Sunday, January 12, 2020

Book Review: War-Gamers' World (spoilers)

Map by Helmut W. Pesch

In 1978, DAW Books published War-Gamers' World having the subtitles of “Magira I” and “From the chronicles of the world's longest existing fantasyland.”  According to the back cover copy:
The Fellowship of the Lords of the Lands of Wonder!  That is the name of the select group who control the struggles and marvels of the world known as Magira – a fantasyland planet created years before war-games were known in America.  It was the members of FOLLOW who built up Magira, city by city, island by island, crown by crown, created its continents and oceans, and continue to this day to bring ever greater sword-and-sorcery reality to its misty shores.
Foregoing the contradiction of “sword-and-sorcery reality,” we are introduced to the notion of an early “fantasyland” curated somewhere other than the United States.  The “Lands of Wonder” portion of FOLLOW refers to a German fanzine of fantasy literature.  One might wonder why Germans would use English words to name their fanzine (as well as their organization).  Jon Peterson, in his Playing at the World, explains:
There existed no native German tradition of sword-and-sorcery fiction, nor much by way of translations of the major American works, and thus Lands of Wonder is littered with English and Anglicisms, as any reader familiar with the genre surely commanded a reasonable grasp of the language in which it was written.
Authorship of War-Gamers' World is attributed to Hugh Walker, pen name of Hubert Strassl, the Austrian who started Lands of Wonder.  Strassl wrote the story in German and it was first published in that language in 1975.  The original title was Reiter der Finsternis which translates as “Rider of Darkness.”  In fact, the first page excerpt is provided under the words “Rider of Darkness.”  Given the back cover copy and the change in title, it seems an effort was made to market to the war-gamer demographic.  At the time, the distinction between war-games and role-playing games was something of a gray area.  Anyway, “Magira I” implies further volumes.  Only two more books were translated into English and both of these retained their “. . . of Darkness” titles.  By the time War-Gamers' World was published, Magira served as a setting for an actual role-playing game, but for the first decade or so, Magira was more of a shared narrative universe which served as a backdrop for a continuous wargame campaign.

As Walker/Strassl indicates in the preface to War-Gamers' World :
Now, after eleven years of continuous playing (the players getting together once or twice a year), many of the original dreams have been realized.  Many of the battles that took place have become stories.  Empires have grown up and fallen.  Legends, myths, heroic figures, kings, warriors and sorcerers have sprung up.  What pleasure there has been in dreaming a little and, as it were, “stage-managing” the dream.  The reality of such a barbaric and warlike world would surely be less than desirable, but I find it highly amusing occasionally to leave reality behind and to play some entertaining game or to read some entertaining book.
Peterson describes the 'board' that was used:  “Strassl and his collaborators favored a board shaped like a circle rather than a rectangle; for a game of four to seven players, they preferred a massive board, roughly two meters in diameter, with hexagons of 1.8 centimeters to a side for a total of around 3,500 hexes on the board.”  Hexagon imagery is prevalent in the story.  As befits a tessellation of hexagons, Magira has six cardinal direction instead of four.  These are indicated in the compass of the map presented above and are also presented below.
The plot involves a 'real world' player named Franz Laudmann who finds himself in the 'game world' which he had previously assumed was a product of his imagination.  Usually in such a story, the player is the protagonist and becomes a hero.  War-Gamer's World subverts this trope in that Laudmann is thrown into a dungeon for committing heresy and is later scheduled for sacrifice.  In the prelude, Laudmann is the point-of-view character but other characters assume that role for most of the remainder of the story.

About half-way through the story, the player – who chooses to be called Frankari in the game world – encounters the otherworldly “creators.”  The creators are opposed to the Mythanen, the bad guys responsible for summoning Frankari into the world of Magira.  The Mythanen – Adepts of Chaos – come from the “ancient sorcery kingdom!”  The creators inform Frankari, “The rider of darkness is on his way” and “He will find you and show you the road you must take.”

However, Frankari meets an Adept who tells him that the Rider of Darkness is in the service of the Adepts.  The Adept has taken Frankari's place in the real world.  We learn that the (almost) titular Rider of Darkness is the Magira avatar of death (also called “The taker of souls”).  Eventually, Frankari dies and the Rider of Darkness appears from a void in the sky, taking the “lifeless body” away.

So, at the conclusion of the 160 page book, the player – the ostensible reader identification character – is dead and a small group of native Magirans have banded together (much like an adventuring party) to find their destiny.  So, in the subsequent books, there are two storylines:  one where the Adepts attempt to replace real world players and one with the continuing adventures of the natives.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

TIMESTORM (Part III) (spoilers)



Prior to the Battle of Antietam, Union forces obtained Confederate plans.  For purposes of Timestorm, this occurred because Union Private Leroy Elkins frightened a Confederate courier into dropping said plans.  Unfortunately for Time Corps continuity, the Time Storm has deposited Elkins into the cartoon world of Wabbit Wampage before he has a chance to make history.  (Elkins has a significance rating of 300; Robert E. Lee has a rating of only 250.)  The Player Characters are supposed to encounter Elkins after they bring back Thugs Bunny and kin from ancient Rome.  Of course, the next logical step is to return Elkins to where he belongs.  However, Demorean agents have infiltrated the Wabbit parallel.  Their purpose is to “have a source of indestructible warriors – which they could in turn unleash upon all freedom-loving creatures of the Continuum, especially Time Corps agents.”

When the Time Storm removed Elkins from Maryland on September 11, 1862, it deposited “a wizard named Thutamon and three of his warrior bodyguards.”  For reasons unexplained, Thutamon and company “began rampaging toward Washington D.C., destroying whatever they found in their path.”  One of their heinous acts was to murder an entire family in cold blood.  Union forces assume this is the work of Confederate raiders and, as a result, they prepare to retreat to the nation's capital.

Meanwhile, the player characters are suspected of being Confederate spies and are brought to a house serving as the headquarters for General McClellan.  This is where the adventure gets kind of weird.  An aspect of the Time Storm – in the form of a tornado – takes the house and everyone within it to Munchkin Land.  (Oz exists as Parallel M-491.)  The player characters arrive “just before Dorothy is due” and wind up killing the Wicked Witch of the East.  The Munchkins express their appreciation by attempting to enslave the player characters and force them to work in their “armament factories.”  You see, the vagaries of the Time Storm have caused the Munchkins to become Nazis.  Don't believe me?
The only way out of Oz is to use the witch's slippers.  Mark Acres adopts a convention of the cinematic Oz in that the slippers are ruby.  (In the book, the slippers are silver.)

Assuming the player characters manage to return to Maryland, they are obliged to stop Thutamon and his warriors and return them to their point of origin:  “Aug. 27, 10198 B.C. Earth, Parallel R-259.”  It is on this Parallel that the Demoreans initiated their master plan to create the Time Storm.  To wit, they caused Thutamon to create a dimensional hole.  Arriving on R-259, the player characters and the others find themselves in said dimensional hole and are subject to attacks by Demoreans.  One of the characters is transformed “into a man-sized toad.”  This fate cannot be avoided, it is part of the plot.  After two rounds, “The PCs find themselves falling toward a grassy plain.”  On this plain, the players encounter Merlin.  Astute readers will recall that Merlin is one of the pre-generated characters players are encouraged to play.  The pre-generated Merlin is from Parallel M-212, the non-player character Merlin is from Parallel T-1 and is referred to as Merlin T-1.  We learn, “In any critical situation, such as combat, Merlin T-1 does exactly what Merlin (the PC) does . . . [but] Merlin T-1 does these things a half second later.”  Wacky hijinx ensue.  We also learn that Merlin T-1 is part of the T-1 Time Corps and “he hopped ahead of the wave effects to 5000 A.D. and read a history book.”  As a result, he knows “that a well-organized rebellion should overthrow a wizard-king named Almarius this year.”  It turns out that Thutamon is the leader of this revolt, but the Time Storm induced amnesia in him and his bodyguards.

So, the player characters are required to assist Thutamon – a cold blooded murderer – with his rebellion.  The first step is to travel to the city of Kish where Duke Tremayne – an ally of Almarius – has imprisoned the King and his daughter.  Tremayne has jokingly stated that he “will yield control of Kish to the King [if] the King shoots an apple from his daughter's head.”  The adventure tells us, “The most likely course of action is to disguise one PC as the King and have him or her shoot the apple from the Princess' head.”  The adventure assumes the player characters accomplish this.  At this time, the Princess kisses the player character who was transformed into a toad, but to no avail.  The player characters should also be able to obtain Tremayne's flying lizards – called iglanos.
A typical iglano measures 20 feet in length, stands about 10 feet at the shoulder, and weighs about 2 tons.  The beasts are normally docile, although they are carnivorous and their bite can inflict a serious wound.  They are speedy, once airborne, able to fly and glide at up to 225 feet per round (30 miles per hour).
Using the iglanos, Thutamon and the player characters can travel to Thutamon's army, which is besieging Almarius' Desert Castle.  (This is where the dimensional hole is.)  Meanwhile, Thutamon regains his memory, I guess.  The conclusion of adventure indicates:
If Thutamon's army captures the Desert Castle, the PCs have restored history on this Parallel.  They may eliminate the fact that one of them was turned into a giant toad by using the anomaly field generator or looper to warn themselves not to hop to the dimensional hole.
As part of a back-up plan, the Demoreans have established another dimensional hole on a separate Parallel.  However, clues to the next adventure can found after the battle.

The Demoreans need xantium, “a rare mineral [that] powers the type of drive required to transport magical dimensional holes.”  They obtain their xantium from “the year 101 million B.C.” on Parallel R-555.  Here, the player characters can negotiate with cavemen and/or intelligent dinosaurs.  Upon capturing the Demorean facility, the PCs find out:
The xantium is being sent to the Cassandra II system on Parallel T-6 from June 2 through June 30, 3612 A.D. [sic]  A massive time travel drive is being constructed on a space station positioned outside the atmosphere of the planet Cassandra II.  The drive, which is augmented by a dimensional hole, will be powered by the energy released when Cassandra II's sun becomes a supernova on July 2, 3162 A.D. at 10 p.m.  Destroying the space station pastward of this moment will prevent the Time Storm from occurring.
I think 3162 is supposed to be the correct year.  Anyway, the final adventure consists of a single encounter; it takes up just over two pages of the book.  The player characters use their TCA-4A chronoscooters to attack the Demorean space station.  Since the Demoreans have “Advanced Space Age Fighters,” the adventure is essentially “a board-game style battle.”  The text helpfully informs us, “This combat is to the death.”  Interestingly, at the beginning of the encounter, each player rolls 3d10 to determine his or her chronoscooter's “time on target.”  Once a chronoscooter's “time on target” is exhausted, there is a ten percent chance per round that the vehicle will run out of fuel.  Fortunately, rules are provided for rescuing pilots.

I guess at some point, Merlin T-1 drops out of the picture.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Book Review: Sign of the Labrys (spoilers)



On page 8 of the Players Handbook, Gary felt the need to explain the usages of the term level:  “Level as an indication of character power . . . Level as used to indicate the depth of the dungeon complex . . . Level as a measure of magic spell difficulty . . . Level as a gauge of a ‘monster's’ potential threat . . .”  We learn that, “It was initially contemplated to term character power as rank, spell complexity was to be termed power, and monster strength was to be termed as order . . . However, because of existing usage, level is retained throughout with all four meanings, and it is not confusing as it may now seem.”  Of course, since then, ‘monster level’ has given way to challenge rating, but the term for dungeon stratum is immutably Level.

Gary specifically listed Margaret St. Clair's Sign of the Labrys in Appendix N.  Although the notion of successive underworld levels is as old as religion, there is an assumption that the 1963 novel contributed to the D&D concept of dungeons.  I can't argue against this assumption yet, honestly, had I been told Sign of the Labrys influenced a role-playing game but not which game, I would have associated the novel with Paranoia.

In his review of Sign of the Labrys in the March 1964 issue of Analog, P. Schuyler Miller states, “I have an idea this is a ‘sleeper’ that will hang on over the years, growing with rereading.”  (He also lamented, “. . . it catches a case of Van Vogts and goes all complicated.”)  If Sign of the Labrys is a sleeper, then it's still dozing.  Regardless, Sign of the Labrys has fared better than The Shadow People, having been reprinted as part of Dover's ‘Doomsday Classics’ series.  Sign of the Labrys is categorized as science fiction rather than fantasy.  Specifically, the ‘Guide to Subject Analysis for Fiction and Drama’ subject headings for the book are “science fiction,” “occult fiction,” and “dystopias.”  The Library of Congress Subject Headings are “Witches – Fiction” and “Paranormal fiction.”  Lastly, the ‘Book Industry Standards And Communications’ subject headings are ”Visionary & Metaphysical” and ”Occult & Supernatural.”

According to the back cover copy:
This Wiccan-themed science fiction novel was cited by Gary Gygax as an inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons.  Enthusiasts of the role-playing game will recognize the forerunner of Castle Greyhawk and its labyrinthine setting of multiple levels connected by secret passages. . .
Most of the action in Sign of the Labrys takes place in a underground complex.  Apparently, the complex was inhabited as a result of the “great plagues” which transpired ten years prior to the start of the novel and killed 90% of humanity.  People regularly visit the surface without ill effect, but they choose to reside in the complex.  Although the plagues “have been in abeyance for years now,” the fear of contamination has caused people to isolate themselves from one another.  “People satisfy their sexual needs in fifteen-minute contacts,” we learn, “and run away from each other afterwards.”

One of the upper levels “consists of an apparently interminable series of interlacing arched arcades, part natural and part artificial . . .”  With regard to levels, the protagonist narrates:
     It is important to understand what a level is.  It is not much like a floor in an office building.  A level may be a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet deep, and subdivided into several tiers.  Also, access to them is not uniform.  The upper levels are simple and straightforward; one gets to and from them by stairs, escalators, or elevators . . .
     As one goes down, it gets difficult.  Entrances and exits are usually concealed.  The reason for this, I think, was partly to protect the VIP's in the lower levels from unauthorized intrusion, partly to provide a redoubt in case the ”enemy” was victorious, and partly because of the passion for secrecy that characterizes the military mind.
Aside from “stairs, escalators, or elevators,” there are also matter transmitters and anti-gravity tubes, but the existence of such things is not mentioned until the protagonist interacts with them.  Also, the transitions among the deeper levels tend to have guardians.  The protagonist seeks out a witch named Despoina even though he realizes she “might or might not have any real existence.”  In his journey, he descends to lower and lower levels.

Levels are identified by letters rather than numbers.  Tiers are indicated by a number after the letter.  The protagonist declares, “I walked along the dim corridor until I came to F1 (this is a tier, and different from F, which is a separate level).”

Level G is an ecosystem complete with groves of trees and a beach with “salt water and sand to sunbathe on.”  A denizen announces, “We even have tides.”  The level is inhabited by people (and their children) who were VIPs at the time of the great plagues.  Assuming the plagues were instruments of warfare, they sealed themselves off waiting for the end of a non-existent war.

The protagonist reaches Level H with the assistance of a dog with an extra brain.  Enduring hallucinations, he wanders through a stone labyrinth “for at least two days,” eventually reaching on office intended for the president of the United States.  The protagonist then descends to what turns out to be Level I (“the hidden nadir level”) with a floor of ice and with “great pillars, partly hewn and partly natural, that supported the roof.”  He then briefly encounters the witch before losing consciousness.

Later, the protagonist starts to develop Wicca powers as he becomes an initiate.  He is a reincarnation of “the male counterpart of the high priestess, the other focus of power in the circle.”  He recalls some sort of racial memory and is possessed by a “‘pattern of power’ that had been a man once, millennia ago.”

The experiences of the protagonist in Sign of the Labrys are similar to those of the protagonist in The Shadow People; he has a heretofore unknown mystic heritage and undergoes hallucinations while wandering underground.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

TIMESTORM (Part II) (spoilers)

Art by Stephen Sullivan

The commander of the Time Corps' Last Resort Division is named Bora and she is one of the Kleibor – an alien race from Pacesetter's STAR ACE® role-playing game.  Bora “looks like a giant, highly intelligent polar bear.”  Just what makes a polar bear look “highly intelligent” is left unstated.  Glasses?  Pocket protector?  Anyway, Bora assigns two missions to the player characters.  First, a Temporal Disaster Wave will “presumably wipe out the Time Corps' existence” in 18.5 SDS hours.  Second, the player characters must cope with a Time Storm by finding “the Parallel, time, and place where this Time Storm erupted, and prevent the storm from starting.”  Also, the player characters should “make whatever repairs [they] can to the Parallels [they] visit along the way.”  Actually, as the text makes apparent later on, preventing the Time Storm also undoes all of its effects.

The Temporal Disaster Wave (or TDW) evidently began when Arabic numerals were introduced to Augustan Rome.  As a result, “Mathematical science explodes. . .[and] the Roman Empire still thrives” until the 21st Century, at least.  A mission team was deployed two days previous.  Since they have not reported, “obviously, they did not succeed.”  So, the player characters must go back in time, tell the first team to desist, and assume their mission.  The send-off for the player characters is rather brusque in keeping with the urgency of the situation; however, they are also insulted as the briefing ends:
She glances at the side door, and it slides open to admit four alien agents.  (Kleibors have innate skills in telekinesis.)  Two 12-foot bears and three 8-foot brown lizards step inside.  They glance at you haughtily, and one asks,Gees, we aren't teaming up with them are we?
(I suppose 'Gees' is the diminutive form for the spiritual savior of 8-foot brown lizards.)  I would be inclined to reply with something like:  “Excuse me, I have to go save the Continuum – I hope your penny ante species manages to survive.”  Reptilians can be such jerks.

When the player characters go back in time and address the previous mission team – by astounding coincidence – the Time Storm touches down at the landing site.  Unless the player characters manage to get out of the way, they are taken by the Time Storm:
Whirling helpless in a black, disorienting void, you tumble and careen past countless other writhing, spinning beings.  Some are alien, some humanoid, but all are panic-striken and powerless.  Their screams are deafening, though it is difficult to separate the cries of other victims from the piercing howl of the tempest itself.
Eventually, the player characters find themselves on Parallel A-1023.  Herein lies the likely reason Timestorm™ has not been republished even though the rest of the TIMEMASTER™ catalog is available.  Parallel A-1023 represents the reality of Wabbit Wampage, a board game published by Pacesetter in 1985 and designed by Marc Acres.  You might as well cross-sell if you can.  Presumably, in order to republish Timestorm™, one must also have the Wabbit Wampage license.

Wabbit Wampage simulates a television cartoon with characters like Thugs Bunny.  One of these characters is depicted on the Timestorm™ cover, hand-in-paw with Cleopatra.  The Wabbit Parallel is one of “Violent, senseless mayhem,” as befits a cartoon.  We learn that “creatures on A-1023 never die; they simply get 'whomped,' soon returning to action.”  However, visitors to the Parallel – such as the player characters – remain mortal.  In a mailbox, the player characters find a note from their future selves who have (or will have) mail ordered cartoon chronoscooters from the Acme Company.  Once the letter is read, the cartoon chronoscooters arrive via parachute, which the player characters can use to continue the adventure in ancient Rome.  The letter contains the phrase:  “After a few hair-raising adventures. . .”  Given the puns of Wabbit Wampage, Acres should have used “hare-raising.”

Does this mean there's a Parallel for every game?  Is there a Parallel that consists of a chess (or chaturanga) board and beings that are the equivalent of the pieces?  More importantly, is there a Hungry Hungry Hippos Parallel?

The Temporal Disaster Wave was engineered by “Le Voleur, the infamous, mysterious renegade.”  Le Voleur's scheme was to threaten the existence of the Time Corps, demanding that they release his compatriot renegades from the Prison Parallel in order for him to negate the TDW.  Of course, a threat is only effective if the target is aware of it and Le Voleur has delayed issuing the threat.  This is because Le Velour “doesn't know how quickly the wave is advancing, and he wants to to leave the Corps with as little room to maneuver as possible.”

At the onset of his scheme, Le Voleur sent two henchmen to Al Capone's death and injected him “with a 58th century drug.”  Said drug had the effect of making “Capone appear lifeless, while holding his body in a state of suspended animation.”  The henchmen exhumed Capone the day after was buried and took him to Rome.  There, “Le Voleur revived Capone and cured him of his disease,” although he lacks medical skills.  Le Voleur then convinced Capone “to start up gangster operations” in Augustan Rome.
. . . Capone revelled in the chance to relive his “glory days” in an environment with, as he put it, “no feds and a wide open city.”  He recruited the lowest, most violent scum from the Roman streets, making them “soldiers” or “button men” in his new organization.  With the help of Le Voleur's band of renegades, he imported handguns, automatic weapons, [cars,] and clothing from the American 1920s.  He even received language implants from Le Velour's labs, so his men would look and speak just like “old time” Chicago gangsters.  In six months, Capone had taken over most of Rome's gambling operations.  Soon, his organization would conquer the liquor and slave trades too.
Remember, the Temporal Disaster Wave was started not by firearms or internal combustion engines in ancient Rome, but Arabic numerals.  We learn that the Praetorian Guard “would be willing to put an end to both [Capone] and his band of thugs, but the Emperor won't allow it (for what reason, the soldiers cannot imagine).”  The Emperor's reason is never disclosed.  In the course of the adventure, Capone attempts to double-cross Le Voleur and steal a time machine, but Le Voleur tries to escape, going back in time so as to “cancel the abduction of Al Capone.”  Which means the Temporal Disaster Wave would not have occurred.

Whether or not Le Voleur escapes, the Time Storm brings to Rome “three 4-foot cartoon rabbits” armed with a shotgun and chainsaws.  They appear at the dénouement of the TDW plot.  “Obviously,” we learn, “the wabbits are displaced from another Parallel, and the PCs should (as part of their Time Storm mission) return them to their natural home,” which is the Wabbit Parallel.  Returning the wabbits requires that the player characters defeat them.  The prospect is not easy since – as cartoons – they don't “seem the least bit dampened by. . .wounds.”  In order to conclude the mission successfully, the player characters must deliver the wabbits to Parallel A-1023, where the next adventure in the campaign takes place.