Monday, April 29, 2013

Tollenkar’s Lair – A Very Belated Review

This review is a mere 33 years too late, but I had a few observations not made by other reviewers and so decided to publish this anyway.
Of course, Steve Jackson’s gaming credentials are well known, and this, his first published adventure module, certainly highlights his immense talent. As a previous review pointed out (see The Space Gamer, No. 31, Capsule Reviews pg. 26), “The greatest strength of TOLLENKAR’S LAIR is its extensive detail. It is logically arranged and the significant characters are well developed.” However, this is both a strength and a weakness, as we shall see.
So these are the observations that I would make regarding this adventure. While I consider Tollenkar’s Lair to be a great adventure supplement, it has some shortcomings.
The first thing that one notices, upon reflection, is the total lack of anything truly “supernatural” or other-worldly about the adventure. All of the foes, with the exception of traps and nuisance monsters, are standard human type characters, mostly heroes but with a few (powerful) wizards thrown in. No dragons or demons or vampires, just a straight up fight (more or less) between the players and other similar figures. In this sense it lacks the variety, atmosphere, and ominous encounters found in, say, Gary Gygax’s B2 “Keep on the Borderlands” module, which has foes both relatively mundane (i.e. orcs, goblins), more otherworldly (the minotaur and medusa), and even creepy (the evil temple).
It is to be noted that the above is purely a subjective complaint, and should not really be taken as a strike against Tollenkar’s Lair, but I do feel that the B2 module was a noticeably more enjoyable product, in that it really felt like a fantastic world, full of magic, mystery, and adventure. This is a recurring problem one finds with TFT, for example with vampires and werewolves simply being victims of disease, and eliminating any hint of “magic” or mystery.
A minor complaint may be directed at the artwork used in the module. Apart from the cover art (which plausibly depicts Tollenkar) the rest of the handful of artwork (as opposed to map type illustrations) in the module have nothing to do with any of the encounters found within. Though they are well executed, they have no relevance to the situations described in the module. When compared with the art found in D&D modules (which are more plentiful and usually tied to a particular encounter in the module) this is something of a disappointment.
I think a more genuine complaint is this: while the D&D (and AD&D, etc.) modules tend to be entirely too generous with wealth and magic items (c. f. T1 Village of Hommlet, where the village could be looted for far more gold at far less risk than the dangerous encounters in the moathouse…), Tollenkar’s Lair (and, really, all of the Microquests) tend towards the opposite extreme and are quite niggardly and stingy. Indeed, many aspects of the TFT rules design could be interpreted as being an “equal and opposite” reaction to elements of D&D design. Not that TL necessarily lacks treasure and magic altogether, but it is almost entirely concentrated on the bottommost level with the deadliest bad guys. To a point this is wholly as it should be, but I feel that SJ went a little too far, where some of this lack of good items does not even make sense.
For an example one need look no further than Captain Jamie Littlejohn, the commander of the elite bravoes on the 5th level. Here we have a 52 attribute figure, obviously a veteran of literally years of campaigns and battles, and yet not only does he lack magic items of any kind, but he doesn’t even have any fine equipment, such as Fine Plate or a fine battle axe! One would think that such an obviously successful warrior would have invested some bucks into better quality equipment, to give an edge in a serious fight! Even the bandit leader Little Kess (a measly 39 point figure) had an enchanted +1 damage morning star, for pity’s sake! Similarly, in reference to Worwackawack and his single +1 DX crossbow bolt, the statement is made that “Tollenkar is generous with gold but stingy with magic.” Stingy indeed! But does any of this make any rational sense? Is Tollenkar the only mage on the face of Cidri capable of making magic items? Methinks not… And have these bravoes worked solely for Tollenkar their entire careers? Again, extremely unlikely. Thus, the near total lack of magic or even fine quality gear makes no rational sense whatsoever, and is a serious logic hole in the design of the module. The bravoes certainly should have gear, both fine and magical, that corresponds with their extensive experience. (Parenthetically, even if Tollenkar was terribly stingy, would he not consider giving his guardians a magical tactical edge that might help, indirectly, prolong his own life? Talk about penny-wise and pound-foolish!)
One other area that makes little sense is the section regarding Tollenkar’s reactions to adventurer’s attempts to explore the Landmaster Hall ruins. Basically, Tollenkar ignores incursions to the uppermost levels, and only responds if the lower two levels are attacked. And even then, he only hires replacements – perhaps doubling them if anyone on the 6th level is killed. But does this make sense? Personally, were I the dastardly mage Tollenkar, plotting outright treason against the local aristocracy (need I mention punishable by death…), I would be hiring assassins to track down and kill anyone that was poking around even the upper levels of the ruins for any reason, as I would not want even a HINT of my existence to be discovered.
It is for these reasons that I do find TL to be a difficult module to run properly. A big problem is that a party strong enough to deal with Tollenkar and his crew will simply mow down Kess and his bandits without working up a sweat. Conversely, a party that could be challenged by the latter troop would never survive the lowest two levels. Yes, one can simply ignore the concerns raised above, thus allowing multiple forays into the ruins, but that seems unsatisfactory due to the noted illogic of it all.
Another strike against Tollenkar’s Lair, though in this case directed solely at the publisher (Metagaming) as opposed to the author, is a lack of counters. For example all of the MicroQuests have countersheets, but Tollenkar’s Lair does not. Yes, one can argue that they are not strictly speaking necessary so long as you have just about any other Microquest or Melee/Wizard, but it still would have been nice. One could make a case, though, that this should have been released in a format similar to the MicroQuests (or perhaps the later MetaGames, such as Dragons of Underearth), complete with a separate full color map and counters.
All of the above having been said, this is still an excellent adventure that is generally well thought out and tightly written. Though it has some shortcomings, it is still a good value and worth obtaining.
Price: $2.95 (when published in 1980; rather more expensive now on eBay)
Ratings (out of a maximum of 5 stars)
Content: ****
Layout and Graphics/Artwork: **½
Components: **
Value: ****
Written by Steve Jackson, © 1980

Another Project: A 15th Century Flail

I've kind of wanted a flail for awhile. There are a few on the market, some of which by Arms & Armor and Lutel being of very good quality. But I wanted something a bit different. Many years ago Museum Replicas carried a couple of flails made in their workshop which featured heads made from "recycled" sword pommels, documented in Wagner's Medieval Weapons and Costume book. I had a left over Del Tin pommel from a rehilt project and figured, "Why not?"

The haft was obtained from a Rocklers woodworking store, and I just used a drawknife, belt sander, rasps, and files to shape it. The idea for the shape came from a roughly contemporary "fist pick" now in a French (?) museum, and I think originally Burgundian.

I hand forged the 1/8" thick  mounting bracket on the end of the haft, along with the loop attached to the pommel and the large ring that connects the chain to the bracket. The chain itself is modern, but similar in appearance and function to some originals from the period (of course, the original chain would have featured forge welded rings, rather than the modern spot weld. Sue me.) The end result is pretty good, I think.

Certainly this would have been a devastating weapon in use, but it requires some practice to avoid being as dangerous to its wielder as to one's foemen.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Project: Hallstatt Antenna Short Sword - c. 650 B.C.

This was an unusual and exciting project. This is a rare offering manufactured by Del Tin back in the mid-1980’s, and very briefly marketed through Museum Replicas. It only appears in the first catalogue, and was not offered again. By sheer chance, one showed up on eBay, and I managed to snag it for a not unreasonable price.
Surprisingly, there is relatively little information available on the original. While it is illustrated in a few books, its dimensions are not given. However, I was able to get in touch with the British Museum that houses this particular piece, and one of the curators, Dr. Jody Joy, was able to supply the missing data:

“The sword you are referring to is 636mm long. The blade is 509mm long and 82mm wide at the base. The handle antennae grip is 129mm x 88mm. In terms of the construction, as far as I am aware no detailed study has been made. It was acquired before 1895 and is listed as being from the Thames at London Bridge. I am afraid there are no further details. If you want to look the artefact up in future the registration number is 1936,1210.1.”

Not surprisingly, Del Tin had exaggerated the size of the sword, making it much longer in both blade and grip then the original (the overall length was 30.5” from tip to end of tang, with the blade 25.5” and the hilt 5” long. The original relic, as noted above, was about 25.28” from tip to end of tang with a blade length of 21.56” and hilt length of 3.71”). Also, the tang was about half length, with a mild steel rod welded to the end to make up the rest of the hilt. I resolved therefore to rework the piece both for greater strength and accuracy.

To correct the shortcomings, I cut down the blade at the shoulders by a small amount (under an inch). I was determined to retain the Del Tin “running wolf” marking on the blade, and also the approximate blade width. Another original detail I was trying to bring out was the fact that the fullers ran most of the length of the blade - were I to take more from the tang end of the blade these fullers would be even shorter than their already inadequate length. To bring the blade down closer to the length of the original it was based upon and address the other concerns, I ended up taking about 2” off of the tip and about .25” off the shoulders of the blade. I dislike doing this, as you have to regrind and repolish the edges, but it was the only way to go given the goals I had set. The hilt was reduced by 1.25” to about 3.75”

Naturally, the grip was cut down in size. These reductions made for a much sturdier hilt overall, as the mild steel rod is now proportionally much smaller in terms of the overall hilt length. I also cut grooves in the grip, to correspond with the original, though I did simplify the design somewhat, putting a single groove in place of the three closely spaced ones in the original. Not only did this save time, but I did not think that the wood grip would retain such fine detail as well as the iron grip of the original.

Finally, I carefully reshaped the cross and pommel, to ensure a close, precise fit, and refinished them by fireblueing. This was done in part to keep the character of the original, for on that the cross and antenna pommel were done in bronze, and the grip in iron. As I wanted to keep the original fittings, I decided that by fireblueing I would get the same sort of colour differential but using different materials. For final assembly, I carefully wedged in place the guard and grip, making them very solid.

For a full description of the rework of this piece, see my detailed write-up on Kelticos:

A Rebuttal To An Oddly Oriented Opinion regarding D&D and Competing RPGs

Awhile back a rather strange fellow posted a bizarre viewpoint over on the likely soon to be defunct (sadly) Grognardia, opining that:

“It's important to note that many games' attempts to be as little like D&D as possible are more about marketing, branding, consumer perception and other decidedly un-fun business-y stuff.

I firmly believe that classes, levels, hit points and many other conventions originated in D&D are legitimately better mechanics that give all editions of D&D a competitive advantage.


Often this comes from purposely avoiding better mechanics (like classes and levels) and other times through going after a different genre, like sci-fi.

The reason being that D&D has proven such a "killer app" that attempting to say "we're a better game than D&D" or convincing the consumer of that anyway, has always proven to be a non-starter.”


While there is a slim basis for some of this, in large measure it is not correct. Point by point:

1. At least for Metagaming’s Melee and subsequent TFT games, they were motivated by a desire to deal with D&D’s shortcomings, at least as Steve Jackson perceived them to be (in large measure I agree with his views, BTW) – and not the marketing stuff you bring up. I don’t have it in front of me, but I believe this motivation was mentioned in the designer’s notes to Melee in an early issue of Space Gamer.

2. You can firmly believe all you want, but it amounts to nothing more than a strongly held opinion rather than objective fact. Hit points, in particular, are a very poor mechanic, creating as many problems as they solve. And while I do not object to classes and levels, I hardly think they are the greatest way to handle character definition and development. There is certainly no objective basis for claiming they are “the best.”

3. Had Metagaming not shut itself down based more on emotional rather than logical reasons by Howard Thompson, than the TFT RPG rules would have continued to provide significant competition to the bloated D&D/AD&D system. Indeed, had the full up rules set been released on schedule (i.e. in 1978 timeframe) before the AD&D DMG came out, TFT might well have stolen a good chunk of the D&D market share, perhaps even beating it out altogether. This last is speculation, but I base it on the following facts:

  (a) In spite of Metagaming company’s small size relative to TSR, the TFT system was, according to some survey’s, second only to D&D in terms of popularity. And this in spite of the fact that the TFT “DMG” (i.e. In the Labyrinth) wasn’t released until mid-1980, a full year after the AD&D DMG came out.

  (b) The TFT rules set was objectively superior, being overall much better written and easier to learn and play. Not that the system was without flaws, but what flaws there were could be fairly easily corrected. The flaws in D&D/AD&D require vastly more effort and insight to correct.

  (c) TFT was much less expensive than D&D/AD&D, coming in at about half or less the price for comparable products. (On the other hand, you get what you pay for – certainly the AD&D hardbounds were much more durable than the paper covers of TFT)

  (d) TFT was also a much more flexible rules set than D&D/AD&D. Though intended for a quasi-Mediaeval setting like D&D, the TFT rules could much more easily accommodate other genres (modern, sci-fi, etc.) than D&D ever could. The later GURPS system (based partly on TFT) took this to its fullest. Had Metagaming not gone under, they would have been releasing various supplements/worldbooks (this was mentioned in Interplay, and would have included a Superheroes and Wild West supplements, among others)
In sum, D&D had (and still has, really) quite a few significant problems. Mechanically, many of the rules are just futzy and poorly reasoned (even when the basic mechanic is, in fact, viable). As a result, at least some early systems arose as a result of trying to find a better set of rules than D&D, and not, as alleged, because of simple marketing gimmicks.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Starleader: Assault! and the downfall of Metagaming Concepts

It is my personal belief that Starleader: Assault! ultimately became Howard Thompson’s attempt to create a role-playing system of his own design that was to be “better” than Steve Jackson's The Fantasy Trip. I base this upon certain statements of Howard’s regarding TFT, coupled with his intense hatred of Steve Jackson. Rather than compete directly by releasing another fantasy system, Howard chose to set up a new game that had some basic connections with TFT (and, indeed, a minimal ability to transfer characters between systems) but was set in a different genre, that of ultra-futuristic sci-fi.

It has been stated that this game was “Melee in Space” - which is not an altogether bad comparison. It is true that the mechanics were somewhat different from TFT though as noted previous the systems were similar enough to be able to translate characters from one to the other. The main similarity in concept is this: just like Melee, this game was intended to be the man to man combat module for a larger role-playing system. Though only one other game was mentioned (“STARLEADER: WARPSHIPS”) it is likely that had events unfolded differently one would have seen micros covering many other aspects, such as starship combat, planetary exploration, and so forth. Likely even Starleader versions of TFT-style MicroQuests would have been written.

Unfortunately, the game was a complete flop, and in its failure very likely provided the added impetus to the decision to shut down Metagaming altogether. I say this because it seems clear that this was Howard’s “baby”, and that it was bad enough it was a flop, but more than that it failed to take away from the success of Steve Jackson’s TFT.

It seems likely that TFT was a mixed blessing in Howard’s eyes – from a business perspective it was a money-maker for Metagaming, but from a personal/ego perspective it had been designed by a man he hated and felt betrayed by. It is pretty clear that he wanted to take the Steve Jackson out of TFT altogether (the last edition of Melee, for example, omits any mention of SJ in the credits, and simply states Revised Edition Edited by Guy W. McLimore, Jr. and Howard Thompson.”) and seems to have been working towards a second edition of TFT that in all likelihood would have been a major rewrite of the system (if Dragons of Underearth was any indication) thus eliminating more or less all of SJ’s “DNA” from TFT. Had Starleader been a success, some of its rule mechanics like Action Points might well have made their way into a 2nd edition of TFT, and no doubt Howard would have felt quite smugly triumphant about the whole thing.

But that is not what happened. Starleader: Assault! was poorly received and did not sell well, so far as I can tell. Today it is more of a collector’s curiosity than a serious game, which is always unfortunate. And I really think that the failure of this game was at least the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, and led Howard to shut down Metagaming (in addition to possible financial issues, the fire that destroyed Martian Metals, who made miniatures for Metagaming products, and the general state of the U.S. economy at that time). True, I can never prove such an assertion. Other than a second hand quote to the effect that gaming was no longer fun for him, we have little direct insight into the mind of Howard Thompson. But based on what is known, his rivalry with Steve Jackson, the amount of effort spent on Starleader, and so forth, it is not an unlikely possibility at all.

But as sad as that is, it was made all the more tragic because this game need not have been a failure at all! In spite of the flaws that I will enumerate below, this game did have some good ideas and I think simply needed a few tweaks and some added material to be a success.

Starleader did have a couple of interesting innovations. The biggest change, as noted above, was eliminating movement allowance and going to an action point (AP) system (a concept also used in SNIPER by TSR/SPI) where each action (i.e. moving a hex, firing a weapon, etc.) has a point cost associated with it. This does not seem to have worked out very well, perhaps for the same reason that Steve Jackson dropped it from early drafts of GURPS - playtesters did not like keeping track of action point totals.[1] That said, it is not an altogether bad idea. Also worthy of honorable mention was the introduction of a “cover” statistic for furniture, etc. that was factored into the to-hit equation, making for a fairly elegant system for attack rolls. Pretty neat ideas, definitely worth their day in court.

All of this, though, failed to overcome the deep flaws in the game, as listed below:

1)             The weapons, armor, and gadget lists were atrocious. Not only were they difficult to read, it was not really clear what many of these things even were – for weapons in particular no explanations were given, apart from the table headings. The names were (apparently) those of manufacturers (i.e. Powzyd, Jaffna, Lugon, Ghazi, etc.) with only some brief and incomplete heading definitions and raw numbers. For example, there were stats called “Density of Fire” and “Punch” – while it can be figured out by delving into the rules that they referred to “Accuracy” and “Damage”, respectively, it was needlessly mystifying at first. There were also bizarre acronyms such as “Gad Sok”, “Tek Lev”, “Arm. Rate” which only served to further obfuscate matters. It was frustrating to have to learn a whole new vocabulary in order to play. Further, there were vast numbers of weapons, often with repeated names that were only differentiated by tech level or some other minor stat detail. I found this aspect very hard to get past, and consider it the number one serious flaw in the writing of this game.

2)             The glaring absence of any non-human adversaries was also likely a major strike against the game. Even Melee provided stats for both animals (such as wolves and bears) and fantastic creatures (giants, hobbits, etc.) Amazingly, Howard failed to include the one alien species he had already created - the Hymenoptera! One could envision many further evolutionary adaptations of that species to cope with technology (see, for example, the movie adaptation of Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” - the specialized alien types were particularly interesting and well done). They would make a very interesting sci-fi foe, if done correctly. The addition of the “Bugs” alone, if done with reasonable skill, might well have saved this title. The aliens from Air Eaters could also have been considered, as they are fairly well detailed from the two games and Interplay articles on the subject. Robots of some sort might also have worked here as well. Lots of fertile ground left fallow!

3)                Expanded rules, to cover combat and terrain on a planet’s surface (rather than just in the confines of a starship), And the ability to play beyond the Starship “Trek Heaven” hull, whether through a section that details other ship hull designs or design tips, along with varying planetary surface terrain, would have made the game much more adaptable to a host of new scenarios. Lack of expandability was no doubt a factor in the poor reception this game received.

4)               Improved map would have been a must, as it is difficult to read, being comprised of various gray shaded hexagons. The counters, though uninspiring, are acceptable, hearkening back to the original Melee counters.

5)               It seems unlikely that the sequel/supplemental MicroGame was at all ready to be released, and may not have even been in rough draft form, which seems to have been a problem with Chitin:1. As with this latter game, SL:A would have been much better off with its support material not merely waiting in the wings as “vaporware” but actually at the printers and released a month or two after SL:A. At minimum, a role-playing and starship module would have been needed, though perhaps that was intended.

6)               Game scale. Given the nature of modern and futuristic weapons, relying on 1-1/3 meter hexes is a poor choice. SPI’s UNIVERSE game system used 5 meter hexes, which makes sense, especially since 5 meters is approximately the distance that a man can cover in the time it takes to unholster a pistol and bring it to bear (a.k.a. the “Tueller Drill”). While two scales were, in fact, put in the rules, with a suggestion for an outdoor long range scale using 20-meter hexes, no details on how this would be used were provided.

7)               More background material in general would have been helpful. While it was probably intended to introduce that sort of information in the Role Playing module for the game, something should have been here as well. By putting in a little more detail about the game universe that this game is supposed to be played in more interest could have been generated which would only have helped the success of this title.

8)               As written, Prowess and IQ are the most prominent stats, with Empathy playing only a very limited (indeed, it was only as an optional rule) role in panic checks. And the role played by IQ was nonsensical, in that a higher IQ allowed the use of higher tech weapons and gadgets. This is a bit silly, in that most weapons today, for example, do not require a high level understanding of the technology in order to use. AK-47’s, famously, can be used by illiterate and poorly trained Third World peasantry. It might make sense that someone with a lower IQ then the tech level might not be able to use the weapon/gadget to its fullest extent, but it shouldn’t preclude usage at all. In my view, each stat should be important, and the game expanded to provide some important use for all of them, to avoid the “dump stat” phenomena encountered in, for example, the Charisma stat for D&D.

9)               It also has to be wondered if the rules were, perhaps, too focused on a specific game universe as opposed to being more generic and flexible. For example, the Melee rules were quite generic and could be applied to any pre- (or very early) gunpowder era combat situation, either fantastic or historical, theoretically from the Stone Age to the Renaissance. Starleader, on the other hand, was focused on the “30th Century Space Era” and obviously had a specific game universe in mind, complete with its own narrow technologies, and so forth. Thus, you could only play “there” and not readily port stuff over into a game universe of your own design. It would be sort of like having the Melee rules work only for the world of Cidri and not really be more widely applicable. Perhaps making the equipment less specific and covering a wider range of tech levels (to include late 20th century “modern” gear) might have given more scope to the imagination and allowed greater flexible usage of the rules.

10)           Lack of artwork was unfortunate, though not a surprise as I recall Howard Thompson citing a survey they had done, and concluding that artwork was unwanted by players, thus keeping things at a bare bones minimum. It is, however, easy to go a little too bare bones, and for sci-fi (or fantasy) subjects in particular it would help allow visualization of this far future universe. Not essential, but helpful.

11)           And the description on the back of the box was just corny…

All of these problems were eminently correctable, however. Simple revisions for ease of understanding, and perhaps several more pages of added material could very well have salvaged this title, and maybe even forestalled Howard Thompson’s sad decision to close down Metagaming.

[1] See Space Gamer No. 76 “Designer’s Notes: Man to Man.” As an aside, I would also suggest that it would likely make solo adventures more difficult to play. The Melee system is fairly easy, but having to keep track of AP totals not only for your own figures but your enemies might have been a bit much.

Monday, April 1, 2013


Welcome to the First Post of my First Blog (which, in all likelihood will be a vast echo chamber, but whatever)! In this forum I will comment on a number of old roleplaying and war- games, most especially The Fantasy Trip and Original Dungeons & Dragons, but also MERP, GURPS, Universe. We’ll probably discuss some wargames, like Star Fleet Battles, the various MicroGames, and some early TSR stuff in my collection.

But I have a lot of other interests, such as making reproduction Mediaeval arms and armour (and other ancient hand crafts), re-enacting, Star Trek, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Game of Thrones, and probably a lot of things I’m forgetting right now. So there will be a bit of the eclectic here, as well.

So why start my first Blog on this day, April 1st, 2013? It’s not at all because of April Fool’s, but rather the fact that on this day, 30 years ago in 1983*, the owner of Metagaming Concepts, Howard Thompson, abruptly closed the company (and its subsidiary Games Research Group, Inc.) and took with him most of the intellectual property associated with the company, most notably The Fantasy Trip roleplaying game system, but also too other titles such as WarpWar, Chitin, Helltank, Invasion of the Air Eaters, and many others. A very sad and cruel April Fool’s day indeed for both employees of Metagaming and aficionados of TFT and the various MicroGames put out by that company (though at the time, being a teenager, I had no idea what had happened). There will be a number of future blog posts discussing this subject, in addition to the MGC games themselves.

So, good day to all and fair travels!

*Technically, I do not know if the date is strictly correct. Space Gamer No. 63 notes that they ceased operations at “…the beginning of April.” However, as the 1st of April in 1983 fell on a Friday, it would make sense that this was indeed ‘the’ day.

<<EDIT: It's "Games Research Group, Inc." not whatever I brainfarted in the first place>>