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Author: Gabe Dybing

Gabe Dybing is an adjunct instructor at Minnesota State University, where he sometimes teaches literature and creative writing. To date, his most important contribution to the field of fantasy literature has been, with Nick Ozment, the publication of the 2000-20001 _Mooreeffoc Magazine_.
Against the Darkmaster Brings Me Home

Against the Darkmaster Brings Me Home

My nostalgic roleplaying game (rpg) is Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP). That’s not a good one to bring to a table of what I term “casual” gamers. Casual gamers are the kinds who say, “Tell me what dice to roll?” MERP requires a level of energy and investment that leaks away while the GM performs all the calculations and looks up all the results on various tables. As one of my gamers tellingly noted, a few years ago when I was struggling to run it for a passive group, “Gabe’s apparently playing his own private game over there as we sit here waiting patiently for results.”

I’m not blaming the game, of course. This is the unavoidable result of this kind of game coupled with certain players. But I didn’t give up on this game until the player characters (PCs) randomly encountered a Wyvern. “Oh, man,” I chuckled, “this is going to be dangerous for you guys.” Well, it wasn’t. A lucky first hit Stunned my monster. Whether the effect lasted for one Round or eight really didn’t matter, because those PCs circled it and protracted that effect by wailing on it, as if they were those guys in Office Space, surrounding and battering at an office copier.

This is what we call being stun-locked, a known “problem” in Rolemaster systems. When it happened in my MERP group, I told my players, “I don’t think I want to play this anymore.”

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A Report on Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of—Part Three

A Report on Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of—Part Three

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In the previous two articles in this series (Part I and Part II), I have explained Conan 2d20’s core mechanic, character structure, and combat. I believe that this is what is required to begin to “grok” the principles of this game. For the concluding installment in this discussion, therefore, I will address criticisms, provide “mini-reviews” of the various Conan 2d20 supplements, and point to the overall Conan gaming community.

My online Conan group initially formed around me as GM. I ran two adventures over five sessions. Currently someone else is GMing and is soon to pass the “story stick” to someone else. This method of shared GMing, I believe, is representative of Robert E. Howard’s source material: episodic, (in our case) “main characters” come and go.

The current GM once gave to me what I think are accurate estimations of Conan 2d20 overall. He gives the artifact of the game (beautiful, full-color art throughout, well-bound, a place-ribbon included in every volume) and the system itself an “A.” Rules presentation he awards a “C.” He says, when he recommends Conan 2d20 to prospective gamers, he feels like he is recommending a friend who he knows is lazy to a job interview.

The laziness, perhaps, results from rules presentation. The book forces quite a bit of cross-referencing to figure out some of the particular action resolutions. Moreover, the reader must learn that some terms, which may at first appear to be synonyms of each other, likely have particular meanings in terms of game mechanics. This confusion is mitigated only partially by the use of capitals to denote particular mechanical functions. A lot of the rules, unfortunately not always expressly stated as such, must read as logical propositions, i.e., “if A and B, then C.” And this sort of reasoning delightfully spills out into the forums. Also on the forums are outright new rules constructions and innovations, usually to fill in what has inadvertently or by design been left out of the book. To be clear, the rulebook often states its ethos as being a flexible system wide open to GM rulings, but this assertion is compromised by the presence of Skill Talent trees: it is not unlikely that a chance GM ruling or group consensus, which may result in a campaign precedent, will “invade” a feature conferred by a Talent, which consequently invalidates the worth and usefulness of that Talent. With this measure of ambiguity, Conan 2d20 rules lawyers are likely to find many opportunities to bring suits to court.

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A Report on Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of — Part Two

A Report on Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of — Part Two

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This is the second article in my “explanation” of Conan 2d20. Last time I focused on 2d20’s core mechanic and on this game’s design philosophy insofar as it is an emulation of the “physics” and flavor of Robert E. Howard’s Conan fiction. This one will detail more aspects of gameplay, particularly player character components and action scenes.

Last article, I maintained that Conan 2d20 characters begin as powerful in mechanical ability (unless the alternative Shadows of the Past character generation is used). When I argue that this system is one of the better ones for Conan gaming, my rationale begins in this place. People who want to play a Conan version of Swords & Sorcery, I believe, don’t come to that desire by imagining operating a 1 Hit Die noob who is struggling to survive an attack of rats and who must run from most monsters. In contrast to this vision, Conan characters, though chronologically beginning their careers as young people, are formidable. Consequently, right away in the “campaign,” the GM is free to throw whatever she wants at the characters, just as Robert E. Howard challenged Conan with whatever he fancied, with whatever he believed would make an exciting story.

I realize I am thinking of Conan 2d20 in relation to the elephant (no, not that Elephant in the Tower, but that other elephant of gaming), and I’ll try to give it a rest after this. The comparison is in front of me because, as I explained last time, I have read many reports of people giving up on 2d20 because its rules are too far off from their familiar d20 expectations. My argument is that this is because Conan 2d20 is formulated, specifically, to emulate Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Whether it succeeds or not is very much still under discussion, and, elsewhere, that discussion goes on and on. But I believe that the Original Game, as awesome as it is, is built, out of its wargaming roots, as a melting pot or synthesis for all of fantasy literature. Conan 2d20 does Conan, just that, with all of its requisite limitations of “real” characters doing heroic things. The d20 iterations of Sword & Sorcery — even those “hacked” to better do Conan — still contain some difficult features, qualities inherent in and virtually impossible to remove from the system design. Chief among these is level-based advancement and, in most cases, the magic systems.

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A Report on Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of — Part One

A Report on Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of — Part One

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That title is probably the last time, in this article, that I’m going to refer to this game with all those words. It was important to get it right, the first time, but usually I just call it Conan 2d20.

Because that’s what it is: it is playing a Conan game by using Jay Little’s 2d20 engine or mechanic, which he designed for Modiphius. There are other Conan RPGs out there, all of them, of course, out of print: an “original” TSR Conan RPG (I’ve never had the experience), a GURPS version (I only just learned about this one, and I’ve never played GURPS — the Hero System was my game of choice during the “universal system” era), and Mongoose’s d20 version (which I did play, at GaryCon one year, and it was a delight!). Outside of RPGs designed — or modified — specifically to accommodate a Conan vibe and setting, there are a number of options ranging from d20 derivations from Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea to Low Fantasy Gaming to Crypts & Things to Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells to “other system” derivations such as Savage Worlds to RuneQuest to Barbarians of Lemuria to many others that I’m either forgetting or about which I simply don’t know. Of these other games, when I make an argument that Conan 2d20 is my most favorite system for accurately emulating Conan pulp fiction, I should make clear that I have not played all of them, though I have read (and even played) most of those listed above.

Getting into Conan 2d20, for the casual gamer, or for the merely curious, demands a fair amount of cognitive load. This is because, I believe, the system is so innovative — and those innovations are precisely what makes this a Conan game. I have encountered many anecdotes of gamers and consumers gleefully obtaining this gorgeous hardcover tome (or PDF), riffling through it, saying, “Huh?” then setting it aside with a “Sorry, not for me, but the art is pretty, and this still makes a good resource.” This describes my own initial reception, as I was losing my mind to higher Levels of play in Pathfinder and, with immense relief, was going “old school” by picking up Swords & Wizardry. But I kept sneaking glances at Conan 2d20 and thinking “what if?” Bob Byrne and I tried to do something via Play by Post. In my home group, a year or so later, I got a 1e enthusiast to start running for my casual players so that I could give 2d20 a go with two seasoned players. But then, after I had successfully run two adventures, the pandemic hit, and these two players weren’t interested in online play.

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If I Were a Movie Maker: Dell Science Fiction Reviews

If I Were a Movie Maker: Dell Science Fiction Reviews

Asimov's Science Fiction July August-small Analog Science Fiction July August 2020-small

Analog cover by Dominic Harman

This issue of Asimov’s starts out with a bang, with two standout stories.

In a perfect world, the first of them, “Nic and Viv’s Compulsory Relationship,” by Will McIntosh, will be optioned for a feature length romantic comedy starring the latest and hottest Hollywood crushes. The female lead will be played by someone who can convincingly be a pragmatic professional. The male lead will be well-liked and unpretentious.

We also should enjoy the two other important cast members — the people with whom our heroes are not supposed to be — despite their too-obvious flaws. They’re just not right for our true lovers, and it’s no one’s fault, really.

Here’s the plot: the city manager, an A.I. (a fourth, important casting choice), endeavoring to make her city even happier, forces our two leads to go on a series of dates. Even though these two individuals already are “in love” and engaged to others, the A.I. insists that this is a mistake: she has analyzed the data and she insists that our favorite potential couple actually is meant for each other. Romantic comedy gold, right?

With the bonus of a sci-fi element. Of course, setting these two up as a test run for the A.I.’s eventual all-city dating service is only part of the story. If you want to know more — and if the A.I. is right, if these two actually are “meant” for each other — you will have to read the tale. Or, better yet, in that perfect world, wait for the movie.

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Star System Politics and Factions: Dell Science Fiction Reviews

Star System Politics and Factions: Dell Science Fiction Reviews

Asimov's Science Fiction May-June 2020-small Analog Science Fiction and Fact May-June 2020-small

Dominica Phetteplace is a name to which I pay attention, after having read many of her works now in Asimov’s. If I don’t point out her work enough, it’s because Phetteplace doesn’t usually construct whirling plots or astonishing metaphysics*, but instead sculpts a very convincing and immersive (what the literary genre calls “slice of life”) simulation of normal people living in a near-normal future. Phetteplace’s vision, on average, is ingenious, and “Digital Witness,” in the current issue of Asimov’s, is a standout.

Phetteplace’s attitude about our social-media-saturated future is both accepting of it and pragmatically cynical. This story, despite all of its darkness, is not a shrill prophecy about dystopia. If there are warnings here, then they are that marketing and digital commodities will have to be altruistically revolutionized. Rather, Phetteplace’s meditation seems resigned to how “business” will be conducted, how it will affect relationships and “true” social lives. Any canny reader should recognize that this reality is upon us now. And, if Phetteplace’s protagonist in the story actively works in the field of data mining, Phetteplace herself seeks to avoid self-commodification. In the editorial foreword, Phetteplace says that the story was inspired by herself choosing not to download an app that her physical therapist claimed would be of use to Phetteplace in monitoring back pain. In context of the story that Phetteplace ended up writing, it is clear that Phetteplace expected that following her therapist’s advice would infringe on her privacy and result in her information being traded within the digital marketplace.

In short, this is what this story is about: data mining as a business, showing what nefarious uses may result from it, and how commonplace in our world this already seems to be. Phetteplace strikes me as a very powerful and literary writer of science fiction.

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A Land Beyond Even Faerie: The Back of the Beyond by James Stoddard

A Land Beyond Even Faerie: The Back of the Beyond by James Stoddard

The Back of the Beyond-back-small The Back of the Beyond-small

Cover by Bryan Burke and Scott Faris

This review is jointly composed by Gabe Dybing and Nick Ozment

Back in 1998 there appeared a book that we bought more than once. We were so excited about it that we were prepared to force it as a gift on anyone who expressed the remotest interest in reading it. The book was The High House, by James Stoddard. It was the most numinous novel we had read since… well, since encountering J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which was when we were much younger.

What we should clarify is that, chronologically, in terms of years of publication, Stoddard’s The High House was our most notable find composed after the works of those two most esteemed Inklings. We had been publishing Mooreeffoc Magazine: Fiction in the Mythic Tradition, and, while doing so, we were specifying the kind of material we wanted to publish. We ended up using as models works gathered around or before Tolkien’s most notable publications, and many of those productions were printed or reprinted within Lin Carter’s Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series.

And it was precisely this series — or favorite works from this line — that Stoddard channeled into his late-century creation. In short, The High House (and its sequels, The False House and Evenmere) reference (often in a form that today we call “Easter eggs”) those foundational fantasies, while simultaneously synthesizing them into its own original expression deserving of a place on the shelf right in among the beloved volumes it celebrates.

We say the same now for Stoddard’s latest original work (this one not precisely related to The High House “universe”) The Back of the Beyond. The “call outs” to the classic works of mythopoeic literature, in this one, aren’t as pronounced as they are in The High House (though we believe we detected a few). If The High House and its successors might be described as a tribute to or celebration of the masters that came before it (while crafting its own personality and its own expression), The Back of the Beyond sees all of its antecedents dissolved into a fine and rich loam out of which (Tolkien once described the creative process as producing out of “the leaf-mould of the mind”) Stoddard’s current expression rises in full bloom. Stoddard here produces a unique and arresting vision, (hopefully) the beginning of a new fantasy series in conversation with the greats, this time as a full-grown peer, whereas, within the composition of The High House, Stoddard might have been more of a student.

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An Admiration for the Novels of Tim Powers

An Admiration for the Novels of Tim Powers

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Alternate Routes (2018) and Forced Perspectives (2020). Baen Books; covers by Todd Lockwood and Adam Burn

Tim Powers is my most favorite living novelist.

He has a strange sort of fame. The most obvious cause for his celebrity is that twice he has won the World Fantasy Award for best novel (Last Call, 1992, and Declare, 2000). He also has been credited with inventing, with The Anubis Gates (1983), the steampunk genre — though Powers’s friend James Blaylock shares some of this regard, for his The Digging Leviathan (1984). Finally, for whatever reasons, Disney Studios optioned his 1987 novel On Stranger Tides for its Pirates of the Caribbean movie of the same name — I guess the studio simply wanted the title, for, though I have not seen it myself, the rumor is that it (predictably) has nothing to do with the book.

My own introduction to Powers’s work was in 2000, with Declare, and that novel shook my sensibilities and attitudes regarding the fantasy genre down to their foundations. Years ago I explained how this came to be in a (fairly embarrassing — I had just begun to practice the form) sonnet to Powers in an email fan group. To my pleasure, Powers responded in kind, and then many members of the group likewise wrote sonnets.

Since I have thankfully lost that sonnet, I must explain again what Powers showed me, and I think it’s best to get my readers into my mindset at the time wherein I creased the spine of Declare. In those years, Nick Ozment and I were publishing Mooreeffoc Magazine, we were looking for a certain fiction for it, and we had entered into correspondence with Sherwood Smith, who (no better exemplified than in “Mom and Dad at the Home Front,” first published in Realms of Fantasy, Aug, 2000, and reprinted in many Best Ofs since) did exactly that.

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“Authenticity” in Sword & Sorcery Fiction

“Authenticity” in Sword & Sorcery Fiction

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Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

These days, in intersection with my Conan gaming (I enjoy both Monolith’s board game and Modiphius’s roleplaying game), I have been reading a lot of two things: weird fiction from the turn of last century into, maybe, the 1940s; and sword & sorcery — anything that, on its cover, features a muscled male wielding medieval weaponry — predominantly from the ‘70s or ‘80s. (This latter does the double duty of encouraging me to work out.)

As is to be expected, these works offer various levels of quality. Early-last-century weird fiction is in a class of its own, and, though writers of that era freely borrowed tropes, themes and elements from each other (they very much appear to have been in conversation, literally or otherwise), the form of the weird tale is not as calcified as that of sword & sorcery appears to be by the ‘80s. Even within this latter’s straitjacket, however, I have encountered some standouts, including John Dalmas’s The Orc Wars (beginning with The Yngling, 1971), Gordon Dickson’s and Roland Green’s Jamie the Red (an unofficial Thieves’ World novel, 1984), and John Maddox Robert’s The King of the Wood (1983). Why I like these is for the reasons that one would like any work of fiction, of course, but with one addition: they present a sense of verisimilitude. I should add here, for anyone who might not be privy to how sword & sorcery is supposed to be subdivided from its parent genre of fantasy, that sword & sorcery is supposed to be more “realistic.” The world presented in such tales is premodern. Life is hard. The cultures do not have our present technology (nor magic — magic, in this subgenre, if not “low,” is rare and mysterious and terrifying and usually very, very “wrong”) with which to ease the drudgery of existence. In other words, the characters in such stories live in the way that folks in the Middle Ages lived, possibly in the way that many of our grandparents or great-grandparents lived, if they were homesteading somewhere.

This is why I no longer write sword & sorcery. I am a city boy. I am modern. I have no idea what “real life” is like. And yet I somehow have enough of one to know — intuitively or otherwise — when a writer knows even less than I do. To catalog the many errors of some of our most famous current fantasy writers is outside of the scope of these observations, but I’ll point to the occasion that spurred me finally to write on this topic here.

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Write Your Legislators: Dell Science Fiction Reviews

Write Your Legislators: Dell Science Fiction Reviews

Asimov's Science FIction March April 2020-small Ananlog Science FIction Science Fact March April 2020-small

Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead!

My copies of Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fact & Science Fiction arrived in the mail on the same day. Consequently, I wondered what to read first. I perceived that Black Gate’s very own Derek Kunsken had something in Asimov’s, but he also did in Analog. In Analog, his contribution was much longer, a serial, the beginning of a novel.

For whatever reason, or none, I began with Asimov’s. I noticed that the topic of the guest editorial serendipitously is what I myself wrote about last review: the sometimes tense relationship between science fiction and fantasy (though David D. Levine’s “Thoughts on a Definition of Science Fiction” deemphasizes this tension while addressing it, briefly, at the very end of the article). It’s well worth reading. In short, Levine arrestingly says that (to compress the entire discussion) “Technology [science fiction] depends on what you have; magic [fantasy] depends on who you are.” I’ve never before encountered the differences between the two genres explained in quite this way.

I’d say that there were two standout stories in this Asimov’s. Since I’m still fairly new to reviewing these, I should remind readers that my callouts are contingent on my idiosyncratic interests and sensibilities. If I were to characterize what science fiction stories most often excite me, I’d settle on those that (in addition to all of the qualities that make for all good writing, fictional or otherwise) contain philosophical or metaphysical concepts that startle my presumptions.

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