Supplement Supplemental! (Redactings, Crawlings, and Harvestings)

Here’s another in my occasional series on game supplements which I read and have some thoughts on, but not enough thoughts for an entire article. This time I’ve got a slightly unfocused expansion for Wrath & Glory, a couple of issues of an old-school D&D zine, and a Call of Cthulhu campaign.

Redacted Records (Wrath & Glory)

This feels like an odd little grab-bag of material for the official Warhammer 40,000 RPG, a bit like the Archives of the Empire volumes offer grab-bags of material for 4th Edition WFRP. The cover and the back cover blurb make it seem like this is a space hulk-themed supplement – a sort of update of material from Ark of Lost Souls for Deathwatch – but this only covers about a third of this supplement’s content (and since the book is only about 100 pages long that’s not a lot). Other material includes more frameworks for your PC party, a brief chapter on unusual servitors, an overview of some cults from two of the worlds of the default setting of Wrath & Glory (the Gilead system), and the start of a greatly expanded Talent list. (Literally: it covers A-I, implying that there will be followup chapters in other books covering J-Z.)

The weird thing about the supplement is that much of this feels like it’s been chopped out of a larger body of work – as well as the J-Z sections of that additional talent list, you’d expect similar cult rundowns of the other worlds of the system to exist somewhere, for instance. Still, as a sort of half-supplement-half-magazine thing it’s not useless – but I feel like it should be presented as being Volume 1 of a series, like the first Archives of the Empire book was, because it’s very apparent that this is merely the first of a series of miscellanea-themed supplements with not much connecting theme.

Continue reading “Supplement Supplemental! (Redactings, Crawlings, and Harvestings)”

Two Designers Enter, Two Designers Leave

When it comes both to the designers writing the game materials and the publishers releasing them commercially, Dungeons & Dragons is in a Ship of Theseus situation: Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and TSR as a whole ceased being involved in the game’s publication decades ago, and have ceased participating in mortal life in general for a good while at that (setting aside recent attempts to revive the TSR name, with varying levels of personal dignity and good taste involved).

However, whilst companies cease to exist once they have been dissolved as legal entities, human beings often kick around for much longer after you’ve dismissed them. After he was turfed out of TSR in 1985 and control ended up in the hands of Lorraine Williams, Gary Gygax saw to it that his version of events was promulgated far and wide. Years later, when the Internet was a thing and when forums like Dragonsfoot, through their advocacy of pre-Wizards of the Coast editions of D&D, were laying the foundations of what would later become the OSR, Gary was only too glad to make posts further pushing his recollections, fuzzy though the passage of time may have made some of them.

Dave Arneson, by contrast, was a somewhat quieter figure for the last decade or two of his life. However, this was not always the case. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the aftermath of his departure from TSR, he would vociferously promote his own version of events, especially when his years-long dispute with his former employers over the D&D royalties situation kicked into high gear. Even at this early stage, Dungeons & Dragons was already the 800 pound gorilla of the RPG market, with success of orders of magnitude greater than its competitors, and TSR had a tendency to throw that weight around; this created enough resentment that Arneson found many willing to accept his side of the story.

Such situations where competing narratives about an event obscure the truth are far from uncommon in history, and it’s the mark of a good historian to be able to pierce through them and provide an account supported by the facts and dispelling the misconceptions generated by years of gossip and rhetoric. Game Wizards, published as part of the Game Histories range from MIT Press, is Jon Peterson’s latest attempt to do exactly that.

Continue reading “Two Designers Enter, Two Designers Leave”

Old-School Essentials: Second Wave of Products, First Edition Style

Once upon a time, back when 4E was the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, vicious edition wars raged across the land, and Wizards of the Coast had yanked all of their PDF offerings from older editions from storefronts, retroclones played a valuable role. They provided a means to provide access to the rules to older editions of D&D for people interested in the history of the game, and they also meant that it was possible for people to develop and promote their own material for the game without worrying about treading on Wizards’ toes when it came to trademarks – “Compatible with OSRIC” would be understood as “Compatible with 1E”, for example.

These days, however, those functions are much less essential. When it comes to branding, people have generally realised that “Compatible with the first edition of the world’s most famous roleplaying game” or words to that effect work just as well as “Compatible with OSRIC“. More significantly, Wizards have wised up and put the PDFs of old editions of the game back on sale at fairly reasonable prices. Whilst they could always change their mind again and yank them from sale once more, it seems likely that they have learned that all they accomplish by doing that is giving oxygen to the retroclone scene, and they have committed enough time and attention to making PDF and print-on-demand versions of old D&D material available that making it all vanish would seem like a massive waste of labour; they are much more likely to keep the “long tail” going.

This being the case, the classic purposes of retroclones now no longer serve that much purpose, but that doesn’t mean there’s no role for them whatsoever. Nowadasys, if you interested in what one might call a “pure” retroclone of a TSR-vintage edition of D&D – in other words, a version which isn’t trying to spin the early D&D system in some novel new direction or closely tie it to a unique setting, but is simply trying to provide a fresh presentation of the rules to a particular TSR-era version of the game – then there’s basically 5 criteria you’re going to be looking at.

  • Fidelity to whichever edition of the game it’s cloning. The whole point of such a retroclone is to allow you to play material from the edition in question; errors, tweaks, and incompatibilities undermine that purpose.
  • Corrections of errata, resolutions of flat-out contradictions, and provision of material that was clearly intended to be there but was missing in the original rules in question. If the retroclone isn’t at least as error-free as the PDFs – if not more so – that’s embarrassing, especially since there’s been several decades to spot the errata in question.
  • Clarity of presentation. If the retroclone is more confusingly presented than the original rules, why would anyone use it in preference to the official PDFs from Wizards? The fact that some people will be playing using PDFs displayed on screen rather than printed books – something that TSR would not have been contemplating – offers an area where retroclones can make genuine advances over the original offerings.
  • Improvements to the existing system where these do not sabotage the former criteria. For instance, many gamers feel that ascending Armour Class is simply superior to the descending Armour Class/THAC0 system of TSR-era D&D, and if you can find a nice, simple way to permit the use of both without overcomplicating things, it’s a nice optional rule to include.
  • Usefulness in actual play, something which the other three factors all contribute to. If you can play the game more smoothly and easily using the retroclone as your reference, then that’s a genuinely worthwhile contribution. If it’s easier to play by using the original material instead of your retroclone, what is the goddamn point?

These are the four criteria that Necrotic Gnome’s Old-School Essentials line makes its top priority, and they are criteria which OSE excels at. When it comes to D&D retroclones, if you are specifically interested in the B/X iteration of the game as designed by Tom Moldvay or Zeb Cook then it’s a no-brainer: simply put, there is no competitor which combines fidelity to the original, corrections of errata, clarity of presentation, quality-of-life improvements, and sheer usefulness as an actual play reference work than Old-School Essentials, which means there’s simply no better set of resources for playing B/X, the original B/X rulebooks included.

The only criteria it falls down on is that it doesn’t provide much in the way of verbose, in-depth descriptions of monsters (but then, neither did B/X), or a detailed explanation of what RPGs are (but telling people that they can look up YouTube Actual Play videos is probably a better and faster way to help people “get it” than trying to write laborious comparisons to radio plays or whatever). It’s very much a set of books for ease of reference, so you might want to have your original books handy for the fluff. But for reference purposes and for use in actual play, OSE sings in a way which the original TSR rulebooks in whatever edition never did.

Continue reading “Old-School Essentials: Second Wave of Products, First Edition Style”

Blood In the Chocolate, Controversy At the ENnies

So, there’s some controversy happening around the ENnie Awards, or rather an old controversy has woken up again. In 2017 Blood In the Chocolate – a Lamentations of the Flame Princess module which is essentially a gory Charlie and the Chocolate Factory parody with lots of edgy content which many have regarded as pointlessly offensive.

And when I say “edgy content”, I mean it’s absolutely god-awful, to the point where if you find old-timey colonial-style racism and mass sexual assault to be topics which cause you genuine, harmful upset, you may want to exercise caution in reading deeper. I’m going to put what stands out to me (and others) as the worst aspect of it in the paragraph below encoded via the ROT13 machine, which you can use to decode it if you really want to know, since the exact specifics aren’t too relevant to this article.

Nzbat bgure vffhrf, gur Bbzcn-Ybbzcn fgnaq-vaf ner zhgngrq gevorfcrbcyr cbegenlrq va n jnl erzvavfprag bs gur jbefg enpvfg yvgrengher bs gur cnfg. N cbgragvny rapbhagre vapyhqrf n “oreel betl” frdhrapr jurer gur “cltzvrf” nffnhyg naq tnat-encr fbzrbar gb qrngu. Guvf vf pnyyrq bhg nf fbzrguvat gur CPf pbhyq pbaprvinoyl gnxr cneg va vs gurl jvfu gb tnva gur gehfg bs gur ybpnyf.Punezvat, evtug? Juvyr V pna frr fpbcr sbe cbgragvnyyl vapyhqvat n frkhny nffnhyg frdhrapr va n tnzr va juvpu n) rirelbar unq obhtug vagb gur vqrn, o) rirelbar gehfgrq nyy gur bgure cnegvpvcnagf gb unaqyr vg frafvgviryl, naq p) vg jnf nccebcevngr gb gur gbar bs gur tnzr, yvxr vg’f n qnex cflpubybtvpny ubeebe tnzr be fbzrguvat, urer vg’f onfvpnyyl n tbbsl, tbamb wbxr jvgu rkgen enpvfz ba gur fvqr. Shpx gung.

Sounds bad, huh? For those of you who didn’t want to do the ROT13, we’re talking content which was bad enough that even the writeup of the module on the 1D4Chan wiki (content warning: link describes some of the module content) – yes, the one which has a substantial user overlap with 4Chan and is a minefield because of that – calls it out and suggests that the module was just a giant exercise in the writer (Kiel Chenier) injecting his terrible fetishes into the game like in that KC Green comic. (If you want a really in-depth dissection of it, the FATAL & Friends archive has your back.)

The subject’s come up because someone on the team for the Lancer RPG submitted their game for the ENnies, without realising this bit of the history; when the rest of the team saw that the game had earned a nomination for Best Electronic Book, they decided to withdraw the game from consideration and issued a statement saying that they were not interested in getting an ENnie until the organisers disown Blood In the Chocolate‘s award. Details on the back-and-forth are here.

Continue reading “Blood In the Chocolate, Controversy At the ENnies”

Mini-Kickstopper: New Observations On Deep Carbon

I’m not doing a full Kickstopper article to cover False Machine’s campaign to fund a new “remastered” edition of Deep Carbon Observatory, a D&D dungeon crawl from the experimental, DIY-oriented side of the OSR with text by Patrick Stuart and illustrations by Scrap Princess, largely because I don’t have much of substance to say about the delivery process: they were sensible and kept to a single core product, most of the stretch goals related to extra production bells and whistles rather than extra text, they estimated delivery for August 2020 and I got my book in June 2020 so you really can’t fault Stuart and those he’s worked with on that front.

Deep Carbon Observatory is most optimised for BX type rules set, and whilst the original version from 2014 looked to Lamentations of the Flame Princess for inspiration, Lamentations is no longer the new hotness for a number of reasons and there is absolutely nothing stopping you using this from any TSR edition of D&D. In fact, the retroclone I would compare it to these days is Old School Essentials – not because of the aesthetic, which is highly distinctive and quite different, but because of the strong focus on layout, with each double-page spread containing to the extent possible, the full details on the subject under discussion.

Many of these details are quite sparse, a prompt for further consideration – the ideas are clearly explained, but they’re bones for you to flesh out. As with a lot of the “arthouse DIY D&D” corner of the OSR which Deep Carbon Observatory grew out of and influenced, there’s a fever dream air to a lot of it.

There’s a neat new feature in this version of the book which provides you with a matrix of encounters for the opening segments of the game, avoiding a railroady bottleneck at the start of the adventure, as well as a nice range of adventurer motivations to give a group of fresh characters starting out, as well as a rundown of different groups trying to make it to the Observatory and guidance on how to handle the race. All of this can help make the Observatory a bit more of a living environment if you want.

The idea of having an enemy group of adventurers messing with the PCs is far from a new one, but the Crows here are both nicely sinister in their presentation and get a quite good writeup of their tactics, to help you understand how they respond to any particular situation, which is quite helpful.

In short: it’s still Deep Carbon Observatory, the new version is quite nicely updated, the Kickstarter was handled pretty competently. What’s more to say?

Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled

I’ve mentioned Necrotic Gnome’s B/X Essentials booklets before – yet another retroclone of the Moldvay/Cook version of the D&D Basic Set and Expert Set rules. This is an edition of the game which has been widely cloned in OSR circles, because it avoids the excess complexity of 1st edition AD&D, is comparatively easy to add to, and in its own right represents a pretty decent clarification and revision of the OD&D rules and the best of that game’s supplement line.

At this point, then, it’s no longer enough to simply provide a reasonable clone. Labyrinth Lord is a very generic one but messes with some of the numbers a bit out of a concern that using the same numbers as B/X would cause legal issues, though this feels to me like an overabundance of caution; I suspect its place in the market comes from a certain first mover advantage, with “Compatible with Labyrinth Lord” being pretty generally understood to mean “Compatible with B/X“. Everyone else who wants their B/X retroclone rules set to get traction needs to come up with some sort of unique selling point.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess managed to get some name recognition from a rather shallow veil of 16th-17th century aesthetic trappings and some gruesome “negadungeon”-type modules, though the shine seems to have come off the game due a variety of factors as of late. Adventurer Conqueror King System, which gained a bit of traction thanks to its attention to the stronghold and domain management endgame, though many are not thrilled about supporting its author, Alexander Macris, due both to his engagement with the Gamergate controversy and willingness to do business with and promote the work of Milo Yiannopoulos. Various other retro-clones have tried to weak the system or include an interesting setting in some fashion.

B/X Essentials was constructed from the ground up with an eye to presentation, and specifically presentation with an eye to being useful at the gaming table. It’s not meant to teach you the game – though it wouldn’t be impossible to pick up the premise using the booklets and perhaps some actual play videos to help you along if you were really stuck – so much as it’s meant to be an easy reference resource for people who are already broadly familiar with the basic underpinnings of the game, with each page spread laid out with an eye to making looking up information fast and easy. Fidelity to the original rules is prioritised, though this does entail making a few judgement calls in situations where the original B/X rules contain obvious errors or omissions.

The original run of booklets did pretty well, but of course the eyes of dozens of customers are going to pick things up which a small press outfit is going to miss. It was decided to create a new, improved version of the rules set – Old-School Essentials, renamed because Necrotic Gnome plan to expand the game line to cover not just material in the original B/X rules, but other genres on top of that. And they’d take to Kickstarter to try and fund the new core set, which is where this Kickstopper article comes in…

Continue reading “Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled”

Dragonmeet Hoard: Basic Booklets

Finally, to polish off my Dragonmeet hoard of 2018, I picked up the five booklets that make up B/X Essentials. As the title implies, this is a retroclone of B/X D&D – the rules version decided by Tom Moldvay and David “Zeb” Cook in 1981.

This is a widely-cloned version of D&D, so what does Essentials bring to the table? Produced by Necrotic Gnome, the B/X Essentials booklets are designed from the ground up for at-the-gaming-table utility. It’s not a version of the game which offers extensive guidance and examples and explanations or otherwise tries to teach the game to you; instead, it focuses on clearly-stated presentations of rules information optimised for use mid-game.

For the most part, this is the game as originally devised by Moldvay and Cook (as opposed to Labyrinth Lord, which differs in a number of respects), with errata incorporated, a little invention here and there to patch obvious holes (like how there’s a spell that the original B/X booklets mention in passing but don’t actually provide rules for), some rephrasing of the rules so as to abide by OGL requirements and add clarity, and with the different sections integrated together and then separated into different booklets. So, for instance, the Monsters book covers all the monster stats, whilst the Cleric and Magic-User Spells book covers all the spells. If you are working from the original B/X booklets, this is already an improvement – no more having to remember which booklet a particular spell or monster was found in!

In addition, the Necrotic Gnome (Gavin Norman) has made the layout clear, legible, and tried to ensure that as much as possible the discussion of a topic fits into at most a single two-page spread – so, for instance, in the Core Rules booklet, the rules for chases and pursuits are all on a single two-page spread, so once you’ve found them there’s no further page-flipping needed. Norman even goes so far as to provide the details of how spell effects work with treasure descriptions as much as possible, to minimise cross-referencing between the treasure description in Adventures and Treasures and the spell booklet.

Between them, these five booklets – Core Rules, Classes and Equipment, Cleric and Magic User Spells, Monsters and Adventures and Treasures represent perhaps the easiest way to play basic D&D available, provided you have a sufficiently experienced referee to run the game. However, while I’m not sorry to own these booklets, at the same time I’d advise people to wait a little before purchasing them themselves.

The reason for that is that, Necrotic Gnome actually intends to make further improvements to the line. A recent Kickstarter for a new edition – retitled Old School Essentials to make the name a bit less inexplicable to those who don’t follow the fine differences between versions of basic D&D – has just wrapped up. Forthcoming are new versions of the booklets – hardcovers with stitching such that they can lie flat on the gaming table – along with a complete-in-one-book version for those who’d prefer that – incorporating some further errata and improvements as well as paving the way for making the game line more extendable. Supplements were funded as stretch goals, for instance, to provide a range of extra character classes not found in B/X, options for playing with an AD&D-style race/class split, and to cover druid and illusionist spells, and one could even see the range continuing to cover other genres like a Metamorphosis Alpha/Gamma World-esque world of mutants and mayhem.

I don’t feel like my B/X Essentials booklets are at all redundant as a result of this, mind; having extra copies at the gaming table adds utility. But at the same time, Necrotic Gnome have suspended sales of the original B/X Essentials on DriveThru so as not to sell a product which is about to be superseded, and I am greatly looking forward to what the Kickstarter yields. Tune in for the inevitable Kickstopper article to see how that goes!

Dungeons & Diaries

Back when I started in tabletop RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons was coming to the end of that strange split between plain old Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – which, after the simplifications made for 2nd Edition, wasn’t actually all that much more complex than vanilla Dungeons & Dragons.

The D&D which was on the shelves at the time wasn’t OD&D, or the Holmes Basic Set, or the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert rules – all of those predate me substantially. Nor was it the Frank Mentzer-designed rules, as sold in five different basic sets (Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal) – I was too little for those. No, when I came to the hobby TSR was selling a version of basic D&D which isn’t quite as widely spoken of as the earlier basic sets – to the extent that unlike Holmes or B/X or BECMI it doesn’t have a fun codeword. That was the version divided between a beginner’s line supporting the “big black box” Basic Set, with rules covering levels 1-5, and the Challenger Series, a run of supplements supporting the full version of the rules as published in the Rules Cyclopedia (the first RPG book I ever owned!), which was Aaron Allston’s condensation of the Frank Mentzer rules.

Perhaps part of the reason this era isn’t considered a distinct edition of the game is how closely it’s based on BECMI, except the emergence of this new take on the game also saw a shift in the supporting product line. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, the BECMI line had been supported by the Gazetteer series, a line of supplements describing the setting of Mystara. Initially the setting of Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay for their OD&D games back in 1974-1976, Schick and Moldvay dug the idea of making their game world a “shared world” setting that others could contribute to, and got their chance when they were taken on by TSR; with the Greyhawk setting reserved to AD&D, Gygax’s playground, the duo were authorised to make Mystara the default setting of Basic D&D, and locations and concepts from the setting were mined for ideas for D&D products as early as 1981, but largely in the form of settings for adventures or examples of overland settings and the like.

The Gazetteer line was an attempt to provide a more systematic presentation of the game world, with each of the 14 booklets in the line describing a different nation. As fun as this idea was, keeping the Gazeteers in print when the D&D line was already fading next to AD&D was a bit of a tall order. An appendix giving a brief overview of the setting was provided in the Rules Cyclopedia, but this only scratched the surface. What’s more, not even Dungeons & Dragons managed to avoid the 1990s craze for metaplot – with the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set, the expansion to the Rules Cyclopedia which provided a comprehensive rework of the Immortal rules, depicting major changes to the setting, even rendering some of the setting information in the Rules Cyclopedia appendix out of date.

The Poor Wizard’s Almanac & Book of Facts was an attempt to redress this by providing a supplement giving a comprehensive overview of the Mystara setting as it existed in the year AC 1010, a year after the events of Wrath of the Immortals come to a close. Folks like me who came to the party a little too late to catch the Gazetteers could use the book as a setting guide; Gazetteer users could also use the book to see how the setting had changed over and above what was presented in those supplements.

Penned by Aaron Allston and emerging in 1992, the original Almanac set the model for those that would follow. There’s an overview of Mystara and its cosmology (including the bizarre realm of the Hollow World), profiles of most of the nations of the setting, overviews of the armies of the world (relevant for high-level characters running their own domains), profiles of significant NPCs, and then perhaps the most exciting part of the book – a list of events that happen over the course of the year, each entry broken down in terms of what people witness, what the events actually mean, and where relevant how PCs could conceivably get involved.

As well as offering a rich source of adventure hooks, by having these events occurring as your campaign goes on it can really give the impression that your campaign is ongoing in a real world where there’s a bunch of stuff going on beyond their immediate sphere of influence. It also provides Allston with plenty of scope to flesh out the aftermath of the Wrath of the Immortals, which doesn’t hurt. This feature of the Almanac in particular was so popular that Mystara fans have kept the chronicle of years going on a fan basis since TSR stopped doing the annual Almanacs.

Annual Almanacs? Yes, annual! From 1993 to 1995, Ann Dupuis would take over from Allston to provide annual updated Almanacs for Mystara. Poor Wizard’s Almanac II was the last published for vanilla D&D, and largely follows the format of the original Almanac; this means that a lot of information is repeated from the first, but the “here’s what happens this year” section is obviously all fresh and the geographic overview includes some more details on Mystara’s hitherto-undetailed southern continent, so there’s at least a good chunk of stuff that those who bought the original won’t have seen, and the approach does mean that if you didn’t get the original, you can just get the new Almanac and have all you need to run a Mystara campaign right there.

By the next year, though, Mystara’s fortunes had shifted. TSR decided to discontinue vanilla D&D; because the AD&D audience seemed to have an insatiable appetite for campaign settings, Mystara was repositioned as an AD&D setting, with Poor Wizard’s Almanac III being the first Almanac to be statted up with AD&D stats. 1995 saw the series rebranded as Joshuan’s Almanac and presented as commentary by in-world NPCs rather than an omniscient, referee point-of-view overview, whilst 1996 found Mystara mothballed as TSR spiralled into the financial crisis which would ultimately see it bought out by Wizards of the Coast.

Old School Foundations, New School Tools

Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures is not a game whose core system will amaze or overly confuse anyone. It’s one of a plethora of fantasy RPGs out there riffing on Basic D&D; Ascending AC is the order of the day, a simple skill system based on ability score throws is presented, and there’s an option for using 3E-style saving throws, but we’re still dealing with a riff on Basic D&D here.

However, it’s quite an interesting riff, and a lot of that comes not from the foundations of the system but from the trappings offered around it. Beyond the Wall purports to offer a framework for running fantasy adventures based on the young adult/older kids’ fantasy of Ursula le Guin or Lloyd Alexander – stories of young people on the verge of coming into adulthood being called on to defend their communities, in which the roots they have with their home and their emotional connections to each other are of significant importance. On top of that, it provides an incredibly good framework for running games on a pick-up-and-play basis.

It accomplishes this latter goal with three different, interconnected design decisions:

  1. As noted above, it’s based off Basic D&D. This is a system most people with RPG experience will, even if they don’t know it exceptionally well, be able to tackle with a minimum of explanation, and is simple enough that those with no prior experience can get up to speed quickly.
  2. It utilises robust scenario generation tools of the sort used in OSR games like Stars Without Number and the like.
  3. It uses the decidedly modern concept of “playbooks” for character generation.
Continue reading “Old School Foundations, New School Tools”

Theological Tomes of TSR-era D&D

Collections of deities have been a part of the D&D game line ever since Gods, Demigods and Heroes emerged for OD&D. Whereas that was a brief booklet containing extremely simple god descriptions, subsequent books have been more lavish affairs, and whilst the finer details of the religions described have been altered for game purposes I still have fond memories of the old 2E Legends & Lore hardcover giving me basic introductions to various bits of world mythology. Here, then, is a quick overview of TSR’s major compilations of gods, as well as a notable OSR product that harkens back to them.

Deities & Demigods

The first AD&D hardback to come out after Gygax completed the big three, Gary’s introduction to this tome and the preface by the authors (Jim Ward and Rob Kuntz) try to make out that it’s a core book for 1E – and to be fair, under a certain light it is. After all, AD&D was constructed as a synthesis of all the major material put out for OD&D in its core set, its supplement series, and in the better-received articles in sources like The Strategic Review and Dragon, and Deities & Demigods is effectively an expanded and revised version of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes by the same writers.

As explained in the fourth volume of Hawk & Moor, the intent behind Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes – a motivation still evident here – was to define an “upper limit” for D&D. Perturbed by reports of campaigns of absurdly inflated power levels, amused by stories of PCs strolling into Valhalla to mug Thor and take his stuff, and pestered by fans for ever-more powerful spells and monsters and character abilities, it seems that Ward and Kuntz decided to try and defuse this strange gaming arms race by setting a particular standard as the maximum power level that could possibly be encountered in the game. The idea seems to have been that if Zeus himself only has 400 hit points and stats in the mid-twenties and the equivalent of 20th level in a few classes, your 40th level warrior-wizard who casts 20th level spells and has a million hit points ceases to look like an unbeatable god and just ends up looking like a childish exaggeration.

This idea is alright in theory, but of course it does run into the pitfall that by providing game stats for this stuff, you inherently quantify what the player characters need to do to take down a god. It doesn’t help that the book leads off with some expansions to the ability score tables to show what marvellous abilities are unlocked for ability scores between 19 and 25 – though I am fairly sure the intention is that only gods actually get some of these capabilities, so that no matter (for instance) how high a mortal’s Charisma score is they’ll never be able to exert the awe effect that a high-Charisma deity can. Another problem – and one which the introduction to Deities & Demigods freely admits – is that it is very possible to look at the book, see a bunch of stat blocks, and decide that it’s a high-level Monster Manual and treat it as such. (To be fair, a lot of the deity descriptions end up being quite terse – to the point where aside from a statblock and a description of the god’s appearance and behaviour in combat you aren’t really given much to work with, so I can see how people could make that mistake.)

Another motivation is, of course, providing some cultural context for D&D campaigns, and in particular to give some much-needed flavour to the religious practices of clerics. As Deities & Demigods notes, a campaign world would have to be extraordinarily diverse to incorporate all the different pantheons incorporated therein – well, to be fair Earth itself is more diverse, but then again making and running a campaign world that has even a shadow of the sheer range of cultures and ideas that Earth has is a mammoth undertaking. However, if you pick out just one pantheon, or a subset of related ones, and declare that these are the ruling principles of your campaign world, then instantly you give your particular cosmos a distinctive flavour of its own. To this end, the entries in Deities are divided up by pantheon, and there’s actually an impressive number of different cultures provided here, including a bunch which didn’t make the cut for the 2nd Edition equivalent of this book. (Plus, of course, some versions have Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stats – pulled not because Chaosium were unhappy with them being there, but because TSR decided that promoting Chaosium’s games by namedropping them in connection with these chapters was bad for business.)

Some of these summaries inevitably end up being a bit problematic; for instance, European pantheons are finely divided, whilst all North American tribal religions are lumped together in the “American Indian” chapter. This is a shame, particularly since it’s quite obvious that Ward and Kuntz did in fact do a whole bunch of research to begin with to select and detail different deities and cultural heroes; the book ends up in this awkward place where its authors were evidently trying not to be excessively Eurocentric and do their homework, but at the same time they end up with the sort of blind spots you’d expect someone to end up having if they were reliant on late-1970s Midwestern public libraries and book shops to get their information. If you were writing this thing today, you could almost certainly do a better job thanks to the preponderance of information and people to discuss these things with on the Internet; as it stands, particularly when it comes to those pantheons which touch on actual real-life religions practiced by large numbers of people in the modern world, a Dungeon Master would do well to do a healthy amount of their own research when bringing these gods to bear – particularly since, though the introductions to each pantheon are actually quite good, the specific deity and hero descriptions can be a bit brief.

As far as working out stats goes, Deities & Demigods is extremely useful and provides a bunch of information on incorporating the tropes of specific cultural legends into D&D, so it’s decidedly worth it; you just have to make sure you don’t treat it as a one-stop shop for all you need to know about a particular religion when it comes to bringing it alive for gaming purposes (and, as with any supplement like this, corroborate facts with proper sources assiduously before you kid yourself into thinking this reflects real-life religious practices!).

Legends & Lore (2E Version)

Midway through 1E’s run, when the hardcovers got reprints with snazzy orange spines, Deities & Demigods got retitled Legends & Lore in what I suspect was a crafty rebranding exercise – the Satanic Panic propagandists had tended to cite Deities & Demigods as being the most objectionable of the AD&D rulebooks (“it encourages kids to worship pagan gods!”), so retiring the title may have seemed like a crafty way to deflect their complaints. The rebranding carried over to 2E, the new volume being prepared by Troy Denning and a returning Jim Ward and bearing with it a brief disclaimer that the book neither encouraged nor discouraged the worship of the gods presented therein, but merely depicted them for the purposes of inspiration for Dungeon Masters (a clever way of disavowing Satanic Panicers’ complaints without kowtowing to the extent of retiring the volume and without buying into their assertion that these religions were inherently evil… OK, a lot of the Aztec pantheon gets branded as evil here, but when you’re dealing with a state religion that mandates human sacrifice it’s hard to wriggle out of that one).

The 2nd Ediiton version of Legends & Lore increases the page count by 50% but presents markedly less pantheons, even when you account for the loss of the Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stuff. Part of this comes down to the book not being printed in teeny-tiny text and having more artwork, but not all of it is solely down to the layout bloat; it also comes down to 2E being the edition where context was king, and the authors went the extra mile to provide more substantive notes on cultural background and the specific role in the pantheon of each god and hero depicted; although it is still not a substitute for doing proper research if you want an actual historical or cultural insight into the religions involved, the gods presented here are at least much more fleshed-out than in the previous book and in general you don’t have entries where it’s like “This god shows up with this sort of costume and generally carries this sort of weapon, usually reacts favourably to blah and unfavourably to blah blah” and so on.

NPC stats are still provided, but this time around they are presented as stats not of the gods themselves but as avatars thereof – mere projections of the deity into the mortal realm, as opposed to the sum total of the god’s majesty. As well as providing an alternate take on cosmology that Dungeon Masters can adopt if they think it is suitable for their campaigns, this also finally provides a way to resolve the thorny problem of providing truly epic opponents on the one hand whilst on the other making sure that the gods aren’t diminished or made to seem puny when high-level mortals take them to the cleaners: simply say that those high-level characters simply fought and bested a mere fraction of the god’s true power, and provided that taking down that fraction is hard enough the god remains impressive.

That’s handy, but the expanded god descriptions remain the major benefit Legends & Lore has over its predecessor. Whilst it can’t be emphasised enough that this isn’t a one-stop resource for mythology or religion for any real-world application, and whilst it does cover less pantheons than Deities & Demigods, I feel like I could do every god described in Legends & Lore justice in terms of presenting them as a feature of an RPG world’s universe just working from here, whereas with Deities I feel I’d need to have the manual in one hand and another resource in the other to get a handle on some of the less well-described gods.

Monster Mythology

This part of the blue softcover Dungeon Master’s Guide supplemental series for 2E is rooted in a particular take on monsters in D&D – namely, that they are part of the ecology, that they are living creatures like the PCs with their own cultures, and therefore their own gods (provided here). This is a perfectly legitimate way to do worldbuilding, but is far from the only one – for instance, in a setting based around ancient Greece it would make no sense for the satyrs and pegasi and whatnot to have their own distinct pantheons of gods – they worship the same gods that humans worship, because they are not distinct and separate from the humans’ cultures but a part of those cultures’ mythologies in their own right.

Which comes down to the main issue I have with the deities outlined in this book – they’re all a little bland, in part because they seem to be developed to just generically care about the particular monsters they are the patrons of and aren’t really integrated into the wider cosmology of any particular campaign world. On the one hand, that makes it easier to drop them into your campaign world, but on the other hand it will also mean it feels a little obvious that they’ve been dragged and dropped in. Let’s say that your campaign world has had major events in its past in which the gods as a whole took an active part (like DragonlanceForgotten Realms, Mystara… in other words, a good majority of the campaign worlds made by TSR themselves). What role did these monsters’ gods play in that event? The book offers no help, and nor can it. My inclination in running D&D these days is to bite the bullet and say that there’s a single pantheon for everyone (because those are the objectively real deities of that campaign world), and the gods appear humanlike to humans and elflike to elves and horselike to horses and so on. Different cultures might worship the pantheon in strikingly different ways, or worship a different subset of the pantheon, but a god that’s real for anyone is real for everyone in a D&D world and therefore I don’t think it makes sense to assume that any god will exclusively be worshipped by one species or another.

On Hallowed Ground

Penned by Colin McComb, this Planescape supplement is largely taken up with an extensive listing of gods – some from Legends & Lore, plus some additional pantheons (like the Sumerian and Finnish, which had appeared in Deities & Demigods but not the 2nd edition Legends & Lore), plus some D&D originals like the monster gods from Monster Mythology or the deities of the Birthright, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk campaign settings.

This makes it useful straight off the bat as a one-stop source, provided that you bear in mind that the book is offering a Planescape take on the deities in question -a bit more jaded and much less easily awed than the traditional high fantasy take on such subject matter, and working on the premise that even if you aren’t going to regularly stroll up to Thor and punch him on the nose, the realms of the gods are viable places for the player characters to go visit. This is a gear shift away from the 2E Legends & Lore approach, but that’s no bad thing – if you don’t like it you can correct for it, and if you do like it then bam, you’re in luck.

In addition to the god listings there’s a bunch of useful Planescape-specific stuff here. Chapters are providing expanding on the roles of gods and priests in the context of the setting, which is decent enough, but McComb also goes the extra mile and finally fleshes out the whole deal with petitioners (dead people reborn in the realms of the gods they were aligned to in life) and proxies (agents of the gods), which is long overdue, since I always felt those concepts weren’t outlined well enough in the core set to be especially useful.

My one criticism would be that in discussing the possibility of PCs becoming proxies, McComb is sufficiently hostile to the idea that he neglects to cover a particularly entertaining option: what about an all-proxy campaign, in which the PCs are all agents of the same god (or a set of gods sufficiently closely aligned to ensure party unity)? That sounds to me like a particularly interesting premise for a Planescape campaign, but he never even considers it.

Petty Gods

Petty Gods is a project with a long and troubled history. The original idea was to provide a supplement along the lines of the old Judges Guild Unknown Gods release, dedicated to presenting a number of deities with portfolios somewhat more small-scale and niche than the greater deities that usually get the lion’s share of the attention when campaign settings are cooked up – to take an ancient Roman example, think the household gods of the family hearth, as opposed to mighty Jupiter.

The intention behind the project was that it would be a community affair, with submissions solicited from anyone interested and collated into a single volume, with some editing for system consistency and proofreading. Originally, the plan was for it to be edited and laid out by James Maliszewski – however, when James abruptly dropped off the radar during the debacle surrounding his Dwimmermount Kickstarter, the project was left orphaned. Eventually, Greg “this is probably a pseudonym” Gorgonmilk decided to revive the project, calling for anyone who had submitted work for it to resend it to him and opening up the floodgates for further submissions on top of that. Gorgonmilk succeeded in whipping up a renewed wave of enthusiasm for the project, and at one point even seemed on the verge of obtaining submissions from Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and Charles Saunders (though these sadly fell through), but found it difficult to actually finish the job of editing. Luckily, he was able to pass the concluding stages of the project over to Richard J. LeBlanc Jr., who whipped it into shape and got it out of the door.

Although in design it is deliberately reminiscent of Deities & Demigods – the back cover is in the same style as the original release of that book, and the spine is in the same distinctive orange style as late 1E hardbacks – this is statted up not for 1E, but for Labyrinth Lord. That means that it’s entirely compatible with B/X, needs only a momentary sanity check to use with BECMI, needs a touch more care to use with other TSR incarnations of D&D, and can be used with 3E and 5E with somewhat more work. The interior design is actually very reminiscent of the B/X rulebooks, which is a nice touch; the sense that this could have been a lost classic TSR supplement is only heightened by the inclusion of some work by old stars of 1970s TSR – Jim Ward pens an introduction, Erol Otus provides some characteristically tripped-out artwork, and the appendices include a welcome reprint of an extensive M.A.R. Barker essay on penning religions for RPG purposes, in which he makes a strong case that if you want a fantasy game which is genuinely immersive and where the PCs are deeply engaged with the gameworld’s culture, you can’t neglect the design of religions – and also provides his insights into how to craft a religion which fits a culture. (In essence, you work out the basics of a culture first, and then consider what sort of religion would thrive in such a culture.) As well as a massive number of petty gods, the book also includes chunky chapters cataloguing related material – including a bunch of servitors of the gods, a brace of new spells and items, and ideas for developing cults.

But the stars of this nearly 400 page tome are the gods themselves, and they do not disappoint. Not all will be to everyone’s taste, since that is the nature of such community-written supplements; some will fall flat, won’t be to your tastes, or be actively annoying and/or offensive. That doesn’t really hurt, though, because nobody would make a serious attempt to implement all these gods in the same campaign; anyone trying to use this work is going to need to be selective and pick out those gods which suit the tone of their campaign world.

What’s nice is that there is a genuine diversity here in terms of the type of god presented as well as the concept. Which gods you choose will say something about the nature of your campaign world and the cultures that appear therein. Some are gods of particular locales – sometimes extremely specific locales (there’s a patron deity of a pub, for instance) – others are petty less because of the extent of their influence than the fringe nature of their interests, either because their sphere of influence is very narrow or because it is extremely obscure. There’s even some gods which can fill in aesthetic niches in previously-described pantheons; in particular, there’s some lesser Cthulhu Mythos entities which would let you throw in a bit of Lovecraftian action in your games without being so dickish as to bring your PCs face to face with Cthulhu himself.

Choosing to incorporate the idea of little godlings into your campaign world will set it in a certain light; choosing a particular subset of these petty gods to include will cast it in an even more specific light and lend a particular flavour to it. Go for the more serious-but-esoteric sorts, and your world will be one where mysterious powers lurk in dark corners pondering problems which would seem entirely irrelevant until such time as it becomes very important to the player characters to get some divine intervention in a matter. Go for more of the genius loci sorts, and you have a game world where locations themselves can make their feelings known through their manifest spirits. Go for the more whimsical and wacky sorts, and you add a little Vancian flair to your world. You can even treat this like the sort of high-powered Monster Manual that Deities & Demigods was used at by more combat-happy groups, and it’d make perfect sense: whilst it may be risible for a mere mortal to best Thor in a fight, it makes absolute sense for a high-level character in D&D to kick the ass of a decidedly minor god of the sort explained here. (In particular, eyeballing it it seems like if you use the statlines as-is in BECMI player characters will end up having better saves than most petty gods once they get to high levels – but since high-level PCs in BECMI are on the verge of becoming gods themselves that works just fine.)

In fact, what browsing the pages of Petty Gods reminds me of is strolling down the Street of the Gods in Lankhmar, where a host of minor religions bicker and compete for attention (as evoked perhaps most memorably in Lean Times In Lankhmar). You are wasting your time supremely if you bother to listen to them all, but given the vast number of submissions presented you’re sure to find some gems in here, and for my part I found the ratio of hits to misses admirably high.