Spending the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit Jotting Down More Notes on Yesterday’s Tolkien Thing

Okay, there have been lots of conversations going on that are conflating certain things and certain arguments as being one and the same, and this leads to a lot of goal-post moving, so I’m going to try to untangle stuff here.

  1. Dungeons & Dragons was not “Tolkien + a few other things”
  2. Dungeons & Dragons was “Lots of things, including some Tolkien”
  3. Elves in the Hobbit are substantially different from Elves in Lord of the Rings and later Tolkien Legendarium; they are not “Tolkienesque” in the way that the term is generally understood.
  4. “Dungeons & Dragons is a Tolkien/Middle Earth adventure game” is a false statement.
  5. Chainmail, however, does include significant elements from the Hobbit; saying that the fantasy portion of Chainmail is Tolkien-the Game, is not entirely ridiculous.
  6. The Hobbit was far more influential on Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons than the Lord of the Rings proper.*
  7. Elves in Chainmail are not explicitly “Tolkien elves”; they bear little resemblance to Lord of the Rings elves, though they do resemble elves from the Hobbit or the Rankin & Bass cartoon.
    1. Do people consider the Rankin and Bass elves “Tolkienesque”?
    2. Chainmail elves are mechanically identical to Fairies and share an entry.
    3. Chainmail elves can turn invisible at will;
  8. Orcs in Chainmail ARE explicitly “Tolkien Orcs”; their tribes are described in terms of “Hand Orcs”, “Mordor Orcs”, etc.
  9. Elves as they appear in D&D are substantially different from Elves as they are depicted in either the Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion. Though a case can be made that they bear similarities to the wood elves from The Hobbit, they bear a much stronger resemblance to humanoid fey races from Poul Anderson.
  10. PC Races in D&D do owe some to Tolkien, but only Halflings are explicitly Tolkienian
  11. Tolkien did not have a literary monopoly on stout and hardy dwarves who live in the mountains, mine for treasure, or craft fantastic weapons; it does not pass a reasonable-doubt check, but it’s not far-fetched to say they were, if they did not become, Tolkien dwarves.
  12. Shifts in D&D towards more Tolkienian/Tolkienesque/Tolkiengrotesque races and trappings are the result of Tolkien becoming the “Goto” name in fantasy from the late 70s on as Tolkien Clones and Branded Gaming Fiction began to dominate the market and public conscious and therefore the minds of the people playing and later the people developing the game; this was not by design.

Note that all of the above is completely separate from the original discussion that:

  1. I hypothesize that The Hobbit had little/no impact on the 1st and 2nd waves of 20th Century Fantasy, though I remain open to and will look for evidence to the contrary.
  2. The Lord of the Rings’ influence on fantasy in the 70s and beyond is undeniable; its influence on fantasy prior to the mid-60s highly suspect
  3. Questioning Tolkien’s influence on literature from periods immediately contemporary with him and the intervening years between the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or the latter’s eventual paperback release =/= dismissing Tolkien’s work or his subsequent influence or denigrating it ala Michael Moorcock.

Lastly, if I’d remembered that this was the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit, I probably would’ve avoided the topic entirely.

*:This one definitely needs citation, and I am looking for it, but it came from an interview with Gary where he pretty much comes out and says something along these lines.

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Stardock and the Challenge of Running a Mountain Climbing Adventure

Stardock1I’ve been reading Fritz Leiber’s Stardock, a Fafhrd & Gray Mouser story that mostly involves climbing up a big-ass mountain, and it’s got me thinking…

A lot of adventure fiction involves far more to it than easily modeled practical puzzles and combat; getting from point A to point B and traversing the obstacles in between makes up a good chunk of it. Unfortunately, it’s one of the hardest to model in game.

Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser don’t have near the trouble fighting bandits, thieves, and evil priests, pilfering ruined castles and temples, or escaping from the clutches of evil wizards as they do spending several days climbing up an almost sheer granite cliff-face, carving out foot and hand-holds with an ax, using grapnels, pikes, and pitons to climb around lips and overhanging boulders, and trying not to starve or die of exposure. Even without the ethereal fire princesses haunting them, mountain goats stampeding at them, invisible manta-ray riders hounding them, furry dragons harrying them, rival adventurers taking the occasional pot-shot at them, the duo have their work cut out for them just getting to the top.

The problem is, if you’re wanting to model an adventure after any of those “man against the elements” type stories, you’ll have your work cut out for you too. Overland travel is often one of the most hand-waved elements of Dungeons & Dragons; it’s hard to make it gameable. Rules exist for getting lost, determining weather and possibly even contracting disease, but getting lost screws up mapping (something DMs are loathe to do to their players, as mapping is challenging enough as it is sometimes), weather is window-dressing, and saving throws to not get sick aren’t much fun (and they’re a passive mechanic).

Outdoor Survival offers some excellent mechanics to mini-game overland travel, and it’s obvious why it would be used as core component of the original D&D system, but it offers little for the sort of adventure that involves a lot of climbing.

Thieves in D&D have some pretty impressive cooked in mechanics for scaling sheer surfaces that may be as much from Fafhrd & Mouser as they are from Jack of Shadows; if a thief can only use their thief skills with thief tools, could those thief tools include climbing instruments? Fafhrd & Mouser have some impressive gadgets they use which, while they don’t make the climb ‘easier’, make the climb at least possible.

So, you want to have an adventure with treasure on top of a mountain that players will have to climb, you want the challenge of climbing the mountain to be a significant part of the adventure, and you don’t want the climb to be just a series of rolls and skill checks.

This will probably take a lot of planning, because to make the climb gameable, you’ll have create unique challenges for the climb, and some of them probably WILL inevitably involve skill or stat checks.

You’ll want to do some research on equipment and specify what the players will have available to them, and possibly give them instruction on how to use it; if they know what it’s for, they’ll have a better shot at solving puzzles with them.

For instances where you DO need to rely on skill checks, have the result lead to a new situation that can be dealt with via problem solving; a gust of wind or a slipped hold might not result in the whole party falling off the mountain right away, but someone might come loose and need to be pulled up by others, or if someone ends up suspended free, they’ll have to figure out how to swing back to the cliff face and get hold.

Because it’s D&D, you’re probably going to want to break up the climbing with encounters; or even throw in some encounters during the climb. Having to fight off some bird or while clinging to a rock-face could create some unique challenges for players. But it’s likely to be lethal. This is the sort of adventure that has TPK written all over it; wrong moves mean death, characters can only carry with them the absolute essentials, and there’s no reward for making it part-way, so be sure that whatever you put on top of that mountain is damn well worth it.

Suggestions:

  • Do some equipment research; come up with some reasonable tools for the players to use plus some stuff that they can come up with their own tricks with.
  • Create several specific challenges and mechanics to adjudicate them, including set-pieces challenges, encounters, and general progress challenges.
  • Create general and specific weather effects: what will gusts of wind do to the climbers? How will snow affect climbing? How will you handle things like fatigue and exposure?
  • Plot out your mountain; the ascent will be a chain of the challenges you create. To make things more interesting, offer multiple paths that branch between tiers, allowing players more agency over their ascent. Perhaps one ascent will appear more straight-forward but passes by the lair of a monster, while another ascent avoids it entirely but requires climbing up an overhanging lip.
  • Be sure to give your players a few things to do and look at on the way up; a monster lair to explore or just a spot to set-up camp and recover (perfect for a spooky night encounter). And remember how I said there was no reward for making it part-way? If the players end up not wanting to throw their characters away, there might be some value at least in hunting beasts living in crevasses in the mountain; it is D&D, after all. Still, the real goal should be the summit.

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A Special Message to the OSR & Gaming Community

Kickstarters have been a staple in the OSR and Game Blogging community since well before I became a member. Crowdfunding has been used as a platform for countless bloggers and game devs to get everything from their latest module & supplements to their complete fantasy heartbreakers off the ground and into people’s hands. Even big name publishers have been using it as a tool to get new projects and new printings funded with quick investment capital.

There is, however, a downside that has been seen all too often in our community. It seems like much of the content at Tenkar’s Tavern over the years I’ve been following him has been a litany of failed and delayed Kickstarters. Sometimes life got in the way, other times dishonest folks took the money and ran. Even great companies with established track-records for success sometimes bite off more than they can chew, resulting in some pretty significant delays. The Skinny DM had an excellent article on the situation with Goodman Game’s DCC 4th printing Kickstarter which, despite my fondness for Goodman Games, I absolutely agree with.

So, why do I think you should back our Kickstarter?

A Proven Track Records – In 2016, Cirsova ran 3 successful Kickstarters – one for our first issue, one for our second issue, and one for our third and fourth issues. In all three cases, backers received their rewards almost immediately* after the money cleared through Kickstarter and Amazon Payments. There may have been one or two individual hiccups or items lost or damaged in the post, but I am confident that anyone you’d ask would say that we resolved all issues as quickly and satisfactorily as possible.

We Are Gamers – Before we started the magazine, Cirsova  was a gaming blog. We came out of the RPG Blog Alliance and the OSR community. Many of our contributors are fellow gamers, and the stories we all love and that shape our content are the same stories that shaped our games. Many of the stories we publish are the kind that could be run as a one-off adventure with nothing more than a couple of stat blocs; in fact, that’s almost an unspoken acceptance criteria!

We Exist to Support Writers – More than anything else, Cirsova exists as a Semi-Pro Market to support writers of exciting fiction. There are people out there still writing stories in the vein of Burroughs, Brackett, and Vance, but they need places to sell and publish their stories. Many of the big-name magazines and publishing houses are simply not interested in the kind of adventure fiction that inspired the games so beloved in the OSR. By supporting Cirsova, you allow us to stay open as a market for these writers and to continue paying in the $75-$100 range for short fiction.

Please consider checking out our Kickstarter. It costs only $1 to get both of our 2017 issues**, if you’re just curious. You have to admit, that’s hard to beat. We also offer softcover and hardcover editions of our magazine.

If you have a gamebook, module or other product coming out, or even if you just want to get word out about your blog, consider supporting us with some advertising space. In 2016, we had over a hundred subscribers and ended up selling over 500 copies of our magazine.

*:Needless to say, they received the winter issue when it came out, rather than in September when the money cleared and we sent the fall issue.

**:PDF and eBook.

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Interview With Jon Del Arroz, Jeffro on Geek Gab, and Cirsova Line Art

Not long after our interview with Chris Lansdown, we also spoke with Jon Del Arroz about Cirsova’s background as an RPG setting and the types of stories Cirsova publishes and is looking for.  You can read it here.

Also over the weekend, Jeffro Johnson, one of our regular columnists and the author of the bestselling Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, was on Geek Gab.

Finally, I took a minute to snap the line-art that Ben Rodriguez sent for our Eldritch Earth cover.

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Should I have put this up on the chopping block? Probably, but I wanted to actually own an original piece of Cirsova artwork, at least for a little while.

Please consider backing us on Kickstarter! Only $1 gets you a digital subscription to our 2017 issues.

Jeffro Johnson’s Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons is Out Now

I’m a bit late to the party on blogging this here, but hopefully devoting several posts over the past couple of years to the work he’s done on this can excuse my tardiness.

appendix-n-coverIf you’re like me and holding out for the paperback, I hear it’s coming soon (next month or so). If you’re cool with e-Reader stuff, go ahead and drop some coin on this now.

I could go on at extreme lengths as to why this book is important, how it brought the Appendix N gospel out of the hands of the OSR and discussions on ‘purity of D&D’ into the broader Science Fiction and Fantasy community, rediscovering and evangelizing treasures that were lost from public conscious due to changes in publishing practices and the retail market.

This project is one of two of the most important external factors on Cirsova being where it is and what it is. James Hutchings’s Age of Fable game brought me into the OSR and blogging, and Jeffro’s Appendix N series led me to start a magazine.

You really need to check this out.