Friday, April 28, 2017


When I was a kid, I tried really hard to create my own D&D stuff and it was always frustrating because it was never as good as I wanted it to be - it was hard to match the tone and style of Gary Gygax's writing, and even when I did so it always felt very derivative and inauthentic, even to me at the time.

By contrast, nowadays I can write D&D stuff pretty much effortlessly, and the results feel (at least to me) like they retain the spirit of Gary Gygax's stuff without just aping or copying it. I still don't think my stuff is as good as his, but I do think it's probably as good as or better than what most of the second-tier folks in the TSR design department produced, especially when you consider they had a team of developers, editors, graphics, and art people backing them up.

What's changed is, obviously, that I'm 30 years older now. I'm actually just about the same age Gary Gygax was when he was producing what I consider to be his best stuff (I'm the age now that Gary was in 1980). I've lived a lot more life and had a lot more experiences. I'm a lot wiser, and have a different perspective. I can see a lot more flaws and seams in the old TSR stuff that weren't apparent to me as a kid (and the more of the back-history I learn, through things like Jon Peterson's research and the El Raja Key Archive, the more obvious those flaws and seams become) so I'm not intimidated by them. D&D seemed totally magical to me as a kid. As an adult, I see through all the tricks.

And yet, I also still remember how that kid felt - how cool and strange and magical and slightly dangerous it all seemed. That memory - and the thought of how cool kid-me would have thought the stuff I struggled and wasn't able to write then but am able to write now without even trying is - and that's what motivates me to do it. This stuff doesn't really mean anything to me, but when I think about how much it would have meant to him, that makes it seem worthwhile.

This takes me back to one of the first posts I made here, about how much of the magic of D&D seemingly came from Gary Gygax playing with his sons - Ernie in the early years, Luke in the later years (and even Alex in the much later years). Even though I didn't play D&D with my parents (I tried once or twice, without success) and don't have any kids of my own (at least for now), I feel like that's probably the perfect representation of the game - parents and kids bonding through it. The kids get to feel grown-up and sophisticated by playing it, the parents get to remember and relive their own childish sense of wonder through the eyes of their kids. That dynamic feels much more special and magical to me than a bunch of nerdy college-age dudes in a game club, hunkered down in a basement when they should be out chasing girls.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

[Books] Night Arrant

As a novelist, Gary Gygax was a very good game creator. I recently re-read (or, rather, read, since I'm pretty sure I didn't make it all the way through the first time around) Night Arrant, Gary Gygax's collection of stories featuring his character Gord The Rogue, written around the time he was losing control of TSR at the end of 1985 and published in 1987 by his short-lived post-TSR venture, New Infinities Productions. In some ways the book is better than I remember it (and the other books in the series, which I haven't re-read since the 80s) being at the time. Alas, in other ways it's not.

Unsurprisingly, Gary's writing is at its best when he's describing places or things, just like he was used to doing in D&D adventure modules. Gary had a great feel for his city of Greyhawk, where most of the action in the book takes place. He really makes it feel complex and alive - sort of like a mix of Dickens' London, Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, and (presumably) the depression-era Chicago of his own youth . The city is huge and teeming the way Gary describes it, with a multiplicity of districts and neighborhoods that each have their own distinctive culture and feel - the wealthy areas, the poor areas, the working class areas, the student areas, the commercial districts, the halls of government, the foreign enclaves, and so on. He drops so many street and business names (especially inns and taverns) that it feels almost infinitely large, like trying to make a map of the place would be an impossible task. Reading this books, you come away with a real sense of the place, and its size, and its complexity; you can imagine going there and meeting the people and having adventures. In this regard, and I know it's probably tantamount to blasphemy, it feels to me like he's slightly outdone Leiber - that Greyhawk comes across to me as more detailed and distinctive in feel than Lankhmar.

The other locations described in the book don't get as much detail but are also colorful and distinctive - Weird Way, the village of Grimalkinsham with its tavern of hags, the royal city of Rel Mord, Gnarlvergia and Avalondria, and of course Greyhawk Castle itself are all locations that would feel right at home in an AD&D adventure. That, really, is what is best about this book (and the series as a whole): that it shows you what "D&D world" looked and felt like to its creator. The way the characters talk and think about spell casters and magic items, how they deal with encountering monsters, and how they react to the concept of travel to other planes and parallel universes are all instructive as to the type of world Gary envisioned, and certainly put to rest any notion either that the World of Greyhawk is a "low magic" setting, or that D&D characters were assumed to be naive or ignorant of the world around them (e.g. whether the gods are real, how to deal with monsters, etc.).

All of that's the good stuff, that I feel makes the book something of a must-read for AD&D and Greyhawk fans and that caused me to include it (and the other TSR-era Gord novels) in the canon. Unfortunately, in terms of plot, characterization, and dialogue it's not nearly so good, to the point that reading it felt like a chore - like homework that I had to bull through to get to all the colorful descriptions and setting detail.

The plots of almost all the stories consist of either a series of random encounters or a straight-line plot with no significant twists (and when he does introduce an occasional minor twist, they're all very obvious). For instance, here's a significant chunk of the plot of the story "The Weird Occurrence in Odd Alley" (which, by the way, we know was written while Gary was still at TSR because he bragged in Dragon #102 that it had been accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of the then-TSR-owned fiction magazine Amazing Stories): Gord and Chert have a reliquary urn that they stole from the temple of Nerull which no fence or dealer in Greyhawk will touch and which is causing assassins and daemons to pursue them; they venture to Weird Way (a cool extradimensional Goblin Market with all kinds of rich gaming potential that absolutely 100% exists in my World of Greyhawk) where they find a buyer and haggle a selling price of 11,000 gold pieces - 7,000 in gold coins, 4,000 in platinum - which they take delivery of in a big chest. That's too bulky to carry around, so they decide to trade it for jewels, but the jeweler's shop doesn't open until morning, so they check into an inn. During the night some thieves break into their room but because Gord's magical sword gives him infravision he's able to make short work of them. He and Chert question them and learn that their boss is the night manager of the inn. They go to confront him, learn that he's a vampire, fight him, and drive him away. They have a few more encounters before leaving the place, but you get the point.

That sounds like a pretty typical - and pretty fun - session of D&D, but as I work of fiction I feel like there should be more to it - not just a series of random events but an actual overarching plot or theme. I'm reminded of the novels of Lin Carter in which, similarly, the characters just kind of wander from place to place and stuff happens and there's no particular meaning or structure or even really any continuity to any of it. I suppose the case could be made that this fits with picaresque tradition going back to Don Quixote or whatever, to which I'd counter that even in an episodic work there's still generally some element of structure and theme present within each episode, whereas Gord's adventures tend to feel much more like they're just, well, a strung-together series of random encounters in a D&D game.

The (obviously completely unfair) comparison to Don Quixote highlights another way in which this book (and the whole series to which it belongs) comes up short: the characterizations are completely flat. Gord is the main character of every story (and six other novels) but he remains a complete non-entity throughout, with no discernible personality, voice, or even any interestingly memorable quirks. He's totally flat, boring, and generic, and his companion Chert is even worse - a one-dimensional beef-headed lout with no other distinguishing characteristics except that his axe make a humming noise in battle.

An ironic counterpoint to this is that one story, "The Five Dragon Bowl," has Gord and Chert as supporting characters and focuses instead on another pair - Digwell Biffson the halfling thief and Poztif, cleric of Pholtus. Although they only appear in this single story, both of them seemed much more interesting and made more of an impression upon me as characters than either Gord or Chert ever did. And I think I know at least part of the reason why: in the story, Biff (as he calls himself) is described as being a servant of Melf, and "Poztif" seems very likely to be a TSR-copyright-claim-avoiding name-swap for Serten, a secondary PC of Gary's oldest son, Ernie. Which means both of these characters presumably came from actual game-play, and had developed distinct personalities through that interactive process, which is why, at least to me, they both felt so much more authentic and real than the other characters, who were presumably created for the book. It makes me wonder if Gary had followed a different track with his fiction, if instead of making up new characters he had used more of the existing ones - if his novels had been about the exploits of Tenser and Robilar and Otis and Melf and so on - if they might not have been better, at least in terms of characterization.

Last but not least is the matter of the dialogue. The quality (or lack thereof) of Gary's dialogue has been raked over the coals enough over the past three decades that there's no need for me to pile on further here. I know that writing authentic-sounding dialogue is harder than it seems, and that a lot of authors struggle with it. That said, Gary seemed to struggle more than most (or at least more than most of the authors I read). Gary's idol (and friend) Jack Vance had a trick to getting around writing dialogue, which is that he made it so exaggeratedly pompous and verbose that you immediately understood that it wasn't supposed to be taken as "realistic" - that his characters weren't supposed to sound like real people but more like comic characters in a stylized play. It's one of my favorite things about Jack Vance's writing, that makes his books so distinctive and so much fun to read.

Gary was certainly no stranger to Vance's particular "voice" - it is, after all, pretty much the voice that he affected in the AD&D rulebooks, where "evil" becomes "perforce the antithesis of weal" and so forth. What people call "high Gygaxian" could just as easily be called "low-to-middle Vancian." Given that, it seems like a shame to me that Gary didn't employ that style (or at least attempt it) in his novels. Perhaps he didn't think he was up to sustaining it for the length of an entire novel (ultimately a series of novels). Or perhaps he thought he'd be accused of just copying Vance (although considering the extent to which he courted comparisons to Leiber that doesn't seem too likely). I hope he didn't start out writing it that way and let some friend or editor talk him into changing it. But, whatever the reason, the end result is that the dialogue in Gary's novels is not funny or clever or mellifluous in the manner of Vance, and is instead just really awkward and flat and terrible.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

[D&D] Losing the Caverns of Tsojcanth

AD&D module S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth from 1982 has always been one of my very favorites. It's loaded with peak-era Gary Gygax flavor, and it's also really fun to play through. Doing so was one of the uncontested highlights of my first D&D campaign in the 80s, and I've revisited it (and the earlier tournament version from 1977, The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth) several times since. Having recently learned, via the El Raja Key Archive, that the Greater Caverns dungeon level has an even earlier pedigree, originally conceived as level 10 of Rob Kuntz's Castle El Raja Key c. 1973, and later incorporated as Core Level 7 of the legendary Greyhawk Castle itself, only strengthens my conviction that this adventure has the strongest claim of anything published of being The Quintessential D&D Adventure - the single product that best demonstrates and exemplifies the scope, feel, and intent of D&D as imagined by Gary Gygax.

That said, a close reading reveals some issues, especially with the first, outdoor section of the adventure (i.e. the material that was added in 1982). The scale of the map is too small, the caverns are insufficiently "lost" and don't show any real evidence of having been Iggwilv's former home, and the notion of a race to uncover them is played up in the introduction but not followed up in the adventure itself. Here's how I chose to resolve each of those in turn:

1.  Comparing the outdoor map in the module to the World of Greyhawk poster-map, it seems pretty clear that the former is supposed to represent the entire southern section of the Yatil Mountains, from the hills of Perrenland in the northwest corner to the Velverdyva River gorge along the eastern edge - roughly columns C5 to I5. And yet, using the stated scale of 3.5 miles per hex, it isn't nearly big enough. One possible interpretation is to say that the map doesn't cover that entire area, but that's not aesthetically satisfying to me. I prefer instead to modify the scale to 7.5 miles per hex. This not only makes the maps match, it also makes the travel rates in the module (in hexes per day) more closely match those listed in the World of Greyhawk Glossography, so it's a win-win. While you're at it, go ahead and also change the scale on the outdoor map in WG4 from 3 hexes per mile to 1 mile per hex.

2. The adventure doesn't mention it, but the side-trail leading from the main trail to the caverns must be hidden in some way so that it's not obvious to everyone who passes that intersection, and con only be discovered if a party specifically states that they're searching the area for a hidden trail. Otherwise the supposedly "lost" caverns aren't actually lost at all - not least because, assuming the party is coming from the south, the trail leading to them is the very first intersection they'll pass. The outdoor portion of the adventure makes a LOT more sense if we assume the party initially passes by that trail and has all manner of red-herring outdoor adventures before eventually gathering enough clues and other info from the hermit, the gnomes, etc. to lead them back there, at which point they will probably feel a little dumb and annoyed for having walked right past it the first time.

A couple of sub-points to consider in this context:

a)  The trail between the Caverns and Perrenland presumably saw heavy traffic while Iggwilv was in power there ("when Iggwilv ruled there was much coming and going to and from the caverns"); the trail south to Ket/Bissel and the trail east to the Encounter Area 1 and the Craggy Dells presumably saw much less traffic. Therefore at the first trail intersection someone with tracking skill (ranger, barbarian) may be able to discern that the trail north has seen considerably more traffic than the west and east trails combined, raising a question of where the additional traffic went. It strains credulity that this difference would actually be detectable, even to an expert tracker, ~80 years later, but it doesn't feel totally outside the realm of reasonable dramatic license to me, and makes for a nice demonstration of how superhumanly awesome such characters are at tracking.

b) Let's assume the Horn of Iggwilv is the tallest peak in this part of the Yatils. Based on a quick Google search it seems reasonable that such a peak might be visible from 50+ miles away. With the increased (7.5 miles/hex) map-scale that means it should be visible from the main trail starting at about the first "encounter dot." With the original (3.5 miles/hex) scale it should be visible anywhere south of the trail-intersection leading to Encounter Area 4. Some players (those attuned to the Chekhov's gun principle) will become immediately intrigued by this mountain once the DM mentions it; others will presumably make the connection after encountering the hermit. They may then attempt to strike out across the mountains towards it, or may decide to search for a hidden trail leading to it, possibly aided by aerial surveillance if they've managed to liberate the hippogriffs from the Craggy Dells...

3. It's sort of implicit in the published adventure that the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (i.e. the Lesser and Greater Caverns detailed in the adventure) weren't actually Iggwilv's headquarters per se, but rather were a location near her headquarters where she i) gained power by looting the more-ancient wizard Tsojcanth's trove of knowledge (presumably the spells that she inscribed into her Demonomicon), and ii) hid her treasure once she realized her reign was collapsing. So, accordingly, there must be another dungeon in the area that was Iggwilv's actual lair, but that isn't detailed in the module because it's already been thoroughly explored and looted. Per the intro to the module: "Cartloads of tapestries and rugs, statues and rare art objects have been recovered over the years as well as chests of precious metals, sacks of coin, and coffers filled with gems and jewelry. It was believed that all her treasure had been looted, and that no magic or wealth remained."

Furthermore, once the party finds the caverns, there's an empty/looted upper area that's dealt with in an extremely perfunctory manner in a passage of read-aloud text (and not even mapped): "The track into this area leads to a cavern with an entrance that seems like a fanged maw. The top is jagged and there are rising, cones of stone below. The cavern is 40' wide, 70' long, and over 20' high in the central area. It has obviously been used much in the past. The walls and ceiling are blackened by soot, and there are bits of broken furniture and discarded gear scattered around. At the back of the place is a smaller cave 20' wide, 30' long, and 15' high. At the northernmost end of the cave is a 10' wide passage slanting steeply down."

So, if one feels the adventure needs more of Iggwilv's Lair, the key to including it is just to expand that area to be not just one cave but one or more full levels, and instead of having the players automatically discover the back cave with the passage leading down to the Lesser Caverns as soon as they arrive, make them work for it. There shouldn't be much treasure on these levels, since they've already been looted, but it's reasonable that some monsters may have wandered back in (or never left). Perhaps if the players have had a rough time in the outdoor adventure and the DM thinks they need some more seasoning before taking on the Caverns proper, this area can be used as a training ground, to help them pick up some XP, gain some confidence, and improve their dungeoneering skills.

4.  The last bit of cognitive dissonance raised by the adventure is how the canned introduction insists that the PCs must make haste and find the caverns as quickly as possible because agents from several other kingdoms are also searching and it's just a matter of time before someone finds them, but in the adventure itself there's no sign of any such groups - there are some patrols, but they're just guarding their own borders, not treasure-seeking. That, to me, feels like a lost opportunity, and that the adventure becomes much more exciting and memorable if there are several rival parties in the area and the PCs are in a race against them. I haven't fully statted these groups out yet, but I came up with the basic ideas for them, as follows:

Ket: This group is incompetent; a large (20+ member) party led by haughty, bigoted clerics. They'll spend the entire time wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, causing trouble for themselves and others. They'll have negative interactions with every other group of intelligent monsters or NPCs whom them encounter (except for the Kettite patrol, and maybe the hobgoblins), which may create issues if they get there before the PCs do (since the monsters/NPCs will have learned to be less friendly and trusting). Eventually they'll probably get wiped out by one of the tougher encounters, or starve to death.

Perrenland: This group has more knowledge (presumably there's more information about Iggwilv on the Perrenland side than there is in the south) and left to their own devices will eventually find the caverns, but they're too weak (max. 4th-5th level - say a magic-user (or perhaps savant) as the leader, with some fighters and a couple elves) to effectively explore them. If the dungeons are expanded to include "red herring" upper levels, that's where they'll stick to. Otherwise they might venture into the actual caverns, but if so will almost certainly be wiped out in short order.

Iuz: This is a smaller group of more powerful individuals - perhaps a high-ish level MU with a quasit familiar and some half-orc muscle (since in my campaign Falrinth is deleted from T1-4 [more on that later, most likely], this is a good opportunity to recycle him). These guys' strategy is to stalk the other groups and then swoop in after they've done the hard work. If they're able to follow the PCs to the caverns they're likely to wait at the entrance and set an ambush rather than venturing in themselves. If they come into contact, Drelnza will likely ally with this group (since they're in service to her half-brother), though not to the point of giving up her mother's treasures to them.

Veluna: This group (a couple of clerics, a cavalier or two, and some elf or half-elf scouts) arrives late. They could be a source of reinforcements for the PCs, if needed, but are also going to apply heavy pressure for the PCs to hand over the big treasure for the cause of Good rather than keeping it for themselves. As followers of St. Cuthbert they will certainly fight against the Iuz group if the opportunity arises, perhaps allowing the PCs to slip past them both with the treasure and avoid a confrontation...

Admittedly, the idea of using rival parties of NPCs to put pressure on the players is one of the same additions I suggested for WG6, but the fault for being repetitive lies more with Gary Gygax than me. And besides, I already said that I think the idea of a Great Race between the forces of good and evil to recover as many artifacts as possible makes a pretty cool basis for an entire campaign, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that I'm especially drawn to the two published adventures that already incorporate the concept (even if it's just window-dressing and neither one fully exploits it as-published).

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Flint Dille and Pimm's Cups

Flint Dille is an interesting character in 80s pop-culture. He's part of the family that owns the IP rights to Buck Rodgers, he's been involved in a ton of shows and games and media ventures over the years including, most famously, the Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons from the 80s, and he was a good friend and writing partner of Gary Gygax when Gary was living in Hollywood (c. 1983-85). They co-wrote a series of "choose your own adventure" books (that I haven't read) and a screenplay (or possibly just a treatment) for a Dungeons & Dragons movie, presumably intended to replace the really dreadful screenplay TSR had commissioned from Oscar-winner James Goldman (excerpts from which can be read here (trigger warning: it's total garbage)).

Last year, Flint posted a bunch of excerpts from his in-progress memoirs to his Facebook page. One in particular (that I'd like to link to directly, but can't find, so I'm going with a cust & paste version that was re-posted here) stands out in my memory:
Somewhere in 1985, I threw a bunch of G.I. Joes and Transformers into a box and took the winding drive to the D&D Mansion. The idea was to see if it would be possible to make a miniatures game with Joe and the Autobots fighting Cobra and the Decepticons. The sand table was made for inch-tall (25mm) miniatures, so the scale was all wrong. We’d have to play this game outside.
Sometimes life all comes together in a perfect harmony. Disparate elements come together to a larger whole. Try as I might, I can’t pinpoint exactly what month or season it was. Say what you want to about Los Angeles, the weather is constant -- any day is ‘impromptu adventure day.’ There’s a reason the Movie Business moved here from New Jersey. But more to the point, weather won’t help me remember when this happened. 
I do remember the lawn, the tape measures and Gary and I. There were other people around, I just can’t remember who. I have to think that John Beebe, Joey Thompson, Donna and Penny, maybe Ernie and Peggy and possibly some Sunbow types (I can’t remember). That might have been the day Frank showed up. I can see him looking on the game stuff with amused distant fascination. And I can’t quite remember what triggered it, other than that it was the most natural thing in the world and it felt like that day when you were a kid and you decided it was time to build a fort.
There was a gigantic oval stretch of grass and some foliage created by the drive around the DDEC Mansion. I would have liked more terrain, but it was a good enough battleground. I don’t remember how long we discussed exactly how far a Joe gun could shoot or what the destruction power of Megatron in Gun Mode would have, or how long, in game terms, it would take for a Transformer to transform, but it was a matter of minutes. Usually, with this stuff it's best to jump in and figure it out as you go. Planning has a funny habit of making things not happen -- especially things like this which are done for the pure fun of it with no practical outcome in mind. It's important to note that nobody thought this should be a product or if somebody did suggest we make a massive miniatures game together with Hasbro, the talk disappeared like the smoke from our Camels. That wasn't the point. In fact, the point was that there was no point. I’m not going to declare that the best stuff happens for no purpose, but I’m tempted to. I will say that breakthroughs and ‘Perfect Moments’ often happen when there’s no practical purpose for them and nobody is trying to engineer them.
What I do remember was that at some point there were people holding trays of Gin and Tonics or Pimms Cups or some other British Imperial Drink and we were moving figures around fighting each other. We had to use tape measures, because the distances were far too long for yardsticks or rulers and I’m quite sure nobody was all that concerned about millimeters or even feet. The battle had begun.
It was a quintessential ‘80’s moment, but it felt like something out of a Merchant Ivory film of the day. Mansion. Exotic Environment. Civilized people. We were like bored ExPats or British colonials wiling away the remains of a day. I’d give a lot for a picture of it, but maybe the image in my memory is probably better. It hard for my mind not to insert people in period uniforms and fan chairs (I think there actually was one) and silver trays (I think there were) and probably Wellington’s Victory playing on a hybrid boom box cassette player of the day. Don’t think I had a portable DVD player yet. Napoleon and Wellington had nothing to do with Optimus and Megatron, but it somehow fit. The ‘80’s were a time when things fit together that weren’t supposed to.
It's not important exactly what scenario we created or who won or whether we even finished a game (It’s unlikely, there’s something disturbing about actually finishing a game), but that there was this moment when Transformers, G.I Joe, Chainmail and D&D all came together in glorious harmony. There are few things I like more than when things all harmonize, when irreproducible moments occur. They happen in small windows... Small windows of opportunity. This had to be 1985. There were clouds on the horizon for DDEC. TSR was bleeding money and sharks were circling. But that day, there was no trouble. The world was a symphony. 
I won’t say that it was all downhill from there. It wasn’t. But we’d reached the top of some mountain and for just a moment, I could see whole possibilities in the world that I’d still like to see realized.
There's a few different things I like about this story. One is that it's just a fun bit of reminiscence, well-told; a nice little scene. Another is that this is totally the kind of stuff my friends and I used to do as kids - set up large-scale battles in my basement or out in the yard using our G.I. Joe and Transformers toys and then play them out, including improvised dialogue. In those days we just called it "playing with toys", but looking back if we'd been trying to sound impressive we could have credibly called it "free kriegspiel" or "quasi-Braunstein" or whatever. So it's kind of funny to me to read about a bunch of adults doing pretty much exactly the same on the lawn of a Beverly Hills mansion. Third is the way this story intersects with the legend of Gary Gygax's Hollywood tenure, which is all coke-fueled hot tub shenanigans and fiddling away on the company dime while unsecured debt was piling up and people were getting laid off back in snowy Wisconsin. Yes, Gary's lifestyle in those days was pretty extreme, and that generated a lot of resentment among the fans and other employees at TSR that is still festering over 30 years later, but for all that he was still, deep down, a kid-at-heart who loved playing games with his friends, and I like knowing that. And, last but not least, is the "what if" thought about how, in some alternate timeline where Gary and Flint's sister (Lorraine Williams) were able to get along and work together, that maybe TSR and Hasbro might have struck some sort of deal to actually produce a set of G.I. Joe/Transformers wargame rules, and how awesome 11-year-old me would've thought that was.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

[C-64] The Realm of Impossibility

Around the same time I got into D&D (1984) our family bought a Commodore 64, an upgrade from the Atari 2600 we'd had for a couple-three years prior. While some kids presumably used their C-64s to learn how to write code and set themselves off on a life as techies, I just used it to play games. Over the years we owned this computer I played lots of D&D-like games, including Temple of Apshai and Wizard's Crown and and a bunch of others whose names I've forgotten (but not any of the Zork series - I needed visual stimulation!), culminating in the actual D&D-branded Pool of Radiance, but my favorite game by far was always the first and simplest - Realm of Impossibility, by Electronic Arts (the same company that later took over the world with sports games).

This game was clearly D&D-inspired, but I don't think I actually recognized the connection at the time because my exposure to fantasy was so narrow that I think I just assumed all of it was "standard fantasy stuff." The premise was very simple - either one or two players ventured into 13 different maze-like "dungeons" with names like Tarterus, Gehenna, the Ethereal Plane, and The Abyss (see?) seeking to gather treasure and get back out without being killed by monsters - zombies, spiders, snakes, and blob-things. You couldn't attack them, you could only run, drop crosses to temporarily block them (the crosses evaporated after a few seconds), or gather scrolls that had a few different effects - freezing all the monsters in place or confusing the monsters or making you impervious to their attacks for a few seconds. The main gimmick and most memorable feature of the game was that the levels were all drawn in such a way that they looked 3-D - the walls were at angles, and you'd occasionally have to go up or down "ladders" or cross over "ledges" to get from one section to another. It was all fake (they were just angled 2-D walls) but looked really cool to my 9-year-old eyes and fired my imagination and made the world feel much bigger than what was shown on the screens.

It's a really simple game, but I played it for countless hours - in part, I'm sure, because I wasn't very good at it so I was constantly dying and having to start over.

Even though I don't think I consciously make the connection between this game and D&D I'm sure it subconsciously influenced my approach to the game nonetheless, both my attraction towards complex, maze-like and three-dimensional dungeons, and my preference for running away from and/or tricking monsters instead of hack & slash melee. Thinking about it now, it might be fun to convert this game's monster-blocking crosses into a D&D magic item. Something, perhaps, like this:
Boccob's Blocking Bases: These items are discs of green soapstone, each about 4" in diameter, engraved with the symbol of Boccob (an eye within a pentagram) on one side and the symbol of Zagyg (two parallel zigzagging lines) on the other. They are always found as a set of six, inside a small sack or pouch. They radiate strong Abjuration and faint Alteration magic if detected.
When one of these discs is placed flat with the Boccob side up, it creates a 5' radius spherical force field that is a completely impassible barrier to all enchanted creatures (cf. protection from evil), all summoned animals or monsters, and all undead creatures (due to the latter's connection with the Negative Material Plane). Each disc will function for 3-18 rounds after being placed, and will then disappear. So long as their possessor has retained at least one disc from the set the others will reappear in the storage device where they are kept 1-3 rounds after disappearing, and may then be re-used. However, if all of the discs have been placed then they do not reappear to that character (presumably they are sent off into the multiverse by Boccob to be discovered by a new user). Anyone not affected by the discs may move them, or may attempt to destroy them, in which case they are AC -2, have 25% magic resistance, and can take 25 points of damage apiece before shattering.
If a beverage container such as a mug or flagon is placed atop one of these discs while the Zagyg side is facing up it will not spill, and its contents will retain their temperature (hot or cold) for up to four hours. Any identification-type magic used upon these items will always reveal the Zagyg-side's functions first.
XP Value: 2,000
GP Value: 15,000 

I never hear anything about this game, and even a Google search didn't turn up much about it. I don't think any of my friends had it but they all loved playing it at my house. That's a little sad to me, because it really was a lot of fun and was a big part of my childhood.

I found a YouTube video of somebody playing (not very well) through the first two levels, which brought back a flood of vivid memories. In particular, I suspect I'm now going to have the theme-song stuck in my head for the next several weeks...

Monday, April 10, 2017

[D&D] Activity Tables for The Village of Hommlet

The Village of Hommlet (as described in the AD&D module T1: The Village of Hommlet, later included as part of T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil) is probably the single most well-known location in all of AD&D-dom (with only The Keep of the Borderlands supplanting it if we include the non-Advanced versions). As everybody knows, it supposedly sees a significant volume of traffic passing through due to its location at a crossroads connecting Verbobonc, Dyvers, the Kron Hills, and the Wild Coast, which is how it supports a large inn, and why agents of the various Good and Evil organizations are able to pass unnoticed. Other than saying that, though, the module doesn't really give much detail about that traffic, leaving it to the individual DM to determine what types of traffic pass through, and how often. So, in order to aid in that effort and help me to visualize Hommlet as an active, "living" locale, I pulled together this table:

1 in 3 chance per day of a new arrival in town:

01-25 - Farmers from the local area (1-4 carts; 1-6 individuals per cart)
26-60 - Merchants (a)
61-75 - Patrol (b)
76-85 - Pilgrims (c)
86-90 - Rhennee/Attloi (d)
91-95 - Supplies & replacement workers for castle construction (1-3 wagons; 3-9 new workers)
96-00 - Other (e)

(a) Merchants:

Size of caravan:
1-2 - individual peddler (1 cart)
3-6 - small caravan (1-3 wagons)
7-9 - medium caravan (4-6 wagons)
0 - large caravan (7-10 wagons)

Origin and destination:
1-5 - arriving from north (Verbobonc); headed: east (1-5), south (6-9), or west (0)
6-7 - arriving from east (Dyvers); headed north (1-7), west (8-9), or south (0)
8-9 - arriving from south (Wild Coast); headed north (1-7); west (8-9), or east (0)
0 - arriving from west (Kron Hills)*; headed north (1-4); east (5-7), or south (8-0)
*30% of merchants arriving from the west are gnomes

(b) Patrols:

1-3 - light patrol (representing the Viscount of Verbobonc)
4-7 - levied patrol (representing the Waldgraf of Ostverk)
8 - woodsmen (from the Gnarley Forest)
9-0 - mercenary company (determine number and type per DMG)

(c) Pilgrims:

1-2 - followers of Obad-hai (druidical)
3-6 - followers of St. Cuthbert
7-8 - followers of Fharlanghn
9 - followers of Olidammara
0 - followers of Ulaa (30% chance clerics are gnomes (1-3) or dwarfs (4-6))

Each group consists of 1 cleric/druid of level 3-6, 0-2 clerics/druids of level 1-3, 1-6 guards (men-at-arms led by a fighter level 2-4) and 5-30 pilgrims

(d) Rhennee (Attloi):

1 chief (Fighter (20%), Thief (30%) or Mountebank (50%) of level 4-7)
1 wisewoman (Thief (20%), Mountebank (50%), or Mystic (30%) of level 2-5)
1-6 wagons, each containing 1-2 guards, 2-8 folk, and 0-3 children

(e) Other travelers:

1-2 - Adventurers
3 - Traveling noble & retinue
4 - Elves
5-7 - Outlaws
8-10 - Beggars (3-18)
11-12 - Refugees (5-30)

This table determines "legitimate" traffic - at the DM's option almost any of the above may actually be disguised agents or cultists of the Temple of Elemental Evil

In addition to new arrivals there might be other events or activities going on in town, which can be determined via a second table:

Roll (d%) daily:

01-80 - No event of note
81-83 - Good news: Someone is announcing a birth (1-2), wedding (3-5), or other similarly fortuitous event (6). Free round of drinks for everyone at the Inn!
84-86 - Celebration time: There's a party going on in honor of a birth, wedding, birthday, barn-raising, religious event, or just about anything else
87-89 - Unexpected arrival: either rolled on the Traffic Table (which may result in two arrivals on the same day) or some other miscellaneous visitor (e.g. relatives visiting someone in town, a messenger with news, a mysterious loner, etc.)
90-91 - Accident: A fire (1-2) or other significant injury (3-6) is suffered by someone in town (1-2) or on an outlying farm (3-6)
92-93 - Outbreak: contagious illness has affected 1-3 households in town (1-4) or among the outlying farms (5-6)
94 - Brawl at the Inn: self-explanatory
95-97 - Sudden change in the weather: sudden increase (1-2) or decrease (3-4) in temperature, or sudden heavy precipitation (5-6) 
98 - Creature on the loose: a pack of feral dogs (1-6), an escaped horse (7-9), something from the marshes (snake, lizard, etc.) (10-11), or a monster rolled from the Wilderness Encounters table (12) is loose in town
99 - Attack: an outlying farm (1-2) or group of travelers (3-6) has been attacked by bandits (1-3), humanoids (4-5), or a monster (6)
00 - Strange, portentous occurrence: meteor shower, blood moon, solar eclipse, birth of two-headed calf, swarm of locusts, earthquake, etc. (each such event should only occur a single time)

These are the probabilities as of the start of the adventure. If the PCs make slow progress and the Temple of Elemental Evil gains power, some events (95-00) will become more likely, and others (81-86) less likely, and the table will need to be modified to reflect the changed circumstances.

Between these two tables, this classic locale starts to feel more like an active, "living" place where things happen whether or not the players instigate them, and everybody isn't a Quantum Ogre sitting around waiting for some PC to come along to talk to (or rob, or attack) them.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

[Movies] Fantasy Movies of the 80s

It's crazy looking back how much the 1980s (especially the first part of the decade) were an incredibly rich goldmine of fantasy-oriented movies, to an extent that I don't believe has been matched before or since. Sure, many of them were low budget and/or aimed at kids (and many of them were pretty awful), but there were some high-budget movies and things aimed at older audiences as well. It's no wonder kids in this era all took so naturally to D&D - we had already been totally inundated with and acculturated to fantasy, whether we realized it or not. This is just a partial list, going by memory of things I saw, and doesn't even include all of the fantasy-oriented TV shows of the era like Thundarr the Barbarian, The Smurfs, Fraggle Rock, ThunderCatsHe-Man, and (of course) Dungeons & Dragons, or non-English-language and anime stuff that I didn't become aware of until the 90s or later:

Clash of the Titans
Time Bandits
Heavy Metal

Conan the Barbarian
The Dark Crystal
The Last Unicorn
The Secret of NIMH
The Beastmaster
The Sword and the Sorcerer

Fire and Ice

The Neverending Story
Conan the Destroyer

Return to Oz
The Black Cauldron
Red Sonja
The Barbarian Queen

Big Trouble in Little China

The Princess Bride
Masters of the Universe
The Barbarians

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
Erik the Viking
Ghostbusters II

Thursday, April 6, 2017

[TV] [D&D] The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon

The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon (that aired Saturday mornings on CBS from 1983-86) has always drawn a lot of hate from fans of the D&D game. Part of that is understandable - it really wasn't very good, even by 80s Saturday morning cartoon standards - but as much or more of it I think comes from the notion that the show was so "kiddified" compared to the game - the main characters were all modern-day kids transported to "D&D Land," nobody ever died or even got hurt, there was the annoyingly cutesy baby unicorn, etc. - which adult fans (and, probably more pointedly, "adult" teenage fans) resented. I know that's how I felt about it at the ripe age of 10.

Looking back with a few decades of perspective, though, the intent of the show is clearer. The idea wasn't to depict the typical activity of the game - basically group of amoral mercenary adventurers killing things and taking their stuff - which would never have been considered acceptable in the context of a Saturday morning cartoon (and also wouldn't have been very interesting to watch) but rather to introduce kids who were still a bit too young for the actual game (even the kid-oriented "Basic Set" version) to the brand, and some of its key concepts and IP. And it actually does a pretty good job at that - a testament, presumably, to Gary Gygax's oversight as executive producer. The main characters are a group of six, each of whom plays the role of an AD&D character class (cavalier, ranger, barbarian, thief, acrobat, and magic-user), just like in the game. The monsters they encounter are almost all drawn from the AD&D rule books, and they look and behave pretty much just like they do in the books. Kids who watched the show and then picked up a copy of the game a year or two later would hit the ground running, with much more familiarity with the game's setting and genre than kids my age or older, who had to be taught it all from scratch, unless we happened to have seen Ralph Bakshi's 1979 Lord of the Rings movie.

Even the kids' widely-derided magic items were actually pretty close to items that could be found in the game, and presumably helped the kids in the audience understand that in D&D magic items are important and finding them is one of the most reliable keys to success in the game. Some of the items (the invisibility cloak and the shield) could come straight out of the game. Others are close enough to items in the books - Bobby's club is sort of a human-usable Mattock of the Titans and Presto's hat is pretty much a combined Bag of Tricks and Wand of Wonder in hat form). And even the last two items are easy enough to render in game-terms, and probably wouldn't raise any eyebrows if they showed up in a treasure hoard alongside such canonical AD&D items as the wand of force, rod of lordly might, staff-mace, Zagyg's Spear, etc. Provided, of course, that the players who found them weren't familiar with the show!

Energy Bow: This item appears as an unstrung composite short bow. It radiates strong evocation magic if detected. When gripped as if to fire, an arrow-shaped bolt of magical energy appears. This energy arrow can be commanded to perform any of the following functions, one at a time:
  • Light (as per spell): effect persists while energy arrow is held "nocked"; uses 1 charge per turn
  • Fireworks burst (as per first function of Pyrotechnics spell; range: 18"): energy arrow fired overhead; uses 1 charge per shot
  • Energy blast (3-18 electrical damage on successful hit; range: as per Composite Short Bow): energy arrow fired at target; uses 3 charges per shot
  • Beam of Entanglement (as per Rope of Entanglement upon successful hit; max. range 6"): beam persists while bow is held and user maintains concentration after shot fired; uses 2 charges per round
  • Beam of Climbing (as per Rope of Climbing; max. range 6"): beam persists for 2-8 rounds after shot fired; uses 1 charge per round
When found, the bow will contain 81-100 [100-(1d20-1)] charges. It may be recharged with lightning bolt spells, each of which restores one charge.

XP value: 4,500
GP value: 35,000

Javelin-staff: This item appears as a regular quarterstaff. It radiates moderate alteration magic if detected. Upon command, it can take any of the following three forms:
  • Javelin: 4' length, functions as an unlimited-use Javelin of Piercing; returns to its user when thrown
  • Staff: 6' length, functions as a +3 quarterstaff; allows extra 1/2 attack per round (i.e. 3/2 if the user normally receives 1/1; 2/1 for 3/2, etc.); can attempt to Trip (successful hit causes opponent to save vs. paralyzation or be knocked prone); can be spun in lieu of all attacks for round which grants the user +3 AC bonus vs melee attacks and +4 AC bonus to deflect missile attacks
  • Pole: 10-20' length; grants tightrope-walking and pole-vaulting abilities as an 8th level thief-acrobat (or +3 levels in those abilities if used by a thief-acrobat) as well as various other uses appropriate for a 10-20' long sturdy wooden pole
XP value: 3,000
GP value: 15,000

Monday, April 3, 2017

[D&D] Return to Skull Island

Seeing Kong: Skull Island (which is very silly, but also totally fun and enjoyable and way better than the endless, overwrought Peter Jackson version) inspired me to take another look at Gary Gygax's AD&D module WG6: Isle of the Ape, which is, in simplest terms, an adventure about going to Skull Island, killing King Kong, and taking his stuff.

The adventure itself is pretty good - the island is a total green inferno, an environment so hostile that even high level characters are likely to be overwhelmed, especially since the magical environment of the island neutralizes a lot of the best magic (which I know is a complaint a lot of folks have had about the adventure over the years, but it's consistent with other high-level AD&D adventures and is actually consistent with the conceit in the latest movie that strange environmental effects preclude many technical advantages, like radio communication). The action is mostly combat and attrition, and in that regard it's pretty one-note, but there are at least a few opportunities for other aspects of play - some potential negotiations, and a couple of puzzles. When we played it back in the day we never finished it - we got bored by the relentless grindy combat and gave up on it - but I don't think it necessarily has to go down that way; a more careful approach could probably avoid a lot of the combat and make progress more quickly. This feels to me, on the basis of this recent re-reading, like an adventure that's worth playing, but if I were to do so (or recommend that others do so) I suggest a couple of changes:

1. The framing story is weak. Not just because it involves two full pages of excruciating read-aloud text, but for the whole notion that a group of super-powerful characters (this was the highest level AD&D module TSR had published up to that point) are being sent on an errand run to fetch a macguffin for some NPCs. That kind of thing is semi-acceptable for low level adventures (though even there I'm usually annoyed by it), but 18th level characters should be way, way beyond that. They're the ones who should be sending parties out on missions to fetch macguffins for them!

Luckily, this can be dropped without having to change anything else about the adventure. Just have the players learn the story on their own, and find their own means of getting there (I'm partial to actually venturing into the depths of Greyhawk Castle, but that would require a lot of extra prep work to set up), and go not to retrieve the Crook of Rao for offstage NPCs but to keep and use it themselves. The finale still works as-is - except that the players will want to avoid giving it up to either side, and the key to success will be sneaking out the back door with the loot while the two sides are ducking it out.

2. In all the movies, especially the most recent one, Kong is the hero! He's noble. We love seeing him smash stuff and are sad when he dies at the end. So making the premise of the adventure to kill him and take his stuff puts the players in the position of the bad guys - the ones we want to see get humiliated and smashed by Kong. That made sense in the original Greyhawk Castle version, when the players were all amoral and greedy and Skull Island was effectively a honeypot to lure overconfident characters to their doom, just like the Tomb of Horrors. But it doesn't work in the context of the module, where the players are supposedly good guys, and are killing Kong just because he's an incidental obstacle in the way of their goal, and especially because they're tough enough that, assuming they make it that far, they'll probably beat him in a fight.

I'd rather expand the scope so that it doesn't have to be about killing Kong. Maybe they can sneak past or distract him in order to steal his treasure without having to fight him. Maybe a PC can befriend him and convince him to give up the treasure willingly - maybe trading it for something. And best of all, maybe the PCs can team up with him against invading bad guys, directly or indirectly. The first two are compatible with the adventure as published, even though they aren't really discussed - you just need players who will think of it and a DM flexible enough to roll with it. The third requires some expansion - for the DM to create and send a rival adventuring party onto the island. It makes sense there would be one - given the premise of the adventure it's actually more surprising there isn't one. It raises the stakes and expands the scope and makes the adventure way more dynamic and interesting. Plus if the players are smart enough to team up with Kong against the rival party, it gives them the opportunity to cheer him on. Maybe there's even a way one of the players could take over Kong as their character for awhile via a Magic Jar or something. Now that would be a really awesome finale!