Eddison’s Zimiamvia e-book


The Worm Ouroboros is the best fantasy of the 20th century.  At this point, for me, the only competitor is either of the first two Gormenghast books.  (It takes a contrarian to call the third book “good.”)  Very few people have started Ouroboros, and I’d wildly guess about 1 in 10 of those people has finished it, and those few people may, like Tolkien, find its unequivocally pagan worldview repulsive.  So I am in the tiny minority as an avowed Ouroboros partisan.

That said, Ouroboros isn’t the most interesting of Eddison’s works.  It’s the best, but it’s not the most interesting.  Floridity notwithstanding, Ouroboros is straightforward.  As is the case in Barker’s Jakalla, the crux of morality isn’t “good” against “evil,” it’s nobility versus ignobility.  In this case, nobility lies in playing one’s part boldly.  Villains of the blackest stripe can be heroic in their dastardy; bald-faced oathbreakers can be heroic in their treachery; but there is no heroism in poltroonery or sentimentality or half-measures.  The characters don’t grow.  Of course they don’t fucking grow, and in this case they literally do the opposite.  They’re typal and they aren’t “deep” any more than Achilles or Styrbjorn is deep.  (Hector?  Solid guy, wouldn’t last a second in Demonland.)

Nope, Eddison’s most interesting work is the Zimamvia trilogy, brought to the modern mass spotlight by the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.  (Just like the Gormenghast books and The Night Land.  Lin Carter is well-shriven of any literary sins.)  It’s a bit of a mess, although that’s often the intention.  The timelines are fucky, the characters aren’t necessarily who they are, the setting isn’t necessarily what it is, and there’s a shitload of repartee, and soliloquizing, and speculation, and Spinoza.  But you get a thorough explication of Eddison’s personal philosophy, which is arch-pagan in a far more nuanced way than the epic/saga homage of OuroborosOuroboros does not fuck around with meandering dinner table metaphysics because that is nerd shit.  Zimiamvia wallows in it, and it isn’t perfect but it is awesome.

The volumes’ publication order is the reverse of their internal chronological order (to the extent that has any meaning at all in the context of the stories).  They should be read in the order they were published.  The third installment was never finished, although Eddison did leave behind a fragment and thorough outline.

The Zimiamvia books are not in the public domain and they are relatively obscure, so for a very long time, there were two ways you could read them:  in moldering BAF paperbacks or in a loathsome “annotated” Dell omnibus.  Now you can get them in a very nice e-book version HERE.  This makes life a lot easier on me, because my BAFs really are spore-ridden pieces of shit now.  And happily enough, you also get Ouroboros, billed as a precursor to the Zimiamvia books, which it is in no way whatsoever.  (Zimiamvia is mentioned once in passing, and the guy who pops up at the beginning of Ouroboros and never shows up in the book again and every plebeian reviewer bitches about?  He’s the franchise, boys.)

I doubt anyone will read Zimiamvia on this recommendation, but I can hope.  If you haven’t read The Worm Ouroboros, it’s more important that you do that, and I urge you to give it another run if you tried it before and didn’t like it.  This is also how I pester people about Robert Aickman.

(Ouroboros is, however, completely useless for D&D purposes.  It does not correspond in any way with that level or tone of adventure, it is not within horizon’s distance of S&S or weird fantasy, and there would be nothing more offensive to Brandoch Daha’s sensibilities than a grubby little caucus of Cugels.)


Ad for Byfield’s The Glass Harmonica

Barbara Ninde Byfield’s The Glass Harmonica, later released as The Book of Weird, is the best book you can get about traditional fantasy.  (Which is not to say “vanilla” fantasy.  Traditional fantasy is Dunsany or Tolkien or the Lang Fairy Books, vanilla fantasy is Inspired By Tolkien and is uniformly bilgy, unbearably so if it’s actually inspired by D&D.)  You could very easily run a fine D&D game by plopping down with the Basic set and a copy of Harmonica.

I just ran across this original ad, which I suspect distills the 1967 fantasy zeitgeist into its full potency.


The Tunnels & Trolls combat system

The T&T combat system is, with the possible exception of the silly spell names, the biggest dealbreaker for a lot of folks for whom the deal is broken.  The default combat resolution method is this:  each side gets a bunch of d6s, like beyond Champions-level, and some modifiers.  Each side rolls their whole bucket of dice, once.  The side that rolls the highest is the winner and does damage, the side that rolls the lowest is the loser and eats shit.  Repeat until one side gains a significant advantage, at which point the combat slides into a death spiral in which the outcome is certain but delayed.  Or, if armor is involved, you just bounce off each other in perpetuity.

Ironically, for a system designed by someone without Gygax’s and Arneson’s wargaming background, this level of abstraction is closer to wargames play than the D&D system — in wargames, an entire inter-unit engagement is often resolved with each side making a single roll or even just looking at what number is in the corner of the little cardboard counters.  T&T’s abstraction doesn’t account for non-damage spell effects and the like, but at its core it’s an attempt to resolve D&D’s unit-by-unit exchange of blows with a single roll for every unit on the battlefield.  The result works fine in a lot of instances.  It’s also deeply flawed.  If you play using this method only, those flaws quickly begin to glare and you may find the game unplayable on that basis alone.  I wouldn’t play or run that game, and I love T&T.

However, there’s also a mechanic called the Saving Roll, which is nothing more than a glorified ability check but which I think not only saves the combat system but makes it a strong point.  In T&T, when something potentially happens to a character — petrified by a cockatrice, poisoned by a trap, etc. — the DM gauges the difficulty of resisting or dodging what’s happening and assigns it a level.  Based on the level of difficulty, a target number is set, the player rolls 2d6 and adds his or her Luck and tries to hit the target number.  (By the way, I realize I have to get past my precious tendency to call DMs “referees” like I’m some kind of legitimately old-timey guy.)

The saving roll mechanic assumes that Luck is the default ability score, and that SRs are generally used to determine whether or not something happens to the character.  It’s mentioned that other ability scores can be used for other tasks, and missile combat is based on a version of a Dexterity roll, but the SR is never emphasized in the rules as a load-bearing part of combat.

But if you happen to look through the combat examples or at one of the many published solitaire adventures, it becomes clear that SRs are often used as determinants as to whether or not certain strategies work, and that these SRs are often based on ability scores other than Luck.  In addition, although there’s no actual bestiary, the suggested power level of many T&T monsters makes it obvious that if you go about things in the default way, you will be reduced to goo.

Accordingly, it’s pretty easy to connect the dots and figure out that hey, maybe dice clashes are not only just an optional way to handle combat, they’re often the worst way to handle combat from the players’ perspective.

This doesn’t sound exactly revolutionary now.  We’re all familiar with attribute-based target number systems, and as far as I know, the official current version of D&D uses them.  And at some point well after OD&D was published, it was spelled out that you could eyeball the difficulty of some task that wasn’t in the rules, then tell the player to roll under their 11 Dexterity on percentile dice and rest easy knowing they’d sigh and do something they were supposed to do instead.  But T&T had it as a mechanic built in from the start, and it had a detailed way of doing it that was supported by the system.

In other words, even if it didn’t exactly discourage them, OD&D’s rules as written didn’t support out-of-the-box strategies.  This might have something to do with it being a jumped-up wargame; if you’re playing Tractics, you don’t say “I get out of the tank and run over and do whatever it is a person could do to wreck tanks other than whatever it is they normally do in Tractics.”  Probably.

OD&D assumes you’ll use the wargame or alternative combat system, which are pretty straightforward and built-in:  if one guy can take a risk, jump on the ogre’s back, and stick a dagger right through his eye to kill him outright, why would there be a need to even use the normal combat system?  T&T assumes that someone will very often do some weird shit, or at least it has an actual mechanic for them to do it; if one guy can take a risk, jump on the ogre’s back, and stick a dagger right through his eye, why would there be a need to even use the normal combat system?

That’s my bloviatory wind-up to my take on the T&T combat system:  it’s overly simplified and even for sympathetic folks like myself, it very quickly breaks down in actual play.  But if you use that combat system and, when it’s inappropriate or boring or stupid, you do the other things you’re clearly allowed to do, it works.  So don’t just use the base combat system.

And sometimes, don’t use the combat system at all.  The SR system also encourages strategies other than fighting — leading the vampire out into the shadow of a cross or “dawn take you all and be stone to you!” or sneaking in to grab the golden cup from the dragon’s hoard or whatever.  You can think of lots of simple system-supported ways to do things without having to have a specific skill or class, even if your idea is total dogshit.  Just assign it a difficult level and roll away.  Again, nothing that you couldn’t approximate that in D&D, but the system is not built for it.

The key is not to think of T&T as overly simplified D&D, it’s to think of it as overly complicated Risus.  As with Risus and more-fellated games like Over the Edge, the element of personal arbitration on the DM’s part is obvious, all the time.  Every time you try to do something unusual — and don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t have to be all the time, because failing the unusual thing can get you FUCKED UP — you sit there and watch the DM decide, purely ad hoc, how hard it’s going to be.  That’s just the way it is and if you’re not comfortable with it being that obvious, it is not going to work for you.

In my opinion, the best way to play T&T is to trick people into thinking they’re playing an old school game when in fact they’re playing a fancy rpg.net-darling-type game.  The system is really simple by 1970s standards, but it also has a central mechanic that encourages and rewards narrative play.  If someone runs the game for you and all you do is repetitively roll 35d6, you are definitely not getting the full experience of the rules as written.

(Based on what I’ve seen from Ken St. Andre, this is in line with how the game is intended to be played.  And of all people, based on his actual play reports I read at some point, Ron Edwards gets it as well as anyone I’ve seen.)

Regularly scheduled shilling for Tunnels & Trolls, and 1st ed. reprint

About 8 years ago, I gave T&T an honest try and quickly came to the conclusion that the 1979 T&T 5th edition rulebook is up there with the Moldvay Basic rules as the best simple, “one book” introduction to fantasy RPGs.  It’s settled into a tie with OD&D as my favorite pen-and-paper game ever.  The goofiness and simplicity are deceptive; I’ve had no trouble at all kit-bashing it to run OD&D-style games.

There’s a free 16-page basic rulebook that was distributed on Free RPG Day one year.  It’s based on 5th edition and comes packaged with two mini-adventures, so the actual rules are 5 pages.  You could literally sit down today and, in the space of a couple hours, have a knowledge of the game sufficient to both play it and run it.  There are a few lacunae you’d have to fill in, but they’re shockingly few and if you’re reading this blog, you enjoy doing that anyway.  I know that it’s easy to do this because I can and have run “serious” games with those 5 pages (that’s what I used for 90% of Thool), and it’s what I’m likely to use for T&T in the future.  It may take you a bit to tease out some things you can do to make combat more interesting but that shouldn’t take long.  It very easily fills the role of the Moldvay boxed set if you’re the sort of person who’ll write up a setting and run games using 5 pages of free rules.  Which I am.  There’s really no need for anything more until characters start getting to mid-levels, at which point you’ll want to either look at the full rules or develop more stuff yourself.

So, here that is.

If you haven’t dismissed T&T out of hand, you may also find this interesting, if only as a historical artifact.  It’s a reprint of the 1st edition for $2.  I just found out about it and haven’t finished reading through it, so I don’t know if it’s something a sane or lightly impaired person would try to run now, but it’s cool and clearly it worked just fine for a lot of folks.

tl;dr:  I talk about T&T every so often, it’s total tits, and if you think otherwise, you either haven’t looked at it since you wrote it off in the 80s or you are just confused and should try again.

Here’s a bunch of my old Wilderlands stuff

A gracious user just let me know that he or she had preserved a file of my old Wilderlands stuff from my original blog.  Here it is.  I know that this blog gets few views for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I don’t care, but numerous people over the years have asked me for it, so feel free to share the link wherever gamers with low standards gather these days.

I haven’t gone back through it yet other than a very quick skim.  It looks like this was done for use with some online game or another using Stonehell, and there are a couple entries written by players in that game.  We played it using LotFP but it’s pretty much system agnostic.  By the time I stopped working on it, I was using Tunnels & Trolls 5e.

This will change a lot if used as the basis for a Gamma World game.  I also no longer own any Judges Guild products other than Ready Ref Sheets and am uninterested in ever reacquiring them as I stopped using commercial gaming stuff a long time ago.  (In my hubris, I just rip everything off from the primary literature directly or write it myself.)

There you go.

(Note:  The gaming community has changed since I wrote this and there’s a greater sensitivity to problematic material than there was back when the community was smaller and more homogeneous.  I also don’t keep upon on things and aggressively avoid venues where these things are discussed.  So I haven’t re-read it but I’m sure the entry on the sexual practices of the City State is in some way offensive and will piss off one of the twelve people who still read this blog.  That’s unintentional, as anyone who has gamed with me hopefully knows, and I tried to put in a disclaimer to that effect back then.  But the City State is a horrible place and I’m a shitlord so who the hell knows.  So, TRIGGER WARNING:  fucked-up sex stuff, please don’t set fire to my car.)

Chat game

Gauging interest in an open table OD&D game on private Discord server with a simple dicebot. Whenever I can run, whoever shows up, pretty vanilla OD&D kitbash with a little Chainmail to fill the gaps. Almost certainly a dungeon game to accommodate the pickup aspect. It may or may not ever happen.

If potentially interested, comment here or e-mail me, shitlord4taylor AT gmail DOT com

“Magic-Users” in Gamma World Wilderlands

I’m working on what I think is a ballpark approximation of my old OD&D Wilderlands setting, having lost literally everything that ever had to do with it other than some Russ drawings.  This time around, I’m using Gamma World 1e because it’s a good ruleset and it’s perfect for the Wilderlands because at their core, the Wilderlands are completely bugfuck.

My “Gamma Wilderlands” are not post-apocalyptic in the sense that in the vaguely memorable past. there was a nuclear war and now you play a character named Speshul Ed wielding a STOP sign and wearing Gauntlets of Oven Mitt as he explores the wastes of Norf Merkin.  They’re post-apocalyptic in the sense that default OD&D is always post-apocalyptic, i.e., there was this huge war but it was a billion years ago and that’s why everything is 99% magic instead of technology but no one remembers how to make a +1 sword.  Just like Dying Earth, it’s so far in the future that the history and tech level of past civilizations are meaningless, although you can still find the odd bit of sufficiently advanced technology.

The base game has three potential PC types:  Pure Strain Humans (no mutations), Humanoids (mutants), and Mutated Animals.  Mutated Animals are a colossal pain in the ass unless they happen to get mutations to allow them to talk and manipulate items, because those are not baked into the character type, so you end up playing a big stupid actual cow with a couple powers.  Accordingly, the two real PC types in standard GW 1e are regular people and mutants.

In most cases, GW radiation kills you.  In a few cases you live but it gives you some potato-tier defect, and in a very few cases, it gives you cool powers.  The people who got the cool powers are the setting’s magic-users, priests, holy warriors, etc.

In the City-State is the world’s only known temple of Vroonops, the Weird God.  Vroonops has no worshipers other than the Invincible Overlord, and in fact it’s illegal for anyone else to worship it or otherwise pester it. There’s a ceremonial Temple Guard but they’re even more freaked out than everyone else.  No one has any idea what the Weird God looks like and people are fine with that.

In the main sanctuary of its temple are lots of magic mouths that yell, cuss, belch, moan, whistle, make flatulent noises, and otherwise maintain a continuous maddening din.  For reasons known only to himself, the Overlord has an entire corps of scribes assigned to the mouths to transcribe their every word and noise.  Whenever a mouth gets tired and takes a time out, a lackey rushes up and scrapes its tongue-scum into a sacred receptacle and carries it off to a reservoir before the mouth starts feeling peppery again.  This has gone on for a very long time.

Anyone may volunteer to spend a year as a lackey on mouth duty.  At the end of that year, the volunteer has the option to descend into the grottoes beneath the temple, saturating themselves in the Weird Energy therein.

The overwhelming majority of supplicants die.  Most of the rest end up all fucked up with no positive mutations, just defects, somewhere on the spectrum between the remake of The Hills Have Eyes and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.  Depending on their degree of fuckiness, these unfortunates either wind up as low-caste menials on the fringes of the City or they just gloop around in the grottoes forever.

The lucky few who come back out with super powers are free to set themselves up as wizards, priests, false gods, knights errant with quills and laser eyes, or whatever.  Those are the PC mutants.  If they’re feeling particularly passive-aggressive, they can, in a show of mock largesse, take on the fucked up mutants as minions.

NOTE:  I’m assuming that cultures other than the CSIO have their own ways of doing things, like embarking on a vision quest into the Weird Energy Wastelands or going into the sacred glowing grove to get Evil Deaded by a tree, etc.  Just haven’t really thought about it yet.