Saturday, May 30, 2009

Q&A with Greg Svenson

With Dave Arneson's recent passing, our hobby lost one of the most important links to its earliest, formative days. Arneson & Gygax will be forever remembered as the coauthors and founders of Dungeons & Dragons, but there is so much more to Mr. Arneson that we were never truly allowed to learn while growing up in the 70s, 80s and beyond while playing the game that his Blackmoor campaign spawned. I've read with wonder the stories that Greg “Svenny” Svenson shared with readers at his website before it was taken down*. As a player in the original Blackmoor campaign, Greg is one of only a handful of gamers who were present to witness the fledgling game sessions which eventually gave rise to the entire table top role-playing genre (and beyond).

I believe that remembering the magnitude of Dave Arneson's concept, and his Blackmoor campaign, is perhaps more timely now than ever before. As someone who is interested in the influences and inspirations that went into Mr. Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, I felt that being able to pose some questions to the Great Svenny himself might be an opportunity I couldn't pass up. I wasn't sure that my random email to his site's address would even be answered, let alone read considering that it was sent not long after Dave Arneson's passing. I had no idea that Greg had attended Dave's funeral, nor that he had delivered the eulogy. I was wary about pursuing this Q&A considering the nature of its less than appropriate timing, but Greg assured me that he would be happy to take a look at what I had drafted up and let me know what he thought of the idea.

During our various correspondences I learned that at the funeral Greg had seen another Blackmoor player from the early days, Stephen “Rocky” Rocheford**. Greg was able to later email Stephen and have him look over the answers below. Stephen was kind enough to confirm Greg's recollections of those events from the early 70s in the Twin Cities, before Dave Arneson had taken a position with TSR in Lake Geneva, WI in 1975.

My reasons for this Q&A were multiple, and I will let the answers speak for themselves. I think that Greg did an outstanding job in answering these questions considering that nearly four decades have transpired since that very first Blackmoor game in 1971.

---Start Q&A---

Greg: I haven't really been interviewed like this before, so I shared my answers with one of the other guys who was one of the players on that original dungeon adventure in Dave Arneson's basement back in 1971, Stephen Rocheford (later known as St. Stephen from the Temple of the Frog adventure). He was probably just as active as a player as I was though the early years of the Blackmoor campaign and D&D. I saw him for the first time in over 25 years at Dave Arneson's funeral. He agreed with my answers to all of your questions except for the date when Dave Wesely got home from the Army which I have corrected in my answer.

Sham: First of all I’d like to thank Greg for taking the time to read and consider these questions, and allow me to share his responses for the readers of my web log. Greg, when did Dave Arneson actually begin his Blackmoor games, to the best of your knowledge? When and how were you introduced to Blackmoor?

Greg: You are welcome; hopefully I will be able to answer your questions. Nobody is really sure when we started playing Blackmoor. My recollection was that we played the first adventure over the Christmas holidays during the winter of 1970-1971; but, I am not really sure. The first documented Blackmoor game was on May 21, 1971. Dave Arneson found that in an old “Corner of the Table” newsletter article a few months ago. The “Corner of the Table” was Dave’s newsletter for our Napoleonics campaign. Dave recently came across a complete set of them.

Sham: Were you around for Dave Wesely’s Braunsteins that helped introduce the concept of role-playing and a referee? Was Dave Wesely a player in any of the Blackmoor sessions you were a part of?

Greg: No, I was not part of that. Wesely was in the Army Reserves and was activated and sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and later to Alaska during the early years of the Blackmoor campaign. He came home in the October/November 1973 timeframe. We did play together at least a few times when he was on leave as well as after he came home.

Sham: I’ve theorized that the concept which Dave Arneson formulated was based on a combination of wargame combat simulation, the ongoing wargame style campaign, the role-play/referee idea that Wesely introduced, and fantasy/medieval inspiration. In other words, wargaming meets role-play meets fantasy. Do you have any thoughts to offer on this assessment?

Greg: Well, that’s basically true, but it really isn’t that simple. The fantasy/medieval elements of Blackmoor were totally new to me at the time (although, I had read Tolkien and some other fantasy literature). However, in the Napoleonic campaign that we had been playing before that first adventure was a combination of miniatures and diplomacy. Dave Arneson was the referee and each of the players represented the sovereign, a political faction, a general and/or an admiral in their respective countries. So, for the campaign we would try to correspond player to player and write battle reports “in character”. We were responsible for our nation’s diplomacy and even the national budget down to buying food, forage, powder and shot, as well as running the military campaigns and fighting the battles that came about as a result of our actions...We had also been playing “Fight in the Skies” where each player was a WWI fighter pilot tracking his missions and kills and getting better with experience. Before I joined Dave Arneson’s gaming group my home gaming group in Excelsior, Minnesota had been playing Korns*** for several years. Korns was a set of WWII rules where each player was a single soldier and we had a referee keeping track of both sides and resolving actions as the game progressed, at least that was the way we played it. I am sure that others in the group had similar gaming background experiences to mine.

Sham: Your character rose to great prominence in Dave’s Blackmoor campaign. Your character, The Great Svenny, is now a full fledged legendary NPC in published Blackmoor games. What would be the Great Svenny’s proudest moment during those many Blackmoor sessions? Aside from the Great Svenny’s accomplishments, what are some of your favorite memories from Dave’s Blackmoor games?

Greg: Yes, I have been startled to surf the internet and find web sites where they described how the Great Svenny was involved with that gaming groups adventures. That was a really weird experience for me...The two greatest moments that stick out in my memory are the two adventures I described on my website; surviving the first dungeon adventure and the raid on the lair of Fred Funk’s Orc tribe on the 10th level of Blackmoor dungeon. I participated in literally hundreds of adventures between early 1971 and 1975, but those are the two I have the clearest memories of. I hardly even remember the famous “Temple of the Frog” and “Valley of the Ancients” adventures. I know I was there, but they were not as memorable for me.

Sham: For how many years did you play as The Great Svenny in Blackmoor, and what exactly is the Great Svenny up to at this very moment?

Greg: I was actively playing Svenny from the beginning up until when Dave Arneson moved to Lake Geneva to work for TSR in 1975. I played with him again at GenCon in 1976 and at a reunion game in 1991. When I started gaming with Dave again in Orlando in 1999, I played Svenny’s son, Sol, although I called him Svenny Junior at first, until I put together Svenny's family history. I am currently playing Sol in an online play by post game (the Tomb of Rahotep in honor of Gary Gygax on the Wayfarer's Inn website). I have also been playing one of his grandchildren, Sven, in another play by post game (the Grim Winter campaign on the Zeitgeist Games MMRPG website)...Svenny is currently the Lord High Regent of the Regency Council of the Kingdom of Blackmoor in the D&D 3.5 Edition version of the Blackmoor campaign. I am currently working out what Svenny’s family would look like for the D&D 4th Edition Blackmoor campaign which is set some 270 years later.

Sham: In reading your stories of those early Blackmoor days, I learned that certain important monsters or villains were often controlled by other players. Was there ever a point in Dave’s Blackmoor games where the emphasis became the adventuring group, or was it usually adversarial between the players who mostly pursued their own individual goals?

Greg: We switched from the good guys versus the bad guys sessions to just one adventuring group fairly quickly. We realized that it was more fun if everyone was on one team working together. There were still people playing the bad guys, but that was usually in their own gaming sessions separate from the ones I was in; although, sometimes Dave would still ask for a volunteer to play the monster during a battle.

Sham: I’m aware that Blackmoor was much more than simply a dungeon crawl, but I enjoyed your telling of the First Dungeon Adventure and how your character survived it. After that adventure did the dungeon setting become a major focus of the campaign?

Greg: Well, we stopped making dungeon maps when the group realized that I had much of the dungeon memorized. Of course, that led to problems when Svenny was incapacitated and unable to tell everyone how to get back out of the dungeon. It was the major emphasis for a while, but we quickly moved out into the wilderness. We also had a period of several months, after some of us read the “Tarnsman of Gor” books, where we were traveling around on tarns (think of Rocs in the “Lord of the Rings”). That was after Gary Gygax had started his campaign because one of our adventures was to travel to Grayhawk on tarnback to rescue Gary’s players who had gotten into trouble.

Sham: I understand that as you gained knowledge and experience playing in Dave’s game you also took some turns behind the referee’s screen, running Blackmoor adventures for other players. What was that like? And do you ever have the opportunity to play or run Blackmoor these days?

Greg: In the fall of 1972 Dave Arneson gave me some of his notes and let me referee a couple of times when he was busy with other things. Dave tells me that I was the third DM ever. Later I developed a town called Tonisborg, complete with two dungeons. I didn’t think that I was very good at it. I guess I was comparing myself to Dave. At any rate, I didn’t DM very often; although, I must have DMed more often than I remember from what Bob Meyer has told me about the days when we were roommates in 1973 & 1974. Unfortunately, I loaned my Tonisborg materials to a friend to use for a game day and he never returned them, which was around 1980 or so when I lived in Boston. I have not run any Blackmoor (or other D&D) games since the early 1980's when I ran games for my church's youth group.

Sham: Would you say that Blackmoor evolved, in both rules content and as a campaign world, as a result of the player/character courses of action?

Greg: Of course, it evolved and very quickly. Using Chainmail rules on the first adventure, when you got hit the first time you were dead. We didn’t like that much, so the next time we played we had hit points. Within a month Dave introduced armor classes. There were many changes over time. One time when we were off adventuring the bad guys attacked and captured the then defenseless town of Blackmoor, leveling Zvenzen’s Freehold among other things. We all got banished to the swamps of Loc Gloomin for that one…

Sham: While refereeing Blackmoor for other players, how did you handle actions by the characters which were not covered by the rules? Was referee ad-libbing a vital aspect of the Blackmoor games?

Greg: I quickly came up with what the possibilities might be and either had the players roll dice against a related character attribute for success or on a table I made up in my head on the fly. This was an area that I felt I was not very good at, however, because Dave would just tell us to roll the dice and he then told us what happened.

Sham: You were playing in Blackmoor before D&D was published, and again afterwards. What impact did the release of that version of the rules have upon Dave’s personal campaign?

Greg: As soon as a draft was available we started play testing with them, but I don’t think it really changed how the game went when Dave was the DM. That’s just my opinion. The big difference was that others (like me) were more easily able to DM. All of the sessions I DMed were part of the same Blackmoor campaign that Dave was running. Often I was helping players get to a higher level so they could survive with the other higher level players.

Sham: What was Dave’s early opinion of TSR’s 1974 D&D game? For that matter, what was the general opinion of you and the other players in Blackmoor when you finally saw the original D&D game?

Greg: Dave was excited about it, but I am not sure what he actually thought about it, I don’t remember him ever talking to me about it in that way. I thought it was one and the same thing with what we had already been doing for several years. So, I didn’t really see much of a difference.

Sham: I’ve developed great respect for Dave’s impact to the gaming world. In my opinion he is often unfairly discredited in certain quarters for his lack of actual input to D&D. If you can recall, what were the major differences between Dave’s Blackmoor, and D&D in 1974?

Greg: Like I just said, I thought they were one and the same. They had just been organized, to make it easier for other people to use to run games. The individual levels and things like that were new, but the way we played we didn’t really notice the difference. Attributes were different, we had used two d6’s to get a number from 1 to 10, where we changed to three d6’s and a range from 3 to 18, but most were just changes in mechanics...We were not keeping our own records or character sheets as they are called now. Dave had an index card on each of the players (and NPCs) with their attributes, HP, possessions and other useful notes. I only remember seeing Svenny’s character card a couple of times. Unfortunately, it never occurred to me to copy the information off of it for my own records. Dave told me a few months ago that he had been going though one of his boxes and discovered what he thought were all of our original character cards. I don’t know what happened to them after that, however.

Sham: From what I gather Dave’s major accomplishment was combining the essential elements of what was to become fantasy role-playing with Blackmoor, the same elements that were subsequently found in D&D. Would you agree that each of the essential elements was present in pre-D&D Blackmoor?

1. Characters

Greg: Yes, of course.

2. Ability Scores

Greg: Yes. I am not sure when Dave added them since he kept our character cards, but we were definitely using them during the spring of 1972, because I have definite memories involving ability scores that happened before I went away for the summer of 1972.

3. Hit Points

Greg: Yes, within the first month.

4. Experience/Levels

Greg: Yes, although handled differently. Fighters went from flunky to hero to superhero. We didn’t track our experience points as is done now. Dave simply told us when we had transitioned from one level to another. I do not know if wizards and clerics had different levels of ability or not.

5. Mechanics/Randomization

Greg: Yes, but again handled differently. Sometimes, we would roll against our related ability to resolve a task. Other times Dave would just say we were successful or not after we had described what we intended to do (he might have made a roll at the time, it may or may not have had any bearing in what happened).

6. Adventuring Groups

Greg: Yes, the first adventure involved two groups.

7. Exploration

Greg: Yes, we didn’t have maps of the area. Anytime we traveled we had to find our way, even just leaving the town of Blackmoor itself and going into the nearby countryside was a major adventure. Part of the adventure was getting lost. Sometimes that was the adventure.

8. Hazards/Challenges

Greg: Yes, problem solving was a big part of our gaming sessions, really the major part.

9. Treasure

Greg: Yes, we found money, stuff and magic items in the lairs of the monsters we killed.

10. Fantasy Setting

Greg: Yes

Sham: I’d also like to specifically ask about certain D&D features and whether or not they were present in the early Blackmoor games, to the best of your recollection.

1. Saving Throws

Greg: Yes, maybe with different mechanics. Dave just told us to roll and he would tell us what happened…

2. Clerics vs. Undead (Turning Undead)

Greg: Mike Carr**** played the Bishop of Blackmoor pretty much from the beginning. I think of him as being able to heal and on one or two occasions resurrect the dead. I do not recall when turning the undead came into it, but it was not a concept that was unfamiliar to me, either. I have to say that I am not sure.

3. Wandering Monsters

Greg: They were there from the first adventure on. We could see Dave rolling before he would announce an encounter.

4. Alignment

Greg: Absolutely, we had good and evil characters in the very first dungeon adventure; if fact, Dave’s perception of our alignment, as it is called now, affected whether we were able to hold the magic sword we found during that first adventure. Several of the players were injured when they picked it up. In fact, I was the only player who didn’t try to pick it up. I was afraid to try after seeing what happened to the other unsuccessful players. When I was the last one standing and the battle was over, I picked it up and wrapped it using a piece of leather, so that I would not come in contact with it and then carried it out of the dungeon and immediately sold it to the baron of Blackmoor for a whopping 150 GP.

5. Spell Levels

Greg: I was never a magic user in the original campaign, so I don’t really know the mechanics of how spells were handled. Pete Gaylord, Kurt Krey or Richard Snider would have a much better idea of how that worked.

6. Henchmen/Hirelings

Greg: Yes, after Svenny became a “super hero” I was able to hire soldiers and servants. That was how we were able to staff Zvenzen’s Freehold, for example. Slavery was also an option, at least initially. Svenny bought a slave once.

Sham: What was it about D&D that made it such a smashing success, in your opinion?

Greg: The limitless options for the players made it so much fun that it was hard not to enjoy yourself even when your character died in the adventure.

Sham: What other role-playing games have you had the chance to run or play in? Do you have a favorite role-playing game besides Blackmoor?

Greg: Blackmoor is the only D&D setting I have ever run a game in. I have especially enjoyed “Space: 1889” and “Traveller” (CT, MT and T4). I have played many others, including “Powers and Perils”, “Adventures in Fantasy”, “Shadowrun”, “Star Wars”, “GURPS” (fantasy, Traveller & WW2) and “Twilight: 2000”.

Sham: What do you feel Dave Arneson’s legacy to the hobby will be? Furthermore, what do you feel Dave Arneson’s legacy to the hobby should be?

Greg: To me, Dave Arneson is the father of modern role-playing games. They didn’t really exist before we played Blackmoor. They were a new concept at the time and he is the person who put it all together.

Sham: Have you ever worked in the role-playing field, or has it always been simply an entertaining diversion? What details can you tell the readers about yourself since those days playing in Blackmoor with Dave Arneson?

Greg: Not really, I made an attempt to edit John Snider’s “Star Empires” RPG rules back in 1983 for Adventure Games while I was working for 4D Interactive Systems (both companies were primarily owned by Dave Arneson) as a video game programmer, but it never got published. John had written it back in the mid-1970s and it had languished at TSR for years. By the time I looked at it, it was really out dated, although, in my opinion, if it had come out before or at the same time as “Traveller” it would have taken the Sci-Fi RPG market hands down...As for me, I am a computer geek. I have been in Information Systems/Technology for over thirty-two years. I spent a year and a half writing video games for 4D Interactive Systems back in ‘83 and ‘84. The rest of the time I have been with large companies, mostly in the aerospace industry. I am a Christian. The Lord has been very good to me. I am married to a wonderful woman, Paula. We have five children and two grandchildren.

Sham: Greg, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, including the many D&D related inquiries. My goal has been to not only learn more about the early Blackmoor games, and your role in helping shape that famous campaign, but to also further the legacy of Dave Arneson and remind readers of his impact on our hobby. Are there any details about Dave Arneson that you would like to share with the readers?

Greg: You are welcome. I am glad that I was able to answer most of your questions. With Dave’s passing, I have had lots of chances to think about him. His daughter asked me to do the eulogy at his funeral service, so I have thought a lot about his life. Dave was a humble man. I never saw him push his agenda at someone else’s expense or put himself ahead of others. He was always concerned about other peoples well being. He wanted everyone to be happy and have fun. He was generous and thoughtful, both with me and my family. My wife thought of him as a kind and gallant gentleman. He wanted to live at peace with everyone. I know that in the last few years he attempted to reconcile with those who had issues with him, including Gary Gygax and Tim Kask.

I hope you and your readers are edified by reading this.

---End Q&A---

I'd like to thank Greg, as well as Stephen, for taking the time to answer these questions about not only Blackmoor, but also about their good friend Dave Arneson who sadly left us far too early. It was very touching to read Greg's heartfelt answer to my last question, and I hope that readers can come away from this Q&A with a better appreciation of not only Dave Arneson's legacy, but also of the man himself.

* - Per an email from Greg, his early Blackmoor stories will once again be available as they are to be hosted at Havard's Blackmoor site in the near future. Stephen and Greg have just started collaborating on the First Dungeon Adventure story in order to bring back even more of the details. In the meantime you can read Greg Svenson's First Dungeon Adventure in Fight On! Issue 2.

** - Stephen Rocheford had the perhaps singular honor of actually reviewing Dave Arneson's original manuscript, detailing Blackmoor, before it was sent off to TSR and transformed into Dungeons & Dragons.

*** - Michael F. Korns Modern War in Miniature, 1966.

**** - Mike Carr, designer of Fight in the Skies, author of B1: In Search of the Unknown, Editor of AD&D Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, and Dungeon Master's Guide.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fight On! Keeps Fighting On!

Calithena announced that issue #5 of Fight On! is now available!

You can read the announcement here, and see the Table of Contents over here.

I've got a growing list of Lulu items I've been waiting to order until FO!5 was available, so the wait is over now.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Never Would've Guessed...Gene Wolfe

Thanks to Matt for sharing this one. I took the HelloQuizzy Which Fantasy Writer are You? test last night.

Your result for Which fantasy writer are you?...

Gene Wolfe (b. 1931)

1 High-Brow, 19 Violent, 3 Experimental and -3 Cynical!

Congratulations! You are High-Brow, Violent, Experimental and Romantic! These concepts are defined below.

US author Gene Wolfe is a very typical example of the kind of writer who is more appreciated by critics and, above all, other writers, than by the wider public. Science fiction writer Michael Swanwick has, for example, dubbed Gene Wolfe the greatest writer in the English language alive today. However, Wolfe's novel in four parts, The Book of the New Sun (1980-83), is widely known and considered a classic within both fantasy and science fiction (the book is generally considered fantasy although it is actually set in a distant future, where some technology may seem like magic to the novel's characters).

Wolfe, a veteran of the Korean war, is un-afraid of describing the fear and violence caused by warfare and the protagonist of his most well-known piece of fiction is a torturer, who at one time openly defends the importance of his work.

Wolfe is well-known for his stylistic excellence, often using first person narration in a masterful way. His narrators are often unreliable, for different reasons, sometimes leaving it up to the reader to read between the lines and figure out what's really going on.

Being a "literary" author, one of those few writers whose books it's worth the time and effort of reading more than once, does not stop Wolfe from being a great storyteller who is quite able to create all the magic and page-turning suspence of a typical best-selling writer. Much of this might stem from Wolfe's empathy with his characters and his almost religious commitment to his worlds. Several critics have pointed out the influence of Wolfe's strong Roman Catholic faith to his fiction.

No fantasy fan should go through life without having at least tried to read Wolfe. There are few writers who manage to put imagination back into the word fantasy like he does.

You are also a lot like Mary Gentle.

If you want something more gentle, try Tove Jansson.

If you'd like a challenge, try your exact opposite, Robert Jordan.

Your score

This is how to interpret your score: Your attitudes have been measured on four different scales, called 1) High-Brow vs. Low-Brow, 2) Violent vs. Peaceful, 3) Experimental vs. Traditional and 4) Cynical vs. Romantic. Imagine that when you were born, you were in a state of innocence, a tabula rasa who would have scored zero on each scale. Since then, a number of circumstances (including genetical, cultural and environmental factors) have pushed you towards either end of these scales. If you're at 45 or -45 you would be almost entirely cynical, low-brow or whatever. The closer to zero you are, the less extreme your attitude. However, you should always be more of either (eg more romantic than cynical). Please note that even though High-Brow, Violent, Experimental and Cynical have positive numbers (1 through 45) and their opposites negative numbers (-1 through -45), this doesn't mean that either quality is better. All attitudes have their positive and negative sides, as explained below.

High-Brow vs. Low-Brow

You received 1 points, making you more High-Brow than Low-Brow. Being high-browed in this context refers to being more fascinated with the sort of art that critics and scholars tend to favour, rather than the best-selling kind. At their best, high-brows are cultured, able to appreciate the finer nuances of literature and not content with simplifications. At their worst they are, well, snobs.

Violent vs. Peaceful

You received 19 points, making you more Violent than Peaceful. Please note that violent in this context does not mean that you, personally, are prone to violence. This scale is a measurement of a) if you are tolerant to violence in fiction and b) whether you see violence as a means that can be used to achieve a good end. If you are, and you do, then you are violent as defined here. At their best, violent people are the heroes who don't hesitate to stop the villain threatening innocents by means of a good kick. At their worst, they are the villains themselves.

Experimental vs. Traditional

You received 3 points, making you more Experimental than Traditional. Your position on this scale indicates if you're more likely to seek out the new and unexpected or if you are more comfortable with the familiar, especially in regards to culture. Note that traditional as defined here does not equal conservative, in the political sense. At their best, experimental people are the ones who show humanity the way forward. At their worst, they provoke for the sake of provocation only.

Cynical vs. Romantic

You received -3 points, making you more Romantic than Cynical. Your position on this scale indicates if you are more likely to be wary, suspicious and skeptical to people around you and the world at large, or if you are more likely to believe in grand schemes, happy endings and the basic goodness of humankind. It is by far the most vaguely defined scale, which is why you'll find the sentence "you are also a lot like x" above. If you feel that your position on this scale is wrong, then you are probably more like author x. At their best, romantic people are optimistic, willing to work for a good cause and an inspiration to their peers. At their worst, they are easily fooled and too easily lead.

Author picture from Click the link for license info.

Take Which fantasy writer are you?
at HelloQuizzy

High-Brow 1: Yep, just barely. I'd guess this is true in many things, not just fiction. At my best, cultured and at my worst, a snob. Probably not too far off, honestly. A score of 1 indicates that I am the "lowest brow" High-Brow possible. Sort of like being the last gentleman initiated into the Gentlemen's Club. I'd like to think I can rub elbows with both sides of the fence.

Violent 19: No surprise here. I'd suspect that most D&D fans lean to this side of the Violent vs Peaceful scale. At my best, the vengeful Hero and at my worst, the Villian. A score of 19 on this scale is my strongest lean of the test. I do indeed prefer a story involving the Hero kickin' arse.

Experimental 3: Readers might be surprised based on my preference for all things downright ancient in this day and age (classic D&D, 70s Punk), but I'd think anyone with these sorts of tastes would have an Experimental lean, even if mine is a slight one. I know I've progressed in Traditional values as I have in years. At my best, forward thinking and at my worst, a provocateur.

Romantic 3 (Cynic -3): At my best, optimistic and at my worst, gullible. This is dead-on for me. Just ask Mrs. Sham who thinks I'm a terrible bargain hunter. I do trust in the greater good of mankind, and believe in the human spirit; that despite the odds we shall persevere. Again, just a slight lean here. Like the Experimental vs Traditional scale, I know my leaning has changed as I've matured. I was far less Cynical as a youth.

The fact that my test result was Gene Wolfe was a bit of a surprise. I truly enjoyed Wolfe's New Sun books, and thanks to this quiz I'll likely dust them off and read them again. It's been far too long since I've followed the exploits of Severian, former torturer and future Autarch of Urth. Gene Wolfe's novels are considered a part of the Dying Earth subgenre named after one of my favorite author's works, Jack Vance. Per the New Sun wiki:

The New Sun series belongs to the Dying Earth subgenre, a kind of science fiction/fantasy set in a distant future when the Sun is dying, set against a background of mysterious and obscure powers and events.

So again, thanks to Matt for leading me to this thought provoking test!

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday Flashback

Well, it's been nearly two months since I took the time to put together a new offering in this somewhat irregular theme.

Heard this one on the radio the other day. Damn I miss the old Talking Heads. Their first gig was opening for The Ramones at CBGBs in 1975, and this song, Love - Building on Fire, normally known as simply Building on Fire, was in fact the first Talking Heads single, released by Sire in 1977.

The first few Talking Heads albums are masterpieces; Talking Heads:77, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and Fear of Music. Their fourth, Remain in Light, has its moments, and contains the familiar MTV generation hit, Once in a Lifetime. After their fourth studio LP, the band took a nearly three year long break. During this time the excellent live LP, The Name of this Band is Talking Heads, was released. Once the group got back together for a new studio LP, the direction had changed. It was with 1983's Speaking in Tongues, their fifth studio album, that the band began to realize commercial success, but the raw, jittery art rock sound was long gone.

Members of The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and boasting four albums on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, here is Talking Heads: Building on Fire, from 1978.

I found a pair of interesting covers of Building on Fire for your listening pleasure. An outstanding live cover by The Figgs (sorry about the bass on The Figgs cover, but the audio is otherwise very good), and another live version, this time from Pearl Jam. Enjoy!

The Figgs: Building on Fire

Pearl Jam: Building on Fire

Have a great weekend!

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

One Page Dungeons

When I first put together the concept of the One Page Dungeon, I was pursuing a few different angles. First and foremost I wanted to pursue an economy of words in my adventure writing. I am prone to verbosity and triviality when I allow myself to sit behind the keyboard and plunk away without a care. Such an approach might produce a dungeon which is more interesting for the reader, full of colorful descriptions and answers to various what-ifs which might arise during play. That which is interesting to the Referee does not necessarily add to the adventure nor to the enjoyment of the players involved.

I’ve found after decades of writing that my adventures were becoming more and more bloated, to the point that reading a room description in the middle of a game session was interrupting the natural flow of play. If the passage was for a room I had recently devised, the details were still fresh in my memory, so I didn’t need to actually stop and quietly read what I had written. Given the sheer amount of rooms in many of my dungeons, I found that my memory was failing me when the players entered an area that I had written months or sometimes years before. It was during these moments that I didn’t need all of the extraneous information. I needed the important bits, and I needed them quickly. With this consideration in mind, I began to frown on flavorful entries and the ramifications of possible actions which the players might not even consider. I wanted to stop writing to myself, which is what I realized I often did when I was in my creative mode. Essentially I was looking for nothing more than the facts, distilled down to their most concise form. I needed to cut off the fat and get to the meat.

I assumed that if I forcibly limited the amount of text I would allow myself for a given area of a dungeon, I could devise an interesting exercise in economy of words. Somewhere along the way I read a thread over at the OD&D Discussion forums in which Dwayanu mentioned that he likes to draw maps in a 30x30 square area of the graph paper, thus leaving room for a key. This idea helped me formulate the One Page Dungeon concept. I realized that if I attempted to fill a 30x30 section in my normal mapping method, I’d end up with 20-25 numbered areas, and that restricting myself to that single page, I’d force myself to keep to nothing more than the essentials. Furthermore, the end result would be something which anyone could pick up and run with virtually no preparation time.

Now this opened up other notions. In an effort to create a drop dead simple dungeon format, I’d want to include a few tables on the page as well. Tables which would be at the Referee’s fingertips in order to keep play moving quickly, dispensing with the need to leaf through notes or books. Thus I added Wandering Monsters, Restocking, Random Treasure, and a Legend for the map itself.

The one-page layout I designed originally is found in this thread, and is the exact blueprint which Chgowiz was kind enough to duplicate and turn into a user friendly document for me to continue my project. Were it not for Chgowiz, I doubt I would’ve continued with the concept because my first Word experiments proved to be more trouble than they were worth.

I was surprised by the amount of feedback I got in regard to what I considered to be a simple concept. A concept that in fact, unbeknownst to me at the time, has been done before in slightly different forms by other gamers, including this one by Alex Schroeder. In retrospect, I think what made my concept work was the modular format, the inclusion of tables, and of course Chgowiz’s easy to use version of my template.

One of the best D&D web log authors to enter the fray in the past year, Amityville Mike, took to the concept almost immediately. Mike’s Stonehell, shared through his excellent blog The Society of the Torch, Pole and Rope, is the finest example of the concept to be found on the internet, the Dismal Depths included. Granted, Mike realized the limitations of the One Page right away when he began using the concept for his megadungeon. Stonehell is One Page in spirit, and Mike found that allowing for both sides of the page afforded him the space to describe his rooms and ideas with a bit more clarity, and to include even more tables. Nonetheless, Stonehell is still a One Page Dungeon, even though it uses front and back. The design theory is embraced and Mike has made the most of the template I envisioned.

There is good and bad with the concept. The One Page Dungeon approach challenges the author to convey the essentials while still creating an interesting, viable adventure. The very economy of words, the main driving force behind the concept, is also it’s most limiting factor. This is, as I mentioned in my Dismal Depths Guide, an intentional feature of the approach, not a flaw. The adventure is not going to take the Referee by the hand and guide him or her through the dungeon. There are no suggestions or explanations. There is no boxed text to be read aloud to the players. Trappings and mundane features are kept to a minimum. Theme, plot, back story, hooks, rumors and the why of it all are left to the Referee’s own imagination. The area descriptions themselves intentionally allow for creative input on behalf of the Referee. Nay, they demand it. This is what I refer to when I say the concept is not for the timid, nor the inexperienced. This is not Dungeons for Dummies. The challenge is not merely limited to drawing up a One Page Dungeon. The end result must translate into good gaming, and the Referee must be able to bring this out during play while working with limited resources.

Amongst all of my projects since identifying the Empty Room Principle I have found that this One Page Dungeon concept exemplifies it the best. It is one thing to preach, but another to practice what I preach. One of the greatest strengths of the design theory, one which might be lost upon some, is the minimalistic nature therein, this Empty Room Principal. Much like the original D&D rules I've grown to appreciate more and more, the One Page Dungeon engages the Referee's imagination and offers limitless opportunities for personal input. The descriptions are not restrictive, they do not force your hand, and they do not tell you there is only one way to do things. The text is restricted to a few lines for each area, which should be just enough to encourage and inspire.

Although circumstances have delayed much of the design effort I planned to undertake with the megadungeon which kicked this entire theme off, the Dismal Depths, I have been forming ideas and inventing novelties for that project. I hope to able to return to it seriously in the near future. I’m happy with what I’ve created for it thus far, including the Dismal Depths Bestiary and the Dismal Depths Trap Tables. I’d ask that those who have been looking for new Dismal Depths information keep the faith. There is more to come, have no fear. I don’t want to force anything as the dungeon needs to write itself, otherwise it might lose some luster.

Perhaps this article is something I should have written prior to the One Page Dungeon Contest hosted by Chatty DM and Chgowiz. The contest ended last night, and I have printed all 70 entries. If I had been in charge of submissions, I might have placed more limitations on the design theory. I may have had some notion of “This is my idea, and this is how you do it.” For this reason it is probably best that I had nothing to do with setting up and running the contest. I may have enforced certain criteria or insisted upon inclusion of features important to me. In looking over these entries, I can see that restricting anyone’s creativity is a bad thing, and would’ve been contradictory to the very spirit of the concept. The simplest notion is what made this a good contest. Write an actual, usable adventure on a single page, with a map, and be creative. That was all that was needed to design a good entry.

I’m proud that this innocent little concept has been embraced by those beyond the limited reach of my blog here, just as I am satisfied that the idea is not restricted by my personal design theories. It’s quite clear that many of the contestants had a lot of fun with the idea. Some of the One Page Dungeons don’t look anything like the rudimentary lay out I drew up, for that matter, some don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before. I am left wondering if one of the entries is trying to get a Punk Rock vote from this judge, but I don’t want to leak any more information just yet.

Suffice to say that I am going to be up to my eyeballs in One Page Dungeons for the foreseeable future as I work toward judging these 70 entries. It’s particularly satisfying to see all of these versions of the concept from people who have probably never even heard of me nor read any of my ramblings here.

With that said, I’m signing off for a while for back to back out of town trips in which I’ll be reading and considering these dungeons during downtimes. I should be back to foist more drivel upon the unsuspecting after Memorial Day.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

EDIT: Due to unexpected circumstances, the contest has been extended! Word is that we are up to 90 entries now! Quote from an update by Chgowiz:

"To that effect, we are re-instating all entries that we've rejected in the last 30 hours and will accept new entries until May 21st at 8h00 AM."

So, if you thought you missed the deadline, you haven't! Get to work and make your own One Page Dungeon. Just remember to ignore most of what I wrote above and create your own vision of the ODP format!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Miscellaneum of Cinder

Jeff Rients just announced that his collection of campaign homebrew dice charts is available at Lulu, titled The Miscellaneum of Cinder.

In his words:

"A 36-page booklet of vaguely useful dice charts for games involving mythic underworlds and legendary fire-breathing lizards. Words by me, interior illos by my buddy Pat."

You might also be able to nab an Extra Special Edition if you email Jeff and offer something cool of your own for trade.

Check out this post for more details.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Knockspell #2

Matt Finch just announced that issue 2 of Knockspell is available now from Lulu. Here's a copy of the announcement.

The Swords & Wizardry Storefront:

Knockspell Magazine Issue #2 is now on sale at the Swords & Wizardry storefront, This issue contains dungeon design advice from both Allan Grohe and Philotomy Jurament, an adventure by Gabor Lux, and all kinds of other articles from jousting to monsters and all points in between! The art in this issue is phenomenal: artists include Jim Holloway, Liz Danforth, and others. The cover piece is "Dungeoneer," by Peter Fitzpatrick. Games covered include 0e, 1e, Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, and other retro-clones. 86 pages. Note: the pdf isn't up as of 5/13, but will be up shortly.

DURING MAY the prices of Knockspell #2, Spire of Iron and Crystal (module), The S&W/0e Monster Book, and Eldritch Weirdness Compilation Books Three to One are all reduced, because we're in the middle of another lulu sales competition.

Table of Contents:
3 Editor’s Note, Matt Finch
4 Art Director’s Note, Jeff Preston
4 From Kuroth’s Quill, Allan T. Grohe, Jr.
8 The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld, Jason “Philotomy Jurament” Cone
14 The Trouble with Thieves, James Maliszewski
16 WhiteBox Thief (1): The Treasure Seeker, Rob Ragas
17 WhiteBox Thief (2): The “Standard” Thief, Salvatore Macri
18 Core Rules Thief (1): The Skillful Shadow, Salvatore Macri
20 Core Rules Thief (2), James Maliszewski
21 Thieves and Tasks, Akrasia
24 Isles on an Emerald Sea 2, Gabor Lux
31 Retro-Clones: Interviews with the Authors
36 Jousting (Optional Rules), Brendan Falconer
37 Dungeon Oddities, Michael Curtis
45 The Zocchi Experience, Matt Finch
46 The Claws of Ssur-Sparih, James Carl Boney
47 Random City Lair Generator, Sean Wills
48 Random Thieves Guild Generator, Robert Lionheart
51 The Fantasy Marketplace: Looking at Merchants Differently, Michael Shorten
55 Spell Complexity (Optional Rules), Brendan Falconer
57 Thoughts on Arnesonian Alchemy in the Original Dungeon Game, Jason Vasche
60 When is a Spell Book Much More than a Spell Book?, Brendan Falconer
62 Random Pits & Occupants, Mike Davison
63 Magic Swords & Treasure Maps, Jason “Philotomy Jurament” Cone
67 Leprechauns, David (“Sham”) Bowman
69 Why White Box?, Jim Adams
71 Surviving Old-School Dungeons, Sean Ahmed
72 Three Sorcerous Creations, James Carl Boney
77 Magic Items
78 Review: On the Road of Knives, Matt Finch
79 Masterminds & Minions, bat
82 The Bestiary
86 Classified Ads

Hey, looks like I even found the time to submit an article! Hats Off to Mr. Finch for continuing his fine publication and for the dedication required to make Knockspell such a blessing to our hobby.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Conceptually Speaking

I spent many hours this past weekend reading Tim Kask’s thread at Dragonsfoot. First of all let me say that in my Essentials & Concepts post last month I shortchanged Mr. Kask’s efforts in compiling Supplement II, Blackmoor. I have no doubt that assembling those random, disorganized notes that he received from Arneson was a Herculean effort. It’s just that aside from the Temple of the Frog, which Kask claims was the only section of Blackmoor actually written by Arneson, I find little use with the book. I’ve never been a big fan of the Monk, the Assassin, Hit Location or of marine adventures. There’s little to get excited about. The book surely reads well, but I’m in it for the options and suggestions, and aside from the aforementioned TotF adventure, I don’t much care for that supplement.

It’s quite clear that Tim Kask and Dave Arneson didn’t work well together. In reading Tim’s posts, one finds it obvious that he had an axe to grind in regard to Arneson. That’s some serious long standing ill will, over thirty years after the fact. I cannot question or dispute his assertions in regard to Arneson, and I have no reason to do so. I do however feel compelled to recognize the yeoman’s work that Mr. Kask apparently performed in taking a jumbled hodge-podge basketful of handwritten notes and transforming them into a published book.

While catching up on Tim’s posts I learned quite a bit about the history of D&D and TSR. Tim Kask has probably forgotten more on the two subjects than many of us will ever learn. Assuming everything within is true, I came away from the often scathing comments with what I feel is essentially confirmation of how I envisioned the Gygax & Arneson co authorship of D&D. I’ll not mince words here. Arneson was not gifted with the written word. Gygax, as everyone already knows, was not merely gifted, but was a master of the language. Furthermore, Gygax was uniquely talented at putting together gaming rules. Arneson, not so much, if at all. Dave’s Blackmoor games used many outside rules which were bolted on to the ongoing campaign, such as Chainmail, naval wargame tables, and Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival.

Arneson is quoted as saying that he didn’t write a single word for the original D&D. I don’t doubt this one bit, but I think this fact can be taken out of context. Arneson blended the essential elements that became D&D. I believe this is why Gygax felt obliged to include him as co author. Whether or not Dave actually “wrote” anything in the first three volumes is besides the point. Gygax developed and wrote D&D. You’ll notice I say developed. This, for me, is one of the key points to the entire Gygax & Arneson team, such as it was. Gary did not come up with this concept, Dave did. Gary took Dave’s ideas and formed them into a coherent, comprehensive format that was playable by the masses. Dave couldn’t do that, and was infamous for his disorganized notes and random ideas.

I don’t mean to diminish Gary’s role here. There are certainly major rules differences between D&D’s progenitor Blackmoor, and D&D itself. It was more than a simple compilation and light edit effort. Ideas were nailed down and fleshed out, and made into streamlined playable game features. Grey areas were defined and turned into actual tables and guides. Additional rules from Gary’s Greyhawk were meshed into the system. For example, the concept of Experience, that being the reward for surviving through ongoing game sessions, went from Arneson’s Flunky-Hero-Superhero cycle to Gygax’s actual Class Levels. The idea is the same, but it has been improved immeasurably with Gary’s input. The fact that so much of the Blackmoor game used Chainmail as a basis cannot be dismissed either. Many of Gary’s own conventions introduced therein were a large part of the Blackmoor game.

It seems Arneson was good at coming up with ideas but needed someone else to translate them into a readable and playable format. It strikes me that when Gygax handed that basketful of Arneson’s notes for Blackmoor over to Kask, he knew it was a path he had already traveled. Gygax was confident that Kask could turn them into a Supplement. The components had been there for both D&D and Supplement II, someone just needed to bring them out and make them shine. I’m glad that Mr Kask was able to plunder the Temple of the Frog from those notes, polish it up, and transform it into the first example of a D&D adventure. It was never my intention to belittle his efforts in compiling Supplement II. Considering what Tim apparently had to work with he deserves co authorship on Blackmoor in the same way that Gary did on Dungeons & Dragons.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Monday, May 11, 2009

Thanks Steve

I owe a big Thank You to Steve Zieser for creating the banner you now see above, adorning the top of the page at Ye Auld Grog & Blog. I wanted to give this dusty old place a new look, and Steve was kind enough to draw the horde of menacing Goblins which are now invading your computer screen. I'm proud to unfurl this new banner at the top of my web log, thanks again Steve!

You can find many more of Steve's excellent drawings at his own blog, Curmudgeons & Dragons.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Of Wombats and Zipper Arms

Three decades after the fact, I find myself often looking back with dismay at some of the…shall we say “gonzo”…stuff that I devised for my (A)D&D games of yore. Sure many of us used the AD&D hard covers, but the electricity in the air was still the anything goes feel of the original three volumes. In hindsight it might have been Dave Hargrave’s Arduin that kept that link alive during the long night of AD&D for my particular gaming generation. We were often a house divided; Gygaxian devotees and guys who appreciated Hargrave and such other non-TSR things as the supplements by Fantasy Art Enterprises (Erol Otus and friends). I suppose you could simply say the Realists and the Dreamers. I never began playing this game in an effort to pursue realism. In those days, D&D was a way for me to explore the fantastic, not to quibble about such perceived non sequiturs as Dungeon Ecology. As I’ve written in other forums, the notion of ecology in a multi-level subterranean construction is akin to explaining exactly how Bugs could’ve possibly taken a wrong turn in Albuquerque; to fret about such details is entirely missing the point. It’s Fantasy. The free play of creative imagination, so extreme as to challenge belief.

It was many gaming sessions later that one of my players asked that fateful question, “What do these Monsters eat down here?”. The simple answer was obvious, “Why, YOU, of course!”, but I understood the line of thinking. It was a subject I had already encountered in an issue of The Dragon, a notion which at the time I found to be the antithesis of what I had come to expect from D&D. This is not to say that my dungeons at the time were simply an endless series of rooms with random monsters waiting patiently for the adventurers to open their locked or stuck doors, no. I don’t rightly think I ever designed such a dungeon, even in the earliest days. Nonetheless, the concept of Dungeon Ecology to this day rubs me the wrong way. It’s like Jumbo Shrimp.

All of this said, I did indeed fall into the Dungeon Ecology trap as my games and campaigns progressed through the years. Careful consideration was given to such things as food, air and light. Worst of all, the dreaded notion of Reason was beginning to guide my hand. During this long period, most of the more outlandish things I had hand written and gleefully unleashed upon my players in prior years began to gather dust in my gaming closet. Things were becoming, dare I say, decidedly sensible. I was still able to be imaginative and push the envelope in limitless directions, but in the end I think my adventures became less inspired and more restricted by the laws of logic. Reason was taking root, and diminishing the free flow of boundless creativity.

2008 was the year I folded up my tent and returned to the Dreamers camp, that of Unreason. Now, for whatever reasons, I remember why 30 years ago I never liked that Let There Be a Method to your Madness article in The Dragon. Logic, Reason and Dungeon Ecology had elbowed their way into my games, bringing perhaps a bit too much realism to the fantastic. I suppose you could say I’ve evolved, as do all old hands at Dungeon Mastering. These days I restrict the truly fantastic to the Underworld, while things in the Light of Day on the surface remain somewhat logical. The Wilderness is that grey area betwixt the Underworld and the Light of Day where little bits of Night’s Chaos might still be encountered without warning. So here I find myself now, having come nearly full cycle in my gaming sensibilities.

But what of those aforementioned teenage creations I had written so fervently all those years ago, the ones which I slowly expunged from my later games? I’ve already shared quite a bit in regard to what I did with Hargrave’s Whimsey idea. I still shudder when I read most of that. Would such things entertain my gaming group as it now stands? A few nostalgic laughs at best, methinks. I speak of the other off the wall creations that are slowly fading alongside those Whimsey Tables in my gaming closet. Things like Wombats as a playable race, and the infamous Zipper Arm that each and every player was willing to risk his character’s life for. Here’s a smattering of the possible classes which a character could pursue in those campaigns:

Celestial Crusader
Knight of Liberty
Mystic Knight
Death Dealer
Dimension Dancer
Corzan Warrior
Nesdeon Mage
Knight of Radiant Glory
Dies Iraen Gladiaor
Mar-Vexian Mage
Mar-Vexian Super Soldier
Witch Doctor
Rhythm Walker
Pit Fighter

That’s two dozen, and there were more. Someone, at sometime, played each and every class I devised along the way. Some were created from suggestions by players. I embraced the entire notion that in D&D, the players can be whatever they want to be. One such player wanted to run a multi-classed Phraint Ninja/Engineer which we subsequently dubbed the Ninjaneer. As ludicrous as it might seem now, these are some of the idiosyncrasies which I remember best. Being the nebbish that I was, I was compelled to write up a full description for each such class. There are stories of older D&D games from other DM's in which players were allowed to run anything, but these are mostly in regard to controlling a Monster. We never did that, except with a few notable exceptions in which participants attempted to thwart the other players while incognito, normally as part of the unfolding campaign flow. The above is a list of 24 examples of how I let the players play whatever they wanted to in my early games. I read these homemade classes in the same way I now read my Whimsey Tables; with what I’m afraid might be a jaded eye.

Whatever I think of these reams of notes NOW they certainly worked back THEN. I’m just not sure if what worked was the creations, the way I ran my games, or the chemistry of the assembled gaming crew and our anything goes mentality. No one told us how to play, only showed us possibilities. We were determined to explore the concept to its fullest extent.

One of these days I’ll tell you about Floid the Mongoloyd, Kaledron Kaleidoscope, and the now infamous Zipper Arms; a story which involves the Dark Side of the Moon, Hans the Uber Nazi, an army of Daemon Ducks, and the Seven Lords of Time. Gonzo nothing. More like Double Live Gonzo.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee