08 July 2020

Jim Holloway, RIP

As many of you no doubt already know, the artist Jim Holloway passed away just over a week ago (on June 28th).

Joseph Goodman has a brief essay on Holloway’s work—“Remembering Jim Holloway”—over at his Goodman Games website. I especially liked this observation:
“Jim brought a playfulness to TSR’s in-house stable of artists. His fine linework and natural humanoid poses were informed by an inner chuckle. You could tell this was a man who saw humor with every glance. As an artist, he brought that humor to the surface. Every battle, every monster, every spell: just beneath the surface—and occasionally right on top of it—there was a joke waiting to happen.”
Here is his famous cover illustration for B4, The Lost City (now rereleased as part of Goodman Games’ “Original Adventures Reincarnated” series):

Deep within the Lost City dwells the Lovecraftian horror "Zargon":

Holloway’s work for D&D, AD&D, and Paranoia are well-known. The interior art of Gary Gygax’s Monster Manual 2 was entirely by Holloway. He also did some work for ICE’s Middle-earth line. Below are some pictures from the Pirates of Pelargir module.

Holloway’s pictures often made me laugh. They frequently portrayed adventurers as fallible and foolish. I’m sad that we will see no new works from his prolific pen.


04 July 2020

New Lyonesse and Mythras adventures

The good people at the Design Mechanism have released a couple of new adventures for Lyonesse and Mythras: 'In High Dudgeon', and 'Meeros Doomed'.

Below are the adventure descriptions.

Games Without Frontiers...
Every year, the villages of High and Low Dudgeon meet for the midsummer games. Every year for the past 10 years, Low Dudgeon has lost. The villagers are suspicious; what is High Dudgeon's secret? Could it be magic? Could it be some secret training technique? Is it outright cheating? Enter the intrepid characters, visiting the villages to enjoy the games, but drawn into the intrigue of Low Dudgeon's misfortune. And if the true source of High Dudgeon's success isn't found before the current games end -- well, things could get ugly.
In High Dudgeon is a Lyonesse scenario for 2-6 characters, and involves a high degree of investigation and social interaction. The adventure is complete with maps, and a plethora of colourful non-player characters. Also included are four pre-generated characters -- Madam Neneveh's Festive Fellows -- designed for use with the adventure.
The City State of Meeros lies broken. Queen Herathos wants the renegade priestess, Kara, brought to justice to atone for her treachery. The characters are tasked with venturing to distant Kopash, and charged with making her arrest.
But is all as it seems? Powerful forces are plotting to destroy Meeros completely, and those who have protected the city may well be the ones who secure its doom.
The characters must uncover traitors, travel into monster-infested swamps, confront sorcerous fiends, and perhaps even ally themselves with Meeros' ancient foes, the Badoshi Warlords, if they are to avenge the Doom that has come to Meeros!
This mini-campaign follows on directly from events found in the Mythras core rules, and the scenarios Sarinaya's Curse, and Meeros Falling, although it can also be played stand-alone.
I’ll be getting both of these. My hope is that once a few more adventures come out for Lyonesse I can string them together—and add some of my own—to run a campaign later this year (or possibly early 2021). 

Speaking of Lyonesse, I finally picked up my printed copy of the rules, which had been languishing in my post office box for several weeks. It’s a beautiful volume. And it is thick (almost 4 centimeters / 1.5 inches)! 

I’m really looking forward to reading this tome properly over the next couple of weeks. I already have the PDF, which I’ve dipped into occasionally over the past month, but I generally find that I need a proper physical book to read something like this from cover to cover. E-books and PDFs are helpful and convenient, but they can’t replace proper paper.

27 June 2020

Four months of Chaos

I am starting to think that serving as Chair of my Department during a pandemic is highly suboptimal with respect to my ongoing happiness and wellbeing. 

Since my university closed all of its physical buildings and switched everything online in mid-March, my life has been consumed by work (learning how to use new online tools; managing the transition online for my own teaching as well as helping my colleagues; frequent meetings with other Chairs, Deans, and so forth to address the endless problems caused by the shut down; more meetings since the end of term to figure out what to do in the autumn; and—unrelated to the pandemic—trying to finish my obscenely overdue book).

Consequently, blogging here has been quite minimal. I also haven’t done any gaming at all.

It’s been a grind. The only thing that has kept me sane was hiding from the world with my wife in my parents’ cabin on Lake Huron. Alas, that’s over now.

I’m in the midst of moving right now, but hopefully things will settle down in July and I can return to at least a bit of gaming and somewhat more frequent blogging.

Sorry for the whine.

24 June 2020

Review of Crypts and Things Remastered

There is a quite informative review of Crypts and Things Remastered at Ynas Midgard's RPG Blog. (It was posted over a year ago, but I only just recently came across it.) 

Since I’m a great fan of C&T (and contributed some rules to it) I thought that I would mention it here, in case anyone was curious about the game.

Do you have that “Orcish” look? The splendid brow of a Uruk-hai?

"Lord of the Rings TV series issues New Zealand casting call for 'funky-looking' people"

"Talent agency job ad lists long skinny limbs, acne scars, facial lines, missing bones and large eyes as desirable features.”

Some of my friends would be perfect for these roles ("skinny limbs," "large eyes," etc.). (Not me, of course...)

19 June 2020

Ian Holm sails to Valinor

The actor Ian Holm has passed away.

Most readers of this blog no doubt will be familiar with Holm’s role as the android “Ash” in the original (and best) Alien film, as well as his portrayal of “Bilbo Baggins” in Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth films (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit). He was perfect in both roles. He also superbly played “Napoleon” in Time Bandits. I’ve long been a fan of his work in general, including his portrayal of “Fluellen” in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V.


15 June 2020

Living a life of real value

I've mentioned it before here, but I'm a great fan of Existential Comics. And I quite liked today's strip (reproduced below).

Just replace "playing video games" with "playing role-playing games" and I'm pretty much this guy...

30 May 2020

The Elite Hollywood Dungeons and Dragons Club

If you have seven minutes or so to kill you might enjoy this Variety story and video on “Hollywood’s Elite Dungeons and Dragons Club” (the sound quality of the video is better here). 

The Dungeon Master of this ‘elite’ group is Joe Manganiello. Among the players (in addition to actors like Vince Vaugh) are Kyle Newman, who is one of the authors of the excellent Art and Arcana book (the history of the art of Dungeons and Dragons), and D.H. Weiss (co-creator of the Game of Thrones HBO series, which I was quite fond of despite the final season [which I found disappointing but not terrible]).

While I generally find these kinds of stories somewhat diverting, I don’t really care about or ‘follow’ celebrities. I only know who Joe Manganiello is because he sometimes shows up in D&D or RPG-related stories and segments, like this one from Stephen Colbert’s show from two years ago. (He does seem like a decent fellow, though, and his gaming basement looks amazing.) 

Insofar as these tales of celebrities enjoying Dungeons and Dragons helps to promote and further destigmatize the RPG hobby, though, I am happy to have them appear. (But as much as I like D&D 5th edition, it would be nice if a different role-playing game might be mentioned in these ‘mainstream’ articles once in a while.)

[Picture by Chuck D of “Public Enemy”]

02 May 2020

Lovecraft Country coming to HBO

Looks like HBO may have a something to fill the void left by The Watchmen and The Game of Thrones: it’s Lovecraft Country, a series based upon the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff.

The novel has been on my ‘to read’ list for a couple of years now (it’s actually sitting in a stack of four novels on the table beside me as I type this). I just promoted it to the top of the pile, so that I’ll have read it before the series starts in August.

01 May 2020

Sail to Lyonesse today!

The Lyonesse role-playing game is now available! The system is based upon Mythras, adapted to Jack Vance’s classic fantasy setting.

I’ve mentioned this book a number of times before in this blog. It combines one of my favourite role-playing systems (Mythras) with one my favourite fantasy settings (Vance’s ‘Elder Isles’) –- so it’s pretty much the ‘Reese’s Cup’ game for me. I’m really looking forward to digging into it over the summer.

Here is the official announcement from the Design Mechanism:
We're delighted to announce that Lyonesse, the roleplaying game based on Jack Vance's award-winning trilogy (Suldrun's Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc) is available to buy from our DrivethruRPG store in Print+PDF versions.

We're offering the game in hardcover and softcover formats. The softcover is slightly cheaper than the hardcover (and yes the prices really are meant to be that close - one of the quirks of POD publishing), and both formats are Print On Demand, largely because in these uncertain times, we do not know how long it will take our regular printer to get back to normal operations, and our distributor, Alliance, is still closed for business.

The book costs $79.99 (hard cover), $74.99 (soft), or $25 (PDF only). You also received a free download of the main interior maps at full size, regardless of the format you buy.

Based on the award winning fantasy trilogy by one of Science Fiction and Fantasy's greatest wordsmiths, Lyonesse transports you to the Elder Isles, where King Casmir plots to seize control of the Ten Kingdoms, assassinate his foes, and prevent a disturbing prophecy from being fulfilled. Elsewhere, the magicians Shimrod, Murgen, and Tamurello are locked in a private battle of wit, will and magical intrigue. All the while, the brutal, disdainful Ska are drawing their own plans of conquest.
And in the immense Forest of Tantrevalles, the secretive fairies watch all that happens with wry amusement, and occasionally meddle in mortal affairs for reasons of their own.

Players in Lyonesse take on the roles of adventurers of the Elder Isles, seeking fame, glory, profit, magic, or simply the promise of a good meal and a soft bed for the night. Characters can be mercenaries or spies in the service of one (or several) kingdoms; oath-sworn knights eager to do battle with their lord's enemies; thieves, tricksters or even honest merchants, out to make a just living (sometimes). Perhaps characters are aspiring magicians, keen to emulate the likes of Shimrod, Tamurello, or even the mighty Murgen himself.

Lyonesse is a complete roleplaying game. This book contains everything needed (except dice and friends) for creating fabulous adventures in the Elder Isles. Exhaustive information on the kingdoms and lands of the islands; full rules for characters, skills, combat, magic, and monsters.
Great care has been taken to recreate the style and atmosphere of Jack Vance's novels, so that Games Masters and Players can fully immerse themselves in the Lyonesse setting. Special rules for creating towns, taverns, tavernkeeper, and even lovingly described meals are all included, emulating the quintessential elements of the books.

Don your armour! Take up your weapons! Sharpen your wits! Get ready for adventure across Hybras and beyond!
And here is a recent review of the game at RPG.net.

During these dark times, I’m so happy that this is now available. Praise Lucanor!

16 April 2020

JRR Tolkien: Procrastinator Extraordinaire?

This article — 'Did Tolkien Write The Lord of the Rings Because He Was Avoiding His Academic Work? is rather dense. However, it reveals that the good professor’s time spent procrastinating went into thinking through the elements of Middle-earth, including the storylines that eventually would be realized in the The Lord of the Rings.

The author John Bowers notes:
For so many years, in short, he [Tolkien] had been loafing in his scholarly career as a losel who squandered time on children’s stories when he should have been whipping his Beowulf book into shape. He confided to his publisher in 1937 that Oxford would merely add The Hobbit to his “long list of never-never procrastinations” (Letters, 18). Fiction-writing simply did not count in terms of academic production, especially after Tolkien had idled away his two-year Leverhulme Research Fellowship. “The authorities of the university,” he would lament when The Lord of the Rings was in press, “might well consider it an aberration of an elderly professor of philology to write and publish fairy stories and romances” (Letters, 219). He explained to his American publisher this widespread view of his failings: “Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (cert. behind my back, sometimes to my face) at the fall of a philological into ‘Trivial literature’; and anyway the cry is: ‘now we know how you have been wasting your time for 20 years'” (Letters, 238). His enormous effort during the late 1940s in the cramped row-house without even a desk—”I typed out The Hobbit—and the whole of The Lord of the Rings twice (and several sections many times) on my bed in an attic of Manor Road” (Letters, 344)—was little known because it simply did not count.
I take comfort in learning that Tolkien was a procrastinator with respect to his academic work, as I am a terrible slacker myself. Unfortunately, this blog is the main product of my work-avoidance. *sigh*

Ah well. We can’t all be Istari.

30 March 2020

Lyonesse is coming

The good folk at the Design Mechanism have received the proof copy of their forthcoming Lyonesse book:

Lawrence Whitaker writes:
“It's a big book – 510 pages in total – but this is a complete, standalone game containing everything you need to roleplay in Jack Vance's Elder Isles."
As I’ve noted before (many times), I’m quite excited about this game! Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy is one of my all-time favourite fantasy series, and Mythras is one of my all-time favourite role-playing games. Consequently, I think that this is going to be awesome!

I’m looking forward to bossing around some sandestins while thwarting the Ska…

29 March 2020

Salutations from Limbo

This was the scene from my family's cottage on the shore of Lake Huron (near Goderich, Ontario) this morning:

My spouse and I are in quarantine here. The coast is largely devoid of people right now. Only the soft lapping of the waves and the occasional cries of birds break the eerie silence.

It's beautiful and sad at the same time. I feel like we stumbled through a portal into a forgotten region of Limbo.

Hope all of you are doing well during this difficult time.

27 March 2020

Cubicle 7 to end Middle-earth RPG lines (Updated)

Some dramatic news out of Cubicle 7:
We have some very unfortunate and unexpected news to share. Contractual differences arose recently which we have been unable to resolve, and so we have decided to end our licensing agreement with Sophisticated Games. It is with regret that we have made this very tough decision to withdraw.
This means we will cease publishing The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-earth™ in the first half of 2020. 
Full report here.

This is very disappointing news, as I think that their Adventures in Middle-earth products are among the best books yet published for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons.

Fortunately, C7 is having a sale now so that you can round out your collection before it all sails away to Valinor.


UPDATE (2020-03-27): The discontinuation announcement from C7 is from last November, so this is not really 'news'. (The sale date is for today, and I mistakenly thought that the announcement also was published today.)

However, on March 9th The Free League (Fria Ligan) announced that it will be taking over both lines (AiM and TOR)! So the journey goes on...

(Thanks to Rev. Lazaro for correcting me!)

23 March 2020

Gandalf the Existentialist

Some wise words from Gandalf the Grey for these dark days:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
[J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring]
[Picture of Gandalf by Kent Burles, from ICE's 1993 book Valar and Maiar.]

Hope everyone is hiding out in their hobbit holes as much as possible these days. 

If you must venture out for vital supplies (lembas, pipe-weed, dwarven ale, etc.) or essential work, be sure to keep one wizard’s staff or two hobbit-lengths away from others.

Take care! Mára alma ana tye.

09 March 2020

Max von Sydow RIP

Actor Max von Sydow has died at the age of 90.

His performance in The Seventh Seal ensures his cinematic immortality. It’s one of the greatest films ever made, and von Sydow was perfect in it.

But like many others of my generation and interests, my first exposure to von Sydow’s acting was in Conan the Barbarian, in which he played the bitter King Osric. (Shortly afterwards, he played the evil Brewmeister Smith of Elsinore Brewery in the Canadian film Strange Brew, which, as the name of the brewery indicates, was loosely based on Hamlet.)


26 February 2020

Some Thoughts on Greyhawk and the Golden Age of Gygax

I started an online Greyhawk campaign last autumn (as mentioned in this post). In preparation for it, I reread most of Gary Gygax’s classic World of Greyhawk campaign setting (the 1983 ‘gold box’ version, which is my favourite, even though I prefer the art in the 1980 ‘folio’). I also reread bits of other Greyhawk-related works by Gygax (modules, some of the ‘Gord’ novels and stories, etc.) and portions of the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rules. Doing this reminded me of the singular character of his work.

[Trampier's front page PHB illustration. Does it depict EGG?]

In his publications from about 1977 to 1984 — what I think of as the ‘golden age’ of his creative output — Gygax's writings conveyed a very strong ‘vision’ for AD&D, and especially the world of Greyhawk. These works have a distinctive character and ethos. As I read them again, I realized that I rather liked ‘Gygaxian’ fantasy. (Or rather, I realized again that I liked it. Although I spent many weekends poring through The Dungeon Master’s Guide and various modules in my youth, I didn't really appreciate the uniqueness of Gygax’s work as a teenager. I subsequently went on to focus on other RPGs before ‘rediscovering’ AD&D and Greyhawk about 16 years ago, as part of my reaction against 3rd edition D&D. While my current campaign uses the 5th edition D&D rules, I strive to maintain a ‘1983’ ethos during our group’s sessions.)

The AD&D books are works of art — flawed, yes, but bursting with idiosyncratic creativity and energy, often drawing on eclectic and diverse sources. The ‘artifacts and relics’ section of the DMG alone is an evocative masterpiece. The original 'Drow' are among the greatest fantasy villains of all time. Many of Gygax's modules are remarkable in terms of their vision and originality (the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun is a masterpiece of ‘weird’ fantasy). And the World of Greyhawk is a colourful swords-and-sorcery setting (with some Tolkienesque flavourings added, thanks to the inclusion of dwarves, elves, orcs, and so forth).

When I read Gygax's work (AD&D, the modules, etc.) I find his ‘vision’ to be clear and distinctive. In my view, it's primarily ‘Vancian’ in its literary inspiration (namely, Jack Vance’s early ‘Dying Earth’ stories), but with elements from the fiction of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Poul Anderson, and others, plus bits of Michael Moorcock and J.R.R. Tolkien. And of course Gygax drew upon real world history quite a bit. It’s an odd mix, to be sure, but it works overall (in my judgement).

For the most part, Gygax’s later (post-TSR) work never really interested me (except, somewhat, for the Castle Zagyg material, which of course was an attempt to ‘reconstruct’ some elements of his earliest campaign). And I found many of the Dragon editorials (i.e., ‘rants’) written by him while he was at TSR grating and pompous (especially the infamous anti-Lord of the Rings one, which caused my adolescent self great dismay). While my few interactions with him online in the early part of this century (within a couple of Q&A threads at RPG forums) were pleasant and informative, I suspect that I should be grateful that I did not know him better, as I doubt (based on my limited knowledge) that I would have found his personality and views congenial overall. But so what? It’s his positive creative contributions that count. (Many of my favourite authors are people whom I probably would not be that fond of in real life, e.g., H.P. Lovecraft.)

Despite their flaws, I find the materials that comprise golden age ‘Gygaxiana’—the core hardback AD&D rulebooks (plus Monster Manual 2, and some parts of Unearthed Arcana), the classic modules (G1-3, D1-3, S1, WG4, etc.), the World of Greyhawk, and so forth—to be evocative, unique, and wonderful fun.

14 February 2020

Happy Valentine's Day from HPL

H. P. Lovecraft (in a letter to J. Vernon Shea, 1934):
"I didn't slop over in youthful romance, since I didn't believe -- and still don't -- in the existence of sentimental 'love' as a definite, powerful, or persistent human emotion. I have always regarded marriage as composed of friendly regard, mental congeniality, social foresight, and practical advantage; to which at first the element of biological eroticism is added."
I'm sure that my spouse will swoon once she reads this written in her card tonight...

27 January 2020

A Lovecraft Cinematic Universe?

H.P. Lovecraft’s classic story, “The Colour Out of Space,” is one of my all-time favourites. So I’m relieved to see that the reviews for the new film based upon it, directed by Richard Stanley and featuring Nicolas Cage, have been generally positive. It’s at “84% fresh” right now at Rotten Tomatoes.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to see it myself — the film doesn’t appear to be in wide release, and is not currently playing anywhere in Milwaukee — but see it eventually I shall!

(Alas, the film title uses “Color” not “Colour” in its title. Pity. I’ve always found amusing Lovecraft’s adamant use of British spelling in all his works, despite being American himself. And as a Canadian, “Color” just looks wrong.)

This review at Ars Technica, in addition to including a nice slideshow of stills from the movie, has a brief explainer called, “Why Aren’t There More Lovecraft Movies?” But it looks like we will be getting at least two more, including The Dunwich Horror. This in particular looks intriguing:
“With Dunwich Horror, we'll go on campus and get back to Miskatonic University… We'll also get to deal with the Necronomicon, the black book at the core of the mythos.”
I really hope that this new “Lovecraft cinematic universe” does not disappoint fans of the original tales!

17 January 2020

No second season for the Watchmen

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, HBO's series The Watchmen is superb, almost a perfect sequel to the original comic series.

Alas, it looks like there will be no second season. While the first season presents a complete story and ends very well, I must confess that I'm a little disappointed. Among other things, I wanted to learn the fate of Nite Owl. But if Damon Lindelof isn't interested in returning to the world then there's no point in HBO putting out some inferior product.

Nothing ever ends? Looks like Watchmen did... But it least it ended well.

(Thanks to C. Robichaud for the tip.)

16 January 2020

Christopher Tolkien RIP

J.R.R. Tolkien’s son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien has died at the age of 95.

Namárië! Nai hiruvalyë Valimar.
Nai elyë hiruva. Namárië!

(More information available at The Tolkien Society and TOR.)

13 January 2020

A brief reflection on the Witcher and the Mandalorian

So I've been watching "The Mandalorian" and "The Witcher" over the past couple of weeks, and enjoying both quite a bit. (I'm not done either yet, but probably will be by the end of this week.)

I suspect that one reason for my enjoyment is that both series strike me as (heavily edited) post-play role-playing game campaign reports. (In the case of "The Witcher," the campaign is the story-line involving the main character and his bard sidekick, at least through the first 6 episodes or so).

Speaking of "The Witcher," this interactive timeline is pretty amazing. (But this alternative opening credits is ... less so.)

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