Saturday, December 30, 2017


So, while our regular CALL OF CTHULHU game is in abeyance, I got it into my head that this would be a good time to run a one-shot using the original GANGBUSTERS rules put out by TSR back in 1982 (though I don't think I ever saw a copy until I went to work for TSR in 1991).

Don't want to give away too many spoilers, but here's the playlist for the 'soundtrack' I've been listening to while rolling up the characters and making notes on things I'll need to know about when running the adventure with oldschool rules I don't know well.

'Don't Take Me Alive' (Steely Dan)
'There Goes a Tenner' (Kate Bush)
'The Ballad of Danny Bailey' (Elton John)
'Pretty Boy Floyd' (Arlo Guthrie)
'The Night Chicago Died' (Paper Lace)
'Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress' (The Hollies)
'Bank Job' (Bare Naked Ladies)
'The Pink Panther theme' (Henry Mancini)
'A Shot in the Dark' (Henry Mancini)
'Peter Gunn theme' (Henry Mancini)
'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' (Flatt & Scruggs)
'Money' (Pink Floyd)

These are mostly just to set the mood, though some of them do give clues to the adventure; the trick wd be to figure out which ones (hint: 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' is there for getaway music, shd it be needed). The biggest clue wd be the mini-adventure's name: 'The Bank Job'.

More later when they've all chosen their characters.

--current music: 'The Bank Job' playlist. Also Men at Work (first two albums plus lead singer's solo), who I've not listened to in a long time.
--current reading: just finished MR. PALOMAR by Italo Calvino (a gift from my friend Jim Pietrusz); just started THE FACE IN THE FROST by John Bellairs (re-reading one of my favorite books).

Friday, December 22, 2017

Better Late . . . ?

So, the City of Rome has just rescinded the order of exile against Ovid.* Which is nice, but comes two thousand and nine years too late.

I suppose this cd be considered a case of 'better late than never'. But I'm coming to feel that the principle of 'justice delayed, justice denied' means some wrongs are so old that they can never be set right, whatever feel-good attempts we might try. So nice thought, Rome city council, but for all practical purposes the dead emperor Augustus' edict still stands.

Here's the link.

--John R.
current reading: A SPECTER IS HAUNTING TEXAS by Fritz Leiber (proof that a good idea need not make for a good book).
current gaming: preparing a one-shot scenario for GANGBUSTERS

*exiled for writing poems the emperor didn't approve of and, rumor has it, for messing around with the emperor's daughter.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Tolkien's Father Christmas in THE GUARDIAN

So, tonight I saw in THE GUARDIAN a nice piece on Tolkien's FATHER CHRISTMAS LETTERS, the handwritten letters that Tolkien wrote for his children every year in the persona of 'Father Christmas' (the English Santa Claus). Many of the letters explain why some requested gift would not be arriving (i.e., the goblins had stolen all the train sets); more simply detail the ongoing adventures of F.C. and his friend / assistant the North Polar Bear, who was always getting into trouble of some kind.

If you're not familiar with this lesser-known but utterly charming work, check the link below for the article, which includes reproductions of several of the original letters.

--John R.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

DUNSANY: the first page of my dissertation

So, thought I'd share the first page from my dissertation, for those interested in such things:

The Man Who Was Dunsany

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, was a man of many talents. As a chess player, he won the Irish Championship and played two World Chess Champions, one of them to a draw. A lifelong sportsman, he did everything from fox-hunting and snipe shooting to big-game hunting on safaris in Africa and India. A first-rate cricketer, he organized the local County Meath team for many years and had his official portait done wearing a cricket shirt, not the baronial robes of his ancestors. A failed politician, he twice ran for a seat in the House of Commons as a Conservative candidate, making a respectable showing at a time when the rival Liberals dominated Parliament. Designated by his father to be a career military man, he was not allowed to attend Oxford and study poetry as he wanted but instead sent to Sandhurst, the British equivalent of West Point. He served at Gibraltar and in the Boer War before opting out, and returned to fight in World War I, the Easter Uprising, and in the Home Guard during the Battle of Britain. A society figure, one of the supposedly idle rich, he was a member of the Irish peerage with a 12th century castle. He 'did' the London Season each year, married the Earl of Jersey's daughter, and divided his time between his London townhouse, Kent country home, and Irish estate. Had he lived a generation earlier, he would probably have been an explorer, like his mother's cousin Sir Richard Burton, discoverer of Lake Tanganyiki and first European to visit Mecca.  And he wrote.

--This text omits six notes.  If I were writing this today, I'd downplay the part about his playing the chess champions -- these were occasions when Dunsany was one of several players who were taking on the World Champion all at the same time. Impressive, but not so impressive as one-on-one would be.

--John R.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Lovecraft was right

So, this week I heard about the giant penguins who swam the seas fifty-five million years ago.

Apparently the period after the disappearance of the marine dinosaurs and before the emergence of the whales, sea lions, and seals was an age of giant penguins, at least in areas like New Zealand, Antarctica, and Peru.

The idea of human-sized penguins is all the more amusing, because horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, in his 1936 story AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS,* had his intrepid Miskatonic explorers
encounter giant penguins in the shoggoth-haunted tunnels beneath the Elder Things' cyclopean city.
Who knew that this bit of implausible exotica wd turn out to have a real-world analogue after all?

--John R.
current reading: THE LIST OF 7 (resumed; dreadful stuff)

*the worst but most popular of his novels

I did a little more checking, and it seems that the giant Peruvian penguins (a phrase I really enjoyed writing) were discovered in 2007.  But their giant Antarctic cousins seems to have been known to science since about 1905. So HPL may have been extrapolating from the known instead of wildly veering off into the unknown, on this point.

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Lesson Learnt

So, I've just finished reading THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS, a history of Progressive Rock by David Weigel. I started it not knowing what 'progressive rock' was, exactly, having heard the term for years without ever getting a satisfactory definition. Well, I still don't have a good definition, other than apparently 'bands like KING CRIMSON and EMERSON, LAKE, AND PALMER, but not PINK FLOYD for some reason'. Drawing on and reworking classical music was one tentpole, marking ELP but not, for some reason, ELO. Experimentation was another, lauding anything Robert Fripp* worked on but not Gilmour and Waters (or Page and Plant). Still, it was good to get some background on groups that peaked and faded before my day, like JETHRO TULL** or early GENESIS, even if it meant finding out more than I wanted to know about YES.

The best passage by far in the whole book is this brief account, which I have slightly paraphrased, of the day Keith Emerson had a very bad idea. He was in Nassau (the Bahamas) finishing up EMERSON, LAKE, AND PALMER's WORKS, VOLUME ONE when, one day,

he looked across the water and decided to swim for England.
'We realized that it was quite a long way', Emerson would say,
'but we had a compass'. The effort failed. Keith Emerson
was pulled wheezing from the water. January 14, 1977:
the last day he would use cocaine.


--John R.

*who's always just been a name to me, not someone whose name conjured up any actual music in my inner ear.
**whose earlier music I knew mainly through my cousin Sam's having played their albums a lot in the long ago.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

'Tis the season

So, anyone care to guess, sans google, what I've been listening to lately? Here are three clues, each being a direct quote:

matches, and candles, and buns

Go Freda!

It'll be the usual rubbish, but it won't cost much

--John R.
current reading: THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS by David Weigel

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

TSR bibliographic ghosts

So, one of the things that used to fascinate me back in the Lake Geneva days were the old TSR catalogues from earlier times. Each was a kind of time-capsule of the company as it was at the time it put out that particular catalogue. Particularly telling were the products that got announced as forthcoming which never saw the light of day.*

A case in point: a page from the 1984 catalogue features new and forthcoming adventures for TSR's second-tier games: TOP SECRET, GANGBUSTERS, BOOT HILL, and GAMMA WORLD. And in the course of a single page they announce no fewer than seven adventures that never came out.

For TOP SECRET, these were the adventures TIN MAN, about fighting off computer hacking (which still sounds timely), and WHITEOUT, set at a base at the South Pole (from which I conclude that somebody had seen ICE STATION ZEBRA, or indeed read the book).

For BOOT HILL, the promised modules were DELTA QUEEN, a riverboat full of high-stakes gambling, which sounds like it cd have been a really good BH adventure, and BARON OF SAN ANDREAS by Zeb Cook, about a local strongman, the self-proclaimed 'baron' of the title, who's set himself up as undisputed ruler of a small town.

For GAMMA WORLD, there was NIGHTWIND RIDER by Bruce Nesmith, which sounds as if it might have been a solo adventure, and RAPTURE OF THE DEEP, set on a mysterious island (aren't they all).

Finally, and to my mind the biggest lost among these might-have-beens, was the GANGBUSTERS adventure BASES LOADED: The Lakefront Mudcats Scandal) by Jeff Grubb, which wd have been GANGBUSTERS' analogue to the once-famous 'Black Sox' scandal in which one team was bribed to throw the World Series (way back in 1919). But then I always did like GANGBUSTERS, and was sorry there were so few adventures for it published (just five)

Here's the page in question, with more information about the individual intended releases.

--John R.
current listening: Leo Sayer, of all people

*most famously, perhaps, Gygax's SHADOWLANDS

P.S.: I forgot to include the scan. Here goes.

UPDATE (Th.Dec.14th)
Jeff Grubb has just posted an interesting account with much more detail of BASES LOADED (and TIN MAN as well) on his blog: highly recommended.


Monday, December 11, 2017

New Director(s) of the Wade

So, there's big news from the Wade Center, the most important of which is that after an interim of several years,* during which their highly skilled and dedicated staff has carried on as usual, the Wade has a new director.

Indeed, new director(plural), since Dr. David C. Downing and Dr. Crystal L. Downing become co-directors --the first time in the Wade's history that a husband-wife team will be representing the Collection.  I hadn't known Dr. Crystal's work; it seems she's a well-regarded Sayers scholar. That's outside my field of expertise, but it'll be interesting to see if that brings more attention to Sayers at Wheaton. And Dr. David is of course well-known in Lewis scholarship (an island I visit but do not dwell therein) for books like PLANETS IN PERIL and THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT.

Other recent big news is that the President of Wheaton College has a new book out on Tolkien:

Aside from Kilby himself, the founding father of the Wade, its directors have tended to focus of C. S. Lewis more than Tolkien (perhaps feeling, with some justification, that JRRT was well represented elsewhere), so this book's focus on Tolkien is welcome to those of us who are more Tolkienists and general Inklings scholars than whatever wd be the CSL fans/scholars equivalent (Lewisists?)

--John R.

*following the departure and then untimely death of director Chris Mitchell

Monday, December 4, 2017

Yesterday I Found . . . (Jim Ward Memo)

So, yesterday while doing a little sorting in the Box Room, I found a memo from towards the end of my TSR days (October 1995), reproduced here:

For those who can't see the image clearly enough, it's from Jim Ward, addressed to Sales & Marketing and Creative Services, dated October 10th [1995], with the Subject line 'Existing Rules'. The full text of the brief memo is as follows:

'Do not change any existing rules of any games or products without my imput. This is causing continuity problems that are hard to impossible to fix after the damage is already done.'

I remember the occasion of this announcement, but the details are gone: I no longer recall what Sales & Marketing had done that upset R&D (the editing and designing department, at the time briefly known as 'Creative Services') so much. They had already botched the release of MYSTARA and bungled that of BIRTHRIGHT, so it's hard to imagine what made the endlessly optimistic everybody-get-along Jim Ward so terse.

In any case,  I do remember that Jim prevailed in this interdepartmental power struggle, making this was one of our rare victories.

--John R.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

This Year's Tolkien Calendar(s)

So, they're getting harder to find, but between luck and persistence I now have both of next year's Tolkien Calendars.

The first is the movie tie-in calendar, though I didn't realize that when I ordered it. I really liked the cover art, which is all I saw from the online image, and had high hopes for the calendar as a whole. Which have now been disappointed. The art, all derived from the LotR movies, makes heavy use of silhouette and collage. I think the intended effect was to evoke some of the desolate landscapes Cor Blok attempted to convey. But I think they all fail, with the notable exception of the cover piece: a striking image of the Nine Walkers* silhouetted against a yellowish background dominated by the Barad-dur and Mt Doom.

What you get in most of these pieces is a silhouette of a character, taken from the film. Within that silhouette is a still of a scene featuring that character. Unfortunately in many cases it's difficult to figure out who the silhouette is supposed to be (luckily they're labelled, but that shdn't have been necessary); in others the image within the frame seem poorly chosen, almost random. Gollum fares best, because the silhouette element is strongest here. They'd have gotten a better result if they'd just used solid-black silhouettes throughout.

The second is Tolkien-themed, and reproduces Alan Lee's art for BEREN AND LUTHIEN. The art is up to Lee's usual high standard, as anyone who got the book these come from (published earlier this year) knows. Sadly, I have to confess that I'm getting tired of Lee's muted pallet. It worked wonderfully for the one-volume edition of THE LORD OF THE RINGS; less well for THE HOBBIT or other works. I do like their including a well-chosen quote in Tolkien's own words at the bottom of each calendar page; these help evoke the scene being depicted.

I guess I feel like someone who wanted soup and got served steak instead. Again. It's a fine steak, but I can't help feeling wistful about the soup I'd rather have had.

There are so many fine artists out there I'd like to see do a Tolkien calendar: Thomas Canty for one, with his beautiful art decco style producing a sort of stained glass effect.  Or Michael Whelan might be interesting: he's a fine artist, but would his style accord with Tolkienian characters and scenes? Alas that we'll never see a Tolkien calendar from Keith Parkinson.

What I think would make an even better, more striking calendar, would be to feature Tolkien's calligraphy --scrawled pages that mark significant passages in the stories; careful fair copy; various examples of his invented scripts. Many of these have been published, so reprinting them in such a format would seem imminent doable.

--John R.

current reading: lots of unfinished books all left hanging, including Scott Berg's LINDBURGH (which I'd been wanting to read for some time but not been able to find our copy; it luckily turned up in some sort out/re-organizing I've been doing) -- one chapter of which covers the events that provided the historical inspiration for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

*well, eight of them anyway; Aragorn their rearguard got cut off

Where I'll Be Tomorrow Night (play reading)

So, my friend Jeff wrote a play.

And tomorrow night they're doing a read-through, where a half-dozen or so people sit in a row and read out loud their various assigned parts. It's the first step when rehearsing a play, though in this case there aren't plans to actually stage it yet.

If you have the evening free and want a to enjoy a sharply observed comedy about what it's like to work in today's corporate culture, come join us over in Burien for what promises to be an entertaining time.

Here's information about the event:

"Human Resources"
(A Corporate Comedy)

with the Seattle Playwrights Studio at the Burien Actors Theatre
14501 4th Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98166

Monday, December 4th, at 7 PM

Bonus! One of the readers will be our own illustrious STAN!

--John R.
current reading: lots of stuff I'm sorting, like TSR style guides and trademark digests from the early nineties.