Monday, 9 August 2021

The Vaults of sha-Arthan Character Designs

Some photographs of the pen and ink character design artwork for James Maliszewski's Vaults of sha-Arthan campaign, which for some time resided in my files as "Untitled Sword and Planet Project".

The world is something along the lines of Edgar Rice Burroughs, M.A.R. Barker, Andrew Leke, Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Kirby, Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe.





The four humans were followed by three non-human character classes, which round out the player character options.




Unlike the Tékumel drawings I've been doing for James's Excellent Travelling Volume, the world is largely unexplored, so the briefs were very open, some visual references and perhaps a line or two of description and a discussion about haircuts

You can discover more about the Vaults of sha-Arthan campaign world and support and its further development via the Advanced Grognadia Patreon.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Unboxing 7TV: FANTASY

As 7TV: FANTASY has finally been unleashed upon the world, the dust from the ancient crypt has just about settled across the land I thought it's about time I took a look at the epic contents and the illustration work that went into the latest big box release from Crooked Dice Game Design Studios.

7TV: Fantasy Box

Full colour box. I wrote quite a lot about the cover, Jungian archetypes, the balance of the force, fantasy, pop-culture and photoshop for the 7TV: Fantasy development blog, so rather than repeat myself, if you're interested there's a deep-dive over there, along with a lot of other behind-the-scenes stuff.

So what is in the box?

Profile Cards

The box set includes 230 profile cards, framed by kind of decaying dungeon doorway.

The 7TV development team scoured the Fantasy genre, pulling out archetypes, and there is everything from Night Elf Matriachs (bit of an Oldhammer-ism there) to Dungeon Adventurers, to irate Villagers and grumpy Camels and everything in-between. The 7TV system is about matching archetypes, so everything is a 'counts as' select the template that best fits (and with 230 to choose from, there's a lot to choose from) pay the points cost, and off you go, which means out of the box, if you've already got a fantasy miniatures collection for Frostgrave (2nd edition, of course), or Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle or Warhammer you'll be able to muster forces and invade the world of 7TV:FANTASY straight away.

Most of the cards are illustrated with a photograph, either of an expertly painted and photographed Crooked Dice or Otherworld Miniature fantasy miniature, although one or two are illustrated by myself and other hands.  

Grimoires - Magic books

Magic is an near universal element of the Fantasy genre, and 6 unique Grimoire cards, each detailing a different school of magic and selection of spells. Each has custom, hand-lettered title and a sigil reflecting the school on a hand-drawn spellbook cover. 

Status Tokens

Blast Templates

For the on-table elements I took a slightly different graphic approach to my usual linework, combining colour stone textures and bold graphics. On the one-hand the textures are illusionistic, like mottled stone, becoming part of the scenery, and on the other hand purely iconic, disrupting the 'cinematics' of the tabletop while the rules infringe into the space of play. Warning - special effects in play.

Encounter Guide Cover

To advenure! The Encounter Guide is a collection of gaming scenarios. If the Profile Cards present archetypes of characters, the Encounter Guide presents archetypes of situations. Everything from saving the world from nefarious evil to a tavern brawl. 

Encoounter Guide

Wonderful miniatures photography from Kevin Dallimore.

Encounter Guide

As well as an illustrative border, showing weapons and treasure, the Encounter Guide also has a few of my linework illustrations. Here a typical Fantasy Tavern Table, maybe The Green Dragon Inn or The Mended Drum or Silver Eel Tavern, or  with hand raised pork pies, hobbit smoking pipe, mugs of beer, playing cards and other paraphernalia, shortly before it's thrown over by an over-zealous health inspector.

Trilogy Cards

One of the core narrative mechanics of the game are the Trilogy Cards which throw random events into the mix as play progresses. Referencing both three-act hollywood storytelling, and the Fantasy trilogy. The events are typically from the film/tv production frame, as the meta-narrative. Unashamedly referencing the  ouberous device from the cover of Michael Endes The Neverending Story a novel which similarly breaks the 4th wall, or integrates the books materiality into the fantastical narrative. Either way, if you can hear Limahl singing in your head just by looking at it, you now know why.

Artefact Cards

Two types of object cards, Artefacts and Maguffins provide props, weapons and devices, each has a small illustration as well as a custom border. As with much of the 7TV universe, many of the drawings are references to props from classic fantasy media.


As Maguffins work as objective tokens (sold separately), they can be represented on the tabletop, expertly brought to life by Andrew May.

Casting Guide Cover

Producers Guide Cover

Directors Guide Cover

The rulebooks, each has custom hand drawn border and a roundel device. The three motifs were inspired by Jeff Easleys trinity of covers for the 1980s orange spined editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - featuring a wizard, a 'dungeon master' and pegasus vs dragon. Each twisted through my own sensibilities and encrusted with pop-culture references.

You can just see the dice (translucent purple - very magical) and counters (green!) that are included in the box set sneaking into the corner of the photos too.

Of course, what would an 1980s Fantasy release be without the merchandise? Alongside the games release, Crooked Dice have also dropped an excellent (even if I do say so myself) tr00 kvlt grimm and frostbitten fantasy gaming t-shirt (sold separately). 

Part of the world of 7TV:Fantasy are of course the what-if films and tv-series from a parallel universe that the games, scenarios and miniatures are based on. So to accompany the background text, I created two alternative movie posters for the game:

Orsa: The Fearless 'poster'

Orsa The Fearless, a female nordic, conanesque adventure romp (soon to be released a campaign pack for 7TV). Red Sonja is probably my favourite of the Conan movies (everybody is wrong about this movie, sorry) so it was great to re-imagine Renato Casaro's classic movie poster for Conan the Barbarian with a female lead, and right the wrongs of Arnold Schwarzenegger getting top billing over Bridgette Neilson. I also got the chance to play 7TV casting director and put Kathy Staff (Nora Batty) as a nordic wise-woman, which would have been amazing.

Dark Fortress 'poster'

Dark Fortress, an imaginary poster for the imaginary sequel to Krull. I actually imagined this as a Marvel UK comic book movie advert version of the imaginary poster for an imaginary sequel to Krull, but don't tell anyone. Krull was my absolute favourite movie when I was 10, it's got Brian Breslaw of Carry On fame and Todd Carty off of Grange Hill  in it, what other marks of greatness are needed? Oh yeah, a spinny blade of death,  a giant inter-dimensional demon-castle, and freaky humaoid alien armoured shocktroops that shoot lasers out of their swords. Such things fantasy games are made of.

So that's a wrap! Hope you enjoyed this quick look at my work on the 7TV:Fantasy box set, out now at Crooked Dice


Thursday, 27 May 2021

Otherworld Wood Elves

A look at some concept art for Otherworld Miniatures Wood Elves. 

The initial brief from Richard at Otherworld was for three figures of a small patrol band, armed with Spear, Bow and Sword and lightly armoured, (not entirely coincidently as the Elf entry arms them in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual) referencing Jes Goodwins 1980s Elves for Citadel Miniatures, especially the ME31 Wood Elves, Angus McBrides artwork for Iron Crown Enterprises Middle Earth Roleplaying and some other classic fantasy imagery, alongside Otherworlds established 'at ready' poses.

Being less than half a Brandybuck and something of a Gamgee, I've always loved Elves. My first Warhammer army was built around Goodwins Scarloc's Wood Elf Archers, so the theme was close to my heart. In keeping with the Otherworld range, I wanted to slightly update the look, keeping a lot of the 1980s design cues but updating the aesthetic, emphasising the fay-ness alongside the elves traditional connection to nature. It was also an opportunity to draw on some other Elvish influences, such as Moorcocks Vadhagh, and Tolkiens (being the creator of the contemporary fantasy Elf, after all) professed love of the Arts and Crafts movement and give them something of romantic 'celtic' air, clearly belonging to a culture grounded in the decorative arts while keeping them earthy and practical fighting types.

After some initial sketches and discussion, pencilled and inked drawings of three elves.

Wood Elf Inks

The inked drawings were then scanned into the computer, re-arranged slightly and prep'd with titles.
Wood Elf Swordsman

The swordsman, slightly approaching. Probably the most 'noble' of the three, with ornate studded leather armour. The jewelled cloak brooch, that might be reminiscent of Fëanor, the smooth, round jewel motif that I think emerged with Robert Goulds early 80s depictions of Elric of Melniboné, and carried right through by Goodwin into the 80s elves and into the wraithstones of the Space Elves or Eldar of 40k. It also echoes the Otherworld FA6 Ranger, suggesting perhaps a Stone of Eärendil and marking him out as an elf-friend. The leaf-shaped sword bronze-age design, and La-Tene influenced shield historically grounds him, and early-medievalism of arts-and-crafts. A grim, stern character. 

Wood Elf Spearman

Spearman, standing at ease, shield slung over his shoulder. A slightly younger, less experienced fellow. Leaf-shaped spear-head and decorative tooled leather knife sheath and wineskin, subtly referencing the elven carousing of the Mirkwood Elves in The Hobbit. Yes, Elfquest fans, he will have red hair when I get round to painting him...

Wood Elf Archer

Archer, readying bow, probably a game hunter brought along on patrol for practical purposes. The folklore of Elf-Shot, carrying over the tooled leatherwork, cloak and tunic of the other characters. Resisted the urge to make the bow overly ornate reflex curve but keep his shortbow a bit naturalistic and wild - suitable for hunting small game in woodlands.

Once the three drawings were completed, and cleaned up they were passed over to Paul Muller to base the sculpting of the miniatures on.

And now, in time-homoured Zhu Industries tradition, a few quick photos of the bare models, hastily stuck together with blue-tac in black and white.

Wood Elf Bowman

Wood Elf Spearman

Wood Elf Swordsman

As you'd expect, the models are crisp clean casts, with no flash or mouldlines at all. Paul Muller has done an extraordinary job of bringing the characters to life, capturing the weird slightly alien look that elves should have, and heroically translating the detail into more than serviceable form.

Plus, if you purchase several sets, with a little modelling skill and imagination the swordsmans round shield and spearmans leaf-shaped shield can be swapped repositioned and mixed and matched to create a little variety and form up a neat little warband for Frostgrave (Frostglade?) or a larger encounter group for Dungeons & Dragons.

Wood Elf Spearman 1

Wood Elf Swordsman 2

Wood Elf Patrol

Wood Elf Patrol ready to harass anyone foolhardy enough to accidentally step over the boundaries of their forested domain,  allow a merchant caravan safe passage though secret woodland trails for a tithe, clear out an encampment of goblin mushroom foragers, or arrest some dwarven lumberjacks for illicit log poaching and picnic interrupting.

And finally, here they are in glorious technicolour, expertly painted by Andrew Taylor:

WE40 Wood Elves

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed this look 'behind the scenes' and like the final miniatures. The WE40 Wood Elves available from Otherworld Miniatures priced £14 for the set of 3.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Some Ludological influences on the early adoption of Dungeons and Dragons etc.


Joe over on Uncaring Cosmos recently posted some interesting thoughts on early ludological influences on the development of tabletop role-playing games, and some strands of influence on early adoption of Dungeons & Dragons that I've been thinking about again recently. Curiously both strands feature simultaneously on front cover of Games & Puzzles magazine #23 from March/April 1974. 

Games & Puzzles #23, March / April 1974

Games & Puzzles was a general interest games magazine, a colour-cover glossy magazine on the shelves of newsagents and WH Smiths, distributed by the vernerable satirical magazine Punch.  Launched during the boardgame boom of the mid 1970s Games & Puzzles carried regular columns on crossword solving, chess, scrabble, reviewing latest releases of everything from the latest childrens TV tie in stocking filler to abstract cerebral MENSA-level entertainment through the entirety of the Second World War in hexagons and d12 tables and everything in between.

Historically, I think it is sensible to talk about pre-D&D ludological frameworks - games, methodologies, ideas and discourses about games - that may have influenced the early adopters of D&Ds understanding, approaches, acceptance and adopted playstyles of D&D itself as separate from post-D&D frameworks that may have influenced early-majority  of D&D, as those frameworks appearing in a post-D&D landscape may have already been influenced by the innovations of D&D itself. So while my personal introduction to RPGs was through Fighting Fantasy, it's a second-generation development, indeed, originally created by D&D early adopters Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone to explain D&D, and while FF might have influenced those (like myself) caught up in the 80s D&D boom, it didn't provide impetus for the initial, original acceptance, success or development of D&D when it was published.  

There is, unfortunately something of a presentist tendency in fandoms to back-project concepts, for example there's an 'eternal discourse'* about "D&D separating from 'wargaming roots'" (as pernicious as a myth as Warhammer emerging from 'roleplaying roots') without really indicating much of an understanding that what "wargaming" really meant in 1974, or any expectation that it might actually be a bit different from the understanding somebody carries around in their head in 2021. Much same in Tolkien fandom,  where The Hobbit is forced to fit into the "world" of The Lord of the Rings, while it's textual relationship to The Silmarillion is widely ignored due to authorial comments taken out of context, and that the evidence - early drafts - aren't widely read within fandom. As ever, the only way of escape these infernal traps is to actually look at the original texts.

Games & Puzzles #23, March / April 1974
Mastermind 1973-ish
Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, Tony Bath 1973 (1978 edition)
Dungeon Masters Guide 1979

The Games & Puzzles article by Tony Bath on his Hyboria wargame campaign has comments from several players, including wargaming legend Donald Featherstone. What they are describing in todays parlance would probably be described as a 'freeform play-by-mail domain level roleplaying game', but at the time was simply a Wargames Campaign.  Each player controls a king, emperor, overlord or some-such individual who rules over a land loosely based on RE Howards Conan the Barbarian stories. Bath mentions, with some humour, disallowing plays based on works other than Howards original stories - gaming as an extension of S&SF fandom, where debates about 'canonicity' and legitimacy provide much of the interest.  Bath fully admits to controlling the rules of the world as he sees fit - in a dictatorial manner rather than the democratic mode Bath ascribes to Midgard, and thus, the fiat of the Dungeon Master is firmly established.  Needless to say, the idea of an impartial but all-powerful (and all-knowing) umpire is as old as modern wargaming, going back to von Reisswitz 1812 Kreigsspeil, but how that might have framed approaches to D&D in the 1970s is, perhaps a different story.

Games Illustrated. Boris Vallejo 1984 (post-D&D)

Featherstone writes about being given the character of Conan to play, and subsequently making game decisions in character, and much is made of the games in-world newspaper and the ability for players to focus on their areas of their interest, and for the narratives emerge from play within the structures of defined rules, including those for generating and playing the personalities of the non-player characters who fill the courts and high ranking military positions within each players nation, alongside the initial conditions of geography, supply-chains and Baths judgement. The 'emergent narrative' isn't something I've noticed much in RPG discourse, GNS 'theory' seems to entirely miss the point by essentialising and compartmentalising aspects which are actually complementary and fluid. However it seems to have been a strong element of what a "Wargames Campaign" actually was - a story that emerges from the decisions made by the players within the game system. I digress.  

There is no question that from a British perspective, that the G&P Hyboria article is a pre-D&D artefact, given that D&D had only just been published in the US, and Games Workshop wouldn't start importing it until 1975. The appearance of Hyborian discourse around fantasy gaming, the playing of roles and emergent narratives, within mainstream games media of the time seems remarkable in itself. It's hard not to see the reception and ludological frameworks in the milleu in which D&D was adopted as being informed, if not already established by discussions of Hyboria, (and perhaps Midgard) that employs diverse play-styles some of which would later became synonymous with 'role-playing' but at the time were just an integrated part of the broad fertile plains of the 'wargaming' landscape. I direct interested readers to Jon Peterson Playing at the World, his book deals with Hyborea and D&D topic quite comprehensively, or to undertake your own research into Tony Baths Hyborea Tiny Tin Men provide a good access point to much of the published material. It's clear that Bath had been playing Hyborea since the 1960, but to what extent the elements Bath and Featherstone describe in Games & Puzzles were part of the 1960s game would need slow careful and thorough exploration through the evidence.  Nonetheless, the main point isn't to claim Tony Bath invented fantasy roleplaying before D&D, or had influenced Arneson & Gygax or even David Wesely's late 1960s Braunstein games in some way,  but rather that only a mere matter of months prior to D&D manifesting on the prime material planes, Hyboria was being talked about in the mainstream, popular gaming press, and the dissemination of those ideas may have informed the approach to Fantasy Gaming in general and D&D in particular of a broader general audience, especially in a British context of a general gaming audience than a specialist wargaming audience.

Outside the mainstream, popular gaming press, in the small-press gaming zines there is post-D&D documentary evidence of a direct influence of Baths Hyboria (rather than an airy 'ludological framework') in the 1977 contribution to D&D APA-Zine, The Wild Hunt #12  by Bryan Ansell (Founder of Citadel Miniatures, Warhammer instigator, Games Workshop Managing Director, Laserburn designer etc.) . In his brief overview of "'how we do things in Nottingham" he references expanding the social role of D&D characters using Baths Setting Up A Wargames Campaign (WRG, 1973) which published world-building and characterisation guidelines that Bath established during his Hyborian campaign. And as is the increasingly knotted nature of these things, in the same article, Bryan also mentions using Greg Staffords White Bear and Red Moon  (1975)  board-wargame set in Glorantha as a basis for a D&D campaign - a year before Runequest (the official Gloranthan RPG) was published.

After "Wargaming" a second thread of ludological influence taken up by the early adopters of D&D is undoubtedly boardgaming. Joe at Uncaring Cosmos cites the aforementioned White Bear and Red Moon, (which provide a cover feature for G&P #61, June 77 by Lewis Pulsipher) although as an example to think about it's a little bit of a cheat, as WBRM is a Board-Wargame in the hex-and-chit style Board-Wargaming of Avalon Hill, rather than a 'pure' board-game. 

Semantics aside, Joe's point that boardgames should be considered as providing a ludological framework for the understanding and development of D&D by some of its early adopters stands up to scrutiny. Consider the case of the boardgame Diplomacy (1959), which under some definitions might be considered a wargame but was popular and prelevant enough to establish its own discreet presence beyond both the miniatures table-top and the hex-and-chit "Wargaming" communities. As D&D emerged from the dank and dismal regions it swiftly became taken up by those involved in the Diplomacy zines and the postal diplomacy scene. While it might seem that simply because of the printed (mimographed),  nature of much Postal Diplomacy fandom and its physical manifestation in a vast treasure-trove of play-by-mail zines means that Diplomacy fandom simply produced more evidence of itself than other, quieter areas of gaming, it is fair to say it probably did have greater direct influence on the British early-adopters than any other single pre-D&D influence. Luminaries such as Ian Livingstone, Don Turnbull, Lew Pulsipher and Hartley Patterson all go through the revolving door of 'Dippy' and D&D. Ludologically there is the built-in social-negotation aspect of Diplomacy that makes it particularly akin to the adventurer-player team D&D, wheras in something like Chess, making deals, persuasion and cajoling between players is working against the system, in Diplomacy, as D&D, it is an intended consequence of the system. One of the main innovations of Postal Diplomacy in thematic terms was to use the game to play J.R.R. Tolkiens Middle-Earth,  Frank Herberts Dune or some other fantastic realm from SF&F literature, and like Baths Howardesque Hyborian Campaign foreshadows D&D as essentially as a gameable extension of SF&F fandom. The biggest ludological change from board to postal Diplomacy is the introduction of a non-player umpire, whose role it is to collate the orders sent in each turn and return the results in an unbiased and even manner - no doubt helping form the attitudes of those familiar Diplomacy with who would assume the mantle of the Dungeon Master.

Mastermind 1972
Monster Manual 1977

Another, perhaps more widespread game but less documented example of the a similar ludalogical framework may be seen in Mordecai Meirowitz code-cracking game Mastermind - a game of cunning and logic for two players. An award winning 1972 plastic implementation of the abstract pen and paper game 'bulls and cows', given a slightly more sophisticated James Bond-esque slant to the marketing. The game was "selected for the Design Center London", won Game of the Year 1973 and given a Queens Award for Export, sales boomed, national and international competitions were spawned, and Mastermind became a mainstay of Games & Puzzles articles, peg-trays haunted the G-Plan sideboards of suburbia and Hoover Junior Upright Vacuum cleaner bags were filled with multicoloured plastic pegs across the country and around the world.

The other 1972 Mastermind - Approaching Menace

Mastermind establishes a clear separation of roles - one player sets up a code, the other player then attempts to solve it, both working within the rules and restrictions of the game system, rather than say Chess or Diplomacy where each player is essentially playing the same role against each other. This could be seen to both echo and reinforce the playstyles of early D&D - one player is the Dungeon Master who sets up a dungeon, and the other player(s) attempt to 'solve' it, both within the rules of the game.  Certainly we can see this Rudolpho's review of Ken St. Andre's, admittedly D&D derived game, Tunnels & Trolls (G&P #61, June 77) where the still nascent genre moniker 'role-playing' isn't used at all, and the review focuses heavily on explaining how one player 'sets up a dungeon' and the adventurers then 'solve it', both working within the rules of the game.  So, through the lens of Mastermind we can see the idea of the Dungeon Master not only being the setter of the dungeon-puzzle but also being the non-adversarial respondent to the players actions, the setter in Mastermind isn't trying to block the other player solving the puzzle, but rather to impartially respond to the players plays, and facilitate their exploration of the code-dungeon. Not that anyone would express it as such at the time, but the ubiquity of Mastermind, may have helped establish a ludological framework that prepared a more mainstream audience for certain D&D play-styles.

Some of these concepts, a notion of 'dungeon-as-code', Dungeon Master as neutral code-setter / facilitator, players creating emergent narratives, seem essential to the OSR playstyle in ways that many of the post-D&D influencers miss, certainly it suggests development of investigative playstyles both of the dungeon-crawl with a 10-ft pole type as well as the mystery-solving of the whodunnit and explorations into the supernatural.  It's also a reminder that D&D, or RPGs, or Wargaming do not exist in a isolation, and that while fandoms become increasingly ouberous like in their self consumption, it was once entirely necessary to glance into adjacent spaces to provide ways of thinking about what are now known as 'TTRPGs'.