Posts Tagged ‘wizard fun’

One Life, Furnished In Early Gygax

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

In an effort to be absolutely as predictable as possible, I’ve decided to get back into role playing games.

As a teenager, I roleplayed a fair amount, with a number of different game systems. We would generally go for games based around licensed properties, so we went for Star Wars, Star Trek, Stormbringer ( based on Michael Moorcock’s Elric books), Judge Dredd, and on one memorable occasion, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I guess the main one was Middle Earth Role Playing – I was well and truly on Team Tolkien, and wanted to recreate that world, but I think those rulebooks and supplements (and subsequently, my adventures) were a little dry. Presumably, the designers thought the huge tapestry of world building that J to the R to the R to the T created shouldn’t be besmirched by things like humour, fun, or a teenage boy’s preoccupation with half naked elfmaidens.

There was, however, no such reticence from the creators of the uber RPG, Dungeons & Dragons (or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, if you were doing it right). Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson claimed that Tolkien wasn’t an influence, favouring Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock, although they filched orcs, hobbits and just about everything else from the book.

Although intended to give generic fantasy based rules for the players to pick and choose elements to create their own world (for example, you didn’t necessarily have to include Hippogriffs, Gelatinous Cubes and Type VI Demons in the same adventure), D&D came to be represented by a rather specific setting.

This was due in some part to the art created around the game, by illustrators such as Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley. If Peter Jackson’s Rings movies were a little too clean and styled for you, check out some of the early D&D art – everything looks like a particularly inauthentic Renaissance Fayre, or the cover of Heart’s Little Queen album. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – every fantasy world needs its own feel and I guess they made a conscious decision to be fairly light, rather than dark and gritty. It’s very 80s and very American, unsurprisingly.

Talking of Heart, Dungeons & Dragons, whether it’s Greyhawk, Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms, reminds me of when the Americans try to do Progressive Rock – it’s not quite as twiddly or whimsical (or serious) as the likes of Yes and Genesis. It tends to be a bit more straightforward, rockin’ and… well, fun. Maybe that’s where I was going wrong with my Middle Earth campaign. All those lengthy tables of statistics on herbs in the Greater Rhovanion region, and the fact that you couldn’t play a wizard because it might upset the balance of Tolkien’s set in stone history (even though all the game supplements were set two thousand years before LOTR)… it doesn’t amount to much if you can’t kick a goblin in the bollocks and swing out of a Tavern window, whilst cheekily exposing yourself to a sexy cleric.

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Music To Watch Gnolls By

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

I ran a Dungeons & Dragons game a while back, after a short role playing hiatus of about twenty five years. It was ok, but I think I may have gone for the wrong tone. At the time I had a real bee in my bonnet about Wolf People‘s amazingly grungy acid folk prog rock and I wanted to get some of that feel – a kind of bleak, Dark Ages Englishness. I probably should have aimed more for that light hearted, colourful D&D world that I used to see in the pages of White Dwarf magazine in the 80s. Turns out there’s a ton of music that fits perfectly. Now, I love creaky, maudlin acoustic ballads about floods, witch hunts and incest, but the brash, unsubtle American version of Fantasyland is seemingly better served by hard rock bands that occasionally dabbled in prog.

 

Here’s a list of Dungeons & Dragons rock – note that On A Storyteller’s Night by Magnum is not included. No matter how much they got Rodney Matthews to do their album covers, I’m still not going to listen to them. Harsh but fair. Now let’s rock (troll)!

 

  • Wishbone Ash, A King Will Come  – or indeed pretty much anything on The Ash’s Argus album. The fact that the cover features some sort of mystical warrior is your first clue
  • It Bites, Calling All The Heroes – 80s prog! I’m fairly sure this was in the charts while I was fully entrenched in playing Lords Of Midnight on the Spectrum – which is why, in my mind it goes “Corleth All The Heroes”
  • Dream Theater, The Killing Hand – it’s basically One For The Vine but with loads of screaming and pinched harmonics
  • Iron Maiden, Moonchild – Surprisingly, England’s greatest metal based export never  really explored straight fantasy themes in their songs. Their stuff seems like it should all be about paladins fighting wights, but they’re mostly based (loosely, it has to be said) on historical or literary sources. Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son was their concept album, and while it’s a bit vague as to its setting,  it has prophets and magic and shit, so I think it counts.
  • Rainbow, Stargazer – Ronnie James Dio regularly fought dragons on stage, so it should come as no surprise that most of his songs were a bit sword and sorceryey. Stargazer is the tale of a wizard who commands a legion of slaves to build a tower from which he can fly to the stars. If he could fly, you’d think he wouldn’t need to waste time with a tower – he could just take off from the ground. As it turns out he can’t fly at all, he just drops to his death. Pretty dopey, but utterly metal.
  • Heart, Dream Of The Archer – saying Heart were influenced by Led Zeppelin is a bit like saying that Star Wars is a western in space. They loved that semi acoustic semi mystical shit. I can’t be certain, but I have an inkling this song is about Hank The Ranger
  • Rush, The Necromancer – Many of Rush’s song titles sound like they could actually be Dungeons & Dragons modules - The Fountain Of Lamneth, By-Tor & The Snow Dog, A Farewell To Kings and so forth. The Necromancer sounds like the actual text of one – “Stealthily attacking/ By-Tor slays his foe/ The men are free to run now/ From labyrinths below” – gain 300 XP
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Reflected Sounds Of Underground Spirits

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Terry Pratchett’s books were a big part of my childhood. Aside from being endlessly imaginative and entertaining, he had the knack of making his readership, mostly awkward fourteen year old boys, feel more intelligent than they actually were. Much like contemporaneous TV comedy like  Blackadder, Red Dwarf and (the newly repeated) Monty Python. It was a perfect storm for me, entrenched in Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks and D&D.

It was David Langford’s review of The Colour Of Magic in White Dwarf magazine that made me pick up that book in the first place. Even though the references to Fritz Leiber, Anne McCaffrey and HP Lovecraft went straight over my head, I was hooked by the adventures of failed wizard Rincewind and his tourist pal Twoflower. Pratchett’s world, and his audience increased exponentially over the years (the last one I read may have been 1994’s Soul Music “he looks a bit Elvish”). By all accounts the later books are far superior to the early ones I read, but there will always be a place in my heart for them.

The Colour Of Magic: Not available in Photoshop

 

 

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Dun Dungeonin’

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

I was recently asked (OK I lobbied for it) to give a presentation on Dungeons & Dragons at work. It’s a game… we’re a games company.. makes sense. So I thought I’d immortalise it in pixels.

 It turns out most people had played a tabletop Role Playing Game at one point or another. Those who hadn’t, I surmised, had probably played a computer variant, perhaps without realising it, but I still wanted to briefly explain the general idea for the Muggles.

Dungeons & Dragons is a Role Playing Game, which mostly takes place in the imagination of the players. Here’s some typical players:

From the Discos & Dragons episode of Freaks and Geeks – In which James Franco is inducted into nerddom and takes on the role of Carlos The Dwarf

And here’s the sort of thing they’ll be picturing themselves as:

Hey it’s a Larry Elmore painting. Not the last one you’ll be seeing.

Hippie. Babe. Hipster.

 

In D&D and many other RPGs players choose a character class, which have different abilities and skills, they then form a party and go on adventures. D&D (as the name would hopefully suggest) takes place in a medieval fantasy world, so players take on the roles of Ranger, Warrior, Thief, Wizard and other archetypal character types of the genre.

Players describe their actions to a Games Master or Dungeon Master- who acts as the game’s referee and storyteller, describing the situation the players are in. He also plays the role of the NPCs (Non Player Characters – basically monsters and innkeepers) – whilst also keeping an eye on the rules.

Characters have statistics that influence dice rolls to determine actions – here’s some dice:

I am disproportionately excited by pictures of dice

I am disproportionately excited by pictures of dice

 

And, while the game largely takes place in the imagination of the players, miniatures are often used to represent characters. Here’s some miniatures:

Some of my early work. This is what I was doing when everyone else was out having a brilliant time listening to The Happy Mondays and getting off with girls

Some of my early work. This is what I was doing when everyone else was out having a brilliant time listening to The Happy Mondays and getting off with girls

 

The question you usually get asked by people who’ve never encountered RPGs is “do you have to dress up?” and obviously, no you don’t have to dress up 

But It’s worth noting that you don’t have to not dress up either - this is me personifying a mad dwarf - but I do bear an uncanny resemblance to my dad

But It’s worth noting that you don’t have to not dress up either – this is me personifying a mad dwarf – but I do bear an uncanny resemblance to my dad

 

THE HISTORY OF THE RING

 Dungeons & Dragons grew out of the wargaming scene of the early 1970s. The development of the game has been covered in great detail a number of times. I would recommend the excellent Designers & Dragons series by Shannon Appelcline, and David M. Ewalt’s Of Dice & Men – which, to be honest, i got most of my research from. 

ofdiceandmen_lg

Broadly speaking, Dave Arneson hit upon the idea of giving the players in his wargaming group a single character rather than an army and sending them through an underground labyrinth, rather than an open battlefield. Throw in some magic and fantastical creatures, as well as Wisconsin gamer Gary Gygax, who developed and codified a lot of Arneson’s concepts, and that’s how D&D, the first Role Playing Game came about.

 Their declared influences included Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, Robert E Howard’s Conan, Fritz Leiber’s swashbuckling, roguish Lankhmar stories, Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series (Swords, Sorcery & Psychedelia), and Jack Vance’s whimsical Dying Earth books.

Hmmm… who might they be missing. Is there an elephant in the room?

The oliphaunt in the room. That’s a Tolkien gag

The oliphaunt in the room. That’s a Tolkien gag

 

Gary Gygax claimed there was little or no Tolkien influence on Dungeons & Dragons. While the game included Dwarves, Elves, Dragons, wizards and magic swords, these were all elements taken from folklore, mythology and the standard tropes of fantastic fiction that had inspired Tolkien himself. It’s the specific depiction of these elements that hew so closely to Tolkien’s writings, that raise suspicions about Gygax’s claims. Lord Of The Rings was published in 1954, but achieved cult status in America in the late sixties. Its bucolic, pre industrial utopia, and brave, warm hearted, weed smoking heroes struck a chord with the counterculture, and hippies everywhere took to wearing “Frodo Lives” and “Gandalf For President” badges.

Tolkien’s world seeped into the culture during the seventies. Students’ dorm rooms were adorned with posters of wizards and warriors, while countless songs about Galadriel and Gollum played in the background. It was in this environment that Arneson and Gygax were inspired to take their wargaming beyond the Napoleonic wars.

Hobbit, Ent, Nazgul, and Balrog were all unique Tolkien creations that made it into the original Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. Gygax claimed this was merely a commercial move to pull in Lord of the Rings  fans, but when Tolkien Enterprises – a new company recently set up to license the works for movies, toys and games – started sending cease and desist letters, those elements had to be removed. Sort of. Hobbit was changed to Halfling, Ent to Treant (“Tree-Giant”), Nazgul to Wraith, and Balrog to Balor Demon. Orc was another Tolkien created term, but one that somehow slipped through the cracks. Perhaps everyone presumed Old JRR had not created the word (an ork is a demon from the obscure Tyrol alpine folklore, not necessarily anything like the goblinoid creature we now think of). This is presumably why orcs now appear in Warhammer, World of Warcraft and pretty much every other generic fantasyland created for games and books.

Descent Into The Underdark

Satanus - That’s Latin for Satan

Satanus – That’s Latin for Satan

The cliche of D&D being a path to The Occult and Devil Worship still persists, and that’s mostly down to an incident that took place in 1979. James Dallas Egbert III was a college student who went missing, and his family hired a private investigator called William Dear to track him down. Among his personal effects in his dorm room were D&D books. This is at a time when the game was barely known outside of small pockets of wargamers and students around America, and, it should be noted, that the game wasn’t written in a way that was easily understood by anyone but an already experienced wargamer. These guys weren’t professional writers or games designers they were just enthusiasts. D&D didn’t even describe how the game was played. So Dear made some leaps of logic and arrived at the conclusion that Egbert was playing a real life version of the game and that he’d gone off the rails  – the mass media picked up the story and started to link it with the occult world – inspired by the demonic artwork and descriptions of spellcasting and so on.

Egbert reappeared soon afterwards, his disappearance down to depression rather than anything else, and a year later he committed suicide. By now the damage had been done.

The so called Satanic Panic of the early 80s led to concern from schools, parents’ groups and religious organisations and some cities tried to ban the game. Sensationalistic books were written about the Egbert case – Rona Jaffe’s Mazes & Monsters was later made into a TV movie starring a young Tom Hanks in 1982, and William Dear’s own version of events was told as The Dungeon Master in 1984.

Satanus - That’s Latin for Satan

Jack Chick’s Dark Dungeons. This never happened in any of my D&D games, which is pretty disappointing. All we ever did was listen to Hawkwind and have intense discussions about Red Dwarf.

 

The same arguments that popular entertainment had an adverse effect on its audience had been made against comic books in the 1950s, and would soon be made against video nasties, heavy metal, rap music and eventually video games. The idea that Role Playing was somehow a doorway to the occult persisted, but it did lead to D&D and TSR really taking off. They had already been on an upward swing but, in in the wake of the Egbert case, and with all the media attention focussed on them, their sales quadrupled within a year.

 

 Potion of Giant Revenue

 In the early 80s, there was something of a minor fad for sword & sorcery movies. Conan The Barbarian finally got a movie in 1982, and we’d had (the awesome) Dragonslayer and Excalibur in 1981, and (the considerably less awesome) Krull in 1983. None of them were massively successful, but fantasy as a genre was gaining ground if not exactly becoming mainstream.

Penis Breath! D&D was now at its commercial peak - as an indicator of this, it was (sort of) featured in the biggest movie of the era, ET The Extra Terrestrial in 1982

Penis Breath! D&D was now at its commercial peak – as an indicator of this, it was (sort of) featured in the biggest movie of the era, ET The Extra Terrestrial in 1982

TSR were making money hand over fist in the early to mid 80s. They hired good illustrators -particularly for the book covers, and got their products into book stores and toy shops, rather than specialist wargaming hobby stores.

D&D had by now been split into two separate lines: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a far more complex rule system. Gygax wanted a rule to cover every single eventuality and was aggressively in favour of adherence to the rules as written, rather than the loosey goosey, these are just guidelines, feel free to make stuff up earliest version of the game. By way of contrast, Basic D&D was simpler and aimed at a younger audience- and finally explained how the game was played! This was later (counterproductively) expanded to include the Expert, Companion, Masters and Immortals Sets.

dd-basic-set3

BECMI Boxes – Basic Set

 

 

To Read the next part of this MONSTER POST, TURN TO 247

To See a picture of VENGER TURN TO 84

To Read an older, much shorter post about AD&D, TURN TO 76

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