Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How Zenopus Met His Doom

The Green Flame from the Kingsport Dreams expansion for the CoC card game

     Earlier this year, in The Shadow over Portown, I speculated a connection between the wizard Zenopus and the Deep Ones of Lovecraft's Shadow over Innsmouth. Today, on Halloween, I'll discuss another Lovecraft story that possibly influenced Holmes' Sample Dungeon: The Festival (1925). (Warning: this post contains some spoilers if you haven't read the story. It's short if you want to read it first).

     The intro of the Sample Dungeon sets up a mystery: what happened to Zenopus? We learn that on a cold night in winter his tower was "suddenly engulfed in green flame", but despite this several servants escaped and the tower stood until toppled by the authorities. The servants report that Zenopus was destroyed by some powerful force he unleashed in the depths of his tower. The end of the adventure refers to the "(undiscovered) deeper levels where Zenopus met his doom".

     The "green flame" stands out as an interesting detail. It could be offhand, but knowing Holmes' fondess for Lovecraft, I searched and found that a monstrous green flame features prominently in The Festival. I hadn't read this before, but it was in one my Lovecraft compilations, and while reading it I noticed the setting reminded me a lot of Portown.

     The story begins with the narrator traveling on a cold winter night (Yule) to the ancient sea town of Kingsport (fictional, but based on Marblehead, MA). Eventually his kin lead him to a hilltop church in the town, where he descends into underground passages: 

"I knew we must have passed down through the mountain and beneath the earth of Kingsport itself, and I shivered that a town should be so aged and maggoty with subterraneous evil". 

     In a subterranean chamber, he witnesses his kin worshiping a pillar of green flame:

"...suddenly there spread out before me the boundless vista of an inner world - a vast fungous shore litten by a belching column of a sickish greenish flame and washed by a side oily river that flowed from abysses frightful and unsuspected to join the blackest gulfs of immemorial ocean" and "...what frightened me most was that flaming column; spouting volcanically from depths profound and inconceivable, casting no shadows as healthy flame should, and coating the nitrous stone with a nasty, venomous verdigris. For in all that seething combustion no warmth lay, but only the clamminess of death and corruption."

     Lovecraft never names the green flame, but the Call of Cthulhu RPG calls it Tulzscha.

     After witnessing further horrors, the narrator leaps into the underground river and is swept out into the harbor, to be rescued later. This is reminiscent of the river in the Sample Dungeon, which can sweep characters from one room to another and connects to the sea.

     The famous final paragraph of The Festival even mentions dead wizards in a quote from the Necronomicon: 

"The nethermost caverns...are not for the fathoming of eyes that see; for their marvels are strange and terrific. Cursed the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil the mind that is held by no head. Wisely did Ibn Schacabao say, that happy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy the town at night whose wizards are all ashes. For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth's pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl." 

     So The Festival and the Sample Dungeon share:

     -a seaport town on a cold, wintry night
     -a structure on a hill overlooking the town, with labyrinthine tunnels beneath
     -a monstrous green flame spouting from the depths
     -an underground river that connects to the sea
     -references to dead wizards 

     These could merely be coincidence but the shared detail of the green flame is certainly intriguing. Using the Festival as inspiration, we could speculate that Zenopus made contact with the green flame while excavating his cellars, but on that cold winter's night it claimed him and emanated up through his tower. But the green flame is cold and did not destroy his body, which remains in the depths and instructs the worms...

Happy All Hallow's Eve!

See also other posts on Holmes & Lovecraft:
The Underworld of Holmes
The Shadow over Portown
Dr. Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos in Deities & Demigods
Dr. Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos, part II
Dr. Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos, part III
Kingsport as Portown

Monday, October 29, 2012

Influences on Holmes Basic Initiative

In a Knights & Knaves Alehouse thread, Stonegiant wrote:

"It is also quite easy to see where [the Eldritch Wizardry alternate initiative] system [for OD&D] gave birth to the initiative system in the Holmes' Edition"

In response I wrote:

Holmes was certainly aware of this system, but determining sources for his initiative system is difficult. OD&D lacks initiative except for a statement that Dex determines "speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell", and Holmes includes a revised version of this that adds "strike the first blow". But the OD&D statement could be interpreted as either using Dex scores directly, or just a Dex initiative modifier (which is what Gygax actually suggests in the FAQ in Strategic Review). The Warlock Supplement (1975), which Holmes used extensively when he started playing, seems to be the first to explicitly suggest comparing Dex scores for order of spell casting. Eldritch Wizardry (1976) uses adjusted dexterity but only for actions other than melee or movement. Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) uses Dex scores to determine order of all actions in combat (missile or melee). I think Holmes was aware of all of these and synthesized them into his own form. The Holmes rulebook doesn't go strictly by Dex each round, instead using Dex separately in each "phase" of combat, using the same order of phases as Warlock (Spell, Missile, Melee).

See also:
The Influence of Warlock on Holmes Basic Combat, Part I

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Shifting Orcish Alignments

A brief history of Orcish Alignments I just posted in response to the query, 
"Shouldn't orcs be chaotic evil?":

"They were Chaotic Evil before they were Lawful Evil.

In the beginning (OD&D, 1974), when there were only three alignments, they were Neutral or Chaotic. This lasted for three years, until Holmes Basic (mid-1977), where they are Chaotic Evil. The Holmes Basic set uses the then-new five-point alignment system, and Holmes the editor may have just appended an "evil" on to the Chaotic from OD&D. By later that year (Monster Manual, Dec 1977), Gygax had changed them to Lawful Evil, possibly because they are tribal and will follow a strong leader, as mentioned above."

See also: Neutral Orcs in OD&D

Update: In the DF thread, Matthew looked up the alignment table from Strategic Review #6 (1976), and Orcs are listed as Chaotic Evil. I'd guess that Holmes went by this table, because other monsters in the Blue Book seem to follow this table. For example, monsters that were Chaotic in OD&D such as Goblins, Minotaur and Spectres are listed as Lawful Evil on both the SR table and in Holmes.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Delving Deeper pdfs now available for free download

The cover of the Referee's Guide, Volume II of Delving Deeper, art by Mark Allen
     Simon Bull (aka waysoftheearth) has just announced on the OD&D Discussion forum that the free pdfs of Delving Deeper, a new OD&D clone, are now available for download from RPGnow. They are unillustrated except for the fantastic covers by Mark Allen. There are three volumes (see below). As I mentioned previously, I helped out (with others) with the proofreading of these volumes.

Here are the blurbs from RPGnow:

     What is the Delving Deeper RPG?
      Delving Deeper is an emulation of the original fantasy role-playing game.
Meticulously forged over two long years of development, Delving Deeper invites you to recreate the original role-playing experience as it was in its earliest days...

    Volume I: The Adventurer's Handbook: Be an indomitable fighter and carry a bright sword and steely armor into battle. Be an enigmatic magic-user and bend the very laws of reality to your will. Be a righteous cleric and deliver judgement to the blasphemers. The choice is yours — who will you be?  Herein are guidelines for creating and running a character in the medieval-fantasy world of Delving Deeper.

    Volume II: The Referee's Guide: Yours is the highest calling. While players run individual characters, you run the rest of the world! You design the dungeons, you build the towns and cites, you sow the plots and schemes of squabbling goblins and feuding Kings across the entire world. Herein are guidelines for designing, exploring, and running a living medieval-fantasy world for Delving Deeper.

    Volume III: The Monster & Treasure Reference: What foul monster lurks beneath this bridge or beyond that door? What fabulous treasure does this abomination or that horror guard?Herein are the answers to these questions and many more. This essential reference is brimming with inspiration for the Delving Deeper referee, offering challenges and rewards for first-time adventures and for hardened stalwarts alike.

Holmentzer Basic blog series

Over on the DON'T LET IT KILL YOU blog, the author is writing a series on using the Holmes rulebook together with the Mentzer DM's book. Here are the entries so far:

Holmentzer Basic
Holmentzer Monsters: Intro
Holmentzer Monsters: A-D

Starting with the third entry, he's going through the monster lists in Holmes and Mentzer and comprehensively comparing them (and vis-a-vis Moldvay Basic as well). It's interesting to note the differences in iconic monsters (such as the Carrion Crawler) between editions, and see where the text of the Holmes edition remained essentially the same.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

new Holmes Basic T-Shirt

     The retro offerings from Wizards continue to expand... Dungeon Fantastic just posted a link to some new Dungeons & Dragons tees available for pre-sale for $25. And one features the monochrome blue cover of the Holmes Basic rulebook (Wizard Logo version) featuring David Sutherland's art. It's currently available only as a women's tee, but Peter at Dungeon Fantastic mentioned the ad he saw in his FLGS didn't mention this - which means it may be available in other styles once the pre-sale ends. For right now, the Fighting Men will have to be content with this totally metal Trampier Minotaur shirt in Asmodeus Red:

     The sale also includes shirts featuring the Elmore red dragon vs warrior from the Mentzer Basic Set, and the "ampersand dragon" from the D&D logo of that time period, but made entirely of dice. The ad Peter saw also featured a shirt with Trampier's lich from the Monster Manual which isn't available right now. The pre-sale ends 10/29/12. I'm assuming that by using the words "pre-sale", these will be for sale regularly after that, hopefully with more styles/designs.

     This isn't the first time the Sutherland art has been sold as a t-shirt. Back in 1981, the TSR Gateway to Adventure catalog had t-shirts in various styles, including the ones below. IIRC the quality was low (essentially iron-ons) and they didn't survive much washing, making them extremely rare. I've never even heard of one appearing on Ebay.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Little Nemo in Slumberland

     Today the Google Doodle is a tribute to the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, by the artist Winsor McCay, which ran in American newspapers from 1905-1914. Each night the hero of the strip, Little Nemo, would fall asleep in his bed and embark on adventures in Slumberland, sometimes continuing from the night before. Each strip would end with Nemo falling out of his bed and waking up. In those days strips were often given a full newspaper page, and McCay used this to full extent, varying the size of the panels and employing great architectural detail in creating vast fantastical locations. Google's tribute uses the imagery of McCay to show a typical Nemo adventure. The excerpt I posted above from the Google Doodle pays tribute to The Walking Bed (1908), where Nemo's bed grew legs and walked through the city. Read more in this Comic Riffs blog post.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

PHB on Dex-based Initiative

Guess who's got the higher Dex? By Trampier, from the Monster Manual
     In the oft-overlooked back of the 1E Player's Handbook (1978), Gygax ends a section titled "First Strike" with "When important single combats occur, then dexterities and weapon factors will be used to determine the order and number of strikes in a round" (pg 105). This, plus the reference in the Monster Manual (1977), makes me think that for a time Gygax considered including a Holmes Basic (1977) type dexterity-based initiative for certain combats in AD&D. However, by the time of the Dungeon Master's Guide (1979) there's no trace of using the dexterities of opponents to determine first strike other than a reaction bonus for missile weapon fire. Perhaps Gygax dropped this in a (futile?) attempt to keep the complexity of the DMG combat rules for initiative under control. The PHB reference does suggest a way to adapt Holmes-initiative if moving on to AD&D: subtract the AD&D weapon speed factor (e.g., fist = 1, dagger = 2, two-handed sword = 10) from dexterity to determine an adjusted dexterity for each melee combatant, and use this to determine strike order. Number of strikes per round is more difficult to determine/integrate, particularly when monsters are also considered, so I'm not going to consider it today.

(I was inspired to write this after reading a post in this thread on Dragonsfoot)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Ruined Tower by Cole

Click on the picture to see it in larger form
      I found this painting yesterday and couldn't help but think of the ruined tower of Zenopus along the sea cliffs of Portown. It's "Italian Seacoast with Ruined Tower" by Thomas Cole, 1838. Cole is more well known for his American landscapes, being considered the founder of the Hudson River School, but also painted European ones after traveling there.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Heroic Worlds on the Holmes Basic Set

     Heroic Worlds is a 1991 encyclopedia of role-playing games, written by Lawrence Schick, formerly of TSR, where he is probably best remembered for authoring the module S2 White Plume Mountain. It covers most game products that had been published up to the time, including many obscure games, although the folks at the Acaeum have found some that are not covered. It's still in print and remains an excellent resource for those interested in the first two decades of rpgs. As I wrote on the Acaeum in 2007 when I first found my copy: "The product lists are comprehensive, well-organized (by genre) and have well-written capsule reviews of each product. There are a nice quantity of illustrations recycled from covered products (with permission). For example, Tramp's Lizardman from the Monster Manual squats threateningly at the top of page 104. The short essays are a real treat (by EGG, Greg Stafford, Ken St. Andre, Dave Arneson, Tom Moldvay, Sandy Peterson, Paul Jacquays and others). Law Schick's intro covers the history of RPGs, starting with Dave Wesely's Braunsteins."

     Here's what Schick has to say about the Basic Set in his History section:

     "By 1977 TSR realized they would never be able to meet the demand for D&D products by simply releasing more rules supplements. The game was so succesful that even the big toy store chains were starting to sit up and take notice, bu tth eoriginal three-book set would never do for distribution to the mass market - it didn't look or read like a mass market product. TSR decided to publish a simplified, easy-to-learn version of D&D in a larger box with new artwork. Writer J. Eric Holmes revised the rules for mass consumption, and the first Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set was released to the toy stores of America in time for Christmas. It was the first attempt at a really introductory role-playing game, and it was a big hit. Suddenly obscure little D&D was being printed in runs of 100,000 - unprecedented numbers for anything resembling a "wargame". TSR had hit the jackpot.

     The Basic Set was revised in 1980 [released Jan 1981 - Z], and again in 1983, improving each time as TSR's game design and graphic standards improved. Over ten years several million copies of the D&D Basic Set have been sold. It was an remains the single most common introduction to role-playing gaming. Today's Basic Set contains only enough rules for character classes to advance to the third level of skill - if they want to go further, players have to buy the Expert Set. In 1977, when Basic was first released, there was no Expert Set and no plans for one; instead, players were directed to buy TSR's new improvement on D&D, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

      Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, or AD&D, was intended to consolidate all the many and contradictory D&D rules into one comprehensive game, a system that reflected author Gary Gygax's opinion of how D&D ought to be played. It was originally conceived as the replacement for Original D&D: new players would buy the D&D Basic Set, then move on to AD&D, and the Original D&D boxed set would be phased out. Two factors derailed this agenda.

     The first was the incredible popularity of Original D&D, which wouldn't die no matter how popular AD&D became (and it became very popular). TSR kept Original D&D in print long after it became an embarrassment because they couldn't bear not to sell it if people wanted to buy it.

     The second factor was the perceived legal necessity to separate D&D from Advanced D&D after Dave Arneson sued for royalties from Advanced D&D, which bore Gygax's name alone. TSR had to contend that AD&D was a different game from D&D, so that the differences between the two were exaggerated and eventually AD&D actually became a different game from D&D. The Arneson case was ultimately settled, but by the time things were straightened out the two games had acquired quite different identities."

     Frank Mentzer, writing on Dragonsfoot in 2008, commented further on the print run info:
     "Before '77 a large print run in gaming was 10,000. A huge run was 50k, and iirc that's what 1st print Holmes was, maybe 2nd print as well. Most of the reprints were 100,000 each (I think Law mentions this in Heroic Worlds) except for the last one (down to 50-75k iirc since TSR was planning a new version)."

     There are at least eight distinct printings of the rulebook between 1977 and 1980, so if these numbers are correct, there were at least 600,000 copies in total during that time.

     And here's the Basic Set entry from Heroic Worlds, page 130-131. It covers all of the basic sets together but I've extracted the information for the Holmes edition:

     Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules Set

     Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson; 1st ed. edited by J. Eric Holmes

     The rulebook covers character levels 1-3 and dungeon adventuring, with an emphasis on easy introduction to the concepts of the game. The 1st ed. incorporates concepts from Greyhawk, Blackmoor and Eldritch Wizardry supplements and leads the players who want to go beyond third level to the AD&D system.

     The set also includes an introductory scenario designed to ease new players and GMs into the concepts of D&D. For the 1st ed., this was B1, In Search of the Unknown, replaced toward the end of its run by B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. [HW is missing mention of the earliest printing having a set of Geomorphs and Monster and Treasure Assortment - Z]