Monday, December 15, 2014

#12B - California Gaming Part II - LSD&D with Erol Otus #RPGaDAY

Tracing the California Gaming Scene, part II: Erol Otus in NorCal

Erol Otus was one of the "second wave" of TSR artists hired in the mid 70s after the "first wave" of David A. Trampier, Tom Wham, David C. Sutherland and the like. His second wave contemporaries include Jeff Dee, David S. "Diesel" LaForce, Bill Willingham and later, Jim Roslof. Otus' trippy, semi-surreal illustrations brought a macabre yet whimsical, gonzo touch to TSR's publications: D&D, AD&D, Gamma World, Dragon magazine, Boot Hill, Top Secret and more.  He became a fan favorite and his distinct style made his illustrations easy to pick out from the rest.

In about 1983, he left TSR and the RPG industry. Nowadays, he creates art for several RPG companies looking for the classic-era look for their products. It is easy to forget that we didn't see any new weird fantasy RPG art come from him for a long, long time after leaving TSR.

1999 San Francisco: Return to the Art on the Borderlands

Twilight of the Idols (1999)

"LSD&D" succinctly describes Otus' trippy D&D art style, a term I first saw when I contacted Allan Horrocks of San Francisco's Aquarius Records back in 1998. "LSD&D" doesn't mean that Otus uses mind-altering substances to create his art (he doesn't (1)), just that his art mirrors the unrealities that such substances unveil.

Otus illustrated an album cover for SF band The Lord Weird Slough Feg (above) with an image that could've been pulled from a 1980 D&D module. Fellow Otus fan Horrocks, friend of the lead singer, interviewed Otus for his music 'zine, Hoe (now, unfortunately, lost to time).

Down Among the Deadmen (2000)
Slough Feg hired Otus to illustrate their next album the next year (above). Clearly, the members of the band are gamers and if their choice of artist doesn't give it away, you should check out their 2003 concept album Traveller based on the RPG of the same name.

This was the first time fans like Horrocks and me saw Otus work in his classic fantasy D&D style in over 15 years. Remember, this was long before Erol's covers for the DCC adventures The Mysterious Tower and The Haunted Lighthouse and the Hackmaster module Descent into the NetherDeep. By 1999, some D&D fans had even started asking the quesion, "Whatever happened to Erol Otus?"

Humna Humna alien graphics for Starflight 2 (1989)

Humna Humna alien illustration for Starflight 2 (1989)
After Otus left TSR, started his continuing career creating game designs, illustrations, graphics and music for video games. His refined his self-taught art skill first by studying painting at UC Berkeley and later studying illustration at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Otus joined his childhood friend Paul Reiche III at the Toys for Bob studio in the early 1990s and still works there today.

My question is: how did this gonzo gamer from Berkeley become an influential artist at such a pivotal time in TSR's history?

1976 Richmond: We'll always have Arduin

The Arduin Grimoire (1977) cover illustrated by Erol Otus
As a young gamer, Otus played miniature battles with his friends using the Chainmail rules. They soon moved on to D&D when a friend bought the original three booklet set (2). Sometime probably in early 1976, Otus began gaming with Dave Hargrave in his already long-running Arduin campaign. Hargrave hired Otus to illustrate his upcoming series of The Arduin Grimoire rulebooks to be published by Chaosium.

The Chaosium deal fell through, as I explored in a previous post, and Hargrave was forced to self-publish The Arduin Grimoire and its two sequels, Welcome to Skull Tower and The Runes of Doom (all three illustrated by Otus). The change of plans delayed publication of the first book until 1977 and the sequels until 1978.

In the forward to The Arduin Grimoire, Hargrave gives this odd note:
Special Note: the artwork for this supplement is the sole doing of one fine young artist: Errol [sic] Otus. I'm only glad I'll be able to say in ten years from now, "I knew him when..." (3)
Did Hargrave have mystical foreknowledge about Otus' future career, even if he couldn't spell his name? Not really. By 1977, Otus was already a published artist with TSR.

1976 Lake Geneva: The Dragon Reaches Westward

The Remhoraz from The Dragon #2
Otus began submitted illustrations to TSR soon after he started playing D&D. TSR Periodicals finally purchased a piece for the August, 1976 issue of The Dragon. Otus describes this in a 2009 interview with

One the drawings was of a blue and fuchsia winged worm in an icy landscape, this was published in The Dragon #2 with stats by Gary Gygax as “The Remorhaz.” This was my first published color piece.
The Anhkheg from The Dragon #5

Three issues later, TSR Periodicals published Otus' creature write-up and illustration for the Anhkheg, now an iconic D&D creature (and now spelled Ankheg). Gary Gygax gives Otus credit for both the above creations in the 1st ed. Monster Manual(4). Not long after, TSR needed a new staff artist (possibly because Dave Trampier had just quit(5)) and hired Otus. He moved out to Lake Geneva.

There appears to be some trouble for Dave Hargrave's Arduin after this. About the time The Arduin Grimoire was in its second printing, TSR sent him a cease & desist letter to remove any references to D&D from his books. This may include Erol Otus' art as it starts to disappear from later Arduin printings.

1979 Berkeley: The Booty, the Beasts and the Necromican

Fantasy Art Enterprises logo

Erol Otus still had an effect on California Gaming. In 1979, he teamed up with his buddy Paul Reiche III (who was also being hired by TSR around this time) and Mathias Genser to create a couple of unlicensed fantasy RPG supplements. They founded their tiny publishing company, Fantasy Art Enterprises, in the "hills north of the UC Berkeley campus."(6)

Booty and the Beasts (1979) cover art by Erol Otus

Booty and the Beasts autographed by Otus to Mike, the lead singer of Slough Feg
Otus illustrated all products and contributed numerous designs. Reiche and Genser wrote the rest. They created a compilation of new monsters and treasures (Booty and the Beasts), a book of 132 new spells (The Necromican  (not The Necronomicon)), a set of Geomorphic Mini Dungeon Modules and a set of New Magical and Technological Item Cards. The last item notably includes "HANDY DANDY RANDOM MAGICAL ITEM GENERATION TABLES" with which the user may create an item that deals 3d20 points of damage or a cursed item that slays its user, "permanently."
The Necromican (1979)

Their books were saddle stapled, softcover, roughly digest-sized (more like trade paperback sized 8 1/2" x 5 1/2") booklets and other supplements were printed on letter-sized (8 1/2" x 11") cardstock. This was the de rigueur RPG supplement publishing style at the time, matching the original D&D booklets (1974) and early TSR supplements Dungeon Geomorphs (1976) and Outdoor Geomorphs (1977). One advantage is that the rulebooks and other supplements (once the cards or geomorphs were cut apart) easily fit inside the original D&D box
New Magical and Technological Item Cards (1979) art by Erol Otus
Other Califonia gamers published in this same "digest booklets + cut-apart cardstock" style. Dave Hargrave's The Arduin Grimoire booklets and various Arduin Cards supplements (1977 Grimoire Games) are in this style. Clint Bigglestone, Terry Jackson (Steve Perrin's fellow DunDraCon organizers) and Kate Wadey published Artifact Cards (1979) and both Dungeon and City Geomorphs (1978) under the DunDraCon, Inc. name. Bigglestone's other company, Fantasy Factory, produced similar card-based accessories in 1978. The Playing Board of Albany published the digest-sized The Spellcaster's Bible (1979) (see Conclusions, below). Matthew Walley of Chula Vista self-published his own Wizard's Aide (1977) booklet of the same mold.
Geomorphic Mini Dungeon Modules (1979) art by Erol Otus

Fantasy Art Enterprises' supplements tended to be of better quality than their competitors. Erol Otus' earliest illustrations were still better (or at least, more interesting) than most other amateur artists in the industry at that time. Otus' geomorphs are regarded as better than Bigglestone's or even TSR's offerings. Otus teamed up with legendary-designer-to-be Paul Reiche III (future co-creator of GW1: Legion of Gold, Mail Order Monsters, Archon, Star Control and even the Skylanders franchise) and with an ability to create a legible book (a rarity in that era) made for a winning combination.
The Neila, not H. R. Giger's Alien, from Booty and the Beasts, art by Erol Otus

And their stuff was weird, like, gonzo, out-there, bizarro weird. It was weirder that the poster child of gonzo gaming, The Arduin Trilogy.(7) Like Arduin, there is a mix of sci-fi and fantasy equipment and creatures, including aliens, robots, pulses rifles, ornithopters, particle beam weapons, whirly chairs (personal mini-helicopters) and more.
Vacucumber, victim and pile of treasure/excrement, from Booty and the Beasts, art by Erol Otus

Also, there are plenty of puns, such as the "Vacucumber" seen above, "a gargantuan sea cucumber with one addition: it has 11 huge tentacles... [with which] it combs the ocean around it for bits of food (sailors, scubadivers [sic], large fish, etc.) to suck down into its immense stomach."
Drillbot, from Booty and the Beasts, art by Erol Otus

It was weird, but not abstract. Booty and the Beasts includes a 20-location hit location system used for certain weapons/creature attacks (such as the Drillbot, above). The monsters stats tended to be simple (no alignment or treasure) but always include a Dexterity rating (sometimes as high as 25!), probably due to the dexterity-based initiative rules in the Holmes Basic D&D set (1977) or The Arduin Grimoire.

Whatever happened to Fantasy Art Enterprises? Otus and Reiche were hired by TSR, who would frown on employees making their own products to compete with them. Eventually, all three members of the company (Genser included) moved into the video game industry. FAE produced no more products after 1979.


ARDUIN WAS EVERYWHERE. Every time I research a 1970s Californian RPG supplement, publisher or game designer, Dave Hargrave is affiliated somehow. Even my copy of The Spellcaster's Bible by The Playing Board has a notice stamped (not printed) to the inside front cover stating, "Some of the material within this book is inspired by and based upon material from "Adruin Trilogy" and other works by David A. Hargrave©." My planned Arduin post will require further research.
Left, Termite People from Booty and the Beast (1979). Right, Buggems (a.k.a. "Termite Men") from GW1: Legion of Gold (1981). All art by Erol Otus.

TSR got a healthy dose of gonzo where it needed it most - Gamma World. Somebody at TSR wisely put both Reiche and Otus together on Gamma World (1978), Jim Ward's new post-apocalypic, science fantasy RPG and pseudo-sequel to Metamorphosis Alpha (1976). Reiche and Otus were able to reuse some old designs, perfect for this game, as seen by the Termite People and Termite Men, above.

The lasting power of friendship? There is something to be said for childhood friends who can work together through the decades. I met both Reiche and Otus in 2011 and they were both warm, receptive guys who were a pleasure to speak with. That will be the subject of another post, dealing with a certain artifact in my possession.

1: "When people ask me if I was on drugs when I created, then I must inform that I never was." Rients, Jeff, "Interview with Erol Otus," Fight On! no. 8 (2010): 78.
2: "We had tried a bit of battling with the Chainmail rules, then a friend bought the boxed set of three pamphlets." Ibid., 77.
3: Hargrave, David, The Arduin Grimoire (Richmond: David Hargrave, 1977),  2.
4: "Erol Otus for doing the preliminary work and illustrations of the anhkheg and remorhaz which appeared in The Dragon." Gygax, Gary, Monster Manual (Lake Geneva: TSR Games, 1977), 4.
5: "My favorite D&D artist is Trampier, though he had just quit before I got there. In fact I believe that was the reason they were looking for an artist at the time." Rients, Jeff, 77.
6: Appelcline, Shannon, Designers & Dragons: The '70s (Silver Spring: Evil Hat Productions, LLC, 2014), 322.
7: "Most consider Fantasy Art's books even more gonzo than Arduin itself." Ibid.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

#12A - California Gaming Part I - Steve Perrin's Conventions - #RPGaDAY

Tracing the California Gaming Scene, part I: Steve Perrin in NorCal

I still read a number of old RPG supplements in my study of the early history of gaming. While many game historians study the origins of the hobby that spread from the wargame groups of the Great Lakes region (specifically, Lake Geneva and the Twin Cities of St. Paul/Minneapolis), I focus on the gaming scene that developed in my home state of California. West coast gamers created their own "flavors" of playing. I'll cover these in several posts and see how they wrap back into the official D&D game.

1976 Berkeley: Dundracon I, An Unconventional Convention for Perrin's Conventions


DunDraCon (Dungeons & Dragons Convention) was first held in Berkeley's Claremont Hotel in March, 1976. There, the public first encountered The Perrin Conventions, a set of D&D house rules handed out by organizer Steve Perrin (who was also a founding member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA)).
Location of the first Dundracon

The Perrin Conventions included details for D&D combat, like: breaking up a round into phases, adding a "dexterity roll" to do other actions, knocking down opponents and two-weapon fighting. These were likely inspired by Perrin and his friends' experiences in mock battles with the SCA. This initial set of rules modified the magic system and included Dave Hargrave's critical hit rules(1).

 Perrin's own Dundracon bio admits that he didn't design all the rules, he was just the guy who typed them up for distribution. The rules received some notice from the convention attendants, but this was a limited group of mostly gamers from the Bay Area and surrounding regions. Still, it served as an early mutation on the original D&D rules from 1974 and showed that some players were interested in a less abstract combat system.
Steve Perrin and his wife Luise in SCA regalia at the 1968 Worldcon (source)

Steve Perrin wanted to become more involved in the nascent RPG industry and teamed up with fellow gamer Jeff Pimper to edit together a book of monsters, complete with stats for D&D and two newer games: Tunnels & Trolls (T&T, first published 1975) and Arduin (first published as The Arduin Grimoire in 1977).

In addition to their own creations, Perrin and Pimper compiled creature designs mostly from APA zines (The Wild Hunt and Alarums & Excursions (A&E)) or from local gamers. The designers included Dave Hargrave (local gamer and creator of The Arduin Grimoire), Clint Bigglestone (Dundracon organizer), Sean Cleary (A&E and Wild Hunt), Hilda Hannifen ("The Ignoble Mockturtle" A&E zine), Roger Harvey (later, an illustrator for Judges Guild), Steve Henderson (another SCA and Dundracon founder), Dan Pierson and Glenn Blacow (both from Wild Hunt), and others.

Jennell Jaquays (using the name Paul) contributed a few designs from her RPG fanzine, The Dungeoneer (about one year later, this became a Judges Guild magazine). Jaquays went on to a prolific career designing and illustrating RPGs, authored classic modules like Dark Tower, became one of the first tabletop designers in video game design (at Coleco). (12-11-14 edited for clarity)

They had more than one book's worth of material, so the editors decided to only print monsters that were never published before. Thus some of Jaquays and Hargrave's designs were left on the cutting room floor with some others from A&E. The monsters were given only D&D stats, though each entry included ranges for "IQ" (Intelligence) and Dexterity. They just needed a publisher.

1977 Albany: Chaosium publishes a Monster Manual or two before TSR

Greg Stafford founded his company The Chaosium in 1975 to publish White Bear & Red Moon (later reprinted as Dragon Pass), the first board game set in his fantasy world of Glorantha. Stafford was an D&D player and maybe purchased the first D&D set ever sold. Perrin, Pimper and Stafford met through mutual friends and when Stafford heard about their project, he was eager to have Chaosium publish it and get into the RPG supplement business.

Stafford was trying and failing to get a Gloranthan RPG off the ground. First, Dave Hargrave tried to make a Gloranthan version of his Arduin system and Chaosium had planned to publish The Arduin Grimoire; Chaosium house magazine Wyrm's Footnotes issue 2 notes: "THE ARDUIN GRIMOIRE will be the first of our new products." A few months later, the very next issue states: "When we finally received the manuscript to ARDUIN GRIMOIRE, it was not quite what we had hoped for... we have decided not to publish the rules." Hargrave had to self-publish The Arduin Grimoire (more on this later).  It is said that Chaosium felt Arduin was too derivative of D&D; issue 3 doesn't say this directly, but it does refer to Arduin as, "a supplement, if you will," and highly recommend it for, "experienced dungeoneers," (i.e. anyone who already owns the D&D rules?).

Stafford's design team of Hendrik Jan Pfeiffer, Art Turney and Ray Turney worked on the Gloranthan RPG as a D&D supplement but Stafford's world was unique and needed its own unique game system. Impressed with The Perrin Conventions, Stafford asked Perrin to "look in and see if he could help the situation" on July 4, 1976(2).

Perrin came up with revolutionary changes to the new system, like doing away with experience points, having no character classes and flat hit point values that don't increase linearly with experience. Slowly, Perrin was put in charge of the project. Only Ray Turney stayed on from the original design team and Perrin added fellow SCA members Steve Henderson and Warren James. Stafford was very pleased with the team's work on his fantasy world.

Chaosium published Perrin and Pimper's All the World's Monsters sometime in 1977, getting to market before TSR's official monster collection, the AD&D Monster Manual (released in December, 1977).
All the All the Worlds' Monsters, volumes 1-3
All the World's Monsters vol. 2 followed that same year and maybe hit the shelves before Monster Manual as well. In addition to adding in cut designs by Hargrave, Jaquays and others, the second volume included T&T conversion notes (by Ken St. Andre) and a refined, revised set of The Perrin Conventions (dated November, 1977) that focused mostly on D&D combat, less Hargrave's critical hit rules. Now, the house rules were available to a much wider audience.
RuneQuest, 1st printing cover. Illustration by Luise Perrin
In 1978, the new Perrin-led Gloranthan game RuneQuest was born and, with it, Chaosium's in-house Basic Role-Playing (BRP) system. This BRP system was also modified into Worlds of Wonder, Call of Cthulhu, Elfquest, Stormbringer/Elric!, Hawkmoon, Pendragon, Superworld, Ringworld and many other games. This was also one of the earliest "universal" RPG systems (though many of the different games were only barely compatible).

The combat system was quite detailed, with parries, fumbles, critical hits, hit locations and more. RuneQuest the first totally skill-based RPG without classes (Traveller (1977) had character skills but no way to improve them) where the player could develop their character as they desire. For some years, RuneQuest provided competition to TSR's sales and Chaosium is one of the few game companies from that era still in business today.

12-11-14 Update: 
I'll let Dr. J. Eric Holmes, editor of the first D&D Basic Set and a SoCal gamer, describe RuneQuest's combat system as he compared it to D&D in 1981.
The combat system requires a little more bookkeeping than D&D and is, therefore, more "realistic."(3)
Could you elaborate, Dr. Holmes?
Combat rules are extremely complex. There are die rolls for each hit and its parry, for the location of the hit as well as for the extent of the damage. There are special scores which indicate a "critical hit" or a "fumble," and then another roll to see what the nature of the critical injury or fumble might be. Special training will increase the character's ability to hit with a particular weapon. Each weapon must, realistically, be trained for individually, at a cost of silver lunars (the coin of the realm) or maybe by doing some more die rolls to see if your character has learned from experience after a successful fight.
 All of this takes a lot of bookkeeping, die rolling and calculation with every blow struck. This is not necessarily a criticism. A great deal of any game is spent in the calculations and die rolling involved in combat... A pocket calculator might come in handy. Many game players revel in these complicated calculations. The more complex the computations of each weapon blow, the better they like it.(4) (emphasis mine)
So, Holmes found players in Southern California that, like many Northern California counterparts, preferred a complex, "realistic" combat system. Holmes did not share that opinion, himself:
What are the advantages of this game over its (inevitable comparison) competitor, Dungeons & Dragons? In terms of basic game mechanics, character generation, experience, combat, magic, I would say none. Some fans of the game would cry that it has greater "realism," but I think these are minor differences.(5)

Holmes appears to like the RuneQuest game and speaks highly of its clarity in writing, numerous examples and the novelty of a game manual with an index (something he wished for his own Basic D&D(6)). Besides the combat complexities, his main complaint was he didn't feel the RPG captured the "feel" of Glorantha (as seen in White Bear & Red Moon). It missed out on the "eerie feeling of reality to his imaginary world(7)" that Greg Stafford brings when he writes games, himself.

Note: Holmes probably played 2nd edition RuneQuest as opposed to 1st edition. As far as I understand, the differences between the two are minimal.
End 12-11-14 Update 



First of all, RuneQuest did not evolve directly from The Perrin Conventions. It may seem obvious, but the internet is full of quotes like, "Runequest's rules were made from The Perrin Conventions," or, "RuneQuest is a codification and development of the Perrin Conventions." (quotes slightly obfuscated) These statements imply that RuneQuest is nothing more than a D&D variant, but that simply isn't the case. There are similarities between the two, but no more so than with countless other systems. If Chaosium just wanted a D&D variant, they would've used Pfeiffer, Turney and Turney's design and gone to market with it back in 1977.

Second, SCA members and wargamers play differently. D&D evolved from wargame rules by members of the Castle & Crusade Society, founded by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz as a chapter of the International Federation of Wargaming, itself founded by Gygax, Scott Duncan and Bill Speer in 1966. These gamers got together around a sand table (usually in Gary's basement) ordering miniature armies into mock battles. Abstract combat was simple and made sense.

Conversely, the SCA was founded in Berkeley in 1966 with armored members going outside to fight mock battles with padded weapons. Their point of view was not that of a military commander with a bird's eye view of battle, but as a common soldier who has felt the heft of their shield and the sting of a (padded) sword. Combat seems abstract if you aren't the one fighting. The reenactors saw something missing in abstract combat and created their own rules and games to fill those gaps.

Maybe it all comes down to the weather. In sunny California, you can go outside and play practically all year round. When it gets cold up North, it is best to hunker down next near the heater and go to war with some good friends around the sand table.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

#11 Weirdest RPG Owned - The All Australian Role Playing Game #RPGaDAY

While riding a hotel shuttle from the San Diego Comic-Con back in the early 90s, I overheard a young man excitedly describe a game to his friends in the seat behind him. The player characters are cartoon-like alien tourists who go on hunting safaris on backwoods planets, tracking and killing the low intelligence native species there. One particular backwoods planet is called "Earth" though, due to a translation error, the alien hunters call it "Dirt." There, the low intelligence native population of "Whoomens" are fighting back, retaliating with all manner of absurd ordnance. Also, the game is entirely focused on Australia, written by Australians, played by Australians, published in Australia and features an Australia-centric view of Earth on the front cover.

I continued to my hotel, probably to play some AD&D with a cadre of friends I shared a room with (the hotels were expensive even back then).

But the image of that Australia-centric view of Earth never left my mind.


Some 15 years later I found Hunter Planet.
Target: Dirt.
The game is every bit as bizarre and Australia-centric as my memory of that overheard description. Imagine a cross between Paranoia, Predator, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Toon. The alien player characters are working class schlubs who saved up their vacation time for an exotic safari to shoot easy game and bring home a nice trophy for the mantlepiece (or alien equivalent).
What they find on our home of Dirt is a Whoomen population ravaged by constant hot wars and cold wars where most citizens have access to arsenals that outclass the tourists' laser rifles and automatic crossbows. The Hunters become the hunted. The powerful Whoomen weapons are also more likely to backfire, so a tourist who steals a Whoomen rocket launcher is bound to end his vacation in a predictably tragic, yet hilarious, manner.
Sample Character
The game is run with several different players in the roles of the Hunters and one player as CM (which may stand for Control Man, Condition Modifier, Chocolate Milk, Carbon Monoxide, Crazy Man, Chance Master or Certified Maniac). The players create their characters by rolling 1d10 for each characteristic (Strength, Dexterity, etc.) in order with two rerolls allowed. Luck is rolled on 1d6 and is rerolled at the start of each game.

At this point, we are directed to refer to footnote 87. Spoiler alert: there is no footnote 87.

Players roll 1d10+10 to determine Hit Points, a term which is not explained. It is assumed the players role-play enough to know what any D&D-derived terms mean.

The players now select their equipment and weapons, but no more than three grenades and no Alpha-Beta Plus Gamma Radiation Neutron Destructo Particle Accelerator Beams. Otherwise, the players are free to choose what gear they wish... with the realization that the natives they encounter will probably have something equally egregious. If the CM determines that your character is carrying too much weight (footnote 35 says you probably are), he will probably strike any excess off the character sheet. Example equipment is listed, such as Light Sword, Tangle Grenades, Dehydrated Water, 10 Sided Die, Anti Gravity Belt and "Whammo" Door Charges.

The CM then describes the scenario the Hunters find themselves in on their one-week tour of Dirt before they are beamed back up to the Hunting Tours Incorporated ship. They probably won't survive.
Note: this is not Emperor I. M. Wunndafull. I think this is his secretary.
My biggest surprise when I picked up Hunter Planet was the realization that this was the second game I owned by designer David Bruggeman. The first was an obscure set of miniature wargaming rules titled WWII Book of Armaments that I picked up somewhere on a whim. The rules are good, but the game is SO obscure that I can't find a good web link for it (EDIT: I created a page about the game HERE). It was published by The Australian Games Group (TAGG) best known for publishing Lace & Steel, the swashbuckling fantasy RPG with innovative card-based mechanics and illustrations by Donna Barr (see Ms. Barr's Boinger and Zereth at the bottom of this post).

The Book of Armaments includes a photo of the designer:
This is Emperor I. M. Wunndafull
Bruggeman devotes four full pages of the 35-page Hunter Planet to his "Guide to Better CMing (or The Dos and Don'ts of CMing)." Some pieces of advice are obvious but many are quite good. I summarized several of them as follows:

Read widely (An extensive general knowledge is an important benefit to all CMs)
Prepare a scenario (Prepare a situation where the Hunters will find themselves)
Concoct various surprises (Ammunition wasting creatures, traps and tricks, strange inhabitants, etc.)
Roll dice frequently (This puts the players on edge and causes them to react to non-existent dangers)
Build tension and action up to the beam up time (The mothership checks in with the Hunters once every four hours. They may be beamed up at this time, but at no other time. Actually, they can request it at other times, but the request is ignored)
Ad lib frequently (Unexpected events create confusion, excitement and fun)
Inspire character conversations with non player characters (The CM gets to role play a more interesting character than a stupid Orc and gets to hear what the players call a logical, convincing argument)
Cheat (But cheat fairly)
Tell the Hunters only what they would know as aliens (Which isn't much)
Ensure that everything in the game has both a good and bad side (Called the "Bad News Factor," all weapons and equipment have at least a 5% chance of something horrible happening when used)
React to players comments (Once a player says something, even in jest, it will be acted upon by the CM)
Be sadistic (The adventure should be dangerous, not a suicide trip)
Play strictly to the rules (What rules?)
Give away benefits easily (Benefits must be earned)
Hide behind the CMs screen (The screen is designed to hide the CM's game information, not the CM himself)
Forget (The CM should remember when a player forgets to reload his weapon and tries to shoot, etc.)
Land the Hunters in the middle of nowhere with nothing to destroy (Where they land may "appear" to be peaceful but it should be nothing of the sort)

Monday, August 25, 2014

#10 Favorite Game Fiction - The Maze of Peril #RPGaDAY

Let's face it, most game fiction isn't very good.

Many examples of game fiction tend to break the rules of the game's universe or adhere too closely to the game's format and just end up with mediocre stories. Not every good game designer is a good fiction writer (but many think they are). They often get tangled up in serious, epic, wanna-be Lord of the Rings, everything-depends-on-us quests to save the world and miss out on the fun of adventure gaming. To belabor the famous Joker quote, "Why so serious?"

I've read some of the earliest game fiction novels ever printed. Veteran author Andre Norton's Quag Keep (1978) is notable as a historical, early peek into Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk/The Great Kingdom setting. The sequel, Return to Quag Keep, loses the Greyhawk setting and the small amount of charm the original held.

The oldest game novel I've found is War-Gamers' World (1978) by Hugh Walker (pen name for Hubert Stra├čl). It was first published in German as Reiter der Finsternis (Rider of Darkness) in 1975 and is the first book of the Magira series. It is based on the German fantasy wargame/proto-RPG hybrid Armageddon developed by the gaming group FOLLOW in 1966. Since that time, the setting spawned several RPGs. This first novel opens with a player getting sucked into the game's fantasy world. There are several references to seeing the world as interconnected hexagons. Not recommended except as another historical oddity.

I give a hearty recommendation for my favorite piece of game fiction: The Maze of Peril, a short novel written by the original Basic D&D rules editor, Dr. John Eric Holmes.

SPOILER ALERT: They don't save the world
Contrary to the publisher's blurb. Our heroes don't try to save the world. Boinger the halfling and Zereth the elf are just out to make a buck without having to get a real job. They undertake adventures to make quick cash and live the life of Riley at the Green Dragon Tavern for a few months. When the gold runs thin and the landlord comes a knockin', they undertake another delve into the Underworld to relieve some nasty monsters of their glittering treasures.
Boinger, another party member and Zereth relieving some nasty monster of its glittering treasure (art by Jim Roslof from "The Sorcerer's Jewel")
It is so refreshing to read an adventure story without the gloom and doom of the ultimate destruction of everything good folk hold sacred due to the megalomaniacal plans of some evil Sauron look-alike dark lord. These are two good friends just struggling to get by and maybe, someday, hit it rich. Their camaraderie and their humor really comes through in Holmes' writing. In a good way, it reminds me of the early Star Wars comic books by Marvel. The galaxy was safe from the ultimate apocalypse weapon, the Death Star, and the raised stakes of The Empire Strikes Back hadn't come into play yet. Han, Luke, Leia and their friends were free to adventure and freewheel their way across the galaxy.

Bardan the dwarf's fate (as portrayed by Barely A. Dwarf in "Were-shark," an early version of The Maze of Peril's chapter 2 published as a stand-alone short story, art by Chris Holmes)

Nothing world-shattering is at stake; Boinger &co's quests are of a personal nature. During an early foray into the Underworld, one of the party fighters, Bardan the dwarf, perishes in combat. They bury his body in the cemetary but disturbingly find his grave exhumed and coffin empty a few days later. Boinger implores the party to return to the dungeon to thwart the revenge plans the evil-doers have for his friend's corpse.

The Maze of Peril adventures run the gamut from dungeon delve, urban adventures, bureaucratic red tape cutting, carousing, burglary, back to dungeon delve, Lovecraftian horror and even naval combat. Also, the book features one of the funniest uses of a petrification gaze that I would totally allow to happen if it comes up in a game.


Holmes had several short stories about Boinger, Zereth (a.k.a. Xoreth) and their fellow adventurers published in Dragon magazine and Alarums & Excursions APA-zine. It is no secret that these tales were based on Holmes' home D&D campaign; Boinger was the player character of Chris Holmes, Dr. Holmes' son and occasional illustrator. These stories give us a window into Dr. Holmes' campaign and even how he interpreted certain D&D rules.

One famously unclear rule regards magic-users and their restriction from using armor and swords. In the days of OD&D, even famous, accomplished gamers were unclear on the ruling* and many cried foul against the sword restriction (after all, Gandalf used a sword). What logical reason (besides gameplay balance) could there be for this restriction?

Holmes succinctly gives his reasoning in two sentences. On page 34 of The Maze of Peril, Zereth removes all metal from his body, washes up and puts on a wizard robe before casting a spell. He explains to a confused Boinger that he:

"Can't have iron touching the body anywhere; no iron, even nails in the boot heels. It drains the flow of force from the other world."
No further explanation is required. Boinger asks, "It does? How?" Zereth tells him to, "Keep quiet," and no more is said on the matter.

This prevents magic-users from even wearing leather armor (with iron buckles). Presumably, a wizard's dagger must be made of bronze, silver or another non-ferrous metal. This stems from old folklore about iron's protective properties against magical creatures and has become a modern trope. It fits with Tim Powers' piratey fantasy novel On Stranger Tides (HIGHLY recommended reading) where magic disappears from the world as iron spreads with the advances of western civilization. The faerie-folks' aversion to iron seen in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (also recommended) resonates as well.
Boinger vs. a one-armed troll (art by Chris Holmes from "Trollshead")
This leads to another rule: elves are combination fighters and magic-users and the OD&D rules state they "freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure" (Men & Magic, p. 8). How does that apply to spellcasting and armor/weapon use? Holmes gives another example with Zereth in the short story "Trollshead" in The Dragon magazine #31, p. 41:
"Zereth took off his sword belt and helmet and laid them on the ground... He lay flat on his belly and reached into an inner pocket of his linen tunic to produce a pinch of fine sand. This he tossed into the air, mumbling rapidly as he did so."
To switch from fighter to magic-user, Zereth removes his sword belt and helmet (the only iron on his body) before casting a sleep spell on some unexpecting half-orcs. This goes against his own "elves must decide" ruling in his Basic D&D manuscript that states that elves cannot change in the middle of an adventure. In later stories, such as "The Sorcerer's Jewel"** (Dragon #46), Zereth wears armor while casting spells. It is assumed that Holmes was playing AD&D by this time, which does allow for spellcasting, armored, multiclassed magic-users.

Another question arises: just what are the "dungeons" in the world of Dungeons & Dragons? Why is there a near-endless number of underground labyrinths filled with nasty creatures and fabulous treasures? Zereth ponders the titular maze in The Maze of Peril, p. 3:

"Somewhere beneath the surface of this ancient land the tunnels and corridors of some prehistoric race coiled and raveled, delved, and probed unimaginable depths into the core of the world... What race or races had built the original maze no one knew. It seemed in the opinions of the sages and magicians of the time, that there must have been many layers of dungeons and underworlds laid down, one atop the other, as the world crust was formed, so that now no one knew, or even guessed, how many levels it extended below the surface."

Here, in one (wordy) sentence is the justification for a world of dungeons. It explains just enough to give the game world some logic yet leaves plenty of mystery for players to discover in their journeys into the Underworld. Of course, the truth may be very different from what the sages and magicians assume as fact.

Gary Gygax first hinted at such an Underworld with the D series of modules starting in 1978 (about the time The Maze of Peril was written). Later D&D authors would call this subterranean realm the Underdark and give their own reasons for its existence.
Zereth and Boinger (art by Donna Barr from "In the Bag")

In Conclusion:

The Maze of Peril is my favorite piece of game fiction because it feels most like the D&D games I've played. Rarely did we adventure to save the kingdom/world/multiverse. We were a bunch of friends looking for some excitement and quick cash together. We'd hatch elaborate schemes, find ourselves in deep trouble, then put our heads together to make sure they didn't roll off our shoulders come the dawn. We were comrades, bonded in the face of danger, celebrating each success until wanderlust crept back into our hearts and we were off on another wild quest.

Those are good times, and so is this book.


Watch for Fight On! magazine issue #15 dedicated to J. E. Holmes coming soon! Read my heavily researched character write-ups for Boinger, Zereth and their "pal" Murray the Mage, along with guidelines for iron-restricted spellcasting, in my article, "Holmes Town Heroes."

The 1000 copy print run of The Maze of Peril is getting harder to find, but still available. Check out Holmes' short stories from Dragon magazine:

"Trollshead" The Dragon #31
"The Sorcerer's Jewel" Dragon #46
"In the Bag" Dragon #58

Complete Holmes Bibliography

* UK game designer Ian Livingstone (Games Workshop co-founder, Fighting Fantasy game books co-creator, etc.) erroneously wrote in his 1982 book Dicing with Dragons: An Introduction to Role-Playing Games when explaining D&D classes: "Each class has restrictions as well. For instance, The Magic User may only wear leather armour or no armour at all..."

** Although The Maze of Peril (1986) was published 5 years after "The Sorcerer's Jewel" (1981), we know Maze was completed earlier as Holmes states that it was ready to publish in an L.A. Times interview from 1979.