Tuesday, July 18, 2017

[D&D] Under the influence of art

As I've mentioned before, I was part of the second (or even third) generation of D&D kids, and didn't have much notion of fantasy before starting to play D&D (outside of Disney movies and fairy tales and He-Man) and I didn't really get into reading fantasy fiction (outside of The Hobbit, a book of King Arthur stories from my school library, and TSR's own Endless Quest series) until a bit later, so for the first two years or so my idea of fantasy and sense of "what fantasy looks like" was very heavily influenced by D&D and, especially, D&D art.

Alongside the canonical TSR artists (who, thanks to TSR's practice at the time of keeping old material in-print, I got the experience several generations of simultaneously - from David Sutherland, David Trampier, Tom Wham, Darlene, Erol Otus, Russ Nicholson, Jeff Dee, Bill Willingham, Timothy Truman, Jim Holloway, Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley, Keith Parkinson, and Clyde Caldwell all side by side by side) there was also some ancillary licensed stuff that was influential on me.

Back in the 80s, when D&D was a fad and everybody was anxious for a piece of that money, there was a lot of licensed, non-game D&D branded stuff (jigsaw puzzles, posters, beach towels, etc.). By 1983-84 that material generally featured either the characters from the AD&D toy line or reproductions of the same handful of book covers by Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley. But if you go back a couple years further, things get more interesting and there were some unique, now mostly-forgotten D&D-branded items floating about.

One that I never actually owned but that had a subconscious impact from seeing (and coveting) older kids' copies was a line of D&D-branded folders and notebooks released in 1981-82 by St. Regis Consumer Products. There were a dozen or so different designs, all by an artist named Alex Nuckols (who is, apparently, mostly known for paintings of Jesus guiding 18-wheelers that were sold in truck-stops in the 70s). Unfortunately I can't find any good sample images to post (thanks to Photobucket changing their terms of service), but you can Google image search on "d&d st regis" and come up with a few. The art is very much in the same style stuff like the Brothers Hildebrand and Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings, or perhaps Rankin & Bass' The Last Unicorn, and doesn't really have anything specific to do with D&D (no identifiable monsters or anything) so it was probably pre-existing fantasy art that got the D&D logo stuck on it as a quick cash-grab, but it's still pretty cool (and I wouldn't mind having a couple of those folders today).

[Actually, here's one of the pieces - hope this link still works!]

Another item that I did have was the sets of AD&D-branded "rub down" transfers (a la PrestoMagix - one of those genres of kids' toys that has since completely disappeared). These were apparently released in 1981, but I found them sometime around the spring of 1985 in the gift shop at the King's Island amusement park in Cincinnati (where I guess they'd been gathering dust for awhile?). There were several sets, each of which had about a dozen images that were drawn mostly from the Monster Manual, Fiend Folio, or Players Handbook, but rendered in full color. These were very cool to me - the combined familiarity of the images with the novelty of them being in color (and transformed from book illustrations to stand-alone figures) seemed "right" to me and really struck my imagination. I don't remember what I actually did with these - I know I didn't keep them unused, but I didn't put them into my actual D&D books, either. I think I must have drawn landscape scenes on blank paper which I inserted them into. Here's one of the sets I had:

Here's another one that I didn't have (there were 8 different sets in total; I think I had 2 or 3) but that is still a pretty cool selection of some of the most iconic AD&D monsters:

And last but not least is another item that was even older (released in 1979), but that my best gaming buddy at the time picked up "new" at a flea-market I think sometime around the summer or fall of 1985, and that we spent a lot of quality time with and was very influential on my mind's eye picture of D&D: the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album, with illustrations by Greg Irons and text by Gary Gygax.

This item has already been "rediscovered" by bloggers and gotten a fair amount of attention in recent years, including a blog post from 2011 that included the entire book (both text and pictures), but I still want to talk about it a bit, both because it was so cool and because thinking back it's likely that having spent so much time at this impressionable age with my friend and this book, reading Gary's text and carefully coloring the images to match it, as well as playing with those rub-down transfers of Trampier and Sutherland art, at the time when the look and feel of the official game was rapidly moving in a very different direction, is a big part of why my D&D tastes and aesthetic preferences were out of step with what TSR was offering up in the post-Gary era and why I gravitated towards the "old school" Gary-era aesthetic, even as it was disappearing from (and in some sense being actively repudiated by) TSR's official product lines.

Greg Irons was an underground comix and tattoo artist out of San Francisco, and his work didn't look like anything from the TSR art department, but - especially in combination with Gary's text - it still fit the mood of the game perfectly. The purpose of a coloring book is, of course, to present tableau images that will be fun to color in, so Gary's "story" is really just an excuse to set of a series of these tableaux, but he included enough detail and evocative flavor in those paragraphs to make it interesting, and to make sure that the subject matter wasn't just repurposed generic fantasy art, but was extremely specific to the AD&D universe. All of the characters and monsters come straight out of the game, and even though the style of the art is different than the rulebooks, the imaginary world being portrayed is unquestionably the same:

(Alas, one downside of the amount of fun my friend and I had with this coloring book is that once we had filled it up we went on to start coloring in the illustrations of the actual D&D modules - especially those illustrated by Jim Holloway, Jeff Dee, and Bill Willingham, including my otherwise-highly-collectible copy of R1: To the Aid of Falx...)

So all of that D&D art - the canonical TSR art, plus the AD&D toys, plus the D&D cartoon (especially those monsters that came out of the game - the orcs and bullywugs, shadow demon, Tiamat, etc.), plus these licensed oddities - are and always will be "what D&D looks like" in my imagination. And that association, as much or more as all of the changes made to the rules (which, as the books always told us, were really just a set of guidelines, suggestions, and examples anyway) is the reason why I've never been able to embrace the Wizards of the Coast editions of D&D. No matter what they call it, or how hard they try to play the nostalgia card, nothing they do ever looks or feels "like D&D" to me :(

Thursday, July 13, 2017

[D&D] Being cavalier about it

Seemingly everybody but me hates the AD&D cavalier class, introduced by Gary Gygax in Dragon #72 (April 1983) and later canonized in Unearthed Arcana. Some of it might be subconscious revulsion at Eric, the smug-but-cowardly cavalier character from the D&D cartoon, or resentment at a class that's basically built around the idea of getting all kinds of extra, unfair advantages by virtue of being born rich. There are also some valid complaints that the class as-described with its strict behavioral code doesn't fit in within "traditional" D&D paradigm where a bunch of rootless "murder hobo" adventurers crawl through dungeons and the wilderness employing stealth, ambushes, trickery, and bribery in order to garner loot (and do a lot of running away from danger to save their skins).

That's true, but it was also deliberate. Gary was intending with the cavalier (and similarly with the acrobat, and the other classes he mentioned in Dragon magazine but was never able to detail, like the mountebank and jester) to expand the scope of the game beyond the dungeon- and wilderness-crawling of OD&D, to include more in-town activities and interaction with the civilized world. Most D&D characters exist apart from, or at best on the fringes of, "normal" society, but cavaliers are required to be a part of it. They're not independent free agents the way other character are.

Some people don't like that, and want their characters to be free agents, so it's natural that this class, with its explicit social status and obligations, won't be appealing to them. That means that adding cavaliers (and the other "town-oriented" classes) makes it more incumbent that everyone be on the same page up-front regarding what the campaign is going to be about so that there aren't incompatible characters or resentful players who expected one thing and got something else. But that's part of the larger trend in how the game was growing and changing in the 80s (and the unfortunate coincidence that the growth was piecemeal and not explained (and ultimately incomplete) so that a lot of people didn't understand that it was happening and spent a lot of time trying to shove square pegs into round holes) of which the cavalier and acrobat are a symptom, not the cause.

I mostly do like the cavalier class and think that it fills an archetypal niche that is distinct from the soldierly "fighting man" just like the barbarian does, and - when the role is understood - that it works fine in the AD&D game, especially in a campaign where the players have a stable of several characters that they rotate between depending on the nature of the adventure.

The various advantages given to the class, including things that seem like they should (or at least could) also have been given to other classes like special parrying and ability score training and multiple weapon specializations and the ability to keep functioning with negative hit points, make sense, given the core conceit that unlike common men-at-arms (i.e. fighter characters), cavaliers have undergone intense, specialized, high-quality (and very expensive!) training and conditioning since birth. This is perhaps made more clear in the Dragon version, which includes some text that was rephrased or edited out of UA:
[T]he cavalier character must be of the correct social class, i.e. gentle or noble birth, or of the accepted aristocracy for candidacy to knighthood. This requirement usually means that the character must be of a knightly, noble, or royal family which has suitable financial means to support the training necessary for entrance to the class of cavalier.
Landless aristocrats (knights or nobles) are typically precluded from having a child immediately enter the cavalier class at 1st level, since they are unable to afford the training and equipment needed. Such families (as well as lesser families being particularly honored) might, however, be allowed to have a child candidate enter the cavalier class as a 0 level horseman retainer of a knight. 
Cavaliers in AD&D are, by definition, either rich kids or kids who've been adopted and sponsored by rich patrons. They are explicitly the privileged "1%" of AD&D characters, and that gives them advantages that other characters of humbler means simply didn't have access to. "It's not fair that cavalier characters get to improve their ability scores through training and other characters don't." Exactly - it's not fair at all. That's the point. The whole concept of the cavalier class is completely unfair and non-egalitarian, by deliberate design.

And, at least in a properly-managed campaign, those benefits don't come without a steep price. As noted above, cavaliers - at least at low to mid levels - are not free-agent adventurers in the way other characters are. They have strict social obligations that must be obeyed and maintained. Again, this is made clearer in Dragon #72 than in UA:
As stated above, service is the paramount requirement for assumption of cavalier status. This service can be to a deity, state, order, or any master, particularly one of high station. After attaining knighthood [ed. note: at 4th level - this isn't explicitly stated in the text of either Dragon #72 or UA, but it's strongly implied by the level titles and supported in context], the cavalier can renounce former service, of course. At such point, the cavalier then champions a creed or cause, or is simply a rogue. In all cases, social status is likewise of paramount importance, and this must be maintained.
Note also/especially that "if the order or liege lord of the cavalier demands it" the character can be forced out of the class, becoming a fighter and losing all cavalier benefits (except weapon of choice). That's something that I suspect gets overlooked and ignored a lot, but it seems very important to me as it's unique among all character classes - paladins, rangers, and monks lose class abilities if they violate their alignment, and clerics are subject to judgment by their deities, but the cavalier alone has their class abilities subject to the whims of an earthly patron (typically an NPC, but at least theoretically another PC) - if you don't do what your boss says to their satisfaction, at their discretion, you lose your class abilities.

The cavalier's required body of retainers also worth paying attention to. Starting at 4th level the cavalier must acquire at least one lower-level cavalier retainer, and must increase the size of their retinue as they increase in level, to a total of 6 (3 lower-level trainee cavaliers and 3 0-level servants) by 8th level. The cavalier "is responsible for the actions of his or her followers and retainers, and is required to insure that others of the cavalier class live up to the standards of the class," and is also required to always travel with this substantial retinue until they achieve 9th level, unless their master orders them to travel solo. At first glance this may look like a benefit, but it's actually a substantial burden that characters of other classes don't face. Cavalier characters not only always have to answer to a boss above, they also are responsible for the well-being and behavior of a group of dependents, with no choice in the matter.

Many players will look at all the benefits and special abilities of the cavalier class and be envious of them, but it's a good bet that many of those same players (especially those accustomed to playing "traditional" free-agent adventurer characters) are also very turned off by all of the obligations and would be unwilling to abide by them. And that, of course, is exactly the point. You don't get one without the other. A cavalier without all those burdensome obligations, who doesn't have to answer to an NPC boss and doesn't have to shepherd around a group of dependents and is free to go out adventuring and behave in whatever manner he or she chooses is called, you guessed it, a fighter.

All of that said, while I mostly like the class, I acknowledge that there are some issues with it, just like there are with the barbarian, including some details from the Dragon version (which I think is worth reading - the UA version reorganizes and streamlines the text in a way that is more efficient but loses some of the flavor; plus I like Keith Parkinson's illustrations better than Jim Roslof's) that were left out or changed in UA - presumably by Jeff Grubb and/or Frank Mentzer - that I think shouldn't have been. Therefore, I recommend the following changes to the UA text:
  • Elf and half-elf cavaliers have the same level limits as fighters of the same race [per Dragon #96, seemingly overlooked in UA - and really it only makes sense]
  • The activity of the cavalier is such that it precludes any other profession - there can be no multi-classed cavalier or dual-classed cavalier. [per Dragon #72]
  • Add battle axe, bec de corbin, pole axe, falchion sword, and two-handed sword to the list of allowed/preferred weapons [all of these were on the list in Dragon #72 and were used by knights historically, so their deletion in UA seems to have a case of overzealous game-balancing overtaking source-fidelity - I smell the meddling hands of Grubb or Mentzer!] 
  • Add falchion sword as one of the options for the second weapon of choice [also per Dragon #72]
  • Add composite short bow as an option for the second or third weapon of choice for elf and half-elf cavaliers. Such characters have an increased rate of fire (3/1 at levels 6-10, 4/1 at levels 11+ (should they manage to attain such)) and are able to employ their full rate of fire even while mounted [per Dragon #72]
  • Weapon of choice "to hit" bonus is capped at 17th level (i.e. +3 for the third weapon) [implicit per Dragon #72]
  • The Protection from Fear aura of good-aligned cavaliers becomes a +2 bonus to saving throws against Fear-based effects, not a blanket immunity [per me - this effect is just too good as blanket immunity]
  • Delete the 90% resistance to mind-affecting magic and +2 saving throw vs. illusions [per me - legendary knights (from Arthuriana, Orlando furioso, Don Quixote, etc.) regularly succumbed to such effects and were constantly being charmed, beguiled, and fooled by illusions. If anything, it feels more appropriate and truer to the source material that cavaliers should have a penalty against such effects than a bonus!].
With these modifications, and with a firm understanding by both the player and especially the DM - if the DM doesn't enforce the restrictions and obligations and just allows the cavalier character to be "a fighter, only better" of course the other players will resent it - of how such a character fits into the game and setting (i.e. that they're only suitable for a game where what the characters do in-town actually matters and can't just be plugged interchangeably into a traditional group of vagabond murder-hobo adventurers) I think the cavalier can be a solid addition to and expansion of the scope of the AD&D game and bring in more of a romantic fantasy element alongside the grubby swords & sorcery flavor of the original/baseline game.

It almost goes without saying that cavaliers are especially suited to small, one or two-person, player groups and/or to younger players who might be more willing to accept being sent on missions by an NPC boss instead of being self-directed free agent treasure-seekers. Another interesting possibility in a large and long-running campaign would be to have cavaliers as "second generation" characters whose bosses are the earlier (now high-level, retired) adventurer PCs who carved the kingdom out of the wilderness and settled it. The first generation of PCs builds civilization out of the wilderness, then the second generation is charged with defending it.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Future

So, umm, this blog was born out of a really slow patch at work; being bored and having a lot of extra free time sitting in front of a computer. Alas, that situation changed about a month ago and I'm no longer idle and bored.

This is unquestionably a good thing for me personally (continuing to have a job is nice!) but not so great for the future of this blog. I'd managed to build of a pretty long queue of posts during those couple months of involuntary downtime, which is what you've been seeing for the past few weeks, but we've finally made it to the end of that line and I still haven't had time to write any new entries (except for this one).

I still have several topics I wanted to write about but hadn't gotten to yet (both game-related stuff and general pop-culture stuff - I never got to do a post about Jim Henson!), so it's not that I've lost interest or run out of ideas, I'm just no longer able to devote time to writing posts, and (fingers crossed, knocking on wood) don't anticipate being able to do so anytime soon.

I'll continue monitoring the comments (like I've been doing for the past month) and might still make an occasional new post if there's a fortunate convergence of free time and inspiration, but the "new post every three days" pattern of the past is definitely not going to continue after today.

It was a good run - I hope you all had as much fun reading the posts as I did writing them. I hope you were reminded of some cool stuff from the 80s and/or got some new inspiration for your D&D game - or, best of all, were inspired to start a new D&D game. Please feel free to go back and comment on the older posts if you'd like (especially the Temple of Elemental Evil one where I've added more stuff in the comments as I've continued to think about and work on it), and be sure to keep me in your RSS feeds in case something new comes up :)

Live long and prosper,


Monday, July 3, 2017

[D&D] Down the rabbit hole

The post on The Abduction of Good King Despot got me thinking about Gary Gygax's other venture into "wackiness," the divisive EX1: Dungeonland and EX2: The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. For anyone out there who doesn't already know, both of these modules were released by TSR in 1983, both of them are adapted from "special" levels within Gary's legendary, unpublished Greyhawk Castle dungeons (the World of Greyhawk boxed set refers to them by the module codes GC1 and GC2, while an article in Dragon #71 refers to EX2 even more intriguingly as "module GC S8/X2"), both of them were used frequently by Gary in convention one-off and demonstration games (he mentions that Dr. Joyce Brothers played through them), and, where the controversial element comes in, both of them are direct adaptations of Lewis Carroll's stories, EX1 corresponding to Alice in Wonderland and EX2 to Through the Looking Glass.

We know now that these sorts of whimsical areas and adaptations of third-party content were common in Greyhawk Castle. In addition to the Wonderland level(s), there were also gates to King Kong's island (later published by TSR as module WG6), Jack Vance's "World of Adventure" and Dying Earth, Michael Moorcock's Melnibone, the Land of Oz, Asgard, Olympus, the strange land of "carnivorous plants, invisible terrain, breathable water, and so on" described in the Believer magazine article about Gary Gygax (for which an expanded version was prepared and nearly published near the end of Gary's life, before - as with so many other things - getting caught up in legal wrangling), and surely many others I don't know about. And even discounting the gates to other realms, the dungeon itself included such whimsical elements as a bowling alley for giants, a "Living Room" filled with animated furniture (a "reimagined" version of which was later published by Gary's Greyhawk Castle co-DM Rob Kuntz), and the infamous "Machine Level" (the gist of which was later adapted into AD&D module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks).

Gary had a large and very active group of players c. 1973-75, so he was under constant pressure both to provide new challenges and to provide enough variety to keep them from growing bored. The rulebooks describe "standard" dungeons consisting of a many-leveled complex of mazelike hallways and caverns filled with doors (some obvious, some secret) and stairwells, pit traps and shifting walls, mysterious fountains, statues, and archways with assorted strange and magical effects, and of course an enormous variety of horrid monsters guarding an equally extensive array of fabulous treasures. Greyhawk Castle had all of those things, in great abundance (in both its original 13-level conception and the later, expanded version that eventually had 40+ different levels), but in order to keep things from becoming predictable and stale for a group of several dozen players, some of whom were playing multiple times a week, it also eventually had all of those other things as well. Gary (later Gary and Rob) were struggling to stay a step or two ahead of their ravenous pack of players, throwing out whatever they thought would make for a fun and challenging game. "Setting verisimilitude" and thematic or tonal consistency were surely very low on their list of concerns (if they were concerned about such things at all), and were only applied retroactively, when Gary began looking back at this material for purposes of commercial publication.

We know all of this now, but I didn't know any of it in the spring or early summer of 1985 when I naively bought module EX1. In those days modules came shrinkwrapped, so unless we had a friend who already owned a copy (and was willing to share - at least in my circle there was a lot of territoriality over modules, and it was understood to be "bad form" to buy a module that someone else already owned and had expressed their intent to run) we generally only had a few things to go on when purchasing new adventures - the title, the cover illustration, the cover blurb, and (pretty much only in the case of modules written by Gary Gygax) the author's name. Given all of that, Dungeonland seemed like a safe purchase. Here's the cover-blurb:
As adventurers you may think you have seen everything: certainly your skills have brought you through unimaginable dangers. But now you suddenly find yourself in a place unlike any through which you have traveled: astounding, dangerous, and even amusing things confront you as you journey, both indoors and outdoors, through the unique and wondrous realm of Dungeonland.
This module was first conceived by E. Gary Gygax as part of the Greyhawk Castle dungeon complex and has been the source of challenge and fun for many skilled players of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. It is finally available to all players and can be added to your existing campaign with ease.
Dungeonland is also designed so that it may be used with its soon-to-be-released companion scenario, Dungeon Module EX2, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. Still, Dungeonland may easily be played on its own, and should offer hours of excitement in its strange landscape.  
Understandably, I was very excited to dig into this module. Greyhawk Castle! This was before Temple of Elemental Evil came out, so I was very curious what a "big dungeon" from Gary Gygax would look like, and thought that's what this was going to be, at least in part. While there are hints that an astute reader might pick up on, there's no direct reference to Lewis Carroll's works here (intentionally - in his introduction to the adventure Gary stresses keeping its gimmick a secret from the players for as long as possible, on the belief that it will make it more enjoyable for them if they figure it out during play rather than knowing it up-front), and at age 10 I certainly wasn't sharp enough to pick up on it until I'd already put down my cash, rushed home, and torn off the shrinkwrap.

To say I was disappointed by the result would be a massive understatement. It not only didn't match my expectations, it didn't seem like anything I could (or would have any desire to) run. I hadn't read Alice in Wonderland at the time, but I'd seen movies and knew the story more-or-less through cultural osmosis, and considered it something for kids. The idea of an Alice-themed D&D adventure seemed very lame and cheesy to me and I knew it would feel exactly the same way to my players - that they would hate it and resent it and blame me for subjecting them to it. I didn't "get" the adventure, and felt like I'd been misled and cheated.

Part of it was definitely a disconnect between how the game was conceived and played in the early 70s vs. how it was perceived by its audience in the mid 80s, which is to say that in the former period there was an implicit understanding that the whole thing was fundamentally kind of a joke and not to be taken too seriously, which was almost totally obscured in the 80s-era material. Even with these modules it's hidden pretty deeply - the tone is still serious, and Gary urges the DM to run the adventure "strictly" in order to keep players off-guard. He also emphasizes that the original level from Greyhawk Castle was a "change of pace" from the usual activity of the campaign, which I'm not sure was actually all that true, but suggests that had Gary gotten around to publishing the rest of Greyhawk Castle as he had intended to its tone likely would have been more serious than these levels.

The end result is that this module offered pretty much exactly the opposite of what I wanted - it was a "change of pace" exception to the usual mode of adventures, when that usual mode of adventures is precisely what I was craving (and didn't realize until, really, decades later that I was already getting indirectly - that much of Greyhawk Castle was just a generic monster-filled maze no different than what you could get using the random charts in the books (or something like TSR's Dungeon Geomorphs and Monster & Treasure Assortments) and that a lot of the interesting and unique areas had already been secretly recycled into Gary's other products - S3, S4, WG5, and likely even more that we don't yet know about since we haven't seen Gary's unpublished Castle Greyhawk manuscripts - it's certainly possible (likely even) that there are sections of S1, B2, the G series, and the D series that were lifted more-or-less whole out of Greyhawk Castle.

So I filed this one away as a bad/mistaken purchase - alongside a lot of other stuff, mostly from the B and X series - and didn't look at it again until many years later. By then my perspective had changed - I was in my twenties, had read the Lewis Carroll books, had played D&D with Gary Gygax, and through reading and running The Abduction of Good King Despot had more of an understanding of the tone and pace Gary was going for with these adventures (since that is the other adventure that's probably most similar to this one in style and tone). I understood better how these adventures could be fun in play, why they were popular with the players and Gary liked to run them, and felt it was a good idea to publish them. It also helped that I had EX2 at this time, which I didn't as a kid - it seems more straightforward and action-oriented than EX1, with fewer vaguely-detailed (if you haven't read the books) roleplaying scenes such as "[The Mad Hatter's] conversation will be strange indeed—asking riddles that have no answer, making inappropriate statements, asserting perverse logic, twisting questions, and so on—all interspersed with inquiries about tea, demands to move down the table to a fresh place, and interruptions to speak with the March Hare or to devil the Dormouse." No wonder that at age 10 I had no idea what to make of that!

I have a much higher opinion of these adventures now than I did as a kid, and place both of them squarely within  the canon. They remind me of playing with Gary - his emphasis on fast-paced action and really difficult challenges (and, make no mistake, a lot of the encounters in these two modules are very difficult!) leavened with banter and humor and an understanding that it's still just a game and shouldn't really be taken too seriously. I also value that they are (along with WG6) the most direct glimpses we ever got of Greyhawk Castle - that although the material was surely expanded and polished and modified for publication, its bones are presumably still pretty similar to what players in Gary's basement experienced c. 1974. And, being familiar with the source material, I have much more appreciation for how cleverly Gary adapted it to the AD&D paradigm in a way that both supports and subverts pre-existing expectations and highlights the ways in which AD&D is both close to and different than traditional pre-swords & sorcery fantasy and fairy tales. I understand why Gary liked to run this adventure for adults new to D&D. As a kid I didn't, because it seemed strange and dumb to me that he would use an adventure that's so unlike the standard game, but I see now that that's actually one of the strengths of the thing (assuming the audience is familiar with Carroll's books): they come in with some familiarity with the setting, subject matter, and plot, and by experiencing the differences between the story they know and the game they're playing, they come away with an understanding of "what D&D is all about" in a way that sending them into the Caves of Chaos probably wouldn't get across.

Which isn't to say the adventures are perfect. I like the way that both of them start out as open-ended "sandboxy" explorations where the players can move about the area having encounters at their own pace in their own order, but find it mildly frustrating the way that both of them eventually narrow into a linear, scripted finale that too-closely tries to track the action of the books. While it's easy to second-guess things after the fact - without the pressures of production deadlines and a firmly-mandated 32 page maximum - I feel that both modules would have been stronger if they'd stayed more open-ended and allowed more possibility for the players to employ different approaches and maybe establish more of a long-term presence in the area.

The thing I still hate the most is the scripted chase at the end of EX1 with the "Potemkin dungeon map" that shows hallways and doors but says nothing of what lies behind them. This was the first module where I recall seeing something like this and I immediately hated it. Alas, it became much more common in later years - by the time I stopped buying rpg adventures in the early 90s actual complete maps had disappeared almost completely, and the genesis of the trend can be laid right here at Gary Gygax's feet. I don't know if it was Gary who came up with this, or if it was suggested by Frank Mentzer (whose adventures - mostly created as RPGA tournaments - were always much more linear in this manner), or someone else at TSR, but whoever is to blame, I find it annoying to this day. A map of the entire dungeon level needn't have taken up any more space (since the partial map gets a mostly-blank page to itself) and even if it was entirely unkeyed except for the chase-route that still would have made it seem less forced and railroady, and (at least for me) would have been inspirational - like the mostly-unkeyed underworld map in D1-3, this would have been a ready-made place for expansion and customization. I still like these modules, but this is without a doubt an error and a missed opportunity.

A few more random notes and observations about these modules:

1) Their covers are reversed: the cover of EX1 depicts an encounter from EX2 (the roc in Area E), while the cover of EX2 depicts an encounter from EX1 (the hangman tree in Part 3, Area I). Oops!

2) In addition to several monsters from Fiend Folio (clubnek, bullywug, kuo toa, lamia noble), the "new" monster types introduced in the modules (hangman tree, executioner's hood, giant bee, giant dragonfly, eblis, lightning quasi-elemental, oliphant), and several unique "nonesuch" monsters (the jub-jub bird, jabberwocky, bandersnatch, etc.) two monsters from module S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth also appear: a behir and a marid. The latter includes a note referring the reader back to module S4 for further info, but the former does not. In the few months between publication of these modules and the Monster Manual II I wonder if that confused or annoyed anybody.

3) A full write-up for Murlynd was published in Dragon magazine #71 (later reprinted in the World of Greyhawk boxed set) which doesn't match the details given for him in EX2: in the latter he's an 18th level magic-user with 77 hit points, in the former he's a level 12/12/12 magic-user/illusionist/paladin with 135 hit points and psionic powers, as well as different stats and equipment (though both versions are armed with techno-magical pistols). While I believe the Dragon version was published first, its text suggests the EX2 version was written first, and the Dragon version represents a revision/expansion of the concept.

4) The outdoor maps in the two modules have different printed scales (50 feet per hex in EX1, 100 feet per hex in EX2) and as far as I'm able to determine, both of them are wrong. The scale of the EX1 map is definitely supposed to be 50 yards per hex (comparing to the scale of the other maps - the palace, manse, and woods of trees and giant fungi - makes this clear). I don't see any reason why the EX2 map should have a different scale (though there's no textual proof that it's incorrect the way there is for EX1).

5) The modules include some tidbits from Unearthed Arcana, a reminder that the material in that book was mostly written several years before the book was published: (a) the numbered soldiers in EX1 are all stated to be "broadsword specialists" and have corresponding increased # of attacks and "to hit" and damage bonuses; (b) two NPC thieves (the Jack of Hearts in EX1 and the King's Messenger in EX2) are both stated to be wearing elfin chain mail (though it doesn't reduce any of their thieving abilities the way it does in UA - suggesting perhaps that nuance was something added by the developers of the book (Jeff Grubb and Frank Mentzer) rather than Gary?).

Friday, June 30, 2017

Gaming at conventions

As a kid I attended several gaming conventions - my home-town sponsored two (Glathricon, an all-gaming con, in the summer, and ConTact, a more traditional SF con with a large gaming component, in the fall) that I went to starting in the fall of '86 until the sort of withered away in the early 90s, and starting in 1988 I also attended GenCon every year through 1997 (the summer after I graduated college; right before I moved permanently to the other side of the country). At those conventions I played a lot of games, both rpgs and more traditional boardgames, minis games, etc. By and large, and certainly with some notable exceptions, most of the rpg games weren't very good.

Part of it is that a big element of the appeal in rpgs is the open-ended campaign structure - maintaining the same character through a series of adventures, watching him or her become more powerful and develop more of an individual personality, learning more about the world, developing friends and enemies (players and NPCs alike), becoming involved in long-term plots that might play out slowly over months or years, and so on. Another big element of the appeal of rpgs is that they're a social game played with a group of friends, and in many play-sessions as much or more of the fun comes from the social interaction between the players than the ostensible action of the game. As a kid I thought you were supposed to resist that - to keep the action focused in-game and avoid distractions and digressions - but playing with Gary Gygax taught me it's closer to the opposite.

At a convention, where you've got a single 4-hour block of time and are likely playing with a group of mostly strangers, both of those are eliminated, so a convention game is necessarily going to be a different sort of beast than a game at home with your buddies. The earliest convention games of D&D seem to have been, effectively, demonstrations - you'd sit down for a couple of hours and do some exploring inside Greyhawk Castle or the Sunken City of Kalibruhn or wherever, and hopefully would have a good enough time that you'd be inspired to pick of a copy of the rules and take them home and start your own campaign. Gary Gygax came up with a different idea for the first Origins convention - a tournament where various teams went into Gary's almost-cartoonishly-deadly "Tomb of Horrors" (originally devised as Gary's way of testing the skill and mettle of overly-confident players) and the group that made it the furthest before dying was the winner. This formula was refined over the next few years and eventually became what we see in published AD&D modules derived from tournaments like C1, C2, and the A-series: teams of players go through the same adventure, facing the same encounters, and a score is kept with a basic formula of how many encounters were completed graphed to how many characters survived plus bonus points or penalties for particular smart (or dumb) actions. As the tournaments got bigger, they began to have multiple rounds, where the teams that scored best in the first round advanced to the second round (usually a more difficult set of encounters), those who scored best in the second round advanced to the finals (usually something completely off-the-wall), and the team that scored best in the final round was the winner.

That's a mutated form of D&D that doesn't have a lot in common with the default campaign style of play (strategies that are successful in one will lead to failure in the other, and vice versa), but it's still fun in its own way: knowing that the clock is ticking, and that your group's performance is being judged against other groups, puts a lot of pressure on and leads to some really intense and exhilarating play. I played in a couple of tournaments that were run this way (the AD&D Open at GenCon continued to function in this manner even after other tournaments didn't) and although I never did very well, because I was always teamed with strangers, and these adventures placed a very high premium on effective teamwork, I always had fun.

Sadly (from my perspective), when Frank Mentzer founded the RPGA (RolePlaying Game Association, an organization run by TSR with the mandate "to promote quality roleplaying and bring fans of roleplaying games together") in 1981, the way D&D tournaments were organized and scored changed dramatically. Instead of team vs. team, advancement (and, in the final round, winners) were determined individually, based on a vote by the other players (and possibly the DM - I can no longer remember whether the DM got a full vote or was only a tiebreaker) at the end of the session. Along with this, the RPGA introduced an "XP" system for its members where the more tournaments you played in and the better you placed the more points you earned, and as you increased in "level" you got to play in Master-only (and, eventually Grand Master-only) tournaments. This had an obvious and profound (and possibly unintentional?) effect on how tournament play worked. For one thing, teamwork no longer mattered, and neither did process through the adventure. The only thing that mattered was how much you impressed the other players. Maybe they'd be impressed by your tactical acumen and rules-knowledge and effective leadership (and that's what the early RPGA tournaments seem to have expected, because structurally they're still very similar to the pre-RPGA tournaments - linear gauntlets of puzzles and combat), but way more often the vote went to the "best roleplayer" - the hammy actors and scene-stealers. This created a spiral of perverse incentives where players would attempt to out-ham each other, and the adventure itself became mostly irrelevant, until the writers caught on and changed the nature of the adventures to become, basically, just a series of role-playing cues.

I was shy and socially-awkward as a kid, especially around strangers and older people (which meant pretty much everybody at cons). Therefore, I tended to do really badly in these games and rarely advanced beyond the first round. I suppose the idea was that shy kids would be drawn out and feel comfortable enough to participate, but for me it was more the opposite - the more emotive and hammy the other players got, the more I was likely to clam up. This was frustrating in a number of ways: one is that it wasn't much fun for me, another is that it suggested I wasn't actually very good at my favorite game that I'd been totally obsessed with for several years, and called into question whether I'd even really understood the game, because the way it was played in RPGA events was very different than what I'd imagined from reading the books or how we always played at home. This is about the time I probably should have decided the game wasn't really for me after all and declare that I'd "outgrown" it, which is what most other kids did (and, non-coincidentally this was right at the time, in the late 80s, when the fad years were over and the popularity of the game was in steep decline), but for whatever reason I didn't - I kept going to the cons and playing in tournament events that I didn't really enjoy and wasn't very good at. I suppose I was still hoping if I played in enough I might finally find a good one.

And that is, of course, exactly what happened when I lucked into those games with Gary at Glathricon '88. This, finally, was exactly what I'd always wanted D&D to be (and more). It was both a revelation (that my approach to D&D was much closer to how the inventor of the game did it than how everyone else did) and a huge confidence-booster (I was now assured that my approach was "right" after all). I hadn't seen it at the time, but years later I stumbled across a Dragon editorial by Gary (in issue #102, October 1985 - coincidentally one of his last editorials before his ouster) where he expressed the same sentiments - decrying "the current vogue of placing seemingly undue importance" on the "theatrical side of gaming," which he felt "tend[ed] to make playing out an adventure more of a children’s 'let’s pretend' activity than an action-packed game which involves all sorts of fun, including the playing of a role but other fun aspects as well." My approach to gaming was out of fashion in the late 80s, but at least I had the inventor of the game in my corner :)

I still played in a few more RPGA tournaments (in retrospect I'm not sure why - inertia?) but came to realize that those were the least fun games, and that it was much more fun (and instructional) to play in games that went all the way back to the original model - creators of the game giving, basically, demonstrations. That's effectively what the Gygax games had been, and I had similarly fun experiences playing games like Cyberpunk, MegaTraveller, RuneQuest, and Amber at GenCon with "insiders" - not usually the creator of the game, but friends of the creator who'd played with them and been involved in the development and had a "feel" for the game that only comes from that sort of close, long-term association. I almost always came away from those games excited and enthused, eager to share the experience with all of my friends at home (and it's no coincidence that those are the games we played most through the late 80s & 90s). I think there's really something to playing a game with the creator, or someone closely associated with and who learned from the creator, that helps you understand and appreciate it in a way that reading the books alone can never do.

Eventually, for whatever reason - because I wasn't as interested in the new games being released, or felt I'd learned enough, or just realized that playing games with strangers that weren't as good as what I could play at home with my friends wasn't an effective use of my time, I stopped playing even in those demo-games, and the last 3-4 years I attended GenCon, and the last year or two I attended Glathricon, I didn't play in any rpg events, RPGA-sponsored or otherwise. Instead, I realized that the most fun was to be had in large-scale, multiplayer board and minis games. At Glathricon for several years running, a guy named Greg Poehlein (who was one of Evansville's local rpg-industry celebrities, having co-written the Star Trek and Doctor Who rpgs for FASA) ran an event called the "Glathricon 500," which was his house-ruled adaptation of Avalon Hill's Speed Circuit for Matchbox cars on a huge oval-shaped track. This was an all-day event that usually drew around 20 players. Likewise, there was a group who every year at GenCon staged huge 25mm-scale British colonial minis games, with full terrain and hundreds of figures per side (the two I remember were vs. Zulus and vs. Afghans) - again, an all-day event with a dozen or more players involved. These were things I'd never have had the resources or the number of players (or the space!) to attempt at home, and they were always tremendous fun and I looked forward to them year after year (and was crushed when I attended Glathricon '95 and found that "the 500" had been canceled).

Is there a point in all of this? Not really; it's just a reminiscence. But there are, perhaps, a few takeaways that might be useful to people attending, or thinking of attending, a gaming con: (1) the games aren't going to be much like, and probably won't be as good as, your games with your friends at home; (2) tournament-games are especially wack, unless it's a team-tournament and you're there with enough of your home-group to make up a whole team; but (3) if you get a chance to play a game with its creator it's probably worth doing because you'll likely pick up some insight into the expected play-style and get a better feel for the game than you can get from reading a rulebook; and (4) if they're running any large-scale, multiplayer board or minis events, jump all over that, because that's something you can't do at home, and they tend to be really fun!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

[D&D] World of Greyhawk cultural approximations

The World of Greyhawk includes a large number of nation-states. While the gazetteer does a good job of providing population figures and natural resources and details of the size and composition of the nations' armies and traditional alliances and enmities, it doesn't have much to say about their culture. Some hints can be picked up (mostly in connection with the "exotic" realms near the edges of the map), but there's tendency to just portray most of them as having the same "generic fantasy" monoculture. Gary's Greyhawk novels didn't really help with this.

Therefore, in order to add more flavor and make things a bit more interesting for myself, I've found it helps me to visualize and differentiate in my mind the various states of the Flanaess to figure out which earth-nation they seem to most closely approximate and use that as a guide towards personifying their cultural attitudes and incidental color (i.e. stuff like accents, naming conventions, way of dressing, typical cuisine, and so on). A few of these (like Ket, Perrenland, and the Rhennee) are obvious from the published material, others I made up myself (so they're more tenuous and strained and not necessarily compatible with the "canon" of the published products and novels).

This is intended as a very rough and superficial approximation, so it's important not to overdo it and take the approximation too literally - everything is, of course, filtered through a layer of fiction and fantasy. I'm not saying these Greyhawk locales are or should be exactly like earth locales (that undermines the point of creating a fantasy world in the first place), just that I've found this to a convenient short-hand improvisational aid, a way to quickly add some flavor and detail.

Bakluni areas: Persia (further differentiation likely at some future point)
Ket: Turkey
Perrenland: Switzerland
Wolf & Tiger Nomads: Central Asia
Iuz & Horned Society: Russia
Furyondy: Germany
Veluna: Austria
Keoland: England
Yeomanry: Wales
Geoff & Sterich: Scotland
Bissel: Ireland
Sea Princes: Barbary Coast
Ulek States & Celene: Fairyland from British folklore
Central Flanaess (Verbobonc/Kron Hills/Gnarley Forest/Greyhawk/Cairn Hills/Nyr Dyv/Upper Wild Coast): American midwest
Lower Wild Coast & Pomarj: Pirates of the Caribbean
Rhennee: Romani
Bandit Kingdoms: American Old West (Shield Lands = Texas)
Rovers of the Barons: Sioux Nation
Duchy of Tenh: Iroquois Confederacy
Theocracy of the Pale: Puritan New England
Blackmoor: Minnesota
County & Duchy of Urnst: Belgium & Netherlands
Nyrond: France (Almor = Avignon)
Barbarian States: Scandinavia (further differentiation (say Frost Barbarians = Sweden, Snow Barbarians = Denmark, etc.) left as an exercise for the reader)
Ratik: Poland
North Province & Bone March: Balkans/Romania
Great Kingdom: Italy (Medegia = Papal States, Rel Astra = Venice)
South Province: Spain (Onnwal = Galicia, Irongate City = Barcelona, Idee = Portugal, Sunndi = Basque country, Lordship of the Isles = Balearics)
Spindrift Isles: Greece
Scarlet Brotherhood: medieval Syria ruled by a secret cabal of Nazis

Saturday, June 24, 2017

[music] Up the Irons!

My favorite rock band in the 80s (at least the second half of the decade, when I had an opinion on such things) was unquestionably Iron Maiden. They were a heavy metal band, with all of the associated imagery and attitude, but they were also, secretly, sort of a prog-rock band, if that style of music hadn't declined precipitously in popularity in the mid-late 70s.

They had Bruce Dickinson with his Conan the Barbarian haircut bellowing like a Viking out of a Wagner opera, twin lead guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith trading off face-melting solos, leather and spikes like Judas Priest, an elaborately theatrical stage set with pyrotechnics and a giant papier-mache monster head, violent and gory imagery featuring Eddie the zombie on their album covers, and their song "The Number of the Beast" got them accused of being Satanists. They were very loud and very aggressive and seemed very dangerous and very cool to my pre-teen self.

All of the "hoods" in my middle-school, the mostly-poor kids who had long hair and smoked, loved Iron Maiden, right alongside KISS and AC/DC and Def Leppard and Ozzy Osbourne (Metallica hadn't really caught on in our area yet). They were always surprised that I liked that stuff too, and it was how I bonded with that group, even though the teachers didn't like it and thought I was being led down the wrong path (about which I loved proving them wrong and shaming their close-mindedness).

Because what those teachers didn't understand (and, to be honest, I'm not sure many of the kids understood either) was that although they looked and sounded like other metal bands, Iron Maiden were smarter and more sophisticated - they had lyrics about history and literature (and even did a 13-minute-long version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner") and they were seemingly just as influenced by 70s prog-rock bands like Genesis and Jethro Tull as they were by Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Thin Lizzy. This was, effectively, music for nerds that happened to also appeal to the cool and tough kids. As a nerd-by-inclination who also wanted to hang out with the cool kids, it was right up my alley, almost like it had been tailor-made for me.

The 80s were Iron Maiden's decade. The first, self-titled, album was released in 1980, and they put out just about an album a year through the rest of the decade, including The Number of the Beast in 1982 (the first album with Bruce Dickinson; their first hit and the one that got them pegged as Satanists), Piece of Mind in 1983 (where the full "classic era" lineup was finally in place), Live After Death in 1985 (their first live album, recorded in Long Beach, CA (I now know some folks a few years older than me who were in attendance), and the first of their albums I owned), and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son in 1988 (a full-on prog-rock-style concept album; I was totally obsessed by this album, wore out two different cassette tapes by listening to them so much, and - naturally - tried to adapt its story into a D&D campaign).

In the 90s they released some sub-par albums and had some lineup changes and I lost interest and moved on to other types of music - like punk and grunge and "alternative" stuff that the older high-school kids were into. From what I understand around the turn of the century Iron Maiden got the classic lineup back together and are still regularly releasing new albums and touring the world and playing to ridiculously large crowds and are probably bigger and more popular now than they were in the 80s, but I never got back into it. I did upgrade a few of my cassettes to CDs and still pull them out for a nostalgic listen now and then, though, and it instantly takes me back to being in seventh grade, listening to those albums on endless-repeat. I like it better that way.