26 April 2021

Charles Peale – the fantasy artist

This is a post about the artist Charles Peale – no, not this guy! Rather, the artist who did a lot of the early interior black-and-white illustrations for Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE).


During its heyday of the 1980s and early 1990s, ICE boasted some excellent art. I’ve praised the amazing maps by Peter Fenlon here before, as well as the inspiring colour covers by Angus McBride.


Reading through the new fantasy role-playing game (a kind-of-but-not-exactly-MERP-clone) Against the Darkmaster (VsD), I felt compelled to look through some of my old MERP campaign and adventure modules. (Yes, despite having loads of work to do, I wasted some time daydreaming about someday running a VsD campaign employing these classic works.)  


Looking through these old books I was reminded of my fondness for Peale’s work. I really loved his line work, the ‘clean’ aesthetics of his pictures, and always wondered why ICE stopped using his material. ICE eventually switched to Liz Danforth for most of their interior art. While I like Danforth’s work well enough, I prefer Peale’s overall – there is, in my view, something ‘artificial’ or ‘stiff’ about the poses of Dansforth’s figures.


Anyhow, since I suspect that many people who occasionally visit this blog might be unfamiliar with Peale’s work, I thought that I would post some of his pictures here. It would be great if his work could be appreciated by a wider audience.


Here are some pictures from the Middle-earth modules Mirkwood, Isengard, Bree, and Cirith Ungol:


[Astrith -- a.k.a. the "Green Asp" -- of Calenhardon]

[Treachery in Cirith Ungol]

[Beorn in Southern Mirkwood]  

[Caline Halfelven of Cirith Ungol]

[Dwarves hiding from a giant spider in Northern Mirkwood]

[An orc follower of the Necromancer in Southern Mirkwood]

[Townsfolk of Bree]

[Saruman and Wormtongue in Isengard]

I will post some art that Peale did for the amazing campaign module The Court of Ardor later this week.

27 March 2021

Swords and Sorcery House Rules PDF available again

Many years ago I put together some 'swords and sorcery' house rules for Swords & Wizardry (also usable with older editions of D&D, such as '0e' and 'B/X'). 

They have been available at this blog for over a decade now, and many people seem to have found them useful, or at least interesting, over the years. 

Once upon a time the house rules also were available as a PDF (kindly assembled and hosted by Benoist). But that PDF disappeared from the internet at some point. This was unfortunate, but I never got around to putting together a new PDF and hosting it somewhere myself (I'm kind of lazy).

Fortunately, the old PDF is available here via the Wayback Machine. (Thanks to evangineer for locating it and bringing it to my attention! And my apologies for missing evangineer's comment -- which was posted way back in November 2020 -- until now.)

By Crom!

 [Conan versus the frost giants by Frank Frazetta] 

26 March 2021

This blog is not dead

I know things have been rather quiet here recently, but this blog is not dead (yet). I've just been really, really busy at work over the past few months. 

Current mood:

"Real life" -- it keeps one away from the things that make life worth living.

23 February 2021

Ravenloft 5e setting book coming soon


Like many who got into role-playing games, and especially Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, during the 1980s, I owned (and still own ... somewhere) a copy of the original Ravenloft adventure. At the time I thought it was unbelievably cool, with its evocative Clyde Caldwell cover, beautiful maps by David Sutherland III, use of randomly drawn tarot cards to determine the structure of the adventure, and so forth.


However, I have not read the original module in over three decades. And I never purchased any of the subsequent Ravenloft products—including the 2nd edition and 3rd edition settings—until the recent 5th edition adventure, Curse of Strahd. And even that book I only skimmed. For the most part over the past few years it has been simply sitting on my bookshelf. (Nonetheless, a review of the 5e version, by my friend C. Robichaud, was posted here.) It’s not that I had anything against Ravenloft—indeed, it always struck me as rather intriguing, and I liked the way it was connected to other campaign settings, including the World of Greyhawk (I believe that a connection to Vecna was established in the 2nd edition version of the setting).


Anyhow, a proper ‘setting book’ for Ravenloft is coming out: Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. I have to say that neither the standard cover nor the alternative cover blows me away. (I don’t think that they’re bad, certainly, but they’re not nearly appealing in my view as, say, the two Saltmarsh covers.) But covers aside, I plan to get a copy of the book when it becomes available in late May. I hope to return to my Greyhawk campaign sometime this spring, so perhaps there will be a way to connect Ravenoft to it. Or maybe not, and I’ll just use the book to mine for ideas. Or perhaps I’ll simply read it for pleasure. In any case, I’m interested enough in the setting now to look forward to it, unlike most of the setting books that have been published hitherto for 5th edition D&D.


(But the real reason I’m looking forward to the end of May, is that it will be end of the “Domain of Dread” that is my current work situation…)

23 January 2021

More Fantasy TV: Westeros and Middle-earth

It looks like there will be no shortage of fantasy television shows in the near future. In addition to the potential Dungeons and Dragons series that I mentioned in my previous post, The Witcher will be returning for certain, and rumblings of a possible Conan series are heard every so often.

Amazon’s Middle-earth series should be out later this year. This brief article confirms what I noted before: the series will be set during the Second Age. I would be thrilled—and not at all surprised—if the first season portrayed the rise of Sauron (as the comely “Annatar”) and his cooperation with—and eventual betrayal of—Celebrimbor in the creation of the Rings of Power. This should be followed with the great War of the Elves and Sauron, which would involve Númenor. The first season could end with the defeat of Sauron. The second season could portray Sauron’s return centuries later, his subsequent capture by and corruption of (a now decadent) Númenor, the destruction of Númenor and the founding of the “Realms in Exile” (Gondor and Arnor), and the end of the Second Age with the War of the Last Alliance. Perhaps more storylines could be added—e.g., the stories of Elrond, Galadriel, et al., during this time; the persecution of “the Faithful” by the “King’s Men” in Númenor; the establishment of Númenorean colonies in Middle-earth; and so forth. But I think that these two great conflicts—the mid-Age initial struggle with Sauron, and the late-Age defeat of Sauron—should be the overarching storylines. How could it be otherwise?

[Map of Númenor from the Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad]

Also, HBO hasn’t given up on Westeros. In addition to the House of the Dragon (set about three centuries before the Game of Thrones), a series based on G.R.R. Martin’s “Dunk and Egg” stories is in development. I quite liked those stories. And given their modest, episodic nature, there is little risk that HBO will fumble the ending the way that they did with GoT. However, I don’t think that the stories provide material for more than one or maybe two seasons. That’s perfectly fine in my view—it worked for Watchmen

I actually don’t watch that much television normally, but I quite enjoyed GoT and The Witcher, and so will be happy if other fantasy series of comparable quality become available in the near-ish future.

22 January 2021

The Mittens of Redistribution

While I generally try to avoid bringing up politics in this blog (my “day job” is teaching and writing about political philosophy), I found this to be too amusing not to post:

More information on this wondrous item can be found in this Polygon article: “Bernie Sanders’ mittens are now an extremely powerful magic item in D&D.”


15 January 2021

Dungeons & Dragons: a TV series and a Movie?

It looks like a Dungeons & Dragons television series is now in the process of being developed by Derek Kolstad (the author of the script for the first John Wick film).

This is separate from the previously announced Dungeons & Dragons film, which apparently will star Chris Pine.

I hope that the series and/or movie turn out to be entertaining. But I am gripped with a sense of trepidation, given my memories of this disaster from two decades ago:

31 December 2020

Praise for Lyonesse

Mythras is my favourite FRPG of the 21st Century and Lyonesse is one of my favourite trilogies of the 20th Century—so naturally I’m a great fan of Design Mechanism’s new Lyonesse FRPG, which artfully combines these two things!

For the edification of all, I recommend the fine review of this excellent book at the blog “Reviews from R’lyeh.” Reviewer Pookie’s conclusion:

Lyonesse: Fantasy Roleplaying Based on the Novels by Jack Vance is fantastic and thorough, almost compendium-like adaptation of a classic fantastical setting, one that is likely to feel almost familiar to many gamers, because even if they have not read the novels, they will have encountered its influence on Dungeons & Dragons. This provides an opportunity for roleplayers old and new, unaware of them or not, to visit the Elder Isles, the setting of that influence, and explore it in all of its glory and grit, its whimsy and wonder, its manners and machinations, its delights and its dangers, in this well designed, well researched roleplaying game.”

Happy 2021 everyone! Hopefully things will get better in the new year.


09 December 2020

The Two Gords of Greyhawk

I worked my way through most of Gary Gygax’s “Gord” novels last autumn, winter, and spring. I’ve now read them all except for the last one (Dance of Demons), which I’ve been putting off. I’ll get to it eventually, but in mid-March I needed to take a break. (Also, I know how the last one ends, at least in a general sense. I won’t reveal anything here, except to say that this knowledge has dampened my enthusiasm for reading that final book.) 

These stories were casual “bedtime reading” for me. Indeed, they sometimes helped to induce sleepiness. I read these works both out of interest—in my youth I had read only the first Gord novel and had always wondered about the others—as well as to familiarize myself better with the World of Greyhawk for my Dungeons and Dragons campaign. (Greyhawk has always seemed to me the most flavourful of the "official" worlds for AD&D, and as Gygax’s creation, manifests a distinctly “Vancian” ethos which I quite appreciate.) 

Gygax’s flaws as a fiction writer are many. I won’t delve into them here. But I nonetheless enjoyed reading these stories because of what they reveal about the World of Greyhawk and the more general assumptions (metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic) underpinning AD&D. As I’ve noted before here, I find the implicit universe in first edition AD&D, and its explicit expression in the World of Greyhawk, quite distinctive and evocative. Someone with no interest in or fondness for AD&D or Greyhawk, however, likely would find Gygax’s fiction to be rather unappetizing fare.  

Having read most of Gygax’s Gord stories, I think that it is possible to distinguish between two “Gords” and corresponding “Greyhawks.” The first can be found in the first novel (Saga of Old City), which lacks an overarching plot (it essentially describes Gord’s various adventures as he grows up and travels throughout parts of the eastern Flanaess), and the short stories (as presented in Night Arrant and scattered throughout various issues of Dragon). In these tales Greyhawk comes across as a world like R.E. Howard’s Hyboria or Jack Vance’s Dying Earth (but with elves, orcs, demons, devils, and so forth). These are the better tales, in my judgement. In them Gord is “just an adventurer,” albeit in the mold, say, of Conan, the Gray Mouser, or Cugel.   

I especially recommend “The Weird Occurrence in Odd Alley” (in Night Arrant). The story is probably Gygax’s best one, both in style and substance. The setting is quite intriguing. It’s almost a “proto-Planescape”—an urban market hub with portals to various planes of existence, including Oerth and our very own Earth. (I was going to write more about this story and the intriguing inter-planar market it describes, but I recently came across this excellent discussion by T. Foster, and cannot think of anything to add to it, at least not at the moment. For additional discussion of Gygax’s Gord stories by Foster, check out this interesting post.) 

Alas, about halfway through the second novel (Artifact of Evil) a change seems to take place. Gord is transformed into some kind of Moorcockian “Eternal Champion”-like figure. Grand struggles between powerful trans-planar factions are described. One such faction is a cabal of formidable defenders of the “Balance” (which includes the likes of Mordenkainen, Tenser, the Cat Lord, and the Mage of the Valley, among others). Gord joins their ranks. Indeed, it turns out that he is some kind of messiah figure (someone who had been protected by the Agents of the Balance in a novel—City of Hawks—that describes his origins and early life alongside with the events in Saga of Old City, but characterized in a dramatically different way). It turns out that Gord is the Champion of the Balance! Now Gord plays a role in Gygax’s “epic fantasy” akin to Elric, Corum, or Hawkmoon. 

In Gygax’s tales, though, the “Balance” is situated between “Good” (with a capital “G”) and “Evil” (with a capital “E”)—although there are struggles amongst the various factions of Evil, of course (namely, Chaotic demons versus Lawful devils). This Cosmic Struggle is less interesting than Moorcock’s “Law-versus-Chaos” one. And indeed, the stories become less interesting the more “epic” their scale. I personally much preferred Gord qua “Gray Mouser” than qua “Elric.” (I do love many of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories, but I don’t think Gygax handles the genre well, and forcing Gord and Greyhawk into that mold strikes me as an unfortunate decision.) Likewise, I prefer the Greyhawk of the earlier stories: a vast world with myriad small struggles, all independent of a singular overarching cosmic war. It’s rather a pity that this shift occurred. 

Nonetheless, I’m glad that I read these tales. I eventually will read the final one (for the sake of completeness if nothing else). I think that they gave me insight into how Gygax construed the World of Greyhawk. And there were other interesting bits as well: in addition to “Weird Way” (the “proto-Planescape” setting I noted above) the description of the Plane of Shadow in City of Hawks is rather evocative. 

24 November 2020

The Monsters of Trampier

I’ve mentioned before here how much I adore the art of Dave Trampier (“DAT”). His work very much shaped the way in which I visualize fantasy adventuring—especially the more “gritty” kind characteristic of early AD&D and the World of Greyhawk

Of course, I’m not alone in my admiration! Today I stumbled upon a rather nice tribute to Trampier’s art in the Monster Manual at Heavy Metal (which I was surprised to learn still existed—I have distant memories of the magazine from my adolescence, but had assumed that it had gone the way of the Dinosaurs). 

The article mentions Trampier’s final year, including his interest in reengaging with the fantasy role-playing community, but which was thwarted tragically by his death in 2014. I find Trampier’s tale to be a mysterious and melancholic one. I can't help but wonder what amazing works he might have produced had he not walked away from it all in the late 1980s. But I am profoundly grateful for the invaluable contributions that he did make to our hobby.

Here are two of my favourite DAT illustrations: the Lizard Man and the Rakshasa. 

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.