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James Maliszewski
Feeling older by the day
Feeling older by the day

I've noticed lots of people adding me to their circles lately, which is fine.

However, in most cases, I have no idea who these people are and, as such, I don't automatically reciprocate. Since I also don't (generally) post publicly, if you'd like to read most of what I post, I'd suggest dropping me a brief note introducing yourself. Then, in most cases, I'll happily add you to my circles.


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RIP Stephen J. Ditko (1927–2018)

Below is a link to a BBC documentary about Ditko and his work, whose thumbnail, unfortunately, shows an image of Stan Lee. How typical.

This is not a formal review – I'll try to do one later – but, having just received issues #2–4 of +James V West's Black Pudding 'zine, I had to sing its praises, however briefly.

Everything about this fanzine is wonderful, from the art to the layout to, most especially, the content. Normally, I have an allergic reaction to anything that could be called "whimsical," but, somehow, Black Pudding manages to avoid triggering that. It stays just enough on the side of "serious" for me to love it. It's just fun.

(And +Peter Regan's FOSSIL, which was kindly sent along with the issues, is pretty nifty, too)

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RIP: Harlan Ellison (1934–2018)

I'll probably have more to say about this next week, but, for the moment, I simply wanted to acknowledge the death of one of sci-fi's greatest curmudgeons.

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When I was a kid, my family used to go on long trips for two to four weeks every summer. Naturally, we spent a lot of time in motels and I loved staying in them. Consequently, I'm inordinately fond of motel room keys, like the one pictured below. Nowadays, when I stay in a hotel, they give me these horrible key cards with a magnetic strip on them. They do the job, but they're not attractive and certainly not fun in the way those old keys were. That's why I bought a replica of this style of key fob for my house keys.

It's funny how we can become so attached to older forms of technology. I was thinking about this with regards to my fanzine. After a year between issues, I decided I wanted the new issue to be a step up in terms of not merely content but also presentation. That's why I got an outsider to act as editor and proof reader, for example. I also brought in some new artists. I'm thinking of other improvements for future issues as a way of showing that I'm not resting on my laurels. As issue #10 looms on the horizon, I'm nearing the point where The Excellent Travelling Volume is the longest running Tékumel 'zine ever, so I feel a certain obligation to make it as good as it can be.

The difficulty, of course, is deciding how good a print-only fanzine can be before it ceases to be the kind of thing I like. For example, staple-binding is a must for me, but what about the cover stock? Would a glossy cover cease to "feel right?" I did a color cover once and may do it again, but should I? Would that change the overall vibe of the project?

I don't know the answers to these questions yet. Mostly, I'm fumbling around, trying to determine how much technological advancement is too much before I don't like the end result. There are moments when I dream of doing something really ambitious with TETV in order to draw more attention to Tékumel, but then I realize that that runs counter to the spirit of the 'zine, which is intentionally low-tech in its conception. But I still think about it.

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Earlier this week, I received my copy of the Tenth Anniversary Edition of +James Raggi's The Random Esoteric Creature Generator. Simply taken as a physical artifact, the book blew me away, but that's par for the course when it comes to Lamentations of the Flame Princess books. In my opinion, no one in gaming makes more attractive, sturdily made books than James. Each and every release is given a lot of love when it comes to art, layout, and general presentation. And each one is unique, often reflecting not just the content but, in some cases, the personality of the author. At least, that's how I feel about my own The Cursed Chateau, which amazes me with how well its physical properties communicate its content.

That's partly why I feel bad, or maybe just embarrassed, that I haven't made much use of the the near-complete collection of LotFP books I've amassed. I'm not a collector by either disposition or avocation and, in fact, tend to be disdainful of collecting RPG books, so there's a certain hypocrisy in owning them and not making use of them. The truth is that, as well done as nearly every LotFP release is, only a handful jibe with my own personal predilections. Indeed, as James has matured as a creator and publisher, his vision of what his game is has diverged more and more from what I like to play.

That's not meant as a criticism; it's a statement of fact. I still support what James is doing because he's un-apologetically doing his own thing and he's doing it with panache. He knows what he likes and he's putting it out there, what other people might think be damned (and that includes me). I find that supremely admirable. It's something I've thought a lot about myself, after writing my recent review of Mutant Crawl Classics and the soul-searching I undertook before jumping back into – and finishing – issue #8 of my Tékumel 'zine.

Trying to appeal to the tastes of anyone but yourself is pointless. It's also a near-guarantee that the resulting creation will be less than it ought to be. All of the things I've written over the years that I still look back on with fondness were born of my own personal enthusiasm rather than a desire to please the crowd or meet anyone else's expectations. Conversely, all the things toward which I feel the least positive were born of such things and I think it shows. It's a lesson I have to keep re-learning, since the siren call of public approbation is a seductive one and I'm all easily drawn toward it. I spent more than a year wrestling with it in the case of The Excellent Travelling Volume, time I could have better spent writing and publishing stuff I wanted rather than what others told me they wanted.

So, I keep on supporting James Raggi and the crazy stuff he's publishing, because he's doing exactly what a creator should be doing: making things to please himself and no one else. That certainly means that much of what LotFP has released lately isn't to my liking. It also, unfortunately, means that I probably won't ever again have the pleasure of working with James. Our tastes and interests are too different. That's OK. In fact, that's what I respect about him: he continues to chip away at everything that doesn't look like an elephant with each new release. That's what we all should be doing.
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REVIEW: Mutant Crawl Classics

I'm a big fan of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, which I like for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it gleefully does its own thing rather than needlessly aping other fantasy RPGs. I'm likewise a big fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, stories of which played a huge role in the formation of my youthful imagination. Consequently, Goodman Games' recent roleplaying game, Mutant Crawl Classics Role Playing Game (hereafter MCC RPG), should be the kind of thing I would adore. Unfortunately, it's not, though it does contain a number of genuinely fun and clever elements that make it impossible for me to call it a "failure," as I hope to explain.

As you might expect, based on its title, MCC RPG looks to the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game for its underlying mechanical inspiration. That's understandable, given the proven popularity of DCC RPG. Indeed, MCC RPG's introduction states outright that it "is both a supplement to Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG as well as a complete game in its own right." Likewise, the preface by the game's designer, Jim Wampler, notes that it is "100% compatible with DCC RPG." In principle, I can't find fault with this approach; it certainly makes sense from a business standpoint. However, it does, in my opinion, straitjacket MCC RPG's own design, thereby preventing the game from achieving the same degree of distinctiveness that DCC RPG possesses. Whether that's a good or a bad thing depends, I imagine, on what you want out of MCC RPG.

MCC RPG uses the same core mechanic as DCC RPG: roll 1d20 and add/subtract modifiers, with high rolls being better than low ones. Likewise, MCC RPG uses the "dice chain" of Zocchi dice, from d3 up to d30, which, along with the character funnel (called the "rite of passage" here), is one of my favorite aspects of DCC RPG. This game presents four character "genotypes" (races): pure strain humans, mutants, manimals, and plantients. Pure strain humans may enter –if they survive the rite of passage – one of four character classes (sentinel, shaman, healer, or rover), while the others are all they're own class, much like demihumans in DCC RPG.

Compared to the classes in DCC RPG, the pure strain human classes are rather bland. The sentinel, for example, is a warrior analog and yet it lacks anything equal to DCC's Mighty Deeds of Arms. Meanwhile, the healer is a one-note class completely focused on curing damage. This is particularly vexing because one of DCC RPG's genuine innovations was making the four human classes versatile and interesting, each with one or more unique abilities. By comparison, those in MCC RPG are not merely mechanically dull but, dare I say, weak when placed beside the other genotype classes, which benefit from MCC's terrific development of the concept of mutations.

Mutations in MCC RPG function similarly to spells in DCC RPG. Each mutation includes an effectiveness table, with higher rolls resulting in better effects. Mutations can be either active or passive in nature. Mutant characters make a roll every time they use an active power, while there is only one roll for a passive mutation at the time the mutation is gained – unless the player wishes to re-roll its effectiveness upon his character's achieving a new level. This re-roll can result in a mutation becoming less effective, so it's a gamble. Additional mutations can be gained through exposure to radiation (called radburn). Overall, it's a nice adaptation of DCC's approach to spells for a new genre and one of the great successes of the game's design.

Shamans are MCC RPG's wizard equivalent, complete with spells, here called "wetware," which are taught by patron AIs, the game's equivalent to gods and demons. I am sure some people will dislike the inclusion of such things in a post-apocalyptic setting, but I rather like the idea. My complaint is more about implementation rather than concept. The range of wetware programs is small (only three per patron AI, of which there are eight). However, it is stated that there will be more in future supplements, which feels like a tacit recognition that the initial offerings are scant. As an aside, it's implied early in the rulebook that healers have access to wetware programs, too, but this doesn't seem to be the case. Lack of clarity of this sort is, sadly, commonplace in the rulebook.

MCC RPG contains a small but decent selection of "monsters," including robots. I was especially pleased to see the inclusion of Mutant Future's spider goats. There was also (I think) an homage to The Morrow Project's infamous blue undead. Ancient technological artifacts are also given a small but solid section of their own. However, the rules for learning to use artifacts struck me as prone to resulting in breakage, at least for low-level characters. This may be by design, in order to keep artifacts "special," but I found it jarred somewhat with my expectations.

I suspect that at least some of my ambivalence about MCC RPG comes from having different expectations, some of them unfair or even unreasonable. What I expected was a game that would do for post-apocalyptic RPGs what DCC RPG did for fantasy RPGs, namely providing a fun, confident, and, above all, uniquely tailored approach. Instead, MCC RPG tries too hard not to stray from the template laid down by DCC RPG and, as a result, feels not so much derivative (though it does) as "half-baked." I have no idea how long the game was in development or how extensive its playtesting was, but it feels uneven and rushed. I base this on the instances of unclear references, missing text, typos, and so forth that are in evidence throughout, as well as aspects of the rules (e.g. the human classes) that don't seem to me as well thought out as other parts.

Again, it's possible that I am being unfair in expecting anything of MCC RPG than being DCC RPG with a coat of fluorescent green paint. If so, read all of the foregoing in that light. MCC RPG is, for all its unevenness, attractively presented, with plenty of excellent and inspiring art (though the map of its vague Terra A.D. setting is less than useless). Likewise, the book is well-made, with a sewn binding and thick paper. It's definitely up to the usual Goodman level of physical quality. But, as a RPG, I can't shake the lingering feeling that it's lacking in certain ways, some of them obvious and noted, and others not as easily defined. In the end, I suspect I'm simply not the intended audience for this, which is fine. I have little doubt that die hard fans of DCC RPG will enjoy this greatly, either as a supplement to that game or as a familiar but just-different-enough alternative to their usual fare.

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REVIEW: Operation Unfathomable

(A few preliminary caveats before getting to the review proper: +Jason Sholtis is a friend of mine, with whom I've gamed online for many years now. He's also turned his artistic talents toward illustrating several of my own writing projects. Furthermore, Jason kindly thanks me for "inspiration and invaluable assistance" in the credits. Consequently, I am far from an "objective" reviewer and do not claim to be. On the hand, I am an unrepentant curmudgeon who dislikes far more than I like. If I publicly say that I like something – and I very much like Operation Unfathomable – I mean it.)

Of the many ideas that the Old School Renaissance popularized, the concept of the "mythic underworld" is, in my opinion, one of the more under-utilized. Jason Cone, under the nom de jeu Philotomy Jurament, was, so far as I can recall, the first person to talk about OD&D-style dungeons as "underworlds." In his Musings, he says that an underworld is "a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it."

That's a compelling vision of what dungeons are (or could be) and lots of old school gamers pay lip service to it. In truth, though, most of us create much rational, naturalistic dungeons; they're places that "make sense" and never stray too far into the realm of the weird and inexplicable. Jason Sholtis has no such qualms and Operation Unfathomable is perhaps the first OSR "dungeon" I've seen (with the possible exception of +Michael Curtis's Stonehell) that truly mines the "mythic underworld" concept for all its worth. Imagine Richard Sharpe Shaver's Lemurian ravings as drawn by Jack Kirby in the throes of a fever dream and you're on your way to getting a small sense of what Sholtis presents here.

Operation Unfathomable is an adventure as well as a description of a unique mythic underworld. It's a long, very loose adventure, to be sure, but in that respect Sholtis is hewing closely to the hobby's dungeon crawling roots. Still, he makes it pretty easy to get started, providing a number of possible excuses for freshly-rolled 1st-level characters to go poking around the Chaotic deeps beneath the world, as well as rumors, an incomplete map from a previous expedition, and an NPC guide to help the characters get started.The referee is similarly assisted with discussions of the various factions of the underworld, thereby enabling him to get a handle on the Big Picture.

While there is a large map of the underworld, beautifully presented in a two-page spread and with many detailed encounter areas, the true heart of the book is the "master encounter table." This extensive random table includes all manner of weirdness, from cave lightning and mutagenic clouds to competing adventuring parties to wandering monsters and more. These entries represent the kinds of oddities adventurers might encounter during the many days they will likely spend traveling through the underground thoroughfares of the underworld. In this respect, they serve a very practical purpose, but, more than that, they help paint a clearer picture of the delightful wackiness of Sholtis's imagination. What's not to love about Science Fungi or Dr Ephraim Thontorius, bear-scientist from the future?

Operation Unfathomable also offers multiple appendices that flesh out the underworld, its history, and its inhabitants for the benefit of the referee. Among other things, they detail a new class (the underworld ranger), new spells, and new magic items, all of which show the same offbeat inventiveness that characterizes the rest of the book. I frequently found myself smiling as I read through the book's pages, both for the creativity of its content and its authorial voice. Sholtis writes in a straightforward but enthusiastic way that really sells the the setting. My only complaint is that he is, at times, a little too self-effacing about what he's created. This particularly comes through in the way he suggests that referees are free to change anything in the book that they don't like. Such humility is unnecessary: Operation Unfathomable is a worthy creation.

Presently, only a PDF is available for sale, but I very much look forward to the print release. The book is cleanly laid out by +Jez Gordon and copiously illustrated by the author, +Stefan Poag, and others. Indeed, the artwork does as much to set the tone as its written words. Interspersed throughout the book is commentary by Bardolph the Beer Hound, a player character from Sholtis's original campaign (played by +Barry Blatt). This is a delightful touch, not only for Bardolph's rough humor but also for the insight it offers into what it's like to play in the underworld the book describes. This is a feature I wish more gaming products, especially adventures, provided.

By almost any measure, Operation Unfathomable is a triumph, an extremely imaginative adventure and setting, attractively presented and chock full of reckless old school dungeon delving fun. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Being old, I have a repertoire of stories, anecdotes, and stock answers I regularly fall back on when needed. One of my well-worn replies to the question of "What are your favorite roleplaying games?" is "_Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller,_ and "Call of Cthulhu_ – but not in that order."

When I was a kid, these three games were my go-to RPGs, the ones I played the most often, and the ones that most clicked with my own interests and sensibilities (with Gamma World being a close fourth). Of the three, I assuredly played D&D the most and Call of Cthulhu the least, relatively speaking of course, since, in those days, roleplaying games were the primary pastime of my friends and I. (It needn't be said that Traveller reigned as my absolute favorite)

I continue to hold all three games in high esteem, but, as the years have worn on, I continue to play Call of Cthulhu the least. In fact, I'm not sure I've played the game in almost two decades, a fact I can more or less confirm by looking at my bookshelf and failing to see any CoC products with a copyright date past 2001.

This got me thinking why this might be so and, after some careful consideration, I believe I've hit upon an answer: Call of Cthulhu, as presented, simply doesn't do it for me anymore. Now, as I said, I continue to think highly of CoC (at least in its pre-7e form); I think it's one of the best RPGs ever created and could gush about it for hours. Please don't mistake anything that follows for a criticism of the game, let alone as an admonition against playing it yourself.

When I was first introduced to Call of Cthulhu, I hadn't read a word of H.P. Lovecraft nor did I know who Cthulhu was. I was dimly aware of both – how could I not be? – but my direct experience was spurred on by playing the game, rather than the other way around. Since then, I've become a huge HPL buff, reading and re-reading not just his published stories but also his correspondence. I now have a much greater handle on him, both as a writer and as a man, and it's this knowledge that makes it a lot harder for me to enjoy Call of Cthulhu.

CoC, for all its glories, is a fundamentally Derlethian project. That is, the game views Lovecraft's creations through the lens of August Derleth's popularization of them. The very idea of a unified, coherent "Cthulhu Mythos" is a profoundly Derlethian concept (he coined the term after all), as is the elevation of the investigator who, through his knowledge and courage, prevents an occult catastrophe from engulfing the world. Certainly both these ideas have their ultimate origins in Lovecraft; you can find plenty of examples of them in his writings. But, as the axes around which his fictional worlds spin, I'm not so sure anymore.

+Olde House Rules asked yesterday whether "geek culture" (a term I loathe) killed Cthulhu and that's a question worth exploring from any number of angles. For me, I think the answer is likely "yes," if by "killed" you mean "rendered impotent as a symbol of cosmic horror." However, I'm not so sure that's a bad thing, because I don't feel as if Cthulhu (or any other creation of Lovecraft) is the point of these stories. Indeed, a hallmark of bad Mythos pastiche is an obsession with catalogs of alien gods, extraterrestrial races, and blasphemous books – as well as adding one's own creations into that pantheon. It's a cargo cult mentality and Call of Cthulhu, alas, falls prey to it more often than not.

These days, I'm much more interested in Lovecraftian themes – the insignificance of man, science as a double-edged sword, etc. – than I am in Lovecraftian creations. I don't have anything against Cthulhu or the Necronomicon or whatever, but neither do I see any particular appeal in them. Call of Cthulhu, to my mind anyway, is a little too attached to all that, as well as to game play notions that subtly promote a Derlethian skew of these themes. Again, I'm not knocking Derleth, whom I've defended against hardcore Lovecraftians on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, I increasingly find CoC a poor vehicle for exploring Lovecraftian cosmicism.

But it's still a very good game.

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For some reason, January seems to be a popular birth month for writers – J.R.R. Tolkien, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert E. Howard all immediately spring to mind. Over the years, I've written about them all to varying degrees and understandably so. However, January is also the birth month of another writer about whom I haven't written nearly as much as I should, C.L. Moore, who was born today 107 years ago.

To the extent that she's known at all these days, Moore is remembered as the creator of two of science fiction and fantasy's most notable characters: the swordswoman Jirel of Joiry and the interplanetary smuggler Northwest Smith. Smith is a particular favorite of mine. The stories in which he appears are a unique combination of science fiction (or planetary romance, if one prefers) and Lovecraftian themes. Of course, Smith himself is similarly unique, being I'd wager the ultimate inspiration of all the science fictional gunslingers we've seen since. The Northwest Smith tale "Shambleau" is remarkable and well worth a read if you've never done so.
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