Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dalluhn: Wizards' Guilds and Fellowships


If you don't know the history of the document called, alternately, Beyond This Point Be Dragons and the Dalluhn Manuscript, the best thing to do is read Jon Peterson's analysis of it. This is ridiculously thorough, although it doesn't include the latest findings, a fairly complete playtest document that reflects pre-publication D&D.

So: I'm going to comment on this document, although I don't have the rights to share it. Despite the fact that I like the title "Beyond This Point Be Dragons," I'm going to call it Dalluhn after Keith Dalluhn, who uncovered the photocopied text in M.A.R. Barker's papers. In some cases, analyzing Dalluhn means I'm basically going to be talking about changes of unknown provenance. That's fine, because I'm interested in early D&D play and this is a document that preserves it in some sense, even if it's not directly from Dave or Gary's tables. And as always I'm mainly interested in making it relevant to games people are playing today, in 2017.

In Dalluhn, magic-users are said to:
dress in boots, tunics, and cloaks, usually in a special color of the individual (such as Brysbane the Blue) or the Guild or Fellowship they belong to (such as Fellowship of the White Hand)
Furthermore, their goals are described as follows:
The prime object of Magic-Users, depending on individual preference, is to either form or head their own Guild or Fellowship, or to go off somewhere to brood and study in a tower.
The implication is that there are both solitary and organized magic-users in the world, and that there are multiple groups of the latter. This idea strikes me as remniscent of The Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf speaks of "my order" - which I don't think is a coincidence, since the Dalluhn sample character is not Xylarthen but Mythrandir - a misspelling of Mithrandir, the elvish name of Gandalf. It does have other Appendix N bona fides, though, such as the guild of evil enchanters in The Mathematics of Magic.

In a game, there is one obvious - perhaps even overwhelming - reason why a PC magic-user would want to be part of a guild structure: the ability to learn new spells from other members of the guild. It's a benefit for the player but also a relief for the referee, who no longer has to shoehorn scrolls and spellbooks into their adventures. That's not to say these can't be part of the treasure, but it stops being obligatory when there's a good external source of spells.

But the referee shouldn't allow a whole guild of wizards to be a modern, business-like arrangement, when it is a rich and varied opportunity for worldbuilding. In many respects the medieval guilds were more like modern secret societies, to the extent that many such societies, like the Freemasons, derived from guilds. It seems almost like a moral imperative that such guilds must have arcane initiations, rituals, and obligations for their members. It could even be a metaphysical requirement for them to take on all kinds of esoteric symbols and rites in order to pass on their knowledge.

And of course those obligations are a rich vein of adventure seeds. Before your wizard can learn the Invisibility spell, he needs to advance to the 9th degree, and that requires you to get a fresh cockatrice egg for the guild's stores. They're needed in the production of certain potions, you'll learn about them when you reach the 17th degree. You'll need to provide the guild with a new spell before you can reach the 27th degree and be allowed to learn the secrets of making magical items. The list is only as limited as the magic-user's level.

The guild can do a lot of things outside of simply bossing a PC around. They can be hotbeds of rivalry, or places where the characters make deep connections. There can be onerous requirements - this is a good reason to forbid magic-users from using certain weapons or armor. There may be other restrictions on diet, or requirements of always using a certain talisman. It may also be forbidden to use magic toward certain ends, with the penalty for transgression becoming quite severe in some cases. And of course, the guild's knowledge must always be secret.
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If you want to add a more Appendix N twist to magic, a guild suggests a couple of avenues to pursue. For instance, the guild's lore may contain the true name of a particular demon who can be commanded, although the magic-user must try not to alienate the fiend - allowing an avenue to play with some tropes from de Camp's The Fallible Fiend. Or if you take ideas from DCC or 5e, they may have a relationship with a particular patron, and initiation in a certain degree may require the DCC spell Patron Bond or its equivalent.

When a PC magic-user establishes their own guild or fellowship, it's natural that other PCs will be a part of it. This is a particularly useful concept if the players are in an open table type of setting, and one player might share a spell with another - although as before, there should always be costs. If the guild is too generous, NPC magic-users might come in and cause issues - or act as rivals to shut it down. Any time a PC leads an organization, rival groups should be a part of the calculus.

Above all, I think the magic-user guild should be a clarion call to "keep magic weird." It offers the referee an opportunity to play up the esoteric nature of spellcasting, and provides a viable "endgame" for magic-user PCs in an open table.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Basic D&D at 40


The 1977 Origins Game Fair was in Staten Island, New York, on July 22-24 of that year. It was the event where TSR debuted the D&D Basic Set, edited by J. Eric Holmes. It's at the nexus of D&D history, where OD&D, AD&D, and Classic D&D all touch on one document.

Holmes's Basic Set was closely based on OD&D, with only very selected material imported from Greyhawk. The book captures the brevity of OD&D while hinting at the broader expanses that would be found in AD&D. And it would be the template for expansion in Moldvay's 1981 Basic set that forms half of B/X D&D.

If you really want to grasp Dr. Holmes's D&D, you need to read the 55 (!) part series on the Zenopus Archives blog: Holmes Manuscript. It's particularly important to read the parts on melee combat if you want to understand how the blow-by-blow combat mechanics work. The short version is that Holmes's D&D was never supposed to make daggers into the ultimate weapon, or two-handed weapons useless. It was based on Chainmail and characters had two attacks in a round.

The internal history of the boxed set is fascinating. If you read the long list of changes that happened across three editions of the Basic book with three printings each, you'll see the book tightening and standardizing things closer to the AD&D Monster Manual, and getting rid of a lot of the marks that OD&D had left on the rules.

As time went on TSR would not only change the Basic booklet but would alter the included module. The initial print runs had the Monster & Treasure Assortment and Dungeon Geomorphs - only 8 pages each - that Ernie Gygax had cranked out at the Dungeon Hobby Shop. In late 1978, it changed to a copy of B1 In Search of the Unknown. A year later, at the end of 1979, the module changed again - to B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

The original approach was very much intended for OD&D referees and provided only the tools to put together a fully stocked dungeon. The dungeons featured the mazy, twisty labyrinths with "paper-thin walls" that we see in Gary Gygax's own Castle Greyhawk, and the monsters and treasures are the main ingredients. (I would love to see an analogue that included traps and weirdness.) The next step was B1 In Search of the Unknown, a unique module that leaves the monsters and treasure separate from the map key, as an exercise for the referee. Finally in B2 Keep on the Borderlands, Gygax decided to simply break down and show the referee how to run the game.

This process of revision reflected a growing attitude of professional presentation that came to predominate in TSR. The first printing of Holmes D&D is very much a child of the TSR that put out the Little Brown Books, a growing cottage publisher that was lucky to have had help from this nice doctor in California to put the rules in more or less coherent order. The last printing is thoroughly professionalized and has all the wooliness tamed from it, and leads logically to the 1981 Moldvay boxed set. (So logically, in fact, that late copies of Holmes remained in circulation until after the Mentzer boxed sets were already out.)

Holmes is a set that anyone can take out and recognize classic D&D from. OD&D is more raw and DIY, AD&D more detailed, and B/X more polished. But you can always take out Holmes, and the map I prefer for B1 In Search of the Unknown, ReQuasqueton, and play some solid D&D with all the core ingredients.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Paying for Safe Passage; or, Banditry and Barons.


A recent AskHistorians question about bandits got an answer that is simply overflowing with game-worthy material. The whole thread is fascinating reading, as is an older thread on the same subject.

First: there is a positive correlation between bandits and wolves. There are all kinds of rich ways to integrate this into a fantasy world. Bandits could have some lupine qualities (keen eyesight, sense of smell) or they could be marked visually as wolflike in their appearance. Some bandits might make a totem of wolves or the bandit deity might have some connotations. There is also the possibility of wolves kept as "pets" - or the ultimate twist, that the bandit king is actually himself a werewolf. It's a rich mythic resonance that you can take advantage of when you want to make this gang stand out from the last bunch.

Second: there's a very fine line between noble lords, soldiers, and bandits. In a lot of fantasy there's an assumption that the law is going to protect everyone, but here we find quite the opposite. We saw back in the OD&D setting series that Lords sometimes challenge PCs to combat, so it shouldn't be surprising that sometimes the feudal lord is going to kidnap you for ransom. Tolls and stand-ups for "safe passage" are, of course, a convenient way to relieve PCs of excess loot.

Of course, this doesn't always have to be the Lord himself. Primogeniture means that there are going to be sons who don't necessarily have anything good to do, and they could always get up to trouble. You could even have a robber baron (in the classic sense) hiring a less scrupulous group of PCs as "toll takers" to waylay a caravan - sort of the polar opposite of the stereotypical "You're guarding a caravan" opener for scenarios. It'd also be a hoot for a group of Lawful PCs to capture a group of bandits and deliver them to the local Lord only to find that they are his men working under his protection.

If the PCs are in a stereotypical "borderland" environment, doing some kind of hexcrawl, it's not out of the question to put soldiers on the wandering monster table. These could be essentially bandits, or simply a camp of soldiers who want to turn a buck and charge the PCs for safe passage.

Third: there is the idea of pilgrimage. This is interesting for a whole host of reasons. Pilgrims were the stereotypical travellers of the medieval world. They were typically travelling to some site in Europe associated with a saint or a miracle, or in the extreme case (most common when the Crusades were going well) travelling all the way to the Holy Land.

Shrines and churches with particular holy sites have a ton of potential. A shrine can fall under siege by monsters, or be despoiled by a powerful evil cleric, or just be a location where you have to guard pilgrims. If the PCs happen upon a clerical stronghold, the high priest might send them on a pilgrimage in return for some spell cast or favor done. It's a flavorful way to get people to go from point A to point B. And the motley crew that might be found on such a pilgrimage is the kind of thing Chaucer might tell you about.

Fourth: this is the kind of thing that goes great on rumor tables and guides. "Avoid the bridge over the Sterling River south of the Red Hills, the local lord will rob you blind." Of course, turnabout is fair play, and the same Lord might spread rumors that the northern bridge is inhabited by trolls, driving the PCs south into his territory.

Fifth: the last thing that is fun here is that, this being the Middle Ages, robberies were not always in hard cash. In a lean year bandits or predatory Lords may be more interested in food and wine than in taking hard currency that can't buy chicken scratch. Magic items, of course, are prime targets for a nobleman to demand of a passing hero. And kidnapped characters, of course, can always be press-ganged into doing some adventurous task.

In terms of tone, the idea of bandit Lords and soldiers is an undercurrent beneath a lot of the great medieval literature. It was prettified under the guise of chivalric combat for Arthurian tales but the basic idea is not much different. But if you're ever hexcrawling in the OD&D setting, give robber barons a thought.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Thief in the Dying Earth

The description of Matthew Hughes's latest short story collection, 9 Tales of Raffalon, is simply: "A Thief in the Dying Earth." Hughes is a fantasy writer who has been working in the space of the "Dying Earth" subgenre, typified by authors such as Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe. While Hughes's prose will not stand up to the stiff test of those authors, Raffalon is a creation that should bring a smile to the face of any Vance fan. He is a thief in the vein of Cugel the Clever, continually finding himself (usually with good cause) in the crosshairs of strange wizards and mortal enemies while being rakish and clever about it.

I first found Raffalon by browsing for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I pick up periodically because I enjoy short stories and enjoy the fact that there's still a magazine publishing fantasy stories. I found "The Prisoner of Pandarius" and immediately felt at home with Hughes's world.

The worldbuilding in Hughes is solid. He has created a very peculiar universe, full of interesting and arcane guilds with various restrictions and symbols, and characters who've learned to live right at their edges. The period Raffalon spends in "The Vindicator" working the offices of the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors is, particularly, a fun way to set up that story. If you want to have thieves' guilds or similar institutions in your game, this is a must-read.

Another area where Hughes shines through is in his description of magic effects. Magic is strange, and visceral, and really quite wondrous. The effect in "Wearaway and Flambeau" is a particularly fun one, as is the experience when Raffalon actually casts a bit of a spell in "Stones and Glass." It's described in a way that really takes the reader through the process and helps you realize why all the spellcasters in Hughes's stories tend to be arrogant and bizarre sorts.

This collection is an assortment of picaresque tales, and while there are recurring figures they don't form much by way of a grand narrative. Raffalon started at the end, in "The Inn of the Seven Blessings" written for the anthology Rogues, and he is pretty much an iconic thief from the earliest of his tales. (Hughes's new character, Baldemar, has more of an arc to his stories.) Raffalon is a bit more likable than Cugel the Clever, who is openly his inspiration, which is to his credit, though he's not as sharp-witted.

Among "Vancian" authors, Hughes does not mimic the decadent prose of The Dying Earth. His writing works fairly well for the stories but isn't just enjoyable on its pure merits. A short sample from "Wearaway and Flambeau":
A thief's credo is to avoid capture and punishment by any means necessary. But Raffalon had added a corollary to that code: when all is lost, at least go out with a bold face. He now set his features into as intrepid an arrangement as he could manage, and turned his gaze upward. He found himself staring, as expected yet hoped against, into the uncompromising visage of Hurdevant the Stringent.
That's about the level of writing you'll get; I find it fine, and it reads quickly, but I wouldn't want to disappoint someone looking for a Vance or, say, a Michael Shea in this anthology.

I enjoy these stories because they are what is advertised on the tin: short stories about a thief in the Dying Earth. It's just nice that after all these years of plumbing brick-length fantasy novels and finding them shallow, somebody is out there still embracing good old picaresque fantasy in the short story form.

9 Tales of Raffalon is available from Amazon or directly from Matt Hughes. It's recommended to anyone interested in dying earth fantasy, thieves and thieves' guilds, or just having some fresh short stories to pick your way through.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

On the Living Dungeon / Vision and Re-Vision

I said in my last post that there was more to be said about the living dungeon concept. I want to dig a bit further into that.

Periodically you should re-draw your maps. They should differ subtly over time; a hallway will move or a room change in dimensions. The effect surreal: the rooms are no longer quite trustworthy, and the underworld is a fundamentally stranger place. This is an effect that should be used more often as the players explore the lower levels of the dungeon.

Less subtly, the denizens of your underworld may be remodeling. The infamous "Greyhawk Construction Company" signs blocked routes in Castle Greyhawk where Gary Gygax was still working on the level in question. Depending on the tone of your dungeon, that may not work, but having clues of dungeon denizens doing heavy digging can give players future points for reference and later delving.

All of this is another good argument for creating your own megadungeon. If you start with Stonehell, for instance, and you keep this to heart - after a while your Stonehell shouldn't look like the original. This is somewhat easier when you've drawn the original maps as well as the revisions.

The most important rule of restocking is: don't punish players for making progress. A dungeon level shouldn't get harder with each successive raid into it. There are two points for this: first, don't increase the effective dungeon level when restocking, and second, don't restock all of the rooms. A megadungeon populated according to OD&D or Moldvay should already have a bit of breathing room, and getting to already-explored boundaries should generally become quicker than the initial foray. That's a reward for good play.

At least some restocking should be simple and logical. If the PCs leave a stack of dead goblin bodies, there is something in the dungeon that will want to eat them. You can pick from the "clean-up crew" or add something an animal (giant or otherwise) that makes a nest out of goblin bones. A room might be converted for use by a previously wandering monster. Or, if you want to make the PCs much more careful about disposal of enemy corpses, they might now wander into a room full of zombie goblins.

Then there are the dynamic parts of restocking. What other factions are interested in the territory that the goblins used to hold? This could be a guardpost or the site of a new trap, as the other dungeon dwellers seek to find out who has been killing the goblins. Factions can come from other areas of the dungeon, or you could have a wilderness group start to move into the newly vacated area.

Dungeon restocking, as a general question, is a question of time. This is a big part of why Gary Gygax made his infamous statement in the 1e DMG about "strict time records." (The other part was related to the open table game concept.) The longer the PCs spend away from the dungeon, the more time that the denizens have to move into and reinforce areas that the PCs had previously emptied.

If a faction is damaged, but not wiped out, it can of course dig in and lay traps for these new threats. Whatever was killed may also have had a predator/prey relationship, such as when the PCs kill the giant lizard that ate the giant rats, there might be a sudden overpopulation problem. Or, when they killed off the nest of giant rats, the lizard is now wandering around eating goblins (or of course adventurers when they're handy).

The central idea with the living dungeon is that the PCs' actions have meaningful consequences. Sure, a character who stops in once doesn't see that, but for the dungeon to stay fresh and keep being interesting instead of just a slog, characters should be able to see it change around them. This is particularly important when making sure that PC actions leave a stamp on the world. I like how Stonehell encourages players to leave their names; it's a great tradition. But a great dungeon delver should have some personal impact.

The last type of restocking I want to cover here is the idea that the dungeon has some mystical underworld connection to what is inside of it. Maybe the dungeon seeks a kind of equilibrium in the creatures that inhabit it, and the PCs have disturbed that. There will be ripples. This can become more dramatic once they are removing large numbers of magic items or if they kill a dragon or similarly magical inhabitant of the dungeon. Maybe the dungeon grows or attracts more monsters; maybe it changes organically to attract new inhabitants. Above all it should get weirder: portals should stay open too long, or magical energies find their way in, or the water elemental you summoned six months ago had babies.

So, don't forget to restock your dungeon. In putting this together I realized I also had some points on the wandering monster that I want to talk about, which will be the next post.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Megadungeons, Bosses, and Goals

In my last post, I mentioned that I dislike how Rappan Athuk used an "end boss" in the deep levels of the dungeon. The late levels (which I think were generated for publication) feature a delve that leads to the lair of Orcus. I think this is unfortunate, because it runs counter to not just the earlier levels of RA, but also generally to the philosophy that I think needs to guide the creation of a megadungeon.

Backing up several steps: megadungeons are best used for exploration-style play. This is why they work well with open table campaigns and, somewhat paradoxically, in convention play. Both scenarios were used early and often in D&D's development, much more often than the continuous party format that arose after D&D became popular among adolescent players with relatively stable peer groups.

With a continuous party of 3 to 6 player characters used consistently throughout the life of a campaign, going into small "module-sized" dungeons that take 1-4 sessions to clear, having boss monsters is fine. When they're in the Upper Lowlands Dungeon of Death™ they are doing it to fight the King Zombie, not because the ULDoD™ is interesting in itself.

Megadungeons are different. On a given delve, a megadungeon needs to be able to accommodate players who have spent 50 sessions going into the ruins, and players who are only going in this once. Maybe they're going together down to level 5A. If that's the case, level 5A needs to be interesting as an exploration goal in itself, without regard to whether the PCs ever go down to level 6A.

That doesn't mean either that every room in your dungeon needs to have a full array of what's interesting about it, or that dungeon levels shouldn't tie together in any way; neither of those is interesting. But what it does mean is that every level and sub-level needs to be a goal in itself, that it's worth going into it, and to be interesting if the PCs go there. All of this breaks down if the sub-level is just leading up to a boss monster. If level 8 is just a lead-up to the boss at level 9, the players who are only there for level 8 are cheated. And that becomes increasingly true as you get into the low levels of Rappan Athuk.

More than that, the boss monster is antithetical to the "living dungeon" concept of a megadungeon. By definition, once you beat Orcus or the Elder Elemental God or whatever, the dungeon is done. Subsequent expeditions are never going to have the same gravity as the one that killed Orcus. That kills the multi-campaign potential of the megadungeon dead. After all, you're putting this much effort into designing a huge dungeon, it should be good for more than one set of adventurers. (And having the next group kill Mecha-Orcus is worse because it just opens up an arms race of increasing absurd power levels that the OSR is pretty good at avoiding.)

There's more to get into with the living dungeon idea. At its core it means you restock and redraw maps, but it should always reflect the influence the PCs have had in some way. This is why there is a "vision and re-vision" component to megadungeon design. Done properly, the megadungeon becomes archaeological itself, with cues and remnants from past campaigns in future ones, and a richer experience overall.

None of this means that there can't be intermediate goals within the megadungeon. You can create a faction boss so that everybody remembers the time they fought and killed the Red Witch on level 6 – but that's one among many parts to the megadungeon's lore. You can have puzzles and ideas that span four or five levels at a time so the PCs unlock the Vault of Artasius on level 8C and find the Warhammer of Magnificent Smiting. But the campaign could go on after that, and there can be more intermediate goals. The megadungeon will never be fully cleared and there will still be mysteries for future groups to explore.

If you're committed to an exploration-oriented game, it should always be possible that the PCs never kill the Red Witch or open the Vault of Artasius. And it should still be a place worth exploring, and the players should still come away with memorable stories. It should even be possible for the players to find half the puzzles for the Vault of Artasius, and solve them, and then go over to a totally different path in the dungeon and never finish it. The megadungeon from this angle is really a commitment to sandbox-style exploration, with the dungeon as the "walls" of the sandbox.

This standard, where each part of the dungeon is interesting enough for a drop-in player but the parts work together in a way that is rewarding for the long haul, is the central design goal of the megadungeon. It's a difficult note to strike, and one that I don't think can be managed while designing with a final boss fight in mind. Which is why I'd encourage a megadungeon to not have an end goal, even though there are many smaller goals within its structure.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Why Build a Megadungeon in 2017?

It's 2017, and here I am playing with maps for doing another megadungeon. (Not the one in the picture, which is from the Blackmoor maps in The First Fantasy Campaign by Dave Arneson.) Which brings me to the fundamental question: why build a megadungeon in 2017?

When I got married, I was reading some books on wedding preparation. There were a lot of topics they talked about, but one was whether or not to rent a tuxedo. And it came down to the question: do you really want to get married wearing someone else's pants? It was a weird moment but it put the whole rental idea in an interesting light. I wound up wearing my own pants, from the suit I would still wear to a wedding or funeral today.

That colors my thinking about dungeons. Running someone else's megadungeon is a weird and slightly personal thing, and it just seems off to me. And I'm not the only person who thought this way; Gary Gygax and his cohort at TSR thought so as well. It took them four years to publish G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, because they figured that referees wanted to design their own dungeons. TSR wouldn't publish a portion of a proper megadungeon until the Forgotten Realms boxed set Ruins of Undermountain in 1991, long after Gary had been pushed out. (A rather disappointing effort at Castle Greyhawk was published the year before.)

For me, the megadungeon is all about the design process. The original advice that Gary Gygax gave was to "construct at least three levels at once," and said that a good dungeon would always have "new levels under construction so that players will never grow tired of it." The megadungeon, then, is the original cure for the referee's interest flagging. Castle Greyhawk was known for the riotous diversity of its levels, and there is no reason you can't just grab whatever module or idea your favorite creators have come up with lately, steal its ideas, and put them in your megadungeon.

The process centers around vision and re-vision. You need three or four factions to start with; maybe the PCs ally with the gnomes and wipe the kobolds out. Then you invent (or steal) a race of fungoid men, and design a whole set of caves around them. After that you watch the new Alien movie and decide that you want to do something with that, so you have a buried spaceship with a homicidal xenomorph analog. Then you decide to move on to Vikings. And you can do it all within one megadungeon.

You could, of course, just do each of those as a separate adventure by putting them on a hex map and having NPCs come up to the PCs with juicy dungeon leads, or let them discover each new area as they do a larger hex crawl. But with the megadungeon they have a much better chance of organically coming upon the nice juicy bits. Let's say that the PCs discover the hidden wreck of the starship while they're trying to find a way around the fungoid cavern; they now have an important choice about which of the threats they want to face. Good megadungeon design always involves that choice between sub-optimal paths.

The "living dungeon" also means you can always fix your mistakes (well, except for TPKs). If you stick a bunch of undead in a sub-level and it turns into a bit of a grind, you can always have some carrion crawlers come through and eat them, and now have a new threat lurking the halls. The PCs might find that the goblins were a pushover, but with the goblins are gone the trolls are expanding. The megadungeon always has something fresh to throw at PCs.

Megadungeons of course also have that part that doesn't change. I particularly like this when you have things like the "goblin market" or the established neutral / allied factions that the PCs don't usually get violent with. This lets you take one of the advantages of a fantasy city and put it underground. All the neutral monsters aren't in OD&D by accident or to pad the page count; they're meant to be there as encounters that can go any which way.

Another reason to stick with the megadungeon is that the dungeon stocking rules in old D&D were really, really good. They put things at the optimal density for an exploration-focused game: there are enough empty rooms that most paths won't feel like a grind, but enough nasty stuff comes up to keep the players on their toes. Designing small dungeons using the rules in OD&D vol. 3 or Moldvay (the two best books for dungeon design) feels empty, and there is always the desire to put a "boss" or a "prize" at the end. There is some point in going down into the Upper Lowlands Dungeon of Death™, after all. Whereas level 5A of your megadungeon gets explored purely because it's level 5A.

(Incidentally, that's a mistake in Rappan Athuk: megadungeons don't have a boss monster.)

The other best reason for megadungeons, and this is something I decided after dropping in to Eric Hoffman's excellent B/X game for the second time in a long time yesterday, is that they are ideal for open table type games. This is hardly an accident, as the megadungeon grew up around this style of play, and it's mirrored in OD&D's suggestion that "four to fifty" players can be in a campaign. A tentpole megadungeon is a structure built for being able to throw out a notice, "I'm running D&D," and having a game to run in a jiffy. You show up and you go down to the deepest level anybody knows about, and see what they can find there.

Finally, if the players grow tired of the megadungeon per se, they can go somewhere else for a while. The outdoor random encounter tables are probably unsafe for low level PCs, but all of the classic megadungeon campaigns involved wandering about in the wilderness. Heck, you can even find other entrances to the megadungeon itself.

But no matter how many megadungeons there are in print, at the end of the day I think they're worth making on their own. Because, after all, you don't want to run D&D in someone else's pants, do you?

Friday, May 5, 2017

The "Formula RPG" and the Open Philosophy

Rob Kuntz recently released a book called Dave Arneson's True Genius. It's a frustrating book, because it's written in specialized language of systems thought and references to a further as-yet-unfinished book. While I can't read the next book yet and don't agree with the systems theory parts, there is an assertion core to the first of its three essays that I want to comment on.

The essay, called "From Vision to Vicissitude: The Rise and Reversal of Dave Arneson's RPG Concept," follows what Kuntz sees as the change from 1974 original D&D with its "Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?" ethos to Gygax's 1978 Dragon Magazine editorials that say "Those who insist on altering the framework should design their own game."

Rob summarizes what he sees as the crucial change (emphasis in original):
Moreover, and in summary, this systemic change moved the previous concept (Arneson's, 1971; and as reiterated by Gygax/Arneson in print, 1974) of DMs as absolute and omniscient creators of content for their individualized systems to a demoted position akin to an administrator of TSR's system-and-premade-adventure interface. The reader should be able to parse the two philosophical extremes by way of comparison alone.

In due course the design tenets/philosophy from the original game, now ignored, faded against an immense and growing foreground of TSR doing the imagining and creating of pre-determined/pre-structured scenarios for the consumer. The sustained promulgation of this disposable and repeatable model caused all but scattered remains of the original RPG philosophy as it was then forming to be lost. This 180 degree reversal abruptly issued in the Formula RPG experience that persists to this very day as a strictly closed form expression; and this was (and still is) a direct, and glaring, contradiction to the genius of its original manifestations: First Fantasy Campaign and the commercially successful Classic Dungeons & Dragons.
To try and unpack this, Kuntz is arguing that the philosophical shift between OD&D (which he labels as "classic" D&D) and AD&D is a philosophical shift from an "open form" to a "closed form" system, where in the former there are endless creative possibilities and in the latter there are only rules and prescriptions for what the referee is to do.

Kuntz isn't the first person to make this point. Matt Finch's influential A Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming makes a lot of similar points between an open, discursive style of play, and a closed, rule-bound approach. In practice, though, the idea that there was a "great transition" from an open to a closed game system is a hunt that has no real end. Even a definition as strict as Kuntz's could be improved on; OD&D, after all, is an attempt to systematize the open-ended game that Arneson was running.

But more importantly, what we've seen is that just about any RPG can be run with an open/DIY philosophy. Look at the game Microlite20 – that took the system-bound and rules-heavy 3rd edition of D&D and turned it into an elegant, rules-light game for referees who like the basic mechanic but don't want to be bound by thousands of pages of rules bloat. If that can be done in 3.x D&D, it can certainly be done in first edition AD&D.

Short of converting the game into a board game like the Milton Bradley HeroQuest, I don't honestly think that an RPG can truly be "closed form." The players in B2 Keep on the Borderlands can always kill the monsters in the Caves of Chaos, but they can avoid the Caves and sack the Keep instead, or they can wander off down the road, outside the established map, and the DM is then obliged to answer the question - "What now?"

This is the philosophy that animated the Braunstein games, and the Blackmoor campaign, and that made Dungeons & Dragons such a phenomenon. It allowed "What now?" to be the question, the imperative, and opened up the floodgates of imagination. And it's always been the dirty secret of RPGs that you don't need the book at all. A skilled referee can wing more or less anything if they choose to; the books are there to save you work.

It's particularly ironic that Kuntz chooses first edition AD&D as the incarnation of "Formula RPG", because the grognards who have been running AD&D forever (the "orthodox Gygaxians" if you will) have long been the biggest devotees of the GM as the "absolute and omniscient creators of content" for their individual games. In a sense, Rob is saying here that the Pope was insufficiently Catholic.

When Kuntz presents the idea of the "formula RPG" as a betrayal of the basic RPG idea, he disrespects the long tradition of kitbashing in gaming as a hobby. Indeed, the true genius of Dave Arneson was as a kitbasher, taking ideas that had been present in games like Wesley's Braunstein and the Gygax/Perren Chainmail, and creating in them a synthesis that opened up a much richer type of experience than, I expect, anybody thought would be present at the time. And if you read The First Fantasy Campaign, you will find a surprisingly large amount of matter about the fairly "conventional" wargame campaign that Blackmoor became over time.

Once someone understands the open philosophy - which, rather than a creation of Dave Arneson, I would say is present in at least the 1870s free Kriegsspiel - there is no such thing as a truly "closed" system. The referee simply needs to open it up and ask the players, "What do you do next?" Even a game like HeroQuest could be used in a radically new way, as I'm sure it has been. (If you don't know what a free Kriegsspiel is, I'd suggest reading Playing at the World.)

The truth is that dungeon modules are often treated as parts to be kitbashed. You can take them and use parts that you like in your own dungeon, or take the map and restock it, or reskin the whole thing as a completely different affair. Gus L at Dungeon of Signs frequently looks at ways to use modules outside of their original purpose, and if you spend enough time around the OSR you'll find that this is a normal thing. If you look at the great OSR books that I've pushed over the years, like Carcosa or Red and Pleasant Land or Yoon-Suin or Veins of the Earth, most of them contain a lot of ideas and tools (particularly charts and generators) that can be ripped out and used elsewhere.

Of course, there is gaming that is rote and bland. It is not accidental that I am not an enthusiast for Pathfinder or adventure path type gaming in general. But this is not preordained from the system or the existence of modules; it's just a way that people play. Some people just like dungeon bashing, and there is nothing wrong with that. I have a coworker who loves Pathfinder gaming, and carefully planning his PC, and then setting that up against a mission from a module. It's not my fun, but he clearly enjoys it.

But - the open philosophy that animated the Blackmoor campaign is not "lost" in "all but scattered remains." It is a rich idea that continues to animate games.down to this day. The OSR has done a lot for "sandbox" and open world types of games, and I think Kuntz, long distant from the RPG scene, is simply ignorant of the realities of the games people are playing, because open philosophy in gaming is in no way lost and scattered.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Hacking Through the Tunnels

You can now buy the fifth edition of Tunnels & Trolls on DriveThruRPG from Flying Buffalo. T&T is Ken St. Andre's response to original D&D, and in many ways represents a complete and immediate reaction to things that people didn't like about D&D.

Oakes Spalding is doing an in-depth review of the original edition of T&T over at Save Versus All Wands (nb: the blog header contains the topless amazon picture from OD&D). It's quite in depth, and goes to lengths that I'm not going to bother with. But it's a good review, both in terms of discussing how T&T works, and in comparing and contrasting it with OD&D. In fact, the review is credited as an inspiration for releasing 5e in the T&T blog announcing that the 5th edition is available for download.

The first five editions of Tunnels & Trolls came out in rapid succession, and basically were minor expansions of the original. 5e was the pinnacle of this development and sat as the edition of T&T supported by Flying Buffalo for decades; it's the one I've used for all my solo T&T gaming. It was also the version that was properly typeset and looks nice. Deluxe T&T (a Kickstarter that took years to come out) is a nice book if you want to kill a bug, but it's just not necessary. It changes and adds things and tries to fix a game that just worked.

T&T came out of the idea that OD&D, as presented, is an overly complicated game. Ken St. Andre chose to simplify from it, getting rid of things like Vancian magic, armor class as to-hit numbers, and twenty-sided dice. It's an ironic thought given that OD&D is often praised for its simplicity and flexibility relative to AD&D and later editions of the D&D game. But when the games are compared, it becomes clear that Tunnels & Trolls is simpler, but by no means simplistic. In many ways it's a rich game.

For instance, Tunnels & Trolls combat reduces monsters down to a single number, a Monster Rating (MR). (There is a more in-depth method presented making them similar to characters.) But what makes this interesting is that a monster's MR is not necessarily the same from encounter to encounter. You could decide that a particular orc is scrawny with a measly 30 MR, or a tough guy with 60 MR or better. More importantly this method makes it dead simple to improvise monsters, or change them to suit your needs.

Combat is likewise simple without being simplistic. Because it winds up with a death spiral as monster dice and adds (the number added to the die roll) decrease, or player adds fall away with damage, it makes avoiding combat or running away an important point. Armor is also much more significant, as it reduces damage when you're on the losing side. So if you prefer ablative armor, here's your game. Also, there's a reason to wear a helmet, which reduces damage taken; no D&D edition has ever made it so simple.

I also can't pass without mentioning saving rolls (SRs). Originally all SRs were based on the Luck stat, which can be increased (all stats can). You roll 2d6 against a target number based on the level of the Saving Roll; so a first level Luck SR is 2d6 vs 20-Luck. But for characters with low Luck scores, the rule is "doubles add and roll over." This is weird mathematically but creates a decent shot for anyone to make a SR even when it seems impossible.

Liz Danforth's art sets the tone for T&T. It is well executed, has a sense of humor about itself, and is deeply DIY. The sense that RPGs are not all VRY SRS BSNS was snuffed out of gaming by the early 1980s and has never really made a full comeback; certainly every version of D&D after the AD&D books got the gold spine covers is stripped clean of any sense that this may be a piss take.

That doesn't mean that it can't be played quite seriously; the adventures are definitely dangerous, and the system will work for an intense game, as Ron Edwards has noted. But there is even playfulness in the spell list and entries like "Take That You Fiend" or "Curses Foiled." (A few are unfortunate, like "Yassa Massa" which should be renamed.) No game introduced by Grimtooth can be all glum.

T&T also has a really interesting system for getting Adventure Points (APs). Characters get APs for going out on an adventure, based on dungeon level; they get the Monster Rating of any monsters slain as APs; they get points for every Saving Roll attempted (successful or not), and for casting spells. It explicitly avoids GP-for-XP, but makes up for it by explicitly rewarding characters going out and getting into the dungeons.

Advancement is a way to increase ability scores. That's pretty much what it does.So when you reach 2nd level, you can choose to add 2x the level number to Luck - that's 4 Luck points. Ability scores are not capped at 18, so this could bring a PC as high as 22 Luck (although it's not likely). That translates straight into Personal Adds. Other stats help with wielding weapons (ST and DEX), casting spells (IQ), taking damage (CON), and relating with NPCs (CHR). This works out because of the importance stats have in the game.

T&T is, above all, a very open game. It embraces a strong referee with a creative vision, although ironically the game is very well known for solo modules. (You'll want to start with Buffalo Castle.) If nothing else, giving a run through a few solos will change how you think about old school gaming, and it's one of the few experiences that any RPG gamer can have "out of the box" even in 2017.

Tunnels & Trolls 5th Edition: Recommended.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Frequently Missed Point on Saving Throws


For most of my gaming career I've never really cared about the saving throw categories in old school D&D and AD&D. They're not really great for abstracting or expanding the concepts they cover. Well, okay, I've always loved that there is a save against 'Death Ray" in OD&D. But mostly the categories left me cold,

But what I noticed when I was looking at OD&D's saving throw table recently was the general trend of the numbers. Take a look.


Without getting fancy about it, the OD&D chart has a clear tendency to have lower numbers on the left side of the chart. Sure, it's a little backward with high level magic-users, but for the most part the easier saves are further to the left. And at the same time, these are the saves that are more likely to take a PC out of the game. A fighter with decent hit points can take a Fireball or the breath of a smaller dragon on the chin, but poison and Finger of Death are save or die. And polymorph / paralyzation is a remove-from-game save.

The charts in AD&D are surprisingly similar. The categories run: Paralyzation, Poison or Death Magic; Petrification or Polymorph; Rods, Staves, and Wands; Breath Weapon; Spell. Basically Gygax re-shuffled the things that are on the right and left, keeping all of the ideas that take PCs straight out of the game on the left, and ones that mitigate damage to the right, with lower target numbers on the left side of the chart. B/X D&D follows OD&D in the placement of poison and Death Ray saves, but moves paralysis over to the middle with Stone. Still, we see the general pattern at work.

No attempt that I've seen to rationalize saving throws has followed Gygax in this. Saving throws organized by the result of failure seems counter-intuitive and overly fiddly, even though it has the effect that fighters have a 45% chance to save versus poison, as opposed to only a 25% chance to save versus a Charm Person spell thrown by an enemy magic-user. Using, say, the Swords & Wizardry single saving throw, a fighter has a 35% chance of either, even though the fighter's player may well prefer the extra 10% against poison.

This isn't intended to be a deep observation, but I find that it salvages the saving throw categories from the earlier editions. It's certainly changed my opinion, which (before I looked at the chart and noticed the trend) had been in favor of the single saving throw.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Initial Thoughts: Veins of the Earth

Veins of the Earth
Print + PDF Bundle (LotFP)
PDF Only (DriveThruRPG).

Buy this product. In print if you can afford it, in PDF if you can't.

"Dungeons are puddles of darkness. This is the sea."

I have a standing policy that I will buy any Lamentations of the Flame Princess book immediately upon release. This policy has not generally let me down; the products are top notch. But I can't say that it has ever been vindicated as strongly as with Veins of the Earth.

I've admired Patrick Stuart's work for a while now; his previous collaborations with Scrap Princess, Deep Carbon Observatory and Fire on the Velvet Horizon, have been automatic Lulu recommendations for some time. And just last year he released Maze of the Blue Medusa, a collaboration with Zak S. So I was hopeful that Veins, his first Lamentations project, would be up to the same level of quality.

It isn't. It's better.

As much as I like the content and ideas of Maze, it seems like you're cheating by cribbing a better referee's dungeon, fully imagined and laid out for you. His other work is impossible to fit into some other vision or campaign without dominating it completely. Veins of the Earth is raw vision, but presented as a toolkit to create your own underworld and use it as a basis for games that are still ultimately yours.

Cave systems are uniquely generated, as are larger systems of caverns and routes through the underworld. It is a vast darkness that is inhabited by strange and incredible things. Light is the resource; hunger and cold and strange death threaten at all times. There are civilizations, cities, art, things of beauty and wonder and horror. There are different types of darkness. Madness lurks.

None of that is why you should buy this book. I mean, they're all good reasons. There are over a hundred pages of new monsters. Each is described, including sound and smell. Each is illustrated. But beyond that, each of them is written. And I don't mean the kind of dry technical writing that you see in RPGs. Patrick evidently never got the memo that this was meant to be a sort of exercise in presenting stripped-down utilitarian monsters. He puts ideas, and feelings, in his monster entries - things that haunt you, that amuse, that make you wonder how you never thought of them before. They are beautiful and horrible.

The writing in this book is good writing. Like, that wouldn't be ashamed to be in a book that wasn't an RPG book. Writing that kicked my ass several times reading it. Patrick is able to impress his ideas on you when you're reading a monster section. And when you're reading about darkness, or cultures, or items. And the art by Scrap Princess is deeply evocative.

I haven't even read a third of the thing, skipping around to find impressions of it and meeting amazing content at every turn. It's a monstrosity of a book, 375 pages of PDF. The book is the longest that LotFP has released. And from what I've read so far it may be the best.

My initial thoughts? Jesus. It's love at first sight.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Mythic Underworld: Chthonic Deities

The Greek word χθόνιος (chthonios) referred to the ground, but in a specific way, meaning "underground" or what we would call the underworld. Today we refer to Hades, Persephone and other underworld gods as the chthonic deities. Despite any superficial resemblance, the word is unrelated to the work of H.P. Lovecraft; it's pronounced "thonic" or "k-thonic".

Even in antiquity, Hades was referred to as Zeus Chthonios, giving him a role as an underground ruler. This is reinforced by his staff, a symbol of authority, which typically had two tines, as opposed to the three of Poseidon's better-known trident. The Romans particularly conflated him with multiple other chthonic gods, creating the distinct god Pluto.

Generally we treat the Roman gods as simply renamed versions of their Greek counterparts, but even the name "Pluto" came from a separate Greek god, Πλοῦτος (Ploutos). The conflated deity symbolized both the underworld (which took on the name "Hades") and wealth, which of course originated from mines deep under the earth. Pluto was also combined with the Roman chthonic god Orcus; while the name is familiar to D&D fans, the image of the god itself is even weirder:


(This is taken from a 16th century monument, the Gardens of Bomarzo, but I didn't feel like I could do chthonic gods justice without it. And it's a great dungeon entrance.)

Aside from his obvious D&D namesake, the name "Orcus" is probably the inspiration for such diverse creatures as ogres, orcs, and the killer whales called orcas. Not surprisingly, he was less of a stoic underworld-ruler and more of a black, hairy death god, surviving from the ancient Etruscan myths. As a bonus, Orcus was the son of Eris (Roman name Discordia), thrower of the infamous Golden Apple that initiates the Trojan War. Pluto more generally was not a death god, however; that function went to Thanatos, a relatively minor god.

The combined Pluto has a symbol of a key, which he also shared with Persephone, and a cornucopia - a horn of plenty. The key was also a symbol used in the Eleusinian Mysteries; the initiate was sealed with a golden key, variously described as on the tongue or the lips, indicating the secrecy of the mysteries they had been taught. Keys could also indicate the riches that would come from the earth, both in crops and in underground mines.

In some myths, Hades is the father of the Erinyes, or Furies, also known as the Eumenides (the Kindly Ones). This literal euphemism is an ancient way of not referring to deities by name. The Erinyes were vengeance deities; of course, they also have AD&D analogues. Persephone is said to have had a daughter Melinoë, also identified with the goddess Hecate, who is described in the Orphic hymns as "Now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness," and is said to give men nightmares and drive them mad.

There is obvious gaming material here, even aside from Orcus and the Erinyes showing up. I really love the symbolism of a golden key related to underworld secrets. The key can unlock secrets of the underworld, hidden treasures, or truths of life, death, and immortality. It can also be a common bond among characters who have truly been to the underworld and survived - its secrets may not be passed on lightly to every foolhardy newcomer, but to someone who has the key it is revealed. And of course the form may be either physical - a key or key-shaped artifact, or a symbol, drawing, poem, book or other entity that serves as "the golden key."

I also find the idea of Melinoë tempting. As a granter of nightmares, such a character explains why the PCs can't constantly hole up and camp in "cleared" dungeon rooms. Haunting dreams and potential insanity wait for those unsound enough to sleep in the underworld. Her shifting, elusive character also seems like it would be ideal for monsters, and she is tied in with witches and necromancers, which fits perfectly. If you wanted to use a "Petty Gods" approach where low-level deities were actually present in the game world, Melinoë would be a good fit. The Erinyes are an interesting fix for murderhobo type activity that goes beyond normal cruelty.

Lastly, in spirit the triad of judgmental Hades, generous Pluto, and savage Orcus are a brilliant match for how a dungeon should be designed. It should be serious and otherworldly, but with great riches hidden in secret places, and sudden terrible violence should be a norm. These are very much the gods who direct the underworld of a D&D dungeon.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Appendix N Madness: We Have A Winner!


Of course it's Robert E. Howard. The single strongest contestant in all of Appendix N was the author of "Conan," "Solomon Kane," and dozens of other adventure stories. Jack Vance put up a fight but still trailed Howard by 50 votes at noon on April 1.

I think that running the tournament specifically related to "Appendix N" was what gave Howard the edge. The famous Appendix, of course, is the inspirational material for AD&D - and there is no purer source of the game than those original Conan stories. Conan can be a fighter or a thief, but he is what so many PCs aim to be. Howard's Hyborian Age is the kind of gritty, reference-but-don't-copy kind of place that many D&D adventures are set, and let's be honest: most Neutral PCs pretty much act with Conan style morality.

The Texan was the father of sword & sorcery, and a successful author in several other genres. He was compelling in crafting an adventure tale and had a knack for the kind of vivid prose that pulp fiction thrived on. It was a deep shame that he died when he did; had he lived several more decades he might have created wonders we can only dream of.

I'd like to thank everyone who voted and discussed all the authors in this project. A month is a long time to stick with something, but it was tremendous fun to discuss authors that are very dear to me (and clearly to some other fans). I learned a tremendous amount, and did a lot of reading to catch up; I hope if nothing else this inspires D&D fans to discover some of the tremendous authors out there.

And I'll leave you with the following, from "The Phoenix on the Sword":
What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs—I was a man before I was a king.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Appendix N Madness Final: Howard vs Vance

Appendix N Madness Final: Robert E. Howard vs Jack Vance

Ernie Gygax recently listed his father's absolute favorite authors on the "Sanctum Secorum" podcast. One was Robert E. Howard, whose Conan stories were the pinnacle of fantastic literature. The other was the author of his favorite series of sci-fi adventures, Planet of Adventure: Jack Vance. So it seems altogether fitting that this challenge should end with Vance versus Howard.

Robert E. Howard was the most influential fantasy writer of his time. He created a world so compelling that writers have tried to recapture it for decades; sadly, like lightning in a bottle, it cannot be found again. But in the interim many wondrous vistas have been revealed. Howard's were still absolute, still elemental, in a way that none of his epigones can ever claim to have reached.

Jack Vance was the finest wordsmith of all of Appendix N. Very few fantasists have had the same talent at creating images through their diction and vocabulary; some have tried to imitate this, only to fall on their faces. Vance's unique talent extended to the creation of a world that impresses itself strongly on the brain long after you've forgotten the incidentals.

If Howard wins, it is the triumph of a Conan - the strongest fighter in the mix, winning by pure talent and overwhelming strength. He defeated David C. Smith, John Bellairs, J.R.R. Tolkien, and H.P. Lovecraft to get here.

If Vance wins, it is the victory of the pen mightier than the sword. A Cugel, getting through by skill and cleverness. He defeated Lin Carter, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, and Poul Anderson to reach the final.

That's my peace. Here are the authors' arguments.
“What great minds lie in the dust,” said Guyal in a low voice. “What gorgeous souls have vanished into the buried ages; what marvellous creatures are lost past the remotest memory … Nevermore will there be the like; now in the last fleeting moments, humanity festers rich as rotten fruit. Rather than master and overpower our world, our highest aim is to cheat it through sorcery.”
- Jack Vance, "Mazirian the Magician," The Dying Earth
“I can resolve your perplexity,’ said Fianosther. ‘Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.’ ‘No need,’ said Cugel. ‘My interest was cursory.”
- Jack Vance, Eyes of the Overworld
“On the heights above the river Xzan, at the site of certain ancient ruins, Iucounu the Laughing Magician had built a manse to his private taste: an eccentric structure of steep gables, balconies, sky-walks, cupolas, together with three spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colors.”
- Jack Vance, Eyes of the Overworld
“It occurs to me that the man and his religion are one and the same thing. The unknown exists. Each man projects on the blankness the shape of his own particular world-view. He endows his creation with his personal volitions and attitudes. The religious man stating his case is in essence explaining himself. When a fanatic is contradicted he feels a threat to his own existence; he reacts violently.”
- Jack Vance, Servants of the Wankh
"Since like subsumes like, the variates and intercongeles create a superpullulation of all areas, qualities and intervals into a chrystorrhoid whorl, eventually exciting the ponentiation of a pro-ubietal chute; the 'creature,' as you called it, pervolved upon itself; in your idiotic malice, you devoured it."
- Jack Vance, Eyes of the Overworld
Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyberborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.
- Robert E. Howard, "The Phoenix on the Sword"
Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.
- Robert E. Howard, "The Tower of the Elephant"
The sun sank like a dull-glowing copper ball into a lake of fire. The blue of the sea merged with the blue of the sky, and both turned to soft dark velvet, clustered with stars and the mirrors of stars. Olivia reclined in the bows of the gently rocking boat, in a state dreamy and unreal. She experienced an illusion that she was floating in midair, stars beneath her as well as above. Her silent companion was etched vaguely against the softer darkness. There was no break or falter in the rhythm of his oars; he might have been a fantasmal oarsman, rowing her across the dark lake of Death. But the edge of her fear was dulled, and, lulled by the monotony of motion, she passed into a quiet slumber.
- Robert E. Howard, "Shadows in the Moonlight"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
- Robert E. Howard, "Queen of the Black Coast"
You can vote in the poll here. If there is not a decisive winner (at least 10 votes or 15%) by noon on April 1, I won't call the final vote until midnight.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 30: Anderson vs Vance

Mighty Conan has slain even Great Cthulhu to advance to the final round of Appendix N Madness.

Appendix N Madness Semifinal B: Poul Anderson vs Jack Vance

Poul Anderson defeated Fred Saberhagen, Fredric Brown and Leigh Brackett to climb to the semifinals. Jack Vance had a much harder row to hoe, besting Lin Carter, Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock to top the SAGA / Amra bracket.

Jack Vance was made a Grand Master by the SFWA in 1997. The very next year, 1998, Poul Anderson was the recipient of the same award. Vance's first short story appeared in 1945, "The World-Thinker" in Thrilling Wonder-Stories. Anderson's first, "Tomorrow's Children," in 1947 in Astounding Science Fiction. Anderson died younger than Vance, but both men lived and wrote in similar times and compare well to one another. Both wrote works that were more science fiction and works that were more fantastical.

The similarities are, of course, far from complete. Vance's fantastic writing, particularly, was infinitely more romantic in its tendencies, while Anderson never abandoned rationality. Even Three Hearts and Three Lions is immersed in scientific ideas. The Dying Earth is much more willing to handwave the fact that its magic is, to use Arthur C. Clarke's term, "sufficiently advanced technology."

In the 1963 L. Sprague de Camp anthology Swords and Sorcery, Anderson was one of the eight featured authors. His story "The Valor of Cappen Varra" tells the story of a minstrel who defeats a troll through, well, his own valor. Cappen would later be worked into the Thieves' World shared-world  In the next de Camp anthology, The Spell of Seven, Jack Vance's "Mazirian the Magician" appears. It would later be featured in The Dying Earth.

Anderson was a science fiction writer who was fascinated with mythology. None of the fantasy that I've read fails to have a real-world mythological referent, whether the Matter of France in Three Hearts and Three Lions (Holger Carlsen / Ogier the Dane) or his more frequent stops in Norse myth (The Broken Sword, Hrolf Kraki's Saga, "The Valor of Cappen Varra," etc).

Vance, on the other hand, wrote science fiction that blended seamlessly into fantasy. This is clearest in the Planet of Adventure series, which could have been a weird fantasy work had it not started in a spaceship. His Dying Earth series, undoubtedly his masterwork, took this further: it was a world where science had gone pear-shaped and everything was basically magical. He did write the Lyonesse trilogy that was thoroughly fantastical, and possibly linked to the Dying Earth over millennia.

Of our two authors, Vance was by far the superior wordsmith. It is difficult to over-emphasize the way he uses decadent language and razor-sharp wits to create the Dying Earth - it is simply a central component of the series. Both beauty and horror are evoked in a way that would make most of the other authors in this tournament flushed with jealousy.

The other thing to distinguish Vance is that he has had a few genuine followers among literary authors. Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun takes its cue from Vance's The Dying Earth. Michael Shea had written an authorized Cugel novel, The Quest for Simbilis, before Vance wrote Cugel's Saga. Shea's Nifft the Lean and its sequel The Mines of Behemoth are also in the same vein. And recently Matthew Hughes has been writing high Vancian stories in his Archonate universe; in May his Raffalon anthology will be published and I'll write about it here.

You can vote in the poll here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 29: Lovecraft vs Howard

Jack Vance defeated Michael Moorcock and will advance to the semi-final.

In the Weird vs Fantasy semi-final, the man from Providence faces off against the two-fisted Texan in a battle of the immortals.

Appendix N Madness Semifinal A: H.P. Lovecraft vs. Robert E. Howard


This could have been the final round, if they didn't meet in the semifinals. Lovecraft has overcome Margaret St. Clair, Manly Wade Wellman, and Edgar Rice Burroughs to justify his spot atop the Weird bracket. Robert E. Howard was barely troubled by David C. Smith and John Bellairs, and defeated J.R.R. Tolkien decisively.

Both are titans in Appendix N and their influence and reputation barely have to be justified. They appear of course on the "short list" of Gary Gygax's particular influences, and both of their works have been adapted to D&D as well as inspiring multiple independent RPGs.


Biography links these two authors tightly, even though they never met in person. Lovecraft kept an extensive circle of correspondents, and Howard was a member of this group. They both had major successes in Weird Tales, which Howard was increasingly part of toward the end of his life. And Lovecraft would pass on less than a year after young Howard took his own life, cutting the golden period of the magazine woefully short.

With each of them I'd be hard pressed to pick only one favorite story. I dearly love "The Colour Out of Space" by Lovecraft, and probably would pick "Tower of the Elephant" as a favorite Howard yarn. But any of their works is dripping with inspiration both as fantastic literature and for roleplaying gamers.

Howard's written output, at least in terms of short stories, is several times longer than Lovecraft's. And it is actually worth climbing into; Del Rey did a series of trade paperbacks in recent years that includes not just Conan, but also volumes of Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, El-Borak, and general collections of Howard's historical and horror stories. (Long-time readers of the Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan will recognize some of these stories, although the comics added Conan to them.)

Lovecraft's fiction fits in three modest volumes from Penguin, which I prefer because of the footnotes by S.T. Joshi. They show how closely Lovecraft grounded some of his work in the real world, particularly with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. This is a stark contrast between Lovecraft and Howard: where Lovecraft's work was deeply set in the contemporary world, Howard used his settings as a backdrop to add color to the adventure.

The difference in philosophy strikes me as similar to this comic:


Lovecraft prefers to dwell on the nihilistic elements of scientific materialism. He uses alien horrors to show the irrelevance of human life and endeavor when viewed against a bleak and unknown cosmos. Howard looks at similar horrors, shrugs, and creates Conan, who is going to carve his own meaning into this empty shell of life.

By far the best examples are two famous quotes. Lovecraft's from "The Call of Cthulhu":
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
And Howard's from "Queen of the Black Coast:
He shrugged his shoulders. "I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
(It is a great shame that the real Conan's philosophy, which is quite sophisticated, is forgotten in favor of the quote from the John Milius Conan the Barbarian.)

A piece of the greatness of both Howard and Lovecraft is how accessible they are. You can sit down in an hour or two and read "The Call of Cthulhu" or "Red Nails" and you will have an immediate connection to these authors and their work. Yet they are infinitely rewarding for re-reading; I've sat down and read every single word of "Shadows in the Moonlight" closely, just to get a feel for how Howard built that story, and every three or four sentences throbs with life and creation. And every time I re-read Lovecraft's work (at least the ones from 1926 onward) I find new connections and threads that I hadn't seen before.

This is a battle of the titans.

You can vote in the poll here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 28: Moorcock vs Vance

Poul Anderson triumphed over Leigh Brackett in the Sci-Fi final and advances to the semifinal round, where he will take on the winner of today's match-up.

SAGA/Amra Region Final: Michael Moorcock vs Jack Vance

The second Appendix N book I ever read was Elric of Melniboné. (The first was The Hobbit.) A classmate, the same one who introduced me to Dragonlance and AD&D, loaned me the slim Ace paperback. It was weird, and dangerous, and had chaos gods and demon swords and sex and albinism and all kinds of things that set my sixth-grade imagination afire. It even had horseriding which was normally boring but worked here.

I don't remember exactly when I read The Dying Earth; it was probably about six or seven years later, and I'm certain that I had read it by my sophomore year of college. I remember the cover, a yellow Lancer edition that I had bought second-hand, a shocking yellow with a weird swordsman and a strange creature. It stuck with me, as book covers often do. That picture became entangled in my mind with the word-drunk stories of Vance, infinitely stranger than I had expected, tales of antiheroes in a strangely aged world with a bloated red sun. My father, a Tolkien fan from before I was born, wound up reading Eyes of the Overworld when I had left it lying around at home (during a summer break, as I recall) and found Cugel a rather unheroic figure.

I'm not sure anyone ever got word-drunk reading Moorcock. For that a good series is probably the Corum books, not listed in Appendix N but eminently worth reading, inspired by Moorcock's own discovery of a Cornish-English dictionary, and words like vadhagh and mabden. The multiversal adventures of this strange, haunted hero have some of Moorcock's better prose - although at times one is reminded that Moorcock writes at blinding speed and some of the results are more inspired by others.

Not every Vance book is equally witty and decadent in its prose as The Dying Earth, either; Planet of Adventure, while it's a ton of fun, is written closer to the register of science fiction. But Vance was, of our two writers, the one whose work you can read simply for the joy of the words on paper.

Moorcock builds worlds by speeding between interesting places, often invoking a huge shared multiverse. He will throw his protagonists across gulfs of land and sea, or space and time, to take them to a location that makes a memorable backdrop for adventure. They will be as varied as Melniboné with its cit of Immryr, or the eternal city of Tanelorn, and many in between, but all serve the purposes of his story.

Vance's worlds are built impressionistically; a map of the Dying Earth seems like an absurdity, but it offers up a variety of locales and as often as not itself challenges the protagonists. The planet Tschai is likewise practically a character itself, and the four books are each named after the four weird species living on the planet.

Both Moorcock and Vance are notable for using antiheroes in their fantasy work. The best examples, and the most illustrative, are Elric and Cugel. They are good symbols for the choice between the two authors: Elric is ultraviolent, tragic, gloomy, and has tremendous power but crippling weaknesses. Cugel is thrust into going on quests against his will but principally uses his wits and lack of morals as his weapons. It's not the starkest choice we've faced in this tournament, but it is a real contrast between two of the giants of fantastic literature.

You can vote in the poll here.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 27: Anderson vs Brackett

Robert E. Howard has tread the jeweled thrones of Middle-Earth beneath his sandaled feet and goes on to face H.P. Lovecraft in the semifinal round.

Sci-Fi Region Final: Poul Anderson vs. Leigh Brackett

Our previous region finals were contests between authors whose ideas and philosophies were stark contrasts. This one is between two solid classic sci-fi authors who also did other interesting writing.

According to the story, Leigh Brackett was called up by Howard Hawks to help contribute to the screenplay for The Big Sleep, being called "This Brackett guy." For the English majors in the audience, one of her cowriters was William Faulkner. The other was Jules Furthman; Hawks would call upon Brackett and Furthman again for the John Wayne vehicle Rio Bravo. Robert Altman had her write the screenplay for The Long Goodbye and her final screen work was an early draft of The Empire Strikes Back.

Poul Anderson doesn't have anything so popular or dramatic to his name, but he did take breaks from his sci-fi work to write several classic fantasy novels. He also wrote an essay I've found tantalizing called "Uncleftish Beholding" that describes atomic theory from a hypothetical English purged of French and Latin loanwords. It defines out many words in etymological forms and uses the German-derived terms for them.

I persist in feeling that it's Eric John Stark who gets Leigh Brackett's work in Appendix N. Her work combines post-Amazing Stories type science fiction with the high-adventure planetary fantasy that typified Mars before the 1950s and "little green men." Stark was in a way the opposite of the hyper-rational sci-fi protagonist, a mix of Mowgli and Tarzan in the John Carter role. She earned the title "The Queen of Space Opera" for her work.

Anderson, of course, had his works listed: Three Hearts and Three Lions, The Broken Sword, and The High Crusade. Reading all three is a series of incredible tonal shifts; Three Hearts and Three Lions is a solid adventure but with its nose in the science; The Broken Sword is a thundering Germanic tragedy; and The High Crusade is something of a farce. Anderson's science fiction also does an admirable job of switching tones and registers, even in the space of a single story.

This is a choice between a Grand Master and a Queen; a decision of whether the rationalistic characters of Anderson's stories and his starfaring work compares with the primal hero of Brackett's planetary romance and her incomparable screenwriting work.

You can vote in the poll here.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 26: Howard vs Tolkien

The Weird Region Final was won by H.P. Lovecraft, who will go on to face the winner of today's match-up in the semifinal round.

Fantasy Region Final: Robert E. Howard vs J.R.R. Tolkien

Is there a starker choice in all of fantastic literature than Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien?

Howard was a Texan who wrote short fiction by the ream. While he is remembered mainly for his creation of Conan across eighteen stories published in his lifetime, he published literally hundreds of others. He was prolific in the way that only a writer paid by the word can be, even though Howard never padded his stories. He left dozens of unfinished fragments, and when his work was popularized in the 1960s it created a craze for "Barbarian" fantasy that was of absolutely lower quality than Howard's original.

Tolkien was an Englishman who taught Beowulf at Oxford. He published two major works in his lifetime, as well as a few minor pieces. From his convalescence in a war hospital in 1916 until shortly before his death in 1973, he worked on the legendarium that was published in wholly inadequate form as the Silmarillion and in various drafts as The History of Middle-Earth. This work of over 50 years involved endless re-framing and revisions to the mythology. The Lord of the Rings was, in part, an attempt to use the success of The Hobbit to show a further tale in the same mythology, and also to publish the Silmarillion.

Ace Books manages to be responsible for controversial editions of both Conan and The Lord of the Rings; the former because L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter wrote a good chunk of the material, the latter because they were using a loophole in copyright to publish without paying any royalties to Tolkien and incorporated a great number of typographical errors. Both editions contributed greatly to the popularity of Howard and Tolkien, and of fantasy in general.

It was The Sword of Shannara in 1977 that started a craze for Tolkien imitations in fantasy publishing, and began to close the period of Conan imitations. While I generally reserve critique on these epigones, those imitating Howard did have at least the minor virtue of writing much shorter works.

Middle-Earth and the Hyborian Age bear a striking symmetry. The story of Númenor was a deliberate parallel to the sinking of Atlantis, and set up the Middle-Earth of the Third Age as an immediate pre-historic precursor to the current age of history. The Hyborian Age is explicitly between Atlantis and the coming of the Aryan people into the Indus Valley. Both story cycles, then, are set on Earth in a lost prehistory.

But they are set to opposite effect. Howard's Hyborian Age was an excuse to use various historical periods like the sound stages on a Hollywood backlot, interesting and flavorful backdrops for his stories but with a breezy disregard for historical details and gleeful use of anachronisms. Tolkien's Third Age, on the other hand, is the conclusion of his mythological cycle, chosen precisely for the exact mythic resonances that its elaborate history creates.

Their prose, too, diverges almost completely. Howard's words leap from the page in a vivid gush of color, painting a world that is rough and brutal and immediate, savage in both its joy and destruction. He uses a wide vocabulary because ordinary words fail to create the pictures he is painting. Tolkien's language is almost infinitely patient, describing details and landscapes to root the reader as fully as possible in the world he imagines as clearly as a photograph. For his action scenes he elevates it almost to a mythological pitch, reaching its absolute apex when Éowyn slays the Witch-King of Angmar.

Philosophically there is an utter contrast. Conan has a personal set of morals that is the only thing that matters to him; he has utterly no compunctions about killing or stealing, but he has a strong sense of honor that he will not violate. Tolkien, particularly in the character of Gandalf, strongly enforces Judeo-Christian morality, and even a creature such as Gollum must be spared. Conan would have dispatched him and used the Ring, we can be sure.

(As a brief aside: I find that none of the films of either Howard's stories or Tolkien's, except maybe the Rankin-Bass Hobbit, demonstrates a deep understanding of either author or his work. I understand that there is a wider appreciation of the same, though.)

Writing about the influence of either Howard or Tolkien on D&D is silly. Between the two of them they are the sine qua non of the game; Gary wouldn't have written it if not for Conan, nor would fantasy have had a mass audience without Tolkien.

In short, Howard vs Tolkien is the battle for the soul of fantasy. Is it in Conan or in Frodo?

You can vote in the poll here.