Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Influence of Warlock on Holmes Basic Combat, part II

     The Blue Book contains a notorious "broken rule": all weapons do fixed 1d6 damage (pg 18), but "light weapons such as the dagger allow two blows per round" and two-handed weapons can be used only once every other round (pg 20). This rule as written wildly favors daggers (2d6 per round) over swords (1d6 per round) over two-handed swords (1d6 every other round). Not a big deal if only M-Us with poor AC are using daggers, but if all the fighters in plate & shield are also using daggers it gets ridiculous. Plus no one would ever use a two-handed weapon since you lose doubly on damage and AC (no shield).

     There's been much discussion of where this came from, with theories ranging from the earlier Chainmail Man-to-Man rules or the upcoming AD&D rules. It often comes up when a new pair of eyes reads the Blue Book and thinks they are missing something. Most theories envision poor editing on the part of Holmes and/or TSR, which I don't deny. I also agree that Chainmail is the ultimate source of this rule, but I think I've discovered a more direct source: the Warlock combat system "Attack Matrix". I've previously described the Warlock system and how Holmes used it when he started, and made an earlier post about how it influenced the order of combat in the Blue Book.

     I think the telling language is Holmes' use of the term "blows", which barely appears in OD&D (or the relevant section of AD&D), but is used in Chainmail and Warlock. In Chainmail, a weapon that is 4 classes above another (e.g., 1 vs 5) gets two blows per round, and one 8 classes above (e.g., 1 vs 9) gets three blows per round. Thus daggers (class 1) get one blow versus a sword (class 4), and three versus most two-handed weapons (e.g., two-handed sword, class 10). The weapon classes and chances for each to hit various types of armor are in the Man-To-Man-Melee Table in Appendix B (pg 41).

    Warlock seems to have expanded the Chainmail MtM Table for its own Attack Matrix. Like the MtM Table, each weapon (dagger, hand axe, sword, flail, etc) has its own chances for hitting different ACs, although here in d% rather than 2d6 chances. Following these, each weapon is given a number of blows per combat "phase", the Warlock term for rounds. Finally, each is given a number of d6 Damage Dice. A dagger gets 4 attacks of 1d6 per phase; a long sword gets 3 attacks of 2d6; and a two-handed sword gets 1 attack of 3d6. These are balanced by different effectiveness against different ACs, particularly the lower ACs where two-handed weapons have more chance of hitting (similar to Chainmail MtM). Monsters have a similar table with multiple blows for smaller, faster attacks.

     Comparing the three systems, Warlock is closer to what Holmes used - a dagger gets more attacks than sword (2 vs 1 in Holmes; 4 vs 3 in Warlock) or two-handed sword (4 vs 1 in each). Based on this, and the knowledge that Holmes used the Warlock supplement in his early years of playing, my conclusion is that Warlock is the immediate source for the rule in the Basic rulebook. This is not to say that Holmes was not also familiar with Chainmail; the Basic rulebook parry rule is closer to that in Chainmail than the rule in Warlock.

     It remains that Holmes' version is unbalanced without the multiple damage dice and/or Weapon vs AC used in Warlock. It's unclear if this was overlooked or lost during editing. Next time I'll talk about simple ways to retain the Holmes rule but use it more effectively.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Storytelling with B2

     A few nights ago my 4-year old son asked if we could finish reading the "castle book". By this he meant the module B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Last week "The Warrior" had approached the gate, talked to the guards and the Corporal of the Watch, eaten fruit off the menu in the Tavern, met a Dwarf, stayed in a private room (his choice) at the Inn and bought equipment from the Provisioner. I used a few pictures from the module to help illustrate this, including the one above from the back of the module, and the two-part picture by DSL of the guard on the battlements hailing the mounted traveler on the drawbridge. He's been watching the 1967 Spiderman lately so I thought he could handle the same level of danger/adventure.

     We started with a recap of the last week's story. Now the Warrior had a meeting with the Castellan, who asked him to investigate the rumors of menacing caves in the woods, and gave him a potion of healing. He met the Dwarf by the fountain and they headed out. I showed him the Wilderness Map, pointing out the various features (road, river, hills, woods), and the numbers and the clearings that they would need to explore. He wanted to start with #1, so they headed south to the "stream" and wondered how to cross. After some discussion, they crossed near the islands where it turned out to be shallow and rocky. Heading into the swamp, they found a large dirt mound with a dark cave on the north side. They noticed footprints in the mud with claws instead of toes. The Dwarf lit a torch, but wouldn't go in first. So the Warrior took out his sword and walked in a little way until he saw a pair of eyes and heard a voice growl, "Leave us alone". Of course, the Warrior didn't leave, so a Lizardman came forward out of the dark. I showed him the picture from the Monster Manual:

      Many more eyes appeared behind him in the dark. The Warrior thought maybe he should "poke" the Lizardman with his sword, but the Dwarf suggested there were too many so they backed out of the cave. The Lizardman followed them and asked if they would be interested in a job getting rid of some spiders in the woods to the south, in exchange for a gold necklace. The Warrior agreed and they walked south into the tamarack stand. In the woods they eventually reached a clearing in the middle with lots of webs around. As Warrior walked into the clearing a large spider dropped on the Dwarf's shoulder and bit him! The Dwarf killed the spider but fell over, poisoned. Meanwhile two spiders came scurrying towards the Warrior. One sprung at him but he caught in the air with his sword. The other tried to bite his leg but he stomped on it and then stabbed it. The spiders dispatched, he checked on the Dwarf, who had a numb arm but was able to walk. They searched under the webs, where among animal bones they found the skeleton of an elf with an old shield. The Dwarf told the Warrior that an elf from the Keep once disappeared across the marshes. They put the skeleton in a sack to bring back to the Keep for burial. At the edge of the woods they were met by a group of the Lizardmen, who gave them the necklace after verifying the spiders were dead. The Warrior and Dwarf then returned to the Keep and told the Castellan what they had found. The Castellan's Advisor was grateful to learn what had happened to his cousin, the elf who had perished, and let them keep the shield, which was magical, in return. And the Warrior wants to sell the necklace to buy some "fire fighter and police equipment". 

     Until next time...

Continued in: Storytelling With B2, Part II

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

35 years ago this month (Mar 77)

     Thirty-five years ago this month, The Dragon #5 (March 1977) featured the second short story by Gardner Fox about the Conan-esque hero, Niall of the Far Travels. See Grognardia's review of this story posted yesterday. The cover of this issue features a scene from the story illustrated by David C. Sutherland III. Fox would go on to have ten different Niall stories published in Dragon, more than any other author. Holmes included Gardner Fox in his short list of fantasy authors in the Blue Book (pg 41, 2nd print), which came out later that year. Fox was a special guest at that summer at Gen Con X, which was first advertised on the inside cover of this month's Dragon.

     Holmes also attended Gen Con X, around the same time the Basic Set was released. I still don't have any hard proof of the exact date of release - it could be anywhere from June to Sep '77. But in the Spring of '77 Holmes was probably editing the Basic Set, or perhaps had already finished his draft and submitted it to TSR, in advance of publication.

     Pages 4-5, 7-9 and 28 of the issue have an article titled "Witchcraft Supplement for Dungeons & Dragons" by an anonymous author. While the witch in this article is not fully described as a class, it possibly was responsible for Holmes' mention in the Blue Book that AD&D would contain a witch subclass. The witch would later appear as a full PC class for OD&D in The Dragon #20 (Nov 1978). Last year,on the OD&D Discussion Forums, paleologos provided an extract of the later version of the witch for the Holmes set (i.e., levels 1-3). The earlier version from #5 is more of a difficult NPC opponent for OD&D characters, with high level witches having gonzo magic items like Mountain Seeds:

"Similar to Hill Seeds in function but much deadlier. When pitched into the air thee gloves will swell to the size of a castle almost immediately. With one such seed a wizard could crush armies or destroy a town. They are safest when dropped from above, but can be thrown up from the ground if you are able to use teleportation and escape before it comes down."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Blue Book Hydras

Seven-headed Hydra by David C. Sutherland III from page 29 of the Blue Book

     While working on the Monster Reference Table for Holmes Basic, I was reminded that Hydras in these rules are given Hit Dice that "varies with number of heads". In the description, Holmes then notes that "Each head is represented by one hit die of 6 points, so a three headed hydra has 18 points, a 6 headed one, 36". This is more open-ended than either the original Hydra entry in Monsters & Treasure, or the versions in the Monster Manual or  the B/X Expert Set, which each limit Hydras to having 5-12 heads. Since Holmes places no limitation on the number of heads, and gives the specific examples of 3- and 6-headed Hydras, we can extrapolate the following table:

     We can also postulate that a young Hydra starts with 1 head/1 HD, and add heads and HD as it ages (the above table can also be used for rolling a random Hydra with a d12).

     This is one small way that Holmes made the original OD&D monster list more appropriate for Basic levels. I think it's often overlooked because (1) the illustration shows a seven-headed hydra (see above) and (2) everyone is more familiar with the 5-12 HD Hydra. To emphasize this feature I placed Hydras right after the 3HD monsters on the Monster Reference Table, making them entry 3-12. They could appear as a 3rd level monster if you use the table for Wandering Monsters as I previously suggested.

    A few other notes:
    -There's a silhouette of a body lying below the Hydra in the picture above. Presumably there was another fighter on the ledge who was taken out by the Hydra, which still has all 7 heads in action. Doesn't bode well for the sole remaining warrior.

    -The 1st-3rd printings of the Blue Book contained an extra paragraph at the end of the entry for Giants that mentions Hydras among their "pets".

     The reference to Hydras as guards for Giants is from Monsters & Treasure, page 9. This paragraph (along with the entry for Nixies that I posted yesterday) was deleted from the second edition (Nov '78) of the Blue Book. I don't see any reference to Hydras in the descriptions of the various Giants in the Monster Manual.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Now with Nixies!

     I've revised the Holmes Monster Reference Table to include Nixies, which were found in the 1st-3rd prints (Lizard Logo) of the Basic rulebook, and were removed starting with the 2nd edition (Wizard Logo, Nov 1978). I thought I was at the limit for lines but managed to fit in one more line. This has the added bonus of bringing the table to an even 80 entries. Jeff Rients recently referred to the Monster List as the "Holmes 65"; my list is the "Holmes 80" due to separate lines for the various Dragons, Giant, Lycanthropes and Spiders.

Download link:

     While this table is based on the Holmes list, it should work well for OD&D, as Holmes took most of the monster stats directly from the OD&D books.

     As a bonus, here's the entry for Nixies from the 1st print for anyone who has a later print:

Friday, March 23, 2012

Obscure Art Friday: Balrog by Greg Bell

"Balrog" by Greg Bell from pg 13 of Dungeons & Dragons, Vol 2, Monsters & Treasure

     This picture of a Balrog is from the LBBs (aka OD&D), specifically Vol 2, Monsters & Treasure, pg 13. It's by Greg Bell, who did much of the artwork in the LBBs, including the original covers. The Balrog is flying, perhaps to attack, and is shrouded in faint flames (which did not reproduce well in the printed picture). Also note that he is wearing boots and a bracer.

     I have a later (OCE) set of the LBBs, and I didn't realize until recently that this picture was is of a Balrog. But in the 1st through 5th printings, this picture was actually labeled "Balrog". It was followed on page 14 by the monster entry for Balrogs. In the 6th printing many Tolkien references were removed. The entry for Balrog was deleted and replaced by a cartoon by Tom Wham. This Balrog picture was left in, but the title "Balrog" was removed. Which is why this picture is missing a name unlike most of Bell's monsters.

    For those who also have a later printing of OD&D, I've created a Balrog Reference Sheet that lists all of the places where Balrog-related information was removed from the LBBs and Chainmail. It also lists the Balrog references in Greyhawk, but not Eldritch Wizardry, which fundamentally changed the original Balrog by turning it into a Type VI demon.

     I've always considered Balrogs as part of D&D, as Holmes included two of the original references in the Blue Book. See my previous post Balrogs in the Blue Book for a description of these.

Possible inspiration for Bell's Balrog pic?

Thursday, March 22, 2012 blog post

Today I spotted this recent (3/15) blog post on featuring the Holmes Basic Set:

Basic Damage by alphastream1

Warning: only read if you can tolerate some Holmes criticism mixed with 4E praise.

"Our group's first reaction was one of confusion. We really were not prepared for a book that was more poorly worded than OD&D, but this actually may be. It is actually hard to tell whether elf and dwarf are a race or a distinct class, and the class features are never in one place."

This is a new one to me; I haven't really heard anyone say Holmes is less clear than OD&D. Holmes says that dwarves and halflings are "members of the fighter class" and elves are both fighters and M-Us. Perhaps they were bringing Moldvay-baggage to the table and were confused that Holmes didn't go that far with race=class.

"At the end of character generation we were pretty sure we had a few things wrong. Thankfully, the game is very simple. 9 pages contain the information for players. The rest is spells, monsters, items, and a smattering of info about running a campaign."

This is a good observation. Nine pages (~17 single sided sheets) for the players. In fact if you have the pdf that RPGnow used to sell, you could print off these pages and voilà! instant Holmes Players Handbook for your players.

The last part of the post has some real howlers from an OSR point-of-view. Basically how we can never go back to "Basic" since we've evolved into higher lifeforms that must have story elements that interact with our characters' ponderous backstories. He agonizes over the trap that the more recent versions of D&D have fallen into: the players spend so much time crafting their characters that they can't stand to have them die, so there's no real sense of danger. Luckily, a few of the commenters, including llenlleawg (who has been posting recently at OD&D Discussion), take him to task.

Record Prices for Holmes Basic

     Earlier this week an Ebay auction by the Collector's Trove for a Holmes Basic set in shrinkwrap ended at $315, with four bidders driving the price from $50 to $315. Believe it or not, this is not even the highest price a shrinked Holmes set has sold for. Here's are the four highest sale prices in my records:

1) SW 1st print (F115-R code, Lizard Logo) - owned by Brian Blume - ~$500 - GenCon 2009
2) SW 3rd print (Lizard Logo) - owned by Gygax - $331.05 - Jun 2011
3) SW 7th? print (Wizard Logo) - Collector's Trove personal auction - $315 - Mar 2012
4) SW 4th+ print (Wizard Logo) - owned by Gygax - $308.25 - Mar 2011 

     #2-4 were all auctioned by the Collector's Trove, with #2 and 4 being part of the Gygax collection, and these naturally went for much higher prices than normal due to celebrity and charity factors (in common with all of the Gygax collection items). #3 is surprising because it's simply from the Collector Trove's personal collection, but he may have benefited from the exposure from running so many Gygax and other TSR employee auctions. #1 was bought by one of the Acaeum's premier collectors (stratochamp) in the annual GenCon auction, and he knew exactly what he was paying for. 1st print Holmes sets are rare to begin with, and are very rare in shrinkwrap, and #1 was also from the collection of Brian Blume. #1 is also interesting in that it has a blank box bottom. Normally the 1st print has a printed picture on the box bottom, but a few copies have been found with the blank bottom, so #1 confirms that they were actually sold this way (rather than being a later "Frankenstein"). Generally with 1970's TSR products the blank box bottom preceded the printed box bottom, so it's possible this version is a "true 1st" print. There's been some speculation (see this thread) that this version was sold at Gen Con in Aug 1977; but I actually haven't even seen any hard proof that the Holmes Set was actually for sale there or by that time (as opposed to Sep or Oct '77). Also, it could just indicate a shortage of printed box bottoms.

"true?" 1st print Holmes Basic box top - not in shrinkwrap - sold on the Acaeum last fall
"true?" 1st print Holmes set box bottom
   I'm neutral with regard to the high prices. I'd never pay these prices myself, but I don't mind if someone else does. They also don't astound me after perusing the Acaeum forums for years and seeing how much collector's are willing pay for various rarities. And I'm glad that some of the shrinked copies are being preserved. There were probably 500,000 to 1 million of the Holmes sets produced and there are usually ~10 on Ebay at any given time for $10-$20, so it's not like the handful of shrinkwrapped sets is keeping anyone from getting a copy. It's kind of a tribute to the Holmes set that it's now valued enough to command that much money. Also, I would caution that the later print shrinked sets are more common than the most recent price would indicate. The Collector's Trove apparently sent out some second chance offers after the auction, suggesting he had multiple copies. Also some one immediately put one up on Ebay this week with a "bargain" price of $300 after seeing the final price for the Collector's Trove auction and it hasn't sold yet.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Holmes on Empire of the Petal Throne

"Dr. Holmes considers EPT..."

     As reported elsewhere, Professor M.A.R. Barker, creator of the world of Tékumel and several RPGs based on it including Empire of the Petal Throne (TSR, 1975), passed away a few days ago. Today also marks two years since the passing of Dr. Holmes. As a tribute to Professor Barker and his work, I've transcribed Holmes' review of EPT from his 1981 RPG book. I think it provides an excellent introduction to Tékumel for the uninitiated.

Empire of the Petal Throne
by J. Eric Holmes, part of Chapter 7 in Fantasy Role Playing Games (1981)

     The world of Tékumel is one of those rare creations of a single human imagination. It is a fully realized planet with a geography, ecology, history and bizarre civilization, all the invention of Professor M.A.R. Barker. Many greater writers of fantasy have created imaginary worlds or countries so elaborately detailed that their readers become half-convinced that they exist. J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth comes immediately to mind, as does Barsoom, Hyperborea, Islandia, Earthsea, Witch World or the Land of Oz.

     Barker began imagining his own world at the age of ten. Like Tolkien he is fascinated by languages (he is a professor of languages at the University of Minnesota) and started with the written and spoken tongues of Tékumel. As the years went by, his fantasy world became more complete, an entire science fictional history developed as well as the geography, fauna and flora of one of the most exotic planets in all of imaginary literature. Unlike most world creators, though, Professor Barker turned his creation not into a story (although there are rumors of a forthcoming novel) but into a game!
[The novel proved to be Man of Gold (1984, DAW) - Z]

     Empire of the Petal Throne is a fantasy game in which the players take the role of adventurers in a completely unique world, and a very dangerous and exciting world it is, too. Tékumel has been colonized, in the distant past, by humans and other races from far parts of the galaxy, suppressing the original inhabitants. The world then suffered some cosmic catastrophe, was dislocated in space and time, and is now isolated completely from the rest of the universe, alone with its sun and two moons in a continuum where the ordinary rules of physics no longer hold. Here magic is possible and demons from other dimensions can enter Tékumel and influence the course of human events. The catastrophe destroyed the human civilization and most of its technology and now, after 25,000 years or more, mankind has risen again to something one step ahead of barbarism. The game takes place in the Empire of Tsolyani, and the players usually enter the game at the capital city of Jakalla. Most of the creatures and non-human races of Tékumel are unique, being either original inhabitants (mostly hostile) or remnants of extra-terrestrial races who had colonized the world with the original human settlers.

     Professor Barker's rule book gives much of this background as well as an adequate discussion of the rules of the game. Conduct of the game goes very much like Dungeons and Dragons and is obviously modeled upon it. Barker makes extensive use of "percentile dice" - rolling two 20 sided dice and having one be decimals and one units. Combat uses one 20 sided die, and gives the die roll for a hit against whatever armor the defender is wearing. There isn't much metal on Tékumel; armor is frequently a specially treated animal hide, Chlen hide, hardened to metal-like consistency. Magic users command an increasing number of spells as they rise in experience, as do the priests of various gods. There is usually a chance that the spell will fail to work (60% at first level of experience), although the magic user's basic talents will increase his ability to cast spells.

     Magic spells are quite varied. The magician may have the ability to perform ESP or telekinesis or cast an illusion and then gain more spells as rises in level, learning eventually how to do things like call demons, fly, grow invisible or create walls of fire, ice, stone or water.

     Because Tékumel was once a world of complex technology, there are "magical" artifacts still available which perform remarkable feats. Chief among these are the "eyes," small round gem-like objects, usually with one or more control buttons on their sides. Players discovering one of these magical devices may be able to call up a faceless army, or raise the dead, knock down doors, freeze opponents or charm the opposite sex. It is the quest of such power-giving items, as well as golden treasure (Kaitars) which motivates most of the players in the World of Petal Throne.

     There is an underworld to Tékumel, a maze of buried passageways beneath most of the large cities. Here the treasure of the older, lost civilization may yet be found, and also monsters and traps encountered. The "dungeon" aspect of the fantasy game is preserved. Construction of maps for all these aspects of the adventure is left to the hard working referee.

     Playing fantasy adventures in Te'kumel has the appeal of exploring a world which, although human, is totally alien. This may create more work for the poor referee, who must master the background information on politics, zoology and religion before letting the players loose in the world. The clarify of the rule books, however, is outstanding. The rules are remarkably blood-thirsty; the demons and devils of Te'kumel are real; the politics are treacherous; slavery, human sacrifices and assassination are commonplace. The society resembles that of the Byzantine or Aztec empires at the height of their power more than it does contemporary America. But then, if one is going on an imaginary adventure, why not take incredible risks?

     In the past Barker's minor masterpiece has been printed and distributed by TSR Hobbies. At the time this book is written, however, there is a rumor that this relationship has ended and that Lou Zocchi will be producing a new version of the game. Barker's fans publish an "occasional" magazine and some other additons to our knowledge of Te'kumel.

     Professor Barker's rules come with complete descriptions of all of the other worldly characters, monsters, demons and gods of his world, often with illustrations of the more bizarre. The round-bodied Ahoggya, for example, have four legs, four arms and four faces. The illustrations are often amateurish, but make up for anything they lack in artistry in their clarification of detail and the atmosphere of exotic other-worldliness they give the book.

     The rules for the game are carefully explained. Barker is a teacher, and one could predict that he would go to considerable lengths to clarify the methods of play. There is also a map of the major city, Jakalla, with all the major buildings, temples, palaces and tombs indicated thereon. Maps of a large portion of the planet are also included. Professor Barker has of course also included brief descriptions of the Tsolyani script and a guide to pronunciation. These need not be mastered to enjoy the game, however.

[Bolding to one sentence added for emphasis - Z]

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Screenshot of MONSTER REFERENCE TABLE (download link below)

    I've put together a one-page sheet (in pdf format) listing the stats for all of monsters from the 2nd/3rd edition Holmes rulebook. The monsters are listed by HD from lowest to highest; there are 79 80 entries (the various Dragons, Giants, Lycanthropes and Spiders are listed separately; only the various Horses are combined on one line). The Nixie found only in the 1st print was left out for lack of space. The next-to-last column lists habits of the creatures, most taken directly from the Holmes descriptions; for a few I went either to the Holmes version of B2 (e.g. kobolds) or the Monster Manual (e.g. the various dragons). The second page of the pdf has suggestions for using the sheet, which I've reproduced below. If you find any typos let me know and I'll correct the sheet. Hope this is useful!

Download link:

3/24 update: Table has been revised to add Nixies, giving an even 80 monsters.

1. Print the table for reference during the game, possibly as part of a custom DM screen.

2. Use the last column to randomly select monsters for wandering monsters or for dungeon stocking. The monsters are ordered by Hit Dice, with roughly 12 monsters per level. For a completely random selection, roll a d8 (re-roll 8s) and a d12. For low-level monsters, roll a d3 (or d4) and a d12. For # appearing, the total HD of monsters should roughly equal the total levels of the party.

3. Generate new monsters by rolling independently in each column. Use the results for inspiration; change or re-roll anything that doesn’t fit the others.


Column: Roll = Result  

Type: 5-7 = Mummy/Undead  
HD: 6-11 = 9
DMG × AT: 3-1 = 1-6 × 1 [I doubled the damage below]
AC: 5-6 = 3
MV: 2-11 = 120
AL: 4-4 = LE
TT: 1-11 = Q [I added B below]
Characteristics: (roll twice; pick one from each. Re-roll if it doesn’t make sense):
3-8 = Shrieking  

6-1 = Silver/magic to hit 
Habits (roll twice, take 1st listed and then 2nd listed, if applicable):
6-7 = fierce; 1-1 = rushes

Caterwauling Corpse-worm

Move: 120 feet/turn
Hit Dice: 9
Armor Class: 3
Treasure Type: Q, B
Alignment: lawful evil
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: 2-12

     The undead corpse of a purple worm animated by evil spirits of the deep. The lower hit dice than a living worm reflects desiccation and decay. When a corpse-worm spots a living creature it will burst forward at unnatural speed (triple movement), producing a hideous sound as air rushes through small holes in its body. A character who hears this must Save vs. Turned to Stone or be frozen with fear. As with living worms, a victim is swallowed by any hit that is 2 over the minimum required. However, the lack of a working digestive system means the victim is not further harmed but is trapped inside the worm. Escape is not possible without a silver or magic weapon (requiring three successful attack rolls by the victim) or unless the worm is killed. They are filled with the bones and possessions of victims who were swallowed and could not escape. The tail stinger has atrophied and is not used for attack. Turned as a vampire; only damaged by silver or magic weapons.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Obscure Art Friday: Slithering Tracker by Bill Willingham

Slithering Tracker by Bill Willingham
     Here's yet another piece of original artwork found along with the Masher, Drow Captain and Bugbear Chieftain. This one illustrates the Slithering Tracker from the Monster Manual, which is described as "transparent and almost impossible to discover" and having a "semi-fluid body" that can "flow through openings as small as a rat hole or a large crack under a door". I hadn't really thought of the Tracker as one of the "clean-up crew", but this illustration makes me think it's related to the oozes, jellies, and puddings. Like the Masher, this is another monster that might have gotten more attention with an illustration. I always assumed there was no illustration because it was invisible!

     I hadn't seen this piece until recently when I happened across it on a page at Tome of Treasures. According to the original post on the Acaeum the ebay lot where these were found also included a Giant Skunk by Willingham and an unattributed Shadow, each of which was intended to be added to the Monster Manual (but never were). I haven't come across scans of the Giank Skunk or Shadow anywhere.

     If you'd like to see more Willingham art, there's a recent thread over on the OD&D Discussion forums dedicated to his work that has some scans and links. In the first post of the second page I started compiling a bibliography of his work.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Shadow Over Portown

Xenopus laevis, Daudin (1802)

     The name of the wizard Zenopus is very close to Xenopus, which means “strange foot” in Greek, but is also the name for a genus of African clawed frogs, which are social, aquatic, fish-eating, and have unusually large hindfeet that are webbed and clawed. The use of the name was presumably an in-joke as Dr. Holmes was a neurophysiologist and Xenopus laevis is commonly used in biological research. Holmes would also have been aware of the Temple of the Frog adventure in the Blackmoor supplement, as he mentioned going through all of the OD&D supplements when preparing the Basic rulebook.

     In the fall after the publication of the Basic Set, Holmes wrote up the Cthulhu mythos for publication in Dragon magazine #12 (Feb 1978), with additions by Rob Kuntz. This was later used as the basis of the Cthulhu mythos in Deities & Demigods (1981), with further revision by Jim Ward. One of the entries was for the Deep Ones from Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth. In Holmes' original write-up, the Deep Ones "occupy certain coastal towns" and "are frog like in appearance with webbed hands and feet. As they grow older they spend more time in the ocean and become more icthic in appearance. They are potentially immortal, as are their halfbreed offspring". Holmes later used a highly similar race of frog/fish-men called the Dagonites as the antagonists of his own D&D-derived novel, The Maze of Peril (1986).

     Since Zenopus lives in a coastal town (Portown) and has an amphibious name, we can speculate a connection between him and the frog-folk for whom Holmes had a literary affinity. Like the narrator of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, perhaps Zenopus was a half-breed Deep One who discovered his roots at an older age, perhaps while exploring the pre-human city upon which Portown was built.

     "What lies in the (undiscovered) deeper levels where Zenopus met his doom?"

A cloaked Deep One painted by Bleaseworld

Friday, March 9, 2012

Obscure Art Friday: Bugbear Chieftain by Jeff Dee

     Here's a Bugbear Chieftain by Jeff Dee, circa 1980. According to the Monster Manual, a chief has "armor class 3, 28-30 hit points, attacking as a 4 hit dice monster, and doing +2 damage". The MM further specifies that bugbears use a range of weapons "from swords to clubs with spikes set in them (morning stars)", fitting with this fellow's sword and morning star. This bugbear wears similar armor (vest & arm pieces) as the one in the main illustration by David Sutherland in the MM. The Chieftain's shield appears wooden, with a knight emblazoned, and slightly damaged - perhaps plundered from a fallen adventurer?

     Like the Drow Captain from last week, this art was a design for a mini in the Grenadier Action Art Set Monsters (8002), 1980, although the sword was lowered, and it was retitled "Bugbear Chief", per the MM:

Bugbear Chief, Grenadier Action Art set Monsters 8002, image from the Lost Minis Wiki
     As with the last two pieces in this series, this art work originally surfaced in 2004. The Bugbear Chieftain art was resold on Ebay last November for about $240, along with the written description sheet for the artist to use:

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Brazen Head of Zenopus

Friar Bacon and the Brazen Head, 30 More Famous Stories Retold by James Baldwin
     I previously mentioned the talking mask in Room I of the Sample Dungeon as a possible example of a magical creation of Zenopus the Wizard (per the OD&D rules for magic item creation). Desert Scribe commented that he thought the mask a relic of the older pre-human city on which Portown is built. This is a possibility, as the room description doesn't give any other information on its origin. However, because the mask is described as being "bronze", I think it is version of the "Brazen Head" of medieval lore. These constructs were said to be made by wizards and could answer any question, and are sufficiently well known to have their own Wikipedia entry, which begins:

     "A Brazen Head (or Brass Head or Bronze Head) was a prophetic device attributed to many medieval scholars who were believed to be wizards, or who were reputed to be able to answer any question. It was always in the form of a man's head, and it could correctly answer any question asked of it. However, depending on the story, it could be cast in brass or bronze, it could be mechanical or magical, and it could answer freely or it could be restricted to "yes" or "no" answers."

      The most famous one was that said to be possessed by Roger Bacon (1214-1294), and which has appeared numerous times in literature, including John Bellairs' 1969 fantasy novel, "Face in the Frost", which was later reviewed by Gary Gygax in Dragon #22 (pg 15, Feb 1979) and included in the inspirational reading list in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (Aug 1979). I haven't found any specific connections between Holmes and any of these books, but he read widely so I wouldn't be surprised if he was familiar with the brazen head.

     One other possible clue is that the sundial that activates the talking mask is labeled in Roman numerals, which suggests a human rather than pre-human origin. Holmes' writings are peppered with references to ancient Earth cultures; for example, in his novel Maze of Peril the clerics cast spells in Latin.

The Honorable Historie of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Robert Greene (1630 edition), title page woodcut

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What level was Zenopus?

Ruined Tower of Zenopus by Paul Fini of The Warlock's Homebrew, as posted here
     What level was Zenopus in the Basic rulebook Sample Dungeon? In the Background, Holmes variously refers to Zenopus as a sorcerer (9th level in OD&D), magician (7th level) or wizard (11th level or higher). While it's likely Holmes didn't think about this too much when he was writing the evocative backstory for his dungeon, I enjoy this kind of thought experiment. We turn to OD&D for clues, since it was the only available higher level rules in 1977 when the Basic Set was first published.

     Zenopus built a tower, but in OD&D there's no level requirement for magic-users to construct strongholds (although only Necromancers or Wizards occupy the Castles found in the Wilderness in Vol III, pg 14-15). He possibly constructed the talking bronze mask in the dungeon, which would require a Wizard ("Wizards and above may manufacture for their own use (or for sale) such items as potions, scrolls, or just about anything else magical", Vol I, pg 6, emphasis added). However, to my mind the strongest clue is simply that the second usage of wizard is capitalized in accord with a proper title: "the ruined Wizard's tower".

     The use of "sorcerer" in the first sentence of the Background could refer to an earlier title ("the sorcerer Zenopus built a tower"). If so, 100 years ago Zenopus was a sorcerer (level 9) when he built the tower, and 50 years ago when it was destroyed he was a wizard (level 11 or higher). The use of "magician" in reference to excavating the cellars under his tower is then simply flavor text. Perhaps Zenopus went from 9th to 11th level while exploring the "much older city of doubtful history" under Portown that connected to his cellars.

     By the way, there is evidence that Holmes actually used this dungeon in his own campaign; his 1981 FRPG book is dedicated in part to those adventurers who "plumbed the depths of the Wizard's Tower".

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ralph McQuarrie (1929-2012)

Bounty Hunters in Cloud City, painting by Ralph McQuarrie
     Academy award-winning conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, best known for his work depicting the Star Wars films, has passed away at age 82. You can see galleries of his work at When I was a kid I had the novelization of Empire Strikes Back that was illustrated with his concept sketches:

     I also remember seeing his work at the "Magic of Myth" museum exhibit in the late 90's. Because his work is so strongly associated with the "Star Wars look", I always found his unused conceptions to be particularly fascinating. Some examples:

Rebel Base in Temple on Yavin
Taun-Tauns in Paradise
Emperor's Throne Room

Friday, March 2, 2012

Obscure Art Friday: Drow Captain by Erol Otus

Drow Captain by Erol Otus

     Following up from last week, this is another original drawing by Otus that was sold along with the Masher. Again, I grabbed the auction photo so the image is low-res. I looked into some of the old threads on the Acaeum, and it seems that the drawings were auctioned on Ebay in 2004, and were bought by the Burntwire Brothers. They later sold the Masher drawing, but still own the Drow Captain - you can it in their gallery here. This drawing came with a "detailed description page" by Kevin Hendryx for the artist to reference.

     According to the original auctioneer, "Believe it or not this stuff came from the estate of a 96 year old woman who lived in Lake Como, WI and once operated a resale shop in Sharon, WI".  The auctioneer speculated she got it from a dumpster, which wouldn't surprise me given what I've heard about TSR throwing out original art.

    As far as I know, the Drow Captain art was never published, but instead used for a Grenadier mini in the Action Art Set (8002), 1980. As indicated below in the insert, Gygax selected the figures to include in the set. He discussed here in his Q&A thread at Enworld in 2007: "About all I did was suggest what figure types I thought would be appealing to consumers, give vague discriptions of what some of the figures should look like. Then the miniature figuring people would consult with another person or persona at TSR that could help them--artists and model makers".

Drow Captain mini, Grenadier Action Art set Monsters 8002, image from the Lost Minis Wiki

Grenadier Action Art set Monsters 8002, insert, image from the Lost Minis Wiki
Grenadier Action Art set Monsters 8002, front cover, image from the Lost Minis Wiki