Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Whole of Fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons

Jupiter and Europa by Marit Berg

Last night I was reading a pdf copy of Europa when I ran across an article by Gary Gygax, How to Set Up Your Dungeons & Dragons Campaign - and Be Stuck Refereeing it Seven Days per Week Until the Wee Hours of the Morning! This was actually the second part of a series he had been writing, which I have yet to fully explore as I haven't found any other copies of Europa other than this one, and I noticed something that I had suspected for some time but not actually seen in print before. Gary wrote, ". . . Now fantasy / swords & sorcery games need not have any fixed basis for the assumptions made by its referee (my own doesn't) except those which embrace the whole of fantasy . . . Settings based upon the limits (if one can speak of fantasy limits) can be very interesting in themselves providing the scope of the setting will allow the players relative free-reign to their imaginations. Typical settings are: Teutonic / Norse Mythology; Medieval European Folklore (including King Arthur, Holger the Dane, and so on); The Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser; Indian Mythology; and Lost Continents such as Atlantis or Mu. Regardless of the setting you can have it all taking place on an 'alternative earth' or a parallel world . . ." (Gygax, 18).

The part that got my attention was that first line, that ". . . fantasy / swords & sorcery games need not have any fixed basis for the assumptions made by its referee . . . except those which embrace the whole of fantasy . . ." (Gygax, 18). Embrace the whole of fantasy.

Too often when I read and discuss role-playing games - especially when concerning Dungeons & Dragons - I find that there are all of these established boundaries that delineate what I'm allowed to do with my games. The world must be set in a quasi-Medieval time period. Guns, if they exist at all, should be rare. The world should feel big and the players a small part of it. Oh, and the literary inspiration for your games should come from Tolkien, Martin, or Gygax's Appendix N. 

Fantasy, especially the way that the term was understood before we decided to subdivide everything to death, was so much larger than the truncated spectrum that comes from limiting our imaginations to any guiding light. Take for example my own favorite source of inspiration: pulp fantasy. 


I know that for some of my readers they might be reminded of James Maliszewski's exploration of pulp fantasy and his definition of the term or as he put it ". . . In general, 'pulp fantasy' roughly equates to what we nowadays call 'sword and sorcery.' However, the term is more expansive than that, because it also includes authors and stories that do not, strictly speaking, fall under sword and sorcery, such as Burroughs and other 'sword and planet' authors, as well as 'weird tales' of the Lovecraftian variety. I chose the term because, by and large, most of the authors whom Gygax cites as influences in the famous Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide were published in the pulp magazines of the 20s through 50s . . ." (Maliszewski).

Unfortunately James' definition of pulp fantasy ignores a large part of what made up the pulp fantasy of the era. As a result, if we were to hold to his definition than we wouldn't consider pulp standards like Doc Savage, Buck Rogers, Tarzan of the Apes, The Shadow, Green Lama, or Zorro as something that we should look to for inspiration in our Dungeons & Dragons games. Our heroes would be craven things who acted out of a slavish devotion to selfishness rather than because they were doing the right thing. We wouldn't have alien battles, tanks, high speed car chases, mystical hokum, or super heroics. Instead we would be bound to endlessly repeating pale imitations of Howard's adventures and Tolkien's quests.


Listen, It's all too common for people to coalesce around an idea and codify it as conventional wisdom. Today in our hobby we have as our conventional wisdom the standard refrain that our Dungeons & Dragons styled games are all supposed to be pseudo-Medieval affairs hinged on the literary roots of Conan the Barbarian, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and the Lord of the Rings; and James held to this line of thought in his discussion of pulp fantasy. As a community we have internalized this conventional wisdom and now it is taken for granted that if we are playing Dungeons & Dragons then it must be this way and any deviation is anathema.

Yet it doesn't have to be that way. 

Yes, we can explore a setting bound by certain limits as Gary noted in Europa, but we can also go further and take the game in different directions without it being something other than Dungeons & Dragons. We can hop a ride on the back of a floating cart with hairy aliens and six legged horses to take back our lives like Prince Valentine did in Robert Silverberg's  Lord Valentine's Castle. Or we can race across the globe in a desperate race to get back home after we crash landed on some god forsaken planet like Adam Reith did in Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure novels. We could even fight evil like Buck Rogers in Philip Francis Nowlan's Armageddon 2419 A.D. But we don't; because too often we let ourselves be convinced that if we're playing Dungeons & Dragons it has to be the same way that everyone else has always played it. We have to be Aragon dragging some fat, little halflings half way across the world to save it on an epic quest; or we have to Conan sneaking his way through the palace. 

I have spent the better part of the last decade having fun exploring worlds like that but they're not enough any more. I want my games to be more. I want aliens. I want laser guns and high speed rocket chases across the universe. I want to fight evil. I want to out smart the villain and save the day. I want to go to sleep and wake up a thousand years later only to jump right into a gun fight as I rush to the aide of some poor sap beset by vicious gangs. 

There is so much out there for a Dungeons & Dragons game to be that isn't just a rehashing of Howard and Tolkien. I want all of it. I want the whole of fantasy.





Works Cited

Gygax, Gary. "How to Set Up Your Dungeons & Dragons Campaign - and Be Stuck Refereeing it Seven Days per Week Until the Wee Hours of the Morning!" Europa. April 1975. pg 18. pdf

Maliszewski, James. "What is Pulp Fantasy?" GROGNARDIA, http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2008/04/what-is-pulp-fantasy.html. Accessed February 21, 2017.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Cthulhu and the Old Ones Sing the Blues: The Beast in the Cave


The Beast in the Cave is the first story published in The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. The story was written by H.P. Lovecraft when he was only 14 years old and shows signs of the author's inexperience. The story is short, only six pages, and builds towards a conclusion that makes little sense in connection with the information the author provides his readers. 

Still there are hints of the weird fiction elements that would become more pronounced in his later works once the Beast makes its appearance. While it's an early effort by Lovecraft it still has the hallmarks of his prose which make for an enjoyable, if all to light, read. Largely a forgettable story that leaves me unfulfilled. 

If you haven't read this one yet, then you're not missing anything.


Table of Contents
Introduction
The Beast in the Cave
The Alchemist
The Tomb
Dagon
A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson
Polaris
Beyond the Wall of Sleep
Memory
Old Bugs
The Transition of Juan Romero
The White Ship
The Street
The Doom that came to Sarnath
The Statement of Randolph Carter
The Terrible Old Man
The Cats of Ulthar
The Tree
Celephais
The Picture in the House
The Temple
Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family
From Beyond
Nyarlathotep
The Quest of Iranon
The Music of Erich Zann
Ex Oblivione
Sweet Ermengarde
The Nameless City
The Outsider
The Moon-bog
The Other Gods
Azathoth
Herbert West - Reanimator
Hypnos
What the Moon Brings
The Hound
The Lurking Fear
The Rats in the Walls
The Unnamable
The Festival
Under the Pyramids
The Shunned House
The Horror at Red Hook
He
In the Vault
Cool Air
The Call of Cthulhu
Pickman's Model
The Strange High House in the Mist
The Silver Key
The Dream-Quest of Unkown Kadath
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
The Color Out of Space
The Descendant
The Very Old Folk
History of the Necronomicon
The Dunwich Horror
IBID
The Whisperer in the Darkness
At the Mountains of Madness
The Shadow Over Innsmouth
The Dreams in the Witch House
Through the Gates of the Silver Key
The Thing on the Doorstep
The Evil Clergy Man
The Book
The Shadow Out of Time
The Haunter of the Dark

Cthulhu and the Old Ones Sing the Blues: Introduction

I like big projects and series that tend to push me to accomplish things with my blog that I wouldn't otherwise attempt. It keeps me honest. It motivates me - and right now I need that because I have a lot that I want to do on the blog this year. Anyway, way back in December, 2016 I got this bright idea that I was going to do a complete read through of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction so I purchased a copy of The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft from Amazon and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.


Then it arrived  earlier this week and I was thrilled. The book looks to be of a fair quality and I absolutely love the subdued cover.

So here's the deal.

Over the course of this year I'm going to be reading all 69 short stories and novellas contained within this weighty tome. As I go along I'm going to be publishing my thoughts on the stories here on the blog under the series Cthulhu and the Old Ones Sing the Blues because I think that title is hilarious and it's my blog. You're more than welcome to join along in the process as I would love to hear your thoughts as we progress.

Now I should mention that the works of H.P. Lovecraft are in a kind of nebulous space within copyright law as there is a party that claims ownership of the copyright but has not yet produced proof of it so far as I've been able to ascertain online. You see you can read all of his works online, for free, from places like hplovecraft.com and the internet archive yet you have a copyright holder who is trying to assert their claim and from here things get into legal terms that I'm unskilled in describing or involving myself in. So instead I'm going to be very clear from the outset that I will be using quotes form H.P. Lovecraft sparingly and only in furtherance of the discussion of his works as is covered under Fair Use. I have no intention of circumventing anyone's claim on the property and have no interest in being sued. My only goal is to explore his works and to gain from them as a writer, reader, and Game Master. 

With that out of the way, welcome to the Cthulhu and the Old Ones Sing the Blues!


Table of Contents
Introduction
The Beast in the Cave
The Alchemist
The Tomb
Dagon
A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson
Polaris
Beyond the Wall of Sleep
Memory
Old Bugs
The Transition of Juan Romero
The White Ship
The Street
The Doom that came to Sarnath
The Statement of Randolph Carter
The Terrible Old Man
The Cats of Ulthar
The Tree
Celephais
The Picture in the House
The Temple
Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family
From Beyond
Nyarlathotep
The Quest of Iranon
The Music of Erich Zann
Ex Oblivione
Sweet Ermengarde
The Nameless City
The Outsider
The Moon-bog
The Other Gods
Azathoth
Herbert West - Reanimator
Hypnos
What the Moon Brings
The Hound
The Lurking Fear
The Rats in the Walls
The Unnamable
The Festival
Under the Pyramids
The Shunned House
The Horror at Red Hook
He
In the Vault
Cool Air
The Call of Cthulhu
Pickman's Model
The Strange High House in the Mist
The Silver Key
The Dream-Quest of Unkown Kadath
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
The Color Out of Space
The Descendant
The Very Old Folk
History of the Necronomicon
The Dunwich Horror
IBID
The Whisperer in the Darkness
At the Mountains of Madness
The Shadow Over Innsmouth
The Dreams in the Witch House
Through the Gates of the Silver Key
The Thing on the Doorstep
The Evil Clergy Man
The Book
The Shadow Out of Time
The Haunter of the Dark

Friday, February 17, 2017

Explorations of Other Settings

As long time readers will no doubt testify, I love me some Greyhawk. I make posters about the setting, write blog posts exploring it, and generally just fly my Greyhawk Flag high. But lately I've been thinking a lot about diving into a new setting and just kind of finding out what else is out there beyond the borders of the Dyvers and the known shores of my humble world.

Judge of Ages by John Harris

Where to explore though?

To be perfectly honest the lands and environs of our shared fantasy worlds are too numerous to even attempt to name them all, so instead I'm going to limit the choices to the books I currently own and can fairly confidently explore as a result. Let's see, looking at my bookcase that gives me a few choices: Blackmoor, the Forgotten Realms (Neverwinter), the Forgotten Realms (general), Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Palladium World (PFRP), the Old World (WFRP), Mystara (Karameikos), Red Steel, Alternity, the Iron Kingdoms (IKFRP 3rd Edition variation), Talislanta, Post Earth (Gamma World 1st Edition), Eberron (3rd Edition variation), Eberron (4th Edition variation), Dragonlance (1st Edition), Dragonlance (Tales of the Lance variation), Dragonlance (3rd Edition variation), Star Frontiers (Alpha Dawn Basic/Expanded), Chaos Earth (RIFTS), Hollow World (2nd Edition variations), Al Qadim, Once & Future King (Amazing Engine), and Bughunters (Amazing Engine).

I'm a bit hard pressed to make a decision on these so I'm going to throw a poll up on the right to let you guys help me pick. For the ones with more than one entry I'm going to put them up once and then, if they win, we'll have a run off for which one you all find the most interesting. Right, so, good luck to your favorites. Vote early; choose as many as you like, and vote often.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Forward Progress 1

Progress Report

Entries Read: 2,500
Blogs Written Up: 39
New Blogs Added: 15

Now we begin the Bs.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Letters to Dyvers: Problems, Problems. We've All Got Them, but Only a Few of Us Wallow in Them.

Have I ever mentioned that I like getting mail from you guys?

Well, I do.

Anyway, I'm in the process of catching up on about a year's worth of e-mails so I'm going to do a bit of a clearing house and answer three of them real quickly.

P.S. I've cleaned up the e-mails a bit to make it easier to read.




Problematic Media 

Have you seen the Mary Sue article, Everything I Love is Problematic? Thoughts?

Largely the article is just a bunch of pretentious hand wringing designed to get people to recognize that the author is so very self-aware of her privilege and blah, blah, blah. Boring rubbish for the most part that wants you to feel guilty for loving the things that you love. 

Forget that noise. 

Love what you love; don't hate on other people's things. Moving on.



Magic Items

If you could pick one Magic Item, and have it in real life, what would it be?

In my games I always have a downside to the magical items that I introduce to my players. Life is more fun when there is a consequence to your actions and the game is more fun that way too. Still, I would love to find something like the Mighty Servant of Leuk-O.  




Arts

You post a lot of art on the blog: who's your favorite?

As much as I love art I don't really have a favorite. I have styles that I love but there isn't really an artist that I go out of my way for over the others. That said I've been really digging the work of John Harris and Jakub Rozalski lately. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

I'm Kind of Digging the Ladies of Girls, Guts, Glory.

Watching people play role-playing games on YouTube can often be a painful experience. The camera work is often shoddy; the audio sounds like someone is screaming in front of a fan; and the people playing are usually too busy mugging for the camera to remember that they're playing. So when I find something that looks promising I tend to get a little bit excited. You see I want to want role-playing games online without having to wait a full year for the next episode (I'm looking at you Penny Arcade) and for them to be an enjoyable experience.


There aren't a lot of games out there that meet those two criteria. In fact, I can only name one: Harmon Quest. But this teaser for Girls Guts Glory has me hopeful that we might soon have another one. 

Check it out.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Welcome to My Dungeons & Dragons World! Where Everything is Just Like You Remember It, Even Though You've Never Been Here Before.

In the last few months I've become increasingly convinced that the problem I face with making Dyvers something unique that people want to adventure in is that it can't fall into the same patterns that everyone else does with their cities. It can't be the exact same fucking thing that everyone adventures in each and every god-damned weekend

(1) It can't have winding, serpentine roads that meander their way through the town - and they can't be dirt, rough stone, or wood. 

(2) The city needs districts but the shouldn't be hard lines where there is no bleed over. The world doesn't work like that and neither should my game world.

(3) Not every building needs a detailed description but they shouldn't be fucking blank, wood blocks set on the table as filler either. Theme them together as you would find in a normal neighborhood. Look at the world around you. It works that way for a reason.



(4) Important buildings should feel important when your players look at them. Every city - whether it's New York, London, Nashville, Calcutta, Paris, or fucking Madison - has something that makes it stand out. As human beings we have an inherent need to make things that are pleasing to our eye. It's why architects are a thing and we're not all still living in fucking caves. Use the shit you love architecturally instead of just leaving it in the back of your mind. Make it a part of your world and make your world special as a result. 


(5) Stop fucking around with names that don't matter to you or your players. If it's fucking nondescript and unimportant than don't waste your time naming it just to throw a name at them that they'll promptly forget. 

(6) Same rule when it comes to the fucking history of the place. If it doesn't matter and won't add to the adventure then Move. The. Fuck. On. You're wasting your time and everyone else's. 

(7) Descriptions: Less is more. Hit the high points and let their imaginations fill in the rest.

(8) People build sculptures every-fucking-where. Get them in the game.


(9) Common structures for every town that aren't homes: bars, churches, hotels, restaurants, police stations, convenience stores, shopping markets (however you associate the term), pawn shops, banks, fire department, doctors' offices, city hall, Courthouse, and lawyers. Get these in your city because they didn't just show up in the 1950s.  

(10) People live in apartments. They've been around since ancient Rome so throw them in your game. 



Credit: All images were found on the fantastic Tumblr How We Imagined It Would Be

Friday, February 3, 2017

Congratulations, Kids. We Just Passed 2016's Total Post Count.

Fucking A, it feels good to be writing again. Now back to work!


Your Hands are Bound by Forces Beyond Your Control and She Awaits You.

I've never really been one to enjoy horror games because they tend to begin on a simple premise: the player cannot win a fight with the villain. The extent to which this is enforced runs the gamut from the villain simply being more powerful than the players are able to overcome under normal circumstances to the villain being invulnerable to the players machinations. Some games I have been asked to play even go so far as to say that the players cannot cause harm to the creatures terrorizing them. 

I fundamentally reject such noise.

The Entomologists Dream by Edmund Dulac 1909

In role-playing games we are the heroes of our stories. We're not scared, little children hiding in the cupboard hoping that some shiftless drifter doesn't find us. We're the kids who pick up axes, guns, and knives to hunt that bastard down and show him what fear really means.  And yet even with that fundamental truth guiding our hobby I have found myself rendered powerless in role-playing games three times. The first time we were told that the mere sight of a creature drove us beyond the realm of sanity and thus we were devoured body and soul. I got up from the table and drove to a local bar where I proceeded to drink for six hours and fool around with women who though make-up was best applied by the bucketful. I still regret not having done so sooner that night. 

The second time I sat down at the table and the Game Master informed us that all of our possessions had been taken from us and that we awoke in a dungeon with monsters hunting us. I made plans to murder them only to be told that this wasn't the game we were playing. We were the prey. They were the hunters and if I didn't like it I could get the fuck away from the table. So I left and ended up fishing under the stars while a beautiful Jewish girl read poetry to me and asked me questions about God. 

I still don't have all the answers.

The last time I was sitting down to play a game when the Game Master told us that this would be a fantastic experience for all of us. We were going to be playing children who were hiding from some dastardly villain but that we couldn't hurt him. Hell, we couldn't even attempt to harm him. I left that table with my brother, Poot, and went down to the lake where we talked about our children and drank until the sun came up instead. 

Look, as role-playing enthusiasts we're often asked to pretend that our characters are bound by limitations all the time. This character isn't as strong; that one isn't so smart; that one likes to smoke and cut itself. All of these simple limitations are fine, but when you take away my ability to choose how my character will make its way in this fictional life I reject your game. 

I know the sort of player I am. I tend towards violence, bloody and unrepentant, and I like to push the limits of what is considered acceptable within the game world (though never in the actual world). I make off color jokes; use terrible accents; and am always planning ways to make my character the one thing in the game world that will scare the shit out of every Dragon and Devil alike. I want to use my mind to find the solutions to difficult situations and to take that away from me because you want to make the game scary is to ruin any fun I might have in the game. 

Now back to my book.