Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Appendix N: Happy Birthday, Robert E. Howard!

Hey, look! A book! I wrote this!
If you have a first edition, please
buy this one, too. It's better.
I think we're going to just skip all the usual bloggery about how it's a new year, and with it comes a renewed interest in blogging, and a solemn  promise to post more regularly and yadda yadda yadda* and start with something useful and interesting: today is Robert E. Howard's one hundred and thirteenth birthday.

For those of you who grew up on Appendix N, or maybe you came later to the party, Robert E. Howard (o "REH") is widely credited as the father of Sword and Sorcery (and, I argue, also the Weird Western as it is practiced today), or "heroic fantasy" if you prefer that distinction. I don't think it matters much what you call it, but when you add to that, "You know, Conan?" everyone knows what you mean.

I have been associated with the Texas author professionally since 2001, having penned a number of articles and essays, book introductions and afterwords, comic book stories, role-playing gamesold time radio plays, and of course, an award-winning biography of the Texas author and his career, and his influence on popular culture in general.

If you are interested in checking any of that out, go for it. But I thought since it's an auspicious day that I'd drop some recent recommendations for anyone playing catch-up. Howard's stories should be required reading for any serious D&D player or Dungeon Master.

Del Rey's Robert E. Howard trade paperback series
Fourteen volumes, meticulously edited, all of the fragments, thoughtful introductory essays and afterwards, copious illustrations, and authoritative texts that make use of printed stories and rough drafts...what's not to love about these books? You may be glancing over at your shelves right now, eyeing those tattered paperbacks you bought in the 1970s, and thinking, "Pfft. I've got all of those books. I've read Robert E. Howard, Jack." Trust me...you haven't. At least, not like this.

If you've never read REH before, I would start with the two-volume "Best of" books, Crimson Shadows and Grim Lands. They will give you and overview of the depth and breadth of Howard's writing, from bawdy slapstick to terrifying weird horror, and all points in between.  If you liked what you read--Conan, Kull, Bran MaK Morn, the Crusades stories, the horror tales, Desert Adventure, whatever stuck with you--there's a Del Rey edition or two for you, full of all the extant Howard writing on that character or subject. Handy, and oh-so-inspirational.

Black Gate Magazine
Editor Bob Byrne is spearheading a series of articles called "Hither Came Conan" wherein noted authors and experts weigh-in on the various Conan stories to make the case for it being the BEST Conan Story of ALL. It's an interesting idea, and I will certainly be participating later, but for now, there's some good reading to be had on this great site.

Rogue Blades Entertainment
This plucky indy publisher  spearheaded by Jason M. Waltz was a vanguard of the new pulp movement, and now Jason is bringing it back with renewed focus and more cool stuff in the sword and sorcery vein. I know, it's not strictly speaking Robert E. Howard, but Jason now lives in Texas and came to the Robert E. Howard house for the first time last year...and now we're getting new books...coincidence? I think not!

Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography by David C. Smith
This is the newest biographical work about Our Favorite Author to appear and it's written by David Smith, who co-wrote the Red Sonja book series with Richard Tierney, and has made several pilgrimages to the Howard House (see below). In fact, he's the Guest of Honor this year! Read his book and bring it with you to get signed (you can do that). It's a fantastic read with lots to unpack.

Marvel's Conan the Barbarian
The company that helped make Conan a household name has re-acquired the rights to the eponymous barbarian, and their launch of the new series written by Jason Aaron has been pretty impressive. Remember, this is pop-culture Conan, not REH Conan, but it's still quite entertaining.

If you're fortunate enough to have a good comic shop in your area, head that way and buy a copy of the first issue. If you do not have a good comic shop in your area, well, Marvel has an app for digital comics. And if you're one of those greate grey-neckbeard grognards who only reads on paper, and hates anything made after 1979, but can't quite remember where all of your back issues of the Savage Sword of Conan are stashed, Marvel is diligently reprinting their classic Conan comics and magazines, too.

Conan Role-Playing Games
For those of you who like it a little more 21st century, Modiphius' Conan RPG launch continues apace with a brand-new book, Conan the Brigand. I am proud to have worked on this line, along with fellow Conanists Jeff Shanks and Patrice Louinet.  The system is quick and easy, and creates really detailed characters with intricate back stories before you ever start your first session.

For all of you first edition D&D and other OSR-type folks, I would recommend Jason Vey's website, which has a lot of OSR Conan and Hyborian Age gaming. It's the bee's knees.

The Robert E. Howard House and Museum
Maybe you have all of that stuff above, and other stuff, too. Maybe you've got a whole shelf full of Robert E. Howard books and boxes of comics, stacked up and sitting pretty. You're that guy, amongst all of your friends. Well, have you been to the Howard House?

If you have not, then you have missed out on a singular fan experience. Every year in June, the town of Cross Plains hosts REH fans from literally around the world for Robert E. Howard Days, a two-day celebration of Howard's life and enduring legacy. There will be panel discussions, lots of activities, tours of the house and Cross Plains, and lots of rare and unique artifacts on display. The house made national news a couple of years ago with an archaeological dig that uncovered the root cellar, seen here.

It's a pilgrimage, and one you won't forget. I go every year, because I can, but you can certainly make the trip once. You won't regret it.

There's more stuff coming this year. I've got a couple of secret projects in the hopper, as well. But this will do as a kick-off for now. Happy Birthday, Bob! I'll bet you had no idea this stuff would all be around over eighty years after your death, did you?

* I have been indolent lately, and there are real-life reasons why this is so. If you're interested, you can pop over to the personal blog and read for yourself. Or don't.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Reviewing Strongholds & Followers

 I have been a little busy with real world stuff these past couple of months—the kind of things that are health-related—and so I have not been as active on the blog as I would like. Sorry about that. But I am still working, writing, and thinking about gaming and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. To that end, I will point you to Matt Colville’s YouTube channel, because he eats, sleeps, and breathes this stuff and I find myself in agreement with him, like, 98% of the time, when it comes to running D&D games. This is very likely because we are about the same age and have experienced many of the same things, and also we have very similar tastes regarding First Edition Stuff (such as Appendix N) and how we use it in gaming.

Colville is also very sincere and genuine in his discussions (really a monograph) of running and playing D&D. It shows, and it’s one of the things that makes him so likeable. It almost makes me forgive him for mispronouncing “archetype” every single time he says it.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Dice Delve: D&D Waterdeep Dragon Heist Dice

From the very first set of dice I bought from my local hobby store, there's just something cool about "official" products for your game. It's like saying, "Okay, here's what we recommend you play with." The first of these TSR dice were called "Dragon Dice" back in the day, and while they were a necessary item at the time, the dice were made out of terrible plastic that didn't last six months before they started cracking and chipping on every edge. By the time TSR had corrected their "official" dice, they had been supplanted by a horde of other, better dice manufacturers selling quality, high impact plastic dice that looked like jewels. Game over, TSR. Game over.

Eventually, TSR crept back into that corner of the gaming marketplace, and did so with some modest dice that were clearly sourced from a major manufacturer. No more of those soft pastel dice that chipped and cracked at the edges like mica! And while they never got that market share back, it was a nice side-item of sorts.

Now D&D is in the capable hands of Wizards of the Coast, and these guys know how to accessorize. Have you seen those spin-down life counters? Those cool d20s with the speckled pattern and the Magic: The Gathering symbol on the 20? Those are so cool! If they can do those, and produce them for every one of their M:TG sets, then a set of dice for D&D should be a walk in the park for them, right? ...Right? 

Well...um...you see...

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Reviewing Art & Arcana

You have probably seen or heard about this massive tome on The Internets or maybe seen a review on The YouTubes. Art & Arcana is a ginormous, too-big-for-a-coffee-table Coffee Table book that's really a giant victory lap of sorts for the World's Most Popular Role-Playing Game. Not in a bad way.

This product was released in two versions; the one pictured on the left, a whatever Amazon is charging for it these days $50 investment that is equal parts revisionist history and art and marketing survey. For old-timers, there is a lot of "Oh, I remember that!" and "That's my favorite Module Art!" moments, along with company history that manages to be earnest in not quite dishing the dirt, but happily pointing out the quirks. It's big, it's heavy, it's hard to read. But for those of you who want something a little more upscale, read on, McDuff...

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Dice Delve: Skulls!

In honor of the Spooky Season, I thought I'd dispense with the formal review and instead showcase one of the subsets in my ridiculously odd collection, and that's my affection for Skull Dice. That's right, those D6 polyhedrals with a skull in place of the 1 (or sometimes the 6). This may be the oldest novelty dice, first produced in the 1980s, as an inked drawing on a blank face, and later carved into the dice as part of the molding process.

Lots of manufacturers have made and continue to make Skull Dice; Koplow, Chessex, Q-Workshop, and many others have them in their line-up even today. What are they good for, anyway? I eventually worked a couple of systems out to make use of them, because what's cooler than throwing bones and coming up with skulls? Doom for you! Check out some of my favorite Doombringers below.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Dice Delve: Chessex Marbelized Ivory Polyhedral Set

I used to work for Chessex, and I am an unapologetic fan of their EuroDice, both the opaque and the Speckled varieties. I think that they are among the best dice available for RPG and tabletop gaming--maximum quality with minimum cash outlay. Even when I don't like something about a color combination, it's a tough love kind of thing, since I used to work for the company and presumably am in some kind of position to know better.

Chessex, like other dice sellers, also buys dice to resale from other dice makers--presumably not the same people who make their Speckled dice for them, but you never know, because it's kind of a trade secret. Speaking only for myself, as soon as you move away from Urea as a manufacturing component, it becomes a lot easier to see the flaws in a dice color or a plastic combination. This is not always a good thing, especially if you're the kind of person who has opinions about stuff. What am I talking about? Read on and see for yourself.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 5: The End of an Era

Sword and Sorcery became an exploitation genre, rife with quickie production schedules, recycled sets, props and costumes, and written-on-the-fly scripts that checked boxes for mandatory story elements. The only bronze-thewed barbarian that managed to escape such a fate was, inexplicably, Beastmaster, which made not one, but two sequels and then morphed into a syndicated television series that lasted more than one season. Unbelievable. 

Meanwhile, over at the first-run theaters, where the floors were slightly less sticky, an attempt was being made to both cash in on the epic fantasy genre and also elevate it somewhat. The results were decidedly mixed, to say the least. That’s not to say that these movies weren’t good, or that they weren’t an integral part of growing up in the 1980s, but these movie swing far and away from the Robert E. Howardian gothic horror sensibility that informed Conan (and E. Gary Gygax), and the Vancian magic of the Dying Earth stories, and even the darker corners of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. We’re now in some version of the real world, more fairy tale—but not fey—than Epic Fantasy or High Fantasy.

Appendix N: Happy Birthday, Robert E. Howard!

Hey, look! A book! I wrote this! If you have a first edition, please buy this one, too. It's better. I think we're going to just...