Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

So Much Mars Series Coverage, You Won’t Be Able to Stand It!

Okay, I can’t take it anymore.

I mean, really. Literary criticism? Me? Yeah, right. Who’m I kiddin’? I wanna talk games, so here it is: over four thousand words on a nice moldy game that nobody cares about!

RETROSPECTIVE: Warriors of Mars by Gary Gygax and Brian Blume

Just feast yourself on that succulent gaming wonder!

Oh, but there is a literary connection here. Now, I know people are sick to death of three things right now. They don’t want to hear one darn thing more about consultancygate, the Hugo awards, or the significance of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But I’m going to wade into that last bit one more time anyway because this is important. (Also… I dropped the ball back when I covered Princess of Mars the first time around. Hey, what can I say? I was completely overwhelmed by the awesomeness of Dejah Thoris!)

But let’s get one thing straight here. Burroughs was hugely influential to Jerry Siegel, Ray Bradbury, James Cameron, George Lucas, Gary Gygax, and scads of other creators. He also, as Ryan Harvey says over at The Black Gate, “re-shaped popular fiction, helped change the United States into a nation of readers, and created the professional fiction writer.” The fact that Burroughs went from being a household name to becoming all but unknown in the past forty years is crazy. The fact that Burroughs is a prime inspiration for Superman, Star Wars, and Dungeons & Dragons is undeniably astonishing. People don’t know this stuff and if they could find out about it they would be shocked.

The fact that the gamers at the local game store don’t know and don’t care about Appendix N literature? Irrelevant. Tell me more about how ignorant people are…! Oh, you say, “Nobody but guys like James Maliszewski, Wayne Rossi, and Jeff Rients are at all influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs at the tabletop.” Horse hockey! If we’re playing role playing games at all, then we’re influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Even more so if we’re playing something with a planetary romance or a superhero theme. Just because we don’t have an explicit green cavalry charge in our game session doesn’t change the facts. We’re influenced by the man whether we appropriate his shticks directly or not.

If saying that’s “yellow journalism,” then hey… call me Jeffro Sinclair. ‘Cause I’m gonna keep sayin’ it!

Okay, I have to say it. James Maliszewski is a better writer than me. A lot of people are better writers than me. But how many of those better writers are doing an in-depth series on Appendix N? None! Heh. And hey… if I can’t emulate their cogency then I’ll quote them directly whenever they completely outdo me. They only make me that much more of an Appendix N Juggernaut! BWA-HA-HA!

Retrospective: Warriors of Mars (Grognardia) — “Though largely unknown today — to the point where the ignorant have suggested that the movie John Carter is ripping off the innumerable films inspired by Burroughs — the Barsoom novels were hugely influential for decades. They are, in many respects, the wellspring from which contemporary fantasy and science fiction flow, even if the debt both genres owe to these seminal books is often unacknowledged. Gary Gygax, though, was not shy in acknowledging the debt he owed to Burroughs. He mentioned his name in both OD&D and in Appendix N of his AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and the Greyhawk campaign included at least one expedition to the red sands of Barsoom.”

I totally missed this bit about the miniatures rules’ background. Oh, and Thomas Denmark paid $364 for his copy back in 2011. The thing’s rare!

Warriors of Mars (Original Edition Fantasy) — “If you don’t know the history of this book it is really quite interesting. Gary and Brian put this together without permission from the Burroughs estate, and were almost immediately told to cease printing and selling these books when it was published. So I don’t think there are a whole lot of copies out there.”

Oh, and then there’s this bit on the forums, some other old school controversy that I’m not completely up on:

Dave’s influence in TSR’s Warriors of Mars? (Original D&D Discussion) “Combat round are listed as 1 minute for large scale battles but only 10 seconds for 1-to-1 battles.”

Did I miss anything else? Throw a link up in the comments. Let’s nail this sucker down. We got a lot of books to cover…!

This Is Why You Don’t Know How to Design an RPG

“While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment — and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution which safeguards us by warning when something threatens our survival. Why should society refuse to use such a highly perfected survival mechanism?” — Starship Troopers

Character generation with “3d6 in order” followed by a player-character death within two hours of play is utterly essential if you’re going to introduce people to what role playing games are really all about. The second dungeon-run looks decidedly different… and if they come back with even a single magic item, it is something of a triumph. You have to communicate quickly that failure is possible, success is not guaranteed, and choices matter… and this does it as well as anything. And no, I have no idea what the people doing “everybody wins; nobody dies” at the next table are getting out of their game. There can be no glory if there can be no failure. Their players have nothing to boast about after a session. But the guy that died in my game falling off the side of a volcano… hestill talks about it. Something happened.
The rules in a “real” rpg are largely theater. Players only cite them when they are in their favor. The real work of the referee is not constrained by them. The referee does not “win” by using the obscure rules against the players. He lets the players coast along making informed decisions on the basis of the 10% of the rules that they are familiar with… so that when they undeniably screw everything up, there is no argument about who is and who is not dead. The fact that the players know what it means and what the consequences are before the dice fall is the entire point. But there must be something at stake for them to actually care about what is happening!
Most people designing rpg’s have no clue about this. They see something in the old games that looks stupid or broken to them, and they go off to make these bloated monstrosities, the bulk of which either adds nothing to role playing or else completely undercuts it. What you really want to do is engage people and get them playing and get them learning as quickly as possible. They are familiar with the tropes of classic dungeon adventures, but they have no concept of either the “push your luck” aspects or the absolute necessity of learning how to cooperate with the other players. Gaming appears to be ubiquitous, but a great many “gamers” have had essentially no exposure to this!
Most people try to make some kind of role playing experience by eliminating those two things as far as possible, but there really is no game there. It’s a mode of play that emerged in browser based video games that are designed to hold the attention of people that do not actually like games. There is no substance there, just a never-ending stream of easy victories and hollow rewards. “Everybody gets a trophy” is a dead end mentality, at the tabletop and elsewhere.

Ten Books that Can Change the Way You Game

I’ve written ten posts over at Castalia House now, each one covering a different book. It’s about 20,000 words in total… and though I tend to write about whatever happens to be the biggest gobsmacker I come across with each installment, I’ve still managed to fit in a massive amount of gaming stuff over there.

It’s starting to get hard to keep up with all the material there now, so I’ve made this guide for gamers. I list each post in order based of how significant it is for gaming and then briefly detail what the work specifically brings to the table. If you love gaming and haven’t spent a lot of time with Gary Gygax’s famous “Appendix N” book list, then you owe to yourself to at least check out at least a couple of the top books I delve into below.

RETROSPECTIVE: The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance — Some books will inspire a new character concept or house rule. Some provide great ideas for adventure design. This one will make you want to overhaul the magic rules of whatever game you play. It’s epic. (But read The Dying Earth first, of course.)

RETROSPECTIVE: Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson — This is the only take on alignment that has ever made sense to me– the concept behind it got completely butchered in the translation to gaming. If the situation in B2 Keep on the Borderlands seems weird to you, then you need to read this book! (Your problem is you’re thinking in terms of derivative Tolkien rather than in old school fantasy.)

RETROSPECTIVE: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs — A good role playing game should be able to alternate between individual dueling, small scale skirmishes, massive battles, sieges, and epic air wars. AD&D’s domain-level play is in there for a reason; embrace it!

RETROSPECTIVE: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance — Vancian magic is fundamentally apocalyptic. Every magic-user should be living in a state of acute paranoia, forcing people to go adventures for them, and trying to raid other wizards for their spells.

RETROSPECTIVE: The Winds of Gath by E. C. Tubb — Many of Traveller’s more obscure elements have been passed over by gamers. With this book, you can see huge chunks of the game portayed in their original context. It all makes so much more sense now!

RETROSPECTIVE: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson — Medieval people are different from us… but that doesn’t mean they were stupid. After reading this book, I can see group of “primitive” Englishmen having a better chance at toppling the Ziru Sirka than some kind of analog to The United Nations!

RETROSPECTIVE: Derai by E. C. Tubb — A patron encounter, a great “hand-to-mouth” scenario, and even an fairly comprehensive take on The Hunger Games schtick. If your Traveller game tends to focus on just one or two worlds, this second novel in the Dumarest series will demonstrate the sort of attitude you’ll need to expand that out to a dozen or so.

REVIEW: Shadow of the Storm by Martin J. Dougherty — A look at what a naval career on the Solomoni side of the border would look like. This is a more sympathetic look at the inheritors of Terra’s legacy: their racism is quietly omitted, their paranoia is justified, and their institutions are shown to work more or less even if they’re technically not the “good guys” of the Official Traveller Universe.

RETROSPECTIVE: Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny — This is a solid resource if you’d like the classic thief class to have a bit more of an epic magic feel. Bonus: a good overview of the consequences of implementing “extra lives” and an explicit re-spawning mechanism in a fantasy world.

REVIEW: Fate of the Kinunir by Robert E. Vardeman — This is not entirely consistent with “real” Traveller, but it should give you a number of ideas for running an iconic adventure that leverages an iconic ship.

Perspectives on A Princess of Mars

The seventh installment of my Appendix N series is now up:

RETROSPECTIVE: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

When I write these, I try to read the book and write a couple thousand words that contain a few original thoughts and observations. I might fact check a couple of points during the editing, but I try to steer clear of the rest of the commentariat as I do the work. When I’m done, I scour the web in order to check myself to see if I overlooked anything huge. Man, was there ever a doozy waiting for me this time around!

Here then is a rundown of what other people are saying:

The Little Red Reviewer delves into how people just can’t create stories like this anymore:

Blending science fiction, fantasy, pulp adventure and western, John Carter is the epitome of the American Man – strong and independent, intelligent and well spoken, very handsome, keeps his promises and knows how to throw a good punch. Guys wanna be him and girls wanna date him. If this book had been written today, John Carter would be conceited. He’d know he was the hero of the story. In the words and the mentality of nearly a hundred years ago, he’s just a man who does what needs needs to be done with grace and dignity.

Yes, exactly. The thing you have to understand is that A Princess of Mars is basically The Princess Bride for young men. The big difference is that the princess in the story has to demonstrate that she is actually worth the hero’s utmost. Note that Buttercup gives herself to Prince Humperdink out of boredom and depression when she thinks that Wesley is dead. Dejah Thoris is in a very similar situation, but she is buying peace and deliverance for the people of Helium by marrying a prince that would otherwise destroy her city. In contrast Buttercup, Princess Leia, and Inara Serra, Dejah Thoris is not only worth saving, she is worth a lifetime commitment. It is the virtue of the two lead characters that ultimately lends the mythic tone that the book has.

Notice how the movie adaption completely fails to deliver this aspect of the book as Bestsellers and Blockbusters points out:

They also added a dead wife of John Carter, causing Dejah Thoris to have to win his love. He just wanted to go back home the whole time. John Carter only fell in love with her in the end.

It’s almost as if the modern mind cannot comprehend real romance. But that’s not the only thing about the tale this is hard to accept in today’s world. Alienman can barely handle the fact that John Carter is to consummate Virginian:

I initially had a bit of difficulty in digesting the fact that a book revolving around a Confederate soldier would garner that much adulation pan America. So I trawled the internet for a suitable explanation. I found that people wanted him to be a Confederate soldier, with a certain set prejudices so as to lull (and allure!) a certain section of society with resonating beliefs and try to reform them by showing them how John Carter acted as a uniting force/superglue (though all he cared about was the Princess!), who brought together two warring races with remarkable differences in their physical features. I want to believe that explanation.

Look, the book was written before “southern” became media shorthand for the backward, the incestuous, the bigoted, and the brutally violent. Southern military prowess was well regarded at the time of the book’s writing and would shortly be vindicated by a certain Sergeant York during The War to End All Wars. John Carter’s identity as a southern gentleman is integral to the character. He is nothing short of gallant, and he quite clearly combines the fighting prowess of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the charm of J. E. B. Stuart, and the noblesse oblige of Robert E. Lee.

The most interesting observation out on the web with regards to this book, however, is from none other than James Maliszewski.

Gygax places Edgar Rice Burrough’s stories of Barsoom on the same plane as those of Howard’s Conan, Leiber’s Lankhmar, and De Camp and Pratt’s Harold Shea as the foundations on which OD&D was built. Anyone who’s read the LBBs closely should have no doubt about his sincerity, as they probably include more references to Barsoom than to any other fictional world, including Middle-earth. It’s worth noting as well that Gygax, collaborating with Brian Blume, published the miniatures game (with limited RPG elements) Warriors of Mars contemporaneously with the release of OD&D in 1974, which says a lot about how important Burroughs was to the early hobby.

The generation that grew up watching Star Wars and playing D&D would have largely been unaware of the significance of this series. It’s kind of nuts, really. The fact that this series was of critical importance to the game designers that created the role-playing hobby bears further investigation. I’m blindsided by this, really. I practically eat and sleep vintage games and Appendix N literature, but I completely missed the connection. Honestly, I was having a hard time understanding why Burroughs made Gary Gygax’s famous book list in the first place and opted to omit any discussion of games this time around. But Gygax puts it on the same level as Conan and Lankhmar right there in the forward to OD&D! What a glorious error to stumble into. In my case, it only makes the series that much more captivating.

This book is seriously underrated and really shouldn’t be as obscure as it is.

D&D Never Even Came Close to Vancian Magic

Okay y’all, this week’s reading is a real doozy. Jack Vance is of course the common denominator between (at a minimum) Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, and Infocom’s Enchanter series. I suppose it’s “obvious” now that I bring it up… but seriously, this is something that could stand to be noised abroad a little more forcefully. Add to that the fact that not only is the Dying Earth magic system inherently apocalyptic and almost inevitably going to destroy any setting where it emerges, but it also incorporates skill checks and critical failures that are more in line with some of D&D’s competitors than with D&D itself. Add to that the fact that the Dying Earth stories are so chock full of insanely powerful magic items that it would make even Monty Hall blush in shame, that high level magic-users have more stuff than spells at their disposal, and the fact that scrolls didn’t come into the scenario until Gygax & Arneson cut them from whole cloth… well, what do you get once you’ve added that all up? I know my mind is reeling anyway. I’m downright staggered by these revelations. Why didn’t anyone tell me?! Seriously, this is on par with the time that Hilkiah found the book of the Law in a trash heap. What is up with us that we aren’t talking more about Jack Vance’s contribution to the hobby? The man is a giant and you can’t understand anything about the history of gaming without reading him…. So read him already!!!!

This week’s post is right here, y’all:

RETROSPECTIVE: The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance

Oh, and if I lose you after the second paragraph because of my excursions, then come back and read this guy instead:

“There are certain novels that you never really finish. You turn the last page, but are aware that it must be re-read, preferably several times, before you can truly appreciate it…. Both The Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld fall into this category, as they reveal more of the ‘soul’ of D&D than perhaps anything I’ve seen so far, and yet also promise so many unique possibilities that it seems a shame so much has been left behind.” — Rogues and Reavers

That’s just beautiful. That’s some seriously beautiful writing that is the exact thing that ought to be said after a reading of those two books.

So read the posts! Read the books! They’re just plain fantastic.

I’ve got mail!

I’ve gotten some really good responses to last week’s post on Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade. A couple of game blog heavyweights even put their two cents in on two very different points I brought up in my ruminations:

Prototypical FRPG Character Classes? — Pulsipher Game Design

An Article Worth Reading…. and my own comments — Don’t Split the Party

I’m sure Lewis Pulsiper’s reputation preceeds him. I mean, he only wrote some of the best gaming articles that could be found in the pages of Dragon and The Space Gamer back in the day. Rick Stump you might not know, though. He’s actually one of Lew’s disciples and a graduate from Lew’s D&D sessions in the eighties! Rick has written many quintessential gaming posts that bring up things from a very unique perspective. They’re well worth the time, so go read his blog if you haven’t already!!

(Man, I’m bossy this week. Forgive me. I blame it on being completely overwhelmed by gaming awesome. Staggered, I tell you…! Staggered I say!)


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