Thursday, 27 April 2017

[BLOG] The Smell of Chicken Guts: The Unlikely Hero of the Hungarian Old School

How do you sell the idea of old-school gaming in a country where few had heard of role-playing games before 1990, virtually nobody before 1985, and where their popularity only took off in the decidedly not old-school 1990s? The question has probably been pondered by everyone in Hungary who has enjoyed and tried to spread this game style. A few old gamers (and this means someone who had first met AD&D before 1993) can point at an indistinct legacy of home campaigns, early game magazines and naïve fantasy. More can recall to the Fighting Fantasy series, which had enjoyed incredible popularity for a few years and spawned numerous professional, semi-professional and homemade imitations. Sometimes, it is easy enough to bring up Howard and other sword & sorcery classics. But for a certain gamer generation, my best bet has been to say, “It is a bit like the Chaos novels.” It is a code word, and most of us know its meaning instinctively.

Let’s return to the early 1990s. One of the important (sometimes beneficial, sometimes detrimental) features of this period in fantasy fandom was the combination of exploding demand combined with very inadequate supply. Before 1990, Hungary had been ruled by hard, speculative science fiction with frustrated literary ambitions and few compromises towards soft SF. Fantasy was right out. The Lord of the Rings, a major popular hit, was released by a proper non-genre publisher, despite its rejection by the literary establishment (including its translator, the future president of Hungary between 1990 and 2000, who had once referred to it as “the world’s largest garden gnome”). But suddenly, as things came apart, nothing was off-limits. Genre fantasy and other pulps, then including science fantasy, UFO literature, pornography, action novels, bodice rippers, New Age manuals, ancient astronauts and who knows what else, started to appear as a trickle and then as a deluge, mostly by grabbing the works of authors who were too distant or too dead to protest about their royalties. Somewhere in that colourful, excited rubbish was John Caldwell’s The Word of Chaos.

A Classic
The Word of Chaos – with the phenomenally ugly cover of its first edition – quickly became a hit, and was followed by the publication of Caldwell’s other books. In a few years, it formed a pentalogy (The Heart of Chaos, The Year of Chaos, The Chaos of Chaos [you might get the idea someone was running out of the titles] and Chaos Unleashed), and established itself as one of the popular fantasy series in Hungary. It was only a few years later that most of us learned that “John Caldwell” had never existed, and was the pseudonym of Hungarian pulp fantasy fan Istvan Nemes all along. Like his contemporaries, Nemes – who had worked as a programmer in various odd jobs, and was long involved in SF fandom – chose the alias for marketability. English genre authors, thought to be more authentic, commanded more respect and sold much better, while Hungarians were just not taken seriously. In time, Nemes also turned out to be several other people, including Jeffrey Stone (whose Trilogy of the Night is the best damn magic-meets-technology novel ever written, and the work “Melan the Technocrat” comes from), David Gray, Mark Wilson, and even more, including Julie Scott, Audrey D. Milland and Julia Gianelli (these were for the bodice rippers). Conversely, to add to the naming confusion, Wayne Chapman, the author of In the Month of Death and Flames in the North, the other major fantasy darling of the early 1990s, turned out to be two people working under a common pen name – and it was not much of a surprise when a third (in)famous fantasist specialising in dark and visceral historical fantasy, “French-Canadian” Raoul Renier, also turned out to be a domestic product in the person of Zsolt Kornya, a protégé of Nemes of the eighteen pseudonyms. But back to our main subject.

The magic of The Word of Chaos (and the early Chaos books in general) is easy to understand. It is adventure fantasy in the finest tradition, and to those in the know, it was immediately obvious that it was closely based on AD&D – from its distinctive character types to specific spells (which are memorised by the protagonists, a tell-tale sign if there ever was one), it was all there, and it read like the transcription of a long-running campaign. And what a campaign! This game featured classical adventuring including daring raids on a pirate ship, the search for a powerful and lost magic spell (the titular word of chaos, something of a mixture between confusion and power word: kill), dungeoneering, plane-hopping and city intrigue. It never hesitated to kill off its characters, even beloved ones, or yank the carpet from below their feet. In the best picaresque tradition, it was full of ups and (a lot more) downs, playing out in a dangerous and corrupt world full of uncertainties.

But what gave the stories their own charm was the double-dealing and backstabbing that never happened properly in the dead boring Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books. The Word of Chaos featured an ensemble cast of treacherous assholes who were bound together by nothing more than chance and external circumstances, and proceeded to plot against each other each time the GM seemed to have left them to their own devices. Intriguingly, it was not the real evil characters who came across as total scumbags, but mostly the good-aligned and neutral ones, who would just as readily kill you as anyone else, but they would do it in the name of goodness and decency. Druids, in particular, were portrayed as sanctimonious fanatics who will never hesitate to murder someone “for the cosmic balance” or some other sick prophetic ideology. When you meet these guys and girls, you’d better have your weapons ready. (If there is anything specifically Hungarian about the novels – and considering they were born of a fascination with western cultural imports, there isn’t much that’s readily apparent – it is this utter disdain for corrupted idealism, and a general sympathy for underdog characters caught between massively powerful hostile forces.)


Fighter/Cleric 3/2, AC 6, flail 1d6+3
Which brings us to the core feature of the series: the Chaos series is written from the point of view of the bad guys. In the eternal war between Order and Chaos, Nemes put his money on the side we are accustomed to see as antagonists. It is no great hero or naïve farmboy who is used as the viewpoint character, but a smelly, cynical, questionably aligned and not particularly heroic half-orc fighter-cleric. Skandar Graun, the hero of the series, walks into the novel as a low-level scoundrel, and while he has an epic destiny of sorts (among many others which, however, remain unfulfilled), he is little more than a crude brigand with a low cunning and a hope of making it big. Skandar Graun is likeable precisely because he is an asshole – although an underdog asshole. He cheats, fights and betrays his way through the series, performs human sacrifice for his patron, Yvorl, god of Chaos (Fiend Folio reference!), summons slaads (and again...), misleads and steals from his companions, and he has a singular important ability – he has a penchant for being the last man (well, half-orc) standing when the excrement hits the fan.

When we meet him, we are introduced to Skandar Graun through this passage:
“When he recalled his shameful deed, he angrily bit off a piece of the wooden mug. What a dumb mistake he had made, he scolded himself. How could he be so senseless to crush not just the traveller’s head with his club, but also flatten his beautiful bronze-studded helmet! He hadn’t made a mistake like that in years. Afterwards, he had tried in vain to repair the dented helm, but it could not be helped. So did Skandar Graun inherit the stranger’s good steel sword, his dangerous spiked flail, three throwing daggers and his bag of money; along with a shield and a lordly set of armour – but his hairless brown head would go uncovered. To make his misfortune even worse, the man’s cordovan boots wouldn’t fit his enormous feet no matter how much he prayed and cursed – although he had tried both. What more could he do? He stuck with his old, battered and hole-riddled boots which had accompanied him since forever. Well, at least he was used to them, and they didn’t stand out much from his usual attire: his grease-stained, hairy leather pants hung dirty from his waist, and around his knees, they were riddled with hazelnut-sized holes to provide ventilation. And we should not think his glinting armour would stand out much from his tattered clothes. To soften the baronial effect, Skandar Graun didn’t discard his beloved old black cloak, which he had inherited ten years ago from his foster father, and which had since assumed the effect of camouflage through several tears and unidentifiable stains. The cloak also had an advantageous feature by reeking of the smell of chicken guts, suppressing the disgusting human odour emanating from the victim’s freshly acquired shirt.”
This was clearly heady stuff, neither Drizzt nor Sturm and Caramon, who had always struck us as colossal bores and suckers (especially in comparison). All of us wanted to be Skandar Graun or someone like him in our games. Well, or at least Yamael, the mysterious, taciturn, mint-chewing half-orc assassin, another one of John Caldwell’s characters... or Marlena, the treacherous elven thief... or someone else from the long series of treacherous lowlifes inhabiting the pages of his book. There were several of them, as the series cheerfully went through characters like a shredder, replacing them with newer and newer anti-heroes from a revolving cast.

But by the time we got the idea, playing Skandar Graun or his demon-worshipping friends and enemies was no longer an easy option. As it turned out, they had come from an earlier, more risqué and titillating era of Advanced Dungeons&Dragons, full of demonic statues with gemstone eyes, poison, deadly illusions, half-orcs, assassins, half-orc assassins, naked chicks with bat wings, anti-paladins and devil-worshipping clerics. The campaigns serving as a basis for The Word of Chaos and its sequels took place around 1986 and 1987, while the game in town around 1992 and 1993 was the bowdlerised 2nd edition AD&D. This was the “Angry Mothers From Heck” era, the TSR Code of Ethics era (see my comments under this post), the patronising “let’s protect the kids and their impressionable little minds” era. It was almost the same game in body, but it was obvious to us it had been robbed of its spirit and authenticity. The fuckers had stolen our half-orc assassins and fighter-clerics, and given us worlds we immediately recognised and wrote off as phony imitations; they tried to blind us with “official” AD&D novels which never compared favourably to the earthy colours and dark wit of the Chaos series.

We would play with what we had, but we sure envied those older people who had access to the exciting stuff, real AD&D – and sometimes, in the fan translations that circulated in the gaming scene in the form of worn photocopies, we could find a hint or two of what had been; perhaps an alternate class, perhaps a few pages of interesting magic items. Mind you, this was pre-Internet: I would not see an authentic demon-idol 1st edition PHB until 1997, and at the time, it was selling for the local equivalent of a hundred dollars – tantalising, but out of reach. At the same time, the Hungarian gaming scene itself was changing, and AD&D was mostly supplanted by M.A.G.U.S., a locally written game (on which I may write later), which, despite its many problems, offered some of the interesting adult themes we were interested in.

The Secret Ingredient
Many years later, acquiring the genuinely old-school modules and supplements, and getting to know the actual personalities involved in the original Chaos campaign, revealed more pieces of the puzzle. The GM behind the original games, it turned out, had been the same “Raoul Renier” who had later made a name for himself as an author of dark historical fantasy and a vocal RPG critic – at the time bitterly and vehemently opposed to Gygaxian AD&D. But, even more intriguingly, I began to discover that the seminal Word of Chaos was actually based on two very identifiable modules, beginning with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (although its role is only episodic in the book’s original edition), and largely playing out in The Secret of Bone Hill, featuring much of its sandbox environment from the town of Restenford to the ruined keep and its dungeons. This was a revelation not just because it put a concrete place behind our favourite teenage reading material, but because it showed us how much more the book (and presumably, the campaign it was based on) had given us beyond the bare module. Bone Hill’s throwaway NPCs were spun into fully realised characters: Locinda the half-orc, a minor mercenary NPC, appears as Bloody Lucy, Skandar Graun’s long-term love interest; the wizard Pelltar becomes Peltar, a servant of Order and the half-orc’s implacable nemesis; Restenford is a bustling place of intrigue and danger, and as for the ruined castle and its dungeons on Bone Hill, it is much more cool when it is used in the novel’s showdown than it appears in writing (and it is not too shabby that way). Now here was a proper way of using game materials – something nobody had shown us properly in the 2nd edition era.

Of course, Skandar Graun’s adventures continued – first in the initial pentalogy (these short novels total maybe 700 or 800 pages altogether), and then through several more books. As they proceeded, the books’ connection to actual play grew weaker – the second novel, The Heart of Chaos features an extraplanar quest through the mad plane of Limbo (structured as a multi-level “dungeon” reversing many AD&D concepts – good mind flayers and evil silver dragons, and another treacherous adventuring party), while the rest deal with the war between Order and Chaos. Our favourite half-orc, who starts out as an unknowing pawn, eventually ends up getting fed up with the crap he is given so much he ends up knocking over the game board, more as a form of ultimate protest against all the misfortune and death he had been surrounded by than in the hopes of actually accomplishing something. Apparently, it was at the early stages of this campaign arc where the original Skandar Graun had died, and the rest of his stories have less connection to gaming – although they still make for good reading material. The less said about the later sequels the better: – they felt like the series had finally succumbed to burnout and a breakneck pace of writing, descending into self-parody in an embarrassing way that still leaves a bitter aftertaste. Ultimately, the series was also made into a fairly lacklustre and ponderous RPG (that didn’t quite have the adventurous charm of the original series), and even a badly botched CRPG (which, as it often happens in the externally funded Hungarian computer game industry, was shut down by its publisher halfway through its development and released as a buggy, half-finished mess).


But that’s not the reason we still remember Chaos. The ultimate essence of these pioneering stories shines just as brightly as it has always done: after all, they are our stories, and they represent fantasy just the way we have always liked it.


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #07: The Enchanted Flower


Looking down at the mountain-surrounded valley with its idyllic meadows and forests, Greg the Rat-catcher repeated his ominous warning: “This all looks too good to be true. We should be careful.
Shall I guide you? I know a thing or two about the wilderness”, countered Gadur Yir.
They made their way down the rocky mountainside, until they spotted movement next to a large boulder. Creeping forward, Greg observed a tall, fair-haired and bearded elf, walking as if dazed – dried blood and dirt on his face. Deciding he was no enemy, they quickly surrounded the traveller and demanded he introduce himself.
I am Dawn of the Southern Climes. [A poor translation of the much more flavourful Délszaki Hajna – G.L.] I… don’t know where I am – only a heavy blow on my head, and then nothing. Are you my companions?
Now just a moment!” protested Gadur Yir. “We barely know each other!
Forgive me – even my armour seems to be lost... May I come with you for a while?
The more the merrier!” grinned Greg “My name is Jan Quietstep. Right this way...

***

The Valley Beyond the Mountains

They approached the dense forest, full of birdsong, moss and tangled undergrowth. A narrow path disappeared among the ancient trees. The half-orc and Drolhaf Haffnarskørung took the lead, followed by Franz and Dawn, while Greg stayed in the back, looking more for mushrooms than an ambush from behind. They did not have to go far before the path broadened and opened into a clearing. A standing stone, perhaps the height of a man and then some, stood among the bushes.
Carvings!” Drolhaf examined the three crude figures on the mossy surface. “And runes?
The letters were crudely etched, but Drolhaf and Dawn figured them out: “MYSTERY”.
Are these druidic signs?
Who knows? It is a hidden land... everything is possible.

The Standing Stone
At Franz’s urging, they pressed forward. The forest here was choked with ferns, exhaling fog and wet smells. Suddenly, the floor of the path gave way, and while Gadur Yir could grab a branch in the last minute, Drolhaf disappeared into a dark opening with a muffled exclamation. Examining the treacherous fall, they saw darkness – but to their relief, there was movement down below, and the Northman called for a rope. They dragged him out of the mossy sinkhole, and he brandished his find – an old electrum torc he had found among the stones, along with broken bones and ancient spear tips.
We should cover the pit so we have a trap if we are pursued” suggested Gadur Yir, and Jan quickly set out to tie together a few ferns to make it happen. He also grinned as he stuffed two fat mushrooms into his pack: “Angels’ lament! A good poison always comes handy.

The path soon turned northwards, entering a clearing. Mysterious birdcalls sounded in the distance, off in the trees. A lone statue wearing a mossy cowl stood here, looking towards the west.
Are these the stations of a ritual pilgrimage? Perhaps the pit was a place to offer sacrifices” Greg mused aloud, then pointed at the base of the stone figure. “Look!
A black substance like pitch had been recently smeared on the stone, and there were bundles of animal hair and leather strings at its base. “Let’s get going.

There were two paths, on to the north and one to the west. Following the statue’s gaze, they chose to investigate the western trail, which lead closer to the steep mountainsides. Dead branches crunched underfoot, and birdcalls came from all directions. An unclean, repulsive reek permeated the air. The birdcalls grew louder, there was a rushing sound in the old growth from all directions, and horrible monstrosities, giant-sized birds with dead eyes and brown feathers on their rotting flesh shambled forward. The hooting corpse birds attacked from all directions, and Drolhaf was soon staggering from multiple wounds, made worse when Dawn of the Southern Climes accidentally shot him in the chaotic mêlée. But soon, the company stood victorious in a circle of their assailants.
Wait... It is not over!” whispered Greg, and soon, the others could also hear the approaching sounds of a heavy bulk pressing through the undergrowth. Attracted by the noise or the smell, a great stag beetle the size of a table arrived, waving its enormous pincers.
Just watch me. I can tame this beast and we will have a loyal steed” Gadur Yir grinned, and approached the heavy monstrosity with a food ration in his hand. Unfortunately, the bug was less interested in the bait than the massive half-orc, and rushed him, delivering a vicious bite.
Drop your horned helmet!” called Greg “Maybe it has mistaken you for its female, and wants to mate with you!
As Gadur Yir struggled with the stag beetle, Drolhaf came to his aid, but stumbled in a root and went below the feet of the behemoth. Finally, after blow after blow were rained on the bug’s carapace, the Northman freed himself and flattened the beast with a heavy blow. “This is how it is done.

***

The trail continued, and emerged into a larger clearing at the foot of the looming mountains. On top of a small mound was another standing stone with carved runes, and the mound itself was dotted with perhaps a dozen burrows and tight entrances. Dawn of the Southern Climes and Drolhaf Haffnarskørung climbed up to decipher the signs as Franz, Greg and Gadur Yir stood watch.

Caution was a good idea. Greg soon spotted a small, thin figure emerge from a burrow and try to stalk the pair by the standing stone. He took a dagger from his belt, and threw it with deadly accuracy. The thin figure went down with a guttural shriek. Examining his prey, he saw a dirty and thin child, with long limbs and sharp teeth, an unnatural glint in its eyes. There was excited chatter under the mound, and Franz, who had just had enough, lit and lobbed a flask of oil down another burrow. There was an explosion, yelps of pain and cursing. Smoke streamed from multiple openings, and some half a dozen more children streamed out, fleeing into the undergrowth. Greg caught two more with his daggers, and Gadur Yir grabbed one to interrogate it, but he only received a few kicks and guttural shrieks for his trouble, so he let it go. The last feral child disappeared among the fleshy leaves of the undergrowth.

At last, Dawn and Drolhaf deciphered the runes: “HE WHO THE WANDERING FOREST SHALL MEET, SHALL FOLLOW THE NORTHERN MOON’S PATH, THE OLD HID A GREAT SECRET THEREIN, WHICH EVEN IN THE NON-WORLD SURVIVES.” None the wiser, Greg – who was roughly the childrens’ size – climbed into one of the burrows. The passage ended in a common room full of small, hideously burned bodies. The walls were reinforced with roughly carved stones, and there was a looted sarcophagus along with a large, ancient brass bowl filled with thousands of copper pieces. The rest of the treasure consisted of the feral childrens’ things – dead birds with broken wings, berries, strangled small critters. He left the dead and their belongings where they lay.

Writing on the Stone

***

It was late afternoon by the time they returned to the clearing with the hooded figure, choosing the northern path. Greg’s nose picked up a peculiar smell, and he disappeared into the ferns, returning with a handful of pungent-smelling mushrooms.
What are these for?” protested Drolhaf. “That smells like dogshit!
This is an Old Duke!” Greg grinned. “Want a bite? It is edible!
Leave those things alone... we have better things to do.
The sounds of a stream could be heard nearby, and the company found a place where multiple paths converged. A stone bridge rose over the waters, and large leafy plants nodded on the shores. Crossing cautiously, anticipating an ambush that did not come, they found the sign of an arrow carved into a tree, pointing to the north.
Could this be a way to lure us into a giant ambush?” asked Gadur Yir, then looked again as he was joined by Drolhaf. “No. Of course not. A giant wouldn’t cut it so low. Let’s get going.

The trail turned northeast, and soon lead to another clearing covered with leafy plants, moss, and fallen trees. In the afternoon sunshine, Gadur Yir could make out another arrow, pointing northwest, and a second path to the northeast, leading in the direction where they had anticipated the lakes they had spotted from the mountains.

Gadur Yir and Drolhaf shrugged, and advanced forward. A splash and a great sucking sound, and they both disappeared below the surface of the clearing – muddy water covered with a layer of moss and algae! They struggled to free themselves, but just as they surfaced, there was the sound of a *whoosh* and a bush at the edge of the clearing fired two thorny stalks at the unfortunates. Greg and Franz, both weak, cowered behind a tree to avoid the missiles, while Dawn of the Southern Climes produced a flask of oil and lit the wick… but the bottle exploded in his hands, burning him just as two missiles struck him on the chest! He ducked behind a tree, cursing. The Northman and the half-orc were in serious trouble. Finally, while the two held onto a log in the mud, and slowly tried to crawl ashore, Greg came to the rescue. Sneaking from tree to tree and avoiding stray missiles, he took another oil flask and burned the bush to the ground.

***

Most everyone was wounded now, and evening was approaching. Deciding to investigate closer to the lake, they chose the unmarked path to the northeast. It lead, through the dark woods, to a small clearing. Delicate flowers swayed and bobbed everywhere, and the cool air carried a pleasant scent – of mint, camphor and stranger perfumes. In the middle of the place, atop a slab of stone, there was a statue depicting a curious being: it had the upper body of a beautiful, naked woman with waters trickling from its smiling mouth, and the lower body of a lion with a lizard’s tail. An opened peacock’s tail rose above the strange stone figure. The earth was wet where it absorbed the trickle of water, and dragonflies flew above the clear puddles. Dawn made out letters – regular ones – in the stone:
“IN MY LAP GROWS THE YOUNG FLOWER OF THE WOODS,
MY HEART OFFERS THE RAINBOW’S SEVEN HUES,
‘TIS JUST MY SECRETS, STRANGER, YOU SHOULD NEVER SEEK,
THE KEY OF MY MYSTERY I WILL RETAIN WITH ME AND KEEP”

The Mysterious Statue
The rainbow’s seven hues?” Franz placed seven flowers of different colours before the mysterious statue, and held out a flask as a green, scintillating liquid poured forth.
Still not the flowers we are seeking – but remember the bard Tomurgen’s warning that we would only find it at night by its light? It is almost sundown – let’s wait a little.
They settled in the clearing, and ate some food as the Sun disappeared behind the western mountain range and the sky grew dark. Stars appeared above, and as the night surrounded them, they saw different points of light start to glow between the statue’s paws. Delicate leaves and flowers sprouted, pulsing with interior radiance. Remembering Tomurgen’s cautionary warning – “He who reaps it shall take its blood / But he who pulls shall with his anoint
Greg carefully cut a handful with his blade. “This should be enough. I think it would be very dangerous to take more than we…” Gadur Yir, grinning, was already there, cutting a bunch for himself and hiding it in his pack. “...have already taken.
Dawn of the Southern Climes warned: “I don’t think we should stay here. Let’s get going.
We should avoid going back to that mud-pit. Let’s cross the forest and go southwards until we reach the stream, then get back to the bridge” suggested Gadur Yir, already walking towards the trees.

***

They passed through the undergrowth in the dark night. The ground grew soggy and treacherous, and they were getting closer to a body of water – at least judging by the reeds and other marsh plants.
Are we sure we are going in the right direction?
Gadur Yir nodded “Of course! I always know where I am going.” [Except when he rolls a natural 1 on Wilderness Lore.]
Funny, I don’t like the way that willow over there looks like.”
Yeah, let’s not linger. This way!” [Ends up going North instead of South.]

After a long struggle and cursing, they emerged on an unfamiliar trail. From the right, they heard the guttural sounds of some kind of revel in the distance and saw the light of jumping flames shining through the forest. At least the way to the left was dark and quiet, even if it was in the wrong direction. Indeed, after a short time, they saw lights again, and, dousing theirs, approached a fork in the trail lit by flickering candles. Another mossy standing stone stood here, its base heaped with upturned human and animal skulls filled with tallow and lit with wicks.
What’s that sound?” Greg whispered. “I hear approaching sounds.

They quickly hid in the undergrowth, right as five large black shapes shambled into the clearing. By their reek and rotted feathers, they knew them to be the same corpse birds they had fought before; but hiding was no use – the undead horrors simply struck for them, and the fight was on. Gadur Yir fought desperately, but he fell in a single hit. Franz cast colour spray at the monsters, but to no effect, and was himself cornered. Greg shrieked and fled into the forest, followed by two of the dead avians which seemed to be right on his trail. Thinking quickly, he darted ahead, making a large circle in the woods to shake off the pair of pursuers and return to the others, who had just finished the rest of the attackers.

Deciding to make camp in a secluded depression, Greg ordered everyone to avoid making a fire, just in case the revellers or anyone else would come to investigate.
We can slip by them after dawn, when they are asleep” he suggested.
The caution was well rewarded when, shortly after they lay down, the lookout heard an approaching group on the path. They saw maybe a dozen hunched, dark shapes before the standing stone, and heard high-pitched voices.
Slain and killed! Intruders are afoot!
Another countered: “I shall suck the marrow out of their finger-bones!
Where? Where????
I smell them not! This corpse-reek upsets my nose! Pfeh!
Let’s go now. I will not stick mine into the affairs of the elder brothers. Let them deal with it, they shall.
And with that, the group was gone. But not for long: barely had the company rested a few more hours, they heard riotous singing and more footsteps. This group also seemed taken aback by the slaughtered bird corpses, but one of them seems to have smelled something else.
What’s that? What’s THAT?! I smells it, I do!
Smells you what?
I shall find it. Come, brotherkin, into the bushes!
Greg was quick to react. Reaching into his knapsack, he produced the two smelly mushrooms and threw them a little distance from the camp.
Eh? What’s that there?” came an excited question.
Damnit and curses! Just another of those shrooms! I thought I had…
Feh! You and your findings! Let’s be gones now.
They sighed a collective breath of relief as the drunken company’s sounds grew distant. Greg crept out and examined their footprints – long and clawed, they were obviously not left by goblins.
We really should be going” he said.

***

The way back towards the cave mouth was along the beaten path, and only disturbed by a pack of giant, colourful butterflies, which they avoided by giving them a wide berth. On the mountain slope above the forest, they rested some more while Greg put out rabbit traps. At last, the day after, they returned to the abandoned room complex. They passed through the ominous rooms, leaving behind the tempting golden chalices resting on top of the ancient sarcophagi. At last, they were at the foot of the stairway going up to the upper level... but the way forward was blocked! A transparent figure stood there with crazed eyes and an unkempt beard. Recognising an opponent they had no chance of hurting, the members of the company ran where they could. Gadur Yir cowered behind the stone throne, while Franz ran back downstairs into the hall of the dead, followed by Dawn of the Southern Climes. The apparition gave pursuit, and Franz snapped his fingers, turning invisible. Dawn emerged to dodge it and rejoin his new companions, but he felt a ghostly arm reach for him, and all went dark...

On the upper level, the reassembled company waited for a while, but the elf didn’t come. “And Dawn?” asked someone. Greg just shrugged and started for the southern passages. The others followed, re-entering the mines, and descending back to the entrance level. There were more sounds in the distance coming their direction, but they chose to hide and avoid a confrontation – Gadur Yir concealed himself under the bridge, Franz used his other invisibility spell, while the others took shelter behind rocks and stone piles. Wet footsteps came from the southeast, followed by sibilant noises. A company of seven shambling, amphibious figures appeared with milky white, wet skin and oily eyes. They looked like upright newts and carried heavy stone-tipped spears. Everyone tried to freeze and avoid making a noise as they passed, and they did, to everyone’s collective relief. The company, wounded and tired, made for the exit of the mine tunnels, and the way towards Haghill and civilisation.

(Session date 18 March 2017).

***

Notable quotes:
Orastes, on Gadur Yir: “My character is a TPK survivor, I’ve got nothing to fear.

Gadur Yir, after fighting the giant stag beetle: “I think the taming attempt didn’t work out… I take the food ration back and clean it of the bug juices. It is my last one.
Franz: “You wanted to play David Attenborough.

Franz: “This is a gender-conscious sphinx.

GM, to Gadur Yir, cowering behind a throne: “At last, you are the half-orc behind the throne!

***

Referee’s notes: The conclusion to the previous adventure (with a few things omitted at the end). The party navigated a hostile and rather dangerous territory with a lot of caution that was rewarded with their objectives achieved and nobody dying until they ran into that apparition. This was a session where they were well over their heads, but quick thinking and a little luck prevailed. Of course, much has remained unexplored in the valley and beyond (the company found a pass leading out of the valley as well, but decided to give it a wide berth), and they missed something crucial that one particular player would have been anxious to discover.

I reran this scenario – the quest for the enchanted flower through the mines and the hidden valley – at “Adventurers’ Society”, a Hungarian mini-convention, where the two sessions’ worth of play managed to fit into the 4.5 hour time slot. The characters of this session were:
·         Bedoar the Bulbous, Master of Enchantments, 3rd level Magic-User (choked on poison gas but got better);
·         Anchor, 3rd level female half-orc Fighter;
·         Raris of Baklin, 3rd level Cleric of Zeltar, the God of Fortune;
·         Losulin, 3rd level female elven Archer;
·         Min, 3rd level Thief-Archer (killed by a prismatic missile); and
·         Zigmund, 3rd level Northman Fighter.

Curiously, the players chose an almost identical way through the two halves of the adventure (with less exploration and some minor variations), although they were much more bold in experimenting with the obviously dangerous stuff in the abandoned rooms, something that proved a two-edged sword. Notwithstanding an almost-TPK caused by vampire bats, they came away a good deal richer than my regular group, finding many of the hidden things which eluded my players. Of course, some of these things were useful, and some of them were rather dangerous – they came close to flirting with death more than one time.


They got a lucky break in the valley itself, managing to run into a group of its guardians (bad news), but convincing them through clever bluffing to escort the company to their destination (good news since they were fairly close to the convention’s time limit). Two PCs died. One succumbed to a poison gas trap in the dungeon segment, but was temporarily revived with slow poison, and eventually found not only guidance to an antidote, but by a stroke of sheer luck, the antidote as well (I rolled for that chance fair and square). Another character made a mistake disobeying a fairly clear warning, and ended up eating a prismatic missile which came up on “40 damage”. Ouch. 

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

[BLOG] Don’t Kick the Bucket: Zine Insights into Early D&D

The quest for old game documents, particularly homemade adventure scenarios can be a frustrating search, and yield few results. We know little about how people really played, and what kind of games they did play. Things are more clear in the US – after all, many people publishing in APA zines went on to publish their stuff professionally or at least semi-professionally – while fewer things are known about the British gaming scene. One of the more famous dungeons from the age was Don Turnbull’s Greenlands, and a snippet, The Hall of Mystery, was published in The Dragon #21, showing a very tough sub-level (another, Lair of the Demon Queen, apparently appeared in White Dwarf #7). Sadly, Greenlands appears to be lost in spite of Chris Turnbull’s efforts to recover it.

However, other traces of early D&D survive in the online repository of the UK Diplomacy Zine Archive. I discovered these artefacts while following the links from Zhu Bajiee’s post on The Realm of Zhu, which lead me to the early issues of Chimaera, a zine dedicated to Diplomacy and other postal games. Chimaera was edited by Clive F. Booth, and published a respectable 102 issues between June 1975 and July 1983. This was a time, before computer games or ubiquitous television programming, when postal games were at their peak. Chimaera is mostly a relic of this hobby, of which I know very little, but it also reveals a small treasure cache of old D&D content from the dawn of the hobby.

This Crazy New Game
The first mention of D&D appears in Chimaera #5 (September 1975), as a request for information and reviews. This seems to be the earliest period of gaming in the UK, as people are regularly referred to three sources to obtain a copy of D&D (one of them the early Games Workshop, another based in Basel, Switzerland!) An introduction to Empire of the Petal Throne and the world of Tékumel is published in Issue #11 (January 1976), followed by a long series of adventure reports about the original migrant worker RPG (there is some quality dungeoneering there, rather less dodgy than the D&D content). EPT, in a quite naïve way, is even described as “surely the most detailed fantasy game that will ever be produced” (p. 12). Also included from Issue #19 are some play-by-mail En Garde reports with character names along the lines of Fabian Titanique, André D’Avidson (played by... yes, one Andy Davidson), Noah Speke De Inglisch, Charles Hercule de Thingy, The Scarlet Pimp, and Robert de Paté de Fois Gras – and, silliness aside, it proved very popular, becoming a regular feature through the zine’s run. However, our concern is not EPT or En Garde, but the utterly charming and fully authentic early D&D content starting with Issue #18.

***

Sample Level
Dungeons and Dragons: An Introduction by Paul Cook is just a two-page contribution, but a key one. It contains a surprisingly succinct and interesting description of the game, character generation, and best of all, a sample dungeon level! It is not made clear whether it comes from Hope Castle, Paul’s main dungeon (“situated on the borders of the great empire of the Conans”, and “built thousands of years ago by the gold dragons”), but it is a fascinating document in its own right. The dungeon level, roughly the size of the sample dungeon from the OD&D booklets, is a collection of a few rooms and passages, supplemented with a minimal typewritten key of 17 rooms (only three of which are over one line of length). Nevertheless, we have a lot of cool features to note:
  • The level serves as a distribution nexus to reach the lower levels. There are no less than six connections in a relatively small place: two stairways to level 2, a slanting passage and a sliding door to level 3, a “space room” (whatever that means) dropping to level 5, and a trap door with a drop to level 7! That’s some serious connectivity – if you can survive the fall to those deep levels.
  • Four monster lairs offering very different challenge levels: a smaller and larger goblin lair, a minotaur, and an orc outpost. The treasures are generous (there is a ring of three wishes), but assuming a large first-level company, several adventurers will have to die to obtain them.
  • There are some quite magical and imaginative traps and tricks: the shrinking room, the acid fountain, an endless corridor, and a wizard masquerading as an old man, teaching the players to be wary of first appearances.
  • Then there is the bucket encounter (#10, forgotten from the map), which is perhaps the funniest part, and best classified as an enigma.
That’s a handful – and it is all on a single typewritten page. There is a pleasing complexity to it despite the limited space: it looks like a dungeon with a decent variety of content, and a promising layout.

The Empire
Paul’s introduction continues in Issue #19 with an examination of wilderness play – a particularly rare thing in a dungeon-oriented period. This is one and a half pages including two maps, but presents an appealing and adventure-friendly mini-setting. It is a fantasy mishmash where elves live in the forests, dragons live in the mountains and hill giants live in the hills, yet it has its own peculiar feel. The area surrounding Hope Castle is ruled by a disintegrating Empire ruled by the insane and childless Emperor Orweelia VI, and managed by a cadre of incompetent bureaucrats and a host of greedy local nobles. There are decent bits like “[on] the road through the vampire caves to Red Castle, there are two huge statues blocking the roads. It is said that anyone passing under them rather than around them, will be cursed with bad luck and die or else become incredibly rich – all within a year”, or a quarantined city with raging bubonic plague. Issue #25 offers further detail on the empire’s most important nobles, from the ancient wizard to the knight who turns men into mutants and sets them loose in his dungeons... and Grimy of Groin, a PC dwarf who obtained a castle by poisoning its former inhabitant (kind of a pattern in Paul’s games).

In Issue #21, we learn that the main characters in Paul Cook’s Isle of Wight group are imaginatively named, and quite the murder-hobos:
  • Merlin: often adventures alone or in a company of orcs, “was once friendly with a Balrog, but did nothing to prevent the Evil High Priest from charming the arse of it”, GM finally got rid of him with a potion of poison.
  • Aragorn:Don’t be duped by the name, Aragorn, [...] is again chaotic”, another guy with orc henchmen who kills elves on sight, has a pet chimaera he uses to extort people. “Takes pleasure in seeing orcs pick up lawful swords and dying.
  • Sinbad, Son of Popeye, Son of Trufo: Takes great masochistic pleasure in getting killed, to the point where he attempted to wipe out 16 werewolves on his own!” He was backstabbed and killed by Merlin and Aragorn.
  • John of Redtown: a rare lawful cleric, fond of using flaming oil-based tactics, and reliant on friends to keep him alive. Was once turned into a swine by a beautiful witch.
  • Lefalia the Elf: flaming sword guy.

The Temple of Set
A new dungeon, The Temples of Set and Seker, is found in Issue #23. This is another contribution by Paul Cook, and represents partial write-ups of two rival temples “situated somewhere in the dungeons of Hope Castle”. The odd thing about the twin temples, erected by the gods themselves in the struggle between Chaos and Law, is that their backstory pretty much mirrors Dark Tower, the infamous high-level AD&D deathfest by Paul Jacquays, but preceding them by three years (1976 vs. 1979). It would be interesting to know if this was a case of loose inspiration or parallel evolution, although it is probably the latter: there does not seem to be any further connection, and both draw on the D&Dised mythology of Gods, Demigods and Heroes (as does Temple of Ra Accursed by Set, a fairly uninteresting Judges Guild module from 1979). The temples, with 14 and 11 keyed areas respectively, are quite different from the entrance level provided in Issue #18, and are best thought of as themed sub-levels. Some apparent features stand out:
  • The map is a branching structure with a prominent use of secret doors. The players could miss much of the place if they were careless. There are no connections to other levels (what appear to be stairs are just a trick), probably meaning these complexes were located on the boundaries of a regular level.
  • The key is a mixture of general and themed encounters. They have a sinister bent, like a girl being sacrificed in an evil ritual, men dying of the bubonic plague, food being poisonous or turning into spiders, or exploding glass. They also appear dangerous, potentially deadly for an unwary group.
  • There is a room where there is a 5% chance you will meet Set; otherwise, you meet 100 of his minions (10th level Lords).
  • Seker’s temple is of course much less interesting than Set's, but it could potentially serve as a base of operations for Lawful groups (although considering Merlin and Aragorn, they would just loot it and put the inhabitants to the sword). There is a room of 3 wishes, and another where there is a 1% chance of an encounter with Seker (as the key informs us, lawful gods are more busy than chaotics).


***

Paul Cook’s campaign was not the only one to receive attention in Chimaera. Dave Tant, whose articles start from Issue #19, focused on higher-level play, and organised a zine-spanning play-by-mail campaign called The Pits of Cil. After organisational matters and rules interpretations, the campaign is introduced for good in Issue #22. It is a post-apocalyptic setting of a future Earth descended into barbarism and populated by strange new creatures, giving a grounding for the dungeon, “an ancient ruined palace”, “built on the site of earlier palaces and subterranean workings” (in fact, the name comes from Eyes of the Overworld, although it does not seem to have provided more than some superficial influence).

The Pits of Cil: Intro
Tant’s game involved eleven parallel groups delving into the ruins, from The Hill Booth Boys to Leviathan’s Angels. All of them were assembled from a generous XP budget, allowing for a mixture of high (7th-8th) and low-level characters plus retainers. Issue #23 introduces a further opportunity for coop play in the form of Inter-Zine Dungeons, allowing the transfer of characters from one zine’s campaign to another – “forcible (i.e. involuntary) transfer by means of a transporter room”, “voluntary transfer by means of a trek across a moderately hostile landscape”, or transfer via a wish. It is raised that this presents issues of rules compatibility and referee interpretations (concerns which influenced the design goals and tenor of AD&D), as well as different paces of publication between the zines. The idea of a multiverse of games – whose US parallels are recounted in a classic 2005 thread by Calithena, and which has been revived via the much more recent Constantcon and the FLAILSNAILS conventions – seemed to hover between something that was at once very desirable, yet laden with conflicts and trouble that made implementation mostly impractical.

Dungeon Escalators
The postal format itself posed problems: later issues reveal players regularly missed turns, or did not respond accurately to prodding, resulting in outcomes like “Still nothing heard from Les Kennedy, so his character dies, and his party turns chaotic. Sorry to see you go Les.” (As it turns out, these followers turned into roving, autonomous mobs of chaotic rabble who posed a danger to the active players.) Exploration seemed to proceed at a very slow pace, although the PVP infighting – a popular and exhilarating hobby on MUDs and later online games – must have made up for it. The early write-ups don’t reveal too much about the Pits of Cil beyond the creative chaos taking place, but some play reports do exist. In Issue #34, Tant gives a DM’s perspective of a convention session, which may have taken place in The Pits or (more likely) could have been entirely self-standing. The quest for The Bowl of Midas has ideas like a rack of electrified swords (ouch), and “the Stone Giant, heavily disguised as a Giant Beatle with a Magic Guitar.” From Issue #35, regular and more detailed play reports start appearing (this was around the time the first character reached the 5th dungeon level).

The Pits of Cil continued for four years, spanning over 850 letters before it wrapped up in Issue #69 (October 1980). Dave Tant already drew some conclusions in Issue #62. The dungeon was starting to get clogged with “abandoned parties”, and the remaining players – down to ten after the campaign’s heyday of thirty or forty, this final number including Don Turnbull – had to spend most of their time repulsing their attacks. Runaway PVP also hindered dungeon exploration, and the faster correspondents could gain an advantage above their peers. The campaign ended with a bang, with an earthquake destroying the dungeon and the remaining characters using their wish spells to escape (one particular player from his wedding to a fairy princess). Tant planned a followup AD&D campaign set on an island, but details of this game are scant.


Chimaera itself lasted until July 1983, ending its run with Issue #102 after eight years, something that’d make many commercial hobby publications proud. As editor Clive Booth noted, the drive was no longer there, nor were many of the friends he had started the journey with. There were, of course, changes in the world as well: later issues talk increasingly about microcomputers, while D&D had gone from its roots to something rather different. It was, without doubt, the end of an era.

Monday, 13 March 2017

[REVIEW] Beyond the Ice-Fall

[REVIEW] Beyond the Ice-Fall
by Joseph D. Salvador
Published by Raven God Games

Winter has been hard on the small Viking villages of the Skallafjord, wolf attacks have been on the rise and a supply ship has gone missing. The player characters – either locals or visiting travellers – are asked to investigate. This is the premise of a beginning (level 1-3) adventure module based on two pulp stories, Algernon Blackwood’s The Glamour of the Snow, and Robert E. Howard’s The Frost Giant’s Daughter. Like almost all modules which try to turn pulp stories into RPG scenarios, it is heavy on the mood and light on the actual game content. The whole package consists of 28 pages, but while what we get is generally good, it is very little. Some of this is due to thanks to the airy layout (with rather good-looking interior illustrations, some by the author), but the real issue is the adventure’s limited scope.

Attack of the Ice Bint
What we get is a hook (missing ship), a broader mystery (the heavy winter the Vikings have been enduring), and a bunch of rumours that are ripe with further adventure potential. Of these, only the first is explored in this module. Which is a shame, because the author almost starts detailing a small wilderness setting that could have a lot of potential to realise these promises, but stops in his tracks right after the beginning. We get the descriptions of two villages, presented in fairly broad strokes – they have their interesting NPCs, local adventure hooks, and just the right amount of well-presented information to make them feel distinct and engaging – but little is actually done with them. This is followed up by a wilderness trek that inevitably leads to the adventure site, bolstered by a small but well-done random encounter chart (the entries are given descriptions which elevate them above “2+1d6 wolves”) and all of two wilderness locations (one of which is the entrance to the dungeon). They are cool (the first site is really powerful), but this isn’t really exploration, because there is nowhere else interesting to go.

Then we get an eight-location mini-dungeon beyond the ice-fall, and it almost becomes interesting again. There are some challenges related to navigation and movement in the hazardous icy environment, and there is some damn fine imagery representing the best of the pulps. Icy passages, cursed slave warriors enthralled by the main antagonist, a guy frozen in a block of ice along with two interesting magic items, a spectacular ice tree, and the crown jewel, an underground cavern with an iceberg floating above a bottomless rainbow abyss that’s actually a dimensional gateway. Damn spiffy! Unfortunately, imagery it remains: things mostly remain on the decorative/treasure/fight/trap level, and you can’t interact much with these wonders (although, again, that iceberg... that’s something). The good classic adventures tend to have a depth of interaction with their magical enigmas, and that is missing. There are the obligatory new monsters, which over-explain things a bit, two cool magic items, and three spells everyone already knows from AD&D. Also, a random table for Viking names.

There is almost something here, and there are the beginnings of an interesting Nordic-themed mini-setting in the text. The individualised monster encounters are a major feature of the adventure, and some of the wild imagery – even if not really exploited – is to die for. There is an undeniable style to it all that could sustain more than the product really offers. If this wasn’t just a glorified lair dungeon, but a collection of three or four mini-scenarios and a dozen smaller wilderness sites centred on the Skallafjord area, and was a bit more tightly packed, it would be going places. As it is, it is almost worth three stars thanks to the execution and attention to detail – but that’s just another almost.


Rating: ** / *****