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Desert island dungeons (1)

July 30, 2012

Last week, Brendan asked, “If you could only keep ten of your printed RPG books, which would you pick?” I gave my list in the comments, but thought I’d expand and explain my choices. Here are the first five. With the exception of the first two, which reign supreme, they are in no particular order of precedence.

1. Moldvay D&D Basic Rules

2. Cook/Marsh D&D Expert Rules

Look at the picture. They’re handily numbered “1″ and “2″ already. Good old TSR. They knew. They just knew.

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in early 1983 with the Moldvay Basic Set and, shortly thereafter, Cook/Marsh Expert. Nine months later, we “graduated” to AD&D 1e, but the OSR has made me realise that B/X is my natural habitat. Clearer and slightly more “logical” than OD&D or Holmes, without the weight and clutter of AD&D, it’s a really elegant game – one in which houseruling is easy and yet probably not necessary. Moreover, the books benefit from those seminal Erol Otus covers and interior art by Otus, Bill Willingham, Jeff Dee, etc. That artwork, and sentimental considerations, are the reasons why I would choose B/X over Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess, fine though those games are.

Who needs rules for characters higher than 14th level? Not me. My preferred play mode is low to medium-level (say, 1st to 6th) and if I suddenly decided I wanted to run an old module – well, the toughest ones I own are D3 and Q1, which are designed for levels 10-14, so that’s fine. With B/X to hand, I can create and run pretty much any fantasy campaign I want.

3. Gygax DMG

Although I’ve just described AD&D as weighty and cluttered, Gary Gygax’s Dungeon Masters Guide gives weighty and cluttered a good name. A great name, in fact. These 240 pages are stuffed to the gunwales with Gygaxian goodness. The word “encyclopaedic” comes to mind. You won’t use all of it. Hell, you won’t use even a fraction of it. But if you want a chart to determine the effects of alcohol and narcotics on a character, and then another one for the morning after, you’ll find them in the DMG (pp. 82-3). Poison types? Reputed magical properties of precious stones? Burning times for different kinds of ship? Damage suffered by your werewolf PC when he transforms while wearing banded mail? It’s all here. Plus encounter tables, hundreds of magic items, and the all-important Appendix N. That appendix is headed “Inspirational and Educational Reading” and that’s precisely what the DMG is. It remains one of a vanishingly small number of RPG books I would (and do) read for pure enjoyment.

4. Vikings Campaign Sourcebook

So far, so orthodox and uncontroversial. My next selection might raise some eyebrows. It’s fair to say that AD&D 2e gets little love in OSR circles. I understand some of the criticism (is “scorn” too strong a word?) but, from my perspective, David Cook got a lot right. That’s fuel for another blog post, I think. Right now, let me just say that one of the best things to come out of the 2e era was the series of “historical reference” campaign sourcebooks, of which Vikings (authored by Cook) was the first. These handsome green and gold books challenged the pseudo-High Medieval consensus regarding the assumed setting for Dungeons & Dragons – a topic that’s still being discussed. I like the way they encourage the DM to think “outside the box” and tailor the game’s classes, magic, monsters, treasure, etc., to the specific campaign. For example, Vikings includes, in addition to chapters on the historical and cultural background, rules for playing berserkers and runecasters, dialling down the power level for wizards, non-coin-based treasure, magical items derived directly from the Icelandic sagas, a very good section recasting dwarves, elves and trolls in their “authentic” Norse guises (all dwarves and elves, and 50% of trolls, are skilled magicians), and – perhaps best of all – a simple and flavourful rune magic system. (I have RuneQuest Vikings and the recent Mythic Iceland supplement for Basic Roleplaying, but I think Cook’s rune magic is still unmatched for playability, and I’ve ported it – with minimal tweaking – to my Ruins of Ebidoria D&D setting.)

I’m a viking enthusiast and erstwhile Old Norse scholar and, while there are a few things in the book that make me go “Eh?” (like the unheralded inclusion of Finnish monsters among the Scandinavian ones), Vikings stays pretty faithful to its archaeological, historical and literary sources. In doing so, it provides pretty much everything I want from a “historical fantasy” game setting. Oh, and if you’re a 2e hater, almost all of it could be used with OD&D, B/X, AD&D 1e, or [insert the name of your favourite retro-clone here].

5. Carcosa

Like the Vikings book above – but even more so – Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa demonstrates the flexibility and robustness of the Dungeons & Dragons template. There are no clerics or magic-users (let alone thieves, rangers, halflings, etc.) in McKinney’s milieu. Vancian spellcasting is out too, and Barkeresque sorcerous rituals are in. Kobolds, carrion crawlers, and (gasp!) dragons are nowhere to be seen. As everyone knows by now, “What we end up with are dinosaur-riding sorcerous cavemen exploring ancient ruins and pursuing the Greys for their nifty rocket launchers while being pursued in turn by Nyarlathotep and some undead mummies.” Even the dice have gone insane. This book, inspired and inspirational, rips right through any lingering complacent assumptions about “what D&D is like” and rends them asunder, leaving a trail of vanilla gore in its wake. And yet the beating heart of this pulpy Lovecraftian/Smithian gonzo science fantasy setting is still recognisably, unmistakably D&D.

There are other books out there that challenge the established norms of D&D and present creative new angles and approaches – Matt Stater’s Pars Fortuna and Trey Causey’s Weird Adventures spring to mind immediately – but I have to choose Carcosa here because the terms of Brendan’s question specify physical codices and the LotFP edition of this book is, as I’ve said before, a surpassingly lovely artefact.

Next: Call of Cthulhu (obviously) and four more!

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2012 3:44 pm

    I just picked up the “Charlemagne’s Paladins” 2nd Edition campaign sourcebook last week! Cool stuff. Thinking about picking up the Vikings and Celts as well…

    • July 30, 2012 3:53 pm

      Interesting! I don’t have that one. As well as Vikings, I have Celts, The Glory of Rome, and Age of Heroes (which is for ancient/legendary Greece). All are good. I’ve always thought it’d be fun to run a campaign combining the Celts and Roman sourcebooks. (Somewhere I have decades-old notes for exactly such a thing.) Also, I think it’s a great shame they never did a Sumerian/Babylonian one.

  2. July 30, 2012 7:09 pm

    Those HR 2E books are all really good. The only one I haven’t seriously considered running was the Crusades one. The Vikings and Franks work well together, as does the Rome/Celts pairing.

    BTW, excellent choice of including the Vikings sourcebook. It’s a good read, and I’ve used it heavily for my current campaign, whic involves Vikings exploring a frozen, ruined city.

    • July 30, 2012 7:41 pm

      Beedo, your Black City is the campaign I wish I’d written. Years ago I thought about doing an “Old Weird Norse” type of campaign by bashing together three iterations of BRP: RQ Vikings, Stormbringer, and Call of Cthulhu. But that was during my hiatus from gaming, so it never came to anything. Now I’m working on Alien Orifice, which doesn’t have any Norsemen but does have a science fantasy setting with mysterious ruins and an extensive underworld on a distant planet. I’d be lying if I said that the Black City (along with Gary Gygax’s “Descent Into the Depths of the Earth” and everything Pat Mills wrote for 2000AD) wasn’t a big influence.

      Anyway. I’m glad to see there’s some love out there for those HR books. Looks like I won’t have to hand in my OSR membership card after all.

      • July 30, 2012 8:18 pm

        No man, you don’t have to hand in the membership card. I know 2E is kinda dopey and neutered, but I love the damned thing anyway…sort of like my dog ;-) Seriously, there’s a special dark corner in my heart reserved for 2E. I played it after my time with 1E D&D, and enjoyed all the settings that came out, even if I didn’t play in that multitude of realms. Ah, memories…

  3. July 30, 2012 8:35 pm

    Note to self: Start working on a post about how, in the unlikely event that I were ever to play AD&D again, I’d play 1.5e (using the 1e DMG and the 2e PHB).

    Also: Is the world ready for a post on how David “Zeb” Cook is the most underrated game designer and writer in RPG history?

    • July 30, 2012 8:54 pm

      Can’t wait to read all that! On a self-serving tangent, could I perchance grab a spot on your blogroll? :-)

  4. July 30, 2012 9:58 pm

    I’m ready for that Zeb Cook post! I only ever played AD&D2 once but I didn’t have any problems with it.

    I liked the English Civil War era sourcebook from that historical line. A Mighty Fortress I think it was.

    • July 30, 2012 10:31 pm

      That’s another one I never had, although I’m sure I saw a copy once. My brother, maybe. Must ask him. Anyway, Kelvin, I’m surprised you have time to spare reading my blog. If I were you I’d be glued to the Indiegogo site, watching the pledges roll in. Good luck!

      • July 31, 2012 7:38 pm

        I always have time to read interesting blogs! Anyway, thank you!

  5. November 20, 2013 7:42 pm

    I enjoyed this. Great selections, although I’ve never owned/read Vikings. Will have to check that out.

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