. Most RPG characters are closer to Detective Chimp than they are to Dmitri Fyodorovich, which is probably a good thing from my perspective, but that doesn't mean that most RPG characters are living jokes. Rather, what I mean is that it's foolish to fret too much about how much "sense" a campaign makes according to any logic other than that by which the campaign operates. All fantasy looks foolish if judged by the logic of the Real World™, which is why it's usually a mistake to do so.

On some level, I already knew this, of course; it's more or less the way I've been running my campaigns for some time now. But, once upon a time, after I'd been in the hobby for a while, I started to take it all too seriously and I'd look down my nose at stuff I considered to be "ridiculous" without once realizing the irony of what I was saying. A certain degree of seriousness is good, even necessary, for a RPG campaign to engage its participants and to survive, but when that seriousness calls for banishing fun, if quirky, ideas in its name, I weep a little. I mean, where would Dungeons & Dragons be without monsters like the gelatinous cube, the lurker above, the piercer and almost the entire contents of the Fiend Folio? And let us not forget the uncounted puns, allusions, and homages included in its corpus.

So, don't shun Detective Chimp. Invite him over for a banana and a chat about deductive reasoning. You may soon realize, as I have, that your campaign is better off with him in it than flinging feces at it from outside it.

The Past is a Foreign Country (Take Two)

When not regaling my children with tales of airbrushed van murals, I sometimes tell them of these strange things known as "catalog stores." Growing up at the dawn of the 21st century, it's hard for them to imagine the idea of going into a store much of whose stock isn't on display and some of which has to be special ordered to purchase (and will arrive in your hands only days or even weeks later). The best analogy I've been able to offer them is that catalog stores were "like Amazon, except you had to go to a store to place your order and you often didn't get what you ordered immediately." You could also order by phone too, as I remember my mother sometimes doing in the months before Christmas.

When I got into the hobby in late 1979/early 1980, you could buy RPGs almost everywhere, including through catalog stores, like Sears. My first AD&D book, the Monster Manual was purchased this way (from Sears, I think). After reading this post over on Al's blog, I spent a short time poking around the web to find some scans of Christmas catalogs from around the time I started gaming. So far, I only found scans from a little later than the period I'm talking about, but it's nonetheless fascinating to see. Here's one from a 1981 Montgomery Ward catalog:

As you can see, D&D is only present in its late, unlamented electronic boardgame form. I never owned that game myself, but I knew someone who did and it was awful, especially considering it retailed for $44.88. More interesting are those three games -- Merlin, Knights of King Arthur, and Crypt of the Sorcerer -- which were, if I remember, produced by Heritage USA, a miniatures company. The games all include minis and paints, along with maps and simple rules. Again, I never owned them, but I do remember them. Wizard's Quest from Avalon Hill is there too, along with a Ouija board, because, you know, it all makes sense, right? Let's not forget Dark Tower, a much better electronic boardgame than the D&D one.

Here are two pages from a 1983 Sears catalog and are even more interesting:

Here we find not only D&D and AD&D -- with miniatures! -- but also Star Frontiers, Traveller, and Starfleet Battles. If ever anyone needed proof that, even in 1983, tabletop "gaming" broadly defined was way more popular and mainstream than it is today, simply consider the notion of Starfleet Battles being readily available through the Sears Wishbook.

But it gets better:

FASA's Star Trek Roleplaying Game and Space Opera, along with several Avalon Hill bookcase games, including Squad Leader -- all displayed on the same page as games like Risk and Trivial Pursuit. It's as if, back then, no one treated these games as if they were any different than any other kind of game.

That, to me anyway, is the biggest way that the hobby has changed from when I was a young person. In those days, sure, roleplaying was new and a little weird, but it hadn't yet been ghettoized. Kids (and adults) of all sorts played RPGs; it wasn't just a "nerd thing." I've noted before that playing D&D was one of the few activities I ever participated in where I got to hang out with guys who otherwise wouldn't have had much to do with a shy, bookish kid like me. I never forged any deep and abiding friendships with, say, the metalheads or jocks I played D&D with at library meet-ups and other such gatherings, but the fact that I interacted with them at all says a lot about how widespread a fad these games were back in the late 70s and early 80s -- so widespread, in fact, that you could buy them through Sears or Montgomery Ward.

(I'm going to keep looking for more catalog scans from the same time period. If anyone else finds some, please leave a note in the comments. I'd love to see them.)

Retrospective: Non-Player Character Records

With all the talk recently of the use and non-use of henchmen and hirelings in old school Dungeons & Dragons, my thoughts soon turned to this 1979 TSR product, the Non-Player Character Records. Plus, I'm a big fan of record sheets in general, making this product a fun subject for a post. Non-Player Character Records came shrink-wrapped and, if you look at the cover image, you'll see that it's three-hole punched on both sides. That's because the record sheets it contained were half-page in size, so each sheet contained two record sheets, one printed front-to-back and the other printed back-to-front.

The sheets were an ugly orange color, a hue no doubt chosen for its ability to foil the photocopiers of the day, thus ensuring that gamers would be forced to buy more packs of these sheets. I can tell you from personal experience, though, that the color wasn't very effective, even against "public" photocopiers of the sort you found in libraries. I photocopied these things without too much trouble. They were a little dark, true, but they were perfectly usable and paying 10 cents for one of these was a lot more cost effective paying whatever price it was for a pack ($5.00?).

The sheets themselves are quite interesting in my opinion. First, they're a terrific example of economy of space, being able to provide more than enough space to record ability scores and associated modifiers, hit points, weapons (with AC adjustments), spells, equipment, magic items, background information, and class-specific on the front and back of a half-sheet of 8.5" x 11" paper. They're not pretty, true, but they're very usable. On the other hand, I have a huge soft spot for the appearance of 1e record sheets, which showed every evidence of being designed by someone who actually played the game rather than a graphic artist who just went with what looked attractive to the eye. Would that more record sheets were designed that!

Among the information included on these sheets, near the very top, right next to the NPC's name, was a line for "employer." That suggests very strongly not only that one of the intended uses of these sheets was to keep track of henchmen and hirelings, but also that the use of such NPCs was considered a common practice in 1979, when this product was first released (a second printing was released in 1981 and I don't believe a similar product has been released for any edition of the game since). Later on, there's a section of the sheet entitled "employment record," which also strongly implies that a great many of the NPCs the referee is likely to keep track of in his campaign are going to be hirelings and the like.

I can say, from personal experience, that these sheets were used primarily for henchmen and hirelings, who were the main NPCs in our games with sufficient personality -- and, ironically, lifespan -- to justify writing down their game stats on a record sheet. This proves nothing about the wider world of gaming at the time, only that, in the circles in which I moved in the late 70s and early 80s, henchmen and hirelings were used and they weren't treated merely as human (or demihuman) sandbags who warranted neither names nor personalities. And I think the fact that TSR bothered to produce the Non-Player Character Records at all lends credence to the notion that the way we played back then was not some aberrant outlier but was instead reflective of a style of play recognized and endorsed by the game's creators. Clearly, this style largely disappeared over time, for a variety of reasons, but it was real and we enjoyed it.

Terrific reproductions of these sheets, in PDF form, are available for download over at the Mad Irishman's amazing website.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Service Interrupted

Unfortunately, my computer is on the fritz and so will be out for repairs today. With luck, the problem is only a minor one and I'll be back up and running again this evening or tomorrow, but I have no way of knowing at this point. So, until I get back to regular posting, I leave you with this picture of demons -- including Demogorgon -- gambling from the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Forgotten Sutherland Art

I make no bones about the fact that, for me, David C. Sutherland III ranks up there with David Trampier and Erol Otus as one of my favorite artists of D&D's Golden Age. Certainly his artwork lacks the technical skill displayed by Trampier's best pieces or the otherworldly trippiness to be found in Otus, but there's a groundedness to Sutherland's work that I think more than makes up for its flaws. Perhaps it's because the first D&D product I ever owned was the Holmes boxed set, whose cover features a piece by Sutherland, that I was taught early to associate the game with his artwork, I don't know. All I can say for sure is that I like Sutherland's illustrations.

Which is why I was delighted to discover that FGU's Space Marines, a science fiction miniatures rules set published in 1980 and whose setting is a precursor to the Space Opera RPG, includes a whole bunch of Sutherland pieces I've never seen before. Quite a few of them follow:

I love the retro-tech look of this vehicle. It reminds me a bit of the thing Robby the Robot drives around in Forbidden Planet.

Ah, those were the days! When space marine dropships looked like flying saucers!

Here are some soldiers abandoning their damaged hover tank.

Here's a Space Nazi -- I mean trooper of the Azuriach Imperium.

This is a soldier of the alien Hissss'ist. I adore the fact that he's only wearing a helmet and an equipment harness -- no other protection!

This fellow is part of the military of the Irsol Confederacy, wearing powered armor because his species is so used to living in freefall conditions that they cannot operate in a gravity environment without artificial assistance.

An inscrutable soldier of the crustaceous Klackon species.

Not to be confused with this Bug, which is, of course, ripped bloody from the corpse of Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

Here's a soldier of the avian Whistler species. I don't remember these guys from Space Opera, though there are rules for generating avian aliens.

Here's one of the Mekpurr, feudal feline aliens whose population consists such a small percentage of males (and whose females are wholly non-combatant) that they must rely heavily on robots for their infantry, such as this guy:

Jack Kirby and the Ancient Astronauts

Kelvin Green, in his comment to my previous post, mentioned Jack Kirby and the ubiquity of ancient astronauts themes in his work, particularly in the 1970s. This reminded me of an editorial from the first issue of The Eternals, published in 1976, in which Kirby openly philosophizes on the topic. Entitled "Will the Gods Return Someday?", it's pretty good evidence that Kirby was a believer in some kind of Von Däniken-esque worldview, which should come as no surprise to anyone who read his comics.

Anyway, here's what Kirby had to say in his editorial:
If they truly exist, I believe they will. Of course, I speak of gods in the historical sense, the kinds of beings who stop ashore from places unknown and impress us with their very images, their manner of communication, and, above all, their display of transcendent power.

The Aztecs, who outnumbered the forces of Cortez by astronomical odds, were completely cowed by the sight of the Spaniard's horse and the effects of his cannon. Were they overcome by their own fear of the supernatural- or were they awed by what they viewed as the fulfillment of their own prophecy- the return of Quetzalcoatl and his band of super-beings, whose memory survived antiquity?

In my own recollection of the early jungle pictures, there was nothing more stupefying to the chattering natives of remote areas, than the sudden appearance of the movie's hero, whose "big white bird" had crash-landed in the center of the village.

Sure, they made him a god, And, if it had really happened, those natives would still be weaving tales about him today.

However, my point is, how often has this kind of thing happened in our past? How many of these so-called gods have stumbled upon this boondock planet called Earth? How many of them have inspired the potent myths which not only laid the groundwork for man's many religions, professions, and sciences, but have left man with a massive mystery on his hands- one that just won't go away...

With the daily accumulation of new artifacts all over the globe, and the simultaneous input of UFO "flapology" on a worldwide scale, humankind is straining its "group memory" to dredge up a proper picture of the ancient past, in order to deal with the provocative incidents of contemporary issue.

The compelling quality inherent in this type of theme has led me to project its mystifying questions into comic magazine storytelling. It's natural for myself and for the comics fan who dearly loves the world that lies between fantasy and fact. We are, in a word, "sympatico".

Still, despite the fact that I've contrived my own version of those momentous confrontations of prehistory, I take them from the de facto questions of today.

What did happen in those remote days of man's early struggle for civilized status? What is the true meaning of the myths which shared a global similarity among diverse peoples? Did beings of an extraterrestrial nature touch down among us and influence our lives to this present day? And then, the all-important question of the lot- are these beings in some cosmic orbit which will lead them back to us someday?

The excitement generated by this last question is undeniable. It leads directly to ourselves, and to how we will react to their arrival. The grab bag of possibilities is a limitless spectrum of spine-tingling visions. They inspire everything from elation to paranoia.

At any rate, we can do nothing but sense the air of this century and look aloft, or listen for sounds not made on this world- or read THE ETERNALS for the vicarious thrill of anticipating, in story and pictures, the astounding experience of coming to grips with the kinds of creatures we imagine the gods to be. Hey, if you're reading this, you're doing it!

Pulp Fantasy Library: Chariots of the Gods?

Initially, I felt a little sheepish at writing a post about this book as part of my Pulp Fantasy Library series, but I quickly decided that, if Erich von Däniken's 1968 book can't be considered a classic of pulp fantasy, very few things could be. Chariots of the Gods? purports to be a work of scholarly research into the involvement of extraterrestrial beings in human history. According to Von Däniken, these aliens -- dubbed "ancient astronauts," in the parlance of the day -- were viewed as gods by the humans they assisted and their handiwork can be seen all across the world, such as:
  • The Pyramids of Egypt
  • The Nazca Lines in Peru
  • Stonehenge
  • The Moai of Easter Island
Von Däniken's "evidence" for his hypothesis is, of course, exceptionally weak, based, so far as I can tell on two premises. First, that because certain ancient structures and artifacts look like modern or futuristic things, they must be modern futuristic things. Second, and perhaps most important of all, ancient humans were stupid and inept and, therefore, utterly incapable of having produced wonders like the Pyramids or the Nazca Lines without the aid of ultra-powerful aliens.

Chariots of the Gods? seems patently absurd nowadays and, yet, back in the late 60s and early 70s, the book became an international bestseller, being translated into 32 languages and selling tens of millions of copies. It also inspired a "documentary" film in 1970 and countless imitators. Von Däniken's central premise was widely adopted by science fiction writers. who continue to use it or variations on it down to the present day. And it's not hard to see why they do. The notion that aliens intervened in Earth's past to produce the world we have today may be pseudoscience, but it's very compelling pseudoscience with a long pedigree, with authors like H.P. Lovecraft employing it to create some of their most memorable stories.

In reflecting on Chariots of the Gods?, I was struck by how weird the popular culture of the early to mid-1970s was. Growing up, this kind of stuff was just "in the air" and I ate it up, even though I was then, as I am now, very skeptical of it. I read lots of books on this topic and saw innumerable TV shows and movies that made use of it. It's even a theme that comes up in roleplaying games, with settings as venerable as Blackmoor and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy including alien visitors as important parts of their background. That probably goes some way toward explaining the appearance of similar ideas in my Dwimmermount campaign, with the extraterrestrial Eld, space-traveling Iron God, and dimension-hopping scientists from Earth. It's the stuff of good fantasy in my opinion, so pick up a copy of Chariots of the Gods? in a used bookstore -- they're bound to have a copy -- and enjoy it for what it is rather than what it purports to be. You might be surprised how many good ideas it sparks in your imagination.