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Father, writer, husband, publisher, gamer, geek

A little while back game designer Jason Morningstar said this about his solitaire RPG METAL SHOWCASE 11PM: “Half solo RPG, half choose-your-path novel, half nobody has ever bought or played this and I think it is really good!”

Gauntlet thrown, challenge accepted. I ordered a copy, played it, and now I’m going to talk about it. Only briefly, though, because this is an RPG with potential spoilers.

It took me about 30 minutes to play, and I had a great time. I’d happily play it again. But part of the fun was knowing almost nothing about it going in, and while it’s a tricky line to walk in a review I want to preserve that experience for you.

Pictured above are the book, the two dice I grabbed (black because \m/), and the back of my character sheet. The latter shows all the notes I made during the game, hopefully tantalizing you without spoiling anything. I named my band Suppurating Maelstrom. My favorite note from the session was “Enabled [character's] morbid obesity.”

Here are my impressions after one play, which I jotted down immediately after playing.

What a fantastic little game

It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy book, only better written and more fun. You have a character and stats; you make choices and compete in contests.

But you’re also asked to get inside your guy’s head at different points, and those choices — and the notes you made about them — matter later on. My first session was 30 enjoyable minutes long, told a story (a rather depressing one; my guy was kind of a dick), and made me want to play again.

That might sound like a subtle tweak on the formula, but in combination with the tight presentation and writing, an alchemy occurs: There’s roleplaying here that I’ve never experienced when playing a gamebook. I felt involved in a way that was much more like how I’d get into a non-solitaire RPG session, or a solo board game session when playing a board game that tells a story, like Arkham Horror or Astra Titanus. It’s hard to explain, but: good stuff.

There are plenty of choices involved, and the stuff you make up on the fringes of the game space will be different every time, so I can see this having good replayability. It’s also difficult to win; that’s a good thing.

I’ve never played a game quite like it. I’m enamored of it, and I recommend it.

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I often see posts asking for Lulu RPG recommendations, and rather than type mine up every time I wrote this post for easy reference. It’s up to 50+ recommendations, mostly OSR products and story games, and I keep it more or less up to date with new purchases.

If you just want one recommendation, you should buy ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which I liked so much that I bought Brian Thomas’ original art for the sasquatron (seen above, as yet unframed). The sasquatron, a robo-yeti with a crab claw, is just the tip of ASE’s iceberg of gonzo awesomeness.

Lulu runs coupons regularly, and they’re often in this format: [MON]BOOKS[YR], where [MON] is the first three letters of the month and [YR] is the last two digits of the year, like AUGBOOKS13, or [MONTH]BOOKS[YR], one of which almost always works for 20% off.

Notes about the list

Some of the links below are to specific versions (like softcover or standard paper), so you might want to check for other versions.

If I loved something and want to have little OSR-story game babies with it, I *ed it. If you’re curious what I think about a book in more detail, I eventually rate and comment on every gaming book I own: Here are my RPGGeek ratings.

Looking for tabletop RPG products on Lulu? Try these

Here are a whole mess of gaming books I’ve bought on Lulu that I would recommend, in alphabetical order with links:

I apologize to your wallet in advance. Happy gaming!

My high school girlfriend introduced me to the Amber series back in the early 1990s, and shortly thereafter to Amber Diceless Role-Playing, the RPG based on the books.

Zelazny, like a lot of Appendix N authors, writes with economy and punch. Nine Princes in Amber grabbed me with its opening sentence, “It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me,” which hooked me on the whole 10-book series. From there, Zelazny goes on to sketch one of the series’ best characters, Corwin, in just a few pages, establishing him as tough, dirty, quick to heal (very quick, you discover later on), and missing his memory. It’s a great opening chapter, and it sets the tone for a series that’s full of surprises.

My Amber books are a mix of different printings, the sort of mass market paperbacks I devoured growing up:

The core concept of the Amber books is fantastic: Amber is the one true world, and it’s surrounded by an infinity of other worlds whose laws of physics vary from Amber’s. Earth is one such world. The Amberites, the family chronicled in the series, can walk between those worlds in Shadow, and by pursuing specific ends they’ve each become the best at what they do.

If an Amberite wants to learn to play the guitar, she travels to a world where time passes much more slowly than it does back in Amber, where years pass for every minute, and spends a century learning to play. Then she returns to Amber, less time having passed than it takes for a cup of coffee to cool, as the best guitarist in the universe.

Life as an Amberite is a constant political game of one-upsmanship and underhanded scheming. The series is full of backstabbing, skullduggery, politicking, magic, and memorable, larger-than-life characters. My three favorites have always been Corwin, the voice of the whole first series; Benedict, the master of warfare, who is such a skilled warrior that he constantly anticipates every possible threat to his person; and Random, Corwin’s younger brother, an upstart in a family of squabbling gods.

I’ve read the first five books at least twice, but it’s been years since I last read them — probably close to 15 years, I’d guess. Long enough, in any case, that the specifics I recall vividly are spoilers of the first order, and things I don’t want to spoil for you. But it would be a shame to write this post without sharing some of Zelazny’s prose, so here’s a passage from late in Nine Princes of Amber that doesn’t give anything away:

The climate was warm and the colors bewildering, and everyone thought we were gods.

Bleys had found a place where the religion involved brother-gods who looked like us and had their troubles. Invariably, in the terms of this mythos, an evil brother would seize power and seek to oppress the good brothers. And of course there was the legend of an Apocalypse where they themselves would be called upon to stand on the side of the surviving good brothers.

I wore my left arm in a black sling and considered those who were about to die.

I thoroughly enjoy Zelazny’s writing, and his talent is on full display in the Amber books.

Post-Appendix N

The second series, five books that comprise the back half of the Chronicles of Amber, begins with 1985′s Trumps of Doom. It’s post-Appendix N, and not quite as good as the original series, but still excellent and enjoyable. It introduces all sorts of cool things to the Amber universe, and it’s worth reading.

The Chronicles of Amber and AD&D

The strongest connection I see between the Amber books and AD&D is the similarity of Shadow, with its infinite panoply of “shadows” of the one true world, Amber, and AD&D’s planar cosmology, with its Material Plane, Limbo, and many other planes of existence. The planes are described, briefly, and diagrammed in Appendix IV of the Monster Manual.

Nearly a decade later, the Manual of the Planes covered the planes in much greater detail.

More generally, there’s plenty of stuff in the Amber Chronicles that D&D characters engage in all the time: fights, magic, backstabbing, politics, artifacts, wars, schemes, and much more. Parts of the Amber books feel like D&D in a way that’s hard to pin down, and I can see how AD&D drew inspiration from them in fuzzy-yet-signficant ways.

The Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game

Worth a quick sidebar is a game much more closely tied to the Amber books, Eric Wujcik’s Amber Diceless Role-Playing, and its lone supplement, Shadow Knight (which covers the second five books).

Amber Diceless is brilliant both as a game and as a translation of the novels into game form. I’d never played a diceless game before trying Amber, and its mechanics are both sound and perfectly suited to the feel of the series. I’ve also never played a game quite like it since.

You start the game by bidding for attributes against the other players. Whoever bids highest in, say, Warfare, is the best in the group at fighting. If you challenge him at warfare, you simply lose; the trick is to shift the terms of the contest to bring your strengths into play.

That notion — that the best cannot be challenged at what she’s best at — is pure Amber. The same goes for the attribute auction, which pits the players against each other in a way that mirrors how they’ll wind up pitting their characters against one another as the game progresses.

Which edition?

I recommend The Great Book of Amber, an inexpensive paperback volume that collects all 10 books — Appendix N and post-Appendix N — of the Chronicles of Amber.

If I didn’t already own the whole series in individual paperbacks, this is the version I’d buy. At $25 or less, it’s cheap enough that you could decide not to read the second series and still get more than your money’s worth out of it.

Whatever edition you choose, the Amber books are ripping yarns, fast-paced, consistently inventive and surprising, and highly engaging. You should read them, and I envy you the pleasure of reading them for the first time.

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I’ve done a bit of design work in the tabletop RPG industry, and like most gamers I’ve started and abandoned game designs over the years, but today marks only the second time I’ve designed a complete RPG and shared it with others.

After enjoying my experience with RPG Geek’s 24-hour RPG design contest in 2012, during which I designed my first complete RPG, Eaten Away, I was intrigued when I heard about Game Chef 2013. I also hoped I wouldn’t get an idea for a game, because I didn’t think I’d be able to finish anything, but that’s not how ideas work, is it? Of course I got an idea I couldn’t ignore.

Signal Lost is a story game about exploring the Distant Star, a deep-space survey vessel that has gone dark, and facing an alien terror. Here’s a direct download link: Signal Lost RTF file.

Here’s the cover:

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Martin Brown from Grognard Games produced a great short video introduction to Appendix N, the influence the works therein in had on D&D — from thieves and paladins to plane-hopping and alignment — and the inspiration those works can provide today.

It’s a bit surreal for me, though: He’s called Martin as well, and is also English, and I recognize an awful lot of the books on his shelves, but he’s handsomer than me and introduces Appendix N much better than I could. I’m also officially jealous of his bookshelves.

All that aside, you should watch this. It’s quite good.

(Thanks to Erik Tenkar of Tenkar’s Tavern for the link.)

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I finished Fritz Leiber’s The Swords of Lankhmar this morning — my 20th Appendix N book. I’m not a fast reader, or perhaps more accurately I’m not a hurried reader, so tackling all 100 books of Appendix N is going to take me a while.

“Swords” took longer than the other Lankhmar books to date because it’s over-long, slow in places, and was competing with a minor detour: The Annotated Hobbit. I’ve read The Hobbit before (and posted about it for this project), but never this edition and not for many years.

After that, it’s back to Lankhmar for the last Appendix N Leiber tale, Swords and Ice Magic, and then most likely on to the post-Appendix N volume of the series, The Knight and Knave of Swords. 20% complete might not sound like much, but it’s a fun milestone — and I’m looking forward to the other 80%, too!

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Since I first posted about Reading Appendix N, I’ve been pointed to several similar reading lists that are either contemporary with Appendix N or related to it in some other way. None of them are additions to Appendix N — to date, Gary’s 2007 additions are the only ones I’ve found — but they’re all interesting for their own reasons.

The first two were written by Gary, one predating Appendix N and one written much later; the second two were written by Tom Moldvay and Steve Winter, respectively. Let’s start with Gary’s two lists.

Dragon Magazine, Issue 4

Published in 1976, this issue of Dragon came out three years before Appendix N, and it’s essentially a proto-Appendix N. Squished into one corner of a page showing recent fantasy miniature releases, it lists 22 authors and roughly 30 specific titles, all of which appear in Appendix N — with one exception: Algernon Blackwood. I’m not at all familiar with his work, but he was apparently a writer of supernatural tales; he’s on my mental list to check out (in 2014 or so, when I finish reading Appendix N…).

In all other respects, this list is a subset of Appendix N. There’s no similar list in the original edition of D&D, nor in the Holmes edition, so I believe this list in Dragon #4 may be the first D&D reading list. As the foundation of Appendix N, it’s a neat little piece of D&D history.

Mythus Magick

Mythus Magick came out in 1992, 13 years after the DMG and Appendix N, and it offers up considerably more author recommendations but no specific title recommendations. Instead, Gary emphasizes particular authors as his favorites. There’s a huge amount of overlap with Appendix N authors on this list, as this excellent Grognardia post breaks down. (That post also includes the full list.)

About half of the authors are new (not included in Appendix N), and many of them are folks I don’t associate with sword and sorcery, sword and planet, weird tales, or the other kinds of books represented in Appendix N — Margaret Weis and Anne McCaffrey, for example. Gary also lists himself, which makes me smile.

The Moldvay Basic Set

The 1981 D&D Basic Set (the “B” in the edition often called B/X) came out in 1981, just two years after Appendix N, and it includes one hell of a reading list. While this one is by Tom Moldvay, not Gary, it is in a D&D core book and it’s roughly contemporary with Appendix N.

What I like most about Moldvay’s list is that it’s broken down into categories: young adult fantasy, young adult non-fiction, adult fantasy, short story collections, and non-fiction. Given that B/X D&D makes a great gateway product for young adults and teens, devoting about 40% of this list to books aimed at them is an excellent idea. Of the four reading lists in this post, Moldvay’s is my favorite — and it’s huge, with roughly twice as many authors as Appendix N.

Star Frontiers

Star Frontiers came out in 1982, three years after Appendix N was published. It focuses on science fiction, of course, and it’s a neat list in its own right.

It includes non-fiction as well as fiction, which I like, but I mention it here largely because there’s some overlap with Appendix N in terms of authors: Poul Anderson, Fredric Brown, L. Sprague de Camp, Philip José Farmer, Andre Norton, Fred Saberhagen, Jack Vance, and Roger Zelazny all appear on the Star Frontiers reading list.

Other Reading Lists

Lots of other gaming books include reading lists — GURPS books, for example, are justly famous for their killer bibliographies — but these four lists stood out to me because they have some connection, be it strong or weak, to Appendix N. They all look like they’re worth exploring, assuming the 100-book Appendix N reading list isn’t keeping you busy enough!

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Yesterday I stumbled onto an excellent blog, Raven Crowking’s Nest, which is also home to a project to read and write about the books in Appendix N. The author, Daniel Bishop, is an old-school gamer with a lot of insight into the hobby, and his posts on Appendix N books are great.

He kicked off with a post full of amazing photos of his Appendix N collection, which vastly outstrips mine both in terms of books owned and books read. Just like when I saw Joseph Goodman’s shot of his Appendix N books, this kind of thing is a huge motivator for me.

He’s also written two posts about specific books so far: a long look at Lavender-Green Magic, by Andre Norton, and a post about Hiero’s Journey, by Sterling Lanier, which makes me really glad I’m going to get to read this book.

Daniel includes notes about how to use these books as inspiration for gaming, which is a really good idea (and one that I may steal for future Reading Appendix N posts here on Yore), and his analyses of their connections to AD&D sound spot-on to me.

I don’t see an easy way to track just his Appendix N posts, although the search bar is an acceptable alternative, but I’ve now read at least 50% of his archive and not been disappointed once — Raven Crowking’s Nest is a blog to add to your reading list.

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There’s a long gap between my first Appendix N book, The Hobbit (which was also my first Reading Appendix N book post, as I’m going in the order I read them), and my next one. One of my best friends in high school, Stephan, introduced me to H.P. Lovecraft by way of Call of Cthulhu, which he ran for my high school gaming group. I asked Stephan if reading some Lovecraft would diminish my enjoyment of the game, and he said it might, just a little, but it would be worth it; he was right about it being worth it.

I snagged this collected edition, which is neither special or definitive, and read it so often that it now looks like this:

That book led me down the rabbit hole, and Lovecraft became one of my favorite authors. Over the next several years, I tracked down and read all of his fiction — and continued playing Call of Cthulhu, which remains one of my all-time favorite RPGs. My Lovecraft library, which includes several other authors in his circle, spans a shelf and a half in our library. It’s a special pleasure to have a chance to write about Lovecraft’s work in the context of Reading Appendix N.

Why This Book?

Lovecraft is among those authors in Appendix N for whom Gary didn’t recommend a specific title or series. Following my own guidelines for this project, I recommended a specific Lovecraft work based on personal experience: The Dunwich Horror and Others. Of all of the personal recommendations I made on the 100-book Appendix N reading list, this was the most difficult one to make.

I initially chose At the Mountains of Madness, which features one specific tale that feels very Appendix N-y to me: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, a Dreamlands story of strange and peculiar lands and peoples. After some deliberation, though, I settled on The Dunwich Horror and Others because it includes four of my personal favorite Lovecraft stories — Pickman’s Model, The Colour Out of Space, The Whisperer in Darkness, and The Shadow Out of Time — as well as the seminal The Call of Cthulhu, and because it offers a sampling of different elements of Lovecraft’s approach to weird horror.

If you’re new to Lovecraft, this book is a great place to start. It’s packed with excellent stories, including many that I can still picture in my mind many years after my last reading (which is true of all the ones I listed above). They’re vivid, creepy, and fantastic.

With a gun to my head, I’d pick The Whisperer in Darkness as my overall favorite Lovecraft story, though it’s in close competition with At the Mountains of Madness and The Colour Out of Space. Here are two quotes from its first couple of pages which, without spoiling the story, are emblematic of Lovecraft in their own ways. First, the opening line:

Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end. To say that a mental shock was the cause of what I inferred–that last straw which sent me racing out of the lonely Akeley farmhouse and through the wild domed hills of Vermont in a commandeered motor at night–is to ignore the plainest facts of my final experience.

…and then the initial third-hand glimpses of strangeness in the hills, reported in the aftermath of a great flood:

What people thought they saw were organic shapes not quite like any they had ever seen before. Naturally, there were many human bodies washed along by the streams in that tragic period; but those who described these strange shapes felt quite sure that they were not human, despite some superficial resemblances in size and general outline. Nor, said the witnesses, could they have been any kind of animal known to Vermont. They were pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a head would normally be.

One thing I love about Lovecraft’s stories set in New England — “Lovecraft Country” — is how grounded in, and evocative of, that part of the country they are. Having grown up in New York, and spent many happy days traipsing and driving around in New England, that region is now inextricably linked to Lovecraft for me. I also love his use of language, which is sometimes criticized for being overblown and overly long on description; his style works beautifully for the kinds of stories he writes.

I also love Lovecraft’s nihilistic universe — the elder gods and things between the stars aren’t evil, or out to get us; they know and care as little about us as we do about ants. It’s only when people begin worshiping them, learning from them, and misunderstanding them that evil enters into the picture. Even 70-plus years after many of these stories were written, that vision of the universe still feels fresh to me.

Above all, though, Lovecraft is a master of the weird, and of introducing the weird into the ordinary world of the 1920s and ’30s in horrifying ways. His protagonists tend to be bookish types, and given to curiosity past the point of caution; the more they learn, the worse things get. Sometimes they can’t help it, as in The Shadow Out of Time, wherein Nathaniel Peaslee’s mind is whisked out of his body and transplanted into a rubbery, tentacled, conical alien form light years away, and quite often they don’t entirely know what to make of the events that transpired, or how to continue on in a world whose veils have been drawn back for them.

In other words, he’s a damned fine horror writer, and his brand of horror is evocative and strange and wonderful and compelling — and it sticks with you. For my money, The Dunwich Horror and Others showcases all of those qualities superbly.

The Dunwich Horror and Others and AD&D

I’m fascinated about why Lovecraft made it into Appendix N, and I can only guess as the answer — assuming, of course, that the answer is other than the most basic option: Gary Gygax was influenced by Lovecraft in a non-specific way, and that influence informed the creation of AD&D. My best guess at a more direct connection, if indeed there is one, is the notion of protagonists ill-equipped to face the challenges ahead, trapped in a universe where the gods don’t care about them, who nonetheless explore cyclopean tombs and alien locales — often going mad, dying, or otherwise being irrevocably changed by their experiences — which matches up pretty well with old-school D&D.

Consider the average low-level adventuring party, little more than peasants with swords and the occasional spell, yet willing to delve into dark and dangerous dungeons, face unknown threats — often threats which far outclass them — and being changed by their experiences; squint a bit, and that’s a Lovecraft story. I could be way off-base, but when I look at Lovecraft’s tales and AD&D side by side, that’s the strongest connection I see. Others, like the presence of monsters and magic, seem a bit too general to explain why Lovecraft is part of Appendix N.

Later on, of course, came a much more obvious connection: Lovecraft’s gods made their way into the AD&D supplement Deities & Demigods. For legal reasons, the Cthulhu Mythos section was removed from later printings, turning the early ones into one of the best-known D&D collectibles.

Which edition?

Lovecraft was bound for likely obscurity when his work, largely unrecognized, was returned to print and eventually to the American consciousness by August Derleth. Derlath founded Arkham House, produced many editions of Lovecraft’s work, and championed him as one of the founding fathers of horror.

Unfortunately, he also altered the cosmology of Lovecraft’s universe to assign asinine elemental aspects (which didn’t exist in the originals) to beings like Cthulhu, and then introduced his own works to “fill in” the “gaps.” For better or worse, the term he coined to describe the mythology created in Lovecraft’s stories, “Cthulhu Mythos,” has stuck. (Lovecraft himself called his works in this vein “Yog-Sothothery.”)

Between those efforts and the vagaries of reprinting any author’s work many times over many years, and through many publishers, many older editions of Lovecraft’s tales aren’t accurate. Luckily, Arkham House retained S.T. Joshi to edit Lovecraft’s work, and Joshi’s fidelity to his source material is, frankly, fucking amazing. He’s a scholar, detail-oriented and dedicated to preserving Lovecraft as Lovecraft, and his editions are both excellent and definitive.

With all of that in mind, I recommend this Arkham House edition of The Dunwich Horror and Others. It’s the one I own, and if you like it there are three more Arkham House editions which together comprise all of Lovecraft’s fiction: At the Mountains of Madness (which, disappointingly, I couldn’t locate on Amazon; this link is to a different edition), Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, and The Horror in the Museum. Finding them used at reasonable prices can sometimes be challenging, but it’s worth it.

Those four books are the core of my Lovecraft library:

I also recommend S.T. Joshi’s annotated editions, which feature notes, photos, and other scholarship that’s anything but dry and boring: The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft and More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. I especially like the photos of locations that featured prominently in Lovecraft’s life and stories.

And, of course, as with most Appendix N books I’ve encountered so far the final recommendation is just read it. It doesn’t really matter which Lovecraft collection you start with — just start somewhere. If you love his tales as much as I do, you’ll quickly find yourself with plenty more to read.

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Hive Pocket is the first game I’ve ever given a 10 after one play session (of three plays). In a lifetime of playing board games, it’s also only my fifth 10 out of over 400 ratings. It’s sublime.

As a game, it succeeds at being everything it wants to be: fun, challenging, and intense — yet easy to learn, quick to play, and possessing considerable depth. As a physical thing, the Bakelite tiles are gorgeous (and functional, as the insects are clear and well-etched AND color-coded, making the game easier to play and teach), the bag is just the right size to include the rules without mashing them (and will work without the rules, as well), and the whole package is perfect.

The objective is simple: completely surround your opponent’s queen bee (the color of the surrounding pieces doesn’t matter) before they do the same to you. Each insect has a unique way of moving, though all must follow a couple of basic placement and movement rules. Part of the charm is that the insects move in a manner similar to how they move in real life — for example, beetles can clamber onto other pieces, neutralizing them. But out of those simple rules emerges a deep game full of both strategy and tactics.

I like the pocket edition because the tiles are smaller (yet not so small as to be irritating — they’re a great size: 25 mm wide and 10 mm high as compared to the original’s 38 mm and 12 mm) and it includes the Ladybug and Mosquito expansions, each of which add one new piece for each player with its own movement rules. Gameplay in all three editions (Original, which lacks the two expansions, and Hive Carbon, which has black and white insects and includes the expansions) is identical. It weighs less and costs less, too.

I love the combination of small size and great depth in games, and Hive is the flag carrier for that breed of game. Small enough to play virtually anywhere, simple enough to teach to just about anyone, and a blast to play. I can’t recommend it highly enough.