Sunday, February 28, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (WAR OF WIZARDS)

So, one of the nice things about starting this string of posts about TSR boardgames from the dawn of time is that it casts an interesting light on the company's early days. It also gives me a chance to take a good look at old items in my collection that just sit on the shelf, space I badly need for the Tolkien books. And yet another is the discovery of games I not only didn't have but had never heard of.

A case  in point is WAR OF THE WIZARDS, a Tekumel/EPT spin-off from 1975 (sku # unknown). I've never so much as seen this one, but fortunately Jeff Grubb has put up a post on his GRUBBSTEET blog that gives a good idea of what this game is like:

For a little more information, some of the basics are given at BoardGameGeek )

The main lesson I take away from this one, and from Jeff's observations-- is that it shows TSR didn't really know how to do follow-up product early on. So they experimented with different approaches, took note of what worked and what didn't, and used those lessons to guide their efforts --until the next time, when gaps in institutional memory led to repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

In short: TSR games have never been perfect little bonsai trees but untidy forests that get trimmed back from time to time.

--John R.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

A Good Writer's Worst Book

 So, I've just been reading Le Guin's TEHANU, and it's got me thinking about what bad books by a good author tell us.* 

For example there's Austen's MANSFIELD PARK, where she has all the elements she usually uses in a novel but in the wrong combination. Or CSL's THE ABOLITION OF MAN, where he argues in favor of indoctrinating the young. Or one of Shakespeare's bottom of the barrel plays like TITUS ANDRONICUS or TIMON OF ATHENS. Logically the only way to avoid having a 'worst book' is to only write one book. And a given writer's worst might still be v. gd.

But when I tried to apply this line of thought to Tolkien I got into difficulties. MR. BLISS or ROVERANDOM might be serious candidates, but is it fair to include posthumous works? If we do exclude posthumous works, then I don't think there's a genuinely bad book in the fairly short list of books published in Tolkien's lifetime: H, LotR, FGH, ATB, T&L, SWM, RGEO. If I were forced to it I might opt for RGEO just because it has so little Tolkien content, but I suspect those interested in Tolkien's invented languages and invented scripts wd object.


--current reading: Ordway, Briggs, light novel

*The inverse phenomenon, of a good book by a bad author, also occurs and is even more interesting, but that's an argument for another day. 

Ordway at the Wade

So, Thursday evening I watched the virtual book launch for Holly Ordway's new book TOLKIEN'S MODERN READING at the Wade Center. They had a three-way set up with Dr. Downing, the Wade's co-director, as host; Archivist Laura Schmidt as moderator; and Ordway as guest. For those who missed it (e.g., anyone in the UK who didn't want to get up in the dead of night) the whole thing is now up on YouTube at any individual's convenience. 

Having been on deadline all week I still haven't read more than a fraction of the book in question, so all I can give here are scattered observations and comments. 

First, I'm impressed by her meticulous research. She spends a lot of time at the start of her book explaining her criteria for establishing that Tolkien knew and read a particular book, and it was a major theme of her presentation. A lot of the value of her book is her decision to err on the side of exclusion --if the evidence seems iffy to her, she leaves that item out.

Second, she's better in print than in oral presentation. The book has the advantage of carefully chosen words  in the most advantageous structure, which is hard to beat in an extemporaneous format. 

Third, she's hard on Carpenter. She blames him with having badly distorted the truth by his statement that Tolkien felt English literature pretty much ended with Chaucer.

She is also highly critical of LETTERS for not giving the complete text of each letter. 

She considers Scull & Hammond three-volume set "the gold standard" for its reliability as a resource.

A few misc. points:

--She is certain that JRRT read Newman but cannot prove that he read any specific work of his.

She made some odd remarks on Morris which made me think she was confusing the Romans of THE HOUSE OF THE WOLFINGS with the Huns of THE ROOTS OF THE MOUNTAINS.

Finally, it's dun-SANE-ee (rhymes with rainy) not dUN-sin-ay

--More when I've had time to delve into the chapters that explore specific writers and works.

--John R.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021


 So, today a new book arrived that I heard about from Andrew H.: TOLKIEN & THE CLASSICAL WORLD, edited by Hamish Wms and published by Walking Tree Press (2021) as volume 45 in the Cormare series. This being a seriously under-explored aspect of Tolkien's work despite the occasional attempt to make some headway (e.g. Reckford's 1987/88 essay or Morse's 1986 book) I v. much wanted to see what these folks had to say. So far haven't had time to do much more than skim the table of contents, but I can already tell the first piece I'm going to read: Michael Kleu's "Plato's Atlantis and the Post-Platonic Tradition in Tolkien's Downfall of Numenor", quickly followed by Lukast Neubauer's "Less Consciously at First but More Consciously in the Revision: Plato's Ring of Gyges as a Putative Source of Inspiration for Tolkien's Ring of Power", then the two pieces comparing Gondor/Rohan with Rome/Germanica: Richard Z. Gallant's "The Noldorization of the Edain: The Roman-Germani Paradigm for the Holdor and Edain in Tolkien's Migration Era" and Juliette Harrisson's "Escape and Consolation: Gondor as the Ancient Mediterranean and Rohan as the Germanic World in The Lord of the Rings".

So, it'll take me a while to get to this, but I expect it to be worth the wait.

I wonder if anyone will explore the Trolls/Cyclopes analogy.

--John R.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Tolkien Loved Libraries

So, between my current deadline and time spent sorting out yet more stuff, I haven't made much progress with the Ordway book yet -- though I'm looking forward to her presentation on it at the Wade later this week.

Her essential thesis is that Tolkien read and was strongly influenced by authors who were modern (1850-1970s) rather than medieval. It's a little odd to be told no one thought of this before if like me you're part of a number of scholars who have been working on just that for years. To be fair Ordway is much more nuanced in the book itself than she had been in descriptions of it while it was in the works.

What has caught my eye is the amount of careful research that's gone into this book. For example I learned that Tolkien spoke at the opening of a local library in Deddington, a village between Oxford and Banbury,  as reported by the local paper on December 19th 1956. 

The wealth of books to be found here is food for the mind,

and everyone knows that for the stomach to go without food

for a long time is bad, but for the mind to go without food

is even worse.

("Professor Tolkien's Whimsical Talk", Ordway p.22) 

So that's a new quote, and a nice one, to add to our collections.

More when I've had a chance to read more.

--John R.

UPDATE (T.2/23)

Thanks to Doug A. for the news that this event was reported on Morgan Thomsen's Mythoi blog back in 2012. Here's the link.

Among the admirable amount of detail M.T. includes is that Tolkien closed his remarks by reciting a poem in Elvish ('the musical fairylike language that he invented').

I'm intrigued and a bit puzzled by one quote:

'I have seen visions through the wormholes 

of books printed before Caxton died, and 

from the paintings of skins of animals which

 roamed that Country we don't speak of 

at Wantage before Alfred was born'

(emphasis mine)

--So I wonder: Is 'that Country we don't speak of' the Land of the Dead (home of the Great Majority)? Or does he mean Faerie, a realm which folk are traditionally reluctant to name?

In any case, thanks to Morgan T. for the good work and to Douglas A. for pointing me in its direction.

--Now back to reading the Ordway.

--John R.

Saturday, February 20, 2021


So, the only reason I thought I'd have to leave THE AWFUL GREEN THINGS FROM OUTER SPACE  (1980) out of this series of posts about TSR dawn-of-time boardgames is that I don't have a copy.* But it seems a pity to leave it out when I do have a copy of the re-release from Steve Jackson Games (circa 1988), so my remarks will be based on the SJG version, not the original.

AWFUL GREEN THINGS bears a strong resemblance to SNIT'S REVENGE (and, for that matter, SNIT SMASHING) --not surprisingly since these are sibling games, all being creations of the inimitable Tom Wham.** In the case of AWFUL GREEN its inspiration was THE GREEN SLIME,***  its spiritual descendent THE CAPTAIN IS DEAD (2017).

My copy of this game is in good shape and obviously has never been played; my notes say I got it from Dale Donavan in 1999 for $3. Obviously, there's no TSR stock number on this version.

The other Wham games I know of include MERTWIG'S MAZE, published in folio format (and much later, being released in 1988); two of the six games in THE BEST OF DRAGON GAMES collection, FILE 13 (originally 1983) and SEARCH FOR THE EMPEROR'S TREASURE (originally 1981); and, best of all, there was THE GREAT KHAN GAME (1989). Published much later than most of the TSR Wham games and in sourcebox format (one of those slim boxes later used for al-Qadim adventures), this is a melding card game played on a map that serves as a board. This is the only one of the games I've been discussing that I actually picked up when it was still a new game. It's also one among those relatively few of these I've actually played --and greatly enjoyed, by the way.

The sku number is #1044, reflecting how KHAN GAME comes v. much later than the early Wham games that made his reputation. For some reason somebody decided this whimsical and wacky little game shd be set in the FORGOTTEN REALMS, necessitating the addition of 'The Whamite Isles' to the official FR map. This has given this one game a collectability factor for FORGOTTEN REALMS players lacking in SNITS or AWFUL GREEN.

--John R.

*the same problem applies with LITTLE BIG HORN, which I've never even seen, and WAR OF THE WIZARDS --but luckily Jeff Grubb has just posted a good write-up of the latter at  (

**SNIT'S REVENGE and AWFUL GREEN THINGS even share similar wording in their advice to player's section for the Snits and Green Things players.

***One of the worst science fiction movies ever made, the obvious source of AD&D's dread Green Slime.

Old TSR Boardgames (SNIT'S REVENGE)

So, of all the boardgames TSR put out over the decades without a doubt, hands down, by far the weirdest is Tom Wham's SNIT'S REVENGE (1977).

Like most of Wham's work,* this had originally appeared in DRAGON and was self-illustrated in Wham's distinctive cartoony style. 

Most of the game takes place inside the internal organs of one monster (the Bolotomus), which is being invaded by a number of small, fast creatures (the Snits). The Bolotomus player marshals his or her defenses, sending out Runnungitms (essentially antibodies) to stave off the Snits. The Snits player runs riots inside their foe, kicking things to death.

Notably for such a silly game,** SNIT'S REVENGE has a stellar cast of credits. In addition to Wham's own contributions to 'Design & Art' and Gygax's nod for "Inspirations", "Development, playtesting, and other venerable aid" are ascribed to a who's who of TSR greats:

Rob Kuntz

Tim Kask

Brian Blume

Skip Williams

Ernie Gygax

Dave Sutherland

Joe Orlowski

Mike Carr

Dave Trampier 

and Jeff Dee

Most of these had moved on by the time I came to TSR, the two notable exceptions being Skip Williams (long a stalwart of the RPGA and later driving force behind the 3e Monster Manual) and Dave Sutherland (mapper extraordinaire). But Wham cd still be seen around town sometimes, puttering around in overalls around the Lake Geneva library (I  was told he worked there as a custodian). I was also told that he'd been married to Rose Estes, who wrote a number of the early Greyhawk novels.

Wham was also exceptional in that most of TSR's early boardgames were one offs, the only boardgame TSR produced for that author. By contrast Wham created a number of such games. There was not only SNIT'S REVENGE's predecessor (SNIT SMASHING) but also its successor (RUNNGUS'S GAME). 

One of these games, THE AWFUL GREEN THINGS FROM OUTER SPACE, merits a post of its own, which shd follow in a day or two.

Finally, a few features of my copy of SNIT'S REVENGE are worth calling out. For one thing, it's autographed (on the gameboard) by Wham himself. For another, I got this game in a silent auction at RockCon in Rockford in 1993 but was not its first owner. Not only had all the little chits been carefully punched out but some sheets recording the names and stats of Snits, SuperSnits, and locations set down for some long-ago gaming session by one Mike Burba were inside the box. So I'm glad this game is one that didn't sit pristine on a shelf but got played and, I hope, enjoyed.

--John R.

*By the way, the name is pronounced so that 'Wham' rhymes with 'Tom'

**It says a lot about the game that two and a half of its six-page rules come in the form of a comic strip explaining the cosmology behind the game.


I forgot to add the sku designator: it's product #5003


Thursday, February 18, 2021

C. S. Lewis Biopic in the works

So, it seems a film biography of C. S. Lewis is now in the works, scheduled for a release late this year (or so they hope).

Called THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT, a phrase taken from CSL's autobiography, it's directed by the same director who did the Joss Ackland SHADOWLAND years ago. The story is said to be based on Max McLean's one-man show, which we've seen. The structure however sounds quite different, with three different actors portraying CSL at different times in his life, the older Lewis sometimes commenting on the younger. If done well this might recapture the feeling of its being Lewis's autobiography, where he repeatedly contrasts the himself of the present day with his earlier, starkly different younger selves.

The one article I've seen says almost nothing about the supporting cast (e.g., is Janie Moore given due prominence? what about his brother Warnie?) but it does specify that JRRT will be a character (played by one Tom Glenister), described as "one of his [Lewis's] intellectual sparring partners".

They apparently did some on-location filming in Oxford. It'll be nice to see the Kilns and Magdalen.

Thanks to David B. for the link, which I found in his post on the MythSoc list.

--John R. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

A Report on my Glasgow talk


one more follow-up on my Glasgow talk, in the form of a report on the Centre's blog from one attendee about how it went, plus a reading list of works, some referred to in my talk but for the most part generated in the Q&A and Chat that followed. 

I'm glad to say  that the verdict is that the presentation went well --though looking over all that was going on at the same time in parallel in the audience response as I was speaking makes me wish my responses were more focused.

Here's the link:

Many thanks to Grace and Emma and Hannah and of course Dimitra for all their hard work putting this event, et al, together.



 the next game (product #1009) on the shelf is somewhat later (1980) and more appealing in its art and components, with an attractive cover and pleasant color pallet for both box and map. Written by the Rahmans, this is a much more substantial work than, say COHORTS of WARLOCKS & WARRIORS, with a thirty-six page rulebook, poster-sized map, encounters sheet, dice, chits, and cards.

This was another purchase from Crazy Igor, apparently a Christmas present to myself since I got it December 21st 1993 (a Tuesday). In all the time since I've only played this game once, some years back, when Steve Winter ran it for several of us who'd never played and were curious. I remember I was underwhelmed, but I don't remember why.

Similarly I know there were two editions of this game, not sure why. Maybe I'll see if I can run through a solo game before it goes out the door. It might be fun to see how well it might match with PENDRAGON. I do see from BoardGameGeek that there's a DRAGON magazine article offering rules on how to play a varlet rather than a chivalrous knight,* which again sounds worth checking out. 

One final feature of note is that the map is credited to Darlene Pekul and the cover art to "Eymoth and Erol Otus". Eymoth I haven't come across before. Otus by contrast is one of the most distinctive artists TSR ever employed. I have to say though that the cover art for this game is unusually subdued by his standards and I wdn't have recognized it as his work.

Next up: something completely different (SNIT'S REVENGE).

--John R.

--current reading: TEHANU, TOLKIEN'S MODERN READING, light novels.

*"Being a Bad Knight" by Glenn Rahman, DRAGON #58 (Feb 1982)

Friday, February 12, 2021


So, to resume.

As my Marie Kondo deathmarch through my shelf-full of early TSR boardgames I've had for years and for the most part never played  continues, we come to WARLOCKS & WARRIORS (1977), product #1003.

This turns out to be yet another of TSR's confusing array of intro-level games (this one retooling the target audience down to age 8 & up), with this particular entry complicating that tangled history just a little more.

It also turns out to be another of the games designed by fantasy authors Gygax liked (the 'Famous Authors' or 'Famous Writers' Series),  like de Camp's COHORTS and, presumably, Leiber & Fischer's LANKHMAR .

 In this case the sword and sorcery writer in question was Gardner Fox--who though remembered today primarily as a third-rate Conan imitator* was clearly a favorite of E. Gary G.**

The basic idea underlying this game is paring down the character classes to just two: Warlock (magic-users) and Warrior (fighter). The best thing about it, looking back from the present day, is the Dave Sutherland art, which is reminiscent of the art towards the end of the DMG depicting an adventuring group's up and downs in their explorations.

As for the game itself, the puzzle is why did they need this when they had Megarry's DUNGEON  (which is in fact advertised on the last page of WARLOCKS & WARRIORS' rulesheet)?

Just as an aside, I shd record that my copy was a gift from Slade Henson (June 7th 1994). Slade was at that time downsizing his own collection. It's perhaps amusing to note that Slade credited his having such a nice collection to his having arrived in Lake Geneva to start work at TSR (circa 1989?) on the same weekend that Frank Mentzer had a big garage sale . . . 

--John R.

--current reading: light novel, Ordway's book, TEHANU

*Fox's main claim to fame are not his fiction but his work in comic books: he played a major role in the creation and scripting of ADAM STRANGE.

**The full credits read

Game Design: Gardner Fox

Development: Brian Blume & James Ward

Graphics: David Sutherland, Brian Blume & Gardner Fox


I shd have included in the post above information from Zenopus's comment on my earlier post re. COHORTS: Roman Checkers. It is clear from Z's additional researches that the three works so listed as belonging to this series are

(1) LANKHMAR  [Fischer & Leiber]


(3) COHORTS  [de Camp]

Thanks to Zenopus A. for clarifying this.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Text of My Glasgow Talk

So, just wanted to share the link to this, the script of my Glasgow talk, 'Giants in the Oerth'. This version shd be handy for anyone who may want to cite it, or if there are those who prefer text over audio/video. 

Plus, this time with endnotes.

And in the interests of fixing a small misstep, I now realize that when I said Moldvay did the 'Giants in the Oerth' column the assistance of Schick, it wd have been more accurate to say the two did it as partners.

Here's the link. Thanks again all for the questions and comments.

--John R.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (4th DIMENSION)

 So, this one is a bit of an odd man out, being the American adaptation / edition of a previously published English (UK) game. It'd be nice to be able to say that this game about Time Lords was connected in some way with DOCTOR WHO, but no such luck. Instead this is a positional game all about positioning your markers most advantageously; it has echoes of Stratego and Chess

And that's really about it. Perhaps the design has appeal that's not apparent from just skimming the rules and setting up the pieces. Unfortunately none comes across in the two online play-throughs I found on YouTube / Boardgame Geeks. It also has the problem that the gamepieces look too much alike and the board is too small.

One mildly shocking feature of the game is its naming one standard type of move a "suicide".  There's an unfortunate bit of word choice that wd never see the light of day today.

The games' product number/stock number is #5004; it's also a bit later (1979)  than the other games I've been looking at in this string of posts. 

In the end, I get the sense that this game functions better as a piece of set design in, say, an old episode of STAR TREK than being something someone wd actually want to play. Pity. 

--John R.

Friday, February 5, 2021


 So, this might be known as The One That Got TSR in Trouble, were there not competition for that title (cf. WARRIORS OF MARS). Gygax tells the story in anecdotal fashion:

TSR was served with papers threatening damages to the tune of half a mil

 by the Saul Zantes (sp?) division of Elan Merchandising on behalf of 

the tolkien Estate. The main objection was to the boardgame we were 

publishing, The Battle of Five Armies. The author of that game had given 

us a letter from his attorney claiming the work was grandfathered

because it was published after the copyrights for JRRT's works

had lapsed and before any renewals were made. The action also

demanded we remove balrog, dragon, elf, ent, goblin, hobbit,

orc, and warg from the D&D game. Although only balrog and

warg were unique names we agreed to hobbit as well, kept the rest,

of course. The boardgame was dumped, and thus the suit was 

settled out of court at that.

—CHEERS, GARY (circa 2002) p. 108

Since it'd take a whole separate post if not more to unpack and fact-check Gygax's account  (e.g., Zaentz's 'Tolkien Enterprises' did not represent the Tolkien Estate, though they often found it useful to give the impression that they did), and because I've written about this boardgame elsewhere, all I'll say about it here is that my favorite rule can be found at the bottom of page 5 of the rulebook:


. . . For this scenario Smaug may only be killed by Bowfire. Note: In this scenario the Dwarves have no Bows.

--Think over that one for a bit. Kobayashi Maru, anyone? 

Maintaining their confusing tradition in assigning stock/product numbers, this game is #F110

--that is, the tenth in their line of boardgames, this time tagged as a Fantasy title.

On a personal note, while I'm vague on exactly when I got most of the games I'm covering in their sequence of blog posts, this one I can be specific on: I got it at Origins in 1995 (Sunday July 16th), that being the only time I ever went to Origins. It cost me $18.95, probably because all the pieces have been punched and ziplock bagged. Finally, I bought it from Crazy Egor -- not just his booth but Crazy Egor himself. *

--John R.

--current reading: three Japanese light novel (the equivalent of young adult fiction).

*I also bought the original boxed set of Chaosium's MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP at the same time and place, but it cost me $29.95.  It was worth it. And now, all these years later, I'm coming to the end of playing the adventure.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (COHORTS : Roman Checkers)

So, another of TSR's early boardgames is more significant for its associations than its gameplay. Published by TSR under the name COHORTS: THE GAME OF ROMAN CHECKERS,* it's a reconstruction of an ancient game, the rules for which are lost. The game has different names in different cultures. From a quick survey I suspect some of these are different games now associated together more than is perhaps justified. 

More interesting than the game itself is the fact that it was the work of L. Sprague de Camp. At first de Camp seemed an odd choice to create (or re-create) a boardgame. Then it hit me: one of de Camp's most famous works is his LEST DARKNESS FALL (1939), a Connecticut Yankee novel about a modern-day engineer who finds himself back in Late Antiquity Rome.  If we consider de Camp, who was something of a polymath, an expert in all things Roman, his authoring a Roman or pseudoRoman game makes more sense.**  

de Camp's name appears at the end of the rulesheet and on one of the box sides, which says


 has been specially prepared by world famous author L. Sprague de Camp.

The box bottom  reads

COHORTS is the third title in TSR's "Famous Writers Series", 
and this edition of the game was prepared by noted writer L. Sprague de Camp.

The phrase "Famous Author Series" appears in a starburst in the upper right corner of the boxtop.

So, what is the Famous Writers/Authors Series, and what are the other entries in it (presumably at least two, if this is the third one)? I assume the Leiber/Fischer LANKHMAR Game was one, and that the Larry Smith version of Tolkien's BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES the other.

Finally, for those trying to sort out the seqyence, this game's stock number is #5002.

--John R.

--New Arrival: Holly Ordway's long awaited TOLKIEN'S MODERN READING.

*Thanks to Steve Brown for my copy of this. 

**This was not de Camp's only contact with TSR: DRAGON MAGAZINE reprinted one of the  Harold Shea 'Incomplete Enchanter' stories.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Lankhmar Lore --found

So, thanks to Jeff G's comment on my previous Lankhmar post, I now know where a lot of the questions I had can be answered. Jeff pointed me towards a string of articles about the LANKHMAR Game that had appeared in DRAGON Magazine in late 1979/early 1980.

In all there were seven pieces in this series, all of them written by Dr. Frederick MacKnight:*

DRAGON #30.  p.16-17 (Oct 1979)

DRAGON #31. p.32-34 (Nov 1979)

DRAGON #33. p.12-15 (Jan 1980)

DRAGON #34. p.32-33 (Feb 1980)

DRAGON #36. p.46-47 (Apr 19800

DRAGON #37. p.31-32 (May 1980)

DRAGON #38. p.44-45 (June 1980)


MacKnight's claim to fame is that he was the person who introduced Fischer to Leiber. He also played the original version with Fischer and Leiber and can (and does) describe it in exhaustive detail. Unfortunately he rather confusingly describes and discusses the original game ('LANKMAR'), the new game ('LANKHMAR'), and his own proposed re-design of many features of both. Here's what MacKnight has to say (emphasis mine):

I am one of the few people ever to have played the original game of Lankhmar

other than its original authors, Harry Fischer, Fritz Leiber, and Martha Fischer

There was also Prof. Lawrence (Larry) Howe of the University of Louisville,

and that is all. Harry owned the board and hadn't had many games-minded

friends since college days.

Perhaps the most interesting thing here is learning that Martha Fischer played a crucial role. Indeed, she created the map board, which had a 3D element to its terrain. MacKnight says he was Ningauble and suggests that Martha F. was Sheelba (Leiber and Fischer were Fafhrd and The Mouser, of course). And apparently there was a good deal of roleplaying when the characters came into conflict.

Playing the game took a major time investment of several days --at least a weekend. But in MacKnight's opinion it was more than worth it:

I played the game only three or four times but it was enough to convince me

that it was the greatest, most fascinating game ever invented by man.

In addition, we learn some worthwhile misc. facts:

That the board was six feet tall and three feet wide.

That the map was oriented North / South, unlike TSR's East / West, which had created blank areas that Gygax et al had filled with inserted place-names of their own devising. 

Each square was 1&1/2 inches across. 

The landbridge was twice as wide in the original. 

As for the War Cat, MacKnight sheds light on this when he groups it with mounts:

The beasts are horses and camels. In [the original game] these were represented

 by checkers: black for horses, red for camels. There was also the War Cat, 

represented by a furry button. In [the new game] the War Cat plays no 

active role. He must be too old now too leave his lair!

I admit to being curious whether the original survives and if so where it is now. We know the board was in Fischer's keeping, and that it must have survived intact down to the mid-1970s, when Gygax et al must have borrowed it to work from when creating their stripped down version. The chief reason given by Gygax for not publishing the original game as is was simply cost: the game wd have to be priced at fifty to a hundred dollars, in a day when the EMPIRE OF THE PETAL THRONE box was considered extravagantly expensive at twenty-five dollars.

Nowdays, of course, things are different. A deluxe Kickstarter might well have a good chance of getting funded, assuming the original survives to serve as the template.

--John R.

*MacKnight's first name is given variously as Franklin and Frederick; I'm not sure which is right.

Coda: Fafhrd's Dilemma

Before moving on, I wanted to mention the seventh and last of the pieces MacKnight inflicted on DUNGEON editor Tim Kask, which was unlike the rest in that it was a logic puzzle. Here's a quick summary:

Fafhrd is in a death trap. 

The Gray Mouser has five minutes to disable the trap and free him. 

The person to whom the puzzle is posed asks questions 

to create the scene and reveal what to do to save his partner.


Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Lankhmar Lore

So, I took a look at the LANKHMAR map, cards, tokens, and rulebook in hopes that this might turn up some Lankhmar lore—details about Leiber & Fischer's world from early after its creation that might not have made it into the fiction. There turns out to be very little of this, though what's there is intriguing (see below). The biggest change is in accepting that the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd are here just two of four co-equal heroes (each being one player's character), the other two being Pulgh of Lankhmar and Movarl of Kvaach Nar. Fafhrd leads a Mingol army while The Mouser fights on behalf of the Chosen of the King of Kings (a figure wholly unknown to me).


 Now that I've looked through the rules, I'd say the game play must be fairly chaotic,* since there are multiple elements that disrupt each player's plans. The most amusing of these are the GEAS cards. Each player has to draw one of these at the start of each turn, and they represent quests that either Sheelba or Nignauble force that player to go on. That hero has to either temporarily abandon the war and take on the geas himself or delegate it to one of his minions. Typical Geases include


• "Go to the Trollstep Mountains to learn the trollstep dance and report back to Sheelba"

• "Go to the City of Ghouls and bring back a Ghoul-friend for Ningauble"

and my personal favorite: 

• "Find an earthworm from Earth's End and bring it to Sheelba".


Sometimes Sheelba will lend her boat to help out a hero, Sheelba's boat being another new element.


The typical reward for fulfilling a GEAS is to be free of it, but sometimes there's a Reward, with effects detailed on the REWARD card. 


The most interesting of these involve an elusive character known as the War Cat, who appears on two of the cards. The War Cat gives out gifts to heroes, but there's no clue of what he, or she, or It might be, though we do know that it lives in a cave (the Cave of the War Cat) on the far west of the map.*


1st card. "Go to the Cave of the War Cat and gain your choice of a sword, spear, axe, or bow and arrow"

2nd card. "The War Cat gives you aid in combat: Add +1 to the die roll of the man of your choice (hold until used). Discard when used."


So, who or what is the War Cat? In the absence of any other evidence I'd have assumed something along the lines of the Cath Paluc. But in the game it functions as a sort of minor Sheelba/Ningauble --less perilous to approach, distributing lesser reward. The parallel between the names Gray Mouser and War Cat makes me think the Cat is a who, not a what. That visitors are given weapons suggests faint echoes of Scathach, but that's probably pushing it. 


Unless of course it's just something Gygax or one of the other mid-seventies re-casters of the game put it in as some kind of private joke.


Perhaps someday we'll get a book-length study of Leiber that'll answer questions like these.

--John R.


*one good example of this is the Sunken Lands, a land-bridge that submerges at unpredictable intervals, possibly drowning an army crossing the land-bridge at the time.

A Declaration of Consciousness

Well, this is interesting.

I've now finished reading Sy Montgomery's book THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS, the author's personal account of her interactions with octopuses (including some at the Seattle Aquarium). Worth reading, though I wd have preferred less Montgomery and more octopuses.

As part of a discussion of octopus intelligence, towards the end of her book she mentions The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, a 2012 proclamation by a gathering of neuroscientists that some animal species --birds, mammals, octopus-- have the "neurological substrates that generate consciousness"; among the signatories was Stephen Hawkins. It's encouraging to see physiology catching up with observational research.

Reading this makes me look forward to the day when, post-pandemic, we'll be able to visit area aquariums again (being lucky enough to have not one but two, in Seattle and also Tacoma).

--John R.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (The Lankhmar Game)

 So, I like to make lists. For example, years ago when I was at TSR/Lake Geneva, I attempted to create a complete product list. Every D&D/AD&D rulebook and boxed set and module. Every boxed set or module for all the other TSR rpgs, like GANGBUSTERS and TOP SECRET and BOOT HILL.  Every book to come out of TSR's book department --not just all the shared world novels but also the pick-a-path books in their various guises. In the end I didn't quite manage to get everything, but I came pretty close: call it a good faith effort.

And while poking about in the company's history, I became aware aware that TSR had published a number of board games in the early days of the company. By far the most important of these, and the best known, are DUNGEON, Dave Megarry's boardgame encapsulation of D&D, and Mike Carr's FIGHT IN THE SKY / DAWN PATROL. The rest had largely vanished out of the collective memory.* 

Once I was aware these games I started picking them up as opportunity offered. I have eight and know of a ninth;  I don't think there were ever more than ten or twelve in all. Anyway, thought I'd do a few postings for the sake of those curious about this long-ago sideline. 


Being a big Leiber fan (nobody wrote sword and sorcery better) I was excited to learn that TSR had published a Lankhmar boardgame back in 1976. Leiber fans know that Fischer, Leiber, and a third person whose name I forget created a Fafhrd & Gray Mouser boardgame back in 1937, only about three years after Fischer & Leiber had created the characters. The game, rumored to be of great complexity, thus sounded likely to reveal new information about the characters and their world. 

Imagine my disappointment then to discover that this is not the game Fischer and Leiber created back in 1937, but a modern (1976) redaction from it whipped up by Gygax, Rob Kuntz, and Brad Stock (a name I've otherwise never come across). 

The full credits are of interest in themselves:

Inspiration: Fritz Leiber

Original Design: Harry O. Fischer

Consultant and Co-Designer: Fritz Leiber

Development of Redesign: E. Gary Gygax, Robert J. Kuntz, Brad Stock

Graphics: David Sutherland

Editing: Mike Carr

Special Effort: David Arneson, Brian Blume

Printing: Patch Press Inc., Beloit, Wisc

—this is thus one of the few TSR titles to include a credit for Arneson, albeit an ambiguous one.

The account of why we are getting this game and not the one we wd have expected comes near the end of the rulebook (emphasis mine):


   Most readers will be surprised to learn that the Game of Lankhmar was originally conceived in 1937 and has been played down to this time! It has withstood a rather severe test of time, particularly for a game based on a fantasy concept. Those who have read THE SECOND BOOK OF FRITZ LEIBER (DAW Books, Inc. New York, 1975) will know that Harry Fischer was a prime force in the development of the world of Nehwon, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, etal. Harry conceived the basis for the game also, and he and Fritz developed it into an exciting contest, quite chess-like in its movement and combat systems -- in fact, the original playing board was squared off rather than gridded with hexagons. The result was a spectacular game with a gigantic board, raised terrain features, and impressive pieces with weapons bristling forth; and various newspapers printed pictures of the game and wrote about it over the years. In corresponding with Fritz Leiber the subject of the game was brought up, and soon a three-way discussion of its possible appeal now was underway between Fritz and Harry and Gary Gygax. The end result is the game you have before you.

   Unfortunately there was no way LANKHMAR could be produced in the form that Harry did it in originally, not unless the game could be sold for fifty or a hundred dollars!  And if the form was changed much of its appeal would be sacrificed too. As changes in sone [sic] aspects were necessary anyway, a study was begun to see how the game would be affected by certain other changes as well. Would it be possible to change the board to a hexagonal system and incorporate the latest fantasy conflict game concepts into the original design? If this were possible it was envisioned that what was lost from the original eye-appeal and sweeping movement could be off-set by additions of greater mapboard graphic detail, more realistic combat simulation, and play which brought forth more of the flavor of the world of Newhon. After a long period of development work, Fritz and Harry gave their approval to this version of their game. The original Game of Lankhmar is still herein, but in a format which enables thousands to now enjoy playing the game which was formerly limited to just a few! We certainly hope that you will find it as interesting and informative and challenging as we do. 

three misc. points in closing:

The upper right corner of the box top bears the stock number F 105. If I understand TSR's rather confusing designators at the time,  probably means that this, a fantasy game, is the fifth of their boardgames. 

Since it never saw the light of day, I hope the original is preserved in a museum or special collection. At the very least it'd be nice to see one of those photographs mentioned.

Finally, I didn't know this when I bought the box, but the rulebook inside my copy is autographed by both Fischer and Leiber. Definitely a keeper.

--John R.

*I shd have asked Dave Sutherland but never thought to.