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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_.
The Place of Fantasy in Science Fiction: Dell Science Fiction Reviews

The Place of Fantasy in Science Fiction: Dell Science Fiction Reviews

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine January February 2020-small Analog Science Fiction and Fact January February 2020-small

My main apprehension in agreeing with John O’Neill to write regular reviews for Dell Magazines appears to have been realized. This bi-month, for stories published in these issues in particular, I don’t have much — if anything — to say. In regards to the overall discourse, however, I have a few thoughts, and those thoughts might drive this article out of the bounds of a “review” into that of an “essay.”

So here it is: a number of the stories put me in mind of the sometimes-adversarial relationship between the science fiction and fantasy genres.

This time around, my rumination on this topic might have begun with Norman Spinrad’s review of books for the final 2019 issue of Asimov’s. Spinrad has little sympathy for fantasy, particularly when it — in his view — masquerades itself as science fiction.

Therefore, when I read the first of a series of decade-specific reprints of “best” science fiction stories published in Analog, I was sensitive to a bit of dialectic about the science/fantasy disparity, one, admittedly, that is twenty years old now. Moreover, in this same issue of Analog, in the present, some mitigation is brought to this topic through Sarina Dorie’s satire “The Shocking Truth About the Scientific Method that Privatized Schools Don’t Want You to Know,” though it, too, has much to say about a post-Enlightenment ideology that appears to somehow have lost its ability to Reason.

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More Wondrous and Weird than Fantasy: Dell Science Fiction Reviews

More Wondrous and Weird than Fantasy: Dell Science Fiction Reviews

Analog-Science-Ficion-and-Fact-November-December-2019-medium Asimovs-Science-Ficion-November-December-2019-medium

Covers by Tuomas Korpi and Donato Giancola

Spoiler warning: I choose to write unrestrainedly about all content in these magazines.

I’ve been reading Asimov’s Science Fiction regularly for — oh — maybe ten or fifteen years now. I began by “checking in.” I first picked it up from my newsstand in a bookstore to investigate the “current discourse,” while I focused most of my attention on my graduate studies and my own interests in the classics, both outside of and within the genre. But then I found myself, almost unconsciously “re-checking” in until, here I am, more than a decade later, regularly ingesting a paper mail subscription.

My involvement with Analog Science Fiction and Fact began similarly but much more recently. Idle curiosity about this “hard” science fiction thing had me sampling an issue off an electronic bookshelf, then another, then another. Here’s the thing about hard science fiction: it “blows my mind.” “Real” science is infinitely more wondrous and weird than fantasy — and more impressive to me, simply because, though I can write passable fantasy, I don’t have the wherewithal to attempt anything even tangentially based in science fact.

Editor John O’Neill has heard me opinionating on the material in both of these publications for long enough now that, after some prodding and pressuring from him, I endeavor a new series for the year, one in which I review standouts and make observations about the content in these two pulps from Dell Magazines. The material covered will be totally arbitrary. I will address only what seems most notable; my comments will not be comprehensive. Finally, my lens is focused on these two, ignoring all other science fiction publications, only because these happen to be the magazines I read. I do read things other than short speculative fiction, and I’m not interested in making a full time job out of the latter. Even though I have been out of graduate school for many years, I still read the classics once in awhile.

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Against the Darkmaster Kickstarts for High Fantasy Gamers of the World

Against the Darkmaster Kickstarts for High Fantasy Gamers of the World

Against the Darkmaster

Sword & Sorcery is a late attraction for me. My first and abiding love, ever since encountering Tolkien in the fifth grade, was and has been Epic High Fantasy, with its Heroes struggling against the Dark Lord in a battle of unequivocal Good versus Evil. I have said it before, and I think this present context makes it appropriate to say it again: when this thing called “fantasy roleplaying” first came to my attention, having no older siblings or neighborkids to introduce me to the more popular and recognizable Dungeons & Dragons, I spent my allowance at Waldenbooks on the red box set of Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP).

I was young, roleplaying was brand new to my friends and me, so, of course, we didn’t “play it right,” just as, as an adult, I learned that those other kids who were playing D&D at the same time weren’t running their games “correctly,” either. MERP is derived from the Rolemaster (RM) percentile system, which was first designed as modular additions to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e), and has a reputation for complexity and lethality. I add this second characterization because RM’s critical hit tables might be its most famous feature. My young friends and I enjoyed many idle sessions simply reading descriptions out of the charts, language that evinced wry and gory humor in the spirit of 1980s slasher films. Here’s a favorite example: “Blast annihilates entire skeleton. Reduced to a gelatinous pulp. Try a spatula.”

When the designers of the forthcoming Against the Darkmaster (VsD) revisited this favorite childhood game of theirs, they, too, felt the desire to “play it wrong.” After awhile, they realized they had made so many tweaks and modifications to the core rules that they, essentially, had created a game of their own, a houseruled or hacked “retroclone” of MERP, reformulated to emulate specifically the works of Tolkien and his imitators, fantasy movies of the 1980s, and epic heavy metal music.

I was an early adopter of the VsD playtest, and a not infrequent critic of the VsD rules system. You can find the first in a series of these critiques here on The Rolemaster Blog. The designers aim to distinguish their game from others such as D&D through its emphasis on its source materials. In VsD, player characters are heroes, not “mere” adventurers of the Sword & Sorcery variety. The “plot” of a VsD campaign is intended to contain a high stakes struggle between Good (the PCs) and Evil (a force culminating in the person of the Darkmaster, played by the GM).

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Hither Came Conan: Gabe Dybing on “The People of the Black Circle”

Hither Came Conan: Gabe Dybing on “The People of the Black Circle”

Black_Circle

Fellow Black Gater Gabe Dybing loaded his entry directly into the website and it fell off my radar. My fault. HERE is the final entry in our Hither Came Conan series, as he tackles “The People of the Black Circle,” which I’ve always felt, story-wise, was one of REH’s more unique Conan tales. Read on! 

Robert E. Howard’s novella “The People of the Black Circle,” first published in the September, October and November 1934 issues of Weird Tales, contains all of the elements that, in retrospect, entail an ultimate Conan tale. As an exemplar of what was to become known as the Sword & Sorcery subgenre of fantasy literature, “Black Circle” exhibits Conan as a swordsmen at the height of his career in brigandry: the tale commences with Conan negotiating for the release of seven of his hillmen chieftains who are being held by the Devi of Vendhya for ransom or execution.

But Conan has not lost any of his more youthful thiefly abilities; his introduction in this story has him climbing through a window after sneaking over a barbican and single-handedly dispatching of the guards there. The “sorcery” portion of the Sword & Sorcery subgenre is supplied here by not just one but by an entire Circle of magic-users. Most notable of these are Khemsa (who even is a perspective character!) and the Master of Yimsha, who ultimately is the chief adversary of the novella. To further exemplify the Sword & Sorcery genre, the narrative contains ample doses of the weird—monstrous antagonists, an adventure locale worthy of a Dungeons & Dragons module, and even one secret passage! But that’s not all!

Other Conan stories contain these things, too, but this story is the very best Conan story because it has what no other does — the Devi of Vendhya. “Black Circle” exhibits all the things that we love about Conan, but, unlike any other, it also details the making of a lover and a heroine to complement Conan in every way.

What? Isn’t that heroine supposed to be Red Sonja (to confuse the Conan “canon”) or one of Conan’s two great “loves” (Belit or Zenobia)? Perhaps, perhaps not. Conan had many women throughout his varied careers, and if he never came to actually “love” Yasmina, the Devi of Vendhya, then he at least recognized in her, at the end of this tale, all of the qualities that he most valued in a woman. A major aspect of “Black Circle” is just who Conan is at this time of his life and what characteristics could counterbalance this hero as a satisfying lover, if not a full mate. Through her experiences in this tale, Yasmina transforms — at least in Conan’s eyes — from an artificial and unattainable Devi into a true “elemental” woman of passion and desire.

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The Lost Literature of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The New Shadow”

The Lost Literature of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The New Shadow”

JRR TolkienRecently, game submissions opened for Coulee Con, a local gaming convention that takes place over one weekend every August. This year I’m offering a scenario based on Tolkien’s “The New Shadow,” which is an aborted sequel to The Lord of the Rings. Christopher Tolkien collected the fragment in 1996’s The Peoples of Middle-Earth.

It’s an interesting piece, obviously, not least because it was intended to become another book set in Middle-earth — a book from no less than the great Tolkien himself! The snippet is maddeningly short, however. Perhaps its brevity results from a malformed conception that precluded it from ever actually becoming anything. This is overstating my view: rather, I believe that Tolkien’s “New Shadow” promises to have been an immensely profound articulation, but (as The Silmarillion that Christopher Tolkien published after his father’s death, to an ambivalent reception from Middle-earth enthusiasts) it likely would have been so different a book from The Lord of the Rings as to be misunderstood by its waiting audience.

I think it’s important to establish that Tolkien was a practitioner of many genres. He earned his living as an academic and therefore published many critical essays. The two most valuable to us fantasy enthusiasts now are “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Fairy Stories.” As a philologist he translated many epic poems into modern English; the two most visible to us are Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He practiced poetry himself: many of Middle-earth’s early legends first were conceived in verse; he wrote the epic The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun; obviously we must mention the many songs and poems in The Lord of the Rings itself. He wrote satirical comedy in “Farmer Giles of Ham,” faerie romance in “Smith of Wootton Major.” Most importantly, he wrote in the long folk/fairy tale mode with The Hobbit, the epic novel with The Lord of the Rings, and Classical epic with The Silmarillion — a terse, condensed style that, in my youth, had me telling my friends that it was the Bible of Middle-earth.

I have heard friends joke about The Silmarillion as the bestselling book that no one ever read (for the record, I have read it many times, of course). I don’t think that “The New Shadow” would have had the same reception, though the attention given it certainly would have been ambivalent. This is because a new book from Tolkien would have occasioned yet one more genre from him. This time, it would have been a thriller.

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Modular: Sagas of Midgard Invades… Well, Midgard

Modular: Sagas of Midgard Invades… Well, Midgard

SoMcoverIt’s been awhile, and not because there’s been any shortage of Norse-themed role playing games! In this time, we’ve had the 5e derivative Dragon Heresy, a d6 system called Vikingr, older campaign settings such as Hellfrost and systems such as Trudvang Chronicles, and many others. Our topic on this Odin’s Day, however, is the latest of these: Sagas of Midgard.

Honestly, I had kind of retired from investment in Viking-age rpgs. My home game hasn’t involved the Norse-specific setting for more than a year, my pocketbook doesn’t drip nine golden rings as Odin’s Draupnir does, and there isn’t much utility in owning much more, since I doubt I’d be able to wrest my gamers from my tabletop version of Fourth Age Middle-earth anytime soon. But the Sagas of Midgard Kickstarter advertised savage, fast-paced gameplay and rules for Raiding—an essential component of the northern milieu and one that I had not ever seen treated to my satisfaction. So I backed a PDF copy, mostly out of curiosity.

When I received it, I realized I was encountering something much more than a few interesting mechanics. This looks like a really good game! You’ll notice that I don’t precisely say that it is simply because I haven’t had a chance to run it yet. Character abilities originate from five separate Domains, and each Domain is governed by a Norse deity. At character creation (and during advancement) players spend points within these domains for specific powers and abilities. These are fueled by a currency called Favor, which characters can obtain through a variety of methods, many of them mechanical. The core mechanic is what the designers call the “Rollover System.” Every task and adversary has a “Rollover Score,” usually between 1 and 100, that a PC has to beat (with a roll of d100) to obtain the effect she wants. There are modifiers, of course, resulting from other game mechanics, and a core feature is that the GM never rolls the dice, something shared by a few other systems and (though denying the GM the pleasure of rolling dice) allows her to focus on storytelling and character interaction.

My main criticism, though, is that the rules explanations can be hard to follow (while recognizing reasons for the authors’ organizational choices). I contacted the authors about this, and they told me that they already had been drafting a “cheat sheet” that should be helpful even to new gamers. And, in the midst of my enthusiasm for their game, I succeeded in getting the creators, Nick Porter and Dominic De Duonni, to agree to an interview.

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Modular: My Favorite “Do It Yourself” Products for Roleplaying Games

Modular: My Favorite “Do It Yourself” Products for Roleplaying Games

MERPThose who know me a little more than as an infrequent contributor to Black Gate Magazine might be aware that I once aspired to be a writer of fantasy stories and novels, even publishing (for a short time but longer than average life expectancy) a small press magazine with co-editor and lifelong friend Nick Ozment. A few years into my forties, however, roleplaying games have utterly subsumed my creative life. I’m currently gamemastering four games: my home game, the very first roleplaying game I ever ran in my young life, Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP); another MERP game, this one using full Rolemaster rules (2nd edition), via play-by-post (PbP) in a G+ community; and two Modiphius Conan 2d20 games, one via PbP in a G+ community and one (same format) in a Facebook group. This last one is being conducted with Bob Byrne and Martin and Xander Page and is the subject of a new Modular series helmed by Mr. Byrne. In preparing my observations on Modiphius’s licensed Conan property, I have been thinking deeply about various… I suppose I shall call them “styles” of play. Using what I consider two fairly representative rules sets of what I mean by play “styles,” I have done a pretty extensive breakdown here. I expect I also shall have occasion to write about different styles of play in the midst of my experience with the 2d20 playtest. Right now, though, I want to talk about what can be termed the OSR (Old School Revival) — perhaps more accurately referred to as DIY (Do It Yourself) — resources that I most appreciate and are the most often used in my MERP games. Specifically, these resources help me come up with content and develop my fantasy world.

There are a number of “adventure generators” — perhaps more accurately described as “idea machines” — out there. I’m sure all of them are fantastic. You can download one for free from Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea at its website Hyperborea.tv. Nearly all of the products and producers that I’m going to mention in this article offer one. Even Conan 2d20 has one, though the focus of that generator, due to the nature of play that Conan encourages, is a bit different, and I expect I will analyze this at length when I get to that portion of the official playtest series. These “adventure generators” almost certainly are evolved from the “story creators” that Ozment once told me that the early pulp writers used, sometimes flicking spinners rather than throwing dice. Hey, modern GMs are under almost the same kind of pressure as those pulp writers were, though instead of needing to churn out words for pennies to put meat on the table they need to come up with an idea quick, tonight, before the players come over expecting to be wowed and entertained. Pre-made modules can do the same thing, of course, but they have to be studied first, details have to be remembered, and sometimes they just don’t work with the ongoing campaign in the way that a few randomly generated elements can result in truly inspired serendipity. All of the products I’m about to profile I own and use in PDF.

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Another View: The Difficult Experiment of Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens

Another View: The Difficult Experiment of Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens

A-Gathering-of-Ravens-smallerI really wanted to like this book. With pleasure I listened to Oden speak on The Literary Wonder and Adventure Show. He talked at length about Tolkien (my own spiritual and literary master), and it seemed that Oden’s and my dials were approximately set. Oden’s book, like Tolkien’s most popular works, deals with “that northern thing” (though I just today learned that Tolkien objected, in part, to this characterization from W.H. Auden).

But Oden’s book is so grimdark that, while reading, I couldn’t find my feet. The work ostensibly is about an orc Hel-bent on revenge — and here is my first objection: the attitudes and actions of this orc, our “protagonist,” are indistinguishable from those of the larger majority of characters in the book. Grimnir, our orc, seems capable only of speaking and thinking in profanities. He murders even when there absolutely is no reason to. The only thing (in this book) we can’t accuse Grimnir of is the sin of rape. That assault remains to be committed by many of the other “human” characters you will find therein: your average male, in this portrayal, seems hardwired to enter rape mode the moment he lays eyes upon any “unprotected” female. Now, remember, Grimnir is supposed to be the “orc,” yet he doesn’t behave much differently from the novel’s many other human characters. Moreover, even when it doesn’t cost a character anything necessarily, few characters are liable to show any shred of kindness for one another. Oden’s narrator summarizes this world’s milieu thusly: “She [the character Etain] knew the score … and she knew sooner or later there would be a reckoning. Men did nothing — undertook no good deed, performed no kindness — without first attaching a price to it.” Oden’s characters, I suppose, are consummate Dark Age businesspersons.

“But that’s the Way It Was,” a number on Goodreads might say, defending Oden’s work from the very few negative reviews I can find there (here and here are two well-said assessments). What these apologists are claiming is that the worldview of the so-called Dark Ages is exactly this: murder whenever you can get away with it, rape whenever you like (for those who like it, I guess, who are all young pre-modern men). I don’t entirely agree with this representation. In the worst possible reading, this might represent the author’s views of the natural state of humankind freed from the fetters or checks thankfully supplied by modernity. In the best possible reading, this representation assumes that, at least in the area of moral development, humans who happened to live a mere millennia ago might be considered pre-human in these respects. Granted, the spread of more nation-building and socializing beliefs and philosophies such as Christianity might have a civilizing influence on a pre-modern worldview, might even be of some aid in the sense of an evolving moral consciousness. But this book barely acknowledges even this. It ostensibly presents two competing worldviews, that of northern paganism and that of Christianity, but, in this book, in practice adherents to either faith might as well be indistinguishable. They merely serve one team in a two-sided competition that is drawn as equal in every respect. Again, apologists should be quick to point to aspects of history that reveal a number of Christians as hypocritical and intolerant throughout their persecutions. Granted, but are you going to deny that there remain some fundamental differences and worldviews between the two perspectives, and therefore requisite actions and behaviors on behalf of the religion’s adherents? To this point Oden seems to relent, to some measure, in the second and much-preferred half of the book, in the figures of King Brian and his freed thrall Ragnar. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

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Modular: Rethinking the OSR through Modiphius’s Conan – Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of

Modular: Rethinking the OSR through Modiphius’s Conan – Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of

ConanRPGWell, many of you don’t need to be told that Mophidius’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is out. Well, maybe it’s not quite out: for those of us who require a hard copy, word is it won’t be shipping until sometime in June. But backers and shoppers now have access to PDF copies of the Conan Core Book and a collection of adventures entitled Jeweled Thrones of the Earth.

I became a backer quite late in the game. Indeed, it couldn’t have been much more than a month ago. I’m not sure why I was late. I’m almost certain I looked at the Kickstarter when it was announced but probably initially passed it over because I assumed that so much of the Conan material probably was done “better” (as in open to additional literary inspirations) in the “conventional” rpgs (D&D and its clones) with which most of us already are familiar.

Curiosity is what made me change my mind. Modiphius was offering free “Quick Start” rules in PDF form. I downloaded them and read them all, including the introductory adventure. Contrary to what some others on this site have reported, I was absorbed and excited by the rules set. I didn’t run the adventure because, well, I write my own adventures. And, outside of egotism, the main reason I don’t run other people’s adventures is because I can’t see how most of them can work. At one point in the introductory “To Race the Thunder” adventure, it reads,

With no hope of joining or rescuing the forces inside the fort, the player characters’ only hope is to strike out to the settlements, to warn the settlers, gathering them and helping them across the Thunder River to safety. The banks of the Thunder River are their only hope at this point, else they will all end up as corpses, cooling as their life-blood sinks into the black and hungry earth.

Are you kidding me? If my players are told they can’t possibly get into the fort, you can be certain that that is the one and only thing they obsessively will try. And with me as GM, they very likely will succeed.

And with that observation, I have come to the thesis of this article: rethinking the OSR in light of what I have learned from reading the new Conan RPG. The OSR, as many of us need not be told, stands for Old-School Renaissance (or Revival, or Roleplaying). And I am fascinated and excited by it. For the few of us who don’t know already, broadly speaking the OSR names a movement in the tabletop rpg industry that is regressive, perhaps nostalgic, a return to iterations of D&D that were popular before the third edition (or d20 system) of the rules. This return was facilitated by “retroclones” made legal under the Open Game License. Examples of retroclones are Swords & Wizardry, Castles & Crusades, Dungeon Crawl Classics and a host of others that might be impossible to enumerate. And to add to this OSR, players no longer need “return” to revised versions of the old rules but can purchase the actual old rules outright from Wizards of the Coast, because the latest owner of the D&D property now has released virtually its entire back stock in PDF and print form.

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Modular: Three Viking Age Supplements and One Role-Playing Game

Modular: Three Viking Age Supplements and One Role-Playing Game

GURPSVikingsWhen I first discovered the Yggdrasill roleplaying game, I had the understanding that that Vikings-specific system existed in near-isolation. Oh how wrong I was! As I have purchased, downloaded and read Norse-themed rpg materials from DriveThruRPG and other sites, I have discovered that interest in the Northern ethos has been quite lively for some time. When, either out of mere curiosity or out of design to add to my home game, I first thought to collect Viking Age supplements, my mind naturally went to I.C.E.’s Vikings supplement for both Rolemaster and the Hero System: this was because, in my coming-of-age in the late 80s/early 90s, I was an ardent GM of MERP (Middle-Earth Role Playing, a scaled-down version of the Rolemaster rules set) and passionate about the Hero System in the form of Champions, a super-hero roleplaying game. But in those years, a young gamer with limited funds, I never could justify a pragmatic purpose for purchasing the I.C.E. Vikings supplement.

That situation has changed, now that I’m older and I have extra cash, but I still don’t have that I.C.E. supplement. The reason? Because it’s out of print and only available in hard copy via third party purveyors. The process of obtaining this seems like needless trouble when there are so many instant-gratification products available as immediate PDF downloads.

Today I will be reviewing, in the order in which I discovered and read them, three of these: GURPS Vikings, Troll Lord Games’s Codex Nordica, and Vikings of Legend for the Legend RPG System. All three of these seek to evoke a Viking Age roleplaying experience while using an existing rules set, the second type that I outline in my last post. I’ll say at the outset, though, that Codex Nordica read a lot like Vidar Solaas’s Vikings RPG, and I’m certain this is because of the similarity of the two systems that were being adapted for the Viking Age feel. Both Solaas’s D20 system and Brian N. Young’s Castles and Crusades engine have their foundations in Dungeons & Dragons, which has enjoyed so many iterations now that most of them aren’t even called Dungeons & Dragons anymore. Last post I allowed Solaas the distinction of having created an “original” Old Norse game, since he had to “hack” the D20 system so much. I’m tempted to award Young this same distinction, since in my view he visibly wrestled with many of the inflexibilities that I perceive in D&D games. But ultimately it belongs in the rpg supplement group; the following observation shares only one reason for this designation.

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