Sunday, March 29, 2015


Along with a set of rules, The Adventurer's Handbook offers a setting called Wundervale.  The map provided in the book is rather unsightly, so I was compelled to create a less unsightly map that I present above.  (The map in the book shows “Elf Wood's.”)

The first human settlers arrived in Wundervale “less than a century ago” and began the process of deforestation.  According to the book:
          About 50,000 people live in the populated regions.
          Myboro is the largest settlement, numbering about 2,500 souls inside its walls.  It is the county capital as well, and handsome staunch towers gird the wall to protect it.  Its docks house a fleet of small, swift fishing boats.  Is markets are the meeting places for the foreign merchants from beyond the valley and the local farmers and artisans.  It is famous for its seven green-dyed cloths which cannot be duplicated outside this valley, and for the tiny carved wooden charms that bring luck in games of chance.
          Three large towns serve as seasonal marketplaces for the smaller towns that surround Myboro.  They are also centers of tax collection, grain storage, and so on.  Wares not locally made in the towns can generally be found here, including imported cloth and specialized goods such as alchemist's equipment and astrologer's instruments.
          Towns are the places where weekly peddlers' markets are held.  A town will generally have a parish priest, a smith, a carpenter, a thatcher, and a leather worker.  Noblemen of knight status will generally live in a town, or the town will have grown up around his manor.  The average size is 600 residents.
          Towns are surrounded by villages that are arranged to be about an hour's walk apart, dotting the countryside.  These are small settlements of a few families, clustered about their barns and agricultural tools.  Most people live in these settlements, about three-fifths of the total population.  Town dwellers should also be counted as rural dwellers, which raises the total to about 85% rural population.  Furthermore, most of the people within the larger settlements are also farmers in the fields about their their cities, so that almost 90% of the population is engaged in agricultural practices, or performs labor to support the farmers.
          About 2% of the population is engaged in full-time religious work, so there are about 1,000 clerics or their equivalent in the valley.  About 5% of the region is generally supported as a standing army, so this region provides about 2,500 soldiers and knights.  Finally, the rest (3%) are aristocrats of varying ranks, totaling about 1,500 men, women, and children of noble birth.
Nonhuman races also inhabit the valley, including elves, trolls, dwarves, and goblins.  The book allows player characters of the races although some sections of the book suggest that human - nonhuman relations are strained or even violent.

In Myboro, there is the Taverna Athena, “a large, warm, comfortable, and entertaining place, populated by city folk, adventurers, scholars, magicians, and even members of the nonhuman races of Wundervale:  dwarves, elves, and trolls.”  At this tavern, “these ancient enemies of each other put aside their animosity and treat each other with respect and civility, if not friendship.”  Evidently, goblins aren't welcome, perhaps because – for armor – goblins “favor Cuirboilli, especially that made from laminated layers of human skin.”  If dwarves, trolls, and elves are tolerated in the Taverna Athena, then they must be tolerated in Myboro and, if they are tolerated in Myboro, they must be tolerated as they travel from their enclaves through human inhabited areas while en route to Myboro.  Of course, there has to be a reason for them to travel to Myboro and associate with humans.

Dwarf Town is found on the western side of the valley.  I suppose Dwarf Town is a colony of dwarves and not a human town with miniature buildings.  Since the human habitation zone borders upon Dwarf Town, one supposes there is an understanding between the dwarves and humans in that area.

On the eastern side of the valley, there is a town outside of the human habitation zone.  Is this a population center for nonhumans?  Perhaps the original map erroneously excluded it from the human zone.

Since the valley is entirely surrounded by impassible mountains “save through the southern gap,” the 'foreign merchants' must travel through that gap.  How they manage to traverse the waterfall or cliffs is not detailed.

Anyway, the book continues to describe Taverna Athena:
Taverna Athena is a special place, the center of information and activity in Myboro.  It is part of a large complex that includes an inn, stables, and assorted shops...In a future book, or possibly in a magazine such as Different Worlds, we will tell the story of Taverna Athena, and the the mysterious noble, Kulmar, who...[description ends]
The character Joleen spends time at Taverna Athena and describes it as “a place of philosophers and entertainers, and those who are neither but like to be with both.”  Another feature of Myboro is a weapon shop “owned by and attended to be Rehsu, who gives good quality, fair prices, and loves to talk about past glories.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Saga of Barostan Skullbasher

In its efforts to instruct the reader on how to play role-playing games, The Adventurer's Handbook demonstrates the process of generating and improving six characters in a fantasy setting.  Those characters are young residents of a town called Triford.  After the characters engage in a coming-of-age ceremony, five of them depart the town for a life of adventure.  The remaining character, Aloysious (who has no characteristic higher than twelve), “goes back to the farm.”  Specifically...
His player has decided he has no future as an adventurer.  Yet he might be played on odd occasions.  For example, he would be useful to take along as a horse handler, out of play while more competent PCs (player characters) are doing the real adventuring.  A game master might use Aloysious as a background character, an NPC (non-player character).  Any position that can be filled by an anonymous NPC can be personified as Aloysious if useful to the campaign task.
The characters resolve to return to Triford after five years for a reunion.  At the reunion, the characters decide to reunite again after another five years.  Between the first and second reunions, different characters are said to have participated in different types of campaign.  The book uses this opportunity to discuss three types of games:  Story Telling, Role Playing, and Power Gaming.

Rokana is something of a magical adept.  She “enters into the service of Zazen the Scholar, an NPC of great wisdom with a following of students who are glad to work as his servants and helpers in exchange for knowledge.”  Her experiences are meant to demonstrate a story telling campaign.  Zazen and a group of his students – including Rokana – try to make friends with a population of dwarves.  However, Rokana eats a sacred pear or something and the dwarves imprison them.  Zazen and party are released only after they agree to leave one human behind with the dwarves.  The emphasis of a story telling campaign, according to the Handbook, “is on participating in some sort of important action which creates a challenge to the characters.”

Dernfara and Joleen went to the city of Myboro to pursue their vocations; Dernfara as a “rat hunter” (i.e., thief) and Joleen as an “entertainer.”  Their adventures represent a “campaign ...where role playing is a primary objective.”  Joleen is imprisoned in a creepy temple and Dernfara rescues her.  The temple accuses Dernfara of murder and the authorities apprehend him.  Joleen testifies before the court and it turns out the temple is guilty of the murder they tried to pin on Dernfara.  “Scenarios in role playing games tend to test strength of character or inner will and ability to remain in the role.”

Barostan became a mercenary and participated in a power gaming campaign.
The major interest in these games is the accumulation of power and loot through successful combat.  In these games, fighting is of utmost importance.  Power gaming rests upon the hack and slash school of play.  There is one easy answer to every problem: kill it.
Barostan's story is the most amusing of the three.
          “I'll tell you what life is like out there.  On the first year after I left here I was riding overland with some friends.  Suddenly, lions attacked us and killed half the horses.  That night a bunch of trolls kept us awake until we charged them and killed them.  The next day we found the ruins, and we went into the underground tunnels.  Down there I fought skeletons, zombies, ghouls, liches, and vampires in one room, and in the next one there was one of every kind of animal I could think of.  That was a hard fight because I didn't know who to parry.  The next room was full of water so the wizards froze it and we walked into the treasure room.  That's where I earned my name, Skullbasher.
          “...Another time we heard about some treasure in a wizard's abandoned tower, so we went to look for it.  It was like a maze, but everything was booby trapped until we came to a magic room that seemed endless, and we were attacked by one hundred tiny men about a foot high.  Then a green dragon attacked and it killed almost everyone before we overcame it.  It was wearing a diamond bracelet which we took.  After that, we crawled out a window and went home.”
          “In the old days,” says an elderly man from the background, “I went into a dungeon and, in every room for seventy-two rooms, there were monsters of a different type which we fought, killed, and looted.”
          “Ah, the good old days,” says Barostan.  “But now the monsters are smarter, it seems.”
          “Or you are less smart,” says someone from a dark corner of the tavern.
          Barostan bristles, but calms down at Bridla's touch, then continues.  “One time, when we were fighting dwarves, they were damn smart.  They led us into their dungeon, as we walked past their secret doors before we knew it, and they came out and attacked us from the rear and front both.  But they never dared to close up with us completely, and so they wore us out a little at a time, and made us use up our magical strength.  Then they sent a couple of monstrous worms at us which were all but immune to our attacks, and they killed half of us before we surrendered.”
          “Surrender to a dwarf?” asked Aloysious, “Isn't that dangerous?”
          “Sure is,” says Barostan, “but not as dangerous as fighting a giant purple worm!”

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Wonders and Dreams and Worlds Ulterior

Art by Virgil Finlay

H. P. Lovecraft passed away on March 15, 1937.  That year's July issue of Weird Tales included “To Howard Phillips Lovecraft,” a memorial poem written by Lovecraft's friend, Clark Ashton Smith.  I provide that elegy below, seventy-eight years after Lovecraft's demise.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Inspiration: Pentantastar

Map by Erin McKee

In 1983, Dave Arneson's Adventure Games released Pentantastar, “A Fantasy Boardgame of Magic and Strategy.”  It was designed by Dave Megarry (one of the designers of Dungeon!) and his family.  Playtesters included Arneson himself, Richard Snider (Arneson's Adventures in Fantasy collaborator and Powers & Perils designer), Scott Bizar of Fantasy Games Unlimited, and Dave Wesely.

The game is about a conflict between two factions in a fantasy setting.  The factions are not labeled as 'good' or 'evil'.  However, one may infer that the West – ruled by the mysterious Arkhon™ –  is the 'bad' side since it is the aggressor and has trolls.

The game has two aspects:  military and quest.  In the military aspect, counters (called 'pieces') represent armies and other forces.  The combat strength of pieces in conflict are compared.  If the attacker's combined combat strength is equal to or less than the defender's, nothing happens.  If the attacker's strength exceeds the defender's, the defender's pieces retreat or are removed from the game.  There are certain key locations, the East has four and the West has three. A military victory is achieved when one side occupies all key locations of the opposing side.

In the quest aspect, the Eastern operatives (a pair of wizard siblings) vie against the Western operative (a wolf) to collect five 'charms'.  When the charms are assembled, they form the titular Pentantastar™.  A magical victory is achieved when one side brings the Pentantastar to the opposing side's capital.  Each charm activates certain creatures:
  • Liths™ – living rocks
  • Serak™ – “spiked clusters of ice about the size of a man's head and shaped like puffed-out dandelions”
  • Sletta™ – bog creatures
  • Antherb™ – huge vines that are “literally several places at once”
Other strange creatures in the game include:
  • Quila – wyvern-like creatures (I would have called them 'wyverns')
  • Vorts™ – “black, scaly” snakes with lethal poison; they “have heads mantled with a fan of red and silver”
Also present are more traditional fantasy races like elves, dwarves, and giant eagles.

There is a booklet with seven pages of rules and one page with instructions on how to make your very own Pentantastar using paper clips and plastic straws.  There is a separate booklet with seven pages of background fiction and a seven stanza poem/prophecy.

Each side has a deck of cards from which a hand of five cards is drawn every round.  Each card has a military function and a quest function, but only one function can be used when played.  The quest function for each card is represented by a number of 'magic points'.  Every round, both players 'spend' cards for magic points.  The player with more magic points (including those available from certain pieces and from occupying certain spaces) moves the quest operatives.  The military function for a card is either a 'mobilization' (introducing new pieces) or a 'hazard' (inflicting obstacles like storms).  Quest pieces are unaffected by hazards or military actions.

I think I would have designed it so that each charm would not activate special creatures.  Instead, the winner of the magic point bid for the round could cast a spell based upon which charms had been recovered.  For instance, the white charm could prevent some pieces from attacking, the yellow charm could negate a hazard, etc.  Also, I would not have used funky, 'trademarked' creatures; just traditional creatures with which anyone likely to play the game would be familiar.

Anyway, I can easily imagine the questing wizards – Seraphael and Waalibor – and their gypsy friend, Wandelar, as player characters in a campaign against a backdrop of war and intrigue.

Art by Erin McKee

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Adventurer's Handbook

Caucasian characters hover over their Caucasian players.
L to R: Aloysious, Barostan, Bridla, Dernfara, Joleen, Rokana

In 1984, our old friends at Reston Publishing produced The Adventurer's Handbook – a guide to role-playing games, “a book written for people new to the role playing field.”  It was written by Bob Albrecht and Greg Stafford.  An introductory RPG guide co-authored by one of the premiere game designers of the old school era deserves examination.

The book is a 'guide' in two ways.  Part 1 (with 145 pages) discusses how to play RPGs while Part 2 (with 50 pages) is a then-current overview of role-playing games including a chapter that lists companies that publish RPGs and/or RPG accessories.  For example, the entire description for Ral Partha states, “Figures are the mainstay of this company, with many high quality lines of figures.  Small games, using special (simple) rules are also made, including Witch Mountain and others.”  (I think they mean Witch's Caldron.)

Part 1 is presented in an 'educational' format; questions are posed to the reader and the answers are provided at the end of each chapter.  An example question:
You are playing in a game and you need to roll 1D20.  Oh oh!  You can't find your D20, with sides numbered 1 to 20.  However, you do have a 20-sided digit die, with sides numbered 0 to 9, each number appearing twice on the die.  How can you use your 20-sided digit die to roll D20?
Reston seems to have published many 'educational' books, such as Essentials of Soil Mechanics and Foundations and Tailoring: Traditional and Contemporary Techniques.  It also seems that Albrecht's other writing credits are limited to 'educational' books about computer programming.  Part 1 teaches the reader about RPGs and gradually introduces an actual system.  According to Chapter 1, “Our system will prepare you to understand and play Magic World (from Worlds of Wonder) and RuneQuest.”  In fact, Part 1 concludes with an Adventurer's Handbook character sheet printed opposite a Magic World character sheet.  Also, one of the example characters, Rurik, is a RuneQuest character somehow visiting from Glorantha.

Part 2 rates RPGs of the time from one to four stars as an indicator of suitability for beginners.  Of the major games systems (identified as D&D, Tunnels & Trolls, Chivalry & Sorcery, Traveller, RuneQuest, AD&D, The Fantasy Trip, DragonQuest, and Worlds of Wonder), all receive a four-star rating except D&D, AD&D, and C&S.  (The Fantasy Trip receives three stars on page 175 but four stars on page 186.)  The authors specifically recommend T&T and Worlds of Wonder.

In its section on Worlds of Wonder, Chapter 11 mentions Worlds of Wonder #2 as though this product was available.  It is described thus:
This is a set of three additional games that explores the available possibilities.  It includes Mutant World, Robot World, and Dinosaur World.  Future releases will explore historical and traditional themes as well.
Sadly, this product never reached market and Worlds of Wonder fell by the wayside.

The point of an introductory handbook about role-playing games is to educate people about the hobby and potentially bolster the ranks of RPG players.  As such, the tone should be welcoming.  A cover that features half-a-dozen white folk and no concession to other ethnicities sends a message of exclusion.  Of course, half of the players and their respective characters are female.  This is interesting in that, according to the handbook's character generation rules, gender is determined by a die roll.  An even result indicates the character is female.  “(After all, you didn't think two male authors would dare use 'odd' for female, did you?  You did?  Beware!)”  Evidently, misandry is real.

The Adventurer's Handbook does a thorough job of presenting the mechanics of RPGs but it could have provided more information about the nuances of being a player.  There is no advice on being a game master, but the book doesn't claim to be a resource for game masters.

Chapter 2 contains a section about probability called 'You will probably skip this section'.  Although such knowledge might be helpful, it certainly isn't necessary for a beginner.  It would be better suited as an appendix instead of a section early in the book where it might intimidate someone trying to learn about role-playing games.

An introductory guide does not need irrelevant comments inserted by the authors.  Members of the Thieves' Guild in the handbook's setting “may not steal from the poor.”  This is immediately followed by, “In our time, most large corporations and governments could not qualify for this Thieves' Guild – there are other, less honorable guilds for them.”  Elsewhere in the handbook, “Note:  In America, we have kings and generals who love war machines more than they love people.”  Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, these statements have no bearing on the subject matter; they serve only to distract.

As a last observation for this post, the art in The Adventurer's Handbook is simplistic and bland; even a book on soil mechanics deserves better.  I mean books in Braille have better illustrations.

Pulse-pounding RPG action!  Will he leave a tip?!?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Crafting a Continent

The designers of Questworld intended that place to be similar to Earth in terms of “the rotation period, the gravity, the length of year, the average temperature, the salinity of oceans and the fertility of lands.”  Significant differences  in those factors might preoccupy the referee and players from the true point of the game.  “Ultimately, playing an FRP game should be more interesting than bookkeeping.”

Despite their desire for similarity, the Questworld designers expressed their disappointment with the arrangement of continents on Earth.  “If moved north or south...,” they muse, “[Australia] might receive better rainfall” and not be as barren.  Also, Earth's “land masses bar the line of the equator.”  The designers wanted adventurers to be able to “circumnavigate Questworld by hooking onto the equatorial current, feeding themselves with fish from the fecund seas and methodically catching the abundant rain of the equator.”  Finally, with regard to Africa and South America, the Questworld designers “would turn them around, so that the broad portions of each continent would be in temperate regions, and so that only the tips of Argentina and South America would have desert zones.” Of course, “The Andes mountains...would need to be leveled to allow proper rainfall...”

Questworld was intended to be an 'open world'; nonetheless, the designers opted to detail one of the continents, Kanos, at least in terms of terrain and weather.  Below are some examples of the features described in the Questworld introduction.

The Sunspike Mountains are on the east side of Kanos.  In the center part of these mountains is “an enormous maze of tablelands” called the Checkerground.  There are many mesas separated by deep canyons.  “Any largish mesa can be a self-supporting fortress for a reasonable number of folk, succoring bandits, exiles, weird cults, sorcerors (sic) seeking real privacy, and assorted monsters.”  North of the Checkground is the “Pit of Karag, the worst desert on the planet...Summer temperatures average 115°” (Fahrenheit I suppose).

In the center of the continent is “The Long Scarp,” which “has reached a sheer height of several thousand feet in places.”  North of the scarp are...
the great canyons, within which whole empires can be tucked away – canyons and mesas as elaborately terraced as south China.  The kingdoms there may be occasional foes or lackeys of the plains barbarians above.  The river south to the sea will be frozen in winter.
On the other side of the bay into which the river flows is “No-Air Mountain, so-called because climbers literally would have to climb out of the breathable air before they could reach the top.”  What mysteries lie in its crater?

North of No-Air Mountain, between Voli Bay and the Dogolian Sea are a group of islands called the Lothings.  “If you like Vikings, the Lothings are a natural place for them.”  Even if you don't like Vikings, I guess the Lothings are appropriate for them.

Above the western arm of Kanos lies Nokobli Island, where carnivorous emu-like birds rule.

Finally, “Everywhere in the continental interior are grassy plains fillable with sinewy barbarians and unabashed damsels with flashing eyes.”