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
works!
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?

https://www.dropbox.com/s/rxemivrin1vvt34/Shadow%20of%20the%20Krampus.pdf?dl=0



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.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Geekerati's Recommendations for Geektastic Holiday Gifts (2019 Edition)



Christmas and Hanukkah are just around the corner and there are only a few shopping days left before it's too late to get the perfect gift for your friends or loved ones. If you've got a geek in your life, here are some delightful recommendations to satisfy a variety of geek tastes.



From our review earlier this year:

Alien Bones is a middle-grade comic book of pulp and pop culture inspired science fiction adventure. The story centers on a ten year-old fossil hunter named Liam Mycroft, who is the son of a well-respected Xenopaleontologist. You read that right, he collects fossils of the "Alien Dinosaurs" that his father discovers various locations throughout the known galaxy. Liam's father mysteriously disappears on one of these digs, and it up to Liam, his friends Dianna and Rosa, and his trusty robot bodyguard Standard-5 ("Stan") to solve the mystery and save the day. Along the way, they bond closer as friends, encounter sinister traitors, battle space pirates, witness a major starship battle between massive armadas, and find the answer to one of the most dangerous mysteries in the universe, "What is The End?" In doing so, they discover a terrible foe that is an existential threat to the entire universe.

Geekerati had the honor of interviewing Doc Wyatt about Alien Bones earlier this year. Check out the book and give our episode a listen.

 



The OP made a name for itself creating licensed versions of classic Hasbro games like Monopoly, Clue, and Risk, but they've expanded their sights with this Disney twist on Games Workshop's geek fan favorite Talisman board game. Talisman was one of the first games that combined board game and role playing game mechanics by featuring not only adventure aspects but character growth and development. In the classic version of the game adventurers quest to find the Crown of Command to determine who will "rule them all," but this version has a much more heroic approach as the players seek to battle Ansem and seal the Door to Darkness. This is a must have at $69.95 and can be purchased at many Friendly Local Game Stores or from Amazon



Do you have a friend or family member who is a HUGE Rick and Morty fan and is interested in learning to play D&D? Do you have a friend who is a D&D fan who is interested in learning about Rick and Morty? Do you have a friend who is a fan of both D&D and Rick and Morty? If you answered yes to any one of these questions, then this game set is for you. The team of Kate Welch (Lead Designer), Ryan Hartman, Adam Lee, Ari Levitch, and Jim Zub have put together a great product that serves as a wonderful introduction to D&D while maintaining all the humor you expect from a Rick and Morty cartoon. Those who purchased the Patrick Rothfuss and Jim Zub written comic book Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons, know how well Zub captured the tone of the show in the comic and that same quality of writing is in this set. 



I have no idea who CZYY is, but I do know that they produce some fantastic laser cut terrain for use with role playing games. I've seen this ship on the table. It looks fantastic and makes a wonderful cost cutting replacement for those who cannot afford the beautiful Falling Star Sailing Ship by WizKids games.




"This remarkable journey through the Hammer vault includes props, annotated script pages, unused poster artwork, production designs, rare promotional material and private correspondence. Hundreds of rare and previously unseen stills help to create a rich souvenir of Hammer’s legacy, from the X certificate classics of the 1950s to the studio’s latest productions. This new updated edition includes an extra chapter covering the years 2010 to 2015."

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge: The Official Black Spire Outpost Cookbook


"Inspired by the cuisine from the exciting new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge themed lands at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge: The Official Black Spire Outpost Cookbook is the ultimate source for creating out-of-this-world meals and treats from a galaxy far, far away."



"A Tarzan Tale Unlike Any Other

The year 1966 saw the release of one of the most unique Tarzan films ever made: Tarzan and the Valley of Gold. Starring former NFL linebacker Mike Henry in his debut as the cinematic ape-man, the film portrayed a cultured and refined Tarzan who seemed to be molded more after James Bond than the unsophisticated ape-man of past films. The depiction surprised and puzzled some moviegoers, but fans who had read the original Tarzan novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs rejoiced at finally seeing their beloved character appear on the big screen bearing all the complexity and intelligence with which his creator had imbued him.

Enter critically acclaimed fantasy author Fritz Leiber, whose novelization of the film carried the honor of becoming the first authorized Tarzan novel to be written by an author other than Burroughs. Leiber’s tale was far from just a simple retelling of the movie; it was a faithful installment in the literary saga of the ape-man, with frequent callouts to Burroughs’ original Tarzan canon and myriad creative elements added to the storyline. Now readers can once again enjoy Fritz Leiber’s classic Tarzan and the Valley of Gold in this handsome, new illustrated edition, with an all-new foreward by Burroughs scholar Scott Tracy Griffin (author of Tarzan on Film)."


Monday, December 16, 2019

Geekerati Monday Geekosphere Snapshot 12/16


It's time for another snapshot of the Geekosphere! Today's post features products and posts of things I thought might be of interest to my fellow geeks.

Cat Themed Dice Trays from Cozy Gamer.



First and foremost are these cute as a kitten Cat Dice Trays from Cozy Gamer. Ever since I backed the first set of Symbaroum products, and received their mouse pad material dice tray, I've been a big fan of having dice trays at the table. They minimize the number of times you are on your knees looking under the table for a die that went wild. These trays are cute and look extremely durable. I know I'll be checking them out!



The AD&D Fiend Folio was a collection of strange monsters pulled from the pages of White Dwarf magazine's "Fiend Factory" column edited by Don Turnbull. Like many other gaming legends, Turnbull's contributions are sometimes overlooked. His coordination of postal Diplomacy games helped to build gaming communities and presaged modern internet based gaming. The "Fiend Factory" column contained a wild array of monsters. Some were classic monsters by different names, others like the Githyanki would go on to become classic D&D monsters and influence later fantasy fiction. While many of the monsters have been incorporated into the Monster Manual, and other monster books, this new volume of creatures contains many who have been left behind. As an added incentive to buy it, the proceeds for this product go to Extra Life who uses donations to fund Children's Hospitals.



From Deadline: " Legion M has acquired Brian Staveley’s bestselling fantasy epic The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne and brought Weta Workshop aboard to begin the visual concept work for a one-hour fantasy drama series that will share the title of the bookshelf trilogy’s first entry: The Emperor’s Blades. "


"But one thing I can predict about this ninth Star Wars episode is that it won’t make everyone happy. That’s fine, mind you, but the Star Wars franchise finds itself in an odd position of being a singular pop culture juggernaut where everyone has their own ideas of what Star Wars should be. The Rise of Skywalker can’t possibly be all things to all fans."


"...the company went all-out on the toys, including an app-controlled Porsche."


We chatted briefly with Keith Baker about the new game during our last Geekerati Radio Episode, but more details are emerging.


Monday, December 09, 2019

Geekerati Monday Geekosphere Snapshot 12/9

Back when I started this blog, the trend among bloggers was to share interesting stories that other people had written on their websites. Over time, with the rise of social media, this seems to have faded into the background with few bloggers doing "blogcircles" or "blogrolls." Since I'm a big fan of #FF (Follow Friday) on Twitter and think that one of the purposes blogs exist is to create community, I've decided to launch a weekly (I hope) "Geekerati Geekosphere Snapshot." It will contain blog posts and news stories I've found interesting over the past week. There will be a small excerpt of the other post and a link. I hope you enjoy.

Geekosphere Snapshot for the Week of 12/9/2019


Infinity RPG (Bundle of Holding): Agent! This Infinity RPG Bundle features the Modiphius Entertainment tabletop roleplaying game of spacefaring adventure in the Human Sphere and beyond. Based on Corvus Belli's popular Infinity miniatures skirmish game, the Infinity RPG casts you as Bureau Noir law enforcement agents undertaking missions on a dozen worlds. Track pirates amid the shattered planetoids of Human Edge; delve the oceans of Varuna; duck gunfire in the twisted emerald jungles of Paradiso; pursue rogue AIs through Nomad motherships. Meanwhile, from beyond the Human Sphere, the alien Combined Army has invaded, threatening to destroy humanity




One Page Dungeon Generator (watabou):

Watabou's One Page Dungeon Generator is a wonderful free resource for DMs of all experience levels. It can be used for any fantasy role playing game and generates some wonderful maps.


Why We Write: Rogue Blades Foundation and the Future of Heroic Literature (Black Gate):


Fantasy readers, like those who dwell together here at Black Gate, are long familiar with notions of heroes and the heroic. Each of us might have our own ideas about what makes a hero, but we would likely find common ground in a discussion of the matter.

That being said, is there any doubt our world today is in need of heroes? Heroes do continue to exist in our entertainment, but often enough they are flawed or irrelevant or humorous to the point of being more pastiche than worthy of admiration. Obviously there are examples of the upstanding hero, yet they seem few and far between compared to our increasing occupation with the deranged or the out-and-out vile. It seems we are more often rooting for the fellow behind the hockey mask or clown makeup than we are for the character who boldly steps forward to set things right in a dark world. Too often our heroes seem to stand alone, if they stand at all.




Adventures in Fiction: Leigh Brackett (Goodman Games):

The sad truth is that Appendix N is overwhelmingly a boys’ club. Much of the blame can be assigned to the fact that science-fiction and fantasy writers prior to 1960s were by and large white men. It was a tough club for a woman to break into, resulting in many female authors with an interest in writing science-fiction and fantasy to work under either pen names (such as Andre Norton) or their initials (like C.L. Moore). A few managed to find success and publication without obscuring their femininity, proving that gender is meaningless when it comes to writing rollicking good sci-fi and fantasy. Leigh Brackett was one of these women who earned her place in the club without needing to hide her identity.

Ghostbusters Afterlife Trailer (Sony Pictures):

 


That's just a glimpse of what's out there this week. What have you seen lately that has you Geeking Out?