“The Third Reich has fallen, but one of its chief scientists, a Dr. Karl von Mark, has been on the run. He was tracked down to somewhere in Africa where he left Earth on a rocket ship. A crack team (you guys) has been sent to pursue him in its own craft. The team followed him to the far side of the moon, where another body, a second moon hidden in a synchronous orbit behind the moon we can see, appears to be his destination. As you close in on the Dr’s ship, he fires a weapon at your ship, causing critical damage; you’re forced to make a crash landing in the jungle of the hidden moon.”
In the past, I’ve made the dangerous claim that good short fiction, like the kind you read in the pulps or in Appendix N, poses a threat to a product-driven OSR whose focus has moved away from systems and into settings materials and modules. My reasoning is that a short story is far easier to digest and build a game around than your typical Gazetteer-style setting product with its oodles of townships, kingdoms, persons of personage, blah blah blah. There are many reasons behind this—a big one is that a good short story only contains details that drive the action. A party may never meet or care about Sir Guy of Thistledown Barrow in the Valley of Dalemorrow, Pop: 1513, Econ: 2, Env: Temperate, but if you read a story about Sir Guy wrecking some three-armed monster in the nearby swamp, all you have to do is swap out Sir Guy with your players’ characters, give the monster a stat bloc and you’re good to go!
As I said, though, this was a dangerous claim, and one I needed to see if I could test. My DM wanted to take a break to work on his game; he offered me a chance to fill in with a one-shot, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. When I reviewed Basil Wells’ Raiders of the Second Moon, I included sample stats for the cultists of Uzdon and the attributes of their magic garb. I even showed how the Temple of the Skull could be used as a gateway to the Holmes Skull Mountain megadungeon. I already had the groundwork in place to run Raiders of the Second Moon.
The whole thing only took a few hours prep spread over three days. I showed a lot of my work here, but I didn’t realize until after I’d run it that I had accidentally created a fully functional rules-lite World War II RPG.
Lots of people make a series of errors when talking about chivalry, and the most common (and egregious) is conflating Chivalry with courtesy and Courtly Love.
Chivalry is ‘Bravery in war; warfare as an art; the military qualities expected of a noble knight; a body of armed men’.
Courtesy is ‘the showing of politeness in one’s behavior and attitude towards others’.
Courtly Love is ‘a ritualized and idealized code of romantic emotional conduct developed in the Late Medieval Period for the behavior of men and women at court’.
Are you a winged hussar with Jan Sobieski at the Great Siege of Vienna, facing the enemy without hesitation?
Are you thanking your waiter for the fresh glass of tea?
Back in the mists of time, I went to college, in Fairbanks, Alaska. While there, I met a scientist, a biologist, who studied bears. I didn’t know him well but, he moved in the same circles I moved in. He was an impressive guy. He was the sort of guy who drove his snow machine 100 miles into the woods to crawl into hibernating bear dens, hook straps to their feet, haul them out, weigh them, take blood and stool samples, and who knows what other parameters. I reckon, in the spring, the bears, upon waking, thought, “I don’t know why, but, I feel like I have been violated.” On one of these trips, his snow machine fell into a gully when the snow arching over it collapsed. He had to walk out on a broken leg. When a bear attacked someone and was shot, they sent him the carcass to autopsy. The arctic entryway of his cabin was lined with bear skulls. Upshot of all this is, he was a tough guy who had a lot of hard earned knowledge about bears.
Once, as my classmates and I were sitting in the cafeteria discussing a trip we were planning to visit Denali Park, we started discussing bears: their sizes, bear attacks we had heard about, chances of seeing a bear, and eventually, how to tell a female bear from a male bear. And, we saw, passing by, this biologist, so we asked him. He said, “It’s obvious, male bears are twice as big as female bears.” We were gobsmacked. It seemed kind of extreme. Upon further questioning, he clarified that mature male bears weigh roughly twice that of mature female bears, size-wise the male bear was about 15 – 20 percent longer and wider. So, look for the overall smaller and less massive looking bears.
What does this have to do with role playing games? Well, role playing games rarely make the distinction between the sexes of animals or monsters encountered (assuming they are gendered). But, couldn’t they? Here is the Moldvay basic set bear statistics. Next to it I have put my version of female bear statistics (assuming the given stats are male bears). I changed Hit Dice, Damage, Save As, and Morale.
The Amazon blurb brags that, “Kalsi shows himself to be more Asimovian than Asimov himself.”
I wouldn’t go quite that far. The Corroding Empire fails as an Asimov pastiche (tribute?) in a few ways. It features a long string of characters who are well rounded and relatable. It doesn’t contain a strong undercurrent of smug superiority over the poor, benighted hoi polloi. It doesn’t make a case that the world would be a better place if only the poor, benighted hoi polloi would turn their every decision process over to the technocrats who really do know better than they what’s best for them.
What it does contain are seventeen short stories and vignettes that document the long, slow, slide of a galactic empire into chaos as a small coding error multiplies and ripples out through the vast, interconnected networks that control everything in the galaxy. Some of the stories are simple character studies. Some are rip-snorting action. Some consist mainly of people standing around talking. You know, about science-stuff.
Even better, it’s not about impartial technocrats willing to allow trillions to suffer NOW because it will make life better for people 900 years from now. Instead, it’s the stories of those who fight and struggle to make life better for the people suffering through the long, slow decline. Even if they cannot fix the galaxy, they still do everything they can to fix their own little corner of it, to hold the threads of civilization together for just a little while longer.
And in that way, this isn’t Asimov. It’s something far better.
Over at National Review, classicist Victor Davis Hanson explains why millions of people are dropping out of contemporary culture in order to read or create books like those on Gary Gygax’s Appendix N list:
The fall-off in movie viewership is not just due to the advent of cable television and streaming video over the Internet. Nor is the rub that new movies are mostly short on plot, dialogue, and characterization, and long on cardboard-cutout comic-book heroes, explosives, car crashes, and sadism. The problem is also that there are finite ways of portraying a good-looking, young, liberal, justice crusader uncovering yet another corporate or oligarchic plot — by villains with southern accents or Russian tattoos — to pollute the planet, promote white privilege, or hurt justice crusaders. The actors, directors, producers, and studios are themselves multimillionaire corporatists who are trying to convince themselves that they are not multimillionaire corporatists — and this is another reason that some of the public has long ago lost interest in these scripted morality plays….
When everything is politicized, everything is monotonous; nothing is interesting. There are only so many ways one can express existential hatred for Trump, turn the Aztecs into the Founding Fathers, or show disrespect for the National Anthem (Kneeling? Or clenched fist held high? Or just sitting? Or turning one’s back? Or talking over the music?). So millions tune out and retreat to reading what was written before 1980, or to watching movies of a past age or seeking their own tribal ties of the mind.
In the 1960s, while working in America, writer Pierre Christin and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières met to collaborate on their next bande dessinée (BD) comic serial. Both men originally wanted to draw a Western, but the market in France had already been saturated with such stories. Instead, they turned to their other great American literary love, science fiction, a genre France once dominated but had abandoned in the despair after World War One. Drawing upon the works of such greats as Pohl Anderson. Isaac Asimov, and Jack Vance, Christin and Mézières created Valerian and Laureline, a landmark time-traveling space opera that has influenced comics such as Métal Hurlant and Heavy Metal, and also films and television, including Star Wars, The Fifth Element, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Throughout the series’ nearly fifty year run, the adventures of Valerian and Laureline were previously only available in English through a scattered handful of issues, starting with Ambassador of the Shadows in the 1981 run of Heavy Metal magazine. Fortunately, French publisher Dargaud has teamed with Cinebook to release the entire twenty-one volume series in print and ebook formats. With the upcoming movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets set to reintroduce the world to Valerian and Laureline with a plot based in part on Ambassador of the Shadows, let’s dive into the original.
In the twenty-eight century, Valerian and Laureline are spatio-temporal agents for Galaxity, the seat of the Terran Galactic Empire. A citizen of Galaxity, Valerian is a good-natured hero that resembles Conan in a spacesuit while acting like a boy-scout’s hero. Laureline, however, hails from 11th century France and is as fiery as her red hair. Where Valerian relies on traditional action and heroics to solve cases, Laureline relies on her charm and guile. Their early adventures through time and space focused on Valerian as the hero with Laureline as his pretty sidekick. Over time, Laureline grows into an equal partner to Valerian. Filmmaker Luc Besson describes their relationship as “It’s a boy and a girl. They have fun, they love each other, but they don’t want to say it. He’s a puppy — he’s watching all the girls, and she’s very old fashioned. For her, you fall in love with one man, you get married, you have kids. Just like that, it’s today, but with aliens and fighting.”
Now… I’m necessarily going to be inclined to say that and not just because Jon Mollison is a friend of mine. Take a look back at the sort of thing I criticize harshly whenever I discuss fantasy and science fiction since 1980. I could not find anything that I normally object to in contemporary works within these pages. And the stuff from the older works that I praise to the skies…? There’s quite a bit of that here as well.
The net result of all this? Science fiction is fun again. Indeed, I can’t remember having this much fun since I picked up Alan Dean Foster’s For Love of Mother Not. And that was a long time ago, too!
Now, it’s already somewhat surreal for me reading something like this. Picking this up on the heels of a particularly heated spat between self-styled pulp revolutionaries and fans of “hard” science fiction like Karl Gallagher and James Cambias, and my head is positively set to spin! Because if you compare this to Karl’s excellent novel Torchship you really can see how little there is that separates the two “sides”.
Like the previous article in the series, this one looks in-depth at a Wargame, trying to find elements that are interesting or good, which can be used to learn because the best games are yet to be made. The game for today is Chaos in the Old World, and was published in 2009 by Fantasy Flight Games.
Wait a minute, you might say, this looks like a Euro game! It is. Who told you that Wargames and Euros are mutually exclusive categories? Especially from a design perspective, there are too many similarities to ignore all the things which can be learned by cross-examination.
This game caught my attention for a variety of reasons, not the least was my love of the rich depth of literature in the Warhammer universe in which the game is set. Primary though is its theme: Instead of playing as good versus evil, differing nations, or trying to take territory, the players play as the four dark gods of Chaos. Read More
A lot of people have asked me what “Appendix N: The Game” would look like. I usually just joke that we already have one: it’s called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons first edition! The thing is, people have been arguing about this for decades. Open up early issues of The Dragon and you’ll find longwinded letters from people explaining how the game got this or that wrong from the source literature. Heck, the independent rpg design scene was arguably launched with an attempt to answer this question via Ron Edwards’s Sorcerer & Sword. But wouldn’t it be nice if someone took the time to seriously look at how to tune up the old style game with an eye towards how things actually work in all those old books that are nothing like the fantasy ethos that tabletop gaming had a hand in creating?
Well it’s happening with Autarch’s new Heroic Fantasy & Barbarian Conquerors Collection Kickstarter. And this is such a monumental task that it can’t fit within the pages of a single tome!
Here’s a rundown on what they’re going for with the Heroic Fantasy Handbook:
What do we mean by “heroic fantasy flavor”? It’s the flavor that J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard have in common, once you remove what’s different. Tolkien and Howard are usually considered opposites – high fantasy versus swords & sorcery, British versus American, literary versus pulp, and so on. But if they are opposites, they are opposite faces of the same coin, and that coin is heroic fantasy. Their worlds have more in common with each other, and with those of luminaries such as E.R. Burroughs, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and Michael Moorcock, than with any of their contemporary epigones. Heroic fantasy is set in a world like our own world, one that might even be our world, in its distant past or far future. Its heroes, though men and women of extraordinary talent and drive, have none of the “super-powers” now common in contemporary fantasy (especially games). They do not typically teleport, fly, shoot fire, or raise the dead. Magic in heroic fantasy is more subtle and nuanced than in contemporary fantasy. It works with what is, rather than creating what is not. A magician cannot teleport straight to his friend’s distant castle, though his whispered dreams might reach his friend across the black gulfs of space. A magician will not fling magic missiles, but he might call down lightning from a storm, or capsize a boat with a wave. Working magic might require lengthy ceremonies, terrible sacrifices, or the power of primeval places. And those who use magic risk corruption. Even the wisest can lose their mind, body, and soul if they tamper with dark magic. That’s heroic fantasy.
I’ve already talked about “The Incredibles” once, but I think it’s worth talking more about it.
Because here’s the thing. “The Incredibles” is not a good movie. It’s not even a great movie. It is a brilliant film. It’s one of the best movies of all time – and I am dead serious.
It really is that good.
“The Incredibles” is part of a particular class of stories I refer to as Decon/Recons, for Deconstruction/Reconstruction (I’m sure TVTropes will provide the technical terminology if anyone cares to look). This is a surprisingly common sub-genre of stories, and when it’s done well it can be incredibly powerful. Read More
1980 is often used as a dividing line between the time when a reader could pick up a rocketship book and expect science fiction and the time when he could pick up a rocketship book and get…something…else. The year comes up repeatedly, whether in comments on the Castalia House blog or through talk of Appendix N by Jeffro Johnson and others. Various explanations get thrown about as to the changes, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to the Thor Power Tools case. Often, the specter of New Wave is invoked, taking the blame for the loss in reader trust and diminished sales. But the 1970s were science fiction’s Crazy Years, and key trends get hidden in the unceasing march of deaths, cancellations, lawsuits, and blockbusters that reshaped the genre.
Prior to the 1970s, short fiction was the favored form of science fiction. Collected in magazine, these short stories were edited by a revolving door of writers turned editors, such as Campbell, Pohl, and Bova. With Campbell as a notable exception, these editors would return to writing afterwards. It also meant that the body of science fiction was building off of or reacting against a tradition of science fiction established during the pulps. Even as the actual pulps vanished, science fiction writers from Bester and Moorcock to Farmer and Zelazny continued to work with characters and ideas from the pulp age.
However, in the 1970s, short fiction was replaced by the novel as the dominant medium. Instead of the writers and magazine editors shifting over into the book editor slots, a new generation of editors took over that had:
“little reading background in science fiction prior to their assumption of their posts, none of them have ever written it. (The central editors of previous decades were all writers or people who had at least attempted to write in the field.) They have a scant background in the field and for many of them (again, not all) science fiction editing is a way station, an apprentice position on the way to editing something, anything, other than science fiction.” (1)
These were the editors of which as early as 1968 jokes were made that they thought the genre was invented by Harlan Ellison, a criticism that would continue to be made in 1981:
(to most contemporary science fiction editors “modern” science fiction began with Harlan Ellison, and they have only the most superficial acquaintance with the work of the forties, fifties, and even nineteen-sixties) (2)
Because of this, the book editors tended “to publish what looks like science fiction” as opposed to what was truly science fiction. And, since they were risk adverse, or, at the very least, fearful of making mistakes, there was a great narrowing of the field.
“Most science fiction editors seem mostly to seek the assurance that they are doing nothing wrong and since I cannot grant them this assurance I stay away from most of them.” (3)
This shift in gatekeepers from fans and writers to ticket-punching careerists on their way to more desirable positions gutted science fiction of its pulp and Campbell traditions, a loss apparent to the old hands as early as 1981. By publishing what looked liked science fiction instead of the previous mainstream of science fiction, these editors were no different than the cargo cultists of World War 2. And the readers who were served imitation science fiction instead of the real deal left in droves.
It’s Monday! Which can only mean one thing: DADDY WARPIG IS BACK TO WIN ENEMIES AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE!
Now, I make people mad. (You may not have noticed.) But, really, this isn’t my fault.
I’m such a polite and mild-mannered guy.