Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Dragon Magazine, Volume 1: Issue 1

Greetings, fantasy fans! I've decided that due to an abundance of free time and a strong desire to crib campaign ideas from established sources that I'll be reading through issues of The Dragon, the TSR (later WOTC) publications dedicated solely to D&D. The Dragon ran continuously for almost 30 years in print (and was followed by Dragon+, WOTC's current offering) so I imagine I'll have plenty of material to go over. For the sake of brevity, and to save my beloved readers some time, I'll be going through each individual article and rating them on a scale of study-skim-skip. Study articles are ones that I believe have a lot to offer the average D&D player or GM, whether in theory or in practice. Skim articles are just what they say: some good details, mixed in with a lot of negligible crap. Skip articles are to be ignored entirely, whether because they don't apply to D&D or fantasy work or because they're simply boring and useless. With that being said, lets jump into volume 1, issue 1:

Fafhrd and the Mouser Say Their Say: Skim if you're a fan, Skip if not. There's really nothing here but a short scene in which the twain talk to Lieber about the world they live in. An additional character for Lankhmar, A TSR boardgame that nobody plays, is introduced.

The Battle of the Five Armies In Miniatures: Skip. See above with regards to people playing the Battle of the Five Armies board game.

How to Use Non-Prime Requisite Attributes: Study. Now this is interesting, if a bit obtuse. Basically, a way of determining a character's chance of success at doing damn near anything, by way of percentile. I've always found the roll-under system vastly simpler (and therefore superior), but it's cool to see that even in the early days people were clamoring for a dice-based way to resolve non-combat encounters.

Magic and Science: Study. These are cool, they remind me of MAG's from Phantasy Star Online. I'd consider using one in a game, maybe even developing them further into a sort of ever-present companion. Will have to think on this one.

Languages: Skim. Nobody I know uses alignment languages, and the idea that a person could learn horse — but have a harder time speaking the donkey dialect — is amusing but ultimately so situational that I feel comfortable making up the rules for that on the fly. That being said, I like the ideas that are offered towards the end with regards to resolving hostile encounters with languages.

Wargaming World & Gencon Update: Skip. Missed the bus on that one.

The Search for the Forbidden Chamber: Study. This is painfully bad prose. Read it so that the world need never birth it again.

Creature Features: Study. The Bullette (or boo-lay)! One of my all-time favorite creatures, this version of the bullette has the distinction of dealing a buttload of damage. Seriously, 4d12 damage per attack? Or 12d6 if it's backed into a corner? Say goodbye to your average Superhero if that one hits. They also have a 10% chance of surprise, and frequently attack from below the ground.

Mapping the Dungeons: Skip. Same as Wargaming World and Gencon, but interesting to see a familiar name on there.

Hints for D&D Judges: Study. Sweet hexcrawl advice that still rings true today, without needing to bring Outdoor Adventures into the game. That being said, I can't stand the use of the term "Judge." I've always insisted on being the DM, regardless of the game I'm running.

Mighty Magic Miscellany: Skim. Further developing the Illusionist class from a previous edition of The Strategic Review.

Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age Additions: Skip. Once again, nobody plays this.

Hobbits and Thieves in Dungeon!: Skip. I'm assuming Dungeon! isn't very good, as I've never heard of it. Wouldn't be adverse to trying it, though, and the fact that it's a board game might help convince some of my less-nerdy friends to try roleplaying.

The Gnome Cache: Skim. Standard fantasy fare. No idea if it's going to get good, so I'm leaving it as skim for now.

That's it for issue 1, I'll look into doing issue 2 once I'm done with the three Skaith books.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson

Goddammit, Poul.

Before I continue, let me warn that if you're put off by talk of rape, incest, or other sexual atrocities that you're going to want to skip this one. You really won't be missing much.

Ugh. Let it also be known that I'm writing this after having accidentally slammed my finger in a door, which coincidentally mirrors the experience of reading the book. Truly, life imitates fiction. Well, I've put it off long enough, lets just get this over with so I can move on to Leigh Brackett.

The Broken Sword, written a year after Three Hearts and Three Lions, is another retelling of classical myth: in this case, Viking tales of faeries, trolls, giants, and other creatures of the Nine Worlds. And in that, it succeeds magnificently. The war between the elves (synonymous with faeries) and the trolls is a lengthy, well planned story. The way it goes about telling that story, though, is goddamn bonkers. So lets do this.

Imric is an elf-lord who desires a human son for unknown reasons. So he decides to steal one, but also can't do that unless he swaps it out in an even trade. So he goes down to his dungeons and rapes a troll he's held captive for several centuries. Imric does some magic to quicken the quickening, and the baby is born: half elf, half troll (this is important later). He does some swapping, and now he's the father of a handsome human male, who he names Skafloc.

The fake son then is raised as a human by a Viking family and is given the name Valgard. Owing to his troll nature, Valgard is a lunatic berserker, and fares well in combat alongside his father and brothers. One day, however, his brother doesn't come back from a hunt, having been ensnared by a witch who has cast a spell on Orm (the Viking dad) in order to kill his entire family. The witch has taken the form of a beautiful woman to seduce Valgard's brother, and when Valgard finds him, he too is seduced by her. In a fit of jealous rage, Valgard kills his brother. Then he goes back to his family, who eventually find out what he's done, so he is forced to kill his father and other brothers. Returning to the witch's cottage, she tells him that he is not actually human, and therefore shouldn't feel bad, and that his real dad is some distant fey asshole that he really should kill. Then she transforms back into an old lady, and he runs away in rage and presumed disgust at what he's been porking.

Valgard hatches a plan to get back at his real dad by joining forces with the trolls. So he kidnaps his two sisters (intending to sell them as wives to the trolls) and hitches a ride to Trollheim. This entire time, Skafloc has been reared in the arts of elvish fighting, and trained as a powerful lover by Leea, Imric's sister (who also sleeps with Imric, as the story is sure to remind us). In a remarkable coincidence, Skafloc and Imric are heading to Trollheim to wage war, and arrive at the same time Valgard does. A fight ensues, wherein Valgard accidentally murders one of the sisters and the other is "freed" by Skafloc, who we now learn is so handsome that he can seduce a woman despite looking exactly like her insane, fratricidal brother. The sister, Frede, is taken back to Elfheim. Meanwhile, Valgard stews in his anger and vows revenge against Skafloc and all of elfkind.

Skafloc and Frede quickly start a-wooin', much to the disappointment of Leea, who is deeply in love with the man. The trolls mount a quick counter-attack, however, leaving her little time to pout: the castle is overrun, and Skafloc and Frede make a quick getaway while the trolls are beating up Imric and having their way with the elven women. For the next 30 or so pages, Skafloc and Frede work as raiders, hitting troll encampments left and right and fleeing into the daylight whenever they are attacked. After realizing he's not doing enough damage, Skafloc decides to raise Frede's dead family to ask for advice. He is told to seek out the broken sword destined to be wielded by him (it was shown earlier, but not in any meaningful capacity) and also that he's been sleeping with his sister. He doesn't care, but Frede is livid and asks him to return her to the human world. With a heavy heart, she departs her beloved, but finds out later that she's pregnant with his kid.

Skafloc steals the sword from its hiding place in Elfheim by turning into a wolf, then an otter, then seducing Leea right out from Valgard's bed. With the sword, he heads towards the land of the sidhe, and then the land of the giants, seeking a blacksmith that can repair the sword. After the sword is repaired, he goes on several quests — killing a dragon, seducing giant women, plundering ancient ruins, etc.— that the book decides not to talk about. As in, the narrator literally says "Skafloc did these things, but they aren't part of this story so we're going to move on." Lord have mercy, I'm almost done.

So Skafloc's sword, along with the giant steed he stole, turns him into the sort of invincible hero that Poul would later satirize in "On Thud and Blunder." I implore you to read the facetious introduction to that essay, and then the following honest-to-god passage from this book:
"...Through the clangor rode Skafloc, smiting, smiting. His blows shuddered in byrnie and bone, shocks that slammed back into his own shoulders. Weapons lashed at him, to be stopped by shield or shorn across by sword. The hawk-scream of his blade sounded through wind and thunder. None could stand before him, and he led his men through the trolls and turned on the foe from the rear..."
Fascinating, no? Regardless, we're at the end. Skafloc kills all the trolls (along with Frede's new fiancé, because this book just can't let anything stay nice) and finally slays Valgard in noble combat. Oh wait, no he doesn't. What happens is Valgard kills Skafloc with the magic sword, then slips on his own blood and impales himself. The end. Fuck you.

To those who say I'm being harsh, I will admit that a lot of the above was embellished and over-simplified for humor's sake. This book is an attempt at the style of Norse mythology — gratuitous rape, murder, and incest being par for the course — that is, begrudgingly, fairly entertaining. And I've been led to believe that even Poul admitted towards the end of his career that he would not have written The Broken Sword again. From any other author, this book would be unremarkable. But from Mr. Anderson, who I've grown to respect greatly by virtue of his other offerings, I'm simply disappointed. The book is littered with plot holes (if both trolls and elves can't stand iron, daylight, or Christian prayer, why does the son of them have no such weaknesses?) and makes such baffling decisions with regards to plot and pacing that I was actually astonished to learn that it came after Three Hearts and Three Lions. I'm even more baffled that so many people seem to think this is a masterpiece of the genre, with Michael Moorcock claiming it better than Tolkien. My honest opinion? I don't feel I've gained anything by reading it, and I don't intend to read it again.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs

Prospero and Roger Bacon, the two main characters in a story that seems crammed with wizards, were wizards. They knew seven different runic alphabets, could sing the Dies Irae all the way through to the end, and knew what a Hand of Glory was. Though they could not make the moon eclipse, they could do some very striking lightning effects and make it look as though it might rain if you waited long enough.

We're taking a break from Poul Anderson for a moment, in part because the third book on the list (The Broken Sword, coming up next) hasn't arrived yet and in part because I really got a hankering to read about magic users. Personally, I like my mages like I like my scotch: well aged and made using a process I don't fully understand. Robes and floppy hats are a must. Wands are large, twisted and gnarled, none of these twigs maneuvered by a flick of the wrist. In my home campaigns, magic is a dangerous, unpredictable force of nature wielded only by those crazy and wise enough to have survived years of training, and I can respect a book that treats its power as dangerous both to the target and the caster.

I'm not going to get too deep into the story of this book, because I'm not quite sure I understand it myself. Perhaps that was Bellairs' intention. I will go so far as to say that the premise is fairly simple: two wizards find out they have been placed under a curse, and set off to defeat the evil sorcerer. Me losing the plot, therefore, had less to do with the complexity as it did with the absolute weirdness of the world it's set in. Our main characters face every challenge — from raising the dead to dispelling illusory towns to checking in on a Red Sox game — with the sort of bored nonchalance that you or I would do if asked to describe our daily routine. This position is understandable when you realize that we're talking about men with decades of magical training, but Bellairs is unabashed about not holding our hand when it comes to the world he's built. In fact, so much of the book is spent referencing things that are never explained that it sometimes gave me the feeling of reading the middle book in a series. Time is meaningless, as the aforementioned Red Sox game indicates, as is space: the book is set in the South Kingdom, a fictional land of 7 kings and countless duchies that is also adjacent to France and the island of England, which is besieged by either pirates or Mongols, I forgot which. This book is absolutely bonkers, but in a good way, like a half-remembered fairy tail from one's childhood.

It doesn't help that he first paragraph of the prologue, quoted above, does not lie with regards to the number of wizards in this book. Nearly every person our heroes reference or encounter is a mage of some sort — off the top of my head, I count 6 out of 10 named characters as possessing some magic ability — but for those expecting high-flying, world-rending magical battles, I recommend you look elsewhere. Magic in this world is more subtle, reflected early on in a hilarious passage wherein Prospero recites a spell that rattles all the pans in the house and causes all the clocks to chime: a spell, Prospero laments, that he has never found a use for. It makes sense, in a strange way: in a world where magic is as much a force of nature as gravity, it stands to reason that the vast majority of spells would be utterly useless, or at least incredibly specific in their use. I've always thought that a system like that, wherein magic users don't gain new spells but instead learn how to better control and manipulate the spells they already know, would be really interesting in play. Sort of like sympathy in The Kingkiller Chronicles, the test of a master wizard would be not in how much magic they can wield, but in how much they can wield safely.

The Face in the Frost is, ultimately, an exercise in world-building. It takes a few ideas and stretches them to their breaking point, and for that I have to begrudgingly respect it. I've never been one to demand strict explanations from my fantasy works (call it Gygaxian Naturalism if you will), because I find they often don't affect the plot to any significant degree. Think of it like Star Trek: you [TECH] the [TECH] to stop the [TECH] from overloading, and as long as you don't go into any further detail, the suspension of disbelief is never broken. The OSR, and rules-light games in general, seem to have embraced this philosophy in regards to world-building and dungeoncraft, and I for one believe it makes for a better game in the long run. To that end, I have to say that Bellairs book, for all its eccentricities and inscrutability, is as monumental as so many other sci-fi/fantasy authors have said it is.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Three Hearts and Three Lions, by Poul Anderson

The fantasy classic of a modern warrior, an ancient realm of sorcery, and a sword that sang of slaying...

There are few things in this world that pique my attention like retellings of classic stories that hide their plagiarism until the final act. I'll admit that such writing is invariably a double-or-nothing gambit: if the reader enjoyed the original work, the reveal will invariably send them back through the book gleefully looking for the parallels they initially missed. However, if either story falls flat, the reader will be left with nothing but a bitter taste and the feeling of having wasted their time. Risky business for a writer, but to quote my favorite Dark Souls NPC, "what is courage, without a dash of recklessness?"

Three Hearts and Three Lions (hereby abbreviated to THTL, or Thittle) follows the exploits of one Holger Carlson: engineer, Carlsberg beer enthusiast, and reluctant lothario. On the outset of WWII Holger joins the Danish resistance, and it is here that, during a daring escape to America, he is shot by Nazi's and awakens in a strange fantasy realm. From here on, the story becomes unabashed wish-fulfillment of the most enjoyable sort. Holger is preternaturally good at nearly everything he does: his wit and cleverness are unparalleled, women of all race and sort flock to him, and within the span of several weeks he becomes a literal hero of legend. This all makes sense within the context of the story,of course, because Poul Anderson is not a hack. That being said, good luck trying to recommend this book to a friend without them assuming you're trying to push air terminal schlock on them.

In fact, this goes back to the problem I spoke of earlier: because this book keeps its cards down until the final few pages, I imagine a lot of people found it derivative and quit early in. At its core, Thittle is a modern take on a chivalric chanson de geste, but someone unfamiliar with the concept of the heroic cycle (or someone whose literary world was saturated with invincible heroes, as I imagine mine will soon be) might not pick up on the often-subtle self-deprecation that Anderson weaves into the character of Holger. While the object of no less than 3 supremely beautiful women's affection, Holger is a jealous and bumbling man; though he is an unparalleled combatant, he begins most fights on his ass, having been taken by surprise. The big reveal becomes much less so when you realize that the book itself has alluded to it a thousand times throughout the story: Holger is not the hero, he's merely playing all the hero's parts.

In short, you should read this book. Hell, everyone with an interest in RPG's should read it, if only to see where the hobby got some of its best inspiration from. Holger is a dyed-in-the-wool paladin, complete with lay on hands and turn undead (well, turn fairies). The issue of alignment, a long standing source of confusion for gamers, is clarified expertly here: Law is the kingdom of Man, Chaos is the forces of those who oppose Man's dominion, and Neutral is anything too dumb or apathetic to take a side. It's right there, clear as crystal, and yet we as a hobby have had to endure over 35 years of chaotic neutral murderhobos and lawful stupid paladins. There are some really good ideas in this book, ideas I fully intend to steal for my future homebrew campaigns. If the rest of the books on this list are as influential as this, I can see why Gary was as inspired as he was to create D&D.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The High Crusade, by Poul Anderson

The aliens had expected a simple mission of shock & awe. Too bad they ran into free Englishmen...

Wow. What a way to start the list. I knew getting into this that pretty much none of what I would be reading could be considered high literature, but this caught me off guard. Medieval knights conquering a race of aliens? Well, lets check our preconceptions at the door and dive right in.

The High Crusade begins as a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, as an unnamed space captain reads through an English friar's account of an encounter that happened over 1,000 years ago. The friar, Brother Parvus, tells of the small town of Ansby, year of our lord 1345, after a strange metal craft descends from the skies. A local baron, Sir Roger de Tourneville, on his way to fight the French, investigates the ship. After a brief encounter with the inhabitants (a blue-skinned, stout people named the Wersgorix) in which Sir Roger is victorious, the one remaining alien is brought back to the abbey for questioning.

After some trial and error they find a way of communicating with the creature, named Branithar. Discovering that the Wersgorix are a conquering race, and that their ship is outfitted for war, Sir Roger decides that Branithar's ship can be of use against those damn Franks. After piling everyone in town into the ship, however, Branithar's treachery comes to a head as he activates the autopilot to return to his home. How will our heroes fare against the awesome technological might of this mysterious civilization from beyond the stars?

As it turns out, remarkably well. Over the next 200 pages -- this story starts very quickly, and never lets up -- the noble Englishmen conquer several military establishments, then the world they landed on, and finally form a confederation of outsider alien races to take the battle to the Wersgorix themselves. Anderson spares no expense in describing the various combat scenes, and I thought them all both captivating and believable. The inter-species politics, likewise, are well-written, and I found myself on more than one instance secretly wondering how Sir Roger was going to talk his way out of his latest situation. And make no mistake: Sir Roger is a bullshit artist of the highest pedigree. His entire plan hinges on convincing several alien races that the Earth (which he simply calls "England") is a powerful, spacefaring collection of warlords. Which, now that I think about it, isn't too far from the truth, but had I been GM'ing these encounters I'd have set a pretty high DC on that check.

All together, this book and its corresponding short story ("Quest," easily found online) succeed at something that comparatively few things do: telling an original, entertaining story without overstaying their welcome. It helps that Anderson is a legitimately funny man, and manages to weave humor and action effortlessly in each scene. The High Crusade got some real chuckles out of me, owing mostly to the fish-out-of-water nature of the characters and narration.

So, story aside, the question then becomes: what, if anything, led Gygax to recommend this book to readers, and what can players and GM's learn from it? To be honest, I can't seem to find any real parallels between the story and the game, although the module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (in which the adventurers explore the remains of a downed spaceship) could have been influenced by it. On the player side, some people have said that the paladin class, a character driven by religious fervor and determined to smite evil, doesn't jive with the "pulp fantasy" feel that D&D encompasses. While I'm led to believe that the paladin was more heavily influenced by the main character in Poul Anderson's other book, Three Hearts and Three Lions (the next on my list), there are many characters in this book who call upon God and the saints for courage in battle. I've no small love for the paladin class myself, so maybe my next character will start every charge with a deafening shout of "For God and King Edward!" as Sir Roger so valiantly does.