Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

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!)

“Their literary posts are among the most substantive I’ve seen”

Okay, that’s coming from our own publisher that’s got every incentive to plug us, but still. (Sort-of publisher, anyway. Site owner?) And as one commenter notes, the competition is light due to the pros thinking: Give it away for nothing? Are you nuts?!  I’m still trying to wrap my head around that whole “literary” bit, though. Eh… seriously? You know, I was never the English major type. Should I go buy one of those corduroy jackets and put patches on the elbows so I look the part…?

But what about those pros, eh? I gotta say, I rarely see anything in the press that meets any sort of reasonable standard of competency for what I’d call game journalism. The Washington Post Volko Runke story was pretty good, though. Also, that recent story on Diplomacy was extremely well done. Most of the time, a lame content-free “features” style is used for these things and they’re tilted towards the mythical “Old Lady in Dubuque.” That recent Guardian article betrays the fact that the target audience is people that hate games in the first sentence. It’s idiotic.

So where does that leave us, really? Oh yeah. Basically uncontested. has very comprehensive Appendix N series… but it’s very informal. And of course, I’m just building on the work of guys like James Maliszewski and Jeff Rients. But when I go check their posts to see if I’ve just repeated the same old stuff, I see that while they are often more insightful on a paragraph to paragraph basis, they tend to stop after five hundred words or so. I do think I’ve gone deeper than those guys in at least a couple of cases, which is pretty exciting: there’s still a lot of stuff here to uncover! (Me: “You mean… if I put forth the effort, I can actually create something…?”) So yeah, it’s really weird not just to be out in front of the community… to basically planning on being that way as a matter of routine. That’s just crazy!

Hey, maybe the muses will depart next week. Who knows? And looking around at guys that have done almost exactly the same type of posts that I’ve tried to do… I gotta say that this new guy Scooter and that Jeff Lasala guy at Tor.Com are waaaay more cogent than me. At some point I’ll want to take some time and really look at these other folks’ posts and try to figure what it is that they do that I don’t… but for the moment I’m mostly just trying to keep up with a punishing workload. But hey, Ira Glass already explained that bit.

Anyway, this week’s installment is here: RETROSPECTIVE: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson. Check it out!


New “Appendix N” Post: Derai by E. C. Tubb

Okay, we have a new post in the Appendix N series for you! Although this isn’t from Gygax’s famous book list from AD&D, this is from among the much more obscure literary antecedents for the Traveller role playing game. There’s no real gaming content this time because the mind blowing thing about this installment in the Dumarest series is something that is explicitly beyond the scope of the Traveller rule set:

Nowhere in these rules is a specific requirement established that any character (player or non-player) be of a specific gender or race. Any character is potentially of any race and of either sex.

Yeah, the overall abstraction level there doesn’t leave much room to delve into the dynamics of… uh… romance. “Space Conan” in love may not be of any interest to you; then again, people run some pretty weird stuff, so who can say? At any rate, it’s a travesty that Dumarest of Terra is as obscure as he is. His character is no doubt deserving of the in depth treatment he gets here.

Mail call! Oh boy….

The Three Hearts and Three Lions post is turning out to be the real doozey so far. Now, I owe the idea for that post to Wayne Rossi from over at Semper Initiativus Unam who alerted my to an error in a recent post by John C. Wright on alignment. Of course, a lot of people are unaware of this book and mistakenly credit Michael Moorcock for D&D’s alignment system. But John C. Wright shouldn’t feel too bad as I believe even Lewis Pulsipher will admit to being similarly misinformed about this extremely crucial topic.

At any rate, Lew has graciously dropped by Castalia House to reminisce about his correspondence with Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson back in the bad old days. Meanwhile… over at Dungeon Fantastic, Peter Dell’Orto reviews Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits and points out its obscure link to Poul Anderson’s classic novel. Finally, on Winchell Chung’s Google+ feed, Eric Raymond recommends Poul Anderson’s The Merman’s Children for people that want to know more about things from the Chaos perspective.

Oh, one last thing. Somebody posted a question about Vancian magic over on Google+. Now that I’ve, you know, read one Jack Vance book, you can tell I’m a real expert now. So I butted in with an answer not realizing that the question was actually addressed to Jeff Rients. (To be honest, I would not be writing about Basic D&D or Appendix N if it wasn’t for his influence. The guy’s a true gaming hero.) Anyway, he shows up later and says, “I agree with Jeffro Johnson’s analysis.” Hahaha! Made my day!!!

Okay, that’s all for now. Stay tuned and… keep on gamin’!

Book Review: A Throne of Bones

It’s no secret that of all the authors nominated for a Hugo this year, this was the one I most wanted to read again after plowing through several books. The novellas in the The Last Witchking were that compelling and everything I expected to find in a novel length treatment of the same subject matter is here in A Throne of Bones. As before, things start off a bit slow, but as before I eventually got stupidly invested in each of the characters. There are several different plot threads going at once and each one ends up taking unexpected turns before folding in upon each of the others. Everything logically proceeds from what comes before, and yet some of the developments are absolutely stunning. It’s a good read.

To understand the significance of this book, though, I refer you to  Steve Jackson’s author’s note in the first edition of GURPS Fantasy:

Fantasy writers (of both books and games) often take the safe way out, by providing superficial mumbo-jumbo in place of religion. Frankly, I find this unsatisfying, if not actually obnoxious. Many role players seem to agree; given the chance, they would rather be paladins of a “real” faith than of the Temple of Gooble the Mostly Omnipotent.

Therefore — with the hope that I do not offend greatly — I have presented three of Earth’s major faiths, by name, as they might have developed in a world where magic was real. These depictions come largely from history, partially from the favorite stereotypes of fantasy literature, and lastly from my own imagination!

Given the emphasis on realism above everything else at that time, this passage always struck me as a huge rebuke to the D&D scene of the day. I don’t think I was ever fully on board with the ridicule of “Marge the Barbarian” snark from the Basic Set, but there actually is something to what Steve is saying here. At least, these words were haunting enough that I simply could not get excited about all the weirdo variant cleric classic of Second Edition AD&D when that edition rolled around. And yet, as influential as Steve Jackson’s Yrth was on my teenager brain, I have to say that I was completely unprepared to run a game set in a world with that kind detail. It was just too daunting. I was just some kid and I knew absolutely nothing about what it would take to run real world religions in the context of a game.

That’s where A Throne of Bones comes in. The setting of this novel could have served just as easily as the default campaign setting of the original GURPS Fantasy, although it arguably is closer in spirit to Roma Arcana from the Fourth Edition incarnation of that title. The world building approach is very similar in each case. Heck, the combat sequences read like GURPS tactical combats with Douglas Cole‘s Last Gasp. (Though for the mass combat sequences, it is Commands & Colors: Ancients all the way!)

One faction presented here is an anti-magic and Roman Republic with each major noble house independently running their own legions. They are thoroughly and unflinchingly Christian. Another faction is a french-speaking and magic weilding monarchy. (One of the main characters is a battle mage from there that is unapologetically irreligious.) Yet another faction is the Viking-like Reavers invoking Thor and Odin in their oaths. The elves of this setting have a bit of an edge to them that is refreshing and one of their greatest sorcerers has converted to the faith even as the church has recognized that elves have souls. And there’s also the inevitable dwarves, orcs, goblins, and werewolves rounding things out.

I think this is all laid out in such a way that a game master can easily pick it up and run with it, but the thing that takes the cake here are the detailed depictions of how legions really work. If you saw the opening bits of Gladiator and wished that the movie could have stayed focused on such battles for the entire film, then you will derive a lot of enjoyment from this book.

So yeah, this is an epic story in a solid fantasy setting. But let me tell you why you might not want to read it. The use of a Christian culture as a backdrop may get tedious for some people after a while. Granted, a lot of the Catholic type stuff is no more distracting than, say, a detailed description of an exorcism from a horror movie. But characters that are literally crying out to God when they are in their most desperate moments is going to be more than some people can take. Probably the most likely thing to turn people off is a bit early on where we find out that the elves do not believe in evolution. I don’t think this was handled as well as the theological discussions of Opera Vita Aeterna and I can imagine some people throwing their ereader against the wall at that point. Still, the author does not belabor these sorts of scenes, however, and the intense action of the later chapters would (in my opinion) more than make up for whatever cringe this might induce. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

This book is quite enjoyable by itself, but if you are running any sort of game with a city state that is at all based on the Romans, then this book is an essential find. This is not at all like the derivative fantasy series of the eighties that I grew up with. There’s a realness to it that I don’t recall seeing before. My favorite thing about is that it really takes you inside the head of men that are responsible for leading armies. I simply did not know how much I wanted to read something like that until I got this book! I don’t want to give anything away, but there is some really good stuff in here that is as inspiring as it is entertaining. There are difficult lessons on leadership here that are nowhere to be found in stuff like the more visible Honor Harrington series.

This is a nice change of pace after assuming that I’d always have to hold my nose if I was going to read any of the more recent science fiction and fantasy. While this is not entirely family friendly, it is still not nearly as graphic as, say, the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones. While it doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, it also clearly sets up the next book so beware of that. The Roman names can get confusing and the Latin terms can get a little much at times, but really, the biggest problem I had with it was that pretty much had to take a sick day in order to finish reading it once I got about half way through.

This Guy Gets It

When I asked for a sign yesterday, I wasn’t really sure exactly what I was looking for. The number of people referring to my stuff as essays do kind of astound me and the invitation to write for an academic journal is even more insane than the project I’ve undertaken. (And for the record, an essay is an attempt to tell the truth. Do you people seriously want to grace a few posts about games, science fiction, and fantasy with that particular appellation…? Really…?) But no, set all that aside. The point of my posts is not to grandstand. The point is to produce something like this:

You know, I can’t help but feel like some of the strangeness of the scenarios in early D&D come from the conflict between the Tolkienian paradigm and what you’ve described in this book. The Caves of Chaos as a threat to the Borderlands makes sense if its inhabitants are aligned with chaos as creatures of Fey encroaching on the lands of good christian men. But if they are simply other races, representing no threat other than what a slightly less advanced culture on the borders of a more advanced culture tend to represent, the moral and existential threat is significantly negated.

In my column at Castalia House, I’m not just taking you on a tour of classic fiction, though for some people that will be all it amounts to. I’m attempting to expose people to the axioms that underlie the thinking of designers like Gary Gygax and Marc Miller. The assumptions that they made are now completely alien; the culture that inspired them practically amount to remnants of a lost civilization. Even the generation that they wrote for failed to grasp this stuff for the most part. But if you dig further back into these old books… really, some serious gaming enlightenment awaits you. You’ll understand, for example, why B2 makes more sense in light of Poul Anderson than it does J. R. R. Tolkien. And if you run that module again, you’ll do so with the awareness of a particular frame that opens up directions of adventure that you may not ever have imagined.

I do not have time to explicate this sort of thing in detail. My audience (hopefully) includes nongamers and this sort of thing is so esoteric, it generally ends up on the cutting room floor. But really, the surprising thing here is that there is some seriously surprising stuff here. Better game bloggers than me have been talking about this for years, but it’s just so crazy that the complete implications of it don’t always hit home. But that’s what I’m trying to do: I want to dig into this stuff and explain it in such a way that people can sort out the consequences of these ideas in their own way and in their own games. That means leaving the dots unconnected in some cases. But seeing people put two and two together… that is pretty darn exciting.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but this is what I was looking to accomplish when I was writing this stuff.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 119 other followers