Monday, March 30, 2009

High Adventure and Low Humor

But if serious purpose is integral to a successfully ongoing campaign, there must be moments of relief as well. Such counterplots can be lesser and different themes within the whole whether some side dungeon or quest, a minor altercation between petty nobles, or whatever. Occasional "pure fun: scenarios can be conducted also. That is, moments of silliness and humor help to contrast with the grinding seriousness of a titanic struggle and relieve participants at the same time. After all, ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game, a pastime for fun and enjoyment. At times the fun aspect must be stressed.
The above quote appears in Gary Gygax's magnum opus, the Dungeon Masters Guide, immediately before sections in which are offered rules conversions between AD&D, Boot Hill, and Gamma World. As a younger person, this section was one of my favorites, precisely because I could still find enjoyment in flinging the PCs, via a cursed scroll, to Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881 or having them face off against a band of Knights of Genetic Purity, armed to the teeth with blasters and photon grenades. I'd not yet taken the game too seriously, which was a common malady afflicting some of my older contemporaries in the hobby and one to which I eventually succumbed in turn.

It's a very common story in my experience. Nearly everyone I've ever met in this hobby started off with an expansive understanding of "fantasy," one that could accommodate literally anything their mind could conceive, no matter how outlandish or "silly" it might seem. Then, bit by bit, that understanding contracts, becoming more rigid and codified, with clear boundaries distinguishing what is acceptable and what is not. Gone is the genuine open-mindedness of childhood, replaced by the feigned seriousness of adolescence. Banished along with that open-mindedness are the infinite possibilities that first drew us into the hobby in the first place.

If we're lucky, we eventually grow out of this serious phase and recognize the wisdom in the paragraph quoted above. No, not everything in one's play must be silly or nonsenical, but then neither must everything be deadly serious. As with so many things in life, balance is key. Knowing when to introduce a little levity is one of those skills all good referees acquire, just as all good players learn to enjoy it and introduce some of their own.

My friends and I long ago realized that the most satisfying fantasy campaigns were those that freely mixed high adventure with low humor. Many of the situations that arise in a long-standing fantasy campaign are genuinely absurd, if looked at with a dispassionate eye, and there's absolutely nothing wrong in occasionally allowing that absurdity to step into the foreground. Indeed, we would argue that it's essential that this happen every now and again, to ensure both the freshness of the campaign and to maintain interest in it. Nothing is surer to kill an ongoing campaign than unrelenting seriousness, which is why, even now, I try very hard to remember how I originally approached the game and to use that knowledge to keep the game fun for everyone, most especially myself.

E.G. Palmer's Crocaparrot

Just in case you don't read Old Guard Gaming Accoutrements, E.G. Palmer's recent creation, the crocaparrot, deserves your attention. Not only does he get points for creativity, but each time he uses humor he pairs it to a perfectly delightful rationale. Add to this the crocaparrot's characteristic attack and method of feeding, which are sure to produce post encounter horror and fun, and the piece simply lights up the imagination.

Grok the crocaparrot!

Friday, March 27, 2009

EGG's Love Affair With Fairy

If it wasn't evident enough in all of his works, here's some more "origin" stories about 4 magic items that appear in D&D, all from the tale, Jack the Giant Killer.

I had read this as a child, of course, but EGG was always fond of retelling it, and did love to repeat the "Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum" on occasion and when you were suitably trapped in the game by a giant. He loved giants. He totally befuddled his son with a giant encounter wherein Tenser bargained for what was in the giant's bag (nothing but old clothes and such); and he certainly did them justice with the G-Series of modules, some of his best adventure crafting, in fact.

Note the extract from the downloadable PDF file, below, for the magic, of which I am sure EGG has commented upon in part or whole, elsewhere; but it is here presented in full. Note that I include the "cap" under what was to become the Helm of Understanding Magic and Languages (i.e., knowledge).

And do note that my humble creation, the Bean Bag (as included in Greyhawk: Supplement #1 to D&D, and then in later editions), was inspired by a related tale, Jack in the Beanstalk. You might say EGG and I "sprouted" from the same garden...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Uncanny

A friend working in animation recently steered me to the concept of the uncanny valley, where humans revulse upon encountering nearly successful robotic humanoids, but receive them more kindly when they appear more crudely human. Some find the theory rubbish, but regardless of its truth, it's certainly an interesting descriptive tool for thinking across and delving into a wide variety of issues directly related to fantasy, such as xenophobia and transhumanity. I suggest taking a look at the Wikipedia article linked above.

But more interestingly, my friend's reference surprised me because I had just read Sigmund Freud's essay on The Uncanny a few days earlier - one of those uncanny coincidences Rob delights in... But enough about serendipity-doo, I highly recommend reading Freud's essay treating with the aesthetic of the familiar and unfamiliar, heimlich und unheimlich. It's an interesting read for any studious fantasy DM, or their double....

Movie Time at Gary's House

As a young chap I was part of the Gygax family, virtually adopted at one point, and always in attendance at their house on a daily basis. I ate, drank. and sometimes slept there, gamed (of course) helped with the garden, adopted their religion, and most definitely watched movies there!

That I was influenced by EGG's tastes is to say the least. He would later comment upon several that held deep fascination for him and inspired him in writing many of D&D's spells, particularly, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao; and of course, The Raven, a Roger Corman film.

What we have derived from these films are:

7 Faces of Dr. Lao: Stone to flesh spell (cast by Merlin): "After Medusa turns the disbelieving shrew to stone, Lao calls an end to the proceedings and Merlin restores the now-reformed woman."

The Raven: "Craven and Scarabus then seat facing each other and engage in a magic duel. After a lengthy performance of narrow escapes..."

These scenes are of particular importance, for therein are revealed many future spells, such as shield, magic missile, fireball, meteor swarm and several others, like levitate, polymorph any object and perhaps even animate object which could have had ties to Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice from Fantasia, as well. I do not include polymorph (of Lorrie's character into the raven), as that proceeds the matter in many myths, particularly as noted in the Grecian myths that EGG was of course familiar with. One can stretch here or there, of course, but when Vincent Price's character, Dr. Craven, does a quick hand movement and creates a transparent, circular shield that stops Dr. Scarabus' (Karloff's) missiles, well, you just have to appreciate it all in afterthought.

I highly recommend both of these movies, the latter which features a very young Jack Nicholson to boot.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

UP ON A TREE STUMP #2: Humor in the Original Campaign

Up on a Tree Stump™
(or) All I Know about D&D™ I Learned From Life

©2009 Robert J. Kuntz

#2: Humor in the Original Campaign

Alastair Clarke explains: "The theory is an evolutionary and cognitive explanation of how and why any individual finds anything funny. Effectively, it explains that humour occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition of this sort is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response, an element of which is broadcast as laughter." The theory further identifies the importance of pattern recognition in human evolution: "An ability to recognize patterns instantly and unconsciously has proved a fundamental weapon in the cognitive arsenal of human beings. The humorous reward has encouraged the development of such faculties, leading to the unique perceptual and intellectual abilities of our species."

Humor in the Original Campaign was rife; and quite honestly if it hadn't been, the experiences would not have been as rich as they were, and thus not as memorable as they now truly are. Gary did not pretend that he was not humorous, quite the contrary. Very early on in our friendship he pushed book after book into my hands, urging me to "read them." One such gem was Jack Vance's The Eyes of the Overworld. I will forgo describing it and let those who have not graced themselves with Vance's penetrating wit, and indeed, biting sense of irony and drama that interweaves throughout it all, partake of it, and I do highly recommend doing so.

What is revealed here might seem a dichotomy. Humor, however, never equated as some may assume, to actual ridiculousness. Gary's approach was simply wherever he found humor, he expressed it. This is only indicative of his quick mind, as a quick wit does not otherwise rise above that potential but only equals it. There were too many instances of humor in the Original Campaign to really conclude that all was non-serious, for the stories and other data available point to the contrary even if we side with a "fun and games" view as EGG might have himself expressed. He has been quoted many times as expressing such an ideal, but ultimately this becomes his distilled afterthought and his poignant sense of it all, for the adventuring milieu he spawned so early on was a mix of terror, high adventure, horror; and within that he sprinkled, just as the very best dramas have done, slices of humor.

But, one may then ask, what was the purpose of all this humor? We can go many directions with this and even adopt the point that Mr. Clarke exposes above, that "An ability to recognize patterns instantly and unconsciously has proved a fundamental weapon in the cognitive arsenal of human beings."

Facet One, Disarming the Opponent: One must remember that EGG's grounding was in table-top and miniature wargames. Imagine a gathering of us nere-do-wells in his basement, squared off against each other on separate sides of a 6 x 10 sand table. Now imagine the interchanges as we, the generals of one side of the table, quipped with the other side's commanders. Provocation? Most definitely! It may well have been the same thing that the Scots and Edwardian Englishmen could have traded squared off as they were, awaiting the outcome of an upcoming battle. A summoning of courage? Most certainly! The superior force responds on all levels of emotional output, and this was no different in our games, whether staged or instinctual, or where-ever such "harmless" chiding bore from. As the battle wore on, as the field changed hands, and as the final victory was in view, the other side crushed and in rout, well, you can imagine that we didn't just sit there wringing our hands and noting it in a perfunctory manner. And although some were calmer in their expressions, EGG was most expressive in victory (especially if it had been a very hard-fought battle hinging on last minute shifts and on the fly changes), so it is not to say that he didn't sound like a Confederate soldier on occasion, perhaps imagining himself pursuing the blue-bellies amidst howls and hoots after the Union's rout at the First Battle of Bull Run!

Now transfer this particular part of his mindset into the D&D game with him as DM. His opponents were the players, we all knew that, and he did too. There wasn't an ordering of political correctness and a false cloud of pretentiousness which I've seen portrayed in modern RPGs. This was a game of strategy and tactics, and that meant, on both sides, that outwitting the opponents involved was now at hand...

Facet Two, Never Reveal Your Hand: EGG was constantly bluffing and had a poker face. I reminded Eric Shook the other day of a tactic EGG and I both used when DMing, in this instance when parties hit a down slant, elevator room or transporter, which secretly moved their PCs (without their in/out-of-game knowledge) to another dungeon level. Well, inevitably at those times EGG and I would create an out-of-game distraction, and I indeed learned this from him while Co-DMing with him on so many occasions, such as: getting up to go to the restroom. Well, this took the focus off of us as DMs, and the party usually took this opportunity to discuss matters of planning and approach and other details in game context. I'd return to such a scene and they'd still be at it, so as I sat down, that is when I'd turn the page to the level they'd been recently transported to, and without them noticing. This tactic merges with DM-craftiness and keeps the upper hand of information in proper control of course; and this was also accomplished through us telling a humorous aside (a joke)--to which the players responded by laughing--and during the uproarious interlude is when we effected our "changes", the level-shifts, etc. DMs have to be magicians, you know.

The poker face comes in handy especially when applying these types of nuanced forms, and certainly helps retain a balanced (neutral) side to the affair, which is indeed the DM's goal to begin with and thus, in our cases, were just part and parcel of the suggested outcome. Styles may differ in attaining these most singular points, of course.

Facet Three, Dispelling Tension: Humor was also used in dispelling tension and thus in informing players in a round-about manner, and thus intuitively, that we may have been in a good mood that day as the DMs. More often this tactic was used with newcomers who we were not going to handle too roughly... at first. This tactic merged with "Disarming the Opponent." When used up front on veteran players they often, if not always, took it as a warning sign instead, and with good reason, as it more often meant to them that we were about to test a new situation or thing upon them, the guinea pigs; and so the more intuitive of the bunch would react with a more guided approach and careful manner, especially if there were veterans mixed with newcomers, the latter having no idea of the "fun and games" ahead. The best players in this regard were Ernie Gygax and my brother, Terry. Ernie especially would pick up on this charade of ours, having for many years understood his father's humor and mind and thus, by transference, my own. Keenly perceptive and eyes rooted to ours, he was always searching for clues in our manner, but more often than not only got in return shrugs and a poker face, accentuated at times by wry smiles...

So, when you hear that humor has no place in a "serious" game, think back. Are the tales of Nehwon at a loss for it? Do L. Sprague DeCamp's or Fletcher Pratt's stories fall to the side and not embrace such? Does Jack Vance not include it in many of his tales? Then too, does the dark side of this in C. A. Smith's tales not rise time and time again to relish it? Where else can we find this form, this dramatic mixing which works so well in a game merged with the fantastic? If certainly within some tale as recounted by Shakespeare, then I have no qualms at all for being included in such company! Humor can thus be offset, and rightly so, from joking around. This is a serious business outwitting an opponent in a game; and this is made even more notable if you can do it with a smile...

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hardcover Theater: A Princess of Mars and Grimm's Tales adapted for the Stage

Boy we certainly know that pulp fiction is making a resurgence when I note that since 2002 it has been going on behind our backs and on stage. Where have I been?

This morning, stirred by Jame's fine post on Mr. Saunder's Imaro character, who I've seen mentioned elsewhere, I sat back and thought about the pulps. I've also been spending some down time with a cold, so I did that in and out of writing the blog article by watching some old Flash Gordon reels at You-Tube, which of course made me order the DVD, love that stuff, especially the Clay People of Mars in all those nifty sets that gave another tunnel-like feel to me as a kid watching these. But I digress.

I thought of those Flash Gordon scene-cuts where the actors just enter from off-set, having been staged there, and that it was so reminiscent of the theater (I am sure this is no revelation, just that I don't follow theater nor it's history or comparative studies that much). Well, the similarity struck me as comparable so I immediately did a search on 'pulp fiction and theater'... and so we have today's topic.

It's really beautiful how correspondences work throughout our life and between similar mindsets and what comes of it, thus, by growth!

There's more pictures on their site. Gotta love the role-playing going on here with the symbolic heads and all. And look at those costumes! They also have a movie clip there of their performance of Princess of Mars. What's next? Hey, if you're in the Twin Cities, go support this troupe, I know I will.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fragments from the Beauty of Imagination vs. the "Lawyers" of Fantasy: Rematch Round #1

An oft-told joke: A millionaire called into his drawing room three of his employees--a maid, an accountant and a lawyer.

He asked of the maid: "What's 2+2?"
She responded promptly: "Four, sir."
Turning to the accountant he asked the same question.
The accountant took out his adding machine and after some diligent pressing of keys looked up and responded in turn: "Three, sir."
Turning to the lawyer he posed the same question.

The lawyer instantly moved to the window and drew the curtains shut, casting the room into a faint darkness. Turning to his employer he smiled and said: "What do you want it to be?"

If anyone has any question what I am here referring to, please read on.

"Like calls like. At best scholarship, by placing in our hands knowledge which we should otherwise not possess, can fit us to read the works of the poets, to decipher what they have written. Yeats, a poet of this century, can no more be understood by those who do not possess the knowledge of the 'learned school' in which he himself studied, than can poets of other periods; and to such knowledge _there is no critical short-cut_ [emphasis mine]; we have to acquire it or remain in ignorance"--Kathleen Raine. "Defending Ancient Springs."

And so on to a dichotomy in our time... "Everybody's talking into their pockets; everybody wants a box of chocolates and a long-stem rose ..." ..."Everybody knows it's coming apart, take one last look at this Sacred Heart, before it blows."--Don Henley, "Everybody Knows".

But I leave you not with an uppercut to the mind, but with several exhortations for the soul...

"Indeed, you might think of genre boundaries not as obstacles, but rather as dikes and levees that hold out the river or the sea. Where-ever they are raised up, they allow you to cultivate new land... If enough of us like your story we'll accept your new boundary as the true one, and plant a few stories in your newfound land... We're all harvesting crops in lands opened up by the pioneers in our field-- Wells,Verne, Merritt, Haggard, Lovecraft, Shelley, Tolkien, and many others. But we're none of us confined to the territory they discovered. It's just a starting point. ...How can we create the literature of the strange if we stay in well-mapped lands?"--Orson Scott Card, "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy."

And an insight about Algernon Blackwood, who H. P. Lovecraft regarded as one of the best contemporary horror/supernatural writers of his time: "My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty. So many of my stories, therefore, deal with extension of consciousness; speculative and imaginative treatment of possibilities outside our normal range of consciousness." ...--From correspondence with Peter Penzoldt.

It is well known that Blackwood also loved children: "Blackwood was of the opinion that children, like animals, had not lost their instinctive closeness to Nature or their innocence, both of which became dulled by civilization and overbearing adults. Children adored Blackwood because he behaved and saw the world like them -- the world of wonder in a daisy, a cloud or a butterfly."--extracted from a summary of his book, "A Prisoner in Fairyland."

And in closing, a lesson from one of the masters: " To recapitulate then: — I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth.

A few words, however, in explanation. That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement of the soul, which we recognise as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the heart. I make Beauty, therefore — using the word as inclusive of the sublime — I make Beauty the province of the poem, simply because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes: — no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation in question is at least most readily attainable in the poem. It by no means follows, however, that the incitements of Passion' or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work: but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.--Extracted from Poe's essay and lecture on "The Poetic Principle."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Inside the Box or Outside??--EDITORIAL

While perusing the internet for D&D gaming experiences I came upon several "interesting" angles on spells in play. Actually they were more perceptions grounded in assumptions. Assumptions about how certain spells, or even whole swaths of spells, are useless or minimize the game experience. Such as...

"It's a very situational spell."

Hmm. Aren't ALL spells situational? Why yes they are! This was somebody's answer to someone else not seeing the use for a certain spell. This line of thought reveals a disturbing aspect of the D&D game today: set in stone, non-mutable, ever understandable and thus no-where creative or fluid in campaign terms, only in perceptions of what is useful NOW and under "understood circumstances" in a game atmosphere I presume to be riddled with combat challenges. Then again, players rise or fall with their DM, so this is not as concrete an example as the next...

Another post... "101 Spells not to Memorize..."

Huh? Now what line of thought could possibly group 101 spells into the not worth memorizing category? Hmm. One beset with no possibilities of change within a campaign structure or gaming environment, perhaps?

I know that Hackn'Slash is here to stay, especially with computerized FRP games which are at best flashy examples of same, but really, where has the imagination fled to?

In the Original Campaign, we treasured every spell for its possible worth in any given situation that could arise; we even implemented these in ways that were considered non-standard or had not been thought about along those lines by EGG and others who created these. We weighed heavily on combat and escape and detect spells, but so too, if we thought that a certain scenario might present itself otherwise and that we might have to pick from spells already known to excel in the challenge ahead as we perceived it, then these were gold. In other words, no spell could be defined as useless, as gaming situations and dimensions were highly mutable.

Smart DMs will use all manner of dungeon crafting in their scenarios and encounters to force the players out of standard situational responses. This design points to the holistic possibilities of adventuring and indeed attaches to how a dungeon, by example, is designed with these all-round play components in mind. This was done in Greyhawk, as most of the spells EGG perceived as being useful in one context or another had actually been formed around the idea of how these could or would be creatively used in his dungeon encounters. This meant to seasoned players that a lot of what could be achieved once the understanding of what "that" was presented itself was an option always preparing itself through the exercise of a player's imagination (i.e., they had not brought the necessary component to succeed with the perceived objective before them, such as a needed spell or magic item, etc. and now were faced with the expanding circumstances). That lead to their minds exploring the possibilities and took them outside of the box. The Original Campaign as DMed by myself and my counterpart promoted the mutable and expansive notes whenever possible rather than the refrain of sameness. I would put the players from that time and place up against anyone today.

In summary, possibilities are only as limited as the DM's mindset, and clever players will pick up on this after time goes by. Some of the coolest adventures can be generated through the use of non-standard spells as opposed to those emphasizing "beat-um-up-and-get-the-goodies." So too for magic items.

Unfortunate as it may seem, it's increasingly apparent to me that those who sit in a box and make suggestions as to the usefulness of said confines should only receive their echoes back from its four sides. Now if someone would only close the lid...


Friday, March 20, 2009

Tidbits: "Little Roots" in the First Fantasy RPG

"Consequently, Little Wars influenced my development of the Chainmail miniature rules and the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy roleplaying game. For example, it established the concept of a burst radius for cannon rounds, an idea that was translated both into the Chainmail catapult missile diameters and the areas of effect for Fireballs in D&D. ..."

"...Well's treatment of subterranean humans in the Time Machine certainly reinforced my concepts of underground adventure areas other than dungeons (as did Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth...)"

--Excerpted from E. Gary Gygax's foreword to H. G. Well's "Little Wars," 2004, Skirmisher Publishing.

Wells also influenced David L. Arneson with his City of the Gods and without a doubt myself and Gary on yet another level with Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

Verne was a favorite of mine, and I was always enthralled by the movie adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth starring James Mason and Pat Boone. One can almost feel being underground and project themself into those twisting caves and passages. The favorite maps that I've drawn over the years involve large, complex cavernous areas, and I am sure I was influenced by that movie to a great degree.

The D-series by EGG: This has roots in Burrough's (and later Holme's treatments) of Pellucidar (and Mars), and certainly we can draw parallels to pieces written by HPL (At the Mountains of Madness, et al) and of course A. Merritt (Face in the Abyss, et al), and most certainly more of Verne's "A Journey..."

I have admitted to REH's influence upon my creating the terrible iron golem and more recently to Poes's influence from Fall of the House of Usher and the movie Forbidden Planet, both of which contributed different aspects to the Maure Castle family and adventure information as conceptualized for Dunegon Magazine (#112, #124 and #139), such as the ID Core.

My upcoming project, Dream Land is part OZ, part Matrix, part Alice in Wonderland, with a sprinkling of Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

I have admitted elsewhere over the years that Tharizdun (EGG's take on the 1 1/2 pages I wrote for the dark god Tharzduun©) was influenced by C. A. Smith's Lord of the Seven Hells, Thasaidon.

"Lord of the sultry, red parterres
And orchards sunned by hell's unsetting flame!
Amid thy garden blooms the Tree which bears
Unnumbered heads of demons for its fruit;
And, like a slithering serpeat, runs the root
That is called Baaras;
And there the forky, pale mandragoras,
Self-torn from out the soil, go to and fro,
Calling upon thy name:
Till man new-damned will deem that devils pass,
Crying in wrathful frenzy and strange woe."
-Ludar's Litany to Thasaidon

My work Dark Chateau has some solid and related roots pointing back to one or more of the authors as noted above, and if anyone here can correctly guess these, I will send them a special certificate of "Roots Detectivity," signed by C. Auguste Dupin himself! E-mail me at with your deductions.

There are certainly more roots that others have "unearthed" in their quest to discover these, and I will add this encouragement to those quests, as I love a mystery myself: Be looking for more to come from this author's pen!

Possibilities Marching On

I learned quite a lot in a very short time period as a young lad of 13 years and while associating with the adult males of the LGTSA (Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association) and IFW (International Federation of Wargamers); then too the Midwest Military Simulation Association members whom I grew to know as they associated with the LGTSA, and by helping maintain the Castle & Crusade Society, where more friendships made only expanded my travels upon the roads of comradeship and perception.

New vistas were opened for me by association and friendship shared with intellects whose wide-ranging imaginative stance on life were impressed upon my own; and this exposed to me its many possibilities, not only in the games we played and designed, but thus in thought in general. I had become a student of life in "high gear" and I soaked up things, as Jeff Perren once said of me, "as a sponge does water." Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) and GENCON grew out of this, for sure; and this is where people today seem to tread in studying this part of history that is for the most part clouded by the very fact that it was hobbyist in nature.

The rise of anything great does not stand upon just a single set of shoulders, or even multiple sets thereof, but upon many so grouped to maintain the weight and thus the direction of such greatness. Within that shared experience is where I found the continued march of possibilities amongst its members' mindsets; and this too was forwarded on with me through my youthful days at TSR and thus in the continued and expanding growth of the hobby.

Thus the continuance of our many-faceted hobby of games today is not forwarded by any one single person (nor by a single concept), who in sudden realization exclaims, "By Jove, I have it!" Indeed, this wellspring has fed us all, and originates chapter by chapter, verse by verse, person by person, and stretches all the way back in times as far removed from us now as it was in thought then. It is through the distillation of philosophical treatment given over to the historical wherein truth is discovered for the wagon of the mind to continue its progress along the road of possibilities and so as not to become wrested from its ancient course by one of its spinning wheels.

It is a great pleasure for me to announce that I have invited several people well known to me from those days and times to participate in our expanding discussions here: game designers, historians, educators, and others who all have in common a single point of view as I do: to share in the wellspring of thought and to continue exposing in different ways the roads of possibilities inherent to our singular and grouped experiences as gamers. I hope you find their thoughts as enlightening as I found them in my youth.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Magic and Artifacts in the Original Campaign

This became today's article due to Endymion's fine questions and examinations posted at our forums.

(Endymion): D&A is the first I've gone through (ERKAT and Stalk soon to follow) and I had some questions and comments. They all display Rob's usual fertile imagination and really bring home the uniqueness of the original campaign(s). I was startled, though, at the power of many of them -- most of these seem more like artifacts than magic items. How common were these types of things in your campaign? Did you ever encounter game balance problems? Also, many of the items seem to have random, unexpected or layered abilities. How common was it for players to actually explore and discover all aspects of these items? Reading these over almost rewrites my sense of magic in the AD&D campaign -- you look at the DMG, see all those lists of "standard" items, and you almost can't help but feel magic is assembly line stuff. Reading over these items, you almost feel as though each magic item is like a loaded gun that could blow up in our hand: you never know what these things are going to do and when they're going to do more harm than good. I like that, but it's a real alteration in my perception of AD&D magic.

(In response): I will go out on a limb here (and let Eric do so later for his items in ERKAT) and say that EGG was very impressed with my ability to create items of unique abilities and multi-layered powers and dimensions, etc. Recall that players played a lot in the campaign, some almost daily, and due to that their levels increased proportionately; and that was the way, whether right or wrong, or needed or not, that it had to progress anyway, as the rules were being play-tested at the time and this perforce meant that all of the areas in them had to be fully examined, included higher ranges of campaign play. That is not to say that we forced the issue and let folks run over the rules as then existing and as they expanded, it just happened that they did a lot of playing, and that was that.

This led to me crafting a plethora of higher-level items to challenge them in the later stages. The idea of "artifacts," is rather artificial for a division sought between mundane and named items in OD&D Supplement #3, and should be considered in light of existing fact: all magic is ultimately unique, all magic has an originator (an artificer) and can thus be named. This is the generic side of things which D&D embraced on so many levels colliding with the reality of merging with the real facts, just as spells did with those named and those generic. For who indeed created the first "light" spell, and so forth?--the extenuation of this creative thrust, so apparent to EGG, found little expression in D&D's front end design as all was coming to fruition then, and thereafter found room for expression through named items as such matter was revisited with time permitting (Aladdin's Lamp, Vance's many named spells, and sundry items named and apparent throughout folklore, legend and fantasy ultimately influencing this addition).

As for artifacts being dangerous, that is an in the box statement and again, IMO, worthy of examination: The ring of contrariness, and other cursed items, were dangerous, too. The wand of wonder could certainly be dangerous through self use, as could the deck of many things, etc. There are so many it is hard to list, but then the incorrect casting of a fireball was more lethal than any artifact I ever saw employed in the game. This gains the point, really. These things were only as dangerous as players made them. There was ample warning, ample proofs, but in the end, I will guarantee that the players "touched it," just like in that closing scene of Time Bandits ("Don't touch it. It's Evil!").

EGG's assigning of curses to these powerful items (which in reflection rarely had more depth than rapid fire guns, as these for the most part were lists of spell powers that were usable and already known to players) were meant to "balance" the power of it all--real fast work-around, and in some cases rather in keeping with his ideas, I guess, that magic was volatile in the wrong hands (other than immortals who had crafted these, or had had mortals craft these for them, etc). I found these ultimately boring, really, and rarely sought the things as a player or used that design concept as a DM or designer; and was always straining to add more dimension to regular items and thereby name as many as possible, making them truly unique, and not by virtue of their relation to the DMG's concept of "artifacts". In Tolkien, for example, we have unique swords (Glamdring, for example), but in D&D these things become generic, which was useful in many ways (i.e., campaign tweaking by DMs). I sided with the strange and unique, adding history and thus extending the adventuring factor outwards. Not that artifacts in the DMG didn't do that on some level, I just took larger strides towards making magic other than as cookie cutter repeats disguised in different trappings.

So in reality, there are 2 different design sets that manifested in the original campaign game about the same idea, EGG's and my own, and we both appreciated our conceptual ranges on different levels. In fact, EGG loved my magic and was bent on finding it en total at times (i.e., Rings of Wizardry, as noted in his UoaSoapbox article of same); and I was indeed spellbound with his ring of spell turning. But as far as artifacts go, I guess I see it much differently, and as ENS would say these days, "more organically."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Grayland Fables"

Just for fun many years ago, I started writing short pensees, or fables, "derived" from the original campaign, which is to mean, I imagined them spawning from anonymous personages therein and becoming part and parcel of that backdrop consisting of folktales, legends and other trivia repeated about camp fires and at wayside attractions. Below are two of the many I've penned.

Fables of the “Graylands” Copyright 2009. Robert J. Kuntz. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpts and famous quotes from anonymous to well-known historical figures.

On Subordination

An unruly knight being asked by a local baron on how he felt about being a subordinate, replied: "Have you a regular damsel that you see, Lord?"

"Well, no." replied the Baron, somewhat confused by the questioning response.

"Then have you a wife?" pressed the Knight.

"Why, yes." replied the Baron.

"How do you feel about it, Lord?"

The Baron made the Knight his closest personal adviser from that point forward.


The King's Adviser

The King decided one day to test his adviser's knowledge, having not done this recently.

"Why do women pretend to be pure when this is unattainable?" he asked.

The sage replied: "For they seek godliness but are confused by its limits."

Encouraged, the King continued: "Then why is man content with being impure?"

"For," replied the sage, "they have seen these limits and know them as unattainable and thus are reconciled with their dispositions."

Thinking to catch him unaware, the King blurted, "How is it that you answer all of my questions unflinchingly?"

Non-plussed, the sage replied, "For you are the King and I but your sage; thus it is your whim to ask and my duty to respond."

Slamming his fist upon the table between them, the King shouted, "How do you know these things!?"

Smiling, the sage said, "If I knew that, I would now be the one with the sore hand."


From Stratego to Sieges

I include two pictures here: one of Ernie Gygax playing the red side and I the blue, in Stratego, snapped by John Bobek (see below) in Chicago 1968-1969, at the same convention I first played "Little Wars" at; and then at Lake Geneva Gaming Convention #1, where the members of the Castle & Crusades Society and honored guests and friends had gathered for Paul Stormberg's scenario, using the Chainmail rules, the Siege of the Moat House (as recreated from the Temple of Elemental Evil).

I'm the blonde-haired lad in the "Monkey's" boots opposite Ernie Gygax at the table; and the next picture, left to right: John Bobek (IFW Alumnus, Game Designer) being rabbit-eared by Bill Hoyer (IFW Alumnus, former President IFW, former employee of the RPGA/TSR); myself with Castle & Crusade shirt with King's COA (IFW Alumnus, etc., somewhat paunchy, have lost a lot of weight since); in blue and glasses, Jim Lurvey, former editor of the Great Plains Game Players Newsletter; next to him, Martin Wright the "Scanmaster" (may he rest in peace); in front of him Ernie Gygax (the one and only Tenser); and Paul Stormberg, who had the moat house constructed as seen at great personal expense, and who judged the event, a very good man indeed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


The Eco-Ranger…

I wanted an excuse to have a closer look at the original character archetypes, and needing somewhere to start, I’ve plumped for the Ranger (partly as I’m playing one in a 1st ed AD&D campaign at the moment).

The Ranger has been there from the early days, a fighter subtype with specialisations in woodlore, survival, tracking, hunting and various other backwoods skills, as well as a dedication to keeping the wilderness free of humanoid aggression. Tall order. Typically the outsider with a rugged individualist twist, the Ranger is perhaps most akin to the lone gun-slinging hero of the Western or the hero-type of a Robin Hood (the ranger as iconoclast). The lone ranger?

Linked in some ways to the Druid, through a fundamental respect for nature, there are also some interesting diversions – so that unlike the Druid, Rangers need make no pretence at neutrality, but were seen as basically of good alignment, and capable of adopting a cause or even becoming a gun (bow?) for hire. The ranger also offers distinct flavour – a skill with herbal lore and healing, a provider for companions in wilderness settings, a capable guide, one who can ‘read’ nature and perhaps communicate with animals, a stealthy bowman with even a capacity for a little magic. The ranger as mysterious protector, or wild-father removing our existential anxiety, at least momentarily, partly through practical action.

The origin points for such a character are no doubt many and varied (and I’d like to know more of the specific detail, so this is the right place to be asking!), Aragorn being perhaps the most obvious, but the roots go much deeper than Tolkein, I’d suggest. The Woodsman is a common enough figure in many a legend or fairy tale, and often represents some aspect of solo warrior maleness – the one who thrives in the wilds, more often than not, alone. Perhaps a frightening figure, perhaps an ally – certainly capable of a sullen look, and a strong arm. There are whispers too, around the archetype, of more ancient nature-heroes, of Orion (or Artemis or Diana) the hunter, Cernunnos, the Green Man, Kidr himself, and so on. The ranger as alchemical agent, greening the narrative, with inflections of stewardship, a kind of sheriff of the landbase, ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ (as Dylan Thomas put it).

There are many tensions in the archetype – whom does the ranger serve, being chief among them. And in our contemporary world, where climate chaos and fear of vast and rapid planetary scaled change, as well as various compensatory idealisms and a sense of urban alienation from nature, all plug into the way our fantasy rangers form and grow in their stories. The ranger as eco-activist, or strong advocate for rewilding. It is in these partialities and particulars that any specific ranger (as character) comes fully into being. How to reconcile the divergent pulls from ‘protect the human’ to ‘manage the woods’? How to address the goblin menace or stem the kobold plague, whilst honouring the basic commitment to wild life? Whither the ‘biospheric egalitarianism’ of deep ecology in the face of a blood-thirsty ogre? And come to think of it, isn’t the very notion of stewardship itself loaded with assumptions and judgements – as if nature required a (demi)-human level of awareness to see it run its affairs ‘properly’? These fault lines and cracks though do not serve to weaken the appeal of the ranger as a character class (or as a hero) – indeed, the struggling, conflicted (anti)-hero is often the more interesting and well rounded figure; and anyway, the margins of fantasy and so-called reality, of play and ‘the real world’ are always the most fecund and diversified of niches (just as in nature the margins between ecosystems or subsystems are the most biodiverse – don’t believe me? go and look at the sea-shore between tides, or a pond edge, or the hedgerows between fields, or a forest clearing… these are places where the action is turned right up). The ranger as an expression of the liminal – of the in-betweenness of character, place or thing.

A final thought, as this ramble is already much longer than I’d anticipated (sorry) – a word in support of the idea, borrowed from ecopsychology, of the ‘natural self’ (or ecological self as it is also referred to) – that basic sanity or ‘ground of being’ out of which our personhood grows and which, when allowed to develop, inheres in a deeply felt imaginal and embodied relationship with the natural (or ‘more than human’) world. Our own urbanised, alienated, technotopian, abstracted selves often display huge distortions of this ground (the white man’s burden, the basic and well explored pathology of our sense of separateness from one another, and the world around us) and much that is broken in our contemporary lives (and world) can be usefully viewed from this perspective. However, in fantasy generally, and in roleplaying in particular, there is an opportunity for a certain freedom to be generated around these kinds of states – and I would like to suggest, there is a great deal of authenticity and validity possible in this healing play. The ranger as a FRPG archetype is one very responsive and refined tool for working with the grain of a new, emerging ‘healing fiction’ (as James Hillman would call it). The ranger as leader, not leader with all the answers, but leader with resilience, skill and integrity – and a dose of pragmatic adaptability. I’d be interested to hear of any other ranger themes, and indeed whether looking at character archetypes in this way is remotely interesting or useful to others – as I said at the outset, I feel some more brewing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The First "Living" Campaign

I have read with great interest several articles around the net describing the start of Living Campaigns. The idea is that these started with a certain edition of the D&D rules proceeding the original brown box version. I am now casting my two pennies into the mix, not just because I can, but because that's the only way to get rid of copper pieces these days. ;)

First, the term "Living" strikes me as a misnomer, really, but for clarity sake I'll use it here, as the idea of campaign play seems less understandable within its multi-tierd meaning.

When EGG created the one map for City of Greyhawk and the first Castle Greyhawk (12 levels), we had the start of the first campaign in Lake Geneva, 1972. As noted in EGG's introduction to my adventure, Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure (WG5), Gary played in a castle/area that I had designed, (N.B., but I had designed no supporting town or city as he had). That was about a month into him starting Greyhawk. So this is the second campaign created in Lake Geneva (late 1972 to early 1973). Both of us were using the Outdoor Survival game map for outdoor adventures then as there was no area map for either of our imagined locations. Gary in fact started in the "mists" when rolling his first PC, Yrag. Later, he was to adventure with other rolled PCs, Mordenkainen, etc., as EGG was very much taken with building his own clan based around what he later named the Circle of Eight in my mileu, which we located on the same OSMap. Note that EGG had two main PCs as I allowed for him to have an additional one as I was for the most part running him solo (but do read hereafter). Then there came a rash of his NPCs as noted in his Up on a Soapbox stories of his adventures within my "campaign" structure and as appearing in The Dragon magazine, a goodly run of 30 stories, in fact. Note an extract from one hereafter (bold emphasis mine):

...#11. Roleplaying for the Dungeon Master: Virtue brings more than its own reward.

Back in those early halcyon days of D&D, all of my time was not spent developing the Greyhawk campaign environment and then serving as Dungeon Master for the ever-growing throng of players. Indeed, after only a few weeks time there were plenty of others working to create campaign settings like that I was doing. So I was offered many opportunities to play, and I did so in about a dozen different settings with as many different DMs. Thus came into being my first PC, Yrag. Now it so happened that the most eager of these other fledgling DMs was Rob Kuntz. Because he took to the new game like the proverbial duck to water, playing in his campaign was a lot of fun, and I did that wherever I could, side by side with many of the regulars from my own campaign. It was in one such adventure that Rob introduced a new cursed magic item, the ring of contrariness. Likely because I was a very intense player myself, Rob made sure that Yrag ended up with the item. The doughty fighter being a risk taker, Yrag immediately put the ring on his ringer. At that point, I was taken aside, and the properties of the ring were explained to me. Laughing silently to myself, I returned to the group.

... someone asked. “What does the ring do?” To that Yrag replied, “None of your business!” As the adventure was just beginning, another player said the matter could be set aside until later, as his character said. “Let’s go” and moved away. The other PCs followed. Yrag sat down. “Come on,” someone urged him. “No, I am staying here.” Being a close-knit band, the others then came back, saying they too would stay. “In that case, I am leaving,” muttered Yrag, as he stalked off.
... After about 10 minutes of this it became apparent to the other players that I was roleplaying, that Yrag was under some malign magical influence that made him uncooperative. Of course I played it to the hilt. For example: “You can’t take the ring off, can you?” Terik tried, to which Yrag responded, “Yes I can, but that’s what you want, so I won’t.” Then, “Yrag, pummel yourself!” suggested Murlynd. “No, I won’t do that, but I’ll smite you!” roared the fighter now in a growing rage. ... Finally, they came up with a means of defeating the contrariness curse ...

So Murlynd (Don Kaye) and Terik (Terry Kuntz) had started as PCs in Greyhawk and easily moved between that area and my own. Also note that EGG refers to that area as an "environment," which is indeed a better descriptive, as there was no defined area, per se, just a relative image in our minds due to the position that each castle and environment maintained on the Outdoor Survival map in relation to the City of Greyhawk.

And so here we note that, indeed, this is the start of the first true "Living Campaign," which was to go on to merge as one with me becoming the co-DM of Greyhawk and thereby transferring my creations, such as levels, gods, magic items and sundry ideas into that combined campaign structure. After that time there was only one campaign, really, as EGG and I had never thought otherwise about such divisions, and the process seemed a natural outgrowth of play. However, when we realized that this could ultimately mean an over abundance of sharing across many campaigns then starting (Ernie Gygax's, Terry Kuntz's, Don Kaye's, et al), then EGG & I instated a firm rule that PCs adventuring in our campaign would thereafter have to obtain permission to do so in others, and this was not usually forthcoming, especially if the DMs were known to be of the lax sort who gave away too much bounty.

On the Power of "Primitive" Art

My own initiation into the hobby began with a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons rules edited by J. Eric Holmes. It wasn't until several years later that I obtained copies of the original rulebooks, the famed "little brown books" and supplements. I remember flipping through those small volumes and marveling at them. Crude and amateurish though they were in some ways, there was something primal about them, something that spoke to me on some unconscious level that I couldn't then explain.

The art played a big part in engendering this feeling in me. Greg Bell, an illustrator otherwise unknown to me, created much of the art in those early D&D books. The entirety of Supplement I's artwork was Bell's and, even though I could make many criticisms of it on a technical level, I nevertheless find it strangely compelling. It evokes a lot of odd feelings in me -- not unpleasant feelings by any means, but weird ones. Those early illustrations bring to mind the kinds of sketches I imagine one might find in the diary of an explorer to terra incognita, hastily drawing all the strange sights he sees in his fantastic journey. They're not precise; indeed they're downright impressionistic. And I think that's key to understanding their power. Like the little brown books themselves, what they don't show is as important as what they do.

That's why mysteries and enigmas have such a powerful effect upon one's imagination as well: the mind can't help but ponder the possibilities hitherto unrevealed. When I first acquired the original D&D books, I felt as if I'd stepped into terra incognita of my own, which was all the more odd, because I had been playing D&D for years beforehand and was certain I knew the game already. How wrong I was! Or rather, not "wrong" so much as limited in my perspective. The possibilities of fantasy are indeed vast and not easily cut and dried, to be placed in mental boxes and forever understood. There's a continual process of rediscovery and the renewal of the imagination it engenders. It's an amazing thing when one steps back to consider it and I think it's the reason why, even after 30 years of participating in this hobby, I'm still very much in love with it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Burning Troll

Mood in the Original Campaign: An Essay Into the Mind and Imagination of E. Gary Gygax

Extracted from the upcoming book, Lord of the Green Dragons™
Copyright 2009. Robert J. Kuntz

... Far from feeling fear, I was possessed with a sense of awe and wonder such as I have never known. I seemed to be gazing at the personified elemental forces of this haunted and primeval region. Our intrusion had stirred the powers of the place into activity. It was we who were the cause of the disturbance, and my brain filled to bursting with stories and legends of the spirits and deities of places that have been acknowledged and worshipped by men in all ages of the world's history. But, before I could arrive at any possible explanation, something impelled me to go farther out, and I crept forward on the sand and stood upright. I felt the ground still warm under my bare feet; the wind tore at my hair and face; and the sound of the river burst upon my ears with a sudden roar. These things, I knew, were real, and proved that my senses were acting normally. Yet the figures still rose from earth to heaven, silent, majestically, in a great spiral of grace and strength that overwhelmed me at length with a genuine deep emotion of worship. I felt that I must fall down and worship--absolutely worship. ...
--The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood

...In regarding HPL's influence. Without a doubt such mood pieces (one of EGG's favorites was the non-Mythos story "Rats in the Walls" and another "Pickman's Model") had substantial impact on the campaign. Compare this to his love for Algernon Blackwood ("The Willows") which he insisted I read, and EGG's many "real-life" stories he himself told me about, especially hauntings he'd experienced (and one which, me being a very impressionable and imaginative lad then, kept me from sleeping on my stomach for months while guarding my back), well it was then all too apparent later, and in my reflective moments, that this heady stuff got transferred into the campaign's structure.

Was EGG a master of mood during play? Yes, but mostly when he wanted to achieve reactions at specific moments from his players. He could certainly paint the pictures in your mind when he wanted to. Here again I found, as one of the earliest participants in the Greyhawk Campaign, an amalgmanation of fantastic moods working on different levels in play and no doubt, by relation, just as these had been inpressed upon his mind in earlier years. When these mood changes occurred (such as when Robilar was trapped at 2nd level near abandonned cells by two wights), EGG had you foxed if you were not attentive to them, as I had not been at that instant. One can also call it "fore-shadowing," and in a sense that is true, but we were participating in the story on a primary level (interaction) and not gauging the story from a distance, as readers do, so "mood" stands as a more definite descriptor.

EGG came into grand form with extracted fictional pieces that he held in high regard, and then by transference of his delight in these pastiches, so to speak, their full weight and mood was felt, such as in his transferences of Vance's Dirdir Hunting Grounds, Kong (Isle of the Ape) or of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He bacame very animated with these fictional transferences to a degree that one actually felt what he had naturally felt reading those stories. This is hardly mentioned to reinforce that the same was not true when he applied similar reactions to his own ideas and creations (and there were many that he did do this for and with equal fervor), it is just to note that his animation regarding such matter was so obviously inspired at those times; and thus his animation was immediately compelled and compelling at once.

Mood had a pace in the game. Certainly there were the highs and lows, or hills and valleys, associated with the rising and falling story line. But that is where the mood became very important, and that is where EGG got you caught up in it. It wasn't even as close to when someone looks at the cover of TOEE and then took their first step into said temple. What we have there is only a picture and an action. But when EGG emphasized where you had been (outside in "normalville") by setting that mood, that HPLish lurking oppression, with carefully chosen words spread amidst the changing scenery, then you knew you weren't in Kansas any longer. Further, that party pause due to this change, that telling time in space, was enough to inform EGG that he had achieved his purpose, that the players were thinking and perhaps, just slightly, leaning on the edge of doubt.

That is the respect the man commanded; and we must always recall that his players for the most part consisted of grown men, and that he had achieved instilling this doubt by tapping into similar real moods that they too had experienced in the past, be these real or imagined. The conditioning afforded the participants therein merged with their own straining perceptions, and thereby created that brooding expectation. There is no wonder, also, that this worked to inform the players of the inherent dangers which could lie ahead, made them prepare, as well, as EGG was no softy DM, quite the opposite. It was as much, in his way, of saying, "Yep. Get ready. And don't say later that I didn't warn you." And all this with but a few chosen words of description at the right moment...

Next: Humor in the Original Campaign

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pig Faced Orc's

The First FRSG

I personally believe 4E is the first Fantasy Role Scripting Game (FRSG). Given this reclassification, it fits into the established product line of Dungeons and Dragons in the same way that movies also belong to it.

Considering how much time went into designing 4E, we should recognize it as a sincere and considerable effort to provide gaming joy. But challenges in 4E substitute dicing for role playing, and 4Ers script encounters that fuse NPCs with timed and action dependent vocalizations, and that is clearly not role playing.

We could consider 4E a hybrid, since actions can still be role played. But additionally, PCs in 4E are highly channeled to act in ways that limit the range of play. The playing field has become so severely limited that the game has lost the openness of a real world and fallen back into an unbelievable similitude. Fantastic worlds are supposed to be more open than real worlds, not less! No one feels the lightening rod of adventure when the open horizons of possibility are being shut down.

I can imagine participating in a 4E game, just as I enjoy Blizzard's World of Warcraft for limited periods of crunchy swords and sorcery fun. But, I don’t log into WoW to role play, even if it is technically possible.

Friday, March 13, 2009

UP ON A TREE STUMP #1: Imagination Squared

Up on a Tree Stump™
(or) All I Know about D&D™ I Learned From Life

©2009 Robert J. Kuntz

#1: Imagination Squared

I have had many people over the years ask me where I get my inspiration from for all of the various projects and ideas I have furthered through print. It's not from the copious amounts of coffee that I drink, I assure you. But let me offer a refrain here which is best studied in light of my own perceptions of things creative.

Reading has always been a good start for me; but rather thinking, I'd say, has been the other. But when all is said and done, thinking has a back seat to both seeing and doing. Somewhere in that combination of reading, thinking, seeing and doing do the creative spurts rise and fall. But let me explain one facet that may have come as a surprise to some, a mere curiosity, perhaps. Seeing. What is meant by this? In my life I can look at things, but whether I see them for all of their intrinsic value is another thing altogether.

I remember while EGG and I were working on Greyhawk: Supplement #1 to Dungeons & Dragons, that I was employed at a wood working factory. Drudgery for sure, hour after monotonous hour. I sought relief as I always do through the wiles of my imagination, casting my eyes about my surroundings when I had a chance to do so. During one of these excursions of thought and sight my eyes came to rest upon end pieces of wood I had been trimming off, all in a pile to my left. I concentrated on a single piece, noting its symmetrical shape. As my mind was then inured with thoughts of getting home and crafting some more for our booklet, I became rapt. People may say that this is when it hits you, these ideas. But what I saw were possibilities yet unimagined. It was but a cube of wood, was it not, this all flashing before my mind, yet excitedly so, for I had latched onto a form in thought and sight, and now my thinking process was flowing with all the possibilities.

It didn't take too much time thereafter to sort out those possibilities. Stooping, I picked up the all so now interesting cube of wood and held it in my palm. It fit very well there. Clenching it I imagined just as in my youth with so many imaginary objects, some real, some as invisible as my thoughts had been then, that I summoned a power from it. But what power? I looked upon its many faces again, rotating it. Hmm. Like our many dice we rolled, it was. Six sides. Six powers? Each side represented a square face. Hmm. A shield? Ah, force shields! [Edit:  I always loved force shields and was fascinated by them; and it's funny how the imagination works to bring seemingly disparate parts, like these ever-changing parts that children experience while in play, together.  So by way of the cube, as I was to recall later, my fascination with force shields, specifically this one as noted on television's Outer Limits episode, "The Bellero Shield," meshed with the object.  So the object became the final focus for the idea (memory-fascination) and thereby became one.]

Setting the piece down amongst its brothers, I finished my day, walked home, and promptly wrote the Cube of Force, which to this day survives in many renditions of D&D. I am proud to say that this inspired piece was well received by my counterpart, as was the story of its creation.

So, Seeing, not just Looking, in this life, is to peel back possibilities untold, amongst stories heard by rocks and whispered by trees who tell of the inexplicable passing of creation. We need only immerse ourself in it to find the romance of life and therein our imagination squared.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Piper's Corner

Well it seems that our 1st freebie issue of the Piper's Corner got overlooked by many as we had it buried in an obscure section of our site and wayyy at the bottom of the page. Though we have corrected this, I am presenting the link here for those who may have missed it: Pipers Corner #1.

This will be an irregularly produced e-newsletter which publication will coincide with releases from us. I am open to creative content suggestions as well, as we will produce a limited number of articles from outside designers and fans, but please query me at on that.

Vampirism Revamped

Vampires as we commonly imagine them are sourced from the folklore of 18th century Southeastern Europe. Variations of the vampire-like demons and other manifestations trace back thousands of years, but our stereotypical perception of these undead is largely the result of popular fiction and cinema. There is little doubt that Bram Stoker's Dracula is the most readily conjured image when one considers vampires. Further cementing and popularizing this brand of vampire was the 1931 horror film, Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game, the accepted paradigm of vampirism was embraced and utilized by Gary Gygax, and David Trampier's illustration at once reminds us of Bela Lugosi peering over his cloak-wrapped arm bent at the elbow. Indeed, Gygax touches on many of the popularized attributes of the modern vampire when he states the following:

"...These creatures must rest in a coffin or similar receptacle during hours of sunlight..."

Gygax's AD&D vampire drinks blood, can shape change into a bat, and can charm with its gaze; it also recoils from garlic, the face of a mirror, or a cross (or other holy symbol). They can be killed by sunlight or if a wooden stake is driven through its heart, followed by a beheading. Of course, some AD&D-isms are included, such as the vampire being subject only to magical weapons, an 18/76 strength, and the fact that it can be turned by a high level cleric, but these gaming components are adroitly woven into the presentation.

Whilst the standardized representation of the vampire works perfectly well within the framework of the AD&D game, I must admit I have personally grown rather jaded by this take on vampires. Fiction and film have likewise reduced the vampire to one of triteness for me, perhaps in part due to the voluminous amount of vampire "chick-lit" crowding the shelves of local book store chains. Stephen King's Salem's Lot was a fresh deviation from the paradigm, and so I held it in high esteem as a young man, and to some degree I still do. There are, however, two 20th century authors who portray some of the most thought provoking deviations to the popular notion of vampirism. They are HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

The Shunned House (written 1924, published 1937) by Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Genius Loci (1933) by Clark Ashton Smith challenge our modern notion of the vampire. Gone is the stereotypical image wrought by Bram Stoker, where the vampire has humanlike form and motivation. What Lovecraft and Smith respectively accomplish is the creation of a nonstandard form of vampirism. It is not my intention to summarize these stories point by point, for I feel that readers of this article would derive greater enjoyment by experiencing each tale for themselves. Notwithstanding, I would have to stop writing now were I to completely avoid any "spoiler" material.

In each tale the respective author takes the concept of vampirism and applies it to an a malign force or entity, a wraith-like manifestation that drains its human victims, evoking, in my opinion, greater fear and madness than any man with fangs and cloak could ever accomplish.Whilst Stoker's Dracula (and its many and sundry derivatives) has a palpable form and identity, Lovecraft and Smith present a vampire that can scarcely be quantified on such terms; indeed, what each author has accomplished is the manufacture of a nameless horror that depletes its victims and reduces them to shells of their former selves as they plunge into sheer insanity and, eventually, death.

In The Shunned House and Genius Loci, respectively, the vampire is presented as an incorporeal entity that feeds off its victims, distorts perceptions, and inspires aberrant behavior. Each vampiric entity is distinctive, as is the style and execution of each author. Of the two I feel that HPL more closely touches upon the sort of vampire popularized by Stoker, but only in the broadest of strokes. All who dwell in The Shunned House, generation after generation, suffer various forms of wasting diseases, anaemia, and mild forms of insanity. The closest Lovecraft comes to Stoker's vampirism (and the folklore from which Stoker derived his inspiration) is when he writes the following:

" appallingly grisly circumstance whose duplication was remarkable. It seems that in both instances the dying person...became transfigured in a horrible way; glaring glassily and attempting to bite the throat of the attending physician."

Smith, for his own part, explores what begins as a landscape artist's morbid fascination with a boggy meadow of disturbing quality. Fascination soon escalates to a species of mesmerization or enthrallment that can not be defied. Smith's vampire is perhaps more of a formless entity than Lovecraft's, but both are presented with a focus on a locale that suffers the manifestation of some preternatural malevolence. Notwithstanding, the semblance of a physical form is observed near the end of The Shunned House, particularly when the narrator notes the

"...unthinkable abnormality whose titan elbow I had seen."

But in Genius Loci we never actually see a physical form made manifest, and at length the horror is observed when the narrator relates the following:

"The true horror lay in that thing, which, from a little distance, I had taken for the coils of a slowly moving and rising mist. It was not vapor, nor anything else that could conceivably exist -- that malign, luminous, pallid emanation that enfolded the entire scene before me..."

Exploring vampirism as an environmental event, hazard, or location as opposed to a palpable enemy combatant is an intriguing option for a swords & sorcery role-playing game adventure, and as I type this article, I am inspired by its myriad possibilities. A location that drains its inhabitants of their vitality . . . Might it affect the family of a PC, or some notable villagers whom the local clergy seem unable to assist? Perhaps the PCs themselves are the afflicted by the manifestation. How can such an entity be exorcised? The PCs might have to engage upon some harrowing quest to obtain an artifact that might vanquish the vampiric haunting, or if not some artifact, the clandestine knowledge that might reveal some form of ritual that would banish the affliction. For a more combat oriented adventure, below the locale there might be vast catacombs where past victims dwell in various states of undeath. Perhaps the entity drains from its victims to give itself physical form, some underworld titan vampire as hinted at in The Shunned House.

Experimenting with alternative forms of vampirism could enrich your game, keep your players on their toes, and prevent them from the using meta-knowledge to combat an otherwise stereotypical enemy. I think I might start working on such an adventure soon . . .

(Jeffrey Talanian, 2009)

Keep it Simple... Yet let Creativity and Imagination Soar

I thought that an article I wrote for Crusader Magazine several years ago might be of interest for those who have not read it.

Mimir's Well

Games As Fun?
© 2009 Robert J. Kuntz.

by Rob Kuntz

Imagine this...

The first day you discovered games. Really discovered them. Like: Wow, this stuff is great! Where can I get a copy? Remember that day? You were hooked. There was a feeling of never ever having been there before and an equal feeling of wanting to find that road again. To walk, nope, run along it pell-mell. You couldn't wait, remember?

Now imagine this...

The first day you discovered FRPG. It was like someone had let the floodgates loose, right? So much at once and not enough at the same time. And as a new participant it was all strange but exciting. There were hints of dragons, treasures and undiscovered lands. Strange places where you could roam, where your imagination was to be given a range of expression. Someone was asking for your input instead of you just rolling dice and moving about a track! How wonderful! Then they plopped lots of rules down and you remember groaning... But it was just so strange and wonderful that you continued despite the numerous rules (which you learned to choose from, condense, or change to your liking, anyway, god bless those designers with foresight).

Now, let us proceed with a surmise...

You stare at a game-store's shelf replete with myriad choices of games to purchase. What you want is condensed fun in FRPG form. It must come with minimal instructions, allow you to provide the additives, such as using your imagination to add to it and learn and enjoy as you interface with its rules set. The learning curve must be simple but have breadth. The only obstacle would be in finding other fellows who want to enjoy a simple game like you do. It sounds too good, you say? Why yes, it is; but that's what a good RPG is all about isn't it? Simple, unadulterated, fun in a style reminiscent of the days of FRPG in all its golden glory.

Let us rewind a bit...

Before there were massive rules sets to define the military actions of regimental-sized combats, a fellow by the name of H. G. Wells created a simplistic game called "Little Wars". I had a chance to play LW at a convention one year, and oh boy, was it fun! Toothpicks shot from spring-loaded cannons! It took me back to my days of youth, which some say we cannot recapture. While some games today have progressed beyond this point and have matured the hobby, some others have also mutated the idea of a game, and thus gaming, into drudgery. Somewhere in between games being too simple (rock-paper-scissors) or ultra-complex (insert your War and Peace-sized game here) is where the maximum "fun factor" lies, hidden like a treasure waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by all.

Some folks might challenge the idea that in keeping a game simple--especially an RPG--that you maximize its fun factor. But in the realm of FRPG, imagination is King. Without it there is no game, notwithstanding the rules used. FRP games are only as good as the people who play them. Then too those same players are only as good as their expressed imaginations. No rulebook can cover everything in life, and thus we find this constant reflected in the earliest and most successful FRP games. If there was a rule for everything in such games for your imagination, then we would soon find less reason to participate in the game, less incentive to find our own creative range, and we would certainly derive less enchantment from the experience. The very things we wish to cultivate would thus be driven from us or voided.

In other words, RPG rules should guide only. Participants should ultimately decide on direction, intensity and types of rules to be utilized. Some are basic, the types you need to actually play the game in its most simplistic and skeletonized form. Beyond that you have the additives which allow for everyone involved in its ongoing process to use to their liking. This is the base idea on which our industry was built and which Gary Gygax promulgated in his earliest written works. Simple. Fun. Mutable. This core idea has lost none of its former potency or flavor, but is in fact beginning to resurface in many games, such as in TLG's forthcoming Castles & Crusades.

Back to the present...

Many designers today, like myself, have to take hard looks at their proposed works while answering base questions every time: Is what I'm writing/designing going to be fun to play? What is the learning curve for the players? How is it different or better? Moreover, does it remain a game or just a bunch of rules piled on top of each other? These are games, not realistic portrayals or some new form of art. These are fun-filled escapades into the imaginations of those playing them. So, yes, they must contain guidelines which help us on our way to enjoy and participate in a process, but these should not limit the range of each players imaginative expression. That's where enchantment roots and is expressed through participating in the story, not in some dice roll which is only the tool of the player for determining outcomes during that process. Likewise each game designer is faced with avoiding endless details or page upon page of litanous description which ultimately bores the participants. We must always remember that we escape the real world for that dose of enchantment for the time in which we are playing. Does the game then present roads easily taken to find the fun, the enchantment, or are there unnecessary hurdles involved?


"Keep it Simple Stupid." An old saying, but one which should be remembered by game designers and GMs. Finding this balance is a chore. It's an adventure in itself. But we have indicators, and they face us during play each and every time--the players. I'll guarantee that your players are having fun if they're working their imaginations as opposed to endlessly rolling dice and moving about the "track" of the game. It'll be revealed in their looks, by their excited interjections and by their intensities. It can be described as being enchanted, but in the end, it's just a whole barrel o' fun.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Well, it never died, but not for lack of of certain companies trying, it seems. Most people know that I am an Elder (not Old School, never quite agreed with the many, too many connotations associated with that word, though I let it pass when applied to me, whatever) of the creative sort. My grounding was in games: miniatures, board games, parlor games, then RPG with OD&D (but also AD&D 1E & 2E, 3E, 3.5, C&C). Most people today would take that OD&D part and run with it, figuring I was some old fart or such (well, at times, but I thought I closed the blinds then when nodding off with my wool blanky and rocking chair)... I was the youngest of the three who shaped the game early on. When asked by Flint Dille at GaryCon1 what exactly had I contributed to the game, and in front of Luke and Elise Gygax, I related a part, that when Gary was stuck balancing the upcoming classes for Greyhawk Supplement #1 to D&D that he called me at Don Kaye's house, requesting help (I had already handed in my parts for the MS, but was still there for my ole buddy and pal, of course). He was worried about hit dice. Every class in OD&D got a d6 per level, so MU's seemed on par with fighters but had spells (our biggest worry). Well it simply blurt from me over the phone that we should use d8 for fighters, d6 for clerics and thieves and d4 for MUs (later changed in AD&D to d10 for fighters and so on).

Boy has the game come a "long way" since then. I must admit to sharing the view here expressed at this fine blog hosted by Tim Knight, and that about D&D 4th Rendition. It's not that we can't reinvent the wheel whenever this is needed, but why? Errr. Money? Again, I embrace free enterprise (just don't want it to embrace me too hard), so I am not against companies who creatively and earnestly seek dollars. But at what expense has this been bought in the past?

I am afraid these days that such appellations as "Fantasy Role Playing Games," and as compared to D&D here and present, are losing ground as by-products of their two most important words: Fantasy & Games. Fantasy is the enchantment that led us to play to begin with; and the game is what keeps us there. Drain the life out of either of these two ideas and you are left with a shell, a ghost of both at best, and those that attach to it and call it the "gift," their eyes perhaps twinkling all the way to the bank.

In my upcoming book of interrelated essays (The Rise and Fall of TSR Hobbies: It's Impact Upon the Fantasy Fiction and FRPG Markets) I most strongly assert the above statements and then some, while offering remedies. Unfortunately, I have yet another essay to include in that book as the tally is in and WotC once again proves that their fantasy and Games are lacking. One could take exception with this as always, and one can always find the road that is best suited to travel. But I must voice ever so strongly that with the push on to rediscover our roots in gaming, and especially RPG, and then distill from those roots and streams and springs what has fed our industry for so long, that the Coastal Wizards might have learned their lessons if they had cared to. Such are the machinations of those whose plans are laid in the future and not the present or past.

There is a person here on this blog who passed along a book title to me. It is not fantasy, but it contains a lot of what is part of it. So besides WotC's managers reading the "Art of War," I suggest a perusing of it as well: "Defending Ancient Springs," by Kathleen Raine.

In between, I hope you never get caught in a dead end by an iron golem!

Rob Kuntz