Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The G.H.O.S.T. Arena Manual

Michael P. Owen, the great curator of all things Car Wars, has sent me this fantastic underground supplement from the later days of the game: The G.H.O.S.T. Arena Manual. This was put together by Brian Morrison and Todd MacDermid back in 1992, with each contributing about half of the material. If you dig up your old ADQ’s from the period, you can read about these guys’ exploits from back in the day; they really shook things up by being an extremely active AADA chapter.

If you liked The Arena Book or L’Outrance supplements, then this will be right up your alley. It’s basically ten arenas laid out and described with about the same standards as what you’d see in those Steve Jackson Games products. Okay, it’s amateurish looking, sure… but even the cover art captures the essential nature of the game as it was played at the time: cars falling off 3D ramps, pedestrians running around with handweapons, and it looks like someone even went hard core by getting a passenger that could fire out of the car’s sun roof. (Passengers weigh less than most weapons and can do as good or better damage! That’s what Mike Montgomery taught us, anyway….)

Nine of the arenas will fit on a single blank Car Wars map sheet. One of them is a special double sized monster. They are painstakingly placed in Autoduel America and a small amount of flavor text is provided along with the usual descriptions of the arena features and events. This is some fine work and a pleasure to behold. Thanks for sending this to me, Michael!



21 x 32

For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes…

New Appendix N series installment for you:

RETROSPECTIVE: Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny

Accolades continue to roll in for this series, with Board Gamers Anonymous providing the latest: “No matter what kind of blog reader you are – Meta or Mini – Jeffro has a great post for you. His specialty is writing 2,000-word essays on groundbreaking Sci-Fi/Fantasy novels. So he can speak authoritatively about the literary origins of our most beloved RPGs. Yet Jeffro can also zoom in on specific aspects of adventure gaming and show us how we can become better role-players.”

My jaw is literally dropping. One of the posts he’s calling out is a completely untempered rant of pure gamer rage. Also… “authoritative”? Well… I guess that is maybe starting to emerge. For the first time in my life I kind of sort of know something about something. That’s kind of cool. Even an average guy can become an authority on a narrow enough topic if he does enough reading, writing, and thinking. But I’m ending up more with some kind of crazy romp through the literature, a celebration of all its wondrous diversity, and a storm of speculation with regards to how it can be used to revitalize some of the more obscure aspects of the early role playing games. Hopefully it’s a fun read that gets people excited about gaming, but honestly, I’m a bit short on gravitas.

Compare my stuff with James Maliszewski’s and you’ll see what I mean. He is, point for point, more insightful, more familiar with the trends in literature, and aware of a much wider range of works in the rpg side: “The style of fantasy the ‘Amber’ series represents is one that seems largely to have fallen into disfavor as the 1970s wore on and the influence Tolkien — and his pastichists like Terry Brooks — became ever greater. Although Gygax’s published writings betray comparatively little influence by authors like Zelazny, he continued to express admiration for their writings and several of his unpublished projects, such as Shadowland, might have taken D&D in a more Zelaznian direction.”

And of course, while I’m busy putting this stuff together, other people are getting the chance to play it:  “Of course, I’m stealing liberally from a bunch of different sources, from GURPS Tales of the Solar Patrol to Vornheim to bits of the Wilderlands to Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards to a variety of Appendix N authors (Vance and Burroughs in particular), all in the service of creating a sort of science-fantasy mishmash that’s maybe a bit reminiscent of JRPGs like Phantasy Star.” Man, I would have had no clue what this guy was talking about three months ago, but that sounds really wild.

Anyway, I gotta get back to the WordPress editing screen here…. I’m of the opinion that my mind simply cannot be blown anymore, but we’ll see what we turn up as we go through this pile of battered paperbacks I have here…!

The Most Influential Writer in the Entire History of the World

Another installment in the Appendix N series is here:

RETROSPECTIVE: Pirates of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs

It’s funny, but my son is at this point more familiar with the literature that inspired D&D than he is with the games themselves. As a consequence, he immediately notices connections that would not as quickly occur to me. Flipping through my trusty Moldvay basic the other day, he pointed out to me that this otherwise underwhelming monster was an homage to A Princess of Mars! How many kids that bought this set would have known that this creature is not only fundamentally awesome, but also that it should have four arms?

Yeah, I’ve spent four weeks looking into Edgar Rice Burroughs and I’ve written about ten thousand words on the guy. I’ll be moving on to other authors now and I know my internet acquaintances are tired of hearing about how awesome he is. If there was one thing I wish I could have articulated effectively… it’s that the guy is not important just for retrospectives and game design ideas. Really, if you have a son or a nephew, you really should consider leaving a stack of Mars books out where he can “discover” them. Edgar Rice Burroughs can give him something that the schools, the churches, the libraries, the book stores, the movies, and the video games just won’t impart:

“Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world…. I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely. I find this in most fields. The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance.” — Ray Bradbury

“Burroughs did not quite invent, but he refined and codified a robust popular masculine narrative, which, while celebrating heroic character, also promulgated the values of literate knowledge and philosophic inquiry. Burroughsian narrative also provides the locus for a non-systematic but incisive critique of the standing culture, as it became increasingly emasculated, regulated, and anti-intellectual in the middle decades of the Twentieth Century. This same masculine narrative entails, finally, a conception of the feminine that elevates the woman to the same level as the man and that – in such characters as Dian of the Pellucidar novels or Dejah Thoris of the Barsoom novels – figures forth a female type who corresponds neither to desperate housewife, full-lipped prom-date, middle-level careerist office-manager, nor frowning ideological feminist-professor, but who exceeds all these by bounds in her realized humanity and in so doing suggests their insipidity.” — Thomas F. Bertonneau

Oh, and one last thing… I completely missed what was going on in the opening frame of Pirates of Venus. The Black Gate has my back on this one:

“The story begins with a fictional version of the author relating how he came across the remarkable story you are about to read. Pseudo-ERB receives a visit from Carson Napier, a relative of the famed John Carter, a former Hollywood stuntman, natural telepath, and now a rocket-designer with the intention of visiting Mars. Later, he uses his telepathy to send his incredible story to Mr. Burroughs.”

Appendix N: The Game

I’m too exhausted to play many games since I started this project. I blame Lewis Pulsipher for that. He’s the one that made the case that if you wanted to do anything productive that you can’t just fritter away your time playing around. Agh! Yeah, an Appendix N survey precludes a significant investment in game design at the moment… but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. Maybe next year I’ll go to a con somewhere and run some B/X games. These are the adventure elements I’d be on the lookout to incorporate into my sessions:

  1. The Dying Earth — Every magic user at war with every other magic-user. Arbitrary quests doled out by NPC wizards in their towers. Spells can only be acquired as treasure.
  2. Three Hearts and Three Lions — The three point alignment system impacts the geography and informs the nature of the conflict. Adventures impact the balance between law and chaos and have consequences that impact the status quo.
  3. The High Crusade — Feudalism doles out both rewards and responsibilities. Lords low on cash will hand out titles. Retainers and men-at-arms are a big deal. Clerics are liable to kill aliens with a battleaxe.
  4. The Eyes of the Overworld — Utilize some really awe inspiring artifacts. Let something awesome happen when a spell goes wrong. Every town could have it’s own twisted origin story due to out of control magic.
  5. A Princess of Mars — Be prepared to shift between many different scales of combats. Do not neglect the domain game!
  6. Jack of Shadows — Consider adopting shadow power explanations to differentiate thief abilities from more mundane skill checks. Alternately, introduce shadow powers via a magic cloak… and a wand of bats that creates minions.
  7. At the Earth’s Core — Put something spectacular on the bottom level of the megadungeon. Break every limitation of the rule set with it. Make the odds against the players so terrible that they are forced to form alliances and play some kind of 4X game with the monsters.
  8. Pirates of Venus — Incorporate a space princess into the plot… and incorporate the ramifications of her presence in the game to the domain play.

This doesn’t represent even a quarter of the Appendix N book list. Just going with what we have so far… I have to wonder how the players would even begin to wrap their heads around what’s going on. Sandboxing and player autonomy would be the key…. I could lay it all out there, throw out the rumors, and then turn the loose to pursue the threads that interest them most. I wonder what this will do to my gamemastering, really. My trope reservoir was mostly made up of action movie stuff before. This is an entirely different thing, though…!

A Most Disagreeable Gentleman

You know, I spent ten years obsessing over vintage games: writing about them, studying them, fisking them. I was pretty used to the fact that most people just don’t care. I’ve given countless two minute tours of my game collection and the only person that ever really cared about what the old games were about was a twelve year old boy that had what I call “the gamer gene.”

But for a solid quarter of a year now I have expanded my range of topics to include science fiction and fantasy in general. My general approach is to read a book, think as deeply as I can about it, write two thousand words on it, and then go see what other people have to say about it. This is sort of like when a student checks his math homework. I’m looking to see if I’ve gone deeper than the average commentator, but I’m also looking to see if other people have said something in a more cogent manner than I have. Mainly, though, I want to see someone hammer a point that never even crossed my mind. Some of the things I’ve seen other people write are just mindblowing….

I don’t talk games with people much anymore. Even hard core gamers that know all about gauntlets of ogre power and wands of fireballs are unlikely to be interested in the finer points of Gary Gygax’s Appendix N book list. They mostly don’t know that there is something there that they don’t know and it is very difficult to pique their interest in the confines of a five minute conversation. But science fiction and fantasy in general… you’d think that would be something a lot more people can kibitz about. And you can, but… these books that I am reading and writing about… they are largely as unknown as the vintage games I’m into!

I have noticed a pattern when the topic comes up. Young college educated people will pretend to know all about science fiction and fantasy. There’s this huge pressure on them to appear hip to just everything. This was mercilessly lampooned on Portlandia a while back in the “Did You Read It?” sketch. It can be fun to catch people out on their pretensions with a few playful questions. It’s just amusing when you get to the third or fourth question talking to them and they look at you as if to say, “who are you?” If you play it right, everyone can laugh about it and then change the subject. It’s even a little fun.

But I’ve noticed another conversation pattern. I’m just completely gobsmacked by the combination of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s incredible influenced combined with the general narrowing of fantasy that has occurred over the past thirty years or so. It’s just a tremendous cultural shift with a mess of implications outside of even just game design. You’d think that would be a great conversation topic, but even people a bit older than me have no idea who he is.

Now, I don’t expect people to get totally eaten up with this topic. I’ve only just started delving into it, really. And sure, I’m kind of a nerd that is just a little bit too excited about this for mixed company. Everyone’s entitled to answer me back with some kind of noncommittal brush off. It wouldn’t surprise me and I don’t mind.

But yesterday, I got an entirely unexpected response that I’m trying to wrap my head around. I think I might have blurted out three or four minutes of chatter on Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, the moon landings, and Star Wars. I was not especially coherent and I was mostly just shocked at how my benighted listeners just had no real idea about any of it. One guy admitted that there had been some sort of shift in fiction, but wasn’t too interested in it even though there were some facets to recent trends that he disliked. The other listener answered back with about three times as much talk about how the fiction was pretty much irrelevant to the wider trends. I don’t know what set her off exactly. I stood there aghast as she argued against things I just hadn’t said. I was completely prepared to just let it go, but she went on and on and on about it.

I let her have her say and then said, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Yeah, I was insulted all right. She looked at me in shock and I added, “at the very beginning of this conversation you admitted that you’d never heard of any of these authors or even of their creations… and yet you purport to be able to synthesize their influence into a wider picture of recent history. That’s just ridiculous!” Needless to say, this goes against the advice of Dale Carnegie in his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Oh my did she double down on her argument, though, and then went on about it for another fifteen minutes.

I’m not sure what it was about really. Maybe people just get really uncomfortable talking about something that they don’t know anything about. Kids fresh out of college can laugh at themselves and move on, but this other thing was just weird. She got very upset with me for not being “winsome” or something, but good grief… she spent almost thirty minutes explaining why my assertion was stupid when she didn’t know the first thing about the topic of conversation…! She basically told me that I’d be more influential if I wasn’t such a jerk. But really… I wan’t trying to influence anyone. I was standing up for myself in the face of a egregiously large pile of horse hockey.

I don’t know how much of this I brought on myself and how much of this is just human nature, but if I ever do an Appendix N TED Talk or a convention type Power Point presentation on this… this is exactly the sort of reflexive attitude I want to head off and shut down. But let’s get one thing clear. I might be wrong about a lot of what I’m saying. I may well cross the line into overstating my case. But you cannot correct me very well if you have no idea who these authors were and what they did. Just because we are ignorant of them doesn’t mean they weren’t incredibly influential in their day.


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