Saturday, June 20, 2020

When Discussing Early RPGs and Wargames, Let's Not Forget the British Scene Part 1

Issues 6 and 7 of the 1956 British Model Soldier Society Bulletin

The recently released Secret of Blackmoor documentary provides a lot of information about how the modern role playing game developed and how important the Minnesota Wargaming scene was in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. Particular importance is given to the quasi-roleplaying events created by David Wesely around 1969 called Braunsteins. One way of describing these events is as a combination of postal Diplomacy, traditional Wargaming akin to Strategos, and childhood storytelling games. They were truly innovative and a direct antecedent to Dungeons & Dragons, especially with regard to the role playing of characters and the playing of campaigns that continued session after session.

The role that David Arneson and his gaming community played in the development of role playing games had too long been hidden in the shadows of Gary Gygax and it's fantastic to see a focus on the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons. In doing so, however, we risk losing sight of the fact that role playing games were a "perfect storm" of gaming influences coming together and that many of the things that were happening in the Minnesota Wargaming scene were happening elsewhere as well. In the case of the British Wargaming scene, they were happening in a way that also influenced the invention of Dungeons & Dragons and that provided a fertile field of consumers in the UK when the game finally came to the shores of Albion.

When it comes to Miniatures Wargaming, in both the US and the UK, there are a handful of names that loom large and are the wargaming equivalent of Gygax & Arneson: Tony Bath, Donald Featherstone, Jack Scruby, Charles Grant, Donald A. Wollheim, and Captain J.C. Sachs. Not to mention the influence of H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stephenson, Peter Cushing, and "Cass and Bantock" on the hobby.

I mention all of these people because the British wargaming scene not to take away from the influence that David Arneson and his group had on Gygax and D&D, but to point to another group that had an influence on both Arneson and Gygax. The miniatures wargaming community in the mid-20th Century was small and gamers communicated with one another across the "pond." The fact that Gary Gygax had a letter published in Donald Featherstone's Wargaming Newsletter is proof that they were in communication with one another, or at least that the UK scene was an influence on Gygax's gaming. We also know that Gygax and Perrin's Chainmail rules were influenced by Tony Bath's 1956 and Phil Barker's 1966 rules for Ancient and Medieval Wargaming. The fact that Barker's rules were published in a 1966 copy of the Wargamer's Newsletter suggests that Gygax had been reading the magazine for some time prior to his published letter.

Little Wars: How HG Wells created hobby war gaming - BBC News

But let's take a step away from the direct influence and merely look at the development of wargaming in the UK. The original recreational wargamers, at least in published form, are H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stephenson. Wells' rules were published, but they bear little mechanical resemblance to modern role playing and wargaming. Casualties in Wells' game were determined via the shooting of a toy cannon and not the roll of dice. If you want to check out the game and play it with its original rules, or with new ones, I recommend the recent Paper Boys edition.

There are a number of wargame rules that follow Wells, I think Charles Grant provides the best description of how wargaming in the UK engaging in many of the same types of play that would result in D&D and it is Grant who will be the focus of today's post. In the May 1955 British Model Soldier Society Bulletin, Charles Grant discuses the state of wargaming at the time in his article "The War Game -- Past, Present, and Future."

His account is highly personalized, but matches the development of the hobby. It began with "casualties being inflicted by means of a table top tennis ball," shifting to the British Model Soldier Society's rules when he was older and began to reenact Napoleonic campaigns. It's interesting to note that these rules also appear to use some form of projectile to determine casualties as Grant states, "these games were more or less based on the Society's rules, the exception being that, having regard to the quality of the troops engaged, no actual firing took place..." It is at this point that Grant begins to calculate losses.

It is soon after his shift to Napoleonics that he began playing in games of another sort, and this is where we begin to see parallel developments in the UK hobby to what would eventually happen in Minnesota. Grant states that on one occasion, "a three-handed game was played [with] a certain amount of diplomatic prelude being necessary. Never were there such Machiavellian machinations...and when the three armies finally met in battle, each contestant was firmly convinced that he had at least one ally!" This description suggests that there were proto-roleplaying elements being inserted into Grant's gaming, thanks to Peter Young, and that it was only the very real Campaign of 1939 (the beginning of WWII) that provided the reason that "the protagonists had to go their separate ways." Grants descriptions in 1955, of his pre-1939 gaming, very much sound similar to that of Arneson's Braunsteins. Here are an example of how role playing campaign elements appeared to enter play, "On the historic occasion when one Hess parachuted on to my native soil (likely this actual event) I received notice from my enemy that a certain Murat had been picked up, having dropped from a balloon 'somewhere in Austria!'" Grant also discusses how his group changed the rules to classify wounded in a manner that added "verismililitude to one's bases and lines of communication."

Two things are made abundantly clear by these examples. First, that Grant and his fellow gamers were playing campaigns similar to what modern roleplayers or wargamers would understand. The fact that their "Campaign of 1805" resulted in very different combats from those in history, combined with the fantastic tale of Murat's balloon drop, suggest that the Grant games engaged in a level of roleplaying, even before they began to incorporate dice into play.

Grant goes on to mention the use of rules developed by "Captain Sachs," though those appear to still require the use of actual projectiles for casualties. It isn't until Grant encounters the "Bantock" rules, probably the Bantock-Cass rules Donald Featherstone mentions as being influential to Tony Bath, that Grant begins to favor wargames that use die to determine outcomes. Grant went on to become one of the major figures in wargaming and it's interesting to see how much "roleplay" existed in the hobby as a whole. We'll see more of that when I discuss Tony Bath's writings in the 1956 Bulletin and his famous Hyborian Campaign.

Before I move on though, I'd like to note again that Donald A. Wollheim was an active participant in the British Model Soldier Society. The reason I'm taking the time to highlight this is that Wollheim was a major US Fantasy and SF publisher and was (in)famous for bringing the first paperback printings of Lord of the Rings to the US with his "Ace" paperback versions.

What I find striking in all of this is the deep connections between wargaming and Fantasy as the hobby developed. From Bath's Hyborian campaign, inspired by Robert E. Howard's Conan, to Wollheim's membership in the BMSS, an active gaming community, the ties are there from the start and they span the Atlantic.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

SENTRY FORCE #0 Provides an Entertaining Glimpse at Tiny Supers' "Gallantverse"

Gallant Knight Games ran the Kickstarter campaign for their Tiny d6 based super hero role playing game Tiny Supers in July/August 2018. I've chatted about Tiny Supers on the Geekerati Podcast, but haven't done a full review of the game. The tl;dr version is that the system has quickly become one of my top 10 super hero rpgs ever. It's easy to learn and very flexible. I loved the system so much that in the blog post for the Tiny d6 episode of the podcast, I did quick conversions of two members of the Fantastic Four (The Human Torch and the Invisible Woman).

I'll do a full review of the Tiny Supers game later this week, but last week Gallant Knight Games' own Alan Bahr sent Kickstarter backers a copy of Sentry Force Prime #0, the first (and hopefully not only) comic book based in their in house Gallant-Verse super setting. I've had a chance to read the comic, several times and in a couple of formats, in order to give it a thorough examination. Before I get deep into the weeds of my analysis of the book, I'd like to give you my overall impression of the book.

TL;DR/Overall Impression

I like it a lot. It's not perfect, and suffers from what I call "pilotitis" when discussing television shows, but it is a fun and engaging book. I love the illustration style and I am impressed with Alan Bahr's attempt at writing a "team origin story" for his first ever comic book script. The short and sweet? Buy it and make sure you read the pdf in "2-page mode" in order to get the most out of Nic Giacondino's art work.

The Good, the Bad, and the Awesome

There are two things that are essential in order for a comic book to "work, you need good writing and good art and in that order. Sentry Force has both. They aren't perfect (as will be discussed in "The Bad" section) but they are good.

When I was an undergrad I took a couple of creative writing classes with an award winning Science Fiction and Fantasy author. Over time, she became one of my most supportive mentors and I am eternally grateful to her. One of the most important lessons she taught me was that "writing a novel is hard, but writing a short story can be even harder." What she meant by this is that readers of novels will allow the writer to meander, but readers of short fiction demand tight, lean, and compelling prose. The medium itself demands it. While comic books may have the benefit of beautiful art, their word count is small and if you are writing a fully contained origin story for one-shot title, you've given yourself quite a writing challenge. There's a reason that the Avengers comic book was written after the characters had their own stand alone books, and there's a reason the Marvel movies started with solo stories rather than jumping right into the first Avengers film. It's easier to create one compelling protagonist at a time than to try to connect readers with multiple protagonists in one go.

It's a difficult challenge to meet, but author Alan Bahr manages this task. The Sentry Force is filled with an interesting array of characters that fit a nice array of super hero archetypes while retaining a touch of their own personality. Velocity, the techie "Iron Man" proxy and the hero who assembles the team, is presented as a man desperately outmatched in a city on the edge of collapse as new villains emerge. He's running as fast as he can to keep the city safe, but he cannot do it alone and what heroes there are in Sentry City have yet to work together in any meaningful way. Velocity wants to help, but all he can do is triage. A fitting metaphor as in his secret identity, he runs a medical supply company. The character is a nice balance of arrogance, vulnerability, and desperation. He might also be, as is revealed in the comic's "voiceover," one of the causes of the rise of meta-humans. Bahr crams in a lot of backstory without a lot of exposition. That gives depth to the setting, but it also leaves room for interpretation and development. Did Velocity's tapping into the Tachyon Bridge merely result in the creation of his Velocity armor, or is it a partial explanation of the emergence of meta-humans? I'm guessing it's just the first, but the second possibility could be developed into some fun story lines.

The first Gallant Knight Games product I backed on Kickstarter was the Powder Mage Roleplaying Game based on the excellent book series by Brian McClellan. It was a very good attempt at adapting McClellan's fictional world to the Savage Worlds rules set. It was especially rich as a Black Powder Mage Universe world guide. In another world, that might have been the only Gallant Knight Games product I purchased, but that would be a world where Alan Bahr didn't work with great artists. From the first time I saw concept art Michael Leavenworth put together for the 2nd Edition of the Tiny Dungeon Role Playing Game, I knew I had to back that game. From their, Bahr introduced me to a number of talented illustrators who's work was different than that being used by other role playing game companies. Of the Gallant Knight Games pool of artists, one stands apart from the others in my esteem. Nicolas Giacondino is the Jack "King" Kirby of the Gallant Knight Games stable. His work is consistently evocative and fun and brings to mind many of my favorite comic book artists. When I see a Giacondino page, his work brings to mind the layouts of Keith Giffen and the art of Matt Wagner, Chris Sprouse, Ty Templeton, and Mike Wieringo. All of these artists have clean line work and demonstrated that the 4-color illustration style of the Silver and Bronze age of comics could be as sophisticated and dynamic as the best of the Iron and Digital Age illustrators.

You can see the influence of these artists on Nic's work in many places, but one place I wanted to examine briefly is in how Giacondino approaches page layouts. Take a look at these three pages with art by Matt Wagner, Keith Giffen, and Nic Giacondino. It should be noted that I intentionally chose one of Giacondino's "least interesting" pages in order to make this quick demonstration, but it should also be clear from even this basic page that Giacondino understands how to tell a story graphically. Each of these pages is a riff on the classic "9 panel page." Two of them are expressly 9 panel pages. Giacondino's page uses the structure of the Giffen (center) page, but uses narrative techniques demonstrated in both the other comics. Notice how Giacondino starts at a wide anger and zooms in one step at each step of the conversation. He's playing with point of view and demonstrating the increasing intensity of the argument between the characters. It's similar to what Wagner is doing in the panels from MAGE #1, which alternates from mid-shot to close-up to match the information being transmitted in the dialogue.

One of the things that stands out in the Giancondino piece, though this really should wait for "The Awesome" section, is that he hand inked the pages. Inking by hand and not digitally or by color coding gives his illustrations a nice depth of space more closely aligned with the Wagner illustration on the left than the more flat-space dominated Giffen art from LEGION OF SUPERHEROES in the middle. Even in a "boring" Giacondino panel, you see variety and texture. We'll see more of his work as I move through "The Bad" and "The Awesome." I do have one small quibble with the page and that is with the lack of window frame behind Camila Cantor. The yellow space behind her is a paneled window and those panels are shown on the next page and add needed background to the page.

Which brings me to "The Bad" elements of the book, none of which are too bad but all of which need to be discussed honestly if I want you to trust my opinion about comics and other media. I really liked this book, but has roughness around the edges.

The first patch of roughness comes in the use of exposition. Bahr doesn't use a lot of it, but there is one case where it needed significant tightening. In presenting Velocity's backstory on page 3, Bahr has the following two sentences back to back. "We were exploring tachyon physics to cure muscular disability and illness, but we stumbled onto the Tachyon Bridge..." and "I had to shut down the research, lock it up, and control it, because what we unlocked with the Tachyon Bridge was bigger than anything I'd ever dreamed of." What is striking here is the repetition of the term Tachyon Bridge. The second sentence could easily read, "I had to shut down the research, lock it up, and control it, because what we unlocked was bigger than anything I'd ever dreamed of." By eliminating the repetition of "with the Tachyon Bridge" it reads quicker and cleaner. There are a couple of small things like this. They aren't deal breakers by any means, but they demonstrate a writer learning to write in a new medium. Comic book story telling needs to be tight and this is a little loose. To be fair to Bahr, I've been reading some older Gardner Fox books (his CROM comic book if you must know) and Bahr's work here is significantly better than Fox's on that title. Let's just say that when you're work is better than Fox's, at any point in his career, you're doing fine.

The second patch of roughness comes in the art work. I know I praised the art earlier and I'll praise it more because Nic is AMAZING, but he's not perfect. Let's take these two pages of action. Where Velocity foils a bank robbery by the villain Darklight. We've got great action flow on the first page, but then WHOAH! What's happening? That top panel on page 5 has me wondering who's PoV we are seeing from. It's not the guy Velocity saved. We can see him on the top of the panel. Who is looking at the world upside down and why? It really pulled me out of the action. Which is too bad, because the action of the panel is fantastic if confusing at this PoV. I can see what Nic is attempting using the split faces on the top of the page, and that's nice, but a small modification really helps the page pop in my opinion.

Sentry Force Pages 4 and 5 (as Published)

What if we didn't feel it was necessary to keep the compelling split faces as the top of the page and instead let them go to the middle of the page? As you can see, since Darklight is in the upper left of the panel when we flip it right side up, we cannot put the face there. We have to have the faces on the bottom of the panel if the action is right side up. And look at that action! It's dynamic. Bullets are flying, Velocity is running to the action, and our hapless customer is falling. The scene has emotional appeal and it brings to my mind the combat panels from the interior of the 2nd edition of the Champions role playing game, and that's a good thing.

Page 5 Image Flipped and Mirrored

Let's add this flipped panel back to the original page and give it a look. To me this is an improvement, especially when viewed in 2-page mode. The action from page to page, and these pages are paired in Acrobat, look dynamic and there is no confusion of the action in my mind. Your mileage may differ. You may prefer the original layout on the page, but this works better for me. Regardless of which works better for you, the illustrations by Nic are a lot of fun.

Sentry Force Pages 4 and 5 (post Tweak)

And that brings me to "The Awesome." There is so much that is great about this book. It starts with a complete vision for the setting. Alan Bahr has stories he wants to tell and he wants you to experience them. Whether we get them as an RPG campaign or as a comic book, I'm sure we will see more of the Gallant-verse. Bahr is a font of ideas on a Walter Gibson (the creator of the Shadow) scale. He's always writing and publishes RPG products on a schedule almost unmatched in the industry. Bahr and Wiggy Wade-Williams are old school writers who pump out quality material on a schedule. I'm in awe of Bahr's abilities and his imagination. He's put together a great team and a compelling universe with characters ranging from the Magician Asher Solomon (a mash-up of Constantine and Dr. Strange who is now one of my favorite super-wizards), Bulwark (a "Brick" and a little more), the Eagle, many more, and...the super-heroine Gallant (the Gallant-verse's "Superman" equivalent). These characters are all discussed in detail in the excellent Tiny Supers RPG and Bahr has provided a fun Gallant-verse adventure in the back of Sentry Force #0 for you to play.

If I wanted to go into "The Awesome" as much as I wanted, I would do a page by page breakdown of all the interesting characters and detailed examination of Nic's artwork. It's really a lot of fun to look at, though I'd desaturate the colors a little to make the very strong line art pop a little more, and he manages a couple of "Perez Pages" where the panels are filled with a horde of characters who manage to be distinct and dynamic and for me the ability to do "Perez Pages" is the measure by which all comic book artists are measured.

Instead of doing all of that, I'll just leave you with the panel introducing Gallant. It's pretty darn EPIC. It has all the emotion and power I want from a character introduction.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Watch ROAR (1981) at Alamo Drafthouse's Virtual Cinema

Son of 'Roar' director: 'He was a f—ing a–hole' for making us do ...

There are very few movies that have truly shocked me and ROAR (1981) is absolutely on the top of the list. The film focuses on the story of a family that lives with scores of live lions and fight to protect the lives of these lions from poachers etc. What makes the film shocking is that this film is actually more documentary than drama. Yes, the storyline is fiction, but Tippi Hedron, Melanie Griffith, and family made the film while actually on "set" with the lions and other animals. The film's cast and crew suffered numerous injuries, as the tagline goes "No animals were harmed in the making of this movie. 70 members of the cast and crew were."

I think that John Waters describes the film best when he recommends watching "Tippi Hedren’s real-life snuff movie starring her entire family that was made in 1981 but not released in the US until 2015. Watch, slack-jawed, as Tippi is scalped and her daughter Melanie Griffith mauled by the wild-animal extras who turn out to be the real stars of this nutcase action film." That's a perfect description of the film. Producer, and star, Noel Marshall repeatedly attempts to calm the lions and assert himself as the alpha. These attempts aren't really all that effective and what is supposed to be a gentle film demonstrating the beauty of these magnificent cats, ends up as a stressful experience as you wonder whether the "cast" will make it out alive.

I'm not kidding. This is not a film with "special effects," unless you mean "actually getting mauled by a lion" as your definition of special effects.

It is the most insane film I've ever watched and if you ever wanted to know why there are so many rules about film production and safety, you only need look at ROAR.

Alamo Drafthouse is hosting a virtual cinema viewing
of the movie Wednesday April 8th, 2020 and I recommend you give it a watch if you've got the time. It's an experience not to be missed and Alamo's on to something cool with their virtual cinema events.

Friday, April 03, 2020

A New Edition of H.G. Wells' Classic LITTLE WARS is on the Way from Peter Dennis' Paperboys Line of Books

Peter Dennis is republishing H.G. Well's seminal LITTLE WARS rules as a part of his "Paperboys" line of game books. Like other books in the series, this includes pages and pages of wonderful illustrations meant to be copied and cut out to make armies of paper men. I own most of the books in the series, but have only done a little bit of construction using his English Civil War book.

It's a marvelous series.

This book contains a reprint of H.G. Well's book LITTLE WARS which is a cornerstone of the modern wargaming hobby. Whether you play Warhammer or Bolt Action, you owe a debt of gratitude to Wells. You can see some elements of modern game rules in Wells' simple rules set in a lot of places, but the resolution of combat isn't one of them. Wells' rules are based on the use of a pea shooting toy cannon.

This book looks fantastic and I cannot wait for mine to arrive via Amazon.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Hither Came Conan to Role Playing Games Part 1 (OD&D)

Fantasy Background Retrieved from WallpaperPlay and Cartoony Conan Image by Todd Pickens
The fiction of Robert E. Howard (who was born on this day in 1906), and the stories of Conan in particular, were among the stories that inspired the creation of the earliest editions Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. The game has developed along lines that moved it away from its early Sword & Sorcery roots through various phases and back again as the game has become its own genre of Fantasy fiction.

The early Greyhawk campaign was very much a fusion of Howard, Leiber, Vance, and Poul Anderson. Blackmoor added more Vance a more than a dash of Burroughs and Science Fantasy. D&D's "The Known World" spiced things up by adding direct references to Clark Ashton Smith to the mix. While the official worlds reflected the entirety of Fantasy fiction, the game as played was very Tolkienesque. The inclusion of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits (later called Halflings), inspired a many gaming groups to have campaigns that mirrored the exploration of Moria. With the purchase of The Forgotten Realms and the development and publication of The Dragonlance modules, TSR began producing settings that were more Tolkienesque in execution.

But D&D never left its Sword & Sorcery roots entirely. The publication of the Dark Sun setting, a mashup of Howard, Vance, and Burroughs is one of the best demonstrations of this argument, though the wildly imaginative Planescape, the space hamster infused Spelljammer, and the dark Fairy Tale inspired Birthright settings are also of note. D&D as Fantasy is a genre that is wilder and more patchwork than those who want to argue that D&D is "Tolkien based" fantasy adventure.

Tolkien's influence is undeniable, but his world isn't filled with Dragonborn, Changelings, Living Constructs built for war who are now sentient beings, and races specifically bred to host Entities from the Realm of Dreams. Those are all races common in modern D&D sessions. The game was designed with Sword and Sorcery sensibilities, where Humans were meant to be the most common species played, but it has become something more. It is its own thing, and yet in that gonzo amalgamation of a vast array of Fantasy fiction, the game has in some ways retained a closer connection to its early Sword and Sorcery roots than to being an "Elf Game." The Sword & Sorcery fiction that inspired D&D was freeform. It was in many ways genre-free, in the sense that anything was possible. Before there was an Appendix N (the list of inspirational fiction in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide), there was this introduction to the "Little Brown Books":

These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those
who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping
through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do
not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS &
DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find
that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite
you to read on and enjoy a “world” where the fantastic is fact and magic really
A quick look through that list sees fiction that includes airships that fly by the power of the 8th Ray to propel themselves through the sky at high speeds, adventures where people are transported to the fantastic world of Spencer's Faerie Queene by thinking of mathematical equations, dark and polluted urban settings where the smog is as much a character as the protagonists, and tales where men of strong arms and strong wills flee in terror when they encounter frog headed demons. What you won't find in any of these stories are Elves, Dwarves, or Hobbits.

Though Appendix N has been used by many as the main argument for the primacy of Sword & Sorcery fiction, I would argue that one need look no further than the official game material produced by TSR. They included statistics for Conan and Elric in the Original Dungeons & Dragons Supplment IV (Gods, Demigods, & Heroes) and published a game based on Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom.

Of these influences, Robert E Howard's creation has served as the inspiration for or been directly adapted by more game companies than any other. TSR adapted Conan for OD&D and AD&D and created a role playing game devoted to the character. Steve Jackson Games produced GURPS Conan. Mongoose Publishing produced a Conan series of books for 3rd Edition D&D. Modiphius is currently publishing a Conan game using their in house 2d20 game system. Beyond these licensed adaptations (though the OD&D adaptation was likely not licensed), games like Barbarians of Lemuria, Sorcerer (with its Sword & Sorcerer supplement), Carrion Lands, and Shadow of the Demon Lord all owe debts to this man of great mirth and great melancholy. Sword & Sorcery is THE major influence of fantasy role playing games and Conan IS the apotheosis of Sword & Sorcery.

So how well have role playing games inspired by Conan's adventures emulated him, both stylistically and mechanically? That is the central question of this series of blog posts and the answer is "depends." This blog post will focus on the version of Conan presented in Dungeons & Dragons Supplement IV: Gods, Demigods, & Heroes and later entries will examine formal and non-formal adaptations. The Wizards of the Coast reprint of the book lacks his entry, but I've transferred the information from that entry onto a character sheet below.

Mechanics from TSR's Gods, Demigods, & Heroes. Illustration by Gil Kane.
This brief entry tells us a few things about the design of Dungeons & Dragons and how good, or not good, they were at emulating a specific character from fiction. Keep in mind that the statistics were produced after the publication of the Greyhawk supplement and thus reflect the full adoption of the "alternate combat system" as the official D&D combat system and the formal publication of the Thief class. The Thief class was created by Gary Switzer of Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica, CA and was incorporated into the D&D game via a rules addition and eventual publication in the Greyhawk supplement.

The first thing that we see is that Conan is classified as a Fighter with Thief abilities, the descriptions in the actual supplement are "Fighter Ability: 15th Level" and "This Fighter of the 15th level also has the abilities of a 9th level Thief." In the "post-Greyhawk" supplement rules, the designers had to break the rules as written to emulate what they thought Conan should look like mechanically. In OD&D only demihumans like Elves and Dwarves are expressly described as being capable of having multiple classes.

In some ways, this is an argument against the development of a Thief class at all and an argument for some way of arbitrating things like hiding or climbing walls other than dialog and DM fiat. The Thief class was designed to emulate characters like The Grey Mouser, but the Fighting Man class from the D&D rulebooks could do equally well with only a few additions to the basic rules set. I'm not opposed to having a Thief class, and thing the class has evolved in interesting ways over the years, but I do think that the game would have been perfectly fine had it stayed with Fighters, Magic Users, and Clerics as the only actual classes. Given that the Mouser and Fafhrd were both fantastic swordsmen, but also "thieves," having a Thief class that doesn't fight particularly well seems an odd way to go. This is especially true given how bad Thieves are at thieving. Don't even get me started on what effect it has on realism that thieves have the ability to climb walls, hide in shadows, and move silently when no one else does. 

Had there been no Thief class in the Greyhawk supplement, Conan would likely have been described only as a Fighter. As it is, the authors demonstrated that the emulation of fictional heroes required modifying the rules as written, even for a character as simple to emulate as Conan.

For all the talk of violating the rules as written, you might think that I think the authors have done something terrible. Quite the contrary. I think that by demonstrating that even a character as basic in archetype as Conan requires house ruling, the authors of Gods, Demigods, & Heroes are telling DMs to open up their game play and to not be restricted by the rules as written. As Timothy Kask writes in the introduction to the book, "As we've said time and time again, the 'rules' were never meant to be more than guidelines; not even true 'rules.'" OD&D rules were meant to facilitate play and not restrict it. The arguments for "RAW" play don't get heavily promoted by TSR until the publication of AD&D, and even then are for the purpose of tournament play and not house play.  

Gods, Demigods, & Heroes is an odd and wonderful book. One the one hand it seeks to show DMs how they can modify the rules to create the types of games that best fit their gaming group. On the other hand, it was written as a "last attempt to delineate the absurdity of 40+ level characters." It was meant to show players that even the "most powerful" weren't of ridiculously high levels and that campaigns could be fun at lower level play. And yet, it became for many a menagerie of monsters to be slain by player characters; having the opposite effect it intended.

All of that aside, in a book filled with mythologies the authors only included two that were not "real world" pantheons. They chose to give statistics for the worlds of Conan and of Elric, two sides of the same coin. Two of the best characters in Sword & Sorcery fiction. In doing so, the demonstrated how central Conan and Sword & Sorcery are to the creation of D&D.

Conan would appear in TSR products again a decade later with statistics in two different game systems, but that's a discussion for the next blog post.

Friday, December 27, 2019

[From the Archives] Episode 24: An Interview with Jeff Mariotte and a Discussion of Vampires and Other Things that Prefer the Night

On October 15, 2007, Jeff Mariotte visited our show for a short 15-minute interview that helped us kick off a conversation about Vampire movies and television shows, as well as other nasty things that go bump in the night. Jeff Mariotte is a former editor-in-chief at IDW Comics and the co-author of two published 30 Days of Night media tie-in novels. In this interview, Jeff discusses his comic book series Graveslinger, his 30 Days of Night media tie-in novels Immortal Remains and Rumors of the Undead, as well as his novel Missing White Girl. After the interview, Shawna Benson, Eric Lytle, and Christian Lindke discuss there favorite vampire stories on film and television.

This is the episode where Shawna Benson coined the phrase Friday Night Death Slot referring to how networks increasingly scheduled shows they thought would fail on Friday evenings.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

It's Time for Shadow of the Krampus -- A Holiday Themed Shadow of the Demon Lord Adventure

Tow years ago I posted this little adventure for those of you who want to add a little of the Season into your gaming.

I am a big fan of running seasonal adventures for my regular gaming group. Though my group hasn't played as regularly this year as they have in the past, I was inspired by Robert J. Schwalb's dark fantasy roleplaying game Shadow of the Demon Lord to write an adventure for this season. For the past few years, I've written and reshared adventures featuring Cthulhu Claus (based on my wife Jody Lindke's illustrations for an old Kickstarter) or the V'sori (evil aliens in the Necessary Evil setting for Savage Worlds), but this year I decided to feature Krampus -- that most devilish of Santa's helpers. While Krampus might be a bit played out for some, having gained mainstream notoriety, I'm still a big fan of the character and I have the pleasure of knowing an artist who has been participating in Krampuslaufen long before it was trendy to do so and Bill Rude's Krampus costume is amazing as is the fact that he can get even small children to pose with his horrifying costume.

Bill Rude is a talented artist and you can look at a variety of his projects over at his 7 Hells: The Retro Art of Bill Rude website.

Illustration Copyright Jody Lindke 2016
In this mini-adventure, the PCs are passing through the town of Nesbitt-Hill during one of their other adventures. You can use the map below to represent the portion of the foothills of the Iron Peaks immediately south of the Zauberspitz with Nesbitt-Hill being the northern-most community on the map and Tower number 3 representing the once great Beacon Fortress.

Shadow of the Krampus is a Novice (though not a "just now Novice") adventure for Shadow of the Demon Lord with a post-Christmas theme. 

The town of Nesbitt-Hill is a vital stop for wanderers and miners who brave the dangers of the Iron Peaks in search of adventure or riches. For years the town has been a peaceful refuge, seemingly immune from the spread of the Demon Lord's Shadow. For even as the Shadow has spread, the town of Nesbitt-Hill remains a spark of light an happiness in an otherwise dark and desperate world.

But that changed last night. Historically, the Winter Solstice has been a time of celebration when the townsfolk of Nesbitt-Hill memorialize the the Solstice King and his champion Krampus. For it is this duo who has protected the town since the Battle of Zauberspitz where the Solstice King and Krampus defeated a horde of the Demon Lord's servants, or at least that is what the stories say. The stories also say that Krampus steals children who misbehave and returns them at the Spring Equinox after the darkness has been purged from the children's souls. If it is true that Krampus takes children and eventually brings them back, why is it that Krampus has taken no children for twenty years? Why does Mistress Oetzel swear she saw Krampus take adults this Winter Solstice? And why were these adults among the most generous citizens of Nesbitt-Hill? Has Krampus returned, but as a servant of the Demon Lord? Or is something else afoot?

With the exception of the map depicting the area of the Iron Peaks I refer to as the Gronwald, an area that lies in the shadow of the Zauberspitz, all of the maps were drawn by Dyson Logos and were taken from his Commercial Maps webpage. According to the page, Dyson has released these images under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. If I have used any images that are not covered by this license, I will be happy to remove them.

The cover image of "Shadow of the Krampus?" was illustrated by Bill Rude, who was kind enough to give me permission to use it. Please visit his website and consider purchasing some of his art.

The other image is the "survival map" from Robert J Schwalb's playing aids page for Shadow of the Demon Lord. I am using it with the intention of it being fair use, but if Mr. Schwalb deems my use inappropriate I will be happy to remove it. This adventure requires the use of the Shadow of the Demon Lord rule book since all monster statistics, with the exception of Krampus, are located within the pages of that "vile" tome. Krampus was designed using rules from the Of Monstrous Mien supplement. It is highly recommended that you also own Hunger in the Void and Terrible Beauty to add details around the edges of this adventure.

The cartoon illustrations in the module are the work of my talented wife Jody Lindke. I included "rpg humor" cartoons because they remind me of the cartoons in the old AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

I hope you enjoy the adventure.