A Capstone and a New Foundation

The 2E era of D&D is known for having simultaneously the greatest emphasis on distinctive settings in the game’s history and the greatest downplaying of the classic dungeon-crawling mode of play on the part of the game’s publisher ever seen. This makes sense given the general ethos of the era.

For one thing, in gaming circles it was fashionable to run down playstyles you considered less sophisticated, and dungeon crawling was considered to be nonsense for babies who hadn’t grown up to do something more oriented around exploring a distinctive setting or playing through a GM’s preplanned story; whilst I don’t think TSR’s management at the time paid attention to such things, I could believe that their designers did. Another factor, which I think would have been much more on the mind of the Lorraine Williams-helmed board of directors, was that a large chunk of TSR’s D&D-related profits arose not from the game itself but from the various ranges of tie-in novels based on the various settings that had emerged ever since Weis and Hickman had turned the Dragonlance trilogy into an unlikely hit.

Infamously, it was the novels that put paid to TSR. They were published through an arrangement with Random House, who handled the process of getting them into the distribution chain and as such were the link between TSR and the major book shops. This had the advantage of being able to leverage Random House’s much better connections in the world of traditional book shops (as opposed to hobby stores), putting the novels and other TSR products in front of an audience other game publishers could only dream of.

The disadvantage of the arrangement, of course, is that TSR was keeping the book stores at arm’s length, and as a result they were less able to keep an eye on how many of the books were being returned unsold by the stores. The way the publishing industry worked at the time – I have no idea whether it still works the same way in these devastated post-Amazon/ebook years – was that unsold books would get returned to the publisher by distributors in return for a full or partial refund. This means that a problem could arise – as it did for TSR – if you ended up shipping far more product to the distributor than they and the bookstores they serve were actually able to sell, and especially could be a problem if the end-of-year returns from a distributor ends up being much larger than you expected.

That’s exactly what happened to TSR: Random House returned a massive amount of stuff to them at the end of 1996, and presented them with a huge bill for it. This wrecked their cashflow, in turn meaning that they couldn’t afford to print new runs of the material which was selling, making business impossible, and in 1997 Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR.

Wizards kept the old branding alive for the remainder of 2E’s run and then retired it, releasing 3E under their own name. Whilst 3E is sometimes held up, not without justification, as seeing a new embrace of dungeon crawling as a legitimate focus of play, at the same time if you take a close look at Wizards’ output after acquiring TSR you can kind of see that ongoing gear shift in process. The two supplements I’m going to be reviewing for this article include one of the last really great releases put out by TSR, and an early Wizards contribution to the game line; they form a two-book set which between them offer both the peak of the 2E ethos and the beginnings of 3E’s back-to-the-dungeon movement.

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A Psychic Second Try

The history of psionics in D&D is a bit patchy, partly because in some settings it feels basically rather redundant. Supernatural powers are supernatural powers, and a pseudoscientific explanation for one set as opposed to a mystical or theological explanation is just a different flavour of fig leaf over them, as far as I am concerned. Especially once you have the idea that (in some settings at least) clerics can cast spells through the sheer force of belief in something, including an abstract idea, I’m not seeing much conceptual difference between a psionicist and a cleric who gains spells from their sheer belief in the power of their mind.

Still, the difference seems bizarrely important to some people in the D&D fan community, to the point where Psionics Totally Isn’t Magic is an article of faith to some people even though if you dip into the broader history and philosophy of either there really isn’t much of a gap between them – “psychic powers” is just what pseudoscientists call the act of changing the world through sheer will, which in turn which is how lots of occultists define magic these days, and in general seems to be an idea which only really makes sense in a post-Enlightenment context which sits awkwardly with a magical land of dragons and gods and pixies.

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One OGL To Rule Them All

D&D and Middle-Earth have had a rather complex history. On the one hand, Gygax admitted to not enjoying Tolkien as much as more sword and sorcery-esque fare, and that certainly comes across in the more mercenary assumptions of early editions. At the same time, Gygax knew what was popular. Part of the motivation for Gygax’s original fantasy rules to Chainmail that gave Dave Arneson the seed that became the original Blackmoor campaign, which went on to spawn D&D once the feedback loop passed it through Gygax again, was a desire to pander to a desire to do Tolkienesque battles that had been percolating about in the wargame scene. The balors, treants and halflings of D&D were originally named as balrogs, ents, and hobbits until the Tolkien estate caughed and asked them to stop.

Following that, decades passed with no official meeting of D&D and Middle-Earth, despite some sort of Middle-Earth RPG existing for much of that time span. ICE’s MERP was based off Rolemaster, Decipher’s heavily movie-based Lord of the Rings RPG used their CODA system, and of course Cubicle 7’s The One Ring is a bespoke system made specifically for that game.

However, let it not be said that Cubicle 7 are blind to an opportunity. They have the Middle-Earth RPG licence, Wizards put out a pretty functional OGL for 5E, all the tools were there for them to make a legal, commercially viable Middle-Earth adaptation for D&D, so that’s exactly what they have done in the form of Adventures In Middle-Earth, the rules for which are presented in the Player’s Guide and Loremaster’s Guide.

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Death to the Ophanim! Long Live the New Flesh!

Rafael Chandler, through his Neoplastic Press, is a designer who emerged from the ranks of the Forge who isn’t usually thought of as a Forge-style indie designer, perhaps because of his idiosyncratic design approach. When people think of the Forge, they often think of the “narrativist” school that was heavily promoted by Ron Edwards and others, with games like Dogs In the VineyardMy Life With MasterPolaris and others drawing on those ideas.

However, as I outlined in my retrospective on the Forge, narrativism and the RPG theory underpinning it was not the only preoccupation of the Forge, only the most loudly controversial. It was also, back in the day, an excellent resource for anyone looking to self-publish their own RPG materials. Whilst today websites like Lulu and others make putting your own book out on a print-on-demand basis about as simple as you could ever hope it to be, the Forge rose at a time when such tools were either still in their infancy or didn’t yet exist, and as such it served as an extremely useful concentration of information and expertise on the self-publication process.

Chandler was an early beneficiary of the Forge’s advice, and in 2002 put it into effect to release Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium, a high-octane gorehound splatterpunk RPG of demon hunting. A second edition followed in 2007, and a sequel themed around hunting equally despicable angels – Spite: The Second Book of Pandemonium – emerged. Chandler at this point seems to have decided that the games’ concepts overlapped enough that it made sense to combine them, so for a new release on PDF and print-on-demand platforms he combined them to produce Pandemonio. The PDF version is a single 512 document on DriveThruRPG; hard copies are available through Lulu in the form of a Player Guide and a Director Guide.

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A High Water Mark of the OSR

Kevin Crawford has, through his materials published under the Sine Nomine Publishing label, established himself as being rather excellent at providing toolkits to support sandbox play in his various games and settings. Working mostly in an OSR context, he’s bent, folded, and mutilated TSR-era D&D into all manner of interesting, unexpected shapes – like Scarlet Heroes, a bid to support one-on-one play with a D&D-like engine, or D&D takes on Traveller or Exalted with the serial numbers filed off.

As well as standalone games, Crawford has also produced settings for existing games. Red Tide is just such a setting; it’s statted out for the Labyrinth Lord retro-clone, which really means that it works perfectly with any variant of Basic D&D (B/X or BECMI), would probably work with minimal changes with OD&D, can be massaged to fit either edition of AD&D easily enough, and would need a little time but not much brain power to deploy with 3.X or Pathfinder or 5E. 4E you could make work if you put a lot of effort in, but probably enough effort to completely miss the point of this book – which is to provide a robust setting for sandbox play with supportive enough tools that you can just wing a game without doing any prep beyond that which is personally entertaining for you.

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Monster: the Monstering

Although Vampire: the Masquerade popularised the whole “you play the monsters” thing, there’s been a tradition of that in RPGs for a very long time. In the 1970s Tunnels & Trolls variant Monsters! Monsters! cast players as dungeon monsters fighting incursions of adventurers, and of course back in Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign that yielded the seed of what Gary Gygax would wrangle into a commercially viable game product you had Sir Fang, a vampire player character who was so gamewreckingly unbalanced (Dave Arneson wasn’t very good at rules, go figure) that the cleric class had to be invented specifically so a Van Helsing-type could put Fang back in his box (which is a coffin because vampire).

More generally, the immediate aftermath of the release of Dungeons & Dragons involved a big wave of people cooking up wild homebrew stuff. The nice thing about OD&D is that in those three little booklets it gave you fairly clear formats for coming up with new content – it’s easy enough to set your hand to making new monsters, spells, and player character races and classes.

Over OD&D‘s lifespan a range of odd variants of the game developed as a result of that, ranging from root and branch revisions of the entire game like Warlock, interpretations on how to resolve some of D&D‘s ambiguities like the Perrin Conventions, flat-out unauthorised third party supplements like The Arduin Grimoire, and that’s just taking into account material that saw publication: there were also uncountable local micro-variants of the game, not least because each gaming table running OD&D would inevitably​ develop its own house rules simply because the core books have some areas where there’s no one clear, unambiguous interpretation available. Offbeat character races and classes were a regular feature of these variants.

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