Been a while since I’ve compiled my twitter threads on old school D&D, so time to catch up a bit!
Reunion (1998), by Jackie Cassada and Nicky Rea. Here we look at a rather unusual specimen from the Al-Qadim line of “Arabian Adventures.”
Reunion is a rather unusual adventure for a number of reasons. Though it is one of the Al-Qadim “Arabian Adventures” line produced by TSR, it came out some four years after that line had been officially ended!
The Al-Qadim line had been quite successful, but it was only intended to run for a few years. So why did a new product come out several years later? No one knows for sure, but apparently in part because TSR had a new focus on publishing tournament modules.
Tournament adventures are designed to be short and focused for use at conventions, where players will likely only have one or two sessions to complete an adventure. Reunion was first run at Gen Con around 1995-1996, and was well-received enough to get published.
The adventure focuses on the desert Tribe of Altair, who have been ambushed and captured by an evil mage. The men are sent to work as slaves in the mines, the women are sent to the mage’s harem, and the children are sent to be sacrificed to a dark god. However, the tribe is owed a debt from a djinn, who comes to each group and gives them enough of a twist of fate to break free and seek safety at their ancestral oasis, which has magical protections.
So the adventure is divided into 3 parts. In part 1, the men escape the mines, largely through combat. In part 2, the women escape the harem, and through negotiating and combat, make their way to the oasis. (Here’s the garden they must escape early on.)
In part 3, the children free themselves with the help of the djinn, and after passing a series of tests of worthiness, get a magic carpet ride to safety!
It is a fun little adventure, and probably worth running as a nice diversion for a group! I’m thinking about doing a 5e conversion as something I can run when my usual groups are short a few players.
It is, as expected in a tournament, a very “railroaded” adventure, with little option for deviation from the script. Also, curiously, it doesn’t provide information on what types of characters, and what levels, should be used for it!
Cyborg Commando (1987), by Gary Gygax, Frank Mentzer, and Kim Mohan. This one is a very odd “not D&D” product that is nevertheless connected very closely to the history of the game and its creators.
This one is odd for quite a few reasons, so we’ll go a bit in depth on it! First, some background: this was the first RPG product that Gygax released under his new company after being ousted from TSR, the company he founded. To make it work, he recruited Mentzer from TSR, and Mohan from Dragon Magazine, making it arguably produced by some of the greatest names in RPGs at the time.
Cyborg Commando was a radical departure from fantasy for Gygax and the crew, and you can hear them practically boasting about it in the game’s introduction.
In the game, of course, you play the titular cyborg commandos, enlisted in the year 2035 to fight against a devastating alien invasion by creatures known as “Xenoborgs,” cyborg arthropod-like aliens.
The history of the world is laid out in quite a lot of detail, including the scientific foundations of the cyborg technology and the evolution of political structures, in which smaller countries organize into super-states.
The rules usually get the most attention when folks talk about CC, in particular its unusual d10x system: most skill checks use d10 times d10, which produces a very steeply climbing success curve, as illustrated in the manual.
This is very strange, but makes sense when you reflect upon it. Traditional d100 systems had a flat skill check: if you skill is 45, you have a 45% chance to succeed. But d10x means that the likelihood of success increases rapidly at low levels, and gives diminishing returns. So an “ordinary” person, with a skill of 15, would still have roughly a 35% chance to succeed. It stretches out the range of useful skill levels. I don’t know of any other game that has attempted to use such a d10x system since, but it is certainly an intriguing idea worth exploring more.
Another fun twist, specific to this system: the PCs first role up their human character, and then design their actual cyborg body! The game hints that the tech to return them to human does not exist yet, but will soon. We’ll come back to this idea…
One thing I really like: the cyborg bodies have significant energy requirements, and the use of special abilities, or even just ordinary action in combat, uses up power units (PU). Players thus have to be careful not to burn through their energy before the mission ends, or they could end up frozen in place, helpless and waiting for someone to recharge them. Of course, they could also find power supplies on the mission. I like this notion of constantly weighing the power options in every action.
I view CC as a labor of love for the designers, in which they let their creativity run wild. This is evident in the ridiculous amount of detail put into the science and technology of both the CCs and the aliens. For instance, here’s a cyborg head.
(Incidentally, the picture on the cover of the box is misleading, as it seems to show that CCs have had everything replaced EXCEPT their head and arms. In fact, the whole body is artificial.)
But where things get really crazy is the description of the xenoborgs, which is done DOWN TO THE CELLULAR LEVEL. The XBs have two types of cells, which can be combined in a tesselation to produce all sorts of functions for the aliens.
Here’s a few more images of cell configurations. Does it make any sense at all, biologically? Probably not, but it is a cool idea.
The xenoborgs are only the visible face of the invasion; behind the scenes are the Masters, small tentacled horrors that can literally crawl inside someone and control them or just hide out, Alien-style.
Also described in much detail is the Q-drive, the spacetime-bending transportation system the XBs use to travel to Earth. Their strategies for conquest were carefully thought out by the game designers.
The Q-drive is based on general relativity and quantum physics. Notice that it says that it can be derived from formulas known throughout the 20th century? Well…
Here’s where the game really caused my head to explode. IT GIVES THOSE EQUATIONS. Physicists will recognize most of these. What are they used for in the game? Absolutely nothing; it is just a bizarre level of detail added for flavor.
This wasn’t the only science-y thing in Cyborg Commando; the authors decided to go on a quest to convince all players to use the metric system for play! This is actually encouraged strongly several times in the game books. (And it is a better system, of course.)
There are a number of places in the manuals where it hints at future events. (Recall the “return to your human bodies” mention, and a hint that humans will discover Q-tech in a few years.) CC was just the first of a series of box sets planned. Presumably future sets would follow the history of the war back to the xenoborgs’ territory, but this never happened. Cyborg Commando was a commercial and critical failure.
I can only speculate as to why, but I suspect that it was largely that it was a product whose design was behind the times. Look at the box art, for instance, and compare it with what TSR was putting out in 1987:
And the graphic design and layout of the books is also a generation of RPGs behind. Also, all the detail about the xenoborgs and world history, though lovingly crafted, feels a bit like wasted space. The game doesn’t really give a good “feel” as to how it should be played.
Finally, look again at that cover cyborg. No offense to the artist, but the dude just looks silly, and the glasses make him look like an 80s band reject.
So: Cyborg Commando is a fascinating slice of gaming history, with a lot of interesting ideas and details, but it just didn’t quite gel together into a vision that people would want to play.
Empire of the Petal Throne (1974), by M.A.R. Barker. Now for something that is pretty much as old school as Dungeons & Dragons!
This is a fascinating bit of gaming history: it starts with Professor M.A.R. Barker, an ancient languages scholar, who spent decades creating an utterly unique fantasy world called Tékumel, even crafting its own languages, much like Tolkien.
Tékumel, in a dramatic departure from most fantasy settings of that era, was not inspired by Western medieval history, but a unique mix of Indian, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Meso-American culture and history, and Barker used his own scholarly background for ideas.
Barker’s setting was originally just a literary pursuit, but he also advised the University of Minnesota’s wargaming club, and in 1974 he was introduced to a new-fangled type of game, called “Dungeons & Dragons.” He quickly created his own game, Empire of the Petal Throne, set in his world of Tékumel, with rules strongly inspired by D&D. He self-published his new game in a 50 copy printing, but quickly drew the attention of Gygax and Arneson at TSR, who published a TSR edition of the game with a glowing introduction by Gygax himself.
The original TSR edition was a beautiful boxed set that I don’t own and would kill anybody to gain possession of!
So, the story of Tékumel is a mix of fantasy and science fiction: the world of Tékumel was settled by space-faring humans and alien allies some 60,000 years ahead of current times, and terraformed against the wishes of a number of intelligent native species.
Colonialism casts a fascinating long shadow over the world of Tékumel. The original sins of the colonists have led to a basically permanent hostility between them and the natives, even though much of the history of the conflict is forgotten.
But 50,000 years after Tékumel is converted into the jewel of the human empire, an inexplicable calamity causes massive planetary upheaval and in fact casts the entire solar system into another dimension, with no stars in the sky.
Over the next 1,000 years, Tékumel devolves into primitive tribes and empires, both human and nonhuman. Tékumel is iron-poor, and so instead of iron most weapons and armor are made out of the cured hide of a creature called a Chién. The lack of metals speeds the decline of tech.
But the passing of Tékumel into another dimension gives them access to new mysterious sources of energy, which they effectively view as magic, and contact with extra-planar beings with sinister intentions, viewed as demons.
So in additional to magical artifacts, characters can come across pieces of past tech that can be used as tools as well, such as the “eyes,” which are very powerful and highly treasured.
Most eyes produce effects comparable to magic spells, though not all are attacks. This eye, for example, can also be used to move heavy objects. Others can cause paralysis, instant death, or even raise someone from the dead.
Dungeons include remnants of the lost technological civilization, as well as more recent (but still ancient) tombs and underground cities of Tékumel. This example from the book may be the first mention of homosexuality in a roleplaying game?
The monsters of Tékumel are also gloriously weird and unique. Here’s one example of an intelligent race on the planet.
This one is a hideous giant insect which can suck out a character’s blood in moments with its mosquito-like proboscis.
One cannot mention Tékumel without pointing out the amazing work on language and writing that Barker did, some of which is included in the game book.
Empire of the Petal Throne lasted only a few years as a TSR edition, before Barker reclaimed the rights. It appears the original financial arrangement between TSR and Barker was unworkable for both parties, and Barker brought the game to different publishers through 2005!
And the world has lived on! There is a dedicated fanbase for M.A.R. Barker’s detailed work, and one can browse their website for lots of information.
And a reprint of the (almost) original version of this classic game can be ordered through DriveThruRPG, which is where I got my copy!
PS I feel like the game didn’t have strong support originally because the setting was TOO unique for gamers at the time, who had some inkling of medieval Europe but not much experience in envisioning entirely alien worlds! Hopefully Barker’s vision will grow in influence.
PPS Barker also wrote *five* novels set in his fantasy world. Man of Gold was the first, which came out in 1984. I have a copy and have been meaning to read it.
The Art of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Game (1989), by Mary Kirchoff (editor). Even back in the TSR era, Dungeons & Dragons was a cultural phenomenon which spawned far more than just games.
It’s fascinating to look back to the earliest days of D&D, when it was being published by a quite small company and picked up artists to do fantasy work wherever they could. Early art, such as this from the 1978 Player’s Handbook, shows how rough some of the early art was.
By 1989, however, TSR had become a huge company, and AD&D a huge product, with many professional artists doing a lot of incredibly detailed work. That same year would mark the release of 2nd edition AD&D.
With a “stable” of artists producing amazing content for the game, it was natural to put it out there as an official art book, featuring those artists whose work has become associated with the image of the game itself.
This includes Clyde Caldwell, who did the famous painting of Alias from the novel/module/video game Azure Bonds, with her lizard companion ‘Dragonbait.’ I actually owned a signed print of this in the past.
A lot of the early art featured gorgeous women in rather impractical armor, catering to the heavily male demographic in the early years. Alias’ armor in particular was made the subject of a joke in the Forgotten Realms comic that ran in 1989 as well.
Of course, not every image is of scantily-armored women! This image by Caldwell is of the conflicted wizard Raistlin from the Dragonlance series.
Another classic artist featured is Jeff Easley, and I’ve always been fond of this image of a warrior woman giving an ogre a rather rough time.
A few other faves to give the idea: this image of a healer working on a fallen warrior, by Larry Elmore, has always impressed me.
And this dragon image by Keith Parkinson is in my opinion the most menacing dragon painting ever!
Art has become even more integral to the D&D experience as the years have progressed, and all the books now feature beautiful full-color art. In 2018, Wizards of the Coast released Art & Arcana, which tracks the progress and history of art through D&D to the present!
That’s it for this edition! To conclude, let me note that most of these artists are still active and have an online presence! Clyde Caldwell can be found here, Jeff Easley can be found here, Larry Elmore can be found here, and Keith Parkinson can be found here.