Wednesday, February 24, 2021

My ZineQuest buy list

"Set a budget," they said. "Pace yourself," they said. "Learn from past experiences," they said.

I never was any good at listening to things "they" said. What follows are projects I have backed for ZineQuest3 on Kickstarter. Mostly, I backed at the level that would garner me a physical zine. (In that respect I have learned from the past, because I am less likely to really read/enjoy a PDF.) Italicized text below has been copied from each game's KS page. For the ones you can still back, I've tried to make quick, digestible notes on each and why I backed them.

Still time to back these...

Kriegsmesser - game setting, written for Troika, low-no fantasy. I like Troika, I like Heironymous Bosch paintings. This doesn't have fantasy, but that could be added. Cool time period, nice previews, neat old art.

The carriage coach is on fire and there’s no driver at the reins. It is the Long Sixteenth Century, somewhere in Europe, or a place much like it. Plague stalks the land, people are rioting against widespread corruption while a monetary crisis is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. 

Courier - solo game, original rules. I may regret this one. I'm a sucker for Roadside Picnic, the novel on which STALKER was based. Also sounds like Zelazny's Damnation Alley.

Deliver packages across a dangerous landscape while building your reputation and becoming a legend. System: . Inspired by some of my favorite games including Death Stranding, Fallout New Vegas, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Mad Max; you play as a Courier. The job: transport goods from one location to another while avoiding delays, hazardous traps and anomalies, dangerous weather effects, and those who would steal your precious cargo. Courier is a solo RPG telling the story of your rise from a lowly single-bag-Courier all the way up to a Legendary Wasteland Deliverer. You will create your own company, logo, and style as you complete delivery jobs across the New North American continent. Along the way you will discover new contacts, jobs, charms, equipment and upgrades to your Courier Rig while growing your reputation as a reliable company.

SIEGE: Pocket Warfare - original rules set, macro/add-on game. I'm working on my own macro rules along these lines. Seems cool. Cheap to buy in.

A modular battle-defense system to fuse with your RPGs. SIEGE is my attempt at helping you build a better siege, or really any sort of major battle. I've hacked into the board game Pandemic to draw out a really simple system that exponentially increases the intricacy and tension of your combats while barely moving the needle when it comes to complexity. It's a big amount of bang with almost zero added prep and minimal math or note-taking. 

Crawler - system-agnostic campaign; back from 1 to 4 connected zines. The art! The concept! Also I loved the creator's personal note at the end. 

In a fantasy world where raw magic is extracted from the earth like a fossil fuel— unsustainably, dangerously,  and for the profit of billionaire death cultists—you are a member of the Black Shields: an order of anti-extractionist resistance fighters. The Shields aren't afraid to get their hands dirty. You've blown up a pipeline before, and you'd gladly do it again because you care about the future of your world. It's not a question of if raw magic will spill from pipelines and freighters to transform local wildlife into bloodthirsty abominations—it's a question of when.

The Void of Thrantar - 5e/OSR compatible campaign. I will probably regret this one. The art is not my style, but they had me at "Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s."

Inspired in part by Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s and with a nod to the work of artists like Frazetta and Moebius, this setting features twisted metal canyons, dinobirds, slimeords, owlbearian warriors, forgotten technomagic, alien beasts and more!

Before Fire - original rules, beer-and-pretzels rpg. I'm a sucker for prehistoric stupidity. A sucker, I tell you. I will regret buying this. Probably.

Before Fire is a comedy RPG designed for "pick up and play" one-shots. During a session, you and your friends take on the roles of Stone Age hunter-gatherers, sent on a great quest to save your tribe. Using your limited vocabulary and teamwork, you must triumph over such terrifying challenges as sabretooth tigers, stampeding herds of megafauna, and the 100% historically-accurate dinosaur riders.

Fresh from the Forge - OSE toolkit. This looks interesting. I'm a fan of d6 damage with a few tweaks, but most people like variable damage. Curious to see where they take this and I play OSE several times a week.

Combat is where heroes go to die. Whether it's a staple of your game or something you avoid, when it happens you'll need a weapon! Fresh From The Forge presents a collection of rules for weapons and combat that can be dropped into and used in any fantasy adventure game! The book doesn't aim to simulate all the intricacies of how weapons work. Armour has not been reworked to be more realistic. You won't find any intricate striking distance measures or precise weapon dimensions in this zine. The goal has been to prioritise something that meets the expectations of adventure game weaponry, while making all options equally valid. 

The Pamphlet of Pantheons - macro, workbook. I listen to James' podcast. He knows his stuff.

The gods, spirits and religions of a fantasy world should be a vital and exciting part of its culture. But how do you create a pantheon that feels rich and real without having to do a lot of time-consuming prep work? The Pamphlet of Pantheons is the lazy GM's solution to this problem: a workbook zine that helps you create a pantheon for your fantasy RPGs, focusing on the bits of the iceberg above the water -- the bits that your players are going to interact with. 

Microvania - hack of Microscope. I dig Microscope. I dig crawling through kaiju guts. This was probably a knee-jerk purchase. 

A print run of Microvania, a map-making and story-telling game that is a hack of Microscope. Microvania is a game about these kinds of stories, where individuals or small groups explore a dangerous world that becomes a character of itself. In video games, these are called “Metroidvanias,” after the two most influential series in the genre. A common feature of those games is backtracking, with the world recontextualized after unlocking a new item or ability, or in some cases just learning something new about how the world works. Microvania seeks to create an experience like those games, by prioritizing the structure and flow of the world, while allowing players to fill in as many details as they like, and making backtracking central to the game’s mechanics.

Wizard Funk 3 - OSR miscellany. I know Thaddeus and I've got WF1 and 2. I like the spirit of this zine and it's true DIY aesthetic.

My gaming buddies and I have put together a zine for the sheer enjoyment of it.  We love to play Old School RPGs.  Myself?  I was introduced to D&D back in 1981.  I loved the hobby then and love it even more today.   If you have seen Wizard Funk 1 and 2, then you will have a good idea about what you will get for your hard earned money in Wizard Funk 3.  If you love Old School Rules, then you should take a chance on this KS.  It's not much money and I've been able to deliver a satisfying product in the past.  Fight On brothers and sisters of the OSR!


Desert Moon of Karth - A space western sandbox on a tiny moon for Mothership RPG. Harvest the ossified corpses of coral beings and live forever. This one had a clear Mandalorian/Solo spaghetti western vibe. 

The Lighthouse At The Edge Of The Universe - A solo journalling game about running a lighthouse on the edge of the universe. I'm a sucker this year for solo games, but KS3 may knock that instinct out of me. There are so many! This one had a dream quality that I liked. 

Dethroners - Destroy this zine to battle a divine tyrant for control of the story in a stand-alone tabletop game of adventure and revolution. This one had a My Life with Master vibe that interested me.

Bloodheist - A tabletop RPG zine about desperate thieves and despicable vampires. 

Realms of Peril - A classic fantasy adventure game designed for West Marches campaigns, with a focus on old-school, fiction-focused gameplay. 

Colostle - A solo RPG. Discover a world of mountains, valleys, seas and cities, all within the colossal impossible structure of a castle's rooms and corridors. See Lighthouse comments above.

Harrowings #03: MUSPELHELLA Heavy Metal Dwarven Dungeon Adventure to Steal your Soul! Powered by Old School Essentials! OSE, strong flavor, neat aesthetic, I'm in.

Dodeca RPG - Dodeca is a d12 based old school style role-playing game with narrative character creation and world building. 

The Many Crypts of Lady Ingrade - a series of short, deadly adventures. Crypts created out of her hatred of tomb raiding adventurers. A product from Tim Shorts/Gothridge Manor. I know he will deliver and it will have good stuff in it. Also great art; nice to see Sholtis involved - who also does quality stuff.

Menagerie of the VoidGuide ancient, unreasonable machines to preserve a strange assortment of alien beings. A #ZineQuest single-player game. Another solo game, and I like the theme. 

The Vaults of Torment: Blood is Fuel - A Sick Dungeon for Mörk Borg. Like most MB stuff, this one sells itself on an aesthetic. I may have gotten suckered, but I know there will be some good ideas in here.

The Drain - A level-0 funnel adventure through an occult battlefield for the Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG. I have Mothership but haven't played it. This might be a good place to start. 

Lowlife - old-school tunnel warfare zine. Stuff to learn from this one I think about how to flavor up/run dungeon crawls better. 

In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe - A classic fantasy roleplaying adventure zine for Old School Essentials or other OSR rulesets. OSE based, cool art. 

Planar Compass Issue 2 - Traverse the astral sea discovering bizarre opportunities and dangers in the second issue of this Old-School Essentials zine! Bought this on the strength of issue 1 and on the promised content (ship rules, especially).


Saturday, February 20, 2021

D&D supplment I: Greyhawk

I both love and hate this book. 

As the first "supplement" to the original D&D it did a lot of things to the game I don't love. It introduced complex multi-classing. (Though the fighter-mu elf was around in vol 1, we now have multiple species/class configurations and even three way splits like fighter/magic-user/cleric.) It brought in the half-elf. It introduced the thief and percentile rolls. It suggested the idea of chaotic player characters and parties prone to back-stabbing each other over treasure. It introduced variable weapon damage and monster damage. (Most people would say this is a good thing, but I've come to love the simplicity of d6 damage.) In general it just added more classes, more options, more spells, more ... This is where D&D became AD&D, honestly. 

So what about the stuff I love?

1. This is where some of the most iconic monsters were born. The rust monster, owl bear, displacer beast, beholder, umber hulks, blink dogs, carrion crawlers, gelatinous cubes, etc. 

2. This is also where Gygax introduced the metallic dragons and gave them a king to oppose the chromatic dragons and (also added in this volume) their five-headed queen. No names for these royal dragons are given in Greyhawk, BTW. That comes later.

3. This is where many of the iconic magic items were born, such as the Deck of Many Things. Some fo them were quite broken, but the level of creativity on display is really high!

4. The suggestions for changing up dungeons ... Gygax's inventiveness is really on display here. So many crazy ideas! "Room complexes with are all parts of a monster. The first room being the mouth, The next the stomach, and so forth." "A Troll with a magic spear riding a Purple Worm." "Skeletons who are able to hurl their finger joints as if they were magic arrows." "A seeming Golden Dragon which is actually mobile Yellow mold."

Ha. Great stuff. Lots of inspiration here.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Gary as adversarial GM?

This is a pretty funny meme, especially the "quote" at the bottom. (Not sure I've ever put air-quotes around the word quote before. Seems very meta.)

Funny as it is, from a more realistic standpoint it is clear that Gary was in an arms race with players from 1974-1980. 

You know about the module S1: The Tomb of Horrors, right? We've all seen this beautiful Erol Otus (no relation) image? I have to wonder, why this was the back cover instead of the front!

Anyway, this dungeon has the reputation of being a stone cold killer. But of course it's not an example of Gary writing a dungeon just to be mean. Or ... well ... it is, but you have to know the context. Gary wrote it specifically to test high level players. He wrote it for convention/tournament play (not to kill off long-lived beloved home-group characters) and he wrote it after his player's boasted they could handle anything AD&D had to throw at them. He did nothing to hide his mindset when planning/writing S1: "I admit to chuckling evilly as I did so." And he designed it specifically to challenge the likes of Rob Kuntz' Robilar and Ernie Gygax's Tenser, characters that had been around, literally, longer than D&D had been in print. 

All of this is to make a point I think we all already knew. However, popular, revisionist thinking likes to paint Gygax as a mean-spirited character killer and an autocratic GM. He was some of that, but his players were murder hobos. And it's a chicken-and-egg argument as to which came first. It was just the culture of the table. I don't think those early players went around crying about Gary being too tough or unfairly wiping out their favorite PCs. 

If you go looking for advice from Gary about how to kill PCs or make their lives hell, you will find it. If you go looking for words from Gary about their being only one way to play D&D (his way), you'll find them. But the opposite is also true. I can easily go find places where Gary suggests alternative challenges that are less likely to kill characters and places where he told you to make it up and have fun rather than writing to him for answers. (Both of the ones I'm thinking of right now, by the way, were in volume III of original D&D).

We shouldn't be too hasty to discount adversarial play if it is conducted in a spirit of fun and fairness. Not all players want to breeze through a heroic story. Some want to explore, face challenges, and fully experience the outcome of their choices. Some want to test themselves against a dangerous and often capricious environment.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Quick dungeon: The Cellars of Mad Vortigern

I made a quick dungeon (over a 30-minute lunch break) using the method described in this awesome post: Adrenaline and Spark Tables Dungeon. In short, the method imagines a dungeon as something with a theme, dressing, and rooms - and rooms as each having a type with either an active and passive element. You make tables for these things. Here are mine, and I will tell you that all of the skill (at least for me) was in making these tables and I could definitely get better at it. These worked, but after making one dungeon I understand better how to make the next tables.

Title: (first thing that came to my head) The Cellars of Mad Vortigern

Theme: Failed Experiments

Dressing: suggestive goo, magic wards/seals, timers (didn't use this, switched it to tiles and light), building materials (I was originally thinking more "Rube Goldberg" machines)

d4 Room Types (set)

  1. Encounter - something is happening in the room
  2. Hazard - a dangerous area, probably a trap
  3. Travel - one way forward is assumed, a travel room adds choices/passages, often hidden
  4. Treasure - not easy, quick, and/or safe to acquire
d6 Active Elements
  1. Mutants
  2. Machines
  3. Seals
  4. Wild Growth
  5. Toxicity
  6. Cage
d8 Passive Elements
  1. Pooled
  2. Charged
  3. Explosive
  4. Feral
  5. Sterile/Dead
  6. Slanted
  7. Interwoven/complex
  8. Sweet
Here is the result - don't bother trying to read my notes, I included a key below. The ideas kind of took on a life of their own as I detailed the rooms. I ABSOLUTELY used the tables, but as a jumping off point. A few new table/dressing words occurred to me as I wrote.

Upstairs - you find the body of Mad Vortigern. He is slumped over his desk. Near his ink-stained hand is a kind of logbook with watering schedules, measurements, strange arcane formulae, etc. Sketches of strange flowers, and in one instance something that looks humanoid (but definitely isn't human) make your skin crawl. Vortigern's body is covered in ulcers. If cut open his body is filled with a fibrous material and cysts/pods instead of organs. (It should definitely be burned!)

The overall feel of the dungeon -- er, cellar complex -- is brightly lit (magic), glazed tiles, crumbling.

Room 1 - This room is at the bottom of a set of stairs leading to the house "cellar." Upon touching the bottom step, flickering magical white light issues from a square in the ceiling. (I'm imagining ever-burning torches in a recess with leaded glass panes below them?) This room is covered in red tendrils like veins or thin plant roots. A sickly sweet smell hangs in the air. If PCs dally or lean against the walls, tendrils will try to attach to them and drink blood. Pulling away from them makes a terrible "velcro" sound. This isn't a significant threat unless someone passes out here - just a hint of things to come. There is a hidden tunnel behind the thickest mass of tendrils, It is a tunnel leading to room 3, but you would need to burn it out or hack through it to travel the distance.

Room 2 - This is a disinfecting room. Brightly lit, glazed blue tiles, odd pipes/nozzles along either side. The floor tiles contain pressure plates that will spray the characters with acid. The acid degrades nonmagical metal; Amor loses one step of functionality (e.g. Plate to Chain). With care, PCs could move against the wall and not trigger the spray.

Room 3 - As soon as PCs open the door, they will see a giant pitcher plant. They may indeed hear "sucking" noises before opening the door. The giant plant is in the process of devouring something. All that is left is a kind of goo, but it has an eyeball in it and maybe a hand? The red root tendrils clearly come from this thing and they fill half of this room as well. The other half is filled with tables, pots (many broken), sacks of dirt... There's a door at the other end.

Room 4 - This is a room of doors, six of them in fact. Three are closed and sealed with wax as well as arcane marks drawn in grease pencil. There is an ozone smell in the room and a soft humming (the wards are leaking). 

Room 5 - (sealed) This is a green slime breeding vat. It is dark, light only coming from 4. A vat in the center of the room holds spores that have fallen from the ceiling above. It looks like bodies might have been thrown into the pit to feed the slime. Might even be some treasure down there, stuff the bodies were wearing, but one might also presume they were stripped first. Occasionally a soft squelching or a popping sound comes from the pit.

Room 6 - (sealed) A naked human (?) is chained to the opposite wall. It is nearly starved to death. It's body is small and weak, especially compared to its giant bald head and large eyes. The room is unlit. Dried feces, bad smells, and all the other yucky stuff you might imagine from someone imprisoned without care for a few days. The human is harmless, but he has been altered. His touch negates magic (magic items get a save). 

Room 7 - (sealed) A second 'seal' on this room is a blue, floor to ceiling, interwoven vine. Behind it are treasure chests and barrels. This is Vortigern's vault (might even be inventoried in his logbook). The plant is charged with electricity (like a vegetable version of an electric eel). If touched with skin or metal ... Zzzzzt. 

Room 8 - There is a crazy machine in here. It hums away. A bed of dirt grows wiggling mandrakes. As PCs watch, one pulls itself free of the dirt and wanders around. On one side is a pit, and when the mandrake falls into it there is a sharp clipping sound and a horrible scream. The head rolls into a basket that is half full of heads already. The rest is ground in a chipper shredder thing and sprayed back out onto the growing mandrakes. Something like that. Add details to suit. Do the heads do anything? The fresh one will probably try to bite anyone reaching in. 

Room 9 - This room is full of dead tree-like plants in giant pots. There is a giant stick bug or chameleon in here. It is hungry. Probably came in through room 10. 

Room 10 - This room has a bedroll and chest with some meager personal treasures in it. A crumbling wall leads out to a small cave near a babbling brook, the entrance well hidden behind trees. There's an 80% chance a rogue is here. He wandered in from the outside, looking for a hideout. But the place has twisted him. He is part mushroom man and has grown huge. He could leave, though it might be a tight squeeze now. In any case, he stays here, preferring the dark. He's moody. Roll reaction, he will either attack, cower, or ask for help. 

General - most things are potentially infectious. A lot of stuff might be valuable to the right buyers. 

D&D volume III (continued): The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

Hex Maps

One of the age old questions is "What is the perfect size for a wilderness hex?" It's right up there with "Pointy-top hex or flat-top hex?" (Aside, I have done several polls on this and a clear majority prefer flat-topped.) Gygax expresses a preferred scale here of 5 miles as "the greatest distance across a hex." That being said, in 1975 he published an article suggesting a 1-mile hex, so the above comment might have been specific to the Outdoor Survival board (see previous post). 


Gygax includes encounter tables in this volume for desert/arid plants. Among the entries are Red/Black/Yellow/White Martians, Tharks, Apts, Banths, Thoats, Calots, White Apes, Orluks, Sith, Darseen. In other words, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom setting. ERB's Mars series is, arguably, the most referenced work in D&D. Even more than Tolkien (despite naming hobbits, balrogs, and such). Gygax knew what he was doing. Under Other Worlds, he says "Mars is given in these rules, but some other fantastic world or setting could be equally possible" (24).

Mass Battles

Gygax leans on Chainmail for resolving mass combat and prefers miniatures on a field of 4' x 4' minimum and ideally 6' x 6' (25). But he notes that one could use paper counters and a hexagon or staggered-square board. He also covers command and control, naval battles, etc. All in frustratingly erratic detail, to be sure, but enough to perhaps get people going. [Edit: At Gary Con XIV, I got the privilege of playing a draft of Arneson's air-battle rules for D&D that never made it into Gary's version. The game was run by Griff, the director/creator of Secrets of Blackmoor.]

Gary's Afterword

This is one of the most important paragraphs in original D&D, to my thinking. 

"There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will often have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing" (36).

This is pretty clearly a different Gygax than we see in the AD&D era. After a few years of answering rules questions and commenting (disparagingly) on others' interpretations, he tried to tighten down and codify D&D in a way that some feel killed the spirit of openness in the game. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

D&D volume III: The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures


Page numbers reference the Premium editions unless otherwise noted.

Prepping Dungeons

EGG crosses himself a bit in the introduction to this volume. He says you should "construct at least three levels" of your dungeon before play. In Vol 1 he says that in preparation for the campaign "the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his 'underworld.'" Maybe three levels takes a half-dozen maps.

Check out the level of mapper-paranoia in his sample dungeon level. Holy cow. Slanting passages with no purpose other than to confuse mappers, rotating rooms, one-way and two-way teleporters... it's a bit insane. 


1. Note stairs down lead through blind passages and return to circular room with wedge-shaped divisions. Unless secret door is located this area will lead nowhere.

2. This is a simple room-labyrinth, generally leading nowhere, but “A” would be a room containing a monster and treasure, i.e. let us say “4 ogres with 2,000 G.P. and 1 magic potion.”

3. This area simply illustrates the use of slanting passages to help prevent players from accurately mapping a level (exact deviation from cardinal points is quite difficult for them to ascertain).

4. No matter which way west players move they will end up turning into the lair of the monster “B,” let us suppose a basilisk. There is a false door in the second passage north. The tunnel to the east contains a trap, “C,” a slide to a lower level which is disguised as a set of up stairs.

5. The combinations here are really vicious, and unless you’re out to get your play- ers it is not suggested for actual use. Passage south “D” is a slanting corridor which will take them at least one level deeper, and if the slope is gentle even dwarves won’t recognize it. Room “E” is a transporter, two ways, to just about anywhere the referee likes, including the center of the earth or the moon. The passage south containing “F” is a one-way transporter, and the poor dupes will never realize it unless a very large party (over 50’ in length) is entering it. (This is sure-fire fits for map makers among participants.)

6. Again, here are a couple of fun items to throw at players. “G” is a shifting sec- tion of wall, with a secret die roll to determine which way it will go: 1 = N., 2 = E., 3 = S., 4 = W., and 5 & 6 it stays put! Such a section will possibly close one of the four corridors, possibly blocking access to/from the trapdoor located in the room 20’ square located in the northwest. Point “H” is a two-way secret door. On an odd die result, let us suppose, it opens on a room to the west. Oth- erwise it opens on a passage south. The same trick can be used with staircases, having them go up or down at random.

7. This is the nexus for a modular section which will revolve at random periods. Although the passages north, south, etc. will always remain the same, the areas 10’ × 20’ beyond will be different at various times. Again, this will frustrate those setting out to map a level. All round rooms must not be nexuses. However, the circular structure in example 1. could, with a bit of alteration, be made into one, as could any room of any shape, providing the modules were properly designed so as to rotate around it.

8. Note the pit (X) at the four-way intersection containing a secret door on its south surface. A small tunnel will lead discoverers to the room containing mon- ster “I” . . . a true troll or two perhaps. The western portion contains the room of some evil man, complete with two secret doors for handy escape. There is also a flight of stairs leading down. Falling into the pit would typically cause damage if a 1 or a 2 were rolled. Otherwise, it would only mean about one turn of time to clamber out, providing the character had spikes or associates to pull him out, and providing the pit wasn’t one with a snap-shut door and the victim was alone. (5)

To be fair, on the next page he describes using tricks like this instead of deadly traps (30' drop, or spiked pit) because they mess with characters but don't kill them. He talks about both a threat of death and survivability being necessary things to balance. 

I don't know about you, but I might rather my character fall into a pit and die than endlessly wander around these passages "to nowhere." 

I do like his emphasis on verticality in the form of chutes, slopes, etc. Too many modern dungeons are linear because they don't provide enough of these level jump-offs. I suspect Gary's use of verticals also came from the fact that his dungeons were revisited many times. Players needed a way to navigate down quickly once they had mastered/cleared the easier levels.

Also worth noting, I don't think he cared about player knowledge. If your character learned something but died, you probably played your next character with the dead one's knowledge. OTOH, Gary probably changed the location of the stairs. 

Needs More Dogs

It's a minor point, but hunting or guard dogs are missing from these early lists of things that can be purchased.

Soap Poisoning

Check out this paragraph, especially the last sentence. Seriously? I recruit a monster and it loses infravision. Cough ... bullshit ... cough. 

"In the underworld some light source or an infravision spell must be used. Torches, lanterns and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to “see” the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind. Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character" (9)

So much for internal consistency or Gygaxian naturalism. This is full-blown mystical underworld stuff.

Populating Dungeons

"As a general rule there will be far more uninhabited space on a level than there will be space occupied by monsters, human or otherwise. [...] It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures, with or without monstrous guardians, and then switch to a random determination for the balance of the level. [...] Roll the die for every room or space not already allocated. A roll of a 1 or 2 indicates that there is some monster there. [...] Roll again for every room and space. A roll of 1–3 in those rooms or spaces with monsters in them indicates some form of treasure is present. A roll of 1 in a room or space which is unoccupied indicates that there is some form of treasure there" (6-7).

This placement advice is something I have seen from EGG many times. Also the notion of empty space within a dungeon. More modern modules rarely have more empty than inhabited space, let alone "far more." Why? Because empty space can be really boring/tedious to play through. It might be more realistic, but ... see the previous note about infra vision.

It takes more to make empty rooms interesting. And once you do, is it really empty? Is a rotating room that is empty the same as an empty room? 

Oe is Combat-Centric?

That is a common allegation. However, the Example of Play completely glosses over a combat with the words...

"(Here a check for surprise is made, melee conducted, and so on)" (13). 

The example, about two pages long, is largely about exploration and only the GM rolls - except, we assume, during the not-described combat. Also, he simply tells the party that the boots they found are "Elven-type" (indicating they are magic without the need for research or an identification spell).

Avalon Hill - Outdoor Survival

I love this bit of appropriation. "OUTDOOR SURVIVAL has a playing board perfect for general adventures. Catch basins are castles, buildings are towns, and the balance of the terrain is as indicated."

I didn't really think much of the Outdoor Survival map until I made the substitutions Gary suggested. 

Castles in red, towns in blue. That's a LOT of castles. I would maybe back that off to 50% or less. But it completely changes the scale of the map. Before, the buildings were literally hunting lodges. And the catch-basins are small lakes/ponds. Pretty cool idea, actually, to repurpose a nice hex map (15).

Continued in the next post.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Vaults of Vaarn by Leo Hunt

I only have one real problem with this zine, the cover didn't really communicate to me the nature of the awesome stuff inside.

[Response to this comment from my pal @yochaigal1 I disagree. The cover is badass. 12:56 PM · Feb 10, 2021. Yochai is right. I am wrong. The cover is bad ass.]

There are two issues of this zine. I have the second but I just started reading it, so I'm restricting my comments to the first. [Edit: since this posting there has been a third zine and then a hard back compilation.]

Vaults of Vaarn 

VoV is a zine, but I hesitate to use the word. While the aesthetics are 100% zine (in a good way), this booklet contains a full fantasy adventure game in a weird, post-post-apocalyptic world inspired by books like Dune, The New Sun, and Hyperion, as well as the art of Moebius. So it's a zine, but it's also a full game. 

The works named above were the ones Leo cited as points of inspiration. I would add that it feels very much like the weird futuristic fantasy of Vance's Dying Earth. It also finds itself echoing some things established by early post-apocalyptic games like Gamma World

Physical Product

The book is 52-pages, staple-bound, with a full color cardstock cover and black and white interior. A perfect amount of cool line-art (also by Leo) helps break up the text-dense pages and makes sure everything hangs together. The cover has a sweet 80s synth vibe to it, which may or may not be at odds with the interior content. (I think it is. But it's cool, nonetheless.)

The System

According to Leo, the game utilizes a lot of Ben Milton's Knave mechanics. I've only skimmed the latter, but I did recognize the way stats work. You get the standard six, with WIS and CHA renamed. You roll 3d6 for each, "down the line." However, you aren't summing the result of the dice. You find the lowest in each throw and use it as the + bonus as well as a 10+x defense. Meaning if your lowest die is a 2, that stat has +2 for rolls and a defense of 12. Most of the time, during game play, you are rolling a d20, adding your bonus by stat, and comparing it to a target of 15. Contested rolls go against armor value (by equipment) or the relevant stat's defense. Interestingly, the math works out the same whether the rolls are made by the GM for the monsters or by players to react to monster attacks; meaning you can choose to roll dice or have rolls player-facing. 

It's a good system and has a lot in common with the simplicity of newer OSR products like The Black Hack. But let's take a look at the Table of Contents...


  • 1 page of credits
  • 1 page of world lore in 9 points (outstanding!!)
  • 1 page overview of chargen
  • 2 pages of basic rules
  • 1 page on advancement
  • 13 pages covering 5 character types: mycomorphs, cacogens, synths, true-kin, and newbeasts – a huge amount of the space is devoted to awesome "spark tables" that help you create a flavorful character. There are so many possibilities!! 
  • 2 pages of equipment
  • 4 pages of spark tables covering mystic gifts, exotica, and cybernetics
  • The remaining pages are for the GM. They are heavy on inspiration in the form of spark tables and light on text. Perfect! They cover:
    • NPCs, Names, and more Exotica
    • Books, Drugs
    • Oases, Ruins, Arcology Domes
    • Nomads, Bandits, Trade Caravans
    • Petty Gods
    • Desert Encounters and You Found a Corpse
    • Beasts - with about 30 examples
    • Transport types - 7 examples

My First Character

Here is an example character I made while reading the rules (always a good way to check to see if you understand them). I'm not sure I did inventory correctly; I'm going to re-read that part. You have inventory slots equal to your CON defense. Small things can be grouped together. Also your gifts/cybernetics take up slots in your PSY inventory. Everything here was rolled randomly. I want to play this guy. If anything, I feel like he might have too many "things" going on, but some of them are one-use, so...


There's a lot to be said about this zine. More than I have said, certainly. But I hope this is more than enough for you to make a decision. In fact, why are you still here? Haven't you ordered your copy yet? Did I mention the PDF is PWYW? You can find it, and places to order the physical copy (you should do that) at  [Edit: go here now,]

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

D&D volume II: Monsters & Treasure

Page numbers reference the Premium editions unless otherwise noted.

See-in-the-Dark Vision

It's not infravision. That comes later with AD&D I believe. It is just simply the ability to see in the dark and it has nothing to do with your 'race.' (Again, no such word or concept in Oe, there are only types and classes.) Gygax and Arneson say "it is generally true that any monster or man can see in total darkness as far as the dungeons are concerned except player characters" (5). Suck it, PCs!

Tophats and Monocles!

"WRAITHS: These monsters are simply high-class Wights..." (9).

Dragon Colors and Subduing Them

As I mentioned in the Chainmail read-through, Gygax already had the five colors of dragons worked out early on. But he seems to have been toying with a sixth. In Chainmail the sixth type is purple/mottled. Here it is gold.

There's a whole subgame in Oe about subduing dragons. I find this interesting in that it reminds us that a) many legends and tales focus on securing an agreement with a monster using leverage. "If I suffer thee to live, thou shalt not cross the river Brandon for 100 years, nor despoil the crops or harry the villagers beyond!"

Here's the relevant text.

"Subduing Dragons: Any attack may be to subdue rather than to kill, but this in- tent must be announced before melee begins. When intent to subdue is announced, hits scored upon the Dragon are counted as subduing rather than killing points. Each round of melee the number of points scored in hits is ratioed over the total number the Dragon has (hit point total), the hits obtained being stated as a percentile of the total possible, i.e. 12%, 67%, etc. The percentile dice are then rolled to determine if the Dragon has been subdued. A roll equal to or less than the percentage of hits already obtained means the Dragon is subdued" (12).

Is this where the idea of "subdual" damage is born? I never really understood that word until now. I always wondered what it meant and somehow, my kid brain, read it as underneath (sub) the dual (which I imagined to be some part of the brain). That makes no sense, I know, but I was a kid and later I just shrugged it off as a Gygax thing. Now I get it. Subdual is Gary's word for damage to subdue. How dumb was I not to get that before?

The rules then go on to state a lot of stuff about how many people can attempt to subdue a dragon, what a subdued dragon is worth, and how long it remains subdued. That, and an example, takes up most of a page.

A friend of mine noted that he found it curious dragons were somewhat rarely used in D&D modules, given that they are in the name. (Plenty of dungeons, but not as many dragons.) I think he's largely correct. However, in the Wilderness Wandering Monster tables, a dragon is going to come around about 12% of the time (higher in some terrains).


The original edition contained a whole page on balrogs that got excised after the Tolkien estate warned TSR off of their intellectual property. There's a lot of stuff on that page. Is it really interesting? Nope. Not to me anyway. It's about how magic works against a balrog, or doesn't; how the balrog fits into the evil chain of command; all the special abilities of a balrog; etc.

Of note, I suppose, is this continuing notion that PCs can be anything. "Players wishing to begin as a Balrog would have to start as let us say a 'young one'" (8 of the original printing).

Humorous Minotaurs

Gary, for me, is at his best when he is more lighthearted. I enjoyed this bit of text. "Minotaurs: The Minotaur is classically a bull-headed man (and all of us who have debated rules are well acquainted with such)" (15).

Martian Monsters/Collaborative Monsters

References are occasionally made to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom (Mars), as a setting for D&D. I dig that some nod was made early on to sword & planet fiction. (Note his reference to John Carter of Mars stories in the intro to Volume 1.) Here is one such reference:
"Large Insects or Animals: This category includes giant ants and prehistoric monsters. Armor Class can be anything from 8 to 2. Hit Dice should range from 2 to anywhere near 20, let us say, for a Tyrannosaurus rex. Also included in this group are the optionally usable "Martian" animals such as Apts, Banths, Thoats, etc. If the referee is not personally familiar with the various monsters included in this category, the participants of the campaign can be polled to decide all characteristics" (20).

It's really cool to see Gygax encouraging GMs to source the table.

Treasure: Magic Swords

First of all let's note that treasure is included with monsters, not in the third book. So these books don't quite have the now-traditional break-down of PHB, MM, GM. That's kind of interesting in that when you mark one book as "for" the GM, it kind of leaves the MM on its own as a book for anyone, player or GM. Of course that's just an inference. Players were discouraged from reading the MM (not that it ever worked). Here we have one book for players, and the other two for GMs.

Okay, about magic swords:

You take damage immediately upon touching/drawing a sword not of your alignment. Further, you are automatically controlled if it is 6 points smarter than you.
"If a character picks up a sword which is not of the same alignment as he, damage will be taken as follows: Law – Chaos: 2 Dice (2–12 points) Neutrality-Law/Chaos: 1 Die (1–6 Points). 
If a non-player character is directed to take up a sword the damage will be only one-half that stated above, for the party is not acting as a free agent. Additionally, the sword might cause the one who took it up to be freed from a spell, change alignment, or otherwise gain powers which would remove them from the service of their former master. 
In addition, if the Intelligence/Egoism of the sword (see below) is 6 or more points above that of the character who picks it up, the sword will control the person, even causing him to become aligned as the sword is, and he will immediately act accordingly" (27)

Here is an example of early "High Gygaxian." I feel like the first book and the monster section of the second book are largely free of this obtuse writing. But here it comes on strong ...

"Influence of Egoism in Key Situations: The referee adds the Intelligence and the Egoism of the sword (from 8–24 factors), and adds an extra 1 for every Extraordinary Ability (from 1–4 if applicable). This total (8–28) is compared to the total of the character’s Intelligence and Strength (6–36) modified by a variable based upon the physical state of the user. If the character is fresh and relatively free from damage (less than 10% damaged) from 1–6 points are added to his total (from 7–42 then possible). If mentally and/or physically fatigued, or if damage between 10% to 50% has been sustained, from 1–4 points are deducted (from 2–35 then possible). If damage over 50% has been sustained, or the character has been under a severe mental strain from some form of magic, from 2–8 points are deducted (from 0–34 then possible)."

It goes on for at least another paragraph. I swear my brain fogs right over when I try to read it.

Damage is interesting too. A +2 or +3 sword often also counts its bonus toward damage, but only toward damage against the specific type of creature it was made to target. So your general +2 sword isn't +2 to hit and +2 to damage. It's +2 to hit, and when fighting (e.g.) lycanthropes it does +2 damage. I feel like that isn't the norm for D&D later on. I seem to recall that most magic swords get the bonus to both to-hit and damage, and if they target a specific creature (e.g. dragons), they get even more in that instance. I wonder when that came to be the norm.

Potions, Rings, Scrolls, Wands and Staves

A Potion of Dragon Control will control 1-3 dragons, but a Potion of Invulnerability only adds +2 to your defense and saves. The "balance" of items is all over the place. Despite several admonitions from Gygax about controlling magic items for balance.
"Only one ring may be worn each hand if the ring is to be operable by the wearer. (The referee should be careful to enforce this in order to maintain some balance in the game)" (33).

"Wishes granted by the ring must be of limited power in order to maintain balance in the game" (33).
Trust level was pretty low in these early rules sets. The general tenor is that if you gave players an inch, they'd take a yard. And if you gave them a yard, they would want a swimming pool and a tennis court.
"All Scrolls are spells for Magic-Users, and regardless of the level of the spell they can be used by any Magic-User capable of reading them. All “Protection” spells can be used by any character who is able to read" (32).
Now that is interesting. All scrolls are spells for Magic-Users (no Cleric scrolls). And your level doesn't matter. A 1st level MU can cast an 8th level spell, from a scroll. Does that last line mean someone who isn't a Magic-User can use a Protection scroll? And does the first line mean all scrolls contain M-U spells only or that only M-Us can use scrolls? The "for" isn't very clear.
"Wands are considered as being endowed with projectiles (or rays) of the 6th level (six dice of damage), Staves have 8th level effect. Assume Wands to have 100 charges, Staves have 200 charges" (34).
This explains the difference in saves. Also, wow, powerful much? Where's the "balance" here Gygax? I won't even reflect the Staff of Power and Staff of Wizardry here, but they are BORKEN. (That's a broken "broken.")


1 gold piece = 10 silver pieces; 1 silver piece = 5 copper pieces. So the ratio is slightly off from later editions which use 1:10 on both, right?

Ok. That's it for this book. I mean it's essentially just a list of stuff, so I'm not sure how interesting it is from a commentary standpoint. On to volume III.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Slowquest I & II by Bodie Hartley

I bought a number of tiny zines from this creator, Bodie Hartley, through Etsy. The best ones, in my opinion, were these two little choose-your-adventure style "slowquests." 

Here is an example of a choice page.

And here is one of the possible ends.

These things take maybe 15 minutes to read through if you browse down various paths. It's kind of a nice experience, even though nasty things can happen to you. 

The first quest is essentially about getting past a cute but quixotic goblin guard. The second is about interviewing for a job with a wizard and successfully navigating her tests. 

Great art and an interesting distraction. That being said, it's one of those sizes that is hard to store effectively and it's hard to justify the $ for 10-15 minutes of reading without much re-read value. 

Low Country Crawl by John Gregory

John Gregory's Low Country Crawl zine presents a small fantasy setting inspired by the geography and folklore of the coastal, southern United States. In a word, it is excellent.

The physical product is 32 pages (counting the cover). The color cover and black & white interior feature period-appropriate public domain art, with a few extra pieces contributed by Charles B. F. Avery. I really like the overall feel and layout by David Schirduan. My only complaint about the book is the thinness of the cover (which is the same as the interior paper weight). On the other hand, it seems to be holding up well (no corner dings yet) and it gives the zine a nice flexible hand feel that a cardstock cover does not. I bought my copy from Spear Witch

The zine is close to system-agnostic, with only fairly broad pointers at something akin to Oe or Basic D&D. For instance, creature stats list defense by comparative armour type and damage by comparative weapon type. The only hard number I see is Morale. 

The first section is a really nice overview of the geographical nature of the barrier islands - a coastal area where fresh and salt waters meet and islands come and go due to erosion or agglutination of material. This section includes a generator for islands by size/type and ends with a nice encounter table that cleverly divides the day into six four-hour shifts.

The second section is an 'island crawl' featuring a few islands and sites on them. There isn't a lot of detail here, just quick descriptions of places, each with some goings-on and story hooks. A small site-map or two would have been nice here, but it has plenty to go on for a number of sessions, given a reasonably creative GM.

The third section is filled with creatures and items. This, and the opening section, are my favorite parts, with the middle section really being an example of how the two go together in an adventure. I love the folkloric nature of the monsters: e.g. the gray man, rawbones, and boohags. They are really well done, atmospheric, and "different" in a way that we don't really see much. I mean, there are a million bestiaries out there. Many of them stem from the gooey, weird, Geiger-ish drawings that fascinate people and are just shooting to be weird or shock. Nothing wrong with those, but as many GMs will tell you - the real world is weirder than anything you can make up. And here we have an example of really strange monsters with interesting motivations that are drawn straight from the collective subconscious of a group of people. They really help nail down the southern gothic vibe. Ditto for the items, like a pouch of sticky chewing tobacco that can be spit as a type of web-weapon.

All in all, a great zine and a great read with a really authentic geographical vibe. I suppose I should note two things. 1) The book isn't really divided into three sections, the table of contents lists four and it feels like there are more headers than that. Three sections is just how I perceived it when reading. 2) Though this really nails the feel of a region, it is divorced from actual historical, named people or places in such a way that it could be used with nearly any world or system. 

Friday, February 5, 2021

D&D volume I: Men and Magic



Gygax does not include anything analogous to Appendix N in the three little books published in 1974. He does, however, write this in the Foreward.
"Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS & DRAGONS to their taste" (3).
(Note, page numbers refer to the WotC, premium edition reprints.)

Gygax was reportedly not that into the works of Tolkien. Supposedly those influences came into D&D through other people. That's the story often told, but it relies on hindsight. I think we saw in Chainmail that either Gygax was well-influenced by Tolkien or by the miniatures rules set of Len Patt. Either way he's clearly not giving proper credit to Tolkien and/or Patt. On the other hand, he does good service to D&D by walking it away from what could have been (and sometimes is) an overbearing influence on modern fantasy. Here he sights some interesting examples, and being few in number I think we have to take them pretty seriously.

I've read a lot of the works Gygax later references in Appendix N, including most of the work by Leiber, Burroughs, and Howard. (The only de Camp I've read is The Fallible Fiend and I haven't touched Pratt.) As with most Appendix N stuff, the quality varies wildly. You have to pick and choose works or even chapters/tales if you want to avoid the worst. And those readers with zero tolerance for outdated mores that either border on, or cross the border into sexist and/or racist thought, will not be able to make it through a good chunk of what Gygax cites as the influence for D&D. Of the works he named, I find Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to feel the most "D&D-like." (Though I suggest reading the stories from the collected volume II of their tales first, as those were written and published before the tales now collected in volume I. Also, they are just better stories.)

Table Size

I think most people have heard this bit of historical perspective quoted or summarized, but it is still a little shocking for modern gamers to think of a table of players this large in number. 
"Number of Players: At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts."
Or thereabouts. Yeah. I usually run for 3-6 players. That being said, some have interpreted this to mean the number of players that could play in a single dungeon/world, not at the same time. So a GM that runs weekly games might not see the same players each time. If you read it this way, the 1:20 refers to a GM handling 20 players, but not necessarily simultaneously. One would then assume that fifty players means multiple GMs? It's not clear.

Characters, Classes, and Non-Humans

"There are three (3) main classes of characters: 

"Fighting-Men includes the characters of elves and dwarves and even halflings. Magic-Users includes only men and elves. Clerics are limited to men only. All non-human players are restricted in some aspects and gifted in others. This will be dealt with in the paragraphs pertaining to each non-human type" (6).
This passage varies a little by printing. The original said "Hobbits." The world "halflings" came after a letter from the Tolkien estate warning TSR about using the estate's intellectual property. This letter has been maligned by fans, but it's pretty typical, and a necessity for anyone who has such property. Not defending it can weigh against you if it ends up in court. You don't have to sue people, but you do have to send them letters telling them to quit making free use of your ideas.

The more interesting thing here is that Gygax never uses the word "race" or even "demi-human." He does use "non-human." Elves, dwarves, and halflings are types of characters. Their class is prescribed such that even though original D&D isn't "race-as-class" in the way that we refer to later rulesets like Moldvay 1981 Basic, it is functionally that. Halflings and dwarves are fighting-men. Elves are both magic-users and fighting-men (choosing each adventure the path in which they are training). There are no elf thieves or dwarf clerics. If I'm being charitable, I would note that Gygax was still very much mindful of the tie to miniature figures (witness the fact that Chainmail is the default combat system and the one in Dungeons & Dragons is presented as an alternate). I would argue he is really describing unit types, not monocultural archetypes. After all, he is basing it on fiction. In Tolkien elves were magic-user/fighting-men hybrids. Dwarves could put magic into their creations, it seems, but you never see one casting a spell. Hobbits "possessed little or no magic" except the every-day sort that allowed them to disappear easily when big folk were about. And the same is pretty true for other fantasy literature pre-dating D&D. You can find some examples of magical dwarves, but the distinction among fey-folk in general isn't very strong prior to Tolkien. But before we get too mired in Tolkienisms, let's move on.

Clerics Must Choose

"Note that Clerics of 7th level and greater are either “Law” or “Chaos,” and there is a sharp distinction between them. If a Patriarch receiving the above benefits changes sides, all the benefits will immediately be removed!" (7).

No neutral clerics. Frankly, I like it. But then I like alignment when it is just Chaos and Law. Read Moorcock's Corum novels or Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions. I like the idea of a kind of war between immortal courts that spills over into characters in the world. Are we not all just pawns in the games of the gods - presuming there are gods, which default D&D clearly asserts there are. 
"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport."
From King Lear, William Shakespeare

Charisma for Monster Recruiting

Anyone can hire men-at-arms and such, but the “primary function” of CHA is “to determine how many hirelings of unusual nature a character can attract. [...] Charisma will aid a character in attracting various monsters to his service" (11). Also, "Monsters can be lured into service if they are of the same basic alignment as the player-character" (12). 
Okay, this is interesting. I don't think future editions spell this out quite as clearly. Charisma seems to be used for more general reactions, including those of monsters, but not for recruiting them as hirelings or even retainers. I like this a lot. It gives characters another reason to adventure – hits that ole' "Gotta collect 'em all" Pokémon itch.

Converting those captured and their loyalty is handled on page 13, with at least one disturbing note.
"Capture of Non-Player Monsters: Morale dice can cause a man or intelligent monster to attempt to surrender or become subdued. When this happens an offer of service can be made (assuming that communication is possible) as outlined above. Subdued monsters will obey for a time without need to check their reactions, and such monsters are salable (see Book II)."
Salable. As in a slave auction for intelligent monsters? Hrm. Historically accurate perhaps, but ... 

Edition Thoughts

I cut my teeth on Holmes Basic and quickly dropped into AD&D as those books were published. Yes, I am old; I began gaming around '77 at the age of 10. I'm not trying to start edition wars here, I'm just making the observation that...

There is very little difference between the three little books of Oe D&D and Moldvay/Cook's 1981 Basic and Expert D&D. The differences are really about tone, advice, and minor rules changes. (Variable damage coming into Moldvay Basic by way of Oe Greyhawk and then Holmes Basic). 

I have been playing Old School Essentials (a B/X retroclone) for nearly a year now and everything I read in Oe seemed basically the same. They have more in common than not. You could easily move characters from one game to the other with little or no change.

That can't really be said of AD&D. It has a number of key departures that send D&D off on the line that most people know and refer to when they name an edition (1e, 2e, 3.x, 4e, and 5e). The ability to mix-and-match races and classes, variable weapon damage and abilities, skills packages (which I believe really came in with 2e if you don't count the thief), expanded spell lists, individual initiative, etc. 

Which is better? That's for each of you and your playgroup to decide, individually. IOW, there is no absolute better, just a preference in context. If you say otherwise, you are probably a gatekeeper.

Contact Higher Planer

This spell. Super cool. I would cast it, or rather my character would, but man does it bone you. Here's the range. 

Low end, I get three yes/no questions and the being I contact is not likely to know the answer or tell me the truth. If I get an answer, I can't trust it. In fact, since the being is 75% likely to NOT know and 70% likely to lie, I might be better thinking of the answer as "not the truth." But at least I probably won't go insane.

Top end. Oh, I'm going insane (90% chance) but before I do, I get 12 yes/no questions that I can trust. The deity is 95% likely to know what it's talking about and 100% likely to tell me the truth. But yeah ... insanity. 

Luckily it only lasts for 12 weeks, at most. I'll get over it.

Other Stuff

There are so many things worth mentioning that I have noticed on previous reads and just skimmed over this time - like the fact that there are no d10s (though you can simulate it with a d20), or the often-horrible artwork. But I'll leave you to discover that stuff. As I said, I've made no attempt to be thorough. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Chainmail 2e, 1972

What is this?

I have no agenda here and no desire to be thorough. I'm just revisiting old rules, some of which I've never really read before. I'll be making comments on things that interest me. Maybe they will interest you too. 

Dragon Colors

It's cool that in 1972, Gygax had already formulated the five (plus one) colors of dragons and their breath weapons that figure so prominently in Dungeons & Dragons as the "chromatic dragons."
"We will deal her with the great Red Dragon (Draco Conflagratio, or Draco Horribilis) which is typified in Tolkien's THE HOBBIT. [...] Their most dreaded weapon is their fiery breath" (31).
"Other kinds of Dragons can be introduced into games, if a little imagination is used. White Dragons live in cold climates and breathe frost. Black Dragons are tropical and spit caustic acid. The Blue variety discharges a bolt of electricity. Green Dragons waft poisonous vapors--chlorine--at their opponents. Finally, the Purple, or Mottled, Dragon is a rare, flightless worm with a venemous sting in its tail" (32).
My friends and I discussed this a bit. Red, green, and white dragons can be seen in Western art as far back as the 12th century. Chinese art featured dragons of other colors: black, white, gold... And there are some precedents in fantasy literature before Chainmail. Specifically I am thinking of the green, blue, brown, bronze, and gold dragons (also the singular white one) from Anne Mcaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern. But this formulation, with its five colors and five types of breath weapons, I believe, originates with Gygax.

Tolkien Influence

Note the reference to The Hobbit. Those who dismiss Tolkien's influence on Gygax would do well to have a glance at Chainmail. Here are relevant snippets:
  • "refight the epic struggles related by J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers" (25)
  • "Hobbits" (25, 26, 34, 35)
  • "Orcs" (25, 27)
  • "Balrogs" (25, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32, 35)
  • "Ents" (25, 31, 32, 34, 35) and "Entwood" (30)
  • "Nazgûl" (25, 30)
  • "Rocs never need check morale. (These equal the "Eagles" of Tolkien's Trilogy)" (32)
  • Mordor, red eye, Isengard, and white hand (see orcs below)
Regarding orcs. Many will try to argue that this is a generic term, and now it is. However, prior to Tolkien it barely existed as a word, and it wasn't specifically equated to what we think of as an orc today. Chainmail notes that orcs are "nothing more than over-grown Goblins." They are "quarrelsome and factious. According to the best authority, there are at least five kinds (tribes or perhaps clans) of them. These are 1) Orcs of the (Red) Eye, 2) Orcs of Mordor, 3) Orcs of the Mountains, 4) Orcs of the White Hand, and 5) Isengarders." Might as well specify "Misty Mountains for the third clan, since this division is clearly from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Further, Gygax notes that both orcs and goblins "do not like bright light" and have penalties to attack and morale in full daylight or bright light. In all points parallel to Tolkien's mythos, with few if any dissenting notes.

Ent is also an older word, but it just meant "giant" before Tolkien. Clearly the Tolkien version is used in Chainmail. I might even argue for the inclusion of Giant Spiders in Chainmail as a Tolkien reference as I can't remember any such creatures in folklore; but I'm sure that's my own failing and imagining a giant anything-scary is easily done without the help of Tolkien. Wraiths, elves, goblins and other creatures also found in Tolkien's work appear in Chainmail but with no obvious shade or reference that would point at Tolkien's influence.

Gygax can claim that D&D wasn’t all that influenced by Tolkien ... but he also infamously didn’t give Arneson much credit either. I think when we look at D&D proper, we will see a number of these influences recur.

Other Influences

The reliance on Tolkien is also highlighted by there being far fewer references to other writers by name or IP. Howard/Conan is mentioned a few times and we get this nice tip of the hat to Poul Anderson.
"What are generally referred to as Trolls are more properly Ogres--intermediate creatures between men and Giants. [...] True Trolls are much more fearsome beasts (see Poul Anderson's THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS)."
(If you have never read that chapter, you should. D&D trolls are absolutely drawn from Anderson's work and not from Tolkien. And I think that Gygax is making the point here by essentially saying that Tolkien's trolls were more properly ogres.)

From general mythology, Chainmail also mentions "Odin's spear and Thor's hammer" as well as Excalibur (34).

Elric and Moorcock are not referenced until the subject of "Combination Figures" is broached. "A good example of this is Moorcock's anti-heroish "Eric of Melnibone," who combines the attributes of the Hero-type with wizardry, and wields a magic sword in the balance!"

Of course not every monster type is from Tolkien, but those that aren't are suitably generic. We don't see the flying monkeys of Wizard of Oz, for instance, or even the monsters from Barroom that make an appearance in D&D.


Much of what Gygax imagined for wizards in Chainmail was passed on to Oe D&D, though some of their assumed abilities later became spells (e.g. invisibility and protection from arrows) and some just didn't make it outside of the fighter-wizard elf.
"Wizards can become invisible and remain so until they attack, they can see in darkness" and "can throw either of two types of missile:" fire ball and lightning bolt. They also are fairly good at fighting, being worth "two Armored Foot" and able to "handle magical weaponry." They "are impervious to normal missile fire." (28) Other spells listed are Phantasmal Forces, Darkness, Wizard Light, Detection, Concealment, Conjuration of an Elemental, Moving Terrain, and Protection from Evil" (28-29). "In order to cast and maintain any spell, a Wizard must be both stationary and undisturbed by attack upon his person" (29). "The power of the magic user determines the number of spells he is able to manage." (Range is also relative to their power.)
I particularly like the inclusion of duels or counterspells in Chainmail and wish that had carried forward to D&D more explicitly. 5e has done a pretty good job with it, I believe.

"If there are two or more opposing Wizards, and the game is not a recreation of a battle found in a novel, determine which is the stronger magician (by casting dice if necessary). The stronger magician can successfully cast a counter-spell with a two dice score of 7 or better, while a weaker magician needs a score of 8, 9, or 10, depending on his relative strength. A counter-spell fully occupies a magician's powers." 


These happen specifically when a wizard is struck by an enemy spell-missile, or when a heroic type of major monster is struck by a spell. 

Wizards 7+ on 2d6
Heroes 9+
Super Heroes 6+
Wraiths 7+
Balrog 6+
Giant 9+ no effect, 5+ move back one, otherwise routed

Dragons and elementals work differently; they don't get a save. Rather, they are driven back 1 space: dragons by any magical missile, air and water elementals by a fire ball, earth and fire elementals by lightning.

What happens to other figures that fail their save? They die, of course. 


Chainmail sets up the three-part alignment structure of D&D by providing creature type/army lists for Law, Neutral, and Chaos. This section is prefaced by the words: "It is impossible to draw a distinct line between "good " and "evil" fantastic figures." Instead Gygax leans on authors like Anderson and Zelazny for a different continuum. I personally like moving away from modern notions of morality and, having played some in this simpler mindset, prefer it greatly to the AD&D nine-point system.

Fantasy Only

While I did read through all of Chainmail, I'm really only commenting on the fantasy section here, as it relates to D&D and Gygax's influences. The rest is pretty cool, for its time, and maybe others more steeped in the history of miniature warfare could comment on its originality. 

One thing worth noting is the possibility that Gygax got hold of, or heard an account of, Len Patt's scenario rules for The Battle of the Pelennor Fields, as played at NEWA in October 1970. Jon Peterson tells the tale in his blog.