Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Last Twelve Books

So, one of the things I do a lot is make lists. Sometimes these are useful lists, like notes re. the release date of forthcoming manga, or anime I may be interested in renting. Often they're to-do lists of things I need to take care of in a given week or day, or simply have pending. Occasionally they're more miscellaneous, like interesting and unusual names I've come across and might want to use for a character at some point, or ideas I want to weave into the next game I run. Most of these lists either serve their short-term purpose or get misplaced and lost; others vanish, only to reappear years later as strangely cryptical bookmarks.

A few lists are more in the nature of informal catalogues, like a list I made years ago of all TSR rpgs (now sadly outdated), or of Tolkien books (not by but about) that I own, or of what Dunsany or Clark Ashton Smith books I'm missing (in case I run across one at a used book store, which does happen occasionally).

By far the most useful of all my lists, and the one I've kept the longest, is my Reading List. More than thirty years ago I started keeping a list of all the books I read, writing down the title, author, and date when I read it. For example, book #1 in the list is THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION by Nicholas Meyers, which I read on 8/8-75, followed the next day by THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREK THE WISE (tr. Christopher Tolkien). Not only does this help me find a book again, but it's an incentive to finish reading one I might otherwise bog down in (books don't get added unless I read the whole thing). Despite a mishap in the summer of 1981, when I left the original list of six hundred or so books on the London underground and so had to start anew ("Series II") on August 15th 1981 (book #7 of the new list being MR. BLISS, then in manuscript at Marquette, and #8 my first reading of THE FACE IN THE FROST by Jn Bellairs, which instantly became an all-time favorite). About the only refinement I've added over the years in the date of the book's publication.

So, as a pretty representative example, here are the last twelve books I've read (along with a few comments).

II.2745. SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE by Austin Grossman [2007] (an interesting first-person account of what it's like to be a comic book super-villain)

II.2746. THE ENCHANTED CASTLE by E. Nesbit [1907] (part of my research into yet another magic ring of invisibility)

II.2747. MR. FAIRLIE'S FINAL JOURNEY by August Derleth [1968] (Sherlock Holmes pastiche, picked up as a curiosity at the Book Fair)

II.2748. TOLKIEN'S SHORTER WORKS: ESSAYS OF THE JENA CONFERENCE 2007, ed. Hiley & Weinreich [Walking Tree, 2008] (a collection of essays on JRRT's minor works, which I read & reviewed)

II.2749. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN by Woodward & Bernstein [1974] (sometimes it helps to remind ourself of just how bad a specific point in the past was, and just how similar to the present it is in some ways)

II.2750. THE RIDDLE OF THE THIRD MILE by Colin Dexter [1983] (an Inspector Morse mystery, picked up a year ago in Oxford. These things are all over the place there, like moss on Seattle trees. Unpleasant but erudite.)

II.2751. TOLKIEN'S OXFORD by Rbt S. Blackham [2008] (an illustrated guide of places connected with JRRT; another piece read & reviewed).

II.2752. FULBRIGHT THE DISSENTER by Haynes Johnson & Bernard M. Gwertzman [1968] (Janice found this one. Interesting to find out more about someone who, when I was growing up, was nearing the end of his remarkable career in ignominious fashion, out-of-touch and arrogant --most of us in Arkansas thought Robert Redford's THE CANDIDATE was about Fulbright vs. Bumbers. History will not forgive his refusal to support civil rights or basic lack of trust in the U.S. constitutional system, but at least he stood up to McCarthy and was way ahead of the curve in opposing Vietnam).

II.2753. THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman [2008] (Gaiman is always worth reading, though here the idea -- a new take on THE JUNGLE BOOK, with the Mowgli raised by ghosts and a vampire rather than animals -- is better than the execution)

II.2754. JOHNNY & THE DEAD by Terry Pratchett [1993] (my third reading; not so good as I remembered it, but still vintage Pratchett, and I suspect an influence on N.G.)

II.2755. JAZZ WRITINGS by Phillip Larkin, ed. Richard Palmer & Jn White [1999] (Larkin was a born reviewer, opinionated and articulate, who could make even a dead art form interesting).

II.2756. TOLKIEN'S GEDLING 1914 by Andrew H. Morton & Jn Hayes [2008] (an account of JRRT's Aunt Jane & how she abandoned an academic career to become a farmer; 'Gedling' is the suburb of Nottingham where her farm lay, and where JRRT on a visit wrote what he came to consider the first poem in his Mythology. My review of this one is still in progress).


current reading: ABBEY LUBBERS, BANSHEES & BOGGARTS by Katharine Briggs [1979]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Bradley Effect

Among the sea of partisan pieces in the days leading up to the election just past, the most interesting non-partisan piece I saw was the following post from October 13th about the so-called "Bradley Effect" -- that is, the idea that polls overpredict how well a black candidate will do, the theory being that people claim to the pollster that they're open-minded when they're really not.

The short version of this article is that, according to the pollster of the person who beat Bradley back in '82, there IS no Bradley effect. According to him, it was simply the result of bad polling by Bradley's people; the other side knew that the race had tightened to more or less even (45% Bradley, 44% Deukmejian) by election day; Bradley got slightly more votes from those who went to the polls that day (and thus those who talked to exit pollsters) but Deukmejian got a significant edge through the absentee ballots, which won him the election.

Here's the link:

Personally, I've always been baffled by the whole idea that racists CARE what pollsters think about them. If anything, I'd expect any misrepresentation to swing the other way (i.e., for racists who intend to vote for minority candidates to not be willing to admit to it in public).


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Brief History of Tolkien RPGs (part four)


IX. And so, after WotC took a pass, the Tolkien license went to Decipher, who in 2002 produced their own LORD OF THE RINGS ROLEPLAYING GAME. Then in June/July 2001 I was caught up in the latest round of layoffs and left Wizards of the Coast. Before the day was out, I had a verbal agreement with the folks at Decipher, where most of Christian's Last Unicorn team had gone after leaving WotC at the time of the previous layoff, to work on their Tolkien rpg. My contribution was to write descriptions of the game world; hence the first section of the main rulebook, "There and Back Again: The Realms of Middle-Earth" is mainly my work (material which was re-used in booklet form as the text in the MAPS OF MIDDLE-EARTH boxed set [2002]).

Once again rather than create a rules system to match Tolkien's world, Decipher decided to use their pre-existing house system (the CODA System), created for their Star Trek game, for their new LotR game. Given that their license came directly through New Line, they were not only able to use the era and characters from The Lord of the Rings (i.e., the end of the Third Age), but their books were chock-full of movie art, most illustrations being stills from the films. Unfortunately, since they were dependent on the films and, like many media licensing deals, had an onorous approval process to go through, their releases sadly lagged behind the films themselves: for example, their MORIA boxed set, which shd ideally have come out around the end of 2001 or early 2002, didn't see release until 2003; their Rohan sourcebook, which I wrote roughly half of, never came out at all. It soon became clear that Decipher's main interest lay, not unreasonably, in the real money-maker, their LotR collectable card game, and the roleplaying game languished. Eventually (June 30th 2007, according to Wikipedia, the Source of All Knowledge) their license expired, with the result that currently there is NO Tolkien roleplaying game being published, a situation unprecedented since the early 1980s.

X. And so, here we are. The license is currently in abeyance, awaiting re-licensing for the forthcoming HOBBIT movie(s). There will no doubt be yet another Tolkien rpg in a few years' time, but if history is any guide it will probably appear from a second-tier publisher and make a relatively minor splash, being more collected and read than played. Most Tolkien fans will continue to get their gaming fix through homebrew campaigns or tweaks to their favorite game system --most recently d20/3.5/Open Gaming, now no doubt soon to shift towards 4th edition D&D/GSL, given its solution to the longstanding 'cleric-less adventuring' problem. Just as attention has shifted over time from Tolkien boardgames (SPI in the late '70s) to rpgs (ICE in the '80s and '90s, Decipher in the new century) to collectable card games (ibid), so now MMOs rule the roost, like Turbine's The Lord of the Rings Online [2007ff]), and it is here that the bulk of attention will focus next time around.Nt6 It also seems likely that such efforts will be tied more closely to the films than Tolkien's books; certainly THE SILMARILLION, UNFINISHED TALES, et al. will play no significant role.

But, just as Decipher released a roleplaying game as well as a ccg, we will almost certainly get not just new LotR computer games but also yet another new rpg (with yet another new rules system), a new ccg, a new collectable miniatures game, &c. In the meantime, we have fan-based efforts such as Other Hands, Other Minds, and, more recently, MERPCon's EÄ Project, whereby those who combine a love for JRR Tolkien's work with a love for gaming create their own rules in order to enjoy their own versions of Tolkien gaming.

--John D. Rateliff, July/August 2008.


Note 1. As collaborating evidence of this obvious fact, cf. the second sentence of the first paragraph of the 'Fantasy Supplement' to CHAINMAIL, the miniatures rules system that preceded Dungeons & Dragons and directly gave rise to it:

"Most of the fantastic battles related in novels more closely resemble medieval warfare than they do earlier or later forms of combat. Because of this we are including a brief set of rules [i.e., the 'Fantasy Supplement'] which will allow the medieval miniatures wargamer to add a new facet to his hobby, and either refight the epic struggles related by J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers; or you can devise your own 'world,' and conduct fantastic campaigns and conflicts based on it. (emphasis mine*)

*my citation comes from page 28 of the third edition of CHAINMAIL [1979]; my thanks to Scott Riddick and all at for confirmation of the fact that this sentence reads the same in the earliest printings.

Note 2. Or, in the special case of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar tales, a double-hero who can trade off taking center stage and act as each other's sidekicks at need.

Note 3. This is a reference to the Nazgul being the original wraiths in CHAINMAIL; in the first and second editions of that work, the entry on Wraiths read "WRAITHS (Nazgul, etc.):". I am grateful to Scott Riddick at The Acaeum, the D&D game collector's site, for helping me confirm this information.

Note 4. Compare the unattributed illustration of a dragon pursued by a knight in the CHAINMAIL booklet with Pauline Baynes' illustration of Farmer Giles pursuing Chrysophylax Dives in Farmer Giles of Ham (page 44, third edition [1975]). The CHAINMAIL illustration† is clearly redrawn, almost traced, from Baynes' work, the main difference being the farmer's replacement by an armored knight.

†This appears on page 37 of the third edition of CHAINMAIL, but I am told it appeared on the first page (page 33) of the Fantasy Supplement in CHAINMAIL 's first edition. My thanks to Allan Grohe, Scott Riddick, and all at the acaeum D&D collectors' forum for this information.

Note 5. They released a new entry-level game every year from 1991 to 1996, only the first of which could be considered a success.

Note 6. Kristen Thompson reports that the computer games based on the three Jackson films made about a billion dollars per film. (THE FRODO FRANCHISE, page 9).

My thanks to the many who helped me in my research of specific details for this piece, including Bruce Leonard, Allan Grohe, Scott Riddick and all at (cf., Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull, Shelly Baur, Angus Abranson, Jeremy Edmonds, David Pulver, Roderick Robertson, and Dave Watry of And my thanks to Hawke Robinson, the organizer of MERPcon, for inviting me to give this year's Guest of Honor speech.

Monday, November 17, 2008

My Favorite Election Story

So, while I was in Magnolia this time two weeks ago I went by the courthouse to see if I could find a really good Columbia County map (I did, thanks the the county judge's office) and discovered that early voting was already underway. I'm no longer a resident, and it's been many years since I voted absentee in Arkansas elections, but I'm still interested in how things go in my old home state, so I picked up the sample ballot and several of the informational leaflets regarding the various initiatives.


(1) It wd remove the ban on state workers serving as voting officials (clearly an anti-corruption measure to prevent incumbents from rigging an election in the Bad Old Days--memories of the Brooks-Baxter War lingered a long time in Arkansas).

(2) It removed a reference to having to show a receipt that you'd paid the poll tax before you can vote, the poll tax itself having been abolished long ago.

(3) It removed a ban "providing that no idiot or insane person shall be entitled to the priviledges of an elector".

That right: until this election idiots and lunatics were banned from voting in Arkansas. This is no longer the case, as of two weeks ago, when that language was struck from the state constitution on the grounds that such terminology was "disrespectful" and in any case lacked legal definition. This wd not have been the case back when the constitution first took effect, of course -- cf. S.J.Gould's THE MISMEASURE OF MAN for the notorious Oliver Wendell Holmes ruling.

So the general upshot is that now idiots and crazy people can vote in Arkansas, just like anyone else.

Now that's progress for you.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Brief History of Tolkien RPGs (part three)


VI. Re-enter TSR: 1992.

And this is where I enter the story. I'd begun working at TSR as a games editor in October 1991, and it was well-known around the office (and indeed around everyone who knows me) that I was a big Tolkien fan; my expertise with fantasy literature in general and Tolkien in particular was one of the reasons they hired me (my dissertation was on the great Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany; hence I like to say that 'I have a degree in fantasy'). I had already,in my first few months there, edited The Complete Book of Gnomes and Halflings (which would have sold significantly better if they'd titled it The Complete Book of Halflings & Gnomes). Thus, when TSR began negotiations with Tolkien Enterprises to see if they could reach an agreement on a Tolkien license for a TSR Tolkien game, I was assigned to be the game's editor, while Bill Connors was assigned to write the game. Even though no license had yet been signed, we got to work on the project and the game was tentatively added to TSR's Master Schedule. Thinking you might be interested, I brought a few relics of it with me today: the prototype cover art by Robh Ruppel, character creation rules, and two versions of the character sheet (one of them marked up from a playtest). In hopes that TSR might be able to expand the line beyond what Iron Crown had been allowed to do, I was even dispatched to meet with Christopher Tolkien (as representative of the Tolkien Estate) and Mary Butler (who was in charge of managing the Tolkien line at HarperCollins, who had recently taken over as Tolkien's publishers), incidently becoming the first person to ever receive official permission to miss GenCon in order to attend those meetings.

In the end, however, the Estate was not willing to grant to TSR rights they'd adamantly denied to everybody else—unsurprisingly—such as permission to write and publish sequels and prequels to The Lord of the Rings, commission artbooks, release its own line of calendars, and the like. What TSR could do was exactly what Iron Crown had done: release its own Tolkien roleplaying game, which I have no doubt wd have sold v. well indeed. To which Lorraine Williams, president and owner of TSR, uttered the immortal line

'Not worth our while'

Thus died the TSR Tolkien game, banished into the land of might-have-beens. Shortly thereafter came news of the renewal of Iron Crown's license, and a new edition of MERP followed in 1993. While it's my impression that this later iteration was not as successful as the game's first run, it did well enough to see the release of some two dozen supplements, the last of which (Hands of the Healer, #2026) was released in 1997.

VII. By this time, Tolkien gamer's attention had largely shifted to collectable card games. The first such game, MAGIC: THE GATHERING, had been created in 1993 by Richard Garfield at Peter Adkison's request and was an immediate hit. By 1994 the rest of the industry was scrambling to put out their own ccgs. It is not well known, I think, that among the ccgs Wizards of the Coast had been asked to create at this time based on preexisting rpgs, such as JYHAD for White Wolf [1994], LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS for Alderac [1995], and NETRUNNER for R.Talsorian [1996], was a MERPs-based ccg for Iron Crown. When after a year or so Wizards decided not to do a Tolkien card game after all, the (sublicense) rights reverted to Iron Crown, which released MIDDLE EARTH: THE WIZARDS in 1995 to great success; it remained one of the best-selling ccgs for several years thereafter.

VIII. Despite the great success of METW, the associated roleplaying game languished, having either quietly lapsed or at least gone into abeyance after 1997. By 1999, the Tolkien license was up for grabs again, with anticipation of the Peter Jackson movies (already in production) raising the stakes. That's when the second Tolkien rpg I was involved in began to take shape, and by mid-2000 WotC was in serious negotiations for the license. This time around, I was scheduled to be one of the game's three writers, along with Rich Baker (a longtime Tolkien fan whose favorite Tolkien book is The Silmarillion, not The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings) and Andy Collins; Christian Moore, formerly of Last Unicorn Games and now the head of 'WotC South', was to head the team. The 320 page book would have been edited by Gwendolyn Kestrel, Jon Pickens, and Jeff Quick and was scheduled for a November 2001 release.

We did a good deal of discussion about what form the game would take: I wanted it to be a D&D game world, like GREYHAWK or THE FORGOTTEN REALMS, but the eventual consensus was that it would be a stand-alone but D&D compatible system, much like the Wheel of Time game that followed the same model a year later. I have not been able to locate any of my notes from that project, but I recall our debate over how to handle healing (with or without clerics) and whether or not to allow PC spellcasters; Rich's Ranger prestige class; and (best of all) Andy's truly awesome Nazgûl template. Whereas the old TSR Tolkien game from 1992 would have been a kind of D&D lite, catering to TSR management's obsession at the time with entry-level games,Nt5 it was clear that this was going to be a very, very good game. That's what made it so crushing when the license fell through. I was told, by the person in charge of negotiating game licenses, that she had deliberately decided not to pursue the Tolkien license in order to let a rival game company have it. Otherwise, she argued, we might be open to charges of being a monopoly, since we had just acquired the Star Wars license. I thought this implausible then, and I think the same today—but then this came from the same management team that justified cancelling another game by explaining that while it would have made money, it would have been 'the wrong kind of money'. Looking back at it after all this time, I think it far more likely that there was only so much money in the licensing budget to go around and, having chosen to line the capacious pockets of George Lucas, there simply wasn't enough left for another major license, particularly since the Tolkien game license, bouyed by expectations from the Peter Jackson films, wouldn't have come cheap. The fact that the folks in card R&D were adamantly opposed to creating a Tolkien ccg, for reasons they would never articulate, no doubt contributed something to the decision. So, WotC execs made the decision to go with Star Wars rather than Tolkien; from my point of view (amply supported by subsequent history), the wrong choice.

The one good thing that seems to have come out of it all was the appearance in 2000 by Hasbro UK of the Reiner Knizia boardgame THE LORD OF THE RINGS; an amazingly innovative design by a brilliant designer and probably the single best Tolkien boardgame ever. WotC, however, had so little interest in it that Hasbro soon sublicensed it to another company, and Fantasy Flight Games released all the follow-up tie-in boardgames, rather than Hasbro or WotC.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Brief History of Tolkien RPGs (part two)


IV. The advent of Tolkien Enterprises into our story complicates things: most people do not realize that almost all the Tolkien-related items they see aside from books and (some) calendars are not approved by the Tolkien Estate but instead are part of "film licensing", over which the Estate has almost no control, due to the poorly defined licensing rights in the original contract Tolkien signed back in the 1960s. Among the things that fall under Tolkien Enterprises' control are not just the Peter Jackson movies (and the older Bakshi film), and obvious movie tie-in products such as posters, chess sets, and replica swords, but the entire MERP product line. That is, all officially approved Tolkien roleplaying games, collectable card games, boardgames, and computer games for the last thirty years have been licensed not from the Tolkien Estate but from Saul Zaentz as examples of "film merchandising".

V. One effect of TSR's transparent (but legally successful) attempt to genericize D&D and get it away from its Tolkien roots meant that after about 1977 there was no longer even an unofficial Tolkien roleplaying game on the market. The abject failure of the Bakshi film, financially and creatively, seems to have forestalled any attempt to officially license a Tolkien rpg for some five years, but by 1982 Iron Crown Enterprises had acquired the Tolkien license, launching MERP (Middle Earth Role Playing) in 1984.

However, while a long-running rpg line, MERP never won over the majority of Tolkien fans who were gamers, who continued to run D&D varients; despite a core of devotees it remained a game more collected than played. I think the reasons for this were threefold. First off, D&D's unofficial motto has always been "plagiarism is our friend"—that is, it has always stolen so widely, and been such a flexible system, that it's easier for most folks to tweak the game they already knew (which in any case originated as a pseudo-Tolkienian game in the first place, and still remained close to those roots) into a Tolkienian system than to learn a new game in order to play out Tolkienian scenarios within Tolkienian settings. Second, once they got the license Iron Crown did not create a new rules system from the ground up designed to capture Tolkienian roleplaying, but simply adapted their house system, ROLEMASTER (itself evolved from a D&D varient), to Tolkien's world—as may be seen from the fact that ICE began releasing Tolkien modules as early as 1982 (e.g., ANGMAR) while the actual MERP rules did not follow until two years later, in 1984. The decision to use a preexisting system rather than create a new Tolkien-centric game led to some disconnects—the most serious of which was the presence of Animist (Clerics) as one of the core player-character classes, when Tolkien's works are so resolutely devoid of clergy, spell-casting or otherwise (a problem that has bedeviled most Tolkien rpgs to date). Third, since this was an official license, its modules and sourcebooks could use names & places taken directly from Tolkien's books (no 'halflings' and 'mithral' here). But Iron Crown's decision, no doubt dictated by the terms of their license, to stringently avoid the actual story & time of Tolkien's familiar story, meant we got no adventures w. Aragorn, no epic boxed sets allowing us to play through Bilbo's journey or the various component quests that make up The Lord of the Ring. Instead, we get detailed sourcebooks set (for the most part) a milennium and a half before—which is interesting for die-hard Tolkien fans like myself, but lacks the mass appeal of, say, a 'Fellowship in Moria' adventure might have. (It's rather like having a Columbus-discovers-the-New-World game which focuses exclusively on Christopher C.'s early life and never touches on any of his four history-making voyages.)

Nevertheless, as I said, it was a fairly successful line, lasting for a full decade while other games came and went. But by 1991/92 it was at a low ebb, and when the license came up for renewal Tolkien Enterprises let it be known they were interested in negotiating with other companies to publish some all-new Tolkien rpg to replace MERP.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Two Bad Movies -- part two


So, if THE HAPPENING is an interesting idea with a failed execution, like most of Shyamalan's films (always excepting the superlative SIXTH SENSE), by contrast the second film, OBSESSION, is a competent documentary with a heinous goal. The idea here is not just to make you afraid, but to make you very, very, very afraid. So afraid you'd launch a few more wars, be glad to bomb a few more countries, be willing to have people kidnapped and tortured, so long as it might protect you from Scary Foreign People. While it gives lip service to the claim that it's not anti-Muslim, just against the wrong kind of Muslim, its entire thrust is indistinguishable to me, as someone who grew up in the Segregated South, from racism.

Among the most disturbing things here: a deliberate attempt to portray the Palestinians as Nazis, as much footage of child warriors as they could cram in, vicious anti-semitic rants from crackpot imams, and trying to blur all Muslims who oppose our foreign policy into a monolithic foe. Either the filmmakers don't know that Iran and al-Qaeda hate each other (which is hard to imagine) or, in their conspiracy theorist heart-of-hearts they just can't believe it, or (worst of all) they know what they're saying is untrue but it serves their purpose to say it anyway.

For me, the most interesting part about this film comes at the mid-point in which they briefly raise the obvious question: why do these people hate us so much that they'd kill themselves just for the chance of hurting us? And, having posed the question, the filmmakers immediately steer away from it to a safe, simple non-answer: they're deranged by hatemongers, so their actions don't make any kind of rational sense. It's as if in the aftermath of Nat Turner's uprising white Southerners had concluded that slaves attacked slaveowners because they were violent and irrational (which isn't far off from what they did conclude). A little basic history often helps us understand why our enemies do what they do; willful ignorance of the facts never helped a nation make itself safer.

And now they've made a follow-up film, THE THIRD JIHAD. I've not seen this, and probably won't bother (the first was bad enough), but the previews and excerpts available online make clear that its focus is on "homegrown domestic terrorism". So I suspect its unstated goal will be to make viewers accept whatever spying on Americans the government deems necessary as "a small price to pay" to protect us from "further attacks" -- of which it claims there have already been dozens, each foiled only by the vigilance of our Homeland Security.

The kicker here is that Senator Joe Lieberman appears in this one, lending his stature as one of this country's leaders to the anti-Muslim hate-mongering both films want to convey. Lieberman deserves every American's respect for having been a Freedom Rider back during the civil rights movement, but this is a truly shameful end for a career that started out with such idealism.


Two Bad Movies--part one

So, last week I watched not one but two truly bad movies on dvd, each of which was bad in its own distinctive way.

The first was M. Night Shyamalan's THE HAPPENING, which I'd wanted to see in theatres but missed. I'd been intrigued to learn it was inspired by Colony Collapse Disorder, the phenomenon that's been wiping out the bees, and thought Shyamalan wd be able to make a pretty interesting story out of that. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The short version: this is a thirty-minute episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, sans Rod Serling's genius, stretched out to ninety-one minutes (but it seems longer).

The slightly longer version: this is Hitchcock's THE BIRDS, sans Hitchcock's genius, except with trees rather than birds.

It's an interesting premise -- one day trees in Central Park start to release a biotoxin (think phemerones) which causes everyone who inhales them to immediately commit suicide. In short, it's the story of a suicide plague that starts in NYC, then spreads to Philadelphia and other large east-coast cities, then to towns, then villages, then small groups of refugees, then single people. People initially assume it's some sort of terrorist attack using nerve gas and only gradually begin to figure out the truth.

That cd be an interesting film, but unfortunately it suffers from some massive logical gaps. Why is the tree's defense mechanism first triggered in a peaceful spot like Central Park rather than, say, a Weyerhaeuser tree farm being chainsawed and clearcut in the Pacific Northwest? Why does everybody affected by the plague instantly realize the most effective way to kill themselves and immediately carry it out flawlessly? Shyamalan does make v. effective use of Zooey Deschanel ability to look unearthly when standing silently and staring, but it'd have been better yet to have likable lead characters in a compelling plot; the main story here feels more like an afterthought, a frame that wanders around to enclose the twenty or so little snuff films that are the focus of Shyamalan's real interest.

And, I just have to say, that the last time I saw a bad movie named "The Happening" (about forty years ago) at least it had a great theme song by The Supremes. Not the case here.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Brief History of Tolkien RPGs

The following was my guest-of-honor speech at MERPcon this past August, which I thought I'd share. It's lengthy, so I'm dividing it into several postings. Enjoy!

A Brief History of Tolkien roleplaying games

When deciding on an appropriate topic for this talk, I considered various possibilities from my seventeen years in the industry, twenty-eight years as a gamer, and thirty-five years as a Tolkien scholar, and ultimately decided that it would be fun to combine all of these and share with you some stories from an insider's point of view about the long, sad history of various Tolkien roleplaying games, including some I worked on that never saw the light of day. So here goes.

I. First off, the history of Tolkien roleplaying games begins not with the publication of the first licensed Tolkienian rpg, Middle-Earth Role Playing ('MERP'), but a decade earlier with the origins of roleplaying gaming itself. At about the time of Tolkien's death in September 1973, a little start-up company with the unpromising name of Tactical Studies Rules ('TSR') was putting the finishing touches on their new game, DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. Dave Arneson had come up with the idea a year or two earlier, and Gary Gygax had figured out how to make a game out of it (in the sense of writing rules so others could learn how to play), making them the Founding Fathers of our hobby.

The original D&D was clearly based in equal parts on JRRT & on Rbt E. Howard's Conan stories,Nt1 with a magic system inspired by Jack Vance (The Dying Earth) and John Bellairs (The Face in the Frost) and an attitude copped from Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser series, w. bits of Pratt & de Camp's Incomplete Enchanter, Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, and various pulp stalwarts thrown in. Most of these influences were openly acknowledged, both then and later—see, for example, the final appendix in the 1979 Dungeon Masters Guide, 'Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading' (DMG page 224)—which makes it odd that the profound influence of Tolkien on D&D is generally overlooked and downplayed. This was certainly not the case in the dawn of roleplaying, as we'll see in a minute.

The reasons for this disparagement of Tolkien's influence on D&D, and thus ALL roleplaying games, are I think twofold. First, there's the simple fact that Tolkien's innovations are so great that they have, ironically, come to be considered "generic". In fact, they only appear that way because the genre of Modern Fantasy is something Tolkien himself largely created: he is the exemplar that defines the category. The very idea of a player character party—a group of diverse individuals of differing races with differing talents and specialties who set off on an adventure together—is a uniquely Tolkienian innovation, unprecedented in earlier fantasy, where we either have a hero, or a hero & a sidekick.Nt2 In other words, Tolkien influenced fantasy and gaming so profoundly that we take his imprint on other authors for granted. His impact has become invisible—just look how many people spell "elves" and "dwarves" with a 'v' rather than elfs and dwarfs: elves may be partly due to Dunsany, though I doubt this, but dwarves is Tolkien's invention, which others use without even recognizing their indebtedness.

Second, there was a deliberate attempt in later years by Gygax and others, continuing to the present day, to play down Tolkien's influence, most notoriously in Gygax's famous editorial from the March 1985 issue of Dragon magazine (issue #95, pages 12¬–13). Titled "The influence of J. R. R. Tolkien on the D&D® and AD&D® games: Why Middle Earth is not part of the game world", it argues that Tolkien had NO discernable influence on the development of D&D, aside from a few surface similarities based on Gygax's drawing on the same sort of sources as Tolkien himself had used.

Now, there are three theories regarding this claim, which was met with incredulity at the time and more or less universally dismissed ever since, being belied by the evidence both past and present. The first is what we might call the cocaine theory, the widespread belief that years of rumored drug abuse during E. Gary Gygax's time heading up TSR's Hollywood branch had addled his brain. The second is that Gygax simply forgot by the mid-eighties how he'd created the game in the early seventies; certainly his story changed a number of times over the years, and the general trend of those changes is to shift credit away from others (e.g., Arneson) and onto himself. So maybe he simply resented sharing credit with JRRT. The third is, in a word, lawyers, and a salutary fear of lawsuits if any good case could be made for D&D's debt to Tolkien's work. And, as we'll see, he had excellent reason based on personal experience to believe this was a very real threat, which might explain why he was so adamant about denying any Tolkien influence in his 1985 piece, which freely admits to influence from a number of other lesser writers.

For, no matter how much Gygax might have later denied it, Tolkien's fingerprints are all over original D&D. Look at the four player-character races in the original three-booklet boxed set from 1973/74: Men, Dwarves, Elves, and Hobbits (Vol. I: Men & Magic, pages 6–8)—all found in Tolkien, and three out of the four directly derived from his work. And, to break chronology for a moment, a similar dominance is shown in the 1st edition AD&D's Player's Handbook [1978], which adds half-elves, half-orcs, and gnomes; two out of three come directly, unambiguously, from Tolkien, while the single nonTolkien race proved the most unpopular player character race throughout AD&D's thirty-year history, finally being deleted with this year's release of Fourth Edition [2008]. Or, going back to 1973/74, look at the monsters these earliest adventurers were to encounter: of the sixty or so creatures listed in the Monsters & Treasures booklet (Vol II), a dozen come directly from Tolkien's work—that is, about a fifth of the whole, with the rest deriving from classical mythology (dryads, medusae, centaurs, minotaurs), medieval legend (wyverns, manticores, unicorns), folk lore (pixies), and horror stories (the undead); contributions from other modern fantasy writers (with the sole exception of Dunsany's gnolls—Vol.II page 8) are notably absent. Furthermore, the monster descriptions that follow repeatedly cite Tolkien as the source for that monster (mispelling it 'Tolkein' each time): Orcs (page 7: "the number of different tribes of Orcs can be varied as desired, basing the decision on Tolkein or random chance"), wights (page 9: 'Barrow Wights (per Tolkein) are nasty critters . . ."), spectres (ibid: "The Nazgul of Tolkein now fall into this category rather than as Wraiths as stated in CHAINMAIL"),Nt3 and even Rocs (page 17: "This term has been used to encompass large and fierce birds such as the 'Eagles' of Tolkein . . ." [emphasis mine]). And of course the book is marked with the presence not just of Tolkienian spellings (dwarves, elves) but of names the Professor invented: not just Hobbit but also Orcs, Balrogs, and Nazgul—this last was even featured, so labelled, on the title page. And I shd note that this usage continued in the early D&D supplements, such as Supplement I: Greyhawk [Febuary 1975; cf. page 5], and Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry [April 1976; cf. page 3], and even into the earliest printings of the D&D Basic Set [i.e., D&D 2nd edition] by J. Eric Homes [1977]. Even the piece of artwork that appeared on the very first page of the original 'Fantasy Supplement' that preceded the stand-alone D&D rules was obviously based directly on an illustration from a Tolkien book.Nt4

II. Not only was D&D in its first incarnation riddled with Tolkien borrowings, but TSR even put out a Battle of Five Armies boardgame in 1976, wherein Dwarves, Elves, Men, Goblins, Wargs, Giant Eagles, and Beorn fought various permutations of the great battle from The Hobbit. Since this year's theme for MERPcon is dwarves, I should note that my favorite variation listed in the rules is the all-dwarven one where the dwarves attempt to fight off Smaug's original attack on the Kingdom Under the Mountain, which includes the special rule "For this scenario Smaug may only be killed by Bowfire. Note: In this scenario the Dwarves have no Bows." Think about that for a minute. The only thing missing seems to be The Hobbit himself, since there is no counter representing Bilbo nor any mention of him within the game; he seems to have turned invisible & missed the battle, and game, altogether.

So, we see that in the years immediately following D&D's creation, TSR products borrowed heavily, and openly, from Tolkien. Sometime in 1977/78, however, Things Changed. Words like "hobbit" and "ent" and "balrog" suddenly disappear from reprintings of the D&D digests, replaced by "halfling" and "treant" and "Type VI Demon" [Eldritch Wizardry page 3]; we hear no more of "Nazgul" but only of "spectres" and "wraiths"; no more Tolkien boardgames like Battle of Five Armies appear from TSR. That these changes were only on the surface is shown by the AD&D Monster Manual—the first hardcover rpg book, released in late 1977—describing 'Halflings' as falling into three subgroups: Hairfeet, Stouts, and Tallfellows, which correspond exactly to Tolkien's Harfoot, Stour, and Fallohide.

III. So, what happened? The answer can be found, albeit obliquely, in Kristen Thompson's excellent book The Frodo Franchise [2007], a history of the making of the Peter Jackson movies. In her account of the way film rights to Tolkien's book got sold and resold to various filmmakers and studios, she describes how finally Saul Zaentz bought both the film and film merchandising rights in 1976, and by 1978 had set up Tolkien Enterprises to handle all licensing based on the Bakshi film (everything from Lord of the Nazgul piggybanks to puzzles that when assembled made photo-portraits of JRRT himself). This is important, because while conventional wisdom ascribes to the Tolkien Estate a reputation for laying down the law and descending like a hammer on people who use Tolkien names and characters without approval, in almost all cases I've been able to trace this is in fact not the Tolkien ESTATE—that is, the Tolkien family—but Tolkien ENTERPRISES, or Saul Zaentz. Given the uncertain state of the Tolkien copyrights in the 1970s (which is another story I can come back to later it you like), it's almost certain that it was NOT the Tolkien Estate, but rather Zaentz's Tolkien Enterprises, that sent TSR their cease & desist back sometime in late 1977. Whereupon Gygax and Company at once filed the serial numbers off, except in a few odd cases such as "orc" (which they ludicrously began to claim came not from Tolkien but from an Irish word for pig, leading to the silly-looking pig-snouted orcs of the Monster Manual [page 76]) and 'mithral' (which they simply decided to misspell) and otherwise went on their merry way.

A Good Day (Obama Wins)

So, Mr. Obama won, and won decisively. The popular vote, the electoral vote, and the number of states carried all went his way. Plus healthy working majorities in both houses of congress. Plus a huge upswelling of public support, not just here but around the world.

In the end, people voted their hopes, their convictions, and their consciences rather than their fears or their prejudices.

It's at times like these that I'm truly proud of this country.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

My Father's Birthday

Today would have been my father's seventy-seventh birthday.

I'm proud to share the name of the smartest man I ever knew; a songwriter who could never get his work recorded, a natural-born teacher who helped inspire my love of history, a parent who no matter how overworked was never too busy not to read us a bedtime story. Some people have trouble imagining their parents or grandparents as young; for me it's hard to imagine what he'd be like in his seventies, now that he's been dead for forty years after only living to the age of thirty-seven.* I do know he'd be deeply interested in the current election: I remember trying to make sense of the tv coverage of the 1968 Chicago convention he was watching, and that he was disappointed by Nixon's defeat of Humphrey just weeks before his first heart attack; my first date-able memory is his deep distress while watching the news (Huntley-Brinkley?) about JFK's assassination.** A war veteran himself (a radio operator in Korea) who hated war and whose best friend in the army was black, he'd be fascinated and proud we'd come so far as to nominate an African-American as one of the two candidates for president. His field was American History, and he was years ahead of the Dee Brown revolution in his admiration for Chief Joseph, and Geronimo, and the other American Indians leaders of the late nineteenth century. His favorite president was Jefferson; having recently come to consider Adams the better man of the two, I wish there were some way to have a conversation with him about the two men's respective merits. His death left a hole in our family that nothing ever filled, but I'm grateful to have been old enough to remember him.

From all of us who still remember you, rest in peace Papaw.

--John D. Rateliff, Jr.

*especially since none of his brothers lived past their sixties, no doubt in part due to heredity (Uncle J.W. had a stroke at 56, Uncle Aubrey an aneurism at 62; Uncle Trig and Uncle Curtis both died in their late sixties), and in part to smoking -- my father smoked three and a half packs of Pall Malls a day, or about ninety cigarettes.

**I was actually taken to see Kennedy when he came to Texarkana in the 1960 campaign, but of course I was too young to remember anything about it. I do remember seeing Johnson speak there when he was running for re-election in 1964 -- the only time I've seen a President while he was in office (I've shaken hands with Clinton, but that was while he was governor, and with Carter, but that was while he was on a book tour as ex-president).