Monday, 24 January 2011

Book Review – What Is Dungeons and Dragons?

Slammer Kyntire is a fighter. Some days ago, together with a few friends, he was searching for the Sword of the Sorcerer in the ruins of the ancient shrine of Kollchap when he was surprised by a band of Hobgoblins. The adventurers managed to escape, cutting down two of the creatures, but in the ensuing pursuit Slammer's arm was hit by a crossbow bolt. Back at an inn, Zhod the priest heals the injured limb, while secretly the fighter plots for the day when he can buy back his father's farm from the landlord who has seized it and enslaved his family.

Thus starts Butterfield, Honigmann, Parker's 1982 book “What Is Dungeons and Dragons?”, a copy of which I've owned since discovering it in a second-hand bookshop in Wales in the late 80s.

WIDD is a strange book of of two halves. The first is almost a User Guide to the Moldvay/Cook edition of the Basic rules, a very in-depth commentary upon the rules and method of play. Whether this is intended as a primer to buying and playing Basic D&D or as an explanation to already baffled customers I can't decide. The second half is reminiscent of Ian Livingston's “Dicing With Dragons” in that it dedicates a chapter apiece to the likes of miniature figures, other games and computers (unsurprisingly hilariously dated).

So a game of two halves and to continue the bad football commentary metaphors we'll start early doors with the D&D-specific parts.

Match Preview

Famously Jackson and Livingstone were nagged by Penguin Books to write a general guide to Role Playing Games and couldn't be bothered, producing The Warlock of Firetop Mountain instead. Livingstone sort of relented later with Dicing With Dragons which was the sort of book that Penguin wanted but it was published (for reasons beyond my ken) by someone else.

So perhaps WIDD is Penguin's attempt to get that original book written and on bookshelves. It was published by Penguin's young adult imprint "Puffin Plus" in 1982 and written a trio of ex-Etonian schoolboys, John Butterfield, Philip Parker and David Honigmann. I'm not sure why their ex-school is important but every single article on the book you ever see anywhere mentions this fact so I'm not one to break this much-loved Brit Old Skool tradition.

Unsurprisingly it was overtaken by events very rapidly, particularly in it's chapters about the use of Computers and reviews of other available fantasy games but most sneakily in it's dedication to the Moldvay/Cook version - my copy is a fourth edition from 1984 and Mentzer Red Box was released in 1983 so WIDD was still in print when technically obsolete.

Anyway it looks the business, slim paperback, orange spine (reminiscent of SJ's Fighting Fantasy) and traditional Peter Andrew Jones cover illo.

First Half - Basic D&D

The first half is an odd sort of user guide and commentary on the Basic D&D rules. It seems to want to teach the reader how to play, but without obviously removing the need to buy Moldvay and therefore crash headlong into TSR's legal department. We follow the PCs Slammer Kintyre (you will of course be familiar with his brother Muller), Hofta Nap (MU) and Gripper Longshanks (Thief) through character generation and advice on equipping the PCs.

This is really in depth. It's easy to picture a brief essay on How To Roleplay and a sketchy treatment of how D&D characters are rolled up but this book goes into great detail on all manner of things that must be of absolutely zero interest to the casual reader such as alternative characteristic generation, PR experience percentage bonuses, 2-for-1 attribute swaps and alignment languages.

Despite all this it's clear that we aren't dealing with what a later generation might dub "vanilla" D&D. The authors recommend scrapping "Race As Class" so that Gripper Longshanks is not merely a Thief, but a Halfling Thief (yes, a Halfling called Longshanks...). They include a random height and weight table similar to that of Tunnels and Trolls and their writing is full of things apparently lifted from their home campaign - the Mesta Desert, the rival Magician Colleges of Khan and Dokhon, the Albine Empire, Rockmen, 6' poles instead of 10' - I wonder if any novices read this before getting D&D and then wondered where this fantasy world had gone...

Highlight of the first half is the chapter on Dungeon Design and it's included 23-location example dungeon "The Shrine of Kollchap".

The authors are clearly great fans of what we now call Gygaxian Naturalism - here's a apposite quote:

The DM decides that in one particular area there are some Giant Rats which feed on small insects and vermin. Giant Rats are preyed on by Giant Ferrets, and so it is likely that in the same area some of these creatures would be found. In a nearby room, a man might have set up camp with the intention of snaring the ferrets and selling the skins. A group of bandits, hearing of this trade, could try to take it over, and so the DM might place some of these in the area. The Giant Rats and Ferrets might have been a source of food for some Goblins who are now annoyed at the threat to their food supply.”

Kollchap itself seems quite well remembered and appreciated by the Brit Old Skool scene. Personally upon returning to it for the first time in donkey's years (an non-ISO unit of measurement equivalent to "A Long Time") it seems a very tough dungeon for first level Basic characters. A party that enters the ruins above ground risks attack by two Hobgoblins before entering a tunnel with 11 Normal Bats and then passing a secret door behind which 4 Orcs (one with 8hp!) wait ready to slip out behind the PCs and jump them from behind.

There are ways around each fight (scouting the above ground area out to avoid ambush, ducking to let the bats escape, locating the secret door and spiking it shut) but of course this is a beginners book aimed at beginners, so I imagine most novice parties will just blunder in regardless.

After all this potential TPK-age we get a 4th level Chaotic Cleric as a BBEG - to my eyes this scenario is a good one but more suitable for a large 2nd level party or even a small 3rd level one.

Kollchap notes the first occurrence I've noted of the mechanism of putting an upper limit on the number of Wandering Monsters that can be encountered - Entry #1 is 1-6 Skeletons (20) with the 20 being the upper cap of how many can be encountered ever.

Going back to the comment about bits and pieces of the author's campaign sneaking here - here's the Rockman their example of the art of DM-created monsters. It differs significantly from the anthropomorphic stalagmite of the same name found in AC9 Creature Catalogue.

ROCKMAN – AC5, HD 1+2, MV 90', ATT 2 fists, DMG 1-4/1-4+Special, No. App 1-4, SV F1, ML12, Treasure – See Below, AL:C

The Rockman is an animated humanoid, made of red-coloured stone. It is created by the magicians of Khan and will attack magicians of the rival college, Dokhon, on sight. If the Rockman rolls a natural 20, the character hit must Save vs Petrification or be turned to stone. If a character tries to hit a Rockman with an edged weapon and rolls a natural 1, the weapon is broken and useless. Powdered, dead Rockman can be used as Dust of Petrification against creatures of one hit die or less.

After the Kollchap scenario is finished, there's a very neat section showing a run-through the dungeon. It's the typical, fictional example of play you used to find in every single RPG ever printed but WIDD does it in a very clever fashion.

All the left-facing pages contain an after-action report in the style of hack fiction, familiar to us all from the OSR blogosphere after-action reports and amateur press association stuff.

The right-facing pages are mostly blank except for when the author wants to show how the dramatic outcome on the opposite page occurred (rules, dice rolls, DM judgements etc.)

It's nicely non-linear in that including the ruling and dice in line with the text (in the form of massive parentheses section or text boxes) would break up the flow of the prose but this doesn't and I find it's much more readable and attractive to a novice - the story (poor though it is as would be expected) is uninterrupted and gives a better feel for the immersion that good gaming produces with bringing everything to a shuddering halt every thirty seconds.

An excellent idea. More people rip this off please.

Halftime - Have some Bovril. (I won't, as it's foul stuff drunk by Brums and I'd rather wait around for the halftime scores to appear on the big screens in the hope that the Wolves and the Villa are losing).

Second Half - Not Basic D&D

"Figures & Other Accessories" talks about painting, converting and collecting miniature figures and the unsurprisingly unillustrated text is not the ideal medium for such (a problem some of the single digit issue numbered White Dwarfs suffer from). Brief mention of WD and The Dragon, zines and the first three Basic D&D scenarios. Of historic interest only really.

"Computers" suffers from probably being written sometime during 1981 and so appearing in print ten minutes before the Spectrum, C64 and BBC Micro go critical mass overnight in the UK. The 1984 print date of my copy makes this built-in obsolesce even more obvious - even retrogaming enthusiast Coop (who sat down and played Sega Master System Fantasy Zone and S.D.I. for a hour last week) hadn't heard of any of the mentioned games back when I first read this.

Not even of historic interest.

"Further Complexity" is a good chapter, sensibly discussing in which direction (Expert or AD&D) a DM should take his campaign. I suspect the authors are quite modern in their preference for Expert with the following telling and catty statement upon 1E - "They are suitable for those DMs who wish to run a rule system rather than a game." (However this chapter doesn't seem to take account what really happened which was that a great number of us stuck with the former and looted the latter wholesale).

"Other Worlds" talks about other games, drifting off into non-RPG territory with mentions of games like Sorcerer's Cave, King of Dragon Pass and Killer.

Finally there's a long bibliography of suitable fantastic fiction which will please the purists who lament the lack of such in modern games. The usual suspects are found here although a secondary list includes names such as Ovid and Plato, therefore demonstrating the benefits of a classical education (that ex-Eton thing again) - the Other Worlds chapter even highlights the influences upon Mystic Wood as being "The Faerie Queen and Orlando Furioso"...

After Match Report in the Sporting Argus

It's a good read with some interesting little glimpses into the world of one group of British players in the late 70s/early 80s which is perhaps all you can ask from a 28 year old book which was doomed to obsolesce very quickly. I still find it strange how in depth it is when discussing the Moldvay/Cook rules and would be interested to find out what a non-player thought of this when flipping through it in 1982 or 1983.

If you want to acquire a copy from the usual source of OOP book acquirement then be aware there are at least three different covers for this book. The most common one in the UK seems to be the cover at the top of the post (mine, although not my scan), there is also this alternative UK cover;

and this one which is suspect is North American - it's certainly bad enough to be American.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Stranglers are Call of Cthulhu

The Bleeding Stone of Iphtah is Golden Brown.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Gary Chalk

I first discovered the art of Gary Chalk in the classic Lone Wolf gamebook Fire On The Water and was immediately smitten. He has a very unique style which is immediately recognisable and I believe what I really love about his art is that, despite the stylization and occasional less-than-perfect proportions, it has a strong element of verisimilitude. Chalk clearly thinks very hard about the small details and so the costume, architecture, heraldry and panoply of war are all excellent and create a strong impression that the world in which his art is set is a real place. They all work and can be believed in. It manages to be grounded in reality and still be a world of magic and impossible creatures.

It's telling that once he stopped illustrating Lone Wolf I lost all interest in the series. Replacement artist Brian Williams is pretty damn good (I loved his work on The Riddling Reaver and Trial of Champions for example) but he wasn't how I saw Magnamund, the world of Lone Wolf. It was clearly how Joe Dever saw Magnamund, Williams being his original choice to illustrate Flight From The Dark, but not for me. In fact, standing in WHSmiths Wolverhampton, armed with a birthday book voucher and primed to buy the next book in the series I couldn't and put The Cauldron of Fear back on the shelf and didn't buy another for about three years. Even now, I'd have loved to have seen how Chalk would have penned the illos for the later books.

I've long suspected that Chalk was a influence upon the WFRP world (which I distinguish from the Warhammer Battle world as they were never quite the same place, being tweaked for their individual games) becoming a Renaissance culture and not merely a late medieval one. He did a lot of illustrations in early Dwarf (such as the classic AD&D Irillian campaign) and the original version of Talisman all in his style of slightly later costume and accoutrements than the usual cod-middle ages that everyone else except Blanche was doing.

Like Russ Nicholson's work there is a large chunk of the gaming section of my brain that is firmly wedded to the idea that RPGs Look Like This.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Evil Empire Profit Warning

As alluded to in comments on earlier post - spotted in The Guardian this morning.

Interesting quote:

Peel Hunt analyst Charles Hall cut his profit forecast for the retailer by £5m to £12m but said the retailer still had "excellent long potential", highlighting a "one-man" store format that offered a low-cost route to expansion.

That would be the one-man shop concept that leads to chronic shop-lifting, stores being closed when the single staff member present needs the toilet and shelves that can't be restocked during working hours?

I'm not sure whether the warning is of much importance, it's been announced on a day that it's been announced that everybody on the UK high street has struggled and the worst English winter since 1963 did semi-paralyse the country from late November to Christmas. HMV are having to close 60 stores so compared to that missing sales projections by 4% might not be very significant.

In an amazing display of synchronicity, it's four years to the very day since they announced an earlier profit warning whilst coming down off the Golden Tit ( (c) Sir Jack Haywood) that was the LOTR line.

And amazingly it's almost ten years since Kirby was laughed out of town for suggesting that Pokemon had decimated their sales. That only seems like yesterday. Ten years? Bloody hell...

EDIT - It's been pointed out on the Oubliette Magazine blog that the 4% shortfall is only up to November 28th which is just before the bad weather started (conveinient eh?). So their shortfall during the times in which people couldn't get to the shops in what was supposed to be the best period of the year for them is yet to be announced. This could put a completely different complexion on things.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Marvel Should Own Dungeons and Dragons

With my recent interest in Heroclix I've been on something of a crash course in superheroes to try and find out what out what's what because basically I've always been a comic book refusenik.

Something interesting I discovered relates to Marvel. They aren't a comic book company. They are an intellectual property licensing company, licensing out their back catalogue of comic book characters. The comic books help develop the characters and have done so for 50 years but that's incidental to their real business which is getting Spiderman and The Hulk on t-shirts, in the cinema and into computer games.

(You may well already know this and be accusing me of instructing you, or possibly your Grandmother, in the art of sucking eggs).

It struck me as obvious when you think about it whilst blessed with the benefit of hindsight and is similar to Games Workshop's recent approach - their top man has turned them from being a games company (which is where you think they would be placed) and pointed out that they need to become a miniatures-selling company. The games support and develop this aim. A subtle yet important distinction.

Marvel don't sell The Incredible Hulk comics as their main activity, they sell The Incredible Hulk.

This leads me on towards thinking that a games company, a company that identifies itself as producing and selling games is the worst place for D&D to reside.

But it's a game!

Well, yes it traditionally is. But if you remember the 1980s and 1990s you may well remember a time when TSR accidentally became a large and successful fiction publisher, first with Dragonlance and then all that Drizzt stuff, packing out the NY Times bestseller list. Where's the successor to all this success? Nowhere.

Opportunity missed.

It's been misused and neglected since but when WOTC bought out TSR the phrase "Dungeons and Dragons" still had huge pull. Prior to the Lord of the Rings films I'd say it was still the descriptive phrase for fantasy of all forms amongst people who were not fans of the genre nor particularly well informed. The Hoover or Biro or iPod of heroic medieval fantasy if you like.

Under the stewardship of somebody like Marvel, we'd have seen D&D with it's long history of sub-creation (worlds, imagery, creatures etc.) as a carefully nurtured and possibly even mildly fashionable brand with a plethora of supporting revenue streams. Comics, semi-decent-ish films, computer games, t-shirts, toys and action figures and a development of the brand so that it has proper, recognisable characters - something D&D hasn't had since Drizzt. Maybe even a Saturday morning cartoon...

They'd recognise that a revenue stream from a game is only a small fraction of it's worth and probably outsource an RPG to someone decent as well, rather than just sitting inhouse and focus group developing it to appeal to people who didn't like D&D. Can you imagine Marvel redesigning the X-Men to sell to people who hate X-Men comics?

The problem is that much of this is hindsight and refers to events nearly fifteen years ago. Since then we've seen the huge popularity of the LOTR film trilogy, a gargantuan fantasy/juvenile book series that is this generation of children's "got kids reading" thing (also in hugely successful film form), the Japanese console RPG scene becoming huge in the west from Final Fantasy 7 onwards, something called World of Warcraft which I believe is mildly popular, professional videogaming leagues in the US and South Korea, three Star Wars prequels and retro - a movement that has been huge in everything from automotive design to computer gaming culture to ironic fashion. (Nintendo controller, Atari Fuji and Space Invader t-shirts for example).

And against this background, a culture that would have been fertile for D&D if handled well we simply had it in the hands of well-meaning gamers who got jobs in the industry and agonized instead about Feats and Prestige Classes and Daily Powers and selling to a tiny hobby culture.

What a shocking waste.

It comes to something when it appears that Pathfinder is the real, modern AD&D. But then again I suppose Velvet Revolver is the real, modern Guns n' Roses and Beady Eye might yet become the real, modern Oasis.

Come on Stan, make it happen. It would have more legs and be a bigger success as a Marvel-style property with games bolted on than as a minority game on it's own.