Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Book of Fiends Preview: Additional Gods

Skadi Hunting in the Mountains by Mary H. Foster (1901)

ONCE UPON A TIME there was a catalog of monsters that some people hated and some people loved.
So begins the Introduction to the soon to be released Book of Fiends, the first supplement for Seven Voyages of Zylarthen.

Two other supplements are currently close to completion - one is a complement to both Zylarthen and Book of Fiends, featuring new (sort of) spells and various miscellaneous additional rules, from tables on age and aging to how to use teleportation in outer space. It will be available as both a stand-alone booklet or as additional material for an expanded E-version of Seven Voyages of Zylarthen.

The other is the long-awaited (for me) Sleeping Beauty's Dungeon.

Book of Fiends is an OGL and SRD compatible version of, you know, that book, yes that one with the blue cover and the scary/silly monster holding that big sword - the book you either hate or love.
A few months ago, unsolicited by me, my young son discovered this catalog, adopting it as his favorite “adult” book in a way that I assume a child of the 19th century might have taken to Grimm’s Fairytales. Through him I rediscovered it and very quickly decided that it would be fun to re-imagine the work for the world of SEVEN VOYAGES of ZYLARTHEN.
Every monster in the original book is represented here—at least in some form.
But partly for legal reasons (though not entirely because of them), many of the creatures, including their names, are quite different from their previous descriptions, if not in some cases unrecognizable.
Why another book of monsters?
Well, why not another book of monsters?
The original fantasy adventure game was not a “closed system,” but rather a magic box that promised unlimited possibilities for mystery and delight. Or so it seemed to each one of us at the time. The game should always be fresh. Book of Fiends may be viewed in that spirit.
As far as I know, no one has riffed off of the book before, at least in any methodical manner, which is one of the reasons why I decided to try it. But I also found the tone of the original book conducive to the vibe I was trying to create with Zylarthen, recreating what I saw as the vibe of OD&D - not Chainmail set in Middle-Earth but Narnia plus Dinosaurs and Robots, as I wrote once. Or now I suppose I should add, Narnia, plus Dinosaurs, Robots, Strange Gods, inhabitants of Pluto and the other outer planets, Coffer Corpses and Maggot Men.

Book of Fiends increases the store of Zylarthen monsters by over 50%, adding close to 200 to the canon. In terms of pages, it's actually slightly longer than Zylarthen's Book of Monsters.

The first preview highlights seven new gods and goddesses, rounding out the total number of those entities to 27. Were these in the original 1981 book with the blue cover? One was, though she has a different name. The others are substitutes for a set of related creatures that I decided not to map for legal and other reasons. But you might still say they are versions of a set of entities in that original book. As with the first 20 gods of Zylarthen, most of the new gods are taken from myth or fantasy fiction. Enjoy!
ANU LORD OF THE SKY: Anu is said to be the patron of all good kings and the guarantor of their authority. He is also the guardian of justice and enforcer for the punishment of criminals. He appears on earth as a champion wearing a horned crown, and any encounter may include some form of moral test. His daughter, Lamashtu, is a hideous beast-demon with the head of a lion and the feat and talons of a bird. Recently, a respected sage claimed that the major temples of Anu had been thoroughly infiltrated by secret adherents of Lamashtu. Unfortunately, the sage was killed before elaborating further.
BLACK WIDOW GODDESS: This thoroughly malign entity used to be of human appearance until an attempt to take her own life out of hatred and self-absorption caused her to be transformed into a giant spider. She is worshipped by the Black Elves, and thus the higher gods occasionally allow her to take the form of a Black Elf maiden. Whether this is out of mercy or caprice is unknown, but it inflames her hatred of the other gods as well as of most creatures and things not associated with the Under-Earth. She is usually encountered under her more hideous guise, accompanied, of course, by spiders.
HANUMAN THE ACCURSED: The Temple of Hanuman features a statue of a hideous giant ape, made out of black marble with glowing rubies for eyes. Though the statue is inanimate, the stone will be felt to slither if touched. During the day, many will make gifts of various kinds to placate this deity. But after nightfall, all with give the Temple and its priests a wide berth.
PTAH LORD OF THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS: Whether Ptah is a true God, or merely a powerful and ancient extra-solar astronaut is perhaps unimportant. It is said that High Priests of this entity are granted the ability to safely travel to other planets and even stars. It is also claimed that strange  “visitors” often frequent their temples. It was a devotee of Ptah who first invented the perspective tube, a device that allows the user to observe far objects in space or see features on the surface of other bodies—such as the spiraling towers of the Selenites or the artificial waterways of Mars.
RAN: Ran the ocean goddess is said to delight in shipwrecks and deaths upon the sea. She appears as a woman swimming between the waves, holding a net that she uses to lure mariners to their doom. Sailors often darkly joke about being favored by her: “Now on Ran’s bed must I soon be a-lying.” But Ran is also said to love gold, and thus it is the practice of some to toss treasure into the ocean to placate her, perhaps before a storm. Cults of Ran usually erect their temples near dangerous reefs.
SKADI: Skadi is the goddess of winter, snow, the mountains and hunting. She usually appears as a beautiful maiden wearing skis. (In the world of SEVEN VOYAGES of ZYLARTHEN, skis are utilized by many of the Northern peoples.) It is said that if a mortal man succeeds in making Skadi laugh, he will be greatly rewarded. Failure may have other consequences.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Gender Based Strength Maximums in Old School D&D

Only one of these characters has their strength capped at 16. Can you guess which one?

Yesterday, I called out Kotaku blogger, Cecilia D'Anastasio, for making a "howler" about early D&D in her recent post, Dungeons & Dragons Wouldn’t Be What It Is Today Without These Women. She claimed that a "mid-70's" ruleset of D&D capped strength for female characters at 14. Here is what she wrote:
Part of why this flew [misogyny in early D&D art] was because, in its very ruleset, D&D assumed a mostly-male audience. In the mid-70s, that ruleset faced accusations of chauvinism when it became clear that women characters’ strength was capped four points lower than men’s. It compensated with the “Beauty” attribute, a substitute for “Charisma” [the link are from the original].
But this, as anyone even cursorily familiar with any of the early editions of D&D could tell you, was false. I identified the origin of the error in a mistaken reading of an account by Jon Peterson in his essay, The First Female Gamers:
The first serious backlash against perceived chauvinism in Dungeons & Dragons arose in 1976, after the publication of Lenard Lakofka’s article “Women & Magic,” which he distributed in the July 1976 issue of his obscure fanzine Liaisons Dangereuses. In October, the third issue of The Dragon reprinted the article and added the subtitle, “Bringing the Distaff Gamer into D&D.” In keeping with the wargaming tradition, Lakofka tries to specify a simulation of how women might measure up as adventurers. Virtually all of the level titles are changed: women Fighters, for example, may be “Battle Maidens” or “Valkyries.” He suggests that women “may progress to the level of men in the area of magic and, in some ways, surpass men as thieves,” though “only as fighters are women clearly behind men in all cases.” For Strength, Lakofka has women roll one d8 and one d6 (for a range of 2–14) instead of the traditional three d6; he furthermore grants women a “Beauty” attribute as a substitute for Charisma in baseline Dungeons & Dragons.
I then mentioned that while there weren't any mandated gender differences in OD&D - the most plausible candidate for D'Anastasio's "mid-70's ruleset" - there were gender-based caps on strength for some demi-humans in a ruleset that would follow. As I put it:
One other fairly well-known actual fact that D'Anastasio could have mentioned, but didn't, is that in 1st edition AD&D, while human females are not limited when it comes to strength, some demi-human females have their strength capped a few points lower than their male counterparts, with no compensating advantages. It's particularly egregious in the case of gnomes and hobbits, whose male/female strength maximums are 18/15 and 17/14, respectively. But for some reason, female half-orcs can be just as strong as half-orc males. Don't ask me, I didn't write it.
Thus, in AD&D, as far as humans are concerned, there's no four-point difference or, indeed, any point difference in maximum strength caps by gender. "[H]uman females are not limited when it comes to strength . . . these [differences for demi-humans] didn't apply to humans, nor did any sex differences [for caps on strength] appear in 'mid-70s' OD&D."

Or so I claimed.

Actually, the last statement, above, is, if not completely false, not exactly precisely true, either, as two people reminded me on Google+ and the comments section of my blog. While there were no differences in strength maximums for genders in "mid-70's" D&D (OD&D), nor differences in maximum strength points for human genders in late-70's D&D (AD&D), tucked away in fine print on the strength chart on page 9 of the AD&D Players Handbook is the fact that for fighters with a strength of 18 - who are then entitled to a further percentile roll for exceptional strength - the strength of female fighters, is capped at 18(50), and that of female fighter half-orcs is capped at 18(75). Male fighters can theoretically get as high as 18(00).

I think I probably knew that back in the day but subsequently forgot about it, even though for some weird reason, those odd caps on female strength for smaller demi-humans will always be etched in my memory. It might have been that the rule never really came up in play - we didn't have any women fighters in the group, let alone women fighters with a strength of 18. And indeed, we knew warily from experience that anyone with a strength of 18 had probably cheated. He or she would have been the person who wanted to play the anti-paladin or whatever.

But in any case, I want to correct the record. Again, thanks to those two commenters.

And by the way, this appears to be exclusively an AD&D thing. Even though rolling percentiles for exceptional strength was first introduced in the OD&D supplement Greyhawk, no sex differences are mentioned.

So was Gary Gygax responsible for adding that into AD&D (even thought he hadn't put it in previous editions)? I think it's unclear. Many people had a hand in putting AD&D together, though Gygax obviously signed off on most of it.

Where does that leave us? Gender based strength maximums did not appear in OD&D, either in the three little brown books (1974) or the three supplements (1975-76). They did not appear in the Holmes Basic Set (1977).

They did appear in AD&D (1978), amounting to a difference of 1-3 points for elves, dwarves, halflings and gnomes, as well as a difference for half-orc and human fighters (but not other character classes), not in maximum points per se but in limitations on maximum exceptional strength - female fighters were denied the possibility of going past 18(50) (humans) or 18(75) (half-orcs). Here are the relevant charts:


Player's Handbook, p. 14.


Player's Handbook, p. 9.

They didn't appear in the Moldvay Basic Set (1981), nor in 2nd edition AD&D (1989). I suppose it's possible they were taken out of later printings of 1st edition AD&D, but I cannot verify that either way. Perhaps someone else with a later printing could let me know?

What does all this mean? Frankly, I don't intend it to mean anything, other than to accurately present what the rulesets actually said. I hope this is the last word. But with my luck, someone will point out that in 5th edition D&D (first printing), Transgender Tiefling Mage-Paladin-Assasins who are female on a Wednesday are limited to a 13 strength against their non-male-on-Wednesday comrades (who could potentially have a 14 strength if they made their knowledge roll).

As long as they didn't have a double Fizzbin.

I know, I shouldn't joke about sexism (or transgenderism, for that matter). It's not funny. Not funny at all.

Or, as they say in one particular gaming group, "I'm going to notify an Administrator."

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

More Historical Howlers from Cecilia D'Anastasio

D&D history as herstory

I assume Cecilia D'Anastasio would describe herself as a liberal feminist. Just to be clear, I have no issue with that when it comes to gaming or gaming journalism. If you want to write about gaming, I don't care what your politics are.

The problem is that D'Anastasio's politics constantly gets in the way of her journalism, to the point where, at least when it comes to Dungeons & Dragons, she's a terrible journalist, making factual mistake after factual mistake.

I criticized the inaccuracies of a previous article here. But she's just come out with another one, Dungeons & Dragons Wouldn’t Be What It Is Today Without These Women, which in many ways is worse. Among other things, it contains a number of factual howlers. Is she lying about the facts? I'm not going to go that far. Rather, I think that in her zeal to confirm her political narrative - that D&D used to be horribly sexist and chauvinist, largely due to the misogynistic views and behavior of Gary Gygax, but now it's emerged into the light of progressive tolerance and diversity - she's not very interested in getting the facts right. So she ignores things, or misunderstands things or just gets things wrong because, well, because she doesn't really care about the facts, per se, unless they serve an ideological purpose for her.

Women are stupid, at least when it comes to gaming. They don't even really care very much about gaming, or at least, real gaming. They're just posers trying to fit in with currently hip geek culture.

I don't believe that, of course. But if I did believe it, or were inclined to, I might think that D'Anastasio would provide excellent evidence for it. She's just about the best thing now going for that misogynistic stereotype.

Let's try this one, instead:

Dishonest political hacks shouldn't be trusted when it comes to game journalism.

And that applies to men as well as women, by the way, and to political partisans of both the left, right, center or wherever else one might choose to hang one's flag. That in game writing, these days, much of this tends to come from liberals or leftists - the so-called "SJW" crowd - is obvious. But let's stipulate that this is an arbitrary historical accident. In an alternate universe, it might have been moderate Republicans or monarchists or anarcho-capitalists or whatever. Or so some would argue.

But on to D'Anastasio's latest article. No, Diplomacy was not a "play-by-mail game," although like many games at the time it could be (and was) played by mail.

But here's the most outrageous howler. I'm excerpting the entire paragraph, to be fair:
Part of why this flew [misogyny in early D&D art] was because, in its very ruleset, D&D assumed a mostly-male audience. In the mid-70s, that ruleset faced accusations of chauvinism when it became clear that women characters’ strength was capped four points lower than men’s. It compensated with the “Beauty” attribute, a substitute for “Charisma.” D&D also featured a “Harlot Table,” a bounty of twelve “brazen strumpets or haughty courtesans” players could summon with the roll of a die [the links are from the original].
Now, the Harlot Table claim is quite true, as one can verify by clicking the link provided. It did in fact appear towards the back of the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide, although I'm not sure what she means by the "summoning" part. If you're interested in this sort of thing, there's notoriously much more of it, in, say, early Judges Guild products, such as the Ready Ref Sheets and City State of the Invincible Overlord.

One other fairly well-known actual fact that D'Anastasio could have mentioned, but didn't, is that in 1st edition AD&D, while human females are not limited when it comes to strength, some demi-human females have their strength capped a few points lower than their male counterparts, with no compensating advantages. It's particularly egregious in the case of gnomes and hobbits, whose male/female strength maximums are 18/15 and 17/14, respectively. But for some reason, female half-orcs can be just as strong as half-orc males. Don't ask me, I didn't write it.


Later edit (7/3/17): The above claim, "human females are not limited when it comes to strength [in AD&D]," isn't precisely true. See the follow-up post on 6/30/17, here.

But these didn't apply to humans, nor did any sex differences appear in "mid-70s" OD&D. That "in its very ruleset . . . women characters’ strength was capped four points lower than men’s (but was) compensated with the 'Beauty' attribute, a substitute for 'Charisma'" is just out and out false.

So, where did D'Anastasio get this from? Interestingly, she provides a link to her source, a 2014 article by Jon Peterson, The First Female Gamers. But here's what Peterson actually wrote:
The first serious backlash against perceived chauvinism in Dungeons & Dragons arose in 1976, after the publication of Lenard Lakofka’s article “Women & Magic,” which he distributed in the July 1976 issue of his obscure fanzine Liaisons Dangereuses. In October, the third issue of The Dragon reprinted the article and added the subtitle, “Bringing the Distaff Gamer into D&D.” In keeping with the wargaming tradition, Lakofka tries to specify a simulation of how women might measure up as adventurers. Virtually all of the level titles are changed: women Fighters, for example, may be “Battle Maidens” or “Valkyries.” He suggests that women “may progress to the level of men in the area of magic and, in some ways, surpass men as thieves,” though “only as fighters are women clearly behind men in all cases.” For Strength, Lakofka has women roll one d8 and one d6 (for a range of 2–14) instead of the traditional three d6; he furthermore grants women a “Beauty” attribute as a substitute for Charisma in baseline Dungeons & Dragons.
So it was in an article in the early The Dragon magazine (which was quickly slammed by many), not part of any edition of the rules. D'Anastasio simply misread Peterson. Anyone could have misread it, too, I suppose. But any gamer who know anything about the contents of, say, the 1974 Men & Magic or the 1978 AD&D Players Handbook would have instantly realized the mistake. D'Anastasio obviously has no such internal check. She writes about early D&D all the time - contrasting "bad" old D&D with "good" new D&D - but she literally has no idea what she's talking about, having almost certainly never read the early rulebooks. She doesn't even seem to be able to understand the claims of her secondary sources.

There are all sorts of other problems with D'Anastasio article that I won't go into here. The irony is that there is an interesting story to tell about women in the early days of D&D, and, to some extent, that story broadly maps D'Anastasio's desired theme - a small number of women, many largely forgotten, making important contributions to the hobby, within a male-dominated gaming culture that might have often validly been compared to that of a locker room if the participants hadn't been so nerdy.

But with all of her bias and carelessness, D'Anastasio isn't the one to tell that story. For now, read the fascinating Peterson article, instead.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

FBI Unabomber Investigation Report on Gary Gygax: "[Redacted] considers GYGAX to be eccentric and frightening. He is known to carry a weapon..."

Gary Gygax in 1999

What follows is a funny and fascinating piece of history.

A year ago, C.J. Ciaramella, a criminal justice reporter at Reason, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for any FBI files on TSR. Among other things, Ciaramella appears to have been looking for information pertaining to the FBI search of TSR offices in 1980, an incident based on a misunderstanding that a note written on TSR stationary involving the game Top Secret, alluded to a real-life assassination plot.

Ciaramella received back five documents. None of them were connected to the infamous 1980 search. Rather, there were two documents concerning a 1983 investigation into cocaine trafficking in Lake Geneva, which appeared to name Gary Gygax as a possible source, witness or even suspect (the crucial passages that would explain this are redacted).

In addition, and more interestingly, there were three 1995 documents concerning the Unabomber investigation. The FBI seems to have been following a lead that the bomber might have had some connection to a legal dispute between TSR and the Fresno Gaming Association. So they apparently interviewed someone at TSR.

The primary document spends a number of pages explaining the history of TSR and wargaming/roleplaying, I assume making use of information largely or entirely picked up from the source. It humorously gets a few things wrong, and (in my view) exaggerates an alleged feud between wargamers and roleplayers. As part of that, it records the snooty attitude of its TSR source towards wargamers:
[Redacted] advised that war gamers are generally extremely intelligent individuals. Often they will live frugally to support the cost of the war gaming hobby. [Redacted] further advised that the typical war gaming enthusiast is overweight and not neat in appearance.
Then the topic moves on to Gary Gygax, who was not at that time part of the company (having essentially been kicked out a number of years, before), but was still living in Lake Geneva. There was still a lot of bad blood between TSR and Gygax, and one can only imagine the barely suppressed glee that the unnamed source had in describing Gygax to the FBI in the most unflattering possible light. He was a drug abuser, gun nut and tax evader who had a weird obsession with prisoners and prisons. Perhaps he had some connection to the Unabomber?
In 1986 TSR bought out GYGAX's stock and guaranteed him a royalty on his gameware from 1986 through 1989. That agreement involved approximately $3 million. GYGAX later infringed TSR copyrights and was sued by TSR. [Redacted] determined that a settlement was more financially sound and GYGAX was guaranteed $50,000 per year for ten years. In the early 1980’s, GYGAX had been generating about $1 million per year in income. [Redacted] advised that GYGAX spent his money frivolously. GYGAX was involved in an unpleasant divorce and [Redacted] further advised that GYGAX was a drug abuser. GYGAX is approximately 55 years of age and is currently [redacted]. He lives on Madison Street in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and may be contacted at (414) xxx-xxxx. GYGAX maintains a mailing address as follows: P. O. Box 388, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. [Redacted] considers GYGAX to be eccentric and frightening. He is known to carry a weapon and was proud of his record of personally answering any letter coming from a prison. GYGAX set up a holding company in Liberia to avoid paying taxes. He is known to be a member of the Libertarian Party.
The actual Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, was arrested less than a year later. As far as I know, it was never determined that he had any connection to the wargaming or roleplaying hobbies.

During his bombing campaign, Kaczynski used the initials "FC," to describe his "group." He would later explain that it stood for "Freedom Club." But at the time, the FBI was desperately asking sources whether they had any ideas as to its meaning. This is what they came up with at TSR:
In the historical war context, F.C. stood for "Forward Center" which was a troop movement designation. It was also inscribed on cannons in the Franco-Prussian War, probably as an insignia.
Before presenting the document, let me say that in his short blog post, Reason reporter Ciaramella frames the situation misleadingly. He oddly does not reference the Unabomber case at all, and sort of implies that the FBI "kept a file on" Gygax. This isn't really true (as far as we know). And whatever one thinks of the FBI in general or the FBI in 1995 or whatever, I don't think it unreasonable for the agency to have followed all possible leads in this notorious pre-9/11 terrorism investigation - including even, I suppose, checking out wargamers and roleplayers. After all, the Unabomber turned out to be highly intelligent (especially in mathematics), eccentric, individualistic, socially awkward and very dedicated to his particular "hobby." That describes a few of us, I think. Or at least a few of us, back in the day.

And finally, who is "Redacted"? I assume it is Lorraine Williams, who headed TSR from 1986 until 1997, and had a dislike for both Gary Gygax and (according to many reports) gamers in general. Presumably, FBI agents are trained to take down the statements of sources and witnesses accurately, whatever they might think of their motivation or bias. And I imagine that veteran agents would have seen everything, including gossipy people dishing the dirt on former colleagues.

So, I think this is not so much an FBI thing, but a Lorraine Williams thing. It's not the government, say, tracking the activities of a potential subversive, but, rather, Lorraine Williams dissing Gygax - her former boss and the man who hired her - to the FBI.      

Here is a cleaned up version of the full document. The actual scan can be found here.
May 25 1995
FBI – San Francisco
[Redacted] TSR, INCORPORATED 201 Sheridan Springs Road, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, telephone number [redacted] was advised of the identity of the interviewing Agents. The interview was conducted in an attempt to determine the relationship between TSR. INCORPORATED [redacted] as FRESNO GAMING ASSOCIATION AND COMPANY. TSR was present during the interview. [Redacted] provided the following information.
TSR, INC. (TSR) is an entertainment industry which produces publications and holds licenses related to fantasy role-playing games. The games are researched, written and illustrated by TSR employees or by freelance artists. The material is finalized and forwarded to a print agency and returned to TSR for packaging. TSR derives a majority of their profits from publications and the licensing of its copyrighted gaming materials. TSR licenses computer games as well and participates in numerous industry conventions nationwide.
TSR founded and operates the largest gaming convention in the world called GEN-CON. GEN-CON was originally named with reference to the GENEVA CONVENTION. The convention attracts approximately 25,000 attendees and focuses primarily on role-playing rather than war gaming. It is routinely held in August of each year and is marking its 27th year in 1995.
TSR employs approximately 120 persons and is considered to be the largest national role playing gaming corporation. [Redacted] noted that TSR has an extremely high concentration of very intelligent persons in employment. She added that many of the employees have parents in academia, often outstanding in' their respective fields. TSR formerly operated two offices in California, one in Beverly Hills and one in Westwood. Both California offices have been closed and TSR only maintains offices in Lake Geneva and England. TSR originated in the 1970s as a direct result of the gaming activities of persons affiliated with the GENEVA WAR GAMING ASSOCIATION. TSR originally was an acronym for TACTICAL STUDIES RULES, however only the initials have been retained as the name of the corporation.
War gaming and fantasy role playing differ in that war gaming involves a reenactment of historical wars and fantasy role playing involves adventures of fictional scenarios and characters. War gaming traditionally involved the staging of one day of battle in one war for strategic review by the war gamers. Miniature figures, often hand painted in the appropriate colors for the battle, would be arranged in a manner identical to the troop placement at the actual battle. The subsequent day of battle may not be reenacted for a month while the strategic possibilities are examined. The miniature figures originally were 25mm lead figures, but were-later formed of aluminum and pewter alloys. [Redacted] advised that war gamers are generally extremely intelligent individuals. Often they will live frugally to support the cost of the war gaming hobby. [Redacted] further advised that the typical war gaming enthusiast is overweight and not neat in appearance.
DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS (D & D) was a fantasy role playing game originally named CHAINMAIL, produced by GARY GYGAX and DAVE ARNESON in 1972 and sold from GYGAX’S basement. In 1973, GYGAX, DONALD KAYE and [Redacted] formed a partnership in the gaming industry that evolved in 1975 into TSR. GYGAX operated the TSR branch office in Beverly Hills, California, doing business as DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS ENTERTAINMENT CORPORATION (DDEC).
In approximately 1976, the war gaming industry experienced a realignment that resulted in the traditional war gamers becoming very angry and resentful toward TSR. A major war gaming company named SIMULATION PUBLICATION, INC. (SPI) encountered significant financial trouble and was purchased by TSR. At the time of the buyout, SPI was a war gaming company and TSR was a fantasy role playing company. Many of the war gamers believe that SPI was sabotaged by TSR so that they could be acquired and quashed. [Redacted] believed that the purchase of SPI, which occurred [redacted] involved a forgiveness of debt and no funds actually changed hands. [redacted] has not been able to locate an itemization of game titles which were included in the deal and advised that there is still some confusion about the details of the purchase. [Redacted] noted that some war gamers continue to hold the anger from this purchase. She recalled a message on the Internet approximately three weeks ago which recalled TSR's acquisition of SPI in a derogatory connotation.
War gamers from the era of the 1970s are now aged in their late 40s to early 50s. Following the sale of SPI, they became further enraged at TSR when TSR began to scale back the war gaming portion of their company until it was almost non-existent. [Redacted] advised that war gaming appealed to a small but fiercely loyal population and war game production was not even profitable enough to be maintained at SPI's levels. A major portion of production costs were devoted to “counters" which were cardboard punch-out pieces designed to represent war vehicles. The "counters" reduced the profits of war gaming sets to a level that TSR found unacceptable. [Redacted] noted that fantasy role playing sets seldom required counters, could be produced for a fraction of the cost and appealed to a much larger audience.
In the [redacted] FRESNO had promised the reissue of the SPI titles to their constituents and had allegedly engaged in copyright infringement of certain games which had not come under their legal control. TSR dealt with litigation against FRESNO for years and then forwarded the management of the copyright infringement matter to JENNER BLOCK, 1 IBM PLAZA, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS. Through JENNER threatened to sue FRESNO. Attorneys for TSR forwarded a “Cease and Desist" order and [Redacted] learned that FRESNO blamed TSR for their impending bankruptcy. The attorneys at JENNER & BLOCK who handled this matter included [Redacted]. All records related to this litigation are maintained at the offices of JENNER & BLOCK. With the sale of the SPI titles to DECISION GAMES, the litigation against FRESNO became the concern of DECISION GAMES. TSR retains only 7 or 8 war gaming titles of the original 200 obtained with the purchase of SPI.
[Redacted] described the company as financially unstable and in need of reorganization [redacted]. TSR continued to produce war gaming sets and even sold several strategy modules to the Pentagon, however [Redacted] found the interaction with GYGAX at TSR to be very difficult. In 1986 TSR bought out GYGAX's stock and guaranteed him a royalty on his gameware from 1986 through 1989. That agreement involved approximately $3 million. GYGAX later infringed TSR copyrights and was sued by TSR. [Redacted] determined that a settlement was more financially sound and GYGAX was guaranteed $50,000 per year for ten years. In the early 1980’s, GYGAX had been generating about $1 million per year in income. [Redacted] advised that GYGAX spent his money frivolously. GYGAX was involved in an unpleasant divorce and [Redacted] further advised that GYGAX was a drug abuser. GYGAX is approximately 55 years of age and is currently [redacted]. He lives on Madison Street in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and may be contacted at (414) xxx-xxxx. GYGAX maintains a mailing address as follows: P. O. Box 388, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. [Redacted] considers GYGAX to be eccentric and frightening. He is known to carry a weapon and was proud of his record of personally answering any letter coming from a prison. GYGAX set up a holding company in Liberia to avoid paying taxes. He is known to be a member of the Libertarian Party.
GYGAX is probably familiar with [redacted]. [Redacted] believes that GYGAX would be extremely uncooperative if the Federal Bureau of Investigation FBI attempted to interview him regarding his knowledge of [Redacted] FRESNO. [Redacted] added that war gamers are very loyal to one another and interviewees should be selected carefully so that the investigation is not jeopardized.
In 1988 TSR sold approximately 25 of the war gaming titles which TSR had acquired of SP1. The purchaser of these titles was WORLD WIDE WARGAMES which may have been located in Bekersfield, California. [Redacted] were affiliated with WWW at the time of the sale.
In 1994 TSR sold about 100 of the former-SPI titles to DECISION GAMES.
[Redacted]
[Redacted] FRESNO GAMING ASSOCIATION (FRESNO) prior to the acquisition of SPI by TSR. FRESNO was an informal club composed of a variety of war gamers however the organization did not appear to function as a company. Ultimately, FRESNO may have incorporated to collect dues to cover the cost of publication. [Redacted] was not aware of [Redacted] official capacity in the organization. She recalled that [Redacted] was involved with SPI prior to TSR’s purchase and had offered a small amount of money for war gaming titles which TSR had made available for sale. [Redacted] did not obtain the rights to any of the titles.
In the historical war context, F.C. stood for "Forward Center" which was a troop movement designation. It was also inscribed on cannons in the Franco-Prussian War, probably as an insignia.
[Redacted] were presented with the photographs of the wooden box utilized for the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) which was mailed aboard American Airlines flight #444 on 11/15/79. Neither could provide information regarding the origin or purpose of the box. Neither was familiar with the hinge on the box as depicted in the photographs and further described by the Agents.
[Redacted] were presented with the composite drawing of the suspect in the captioned matter. Neither had ever met [Redacted] and therefore could not comment on any possible resemblance. I advised that TSR employee [Redacted] and may be contacted regarding this.
[Redacted]
[Redacted]
TSR was the victim of two separate bomb threat incidents. No detonation occurred and the perpetrator(s) were never determined. The first incident occurred in 1986 and involved a series of phone calls which served as a countdown to the alleged day of detonation. Another threat in 1992 or 1993 was also received at TSR. TSR agreed with the conclusion of the Lake Geneva Police that most recent threat was probably just a prank. The Lake Geneva, Wisconsin police departments should have record of these incidents.
[Redacted] could not provide additional information regarding these threats. She advised that she would contact TSR’s [Redacted] for additional information.
[Redacted] that it would not be in the best interests of TSR to broadcast the receipt of the aforementioned threats. Further, [Redacted] preferred that the employees were not made aware of the presence of Agents of the FBI at TSR. [redacted] added that this kind of information could easily end up posted on the Internet system by the end of the day.
[Redacted] suggested that the dates of the placement and detonation of the captioned case devices may coincide with events of the Vietnam War. [Redacted] recalled the passion of the students at UCB during the War and suggested that the suspect may have arisen from that era. [Redacted ] also recalled a scandal in the mid to late 1980s involving several Professors at UCB and some east coast universities wherein renowned research was later determined to have been plagiarized.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Is D&D About Storytelling?


I think it clearly is.

Now, I know that "story," "story game," "storytelling" and so on are almost trigger words for some people (they are for me). People who use these terms are often intentionally telegraphing that they are on a particular side, sometimes in the edition wars or roleplaying philosophy wars, or sometimes even on a particular political side - "It's about storytelling, not killing things and taking their gold, you violent and greedy fascist!" But still, the basic fact that Dungeons & Dragons is about storytelling seems undeniable. That doesn't mean that D&D is only about storytelling; it's about a lot of other things, as well. But story is a big part of it.

Story often conjures up touchy-feely images of Native American shamans telling tales of the Earth Mother around the fire, or teenage girls discussing their EMO Drow crushes or whatever. But, of course, it doesn't have to be anything like that.

Actually, I think many non-RPG games are in part about telling stories, especially games with a lot of "realistic" detail. When I had the time and a willing partner who had the time (my father), I used to love playing World in Flames. That's the WWII monster game that involves multiple card tables covered with maps and chits. It took weeks to play. I always preferred strategic WWII games to tactical games, partly because I felt that the war was  a fascinating story (as horrible as it was for the actual people involved). And "alternative" WWII stories were just as fascinating to me. I remember to this day the story that my father and I simulated about the invasion of Britain. It started with paratroop drops in Wales and Northern Scotland and went from there. (My father was a great competitor, but if he had a weakness, it was for failing to anticipate weird things that never actually happened. He never thought the Germans would be so bold or - to him - foolhardy as to create a beachhead in the Scottish highlands.) The alternative history Battle of Britain was still raging two years later when the Americans entered the war, but it was so hot that the Yanks had to land in Ireland.

It's the story that I remember. I don't remember the actual rules much at all.

In some ways, even abstract games create stories. Think back to the most exciting Little League game you ever played.

But I digress. What also seems undeniable to me is that every D&D game that was ever played has featured a story being told or acted out by a combination of the DM and the players. It's never one or the other. Indeed, I'm not sure the degree to which it's told by one or the other has ever varied that much.

So, to me, the interesting question is not about who tells the story, but about who creates the story, or how it is created.

Previously, I made fun of Kotaku blogger Cecilia D'Anastasio for implying that in our "liberated" times, it's the players telling the story (as opposed to a Gygaxian DM), or as she put it, "many voices are greater than one." I was harsh on her, for, as I argued, getting the history of D&D exactly wrong. To be fair to her, she never said that the "many voices" were creating the story, though I think she implied it. But the more I think about it, the more strongly I feel. The way I see it, her "many voices" are all in a sense jointly telling the same story, but it's a story that has largely already been created for them by the scenario author (in the contemporary published modules she seems to favor). I actually think that's a bit creepy. Many voices singing the same tune, imposed upon them by someone else. Whatever that is, it's not liberation, nor is really a game anymore. Nor, to paraphrase an AD&D Gygaxianism, is it really D&D.

It sounds like that dystopian scene from A Wrinkle in Time.

I exaggerate, of course. Players (and DM's) still have a fair amount of freedom to come up with their own mini-stories, even in the most railroady of adventures. But the general point stands. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about players as puppets. Even though it was clear where my preferences were, I tried to be somewhat neutral on the issue. One commenter wrote that sitting back and merely participating in a story (without really creating it) could sometimes be fun, at least for short sessions. I mostly agree with that.

Another commented that when he was a DM in school (I'm not sure of the era), his players didn't really want to drive the story, but preferred to be more passive. They didn't really want to think, or at least think in ways that would change the game (the thinking thing is me interpreting it, not the commenter). Without condemning those players or their attitude as wrong, I'm still going to take a "kids these days" line. Kids these days don't want to think. They don't know how not to be passive. They must be spoon-fed everything.

Kids these days.

When I was a a kid (back in other days) and a DM, my fellow kid players were never passive. Indeed, it often was positively annoying. You put all of this thought and planning into creating a fun adventure experience just for them, and then they went tramping off in another direction just to be ornery and difficult. How ungrateful.

I ran my share of quasi-railroady adventures. For example, I read and reread In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords - that's the one where your players all wake up with no weapons, armor, magic items or spells in a completely dark cave. (Obviously, you probably have to railroad them into that). Earth tremors are going off at increasing intervals, and the players have to find their way out by combating disgusting giant bugs and fungi creatures. I couldn't wait to play it, or, rather, I couldn't wait to run my players through it.

My players. Run them.

Okay, player-characters, but still.

Finally, I did. And I think we all had fun. But here's the thing. I remember a bit of the scenario (through reading it), but I don't remember a damn thing about what my players did in the scenario. They got out, but I don't remember how.

The main things by far that I remember about my campaign were not the times where I ran the players through an adventure, but all the quirky goofy things that my players did to create their own adventures.

Once, they were in a city, trying to see a high-level wizard so that he could identify a magic item, or some such. The wizard's assistant was being obnoxious. He would stick his hand out the little window of the door in the wizard's tower and demand money, "promising" to fetch the wizard. But he never did. Rather, he would just open the window again, stick his hand out, demand more money and shut the window. The players would knock yet again. Out went the hand for more money. And so on. I can't remember whether I rolled that or just made it up or whatever. But that irritating little man just kept sticking his hand out.

At a certain point, the fighter said, "I've had enough of this." He took out his axe and chopped the man's hand off.

The next two sessions revolved around the players trying to figure out how to escape the city without getting spelled to death. Or, rather, they pretended they were trying to escape, but were in fact taking it to the wizard by coming up with an ingenious plan to kill him. In the end they succeeded, barely. If I forget everything else about the overall campaign, I will never forget that little mini-adventure. If I forget everything else about the mini-adventure, I'll never forget the look on the other players' faces when the fighter (I imagined) put the bloody axe back in his belt.

I can't speak for all the players, but it was the most fun I ever had as a DM.

And I had absolutely nothing to do with it. Most of the time I just sat back and watched them plan.

I know, reading my DM stories is a bit like being forced to watch home movies. I'll stop now. But I hope you get the point.

You have those stories, too.

I understand when people complain about players bickering among themselves or arguing for an hour about which turn to take or whatever, but I actually think even that can often be fun, in moderation, of course. At least they're creating their own story.

Another commenter wrote that we in the OSR tend to romanticize early D&D as being more player-driven and sandboxy than it really was. I think that's true to a point. I guess I had a much more railroady philosophy (though I wouldn't have called it that or didn't realize it) back in the day. I've grown up (or so I'd like to think).

But maybe many DM's have the control impulse inside us, at least a little. We need the OSR to "cure" us, even though we can never be completely cured. It's like that other thing with the three-letter acronym that starts and ends with "A."

"My name is Oakes Spalding, and I'm a story-creating DM." 

The first D&D campaigns were all built around megadungeons. My first campaign started with my own megadungeon. It's easy for critics like D'Anastasio to imply that these were symbols of DM control. They were dungeons, after all, designed and administered by the DM. There were only a few entrances and exits. And once you got out, there was only a little village, or whatever, at least at first.

But while the DM created the dungeon, he didn't create the story. In the beginning, there was no story, just a map and a room key.

In a sense, the very term "Dungeon Master" created a misunderstanding. Men & Magic didn't use the term, going with "referee" instead. (The first use of "Dungeon Master" or "DM" in a rule set was, ironically, in the first edition of Tunnels & Trolls.)

"Dungeon Master" would soon conjure up images of an immature sadist in a bad Tom Hanks movie, getting his jollies out of killing the characters of his players or putting them into bizarre and uncomfortable situations just to mess with their heads. I'm sure that sort of thing was not unknown. But I never encountered anyone who played that way. 

I think "referee" gets it exactly right.

Why do you even need a referee? One reason is that the level of detail in D&D is so high that you couldn't possibly simulate it all with unambiguous rules. Someone has to interpret them or make rulings on the fly. Another is that part of the fun of D&D is exploration and surprise. You need someone outside and above the game who knows things that the players do not, or do not know yet.

But the role of the referee is not that of a story teller (although partly due to that unknown element, he will end up doing a fair amount of telling), nor, more importantly, is it to create a story. Rather, the referee designs the environment (or studies one designed by others). The story is created by the players interacting with the environment, with the referee there to, well, to referee.

Or, at least, that's the ideal.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld

The Darkness Beneath, published in serial form in the magazine Fight On!

There has been some interesting blogging on megadungeons, recently.

Yesterday, Wayne Rossi at Semper Iniativus Unum asked, Why Build a Megadungeon in 2017? Peter V. Dell'Orto at Dungeon Fantastic followed it up with More Thoughts on Megadungeons, and then Rossi posted Megadungeons, Bosses and Goals, today. Both authors have written many great posts on the subject over the years.

Dell'Orto has a useful page on his site that compiles his posts, as well as directing the reader to a more general compilation of megadungeon resources at Ken "Rusty" H's The Rusty Battle Axe.

David Hartlage at DmDavid has compiled a useful list of published megadungeons (as of late 2015), here.

Rossi and Dell-Orto make a number of helpful and interesting points, but the most memorable part of the exchange is Rossi's claim that to him, using a megadungeon that you didn't design yourself is like wearing someone else's pants to your own wedding. This is one of those times where even though personal preference is obviously important, there's room for a bit of objective analysis and persuasion. I still have no problem running Stonehell or contemplating running Barrowmaze or whatever, but I admit that Rossi pushed me a bit more into thinking about going back to my own dungeon projects.

The exchange also prompted me to reread Jason Cone's short section on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" in his seminal Philotomy's Musings, A collection of interpretations, house rulings, expansions, and general pontification on the nature of the Original Dungeons & Dragons rules by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Many, if not most of you are no doubt familiar with this 49-page PDF. If you're not, you're in for a treat. It's one of the main resources that got me excited about coming back into the hobby a few years ago, as well as making me consider or reconsider OD&D (as opposed to, say, AD&D).

Cone (AKA Philotomy) argues that the dungeon or megadungeon may be usefully thought of as more than just a big hole in the ground with levels, monsters and treasures. Rather, it may be a "mythic" world of its own, possibly even subject to its own rules or laws. Thus, one need not be embarrassed or feel like one has to completely justify or explain the dungeon's contrived seeming elements by coming up with a completely coherent dungeon "ecology" or whatever. That weird things happen - all dungeon inhabitants can see in the dark (until they join your party), doors shut mysteriously and so on - may be a feature not a bug. I'm not putting it very well. As you'll see, below, Cone is much more articulate and persuasive.

I don't think Cone is arguing that a dungeon should be a completely random "funhouse," but he makes a good case that something a bit more than a totally "naturalistic" interpretation may sometimes be satisfying. This conception goes back to OD&D and its vibe. But, of course, there's no reason why one couldn't adapt it to AD&D or even 5e mechanics.

I've taken the liberty of excerpting the entire section. If you don't have a copy of the PDF of Musings, you can download a free version here, in a nice-looking OD&D style layout put together by Jason Vey. Greg Gorgonmilk also "recovered" it here.

In other places in the Musings, Cone has a funny style. "Considering OD&D?" he titles one section, as if he's innocuously handing you a religious pamphlet or asking you to try a new drug you might have heard about. "Well, here's what you should know," he could have added. And then there's the way he ends his discourse on the mythic dungeon, a place where you may end up alone in the dark, wondering why your monstrous pursuers always have such an easy time opening those doors: "And boy, is it fun."           
THE DUNGEON AS A MYTHIC UNDERWORLD 
There are many interpretations of "the dungeon" in D&D. OD&D, in particular, lends itself to a certain type of dungeon that is often called a "megadungeon" and that I usually refer to as "the underworld." There is a school of thought on dungeons that says they should have been built with a distinct purpose, should "make sense" as far as the inhabitants and their ecology, and shouldn't necessarily be the centerpiece of the game (after all, the Mines of Moria were just a place to get through). None of that need be true for a megadungeon underworld. There might be a reason the dungeon exists, but there might not; it might simply be. It certainly can, and perhaps should, be the centerpiece of the game. As for ecology, a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it. For example, consider the OD&D approach to doors and to vision in the underworld: 
Generally, doors will not open by turning the handle or by a push. Doors must be forced open by strength…Most doors will automatically close, despite the difficulty in opening them. Doors will automatically open for monsters, unless they are held shut against them by characters. Doors can be wedged open by means of spikes, but there is a one-third chance (die 5-6) that the spike will slip and the door will shut…In the underworld some light source or an infravision spell must be used. Torches, lanterns, and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to "see" the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind. Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character. (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, pg 9) 
Special Ability functions are generally as indicated in CHAINMAIL where not contradictory to the information stated hereinafter, and it is generally true that any monster or man can see in total darkness as far as the dungeons are concerned except player characters. (Monsters & Treasure, pg 5) 
Notice that all characters, including those which can see in normal darkness (e.g. elves, dwarves), require a light source in the underworld, while all denizens of the place possess infravision or the ability to see in total darkness. Even more telling, a monster that enters the service of a character loses this special vision. Similarly, characters must force their way through doors and have difficulty keeping them open; however, these same doors automatically open for monsters. This is a clear example of how the normal rules do not apply to the underworld, and how the underworld, itself, works against the characters exploring it. 
Of course, none of this demands that every dungeon need be a mythic underworld; there could be natural caves and delved dungeon sites that are not in the "underworld" category, and follow more natural laws. Nevertheless, the central dungeon of the campaign benefits from the strange other-worldliness that characterizes a mythic underworld. 
A mythic underworld should not be confused with the concept of the "underdark." The underdark concept is that of an underground wilderness composed of miles of caves, tunnels, delved sites, and even whole underground cities. This is a cool fantasy concept, but is distinct from the concept of a mythic underworld that obeys its own laws and is weird, otherworldly, and apart from the natural order of things. (There is no reason a referee couldn't join the two concepts of underworld and underdark, though.) 
Some common characteristics and philosophies for a mythic underworld or megadungeon (keep these in mind when creating your dungeon):
  1. It's big, and has many levels; in fact, it may be endless
  2. It follows its own ecological and physical rules
  3. It is not static; the inhabitants and even the layout may grow or change over time
  4. It is not linear; there are many possible paths and interconnections
  5. There are many ways to move up and down through the levels.
  6. Its purpose is mysterious or shrouded in legend
  7. It's inimical to those exploring it
  8. Deeper or farther levels are more dangerous
  9. It's a (the?) central feature of the campaign 
If you embrace these concepts, you'll be playing OD&D according to some of the original assumptions of the game. And boy, is it fun.