Thursday, August 28, 2014

'Inspirational Reading' (5th ed D&D PH)

So, one of the things that immediately drew my eye in the new PLAYER'S HANDBOOK is its update of the classic APPENDIX N: INSPIRATIONAL AND EDUCATIONAL READING from the original 1st ed. DMG, a brief listing of some twenty-nine authors whose work had, according to Gygax,* helped inspire the AD&D game. Given that I'm both a fantasy scholar, with a special interest in the history of fantasy,** and an avid gamer, it's obviously a list I've found of great interest

Now, thirty-five years later, we get a new, expanded APPENDIX E: INSPIRATIONAL READING (PH.312) featuring some fifty-seven authors.  So far as I can tell on a quick skim, everyone who appeared in the original list has been grandfathered in, however little some of them (e.g., Lin Carter, Andrew Offutt, Gardner Fox) deserve it. It's thus the new additions who are the most interesting things here. WotC has chosen to celebrate some of their own through the inclusion of TSR authors Hickman & Weis (The Dragonlance Chronicles***) and Salvatore (the Drizzt series). There are some worthy new entries (Lady Gregory's GODS AND FIGHTING MEN, the superb Clark Ashton Smith, McKillip's brilliant FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD), and some not so worthy (Terry Brooks, Glen Cook, Robert Jordan). There are even a few new names of authors I don't know (N. K. Jemisin, Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson) -- which just goes to show how I'm getting behind the times****

Of course, with any list what's left out is also revealing. The most serious omission is E. R. Eddison's THE WORM OUROBOROS, a much-admired classic. I'm surprised that Elizabeth Moon's making-of-a-paladin trilogy THE DEED OF PAKSENARRION didn't make it; similarly C. J. Cherryh's four-book Morgaine series, a compelling depiction of someone geased to endlessly pursue a quest, however doomed it might seem. Hughart's THE BRIDGE OF BIRDS, Mirrlees' LUD-IN-THE-MIST, and Briggs' HOBBERTY DICK can all hardly be bettered, quite aside from serving as examples of dramatically different kinds of fantasy, while M. R. James's short stories, although ghost stories, are not only wonderful reading but filled with ideas for any number of adventures centered around hauntings and the unquiet dead. And as for new talent, how about Jonathan Howard's JOHANNES CABAL books, whose antihero protagonist (a brilliant but amoral necromancer) is a fine example of how evil doesn't have to be stupid (and is far more effective, and unsettling, when it thinks to include a contingency plan).

All complants aside,***** it's good to see that the core books that most heavily influenced D&D are here, although a little lost in the crowd: Rbt. E. Howard, Tolkien, and Vance, w. Leiber not far behind. I wdn't recommend reading all the works on this new list (or the original either, for that matter), but trying out the ones that sound interesting is definitely a good idea: there are some real gems here, and plenty more that can inspire a lot of good gaming. And that, after all, is what such lists are all about.

--John R.
current reading: A STING IN THE TALE: MY ADVENTURES WITH BUMBLEBEES by Dave Goulson [2013]

*assuming he and not editor Mike Carr put this list together

**at one time I had an online monthly column on the WotC website called CLASSICS OF FANTASY, each entry in which was devoted to a particular fantasy work or author, highlighting his or her contribution to fantasy and, of course, D&D.

***though for some reason they're careful not to use the word 'Dragonlance' in this entry

****I blame Tad Wms, whose MEMORY, SORROW, AND THORN series (800 pages worth of story drowning in 3200 pages of verbiage) was so grueling to get through that it put me off fantasy for the better part of a decade thereafter.

*****I do have to point out that in the entry for de Camp and Pratt's THE COMPLEAT ENCHANTER "and the rest of the Harold Shea series" is redundant, since as the name indicates this book contains the whole five-book series; they're thinking of THE INCOMPLETE ENCHANTER (an old collection of just the first two stories).

Also, their Dunsany entry is badly messed up; bizarrely enough it includes two e-book knock-offs ('The Essential Lord Dunsany Collection', 'Lord Dunsany Compendium'), both with random selections from among his early books and both leaving out major works such as THE KING OF ELFLAND'S DAUGHTER.

My own recommendation, as someone who wrote his dissertation on Dunsany, would be his eight books of fantasy short stories (THE GODS OF PEGANA, TIME AND THE GODS, THE SWORD OF WELLERAN, A DREAMER'S TALES, THE BOOK OF WONDER, FIFTY-ONE TALES, THE LAST BOOK OF WONDER, TALES OF THREE HEMISPHERES) plus one or two of his plays (A NIGHT AT AN INN, perhaps THE GODS OF THE MOUNTAINS); those who prefer novels shd try THE KING OF ELFLAND'S DAUGHTER.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Feeding the Turtles and Riding the Rails

So, Saturday we had a busy day. First we went to the Japanese Garden down in the Seattle Arboretum -- both to stroll around and enjoy the view and to feed the turtles. Most people like to feed the koi, which are indeed impressive, but I like the turtles and throw a little of the koi kibble in one direction to distract the fish (and duck) and some in the other direction where the turtle(s) are lurking hopefully. Between turtles in the water, turtles sunning themselves on the rocks, and one on the shore that allowed us to come surprisingly near, I got a pretty good turtle fix. This was all the more welcome since we like to visit here at least once a year yet it's been a while since we made it. So, a good day.

Which got better when we had folks over Saturday night to play CALL OF CTHULHU, continuing the WALKER IN THE WASTE campaign. Suffice it to say sanity was lost and hit points too but all members of the group survived to Investigate another day.

And then for a late night indulgence, we stayed up late (v. late) to watch the debut of the new DOCTOR WHO with the twelfth* doctor played by Peter Capaldi. My initial impression: they've got a good doctor and a good companion (Clara) but the script needs work. Hope they work on that end. In the meantime, I've gone back to where I left off watching the show (near the end of season six) and in bits and pieces am making my way through Matt Smith's final season (which I observe suffers from the same haphazardness of scripting, although Smith's doctor finally began to grow on me somewhere about the mid point of his second season).

And if it weren't enough, we decided to make the weekend not just eventful but memorable and drove down to Elbe (near Mt. Rainer) on Sunday to ride on the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad, four passenger cars pulled by an old steam locomotive for an hour's ride from the little town of Elbe (which has a church with an observation window for tourists to peer in) to a half hour's layover in the former logging town of Mineral, and then back again. We'd been in the rear of the last carriage going, but the locomotive repositioned itself during the layover so that we wound up being near the front of the first carriage -- and so well-positioned to walk up and watch the steam engine from maybe about ten feet away (I noticed little coal or oil drops on my shirt afterwards).

Back when I was growing up, when we used to go visit my grandmother, on the drive over from Magnolia to Laneburg we'd pass a sign for the Reader Railroad, an old steam train that took passengers on a local run. I always wanted to give it a try, but we never did. So this feels like a very old itch that finally got scratched. 

So, a good break from the routine, visit a favorite place we'd not seen in a while, get together with friends, see the newest version of what was once a favorite show, go somewhere new and do something new there.  All in all, a most enjoyable weekend.

--John R.

*that is, twelfth according to the new numbering.

P.S.: For those who might be interested in giving it a go themselves, the site for information about the Japanese Garden is

and for the steam train is

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Fifth Edition PLAYER'S HANDBOOK (first impressions)

So, I've now bought my copy of the new PLAYER'S HANDBOOK for 5th edition D&D* (a week ago today, Tuesday the 19th, the first day it was available in bookstores). It'll take a long time to absorb properly;** I expect that even with regular playing (which I hope to continue on an ongoing basis -- it's really felt good to be back playing D&D again after the drought of the 4e years) I'll still be coming across things that are 'oh, they changed that?' for quite some time to come -- D&D being one of those games where the basic concept is easy; it's the plentitude of detail that acts as a check on those trying to game the system. What follows are my first impressions as I skim through the book, trying to get a sense where this new edition fits into the tradition of AD&D (particularly 1st, 2nd, and 3rd edition).

I see from the cover that they've gone for murky this time around -- complicated and dark. I had to read the caption inside to figure out what this was a picture of, despite having played through the adventure this scene comes from. By contrast, I thought the interior art was, on the whole, pretty good -- the chief exception being the horrible picture of a kender they tried to pass off as a halfling (p. 26), while they had a perfectly good picture of a halfling they labelled 'gnome' (p. 35).***

All the standard character races from 1st edition are here, including  the gnomes (who shd have been dropped at the end of second edition but now seems permanently grandfathered in, alas). Also here are the dragonborn (who are there for folks who want to play a wookie but have wandered into the wrong game) and tiefling (who's there for readers of tween supernatural romance). If they were going to include a non-traditional PC race, I with they'd have gone with the Warforged (sentient golems). But these interlopers are easily ignorable; at least this edition contains the half-orc (removed from the nerf'd 2nd edition). Too bad they spent so much space describing all the ethnicities of the Forgotten Realms, since that's pretty much wasted space to everyone not playing in the Realms (which I suspect will be most people).

All the third edition classes are here, plus the warlock -- this latter seems an odd choice, given how it's simply a variant of sorcerer (better they pick one or the other or, better still, neither).  Thieves are still called 'rogues', which is terribly RenFair of them but seems to be locked in since 3rd edition. Wizards have a lot to do and get an interesting spell selection to do it with, so thumbs up there. It's my impression that rangers and fighters are underpowered, but I need to roll up one of each to see if the front-line combat characters can hold their own. I've heard rumors that they've actually made the bard a viable class, which wd be something to see, but a low priority to play.

"You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture's expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior . . . 
"You don't need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. . . You could . . . play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. LIkewise, your character's sexual orientation is for you to decide." (p. 121)

--My, how times have changed. While Gygax deserves a lot of credit for the use of "he or she" when describing characters in 1st edition, that got rolled back later under 2nd edition, while 3rd edition compromised with alternating examples by gender. But 1st and 2nd edition were purely heterosexual worlds,**** as was 3e so far as I remember. Now far from being banned by the Code of Ethics gay/transgender characters are explicitly included in the rules. 

Nice to see the classic Alignment system still in place (p. 122),with the addition of a tenth option: 'unaligned', to be applied to animals and others lacking the cognitive ability to make a moral choice. The Backgrounds seem to be pretty random so far as a suite of options for all PCs goes, and the four tables accompanying each (Personality Trait/Ideal/Bond/Flaw) sure take up a lot of space (about seven or eight pages, all told). Good to see them devoting space to material designed to encourage role-playing, but think the results are something only newbies will be using.

Very promising so far. This looks and feels and plays like D&D. It'll need tweaking, but it looks to be far more open to tweaking than the rigid structure of 3rd edition. With any luck we'll see a breakdown of the 'only right way to play the game' that came from D&D being treated with a MtG ideology and a florescence of homerules as people customize this for their home campaigns.

More later

--John R.

*that is, the fifth edition of the AD&D rules, though it's not called that; the fifth edition of the D&D rules, by Troy Denning (and Tim Brown?), came out back in 1991

**though I've already found my first typo (in the sidebar on p. 31 where "chapter 5" shd read "chapter 6")

***THE WIFE SAYS: They had a little problem there with their Gnomenclature

****about the only exception I can think of was in the unofficial JUDGES GUILD module DARK TOWER, by Paul Jaquays, where one evil wizard liked to use magic jar to swap among a collection of bodies of both sexes he kept on hand.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

M. le Comte de Rateliff

So, thanks to Janice for the following link, to a short film called THE DUEL AT BLOOD CREEK [2010]. For the first thirty or forty seconds I thought it was a remake of/tribute to the opening scene of Arthur and his squire from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, leading into the Black Knight/You Shall Not Pass episode, recast into eighteenth century garb. But it turned out the filmmaker (Leo Burton) was up to something cleverer than that. Here's the link (be warned, though, that it includes some unbleeped profanity):

Watching this makes me want to dig out my copy of EN GARDE, one of the earliest rpgs [GDW, 1975], part of the first wave of post D&D-games, when imitators of Gygax and Arneson were trying to expand the concept into other genres (another example being TSR's own BOOT HILL). In EN GARDE,  PCs are gallants in the era of THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and might rise to be Musketeers themselves (or alternately their chief rivals, the Cardinal's Guard), if they live long enough (which, given the lethality of the dueling system, is unlikely).

And, speaking of France in the ancien regime, while looking up something entirely unrelated a few nights ago, I came across a wholly unexpected appearance of the name RATELIFF in an unusual context: one 'M. le Comte de Rateliff' who was, at least according to an online scan of the ALMANACH ROYAL,* one of the 'marechaux de camp** in the French army in Janvier (January) 1770. It's quite unusual to come across folks who spell the name the same way I do (with the silent e), and I've never seen it in a French context before (according to family tradition it's either German altered to sound more English, or English altered to sound more 'American'); it's probably English, one of a number of inadvertent variants of Ratcliffe (which goes way back in England; one of Richard III's chief henchmen, in both Shakespeare's play and real life, was a Ratcliffe).

So, interesting, but not significant. I assume this title 'Comte de Rateliff' vanished, probably along with the family, during the Revolution that followed less than twenty years later. Still, I'll keep my eye out, in case I come across more references to them down the road.

--John R.
current reading: THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA by Philip Roth [2004], the Fifth Edition PLAYER'S HANDBOOK [July 2014]


**which translates literally to 'Field Marshall', but was apparently instead equivalent to a two-star general.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

ex-Wotc, the list

So, all the looking back of my previous post made me curious about how things were going at GenCon and especially how to debut of the new edition of D&D was doing. I found a review on EN World, but after skimming it decided that, having waited so long, it made more sense to wait a while longer and judge for myself when I get ahold of my own copy (which I expect will be within a few days now). However, while poking about I found a sub-site listing "Ex-WotC Employees" (by which they mean people who worked on the rpgs, not Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering folks). I'm glad to discover that such a list exists, and EN World seems like a good place to host it; here's the link.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find I'm not on the list -- editors usually fall below the radar. Reading through it, though, I was surprised to find how many folks got left off. In fact, I'd say this lists represents about half the people who worked at WotC on rpgs (i.e., D&D and a few other one-offs or less prominent games), maybe a little less. So in the interests of adding a little to the historical record, here are some names I can think of off the top of my head, without even pulling products off the shelf to check credits, of some of my co-workers from WotC between 1997 and the end of 2006 who somehow failed to make it onto the extant list. For those who are interested in such things, I've marked those who were also at TSR before coming to WotC that with an asterisk.

*Jon Pickens

*Stephen Schend

*Dale Donovan

Gwendolyn Kestrel

*Cindi Rice

*Miranda Horner

Kij Johnson

Rich Redman

*Ed Stark

*Thomas Reid

*Keith Strohm

*Dave Wise

Brian Campbell

Jason Carl

Another thing I was glad to find (oddly enough, under the same heading of "Ex-WotC Employees") is a list of CURRENT WotC employees in rpg-r&d. I tried to keep up with the comings and goings after I left but quickly lost track of who was in, who was out, who was temping (and thus temporarily in), and who was freelancing (and thus might be either in or out). It's been true of TSR (and later WotC) for most of its history that people outside the company found it almost impossible to keep track of who was on the inside (i.e., who was currently working there and doing what). So it's good to see this listing -- though a little disconcerting to see that out of fourteen names, only five (about a third) seem to be designers or editors, the rest being management of some kind. However, I may have misunderstood the job titles.  It's also interesting to note that the department is now completely post-TSR: there's not a single person dating back to the TSR days still working in WotC rpg-r&d; I think Bruce Cordell and Kim Mohan must have been the last (although both Steve Winter and Steve 'Stan' Brown have temped there recently enough that they might be able to put in a claim for that title).

So, here's hoping the addition of some of the missing names might help provide a fuller picture of the people who oversaw the twilight years of second edition, the launch of third edition (and later reconsolidation as 3.5), and all that followed.

--John R.
just finished: VIRTUAL UNREALITY by Ch. Seife [2014].

Friday, August 15, 2014

How Gygax Lost TSR ("Ambush at Sheridan Springs")

So, today being the mid-point of GenCon, and with the release of the new D&D PLAYER'S HANDBOOK being just four days away, I found myself in a nostalgic mood -- curious if Fifth Edition can undo (some of) the damage from Fourth Edition, eager to find out what out of the many different elements that appeared and disappeared and reappeared in playtest variants over the past two years made it into the final mix, hopeful the end result will be closer to the game I loved to play than the versions available in recent years (say, the last decade and a half).

Next week will tell. In the meantime, I went back and read the recent piece, posted on July 28th, by Jon Peterson, author of the extraordinary history of the creation of roleplaying games, PLAYING AT THE WORLD (which I have but have still not yet read, it being a dense 800+pages). Having documented the stages by which the first rpg came about, and the various roles played by Arneson, Gygax, et al, now Peterson is turning his attention to later events -- in the present case, to the sequence which led to Gary Gygax's ouster at TSR, in an article he calls "Ambush at Sheridan Springs"* (201 Sheridan Springs Road being the familiar address of the TSR Building, where I worked for five years between 1991 and 1996, so these events were long past by the time I came on the scene, though I heard about them piecemeal from employees who'd been there at the time).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Pederson's account is its straightforward, matter-of-fact approach. For example, nowhere in his piece is there a sentence containing the words  'Gygax, cocaine, Hollywood, hot tub business meetings, borrowed blondes'.**  Instead, he presents the facts as he can establish them from the paper trail of stock issues, board meeting notes, and the like. And it turns out that there's a lot of contemporary evidence to build a reconstruction of events upon. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of our hobby, and especially of TSR and D&D.

A few caveats, though. Peterson's decision to accept the evidence at face value enables him to write fairly and dispassionately about events that have for too long been presented in he said/they said mode. But there are perils to being too trusting. Thus, Peterson sets the scene in his opening paragraph as saying that at the time (fall 1985) "they" (presumably the r&d staff at TSR) "were putting the finishing touches on his Oriental Adventures." Except that the full extent of Gygax's contribution to O.A. was (a) saying they shd do such a book and (b) putting his name on the cover. Checking the credits inside show that the book was actually written by Zeb Cook, not Gygax. Somewhat more accurately, in the same sentence Peterson notes how Gygax "was the lead on Unearthed Arcana", yet Gygax put his name on both the cover and in the internal credits as if he were the sole author of all the material therein, which was not the case.  I'd also query the description of the D&D cartoon as a "success" -- I'd say that it was a bad product that damaged the reputation of the game for years to come.

The truly amazing thing that emerges from this essay, for which Peterson deserves great praise, is that Gygax had such tunnel vision. He could see the advantages of making a smart move that put him in an advantageous position (exercising his option to buy 700 shares of stock, giving him a controlling majority) but was completely blindsided when his opponent for control of the company made the same counter-move (exercising their option for a similarly large stock purchase), giving them control of the company. It's like two rivals each taking up a dueling pistol, one party firing his, and then him forgetting that the other person still has a loaded gun. Bizarre.

So, highly recommended. It makes me really look forward to more, and once again confirms that however weighty a tome I really do need to knuckle down and read his history of the hobby.  Here's hoping he turns this later material into a second volume tracing the fate of D&D after its early days.

--John R.

**He also deliberately avoids sensationalizing the story -- for example, when asked in the comments if it's true the first Mrs. Gygax contributed her shares to her ex-husband's ouster, his neither-confirm-nor-deny response is tactful and yet speaks volumes.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

We Take Stay-cation on the Road (wind farms and yurts)

So, having cut short our cross country trip (an extra week away wd have been just too expensive), we got to spend that time doing things closer to home, like riding the camel last weekend at the Bonnie Lake renaissance fair. And for the last two days before it was back to work and back on our normal routine, we took a trip to central Washington (around Vantage) to meet up with our friends Anne and Sig (hi Anne. hi Sig) and visit the Wild Horse Wind Farm. Unfortunately the air quality was so bad they curtailed the tour, which apparently usually ends with going inside one of the towers and looking up at the turbine. I had thought they were afraid particulates in the air from all the wildfires currently raging might damage the equipment, but Janice says no, the air outside was a health hazard. Still, we got to walk around the visitor's center, heard a presentation about the wind farm, and poked about a bit outside. It's an interesting experience to be surrounded by the giant wind towers, slightly weird and sinister in appearance (shades of boom-bodies and sorns) and curious how they respond individually to the wind -- so that at any given time some were quiescent, others just barely turning over, and still others rotating at full speed. Kind of like watching a room full of cats. The visit was made slightly surreal by the arrival, just before the talk began of about two dozen Japanese schoolgirls, a tour group travelling in buses marked 'CWU' (Central Washington University).

From the wind farm we crossed the Columbia and headed towards a winery (an odd place for a Prohibitionist) when we checked into a yurt, with Anne & Sig in the next yurt over. After a gourmet meal in the winery's restaurant we wander around the grounds, including up and down the rows of grapevines. As evening closed in we put out the lawn chairs and sat and waited for the Perseids, although somewhat apprehensive about the effect of the so-called Supermoon on our viewing. It turns out we need not have bothered: the haze from the distant fires was so thick that we couldn't even see the moon, much less the starry sky. There was one bright star overhead (Arcturus?) and the others saw a single meteor flash by (I missed it) before that area was blotted out as well. Still, it was a pleasant night to sit out and look up.

The next morning we had breakfast at the winery restaurant, and concluded that the B-team handled breakfast while the chef exerted himself in the evenings. Then we drove back across the Columbia to Frenchman's Coulee, a spectacular landscape (apparently a dry ancient lake bed) of eroded rocks: basalt columns and dry scree, where (pointed in the right direction by some friendly rock-climbers) we hiked about for an hour or so. It reminded me a bit of the hoo-doos in Yellowstone, but looked even more like something out of Rider Haggard, the sort of landscapes that might have inspired Kor. The one thing we saw that was very much of the modern era was a flight of three DC10s flying in formation -- our guess is that they were on their way to drop water or flame retardant on one of the area's not-entirely-under-control wildfires. We saw this three times, but whether they were the same planes or different planes of the same type doing the same run we cdn't tell.

Biding farewell to the dry stoney landscape, we head to our final stop:  the picnic area next to the ginko petrified forest/ petroglyph site (which we'd gotten to see on an early trip earlier this year: well worth visiting). Anne and Janice both outdid themselves, and we had quite the picnic feast -- again, made slightly odd by the arrival, just about the time we were ready to start eating, of those same three CWU vans with what were probably the same Japanese schoolgirls -- I'm pretty sure I recognized the interpreter from the day before. They seem to have come for the petroglyphs, not the petrified wood, and left after not too long -- only to have one van come back a half hour or so later; I suspect that one student got inadvertently left behind. One highlight of our stop was seeing a herd of little deer-like animals -- antelope perhaps? -- pass through, grazing on the green green (sprinkler-watered) grass that v. much stood out from the surrounding typical western/central Washington dry, bleak landscape.

From there it was goodbye to Anne and Sig for the drive back to west of the mountains, where it was thoroughly typical that we ran into a rainstorm not long after re-entering King Country. The cats were fine and very happy to see us (thanks, Kathy), so All Ends Well.

And Wednesday morning it was back to our normal schedule: Janice to the office, me to a morning of volunteering with cats followed by an afternoon of starting to draft a paper proposal for next year's Kalamazoo, which got sidelined by the arrival of revised proofs for the new edition of my book (about which more later). So, back to work! It was a great vacation while it lasted, and did us both good. It's amazing how many interesting things there are to do in Washington, for the standing stone circle on Whitbey isle to that basalt landscape near Vantage. We're already starting to think about the next time . . .

--John R.
current reading: THE JOURNAL OF INKLINGS STUDIES (Vol. 4 No. 1); SKIP-BEAT (manga) vol. 32; VIRTUAL UNREALITY by Charles Seife (about how to tell whether something you see online is true or not).