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DMGR1/2112. The Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide.

This is actually a pretty good reference book for DMs. There is general advice on designing dungeons and indoor environments, and lots of stuff about running a game — practical table-manners type stuff, managing players, DMing style, all that. World-building and mapping and even suggestions on the hows and whys of in-game dungeon construction. It’s co-written by Janelle Jaquay, an icon of early D&D. So it has to be good, right?

It’s a little unusual for a 2e splatbook, in that some of the art is pretty bloody (pages 9, 33, and to a lesser degree 89), and there seem to be a couple of half-orcs among the PCs in various illustrations (pages 11 & 96 — though the guy on page 96 could be full orc).

There are great sample maps of various structures and environments that you might run as “dungeons” (understood here in the most basic sense as an boundaried adventuring environment, limiting where you can go). A pyramid, caverns, a temple, that sort of thing. All done in Sutherland’s neat perspective mapping that he pioneered in the 1e “Survival Guides”.

But you what it hasn’t got? Catacombs. Nothing about them. Nada. The biggest word on the cover & title page, and as far as I can tell the word doesn’t even turn up in the text. Disappointing. That’s OK though; I have something in the works that will cover catacombs.

The other odd thing about this one is the annoying illustrations of a nerdy DM and his gaming group, which is so mocking as to be unsympathetic. It’s supposed to be comical but really comes off as pretty contemptuous.

I haven’t read any of the later editions’ Dungeon Master Guides so I can’t say how much of this was carried over to them — honestly I haven’t even read the 2e DMG in years so I don’t know if this redundant to stuff in there. It does give a very concise set of guidelines that you can use in any game, so it’s worth checking out for that and for the handful of maps in the back. For as much I hated most of the brown splatbooks of character options back in the day, this blue splatbook is surprisingly good.

 

 

 

Published in: on July 6, 2015 at 2:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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Armor never wearies by Timothy Dawson (review)

 

'Armour Never Wearies'

But the writing here sure does.  :)

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a book on such an esoteric topic would be dry, but Dawson scrupulously avoids any kind of summary or conclusions. He gives a lot of detailed diagrams of individual scales and possible reconstructions, but no timelines or maps, so it is not always clear what period or area a particular find is relevant to. He also seems unwilling to give any real details about the weight of a suit (or pieces) of the armors, how well it might prevent penetration by various weapons or compare to other types of armor of the same period, and so on — the sorts of things someone interested in arms and armor might wonder about. Instead we have a detailed description of how different types of scale and lamellar armors depicted in period art might have been made, and how various archaeological finds might fit into the reconstructions. He is pretty careful to avoid speculation, but doesn’t always explain why he disagrees with other people’s ideas about the armor or even who specifically he means to criticize or dispute.

Still, it is s probably the only book ever written about scale and lamellar armor, so if you’ll want to read it if you have any interest in armor. The author is an historical reenactor, so he includes photos of actual suits he’s built, even photos of himself wearing them, which is neat. I was able to track down an article he cites in the book (and which he also wrote) that mentions, in passing, his tests of reconstructed lamellar armor against sword, spear, and compound bow, but there is not a lot of data, and no comparative tests against other types of armor were done, so it is hard to draw specific conclusions about the effectiveness of lamellar. He says he couldn’t pierce it with contemporary weapons, and his bow was an 82 pound draw longbow shot at 20 feet, using what sound like bodkin or armor-piercing arrowheads, so it sounds like lamellar is as good as mail or plate; it is stiffer than mail and so would be a little better versus impact weapons, but much more expensive to produce than plate, which explains why it fell out of use everywhere people had access to plate.

The article is “Kremasmata, kabadion, klibanion: some aspects of middle Byzantine military equipment reconsidered,” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, vol. 22 (1998) p. 38-50. An open source scan (pdf) is here.

D&D-wise, this book got me revisiting the question of what kinds of armor should a campaign include. AD&D is a grab-bag of stuff from the dark ages through early middle ages (with late medieval full plate optionally added in the DMG). Most simplified systems strip it down to leather, chain, and plate, but  really there is something funny going on in any campaign world where mail armor is cheaper than plate (the amount of work involved in cutting, bending, and riveting all those links is insane). My brother, who as big an arms & armor nerd as me, has argued that mail would really better for adventurers because, among other things, plate will overheat you pretty quickly, while mail acts as a radiator, letting heat escape. (Other factors being that mail is pretty repairable in the field while plate is less so; mail could be removed before you drown, unlike plate; and mail stops weapons almost as well as plate in most cases — remember, knights were jousting with lances before full plate was being made, and they survived.) But mail was too pricey to compete with plate — besides plate looks awesome, and you don’t really need a shield with it. so my point is by the time full plate armor is available, your real choice is between partial and full plate armor, not between mail and plate. D&D “plate mail,” if it is as I assume mail with a few bits of plate added at the joints and perhaps a chest piece, might reasonable coexist as an improvement over mail, and of course mail continued to see use long after they stopped making new suits, as hand-me-downs and inventory from armories, but I’m tempted to reduce all armors to maybe three classes — light (leather or padded); medium (scale or mail, or half-plate or less); and heavy (a full suit of lamellar or reinforced mail, and  any kind of plate armor).

 

Published in: on May 29, 2015 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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Girdle books

A girdle book; image from Wikipedia.

Recently a colleague of mine cataloged a “girdle book” for our library. I’d never seen one before. It is a small book, typically a prayer/liturgy book, that is bound with long tail of soft leather and clasp so that it can be attached to one’s belt (“girdle”) for easy access. Our specimen is a 17th century German prayer-book, I think Lutheran, and had been rebound in the 1980s. It is a small, but thick, manuscript, and it looks to me like the original clasps were saved in the rebinding but the tail was placed on the top edge rather than the bottom edge, so that it hangs upright. I think it would be more handy to have such a book hand upside down, so that when you pull it up the tail is on the bottom.

This fellow is carrying the girdle in his hand, but normally you’d attached the knotted “tail” to your belt. Image from Wikipedia.

So yeah, wearable information technology is like a thousand years old. :)

Girdle books seem like pretty natural fits for adventurers. IIRC the first edition Unearthed Arcana described “traveling” spellbooks, which would be compact spellbooks that a magic-user took on an expedition. These would be lighter than a standard spellbook and have fewer spells, but the benefit is that you would not be as burdened and losing it to dragon fire or whatever hazard you faced would be less of a crippling blow.

Yet another Wikipedia image.

If you Google Image Search the term, you’ll see a lot more examples. Some have a pair of rings attached to the cover and loop a chain through them; I kind like the image of a mage with a tiny spellbook on a chain, like the dudes you sometimes see today with their wallets on a chain.

Published in: on May 23, 2015 at 12:04 pm  Comments (5)  
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The book of creatures

This post is just a shout out to a project I recently noticed on someone else’s blog roll: The book of creatures. The posts are all like encyclopedia entries, with an excellent color illustration, a map showing the creature’s habitat/origin, and a silhouette showing the relative size of the creature next to a human (much like the silhouettes in the books published by Chaosium, Inc.). The description gives a bibliography too, which is nice. The creatures are all from folklore so far, and not your run-of-the-mill collection of stuff everyone knows about. Looking at the old posts, I have only heard of three of the featured creatures, plus  maybe a couple more that similar to more familiar creatures. The unfamiliar ones are pretty amazing. The eventual goal is to create a comprehensive catalog, or nearly so.

The site has a (broken) link to a Patreon account, so you might support the project by pledging there.

Published in: on May 18, 2015 at 10:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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Huh. 35,000 words.

There’s a semi-secret project I’ve been working on, on and off, for two years — actually a little more, as it grew out of an idea for another project I was just one of several contributors to. Really the bulk of the work has been finished for at least a year, and mostly sitting around while added a bit here or there and waited for my collaborator to find time to write his part. Anyway I just decided to run a word count on the current draft and it is 35,000. That’d be a respectable novella, if it were fiction. I’m kind of shocked.

I’m probably jinxing things by mentioning it publicly but I am pretty sure it will see light of day this year. All I will say about it, is that it will be D&D-related source-book but compatible with other systems too, and I read dozens of books and journal articles to research it.

 

Published in: on May 12, 2015 at 11:45 am  Comments (3)  

Book sale haul, day 2

Back to the library, this time with my brother and a friend. More goodies.

The Dark Design (Riverworld #3)

The dark design / Philip Jose Farmer. (another Riverworld novel; still waiting to start them till I get the first one)

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Njal’s Saga (Penguin classics; I’ve read a lot of Viking sagas but not this one, even though it must be the most famous of them all)

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The song of Roland (Penguin classics)

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The end of the beginning /Avi (for my daughter mostly)

https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1177443078l/704178.jpg

The slynx / Tatyan Tolstaya (Looks like an interesting one: a satire about Russia, it involves an underground society, after s nuclear war, that uses mice for food, clothes, commerce, and entertainment)

Doctor Rat

Doctor rat / Willaim Kotzwinkle (another oddball; looks like something Doris Lessing would write as a follow-up for Briefing for a descent into Hell, which was a great book come to think of it)

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The best of Frederic Brown (another book club edition)

and

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The encyclopedia of Hell

And afterward we checked out a neat little craft beer bar with the clever name Craft Beer Bar. There we knocked a few back while opening up a grab bag of 20 more sci-fi paperbacks I got for a dollar!

There were some classics ( 2 by HG Wells, as well as Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson, A stainless steel rat is born by Harry Harrison) as well a several others I’ll give a shot; about 2/3 were dross though (Piers Anthony, number X in a series, Star Wars novels, and similar). It was a lot of fun.

The only downside is that I need to clear shelf space now. The wife strictly enforces a “one book in, one book out” policy that I have to admit is for my own good.

Published in: on May 9, 2015 at 10:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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Book sale haul, day 1

As I always try to do, I hit the “pre-sale” for Friends of the Library the other night. As usual, I was a little disgusted by all the prospectors with scanners looking for stuff to resell at a profit. I know the library gets money either way but it seems really dishonest to prey on people’s good will for the library like that; after all the stuff I buy I’ll probably donate back so someone can enjoy it for a buck or less while these vultures are sending them off to jerkwad collector, right? Yeah maybe I shouldn’t begrudge them. I guess I’m just annoyed they aren’t actually there to find things to read and enjoy. Oh well.

The cover images are all swiped from Goodreads.com, which has a surprisingly complete catalog.

I’m planning to hit it again on Saturday (probably while this post goes up). They always restock the shelves between the sale days.

Not a bad haul so far for 5 bucks:

8359940

Dragons / Hogarth & Clery (love this cover; it’s a nice illustrated miscellany on dragons)

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The magic of Atlantis / ed. Lin Carter (Atlantis-related tales by the usual pulp fantasy suspects — Howard, Kuttner, de Camp, etc.)

11115558

Little, big / John Crowley (a hardback in excellent condition, even though it is a “book club edition”)

462383

Return to Quag Keep / Norton & Rabe (withdrawn library copy; I would not normally bother with Norton but this does have a D&D connection and an intro by EGG)

3821856

Three Hainish novels / Le Guin (typical beat up book club edition but I like le Guin)

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The dwellers on the Nile / E.A. Wallis Budge (a Dover reprint of a fairly classic book on the Egyptians; I may have read this before but I’m not sure)

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Sturgeon is alive and well (stories by Theodore Sturgeon, a true master)

7858

Dead cities / Mike Davis (nonfiction about extinct and abandoned cities of modern times; looks interesting)

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Fantastic archaeology / Stephen Williams (about crackpot theories about North American prehistory; unfortunately I realized it has some mildew when I got it home so it will not be joining the shelves permanently; so far it’s good)

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The sundering flood / William Morris (a BAF paperback in good condition)

[no pic!]

Issues # 15 and 16 of Harbinger (2005) — a British miniatures magazine I’d never heard of.

Published in: on May 9, 2015 at 12:00 pm  Comments (5)  
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H.P. Lovecraft and the modernist grotesque

I’ve been down with a cold for the last couple of days and after forcing myself to go in to work one day, I took day off and binge-read a dissertation on H.L.Lovecraft that a guy I know wrote. It is called H.P. Lovecraft and the modernist grotesque. You can buy it at Amazon, and should. (Side note: among the things I learned here is the origin of the term “grotesque”, which traces to “grotto-esque” because the excavations of certain Roman grottoes revealed monstrous, fanciful images no-one had seen in hundreds of years. Such imagery was not limited to grottoes or baths but the term stuck, perhaps because the association with caves or the underground fit the demonic images.)

H.P. Lovecraft has become a sort of pop icon, at least within a sizable subculture of gamers, horror aficionados, and general “geek culture,” although as the author notes he is more frequently referenced or parodied than actually read. In all fairness, there is a considerable part of Lovecraft’s work that is pretty rough going, due to its conservativeness (e.g. his early work and attempts to copy Dunsany) or due to its unapologetic racism and xenophobia (which even Robert E. Howard, himself criticized for bigotry, chastised Lovecraft for!). However Martin focuses on several of Lovecraft’s most famous and acclaimed works (“The call of Cthulhu,” “The whisperer in the darkness,” At the mountains of madness, and a few other key works), and in doing so makes a powerful case to take Lovecraft’s mature work much more seriously than it hitherto has outside of “weird tales” fandom.
Martin argues, quite lucidly, that HPL can be better understood as a trailblazer in the intersection of two literary movements: the grotesque and the modernist. HPL, he demonstrates, uses modernist devices and concerns, with grotesque themes and situations, to create subtle studies on alienation, subjectivity, and the absurd. Indeed the Lovecraftian sense of “cosmic horror” (a phrase I think Martin circumspectly avoids) is understood here as really being a sense of horror at man’s evident place in the universe (or lack thereof). Martin rather convincingly (to me, at least, as a non-scholar regarding literature!) shows that HPL really fits comfortably in with Conrad, Eliot, O’Conner, Faulkner, and other “modernists,” distinguishing himself more by his use of the grotesque rather than more realist or mundane dramas to sketch his vision of the world: alienating because it is indifferent to human concerns and pride; disturbing because subjectivity makes absolute reality impossible to approach; and absurd because logic and science are just powerless as religion and art in the face of this alienation and subjectivity. HPL’s use of sophisticated literary devices belies his oft-criticized purple prose, and Martin also makes an effort to suggest that HPL uses humor and even self-parody which is lost on many readers.
So overall I think this is an excellent study of HPL, and refreshing in that it mostly avoids the biography that so often passes for criticism and appreciation that passes for interpretation.
Having said all that, this is a doctoral dissertation, and the reader is often reminded of this fact by the repetition of ideas, the exhausting presentation of piece after piece of evidence, pedantic footnotes which some advisor or reader doubtless insist be inserted to clarify or disclaim some statement, and most of all by the jargon of academia. In fact this last part was the most distracting: “connects,” “destabilizes,” “questions,” and similar verbs abound, as I have often found them to in academic literary criticism. Such terms always make me think that either the writer is avoiding taking a clear stance or that they don’t really know exactly what the argument is and these words are meant to say “well this here sort of suggests that, but the logical connection is not clear and I am not positive what the actual conclusion should be.” But then that is the meat and mead of defending a thesis. One must pull back as far into ones shell as possible or face endless debate from the advisor and readers who must ultimately approve the thing. So I can forgive that.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that I know the author of this work and he sent me a copy to read (though he did not ask for a review or anything in return). I should also mention that I was intensely flattered to be acknowledged among the people who influenced his thinking, though really I knew him long ago, and I doubt I had anything substantive to say about HPL at that time.
I hope that if he ever returns to this topic, perhaps to edit the dissertation into a format that will attract more casual readers, he will expand his examples to draw on more stories, and perhaps give a little more explanation of some of the more jargony terms of literary criticism, for the ideas herein do a great deal to rehabilitate HPL as more than merely a “horror” or “pulp” writer. He might also address some of the more problematic aspects of HPL’s work and views; however I know from correspondence that he intentionally set out to avoid the pitfall of biography and psychologism that besets so many writers on writers.

Published in: on April 2, 2015 at 7:15 pm  Comments (19)  
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Just in time! Santicore 2014!

File:St. Michaels ass laden with heath and firewood, Bullar 1841, p. xiv.jpg

Artist’s representation of the contents of the Santicore 2014 documents. Source: Wikimedia

The Secret Santicore for 2014 is now out!

With an ass load of great stuff. Plus some not so great stuff, like my own contribution, but you get what you pay for. Monsters, NPCs, tables, whole freaking adventures. All crafted on-demand in the spirit of giving and flinging poisoned iron spikes from one’s tail.

 

 

Published in: on March 9, 2015 at 12:15 pm  Comments (4)  
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Monsters Manuals appendix N

I was kind of excited to see that there is a reading list in both the 5th edition Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide. So, suppose you wanted to compile a reading list for a monsters manual.  Inspirational reading for new monsters, stories with cool or interesting uses of monsters, and maybe sources for some of the established D&D monsters*. What should go in? Here’s a start. Suggestions welcome. The following books are all pretty good, and worth checking out.

Arrowsmith, Nancy, and George Moorse. The field guide to little people. An encyclopedia style guide, with somewhat creepy illustrations.

Barber, Ruchard. A companion to world mythology. A dictionary of mythology, with short entries and a ton of small illustrations. The illustrations generally try to mimic the style of the culture each entry is from, so that the Greek gods are illustrated in a Grecian style, and so on.

Barlowe, Wanye Douglas. Barlowe’s guide to extraterrestials and Barlowe’s guide to fantasy. Great color illustrations of characters and creatures from science fiction and fantasy novels, with a short summary that usually does not give away any spoilers. Each has a fold-out chart of all the subjects for size comparison, which is pretty cool.

Borges, J. The book of imaginary beings. Borges describes creatures from literature and fable, intermixed with some he’s made up, and others he re-imagined. If you liked Zak Smith’s re-imagining of the Fiend Folio and Monster Manuals**, you’ll also like this, I think. There is a really great illustrated edition, which I’d go with over the all-text edition.

Briggs, Katharine. The encyclopedia of fairies. Arranged like an encyclopedia with entries on topics and places, but this actually includes a lot of excerpts from folklore and entire stories, often in the local dialect or archaic English, this is probably more for scholars than general readers, despite the cover and marketing. But it’s worth perusing.

Cohen, Daniel. The encyclopedia of monsters. I read a lot of Cohen’s books as a kid, and this encyclopedia is a great introduction to his credulous style of writing about all manner of fantastic and cryptozoological creatures. Does he really believe in this stuff? Maybe. But he is careful to stick to his sources and makes no effort to hide some of the goofier aspects of these legends. This is one of the only books in this list I don’t actually own, but I am on the lookout for it when I go to library book sales.

Davidson, Avram. Adventures in unhistory. This a collection of essays looking at possible historical bases of various legends. Davidson’s incredible erudition and sharp humor make it a great read. He doesn’t talk a lot about monsters, but there are so many ideas here you will certainly find something useful. (I’m still on the hunt for a copy of this too, as the copy I read was a library loan).

D’Aularies, Ingrid and Edgar P. D’Aularies’ book of Trolls. The D’Aulaires really got me hooked on mythology as a kid and the book of trolls collects some Norwegian troll stories while also giving a sort of treatise on the habits and types of trolls.

Douglas, Adam. The beast within. A book on werewolves and lycanthropy, this one also includes some great material on the “Plinian races” and other near-humans from legend.

Lang, Andrew (ed.). The blue fairy book. (And The yellow fairy book, etc. — all of his Fairy books). Collected folklore and fairytales from all over the world, pretty much every page is a delight.

Petersen, Sandy. S. Petersen’s field guide to the creatures of the dreamlands. I tried to keep gaming books out of the list, and this is on the border but does not actually have any stats and has some great artwork. Bonus: you don’t have to plow through HPL’s often ponderous efforts to mimic Dunsany to find out about the incredible creatures he invented for the Dreamlands cycle.

Rossi, Matthew. Things that never were. One part research, one part wild speculation, this is kind of like the popular “Hite Report” that used to appear in the Pyramid Magazine, but for general readers rather than DMs. A lot of fun.

Sedgwick, Paulita. Mythological creatures. Another dictionary-style children’s book, notable for cool illustrations and engaging writing.

 

As far as recommending fiction, that’s another post, or series of posts, or honestly a project that really screams for crowdsourcing. But I’d add one book that probably isn’t shelved with the sci-fi and fantasy in your bookstore or library:

Eco, Umberto. Baudolino! A hiliarious riff on medieval travelogues and legends, the sections detailing the Plinian races and other wonders of the East is pure gold.

*****************

*A pretty good effort at this last topic was made by Aardy R. DeVarque here.  Looking at the sources there for various monsters reminded me that striges in D&D probably were inspired by the Strix of Greek mythology, and perhaps their cave-dwelling (and indirectly their bat-like wings) come from Thomas Burnett Swann’s The day of the minotaur. Wouldn’t it be cool to produce an “annotated” AD&D Monster Manual with sources made explicit? And yeah for “cool” most people will read “intolerably nerdy,” but that’s how I think. Actually once I finish up some other projects already in the hopper, maybe a grand compilation of sources for AD&D monsters, spells, and magic items would be fun.

**No link, not sure how his site will be affected by the changes in Blogger, but you can Google it.

Published in: on February 27, 2015 at 12:00 pm  Comments (7)  
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