The Biblyon Broadsheet

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons
Biblyon, Highland
Friday, February 11, 1994
Jerry Stratton, Ed.
Gygax and Lakofka on Wargaming in 1969—Wednesday, January 24th, 2024

I’ve been scanning a lot of old cookbooks lately; while I’ve written a script to help streamline the process, the scanning itself is limited to the time it takes the scanner to draw in each page, page by page… by page… by page. This leaves me bored for very short periods during every scan.

This morning as I write this, I used that time to search on some of the related vintage cooking topics that interest me: Eddie Doucette, and quiet ovens. But having exhausted that, and because I’d just finished putting The Cult of Gygax to bed, I typed “Gary Gygax” into newspaper.com’s search field.

It is apparently an uncommon name. Almost all of the hits were for the Gary Gygax we’re familiar with. I was surprised, however, to see hits from 1969. It turns out to be a fascinating wire article1 that appeared over the 1969-1970 holiday season, predating Dungeons and Dragons. All of the hits were for that one article; it’s the only hit on his name pre-Dungeons and Dragons.

Game Provides the Way To Shape Our HistoryThe Sedalia DemocratDec 22, 1969
History Is Rewritten By Avid WargamersThe Waxahachie Daily LightDec 23, 1969
History is Rewritten by Avid WargamersCarroll Daily Times HeraldDec 24, 1969
Wargamers Replay Historic Battles to New ConclusionsBeckley Post-Herald/Raleigh RegisterJan 4, 1970
History Being Rewritten By ‘Wargamers’Colorado Springs Gazette-TelegraphJan 10, 1970

Newspapers.com doesn’t archive every newspaper, and their OCR is often incorrect, so it probably appeared in others as well. For example, two of the newspapers above didn’t come up in my initial search for Gygax, but only when I did a search on the author of the piece, Jim Crossley, to see if he’d written other articles on gaming. Which he appears to have not.

On a Cult of Gygax—Wednesday, December 6th, 2023
The Grand Game Master: Gary Jackson let me down!; game masters; Gary Gygax; cartoons; Knights of the Dinner Table; KoDT

“You can’t go around tampering with dragons. They’re sacred!” (From Knights of the Dinner Table #1, By the Book)

I recently re-read the Dungeon Masters Guide and was struck by how much it treated the reader as an equal. Gygax not only expected great things from his reader, he expected that his reader was inclined to greatness. When you expect strong opinions from readers, you can safely express strong opinions yourself. You don’t have to hold back out of fear of being taken too dogmatically.1

Reading the DMG again made me wonder about the legendary “Cult of Gygax” that supposedly permeated D&D fandom during Gygax’s tenure at TSR. The cult is exaggerated to great effect in Jolly Blackburn’s hilarious Knights of the Dinner Table, with the fictional Gary Jackson even returning from the dead at one point!

I’ve been haphazardly discussing the cult and Gygax’s alleged dogmatism in Alarums & Excursions, but what got me thinking about the cult—or the idea of the cult—in a way that allowed me to get my thoughts down (somewhat) more clearly was a recent blog post by James Maliszewski on Grognardia:

Also notable is the way that Mentzer, who provided this issue’s answers, mentions that he agrees with “Gary” on this point—another example of the Cult of Gygax that was popularized in the pages of TSR periodicals.

Mentzer was writing a rules clarification column, and what he wrote was in response to a reader wondering about a particular interpretation of an AD&D rule:

Wondrous Weapons of Ancient Days—Wednesday, October 18th, 2023

Wondrous Weapons, by Joseph Weingand, is a collection of weird and often unusable weapons for fantasy games. It’s also a fascinating glimpse into old-school treasure and old-school play styles.

Wes Crum’s front cover is very reminiscent of Dave Trampier’s treasure illustration in the AD&D Players Handbook, in that there are a variety of emotions expressed on the character faces. It is less technically adept than the back cover (and far less than even the worst of Trampier’s illustrations) but also more fun than the back cover. Neither are up to the level of Trampier, of course.

The entries use the Judges Guild universal system to present the stats of the weapons, but without the one-or-two page explanation that usually accompanies it. And you really do need the explanation to decipher the stats. What is an INT of 184? An ALN of NEX or NGC?

These were not easy to decipher without the conversion summary. An INT—or intelligence—of 184 means an intelligence of 18, which can be used four times a day “without checking for stress damage”. The ALN is the alignment, and it’s vaguely Freudian. The first two letters indicate the alignment that most AD&D players would recognize. The third letter “indicates only a suppressed desire”. So, NEX is Neutral Evil with no suppressed alignment, while NGC is Neutral Good with a suppressed desire to be Chaotic.

The proliferation of universal systems was a fascinating byproduct of the times. They were rarely universal. They were meant solely to make it easier to convert to AD&D without saying AD&D. You can see that in Wondrous Weapons, where the stat numbers—mostly intelligence—tend to be in the 3 to 18 range. And, of course, the use of an alignment system of Chaotic/Neutral/Lawful and Good/Neutral/Evil.

The need for a universal system that really only applies to one game, when publishing supplemental material, appears to have been based on either a poor understanding of copyright law or a very good understanding of the litigious nature of the gaming industry. If you’re a small company, after all—and Judges Guild was very small—knowing you’re right doesn’t matter if you have neither the money nor the inclination to defend yourself.

Most early gaming companies were gamers first, companies second. A letter from a corporate lawyer, especially in pre-Internet days, was a very frightening and demoralizing experience.

The Cellphone Problem in horror roleplaying—Wednesday, August 30th, 2023
Horror car problems: The car won’t start horror movie scene.; horror; automobiles; cars; cellphone problem

I’m guessing she punched the gas just before turning the key.

In a recent Grognardia retrospective, James Maliszewski wrote about his dissatisfaction with Cthulhu Now: it failed to update the game for the modern era. Its ideas were “often poorly implemented and verge on railroads at times.”

James was especially disappointed because Lovecraft wrote for what was then his modern era. If he was writing now, he’d write for the current modern era. So the idea of a modern Cthulhu mythos role-playing game appealed to him. Cthulhu Now, however, didn’t recognize the problems of moving older fiction to modern times.

Although James didn’t name it specifically, what he was writing about is the “cellphone problem”. It doesn’t have to involve actual cellphones. It’s just that they’re the most obvious of the issues. The cellphone problem is that modern technology makes a lot of old fiction unusable in the modern era. It’s difficult to isolate someone who owns a cellphone. You can brick the cellphone signal, but this only highlights that something out there is bricking the cellphone signal. And even with that, the cellphone contains a very high quality camera, a reasonably high quality tape recorder, and a very useful GPS device.

Some now even contain satellite for emergency use, which don’t rely on access to a cell tower. A GM who regularly bricks such devices is railroading, pure and simple. They are limiting the players’ options artificially so that the player characters can only go where the railroad—the GM—wants them to go.

This is, I suspect, one of the main reasons Sandy Peterson chose to set Call of Cthulhu in the twenties. While it’s true that, as James lamented, Lovecraft set his stories in his then-present, it’s just as true that that is when he set them. Had he lived into the twenty-first century his new stories would have had to change so much that they would no longer resemble his old ones. The increase in destructive power available to humans, the increase in knowledge about the past and about the universe, the increase in forensic technology, and the increase in documentary ability both at the personal and government levels all make his twenties-era stories practically impossible—or make his elder horrors ridiculously weak.

In Defense of the One-Minute Round—Wednesday, July 26th, 2023
In defense of the one-minute round: “In Defense of the One Minute Round” social media image.; Dungeons & Dragons; Dungeons and Dragons; rounds; turns

Tomorrow is Gary Gygax’s birthday. One of the more controversial choices he made for AD&D is the one-minute round. Very few games have such a long round; when I wrote Gods & Monsters, I shortened the round to a mere ten seconds, and even that’s considered a long duration for combat rounds today.

D&D 5E has a six-second round, and the more I play 5E the more I see the benefits of the one-minute round for game play. The most recent example: during our last game, as I write this, I was playing a monk, with shadow step and acrobatics; we were being attacked by a dragon, in a forest, while on a raised platform, and had very little in the way of ranged weapons. I was attacking the dragon using darts, not a very effective attack mode.

Hoping to get closer to the dragon where a monk can be more effective, I looked around for shadow that the dragon might occasionally fly into; I looked around for vines or branches it might occasionally fly near. All while attacking and defending from a breath-wielding dragon.

It occurred to me later that that’s not reasonably possible in six seconds. This is one of the things Daredevils gets right: Daredevils also uses six-second rounds, and dedicates an entire action type to “Observe”. You can defend yourself while observing, but the most you can do for attack is ready a weapon (makes sense: presumably what you observe caused you to want to prepare a weapon against it) or hip fire a firearm, a weapon far easier to use than the bows and darts of D&D.

And all the talking our group does? Some of it literally takes more than six seconds per participant. A six-second round leaves very little room for role-playing both mighty deeds and inspiring one-liners. It leaves very little room for the intricate maneuvering that AD&D and OD&D inspired1.

It leaves very little room for the players to devise new tactics in the course of a battle. A six-second round is not a group-oriented round. It’s a very egocentric round. You’ve barely got time to handle what’s happening around you, let alone what’s happening around your comrades. Coming up with new ideas, role-playing new goals, those don’t realistically fit into a six-second round at all.

Quick-and-dirty old-school island script—Wednesday, July 5th, 2023
Haunted Island Adventure Guide’s Handbook cover: The Haunted Island image for the cover of the Adventure Guide’s Handbook.; Persistence of Vision; povray; Gods & Monsters; Hawaii; islands

Islands are great locations for adventures, especially weird ones or constrained ones, which is why I chose an island for the cover of The Adventure Guide’s Handbook.

As I wrote in the first installment, this island generator (Zip file, 6.9 KB) is far from an example of well-written, organized code. It’s as messy as the old-school tables from Island Book 1 it encapsulates. The data is not separate from the code, and the code is filled with special cases.

If this had been a serious effort, I would have flowcharted the tables, organized them into kind of table, and probably made a series of table classes and subclasses for the different kinds of information in the tables—whether they call for die rolls to determine number, or whether the call for rolling on a further table, for example.

For something like this, that’s a recipe for never getting the script done. So I went along table by table and created code for what each table needed. If it was similar to the code that a previous table had needed, I modified that code, perhaps adding a new, optional, function parameter.

I could almost certainly have used the file-based table script I wrote about in my Programming for Gamers series. It would have been cleaner and smoother. But part of what drew me to these three pages of tables were all of the rough edges. I had to sand some of them off just because it’s a computer program—decisions have to be made—but I wanted to keep as many of the dangerous bits as I could.

Most of the tables are simply a list of 20 items, to be generated using a d20. Those are simple. The list of items is a Python list, and item = random.choice(list) pulls an item randomly from the list.

Some of the 20-item lists also have options within the list. For those, I made the simple 20-item list a slightly less simple 20-item list of lists. The top table, the list of twenty types of islands, includes, in some entries, a range of numbers and/or a list of island features types.

Kolchak: The Big Creep (a Daredevils adventure)—Wednesday, May 31st, 2023
Pavlita Generator in Space: Illustration of a Pavlita Generator from UFO Update 11, Summer 1980.; Pavlita generator

This weekend is the 2023 North Texas RPG Convention. For last year’s con, I ran the second of my Kolchak adventures. I’d initially planned on running The Powers of Dr. Remoux from Daredevils Adventures 1: Deadly Coins. Daredevils Adventures 1 is the first adventure supplement to Fantasy Game Unlimited’s Daredevils.

I started making so many changes, however, that I ended up writing up my own adventure using it as inspiration. The initial changes were simple enough. I set it at a college that had appeared in the series, Illinois State Technical College. And, of course, I updated it for 1976. College life changed a lot over those fifty years.

But the real changes began when I happened to run across an article on the Pavlita Generator in an old UFO magazine. Not only was it approximately the right time period for my adventure, but it was exactly the right way to update the adventure’s weird science from the twenties to the seventies.

U.S. intelligence officials are studying the development in Czechoslovakia of “psychotronic generators,” small devices “capable of drawing biological energy from humans and storing it for future use.”

This is exactly what Jones’s Dr. Remoux was doing, but for the UFO age and the cold war rather than the dawn of modern physics. I was further able to expand on the Cold War aspect using some real Defense documents:

Island Book 1 and old-school tables—Wednesday, April 26th, 2023
Sheryl England’s Sinbad vs. Conan: Back cover illustration by Sheryl England for the Judges Guild Island Book 1.; Judges Guild; Inspirational fantasy art; Sheryl England

Sheryl England’s cover art is also a draw.

I managed to acquire a copy of Judges Guild’s Islands Book 1 a few weeks ago. Like most Judges Guild books, it is very interesting and very strange, and very much a product of the old school enthusiasm that permeated its era. It was published in 1978, which is still pretty early. As late as 1976, Judges Guild was still selling books from the trunk of Bill Owen’s Mustang.

It’s titled “Island Book 1”, but I can find no evidence of an “Island Book 2”. It’s a lot like their three Treasure Maps books, two Castle Book books, and Temple Book1. It’s a collection of island maps, with no keys. Some features are marked, but for the most part you’re expected to either draw your own features and keys directly on the maps, or photocopy them and draw on the copy.

You could, presumably, also use some of the included tables to generate items to correspond to the features marked on some of the maps.

They’re all filled with hexes, numbered for your amusement, part of the Judges Guild “Campaign Hexagon System”.

The cover artwork is by Sheryl England, great evocations of island-hopping adventure. The back cover is basically Sinbad vs. Conan, a great choice for sailing fantasy.

But the real draw for me is the utterly gonzo three pages of island generation tables. As soon as I saw them, I knew I wanted to make a script to generate islands.

The tables are interwoven; some results seem to indicate further rolls on other tables. This is conjecture, however: how the tables interweave is never mentioned. There are no instructions for using them. Not only are there no instructions for how to use subtables, there are barely instructions for how to use individual tables.

For example, the main table, for type of island, has a numeric range after some of the islands, such as 1-3 or 2-12. They have to be die rolls, because they correspond to the most common ranges for die rolls. But die rolls for what? For the number of islands in the chain, or for number of features that follow?

Every such entry has a list of features, such as volcanoes, mountains, hills, traps, what kinds of provisions can be scrounged on the island, and so on. I’m assuming that they are possible features, and that an entry such as “Sandy Isle (1-6) MHCT” means that this is a sandy island (that much I’m pretty sure about) that contains d6 features; those features include mountains, hills, creatures, and traps.

Other interpretations are easily imagined.

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