Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "A Field Guide to Lunar Mutants"

As I've noted before, I adored "The Ares Section" of Dragon, often finding its contents far more interesting and inspirational to me than the rest of the magazine. That's probably because, deep down, I'm more of a sci-fi gamer than a fantasy one. Nevertheless, I'm not very strict about my definition of "science fiction" and include lots of stuff, like Star Wars for example, that more purist fans would undoubtedly place in the fantasy pile. Consequently, I've always loved Gamma World and have long felt that it's often treated by more "serious" gamers as if it were a joke, an opinion that's sometimes been reinforced by the game's own publishers, which emphasized its "wackiness" over its other elements. Now, there's no denying that Gamma World has a lot of wacky elements, but that's not all the game offers and I think a large number of gamers have come to dismiss Gamma World unduly because all they see -- and all its publishers have promoted -- are giant anthropomorphic rabbits.

"The Ares Section" included a lot of Gamma World articles, many by its creator, James M. Ward. One of my favorites was a follow-up piece to a description of the Moon in the game's setting. Published in issue #87 (July 1984), "A Field Guide to Lunar Mutants" described the weird creatures that inhabited Tycho Center base in Gamma World's 25th century. As detailed by Ward in his earlier article, Tycho Center is devoid of humanoid and animal life. Its inhabitants consist entirely of mutated plants and "macrobes" -- giant single-celled organisms -- that acquired strange abilities and sentience due to scientific experiments allowed to continue unchecked in the absence of human oversight. Two mutually hostile species vie for Tycho Center and any PCs who visit will find themselves thrown into the middle of a warzone.

What I liked most about this article and its predecessor was not just its descriptions of weird mutants, but rather its suggestion -- a suggestion found throughout Gamma World -- that end of human civilization ushered in a new age, an age where potential successors to mankind have risen up and now seek to lay claim to the Earth as their own. It's a setting that's ripe for moody heroism (and bathos), provided the referee is willing to play up the "weird" aspects of the post-apocalyptic world humanity has inadvertently created in its hubris. "A Field Guide to Lunar Mutants," with its coordinating eye macrobes and tech-wielding rosoids really helped bring that home to me as a teenager, which is why I have a particular fondness for this article. One of these days, I need to start up a Gamma World (or Mutant Future!) campaign and see in what ways I'd do things differently as a middle-aged man that I didn't as a younger one.

Monday, January 30, 2012

RIP Jean Wells (1955-2012)

TSR alumnus Steve Sullivan is reporting that Jean Wells, who was the original "Sage" of Dragon's "Sage Advice" column, as well as the author of Palace of the Silver Princess, has died at the age of 56. This is very sad news, as we've lost another individual associated with the early days of the hobby far too soon.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Metal Monster

I've talked recently about how the name Abraham Merritt is not as well known among fantasy enthusiast as it ought to be and I stand by that assertion. In the early part of the 20th century, Merritt, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, was fantasy. His stories were widely read and influential, none moreso than his The Moon Pool, which was a particular favorite of Gary Gygax. The Moon Pool had a sequel of sorts called The Metal Monster, which first appeared in the pages of Argosy All-Story Weekly in serial form during the weeks of August 7 to September 25, 1920. H.P. Lovecraft thought very highly of the story, remarking in a letter written in 1934 that
the book contains the most remarkable presentation of the utterly alien and non-human that I have ever seen.  I don’t wonder that Merrittt calls it his “best and worst” production.  The human characters are commonplace and wooden — just pulp hokum — but the scenes and phaenomena… oh, boy!
I think that's a fair assessment, not just of The Metal Monster but of Merritt's work in general. His characters are rarely noteworthy but his ideas are often top-notch and inspiring. This is certainly the case in The Metal Monster, which concerns an expedition by Dr. Walter Goodwin of the International Association of Science to Himalayas in search of rare plants. Goodwin also makes an appearance in The Moon Pool, which is why I call The Metal Monster "a sequel of sorts" to the former book, even though The Metal Monster stands perfectly well on its own.

The story is framed, as was The Moon Pool, as a real account of an adventure that Dr. Goodwin related to Merritt. In this respect, it's very much in keeping with the conventions of Burroughs, who does the same in his Barsoom tales. Where Merritt differs is in the ominousness with which he infuses his novel. Before he sets off on his expedition, Dr. Goodwin has an extended soliloquy that espouses a Lovecraftian worldview before the fact.
In this great crucible of life we call the world—in the vaster one we call the universe—the mysteries lie close packed, uncountable as grains of sand on ocean's shores. They thread gigantic, the star-flung spaces; they creep, atomic, beneath the microscope's peering eye. They walk beside us, unseen and unheard, calling out to us, asking why we are deaf to their crying, blind to their wonder.
Sometimes the veils drop from a man's eyes, and he sees—and speaks of his vision. Then those who have not seen pass him by with the lifted brows of disbelief, or they mock him, or if his vision has been great enough they fall upon and destroy him.
For the greater the mystery, the more bitterly is its verity assailed; upon what seem the lesser a man may give testimony and at least gain for himself a hearing.
There is reason for this. Life is a ferment, and upon and about it, shifting and changing, adding to or taking away, beat over legions of forces, seen and unseen, known and unknown. And man, an atom in the ferment, clings desperately to what to him seems stable; nor greets with joy him who hazards that what he grips may be but a broken staff, and, so saying, fails to hold forth a sturdier one.
Earth is a ship, plowing her way through uncharted oceans of space wherein are strange currents, hidden shoals and reefs, and where blow the unknown winds of Cosmos.
If to the voyagers, painfully plotting their course, comes one who cries that their charts must be remade, nor can tell WHY they must be—that man is not welcome—no!
Therefore it is that men have grown chary of giving testimony upon mysteries. Yet knowing each in his own heart the truth of that vision he has himself beheld, lo, it is that in whose reality he most believes.
This speech is intended to prepare the reader for the many oddities that Merritt describes once Dr. Goodwin reaches the Himalayas. There, the protagonist quickly makes the acquaintances of several other researchers and explorers -- Dick Drake and the brother and sister team of Martin and Ruth Ventnor -- who join him in his activities. As they press onward, they see strange lights, what appears to be a giant set of footprints, and a civilization of vicious men who look to their eyes to be ancient Persians unchanged since the time of Darius and Xerxes. These Persians pose a grave threat to Goodwin and his compatriots, until they are rescued by a mysterious woman who appears from nowhere.

Within the black background of the fissure stood a shape, an apparition, a woman—beautiful, awesome, incredible!
She was tall, standing there swathed from chin to feet in clinging veils of pale amber, she seemed taller even than tall Drake. Yet it was not her height that sent through me the thrill of awe, of half incredulous terror which, relaxing my grip, let my smoking rifle drop to earth; nor was it that about her proud head a cloud of shining tresses swirled and pennoned like a misty banner of woven copper flames—no, nor that through her veils her body gleamed faint radiance.
It was her eyes—her great, wide eyes whose clear depths were like pools of living star fires. They shone from her white face—not phosphorescent, not merely lucent and light reflecting, but as though they themselves were SOURCES of the cold white flames of far stars—and as calm as those stars themselves.
And in that face, although as yet I could distinguish nothing but the eyes, I sensed something unearthly.
The woman reveals herself as Norhala and commands remarkable powers in her battle against the Persians.

"To the crevice," I shouted to Drake. He paid no heed to me, nor did Ruth—their gaze fastened upon the swathed woman.
Ventnor's hand shot out, gripped my shoulder, halted me. She had thrown up her head. The cloudy METALLIC hair billowed as though wind had blown it.
From the lifted throat came a low, a vibrant cry; harmonious, weirdly disquieting, golden and sweet—and laden with the eery, minor wailings of the blue valley's night, the dragoned chamber.
Before the cry had ceased there poured with incredible swiftness out of the crevice score upon score of the metal things. The fissures vomited them!

Globes and cubes and pyramids—not small like those of the ruins, but shapes all of four feet high, dully lustrous, and deep within that luster the myriads of tiny points of light like unwinking, staring eyes.
They swirled, eddied and formed a barricade between us and the armored men.
Down upon them poured a shower of arrows from the soldiers. I heard the shouts of their captains; they rushed. They had courage—those men—yes!
Again came the woman's cry—golden, peremptory.
Sphere and block and pyramid ran together, seemed to seethe. I had again that sense of a quicksilver melting. Up from them thrust a thick rectangular column. Eight feet in width and twenty feet high, it shaped itself. Out from its left side, from right side, sprang arms—fearful arms that grew and grew as globe and cube and angle raced up the column's side and clicked into place each upon, each after, the other. With magical quickness the arms lengthened.
Before us stood a monstrous shape; a geometric prodigy. A shining angled pillar that, though rigid, immobile, seemed to crouch, be instinct with living force striving to be unleashed.
Two great globes surmounted it—like the heads of some two-faced Janus of an alien world.
At the left and right the knobbed arms, now fully fifty feet in length, writhed, twisted, straightened; flexing themselves in grotesque imitation of a boxer. And at the end of each of the six arms the spheres were clustered thick, studded with the pyramids—again in gigantic, awful, parody of the spiked gloves of those ancient gladiators who fought for imperial Nero.
For an instant it stood here, preening, testing itself like an athlete—a chimera, amorphous yet weirdly symmetric—under the darkening sky, in the green of the hollow, the armored hosts frozen before it—
And then—it struck!
This is the metal monster of the title and its origins and purpose, along with the origins of all the other mysteries the protagonists encounter, most especially Norhala, form the bulk of the story. The Metal Monster is a great deal of fun if you can get past Merritt's somewhat archaic diction and thin characterization. As I said before, it's his ideas that are so compelling and are what made him such a popular and influential author in his day. Despite the weaknesses of his prose, I think him worth reading for his ideas alone; he's the wellspring of so many of the concepts that would eventually become commonplace, even trite, in later pulp fantasies. Anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of genre literature should seek this one out and read it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

AD&D Reprint Covers?

Over at his blog, scottsz has posted an image of what may be the covers of the upcoming AD&D reprints.

Now, there's no confirmation that these are indeed what the "new" covers to the Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and Monster Manual will look like. Indeed, it seems quite likely that they're just mockups, since the actual covers aren't ready to be shown yet. On the other hand, I can certainly imagine covers like this being used, since they very explicitly recall the originals while also being noticeably distinct. If they were the actual covers being used, I'd be quite content.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Open Friday: AD&D Reprints

The recent announcement that Wizards of the Coast would be reprinting the original three Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks this April caused quite a stir in the old school community, with lots of us who hadn't bought a WotC product in years expressing great interest in picking these up. With that in mind, I thought I'd do a little poll this week for those of you who intend to purchase copies of the reprints. So, if you're not going to buy copies, this poll isn't for you.

Here's the question: Do you intend to run an AD&D campaign and/or adventure once you've acquired your copies of the reprints? Feel free to elaborate on your response in the comments below, especially if your answer is "I'd like to, but ..."


Thursday, January 26, 2012

How Many?

Receiving my POD copy of Metamorphosis Alpha this week got me to wonder: how many old school RPGs are currently available in unadulterated print form? By that I mean original editions that haven't had been altered from when they first appeared. Most of the Fantasy Games Unlimited catalog (the primary exception being Chivalry & Sorcery) is available, as are Starships & Spacemen and Timemaster (both from Goblinoid Games).

Are there any others?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

This is How You Do It

I mentioned the other day that James M. Ward recently made a reprint of Metamorphosis Alpha available through Lulu.com for the very reasonable price of $14.99. Well, I went ahead and ordered a copy, which I received yesterday -- talk about fast! -- and thought I'd share some brief thoughts about it. Here's a photograph of the cover of the book, which is a staple-bound 36-page booklet:
As you can see, it's a nice, bright cover that very faithfully reproduces the one that appeared on the original 1976 RPG. The interior looks just as good, as you'll see. Here's the inside cover:
There's a very small amount of pixelation in some of the artwork, but it's only really noticeable if you're looking hard for it and it's not present in all of the illustrations. The text, meanwhile, is quite clean and easy to read.
Having read a copy of the original, I'd say that the reprint is probably easier on the eyes (at least my aging ones) and a lot sturdier. Plus, it's cheap, so it can actually be used at the game table without fear that you're damaging some priceless heirloom.
The book contains everything from the 1976 edition, along with two pages of errata and a short campaign outline by creator James M. Ward himself. It's a really nice little package and well worth acquiring if you're interested in the early days of the hobby. It's also, in my opinion, a model for what more game companies should be doing. There's frankly no good reason why more old RPGs shouldn't be made available in print-on-demand form for folks uninterested in paying exorbitant prices just to be able to read these early games. That this version of Metamorphosis Alpha is inexpensive and attractive is another plus and a far cry from some of the PDF versions of older game materials we've seen in the past.

Seriously, why aren't more companies doing what Jim Ward is doing?

Retrospective: The Solomani Rim

In the very '80s, when I first started playing Traveller, there were two broad classifications of players: those who created their own settings and those who used GDW's official Third Imperium setting. I didn't have a lot of experience with the former group, since they were vanishingly small in number by the time I picked up the game. Of the latter, there were several sub-divisions, the two biggest being those who used the Spinward Marches as their campaign's home sector and those who used the Solomani Rim, first published in 1982. I was a Spinward Marches man myself, in part because that's the sector GDW used in most of their earliest adventures and because that's the sector the older guys I knew also used. Even so, I found the Solomani Rim intriguing, especially as I became more and more enmeshed in the official Third Imperium setting.

For those of you unfamiliar with Traveller, the official setting postulates that humanity -- or "humaniti," as GDW spelled it -- originated on Earth (or Terra) and that 300,000 years in the past a mysterious race of aliens known only as the Ancients took members of the species to the stars as servants. Some of these other human races died out but some survived and prospered, three of whom discovered the ability to travel faster than light independently, one of which were the Terrans. In time, these humans came to be known as the Solomani, a coinage whose origin is never definitively explained, though most assumed it means "men of Sol." In any event, The Solomani Rim is a 48-page book written by John Harshman that details the sector of space dominated by the Solomani.

Like its predecessor, The Spinward Marches, The Solomani Rim describes all sixteen subsectors of the Solomani Rim sector using a two-page spread. On the left side are strings of alphanumeric entries that describe all the worlds of each subsector. I continue to be amazed both at my ability to remember just what these strings mean and how elegantly Marc Miller managed to condense so much information into so few characters. It remains one of the great hallmarks of Traveller that no other science fiction RPG has ever managed to provide so much information about a planet so succinctly. On the right side of the spread is a hex map that provides much of the same information graphically. Again, it's absolutely amazing that, back in 1977, Traveller did so much right that other roleplaying games continue to struggle with.

One of the things that separates The Solomani Rim from The Spinward Marches is a much clearer sense of place. By that, I mean that the Solomani Rim sector has a consistency and logic to it in terms of, for example, its naming conventions that suggests it's a real place with a real history. While the Marches has meaningless, "science fiction-y" world names like Rhylanor and Zamine and Roup, the Solomani Rim is filled with names like Barsoom and Krypton and Oz. It feels much more like a place that men from Earth had explored and colonized and that lends it a distinct appeal. Of course, The Solomani Rim also includes a lot more specific details about the history and culture of the sector than does The Spinward Marches.

By today's standards, these details aren't onerous -- maybe 6 pages of the whole -- but it's enough that, looking back, one can see that Traveller had changed a bit since the publication of The Spinward Marches in 1979. I don't remember thinking much of it at the time, since I was using the official Third Imperium setting anyway. Now, though, it becomes clear that, by 1982, Traveller had begun its inexorable shift away from being a generic sci-fi game of which the Third Imperium was but one sample setting to a sci-fi game about the Third Imperium. This is a shift that culminated in the publication of Traveller's second edition, the goofily named MegaTraveller in 1987, which "hardcoded" the Third Imperium into the rules in a way that the 1977 edition had not. It was perhaps an inevitable shift but it was a shift nonetheless and one that, I think, ultimately weakened the appeal of Traveller and contributed to its decline.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "Familiars with a Special Use"

One of the dangers of introducing a logical scheme into anything is that it often takes on a life of its own. The original Law versus Chaos alignment system of OD&D, for example, was originally little more than a way to represent an "us versus them" mindset. Over time, though, the concept evolved, first to the five-point alignment system we see in the Holmes-edited Basic Set (which first appeared in The Strategic Review) and later to the nine-point system we see in AD&D. In each case, the expansion made some sense and came about to address a perceived issue, but, in doing so, the expansion opened up avenues for further expansion. In time, alignment wound up being something very different than it was at its inception, though I would argue that its final form in AD&D made perfect sense if you look at its evolution over the course of several years. Of course, I'd also argue that alignment's final form, while logical, was much less useful and interesting than OD&D's very vague scheme.

I mention this because, in issue #86 of Dragon (June 1984), the article "Familiars with a Special Use" appears. Written by Stephen Inniss, its basic premise is in "fixing" the find familiar spell, which the author says "suffers from a lack of completeness, resulting in an unbalanced (if not unfair) game." He makes his judgment based on the fact that
The alignment of a special familiar does not always match the alignment of its master. The creatures differ in origin and strength,and evil magic-users seem favored with the most powerful familiars. True, the evil M-U stands to lose more if his familiar is destroyed, but his animal's superior hit points and special powers (especially regeneration) give it a much stronger grip on life, compared to its good-aligned cousins.
Inniss brings up several issues here, but many are rooted, at least in part, on alignment. For instance, he takes issue with the fact that, as written, there are no specifically Chaotic Neutral or Neutral Evil familiars. Likewise, the good-aligned "special" familiars are weaker than the evil ones. From my perspective, these aren't problems in need of solution, but that's probably because I don't see them as lapses in the logic of AD&D. That evil special familiars are more powerful seems only right to me, since a big part of those familiar's job is in ensuring that their masters remain permanently under the sway of Evil à la Doctor Faustus. The rewards of evil in mortal existence should be great; otherwise, why would anyone choose evil over good?

However, Stephen Inniss doesn't even consider the possibility that find familiar isn't broken. His solution is to introduce a large number of new familiar types, divided according to alignment and to make them all roughly comparable in terms in power. Thus, we get the Galadur (good-aligned cherub-like beings), the Lomendur (neutral-aligned animal spirits), and the Burzugdur (evil-aligned monsters of which imps and quasits are but two examples). Inniss also adds several new "natural" familiars to round out the alignment list. The result is a thorough overhaul of find familiar that follows reasonably from a certain set of premises, but it feels, to me, too schematized and lifeless. As I've said since the start of this blog, I like "rough edges" and no longer see their existence as an opportunity for me to "fix" the game. Instead, I accept them as they are and use them as springboards for my imaginations. To my mind, pounding smooth those rough edges is a process D&D has been undergoing since 1974 and it's almost always resulted in a less appealing -- less mythic -- kind of fantasy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Robert E. Howard (January 22, 1906 - June 11, 1936)

I remember
The dark woods, masking slopes of sombre hills;
The grey clouds’ leaden everlasting arch;
The dusky streams that flowed without a sound,
And the lone winds that whispered down the passes.

Vista upon vista marching, hills on hills,
Slope beyond slope, each dark with sullen trees,
Our gaunt land lay. So when a man climbed up
A rugged peak and gazed, his shaded eye
Saw but the endless vista -- hill on hill,
Slope beyond slope, each hooded like its brothers.

It was gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.

It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Oh, soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,
To clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun,
How many deaths shall serve to break at last
This heritage which wraps me in the grey
Apparel of ghosts? I search my heart and find
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Open Friday: Forgotten Authors

Today is the 128th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Merritt, the early 20th century pulp writer admired by both H.P. Lovecraft and Gary Gygax. I've written about Merritt on the occasion of his birth twice before on this date, in addition to numerous other posts about his life and works. In re-reading those earlier posts, what I immediately noticed (aside from the fact that I keep quoting from Lovecraft's letter to R. H. Barlow concerning his meeting with the man) is that their theme is almost always the obscurity of Merritt in contemporary culture. During his lifetime, he was a highly successful and well-paid journalist and editor and several of his stories (Seven Footsteps to Satan and Burn Witch Burn!) were made into motion pictures. Nowadays, though, his name is barely known, let alone lauded, which is frankly a pity, as Merritt's best work is indeed worthy.

So, for today's Open Friday question, I offer the following: what one writer do you believe deserves greater recognition as a source inspiration for fantasy, horror, or science fiction RPGs? Merritt is my answer to this question. Who is yours?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cleaning House

I periodically go through moments when I feel that I need to clear out my gaming collection of books and boxed sets I'll never use. I'm in the midst of one right now, but I've so far managed to keep it in check because of three things. First, I remember all too well having disposed of almost all of my Traveller stuff in high school (in the idiotic belief that Traveller: 2300 had "superseded" it) and I don't want to find myself re-purchasing stuff later that I thought I'd never need/want again. Second, deciding just what constitutes a gaming product I'll never want again for any purpose is a tough question. I mean, I'm pretty darn sure I'll never play Unknown Armies (to cite an obvious example), but will I never want to read it again for any reason? Finally, assuming I can overcome the first two hurdles, how do I get rid of all this stuff? Selling it seems the obvious solution, but I'm a fundamentally lazy person and dealing with the hassle of packaging stuff up and shipping it to various buyers may be more trouble than just leaving it all in boxes in my garage.

So, anyone out there have any experience with this sort of "problem?" If so, what did you do about it? How did you handle the various pitfalls I've discussed above? I ask because, truly, I'd like to pare down my gaming collection considerably, but the logistics of doing so in a way I won't later regret elude me.

Mad Aspiration

Though both Boston (where he was born) and Virginia (where he spent a good portion of his life) probably have a greater claim to him, as a Baltimorean, I've always had an attachment to Edgar Allan Poe, who was born on this day 203 years ago. Poe's last days were in my home town and he's interred there at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, which is now owned by and part of the University of Maryland School of Law. For sixty years, Poe's grave was visited by a mysterious individual known as locally as the "Poe Toaster," who placed three roses and a partially consumed bottle of French cognac on his grave every January 19th. This tradition is one I remember well from my own childhood, though it appears to have ended in 2009, as the Toaster has not appeared since then, including this year.

Poe is not listed in Gary Gygax's Appendix N as an influence on AD&D, which is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, Poe had a profound influence on H.P. Lovecraft, whose works Gygax does cite as among the most influential on the game. In this way, Poe might be deemed a "great-grandfather" of our beloved fantasy game. Lovecraft adored Poe and wrote highly of him in his 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature:
It is our good fortune as Americans to be able to claim that dawn as our own, for it came in the person of our most illustrious and unfortunate fellow-countryman Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's fame has been subject to curious undulations, and it is now a fashion amongst the "advanced intelligentsia" to minimize his importance both as an artist and as an influence; but it would be hard for any mature and reflective critic to deny the tremendous value of his work and the persuasive potency of his mind as an opener of artistic vistas. True, his type of outlook may have been anticipated; but it was he who first realized its possibilities and gave it supreme form and systematic expression. True also, that subsequent writers may have produced greater single tales than his; but again we must comprehend that it was only he who taught them by example and precept the art which they, having the way cleared for them and given an explicit guide, were perhaps able to carry to greater lengths. Whatever his limitations, Poe did that which no one else ever did or could have done; and to him we owe the modern horror-story in its final and perfected state.  
High praise indeed, especially from a man who himself has probably contributed more to modern conceptions of horror than almost anyone else. HPL goes on to explain why Poe is so important:
Before Poe the bulk of weird writers had worked largely in the dark; without an understanding of the psychological basis of the horror appeal, and hampered by more or legs of conformity to certain empty literary conventions such as the happy ending, virtue rewarded, and in general a hollow moral didacticism, acceptance of popular standards and values, and striving of the author to obtrude his own emotions into the story and take sides with the partisans of the majority's artificial ideas. Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove -- good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing, with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathizer, or vendor of opinion. He saw clearly that all phases of life and thought are equally eligible as a subject matter for the artist, and being inclined by temperament to strangeness and gloom, decided to be the interpreter of those powerful feelings and frequent happenings which attend pain rather than pleasure, decay rather than growth, terror rather than tranquility, and which are fundamentally either adverse or indifferent to the tastes and traditional outward sentiments of mankind, and to the health, sanity, and normal expansive welfare of the species.  
Lovecraft was particularly awed by "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe's 1839 masterpiece, which is famous for both its descriptive details and its psychological complexity. It is the story of an unnamed narrator's time with Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline, who inhabit a decaying and crumbling mansion which Roderick believes to be "alive." Lovecraft was quite taken with this tale (as were many others):
These bizarre conceptions, so awkward in unskillful hands, become under Poe's spell living and convincing terrors to haunt our nights; and all because the author understood so perfectly the very mechanics and physiology of fear and strangeness -- the essential details to emphasise, the precise incongruities and conceits to select as preliminaries or concomitants to horror, the exact incidents and allusions to throw out innocently in advance as symbols or prefigurings of each major step toward the hideous dénouement to come, the nice adjustments of cumulative force and the unerring accuracy in linkage of parts which make for faultless unity throughout and thunderous effectiveness at the climactic moment, the delicate nuances of scenic and landscape value to select in establishing and sustaining the desired mood and vitalising the desired illusion -- principles of this kind, and dozens of obscurer ones too elusive to be described or even fully comprehended by any ordinary commentator. Melodrama and unsophistication there may be -- we are told of one fastidious Frenchman who could not bear to read Poe except in Baudelaire's urbane and Gallically modulated translation -- but all traces of such things are wholly overshadowed by a potent and inborn sense of the spectral, the morbid, and the horrible which gushed forth from every cell of the artist's creative mentality and stamped his macabre work with the ineffaceable mark of supreme genius. Poe's weird tales are alive in a manner that few others can ever hope to be.  
This is no mere fanboy-ish gushing on Lovecraft's part; Poe's best stories -- of which Usher is a fine example -- do indeed possess this quality of being "alive" and that is a huge part of his continued appeal. Of course, another element of Poe's power is how much of himself can be found in his works. In the words of Lovecraft, Poe "certainly possessed much of the depression, sensitiveness, mad aspiration, loneliness, and extravagant freakishness which he attributes to his haughty and solitary victims of Fate." I think, at one time or another, most of us possess (or imagine ourselves to possess) at least some of these attributes, which is likely another key to understanding why Poe has proven so inspirational to so many for so long.

So, while the tradition of the Poe Toaster may have ended, I'm inaugurating a new one here: to commemorate Edgar Allan Poe's birthday each year on this blog. I doubt I'll still be doing this when I'm 102, or even when I'm 52, but he's an author worth remembering and I intend to do my part.

Speaking of Reprints

James M. Ward has made the 1st edition of Metamorphosis Alpha available as a print-on-demand book through Lulu.com. Needless to say, I've ordered a copy for myself. How could I not? This is the first out-of-print RPG book I remember actively seeking out when I was a kid and it frustrated me beyond all measure that I couldn't find. Nowadays, of course, you can find it, but, thanks to absurd speculation, the cost of acquiring it is more than I'm willing to pay.

Here's the thing: I want old RPG materials like this so I can use them. I don't care about their value as collectibles. The value of games is in being played. I simply do not understand the point of owning a game and then hermetically sealing it away from the elements. As my players can tell, I use my LBBs and other OD&D materials at my game table. That means they'll eventually fall apart, but that's the nature of well-loved games.

Thanks to Jim Ward for making Metamorphosis Alpha available again for a new generation. Now, if only WotC would do the same with some of their back catalog, I'll be even more impressed with them than I already am.

NOTE: I am well aware of the AD&D reprints, since I just wrote a post about it. When I say "back catalog," I am talking about WotC's other old school D&D products, in particular the adventure modules.

Go Figure

By now, many of you have no doubt heard the latest word from Wizards of the Coast: they're reprinting the original three AD&D hardcover books this April. They're a limited release, it's true, and they're going to have new covers, but otherwise the books will be unadulterated reprints of the classic books from 1977, 1978, and 1979. That's frankly pretty incredible -- and unexpected.

Even though my AD&D books, which I've had since 1980, are all in near-perfect condition, I'll be buying a set of these new books, making them the first things I've bought from WotC since 2007. So, on that score, I've got to give the company a lot of credit. In addition, some portion of the money earned from these sales goes to the Gygax Memorial Fund, which shows is nice.

As I said, these are a limited release (and, unfortunately, available only in North America through hobby stores). However, I consider it a victory for the Old Ways that WotC even contemplated releasing these books, let alone that they actually will do so. Plus, if sales are very good -- and I expect them to be -- it'll provide solid sales data on the strength of old school gaming. From my perspective, that's a terrific thing all around.

Kudos, WotC! You managed to surprise me (and in a positive way).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Retrospective: Dark Folk

When I think about the most unfortunately named line of RPG products ever, Mayfair's "Role Aids" immediately comes to mind. Child of the '70s that I am, the name "Role Aids" reminds me of antacids called Rolaids, which were well known at the time, thanks to a series of TV advertisements ("How do you spell 'relief'?" "R-O-L-A-I-D-S.") Consequently, when I first encountered Role Aids in the early 1980s, the name gave me another reason to dismiss them. The other, of course, was that they marketed themselves as "Suitable for Use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," but they weren't produced by TSR. Back in this days, I was reflexively contemptuous of any non-TSR product that claimed compatibility with D&D. With few exceptions, if I didn't see the TSR logo on the book somewhere, I turned my nose up at it.

Eventually, though, I heard enough good things about various Role Aids products that I decided to take a chance and buy one for myself. The first one I purchased with Dark Folk, which was published in 1983. The book was edited by Paul Karczag, with material by several authors (Irwin Goldstein, Les Kay, Arthur Miller, Alan Nudelman, Steve Morrison, Susan Khas) I'd never heard of and by Robert Asprin of Thieves' World fame. Its subjects, as its name would suggest, were the evil humanoid races -- orcs, trolls, goblins, gnolls, and kobolds. Each race was got its own chapter, complete with overviews of history, culture, physiology, religion, magic items, and so on. Capping off each chapter was an adventure written to take advantage of the new material presented in the book.

As you might expect from a book with multiple authors, Dark Folk is something of a mixed bag. There are some clever and interesting sections and some not-so-clever and interesting ones. In general, the material about the various races is pretty standard stuff, its primary "uniqueness" being that it doesn't always comport with the standard presentation of these races in D&D. Thus, if your image of trolls is primarily informed by the Monster Manual, you're likely to find Dark Folk's take on them original. I remember, for example, that the presentation of kobolds felt odd to me. Dark Folk claims, years in advance of this becoming a common assumption, that they were reptiles (which makes some sense considering that even the MM notes that they're oviparous). But it was the adventures that were where Dark Folk shined brightest. Again, not all of the adventures were perfect -- which are? -- but several were well done and used the information in the book to make each one feel different. In this way, an orc lair wasn't the same as a goblin lair or a kobold one. It's a small thing, sure, but, at the time, it was a revelation to me.

I never became a huge buyer of Role Aids products, despite my fondness for Dark Folk (and, later, Dwarves). Mostly, it was because TSR and other companies were producing enough RPG material that I'd instinctively buy that I already had more material than I could ever use. And there was also a part of me that continued to recoil at the notion of "unofficial" supplements to D&D, no matter how good they were. That's a habit that took many years to break. It seems silly now, but, back in those days, there was a "cultural" divide between those of us who cared about "official" products and those of us who couldn't care less about them. It's a divide that's still very much alive and even relevant given recent events.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Portrait of the Wargamer as a Young Man

Reader Peter Byrne pointed me towards an excellent blog entitled Vintage Wargaming, which recently had a post about wargaming in the Twin Cities in 1966. The post included the following scan, which is from April 17, 1966 issue of the picture supplement to The Minneapolis Tribune:
If you blow up the image above, you'll be able to read the caption, which identifies the participants in this Napoleonics battle, two of whose names regular readers of this blog will definitely recognize.

The Articles of Dragon: "Special Skills, Special Thrills"

Of all the iconic classes of D&D, the cleric is the one that sticks out like a sore thumb. Whereas the fighting man, the magic-user, and even the thief are all pretty broad archetypes easily -- and non-mechanically -- re-imagined in a variety of different ways, the cleric is a very specific type of character. With his heavy armor, non-edged weapons, Biblical magic, and power over the undead, the cleric is not a generic class, recalling a crusading knight by way of Van Helsing. There's thus a distinctly Christian air to the cleric class, an air that increasingly seemed at odds with the game itself, which, as time went on, distanced itself from its earlier implicit Christianity and embraced an ahistorical form of polytheism instead.

For that reason, there were growing cries among some gamers to "fix" the cleric. In this context "fix" means change to make it less tied to a particular religion, in this case a particular religion the game itself had eschewed. The first time I recall seeing an "official" answer to these cries was in Deities & Demigods, where it's noted that the clerics of certain deities had different armor and/or weapon restrictions than "standard" clerics. A few even got special abilities reflective of their divine patron. This idea was later expanded upon by Gary Gygax himself in his "Deities & Demigods of The World of Greyhawk" series of articles, which I credit with giving widespread attention to this idea. I know that, after those articles appeared, lots of my fellow gamers wanted to follow Gary's lead and tailor their cleric characters to the deities they served, an idea that AD&D more formally adopted with 2e in 1989.

In issue #85 (May 1984) of Dragon, Roger E. Moore wrote an article entitled "Special Skills, Special Thrills" that also addressed this topic. Moore specifically cites Gary's articles as his inspiration and sets about providing unique abilities for clerics of several major pantheons. These pantheons are Egyptian, Elven, Norse, Ogrish, and Orcish -- a rather strange mix! Of course, Moore intends these to be used only as examples to inspire individual referees. Likewise, he leaves open the question of just how to balance these additional abilities with a cleric's default ones. He notes that Gygax assessed a 5-15% XP penalty to such clerics, but does not wholeheartedly endorse that method himself, suggesting that other more roleplaying-oriented solutions (ritual demands, quests, etc.) might work just as well.

Like a lot of gamers at the time, I was very enamored of the idea of granting unique abilities to clerics based on their patron deity. Nowadays, I'm not so keen on the idea, in part because I think the desire for such only underlines the "odd man out" quality of the cleric class. Moreover, nearly every example of a "specialty cleric" (or priest, as D&D II called them) still retains too much of the baseline cleric to be coherent. Why, for example, would a god of war be able to turn the undead? Why should almost any cleric wear heavy armor and be the second-best combatant of all the classes? The cleric class, even with tweaks, is so tied to a medieval Christian society and worldview that it seems bizarre to me to use it as the basis for a "generic" priest class. Far better, I think, would be to have individual classes for priests of each religion or, in keeping with swords-and-sorcery, jettison the class entirely.

Monday, January 16, 2012

REVIEW: Isle of the Unknown

I find Geoffrey McKinney's Isle of the Unknown an extremely frustrating book. Published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess and available either as a 128 page full-color hardcover book or as a PDF of the same, it's without a doubt one of the most nicely made RPG books I've seen in quite some time, old school or otherwise. By "nicely made," I mean both in terms of its purely physical qualities -- a sturdy cover and excellent binding -- as well as its appearance and organization. At the same time, I think Isle of the Unknown overuses color to the point of garishness at times. The book is so colorful and vibrant that, at first, one can't help but be awed by it. After a while, though, one's initial visual euphoria dissipates, and one begins to wonder how much of one's positive feelings for it are elicited by its substance and how much by its style.

I say that with some regret as this is a book I very much wanted to like without qualification. While nowhere in the text is Clark Ashton Smith's name mentioned, I recall that Isle of the Unknown began as an attempt by Geoffrey McKinney to produce a supplement that evoked Smith's weird tales, particularly those of Averoigne. CAS is a favorite author of mine, as I never tire of mentioning on this blog, and his Averoigne stories have long exercised a powerful hold over my imagination. Consequently, I was very keen to see an old school RPG book that drew on those pulp fantasies. Now, I knew from past experience with Carcosa (whose revised and expanded edition I'll be reviewing later this week) that McKinney's take on Smith would undoubtedly differ from my own, so I expected there to be parts of Isle of the Unknown that didn't sit well with me.

However, that's not quite what happened. Isle of the Unknown still clearly draws some inspiration from the Averoigne tales. The fact that its titular locale is described as having "societies, flora, and fauna ... [that] resemble those of the French territory of Auvergne circa A.D. 1311" is a dead giveaway. Beyond that, though, the CAS influence is thin in my opinion. For that reason, Isle of the Unknown simply comes across as weird, with nearly every one of its over 300 86-square mile hexes home to some oddity or monstrosity, almost all of which are lavishly illustrated in full color by Amos Orion Stearns or Jason Rainville. Of course, that's what you'd probably expect from a book like this. Isle of the Unknown is a gazetteer of 35,000-square mile island that can be dropped into any campaign and, if it didn't provide material of this sort, most readers would be disappointed. That every hex on the island is given an entry -- many of them quite extensive -- is a credit to McKinney and his imagination.

In books of this kind, the problem is most often that the hex descriptions are boringly mundane. Isle of the Unknown has the opposite problem: nearly every hex description includes a magical statue, a quirky spellcaster, or a teratological monster. This is by design, as the introduction to the referee states that "only the weird, fantastical, and magical is described herein." This decision is presented as a boon to the referee, who can thus more easily describe the mundane world based on the realities of his own campaign, but I find this an inadequate justification. It's on par with refraining from describing the "empty" rooms in a dungeon, because all that really matters are the rooms with monsters and treasure in them. Moreover, by describing only the weird, fantastical, and magical, Isle of the Unknown gives the impression of overusing them all. Rather than being spices to improve the flavor of the dish, they become the meal itself.

I find this most troubling with regards to the many monsters described in Isle of the Unknown. Forget Gygaxian naturalism, this is an island populated by over 100 unique monsters: a 14' tall bipedal pearlscale angelfish, limbless serpentine beavers, a 300 lb. koala with suction cups on its limbs, a four-legged pigeon the size of an apatosaurus, and more. Any one of these creatures would be strange enough and might well inspire curiosity but the effect is lost after pages upon pages of them -- and that's without commenting on the frankly ludicrous nature of some of these beasties. Yes, I know there are people who've managed to make good use of "silly" monsters and I also recognize that many hallowed mythological monsters, when looked at with fresh eyes, are pretty ridiculous themselves. But if D&D or Greco-Roman myth consisted only of 22' tall emaciated pandas or four-legged flying kangaroos, I think many of us would be forced to admit that something odd was going on.

Granted, "something odd" going on may be one of the points of Isle of the Unknown. I don't think it's a coincidence that Lamentations of the Flame Princess chose to publish this particular product, as it rather powerfully evinces Jim Raggi's longstanding dislike of "standard" monsters and monster races. There's certainly merit to Raggi's complaint; it's often useful to shake things up a bit by introducing totally bizarre and unexpected monsters from time to time. However, like color or spices, these, too, can be overused. In fact, I only think such monsters work against a backdrop of familiarity and even mundanity, two things that Isle of the Unknown eschews in its presentation, leaving us only with a passel of freaks devoid of any context to give them heft. Instead, they feel, well, random and not always in a good way.

Despite this, I still like Isle of the Unknown. If approached as a smörgåsbord of ideas, it's probably quite useful. I simply cannot imagine using it as a single setting, but I might drop a statue or a monster or an NPC from the book into another locale or adventure in order to introduce a note of inexplicable weirdness into it. What I would not do, though, is use the entirety of the Isle itself; it's simply too much. My feeling remains that fantasy, especially weird fantasy, works best when it can play off well-drawn mundanity and that it's just as much a failure of the imagination not to present that mundanity as it is to stick to haggard fantasy races and monsters without any thought. Frankly, that's what anything drawing inspiration from Clark Ashton Smith ought to do: present us first with a believably grounded "real world" and then, by bits, turn the expectations of that real world upside down. Isle of the Unknown only gives us half of that equation, which is why I find it a frustrating book.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 6 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a collection of ideas to loot for your own adventures or you like really weird fantasy.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer your setting supplements a bit more "ready to use" or prefer your fantasy a bit more on the staid side of things.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Black Stranger

If ever you wonder why the name of L. Sprague de Camp is so often held in contempt by fans of Robert E. Howard, you need look no further than "The Black Stranger," a Conan yarn that did not see print in its original form until 1987, making it one of the "most recent" Howard stories to see print. I don't believe that anyone knows precisely when "The Black Stranger" was written (more knowledgeable Howardists can correct me) or whether it was ever submitted to Weird Tales. We do know that REH rewrote the story for another character, the Caribbean pirate Black Vulmea, though that version of the story didn't see print until the 1970s. De Camp published a heavily altered version of the story in the March 1953 issue of Fantasy Magazine. Later, in the 1967 collection, Conan the Usurper, De Camp changed the title to "The Treasure of Tranicos" and it's probably under that title that a great many readers first encountered the story.

The 1987 version of "The Black Stranger" was published in anthology called Echoes of Valor, edited by Karl Edward Wagner. Wagner plays an important role in the history of Howard scholarship, because of his efforts to restore the texts of Howard (and several other pulp fantasy authors) to their original form. In doing so, "The Black Stranger" is freed from De Camp's imaginary chronology of Conan's exploits and allowed simply to be. There's no overarching significance to the events it describes. Indeed, "The Black Stranger" has a somewhat odd feeling to it, since it's essentially a pirate story rather than a swords-and-sorcery one, though the definition of the latter is of course broad enough to include tales such as this. Still, I think the story is better served by being presented in this fashion rather than, as De Camp would have it, as a significant step on the road to Conan's becoming king of Aquilonia. "The Black Stranger" is too slight a tale to bear such narrative weight and, more to the point, there's absolutely no evidence that Howard himself conceived of it as anything more than another episode in Conan's many, many adventures.


In its original form, "The Black Stranger" tells the tale of Conan's discovery, in the Pictish wilderness, of a hidden cave filled with the treasure of the pirate Tranicos. When he attempts to claim the treasure for himself, a demon of mist forms and attempts to kill him. Conan escapes the cave with his life and not long thereafter discovers that others seek the treasure he's just inadvertently discovered. These others consist of two feuding buccaneers, Black Zarona and Strombanni. When Conan meets them at the stronghold of an exiled Zingaran nobleman, he offers to join forces with them to loot the treasure and share its spoils equally. Of course, Conan's real plan is to use his erstwhile allies to draw out the demon while he makes off with the fabled treasure. Of course, the pirates themselves are far from trustworthy and have their own plans ...

As I said, "The Black Stranger" is a slight story, far from Howard's best. I like it well enough, but there's very little about it that screams "Conan!" to me. That may be why, when De Camp published it in the '50s, he felt the need to spice it up and give it some greater meaning beyond being another example where Conan outsmarts some fellow criminals to make himself (temporarily) rich. Unfortunately, I don't think "The Black Stranger" can bear that kind of narrative weight and De Camp's attempt to make it do so come across as hamfisted and tone-deaf -- like so much of what he did to Howard's corpus.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Emperor of Dreams

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams:
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment, when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.
Today is the birthday of one of my favorite fantasists and writers, Clark Ashton Smith, born in 1893 in Long Valley, California. In lieu of of my usual Open Friday question, I'm instead making this post to remind everyone of the occasion and to encourage you to read something by the Bard of Auburn to celebrate it. I'll be re-reading "The Empire of the Necromancers," as has become my tradition over these last few years.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: Ares

I'm going to cheat for today's installment of this series. Rather than focusing on a single article from issue #84 of Dragon (April 1984), I'm instead going to talk about Ares, the magazine's new science fiction gaming section. First, a bit of background. Between 1980 and 1982, SPI published a gaming magazine entitled Ares. The magazine included a complete game in every issue (as was once typical of wargaming magazines), along with articles and reviews. Though not limited to sci-fi by any means, Ares did have a slightly science fictional bent to its content. There were eleven issues of Ares before TSR acquired SPI in 1982, followed by five more issues after the acquisition. The last stand-alone issue of Ares was published in "Winter 1983." TSR never really knew what to do with SPI's properties and wound up frittering them away over the course of the next few years, in the process alienating the company's considerable fanbase, many of whom (quite rightly) felt that TSR had handled the situation very badly. Though TSR tried to make some use of SPI's name and products, only the Ares name survived for long -- and even then, "long" is a relative term.

From issue #84 to issue #111 (July 1986), Ares was one of my favorite sections of Dragon, since I've always been more of a SF fan than a fantasy one. The section featured articles on games like Traveller and Star Trek and Space Opera, as well as Gamma World, Star Frontiers, and a host of superhero games, especially Marvel Super Heroes. Because sci-fi has always played second (or third) banana to fantasy, you'd have expected that the pool of articles would have been pretty shallow in Ares but that wasn't the case. In my opinion, the quality of the articles in this section was consistently high, higher even than that of the rest of Dragon (which is saying something). However, its appeal was definitely more limited, which is why I suspect it was eventually killed. Why devote some many pages of each issue to genres that are also-rans compared to fantasy, especially D&D's brand of fantasy?

To this day, though, when I look back on the years when I subscribed to Dragon, the Ares articles are among those that stick out most prominently in my mind. Its coverage of Gamma World, for example, was truly excellent and I used a number of its Traveller rules variants over the years. And of course Jeff Grubb's regular "The Marvel-Phile" column was invaluable if you were running a Marvel Super Heroes campaign (or even if you weren't and were just a fan of the comics). I've always thought it a pity that a non-fantasy-centric gaming mag never really gained any degree of prominence. GDW's Challenge, where my first published writings appeared, was a decent stab at such a thing, but it eventually folded, too, much to my disappointment. Like Ares, Challenge filled a hole in the hobby that needed filling. In my opinion, it still does.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Old Hobbit Cartoon

No, not the Rankin-Bass version -- the Gene Deitch version from the 1950s. Apparently, the video below is a test for a proposed full-length version of The Hobbit. The video's been making the rounds at a number of sites, so my apologies if you've seen it before. I hadn't and I honestly can say that, after having watched it, I find myself with newfound respect for the fidelity of the Peter Jackson movies. Seriously, "taking liberties with the text" is too kind a way to describe what this cartoon does.

If you've got 12 minutes to spare and a strong stomach, take a look:

Rebound

I don't have any deep insights into the upcoming new edition of Dungeons & Dragons or why Wizards of the Coast is going ahead with it. Truth be told, I don't care all that much about D&D any more, insofar as "D&D" means whatever game is currently available on store shelves and carries that name. I was a very enthusiastic player and referee of D&D III for about six years before I had enough and got off that particular merry-go-round. I flirted briefly with Castles & Crusades before diving into OD&D, which eventually led me to the crazy world of the old school renaissance and the retro-clones. By and large, I'm happy here and have been since 2007, before WotC announced the previous new edition of D&D.

But I think a lot of the gamers who decided to take a walk on the old school side of things did so out of frustration with D&D IV. They were disappointed in and angry with WotC, a company that, for many gamers, "saved" D&D back in 2000. They felt betrayed and, in feeling that, they looked for someplace, anyplace with which to align themselves. The bulk of them went to Paizo, I expect, and with good reason. Paizo not only makes great products; those products used a rules set very similar to D&D III. Indeed, Pathfinder's whole raison d'être is backward compatibility with the previous iteration of D&D, preserved for all time thanks to the SRD and OGL. 


A few of those disaffected gamers, though, sought out the old school renaissance and picked up games like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Suddenly, "old school" was a buzzword to be found on many a gaming forum and blog. While there's no question that the ranks of our little community remained small, they did swell in size. Moreover, old school gaming punched way above its weight class when it came to influence over the hobby, with lots of designers, including those at WotC, suddenly touting their old school credentials and expressing admiration for the designs of yore. In 2008, it was "this ain't your father's D&D," but, by 2011, it was suddenly cool to be old school. In short, "old school" had become a fad (much like gaming itself).


Which brings us to 2012 and WotC's announcement of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike the 4e roll-out, which was condescending and tone deaf, this time around WotC is saying all the right things. They're talking about "uniting" fans of every edition and going back to the "core" elements of D&D. I'm glad to hear that, if only because it means they've learned from their mistakes. What's more interesting, though, is the reaction in our little corner of the Net. From what I have seen, a lot of old school gamers have expressed enthusiasm and even hope that WotC will "get it right" this time. I have to admit I've been taken aback by this love-in -- not because I want a repeat of the acrimony that greeted D&D IV, but because I'm surprised that, after all this time, old school fans give a damn about "D&D." But they do.


That's the truth of it. For a lot of gamers, OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry will never be D&D. They'll play it, sure; they'll even have fun doing so. In their heart of hearts, however, saying "I'm playing Swords & Wizardry" will never make them as happy as saying "I'm playing Dungeons & Dragons." I understand this mentality very well, because it's one I've shared at various times (mostly about Traveller). There's something about "D&D" that cannot be replaced. The ardor for that game, which was, let's face it, likely the first most of us ever played, is intense and not easily forgotten. There's thus an emotional attachment to D&D that there isn't for any of the retro-clones, no matter how much more true any of them are to the intent and spirit of the original games.


So, there are some interesting times ahead. If WotC does their job right -- doesn't alienate anyone by their marketing, produces a game that truly draws on the best of the past, etc. -- I suspect we'll see the old school community contract once more. As I said, I suspect a goodly portion of the gamers who've latched on to this particular bandwagon did so out of frustration and anger, but they weren't really ready to give up their true love for a simulacrum, no matter how good a simulacrum it is. Now that WotC is saying the right things and even obliquely admitting to their errors, all will be forgiven. That's not to say that there aren't potential speed bumps on the road ahead, but my gut tells me that a great many disaffected D&D players, many old schoolers chief among them, are ready to love again.

Me, I'm just a bitter old prune.

Retrospective: Lost Worlds

When I look back on the history of the hobby, it's hard not to feel that it came to be and flourished during an Indian Summer. For those of you unfamiliar with this American term, it refers to a period of abnormally high temperatures after the first frost -- generally occurring sometime between late September and early November. During an Indian Summer, the expected cold weather is abated for a time and, for all intents and purposes, it feels not like Fall but like Summer has returned. Of course, the leaves are still turning colors and falling and there's a strange haziness in the air at times, so you know, deep down, that this isn't truly Summer returned at all but something else entirely. Indian Summers are brief, too, lasting no more than a month, often much less, but, when they do come, you're grateful for them nonetheless.

When I remember things like Alfred Leonardi's Lost World game books, first published by Nova Game Designs in 1983, I'm reminded of Indian Summers. Lost Worlds was descended from an earlier game, Ace of Aces (also by Leonardi) and published a few years earlier. Ace of Aces was a wargame about aerial combat during World War I. What made the game so memorable was that it included a couple of flip books filled with illustrations depicting what the pilot of a fighter plane saw as he was dogfighting. Each player flipped back and forth based on the maneuvers of his opponent and the books helped to adjudicate combat. It was really a brilliant little game and I wish I owned a copy.

Lost Worlds applied the same basic design to fantasy combat. Each book included a single opponent, so two books were needed to play. The ones I remember most vividly were "Man in Chainmail with Sword and Shield" and "Skeleton with Scimitar and Shield," since these were the ones Nova Game Design included in their advertisements most often. There were other entries in the series, though, including "Giant Goblin with Mace and Shield," "Woman in Scale with Sword and Shield," and "Dwarf in Chainmail with Two-Handed Ax." Over time, many, many were added to the line, often by later publishers. As I understand it, Lost Worlds has been through an extremely large number of publishers over the years and, while largely compatible, each new publisher added wrinkles to the original system that make books by earlier publishers less usable than one might wish.

The reason Lost Worlds reminds me of Indian Summer is that I have a hard time imagining books like this being written, let alone selling well, in an age of cheap and reliable computer games. Back in 1983, video games existed, certainly, but they were primitive and expensive and most people into fantasy gaming I knew scoffed at the notion of playing them as anything other curiosities. At the very least, no one seriously felt that computer gaming was the mass market future of the hobby. For us, there was nothing at all odd about sitting down with a couple of books and calling out page numbers to one another as we simulated a combat between a dwarf and a goblin. Flipping back and forth to look at illustrations and making our decisions based on what we saw was the most natural thing in the world back then. Nowadays? I don't know.

Regardless, for their time, Lost Worlds were pretty impressive products. They gave some of us a sense that combat could be more than rolling dice and tallying the results. More importantly, they reminded us of how important visualizing combat can be. Unfortunately, in doing so, I fear that they may have also readied a lot of gamers for the notion that aids to visualization are essential to the hobby, a road that would eventually lead to its increasing ghettoization as the preserve of old weirdos like me. As a friend of mine once said, "Why would I play D&D when [video game X] has better graphics than my imagination?" He regrets that comment now, of course, and rightly so, but I suspect a lot of gamers think similarly, at least some of the time.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "How to Finish Fights Faster"

Along with falling damage, psionics, and alignment, articles about unarmed combat were a commonplace in the pages of Dragon during the years when I subscribed to that venerable gaming magazine. There's probably a reason for that: unarmed combat in AD&D was, in my experience, pretty much universally admitted to be unusable as written, a fact even Gary Gygax acknowledged on more than one occasion. Despite that, no single alternative system ever really took root, with most referees employing a welter of different approaches, some based on the official system, some based on earlier articles from Dragon, and some created whole cloth. That's what playing D&D was like during my formative years in the hobby -- a crazy mix of stuff all drawing inspiration from the same base and then running off in whatever direction one deemed most fun. Consequently, I can't help but chuckle at all the folks decrying the existence of "so many retro-clones," since, to my way of thinking, what we have now is pretty much what we've always had. The only difference is that, nowadays, it's easy to print up, prettify, and sell your interpretation of D&D to others, whereas, in the past, each referee had a photocopies and stapled collection of house rules he shared with anyone willing to listen.

Perhaps because no single alternative to AD&D's execrable rules emerged, it was inevitable that the redoubtable Roger E. Moore would eventually offer his own unarmed combat system. His article, "How to Finish Fights Faster," appeared in issue #83 (March 1984) and takes up only four pages, one of them being a humorous illustration of four rotund halflings attempting to bring down an eyepatch-wearing humanoid, who looks more annoyed than inconvenienced by his diminutive opponents. Moore divides unarmed combat up into three modes: pummeling, kicking, and grappling. Pummeling is straight up fisticuffs, with or without the use of aids, like dagger pommels or metal gauntlets. Kicking is, well, kicking and grappling is attacking to subdue. All three modes are fairly simple to use, working more or less like the normal AD&D combat system but with certain modifiers and special cases unique to them. This is particularly true of grappling, which has a number of different moves detailed, each of which has further modifiers and effects.

I never used Moore's system, so I can't comment on how well it plays in practice. I suspect it probably works better than AD&D's official system, but not as well as others. I say that, because it includes a lot of specificity in certain areas (grappling, for example) that necessitates either a good memory or referring to the article to adjudicate. That's not a bad thing in itself; there are lots of rules in D&D that require reference to a rulebook to handle. However, I'll admit that I find it baffling that unarmed combat rules so often wind up being much more complicated than armed combat. Why is it that we can accept that all it takes to adjudicate an armored fighting man's attack against an opponent is a 1D20 roll compared to a chart, followed by a damage roll if successful but we demand saving throws and percentage chances and so forth if he wants to throw a punch or wrestle someone to the ground?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: A Voyage to Sfanomoë

In addition to his more well-known tales of Hyperborea, Averoigne, and Zothique, Clark Ashton Smith also wrote a number of short stories set in the last vestige of Atlantis. Known as Poseidonis, Smith wrote only four tales set in this civilization teetering on the brink of (literal) collapse, the second of which, "A Voyage to Sfanomoë," appeared in the July 1931 issue of Weird Tales. I'll admit that neither Poseidonis nor this particular story are among my favorites in Smith's canon. However, I have a fondness for "A Voyage to Sfanomoë" in large part due to its mixing of fantasy and science fiction. That's a common enough element of many pulp fantasies, but it seems particularly appropriate to a story dealing with Atlantis, whose legend, going back to Plato at least, has included the suggestion that the Atlanteans had access to science and technology unlike that of any human civilization before or since.

Favorite of mine or note, "A Voyage to Sfanomoë" nevertheless opens in a typically Smithian fashion:

There are many marvellous tales, untold, unwritten, never to be recorded or remembered, lost beyond all divining and all imagining, that sleep in the double silence of far-recessive time and space. The chronicles of Saturn, the archives of the moon in its prime, the legends of Antillia and Moaria—these are full of an unsurmised or forgotten wonder. And strange are the multitudinous tales withheld by the light-years of Polaris and the Galaxy. But none is stranger, none more marvellous, than the tale of Hotar and Evidon and their voyage to the planet Sfanomoë, from the last isle of foundering Atlantis. Harken, for I alone shall tell the story, who came in a dream to the changeless center where the past and future are always contemporary with the present; and saw the veritable happening thereof; and, waking, gave it words:
Hotar and Evidon were brothers in science as well as by consanguinity. They were the last representatives of a long line of illustrious inventors and investigators, all of whom had contributed more or less to the knowledge, wisdom, and scientific resources of a lofty civilization matured through cycles. One by one they and their fellow-savants had learned the arcanic secrets of geology, of chemistry, of biology, of astronomy; they had subverted the elements, had constrained the sea, the sun, the air, and the force of gravitation, compelling them to serve the uses of man; and lastly they had found a way to release the typhonic power of the atom, to destroy, transmute, and reconstruct the molecules of matter at will.
However, by that irony which attends all the triumphs and achievements of man, the progress of this mastering of natural law was coincidental with the profound geologic changes and upheavals which caused the gradual sinking of Atlantis. Age by age, aeon by aeon, the process had gone on: huge peninsulas, whole sea-boards, high mountain-ranges, citied plains and plateaus, all went down in turn beneath the diluvial waves. With the advance of science, the time and location of future cataclysms was more accurately predictable; but nothing could be done to avert them.
These three paragraphs set the scene rather nicely, in addition to preparing readers for what is to come. Brothers Hotar and Evidon decide that neither magic nor science can ultimately save Poseidonis and so resolve that, rather than try, they will instead escape it by traveling to another world -- the Sfanomoë of the title. I don't think I'm giving anything away by revealing that, this being a Smith tale, there can be no escaping the inevitability of oblivion, though Hotar and Evidon's efforts to do so possess a charmingly melancholy appeal. Perhaps it speaks to my advancing age that I find stories such as this so attractive to me, I don't know, but I genuinely like "A Voyage to Sfanomoë" and recommend it if only for its science fantasy portrayal of Atlantis (though it holds other appeals as well).

Quelle Surprise

Looks like D&D V is now officially on the way.

I may have some thoughts about this later, but, for the moment, allow me a momentary guffaw at the notion that Humpty Dumpty can ever be put back together again. I don't doubt for a minute WotC's sincerity in wanting to hear what D&D fans have to say about the future of the game, but I also think it's a recipe for disaster, especially given how fragmented the fanbase is these days. But I've been wrong before, so who knows?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Open Friday: Christmas Gaming Gifts

Today is the feast of the Epiphany, marking the end of the Christmas season. I'm still busy and distracted by activities relating to Christmas, as you no doubt have noticed, so I'm going to make this week's Open Friday question a quick and somewhat vapid one: what gaming gifts did you receive for Christmas this year? For myself, I received only boardgames, as I've already discussed, the rest of my gifts having nothing to do with the hobby -- and that's fine by me. I already have way more games than I know what to do with.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "Living in a Material World"

Issue #81 (January 1984) of Dragon included an article by Michael Dobson (whom I presume is the same Michael Dobson employed by TSR as an editor and writer between 1984 and 1987) entitled "Living in a Material World." As its subtitle makes clear, this article is intended to provide a system for dealing with the various material components spellcasters were expected to carry in order to work their magic. Likewise, Dobson notes that "material spell components add to the romance and realism of magic use, and somewhat restrict the power of spell casters." By my lights, this makes "Living in a Material World" about as paradigmatic an example of a Silver Age Dragon article as almost any I can imagine.

As to the content of the article itself, I can't deny that it's rather well done. Dobson is to be admired for his intestinal fortitude in providing a comprehensive accounting of all of AD&D's material spell components, including their costs, where they might be obtained, and their rarity. He then uses this information to provide the referee with the likelihood that various locales might have the components for which one is searching. There's a base chance, modified by rarity, the size of the locale in which one is searching, and other factors. It's actually a fairly easy system to use if you have the article handy, but one wonders why anyone would bother -- at least I do (and did).

I want to be clear here: I don't begrudge anyone who finds dealing with such minutiae to be fun in their campaigns. Everyone has a slightly different notion of how much detail is "too much" and how much is "not enough." There's no single path to Verisimilitude. And I think, ultimately, that's my biggest beef with articles like this. They're part of a trend that D&D -- and RPGs generally -- adopted in the mid-80s that equated more detail with "better gaming." I don't deny that I've often indulged in more detail when I happened to like the topic in question, but material components have never been one of those topics.

They still aren't.

Twelvety

I've often observed that the surest sign one has "made it" is not the fact that everyone is imitating you but rather that everyone is going out of their way to ostentatiously be different than you. By that standard, J.R.R. Tolkien, the 120th anniversary of whose birth is today, has most assuredly made it. This is somewhat ironic, given that 2012 also marks the year when another cinematic rendition of one of Tolkien's works will appear on movie screens across the world. Yet, if one looks around at the field of fantasy literature (or even fantasy RPGs), it's not at all uncommon to see authors being touted specifically for their un-Tolkienian traits, a practice that only confirms just how large a shadow the good professor still casts over the field nearly 40 years after his death.

Like teenagers desperate to prove their independence, rebelling against Tolkien seems to a rite of passage for many fantasy writers and it's not hard to see why. The odds that any work of fantasy is ever going to become as well known or influential decades after its publication is slim,  New York Times bestseller lists to the contrary. A far more attainable goal, therefore, is to generate controversy centered on Tolkien and then to bask in the fleeting notoriety. The simple fact is that most of the popular understanding of "fantasy" is Tolkien-derived: orcs and hobbits and elves and dwarves -- indeed the very fact that lots of people think "dwarves" is a proper English plural for the word "dwarf." Likewise, the idea that fantasy must involve an Epic Quest™ against a Dark Lord™ who can only be defeated by destroying the Ancient Maguffin™ is pervasive, thanks in no small part to the success of Tolkien's works. For a lot of people, that is what fantasy is all about.

Now, I can fully understand wanting to get out from under the influence of Tolkien, the desire to do something -- anything -- different in fantasy. Heck, that's been a constant refrain of this blog from the start. But I think there's a difference between wanting to do something different and denigrating one's forefathers in the genre. That is, one can be different without being anti-Tolkien. Gene Wolfe, to cite an example that comes immediately to mind, is very different from Tolkien but he's not anti-Tolkien. To put it somewhat more crudely: Gene Wolfe is pro-Wolfe. He holds no adolescent grudges against Tolkien; he is not vexed that Bilbo Baggins is orders of magnitude more well-known than Severian. In short, Wolfe isn't trying to knock Tolkien down a peg and his fantasies are better for that.

For myself, I plan to spend this 120th anniversary year of Tolkien's birth continuing to read The Lord of the Rings to my daughter. There's a reason this novel has proven so enduring, no matter how much some may wish otherwise.

Monday, January 2, 2012

On the Other Hand

Lest you think all my recent boardgame experiences have been less than ideal, I should note that, for Christmas, my lovely wife got two new boardgames for me: the long-desired Arkham Horror and Pandemic. I've wanted to own and play Arkham Horror for years, so this gift was very well received. I've heard good things about Pandemic, but have never played it. What's interesting is that both of these games are cooperative rather than competitive. It's a style of game I have no experience with. If anyone out there has played either of these games (or similar ones), I'd very curious to hear your thoughts on them.

How I Spent New Year's Day

Having wasted my New Year's Eve playing LEGO Heroica with my family on New Year's Eve, I decided to follow it up by wasting New Year's Day playing a different boardgame with friends and family. This time, it was the zombie survival game Last Night on Earth, which a friend of mine bought at a local game store during their after Christmas sale. I saw Last Night on Earth played back in November, when I got together with some people to spend the afternoon and evening playing boardgames. However, I never actually had the chance to play it myself until yesterday.
I'll be honest: the game didn't quite live up to my expectations. Some of that is undoubtedly due to the fact that this was my first time playing and so I didn't quite grok the mechanics and thus played in a sub-optimal fashion. Some of my disappointment might also have to do with the fact the introductory scenario -- kill 15 zombies in 15 turns -- isn't ideal for someone still grappling with the fine points of the rules. But that's not all that bugged me about the game, as I'll explain.

The game uses a randomly generated map map up of five cardboard pieces depicting buildings and terrain. Half the players take the roles of "heroes" and half take the roles of zombies. The heroes all have names and special abilities and are chosen randomly from a collection of cards. Each hero also has a plastic miniature that represents them on the game board. In our game, there were four heroes: Johnny, the high school jock; Jenny, the farmer's daughter; Becky, the nurse; and Jake, the drifter. The zombies also had minis, too, but no personalities or special abilities.
Zombies can only move one space per turn, but they are unimpeded by terrain (including walls), whereas heroes move 1d6 spaces each. When a zombie and a hero are in the same space, combat ensues. Zombies roll 1d6 and heroes 2d6, with the highest dice roll (not sum -- the dice are treated individually) winning. If a zombie wins, the hero takes 1 wound. Adult heroes can take 3 wounds before dying and teenage heroes 2 wounds. If the hero wins the roll, he successfully "fends off" the zombie, unless he has a weapon that can deal damage. If the hero rolls doubles, he deals 1 wound of damage, which kills most zombies.

Weapons and other equipment can only be found by giving up a movement phase and spending it "searching" in a building. Searching is represented by a random draw from a deck of cards. The result might be a piece of gear, but, more than likely, it's an event card that gives your hero some situational benefit (like "Just a Scratch" that negates a wound by a zombie). There are a large number of cards and only a few weapons, so, unless you spend a lot of time searching or get very lucky, odds are you're going to spend most of the game running away from zombies into various buildings and hoping you get a useful weapon.
Even leaving aside the odds against finding a weapon, one of my beefs with the game is that most of the weapons aren't very effective. A baseball bat, for example, allows the wielder to roll 3d6 for damage against a zombie, but, unless doubles are rolled, no damage is dealt. And a fire axe deals no damage at all. This annoyed me. A lot. My drifter, Jake, got a fire axe, waded into combat with some zombies and I discovered the axe was utterly useless against the undead. That broke my suspension of disbelief and sapped my enthusiasm. Looking through the deck later, I discovered that only firearms had much chance to kill zombies with any reliability, but they also had the chance of running out of ammo and becoming useless.

The chainsaw is the only truly good melee weapon and it's, in my opinion, too good. The game was winding down to the last few turns and the heroes had lost half their number. Things looked terrible for them -- until Becky got lucky and scored the chainsaw. In short order, it was all over for the zombies. I actually felt bad for the zombie players, because they'd played much better than the heroes and a single card turned the tide quickly and decisively. That struck me as unfair and an opposite manifestation of the problem I had with the other weapons.

To be clear, the advanced rules introduce many more complications and I'd like to give them a whirl sometime. I get that the game is -- and should be -- slanted in favor of the zombies, at least initially, but, from what I experienced yesterday, I think the success of the heroes relies too heavily on the luck of the draw. Now, obviously, I don't mind randomness, but I think Last Night on Earth is too random, to the point where it's impossible to form an effective strategy against the zombies. That, plus the fact that most weapons aren't particularly effective, hampered my ability to enjoy the game as much as I'd hoped I might. But, as I said, I intend to play the game a few more times before I render a final verdict.