Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cheating Methods

In thinking about the monk class recently, I consulted Philip Meyers's September 1981 article in Dragon, because it presents an alternative take on the class first introduced in OD&D's Supplement II. I like Meyers's approach in the article and it's definitely influenced my own take on the monk (about which I'll talk more in a future post), but what struck me when I was reading the article was the following passage:
Of all the character classes in the AD&D game, the class of monks is the most difficult to qualify for. A monk must have exceptional strength, wisdom, and dexterity, and -- if he or she wishes to survive for very long -- constitution.

The odds of rolling up such a character, even using the various "cheating methods" listed in the Dungeon Masters Guide, are not favorable.
The "cheating methods" Meyers references are those listed on page 11 of the DMG, under the header "Generation of Ability Scores." There, Gygax notes that
While it is possible to generate some fairly playable characters by rolling 3d6, there is often an extended period of attempts at finding a suitable one due to the quirks of the dice. Furthermore, rather marginal characters tend to have a short life expectancy -- which tends to discourage new players, as does have to make do with some character of a race and/or class which he or she really can't or won't identify with. Character generation, then, is a serious matter, and it is recommended that the following systems be used.
Method I is 4d6, discard the lowest, and arrange to taste. Method II is roll 3d6 12 times, pick the six highest, and arrange to taste. Method III is roll 3d6 in order six times for each ability score and take the highest result. Method IV is 3d6 in order but enough times to generate 12 characters and choose the character one likes best.

I've railed against both these methods and the rationale behind them before, so I won't do so again here. What I find interesting, though, is that Meyers explicitly deems these methods "cheating," a feeling I myself shared back in the day. I find it interesting not because Meyers agrees with my, but because it's a case where I think at least part of the culture of D&D players had come to accept a style of play that was not only counter to what Gygax had actually written but that was also counter to the way that Gygax and the Lake Geneva crew apparently played.

As I understand it, many of the Greyhawk players were unrepentant power gamers, rolling and re-rolling until they got the "right" array of ability scores for their characters. This is a behavior I never encountered in my own early days, brought up as I was on the sacredness of the notion of 3d6-in-order, no exceptions. Outside of the DMG, this was the rule in every D&D rulebook I'd ever seen until 3e, which formalized the 4d6-drop-the-lowest. But clearly this was not an approach Gygax continued to find conducive, as it is nowhere canonized in any AD&D rulebook and indeed is noted as being sub-optimal.

The Level Ranges of Classic Modules

The other day I was thinking back on the D&D adventure modules I used in my younger days and noticed a few things about the ranges of levels for which they were written:
  • All four Slave Lords modules (A1-4) share the same level range (4-7). Interestingly, the pre-generated PCs included in these modules are the same in all four modules. That is, none of them increases in level between their first appearance in A1 and their last in A4. This may be a function of the fact that these modules were written for tournament play but it's noteworthy nonetheless.
  • Every B-series module (with the exception of B10, which is intended to be a transitional module between Basic and Expert) carries the same level range (1-3).
  • Modules C1 and C2 were both written for levels 5-7. Like the A-series, these two modules were written for tournament play, which makes me wonder if the 4-7 range was considered ideal for that purpose.
  • D1 and D2 were written for levels 9-14, while, oddly, D3 was written for levels 10-14. These modules were, for the longest time, my canonical examples of what "high-level play" in AD&D consisted of.
  • EX1 and EX2 were for levels 9-12.
  • G1, G2, and G3 were intended for levsl 8-12. What you will no doubt have noticed by now is that Gary Gygax seemed especially fond of the 9-12 level range or thereabouts, as all the modules carrying his byline hover around it.
  • I1 is another tournament module, so, naturally, its level range is 4-7.
  • Module L1 is for levels 2-4.
  • Q1 is the conclusion to the G and D-series modules and so its level range is consistent with those, being 10-14.
  • The S-series of modules vary a bit in their level ranges: S1 is 10-14, S2 5-10, S3 8-12, and S4 6-10. Three of these four modules were written by Gary Gygax, two of which (S1 and S3) are, again, squarely within the 9-12 level range that he seemed to favor.
  • T1 is intended for level 1-3 characters.
  • WG4 was written for characters of levels 5-10, while WG5 is for levels 9-12.
  • X1 is for levels 3-7 and X2 is for levels 3-6.
I think it's fascinating to notice that the modules I remember using were disproportionately geared either for beginning (levels 1-3) or experienced (levels 9-12) characters. There are modules for the "middle" levels (4-8), certainly, but they're fewer in number and almost all have their origins in convention-based tournament play. The main exceptions are the X-series modules written to support the Expert Rules, which suggests to me that there was at least some awareness on the part of TSR that they needed to provided better support for the mid-range of levels.

I should also note that, until 1984, no official D&D module supported play above level 14, which only made sense to me, as, with one exception, no character in any of my campaigns had ever risen higher than that (and most were in the 10-12 range, even after years of obsessive play). 1983, though, saw the publication of Frank Mentzer's Companion Set, followed by the Master Set in 1984, and the Immortals Set in 1985. 1985 was also when Gygax's own Unearthed Arcana debuted. All of these releases substantially changed the perception of what high-level play meant, as exemplified by modules intended for characters of levels 15+, culminating in the ultimate absurdity of 1988's The Throne of Bloodstone, which is written for characters of levels 18-100. I catch a lot of flak for citing 1983 as the end of the Golden Age, but, when you look at the modules produced after 1983, it's hard to deny that something changed.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Oh, Why Not?

Since, I am regularly informed, the old school renaissance is a self-congratulatory hive mind consisting of bloggers who do nothing more than buy each others retro-clones and perpetuate nonsensical memes, I suppose it was inevitable that I'd join the horde of my fellow poseurs by announcing my plan to participate in the A to Z Blogging Challenge. To prove my sheer bloody-mindedness, I'd originally intended to sit this one out, but after I realized that the Challenge actually provided a really good framework for a series of posts I was already considering writing, I figured, "What the heck?"

So, starting on Friday -- the first post will be in addition to the usual Open Friday one -- I'll present a collection of alphabetical entries, one a day, detailing some aspect of the Dwimmermount campaign setting that's evolved over the course of the last two years of play. Many, perhaps most, of the entries will be pure "fluff," but some at least will include little house rules or other mechanical tidbits potentially of use to those who want to import some of what I present into their own campaigns.

As a teaser, the first post is "Areon."


It's funny how time flies, isn't it? I almost forgot to take notice of the fact that today is the third anniversary of my first entry. When I began Grognardia way back in 2008, I had no idea I'd still be going at it more than 2000 posts later. In fact, if someone had told me that I'd be averaging close to two posts a day every day for three years, I doubt I would have believed it and yet here we are.

I started this blog as a place to "think out loud" about the games of my youth, especially Dungeons & Dragons, and I was happy that anyone took an interest in what I had to say. Somehow, without any planning on my part, it seems to have grown into something bigger than that -- dare I say an institution of the old school renaissance (or is it that I belong in an institution ...)? I continue to be humbled and amazed by the fact that so many people continue to drop by every day.

Writing is a very lonely vocation and, while I'd continue to write even if no one read what I had to say, I won't deny that it does my heart good to know that what I'm writing is being read. I especially appreciate those of you who've personally taken the time to tell me how much you've enjoyed what I've written, often relating to me stories of how it has either improved your own games or even led you back to the hobby after a period of absence. I admit I find the stories of the latter sort particularly gratifying and I consider it a job well done to have played even a small part in preserving and expanding the mad love we all share.

Ultimately, that's what this blog is all about: sharing my obsession with other obsessives. I'm not doing this for money -- oh, how I wish I could say I was -- and I'm not doing it for fame -- or what passes for it on the Internet. I'm doing because something inside me drives me to do so, likely the same thing that's driven me to continue getting together with friends as often as I can and entering with them a world of collective imagination. But then I don't have to explain this to anyone who visits here regularly, because it's an experience we all share, regardless of when we entered the hobby or what games we prefer.

Thanks for sharing the last three years with me. Here's to the future, whatever it holds.

Retrospective: Fringeworthy

Fringeworthy is one of those games for which I remember seeing advertisements in the pages of Dragon but never actually saw on the shelf of any game store I visited. Heck, that can be said of the entirety of Tri Tac Games's catalog. Consequently, the game acquired an air of mystery about it in my imagination. Mind you, other RPGs were similarly out of reach for me as well. What made Fringeworthy different from, say, Witch Hunt or Ysgarth was that I was actually intrigued enough by its ads that, had I seen a copy, I would have bought it.

As it turned out, I never did get my own copy of Fringeworthy. However, while in college, I met someone who did own a copy (the 1984 second edition pictured here) and I was finally able to read it. First published in 1982, Fringeworthy is the brainchild of Richard Tucholka, whose name has appeared here before as one of the authors of The Morrow Project. Fringeworthy, though sharing a certain "family resemblance" to Tucholka's earlier effort rules-wise, is very much its own game in terms of its subject matter. Fringworthy postulates a near-future world in which a team of Japanese Antarctic researchers stumbles upon an ancient system of portals that allows travel to alternate and alien worlds. Use of the portals depended upon an alien crystal-based technology that worked only for a select few individuals. Such individuals were deemed "Fringeworthy" by the press and the name stuck.

Naturally, the PCs are among those rare individuals who can use the alien crystal technology to travel between worlds. Such travel is placed under the jurisdiction of an international body, the United Nations Survey Service, which organizes Inter-Dimensional Exploration Teams to visit the other worlds accessible through the portals for knowledge, technology, and allies, the latter being especially important as it turns out that others already have access to the portal system and not all of them are well-intentioned. It's frankly a terrific set-up for a roleplaying game campaign, all the moreso when you consider that this game is nearly thirty years old. In 1982, there was nothing like it on the market and science fiction RPGs were invariably space operas of one variety or another. Had I been able to snag a copy when I first saw those ads in Dragon, I have little doubt that I'd have wanted to run Fringeworthy with my friends.

Except, of course, there's that similarity to The Morrow Project I mentioned above. As amazing as Fringeworthy's central concept is, its rules left something to be desired. Characters possess a large number of stats, both generated and derived. There are also skills, the list of which is quite extensive, including such invaluable ones as "Food Processing" and "Cosmetology," among many, many more. This level of detail is found throughout the rules, with lots of attention given to combat, damage, and weaponry as you might expect from a game of this period. However, there's also similar detail given to most other subjects, including disease and the nutritional value of various foods. Fringeworthy is thus a perfect exemplar of Silver Age RPG design -- "realism" and "completeness" are vital, even if they require an increase in complexity and a concomitant decrease in easy playability.

For all that, though, Fringeworthy remains a good idea for a RPG. The game includes lots of useful and inspirational random charts to aid the referee in creating the various alternate and alien worlds accessible through the portals. I remember finding them remarkably clever, with examples provided to show how to make best use of them. Though written dryly, Tucholka's enthusiasm for his game nevertheless comes through. Reading through the rulebook, I found myself regularly coming up with ideas that either riffed off what was written in its pages or were wholly of my own invention. To me, that's the measure of a good RPG book. My issues with the rules system aside, Fringeworthy is a classic and it's a pity that it's not more widely known than it is.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Irrelevance of D&D

1983 - When D&D Still Called the Tune
By the time I entered high school in the Fall of 1983, I'd been involved in the roleplaying hobby for more than three years. In that time, I'd played a lot of different games and met a lot of other players -- in my neighborhood, at game stores, and at local game meet-ups. These were the "fad years" of the hobby, when it was next to impossible to meet a young person who wasn't playing Dungeons & Dragons or some other tabletop RPG. It really was that prevalent a pastime, or at least so it seemed to me based on my personal experiences. Yet, when I was in high school, I only ever met one other guy who was as into roleplaying as I was. I'm sure there were other who had played RPGs at some point in the past, but, by 1983, they were either too cool to admit to it or they had ceased gaming some time before and had no interest in taking it up again, despite my failed attempts to generate interest in doing so.

But while I had little luck in finding tabletop roleplayers among my high school classmates, I had no problem in finding fans of computer games like those in the Wizardry series, which clearly -- and unashamedly -- took their cues from Dungeons & Dragons. Looking back on those days, it's fascinating to remember how often my friends would describe Wizardry and similar games as "like Dungeons & Dragons but on the computer." Many of these guys had never played D&D (or so they claimed, at any rate) and yet they regularly described computer games by making reference to it. This only makes sense, given that D&D provided not just the basic premise -- exploration and combat in a monster-filled maze -- but also the very rules terminology -- character classes, hit points, experience points -- on which their electronic imitators depended.

I've argued before that the immense popularity of D&D in the late 70s and early 80s was a fluke never to be replicated again. The more I reflect on it, the more I recognize that D&D appeared during that brief period when interest in both fantasy and interactive entertainments was on the rise but before home computers were both cheap and powerful enough to satisfy these interests. Consequently, the hobby swelled with many people who were became involved in it only because there was no viable alternative yet available. Tabletop roleplaying was the best thing on offer at the time. The advent of games like Wizardry peeled a lot of people away from the hobby and, I suspect, provided a better form of entertainment for many others who might have picked up gaming as a second best choice in a world that had not yet invented something they would have actually preferred.

Even if I'm right, D&D nevertheless retained a powerful hold on the public imagination, with "Dungeons & Dragons" and "D&D" being shorthand for a certain type of fantasy game, regardless of whether it was played on the tabletop with dice and graph paper or (increasingly) on a computer screen. Even into the 1990s, long after the RPG fad had faded and when electronic "roleplaying games" were sophisticated and creative enough that some refer to this decade as the medium's own Golden Age, I could make references to "D&D" as a stand-in for a fantastic adventure game and most people, even those who had no direct experience with the game would know what I meant by it.

That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. I don't hear vide game players talking much about "D&D" anymore, even in a context where doing so would make sense. "World of Warcraft" seems to be the new shorthand for the kind of game that "Dungeons & Dragons" once used to represent. And just as many of D&D's peculiar tropes and interpretations of mythology and legend made their way into the DNA of modern fantasy, so too have WoW's own spins on them become pervasive. Indeed, the same could be said of the vocabulary used in contemporary rules discussion, both within the video game hobby and without it. Once upon a time, D&D called the tune; now, it sits against the wall, with only a member of the chess club to keep it company.

I say all this not as a whine or lament. I genuinely don't care that Dungeons & Dragons -- and tabletop RPGs more generally -- aren't as wildly popular as they were in the days of my youth. I do get the sense, though, that many gamers do care and that they've never quite accepted the fact that, in the wider world, our hobby is largely irrelevant, used primarily as the butt of jokes by middle-aged folks who remember its near-ubiquity in the past. I suspect the name "Dungeons & Dragons" still triggers a moment of recognition for a lot of people, sort of like mentioning the name of some sitcom from the 1980s, but comprehension? I doubt it. As I said, D&D's role as a pop cultural signifier of "fantasy adventure" was long ago usurped by others and that's not going to change.

I rather suspect that many of the trials and tribulations of the D&D "brand" in recent years can be attributed to a perceived gap between how well known and influential it was in the past and how well known and influential it is now. D&D was king of the hill for so long, it's hard for many of us -- including multi-billion dollar corporation -- to square contemporary reality with what we think should be the case based on a recollection of past glories. Like it or not, D&D is no longer the standard bearer of  culture-changing hobby. It's Bridge. It's CB radio. It's slotcar racing. In short, it's irrelevant to most of the wider world -- and I don't give a damn.

Monday, March 28, 2011

DungeonMorph Dice

Quite a few people emailed to inform me of a neat little project currently accepting pledges (with a stated goal of $6500 by May 21): DungeonMorph Dice! They're basically a set of five six-sided dice, each of whose faces contains a different dungeon geomorph. Each side is also numbered, so they can be used as randomizers as well, if you're so inclined. Of course, it's the geomorphs that really make these dice noteworthy.

Pledges start at $1 but larger pledges (starting at $9) earn the donor goodies of various sorts, starting with a single die but going all the way up to multiple complete sets of dice and the right to design/describe one of the geomorphs used in the final product. Being a big fan of geomorphs, I heartily approve of this project and hope it's able to meet its goal. At present, it's a little under halfway there, with over 50 days to go, which is a good start.

On the Subject of Other Fantasy RPGs ...

Does anyone have any idea when (if?) HackMaster Advanced is scheduled to be released? HackMaster Basic came out well over a year ago and, at the time, Advanced was rumored to be on schedule for late 2010. Here we are about to enter the second quarter of 2011 and I haven't seen any evidence that Advanced is on the horizon, though, not being a regular reader of either Knights of the Dinner Table or the Kenzer forums, I might well have missed an announcement somewhere.

So, did I? What's the latest word on HackMaster Advanced? I ask out of pure curiosity, since I'm unlikely to pick up a copy, but Kenzer is one of those companies that I have a strange fondness for despite the fact that they make no games I play. They just seem like really good folks and I wish them well.


After reading both Jeff and Michael's recent posts about playing Goodman Games's upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG at GaryCon III, I am more convinced than ever about two things. First, I need to get my butt to GaryCon one of these days, though the expense and logistics of it make it difficult. Second, the DCC RPG is going to surprise a lot of people with how well designed and fun it is.

I know a lot of people (who haven't actually played the game) have expressed skepticism about the DCC RPG, especially given its use of Zocchi dice and lots of random charts. To date, though, I haven't read a single negative play report of the game. There have been criticisms and concerns, yes, as you'll read even in Jeff and Michael's posts, but pretty much everyone who's sat down at a table and played the DCC RPG seems to have had a great time doing so.

Is it possible the game is too complex? Sure. Is it possible that it's not very newbie friendly? Of course. But so what? I've mentioned before that a lot of people these days are way too quick to associate "old school" with "rules lite," when there's no necessary connection between the two. Likewise, despite the fact that old schoolers are, on the whole, not as obsessed with universal mechanics as are other roleplayers, why should it be a problem the DCC RPG uses lots of individualized charts for spells and other in-game effects? Again, charts are very old school. Ditto for the "funny" dice. Let's not forget that, in 1974, anything but a D6 would have been considered unusual.

I can't predict the future and, even if I could, I'm not sure I'd be able to say that the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG heralds a second Golden Age. More than likely, it'll be yet another quirky, imaginative game that finds and develops a lasting niche for itself, but that won't appeal to everyone, even those who self-identify as old schoolers. In that respect, I don't see it as any different than HackMaster or Castles & Crusades, except that Goodman Games has an established track record of supporting and promoting its products in a way that very few smaller RPG companies do. That alone gives the DCC RPG a leg up over other neo-old school games.

Will I pick it up? I honestly can't say. I'll admit that I'm very intrigued by it. Just about everything that critics have been citing as its negatives I find to be positives, right down to the use of the Zocchi dice. My only reservation is that I'm already playing OD&D and don't really need another fantasy RPG. I've already got one that I like and have tons of others -- Stormbringer, RuneQuest, DragonQuest, Chivalry and Sorcery -- that I'd love to play and won't likely ever get the chance to do so. Would one more hurt? Probably not, particularly when it's a game that likely has ideas and rules in it I can easily pilfer for importation into my OD&D campaign.

So I don't know what I'll do except keep a close eye on this game as it develops. The more I hear, the more I find myself considering grabbing a copy when it's released later this year.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Call of Cthulhu

Among gamers at any rate, "The Call of Cthulhu" is probably H.P. Lovecraft's most famous piece of fiction and rightly so. Firstly, this February 1928 novella inspired the title of the first (and still unsurpassed, in my opinion) RPG based on Lovecraft's writings. Secondly, "The Call of Cthulhu" is a very fine story, undeniably one of HPL's best, as the paragraph that evocatively begins this tale demonstrates:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
And while I have great sympathy for the purists and pedants who correctly point out that Lovecraft himself never used the phrase "Cthulhu Mythos" to describe his stories -- it's a coinage of August Derleth, whom I think often gets a disproportionately bad rap -- there's a sense in which it's a far better term than Lovecraft's own suggestion of "Yog-Sothothery," for "Cthulhu Mythos" recognizes the centrality of "The Call of Cthulhu" in enunciating the philosophy behind his cosmic tales.

The story itself is dense and complex, consisting of multiple, layered narratives that each contribute to the mounting horror of the piece. Subtitled "Found Among the Papers of the Late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston," "The Call of Cthulhu" is thus ostensibly a text written by the aforementioned Thurston after his investigation into the death of his great uncle, George Gammell Angell, who was a professor of Semitic languages at Brown University. Thurston's text itself consists of multiple, nested sub-texts assembled by Angell from the accounts of others. Consequently, "The Call of Cthulhu" is at times a challenging read, the thread of its narrative easy to loose amidst Lovecraft's moving forward and backward in time and place.

Nevertheless, the narrative that emerges from "The Call of Cthulhu" is a compelling one: over the span of many years, across the globe, there are signs -- dreams, cults, unexplained events -- that something is stirring, something that spells the doom of mankind, though not out of malice, let alone evil, but simply because man and all his works are but nothing in the cosmic scheme. It is this singular point that Lovecraft makes clear again and again throughout "The Call of Cthulhu" and it is the true source of its horror, not the monstrous octopus-headed Great Old One that rises at its climax in the South Pacific. Equally noteworthy, I think, is Lovecraft's prose in this story. He has largely cast off the sometimes-stilted, pseudo-Poe voice of his early tales and embraced an almost clinical approach that lulls the reader into a "detached" state of mind that leaves him ill-prepared for Lovecraft's stylistic shift late in the story toward impassioned, even frenzied prose-poetry.

"The Call of Cthulhu" is a landmark both in HPL's evolution as a writer and in the evolution of literary horror. Considering both its age and the degree to which it has been imitated over the later 80+ years, it's frankly amazing how well it stands up. If there was ever any doubt that H.P. Lovecraft is a writer of consequence, this story ought to banish such notions completely.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

REVIEW: Lesserton and Mor

I continue to hear a lot of grousing in various quarters about how the old school renaissance is a disappointment because its participants are eschewing "innovation" in preference to endlessly rehashing the past. I shake my head at such comments. Only someone who hasn't actually been paying attention to some of the remarkable products that have been published over the last few years could possibly say such a thing. A good example of what I mean is Faster Monkey Games's Lesserton and Mor (hereafter LaM), written by Joel and Jeff Sparks. Subtitled "A Complete Guide to the Ancient Ruins of Mor and the Town of Lesserton, Adventurer's Paradise," LaM is not merely one of the most ambitious old school products released recently but also one of those that puts the lie to the notion that there's no originality to be found in the old school renaissance.

LaM is a unique product. Intended for use with Labyrinth Lord but easily adaptable to any class-and-level fantasy RPG, the closest comparison I can make is to Chaosium's Pavis and Big Rubble boxed sets from 1983, which, like LaM, described an ancient, abandoned city and a nearby inhabited settlement. However, unlike those classic RuneQuest products, LaM is much more compact, consisting a 16-page Player's Guide to Lesserton (available here as a free PDF), a 68-page Referee's Guide to Lesserton, and a 28-page Referee's Guide to Mor, all collected in a sturdy, wrap-around map of the ruins of Mor. It's also more customizable, in part due to the fact that it's what might be best described as a "construction kit" for location-based adventures in and around a proverbial "huge ruined pile."

The basic premise of LaM is that, centuries ago, an army of goblinoids laid waste to the mighty city of Mor, reducing it to rubble. Refugees from the city set up a camp to the southwest that eventually grew into the town of Lesserton, from which forays were launched into the ruins to reclaim some of Mor's buried treasures. The Player's Guide to Lesserton provides an overview of Lesserton and its inhabitants, including the Orkin, who are inhabitants that care "the Taint" of orcish blood to varying degrees (and for which random tables of physical traits are provided). Indeed, what's perhaps most interesting about The Player's Guide is how many little rules and random tables are included -- gambling, carousing, contacts and enemies, and background skills. It's a useful little book and I appreciate the fact that Faster Monkey has made it available as a downloadable PDF to give to players.

The Referee's Guide to Lesserton is a more substantial book, the longest in the whole package. As one might expect, it describes Lesserton and its inhabitants in sufficient detail for the referee to use the town both as a home base for PCs adventuring in the ruins of Mor as well as a location for adventures in its own right. There are thus descriptions of the most important locations and businesses, as well as NPC write-ups, encounter and rumor tables, and more little rules for things like haggling, begging, bribery, and more. It's important to stress that all these new rules are simple yet evocative. That is, they aren't mechanically complex -- usually just a roll or two with modifiers and possibly the use of a single table -- but they do lend a lot of color and flavor to life in Lesserton. Likewise, the descriptions of locations, while not exhaustive, do give the referee useful bits of information, such as what might happen if the PCs (or others) attempt to rob the place and what adventures might be sparked by events within.

The Referee's Guide to Mor is a compact book, shorter than one might expect, given its subject matter. That's because, rather than detail the entirety of this ancient ruin, the authors have instead provided a cartographic framework for it consisting of numbered and lettered "septhexes." A septhex consists of seven 120-foot hexes arranged in a flower-like shape that interlocks with other septhexes on the map. Using a series of random tables, the referee can easily determine what's to be found in a septhex -- ruined buildings, archeological finds, food sources, hauntings, monsters, and more. It's a very elegant and straightforward system for describing Mor bit by bit and one for which The Referee's Guide provides an example so that there's no confusion. In addition, there's a full adventure that offers up yet another illustration of how to employ the septhexes and random tables to create a satisfying whole.

But make no mistake: LaM's treatment of the ruins of Mor is a genuine toolkit. It is not playable "out of the box" and requires either some preparation beforehand or a referee accustomed to running adventures extemporaneously as he rolls on a series of tables to determine what the characters encounter as the explore this vast pile of rubble. Consequently, I'd consider LaM an "advanced" product that I wouldn't recommend to a neophyte referee. At the same time, I think it's a terrific example of old school design that demonstrates how much can be achieved by good organization and a series of well made random tables. I'll go further and say that LaM demonstrates quite clearly that the old school renaissance isn't just rehashing the past and has in fact improved over its antecedents when it comes to clarity of presentation, if nothing else. LaM may be best utilized by experienced referees, but it is not confusing -- quite the opposite! -- and that alone is, I think, a genuine advance.

As should be apparent, I really enjoyed Lesserton and Mor and consider it a sterling example of the kinds of product I'd love to see more of: a well-presented supplement that leaves plenty of room for customization by individual referees. Likewise, Lesserton and Mor is an attractive package. Each of its three component books is nicely laid out and edited with no obvious typos, misspellings, or layout missteps one has come to expect in old school products. Steve Zieser's artwork and Mark Allen's cartography both nicely complement the books, as does the laminated wrap-around cover/map, which compares favorably with those produced by TSR in the 1980s.

If there is a single potential "problem" with Lesserton and Mor, it's its price -- $16.00 for the PDF and $29.99 for the printed edition. However, renowned cheapskate that I am, even I find it hard to deny that the prices for both the print and PDF versions of Lesserton and Mor are more than fair. This is a remarkable product, professional in its presentation yet still very much informed by and supportive of hobbyist concerns. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're either an experienced referee looking for a home base and adventuring locale or you're a neophyte comfortable with prep and/or improvisation even when using a published campaign supplement.
Don't Buy This If: You're not looking for a new campaign supplement or prefer that such supplements be completely playable "out of the box."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Question about RPG Companies

Here's a question whose answer I genuinely don't know: how many companies are there out there these days the majority of whose incomes derive from RPGs and which have 10 or more salaried employees? Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is Paizo, though perhaps White Wolf still qualifies too. Most of the other companies I can think of whose incomes derive primarily from RPGs have, at most, only a handful of salaried employees, assuming they have any at all.

Unless I'm simply overlooking a large number of companies (which is possible), this means that most RPG publishing is a part-time or even hobbyist affair rather than something more grandiose. Mind you, I'm not sure this is any different than it was back in the day. When I entered the hobby, I suspect TSR was one of the few companies to have more than 10 salaried employees whose income was mostly from RPG sales. Nearly every other company was probably a two or three-man operation done on a part-time basis or as an adjunct to some other kind of publishing or manufacturing -- just like today.

Ogre 6e

That's a nice looking game!
Reader Michael Brewington has drawn my attention to this post by Steve Jackson over at the SJ Games website, where he announces that, later this year, the company will be releasing the sixth edition of Ogre. I have to admit I was quite pleased to read of this news, especially after Jackson stated the following:
It won’t be “Euro” style. No meeples, no plastic. This will be the kind of hex wargame that we dreamed about 30 years ago, back when our heroes were SPI and Avalon Hill. HUGE double-sided map boards. HUGE full-color counters with HUGE type. A HUGE box to hold them in. And giant constructible Ogres!
This is the kind of thing I'd always hoped SJG might do one day, so seeing that they are fills me with some excitement. Of course, the projected price tag on this game is likely to be $100, which is rather rich for my blood these days, but who knows? Maybe I can justify it as a birthday or Christmas gift to myself, depending on when it's released. There's as yet no formal release date for the game. You can view a PDF sell sheet for it here.

Terminal Space 1.4

Albert Rakowski has informed me that there's a new version of his excellent science fiction supplement for OD&D, Terminal Space, available for download. Dubbed "version 1.4," it differs from earlier releases primarily in having clearer language. If you haven't had the chance to take a look at Terminal Space, now's an excellent time to do so. I think it's one of the most imaginative and useful things to come out of the old school renaissance in the past couple of years, especially if, like me, you have a fondness for adding a dash of science fiction to your Dungeons & Dragons adventures.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Open Friday: Holidays & Celebrations

It was on this day in 1634 that English colonists first set foot on Maryland soil, which later generations would celebrate as a local holiday. Given that, I thought it might be interesting to ask about the role holidays and other celebrations have played in your roleplaying campaigns. Do you use them as occasions for adventure? Have you invented any unique holidays or celebrations? If so, what are they? Basically, use this Open Friday to talk about almost anything related to holidays and celebrations in your campaigns.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Retrospective: Jim Roslof's TSR Covers

In keeping with this week's remembrance of the recently deceased artist Jim Roslof, I've decided to do a different kind of retrospective today: a look at the covers illustrations Roslof did during his time at TSR. In preparing this post, what I immediately noticed was how few covers he actually did. On the other hand, the covers he did do include some of the ones I most vividly remember, even excluding those for modules B2 and D1-2, both of which I've already highlighted.

Take, for example, this cover, from 1980, Queen of the Demonweb Pits.
A reminder that spider-queens aren't always sexy.
I've noted before that Dave Sutherland's sole example of game design isn't one of my favorite modules, but it does sport one of my favorite covers. This piece sports all the usual Roslof hallmarks, such as a largely (or entirely) human cast of adventurers wearing "realistic" gear, but what has always stuck with me is his portrayal of Lolth in her spider form. Like the drow who serve her, all too often Lolth is presented as an ebon-skinned seductress rather than as a hideous demon, which is what she actually is. Granted, I suffer from a powerful arachnophobia, but, even so, there ought to be something creepy about any being one of whose physical forms is that of a spider with a humanoid head. Roslof perfectly captured that creepiness in this cover illustration, which is never far from my mind when I think of the drow.
Another cover from 1980 is The Ghost Tower of Inverness. Though I remember playing this module back in the day (several times, in fact), it's not a favorite of mine, since its structure is clearly geared more toward tournament rather than campaign play. The cover, though, is burned into my memory. It doesn't depict anything that actually occurs in the module so far as I can recall (someone will no doubt correct me if I'm mistaken), but it nicely encapsulates the idea of a "ghost tower" in a single image.
Nothing says "super spy" like firearms and SCUBA gear.
Roslof illustrated more than D&D module covers, such as 1980's Operation: Rapidstrike! for Top Secret. I remember nothing at all about this module (which is sadly the case for almost all the Top Secret adventures), but I do remember its cover. Being a fan of the movie Thunderball, there's always been a strong association in my mind between armed frogmen and spies, so this cover really spoke to my imagination. The cover's also noteworthy in depicting a team of agents rather than a single one, which better matched what the actual play of Top Secret was like.
Is that Gollum?
1981's Secret of the Slavers Stockade is another module I don't think much of, but, like all the Slave Lords adventures, it played an important part in my Greyhawk campaign of old. Of all those modules' covers, this is the one that sticks most in my mind, for two reasons. First, there's the purple boggle on a leash. Like the module itself, the boggle is not a particularly memorable D&D monster, even when compared to other creatures introduced in the A-series, like the aspis or myconids. Yet, I remember it very strongly, perhaps because there's something mildly unnerving about humanoid being used as a bloodhound by other humanoids, I don't know. The second feature I like is the stance of the adventurers. Like a lot of the best old school art, we're seeing the moments before something exciting is about to happen. This cover doesn't tell a story of its own; it invites us to imagine for ourselves what that story will be.
Where it all began for me.
Though the 1981 edition of Dungeon! was not the one I first played, it is the one I eventually owned, whose cover image was this rather funky piece by Roslof. Unlike a lot of Roslof's work, this one isn't as "realistic," instead being fanciful and "sketchy" in appearance. If I wasn't already given to calling Erol Otus's work "dreamlike," I might use that adjective here as well. Even so, the illustration is classic Roslof, depicting adventurers on the verge of engaging an enemy, in this case a strange gargoyle-like creature whose exact nature occupied my thoughts as a younger man.
Conquistadors vs. Cave Men
I have a lot of personal fondness for 1983's Horror on the Hill, even though, by most measures, it's just another variation on the theme indelibly established by The Keep on the Borderlands. But my friends and I had a lot of fun with this adventure, so it's hard for my to be completely objective about its virtues and flaws, including its cover, which I really like. Again, we get human adventurers wearing historical armor -- including, this time, some very late medieval, early modern gear -- as they're about to do something. That they're opponents are Neanderthals only adds to its charm in my opinion, as their presence lends a pulp fantasy vibe to the whole thing that I find charming.
Yo Ho!
1984's Lathan's Gold is a module I don't remember very well. It's a solo adventure in which the player character must travel across many locales (mostly islands) to find enough gold to buy the freedom of your fiancée, who's been kidnapped by an evil nobleman. The illustration is something of a departure from Roslof's other pieces, in that it shows a number of non-humans in more fantastical attire. On the other hand, his eye for foliage is in evidence here, just as it was on the cover for The Keep on the Borderlands.

And there you have it -- all the TSR covers by Roslof that I could recall (and that I haven't already discussed). If I've forgotten any, please let me know in the comments, so I can expand and correct this entry.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Unknown Roslof

Though much of Jim Roslof's output during his employment by TSR appeared in gaming products like adventure modules and rulebooks, he was also a regular contributor to the pages of Dragon, starting with issue 42, much of it unseen even to gamers involved in the hobby at the time.

There are many examples of his work in the magazine I could highlight, but five stood out for me as representative of "the unknown Roslof." They all accompanied John Eric Holmes's short story "The Sorceror's Jewel" in issue 46 (February 1981). The story continues the adventures of Boinger and Zereth, who appeared in several other stories, including the novel The Maze of Peril.

Monday, March 21, 2011

An Iconic Cover

Of all the pieces that Jim Roslof created over the course of his career, I'd wager the one most gamers of a certain vintage will remember is this one from the cover of The Keep on the Borderlands. Of course, a lot of us probably didn't realize who the artist was; I know I didn't. But for those of us entered the hobby during the Holmes and Moldvay eras, this image was among a handful indelibly burned into our memories and forever linked with the words "Dungeons & Dragons." This fact alone is enough to place Roslof in the pantheon of the hobby's great illustrators, though, as I'll show in subsequent posts this week, he was responsible for a great many other defining images of the Golden Age of TSR.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Eyes Have It

I'm a big fan of alternate histories. What I expect of them is not necessarily plausibility so much as believability. By that I mean that I don't generally worry too much about how likely the point of divergence from the real world's history is so much as whether the author uses that point of divergence to create a world that I can accept as a logical consequence of it. It's a fine distinction, I'll grant, but I mention it because one of my favorite alternate histories is the one presented by Randall Garrett in his "Lord Darcy" series, whose point of departure is the existence of magic, which is used to save the life of Richard I, who returned to England and ruled justly, paving the way for a united Plantagenet empire reigning into the 1960s.

Professional historians would no doubt take much issue with Garrett's alternate timeline. I myself probably know enough about English history to be able to argue convincingly against the likelihood of this setting ever coming to pass, but I won't, because I think that's beside the point. For me anyway, a good alternate history is one that's so well realized that I want to believe in it, regardless of whether it holds up to academic scrutiny. And the alternate history Randall Garrett introduced to us in his 1964 short story, "The Eyes Have It," is one I want to believe in.

The story opens in the Castle D'Evreux in Normandy, where "Sir Pierre Morlaix, Chevalier of the Angevin Empire, Knight of the Golden Leopard, and secretary-in-private to ... the Count D'Evreux" came to his lord's private suite only to find Count Edouard
lay[ing] flat on his back, his arms spread wide, his eyes staring at the ceiling. He was still clad in his gold and scarlet evening clothes. But the great stain on the front of his coat was not the same shade of scarlet as the rest of the cloth, and the stain had a bullet hole in the center.

Sir Pierre looked at him without moving for a long moment. Then he stepped over, knelt, and touched one of the Count's hands with the back of his own. It was quite cool. He had been dead for hours.

"I knew someone would do you in sooner or later, my lord," said Sir Pierre, almost regretfully.
This murder comes to the attention of Richard, the Duke of Normandy, and brother to the "Most Serene Lord, John IV, by the Grace of God, King and Emperor of England, France, Scotland, and Ireland, New England, and New France, Defender of the Faith." In a letter to the King-Emperor, the Duke writes the following in reference to recognizing the murdered nobleman's wife, Alice, as his legal heir:
"Dear John, May I suggest you hold up on this for a while? Edouard was a lecher and a slob, and I have no doubt he got everything he deserved, but we have no notion who killed him. For any evidence I have to the contrary, it might have been Alice who pulled the trigger. I will send you full particulars as soon as I have them. With much love, Your brother and servant, Richard."
To get to the bottom of this mystery, Duke Richard sends along his Chief Criminal Investigator, Lord Darcy, and his assistant, Master Sean O Lochlainn, who is a "forensic sorcerer," which is to say, a magician skilled in using his art to uncover information useful in criminal investigations. As central a character as Darcy is to both this short story and those that follow in the series, magic itself plays as important a role as Darcy, though not quite in the way one might expect.

Isaac Asimov famously wrote his 1954 novel, The Caves of Steel, as a refutation of John W. Campbell's belief that one could not write a science fictional mystery, since SF authors can easily invent new "facts" based on future science or technology that the reader could not anticipate. A science fiction mystery can thus "cheat" in a way that contemporary stories could not. Asimov disagreed and I can't help but wonder if Randall Garrett didn't similarly disagree regarding magic. Like Asimov's future world, Garrett's alternate historical magic has laws and strictly abides by them. Magic has limitations as well. Its study and practice is akin to a science and this makes it possible, once one understands it, to see how and when it might be used in the commission -- or discovery -- of a crime.

Lord Darcy himself has no magical ability. Instead, he possesses a keen mind and an eye for observing small details others, even magicians, overlook. His magical assistant is useful to his investigation in the same way that a crime scene investigator or medical examiner might be in the real world. Master O Lochlainn's sorcery can uncover clues certainly, but it does not obviate the need for deduction. Indeed, the fundamentals of investigation remain the same in Lord Darcy's alternate 1960s as they do in our own, which is, I think, the greatest virtue of this story and its successors: despite the presence of magic, they present "real" mysteries that can be solved by the reader. Garrett plays these mysteries straight -- the magic and the alternate history are just set dressing for some cleverly done detective stories. If you've never had the chance to read a Lord Darcy story, do yourself a favor and seek one out. You won't regret it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

RIP Jim Roslof (1946-2011)

According to Jeff R. Leason, who worked at TSR in the late 70s and early 80s as an editor and designer, artist Jim Roslof passed away peacefully this morning. Though the news is not unexpected, it's nonetheless sad to receive.

This coming week I'll be devoting a series of posts to Mr Roslof's artwork as an impromptu memorial to a great illustrator of old school D&D. In case anyone needs reminding of his talent, here's a piece that really stirred my imagination long ago -- the cover to module D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth.

Quick FYI

In case anyone cares, I am alive and well, but it's been a very busy week and a bit for me, which is why posting and, especially, email correspondence has been even slower than usual. My apologies for that. With luck, all should be back to normal by Monday or, at worst, a few days after that. So, if you've sent me something in the last week or so and haven't heard back from me, I'm (probably) not ignoring you; I'm simply distracted by other things and will do my best to reply in the next couple of days.


Friday, March 18, 2011

Open Friday: Historical Campaigns

Outside of Call of Cthulhu campaigns set in the 1920s, I haven't run a historical RPG campaign in some time and it's something I often think would be fun.

So, for today's question: if you could do so, what sort of historical campaign would you like to run? For bonus points, tell me what would likely make it different from another historical campaign run by someone else in the same time period?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nomenclature Assistance

Along with druids, I'd begun to work up a version of monks for use in my Dwimmermount campaign. I was thinking of doing a series of posts about them, but I haven't yet for a couple of reasons, the biggest of which is that I never came up with a satisfactory name for them. The name "monk" is likely a reference to Shaolin Monastery strongly associated with kung fu. Furthermore, as I've mentioned before, the name initially confused me as, to me, "monk" suggests a Christian ascetic rather than a martial arts master. The conception of the class I was planning to introduce into the Dwimmermount campaign was more of a semi-psionic warrior trained through the use of mental discipline to use his very body as a weapon. This conception ties into some things that have come up in the campaign over the last couple of years, as well as the limited background established about the Eld, the Thulians, and the mysterious Ancients.

So, what I need is a name, something more appropriate than "monk" that evokes the idea I've outlined above but fits within a fantasy context. Any suggestions?

RIP Michael Gough (1916-2011)

British actor, Michael Gough, celebrated on this blog for his role as Arthur Holmwood in Hammer's The Horror of Dracula, is dead at the age of 94. Gough appeared in another Hammer production (The Phantom of the Opera), as well as several other horror films. His lengthy career also included stints on Doctor Who and, most famously, The Avengers, where he played Dr. Armstrong in "The Cybernauts." His quiet dignity will be missed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jim Roslof News

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I'd heard a rumor that former TSR artist, Jim Roslof, was gravely ill. As it turns out, that rumor was unfortunately true. The latest news, courtesy of another former TSR artist, Steve Sullivan, is that Mr Roslof is in the last days of his fight with terminal cancer; he is not expected to live much longer.

This is very sad news, particularly so as it was just a little over a year ago that I rediscovered Roslof's artwork, which had largely slipped under my radar back in the day. As it turned out, several pieces of old school art I liked a great deal were drawn by Roslof and, for one reason or other, I hadn't realized it. Consequently, hearing that he's not long for this world leaves me feeling much worse than I otherwise might upon hearing similar news.

If anyone is interested in sending cards to Mr Roslof and his wife can address this to:
Jim & Laura Roslof
W5409 Kenosha Dr,
Elkhorn WI 53147

Retrospective: Powers & Perils

As has been discussed here previously, Gary Gygax originally approached The Avalon Hill Game Company about publishing Dungeons & Dragons. Avalon Hill declined the offer and would later (at least according to legend) regret having done so, especially as RPGs came to rival and eventually surpass the popularity and sales of wargames. It's against this background that I recall Avalon Hill's late entry into the roleplaying field with games like James Bond 007, Lords of Creation, and the third edition of RuneQuest, all of which were fine RPGs that had to overcome their publisher's seemingly monumental ignorance of the new market they were entering.

There's probably no better Exhibit A of Avalon Hill's misunderstanding of the state of RPGs than their release, in 1984, of Powers & Perils. Designed by Richard Snider, who'd been a player in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, Powers & Perils reads very much like an expanded version of his earlier Adventures in Fantasy. Whereas Adventures in Fantasy feels (to me anyway) like an idiosyncratic house rules document to OD&D, Powers & Perils feels far more sterile, as if it were an exercise in "Ivory Tower" game design divorced from actual play. I don't know that that was the case with P&P, but, as presented, the game is complex, poorly organized, and largely lacking in charm. I can forgive the first two flaws, as they're commonplace in the hobby, but it's hard to become enthusiastic about a game when its designer's writing conveys as little enthusiasm as this one does.

P&P came in a large bookcase box, like those of many Avalon Hill games, and included five rulebooks of between 24 and 60 pages each. The first book dealt with character generation, which was largely determined by random rolls and modified by both race and gender. Characters could be humans, elves, dwarves, or "faerries." There are a large number of derived scores as well, which contribute greatly to both the complexity of the overall game system and the length of time it takes to create a character. P&P has a skill system that covers both non-combat and combat skills. Of course, calling it a "system" is a bit of a misnomer, since there are few common mechanics to these skills, most of which have individual resolution and experience systems. And when I say "individualized," I mean it: some skills, for example, have a simple rating/level, while others have a percentile score.

The second book covers combat and magic. Surprisingly, it's not as complex or convoluted as one might expect. Combatants have an offensive and a defensive combat value based on their skills, abilities, and weapon. Comparing the two results in either a positive or negative number that's then cross-referenced on a combat chart. Percentile dice are rolled to determine if the attacker hit and, if so, how hard. Armor decreases damage taken. There are a number of other wrinkles to the system that are confusingly presented in the text, but, overall, the system is strangely straightforward if "heavier" than I like. Magic is powered by mana and the system for using it seems to have been modeled on that of melee and missile combat. Spells are divided into several categories (law, chaos, sidhe, etc.) and cover most of the usual effects one expects in a fantasy RPG.

The third book presents over seventy creatures, divided according to the plane of existence from which they hail, as Powers & Perils has an interesting cosmology that divides reality into an Upper World, a Middle World, and Lower World. Many of the monsters are mundane or fantasy staples, but others are either wholly original or intriguing variations on old standbys. The third book also provides lots of random encounter tables for different terrain types. The fourth book treats human encounters, which is intended to help the referee in creating NPCs. The fourth book also presents treasure and magic items. What's interesting is that P&P places a greater emphasis on the variety of non-magical treasures than does, say, D&D, with plenty of options for works of art, furnishings, etc. Equally interesting are the large number of "natural" magic items, such as herbs and minerals that have magic effects. The fifth book presents a sample setting, the County Mordara, including a sample adventure set within it.

Looking at Powers & Perils now, I am struck by the same feeling that I had when I first read it back in the mid-80s: it's a poorly organized and unnecessarily complex design given that it contains so little that's genuinely new or imaginative. Had the game come out in 1977 or thereabouts, it might have made some sense, when it could have appealed to the growing legion of gamers disappointed with some aspects of hobby leader Dungeons & Dragons. But in 1984, that wasn't enough. Despite flashes of brilliance here and there, Powers & Perils is no RuneQuest or Chivalry & Sorcery. It has neither a compelling setting nor a complex rules system that pays dividends in terms of (pseudo-)historical realism.

I find myself wondering if the game was ever played even by its designer or whether it was purely an intellectual enterprise, because it certainly feels more like the latter than the fruit of design informed by actual play. Powers & Perils isn't a bad game so much as a needless one. There's very little to recommend it over almost any other significant fantasy RPG of its era (or before), because it brings almost nothing unique to the table. Given that it didn't get much support, I suspect I wasn't the only one who felt that way.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Frogfather

No, I never liked frogs' legs very much, not even before what happened. And I wouldn't eat them now if I was starving. This is why.
So begins Manly Wade Wellman's "Frogfather," which first appeared in the November 1946 issue of Weird Tales. Like all the tales in his Appalachian cycle, "Frogfather" is told in the first person, from the perspective of the wandering minstrel known only as Silver John, and draws on American folklore for its plot. In this case, Silver John is remembering an event from his childhood, when his maiden aunt, who raised him, turned him over to an unpleasant man named Ranson Cuff to settle a debt she owed. Cuff, is described in very unflattering terms.
His face was as round as a lemon, and as yellow and sour, and his eyes couldn't have been closer together without mixing into each other, and his little nose was the only bony thing about him.
Ranson Cuff was the sort of man who shoved himself into your mind, like a snake crawling into a gopher hole. I defy anyone to find anyone else who liked Ranson Cuff -- maybe his wife liked him, but she didn't live with him for more than three weeks. Nobody around the Swamps liked him, though he was the best off in money. He ran a string of hunting camps for strangers from up north, who came to hunt deer or fish for bass, once in a while to chase bear with dogs. He did his end of that job well, and if he was rude the strangers figured for a picturesque character. I've heard them call him that. The Swamps people called him other things to his face, if he didn't have mortgages on their houseboats, cabins, and trapping outfits.
John tells us that Cuff loves frogs' legs, especially those he'd gotten for himself by hunting frogs in the Swamps. So it was that, on one night, John accompanies Cuff and "an old, old Indian whose name I never knew" on a frog hunting expedition "in a really beautiful boat [Cuff had] taken from a bad debt." Unfortunately for Cuff, there seem to be no frogs to be found -- that is, until he hears the sound of frogs singing along a bank to the northeast, a move the old Indian urges him against.
"I'm speaking for your good, Mr. Cuff," said the old Indian. "That's no place to stick frogs."

"I can hear them singing!" Cuff said. "Listen, there must be a whole nation of them."

"They're there because they're safe," said the old Indian.

"Khaa!" Cuff spit into the water, "Safe! That's what they think. We're going in there to stick a double mess."
Aficionados of weird tales don't need to be told how the story will unfold after this point, once Cuff ignores the old Indian's warning and orders the young Silver John to paddle up the river to where he hears those frogs singing. Despite the relative lack of suspense, Wellman nevertheless manages to hold one's attention. His gifts as a storyteller and his love of the legends of Appalachia both come through powerfully and, together, they carry the reader along to the inevitable conclusion.

That's probably what I found most remarkable about this story: despite the telegraphing of its end, I still wanted to read it. Wellman is simply a joy to read. Silver John's voice rings true. Though his words initially come across as simple and "folksy," there's unexpected insight and sophistication in them. There's also a rhythm to them, a poetry that becomes more apparent when you read the story aloud. Wellman is one of those rare authors whose work demands to be spoken; mere reading doesn't do it justice. I wonder if there are any audio recordings of the Silver John stories, because I'd love to hear them read by someone, preferably someone with a Southern Appalachian accent.

Regardless, "Frogfather" is an enjoyable short story that nicely showcases Manly Wade Wellman's talents as a writer. It's a pity he's not more widely known, even within pulp fantasy circles; he certainly deserves more accolades than he's received.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

No Joy in Cimmeria

Below is the teaser trailer for the upcoming Conan movie starring Jason Momoa.

Other than the fact that it includes a snippet of Howard-inspired dialog, there's not a lot to like here. Mind you, there's not a lot to dislike either, since, even for a teaser, it shows very little, though others have gone to much more heroic lengths to analyze what it does show us. As for me, I think odds are good that this will wind up being a remarkably forgettable B-movie that'll make the original Conan the Barbarian look inspired, which is a shame, because, lack of blue eyes notwithstanding, Momoa at least looks the part and shows evidence of the kind of charisma I think any actor playing Conan needs.

I guess we'll see once the film is released, but, so far anyway, I've seen nothing that suggests my pessimism about the movie is misplaced.

Grinding to Valhalla Interview

If only to provide further evidence of my ceaseless self-aggrandizement, I point you toward an interview I did over at Grinding to Valhalla, a site filled with interviews of all sorts of people involved in gaming (broadly defined). It was a fun interview, because I was asked some questions I don't usually get asked, which gave me new topics on which to pontificate.

Take a look and, while you're at the site, check out the other interviews, some of which might be of interest to regular readers of this blog.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Creating Another Bandwagon

Oink! Oink!
After the phenomenal success of my esteemed namesake in inspiring some love for hot elf chicks on old school blogs, I thought I'd like to try my hand at similarly inspiring a series of posts throughout our corner of the Net. This time, though, what I want to inspire are posts about how referees have re-imagined one or more iconic D&D monsters for use in their own campaigns. You see, one of the things I like about OD&D is that its monsters entries are so spare, especially when compared to AD&D. Usually, these entries are little more than collections of game stats, providing neither descriptions nor any context for the monsters. so that the referee has no choice but to provide one of his own.

Which brings us to the ubiquitous orc. For once, I won't fight the assertion that D&D swiped this monster from Middle-earth, as there's not really any folkloric antecedent for it before Tolkien. However, the write-up in Volume 2 of the LBBs says nothing that suggests the orcs are at all like their literary counterparts, an omission that Holmes does not correct, while Moldvay says only that "Orcs are ugly human-like creatures who look like a combination of animal and man." Even the Monster Manual says almost nothing about these creature's physical appearance, despite devoting more than half a page to their entry. All the Monster Manual says for certain is that orcs have "pinkish snouts and ears" and "bristly hair." It was left to artist David Sutherland to (literally) draw a porcine conclusion from these scant hints.

Since my Dwimmermount campaign uses OD&D, there's no canonical description of orcs for my to draw upon, but I'll be the first to admit, though, that AD&D casts a long shadow over my conceptions of many aspects of the game, including orcs. So, when I started thinking about what orcs were like, I immediately thought of Sutherland's pig-men. But why are they pig-men? That's when I decided that, in the Dwimmermount campaign, orcs were "uplifted" boars, raised to evil sentience in ancient times as weapons of war. Most sages believe that it was the Eld who were responsible for this, but other evidence suggests the even more mysterious "Ancients" were responsible -- along with the uplifting of other animal species in a similar fashion, resulting in additional breeds of "beast men," like gnolls.

Here's what I'd love to see propagate across the old school blogs: an example or two like the one I posted above about orcs. I love hearing how referees have made the raw materials D&D offers their own, especially if doing so draws on longstanding information or images associated with the game. The examples don't have to be long, unless you want them to be; all I ask is that they reveal a little bit of that do-it-yourself spirit I think is so representative of our corner of the hobby. To encourage you further in this effort, have another hot elf chick on the house:
Elven goddess of love and beauty, Hanali Celanil, from Dragon #60 (April 1982)

Open Friday: What's the Appeal?

Consider today's Open Friday question to be a bit of self-indulgent "market research," as well as one sparked by genuine curiosity. I've noticed that I get a surprising number of visitors and commenters to the blog who aren't playing old school Dungeons & Dragons at present and have no interest in doing so in the future. I'm curious as to why. What's the appeal of a blog like this one when a very significant percentage of its posts are devoted to game you're not playing? Don't misunderstand me: I'm glad that gamers beyond the little echo chamber I inhabit find something of value in my daily scribblings, but I hope I can be forgiven for wanting to know what might be appealing here to players of newer RPGs.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Tome of Horrors Complete

Looks like the long-awaited updating of Necromancer Games's The Tome of Horrors is almost upon us -- this time with a version converted to Swords & Wizardry. As its title suggests, this update includes material not just from the original The Tome of Horrors, but also from volumes II and III. The whole thing is apparently 1,000 pages long and is available for pre-order for $89.99 until June 1, 2011, after which the price will increase by $10.

I consider The Tome of Horrors one of the best books produced during the 3e era and an invaluable resource to the old school community, since it opens up a large number of classic monsters that weren't included in the D20 SRD. So, it's great that Frog God Games is again going to make these monsters available to gamers who didn't buy it the first time around.

On the other hand, by combining it with the second and third volumes, both of which were good but nowhere near as essential, they've boosted the pagecount -- and sticker price -- to ridiculous heights. I honestly cannot imagine using a 1000-page book, even as a reference. Likewise, paying nearly $100 (more, once shipping is factored in) isn't something I could countenance for almost any RPG-related product, so I'll be giving this one a pass. With luck, there will be a PDF version of The Tome of Horrors available at some point and, if it's priced reasonably, I may pick it up.

Hot Elf Chick Welcomes You to Vanaheim

Technically, Freya's not an elf, but I figure, given that her brother is lord of the Ljósálfar and Jeff Dee drew her with pointed ears in this illustration from Deities & Demigods, she ought to count as my contribution to James Smith's fiendish plan to grow the OSR. Plus, anything I can do to perpetuate the notion that we old school bloggers operate as a navel-gazing hive mind who don't generate any useful content is good by me.

REVIEW: RuneQuest II

Let me begin this review by stating, for the record, how much I dislike the name "RuneQuest II" being applied to a rulebook other than the second edition of Chaosium's version of the game. It's a small point, to be sure, but I mention it to be honest about my frame of mind as I undertook the reading of Mongoose Publishing's updated version of this classic game, written by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. There was something subtly annoying about this book with the Rune of Luck on its cover, but I just couldn't place my finger on it. Whatever it was, it egged me on in looking for anything that could I could seize upon to dislike in this 200-page hardcover rulebook. Sure enough, I did find a few things I disliked, but I also found even more that I liked, which is why my initial annoyance eventually turned to pleasure.

So let's start at the beginning. Mongoose's RuneQuest II (hereafter MRQII) is presented as "a fully revised and updated edition of the classic game system originally released in 1978 and republished by Mongoose Publishing in 2006." The Roman numeral in the title is a reference to the 2006 Mongoose book, which, by all accounts, was a mess very much in need of this revision. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if it's also intended as a sly reminder of its Chaosium-published predecessor, which was probably the most successful version of RuneQuest ever published (particularly in the UK, where, during the 1980s, it rivaled and may have even surpassed D&D in popularity).

Like OpenQuest, MRQII is intended as a generic iteration of the RuneQuest rules, although, because Mongoose Publishing has the license to produce materials set in Glorantha (albeit in the Second Age), there are occasional references to and examples derived from it. In addition, the rulebook embeds the concept of runes into its presentation of magic, which, while not necessarily tying the game to a specific setting or cosmology, does at least imply one. I don't think it'd be difficult to ignore this or to re-imagine it, but it's worth noting that, much like D&D (and unlike OpenQuest), MRQII brings with it a number of assumptions about the world its rules describe.

MRQII lays claim to the heritage of the original RuneQuest in other ways as well, including those "fiddly" bits that I have kept me from fully embracing the original rules. For example, characters (as well as creatures) have hit points divided by hit location. Likewise, combat contains a great deal of detail, which probably makes it far more satisfying for players who enjoy tactical challenges but more off-putting to people like me who prefer their combat rules quick and abstract. On the other hand, MRQII's character creation is quite flavorful, giving important roles to a character's culture and previous profession to determine starting skill values. There are also some terrific random tables for determining details of the character's family, allies, enemies, contacts, rivals, and other background information.

Skills are nicely delineated, being neither as narrow and limited as those in the original RuneQuest nor as extensive as in some games. I personally think the list could have been pared down a bit more, but I imagine that we got as many skills as we did in order to ensure the rules were useful to a wide variety of fantasy settings. MRQII's advancement system is similar to that presented in OpenQuest, but with additional options for in-game training, which I prefer. As noted, combat is fairly complex, especially with the introduction of combat maneuvers -- opportunistic actions characters can take if they achieve a particularly noteworthy success on an attack or defense skill roll. With time and experience, I am sure combat can be run smoothly and enjoyably, but, as someone used to OD&D's more abstract approach, I found MRQII's combat rules somewhat intimidating.

Magic in the game is divided into Common Magic, Divine Magic, Spirit Magic, and Sorcery, all of which have antecedents in earlier versions of RuneQuest. The rules governing magic are quite straightforward and nicely differentiate the various types from one another, which is a strong point in their favor. There are also guidelines for the creation of cults, which is, to my mind, one of the key elements of what made old school RuneQuest such a unique game. I am glad to see they were included in MRQII. I was a little less enthusiastic about the introduction of feat-like powers called "heroic abilities." However, heroic abilities are explicitly presented as rewards for advancement within a cult and from undertaking HeroQuests, the latter of which was never adequately integrated into the Chaosium RQ rules, despite much talk of it. So, while I can't deny a certain degree of personal uncomfortability with abilities like these, there's a strong case to be made that their presence is fulfilling a decades-long promise Chaosium never made good on and thus needed to be included.

MRQII has a very weak bestiary, consisting of less than two dozen monsters, quite a few of which are intelligent species. There are no rules for magic items or indeed treasure of any kind beyond ordinary equipment. Neither are there any sample adventures or campaign outlines, though there are some potentially useful random encounter tables at the back of the book. For this reason, MRQII feels less complete than OpenQuest does.

I imagine that this is by design, since Mongoose uses MRQII as the "core rulebook" for several different RPGs, each of which no doubt includes its own bestiary, treasures, and other game/setting-specific rules additions/modifications. That's probably fine from a publishing point of view, but it does, I think, limit the utility of MRQII as a single-volume generic rulebook for fantasy roleplaying. On the other hand, if you're intending to purchase and use the supplementary material that Mongoose is putting out, the RuneQuest II rulebook is an excellent compendium. Its revision of the classic RQ rules is clearly and logically presented and is true to its origins, making it a worthy official successor to Steve Perrin and Ray Turney's groundbreaking 1970s game design.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a clear and well presented, if slightly complex, rules system for skill-based fantasy roleplaying.
Don't Buy This If: You've already got a version of BRP with which you're satisfied or don't care for even a moderate level of rules complexity in your fantasy gaming.