Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Certain Resemblance (a Tolkienesque cover)

So,  after trips and scheduling conflicts and illness, we finally managed to get the Monday night D&D group together for another session of Ravenloft last week and again this week.* During the first of these we explored a place we'd been chased out of once and now got chased out of all over again; during the latter we actually snuck into (and back out of) Castle Ravenloft itself, getting just  enough experience for several of us to go up a level; from here on we'll be focusing our attention on Strahd's stronghold.

 And at the unofficial show and tell that often proceeds our getting down to business, last week Jeff G. brought several recent releases of 'old-school revival' rpgs (thanks Jeff).

One of them had a cover that looked strikingly familiar: THE HERO'S JOURNEY by James Spahn, from Barrel Rider Games:

http://halflingsluck.blogspot.com/2016/02/update-change-to-cover-for-heros-journey.html **

This is pretty clearly a deliberate recreation of Tolkien's original 1937 cover for THE HOBBIT:


The artist's name is Michael Herrmann. I'm not otherwise acquainted with his work, but it's pretty clear that his brief was to imitate Tolkien's art as closely as possible.  Does this constitute a homage or a rip-off? Your individual answer probably closely correlates to how you feel about Tolk-clones like Terry Brooks and Dennis McKiernan, or indeed fan fiction in general.

For me, it's telling that this game's title is taken directly from Joseph Campbell, its cover art from J. R. R. Tolkien, and most of its contents from Gary Gygax. Its lack of originality is a feature, not a bug: the author wants to re-create first edition AD&D but skewed to his own preferences. This is nothing new: in fact, it's been a steady feature of rpgs since a few months after Gygax & Arneson's first D&D release.

As for the game itself, it's clearly a derivative labor of love.  It's primarily based on 1st edition AD&D up through UNEARTHED ARCANA, the last book to have Gygax's stamp on it. But it also goes off on tangents of its own, dropping some of the classic AD&D PH classes and including new ones of the author's own invention.***  This is pretty much the case with most of the book. It's as if, rather than restoring a classic Model A, someone has instead built a hot rod out of pieces of various old cars. Given my druthers I'd rather stick to the classic.

After all, if you want to play an oldschool D&D-style game, why not play the real thing? The 1st ed. PH, MM, & DMG are all readily available at places like Half Price Books, not to mention the internet. After all, who wants to play a chess-like game when they cd just play chess?

--John R.
today's song: 'Classical Gas' by Mason Wms.

*and in-between we managed to get in the first session of our new CALL OF CTHULHU campaign, Chaosium's first organized-play event; no one died and no one went mad, so it's so far so good.

**check here for a little more information on the game

***hence it includes the seventh stat, Comeliness (under the name 'Appearance'), which debued in UNEARTHED ARCANA, and all three of the U.A. character classes: Cavalier, Barbarian, and (Thief-)Acrobat, but lacks two of the old PH classes (Illusionist and Assassin). Its bard is non-Gygaxian, closer to the nerfed 3e bard than Gygax's uberclass, and it adds two new non-AD&D classes, the Duelist and the Jester.


John Hancock said...

Of course the question is how likely is it (unless previous permission is granted) that the Tolkien estate will sue? And if so how likely are they to win?

Jeff_Grubb said...

As the person who lent you the text, I must respectfully disagree. I think the cover is more in category of loving homage than blatant rip-off, and a welcome change from a lot of OSR material that seeks to closely evoke the trade dress of early D&D material. The back cover has an art piece of Gary Gygax turned into the Dungeon Master from the D&D cartoons.

I found the contents to be very tightly organized, and while a group could go out and find the originals in a used bookstore, there is always the challenge of one more book being needed (indeed, the original AD&D had its Unearthed Arcana. While people have been "fixing" D&D almost immediately upon its original publication, the OSR (Old School Revival/Renaissance/Reformation)seeks to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear with the wisdom gained since. My greater concern, going through the text, is not how much came from the various early incarnations of D&D, but how much came from other OSR versions.

I liked the contents - they were tidy and concise. Various evolutions and house rules are presented as boxed options within the game. If I had to toss a single volume at a first time DM, this would be a good call (I am a fan of the D&D Cyclopedia, but recognize that even that might be a bit much).

I will say homage, and given the storied relationship between Tolkien's works and Gygax's, an amusing one.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear JH.
Unlikely, I shd think, since it doesn't use the word 'Tolkien' or 'hobbit' or 'ring' and, more importantly, it's a rulebook, not a novel. Thus it's not likely to be mistaken for a Tolkien book, which I gather is one of their big rules-of-thumb. But I'm no lawyer.
--John R.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Jeff
Thanks for presenting the opposite case so eloquently.

I enjoyed the chance to look over Spahn's book, which strikes me as very much in the tradition of a DM printing his or her home-rules version of D&D. But my heart's still with the old game his version derives from.

--John R.