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. 

24 October 2020

Forty Years of Playing RPGs

Today I am 50 years old. *sigh*

Finding myself in a reflective mood, I decided to go for a long walk yesterday. (It also was likely the last warm day in Toronto for 2020, so I wanted to take advantage of the t-shirt weather while it lasted.) On my journey I discovered a tree with eyes and a hidden gargoyle. I always delight in discovering such things. 

Since I received the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (the Holmes edition with ‘chits’ instead of dice) on my 10th birthday, today also marks four decades of my involvement with role-playing games. I can’t imagine what my life would’ve been like without this crazy hobby. So thanks to my parents for their gift (even though, I’m sure, they regretted it many times during my teenage years).

What better way to celebrate this occasion than with a “Magic Missile” beer while wearing a “Magic Missile” shirt? I believe I do 5d4 +5 damage!

I hope to keep playing RPGs for another 40 years. Sláinte!

23 October 2020

Lenard Lakofka RIP

Another legend from the early days of D&D, Lenard Lakofka, has passed away.

In addition to the “L” modules, Lakofka helped to shape the world of Greyhawk: his “Lendore Isles” were incorporated into the setting, and he described many of the deities of the Suel people. And of course there is “Leomund’s Tiny Hut” – both the spell and the column in Dragon.


22 October 2020

My Favourite Games these days

In case anyone is curious, here are my current favourite role-playing games (in no particular order):

Mythras (including Lyonesse). 

I’m playing in a Mythic Babylon campaign right now, and look forward to digging into the (very thick) Lyonesse tome over the next couple of months. I have some ideas for a Lyonesse campaign that I might sketch here. (I should also mention that one of the best campaigns in which I ever played used the Mongoose RuneQuest II system, which is an earlier incarnation of Mythras [very similar in terms of core rules]. Here is my log of about two-thirds of that campaign.)

Crypts and Things

This excellent game draws upon my Swords & Wizardry house-rules.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (and OSRIC).

The old reliable warhorse.

Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition (including the Adventures in Middle-earth variant system). 

I hope to return to my Greyhawk campaign using D&D 5e soon, as well as finish up the log of my recent epic Middle-earth campaign.

Against the Darkmaster

This is a quasi-clone of MERP, ICE’s old Middle-earth Roleplaying game. It has been shorn of MERP’s explicit Tolkien references, and introduces some rather cool refinements and additions to the system. I plan to write something about this exciting new game very soon!

Call of Cthulhu

Yeah, “old reliable.” My favourite system for one shots and short campaigns. Alas, I haven’t played it in over two years. I would like to run either a Cthulhu Invictus or a Dreamlands campaign someday.  

(I’ll add a new section on the right with links to these games in the next day or two.)

19 October 2020

Dragonlance brouhaha

It looks like we may be spared another twee Dragonlance trilogy: “Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast is facing a lawsuit from Dragonlance co-creators Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman over scrapped plans for a book trilogy.”

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that, as a teenager, I enjoyed the original Dragonlance trilogy. I also owned a few of the modules and enjoyed the interesting maps and art at the time, but never managed to run or play them. Even just reading the adventures, though, I could tell that they were designed to compel the players to certain predetermined outcomes (what we today would call “railroading”). I preferred the more “open-ended” format of the earlier modules.

As the years went by, I came to view the success of the Dragonlance novels and modules as quite unfortunate. The setting’s success altered the default aesthetics and adventure philosophy of AD&D. The game moved away from the “Gygaxian” (or “Vancian”) swords-and-sorcery ethos that had characterized its earlier “Golden Age,” wherein outcomes were not predetermined, and no player characters were “essential” to any overarching plot. (Of course, DL was hardly the only factor that contributed to this change – the ouster of Gary Gygax no doubt played the most significant role.) 

By the late 1980s I had stopped buying AD&D products altogether. (I regret this somewhat, as it meant that I missed out on Planescape and some of the other cool 2nd edition settings. I did pick up some D&D Gazetteers and the Rules Cylcopedia, but those were my first “nostalgia” purchases, as they seemed “retro” even then: they reminded me of my “early days” using the classic Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert D&D rules, and X1’s “Known World.” But I digress…) 

Anyhow, I really should let go of my decades-long resentment of Dragonlance. That water has long since passed under the AD&D bridge. If others prefer their fantasy schmaltzy, so be it. It harms me not. Hopefully fans of the setting will get their new trilogy is due course.

15 October 2020

Netflix Developing Conan Series


Perhaps inspired by the success of its series The Witcher, Netflix is developing a new fantasy series featuring everyone’s favourite barbarian, Conan of Cimmeria. The details, alas, are scant at this stage

Hopefully this new series, should it actually come to fruition, will draw primarily on the original stories by Robert E. Howard. It’s frustrating that no “Conan” film or series has actually used the original source material. (For the record, I am quite fond of the 1982 film. But the main character is not REH’s Conan!)

Back in 2018 I reported that Amazon was developing a Conan series. Interesting that it’s now in Netflix’s hands. I guess Amazon is focusing on its Middle-earth series instead.

29 September 2020

The 38-year old Dungeons and Dragons campaign

Robert Wardhaugh, a history professor at the University of Western Ontario, has been running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for thirty-eight years.

The campaign setting sounds rather interesting:

"Being a history professor and always loving history, I wanted to create a world where I was able to use the history of our world. My world is an alternate Earth, so you can be Roman, you can be Greek, you can be Sumerian, you can be Babylonian, you can be First Nations," explains Wardhaugh.

I’m really quite impressed by this accomplishment. It’s one thing to have played various role-playing games—including some extended campaigns—for many decades. (I’ve been playing, off and on, for almost four decades now.) But to keep the same campaign going for so many years it truly remarkable. 

Also, I was amused to learn that this campaign is based in London Ontario. I grew up in London—it’s where I learned to play role-playing games, and where I ran various AD&D and MERP campaigns (as well as dabbling in numerous other games) from around grade five until the end of high-school. (I would not describe London as an especially exciting city—it’s definitely the world’s #2 London—so it may be easier to keep a game going there over many years than, say, Toronto.)

This is a great accomplishment. I’m envious of Wardhaugh for what sounds like an amazing campaign. But I’m depressed when I realize that, should I keep my current Greyhawk campaign going for another 38 years, I’ll be dangerously close to the “venerable” age category for humans! 

21 September 2020

Some Classic Dungeons and Dragons Settings to Return?

Dungeons & Dragons will be revisiting several classic campaign settings over the next few years. During the closing panel of D&D Celebration 2020 yesterday, Wizard of the Coast's Ray Winninger confirmed that D&D's upcoming slate of publications will include several classic settings highly requested by fans. "I can tell you that there are three of the old settings that we're working on right now that you'll be seeing in the next year or two, including some that the fans have been asking for a very long time " Winninger said during the "Inside the D&D Studio Panel." Some of the more highly requested settings from fans include Greyhawk, Spelljammer, Planescape, and Dragonlance, all of which were seminal and influential settings for past (and current) generations of players.
Personally, I'd love to see Greyhawk in print again. It's my favourite 'classic' TSR setting, and the one that I’ve been using as DM in my most recent D&D games. However, I worry a bit about how it would be handled by the current team at WotC. I'm not too keen on some of the post-Gygaxian history for the setting (especially the break-up of the Great Kingdom). I rely primarily on the 1983 box set for my setting information. Nonetheless, I think that the recent Saltmarsh book was quite good, so perhaps a resurrected Greyhawk will be handled well.

My favourite ‘unusual’ setting is Planesape. I’d love to see a new version of it. The great thing about Planescape is that you can combine it with pretty much any other setting (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, homebrew #978, etc.). But it also has its own very distinctive style and ethos. (And Planescape: Torment is one of the greatest computer role-playing games of all time.)


Kudos to the Watchmen

HBO's 2019 mini-series, The Watchmen, won the Emmy for best limited series (along with 10 other awards) tonight. 

I don't watch award shows (I think it's been at least 30 years since I watched one all the way through) and generally don't care about them as they typically do not track genuine excellence (always remember: the execrable "Forrest Gump" beat out "Pulp Fiction" for best picture in 1995). But I'm delighted that this excellent series, one of the best ever created, received this recognition and consequently will enjoy a wider audience.

11 September 2020

Grognardia resurrected

Some readers might recall the blog Grognardia, which played an influential role in the rise of the "Old School Renaissance" over a decade ago, along with publications like Fight On! and Knockspell, as well as "retro-clones" such as OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry. (Out-of-publication editions of D&D and AD&D, of course, were discussed even before the "OSR" became a thing at sites like Dragonsfoot.) 

In 2012 new posts abruptly ceased appearing at Grognardia. After eight years, though, the blog is back, and in a big way (with, among other things, a two-part interview with Jeff Grubb). 

I don't always agree with the views expressed by James Maliszewski but his posts often are interesting to read. I'm glad Grognardia is back. 

02 September 2020

Herbert West, Health Inspector

And so, another autumn term begins! I start teaching tomorrow.

I (thankfully) will be teaching online. My university is pursuing a "hybrid" approach to instruction during the 2020-21 academic year, with roughly 60% of teaching purely online, 20% a mix of online and in person instruction, and 20% in person (with everyone wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart, etc.).

Reading the various memos from the administration on the reopening of the campus over the past couple of weeks has led me to think that their plans for in person instruction are as grounded in reality as this piece:
"Arkham Board of Health Feedback on Miskatonic University's Draft Plan For A Safe Campus Reopening."

Anyhow, best wishes to all the teachers, professors, and students out there. Stay well!

29 August 2020

RPGs as an escape to a kind of normalcy during abnormal times

I enjoyed reading, and hence recommend, this article: “Plague Comforts: Dungeons and Dragons is the Real World Now,” by Will Peischel.

I certainly have found playing RPGs online to be a great way to stay in touch with old friends (in my case, a couple of friends from my undergraduate days). And gaming over the years has provided a kind of ‘structured escapism’ that has helped me deal with the stresses and uncertainties of adulthood (which frustratingly seem to become more, rather than less, acute with each passing year).

Unlike the author and many of my friends, though, I’ve had far less time than usual to devote to my hobbies, including role-playing games, thanks to the pandemic. Indeed, I haven’t been running any games myself. However, I recently joined a Mythic Babylon campaign, and hope that I can resurrect my Greyhawk campaign sometime next month. I could use a partial return to 'normalcy.'

16 August 2020

A return to Icewind Dale

As I’ve mentioned before here, when it comes to classic Dungeons and Dragons settings, I’m much more of a “Greyhawk” person than a “Forgotten Realms” person. But I do like aspects of the Realms.

It’s a bit unfortunate what the Forgotten Realms setting has become over the past few decades. Decisions made during the era of fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons especially were quite misguided. (The “Spell Plague”? Blech!) The original “grey box” version was (in my view) quite good. Nonetheless, even now, after all these years and missteps, there are potions of the Realms that I continue to like. I still think that the Moonshae Islands, the Sword Coast, and Icewind Dale are cool regions with lots of potential for interesting adventures.

One of the reasons why I remain fond of the Icewind Dale region is the classic computer role-playing game set there, for which there is an ‘Enhanced Edition’ version. I still play it occasionally, especially when I’m too busy with “adult life” to get a proper role-playing game campaign together. In fact, I’ve been playing IWD EE lately—improved with some fun new ‘mods’ to keep it fresh. 

 [The party in the village of Kuldahar]

[Some rest and relaxation in the "Whistling Gallows" inn of Lonelywood]

So, I am somewhat intrigued by this forthcoming product: Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. I’ll pick it up for nostalgia reasons alone. (I thought that the “D&D Next” module/mini-campaign setting, Legacy of the Crystal Shard, was quite good.) The art alone looks gorgeous. 

Finally, also related to the Forgotten Realms, check out these early maps by Ed Greenwood.

Okay, that’s enough Realms stuff for now. I have a few things about Greyhawk that I hope to post in the near future (in addition to my final campaign notes for my Adventures in Middle-earth Mirkwood campaign.) Stay safe and healthy!

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!

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).