23 January 2022

Giants in the Earth and the pre-TSR Known World

Some interesting notes from the original “Known World” Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting have been made available for all to enjoy. (See this thread at the Piazza forum or find the PDFs here.)


These notes are from a shared campaign developed and run by Tom Moldvay and Lawrence Schick when they were college students in the late 1970s. Both Schick and Moldvay went on to become employees at TSR for a few years. These notes clearly were developed into the “Known World” setting originally described in the module X1: Isle of Dread (and used by subsequent modules in the “Basic” and “Expert” D&D lines—eventually becoming, well after the departure of Moldvay and Schick from TSR, Mystara).


I've only skimmed the notes. Based on that skim, of most interest to me are the write-ups for fictional characters: Cugel the Clever, Kane, Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and the like. These would later appear in Dragon magazine’s feature: “Giants in the Earth: Classic Heroes From Fiction & Literature.”

As a great Jack Vance fan, I love the work they put into their write-up of the Dying Earth wizard Iucounu. Here’s the version that was published in Dragon issue 29:


I’m not a member of the Piazza but it looks like an interesting place. Perhaps I’ll join…



20 January 2022

Reflection on the Old School Renaissance

There’s a very interesting and detailed “historical look” at the Old School Renaissance (OSR) at the blog “Simulacrum: Exploring OSR Design.” It’s quite long and consists of five posts: part 1 (the 1st edition-era AD&D adventure modules, and developments away from “old school” style play), part 2 (post-Gygaxian rules developments in AD&D), part 3 (second edition AD&D), part 4 (3rd edition D&D and the early OSR), and part 5 (the OSR over the past decade or so). I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the history of D&D and the OSR (but unless you have a free afternoon, you probably will not be able to read all five posts in a single sitting).

I was somewhat engaged in the OSR in its “early years” (this blog is on the list of “pivotal early OSR blogs” in part 5 of the “historical look”). I even have at a post at Dragonsfoot in what I believe is the first thread in which the term “Old School Renaissance” was used (coined – appropriately enough – by an anonymous poster). (However, T. Foster referred to the “Old School Revival” in an amazingly prescient post a year earlier [2004].)


After a decade away from D&D (and relatively little in the way of other RPG activity during that time, despite frequent visits to gaming shops), 3rd edition lured me back in 2001. But by 2004 I had DM’ed two campaigns with 3rd edition D&D and had come to find it rather tedious. Once the characters reached 6th or 7th level (which took about 10-11 months in my groups, as I was deliberately giving out “stingy” rewards in order to keep things sane) the game simply became a joyless chore. My experiences did not match the fun I remembered having during the 1980s. (I also was a fan of Middle-earth Roleplaying back in the day – indeed, as much of a fan as I was of AD&D. But MERP had gone away with ICE’s loss of the Middle-earth license in 1999, and Rolemaster had evolved into a rules-heavy behemoth in its “Standard System” edition. Of course, I could’ve played MERP again anyway. But I did not consider that option at the time.)


So, disillusioned with 3e, I began looking for something different...


I was an early Castles and Crusades enthusiast, especially when it promised to be a vehicle for the publication of Gary Gygax’s Castle Zagyg (a version of his original Castle Greyhawk mega-dungeon). That project proceeded quite slowly, alas, and only saw one release directly related to the mythical dungeon: Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works (co-authored by Jeffrey Talanian). Then Gygax shuffled off this mortal coil, at which time the entire project ended. (I still have that box set, which I believe is now quite valuable, along with the other CZ-related products – all carefully packed in a box in storage somewhere. For an excellent, comprehensive review of The Upper Works, see this one by Grodog.) But I eventually drifted away from C&C. One reason was the end of Castle Zagyg. Another, entirely independent of the system itself, was the terrible editing by Troll Lord Games. While Upper Works was fine, almost everything else I read from them (including the core rulebook) was simply too badly edited for me to enjoy.


During this same period, fortunately, I also had dusted off and reacquainted myself with 1st edition AD&D, B/X D&D, the Rules Cyclopedia D&D, and the like. I played in some online (play-by-post) 1e AD&D games (in a Greyhawk one as a cleric of Trithereon). Unlike C&C, this interest in AD&D and D&D persisted. Then came along OSRIC (the 1e AD&D clone), Labyrinth Lord (the B/X D&D clone), Swords & Wizardry (the 0e D&D clone), the fanzines, and so forth. The OSR was well underway – and I signed on.


This blog started out as a place for me to talk about old school D&D/AD&D-based games, including especially Swords & Wizardry. I contributed articles to Knockspell and Fight On! back in the day. Having reread many of R. E. Howard’s “Conan” and “Kull” stories in the years immediately before I started this blog, I was interested in house-ruling S&W in order to play some “swords and sorcery” flavoured games. (Those house-rules remain available here; many were later incorporated into Crypts and Things.) I eventually became interested again in more “conventional” modes of play, including especially 1st edition AD&D, and made a minor contribution back in 2013 to the OSRIC supplement Dangerous Dungeons (“background professions”). I also ran a brief AD&D campaign around that time (2013-14).


But I’ve drifted away from active participation in the “OSR scene” in recent years. I never was active on Google+. I sporadically followed what was happening through forums and blogs. But in terms of actual gaming, I have spent more time playing Mythras, Call of Cthulhu, Adventures in Middle-earth, and the like, over the past seven years or so.


However, I never abandoned my interest in “old school” Dungeons and Dragons. So I found part 5 of the “historical look” quite informative. It filled me in on what has been happening over the past several years. In a nutshell: it’s largely been fragmentation, decadence, and degeneracy.* I guess not paying attention was beneficial – at least for my mental health. (Unsurprisingly, the pre-OSR, old “old school” communities seem to be carrying on just fine.)


 * I should add some caveats to this generalization. An exception seems to be Old School Essentials, which is both quite recent and very much a "clone" of B/X D&D (even more so than Labyrinth Lord was). It seems to be enjoying quite a bit of success. Swords & Wizardry continues to be quite popular (indeed, I received the most recent "box set" edition last year). Crypts and Things continues to enjoy support. And material for AD&D/OSRIC continues to be created, including free material at Dragonsfoot (which of course started before the "OSR"). [Note added 14:35 ET 20 January 2022]


19 January 2022

The Rings of Power starts on September 2nd

We finally have a name for Amazon’s forthcoming Middle-earth series: The Rings of Power.


As I mentioned almost a year ago, the series will take place during the Second Age:

According to showrunners J.D. Payne & Patrick McKay, “The Rings of Power unites all the major stories of Middle-earth’s Second Age: the forging of the rings, the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron, the epic tale of Númenor, and the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. Until now, audiences have only seen on-screen the story of the One Ring—but before there was one, there were many… and we’re excited to share the epic story of them all.”

The series will start on September 2nd and will be followed with at least one more season.


I have to admit, I’m quite excited about this. The tale of Celebrimbor and Annatar is one of my favourites, as is the fall of Númenor. (But I’m also braced for disappointment.)


[Celebrimbor by Angus McBride]


17 January 2022

OpenQuest SRD now available from D101 Games

OpenQuest is the "rules light-ish" sibling of Mythras (and both are descendants of RuneQuest and Basic Role-playing). It's a great system, one that I've played in the past and would be happy to do so again in the future (although I haven't been able to read the 3rd edition version yet). Based on my experience with it, I highly recommend OQ for anyone who wants a simpler d100 fantasy system alternative to Mythras.

And now D101 has made available for all the OpenQuest SRD. Enjoy!



06 January 2022

The true story behind the infamous chits in the Holmes Basic D&D sets

In a recent post (concerning the replacement of B1 with B2 in the original Dungeons and Dragons Basic set) I wrote: “I also was confused as to why my box had irritating chits and others had dice, but I later learned that that was because TSR couldn’t obtain enough dice to include in all their fast-selling sets.”


It turns out that that’s not quite right! The true story is a bit more complex: TSR wanted to produce their own dice but failed to get the product ready in time. The “dice shortage” was purely management-created.


For the details check out this post at the blog “Zenopus Archives.”

01 January 2022

My three favourite RPG books from 2021

I’ve cut back way back on my RPG purchases in recent years. For the most part I try to buy only products that I think I’ll likely actually use at some point in the near-ish future, or products that I have a strong intrinsic interest in (as, say, they concern a setting, subject, or game of which I’ve long been a fan). Nonetheless, I still buy more RPGs products than I should. But there are a few every year that do not fall into the “taking-up-space-on-my-shelf-until-I-donate-them-or-retire” category. Here are three from 2021 (in no particular order):



I’ll start with something I haven’t mentioned before at this blog: Goodman Games’ Original Adventures Reincarnated #6: The Temple of Elemental Evil. In addition to including scans of multiple printings of the original 1st edition AD&D Village of Hommlet module, as well as the subsequent Temple of Elemental Evil mega-module, this two-volume set provides an expanded version of the module with 5th edition D&D stats. I rank the original Village of Hommlet module as one of the all-time classics for AD&D.


I hope to resurrect my (sadly-still-on-hiatus) Greyhawk campaign (which uses 5e D&D with Gygax’s version of the World of Greyhawk) in the new year. Once the characters wrap up their current adventure, I hope to have them travel to Hommlet and go through this campaign. Afterwards, I plan to run some more classic modules in Greyhawk for my players, including White Plume Mountain (converted to 5e in Tales from the Yawning Portal), Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (another member of Goodman Games’ “Original Adventures Reincarnated” series), the “Against the Giants” trilogy (also in Tales), and perhaps even the Tomb of Horrors (yet another one in Tales). At least that’s my tentative plan for the future. (Heh ... hope springs eternal.)



Then there’s Against the Darkmaster. (I’m cheating a bit here as I got the PDF in 2020. But I don’t feel like I “really” own a book or game until I get the physical version.) I’ve mentioned this excellent game before here. I really want to run this sometime – perhaps using it with a heavily modified version of the amazing classic campaign module Ardor by Terry Amthor (RIP). Even if I don’t use Against the Darkmaster in the near future, though, my long-abiding love for MERP makes this a purchase that I don’t regret at all. I thrill just flipping through this massive, gorgeous book, appreciating the wonderful art, and reading bits of the rules.



Last – but certainly not least – there’s Mythic Babylon, which I’ve also mentioned previously here. Since I’ve been playing in a Mythic Babylon campaign since summer 2020 (run by the book’s co-author, Chris Gilmore), in a way I’ve been using this book for even longer than I’ve owned it! It’s a really wonderful work from the always excellent Design Mechanism.


Okay, that's it for 2021. Best wishes, gentle readers, for 2022!

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