Sunday, May 28, 2017

My games with Gary (part 1)

A couple of years back I did this detailed write up of the AD&D games I played with Gary Gygax back in the 80s, because a couple of folks requested it, and as I get farther away from the event (now almost 30 years ago...) my memories are more likely to fade.

Note: these posts contain some spoilers for Gary Gygax's adventure Necropolis

Glathricon was the local gaming con in Evansville, Indiana, where I grew up. In 1987 and 1988 Gary Gygax was the Guest of Honor. In 1987 I was 12 years old and went to the con with a friend, my second time at a con after going to ConTact (the local SF con, which also had some gaming) the previous fall with my dad. I'd broken my arm a couple weeks before the con so my arm was in a cast. One of the con organizers saw me wandering around and asked if I'd like to have Gary Gygax sign my cast. They led me into the banquet room, where Gary was in the middle of his dinner, and told him the situation, and he graciously agreed to interrupt his meal to autograph my cast. That was my first encounter with him.

By the next year I was 13, had been playing D&D for a little over 4 years, and - as 13 year-olds tend to do, had a pretty high opinion of myself. I considered myself pretty much an expert on D&D, had a subscription to Dragon magazine, and was starting to branch out into other, non-TSR games. I was also getting into exploring D&D from before I'd gotten into it (I had the various Best of Dragon volumes, and had bought the OD&D Supplements from TSR's Mail Order Hobby Shop) and had become a fan of "old school" D&D and thought TSR's recent stuff (Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, etc.) wasn't up to the level of their old stuff. I went back to the con along with a different friend from the previous year, John, my best gaming buddy.

On the Friday evening session we decided to forgo the RPGA events (which we'd already figured out tended to be kind of lame and dominated by hammy-acting players) and instead play one of the New Infinities events (New Infinities was Gary's post-TSR company, and they brought pretty much their whole crew down to Glathricon both years). A dozen or so folks were gathered in the staging area, and the organizer asked "who here hates elves?" and about half the people, including my friend John, raised their hands, and were led off to their table. They ended up playing an adventure called "Those Darn Dwarves!" which was apparently a comedy-module and my friend said it sucked. Left behind were me and 3 other guys - all male, all teenagers a couple years older than me. I'd never met any of them before and don't remember any of their names. Two of them were friends, the third was a loner, like me. The organizer told us to hang tight that we were in for something special, and that Frank Mentzer was going to be along in a moment to tell us about it. We all got very excited and started speculating what we were in for.

He showed up shortly, and told us that we were going to be playtesting Gary Gygax's new adventure, with Gary himself, but that we first needed to roll up characters. He gave us directions that were very loose - pretty much we were told to generate high level characters with whatever stats we wanted, because this adventure was going to be really tough and if we made bad decisions high stats weren't going to help. I can't remember if we were given a limit on levels or magic items. I rolled up a 20th level (IIRC) thief. One of the other guys made a magic-user, another made either a fighter or cavalier, and the 4th I think made another fighter (amusingly, no cleric).

A half hour or so later Frank came back, gathered us up (maybe looked over our characters? I don't think he did), and led us upstairs into the banquet room where the gaming tables were set up - I could see my friend John at one of the tables nearby - and led us to where Gary was waiting. I waved at John to get his attention and we both made shocked expressions at each other. Since we had a small group we were all seated around a round table. Gary didn't use a DM screen and I don't think he had any rulebooks, but he did have his dice and his smokes (unfiltered Camels, which he pretty much chain-smoked non-stop), and a thick sheaf of typed pages and hand-drawn maps, held together with one of those metal binder-clips.

He was extremely friendly and engaging right from the start. He greeted us and told us he was going to be running his new adventure for us, that it was called Necropolis and was the toughest adventure he'd ever written. He quickly went over a few new rules that we'd be using - Joss, the BUC system of currency, and that a rolled 20 attack means max damage - and then gave us a choice of what we'd rather play - something action-heavy, or something based more on problem-solving. We all voted for the latter. Gary showed us the map of the adventure we chose not to play (the Temple of Osiris section of Necropolis) and told us a brief summary of how that adventure would have gone - that if we'd succeeded at it our reward would've been winning permission to explore the tomb, which is what we were going to be playing.

He then gave us some background and overview of the Egyptian-flavored setting of the adventure and showed us the map of the village of Aartuat, told us that it was pretty much like Hommlet to the tomb's Temple of Elemental Evil, and that there was a merchant there who sold "lucky" statuettes of the Egyptian gods that we might want to purchase. This morphed into a quick roleplaying scene with that merchant where we picked out which statuettes we wanted. On the merchant's recommendation I bought a statuette of the god Bes; IIRC each of the others also bought statuettes, but I don't remember of which gods (probably the usual - Osiris, Anubis, etc.) and then we were off to the tomb...

Thursday, May 25, 2017

[music] Jeff Lynne in the 80s

Everybody knows Jeff Lynne's work from the 70s with the Electric Light Orchestra - the seemingly-endless series of bombastic maximalist pop earworms from 1972's 10538 Overture to 1979's Don't Bring Me Down (with Showdown, Evil Woman, Livin' Thing, Do Ya, Sweet Talkin' Woman, Mr. Blue Sky, and so many others falling in-between). He was just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and on the back of this body of work the only mystery is why it took so long. But what I'm on about today is his lesser-known (or at least lesser-appreciated) work in the 80s, that will always stand in the shadow of that huge string of hits, but I think is still worth attention on its own merits.

The decade started out inauspiciously, as ELO provided most of the soundtrack to the spectacularly ill-conceived roller-disco fantasy musical movie Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John and a long-past-his-prime Gene Kelly. In addition to being a really bad movie (which I actually saw as a kid - because my sister and I were ELO fans, of course!), it was also unlucky enough to be released right as the disco backlash hit, so it was (unsurprisingly) a huge bomb. All that said, divorced from the context of the movie and taken on its own terms, the songs were still pretty good. It's unquestionably total fluff, and undeniably disco, but All Over the World is still an infectious party song that holds up as well as any other song of its genre and got people dancing joyously in the aisles when Jeff Lynne performed it live at the Hollywood Bowl last summer.

A year later, they released the album Time, featuring the song Hold On Tight, which is the last ELO song that "everybody" knows (and the last one I remember from its day - though possibly more from hearing it in coffee commercials than on the radio). After that they disappeared completely from my personal pop-cultural radar and their next two albums went completely unnoticed by me (and seemingly just about everyone else). Even when I rekindled my interest and got back into their 70s-era stuff (by way of a greatest hits CD released in 2001) I'd never bothered listen to them until last year, when I decided to do some deep research ahead of that Bowl show. Which is a shame because both of those albums contain several songs that I now totally adore.

Secret Messages, released in 1983, is the last "proper" ELO album, in that it's the last one that has actual strings and all of the core members of the band's lineup from the 70s. It includes several very good songs, my favorite of which is the lovely ballad Stranger. Balance of Power, from 1986, was released under the Electric Light Orchestra name but it really feels more like a Jeff Lynne solo record and was likely only made to fulfill a contractual obligation. Even the cover art (a plain red background with diagonal stripes forming an E, L, and O (and maybe a face?)) feels like they were barely trying. And yet, on the whole I like the songs on this album better than those on the prior two. Getting to the Point is another beautiful ballad, and both Is It Alright and especially So Serious are, to me, as good as any pop songs released by any artist in the 80s (and, with different style of production, would have fit in perfectly on any of ELO's 70s albums).

The commercial failure and apparent critical indifference towards those albums led ELO to officially call it a day. Jeff Lynne easily could have retired at that point, or spent the next few decades touring state fairs and running through the hits of the 70s, and nobody would have blamed him. He was already a solidly-established legend with a shelf full of gold and platinum records. But that's not the route he went. Instead he went behind the scenes and became a producer for other artists, and arguably his most significant work was just beginning.

From 1987-89, Jeff Lynne produced (and in most cases co-wrote) all of these songs, all of which were huge Platinum-selling hits that are remembered (at least by people with good taste) as some of the best music to come out of that decade, and all of which (once you're listening for it) wouldn't have sounded at all out of place on an ELO record:





Not too bad for somebody who most people had written off as a washed-up relic of the 70s!

Monday, May 22, 2017

[D&D] Miniatures

I've rarely ever used miniatures in my D&D games. I've come to realize that a big factor in that is likely because of what was available when I started playing. Kids a few years older than me were lucky, because from 1980-82 Grenadier produced a ton of AD&D-branded miniatures. These mostly came in a series of themed boxed sets, and included a wide variety of character-types and monsters, and even a box of "hirelings" including pieces like torchbearers and two guys hauling a giant treasure chest. Just about everybody I know who's a few years older and started playing D&D a couple years before me had several of these sets, and their conception of the "look and feel" of the game was heavily influenced by them - both the minis themselves and the art on the box covers. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that these Grenadier minis sets were as central to the "shared experience" of AD&D c. 1980-82 as anything TSR put out - these guys were seemingly every bit as ubiquitous as Tomb of HorrorsAgainst the Giants, and the Fiend Folio.

Alas, in 1983 TSR revoked Grenadier's license and started producing their own D&D minis sets, and by the time I was getting into the game in 1984 these were the only "official" D&D-branded minis available, which was unfortunate, both because the minis themselves kind of sucked - they were mostly pretty unattractive, plus they had infamously flimsy accouterments - weapons and wands broke off almost immediately - and because while there was a wide variety of character-types (separate boxes of clerics, fighters, magic-users, and thieves) there were almost no monsters. According to the website DND Lead TSR did release both a boxed set of humanoids and blister packs of a few other monster types (mostly things from the Monster Manual II) but I don't recall ever seeing any of those in a store. I did have a few monster minis (I remember a thing from Grenadier called "Monster Manuscript" that was, like, half AD&D monsters and half other weird things) but they weren't really satisfactory because they weren't really the D&D monsters - I could put a piece of metal on the table and tell the players that it was supposed to be a displacer beast or an umber hulk or whatever, but of course it wasn't.

So, while we were able to represent our characters with minis and would usually set some out on the table to show the party's marching order, we didn't really have anything to represent most monsters, so we generally didn't bother. We might use a random mini or dice as a place-holder, but more often we just didn't represent them at all. Even when we did use minis we didn't have a gridded surface, and didn't measure distances with rulers or tape-measures, and certainly didn't have any diorama-type dungeon terrain or anything like that (though I seem to recall that I did have a set that included, maybe, a treasure chest and a pile of either coins or bones that I would occasionally place on the table). Even if that stuff was available, we didn't have either the money or the room for it. Most of us had a couple boxes with a quasi-random assortment of minis because we liked the idea of them and I think we all had a mental image of how cool it would be to have a full set of really well-painted minis with an elaborate scenery diorama, but because we didn't have enough for that (and also were bad at painting, so those we did have tended to look terrible) it gradually started to seem like dealing with them was more trouble than it was worth and by about 1988 or so we'd pretty much given up on using them entirely (which is a bit ironic, since that's right when Ral Partha picked up the AD&D license from TSR and started producing exactly the kinds of monster minis we had really wanted and weren't able to get 3-4 years earlier).

It wasn't until I was an adult after the turn of the century that I fell in with some of those folks who were on average a few years older than me and still had all their old Grenadier sets that I played in an AD&D game that had the "full minis experience" - i.e. a to-scale map on a gridded dry-erase board, minis for all the characters and monsters, and tracking of exact movement, ranges, lines of sight, areas of effect, and such. At first I embraced it, because it felt like I was finally getting to do what we'd always wanted to do as kids but weren't able to, but after a few sessions I realized that I'd grown too accustomed to playing the other way and didn't actually like using minis in this way. I felt like by putting so much focus on "the board" that some of the immersive sense of wonder was lost - having that tangible representation of the scene in front of me seemed to make it harder, rather than easier, to picture it in my mind. This became a point of conflict with some of those folks, because I was advocating for playing without minis which to them seemed ridiculous, because they'd always played that way.

To this day "my" version of D&D doesn't really include minis - maybe a row of them in the middle of the table to show marching order but definitely no grid or to-scale mapping. I'd play in a game with that stuff (assuming it was someone else's collection), but it would feel to me like a different flavor of game, and I'm not comfortable running a game that way. And I think the biggest contributing factor to that is the historical accident that the period when I got into the game happened to be a time when there weren't good AD&D minis on the market - after the Grenadier sets had vanished and before the Ral Partha sets appeared.

Friday, May 19, 2017

[D&D] Reclaiming the Temple of Elemental Evil (part 2)

OK, so when we left off we were talking about Frank Mentzer, Gary Gygax's 80s-era right hand man and Official AD&D Rules Guru who took Gary's 300 page Temple of Elemental Evil manuscript and turned it into the T1-4 module that was ultimately published in August 1985, six years after it was originally announced.

Frank, at least in that era, was a rules guy. In both the profile of him as winner of the "Best DM" title in Dragon #43 (Nov. 1980) and the preface to his module R1: To the Aid of Falx he touts how he runs a strictly "by the book" game that eschews rule variations or additions and feels that is the superior approach. That attitude can be seen in his other adventures, and in the two rules-oriented columns ("Dispel Confusion" and "Spelling Bee") that he regularly wrote for Polyhedron. To Frank the rules were a fixed system, and were effectively the physics of the imaginary game-world. This led him, in my opinion, to extend the "logic" of the game-engine beyond where it was intended to go and draw some rules-conclusions and extrapolations that I don't agree with and feel shift the tone of the game away from its fantasy roots into a more sci-fi-flavored direction. The key to success in Frank's adventures is often having sufficient mastery of the rules to recognize when to use a particular spell or magic item in a novel way in order to save the day. That sort of literal-minded, system-hacking approach feels, to me, like it diminishes and cheapens the spirit of the game.

Gary was certainly impressed with Frank's rules acumen. But my guess is that a big part of what he liked about Frank's rules-centric approach was that it was so different than, and he presumably felt complementary to, his own more situational, descriptive, and instinctive approach to rules-design. That's pretty much exactly what Gary says in his dedication to Frank in Unearthed Arcana: "To stalwart Frank Mentzer for always spurring me on and making me be more precise and logical."

And that, to finally circle back after a very long detour to the ostensible point of this post, is where most of the trouble lies for me in the published T1-4: that too much of it feels more to me like a Frank Mentzer adventure than a Gary Gygax one.

Now on the one hand, we know that Gary delivered approx. 300 manuscript pages to Frank, so there must be a lot of Gary in the final product. But we also know that Frank is credited as co-author on that product, which we can surmise means he did more than just edit and polish Gary's work. In an interview on the Random Wizard blog Frank describes his process on turning Gary's T2 manuscript into T1-4 like so:
[O]ne day he dropped off what he had typed (he didn't use a computer until the later NIPI days), and I rewrote it as I entered it into TSR's mainframe computer, thereby becoming proficient in High Gygaxian and able to finish the lower levels in his style.
This explains why it feels (at least to me) like there are "Mentzerisms" (places where the text feels more like Frank's authorial style than Gary's) scattered throughout almost the entire text, while also confirming that Frank actually wrote, not just edited, some parts. Based on my subjective gut feelings (based on the style of the encounters and also, for instance, the fact that those are the only two sections of the adventure that include content from Unearthed Arcana), the two sections I'm most confident were written by Frank are Falrinth's lair (rooms 335-338, pp. 86-90) and the entire Elemental Nodes section (pp. 107-119). This seems to suggest Frank likely also created the Orb of Golden Death (pp. 127-128) and the whole plot surrounding it, as summarized on pp. 29 and 44 (since the Orb is found in the former section and the keys to destroying it are found in the latter). The Orb is, of course, the linchpin that ties the entire adventure-as-published together. If Frank contributed the whole idea of the Orb of Golden Death and the Elemental Nodes then he absolutely deserved his co-writer credit because that's a very large and significant part of the published adventure - the difference between something TSR was able to release and something that probably never would have made it out of Gary's desk-drawer.

And yet, it's also the part of the adventure that I like least. Not just because the Nodes are unfinished and are a boring slog (both times I've run the adventure we've ended up severely shortening that phase), but because making everything center around the Orb - finding it, then destroying it - makes the whole thing feels very tidy and mundane. T1 hinted at a large scale conspiracy of layers-within-layers, and T1-4 doesn't really deliver on that - instead it just presents a grindy dungeon-crawl with way too many similar encounters (endless bugbears!) that becomes a formulaic macguffin-hunt.

Probably just about all of us have played this adventure, and probably just about all of us ended up being disappointed by it and felt it didn't live up to its initial promise. I'd like to think at this point we have the capability (experience and understanding of the game) to rectify that. I think the best route towards that is to remove Frank's additions, go back towards something like what Gary delivered to him in 1984, and devise an alternate resolution. So the Orb is gone and Falrinth is gone (possibly to resurface in an expanded S4). I'm not sure if Iuz's involvement was one of Frank's contributions or not, but either way it's so firmly entrenched in the canon by way of Artifact of Evil that it stays. In order to try to make this all hang together and not just seem like a random dungeon-crawl, we need a new (or at least modified) backstory. I propose this:

The cult of elemental evil was born on the shores of Nyr Dyv as worshipers of the sleeping Elder Elemental God - that very same mysterious deity venerated by the Eilservs in the Giant-Drow series. In one or more post-TSR interviews Gary mentioned how his original plans for both that series and the Temple of Elemental Evil centered around this eldritch figure and attempts to cause (or prevent) his awakening, which is why he mentioned in the introduction to module Q1 that he handed it off to David Sutherland because his own ideas for it were too similar to what he was doing with T2, but the irony is that he ended up eventually handing off T2 as well, so the idea was dropped from the published versions of both adventures. Gary never got to write his Elder Elemental God adventure, which means it's up to us to do it in his place.

So my version of the story is that instead of inventing the cult of elemental evil as a "false flag" cover for her true ambitions, Zuggtmoy instead co-opted the real existing cult, or at least this particular branch of it. Her initial reason for doing so was presumably the same as that of the Eilservs - as a check against her rival demoness, Lolth. But gradually Zuggtmoy fell under the spell of the Elder Elemental God, and dedicated herself to awakening it. In pursuit of that effort, she built the temple, and deep within its dungeons opened gates to isolated pocket areas within the four elemental planes where she learned that keys to awakening the Elder Elemental God were hidden. These are the iron pyramid representing earth, the silver sphere representing air, the bronze eight-pointed star representing fire, and the pale blue crystal cube representing water. However, to her chagrin, Zuggtmoy realized that these keys alone are not enough to accomplish her task and two more sets are required: one of which is in the possession of Lolth herself (see module D3) and the other of which is currently unknown (and will form the heart of an eventual remake of Q1 if I ever get around to it).

Iuz in this conception plays the same role as in the published adventure - he opportunistically attached himself to Zuggtmoy but shares none of her interest in the Elder Elemental God and is not privy to, or interested in, the secrets surrounding it. Because, with Zuggtmoy imprisoned, Iuz has been directing most of the cult's activities, they have mostly floundered since the kidnapping of Prince Thrommel. Lolth, however, takes a more active role. She has learned that the temple is connected to the same trouble she is facing among her drow followers and is thus desirous of obtaining the second set of keys for herself, to keep them out of the hands of the Eilservs. Therefore, since the original temple fell she has tried to infiltrate her own agents into its resurgent hierarchy, most successfully to date her protege Lareth the Beautiful.

The Elemental Nodes thus are not separate mini-sized demi-planes, but isolated pockets within the actual elemental planes. Theoretically they could be reached by other means, but the gates within the temple dungeons provide the easiest and most direct access. The gems of power are replaced with the key-tokens as described above. The gates on dungeon level four that send traffic to the Nodes (areas 421, 424, 427, and 431) send to these areas. The gates that previously sent traffic to the elemental planes (areas 422, 425, 428, and 432) instead become receiving portals: anyone in possession of the appropriate key can transport from the plane to the corresponding location at will, or a being from that plane (including, theoretically, a character) can be summoned by means of the cult's rituals.

When the temple was active, there was a place for each key in the altar of the respective temple (areas 145, 201, 212, and 213), which are now empty depressions of the corresponding shape. If the appropriate key is inserted into the altar it transports the party to area 339. None of the current temple hierarchy are aware of this function. The gates in area 339 also allow transport to the planes as in the published version. These depressions should be a sufficient lure to cause players to start searching for items of the appropriate size and shape. Once they find one (or more) of the keys and place it in the appropriate altar, they will be transported to Zuggtmoy's lair (assuming they haven't been there already).

And, of course, since rooms 335-338 have been deleted, the secret tunnel from the Broken Tower just leads straight to room 313.

It's entirely possible that a group of players might "defeat" the temple (by decimating the forces of the Greater Temple on dungeon level four) and leave the area without solving this mystery, leaving Zuggtmoy still bound and forgotten. Potentially that same group could later find the second set of keys within the Vault of the Drow and then return here to employ them. If so, they're likely to find the results a bit disappointing (since any party capable of reaching the Vault of the Drow and defeating Lolth isn't likely to have much trouble defeating Zuggtmoy too) - though perhaps if Zuggtmoy, once freed, summons her allies Iuz and Iggwilv things might become more interesting :)

And that, at long last, is my large-scale modification to Temple of Elemental Evil, to make it feel more "Gygaxian" and of a piece with his other adventures and the larger World of Greyhawk setting. I have further, smaller-scale thoughts on how to make the dungeons themselves feel more dynamic and less grindy (by reducing the number of humanoids milling about the dungeons and moving more of the human cultists out of the dungeons and into Nulb) that I'd intended to also cover, and which may still form an eventual part three of this series, but probably not anytime soon. This adventure is so oversized that even just writing about it is exhausting!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

[D&D] Reclaiming the Temple of Elemental Evil (part 1)

AD&D module T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil, released in the summer of 1985, is one of the most famous of all D&D modules, for several reasons: (1) it was the largest module published by TSR up to that time (128 pages + a 16 page map booklet at a time when most modules were still 32 pages); (2) it was (mostly) written by Gary Gygax, who created the AD&D game and wrote the rulebooks and most of the early modules (including all of the best ones) but had been mostly-absent for a couple of years in Hollywood running Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Corp., producing the D&D cartoon and trying to get a movie made; (3) it was the first/only starter-level adventure written by Gary for AD&D (all of his other AD&D modules were for mid- to high-level characters, and B2: The Keep on the Borderlands was for the Basic version of the game (though of course almost all of us ran it for AD&D anyway)); (4) it was the closest any TSR module had yet come to the "megadungeon" paradigm that defined the original game and was still implicit even in the AD&D rulebooks; and (5) last but not least because TSR had been promising it since the release of T1: The Village of Hommlet in 1979 - six years earlier. This was, by pretty much any measure, a major release for AD&D and of course it sold very well and went through many printings (stretching well into the 90s) and is, along with Unearthed Arcana, one of the products that provided enough cash-flow to get TSR out of debt and save the company. It was so popular and legendary that even in the 21st century Wizards of the Coast has released a novelization (2001), a sequel adventure (2001), a computer game (2003), and a boardgame (2015) all based on it.

And yet, for all of that, the adventure has always been very problematic because, frankly, it was a huge disappointment to almost everybody (especially people who'd been waiting since the 70s, who by and large seem to have a harsher opinion of it than I do - after all, I'd only been waiting a year) and in many ways actually kind of sucks.

In order to get into why that is, a short history lesson is first in order. Gary first set up the area c. 1975 as a place to introduce new characters (and players) to the Greyhawk Campaign, away from the more established environs of Greyhawk Castle. It's likely he also intended this area to serve as a testing place for new concepts he'd developed since the game had been published and was gradually solidifying into the shape of what would eventually become AD&D. Per the historical notes in the El Raja Key Archive the main players in that game were Ernie Gygax (Burne the magic-user), Cindy Gygax (Y'dey the cleric), Heidi Gygax (Murfles the elf fighter/thief), Luke Gygax (Otis the ranger), Skip Williams (Rufus the fighter), Tim Kask (Jaroo the druid), and Tim Jones (Terjon the cleric).

This group played for several months, but eventually their progress began to stagnate. One story I've heard is that the players found so much interesting stuff to do in Nulb that it distracted them from exploration of the dungeon. So, in an attempt to shake things up, Gary allowed his Greyhawk co-DM Rob Kuntz to take his high level PC Robilar into the dungeons. Over a long weekend of play (I can't remember if I read that Rob stayed over that weekend at Gary's house because they were snowed in or if I just imagined it) Robilar single-handedly decimated the inhabitants of the dungeon, freed the powerful demoness trapped within, and then fled the scene. In reaction, the other players sought out the aid of high-level good PCs (specifically Ernie Gygax's high-level character, Tenser) whose forces mobilized to mop up the remains and pursue Robilar back to his castle, and the sub-campaign was effectively over. At least some of the players and characters from it went on to further adventures battling against giants and the legendary drow,

Fast-forward a few years to 1978-79. AD&D has been released, and TSR has entered the business of publishing pre-written adventure modules (after, in the original D&D era, only publishing DM tools like the Dungeon Geomorph map sets and pre-rolled Monster and Treasure Assortments - they assumed no one would be interested in buying "someone else's dungeon," and it was only the success of Judges Guild's products that showed them there was an untapped market for such things). Their first module releases had been the aforementioned giant and drow campaign, as well as an expanded tournament dungeon from 1975, the infamous Tomb of Horrors. Simultaneous with that, Gary was busy expanding and polishing the setting of the Greyhawk Campaign for publication by TSR as The World of Greyhawk - a large-scale setting in which DMs could place their campaigns, and which would also be the setting for all of TSR's modules. Combining all of that, Gary went back to revisit the Temple of Elemental Evil campaign notes, and the result was the remarkable T1: The Village of Hommlet.

While the earlier modules had all been self-contained environments, The Village of Hommlet takes obvious inspiration from Gary's parallel work on The World of Greyhawk and is loaded to the gills with references to the larger campaign-world and feels completely different and much more ambitious than what had come before. The adventuring content of the module is actually pretty thin - a small village with only a handful of adventuring-relevant characters and locations, and a small, unspectacular mini-dungeon - but it's presented in such detail, with so much flavor in the descriptions and so many hints at what lies just outside the frame, that it was addictive. Hommlet felt not all that different than Tolkien's Shire (perhaps a more midwestern American version: Tolkien meets Norman Rockwell) - someplace you could vividly picture and imagine going to and living in. Surely the gorgeously detailed illustrations by David Trampier helped greatly to set that mood.

Anyhow, this module was released, and proved very popular among the fans, and Gary found himself in something of a bind. The module billed itself as a prelude to T2: The Temple of Elemental Evil, which people became very eager to see. However, several factors worked against that happening anytime soon. One was that the Temple dungeons had been created in Gary's usual quasi-improvisational style (and apparently made heavy use of a random dungeon generation system - presumably the same tables that later appeared as DMG Appendix A, and eventually formed the basis of the Dungeon Robber game) which Gary didn't feel was up to publishable standard and needed to be revised. Another is that, because of the way the playtest campaign had abruptly ended, the dungeons were unfinished, with lots of unresolved loose-ends that would need to be fleshed out and tied up for publication. A third is that T1 had been so popular and set expectations so high that Gary realized he couldn't put out some weak or half-hearted effort - that T2 needed to meet or exceed the standard set by its predecessor. And lastly, and I suspect most crucially, T1 was released almost simultaneously with D&D's explosion in popularity and Gary's need to take on many more business duties that cut severely into his time for creative writing - something he was already lamenting (and using as an excuse for the delayed completion of T2) in an editorial in the March 1980 issue of The Dragon magazine.

Promises that T2 would finally be completed and released as soon as possible were a regular feature of Gary's magazine column over the next couple of years, until in mid-1983 he disappeared from its pages altogether (because, we would later learn, he had been sent off to Hollywood). When he eventually re-appeared (in the October 1984 issue), as part of a long laundry-list of status updates on various TSR projects he mentioned that the T2 manuscript - approximately 300 pages in length - had been handed over to Frank Mentzer "to keep him amused during odd moments and fill in his spare time." And sure enough, when T2 (renamed T1-4, presumably to reflect both that it included the entire text of T1, but also that it was four times the length of a standard AD&D module) finally appeared the next summer it was credited to "Gary Gygax with Frank Mentzer."

Frank Mentzer is an interesting figure in the history of 80s-D&D. He was hired as an editor by TSR around the end of 1979, in their second big wave of personnel expansion. A few months later he won TSR's invitational "Best DM" contest, and a couple years after that became Gary Gygax's official right hand man and AD&D Rules Guru. He founded the RPGA, edited its newsletter Polyhedron, and completely reshaped how D&D tournaments were run. He was involved in the development of TSR's Endless Quest line of choose-your-own-adventure books for young readers. Presumably on the basis of that line's success was given the job of re-editing the D&D Basic Set to make it more approachable to younger audiences and people with no prior knowledge of fantasy or wargaming at all.

That set (along with a corresponding revision of the D&D Expert Set) was released in the summer of 1983 and was a huge seller - some credit for which I suspect also goes to the striking cover art by Larry Elmore (which is so iconic that Wizards of the Coast reused it exactly for their D&D Starter Set in 2010) and the fact that, at the height of the D&D fad-boom, the game was ubiquitous - it was sold in toy stores and drug stores, was featured in the Sears catalog, and was translated into something like a dozen different languages (and, of course, there was a D&D-branded cartoon and line of toys supporting it). Frank did a fine job of making the game understandable to young readers (personal note: it's actually the version I started with, at age 9) which is to his credit, but he was also very much in the right place at the right time. With its art and its huge marketing push and the great amount of public interest (which was beginning to wane, but was still near its peak), it's a fair bet this set was going to fly off the shelves no matter who the editor was.

Burnished by that success, Frank went on to extend the D&D line with several more boxed sets filled with his own ideas and rule expansions (the Companion (1984), Master (1985), and Immortals (1986) Sets), and in addition to being trusted with the T2 manuscript by Gary was also reportedly in line to edit the revision of the AD&D rules before Gary left the company and TSR's new management changed directions. He had Gary's total confidence and trust on matters of the AD&D rules. It was a common occurrence in Dragon magazine of the era that a rules addition would appear under Gary's byline that raised questions or complaints among the readership and then Frank would appear an issue or two later on Gary's behalf with an essay explaining and justifying the reasoning behind it.

All of that is well and good - it's understandable that Gary felt the need to delegate a lot of his former design-oriented duties once he took on other corporate responsibilities, and it's good that he found someone he was willing to trust and work closely with. If it wasn't for Frank's involvement, it seems likely that most if not all of Gary's 80s-era AD&D output would have remained unfinished and unpublished. He needed an editor/partner/assistant - somebody who could speak for him, who he could bounce ideas off of, and who could take his rough ideas and flesh them out and help get them into publishable shape - and Frank filled that role. The problem for me is that while Frank claimed that he and Gary were on the same stylistic and game-philosophical wavelength and spoke with a single voice (Gary's), a closer look at Frank's work and pronouncements shows that wasn't necessarily true.

Hmm, this is already really, really long and I'm still in the introduction. I'm going to insert a break here and continue - get into my actual specific critiques of the published module and suggestions to improve it - in a separate post.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

[Toys] [D&D] The Strange Case of Those AD&D Toys

Around the spring or summer of 1983 (so, a few months before the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon premiered) a line of "Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons"-branded toys appeared in stores, featuring such characters as Strongheart the good paladin, Warduke the evil warrior, Kelek the evil sorcerer, Elkhorn the good dwarf, Zarak the evil half-orc assassin, and a handful of others, plus a small and somewhat random selection monsters (hook horror, cave fisher, etc.). There were also a few other ancillary licensed products released (storybooks, beach towels, wood-burning kits, etc.) featuring these characters, and TSR's games division sort of half-heartedly got in on the action by featuring these characters in a couple of D&D game products - AC1: The Shady Dragon Inn (which gave character stats for the entire line) and XL1: Quest for the Heartstone (a module where the toy-characters were the pregenerated PCs).

The immediately odd thing about these toys is that they and the D&D cartoon came out very close to the same time as each other (within a few months in the same year), but featured completely different sets of characters. I vaguely recall that there was one episode of the D&D cartoon where Strongheart the paladin appeared as a sort of "guest star," but I'm pretty sure that's the only overlap - no toys were made of the characters from the show (either the heroes or the villains) and none of the other toy-characters appeared on the show. 

At the time, it actually didn't seem that strange to me - after all the show was branded Dungeons & Dragons and the toys were Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which the rule books (due, presumably, to various legal settlements with D&D co-creator Dave Arneson) were always careful to tell us were two entirely separate games (even though everyone I knew treated them interchangeably - with D&D as the "beginner's" game from which you quickly graduated up to the "real" game, AD&D). Even that distinction doesn't stand up, though, since the ostensibly-D&D cartoon featured a large number of character (ranger, acrobat, etc.) and monster types (shadow demons, bullywugs, beholders, etc.) that were only found in AD&D, and the two game products that tied-in to the AD&D toy line were both released for the D&D game (which created a bit of cognitive dissonance when, for instance, "Zarak: evil half-orc assassin" had to become "Zarak: chaotic thief" because half-orcs, assassins, and evil characters all didn't exist in the non-Advanced game at that time).

Yet another weird wrinkle to the story is that there was also a second, seemingly separate, line of AD&D-branded toys on the market at the same time - a pretty extensive line of "bendy" and PVC monsters that were at sort-of the same scale as the other toys but were much more cheaply made and had different trade dress on their packaging than the other toys. I wasn't sure at the time (and, honestly, am still not) whether these were considered to be part of the same line or not.

So what gives? Why did TSR bother creating two (three?) competing sets of licenseable IP within a few months of each other? One possible explanation is that the toys were intended for a slightly older audience than the show, but still not quite old enough for the actual game. That could be, but it seems like a weird and wasteful way to go about it (especially since TSR already had the "Endless Quest" series of choose-your-own-adventure books - featuring, of course, neither the characters from the TV show or those from the toy-line - filling that in-between niche).

What I suspect (though I've never had confirmed) is rather that this is just a tangible example of the chaos of bad management that was afflicting TSR at the time, and that almost drove them out of business in 1984 right as the game was near the height of its mainstream popularity. The D&D cartoon was produced by Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Corp., which was Gary Gygax, operating out of his home/office mansion in Beverly Hills. I suspect the licensing deal for the toys was probably handled by a different department at TSR, in-house at the Lake Geneva office, under the direction of Brian Blume (and that Blume maybe made two separate licensing deals, one for "character" action figures and a different one for PVC and bendy monsters?).

Gary mentioned in later interviews that when he arrived in California he found that TSR had a bad reputation so he had to, essentially, start everything from scratch (which is one of the reasons "TSR-West" was renamed to DDEC). It's possible that perhaps a show featuring the toy characters had been pitched, but that in order to restart negotiations and get something off the ground Gary thought it best (or the other parties involved insisted) to drop that approach and start again with something fresh - making it just an accident of fate that the separately-licensed toys had already hit the shelves before the cartoon replaced them. But even that might be giving the mess of 80s-era TSR too much credit - the real story may well be that by the time the toys and TV show were being developed, Gary and Brian were on such bad terms that they didn't even bother speaking to each other about it - that neither side knew, or cared, what the other was up to.

But, whatever the explanation, the result was undeniably weird, and seemingly a perfect lesson in how not to go about expanding your IP across different platforms and media.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

[D&D] The trick to really understanding the AD&D rules

Gary Gygax's rules-design style was situational, descriptive, and instinctive. In the traditional of "Free Kriegsspiel," when a situation would come up in the game he would apply his judgment and experience to come up with some means (most often an ad-hoc die roll, probably with some modifiers based on character abilities) to resolve it. If this ruling seemed applicable more broadly than the single situation where it first appeared then it became a precedent and was written down for future reference. The AD&D rules are, in large part, just a collection of those rulings and precedents from 5+ years of heavy playtesting.

The rules aren't systematized - different dice are used, ability scores and other modifiers are applied in different ways, sometimes a high roll is better and other times a low roll is better, etc. - and they're not necessarily consistent with each other (two similar types of effect in two different dungeons (or caused by two different spells or magic items) might require completely different rolls to resolve), and in the published rulebooks they're not really organized except in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way (for example: where is the rule for whether a character inadvertently catches the gaze of a monster located? It is, of course, in the second paragraph of the Dracolisk monster description on page 55 of the Monster Manual II!).

The ad-hoc nature of these rules, and the haphazard organization of them, has been one of the main complaints about AD&D (and D&D before it) since day one, and almost every other rpg that's ever been published (including the later iterations of D&D) has approached things more systemically, to make them more consistent and elegant. I can understand that impulse - the size and chaotic organization of the AD&D is unquestionably intimidating to new players, and if you're the kind of player (or DM) who worries about following the rules exactly as-written it could well drive you crazy, as you continue to discover new hidden rules years or even decades later. Something like RuneQuest or GURPS, where you have to keep track of 75 separate skill values but you know that every time you use one of them in the game the roll will be resolved exactly the same way (the same die roll, the same modifiers, the same consequences for success and failure), seems simpler because it's more elegant and more predictable and easier to grasp conceptually, whereas AD&D feels messier and more confusing. In other words, AD&D feels more like real life.

There are two approaches you can take to the AD&D rules. One is to try to memorize everything, or at least memorize its location within the books so you can look it up quickly. Lots of people over the decades have tried to do it (many of whom can be found still debating the minutiae of the rules at the Dragonsfoot forums), but it's really a fool's errand - because there are so many rules, and so many of them have such narrow applicability that the payoff of knowing them will never balance the investment in effort of learning them, and because something you learn pretty quickly when you get into the detailed weeds of the AD&D rules is that all of ad-hoc special case sub-systems don't really work together - there are things that flat out contradict each other, and things built on different enough assumptions that trying to meld them together produces weird or bad results in play. But mostly trying to memorize the entire AD&D ruleset is a bad idea because it misses the entire conceptual point. The rulebooks are a massive pile of precedents and examples of how Gary Gygax ruled on things, the point of which isn't for you to follow his lead exactly, but to understand the gist of what he was doing - the type of gameplay experience he was trying to achieve - and then use that understanding to make your own rulings in the same spirit.

There are some core concepts at work in AD&D: Gary wanted a game with high stakes so that both victory and defeat feel meaningful; he wanted a game where there's a tangible relation of risk to reward; he wanted a game that encourages heroic action where bold, decisive action is a better route to success than cautious timidity; he wanted a game that always moves quickly and maintains a level of tension and excitement; he wanted a game where players to have to think tactically, strategically, and creatively (and to do so quickly and under pressure) rather than just relying on math; he wanted a game where smart decisions generally trump luck but there is almost always at least a small chance of both success and failure; he wanted a game where no single player can do everything so teamwork is important; he wanted a game where the players can feel their progress over time as they improve their skills; he wanted a game with a neverending variety of fresh challenges to keep players interested even after they've mastered the basic paradigm. Once you understand all of those concepts, you can see how they informed his decisions in the rules and adventures. And once you do that then you realize that the specific rules - whether something gives a +1 or +2 bonus, whether something is resolved by rolling a 6-sided or 20-sided die - don't matter. What matters is the feel and tone and shape of the game. If you're achieving that - if the game "feels like AD&D" - then it doesn't matter whether the roll required to lasso a stalagmite while you're being carried off down a swiftly-moving subterranean stream is consistent with how a similar situation is handled in rulebook X or module Y.

The point of the AD&D rulebooks is to help the DM achieve a particular mindset and attitude by way of a lot of examples, but once that is happens the examples themselves are no longer important and can mostly be set aside. A DM who understands the concepts underlying the game will always be better off making a judgment call on the spot than pausing the game to look up in a rule book how Gary recommended handling a similar (but probably not identical) circumstance.