From Buffalo Castle to Choose Your Own Adventure: The Evolution of Solitaire Board Games

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Buffalo Castle Rick Loomis-small Death Test The Fantasy Trip-small Wizards and Warriors Jeffrey Dillow-small

I’m old enough to remember when Choose Your Own Adventure books first appeared in bookstores and supermarkets in the late 70s and early 80s, and what a sensation they created.

I remember thinking how simplistic they were, especially compared to the more sophisticated solitaire fare already available in gaming stores at the time. Like Rick Loomis’ groundbreaking Buffalo Castle (Flying Buffalo, 1976), the first solo adventure for Tunnels & Trolls (and considered by some to be the first published adventure gamebook, period); Steve Jackson’s bestselling Death Test for The Fantasy Trip (Metagaming, 1978); and especially Jeffrey C. Dillow’s brilliant collection of early solo adventures, Wizards and Warriors (Prentice Hall, 1982), which I played to death and passed around repeatedly to my gaming group.

But there was something powerfully appealing in the very simplicity of Choose Your Own Adventure titles, and it didn’t take long for me to become a convert. I wasn’t the only one. Bantam published its first Choose Your Own Adventure book, The Cave of Time by creator Edward Packard, in 1979, and the series quickly surpassed role playing in popularity, selling more than 250 million copies. That’s more — far more — than virtually any RPG or fantasy or series in history. (For comparison, The Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies over the past 70 years, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels a scant 90 million. Only J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, at 500 million, offer real competition). Bantam produced 184 titles in the series between 1979 and 1998.

Role Playing has evolved and expanded enormously since the 70s. You can’t say the same of Choose Your Own Adventure… but the franchise isn’t as dead as you might think. Most interesting to serious games is a pair of cooperative adventure board games released by Z-Man Games that capture the spirit of the CToA line, and take it in some intriguing new directions.

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John DeNardo on the Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Books for December

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Splintegrate Deborah Teramis Christian-small The Best of Uncanny edited by Lynne M. Thomas-small Invocations Warhammer Horror-small

The Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, one of my favorite genre websites, essentially shut down on December 16th of this year, firing all freelancers and halting production of new content. They’ve left older content up, thankfully, so our many links to articles by Jeff Somers, Joel Cunningham, and others still work (for now). Like Penguin’s much-missed Unbound Worlds (formerly Suvudu), the B&N Sci-Fi Blog was an inventive and far-ranging publisher-funded genre site that never found a business model, or managed to consistently prove value to its owner in the rapidly-changing publishing industry. I’ll miss many things about the site, but most of all I’ll miss their monthly round-up of the best new SF and fantasy titles.

Fortunately we still have the tireless John DeNardo, who still does a top-notch round-up as part of his regular article series at Kirkus Reviews. This month John calls out new books by Deborah Teramis Christian, Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Jeff VanderMeer, Tomi Adeyemi, Rachel Atwood, Charles Soule, Joe R. Lansdale, and others. Here’s a few highlights.

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Sixty Years of Lunar Anthologies

Saturday, December 28th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Men on the Moon-small The Moon Era-small Blue Moon-small

Men on the Moon (Ace, 1958, cover by Emsh), The Moon Era (Curtis Books, 1969), Blue Moon (Mayflower, 1970, Josh Kirby)

This past July was the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing — a pretty major milestone in human civilization. A major milestone for science fiction fans as well, and we celebrated it in our own way. Most notably, Neil Clarke published The Eagle Has Landed: 50 Years of Lunar Science Fiction, a fat 570-page reprint anthology that I finally bought last week.

Neil’s book is the best moon-centered anthology I’ve ever seen, but it builds on a long history of classic SF volumes dating back at least six decades. While I was preparing a New Treasures article about it I kept going back to look at favorite moon books in my collection, and eventually I got the idea to craft a longer piece on half a dozen Lunar anthologies that all deserved a look.

I don’t mean to slight Neil’s excellent book, which we’ll dig into in detail. But if you’re like me and you can’t pick up a modern book about the moon without thinking of Donald A. Wollheim’s Ace Double Men on the Moon (from 1958), or Mike Ashley’s terrific Moonrise: The Golden Era of Lunar Adventures, then this article is for you.

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Vintage Treasures: The Space Anthologies, edited by David Drake with Charles G. Waugh and Martin Harry Greenberg

Thursday, December 26th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Space Gladiators-small Space Infantry-small Space Dreadnoughts-medium

Covers by Walter Velez

Almost exactly a month ago I wrote about a trio of military/adventure science fiction anthologies edited by Joe Haldeman, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin Harry Greenberg, and published by Ace Books between 1986-88: Body Armor: 2000, Supertanks, and Space Fighters. Today they’re called the Tomorrow’s Warfare trilogy, and they’re a fun and collectible set of vintage paperbacks well worth tracking down, especially if you enjoy 80s-vintage military/adventure fantasy or are even remotely curious about 80s science fiction in general. Check out all the details here.

Haldeman did no further books with Waugh and Greenberg. But I suspect the three he did were fairly successful, as scarcely a year later David Drake picked up the reins and produced three books with them in the exact same vein:

Space Gladiators (1989)
Space Infantry (1989)
Space Dreadnoughts (1990)

These are loosely referred to as the Space anthologies (by me, anyway), and they followed the same formula as the previous titles, with stories from the most popular writers of the day including a Retief novella by Keith Laumer, a Dorsai tale by Gordon R. Dickson, a Magnus Ridolph novelette by Jack Vance, a Falkenberg’s Legion story by Jerry Pournelle, a Hammer’s Slammers novelette by David Drake, a Thousand Worlds tale by George R. R. Martin, plus the Hugo-award winning “Allamagoosa” by Eric Frank Russell, the classic “Arena” by Fredric Brown (inspiration for the famed Star Trek episode of the same name), and fiction by Isaac Asimov, Brian W. Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Fritz Leiber, Joe Haldeman, Poul Anderson, Algis Budrys, Jack Williamson, Michael Shaara, Mack Reynolds, C. M. Kornbluth, and many others.

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Merry Christmas from Black Gate

Wednesday, December 25th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Black Gate Christmas tree

It’s Christmas evening. All the presents have been opened, Alice’s quiche has been consumed, the kids have settled down… and it’s 56 degrees outside, the warmest Christmas of my entire life. Every year a new surprise.

I have a cup of hot cocoa, and it’s finally quiet enough for me to write my annual Christmas message. As the years have gone by (decades now, since that long ago time in 1999 when I made the fateful decision to start a fantasy magazine), I find that I look back at each successive year very differently. I used to take stock of our accomplishments, count up how many books and games we’d reviewed, how many articles written. Nowadays I value things differently. The things I care about now are the comments from our readers, the small suggestions and feedback from our regulars. In the end, it’s always the relationships that matter.

So I want to take a moment to thank all the BG readers who’ve given so generously of their time over the past year. Those that drop in with a book suggestion, a thoughtful comment, an encouraging word. It means a lot. And I’d especially like to thank our regulars: Thomas Parker, Rich Horton, Glenn, smitty59, Major Wootton, Eugene R, Bob Byrne, R.K. Robinson, James Enge, Aonghus Fallon, Joe H, silentdante, Charles_Martel, Jeff Stehman, Barsoomia, kelleyg, Allard, Joe Bonadonna, Jason Waltz, Robert Adam Gilmour, James McGlothlin, Gabe Dybing, Martin Christopher, James Van Pelt, Tony Den, Todd Mason, John E. Boyle, dolphintornsea, John Hocking, and many, many others. You make the effort we put in every day worthwhile. Thank you.

On behalf of the vast and unruly collective that is Black Gate, I would like to wish you all Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Continue being excellent — it’s what you’re good at.


A Sword & Sorcery Christmas

Tuesday, December 24th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Flashing Swords-small

It’s Christmas Eve. Everyone in the O’Neill household is wrapping presents, munching Christmas cookies, and listening to music (so… much… loud… music…). Yesterday I gave up and turned off the portable Bose speaker next to my head, because the music coming out of the basement was so loud I couldn’t hear it.

Christmas break isn’t just about having our kids home, food, and taxing my eardrums. It’s also when I have time for more ambitious reading projects, and this year there’s one in particular I’m really looking forward to. Bob Byrne challenged me to read more Robert E. Howard, and suggested I started with The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 1:Crimson Shadows from Del Rey. When I asked what was special about the stories in that book, Bob said:

You need to read a couple. The guy running Black Gate has to be a little more REH-read. Solomon Kane is good, but… Read “Worms of the Earth,” the Conan, and the el Borak. That book is where I read my first Solomon Kane. I bought the Kane book right after.

That seems like a good idea to me. I started investigating what others books I wanted to read over the 2019 Christmas break, and came across G. W. Thomas’s exhaustive survey of 44 S&S anthologies on his Dark Worlds blog on November 14. Sword & Sorcery Anthologies 1963-1985 was a handy resource, and helped inspire my reading project to grow into a deeper exploration of 20th Century Sword & Sorcery.

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Rejuvenating Weird Fiction in the 21st Century: Occult Detective Magazine #6

Sunday, December 22nd, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Occult Detective Magazine 6 cover-small

Cover by Roland Nikrandt

Occult Detective Quarterly has changed its name to Occult Detective Magazine and, not surprisingly, hand-in-hand with that comes a change in frequency. The last issue, Occult Detective Quarterly #5, was published on January 15, 2019; editor John Linwood Grant tells me issue #6 was released in print on 12th December, and will be available for Kindle in January.

The big change this issue, however, has nothing to do with frequency. The magazine tragically lost its publisher Sam Gafford to a massive heart attack earlier this year, and there were serious questions about whether it would be able to continue at all. The editorial team of Grant and Dave Brzeski deserve a great deal of thanks for the heroic effort it must have taken to produce this issue under extraordinary circumstances. The issue bears this heartfelt dedication:

Capture

And both Dave and John pay tribute to Gafford; Dave in his Editorial, and John in a fine In Memoriam that looks back at how they bonded over William Hope Hodgson and 1970s comics, and how their friendship evolved into a magazine. Here’s an excerpt from John’s article, and the complete Table of Contents for the issue.

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Celebrating a Decade of Excellence: Clarkesworld Year Ten, Volumes One & Two, edited by Neil Clarke and Sean Wallace

Thursday, December 19th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Clarkesworld Year Ten Volume One-small Clarkesworld Year Ten Volume Two-small

Covers by Shichigoro-Shingo and Rudy Faber

Clarkesworld editors Neil Clarke and Sean Wallace have had a busy year.

For one thing, they’ve published a full 12 issues of one of the most acclaimed science fiction magazines on the planet. For another, there’s all those conventions, nominations, and shiny awards to keep them occupied — including a Best Editor Hugo nomination for Neil, a Hugo nomination for Simone Heller’s “When We Were Starless” (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018), and a World Fantasy Award win for Kij Johnson’s novella “The Privilege of the Happy Ending” (Clarkesworld, Aug. 2018). On top of that, Neil was presented with the 2019 Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award for distinguished contributions to the science fiction community at the Nebula awards weekend in May, one more award to polish on his mantlepiece.

They also have their own projects — Sean edits the fine magazine The Dark and runs Prime Books, and Neil has produced a pair of anthologies this year, The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Four and The Eagle Has Landed: 50 Years of Lunar Science Fiction.

But in addition to all of that, Neil and Sean are also keeping up a hectic pace of Clarkesworld annual anthology volumes — four in the past two months alone. Clarkesworld Year Ten, Volumes One & Two, containing a year’s worth of fabulous tales from 2015 & 2016, were published on October 3, 2019; Clarkesworld Year Ten, Volumes One & Two followed less than a month later, on November 1, 2019. I’m not sure how they do it, but someone should create an award for science fiction overachievement, and give it to both of them. If they can get either one of them to stop moving long enough to accept it.

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The Joy of Starter Kits, Part One

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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The Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR, 1977). Cover by David C. Sutherland III

There’s lot of ways to get into role playing these days. But recently the industry has embraced the Starter Kit (sometimes called the Beginner Box, Essentials Kit, Beginner Game, or something similar) in a big way.

They all have their roots in the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, the granddaddy of all Beginner Boxes, created by J. Eric Holmes and based on Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s original boxed set from 1974. The D&D Basic Set was first published by TSR in 1977. It was the way I learned how to role play, and I wasn’t alone — the D&D Basic Set sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the late seventies, and was so successful it was constantly updated and kept in print by TSR, with revisions in 1981, 1983, 1991, and later.

Gygax’s masterpiece, the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook, was released in June 1978, and was the gateway into role playing for millions of young gamers. Not me, though. That damn thing was a 128-page hardcover, and you needed the Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guide just to use it. By contrast, the Basic Set had a slender 48-page rulebook and everything you needed to start playing immediately. That’s right, everything, including dice, a pad of sample maps (“Dungeon Geomorphs), and an introductory adventure we played through at least a half dozen times. I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to role play, but with simple, clear instructions Holmes taught me everything I needed to become an enthusiastic Dungeon Master for my brother and our friends.

At long last the industry is rediscovering the power of Starter Kits to attract and educate new players. The best ones are cheap, easy to learn, and packed with goodies. In just the last few years there have been beginner boxes released for Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, Starfinder, Battletech, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, Traveller, Shadowrun, and many others. They haven’t all been well promoted, however, and many gamers who could be taking advantage of an inexpensive entryway into a new gaming obsession are unaware they even exist. Let’s see if we can fix that with a look at a dozen of my recent favorites.

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Play Host to Newborn Ghoulish Creatures in Alien: The Roleplaying Game by Free League Publishing

Tuesday, December 10th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Alien RPG-small

An official Alien role playing game is arriving in game stores next week, courtesy of Free League Publishing, the geniuses behind the brilliant Coriolis science fiction game, Mutant: Year Zero, and Forbidden Lands.

Any RPG that does justice to Ridley Scott’s science fiction horror masterpiece will have to have a dark and chilling aesthetic, and a cinematic play style. And for accuracy, probably a short (very short!) character life expectancy. Fortunately Alien: The Role Playing Game looks like it’s captured the look and feel of the franchise with real surety. Here’s Rachel Watts from her preview at PC Gamer last month.

Free League Publishing and 20th Century Fox have joined forces to create a tabletop RPG set in the harsh universe of the Alien films. It will drop players into the dark, merciless void of space, but this adaptation sounds far from empty.

Alien: The Roleplaying Game has two playable modes, cinematic and campaign. The cinematic option lets you play through a scenario similar to the events of the films in one session, and emphasises “high stakes and fast and brutal gameplay”, which doesn’t sound ominous at all. The campaign mode takes more of a Gloomhaven structure and lets players explore the Alien universe more freely over multiple game sessions.

The RPG comes in a chunky 392-page core rule book, which I think definitely leaves the definition of rulebook behind and goes straight into short novel territory. Free League Publishing have printed these rules in a hardback book and thrown in some cool illustrations… Alongside the core rule book, you’ll get a set of custom dice, a set of maps, and a GM Screen.

Can Free League Publishing get the all important feel of Alien right in an RPG? The rules follow their acclaimed Year Zero Engine, used in Tales from the Loop and Mutant: Year Zero, and they warn that “it’s unlikely your character will survive.” Sounds like they got the basics right to me.

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