Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Retrospective: Wilderlands of High Fantasy

I think it's fair to say that two of the lasting effects of the old school renaissance are the popularization of the term "sandbox" to refer to an open-ended campaign setting and the holding up of Judges Guild's The Wilderlands of High Fantasy as the premier example of a sandbox setting. The term "sandbox" is one I'd never heard, let alone used, in a tabletop RPG context until a few years ago, being, ironically, borrowed from the world of video games. And, while I knew of The Wilderlands of High Fantasy and even used it (briefly) back in the day, I never held it up as a model I wanted other campaign settings to emulate. How things change!

Originally released in 1977, The Wilderlands of High Fantasy is one of oldest published settings for use with Dungeons & Dragons. Nowadays, the release of a new campaign setting is often met with disinterest and even eye rolls, in part, I suspect, because campaign settings have become a very common product in the years since this was released. In 1977, though, this wasn't the case and one sometimes gets the impression that there was some skepticism among even their creators that gamers would have any interest in such a thing. Consider, for example, that the credits to The Wilderlands includes the following disclaimer:
All within are merely inspiration for the active and pontifical judges of the guild. Please alter, illuminate, expand, modify, extrapolate, interpolate, shrink, and further manipulate all contained to suit the tenor of your campaign.
I really like that quote and it nicely highlights one of the continually fascinating things about the Wilderlands setting: it's very flexible, even protean. Every time I have ever encountered or heard of a referee using it for their home campaign, I've been struck by just how different his home campaign is, not only from the "official" Wilderlands as published by Judges Guild but also from every other Wilderlands campaign run by other referees.

A big part of why this is the case is that The Wilderlands of High Fantasy, despite focusing on five of the sixteen regions of the overall Wilderlands setting, nevertheless devotes a lot of its 32 pages to collections of random tables and new rules. Thus, there are tables for ruins, caves, and lairs, in addition to rules for hirelings, prospecting, and income, among other topics. These tables and rules are clearly designed to facilitate campaigns where the characters wander about the world, exploring it hex by 1056-foot hex, in search of fame and fortune according to their own lights rather than any overarching plan concocted by the referee beforehand.

Another big part of why Wilderlands campaigns differ so much from one another is the sketchy nature of the setting information The Wilderlands of High Fantasy presents. A typical settlement is given a name, a population, a racial "type," general alignment, the name and characteristics of its ruler, and its primary resource. Hexes containing features of interest get a single line of description, such as "The crystallized skeleton of a dragon turtle is buried on the sandy beach. The skull houses a giant leech." There are no game stats or explanation here, just a very basic idea for the referee to read and, it is hoped, to be inspired by.

As a younger person, the Wilderlands didn't thrill me much and the presentation of the setting in products like The Wilderlands of High Fantasy was the main reason why. From my youthful perspective, I felt that authors Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen hadn't done "enough work" for me. Sure there were maps, including player's maps that didn't have complete information about settlements and geographic features, but what I really wanted was a lengthy historical overview of the setting and more detailed information about its peoples and locales. The Wilderlands of High Fantasy gave me none of that, instead expecting that I'd fill in those blanks myself, using the vague details, random tables, and new rules as raw materials from which to craft my own setting. After all, that's what being a referee is all about, isn't it?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Ads of Dragons: Broadsides & Boarding Parties

Though I was never much of a real wargamer, I did enjoy simulation games of various sorts -- "light" wargames intended for a mass audience, like the one advertised in issue #91 (November 1984):
Broadsides & Boarding Parties was one of several games released by Milton Bradley as part of their "Gamemaster Series," which featured simple, wargame-like games that had some really high production values. My personal favorite was not the one pictured here but the Roman era game called Conquest of the Empire. Conquest had some issues in terms of gameplay, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless. And of course Axis & Allies was -- and is -- a classic game that's still available today. It's just a pity that it takes nearly as long to set it up as it does to play it ...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

American Gothic

Reader Ronald Copley pointed me toward an old post over at Yog-Sothoth, where you can download a PDF copy of the original manuscript pages of the RPG, American Gothic, typed up by Steve Marsh. American Gothic is of interest, because it is, in the words of Sandy Petersen, "the alpha version" of Call of Cthulhu, one of the classics of our hobby.

According to Sandy Petersen:
Steve is an old friend of mine, and he did in fact help germinate the American Gothic idea (the name was his idea, for instance). Another pal of mine, Marc Hutchison, was involved from the start. Steve wrote up a treatment basing it largely on D&D...
The PDF document, which you can download here, is short but fascinating, particularly since it was written in May 1977 and uses OD&D/Chainmail terminology in places (such as the fighting capability of the "Mycenean Thought Crafters" class). Reading through it, you can see a number of things that call to mind the lost version of psionics that Steve Marsh created that was later reworked for inclusion into Eldritch Wizardry. It's well worth taking a look at this if you have any interest in the development of the games and ideas of the hobby.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Open Friday: Megadungeon Formats

To date, not a lot of true megadungeons -- as opposed to just really big dungeons -- have been published. I'm starting to wonder if the reason for that is that it's difficult to present a megadungeon in a format that's both comprehensive enough to do justice to such a campaign tent pole and yet easy to use in play. Then there's the additional factor of how much detail a megadungeon product needs to be usable and whether too much detail undercuts the very essence of a megadungeon.

So, today's question is this: assuming you're interested in megadungeons -- if you're not, please don't use the comments section to express your disinterest -- what would be your preferred format? Feel free and assume that there are no limits and go with what you would consider to be the ideal format for presenting a true old school megadungeon.

I'll admit I'm very curious to hear what people have to say, since it's a topic I've thought about myself at some length and that I'll share in an upcoming post.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What Happened?

My post earlier today about the Elmore D&D poster available through Sears in 1984 reminded again of the fact that, once upon a time, you could buy RPGs through major department stores. And by "RPGs," I don't just mean D&D but even some obscure games like FGU's Space Opera. I often find myself wishing I had easy access to old Christmas catalogs from places like Sears, JC Penny, and Montgomery Ward, because it'd be a lot of fun going through them to plot just what was available in their pages and when. So, I'm left with looking at sites like this one, which includes scans of some catalogs from the past, including the late 70s and early 80s.

Anyway, what I noticed today is that the 1983 Sears catalog has a fairly extensive collection of RPG products in it, while the 1985 catalog seems to have none. The site has no scans of the 1984 catalog, which I presume must have at some RPG products, given the ad from Dragon for the poster. What happened? 1984 marked the return of Gary Gygax to Wisconsin after his "exile" in California, when he attempted to wrest control of the company away from the Blume brothers. Despite appearances to the contrary, with lots of high profile products, like Dragonlance and various licensed properties (Marvel Superheroes, Indiana Jones, etc.), TSR was in turmoil throughout 1984 and into 1985, as Gygax, the Blumes, and, eventually, Lorraine Williams fought to determine the fate of the company. By the end of 1985, Gary was gone.

The Gygax version of history would have it that TSR was in financial trouble solely because of mismanagement by the Blumes. I have no reason to doubt that the Blumes made a number of mistakes that cost company dearly, but I can't help but wonder now, in light of the admittedly circumstantial evidence provide by the Sears catalogs, if maybe it wasn't solely bad decisions by the Blumes that hobbled TSR. Perhaps it was more that those bad decisions came at a time when the bottom had begun to fall out of the RPG fad. Whereas a couple of years previously, licensing a D&D woodburning set might not have had dire consequences, similar kinds of bizarre decisions now would. So, while I don't wish to exonerate the Blumes on very flimsy evidence, I nevertheless wonder if the overall decline in the faddishness of RPGs played an unacknowledged role in the decline in TSR's fortunes.

Anyone out there have any insights into this, particularly ones that, unlike mine, might be based on something more than the merest of speculation?

Stars Without Number, the Mongoose Edition

As some of you are no doubt aware, Kevin Crawford's terrific old school SF RPG, Stars Without Number (which I reviewed early this year), is about to be released in a new edition through Mongoose Publishing. Thanks to the kindness of reader Brian Blakely, who snagged me a copy at GenCon, I was able to get a look at it before it started turning up in most game shops on this side of the Atlantic.

The new edition is a hardcover, just like the one currently available through RPGNow and Drivethrurpg, using the exact same layout. The main differences appear to be a new cover (that I frankly don't like as much as the original), some typo fixes, and the inclusion of two new chapters comprising about 40 pages of material. These chapters cover rules for robots, including robot PCs, mechs, and the creation of planetary societies. None of this information is essential, but, as with nearly everything Crawford has produced to date, it's excellent and, if you're a player -- or even just an admirer -- of Stars Without Number, you'll want to get a copy of the new edition, especially since this new material is not available anywhere else (though Crawford has hinted it might appear in future products for the game).

The Ads of Dragon: D&D Poster

If you ever need a concrete reminder that the days of Dungeons & Dragons as a mainstream pop cultural phenomenon are long past, you need only look at this advertisement from issue #90 (October 1984) of Dragon:
Back in 1984, you could buy a D&D poster, featuring art by Larry Elmore, from Sears stores or from the Sears Christmas catalog. When was the last time that you saw a D&D poster at all, let alone available through a major department store chain? It's little things like this that remind us how big a fad D&D was once upon a time.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lovecraftian Pedantry

In a letter to the amateur writer Duane W. Rimel, dated July 23, 1934, H.P. Lovecraft addresses the issue of how to pronounce the name "Cthulhu."
The name of the hellish entity was invented by beings whose vocal organs were not like man's, hence it has no relation to the human speech equipment. The syllables were determined by a physiological equipment wholly unlike ours, hence could never be uttered perfectly by human throats ... The actual sound -- as nearly as any human organs could imitate it or human letters record it -- may be taken as something like Khlûl'-hloo, with the first syllable pronounced gutturally and very thickly. The u is about like that in full; and the first syllable is not unlike klul in sound, hence the h represents the guttural thickness.
Chaosium thus has a lot to answer for on this score, as a great many people now believe, thanks to their RPG, that the name is correctly pronounced "Ka-thul-hoo" or some variation thereof. Maybe that's close enough for government work, I don't know, but S.T. Joshi records that Donald Wandrei once pronounced the name as Chaosium does in HPL's presence "and received nothing but a blank stare in return." Personally, I think mispronouncing Cthulhu is more forgivable than mispronouncing Conan or Tarzan, given Lovecraft's own statement that the name was never meant to be spoken by human tongues, but it's a mistake nonetheless.

In Praise of Geomorphs -- and Dave's Mapper

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned it here before, but, in case I haven't, let me say now that I absolutely adore Dave's Mapper. Look at this terrific dungeon level I created from several of the geomorph sets available through the site:
I like dungeon geomorphs. In fact, I think they're a nigh-essential tool in running a megadungeon-centered campaign. Like all such tools, they're no substitute for individual creativity or hard work, but they definitely have their place. Goodness knows I wish Dave's Mapper had been online when I started my Dwimmermount campaign two years ago; it certainly would have made my life easier at times.

Retrospective: Monster Manual II

The Monster Manual II is the first AD&D hardcover volume that I waited in great anticipation for. Though both Deities & Demigods and the Fiend Folio were released after I entered the hobby, I wasn't yet sufficiently aware of things like TSR's publication schedule to take notice of their imminent arrival. By 1983, when the Monster Manual II was released, though, I'd been a subscriber of Dragon for some time and paid close attention to Gary Gygax's columns, where he'd talk about upcoming releases for my favorite game. So, when the time came, I was phoning every hobby and book store in Baltimore County to find one that held a copy of this long awaited volume.

Why long awaited? In retrospect, it seems silly to admit this, but the fact that the Monster Manual II carried Gary Gygax's byline meant a lot to me back then. For me, he was the final authority on all things D&D and if he was putting out a new book of monsters -- or anything else really -- then of course I had to own it. There was also the fact that I've always had decidedly mixed feelings about the Fiend Folio. There are some excellent monsters in its pages, some of D&D's best, but there's also a lot of dross in there as well, some of it embarrassingly bad. So, the prospect of a new book of monsters wholly from the pen of EGG was utterly enthralling to me.

As it turned out, not all of the book's monsters were the work of Gary Gygax. At least some of them were created by Frank Mentzer and the (in)famous modrons were the work (at least in part) of Jeff Grubb, who's credited as a "design consultant" for the book. At the time, I didn't know any of this and I'm not sure I'd have believed it, since so much of the content of the Monster Manual II had previously appeared under Gary's byline, whether in the pages of his "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" column or in modules like The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. Consequently, I attributed to this book a degree of authority I didn't to books like the Fiend Folio or the DDG.

It helped, too, that I actually liked a great many of the monsters included in the Monster Manual II. I was especially fond of the expanded treatment of Outer Planar creatures -- demons, devils, daemons, demodands, devas, planetars, solars, and, yes, modrons. All of these creatures expanded the scope of what a Dungeons & Dragons adventure could be about. These weren't (generally) the kinds of creatures you'd encounter in some underground labyrinth guarding some treasure. No, these were the kinds of creatures around which whole scenarios -- indeed, mini-campaigns -- could be constructed. They were epic and I loved them for that quality.

It's funny how distance makes things apparent that weren't at the time. In the case of the Monster Manual II, what I see now is that Gary Gygax, who'd been playing the game in one form or another for over a decade, was looking to move the game beyond the dungeon and even the wilderness and out into the Planes. So many of the monsters in this book were extraplanar in origin and geared toward higher-level play that I can't help but think that Gary had moved on and wanted something more, or at least something different, out of the game he co-created.

Many people who read his later game, Mythus, are perplexed by what they see as a "change" in Gygax's conception, as if it were wholly unprecedented. I don't think that's the case at all, especially if you look at books like the Monster Manual II and Unearthed Arcana, two volumes that frequently get taken to task by AD&D aficionados for their deviations from earlier Gygaxian works. I think the critics are right to note that these later works are quite different in content and tone from earlier ones, but I'm starting to feel that their deviations were organic ones, at least from Gygax's perspective. The represent a genuine shift in his own perspective and approach to AD&D. Taken in that light, I think they make a great deal more sense, regardless of whether one ultimately has any use for them or not.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Wasted Opportunity

I've finally had the chance to see the new Conan the Barbarian movie in the theater. I caught a matinee yesterday, more out of a sense of duty than any real desire to see it for itself, since I had every reason to believe I wouldn't enjoy it. That makes writing a review of the film very difficult for me, since nothing less than a full recantation of my earlier doubts about it will appear objective, while any confirmation of them will simply prove that I did not view it with an open mind. I have no one to blame for this state of affairs but myself, so I don't begrudge anyone who summarily discounts what follows. Nevertheless, I did give the movie a fair shake, perhaps fairer than I might have had I not read so many reviews and commentaries beforehand, because I went into it with such low expectations that it would have been hard for the movie to have disappointed me any more than it already had.

On that front, I can say without hesitation that Conan the Barbarian is not as bad as I had expected. If I had to pick a single word to describe it, though, it would almost certainly be "mediocre." I knew going into it that I was not going to be getting Robert E. Howard's Conan, but I held out hope, particularly in light of some of the reviews that I'd read, that I might still be getting a solid sword-and-sorcery film whose protagonist just happened to share a name with a certain famous Cimmerian. Unfortunately, that's not what I got. What I saw today was, frankly, a mess and not of the glorious kind.

As a movie, Conan the Barbarian is all over the place, with only occasional flashes of cleverness, never mind brilliance. It felt as if it had been hastily -- or at least confusedly -- put together without any overarching vision of what it supposed to be. Was this an attempt to bring a more Howardian version of Conan to the screen, a remake (or "re-imagining") of the 1982 Milius version, a live-action version of a filler story from the latter days of Savage Sword of Conan, or just a B-movie sword-and-sorcery flick? This lack of a clear vision hobbled Conan the Barbarian, making it hard to know how to take the film. You see, I had hoped that, at the bare minimum, this movie would do two things: 1) Sever the connection in the general public's mind between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Conan and 2) Be an enjoyable movie in its own right.

Let's start with the first one. As is well known, I'm not a big fan of the first Schwarzenegger Conan movie (We needn't mention its sequel, since it's just awful). Despite that, I readily concede that the 1982 Conan the Barbarian possesses a certain something that gives it staying power. It's not REH by any means, but neither is it a joke, like so many of the fantasy action movies that followed in its considerable wake. This inexplicable gravitas, combined with a career-making performance by Arnie, has done much to secure its place in people's imaginations, especially those who don't know the real Cimmerian. To succeed, the 2011 film needed to establish itself as more than the ape of its predecessor, which it could have done in innumerable ways, though, to my mind, the simplest would have been to drink deeply from its literary wellspring.

Read almost any review and chances are you're going to see the new movie compared to the Schwarzenegger vehicle. Even when the comparison is a positive one, it only serves to emphasize the long shadow cast by the 1982 motion picture. This is why I find it bizarre that the current release focuses on Conan's quest for revenge against the warlord who slew his father and destroyed his village. Not only is this plot utterly alien to Howard's Conan but it ensures that viewers familiar with the Schwarzenegger version will have it in mind while viewing the new one. There are, of course, plenty of differences between the specifics of the two films' plots, but there are also enough surface similarities that even I, who knew better, found myself thinking of the 2011 film as some kind of remake. However you slice it, that's a failure, both of imagination and of any effort to give this movie its own identity apart from its predecessor.

This brings me to the second question: is Conan the Barbarian enjoyable in its own right? How one answers that question depends, I'd imagine, on the standards by which one measures enjoyment. There were definitely parts of the film I enjoyed. For one, the overall look of the movie wasn't bad and some of the special effects were well done. The same goes for many of the fight scenes, which were (mostly) nicely choreographed, though a few strayed into martial arts movie-inspired nonsense I do not want to see in a Conan film. The cast was solid, too, starting with Jason Momoa, who both looked the part and brought an appropriate intensity to most of his scenes. No one appeared to be sleepwalking through the film, which is more than could be said of me by the end of watching it. The script was mostly awful, laden with clichés and vapidity and largely lacking in the visceral power of Howard's best work. The plot, as I mentioned, is clearly inspired by that of the 1982 movie and does little to distinguish itself, other than the addition of comic book violence. Its characters, including Conan, sadly, are similarly two-dimensional, showing even less depth and development than the Milius version. In short, I was more bored by Conan the Barbarian than outraged.

That's the crux of it for me. Conan the Barbarian 2011 is just not a very interesting movie. The Milius film, for all its manifest faults, as both a motion picture and as a cinematic presentation of Robert E. Howard's most famous character, is memorable. Indeed, it's powerful in its own way and can serve as a discussion point amongst fans of both movies and Robert E. Howard. Its successor, though, is, at best, a way to blow two hours and then move on. It's a very forgettable movie and certainly not one that left me hungering for more. If it weren't for the fact that it laid claim to REH's legacy, it would be largely indistinguishable from any number of fantasy films that have come and gone and were never thought of again.  I doubt very much that, in 30 years time, many people will look back on this movie with great fondness.

I think that's a shame, because I remain convinced that Conan is a character who could do well on the silver screen. As conceived by Howard, he's eminently suitable to a series of episodic movies, each one presenting one of his adventures, even as the series advances the larger story of his life, culminating in his claiming of the throne of Aquilonia. To do that, though, Hollywood needs to do more than pay the briefest of lip service to Howard's conception of the character. Even assuming for a moment that a straight adaptation of any of Howard's stories were impractical -- something I don't believe -- why can't we at least move beyond the silly revenge quest origin story and get something different? And, while we're at it, is it too much to ask for stories whose plots actually make sense? I'm not looking for Tolstoy here. Heck, I'm almost to the point where I'm not looking for Howard anymore, but, surely, someone in Hollywood can find a way to tell an engaging, coherent story featuring Conan.

I almost feel bad for this review, because, truth be told, Conan the Barbarian 2011 isn't a terrible film so much as an example of bland, lowest common denominator entertainment, mostly devoid of anything that distinguishes it from dozens of other paint-by-numbers action films churned out each year. For some, that's probably enough and that's great; for me, though, it isn't. I kept hoping against hope that this movie might prove to be more than that, something that might kick off a series of movies about Conan, but, after the disaster this is proving to be at the box office, that seems increasingly unlikely. Indeed, it may have poisoned the well against any future Robert E. Howard-based movies for a long time to come and I am much more disappointed by that than I am by this halfhearted, forgettable movie.

The Ads of Dragon: Indiana Jones Roleplaying Game

May 1984 saw the release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, while issue #89 of Dragon (September 1984) saw the appearance of this advertisement:
I won't deny that, when I saw this ad, I was pretty excited. The Indiana Jones movies were my gateway to the movie serials of yesteryear and, from there, to the pulp magazines that inspired them both. So, when I heard that TSR was producing a RPG based on the movies, I was really looked forward to it. How disappointed I was when I finally got hold of a copy of the thing! Players were expected to play one of several pre-generated characters and there were no rules for creating your own, which caused considerable problems. After all, who wants to play Short Round or Sallah when their buddy gets to play Indy? The game also made heavy use of cardboard fold-up "miniatures" for adjudicating many of its rules, which was fine if you had the right fold-ups, but, if you didn't -- which was invariably the case for scenarios you made up yourself -- you were out of luck.

In retrospect, I suspect the Indiana Jones Roleplaying Game was intended as a "gateway" game for kids who weren't already in the hobby and, on that level, perhaps it was better than I remember its being. As I recall, though, it didn't sell well and there were only a handful of modules released for it (two of which were based on the then-released movies). The game is mostly remembered for the erroneous belief that TSR tried to trademark the word "Nazi," based on a misunderstanding about the illustrations on the cardboard fold-ups. In addition, a copy of the game burnt by employees at TSR UK is responsible for the name of the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The God in the Bowl

With the latest attempt at a movie featuring Robert E. Howard's famous Cimmerian upon us, I found myself thinking of tales actually written by REH that might be ripe for adaptation. My thoughts inevitably turned to "The God in the Bowl." This is an interesting story almost as much for its textual history as for its content. Though submitted for publication to Weird Tales sometime in 1932, it was rejected by editor Farnsworth Wright, a fate it shared with "The Frost Giant's Daughter" (though the latter did see publication in an amateur periodical, with Conan replaced with "Amra of Akbitana"). Consequently, "The God in the Bowl" was unknown to the wider world until it was published in the September 1952 issue of the British magazine Space Science Fiction. Like so many Conan tales published at the time, L. Sprague De Camp edited "The God in the Bowl," often changing the words and phrasing of various sections. Howard's original, unadulterated text did not appear in print until 2002.

Though I am very fond of the story myself, I can fully understand why Wright might have rejected it. Unlike many Conan yarns, this one is slow-paced, even thoughtful, largely lacking in action and having no female character whom Margaret Brundage could paint in a state of undress for the cover of Weird Tales. "The God in the Bowl" is, for all intents and purposes, a police procedural story, with a young Conan the prime suspect in a murder. A watchman at "a museum and antique house men called Kallian Publico's Temple" in Nemedia comes across "the sprawling corpse that had been the rich and powerful owner of the Temple." In death, Publico's face is blackened, as is his tongue, and his eyes nearly pop out from his head. Though his tunic is torn, his many bejeweled rings remain on his fingers, to the amazement of the watchman, who naturally suspects greed as the motive.

Not long thereafter, Arus, the watchman notices a figure coming through one of the openings in the hallway.
Arus saw a tall powerfully built youth, naked but for a loin-cloth, and sandals strapped about his ankles. His skin was burned brown as by the suns of the wastelands, and Arus glanced nervously at his broad shoulders, massive chest and heavy arms. A single look at the moody, broad-browed features told the watchman that the man was no Nemedian. From under a mop of unruly black hair smoldered a pair of dangerous blue eyes. A long sword hung in a leather scabbard at his girdle.

Arus felt his skin crawl, and he fingered his crossbow tensely, of half a mind to drive a bolt through the stranger's body without parley, yet fearful of what might happen if he failed to inflict death at the first shot.

The stranger looked at the body on the floor more in curiosity than surprise.

"Why did you kill?" asked Arus nervously.

The other shook his tousled head.

"I didn't kill him," he answered, speaking Nemedian with a barbaric accent. "Who is he?"
I'm very fond of this introduction to the youthful Conan, because it succinctly establishes that, though a barbarian, Conan is no mere brute. He speaks a foreign language intelligibly and does not attack the watchman, even though he points a crossbow at him. And though, as we later learn, Conan had entered the Temple to steal, he speaks plainly and without guile to the watchman, flatly denying that he is a murderer, a position he maintains even when interrogated by a member of the city's inquisitorial council. The rest of the story consists of Conan and the Nemedians trying to piece together what actually happened to Kallian Publico and dealing with it.

"The God in the Bowl" is a short story and, as I said, not filled with much swordplay or indeed any other kind of action. That's probably why I like it so much: it shows facets of Conan other than his great strength and skill at arms. He's shown to be both intelligent and honorable -- as well as clearly contemptuous of civilization. In short, "The God in the Bowl" is an excellent introduction to the full character of Howard's Conan, as well as to many of the elements and themes of his Hyborian Age tales. It's also a story that's ripe for expansion and development, laying the foundation for original follow-ups to it. What a pity that a story like this is never chosen as the basis for a Hollywood screenplay!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Even Worse Than Predicted

With harder data now in, it looks like Conan the Barbarian did even less well than estimated over at Deadline Hollywood. The revised figures have the film grossing only $3.6 million on Friday and barely cracking $10 million for the weekend. Meanwhile, The Wrap puts the Friday figure at $3.7 million and estimates that it won't even break double digits for the entire weekend. However you slice it, this latest attempt to bring Robert E. Howard's most famous character to the silver screen is a failure.

I wish I could say that the failure was directly the result of the film's deviations from Howard's stories, but that seems unlikely, given how little known Howard's stories are. Of course, one might reasonably argue that, by presenting just a generic sword-and-sorcery movie whose lead happens to be named Conan rather than one that draws on what makes Howard's stories unique, the end result was inevitable. We've already got Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia, what, other than the name, does Conan bring to the table that they don't?

Such questions are likely academic for now. Howard has never been treated well by Hollywood -- I think there's only ever been one remotely faithful adaptation of his stories -- and the failure of the 2011 Conan the Barbarian won't do much to increase the odds of that's changing. I'm OK with that. Like Lovecraft, Howard's an author about whom I care enough that I'd rather see no movies made of his works than bad movies. If I go to my grave without there ever being another Conan film made, I won't mind at all.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

OSRCon Memento

While I have little doubt that this will horrify some people, here's a scan of a calling card Ed Greenwood was giving out to everyone at OSRCon:
I have to admit I found it very amusing.

Thak's Revenge

In the 1934 Conan yarn "Rogues in the House," Conan defeats an intelligent ape called Thak, who's set himself up in the place of Nabonidus the Red Priest. Nearly 80 years later, it looks like some of Thak's relatives managed to get the jump on the Cimmerian. The estimated box office receipts from last night's premier of Conan the Barbarian are in and the two week-old Rise of the Planet of the Apes made more money than the latest attempt to bring Robert E. Howard's famous character to the big screen.

I'll be honest and say I'm not too surprised by this. There wasn't much in the trailers that suggested that Conan the Barbarian was going to be a memorable film, let alone a noteworthy one. It reminded me uncomfortably of Clash of the Titans and other such fantasy action movies rather than anything in line with Howard's seminal pulp stories. If the estimates for the whole weekend prove true (only $11 million), then I think that pretty much poisons the well for any future Conan projects for the foreseeable future. That's a shame on one level, but, truth be told, I'd rather see no Conan movies made than a string of successful ones that bear little or no relationship to their source material.


On this day in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born. It is no exaggeration to say that contemporary fantasy and science fiction would be very different today were it not for his unique imagination. Lovecraft's influence is so pervasive, even commonplace, that it often goes unrecognized. Every time a character in a story, movie, or roleplaying game encounters a blasphemous book, a slimy, tentacled horror, or teeters on the brink of insanity due to the horrible truths he has learned, we ultimately have HPL to thank.

Of course, many of these ideas predated Lovecraft or were further popularized by his imitators. Indeed, I think it likely that the vast majority of the stories and story elements deemed "Lovecraftian" are nothing of the sort, based as they are on very superficial readings of the Old Gent's writings.This includes the Call of Cthulhu RPG, which, while a very fine game and one of my favorites, nevertheless owes an equal debt to August Derleth as it does to H.P. Lovecraft (not that there's anything wrong with that).

I'm sure some of this superficiality stems from the intellectual laziness to which we all are prone, but I think most of it has its origin in the difficulty in really coming to grips with the philosophy and worldview that underlie Lovecraft's stories. HPL is sometimes called a "nihilist" or a "pessimist," but I don't think either label is an accurate one. The alien entities Lovecraft describes are not malevolent. They may engage in activities detrimental to man, but it is not through any ill will toward him, or at least no more ill will than when man inadvertently destroys a nest of ants when building a skyscraper. Lovecraft takes no pleasure in this reality; he does not celebrate it. He is completely indifferent to it, presenting it simply as a brute fact, albeit one with far reaching implications for man's self-image.

That most of us should recoil from this fact is not surprising, as it runs counter to long-held beliefs about the place of man in the cosmos. That's why, I think, so few of the works called "Lovecraftian" nowadays really deserve the sobriquet. I can count on one hand the number of books, movies, or RPGs that really embrace a Lovecraftian worldview and, even then, that worldview is often tempered with an instinctive hope for human transcendence that, to HPL, is utterly unwarranted. It's little wonder, then, that pop culture has chosen to defang Lovecraft, reducing his conceptions to catch phrases and nerd totems rather than grappling with the worrisome possibility that he just may be right.

Speaking as someone who does not think Lovecaft is right, I nevertheless wish that more effort was made, in books, movies, and games that lay claim to his legacy, to address the questions that he raises. That's my 121st birthday wish for him: that Lovecraft might be understood on his own terms rather than through lenses and categories alien to him. It's a tall order, especially given the vapidity of the term "Lovecraftian" these days, but I think it's a worthwhile endeavor nonetheless and a fine way to honor one of the forefathers of this hobby we all share.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sandy Petersen Reviews Call of Cthulhu

A number of people emailed me today, asking that I take a look at this "review" of Call of Cthulhu by its creator, Sandy Petersen. It's quite a read, especially if you're interested in the genesis of this classic of the hobby. There are a lot of fascinating tidbits in it, some of which I already knew from other sources, but I think the most interesting to me concerned why the game was set in the 1920s:
To me, Lovecraft was never about the era. His characters used cutting-edge technology, such as submarines, airplanes, and recording devices, and interacted with cutting-edge events, such as the discovery of Pluto, and 20th-century population conflicts and pressures. So the way I saw it, if HPL had lived in 1980, he’d have written about Jimmy Carter (my dream is a 1980 HPL story where we find out it wasn’t a giant swimming *rabbit* after all).

However, the good folks at Chaosium did not respect Lovecraft. Greg’s exact words were "HPL is a terrible writer." That was mild, compared to some other Chaosium opinions. They were okay with having a fan like me design the game, because that way my love for Lovecraft would be in the rules. But on the other hand, the Chaosium folks wanted to enjoy playing the game I was going to design, and they wanted a "hook" to hang their fun onto. They chose the 1920s. In their games, they loved driving old cars, talking about zeppelins, flappers, the Weimar Republic and all that stuff. My own games usually didn’t reference the era at all, except peripherally. Yeah they were in the 1920s too, but they could just as easily have been set anywhere in the 20th century. A haunted house is a haunted house as far as I was concerned.

So Call of Cthulhu to this day is officially set in the 1920s, and has the big 1920s guidebook, with which I had little to do, except providing some monster stats (like for mummies and wolves and so forth). But that was the Chaosium thing.
And there you have it.

Quelle Surprise!

Over the last couple of days, I've gotten quite a few emails and other pointers directing me toward various advance reviews of the new Conan the Barbarian movie, which I've talked about on this blog on the past. As you can see from the aggregate consensus over at Rotten Tomatoes, it's probably not a very good movie, but, then, I wasn't expecting that it would be. My hope was that it would be at least a decent B-movie that might sever the connection in people's minds between the character of Conan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. If the reviews I've been reading are any indication, that doesn't seem likely to happen.

Now, it's possible, as is sometimes the case, that the reviews are overly critical and/or unsympathetic to the genre, but several of the reviewers I've read have actually demonstrated more than a passing knowledge of Conan and Robert E. Howard, such as this one from AV Club. Of course, many more are utterly unschooled in the stories of the Cimmerian and speak as much of that ignorance as they do of any flaws in the film. Even with those caveats, it's hard to be encouraged by what I'm seeing so far. It's looking more and more like we've got another forgettable summer action movie on our hands rather than something more substantial.

I still may see it, just to satisfy my own curiosity. On the other hand, I can think of much better ways to spend $15 than to watch a film I was probably going to dislike even if it had been better than the reviews would imply.

OSRCon Thoughts (Part IV)

On the evening of the second day, I had the opportunity to play in an AD&D game run by Ed Greenwood and set in his Forgotten Realms campaign. It has literally been more than a decade since I last played any sort of AD&D, but that didn't make a difference. For one thing, all forms of TSR D&D are close enough mechanically that, if you know how to play one, you know how to play them. For another, Ed plays a fairly "fast and loose" game, where game mechanics are secondary other concerns (about which I'll say more shortly). In this respect, I found myself reminded of the stories of how M.A.R. Barker runs his Tékumel campaign, an analogy that I think is quite apt, given that Greenwood, like Barker, has been imagining his fantasy world most of his life. For both of them, it's the world and its contents that are important, not the rules used to simulate them.
Before we began, Ed had two rules for us. First was a purely practical one: don't split the party. Second: anything that came out of our mouths came out of our character's mouths, unless it was something obviously rule-related, like "I rolled 15." These rules were fine by me, even the second one, which had the effect of both limiting unnecessary chatter and ensuring that everyone involved made at least a minimal effort to roleplay. I've never seen the need to adopt anything like Ed's second rule and my experiences refereeing Dwimmermount at OSRCon only confirmed me in that opinion, but I don't begrudge him the rule. I'm sure it's one that arose after many years of running con adventures.

As I said above, the game used AD&D, ostensibly its second edition. Truth be told, it was difficult to tell that it wasn't first edition, since Ed didn't use non-weapon proficiencies, which is, for me, one of the signature differences between the two editions. I played a cleric -- I'm sorry, priest -- of the goddess Tymora named Tashram and, while some of his spells were ones I'd never encountered in 1e, I found the experience indistinguishable from playing a cleric in the old days. That said, Ed uses the rules very loosely, mostly for the adjudication of combat and spellcasting and, even then, he seemed to do so mostly as a spur to his imagination. Again, I found myself thinking of Professor Barker and the descriptions of how he referees Tékumel using only percentile dice.

The specifics of the scenario we were playing are, frankly, unimportant, since, as an adventure written for a con, it was something of a "funhouse dungeon." The PCs were tasked with finding someone who'd fled through a series of "hop-gates" that were hidden and whose locations we could identify with a magic ring that glowed bright when we were near one. Thus, our party went from one place to the next, each place presenting a new and sometimes bizarre challenge intended to slow us down or kill us, thereby preventing our finding our quarry. The challenges were fun and many were very odd indeed, reminding me very much of the dungeons I created and played through in my younger days. I'm sure the convention format had something to do with this, but I also got the sense that Ed enjoys watching the players attempt to puzzle their way through his tricks and traps, so perhaps it was all reflective of his overall refereeing style.
Which reminds me: Ed is an absolutely enthralling referee. He's also a shameless ham. Every single NPC we encountered was played to the hilt, funny voices and all, and you can tell that Ed was having a blast doing so. Of course, his theatrics were delaying our progress, which, I suspect, was part of the point, since there was a time limit on our activities, both in real life and in the game. But there were plenty of times where everyone at the table was having so much fun interacting with one of the NPCs that we forgot about the time and just enjoyed ourselves. I can only imagine what it must be like to have Ed refereeing an entire campaign.

My fellow players were much fun, too, with some of them following Ed's lead and adopting funny voices and mannerisms. There's no question it was goofy, but it was also entertaining, so entertaining, in fact, that we soon attracted a crowd of onlookers watching us play. I remember as a kid visiting the back rooms of game stores where RPG sessions were being held and doing just the same, watching these older guys sit around a table and speak in character as they explored some fiendish underworld. It's not for everyone, I'll readily admit, but there's no question that it has a long pedigree in our hobby. We had so much fun that I think we dawdled a bit and so we reached the conclusion of the adventure rather late, resulting in a less than satisfactory conclusion to it, a fact Ed noted to me afterwards.

Looking back on the session now, one things really sticks with me. Though Ed was clearly more interested in characterization than many old school referees, he was nevertheless very keen to use player skill as the deciding factor in most instances. He didn't call for dice rolls a lot and, when he did, they were for things like saving throws or weapon damage. When we encountered a trap or a puzzle, we had to work them it for ourselves; we couldn't just "make a Spot check at DC 15" to find what we needed. The longer I am involved in old school gaming, the more convinced I am that that is the crux of the difference between older games and newer ones. For all the ways that Ed's refereeing might cause some grognards' skin to crawl, he is nevertheless, fundamentally, "one of us." He clearly gets that rolling dice should never be a substitute for individual cleverness and creative thinking. I had great fun playing in his adventure and would very happily do so again. I don't doubt that all the other players who sat around that table with me for four hours last weekend feel exactly the same.

The Ads of Dragon: The Man of Gold

Issue #88 (August 1984) included the following advertisement:
Empire of the Petal Throne and Tékumel were things I'd long heard about from other, usually older, gamers, but I'd never actually seen anything relating to them by the time this ad came out. So, I was greatly interested in getting hold of a copy of The Man of Gold and reading it. Oddly, I never found a copy in any bookstore I visited, but I did find a copy at one my local public libraries about a year later and happily devoured, hoping to learn at last what all the fuss was about.

I wish I could say that that first reading of The Man of Gold turned me into a Tékumel fan, but it didn't. It would take many more years before it finally started to click for me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Beast That Hath No Name

At the risk of horning in on Jeff's territory, let me share with you a recent discovery of mine. You see, one of the many, many benefits of having children is that, no matter how curmudgeonly and set in your ways you are, you're inevitably going to be introduced to new things, at least some of which might not be bad. One such thing is Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, a reboot of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon series that began in 1969.

Now, in general, I'm not a big fan of reboots. They're typically tasked with changing characters and concepts enough so that they're very different in both tone and content from the originals. In the case of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, there is a change in tone. The show is much more serious than its predecessors, though not self-serious, if you understand the distinction. There's still plenty of humor and many of the plots are the kinds of things that could only happen in a cartoon. Yet, the stories are presented straight and without irony. In this respect, I'm reminded a bit of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, another excellent cartoon I learned about because of my children.

I bring this all up because, in addition to its other fine qualities, many episodes of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated are loving homages to horror films or books, which makes them great fun to watch if you catch the references, as I do. A thoroughly delightful example of this was the episode entitled "The Shrieking Madness," which concerns an octopus-headed creature known as Char Gar Gothakon, seen below.
Char Gar Gothakon is the creation of a professor at Darrow University by the name of H.P. Hatecraft, voiced by Jeffrey Combs.
Hatecraft claims that Char Gar Gothakon and his ilk are real entities that contact him in dreams and that he then spins into horror stories.
Some people scoff at this notion, including visiting lecturer Harlan Ellison (voiced by the author himself), deriding Hatecraft as a fraud.
This stance doesn't find favor with one of Hatecraft's biggest fans, a young man named Howard E. Roberts, whom Ellison humiliates at his appearance at Darrow University. Here's Roberts, who looks nothing like any real world person, living or dead.
Char Gar Gothakon attacks the university several times, leading Hatecraft to eventually admit that Ellison is right and that he invented the monster with his own imagination rather than having been contacted by him. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop the beast from attacking Ellison in a parking lot and nearly carrying him off.
I won't say any more about the plot of the episode, since I don't want to spoil it for anyone, though I suspect anyone who's watched even a single Scooby-Doo episode should have no trouble unraveling the mystery. For me, though, the real joy of this was seeing all the references and allusions to some of my favorite pulp fantasists and their creations. It was also amusing seeing Harlan Ellison making light of himself, his writings, and his acerbic style. If you get the chance to see this episode, please do so. There's nothing deep or meaningful in it, but it is great fun.

OSRCon Thoughts (Part III)

After I completed my second session of refereeing Dwimmermount, there was a short break, followed by an hour-long Q&A session, featuring myself, Ed Greenwood, Alex Von Thorn, and Glenn Pearce. Discussion was open-ended, though vaguely focused on the question of "How has the hobby changed since the 1970s and 1980s?"
I don't think it's a secret to say that Ed Greenwood loves an audience. So, while there were four of us on the panel, it was really Ed's show and I was fine with that, because I absolutely love listening to Ed tell stories and generally ham it up for the crowd. I should say, though, that Ed made every effort to include the rest of us in the discussion, often specifically directing questions or comments toward us, so that we could respond. He acted as an impromptu moderator of the panel, albeit one who participated fully in the discussion.

And, as I said, I didn't mind at all, since, frankly, Ed's extremely entertaining to listen to. He had a lot of great stories to share, including tales of his introduction to the hobby and his entry into professional writing ("TSR was clearly desperate"). He also ventured his opinion about the current edition of D&D ("It's a different game entirely") and how TSR drew the wrong lessons from the popularity of the Forgotten Realms, to the detriment of both the company and the setting. Glenn Pearce of the Napoleonic Miniatures Wargames Society of Toronto also had a lot of interesting things to say. What I found most fascinating was how the rise, success, and decline of miniatures wargaming so closely mirrors what has happened in our own hobby. For example, Mr Pearce mentioned that 15mm Napoleonics minis were easily obtainable through department stores in the 1960s and '70s, something I never knew. I was reminded of a similar situation with regards to RPGs in my own youth.
The panel lasted only an hour, so there wasn't a vast scope for discussion, but it was worthwhile nonetheless. What strikes me now, in looking back on it, is that everyone on the panel felt that good games have no expiry date. They are -- or at least can be -- every bit as fun to play at age 40 as they were at age 10. That's certainly my feeling on the matter. The notion that you "can't go home again" is only true in a very limited sense. Certainly I can never again be the naive and wide-eyed kid I was in 1979, but that doesn't mean I still can't enjoy the same things I did back then. I may enjoy them somewhat differently than I did back then -- but I still enjoy them and see no reason why that has to change. 

Retrospective: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa

I've always been fond of the kuo-toa, the titular antagonists of 1978's Shrine of the Kuo-Toa by Gary Gygax. I suspect my affection for them comes from the fact that H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" made a strong impression on me and I read it not long before first encountering this module. Thus, for me, the kuo-toa are inextricably bound up with HPL's deep ones. But, as is so often the case with Gygax's pastiches, he alters the original in ways that make it accessible and satisfying outside its original context. In short, with the kuo-toa, Gygax transformed the deep ones into more -- or, less, depending on one's point of view -- than avatars of Lovecraft's fear of miscegenation. Call the kuo-toa "deep ones lite," if you will, though I would argue that it is that lightness that makes them more suitable as opponents in your average D&D campaign than deep ones.

In some respects, module D2 is very similar to its predecessor, lacking in an explicit plot and filled with a lot of random tables for generating encounters with the denizens of the subterranean world as the PCs continue their quest to find the city of the drow. Where it differs is that Shrine of the Kuo-Toa describes in detail a single eponymous locale, which is intended to be the focus of play. Module D1 had the Caverns and Warrens of the Troglodytes, of course, and they certainly qualify as adventuring locales, but they lack the coherence of the Shrine in my opinion. Players remember the Caverns and Warrens as "just a bunch of caves" populated by a wide variety of monsters, whereas the Shrine is not only held by a single type of monster -- the kuo-toa -- but is clearly important to them, so important that they will mount an organized and determined defense of it against the PCs and their allies.

These allies are another important part of what differentiates modules D1 and D2. The deep gnomes (or svirfneblin) of D2 are presented as determined foes of the kuo-toa and thus potential aids to the player characters in their own efforts. Their motivation is primarily greed, as they've played out all the veins of gems that can be obtained easily and wish to gain more from the area of the Shrine, either by prospecting or, if possible, theft. The deep gnomes are potent enemies, some of whom can summon earth elementals to do their bidding, but they're also suspicious of outsiders. Convincing them to help the PCs is thus an important means of achieving success in this adventure, though it's worth noting that Gygax devotes very little verbiage to it.

The Shrine itself is terrific: a ziggurat-like structure filled with kuo-toa, including many clerical spellcasters (which only makes sense, as it's a religious location). It's here that we first catch glimpses of the awesomely-named Blibdoolpoolp, the Sea Mother of the kuo-toa. Again, Gygax displays his appreciation of the power of names. Blibdoolpoolp is not just a memorably absurd name; it's also one that sounds like it could be uttered by alien lips immersed in water. And the appearance of a nude statuesque woman with the head and claws of a lobster is an inspired way to portray this deity -- alluring and repellant at the same time. I'm not ashamed to admit that, as a kid, I found Blibdoolpoolp quite disturbing and, on some level, I still do.

Shrine of the Kuo-Toa isn't as good as Vault of the Drow, but it's still very good. It presents a well-realized locale that inspires as much as it describes. There can be little question why, like the drow, the kuo-toa are remembered as among the most interesting antagonists AD&D ever placed in the path of adventurers. I am frankly grateful that, more than three decades later, this module remains one of the only places where the kuo-toa are discussed at any length. Unlike the drow, there's still mystery associated with them and I'm sure that contributes greatly to my liking of D2, one of Gary Gygax's finest creations.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

OSRCon Thoughts (Part II)

The second day of OSRCon was a long one for me, beginning at 9:30 am and finishing at 7:30 pm, with scarcely a break. That probably explains why, by the end of the day, I had a terrible headache that prevented me from fully enjoying the AD&D game I played with Ed Greenwood as DM in the afternoon/evening (about which I'll say more later).
My second session refereeing was also devoted to exploring Dwimmermount using the OD&D rules. This time, it was the infamous third level -- The House of Portals -- to which the PCs were dispatched by a sage named Fandel who was looking for evidence that three of its otherworldly gates were still operable after so many centuries of disuse. Again, the PCs were pre-generated, though of more experience than those used in the previous day's session (5001 XP each, so generally 3rd or 4th level, depending on class). A couple of my players were repeats from the day before, but most were new. Of those that returned, one decided to play the "same" character -- a dwarf fighter -- explaining away the difference in ability scores between the 1st-level and 3rd-level versions as the result of age and misadventure. I have to admit that I rather liked that explanation.

The House of Portals is a big level and one that's been extensively -- though not completely -- explored by the players in my face-to-face Dwimmermount campaign. Consequently, when the players at OSRCon came to various rooms, they saw evidence of my regular players' actions in the way that certain traps had already been sprung or items were missing from where they expected them to be. To me, Dwimmermount is a "living" place, constantly changing in response to what happens in any sessions I run using it. Until now, though, I'd never run a second group through the dungeon, so there was never an opportunity to highlight this fact in quite this way. The OSRCon players found it intriguing and noteworthy enough to comment on it a couple of times. For a moment, I got a flash of what it might have been like to have played in one of those early campaigns of old, where there were 20+ players who all explored the same megadungeon at different times.
The session itself went well and the players were, again, excellent. What impressed me most was how thorough and focused they were in their exploration of the dungeon. They took note of everything and made their decisions about which way to proceed based on the information they received and how well it jibed with what they were looking for. From my perspective, it was a thing of beauty, as was the way that the players spent time speaking, in character, with one another, as they debated the best course of action. As the referee, this made the session run really smoothly. Plus, it was just plain fun to watch.

At the end of the session, several of the players expressed interest in continuing their explorations later. They'd just found the portal to the Red Planet of Areon -- two of them even went through to see that the portal still worked -- and were really keen on spending more time there, but we ran out of time. That's why I'm thinking ever more of starting up regular open-ended Dwimmermount sessions on Google+ in the near future with a rotating cast of characters (and players). More on that as details become clearer.

OSRCon Thoughts (Part I)

Originally, I'd planned to write a single post summing up my thoughts and feelings about everything I did and saw while at OSRCon this past weekend, but I've now become convinced that there's enough of interest to justify several posts. Let me start by praising both the convention's organizer, Chris Cunnington, and its sponsor, the Merrill Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy for making this happen. The con went off without any hitch that I could detect and the facilities at the Lillian H. Smith library were fantastic. So, kudos to everyone who helped inaugurate what I hope will be a long-lasting tradition here in Toronto.
As I'm certain I've stated innumerable times before, I am not a con-goer. I've been to GenCon and Origins once each and am frankly not in a huge hurry to attend either again anytime soon. I find such gatherings simply too overwhelming to enjoy properly. Likewise, I haven't run an adventure for a group of total strangers since I did so at "RPG days" at local libraries back in Baltimore County in the early 1980s. I've got a long-established group of players with whom I've been playing since the early 1990s and the last new player added to that group joined us over a decade ago. Consequently, it's no exaggeration to say that I felt some trepidation at the thought of attending OSRCon.

As it turned out, I had no reason whatsoever to be concerned. I very quickly felt quite comfortable, due in no small part to Chris Cunnington's excellent organization and discussions with me beforehand. But, much as I wish to praise Chris, even more do I wish to praise the con's attendees, who were, to a man, some of the friendliest and most pleasant gamers I've had the occasion to meet. As I noted in a comment to an earlier post, gamers have a reputation for being socially awkward misfits who are in large part responsible for the bad impressions outsiders have of our shared hobby. I came away from OSRCon with the feeling that, while that description may be true of some gamers, it certainly isn't true of most of them, certainly not any of those with whom I interacted over the course of two days. I won't go so far as to claim that "the ugly gamer" is wholly a myth, even if I am sure that he's not as common a creature as conventional wisdom would have us believe.

On Friday, I ran a single four-hour session of my Dwimmermount megadungeon. This session had six players -- the maximum allowed to register -- and involved the exploration of Level 1 of the mountain fortress. All the players used pre-generated characters, resulting in a party that consisted of two dwarves, a fighting man, a cleric of Typhon, a magic-user, and a thief. I was (mostly) using LBB + Greyhawk OD&D, supplemented with a few minor house rules. I allowed spellcasters to choose their own spells and used Jeff's "deck of stuff" to give each character something unusual to play with. I also provided a frame for the session: the PCs were sent by some dwarves to seek out the whereabouts of a dwarven cemetery reputed to be on the first level, as well as to determine what had become of a previous scouting party, consisting of three dwarves and a gnome, that never returned from their mission. This latter bit proved very useful, since it kept the players focused. Otherwise, four hours could easily have elapsed without any sense of "conclusion," if you catch my meaning.
There are many things that stick with me after Friday's session. The first was just how fresh Dwimmermount became when seen through the eyes of players who'd never walked its corridors before. I've been running that megadungeon for 2+ years now with the same crew of players and, while it's still fun for us, familiarity can sometimes breed contempt. Playing it with new people made it all seem new, even to me, and that's a terrific feeling. Also, I felt very much at ease refereeing, since I knew the dungeon inside and out already, having run it many times previously. This afforded me the opportunity to present everything I already knew in an entertaining and intriguing way. Whatever "stage fright" I had when I first sat down at the table quickly evaporated.

What was also neat to watch was how quickly this group, consisting of people who didn't know each other before the con, cohered into a unified party. They acted as a group and did so well. Furthermore, their characters, who began as little more than a jumble of stats I handed them, were true characters by the end of the session, so much so in fact that I found myself wishing I could continue to play with this same group again in the future. It was amazing to watch them them develop tactics and procedures as they dealt with the tricks, traps, and monsters they encountered. There were times when I felt myself transported back to those heady days when my friends I did the same and it confirmed for me that it is possible to go home again. Good games never get old and D&D is a very good game.
There are too many moments from the session to recount and this entry has already gone on longer than I anticipated, so I won't share most of them here. However, the one that really stayed with me is one where, having fought innumerable small skirmishes with kobolds in the caves leading to where the PCs felt the dwarven cemetery was located, they corned a large band of them and attempted to parley with them. One of the dwarves, believing that negotiation might work, offered to help the kobolds against the orcs inhabiting another part of the dungeon in exchange for the kobolds' leaving the dwarven cemetery alone. The kobolds were unwilling to accept this offer, since, as they explained, "We need the dead dwarves to replenish our numbers." Yes, that's right: kobolds are made from dead dwarves in the Dwimmermount setting. Upon learning this, the formerly pacific dwarf raised his warhammer (which he dubbed "Grool") and ran right into the kobolds' midst to slay them. As he explained later to his companions, "I pitied them at first, but, now that I know what they're doing, they must all die!" It was a great moment in a session filled with them.

The Ads of Dragon: Jorune

Issue #87 (July 1984) had the following ad in its pages:
While not nearly as evocative as later advertisements for Jorune, this one was nevertheless quite effective in getting me to wonder, "What the heck is Jorune?" Of course, since I didn't attend GenCon 17, I never got the chance to see a copy of the game itself, a situation I wasn't able to rectify until quite some years after it was published, by which point my initial fascination with it had subsided. Having finally read Jorune (or Skyrealms of Jorune, as it's actually titled), I'm not sure I'd have ever played the game back in the day even if I had been able to obtain a copy in 1984, but I'd have enjoyed reading it back then, too. It's a unique and fascinating setting for a "fantasy" RPG -- indeed one of the best.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Getting Old

My apologies for the lack of posts today. I've been busy doing real world things, including a visit to the eye doctor. As expected, I needed to get a new prescription for my glasses, which included a need for bifocals. I am now officially an old man!

In any case, I'll try to catch up on my missed posts tomorrow, including a fuller report on OSRCon.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

OSRCon, Day 2

The second and final day of OSRCon was today and it was just as enjoyable as yesterday. I'll give a fuller report of events either tomorrow or Monday, but I will share a couple of photos from today's question and answer session with its guests.
Here's one of many of the attendees of the conventions. I was pleased by the wide range of ages represented.
This is a long shot of one of the halls in which the convention was held. You can see the four panelists for the Q&A session (I'm the short guy on the far left).
Here's a group shot of the four of us on the panel discussing the past and present of RPGs and wargaming. That's me on the left. Ed Greenwood is sitting next to me. Next to him in the hat is Alex Von Thorn, who owned and operated a game store here in Toronto for over 20 years. He's also the author of "The Politics of Hell," from issue #28 of Dragon, among several other works. On the far right is Glenn Pearce, who's a member of the Napoleonic Miniatures Wargame Society of Toronto.
This is a close-up of the four panelists.

I'm tired and a little under the weather after the last couple of days' activities, so I'll save in-depth commentary for later. Once again, I'll just say that the con was good fun for all involved and I'm already looking forward to attending again next year.

Friday, August 12, 2011

OSRCon, Day 1

I'm back from Day 1 of OSRCon and had a blast. I ran six players through Dwimmermount on a quest to find the location of a dwarven cemetery reputed to be hidden somewhere on the first level. I'll have more to say in depth about the session and its events, but, for now, let me say what a joy it was to play D&D with people I'd never met before. I'm really looking forward to doing it again tomorrow, as well as at future conventions.

Here's a shot of our table, while the players are in the midst of a desperate fight against kobolds. The guys at the table behind us were playing AD&D and seemed to be having a great time, too.

OSRCon Bound

I'm off to OSRCon shortly, where I'll be running several intrepid players through the first level of Dwimmermount. Wish me luck!

I'll have photos and commentary about the con after it's all over and I've had the chance to recuperate, probably sometime Sunday or Monday.

Gary Gygax Bio Pic?

This article, over at the ever-reliable, claims that "a $150 million movie based on Gary Gygax’s life" is in the works and that a "huge star is playing Gary." George Strayton, formerly of West End Games, and the writer of several episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess and the Dragonlance cartoon is tagged as the screenwriter for this project, which tells "the story of how Gary created Dungeons & Dragons, switching between his real life and the fantasy realm of Dungeons & Dragons." Elsewhere, it's described as a "combination action movie and bio pic."

Maybe I've just gotten terribly cynical in my old age, but I have a hard time believing that this project will ever come to fruition. Maybe $150 million dollars is beer money in Hollywood these days, but that seems an awfully big budget for a film of this kind. And a "huge star" in the title role? Again, that sounds incredibly implausible to me, but what do I know? I'd frankly be amazed if any studio thought that the life of Gary Gygax had enough mass appeal to be made into a movie, let alone one with a big budget and a huge star.

I guess we'll see if anything ever comes of this or if it's just another pipe dream.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Heroes

Issue #86 (June 1984) saw this ad appear in the pages of Dragon:
As you can see, Heroes was Avalon Hill's roleplaying magazine, supporting the four RPGs the company published at the time: James Bond 007, Lord of Creation, Powers & Perils, and RuneQuest. Since I didn't regularly play most of those games -- James Bond was the exception -- I never actually checked out Heroes, though I did see it in many game and hobby stores, probably because Avalon Hill was a local company. I kind of regret that now, not least because Tom Moldvay apparently wrote a number of articles for Lords of Creation that appeared in Heroes and I'm rather curious to read them.

Ah well.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Preparing for the Con

As I'm sure many of you are well aware by now, this Friday and Saturday I'll be attending OSRCon here in Toronto, where I'll be running two sessions of my Dwimmermount megadungeon, as well as participating in a panel discussion and playing in a Forgotten Realms adventure refereed by Ed Greenwood. Though I'll admit to some degree of "stage fright" at the prospect of refereeing for a bunch of total strangers, I'm also really looking forward to these two days. This is the first time a gathering of this kind has happened in the city and, with luck, it'll become a tradition we repeat every summer for many years to come. Plus, it'll be a good opportunity to make contact with other fans of old school games locally.

Now, as I've noted before, I'm not a regular con goer, let alone experienced in the ways of con refereeing. Victor Raymond gave me some excellent advice in our lengthy conversation yesterday, but I'd still love to hear any additional advice anyone can offer me. So, if you're someone who's ever refereed an event at a convention, especially a dungeoncrawl-style adventure, share your words of wisdom with me, please. Any insights, thoughts, or warnings you can offer me would be greatly appreciated.


Retrospective: Descent into the Depths of the Earth

One of the most obvious ways that the hobby has changed from its early days can be seen in the concept of adventure modules. Nowadays, we're prone to expect large and detailed products, replete with maps, fully fleshed-out NPCs, and a coherent plot made up of "scenes" that lead toward some kind of clear climax. Back in 1978, when TSR released Gary Gygax's Descent into the Depths of the Earth, such expectations, if they existed at all, weren't the norm. Then, an adventure module generally provided a locale, whether a "dungeon" or a wilderness, and its inhabitants that the referee could flesh out in play. There may or may not be any broader context for this locale, but, regardless, the module's focus was on that locale and its inhabitants rather than on anything approaching dramatic coherence.

In the case of module D1, the immediate context is as a sequel to modules G1, G2, and G3 -- later compiled as G1-3, Against the Giants -- in which the player characters enter and sack the strongholds of three different giant leaders who have, for reasons unknown, been coordinating their attacks against human lands. The PCs discover that this coordination is at the behest of the drow, a nation of evil subterranean elves, who leave behind a map leading to their city. If the characters choose to use this map, Descent into the Depths of the Earth provides the referee with an underground "wilderness" map and some keyed locations, along with random encounter tables, to simulate their explorations.

Unlike the giants modules, where the PCs have been ordered, under pain of punishment, to investigate their titular locales, there is no such compulsion in module D1. The choice to move forward or not is entirely left up to the PCs, as is the course of their travels. For that reason, the referee needs to be prepared to make use of the many random encounter tables included to flesh out the underworld. There are several well described encounter areas in D1, but the vast majority of them are presented simply without much exposition -- once again demanding significant improvisation by the referee to use effectively. That's not a criticism as such, but, looking back on this module, I was surprised to see just how little information it straightforwardly includes.

When I was a younger man, I would have ranked Descent into the Depths of the Earth as one of my favorite AD&D adventures. I had a lot of fun using it in days of yore and there are a number of set pieces it includes, such as the lich Asberdies, who has cast over 600 magic mouths in his cavernous lair, that I still recall having a lot of fun with. Of course, back then, I readily accepted that a module couldn't really be used "out of the box" and that no self-respecting referee would expect such a thing in any case. It's a perspective that I've only, in the last few years, come to embrace again, believing that, sometimes, less is more.

That said, I'm not sure that, even given that, module D1 is one of Gygax's better works, certainly in comparison to, say,  Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, let alone Vault of the Drow, both of which retain the open-ended "sandboxy" feel of D1 while, at the same time, providing more structure on which the referee can hang his own creations. The whole module feels very much like an introduction to the subterranean wilderness of the drow, a kind of primer of what's to come. That might explain why it was later combined with module D2 in 1981. Together, I think they complement each other nicely, which is a topic I'll return to next week in my retrospective of D2.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Your Own Private Tékumel

Near the beginning of the first volume of Swords & Glory, there's a section that details the history of the world of Tékumel. In that section, you'll find the following:
Thus it remained until the Time of Darkness. No records exist of this catastrophic age. The few fragments of folk memory which do exist lament in mythic terms of a time when the hills rose up, the seas walked the land, flame spouted from the brazen mouths of the mountains, and the stars went out forever. This last is most significant: it must be assumed that Tékumel and its solar system fell -- or were thrust -- through a warp in the fabric of space-time itself, a "hole in the sky," into a pocket dimension in which no other matter existed. The reasons for this terrible calamity can only be guessed: natural forces, stresses created by the incessant use of the Three-Light Drive, the actions of a hostile race, interference from mighty interdimensional beings far beyond man and his allies on the evolutionary scale, the vengeance of God upon His arrogant and overweening Creation -- ? No one knows. It may only be noted in passing that this same fate befell 772 other worlds of Humanspace within a century after the disappearance of Tékumel and its system.
Take careful note of the last sentence I quoted. According to Professor Barker, 772 worlds besides Tékumel were plucked out of normal space and found themselves inside empty pocket dimensions, dimensions that we know, from other sources, have the same physical and metaphysical laws as Tékumel, such as the weakening of the "skin" of reality to such a degree that both magic and interaction with interdimensional beings (commonly called "gods" and "demons") are possible. What are these other worlds like?

I spent several hours chatting with Victor Raymond today and this topic was one of several that took up a goodly portion of our conversation. We both agreed that it might be an interesting exercise to imagine another what colony world of Humanspace would be like after tens of thousands of years of isolation. Such a world might have some commonalities with Tékumel -- the presence of certain alien races, for example -- but it might not, indeed probably would not have others, such as the lack of riding animals or large quantities of workable metals. Done right, the world might have a similar feel to Tékumel, but would be largely its own thing.

One of the knocks against Tékumel is that it's too intensely personal a creation for anyone but Professor Barker to enter into it. I'm thoroughly convinced that's untrue, but it's a common enough rap that it's attained a wide currency and many gamers are afraid to give Tékumel a whirl. So, I began to wonder what might happen if a referee took the basic principles behind Barker's setting and applied them a new planet. Would it seem less intimidating? I have no idea, but I'm going to continue to think about this over the coming weeks, corresponding and chatting with Victor to see where it leads us. If nothing else, it'll be a fun and imaginative diversion.