Saturday, February 29, 2020

El Raja Key

Soon after Gary Gygax began running adventures beneath Greyhawk Castle, Rob Kuntz started designing his own dungeon levels, beneath another castle ruin, that of El Raja Key (a name derived from the initials of his full name, Robert J. Kuntz), as discussed, here.

The front entrance to El Raja Key, from an imagined cover for the unpublished Kalibruhn supplement, as conceived by Grendlewulf. Illustration by Andy "ATOM" Taylor.

It's notable to recall that Kuntz was only 17 years old at the time, but would soon begin running games for Gygax himself in a shared pre-D&D campaign world, where the dungeons beneath El Raja Key would soon rival those of Greyhawk Castle, in scope and legend.

Kuntz eventually became co-DM of the OD&D Greyhawk campaign, to which he would contribute many of the dungeon levels from El Raja Key for the second iteration of Greyhawk Castle, involving several dozen levels in 5 interconnected stacks (to be covered in a future post).

Although complete maps for the 13 levels of the original Greyhawk Castle remain elusive (apart from a few tantalizing glimpses), this is not the case for El Raja Key, the complete maps for which were released as part of the El Raja Key Archive in 2016.

I have a copy of the basic edition of the Archive, and the hand-drawn maps for the dungeons beneath El Raja Key are fascinating to behold.  What follows is a brief overview of one of the earliest and most gameable of old school megadungeons.

The Upper Levels:

Level 1 - Includes 17 keyed encounter areas.  See this post on En World (November, 2019) for a description of "The Four-Way Footsteps", from a game session involving Gygax's first two player characters, Yrag and Mordenkinen.

Level 2 - Includes 18 keyed encounter areas, among which is a deadly invisible maze, and its guardians.  There is also an NPC described as the "Assassin of the Greenclaw" although I'm uncertain whether this represents an Assassin character, as per the Blackmoor supplement.

Level 3 - Includes 21 keyed encounter areas.  There is an intriguing description given for the spirit animating the statuette of a little frog, a new Figurine of Wondrous Power, similar to the Ebony Fly described in the Greyhawk supplement.

The first three levels of El Raja Key were at one time planned to be released in a special collector's edition by Pied Piper Publishing (discussed here, and here on Kuntz's "Lord of the Green Dragons" blog, back in 2009), but I don't think the project ever came to fruition.

The Lower Levels:

The lower dungeon levels are not presented with keys, but many involve some notable central feature:

Level 4 - Contains a huge crypt, with numerous sarcophagi.

Level 5 - Features a strange gallery in the upper northeast quadrant.
Level 5.5 - A vast series of mines, with a smelter for a mysterious ore.

Level 6 - Access to the lower levels is guarded by a black pudding (see Dragon #289, below).

Level 7 - Another labyrinthine level.
Level 7.5 - The Black Reservoir, accessed by a separate, hidden entrance through a tree stump in the swamp near the castle.

This level was incorporated into the second iteration of Greyhawk Castle, after Rob Kuntz became co-DM of the Greyhawk campaign, as mentioned here on the Acaeum forums.

A session with Ernie Gygax's character Erac was later featured in the article "The Expedition Into the Black Reservoir" (El Conquistador, vol. 1, no. 12, August 1974).

Level 8 - Natural caves and caverns.

Level 9 - A central cavern, containing a number of gambling machines.

Level 10 - Used for the Greater Caverns of Tsojconth.
In addition to being incorporated into the second iteration of Greyhawk Castle, design elements for this level, most notably the circular, central chamber, were used for the deeper, second level of "The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth", the tournament adventure for Wintercon V in 1976, as discussed by grodog, here.

Level 11 - Contains a stone plinth, with a great jewel (see Dragon #306, below).

Dragon articles:

Years later, Gygax would relate memorable episodes from the original Lake Geneva campaign in a series of articles in Dragon magazine from 2001-2004, entitled "Up on a Soapbox".  Those concerning El Raja Key include:
An encounter involving Gary's first character, Yrag the fighter, on the 1st level of the dungeon, is given in "Dungeon Hospitality - Falling for the Obvious" published in Dragon #292 (Feb, 2002).

Yrag discovers a ring of contrariness on the 3rd level of the dungeon, as recounted in "The Rewards of Roleplaying - Virtue Brings More Than Its Own Reward" published in Dragon #297 (July, 2002).

Mordenkinen's efforts to descend past the black pudding on the 6th level of the dungeon is described in "How to Train a Black Pudding - If You Can't Stand the Heat..." published in Dragon #289 (Nov, 2001).

Mordenkinen and his companions face a series of challenges on the 11th level of the dungeon, in order to gain a huge, faceted diamond, in "Best Shots - The Folly of Predictability" published in Dragon #306 (Apr, 2003).

Mordenkinen and Bigby's legendary encounter with an iron golem, in which Yrak is later slain, is told in "The Devious DM - The Other Side of the Screen" published in Dragon #307 (May, 2003).

The final story was originally recounted in an article by Gygax, entitled "Swords and Sorcery - In Wargaming" (Wargamer's Digest, vol. 1, no. 7, May 1974), which was republished with new, full-color illustrations in Dungeon #112 (July 2004).

Using "El Raja Key" in your campaign:
...its unstable magic caused it to appear and disappear throughout time and space. Its reappearance would thereafter be considered an ominous event and lead to legends about it from among those places in which it occurred.  This allowed me to "place" the castle within the ongoing storyline wherever I wished and to extrapolate a building story as to why it was thus occurring.
Robert Kuntz, from his blog, Dec 16, 2012

The megadungeon beneath El Raja Key is eminently playable, and would be well-suited to either an OD&D or B/X campaign.  Although the deeper levels aren't keyed, one could either use the Monster & Treasure Assortment (1977) or stock by choice.

Since the castle of El Raja Key would frequently change locations in Kuntz's "World of Kalibruhn" even hopping "dimensions" into the "World of Greyhawk" and elsewhere, there's no reason why it couldn't suddenly appear in the DM's own campaign world.

Beginning PCs might join forces in order to explore the mysterious castle in such a scenario.  The megadungeon is massive enough to accommodate multiple groups, while also being manageable in size.  I could easily see players reaching levels 10+ in such a campaign.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

K1: Sunken City

Rob Kuntz prepared "Sunken City" as the D&D tournament adventure for Gen Con VIII, held August 22-24, 1975 at Horticultural Hall, Lake Geneva WI.  Revised and expanded, the adventure was released for use with Dungeons & Dragons by TLB games in 2016.

K1 Sunken City by Robert J. Kuntz.  Cover illustration by Jim Roslof.

Rob Kuntz was co-DM with Gary Gygax of the original Greyhawk campaign, and co-author with Gygax of the Greyhawk supplement.

Melan posted an excellent review of the module, in 2017.

The World of Kalibruhn:

Kuntz was already conceptualizing his "World of Kalibruhn" campaign, as early as 1973, the setting for his castle of "El Raja Key" and the "Lost City of the Elders".

In fact, "Kalibruhn" was almost published as OD&D supplement V in 1976.

The Sunken City:

The Sunken City is known as "Kyrruhn" (meaning "greatly accursed") by locals, a corruption of its original name of "Kalibruhn".

A coastal city, it was destroyed by an immense tidal wave.  The ruins are now submerged under 40 feet of water, although some of the taller buildings rise 10 to 30 feet above the surface.  Many of these are structurally unsound.

Kuntz had previously introduced a group of players to the Sunken City, prior to running it at Gen Con VIII, although their expedition was short-lived:
... a group investigating an area of the sunken city above the water line rounded the corner while investigating a complex of buildings.  A high level magic-user rounded the corner and, winning initiative, cast a particularly deadly spell that excised the heart right out of a randomly determined NPC fighter in the party.  Well he dropped dead instantly, and one player, Jim Goodfellow issued a high pitch scream stating his character ran away at top speed!  The other fledglings turned wattles and fled right after him.  That was their first and last encounter within the Sunken City of Kalibruhn!
from the El Raja Key Archive, 2016

In the preface to the module, Kuntz states that this encounter was the only one with a prior history, and that everything else was made up on the spot.


The module contains a section on entering the Sunken City using rafts, negotiating its environmental hazards, and an overview of the various structures and random encounters.  There's a wandering monster table, as well as a floating debris/treasure table.

One of the buildings is an abandoned wizard's tower, VeJoun the Machinist, who specialized in clockwork mechanisms.  Another is haunted by a malignant spirit.  Yet another is inhabited by a powerful necromancer, who wields ancient, deadly spells (see above).

There are several new monsters, unique to Kuntz's "World of Kalibruhn" campaign, that serve to keep experienced players on their toes.  Some of these are aquatic, while others are undead.  One has a reputation, namely Za-Kark-Ksh, the Glutton, a legendary sea-troll.

There are also new magic items, including some fairly powerful ones, with names like "Zelles'sepda's Osspuncta" (a bone wand made from a legendary necromancer's hand), "The Master's Hand" (a sword forged of meteorite iron), and "The Inter-Dimensional Agereator".

El Raja Key Archive:

In order to run this adventure, one also needs a copy of the "El Raja Key Archive" (2016) a digital collection of Kuntz's maps, illustrations, and notes.  The map for the Sunken City is downloadable from the Archive (the map on the back cover of the module is only partial).

El Raja Key Archive (2016)

Those with a copy of the Deluxe or Collector's Edition of the Archive also get a Deluxe or Collector's Print of the module, which includes an additional encounter area "The Tower of Night".

The Wreck of the Revenant:

There is an intriguing backstory to the adventure.  The PCs can obtain clues to the location of a sunken ship, which holds the secret behind the destruction of the city (the subject of a planned, forthcoming mini-adventure by Kuntz).

Suggested levels:

The adventure is designed for 6-9 characters of 8th-10th level.  Six pre-generated characters are included, complete with backgrounds.  These are based on PCs in Kuntz's original campaign, played by Terry Kuntz, and others.

Gary Con X:

I had the pleasure of adventuring in the Sunken City, in a session run by Paul Stormberg at Gary Con X, in 2018.  He had us roll up characters (3d6, in order, of course) and allowed us to pick magic items from the rulebooks (since our characters were intermediate in level).

I rolled up a human, 8th level fighting-man "Vac-Tue" and outfitted him with plate +2/shield +1, a sword +2, crossbow of speed, and ring of spell-turning.  I also got 3 potions (water-breathing, speed, and invisibility).

Our group had a blast.  We narrowly escaped getting sucked into a sinkhole, battled Za-Kark-Ksh, the sea-troll, and raided the tower of VeJoun the Machinist.  One of the magic-users even figured out how to access VeJoun's clockwork "spellbook".

Using "Sunken City" in your campaign:

The Sunken City is a great adventure, and is highly recommended.  Nowadays, I would simply use the pregens and run through it in a few sessions.

As part of a campaign, the Sunken City of Kalibruhn might be located on the northern coast of any large island, or perhaps an unexplored, southern continent.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Tomb of Ra-Hotep

Alan Lucien's short, handwritten adventure "Tomb of Ra-Hotep" was the inspiration for Gary Gygax's "The Tomb of Horrors".  Lucien's adventure was also included as part of the special edition of "Art and Arcana" in 2018.

There was an actual Egyptian pharaoh, the first king of the 17th dynasty, named Rahotep.

This short, but inventive, little adventure looks like it would be interesting to run.  The lich is a tough opponent, so I would suggest high level characters (10-14 sounds about right).

As a Mystara fan, I can see "Tomb of Ra-Hotep" being situated in the Emirates of Ylaruam, a forgotten remnant of the ancient Nithian Empire.

T. Foster posted about similarities between Alan Lucien's "Tomb of Ra-Hotep" and Gary Gygax's much later "Necropolis" (1992) for the Dangerous Journeys RPG, in 2018.


Ra-Hotep is described as a "Priest-Wizard who defied time and death"  Now a lich, a powerful undead creature introduced in the Greyhawk supplement, he is able to cast spells as a 17th level Cleric/16th level Magic-User.

Here are the spell choices I would suggest:

Clerical Spells:

1st level - cause light wounds x2, darkness x2, detect good, detect magic, putrefy food and water
2nd level - curse x3, hold person x2, silence, 15' radius x2
3rd level - cause disease x2, continual darkness x3, locate object, speak with dead
4th level - cause serious wounds x5, protection from good, 10' radius
5th level - commune, dispel good x2, finger of death x3
6th level - animate objects x2, blade barrier
7th level - astral spell

Notes:  There is precedence for adjudicating cause light wounds and cause serious wounds as ranged spells in OD&D.  Putrefy food and water spoils holy water in 1e.  Silence, 15' radius against obvious spell casters.  Continual darkness to negate continual light.

Magic-User Spells:

1st level - charm person, magic missile x3, ventriloquism
2nd level - detect invisible*, invisibility, mirror image, phantasmal forces x2
3rd level - dispel magic, fly*, lightning bolt x2, slow spell
4th level - confusion, dimension door, polymorph others x2, wizard eye
5th level - animate dead, cloudkill, feeblemind, magic jar, telekinesis
6th level - anti-magic shell, death spell, disintegrate x2, projected image
7th level - power word stun, reverse gravity
8th level - permanent spell

*previously cast with permanent spell

Notes:  Projected image, followed by mirror image as early defensive options.  Magic missile fires 7 missiles at 16th level.  Slow spell, confusion, cloudkill, death spell, reverse gravity against multiple opponents.  Anti-magic shell as a late defensive option.

Update (March 29, 2022): Lucien's "Tomb of Ra-Hotep" was used as the basis of the Legends of Roleplaying tournament at Gary Con XIV (see this Facebook post, by Paul Stormberg)

According to Paul, the Tomb of Ra-Hotep "was an Egyptian-style tomb without too fine a point put on the mythology aspect.  It was the tomb of a long-hated villain in their campaign, originally name Quodwyr the Feared, in death he was known as Ra-Hotep.  Alan's group of players' characters were the ones responsible for the wizard-priest's demise but found out years later that the cruel necromancer had designs in place to return as a lich--more powerful than ever!"

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Origins I: The Tomb of Horrors

Gary Gygax prepared "The Tomb of Horrors" as the D&D tournament dungeon for Origins I, held July 25-27, 1975 at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore MD.  Revised for AD&D, the original version was only made widely available as part of the special edition of "Art and Arcana" in 2018.

Advertisement for Origins I, from The Strategic Review #2 (Summer, 1975)

James Ward recently posted some comments about "The Tomb of Horrors" as well as Gary's rationale behind creating the dungeon, on Facebook.

A first-hand account by one of the tournament players, Mark Swanson, was published in Alarums & Excursions #4 (Sept, 1975).  Another, by Greg Costikyan, was published in the fanzine "GIGO" (Garbage In, Garbage Out) #4 (see pg. 27).

Gygax commented on the tomb, in a letter published in Alarums & Excursions #15 (in apparent response to a comment by Rosenberg, the previous issue):
A good example is the Origins I dungeon -- incidentally drawn from a similar tomb designed by Alan Lucien.  Very few of the players who engaged in the tournament were able to think out the problems.  In a test run, Rob Kuntz, in his game persona as a 13th level (evil) lord went through the entire tomb in four hours actual time.  He took 14 orcs and a couple of low-level flunkies with him.  He lost all the party, but his character personally looted the lich's tomb and escaped with the goodies.  Rosenberg is wrong, for there were a number of ways to get out the place, although only two to get out with anything except your skin.

The Tomb of Horrors:

The 1975 version begins with a "Legend" heading, underneath which are listed the following words and phrases:
Burial Places, Ancient
Tombs, Ancient, Mighty Sorcerer/Kings
Surpassing Challenge/Certain Death
Great Treasure
Soul Eaters
The AD&D version (1978) explains that these scraps of information are all that is obtainable by consulting sages or through the use of legend lore spells.

Map of the Great Kingdom from Domesday Book #9 (1971) with possible locations for "The Tomb of Horrors" (1975), listed below.

The original version provides a number of possible locations for the tomb, which suggest the emerging concept of an OD&D "game world":
Possible locations:
1) The highest hill in the Egg of Coot.
2) An island lying 100 miles east of Blackmoor.
3) In the great desert west of the Wild Coast.
4) On the border between the Paynim Kingdom and Perrunland.
5) At the eastern edge of the Duchy of Geoff.
6) In a swamp somewhere in the Wild Coast.*
*In the AD&D version, Gygax states "When this module was used at Origins I, referees were instructed that the hill had been found in the Vast Swamp, and the party had arrived there in barges."

Many of these locations are present on David Megarry's copy of an old map of the Great Kingdom, as discussed at Zenopus Archives in 2018 (the region labeled "Contested Area" likely representing the Wild Coast, as developed by Robert Kuntz).

The AD&D version also contained possible locations for the tomb, revised for the World of Greyhawk, two years before the setting was published.

The Lich's Skull.  Illustration by Tracy Lesch.  From the 1975 tournament version of "The Tomb of Horrors"

There are hints of new character classes in development, in the list of ways to destroy the Lich's skull.  "The highest Divine destroys it by touch." and "A Mystic can destroy by mind battle (Mental power rating of the skull is 18)."

The Divine was a character class envisioned by Gary Gygax, likely inspired by the protagonist in Sterling Lanier's 1973 novel "Hiero's Journey".

The Mystic was a character class proposed by Steve Marsh, a "sort of a cleric" modeled after the abilities of Indian mystics.

Both of these new classes were subsumed into the psionics system in the D&D supplement "Eldritch Wizardry" (1976), edited by Tim Kask.

Suggested levels:

The list of 15 pregenerated characters possess levels ranging from 4-12, with an average level of 7, including a half-elf cleric (as per the Greyhawk supplement).

The AD&D version is billed as "An adventure for character levels 10-14" but likewise has a list of (20) pregenerated characters, ranging in levels from 6-14 (accounting for multiclassed characters), with an average level of 9.25

I'm certain that the suggested levels for the AD&D version contribute to the reputation of the Tomb as a career-ending prospect for high level characters, but judging from the pregens for both versions, lower level characters may be used.

Using "The Tomb of Horrors" in your OD&D campaign:

In considering PC motivation for tackling "The Tomb of Horrors", this is an adventure for avaricious tomb-raiders, in true "Swords & Sorcery" fashion.  It's not a quest for Tolkienesque heroic fantasy campaigns.

That having been said, a game world in which the Tomb is known to exist, even with no reason for the party to attempt to plunder it, is a world with a greater sense of mystery and menace.

The original version of this adventure could be used as a character funnel, in order to kick start an OD&D campaign.  Each player can be given 3-5 pregens, with survivors (if any) going on to tackle "Expedition to the Barrier Peaks", "The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth", or even the G series.

For my part, I've never run either version, although I'm looking forward to the opportunity to do so, either as a one-shot, or at a con in a 2-4 hour time slot.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Strategic Review #3

"The Strategic Review" served as "the newsletter of Tactical Studies Rules" and covered topics in military miniatures, games, and swords & sorcery. Vol. 1, No. 3 (Autumn, 1975) was released in July, 1975 (8 pages).

TSR News:

Announcements regarding "TSR Hobbies" a division for marketing miniatures, under Brian Blume's supervision, and "TSR Games" to publish Mike Carr's "Fight in the Skies" (5th ed.) "as well as a super-fun fantasy boardgame in the near future" (in reference to David Megarry's "Dungeon!")

There is mention of M.A.R. Barker’s "Empire of the Petal Throne" to be released around mid-July, "and it will be the ultimate in fantasy gaming", following a teaser for "the upcoming fantasy game "Petal Throne" in the advertisement for "War of Wizards" in SR #2

Finally, there is an early reference to the infamous "Tomb of Horrors":
Meanwhile, we are getting ready to run some D&D tournament games at Origins I, and from what AH says the games will be filled to capacity (but wait until the players find out just how horrible a place they will be “dungeoneering” in!).

Creature Features:

The Strategic Review #3 was described as the upcoming monster "monster" issue in SR #2, as well as in a boxed advertisement on the last page of the 1st printing of the Greyhawk supplement (where "over a dozen new monsters" are promised).

Nine new monsters are described in the "Creature Feature" section, in addition to eight tongue-in-cheek creatures as part of a humorous article by Wesley D. Ives (not covered, below).  Many became instant classics, while others remain obscure:

The Yeti (Abominable Snowman):  These tribal creatures appear in module G2 "The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl", acting as scouts for the frost giants.  They use snow leopards (from the AD&D 1e Monster Manual) as their "hunting dogs" and pets.

The Shambling Mound (or the "Shambler"): Inspired by the comic book creature "The Heap", according to Gygax.  I've always thought that a Shambling Mound would make a good wandering monster for "The Fens" on the wilderness map in module B2 "The Keep on the Borderlands".

The Leprechaun: Included in the Wandering Monster Table in the 1st printing of the Holmes Basic rulebook (July, 1977), but removed in the 2nd printing.  These appear in an illustration by David Sutherland in module B1 "In Search of the Unknown" but don't appear in the adventure.

The Shrieker: Included in the Wandering Monster Table in the 1st printing of the Holmes Basic rulebook (July, 1977).  Removed in the 2nd printing, despite an entry for "Shrieker" being added to the monster section.  These also appear in module B1 "In Search of the Unknown".

The Ghost: Although not "true Undead", these creatures (like phase spiders) are described as ethereal.  I've included the Ghost from SR #3 when running "The Creature of Rhyl", an adventure written for use with the Holmes Basic rules.

Naga: Drawn from East Asian folklore, three types are described, the Guardian Naga (Lawful, "found in sacred places"), the Water Naga (Neutral, living in palaces "deep beneath the surface of large ponds and lakes), and the Spirit Naga (Chaotic, and "totally evil").

The Wind Walker: Described as airy, telepathic, ethereal creatures, living in high mountains, or in deep caverns.  They are sometimes forced into servitude by storm giants.  The only early illustration depicting them is from the AD&D Monster Cards (Set 4) in 1982:

Wind Walker, color illustration by Erol Otus, from the AD&D Monster Cards (Set 4).

Little is known about these creatures, or was even remembered by the man who invented them.  In a post on the Q&A Thread with Gary Gygax on EN World, back in 2004, Gygax stated:
About three years back I was playing in an OAD&D game and a wind walker was encountered.  Damned if I could remember just how to attack the critter effectively, so my PC ran away, managed to escape while it was busy attacking others.

The Piercer: Included in the Wandering Monster Table in the 1st printing of the Holmes Basic rulebook (July, 1977), but removed in the 2nd printing.  These appear, along with a Roper, a Shambling Mound, Shriekers, and a Lurker Above in "The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth".

The Lurker Above: In addition to its use in the Metro Detroit Gamers "The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth" tournament adventure, by Gary Gygax (WinterCon V, 1976), one of these creatures also appears in module G3 "Hall of the Fire Giant King".

Wargaming World:

Cimmerian swordsman, one of the Conan series-inspired "Swords & Sorcery" line from MiniFigs.

We are given an update on the "Conan" line of miniatures by MiniFigs:
In #1 we mentioned a "Conan" line to be released by Miniature Figurines, Ltd, but it is not yet available — quite.  The new range will actually be called "Swords & Sorcery", with over 125 figures initially and they look good.  Although they are not "officially" to be for games based on the Conan series, many of these figures will be ideal for such usage (TSR helped MiniFigs in laying out which figures would be adaptable to such usage, so we know of what we speak).
There is mention of the "Battle Report" newsletter, a fanzine published by the American Wargaming Association.  Issue #4 includes "Dirty Tricks for the Dungeons" a D&D article by Bill Hoyer, a member of the LGTSA.

Finally, Europa 6-8 (April, 1975) is described as being "so thick it took me hours to read through!"  A triple issue, it contains the article "How to Set Up Your Dungeons & Dragons Campaign (Part II of a Series) by Gary Gygax.

Mapping the Dungeons:

A contemporary glimpse into Dave Arneson's "Blackmoor" campaign is given:
Dave (The Fiend) Arneson relates the following: “We had an interesting game this weekend in preparation for the great SUPER-NAZI confrontation. A band of heroes went through the ol’ teleporter, and after mucking around awhile (robbery, kidnapping, murder, rape, etc.) the locals sent the police and army after them. (The Germans thought it was guerrilla activity.) The army finally found the farm they were using as a camp and moved in to search it. While thus busily employed the heroes returned from a foray and ambushed them. It was The Great Svenny, Marty the Elf, Richard the Hairy, and 5 berserkers against 26 soldiers with 2 cars, 2 trucks, 4 light mg’s, 2 motars (60 mm), and the usual bevy of small arms. Marty the Elf and 2 berserkers were killed, while the troops lost 7 KIA and 1 wounded before fleeing — good thing too, for shortly thereafter the remainder of the heroes’ force arrived, 3 magical types and another 12 berserkers! The Nazis will certainly be back in strength, and this will result in a big battle..." The LGTSA fought a somewhat similar action in May, and the German patrol managed to save about one-third of its force. However, a panzerfaust certainly takes a troll out in a hurry, and had the Krauts been alert they might have done pretty well.*  The surviving veterans of such a fantastic confrontation would prove to be stout competition for dungeon adventurers and friends.
*this became the basis of the article "Sturmgeschutz and Sorcery, or How Effective is a Panzerfaust Against a Troll, Heinz?" by Gary Gygax, published in The Strategic Review #5

Deserted Cities of Mars:

Sepia plate by John Allen St. John, frontispiece for Thuvia, Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1920)

The final article in SR #3 is "Deserted Cities of Mars" by Jim Ward, which succeeds in distilling the atmosphere of the abandoned cities described by Burroughs, scattered across the dead sea bottoms of the red planet, and occupied by warlike Tharks and Warhoons.

As written, the piece was no doubt intended for the short lived "Warriors of Mars" game, but could easily be used to help construct a deserted city in a D&D game, for characters transported to the red planet (whether by cursed scroll, or by other means).

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Combat Example: The Lone Hero

The "Combat Example" from The Strategic Review #2, written by Gary Gygax, raises more questions about combat mechanics in OD&D than it resolves.  One is also left wondering about the fate of our lone hero.  Let's examine, further.
10 ORCS surprise a lone Hero wandering lost in the dungeons, but the die check reveals they are 30' distant at the time of surprise, so they use their initiative to close to melee distance.  Initiative is now checked.  The Hero scores a 3, plus 1 for his high dexterity, so it is counted 4.  The Orcs score 6, and even a minus 1 for their lack of dexterity (optional) still allows them first attack.  As they outnumber their opponent so heavily it is likely that they will try to over-power him rather than kill, so each hit they score will be counted as attempts to grapple the Hero:
Gygax doesn't specify what constitutes a high dexterity for the purposes of a bonus to initiative, although it might apply to dexterity scores of 15 or greater, when fighters get their dodge/parry bonus to AC (as introduced in the Greyhawk supplement).

The Judges Guild "Ready Ref Sheets" included initiative modifiers for dexterity in their "Weapon Priority" table (reproduced at Zenopus Archives, here).  The D&D Basic Rulebook edited by Tom Moldvay tweaks this, with dexterity scores of 13-17 getting +1, and scores of 18 getting +2.
- Assumed armor of the Hero: Chainmail & Shield -- AC 4.
- Score required to hit AC 4 -- 15 (by monsters with 1 hit die).
- Only 5 Orcs can attack, as they haven't had time to surround.

Assume the following dice scores for the Orcs attacks:
Orc #1 - 06; #2 - 10; #3 - 18; #4 - 20; #5 - 03.
So, why "only 5" Orcs? I think Gygax might have had this table in mind, from the soon to be published Greyhawk supplement, pg 13:

In other words, no orcs are able to attack from behind (although, that implies that up to 8 assailants can attack a single character).
Two of the Orcs have grappled the Hero, and if his score with 4 dice is less than their score with 2 dice he has been pinned helplessly.  If it is a tie they are struggling, with the Hero still on his feet, but he will be unable to defend himself with his weapon.  If the Hero scores higher than the Orcs use the positive difference to throw off his attackers, i.e. the Hero scores 15 and the Orcs scored but 8, so the Hero has tossed both aside, stunning them for 7 turns between them.
This is such a simple, elegant way to resolve unarmed combat, something necessary in running any D&D session.  Having a swarm of humanoids attempt to overwhelm a character or party adds a touch of pulpy "realism" to play.
- Round 2: Initiative goes to the Hero.
- Score required to hit Orcs -- 11 (4th level fighter vs. AC 6).

Assume the following dice score by the Hero.  Note that he is allowed one attack for each of his combat levels as the ratio of one Orc vs. the Hero is 1:4, so this is treated as normal (non-fantastic) melee, as is any combat where the score of one side is a base 1 hit die or less.

Hero: 19; 01; 16; 09. Two out of four blows struck.  There are 8 orcs which can be possibly hit.  An 8-sided die is rolled to determine which have been struck.  Assume a 3 and an 8 are rolled.  Orcs #3 and #8 are diced for to determine their hit points, and they have 3 and 4 points respectively.  Orc #3 takes 6 damage points and is killed.  Orc #8 takes damage point and is able to fight.

- All 7 surviving/non-stunned Orcs are now able to attack.
This illustrates the OD&D approach to multiple attacks.  4th level fighters get 4 attacks/round against creatures of 1 hit die or less, while 8th level fighters get 8 attacks/round against creatures of 1 hit die or less.
Continued attempts to over-power the Hero are assumed, and no less than 4 Orcs are able to attack the Hero from positions where his shield cannot be brought into play, so his AC is there considered 5, and those Orcs which attack from behind add +2 to their hit dice.  In the case it is quite likely that the Orcs will capture the Hero.
If one refers to the table from Greyhawk, below, then 3 of the remaining 7 orcs are attacking the L. Flank, L. Front, and Front positions,* while the other 4 are attacking the R. Front, R. Flank, and 2 Rear positions (the latter 2 adding +2 to their hit rolls, rather than their hit "dice", I gather).

*Incidentally, that means that 2 of the orcs involved in the initial attack should have also been rolling to hit AC 5, rather than AC 4, although this wasn't mentioned.

I've traditionally permitted up to 3 opponents to engage a defender in combat, but should remember to account for a shieldless AC for 2 of the attackers, and a bonus of +2 to hit for 1 of the attackers, attempting to circle behind the defender.

Returning to our lone hero, it's possible to attempt to determine his fate, based upon what we've learned.  Orcs #1-3 need a 15 to hit, orcs #4-5 need a 14 to hit, and orcs #6-7 need a 12 to hit.  Breaking out a couple of dice, this is what I got:
Orc #1 - 06; #2 - 09; #3 - 07; #4 - 04; #5 - 10; #6 - 19; #7 - 07.
Orc #6 was the only one to successfully grapple our hero.  Rolling 4d6, the hero scores 19, and rolling 1d6, the orc scores but 1, so the Hero has tossed orc #6 aside, stunning him for 18 rounds..

Rolling initiative for round #3, the hero gets a 3 (+1=4) and the orcs get a 3, so initiative goes to the hero, on account of his dexterity bonus (that was close).

Hero: 16; 14; 17; 03.  Three out of four blows struck.  There are 6 orcs in the fight.  A 6-sided die is rolled to determine which have been struck.  A 4, a 2, a 5, and a 6 are rolled.  Orcs #4, #2, #5 and #6 are diced for to determine their hit points (rolling 1d6), and they have 2, 6, 4, and 4 points respectively.  Orc #4 takes 5 points and is killed, orc #2 takes 6 points and is killed, orc # 5 takes 6 points and is killed.  Things are looking better for our hero.

All 3 surviving/non-stunned orcs are now able to attack.  They attempt to circle our hero, so that orc #1 will need a 15 to hit, orc #2 will need a 14 to hit (attacking from the right side), and orc #3 will need a 12 to hit (attacking from behind).
Orc #1 - 17; #2 - 5; #3 - 17.
Two of the remaining orcs have grappled the hero.  Rolling 4d6, the hero scores 20, and rolling 2d6, the orcs score 6, so the hero has tossed both aside, stunning them for 14 rounds between them,  There is only 1 orc left standing.

At this point I turned to the morale rules from Chainmail.  1 hit die creatures need to check morale after losing 25% of their numbers.  After 3 rounds of combat, 4 of the orcs lie slain, 5 are stunned.  The remaining orc needs to roll greater than 8 on 2d6.

One might argue that the orc would simply flee, but let's assume a deep hatred for this interloper from the upper world, so he hesitates.  I roll 2d6 - it's a 5.  The orc books it, and our hero lives to continue searching for an exit from the dungeons.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Merlynd the Magician

The first players in Gary Gygax's original Greyhawk Castle campaign were his children, Ernie and Elise, Rob Kuntz and his brother Terry, and good friend Don Kaye, who played a magic-user named "Merlin".
Don's PC was very deliberative (like Don was) and studious.  Don was affable and congenial, and liked having a good time.  Great laugh which deteriorated into a cough (he smoked) when too pronounced.  He had what we call a "wandering eye" (his right) which never looked right at you.  Square/chissled features and greying dark hair, stocky and somewhat gruff in tone.
Rob Kuntz, Tapatalk, 2006

Kaye soon changed the name of his character to Merlynd/Murlynd.  Gygax described a memorable episode involving Murlynd, as well as Tenser, Robilar, and Terik in "Barrage Balloon?  The End of Murlynd's Mayhem" in Dragon #317 (March, 2004)

Merlynd's Castle, illustration by Eric Bergeron.

Back in 2006, Kuntz began working on a project called "Merlynd's Castle".  The planned module was never published, although concept notes and maps are included in the El Raja Key Archive.

 Merlynd vs. the Balrog, illustration by Andy Taylor.

In December, 2019, Kuntz released "Merlynd the Magician", a 28-page retrospective of Don Kaye, including 3 full color and sepia prints, as well as a fourth limited edition black and white print, "Merlynd vs. the Balrog".  I've ordered a copy.

An earlier version of this project was to have been included as a high-level reward to backers of the kickstarter for "The Great Kingdom" documentary:
A tribute to Don Kaye.  Merlynd the Magician.  An appreciation for the co-founder of TSR Hobbies, Donald R. Kaye.  Presented as story, adventure accounts, memorable anecdotes and historical recounting, all spanning the years 1969-1975.  Includes photos, three (3) full-color and sepia illustrations of Don’s D&D persona, Merlynd, and his castle lands, as well as a short story that honors his memory.  Signed and numbered by Robert Kuntz.  Limited run of 50 impressions only on 32# paper stock and a full-color cover.  Softbound 8½ x 11 chapbook style, 32 pp, including 3 separate (f/c and sepia) 8½ x 11 illustrations on 100# cover stock.
The Great Kingdom, Kickstarter

Rob's retrospective is of particular interest, since much of what is known about Murlynd involves a reinterpretation of the character, following an article written by Gygax in Dragon #71 (March, 1983) and module EX2 "The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror".

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Strategic Review #2

"The Strategic Review" served as "the newsletter of Tactical Studies Rules" and covered topics in military miniatures, games, and swords & sorcery.  Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer, 1975) was released in April, 1975 (8 pages).

The editor is listed as E. Gary Gygax, the associate editor (promoted from assistant editor, the previous issue) as Brian Blume.

Donald R. Kaye:

SR #2 was dedicated to the memory of Don Kaye, the co-founder of TSR, with Gary Gygax.  Kaye was only 36 years old when he suffered a heart attack on January 31, 1975.  His untimely death led to the Blume family gaining a two-thirds controlling interest in the company.

Wargaming World:

Upcoming conventions are mentioned, including Avalon Hill's ORIGINS I (Johns Hopkins University, MD; July 25-27, 1975) and TSR's GENCON VIII (Lake Geneva, WI; August 22-24, 1975). Both with quarter-page ads.

Questions Most Frequently Asked About Dungeons & Dragons Rules:

These were the first published clarifications of the D&D rules, dealing with multiple attacks, initiative, unarmed combat, experience points, and spell-casting.

"When fantastic combat is taking place there is normally only one exchange of attacks per round, and unless the rules state otherwise, a six-sided die is used to determine how many hit points damage is sustained when an attack succeeds."

"A super hero, for example, would attack eight times only if he were fighting normal men (or creatures basically that strength, i.e., kobolds, goblins, gnomes, dwarves, and so on)."

"Initiative is always checked.  Surprise naturally allows first attack in many cases.  Initiative thereafter is simply a matter of rolling two dice (assuming that is the number of combatants) with the higher score gaining first attack that round.  Dice scores are adjusted for dexterity* and so on."

*the example which follows uses +1 for high dexterity (presumably for characters with dexterity scores of 15 or greater)

Combat Example:  A Hero (4th level fighting man) vs. 10 Orcs
Rules for grappling are explained.  Successful "hits" necessitate a check to determine whether the defender has been pinned.  The hero rolls 4d6 (1 die/level) and compares his total to the 2 orcs who successfully grappled him (2d6, 1 die/orc).  The hero wins and the difference represents the number of combat rounds his opponents are "stunned" (divided among the attackers).

The Hero (4th level fighting man) is permitted 4 attacks per round "one attack for each of his combat levels as the ratio of one Orc* vs. the Hero is 1:4, so this is treated as normal (non-fantastic) melee, as is any combat where the score of one side is a base 1 hit die or less."

*the orcs get a bonus of +2 to hit, when attacking from behind

Values for some magic items are given, a 1gp to 1xp ratio is mentioned, and a ratio for monsters based on their hit dice is described.

Explicit reference to Vancian spell mechanics "the magic-user gains spells by preparations such as memorizing incantations, and once the spell is spoken that particular memory pattern is gone completely."

"In a similar manner spells are inscribed on a scroll, and as the words are uttered they vanish from the scroll."

Creature Feature: The Roper

The Roper, as portrayed in the Blackmoor supplement (1975).  Illustration by Tracy Lesch.

The roper is described as a yellowish-gray "mass of foul, festering corruption".  Although depicted upright in the above illustration, ropers can stretch out upon the floor "so as to look like nothing more than a hump."

Ropers possess a half-dozen strands of sticky, rope-like excretions, able to strike from 20-50 feet away, causing weakness (50% decrease in strength) in 1-3 rounds (save vs. poison) and slowly dragging victims to their maw, at a rate of 10 feet/round.

Like mind flayers, ropers possess "magical resistance" (at 80%).  The only prior creatures with magical resistance were balrogs, (as discussed here), removed from later printings of the OD&D rules.


The ranger was introduced as a character class in SR #2, modeled after the character of Strider/Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, in an article contributed by Joe Fischer (see also Grognardia in 2009, and Blog of Holding in 2013).

Medieval Pole Arms:

Pole arms from The Strategic Review, Vol. 1, No. 2

Various pole arms were described in the AD&D 1e Players Handbook, as well as Unearthed Arcana.  They were discussed in terms of the "weapon mastery" rules in the D&D Master's Set, edited by Frank Mentzer.

See also "Pole Arms Through the Ages" on Delta's blog in 2015.

TSR News:

Miniature rules for Classic Warfare are announced, to be comprised of 4 booklets (the Era of Chariots (1500 BC - 500 BC), the Era of Phalanxes (500 BC - 150 BC), the Era of Legions (150 BC - 400 AD), and the Era of Iron Riders (400 AD - 900 AD)

Classic Warfare by Gary Gygax (1975)

The rules were ultimately published as a 68-page booklet, covering battles from Dynastic Egypt to the time of Charlemagne, preceding the medieval period covered in the Chainmail rules.  It would be interesting to see what ideas could be mined for a pre-medieval D&D campaign.

War of Wizards:

"WAR OF WIZARDS portrays the final showdown between two powerful magic-users; two men face each other across a space some thirty paces long and ten wide, attacking and defending with their awesome abilities until one lies in the dust, defeated."

War of Wizards by M. A. R. Barker (1975)

A game designed by M.A.R. Barker, the creator of Tekumel.  For more information, see this review on the Tekumel Collecting website.

Update (July 1, 2020): Bill Hoyt describes Katherine Kurtz's novel "Deryni Rising" (1970) as the source of inspiration for "War of Wizards" in a recent interview on "The Hall of Blue Illumination" a podcast dedicated to M.A.R. Barker's world of Tekumel.