[Let's Read] ARES Magazine

(un)reason

Explorer
Well, I'm back. It's now been a full year since I finished off Dragon Magazine for good. Still planning on doing Polyhedron if I can get a complete collection, but that doesn't look like happening soon. In the meantime, let's keep in practice with this little prequel. Anyone who read Dragon in the mid 80's will remember the ARES Sci-fi section, now it's time to find out what it was like before it was folded into the bigger magazine. Originally started by SPI, it was one of the many properties TSR acquired when they went bankrupt in the early 80's. Of course, that's the basics you can get with a minute on any search engine. The devil, as ever is in the details. So let's see what cool articles they have to offer, and just how it changes over it's lifespan, before and after the takeover.



Ares 01 - WorldKiller: March 1980



43 pages. The cover is colour, as is the game included, but otherwise it's mostly black and white. The game inside is advertised strongly, getting a larger font than the magazine title, and the promotional blurbs in general are a lot larger than Dragon at the time (although still smaller than they became in the 2000's) The general quality of the typesetting is about the same as Dragon, although the art pieces are somewhat sparser in quantity, and it looks like they're printed using the same processes. (Which also probably means they're laid out and edited by hand rather than computer) They use three column layout while dragon was mostly using two at that time. So far, it all seems competently done. Let's see what the actual content is like.



Muse: Lest we forget, SPI stood for Simulation Publications, Inc, and their first editorial reminds us of that by telling us they want not only sci-fi and fantasy material, but also more down to earth historical articles and games in their magazine. Since those rapidly became rare in Dragon magazine, I'll be very interested in seeing if they stick to that, or if they too are lured down the path of supernatural shinies even before their takeover. Other than that, it's fairly standard for a first issue editorial, telling us what they want and the format they want it in. After all, they can't do it all themselves, and even if they wanted too, it would be more expensive employing a full-time in house writing team. The future is still open and full of possibilities. How soon will it all be locked down?



Dragon…Ghost: Our first article proper is actually a fantasy one rather than a sci-fi one, and by an author who has also been seen in the pages of Dragon Magazine. M. Lucie Chin was reviewed in issue 141, and this is in much the same vein, a story taking chinese mythology, and then putting a pulp hero style man out of time from the present day into it. It revolves around the Lung dragons, and their place in the celestial bureaucracy, and what happens when one of them decides to shirk their duty. It makes for quite interesting reading, and goes into more detail than the D&D treatment of the creatures, although there are plenty of common points between them. So this is a pretty positive starter, bringing the right mix of familiarity and difference to engage me, and reminding me of the bad tendency of the D&D versions of creatures to replace their original sources in the general consciousness, as so many modern fantasy authors are influenced by roleplaying even if they don't admit it. (and all these authors are influenced by Tolkien even if they're consciously rebelling against it. ) It's good to go back and look at things from another angle, even if you'll be winding up in the same place eventually.



No, you're not going to the Stars: In sharp contrast to the previous article, this is a very didactic hard science piece about the impossibility of travelling faster than light, the hugeness of the universe, and the various ways in which science fiction authors get around that in their stories. As our space travel program is if anything, in a worse shape than it was back in the early 80's, the prophecies here are depressingly accurate. It would take a seriously invaluable discovery somewhere in the solar system, or life on earth growing far more hostile for the political will to make even interplanetary voyages appear, let alone trying our luck sending a generation ship into the void. This certainly isn't bad, having some nice mathematical formulae and tables in it, but it's negativity is a cold bucket of water on our fantasies. This is why the vast majority of games systems simplify space travel tremendously.



Gangsters: Another fiction piece filled with adventure/worldbuilding ideas for you to steal. An organised crime syndicate comes up against an alien which uses the same management model as them, only written far larger. Considering many people have said government is merely the biggest, nastiest protection racket around, this definitely qualifies as social commentary as well. Really, what are religion, politics and economics but means of exerting control? Both sides are relatable, but unpleasant, and they wind up engaging in mutual destruction at the end, which is probably the best possible outcome for the rest of the world. At least, until a worse set of aliens arrives, and the masquerade gets blown open. But that's a story for another day and subgenre.



Worldkiller: After half an issue of system-free stuff, here comes the centrepiece. SPI were primarily known for their wargames, and here's a sci-fi one of planetary invasion. The board is fairly small, but three-dimensional, and the way this is tracked is quite interesting. Similarly, they pack a lot of information into the small counters, at the cost of any flashiness in the visuals. You could easily compare it to Space Invaders, only with more symmetrical sides. (in fact, the home team have twice as many ships as the invaders, although they're individually weaker) The three-dimensional board gives you a lot of room for tactics, so I can't say from casual examination which side is actually more likely to win. A knowledge of trigonometry will give you a distinct tactical advantage, which pleases me. It's definitely aimed at more advanced wargamers than the boardgames that appeared in Dragon in the same period, and I hope that'll continue to be the case, as I found it annoying when Dragon refocussed from being primarily aimed at already experienced players to new kids. (who generally prefer it when you don't talk down to them anyway. I look forward to getting my teeth into the rest of them.



Film & Television: The second half of the magazine is entirely comprised of various sorts of reviews. Since this is a first issue, they have a lot more leeway to pick big things from recent years, rather than just what's only just been released. I suspect the portion of the magazine devoted to them will decline as they get more game material submissions. (but I certainly won't make that a binding prediction. ) Let's see how much their opinion varies from their contemporaries.

Star Trek - The Motion Picture gets a very scathing review indeed. It's ponderous, trite, and painfully derivative of 2001 and Planet of the Apes, wasting it's time and money on special effects instead of actually telling a decent story. Sounds about right. I don't think we'll see many arguments about the details, even from diehard trek fanatics, merely whether they're a positive thing or not. Certainly no surprise that they reverted to a more conventional storytelling style in the future movies.

The Lathe of Heaven, on the other hand, gets high praise. While a relatively low-budget adaption of Ursula LeGuin's book, it adapts the story well, and puts the big ideas over action and explosions. Since I've never actually seen it, I'm definitely going to check it out and see how well it holds up today.



Games: This section isn't so much analytical reviews, but more an alphabetical listing with brief notes on nearly every RPG and wargame in print at the time, plus a rating from 1 to 9. This definitely isn't something they'll be able to repeat in future issues, as I don't think 17 issues is enough to get to the publishing a big index stage of a magazine's life. There isn't really enough meat for me to provide significant commentary on each of the reviews, but I will reorganise them from best to worst, so you can get a clearer idea of their tastes and number weighting. Many of the names are familiar to me, having also appeared in the early days of Dragon, but there are a few new faces worth investigating, and it's always amusing seeing them being scathing about TSR's (lack of) editing skills at the time.

9: Cosmic Encounter, The Creature that ate Sheboygan.

8: Battlefield Mars, GEV, Imperium, John Carter, Traveller, White Bear & Red Moon.

7: After the Holocaust, Belter, Divine Right, Double Star, Freedom in the Galaxy, Ice War, Lords of the Middle Seas, Melee, OGRE, Runequest, Stellar Conquest, Time War, War of the Ring.

6: Alien Space, Asteroid Zero-Four, Black Hole, Bloodtree Rebellion, Chivalry & Sorcery, Deathmaze, Dune, Dungeons & Dragons, Invasion: America, Mayday, Outreach, Starforce, Swords & Sorcery, Villains & Vigilantes.

5: Chitin: I, Colony Delta, Demons, Godsfire, King Arthur's Knights, Lords & Wizards, Olympica, Snapshot, Sorcerer, Star Quest, Starship Troopers.

4: Beast Lord, Invasion of the air eaters, Magic Realm, War in the Ice.

3: Lankhmar, Metamorphosis Alpha.

2: Annihilator/OneWorld, Dixie, Holy War, Quazar, Rivets.

1: Atlantis: 12,500 BC.



Books: Our book reviews are going through one of those feminist phases where everything is looked through in terms of gender roles, messages sent by the story and whether they're culturally positive or not. They're certainly not a recent phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination. And since sci-fi is probably the best genre for telling stories where normal gender roles don't apply, this is an entirely valid use of a column. Every little helps when you still have a long way to go.

Ruins of Isis by Marion Zimmer Bradley plonks the heroes in a female-dominated society, and forces them to adapt to the misandry as long as they're there. Hopefully they'll learn something about themselves that's useful even after they leave.

A World Between by Norman Spinrad does it the other way around, featuring an egalitarian society being invaded by radical feminists, and the resulting male backlash. A war for hearts and minds ensues. Thankfully, equality wins out in the end.

Electric Forest by Tanith Lee gets a load of praise while strictly avoiding spoilers. Sometimes it's tough being a reviewer and wanting the audience to have the same experience you did.

Jesus on Mars by Phillip Jose Farmer, on the other hand, gets a mediocre review that leaves no doubt it does exactly what it says on the tin, and is therefore a bit of a one joke book. That's what often happens when you think of the title first and then write a story to fit.

The Face by Jack Vance brings back the thoughts on gender politics, as he details a world where virtually all sex is paedophillic rape, and their almost as annoying neighbours. Somehow, the hero has to get in, kill the guy who killed his family, and then get out again the other side. Since it's Vance, there's little doubt it'll be an interesting ride.

Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen is a compiled trilogy set in a magical far-future earth, with some modern tech left over. Like many a post apocalyptic setting, that means they can combine & warp it in any cool way they choose.

Tales of Neveryon by Samuel Delaney is also a collection of smaller stories plus worldbuilding, but in more of a slice of life vein than world saving epic. It still finds time for some humorous pretentiousness in it's framing device.

Another fine Myth by Robert Asprin is a more humorous and lighthearted bit of fantasy, putting an inexperienced apprentice wizard and a depowered demon against the hordes of evil. Sounds like there'll be more puns involved than just the title, some of which might be relevant to the actual plot.

Thieves World, which is an anthology series that'll get tons of follow-ups and RPG conversions, also gets a positive result here. The reviewer can look back on this without being embarrassed by hindsight.



Media: The final column isn't reviews, but instead previews of upcoming stuff. As with the reviews, many of these are very familiar indeed. The empire strikes back, Flash Gordon, Dune, Conan, Lord of the Rings, there's certainly some big hopes here. Of course, time will not be kind to most of these, but where there's a whip there's a way. Just got to keep working on improving those special effects. In the meantime it'll definitely be interesting to see how they get reviewed when they arrive here.



Feedback: Huh. They end the very first issue with a survey. That's a lot more on the ball than TSR were in that area. It's a very in-depth one as well, with a lot of specific questions about how you spend your money, and what games you've played, what magazines you read, and of course, what you want to see in the magazine in the future. This is very interesting indeed to note, and I wonder how they'll follow it up.


While pretty light on advertising, as they don't have any external bookings yet, they do take the time to advertise their sister magazines, Strategy & Tactics, and Moves. The first focusses exclusively on historical wargaming, while the second takes a more analytical approach to game design itself. By following connections, you can always find more interesting things to check out. I wonder if anyone's taken the time to properly archive these and make them available on the internet. Curiously enough, it seems like S&T is still going at a slower pace, having been moved between quite a few publishers over it's long lifespan. Wargaming may yet get the last laugh compared to RPG's, given Dragon's apparent demise.



Well, that wasn't as useful to a roleplayer as an average issue of Dragon, but it was interesting, did some things better and others worse than TSR, and let me learn some new things. Particularly interesting to me was the amount of the issue devoted to reviews, which was considerably more extensive and provided a new perspective on the media of the early 80's. And since there's only 19 issues to get through, I'm pretty sure I can do this in a few months without worrying about burnout. Let's follow this little tributary downstream until it connects up with the larger river.
 
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(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 02 - The Wreck of the BSM Pandora: May 1980



43 pages. Once again, the centrepiece of the issue is put front and centre, with an appropriate cover (that's already higher quality than the first issue), while the rest of the contents get relatively small bits of promotion. A race against time to restart your damaged ship and survive alien attack? Will that be co-operative, competitive or a bit of both? Since this is more of a wargaming magazine, I'm going to have to get used to thinking of other players as the enemy again after many years of having don't split the party and no PvP drilled into me ad nauseum. Let's continue that adaption process.



Muse: The editorial topic this month is entirely familiar to me. Ironically, the aliens in most fiction are less alien than creatures you can find by exploring the ocean depths and looking back through the fossil record. Human imagination definitely has it's limits, especially if it doesn't get enough input in the first place, and this is one where we're routinely shown up by basic procedural generation computer programs. Doing research and getting external help when creating things isn't cheating, and you shouldn't feel ashamed for doing it. That was valid when I was being told to do it by Larry Niven, it was valid in Dragon Magazine, and it's still valid now. I hope I never forget it.



The Inn at World's End: Ahh, some good old Sword & Sorcery action. It's been a while since I had a new source of that. A morally dubious protagonist who wins through cunning rather than brute force, a sexy life consuming monster, a gaggle of quirky minor characters, and lots of implications of a big weird world out there beyond the boundaries of the story. This definitely has that authentic old school flavour to it, sex, blood and lots of quick and arbitrary deaths. It might not add much actual gaming material to my list, since I've seen all the tropes in it before, but it combines those elements well. After a break, you do often need a refresher course. I hope there'll be a few more of these before they go all sci-fi all the time.



Child of the Wandering Sea: In sharp contrast with the last piece, we now have a sci-fi story that's all about morality, in particular the morality of terraforming planets which already have life of their own. Should you transform an entire ecosystem to suit human needs, resulting in the extinction of anything that can't adapt, just to increase our own species chance of long term survival. Does morality even exist anyway, as most animals wouldn't even ask themselves that kind of question, simply eating and breeding until their population hits the limits of available space and food supply and then either stabilising or collapsing. What are we losing by not studying everything for utility before bulldozing it over? Yeah, this still seems very relevant today, as extinctions and climate change continue unchecked. On the other hand, we are making real strides in renewable energy, and birthrates have dropped below replacement rates in many developed countries, so we might yet reach some kind of new equilibrium with nature rather than destroying ourselves, but at what cost? It's tough sometimes, having the intelligence to analyse our animal nature, but not overcome it.



Alien Life Forms: And now for the detail heavy hard science piece by the same author as last issue's one. What are alien life forms likely to look like? As with last issue, he definitely inclines to the conservative side. Carbon based lifeforms with a water carried chemistry are likely to be most common simply as a matter of basic mathematics, as the 3rd and 4th most common elements in the universe, carbon & oxygen can't help but dominate a planet's makeup in normal situations. Size may vary, but the square-cube law means things can't go beyond a few orders of magnitude greater than earthly creatures. (although ironically, smaller, lighter gravity worlds could support larger animals than earth) But there are some things that are likely to be very different. Chemistry could be left or right-handed. Phyla are very unlikely to be like earthly ones, even if ecological niches are replicated by convergent evolution. (and there are a good few example creatures that blur the boundaries between earthly plants and animals) The information is of course, a little dated, as we now know rather more about the frequency of planets around other stars, and more about the other occupants of our own solar system. (It now seems likely that there are far more worlds that possess potentially life supporting oceans underneath miles of ice than earthlike worlds, and probably also many warmer ones that are entirely covered in miles of water with no exposed land. ) But this is another interesting and well thought out topic for them to cover. It still looks like it'll be a long time before we can settle other worlds, let alone stars, and in the meantime it's good to consider all eventualities carefully.



The Wreck of the B.S.M Pandora: Well, this is amusing. The premise for B. S. M. Pandora turns out to be very similar indeed to that of Metamorphosis Alpha. The ship is floating through space out of control, the original crew have lost their memories, and all the weird creatures are out of their stasis pods and wandering around making a terrible mess. Since they gave MA a critical review last time, this could easily be seem as SPI's riposte to TSR. This is how you do it with clearly worded, concise rules that let you get through the whole scenario in a single session. Or in other words:

The aliens buzz and it's all because
(this is how we do it)
Gamma rays mutate us like nobody does
(this is how we do it)
Scrambled brains, yeah the ships in danger
(this is how we do it)
So lets flip the polarity for some old school insanity
(this is how we do it)

Anyway, seriously, I do like this. It once again has not only a fair amount of depth as a game, but also actual effort put into it's fictional history as well. Reading things like this, it's easy to see how wargames could evolve into RPG's, while still being considered the same hobby by the old-timers, who are then surprised when new people come in and start playing them in a very different way, because the gap is bridged in lots of little steps rather than one big one. I definitely feel I am understanding a bit more of the history of gaming by reading this.



Conan - Illusion and Reality: Well, this IS a turnup for the books. L. Sprague de Camp gives us his version of the Robert Howard & Conan story. Not entirely positively either. I seem to recall history not being kind to his contributions to the Conan mythos in turn. Although it has to be said that for all his writing talents, it's pretty easy to portray Howard as a :):):):)up in his personal life. Crippling shyness. Inability to hold down a regular job. Unhealthy mother fixation. Death by suicide. Seems a depressingly familiar story. It's interesting to ponder how he would have fared in the internet age, which would have enabled him to research his stories better and connect with people without face-to-face interaction. Oh well, really, we want our artists to be weird, precisely because it lets them create things normal people would never even consider. If they come to tragic ends because of it, that just proves we need a better mental health support system. Modern life is not something humans are adapted for, and I'm not going to hold it against anyone who dreams of cutting through their problems and living wild and free.



Books: The Enead by Jan Marks is another story of a strict and static civilisation that gets upended by a headstrong outsider. It richly deserves it, of course. The great thing about having societies as villains in a story is that you don't have to kill them to win so frequently.

Catacomb Years by Michael Bishop does much the same thing, but as a collection of short stories. Again, the storytelling gets a fair bit of praise. The main criticism is that the pathway from modern society to sci-fi future doesn't seem very plausible. Fiction, unlike reality, has an obligation to make sense.

The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith is set in an alternate universe where the Confederation not only won, but actually been wildly successful in sticking to it's (heavily right wing) political principles. Once again, the reviewer seems to find this more implausible than bug-eyed monsters. It is interesting how most arty types being left wing can result in unchallenged cultural assumptions even as we talk about pushing the boundaries in other ways.

Wheels within Wheels by F. Paul Wilson also has a strong libertarian streak to it, but gets a better review nonetheless, as at least it thinks a society run on pure pragmatism would be better at encouraging racial and sexual equality. It's definitely a shame that the current real world libertarian leaders don't fit that mold.

Schrodinger's Cat by Robert Anton Wilson is a story of three nearly identical novels in three different universes and the philosophical implications of this. This means that you may love it, or wind up baffled. Challenge accepted.

Eyes of Amber by Joan D. Vinge is another collection of short stories that gets a good result, even though the reviewer wasn't too keen on her full novels. Being better at one form than the other is a perfectly normal bit of variation.

The infinitive of go by John Brunner demonstrates how you can have both infinite parallel universes and free will via equations using transfinite numbers. It's nice to have some optimism when faced with a universe too enormous to comprehend.

The Devil Wives of Li Fong by E. Hoffman Price is unsurprisingly set in ancient fantasy china, and features the (actually not so evil) devil wives dealing with the fear of mundanes, and the machinations of an evil taoist (ie wizard). Some things never change, even when the names do. It's important not to judge things by appearance over actions.

Mooncrow by Jack Massa is another one dismissed quickly. Just another bit of generic fantasy. Yawn. We always have plenty of that trying to break through.

A shadow of all night falling is one of Glen Cook (of black company fame)'s early books. He's already managing stories that seem fantastical without resorting to archaic language or unrealistic expectations of human nature. Might as well get on the wagon now and keep up with him.

And we finish off with a collective review of Piers Anthony's Tarot trilogy. Unlike Glen, the reviewer thinks he's improved enormously since his early work. How long before the brain eater overtakes the increase in technical skills in overall significance?



Films & Television: The Black Hole gets a rather scathing review from a writer who thinks it's far too cutsey and disneyfied for literally the weightiest subject in the known universe. The dialog is wooden, the special effects are of dubious quality, and the whole thing is far too conservative in it's execution. The House of Mouse didn't have a great 80's in general, did they?

Saturn 3 gets an equally dismissive review. Star Wars has raised the bar enough that these B-movie efforts simply don't cut the mustard anymore, and anyone thinking sci-fi audiences will snap up any old drek with robots, explosions and girls in tin-foil bikinis in it is sorely mistaken. Such is the nature of being on the tail end of a fad.

Television is faring no better. Battlestar Galactica has found earth, and been retooled into the woeful Galactica 80, and both the original sci-fi series and novel adaptions thoroughly deserve to be forgotten. For now, books have the clear lead in this genre as imagination need not worry about special effects budget.



Media: On the other hand, this column is much more optimistic about future properties. I guess they have to keep hoping for better things to keep the genre going even when signs aren't great. Final Countdown? Galaxina? Scanners? Sinbad on Mars? A lot of unfamiliar names and far fewer I have actually seen. I guess every era has a lot of crap that deserves to be forgotten for very gem, and going through old periodicals like this lets me rediscover them and judge for myself.



Games: In sharp contrast to last issue, they only do one games review this issue. However, it's a long and in depth one. Magic Realm is Avalon Hill's big attempt at tapping the expanding fantasy market. Choose your hero, explore the randomly generated landscape, fight monsters, collect treasure, hire followers and try to become supreme champion by whatever means. It's an interesting bit of design, and the way it introduces the various elements of the game one at a time seems cool, but it falls down a bit due to poorly edited rules and an overambitious reach, trying to mix boardgame and rpg and not quite satisfying either goal. I suspect this may be a case where the reviewer is overly harsh due to lots of experience, and I could get a good few enjoyable plays out of this before moving on.



Feedback: Hmm. So they're not just doing feedback once per year or so, but every single issue. That is a HUGE difference from TSR. And it makes me wonder just how different the surveys will be each month, and if I'll be able to think of something interesting to say for each of them. Aside from the expected ones about how the previous issue was, and your opinion on their competition and review ratings, they also have a list of proposals for future games to include in the magazine, which definitely seems interesting. Jack the Ripper and The Stainless Steel Rat? I shall keep an eye out for these.


While there is an improvement in production values from the previous issue, it's certainly not as dramatic as the early days of Dragon. I suppose SPI have already been producing magazines for over a decade, so that's to be expected. It's also very worth noting that there haven't been any entertainingly bad articles yet. I'm not coming in near the beginning of the company this time, and they aren't dominated by one person in the same way. Of course, that may be part of what leads to their downfall. Sometimes you need that controversy to grow and avoid being stuck in your little niche. Oh well, if they can keep the articles conventionally good all the way through, I may finish this sad, but I certainly won't be unsatisfied. To number three!
 

Jhaelen

Villager
Ah, welcome back! I've already been following your thread on Dragon with great interest.

Only two months ago, I discovered that all issues of ARES magazine are freely available as pdfs and downloaded them right away. I stumbled over a link to the archive while sifting through BoardGameGeek looking for interesting coop or solo board games. So, this time around I can actually read the issues and compare my impressions of the articles with yours. This is really great :)

Sometimes I love the Internet ;)

(Edit: I really had to laugh about your comment "Fiction, unlike reality, has an obligation to make sense." Apparently, this is a variation of a quote attributed to Tom Clancy: "The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense." Funny, but definitely true.)
 
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(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 03 - Barbarian Kings: July 1980



42 pages. Oh dear, that hairstyle. He-Man was not the only rugged muscular character who tried to rock the pageboy haircut in the early 80's, and it all seems very risible indeed now. Once again, it looks like fantasy'll be taking a bigger share of the magazine than sci-fi, as it's time for some conquering and pillaging. Oh well, let's oil our muscles, paint on some woad and get down too it before the banality of civilisation crushes our spirits entirely.



Muse: The editorial doesn't talk about the magazine this time, instead devoting the space to praising The Empire Strikes Back. It doesn't just rehash the glories of the original, it builds on it, changing the tone but maintaining the overall spirit. That's why it'll make a long-running series, rather than just a highly successful single movie. (that and the merch possibilities, of course) A universe has to have room for more than one story, and ESB already manages that, given how the heroes are split up for the vast majority of the movie (and end it still separated and on a downer) So this is one instance when the mood and the time and hindsight are in perfect synch. Whatever the quality of later instalments, they've proved lightning can strike in the same place twice if you put up a big enough rod, and built up a big store of geek goodwill for the future.



The Whispering Mirror: Once again we kick off with some action packed Swords & Sorcery, with an emphasis on the sorcery this time around. A man is transformed into a rat to serve as a spy in wizardly machinations, and has to think fast to get out alive. This is a very familiar story indeed to me, so there's no real surprises here. They adapt to the new senses and capabilities of their body, deal with it's limitations, and face life-threatening perils that would be no problem if they were still human. Perfectly serviceable, but not thought-provoking at all to me. Doing this is starting to feel like a routine again.



Space Wars: Not too surprisingly, it's time for our hard sci-fi article. Just three issues in and we're already seeing definite patterns in the way they pace the magazine. Fighting in space is an awkward business, where travel times are long, stealth is exceedingly difficult, mass is limited, the high ground is important and offence trumps defence all too easily. Like nuclear war, space fighting is likely to be long periods of political maneuvering and trying to gradually build up tactical advantage, and short periods of devastating destruction which is hugely costly to all sides. As with most of the hard science articles, this one does show it's age, with the space shuttle being presented as this cool upcoming thing that'll hopefully revolutionise space travel, leading to bigger and better things. The future aint what it used to be, and human ambition has outstripped it's grasp in this case. Thankfully, our world powers show few signs of wanting all-out war either, and long may that be true. Let's hope we don't eventually get to look back on articles like this and compare them to real planetary wars.



Barbarian Kings: Once again the centrepiece comes with a whole load of background setting that makes it entirely suitable for conversion to a full roleplaying game. The map in particular seems perfect for an alternate Birthright, having a nice set of terrain variations and surrounding islands. Not that I should be surprised, since they have the same emphasis on ruling and conquering stuff, as well as magic large-scale enough to be useful in mass combat situations. You can make alliances, betray them, and hire all sorts of creatures to fight for you, including frog and whale people, pirate fleets, and airships. I think I'm going to enjoy conquering and pillaging this pace, even if it won't go down without a fight.



Final Notes: Despite the title, this bit of fiction isn't connected to the game we just had. Instead, it's one of those stories designed to teach a moral lesson about racism and underestimating things just because they're different. A tribe of savage humans descended from civilised space travellers meet a nasty end from the natives of the planet, which they'd been treating like animals and eating for centuries. Now it's their turn to be dinner, and deal with all the nasty tricks intelligence can create and steal. A lesson we shouldn't forget. Who's to say that crows, dolphins or even ants won't figure out how to band together worldwide and unseat human supremacy before we even expect it. And then we'll be glad we created all these stories of possible universes, giving us clues on how to fix the problem.



Games: Up to now, ARES has been all about the wargaming. But roleplaying is growing at an exponential rate, driven by satanic controversy, to the point where it's now surpassing it's parent commercially. And in the process, it's changing what people expect to see in fantasy, not just gaming. Yup. That's only going to get worse, as more people raised on roleplaying games like Brandon Sanderson & Charles Stross become successful novelists in their own right. Everything changes, even the categories that things are placed into. The only constant is change itself, and even that's pretty erratic in the rate it runs. But anyway, let's see what games they've picked to review, and their opinions of them.

In the Labyrinth is where Steve Jackson's Melee and Wizard become an actual RPG rather than just a fight simulator, introducing the world of Cidri and it's inhabitants for you to explore and fight. The rules get plenty of praise, being both solid and flexible, but they remain ambivalent about the setting itself. Fortunately, they'll have plenty of time and opportunity to create variations on this particular system, as history proves.

Runequest gets it the other way around, with the setting receiving high praise, but the system getting mixed results for being too granular and heavy on bookkeeping. Fair enough. When you're used to commanding armies, that much detail on every single character would bog things down to a glacial pace. It's all a matter of priorities, and that's why they'll cover the same setting using a very different system in the future.

Tunnels & Trolls is dismissed as an entertaining, but ultimately lightweight bit of parody for those who like their dungeon-crawling a little more self-aware and less melodramatic. It might be a fun way to spend your time, but don't ever expect it to be the biggest or the best.

And finally, they're forced to cover D&D and AD&D again in more detail. They aren't hugely complimentary. It might be the leader of the pack by a long way, and redefining gaming by introducing a whole new crowd to it, but the rules and editing could do with some serious refinement, and they haven't even bothered to add a proper setting yet. On the other hand, it is easy to pick up, create a character and get straight into it, and a rising tide lifts all boats. Might as well buy it and then use it as a stepping stone to recruit players into a game that better fits their tastes. Otherwise they'll spend decades trying badly to hack D&D's system to fit their natural playstyle and does that sound like fun? ;)



Film & Television: The Empire Strikes Back also gets a full review in here, which is just as rapturously positive as the editorial. It's a lot darker, of course, but that's no bad thing, as any trilogy needs an arc. It escalates the role of the Force, which is a good thing so far, even if it will eventually get out of hand. And it introduces plenty of characters and musical themes that'll be remembered in their own right and referenced in all sorts of other media. Even if it'll turn out to be the least commercially successful of the original trilogy, it still leaves the vast majority of other films in the dust. Keep on rockin' that rebel spirit and see you in three years time.

The Watcher in the Woods sees them once again very unimpressed with Disney's attempts at darker filmmaking. Rush-releasing it with unfinished special effects is just the icing on top of a layer cake of many problems they go through. And looking up it's troubled history of re-edits and attempted directors cuts, it looks like the troubles are just starting here. Well, at least it's bad in an interesting way, which has kept it from being forgotten.

Being There is a study of how people project their own feelings onto a blank slate, as a mentally handicapped man stumbles into a position of political power largely through reflecting people's own words back at them. Self-absorption is one big way the smartest of nerds can fail at people, ironically, and while this is satire, it would explain a lot about politicians in general, and how they can win the votes of people they meet while having no actual ability to govern a country competently.



Media: Once again this column has an interesting mix of a few movies I remember, and considerably more that I don't. Superman 2 starts the annoying process of diminishing returns for that franchise. It can and will get worse. MUCH worse. On the other hand, it can also get better, as the 1982 version of The Thing is definitely better remembered than the 1951 one these days. And on the haven't heard of these, and might check them out side, we have Battle Beyond the Stars, Virus, The Tomorrow File, Alien Encounter and Outland. Any opinions on those?



Books: Engine Summer by John Crowley apparently got lots of positive reviews from other sources, and this magazine decides to follow the crowd in this case. It's more concerned with political ideas than hard science ones, which may explain the mainstream acclaim. It's always the human dramas that get the big bucks, not the genre trappings.

Unisave by Axel Madsen gets a fairly negative review in which the reviewer is baffled by his lack of self-awareness. Writing a complete dystopia without presenting it as such, and failing at both dramatic action and distinguishable characters? The publisher should have asked for another draft at least to develop the ideas better.

Still forms on Foxfield by Joan Slonczewski reverses this, with the reviewer liking it, but not sure exactly why they do. Who knows what goes on in the subconscious of humanity? It's impossible for a mind to completely monitor it's own actions, but if you know a person's levers, it can be all too easy to manipulate them, and that's what well crafted media does.

The Monitor, The Miners and the Shree by Lee Killough is a good old story of the prime directive being violated in the name of profit. (the shree obviously being the natives, and the other two the humans) Unfortunately, said monitor doesn't have the raw power to simply uproot and punish the illegal mining operation, so they have to use their brains to figure out a solution. Sounds very wild west, and that's not a bad thing.

Thrice Upon a Time by James P. Hogan gets a pretty backhanded compliment that he may have improved upon his previous works, but he's still got a long way to go. Once again, the cool ideas are not matched by the craft. It is easy to get overly critical as a reviewer, isn't it.

Sundiver by David Brin, on the other hand, gets praised as an excellent debut, with it's flaws far out weighed by the cool ideas and setting. Since this is the start of the Uplift series, I think we can safely say this is an opinion shared by quite a few others at the time. He can look forward to a long career.

Mayflies by Kevin O'Donnell also gets plenty of praise, and the promise to watch out for his future work. Since his last novel was published in 1990, but didn't die until 2012, I'm guessing he wasn't so commercially successful, and didn't get to give up the day job.

Michael and the Magic Man by Kathleen Sidney sounds like an amusing inversion of the scooby doo formula, with the heroes travelling the country in a van to root out all too real psychic threats that the authorities would never believe in. Actually, that sounds more mundane than all the monsters being fakes (but superhumanly convincing ones ), but it gets a good review anyway, so I presume there are some hidden depths here.

Ariosto by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is a story within a story, with the star of one creating the second one in universe. Unlike a lot of fantasy stories, it uses renaissance trappings rather than medieval ones, which pleases the reviewer. After all, exploring a new continent and bringing back stuff that changes the existing order is perfect adventurer plot fodder.

Watchtower by Elizabeth Lynn sees our reviewer reveal his conservative side again. Fantasy aimed at feminists and humanists? I'd never have read that on my own time. But now I have I'm willing to accept it's a good story even if I still don't agree with it's politics. Fair enough. There's hope for him yet.



Directory: To go with their earlier big index of games, this month they have a slightly smaller index of Wargaming & RPG publishers. Anyone who's anyone (who's american at least, as non USA companies are completely absent) is here, and if you aren't you need a better publicity department. I definitely expect this one'll be a lot bigger next time they publish it, as more companies jump on the bandwagon, and existing ones determined to make themselves known and get reviews. Once again, it does seem that SPI cares a good deal more about proper cataloguing and editing than TSR did in the same era.



Feedback delves into the subgenres of fantasy this month, trying to figure out exactly what people are interested in reading and playing. High or low, medieval or strictly classical influences, humancentric or anthromorphic animals, they do have some very specific and slightly strange questions that wouldn't be asked in the same way today, if they were at all. I guess it all relates to the popular media of the day. As much as established designers may look down on new trends, they have to pay attention if they want to stay commercially successful.



The magazine is settling into a regular routine, and it's becoming pretty easy to see both it's strengths and weaknesses compared to TSR. While they are better organised and edited, and their reviews more rigorous, they're also considerably more conservative in outlook, and it's quite likely that this also means they're less adaptable. Such is life. Let's see what the next issue will remind us of.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 04 - Arena of Death: September 1980



44 pages. Time for a little one-on-one battle rather than the larger scale wargames we're used too from SPI. The growth of RPG's continues to affect them, as they have their own one coming out, and not only are the rules for the minigame derived from this, but they also have a second RPG article in here as well. I was expecting the magazine to have it's focus drift, but not this quickly. I guess what was just three issues for me was 6 months of real time for them, and they have been putting feedback forms in every single issue. And if they don't have the sales to go monthly anyway, why stick to your format that rigidly? What good is a labour of love when the love is gone? Let's see if I'm merciful to this one, or give it the thumbs down of death.



Muse: Our editorial continues the business of change in response to feedback. Less disconnected fiction, more setting stuff connected to their games and general plot hooks for you to use in yours. After all, there's plenty of other magazines offering general fantasy and sci-fi fiction, but not so many war & roleplaying game ones, and that's where their core audience lies. Pandering to the loudest voices? We've seen where that road leads before. Once again, I'm forced to draw parallels with Dragon's increasing specialisation over time, and how that wasn't particularly good for sales. I wonder how many other magazines have been born and died in similar fashions over the years, specialising themselves until their niche is too small to sustain them, and then being knocked out when the debt collectors come a-calling. Oh well, as above, so below. Evolution is all about survival, which means a certain amount of culling is a necessity. I knew this was a short trip when I started it. If it keeps changing several times during it's duration as well, that'll just make it more interesting for me.



Hillsong: Our first article is a very interesting bit of transhumanist sci-fi indeed. To survive in space long-term, we're going to need to make some pretty dramatic alterations to ourselves, to the point where we might not even be recognisable as human anymore. And with those changes will come a whole bunch of knock-on effects to our societies and morality, with both things that are currently permitted becoming banned, and ones that are currently considered disgusting or illegal becoming normalised. Lest we forget, nature has managed to evolve creatures which have cannibalism and incest as essential parts of their lifecycles. If they were intelligent, they simply couldn't have the same moral codes we do for practical reasons. Even relatively small changes to our biology are going to have unexpected secondary results, and create a new subgroup for the purposes of discrimination. Which means a key part of transhumanism will always be the struggle against reactionaries who call altering ourselves meddling with forbidden things, and the results abominations that should be destroyed. This story might be heavy on the talk, and low on action, but it's still interesting and full of things to debate. Just where does your line lie when it comes to doing strange or morally repulsive things for the sake of survival?



Science for Science Fiction: So here's the other big change, a pair of 2-page spreads jam-packed with strange facts for you to use. Many of them are historical science facts that have been known for centuries, but some are still under debate, such as the question of if Pluto is a planet or not, and the idea of using alcohol to fuel cars. And of course there's pseudoscientific hokum like flying saucers and negative ion generators that might not be true, but still make for good story ideas. Like Dragon's Class Acts series, which ones you'll consider good, bad and useful will vary widely, and it seems like a good way to make sure the amount of content precisely fits the page count, since it's easy to drop single ones in and out. While the big articles might be better remembered, stuff like this is just as essential to the smooth running of a magazine or newspaper. As with the reviews, I suspect it will gradually incline more towards recent news rather than just random tidbits as we go forward.



Facts for Fantasy: This column also draws upon a pretty wide set of sources, both historical and mythological, although it's definitely eurocentric in general. Sumerian, Eastern European, Norse AND Finnish, Greek, English, Welsh, French, Spanish, German. When you don't have easy transport or communication, even a hundred miles is more than enough for huge cultural differences to develop, and a whole different set of gods and stories. The world may not have become smaller since then, but it's certainly become more homogenous in terms of shared influences, even as our ability to use more impressive methods of representing what's in our heads has increased. As with the previous column, I already know a fair few of these bits of info, but not all of them, and it'll be interesting to see how they vary their sources as time goes on.



Eye of the Goblin: Their habit of putting in far more thought about the setting and backstory of their games than they need too continues here. To a lot of people, a goblin is just a goblin, they breed so fast, and die under adventurer's swords so easily that you don't get to think of them as individuals. But even they have their dreams and motivations, especially exceptional ones who leave their tribes and join the gladiatorial arenas in search of wealth and glory. And so we get to know the inner life of an aspiring goblin in quite a bit of detail, before they meet a quick and bloody end in battle before an audience that cares nothing for this detail, and just wants to see fighters and monsters kicking ass. It's almost enough to make you want to stop killing them as entertainment. Almost. Eventually, my bloodlust will rise again, and need sating one way or another, even if it takes several months.



Arena of Death: So here we are once again. DragonQuest got a fair number of articles in Dragon magazine, which seems kind of inevitable given their names. But I never read it myself, so I couldn't comment that much on the rules aspects of them. However, since this minigame is basically a quickstart for the DragonQuest combat system, I can finally correct that oversight. It doesn't seem dumbed down either, with a fairly complex action point economy as a base for the combat system, and lots of tables for modifiers, monsters and character advancement. You don't just approach the enemy and hack away until someone's dead, you have to choose between 16 different actions, and take into account details of facing, position, tracking a mix of fatigue and serious damage, critical hits, weapon breakages and popularity with the crowd. Once you add in lots of weapons, armour, learned skills, magic, and other widgets, I can easily see how this basic system would become even more crunch heavy than D&D. The Runequest influence to the system is also pretty obvious, which isn't surprising given it's name. It seems like a perfectly serviceable generic system for gritty games where advancement is one point at a time, and even at higher power levels you're still vulnerable to sudden death with a bad roll. If SPI had survived, they could have produced multiple games and settings using it. But then, when we already have Dungeons & Dragons and Runequest, anyone looking at this in the shop is going to ask themselves what this does that those two don't, and I can't help wonder if it's very generic name hindered it.

Also not helping the feel of genericness is an appendix describing all the weapons in the game, including a lengthy list of polearms that shows that Gary wasn't the only one obsessed with that stuff back then. I find it interesting how those have fallen out of fashion, quite possibly because they're more useful in formation fighting, and as RPG's developed way from their wargame roots, the weapons emphasised are naturally ones that work better for cool one-on-one fights.



Books: Our reviews continue to trend towards fewer, longer reviews, giving more depth to each one. Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg gets hailed as his best book yet, as he returns to fantasy with a fast-paced epic that fully deserves commercial success as well as critical acclaim. Can't say fairer than that, especially when they give lots of specific reasons why it's good.

Lost Dorsai by Gordon R. Dickson also gets plenty of praise for covering complex moral issues that compare different types of honor and badassery and what happens when they conflict with one-another. It might not always be possible to satisfy everyone, but you can give it a damn good try and tell very interesting stories in the process.



Film & Television: The Shining gets a fairly negative review that thinks it isn't nearly as good as the book. Jack Nicholson is so convincing as a complete psychopath that you never get any sense of internal conflict to his decline, while the other characters simply lack depth, and the humorous one-liners undercut the horror. I suspect a lot of their issues are a matter of expectations, since it's those very lines that'll go on to be pop culture references still used today.

There's no other reviews here, but Carl Sagan's Cosmos gets a lengthy and quite excited preview. Bringing hard science to the masses in an entertaining way is always a tricky road to follow, and they hope he's up to it, because one good show can make a big difference to the geeks of the next generation.



Media: The vast majority of the upcoming films mentioned here are familiar ones, interestingly. Star Wars' supposed 9 film master plan has been talked about. Best laid plans, eh? Similarly, they're planning an adaption of I, Robot, apparently. I suppose they do get there in the end. Maybe Star Wars will too in a decade or two. ;) Not so delayed are Raiders of the Lost Ark, Scanners, and Day of the Dead, all of which have stood the test of time reasonably well. Don't remember Star Patrol, Dragon Slayer or Knights of Eden though. Are they worth checking out?



Games: Chivalry & Sorcery gets a review that makes it sound like a typical fantasy heartbreaker. More realistic!!! More Detailed!!! Historically Accurate!!! Multiple Complex Magic Systems!!! And as is far too frequent for these kind of homebrew efforts, the rules are too dense and cumbersome for anyone but the most obsessive to actually have an enjoyable campaign with. Ah, young enthusiasm. You've got to smile, even though you know just how much it's going to hurt them when their cool ideas hit the harsh light of the real world and turn out to be not so great after all.

Adventures in Fantasy gets a very mixed review indeed. In quite a few ways Arneson has improved over his original design in D&D. However, the editing and organisation is even worse, and that's really saying something. He badly needs an editor, and it looks like after leaving TSR he no longer has people willing to say no to him. Ahh, the traps of success. That's one we've seen plenty of times before. You can still have fun with this, but houseruling is essential, simply due to the unclearness of the writing. You can't get away with that kind of vagueness in competitive wargames, so they continue to hold RPG's to higher standards than their own designers do.

Mythology is yet another game that gets a "looks nice, but the rules don't quite work in actual play" result. Such a shame too, as all it would take is a little more proofreading to iron out the inconsistencies.



Feedback: The feedback form continues to evolve every time it appears. They seem more focussed on sci-fi this time around, both in the authors they want us to rate, and the potential games they're considering publishing. Still, more than half the questions are exactly the same as the previous issues, so it looks like they've got a formula for this as well. You need to maintain a fair number of constants to get analysable information in an experiment, after all. The sci-fi subgenres seem less weird than the fantasy ones last time, curiously enough. I suppose having to maintain some tenuous connection with real world science keeps it from changing quite so radically with the winds of fashion.



Dragonquest Tournament Combat: Having introduced the quite complex DragonQuest combat system earlier in the issue, they ironically finish up with a single page article encouraging you to just ignore the more precise details of positioning and timing and fudge it as a GM. After all, you were probably going to do it anyway, if AD&D was any indication. Might as well give their blessing to it. I guess this once again rubs in the difference between competitive wargaming where the rules need to be adhered too strictly to make the game fair, and roleplaying, where the GM is the real authority over what happens, and the rules are just there to help, because it's impossible for them to cover every option the players may try in an open-ended universe. It's a good thing they don't have a letters page, or we'd be going over that kind of argument in it ad nauseum, just as we did in Dragon.



After looking like they were getting into a routine last issue, they're already changing things up again, with roleplaying pushing it's way in and making itself impossible to ignore. Always amusing to see just how wrong my predictions can be on that front, given how I know this is going to end. How long before the RPG stuff becomes the primary focus? I suppose I'd better get back in gear and finish this off to see.
 

Jhaelen

Villager
Your summary and conclusion regarding DragonQuest reminds me of my thoughts vs. the Harnmaster RPG: Why bother with a system that is even more detailed and a lot less playable than Runequest? It still has its fans, though.

Of the movies you've been wondering about, I only recall 'Dragon Slayer'. At the time I thought this was an utterly amazing movie with a gorgeous dragon creature. I'm not sure how well it's aged, though.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 05 - Citadel of Blood: November 1980


Nearly monochromatic isometric 3D, huh? Someone's been taking their inspiration from the early computer games of the era. That's a good reminder that it's not just RPG's encroaching on the same free time and money as wargaming, it's the arcades and personal computers as well. Dragon had a computer games column for many years. Will ARES make their own attempt too? Guess I'd better push on and see if they've changed things around inside again.


44 pages


Muse: The editorial is very short indeed, with only 2 notable bits of information. First, that the editor actually prefers realistic games to fantasy ones. Well, SPI was primarily about the historical wargames, and Strategy & Tactics is still far bigger than ARES. Not surprised that many in the company would only be jumping on the bandwagon reluctantly in the wake of D&D's massive success. That's slightly worrying to know. Second, and far less surprising, is that the new game inside is a variant on the rules of one of their existing ones, which virtually all companies do. Another of those reminders that like any decently sized company, they are a production line, and that means giving people jobs they don't really want to do, at a rate determined by management rather than inspiration. Sigh. It can never be just fun and games, can it? On with the show.



The Dark Tower of Loki Hellsson: Wut. o_O Loki Hellson?! Now there's a name that's chosen to sound cool and completely inaccurate from an etymological point of view. But then, when you're talking about a generic fantasy dungeon, what can you expect. His enemies, Thorin Evilsbane and Vasili the Blessed are similarly cheesy. This is the first time their habit of providing setting material for every game seems a bit forced and perfunctory, barely longer than a page, and with terrible names in general. It's a magical dungeoncrawl which shifts layout every time you visit it. It doesn't have to make sense. Just let us play the game and enjoy it. After all, unlike D&D, it's not as if you have to place it in a specific location in the world, worry about it's effects on the neighbours, and what'll happen once it's cleared out and left abandoned for a while if the campaign continues. Not impressed at all by this one. Let's hope they put more effort into the actual game.



Dark Stars & Dim Hopes: The miserabilist pieces on the limits of human advancement continue, once again going into the mathematics of interstellar space and the difficulty of traversing it within a practical timespan. Even if we solve the mechanical challenges of building something that can accelerate to a decent fraction of lightspeed, get to another solar system, brake and transmit useful information back, getting humans there alive, well and sane within a single lifespan seems impossible with us as we are. Cryogenic suspension still isn't an option even now, and generation ships seem doomed to revolt due to human nature. The only course I can see that might have potential is genetic engineering, and that seems unlikely to be tried properly given the current suspicion of human experimentation by the general public. It's all pretty depressing. I do wonder why they keep publishing these. One is fair enough, but what do they expect to achieve by continuing to go on about it? Are you really THAT devoted to gritty realism over fun? What's the motivation here? And how do I keep my motivation up in spite of it? It's all a little baffling.



Miniature Spaceships: Adding minis reviews to their already pretty full roster? I'm not surprised at all, actually, as it's more relevant to their core goals than movies or books. Not that they have a huge amount to say about them, as they cram 7 into 2 pages with a fair bit of whitespace to spare. Really, it's not much more than telling us that they exist, and there are games you can play using them. The photos aren't particularly impressive either, being very much limited by the printing technology of the day, especially in black and white. This definitely needs some retooling before it could become a regular column.



Books: The Number of the Beast by Robert Heinlein sees him well into his brain-eater phase, producing material that's rambling, overlong, full of subplots that go nowhere and weird sex stuff. It's not that it isn't interesting, in part because of it's strangeness, but it's still very disappointing compared to his older works. Time does cruel things to us all, and the higher you rise, the farther you have to fall.

Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny also comes up short compared to his previous works, this time for being too short to properly explore all the ideas he comes up with. This is why you need an editor who can be completely blunt with you no matter how big you get.

The Magic Labyrinth by Philip Jose Farmer completes a hat-trick of let-downs, bringing Riverworld to an anticlimactic conclusion where the big secrets are largely irrelevant. It's always so much easier when you don't have to explain your tricks, and can let people's imaginations do the heavy lifting.

The man who Corrupted Earth by G. C. Edmonson does please our reviewer's strict standards, on the other hand. It's dark, dramatic, and tackles some genuine real world issues. Shame that space travel has died down so much in real life, where the good guys don't get to win in the end by author fiat. There's always the future.

The steel, the mist and the blazing sun by Christopher Anvil gets a resounding meh. Just another way to fill a few hours with no lasting impact. It's so easy for reviewers to get jaded when they consume a lot, isn't it.

Lifekeeper by Mike McQuay suffers from the classic first book problem of feeling like the author just started writing without a plan and rambled until they had enough material for a novel. This is where physically writing multiple drafts instead of a word processor helps. A good editor is just as important for beginners as it is for big stars.

The Light Bearer by Sam Nicholson is one of the lucky books that makes the grade. Essentially an Arabian Nights story in space, it manages to be both entertaining and well-written enough for Greg's standards.

Ironbrand by John Morressy is another decent, but not exceptional fantasy one. Three brothers get magical swords, and have to liberate the kingdom from evil. Same old story.

The Dancers of Arun by Elizabeth Lynn sees Greg once again complain about all this tedious feminism that's getting in his fantasy lately. Less talky, more fighty! If he posted this today, the comments sections would be packed full of flames.

And finally, Glen Cook's Dread Empire series gets a pretty positive collective review. The ending might be a bit rushed, but it's still a solid series that has potential for more expansion in the future. Well, he's not wrong here, at least.



Bypass: Along with the scientific articles about how the future can go wrong, we have some fiction about how the future can go wrong. Uploading human minds to a computer? It's quite possible that they'd go insane and become self-destructive trying to deal with their new condition. Which would be a great pain in the ass for everyone else involved, especially if they're running a spaceship or other place where they control the life support. Fortunately, this is only fiction, so they can come up with a happy solution with no loss of life at the end. Nothing too surprising on the speculative fiction front, really as this is the same kind of problem we've seen many many times before, and hopefully will be equipped to deal with if we ever face it in reality. I can't give it particularly high or low marks.



Citadel of Blood: Time for a fantasy dungeoncrawl in here, which isn't too surprising, even if the way they're going about it is a little different, as this is more an elaborate board game like Advanced Heroquest than a full RPG. The layout of the dungeon is generated randomly each time you enter, and the whole thing is designed to work without a GM. There's a decent selection of monsters, and they have various quirks to make them more interesting than just hitting back and forth until someone dies, plus you can roll to negotiate with them or magically charm them if you want too. The Spell selection is a little limited though, and could do with some expansion, especially on the Special table to give more room for advancement. So this is good if you don't have a GM, and want a fantasy adventure with a little more room for player choice and character advancement than Heroquest, but not so much it becomes unwieldy to keep track of. If your DM is flaky, keep it around as a standby.



Facts for Fantasy: This section is shrunk to a page and a half to fit around the adverts. As before, it's completely eurocentric, with a little bit of egypt squeezing it's way in, with a combination of fantastical and historical stuff, including some surprisingly detailed talk about various types of cannonballs and the excesses of 12th century feasts. The various monsters and myths are all completely familiar (and statted out), of course, but some of the historical bits are new to me, which again shows the difference in focus between ARES and Dragon. When you play mass combat games regularly, you care as much about different gauges of cannon as you do polearms.



Science for Science Fiction: Just like the previous column, this gets a 25% cut in size for the sake of equality. It's tidbits of information are slightly more detailed, but also much more dated, since we have a lot more information on what stars nearby have planets, and even how big and far from their primary they are. Continental drift has long since ceased to be controversial, but global warming has if anything become more so. You never know what's going to change, and what's going to be all too similar until you get to the future, and there's still a lot to find out in this field. I do wish we could afford to send a few more probes off into interstellar space with powerful cameras to get more accurate information from multiple viewpoints.



Monsterquest: Just like TSR, SPI needs their fans to produce supplementary material for their games. DragonQuest is brand new, and they need to do some serious catching up on the monster front if they want to compete with D&D's multiple monster books. So here they encourage you to send in your own monsters, and lots of them, so they can publish a big book full a mere 6 months later. As usual for these things, the monetary rewards and legal terms are not great, making it very clear that this is work for hire where they get all the rights and control and you get little but the bragging rights of seeing your name in print. It's very much one of those moments where seeing how the sausage is made removes your desire to actually eat it. I know all that legal crap is necessary to cover their ass, but it's still depressing. There's very little money in creativity unless you're at the top of the pyramid, at which point you have all the power.



Film & Television: Close Encounters - Special edition is actually slightly shorter than the theatrical version of the film, but the reviewer still considers it a substantial improvement in pacing and special effects. It may lack the worldbuilding of harder sci-fi, but in terms of sheer wonder, it's still up there with Spielberg's best.

The Final Countdown gets a negative review because the film makes very little sense as it is, skipping huge sections of the book to keep it the right length for the theatre, at the expense of pacing and coherence. You know, that was what intermissions were for in the old days. That way you don't have to test your bladder every time you want a little room to develop in your films. Let's hope they filmed more than they used so a better cut could be releasable later.

Roger Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars gets a pretty positive review, punching well above it's budget in terms of special effects, and while it has some humour, the actors still take their characters seriously. It might not match up to Star Wars in impact, but it's still more than entertaining enough for a rewatch.



Games: The games section is thoroughly taken over by roleplaying at this point, and begins with a lengthy rant on how fantasy and sci-fi vastly outsell more realistic historical or modern day scenarios. This does not please the editor at all, as we found out earlier, and if he had his way, he'd change the tastes of the public too. (preferably by releasing a megaselling game that puts SPI at the top of the roleplaying pile) Yeah, that's not going to happen, and at least they're realistic about the odds against it and the reasons why. The closer you are to reality, the more constrained you are as both a writer and a player. It's harder to make fun, and you have to deal with more nitpickers telling you you're doing it wrong. That issue hasn't changed with the passage of time, and I feel like I could jump in at any point of history in any gaming related media and deal with complaints of much the same nature.

Traveller actually gets a pretty positive review, as the glacially slow experience combined with gradually escalating chances of death in character generation is actually fairly realistic, and makes for a fun minigame in itself even if you don't get around to playing. The worldbuilding systems are good, the action resolution works as intended, and there's tons of things to do out there in space. Of course, there's one area that's a little too realistic, and that's the lack of technological advancement in other areas. (which of course is all the more glaring 30+ years later) They're also not so positive about the supplements, which show the usual problems of being written on a lower budget and with less playtesting than the corebooks. Oh well, that's why you read the reviews and choose carefully where to spend your money in the first place.

Space Opera also gets some praise, but slightly more criticism, as it is pretty comprehensive, but that also makes it too slow in actual play for their tastes. Like many RPG's, you really have to figure out which rules to ignore for maximum fun, which is not a pleasing concept to those raised on competitive wargames. A perfectly accurate map is actually useless, and so it goes with games that are as slow or moreso than reality. It's a hard lesson for designers to learn.



Feedback: The feedback remains mostly the same, but this time, starts to slip ideas for DragonQuest supplements in amongst the standalone games to see what people might be looking for in their roleplaying. Like the advert for monster submissions earlier, they need your help to grow their game in the right way. Will you focus on dungeons, wilderness or cities, adventuring or domain management? As ever, let's hope we find out before all their plans come to naught anyway.



Having had the novelty wear off of doing this again, this is where the conservative and parochial attitudes of the writers is going from amusing to grating for me. I never thought that early 80's Dragon was a bastion of equality, but compared to ARES of the same era, it certainly was. The pessimistic take on realism and scientific accuracy is also weirdly discouraging in a magazine that's supposed to be about gaming, and makes it seem like they have very specific tastes in fun and will complain at you if your playstyle doesn't match up. Is the emphasis on stamping out badwrongfun one of the things that hurts their sales and kills them of in the end? It certainly isn't making it easier to get through this. Let's see if the next issue is any more entertaining.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 06 - Voyage of the BSM Pandora: January 1981



43 pages. What Flame the dragon was to Dungeon Magazine, the BSM pandora is to ARES, an iconic character/setting that they can return too again in a different form to give continuity to their games. If the magazine had lasted longer, we would probably have seen it show up again on big anniversaries and the like, and got nostalgic posts about playing the games involving it and weaving the bits of setting they gave us into a larger canon. Oh, for what could have been. Time to confront the reality of what actually is again.



Muse: Nothing much to see here, just an affirmation of the fact that as time goes on, they are indeed increasing the proportion of game material here, and also trying to create more ambitious games. Fair enough, if difficult to comment on. After you've been doing things for a while, and gained new skills, you do naturally want to push your limits, and nothing wrong with that. Dragon didn't start to level off in production values until about 10 years in, and 10,000 hours is cited as the amount of time needed to get really god at something. You can't manage that kind of mastery in just one year.



2 adventures and a GM screen are already out for DragonQuest. A timely reminder that even many less popular games back then had supplement treadmills that put 5e to shame.



Pandora Tech: Our setting detail this time isn't a story. It's a bunch of tech specs for things in the B.S.M Pandora. This serves to make them all the more stealable for other games, as it gives you solid numbers that you can use to build your game stats. It also gives you an idea of the feel of the place, which is less formal than you would expect. When you're trapped together on long-range space voyages for years at a time, getting sloppy about protocol is eventually inevitable, which of course gets them into the mess we saw last time. This is only short, but it's both entertaining and consistent with what we've already seen, so I like it quite a bit and wish it was longer. Their worldbuilding continues to be far above what it needs to be to create their games, and all the better for it.



Facts for Fantasy: Back up to 2+1/3 pages for this column, and they put indian and incan tidbits in alongside the usual european and egyptian smorgasboard. They seem particularly keen on Herodotus, as he turns up twice. Even before modern technology was developed, people came up with some pretty impressive infrastructure, and human imagination has always exceeded it's achievements. As ever, the shallow dipping means It's telling me little I didn't know before, and I find it hard to sustain interest. It takes a long time to put together a big picture from a collection of tiny little scraps, and I've already done it before. Ed Greenwood could spin this kind of stuff out forever and stay interesting. This can't.



Science for Science Fiction: Inequality in these columns for the first time, as this is only 1+2/3 pages long. |t also overlaps with the previous column a little when it talks about icelandic history, as the gap between history and mythology gets fuzzy after a certain distance. As ever, the ruminations on both astronomy and genetics are long since superceded, as we've improved our information gathering equipment a lot since then. The info on endangered animals has also changed a fair bit since then, and I have no doubt it will continue to do so given the way we treat the environment. So this continues to be slightly more interesting than the fantasy column because it shows just how much our understanding of the world has changed over the years, and how it might continue to do so within our lifespan. That's worth more than another flight of pure imagination.



Film & Television: Flash Gordon gets a thoroughly mixed review where the reviewer feels the good bits just throw the awful cheesy parts into even sharper relief. The supporting cast and effects are good, but the lead actor is terrible, the story is weak, and the whole thing is thoroughly unfaithful to the source material. Just another example of how hollywood doesn't take sci-fi seriously despite the enormous commercial successes Star Wars & Trek have had. That crap could really do with a cull. A good example of how things have actually got better for geeks in recent decades.

Altered States also gets a mixed, but slightly more positive review. It's basically a riff on Jekyll & Hyde/The incredible Hulk with lots of 60's psychedelia thrown in, and whether you'll find it deep and meaningful, or merely incoherent nonsense will very much be a matter of taste. Not everyone has the same inner demons, so playing with symbolism is very much hit and miss.



Media: This column delves into the murky world of hollywood accounting, and the ways they try and ensure a profit, while making it look like they never actually make one for tax purposes. The studio system has become bloated and corrupt with price gouging and forcing cinemas to do several month guaranteed runs even if the film flops. They're even asking for percentages of the food sold at the cinema, which just forces them to jack the prices up even further, and makes sneaking your own in make far more sense. It's a system rife with abuse, and means the profitability of a film is heavily based on the deal negotiated rather than actual audience response. All together now. THAT'S SHOWBIZ!!! As with the previous article, It's funny to see how things have changed. The internet may mean there's less money in media as a whole due to the ease of pirating, but people are more able to find and buy precisely what they want, rather than what's advertised, and there's fewer limitations due to manufacturing and distribution logistics. But there's still plenty of scummy backroom stuff and legal shenanigans big companies can pull to stack the deck in their favour, and nepotism is just as strong a force as ever. So this article is very interesting indeed, even if it's not particularly game related. Nice to see them applying their analytical cynicism to other areas.



Voyage of the B.S.M Pandora: In contrast with all their previous games, this is a solitaire one, where the challenges you face are heavily determined by the dice, but there's also a strong element of player choice and resource management as you choose how long your voyage is and how you deal with the things you encounter. Like the old choose your own adventure books, which this strongly resembles, you can get different results even if you choose the same route. (presuming you don't cheat on the dice, which is always a particular temptation in a solitaire game) It has more depth to it than most CYOA books though, despite being dramatically compressed, due to the larger scope of play than simply controlling a single character on an adventure. So once again, while something like this doesn't give you the full flexibility of an actual roleplaying game, it has a lot more depth than most boardgames while still giving you a clear objective and path of play, (which is where RPG's can often fall down) and shows off their ambitions in quite an interesting way. I definitely want to see what else they have planned before they go down.



Dragon deigns to advertise in it's competitor's pages. Guess that shows TSR are taking SPI seriously as challengers.



Books: The Devil's Game by Poul Anderson is unusually light on the supernatural elements for him, which allows the reviewer to praise him for being versatile and trying different things. There's things you can do with ambiguity that you simply can't if everyone knows for certain all the weirdness is real.

Malafrena by Ursula Le Guin is set in a fantasy world, but is also devoid of any other supernatural phenomena. This means she can do a historical drama without feeling beholden to the details of real world history. Your own fanbase can become your worst enemy if they don't buy into the details.

The Mind Game by Norman Spinrad continues this theme, making the point yet again that fantasy and sci-fi still aren't as credible as other genres, and it's quite possible they're doing it to get more mainstream success and literary plaudits. It's a tiresome business chasing money and respect, but I guess that's what you've got to do when you aren't a megastar and have a family to feed. And why should a writer feel compelled to stick to one genre just because it makes life easier for the marketers anyway? More stuff that definitely gets better in the intervening decades.

Leviathan's Deep by Jayge Carr sees the grumbles about feminism show up again, which also feels increasingly irritating, especially as he only does so to say that this particular novel avoids those problems despite being written by a woman and featuring interspecies gender politics as an integral plot point. I grow increasingly grateful that I won't have to put up with this for too long.

Antinomy by Spider Robinson is a collection of his short stories. It gets a positive result because it's interesting without being depressing or particularly challenging, which once again highlights the conservative tendencies of the reviewer. Once again, I grow distinctly more unimpressed.

Star Driver by Lee Correy gets a positive review for more agreeable reasons. Combining solid sci-fi speculations with properly written characters? That ought to work in any era, regardless of the political trends.

Beyond Rejection by Justin Leiber gets even higher praise, made all the moreso because it's a debut novel. If he can keep it up, he has a bright future ahead of him. Since he publishes 5 novels, then leaves fiction behind for academia, the commercial realities at least don't agree with the reviewer in hindsight. Trying to predict the future rarely works too well, unfortunately.

And finally, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy gets a brief, but very positive recommendation. Given it's longevity, I think this doesn't really need any analysis. Just another voice in the choir.



Quick Combat II: A second, different way of speeding up DragonQuest in this magazine? That really does rub in the fact that most people don't want a combat system that heavy and detail obsessed. Still, this one is crunchier than the previous one, which was basically just GM fiat. It seems to be aimed at boiling down larger group combat into a few rolls, and there's still a fair bit of math involved. It also assumes fighting to the death without surrender as the default, which means total death for the loser, and high casualties for the winning side, which will please neither fans of realism, or players who have to argue about which PC's in the group die after a single die exchange even if they win. For that reason, I really can't see this system working in an actual campaign, as it'd be far too lethal and divisive to maintain a functional group dynamic unless every player had multiple characters and was ok with them being replaced regularly. But it's still interesting to see them trying to make things work better. Will one of them stick?



DragonNotes: Completely unsurprisingly, they institute a regular column for DragonQuest material as part of their increased focus on gaming. This first one isn't that interesting though, being entirely self-promotion, much of which is repeated from the advert earlier in the issue. Lots of stuff coming out in the near future, both adventures and game aids. You might want to hold off on buying the core for a few months if you haven't already though, as they plan on incorporating all the errata people have found in the next print run. Is it really a good idea to say something like that? Oh well, at least it's admitting your flaws. And this shows again how serious they are about building this up into an extensive gameline to rival D&D. Hopefully they'll give us some useful material in here while it lasts.



Games: Shooting Stars gets a long and very sardonically negative review that leaves you in absolutely no doubt why they don't like it. Shovelware that's a poor copy of a previous game they liked? Why even bother? Save your money and time, and leave the suffering to the professionals.

Azhanti High Lightning, on the other hand, they rather like. It works as both a game, and worldbuilding, and the ship plans are a thing of beauty. They're useful for anyone who wants to play in a large-scale sci-fi spaceship, whether active or crashed dungeon crawl. Well worth checking out.

Asteroid is by the same team as Azhanti, but has simpler rules, and a far more humorous tone, as a band of oddballs (and their dog mascot) have to save the world from an asteroid headed towards it, while dealing with some ridiculous subplots. Again, the ideas in here are eminently stealable to use in another format. GDW are really on a roll at the moment creatively.



Feedback: The feedback form becomes concerned with the competition, asking which other gaming magazines you read/subscribe too, and what they could change to get your sweet reliable subscription money. The number of very specific DragonQuest questions increases, as they try to pinpoint what supplements will sell best, and we get an interesting hint that they're considering adding computer gaming to the mix, as they ask what computers you own as well. They're still planning a fair number of standalone wargames though, even if a greater proportion of them are sci-fi. So we can definitely see the transitions in focus over the year just from looking at these forms. Let's hope that continues to be the case.



Once again, some quite high contrasts in here between the bits that I like and the ones I don't, with the ambition of the game material feeling like it comes from a different world to the very critical and weirdly conservative review sections and somewhat dull columns. It does make for quite a strange mix, and not one I would have kept on buying myself back in the day. But as we're already a third of the way through this, doing the rest doesn't seem too onerous. Lets see what strangeness the next issue brings.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 07 - Rescue from the Hive: March 1981



43 pages. Time for a little lurid pulp action, as we get a female character in a ridiculously skintight spacesuit, in need of rescuing by the rugged hero, who's spacesuit is bulked up on the body and not remotely skintight. It may be the far future in space, and we may be facing giant insects instead of a dragon, but some things never change. And one of those is trying to sell via sex, which people will inevitably try eventually regardless of the product or subject matter. Let's see if this issue'll live up to the hype, and if it'll attract any new buyers on the newsstands.



Muse: The editorial does nothing to dissuade me from the idea that they're trying to sex up the magazine a little. There's some more high quality, full-color cheesecake on the next page, and if you like it, you can buy a proper print of it from the artist. Yeah, that's some fairly blatant commercialism of a kind I'm not too keen on. Similarly, making their game boards bigger and with more pieces so they can charge more for it seems like a somewhat backwards way of looking at the creative process, and not the way I'd phrase it at all if I was trying to sell that change to people. Are they feeling the bite financially and starting to flail before they go down? The plot thickens. I'm very interested to see how this develops now.



The House of Kurin: The DragonQuest material this month is an adventure that's almost as large as the centrepiece, and the combined size of these has forced them to cut some of their regular columns. While at it's core it's still basically "party gets hired in a tavern by mysterious old man to kill bad guys and rescue people", it's more character driven and less map focussed than D&D adventures of the same era, with a long list of named characters who move around rather than sitting in their rooms waiting for the PC's to barge in and kill them. There's still plenty of random harlots though, for that authentic 1e DMG feel, and the monsters are all too familiar to any D&D player. This definitely shows it's age in terms of writing style and sexist attitudes (again, even more than the D&D adventures of the same era), and is a little bit funny because of it, but is still pretty usable, and the clear writing makes it easily converted to other systems. This still has some value to me then.



Facts for Fantasy: These columns have both stabilised at 2 pages again. Herodotus appears again twice, his popularity shows no signs of waning. Two mythological creatures that have been statted up in RPG's repeatedly also appear: The Phoenix and the Zaratan. On the historical side, we have to deal with sexism past, and examples of women who managed to accomplish great things in spite of this, the hassles of trading silk, and how mistletoe was appropriated from a pagan tradition to a christian one. Same as ever then. The problem with having the same writer every month is being limited by their sources of knowledge and personal preferences. I think they need to juggle this around a bit more.



Science for Science Fiction: While the fantasy column deals with sexism, this one decides to talk about racism, and the way people justify it to themselves. Science is merely a tool, and it can be turned to vile ideas as easily as virtuous, especially when people cherry pick the data to support their theories. They remind us that anything scientists can do can also happen naturally, such as nuclear fission if enough radioactive material is brought together, and that evolution is a provably real thing that happens, but a lot of the links are still missing. While there is some dated space info too, this month seems slightly more interesting than average to me, partly because it's not afraid to call superstitions and prejudice :):):):):):):):). Considering the fight with ingrained sexism other writers on the team are still dealing with, that seems pretty relevant.



Rescue from the Hive: After the solo experimentation of last issue, it's back to good old-fashioned adversarial 2 player fun. Humans vs Aliens in a battle to rescue the princess ambassador's daughter before it's too late. The humans have slightly better forces, but time is against them, because if the aliens go into warp, you lose. Plus the alien queens have mind control, which always makes for unpredictable and swingy battles as you never know if you're going to be able to resist it. So as usual from SPI, this requires a combination of skill and luck, and has lots of little details packed in to reward tweaking, repeated play and system mastery. The play board isn't as impressive as some of the ones they've produced, but it does the job, and looping the edges to represent a cylindrical layout with artificial gravity adds some more interesting tactical choices. Once again, I can definitely see myself playing this at least once.



DragonNotes: Since we've already had a full DragonQuest adventure this issue, this column is only a single page, and not that interesting. Half promotion of their upcoming products, and half Sage Advice. We're getting an expansion for the magic system, the monster book they sourced contributions for a few months ago, an expansion for random dungeon generation, and a regional sourcebook full of adventurable locations, with plans for more adjacent to it that'll eventually make a whole campaign world if successful. Once again, they're showing the results of better customer service than TSR, which focussed on adventures for ages, and didn't do a dedicated magic sourcebook until 2e. How many of these actually got released? The rules quibbles seem all too wearily familiar. Caster vs non caster balance, and adjudicating the effects of shapechanging powers. Those always seem to cause problems no matter the system. So they're making some of the same mistakes most designers make with their first RPG system. This is the problem with going back and playing old school games without updating them. You have to deal with problems you thought you'd left behind all over again. This makes me feel very very tired.



Media: This column is once again in a cynical mood about the details of the movie-making industry. This time, it's about the ephemeral nature of movies. Celluloid is not only highly flammable, but also prone to cracking and fading, so even movies that are only 10 years old already show noticeable deterioration. Copies are always at least a little worse than the master, and this only becomes more obvious the longer the chain gets. How are we supposed to take movies as a medium seriously when they literally won't last? Another of those problems we've gone a long way towards solving these days, as digital allows for perfect copying once something has been captured, and our array of clean-up and editing tools is vastly greater than it was a couple of decades ago. While it's still possible for things to fall through the cracks and be lost forever, it's much much harder when everyone can have thousands of full HD movies in a single hard drive, and all it takes is one person to care enough to preserve something and redistribute it to thousands for free. So while their doom and gloom may have been justified then, it definitely isn't relevant anymore. It's nice to be able to point out how things have got better over time.



Designers Notes: This column is a big promotional piece for Universe, their new Sci-fi RPG. And it has to be said that it looks quite a bit like a bigger, more open-ended version of last issue's BSM Pandora voyages, with a lot of emphasis on providing systems to generate your worlds and the weird and wonderful creatures that live there, so the DM doesn't have to think too hard to create adventures. And with tons of classes and even more skills to choose from for your characters, and lots of spaceships to buy and customise, you aren't going to run out of room to advance anytime soon either. This looks interesting, and also means they can increase the amount of game material each issue while still sticking to one article per line. And so they move a little further from wargaming and towards RPG's.



Games: The other review columns take a break this month, leaving us with only this one. It decides to do the oriental adventures thing, reminding us that TSR was actually pretty late to that party, and several other systems got books out years in advance. There's a huge amount of material to draw on, both mythological and modern, that's very gameable indeed, and not too hard to buy if you know where to look. It's not surprising at all that it would prove to be popular not just once, but repeatedly. Lets see how good these implementations of the idea are.

Bushido gets a quite complexly mixed review, as they liked some elements, but disliked others, and are willing to go into quite a bit of detail on which should be kept and which should be changed. They think they could do better, and since they do have quite decent editors, it's quite possible they could. I have no doubt they would have done an oriental supplement for DragonQuest if they'd lasted a bit longer.

Land of the Rising Sun is the oriental version of Chivalry & Sorcery. It's still far too slow and crunchy for the reviewers tastes, but he's willing to admit that the rules have been tightened up a fair bit in the rewriting, and the new setting information is pretty well researched too. If you liked it before, you should like it even more now, and even if you didn't, you might at least be able to understand the system clearly this time around. Can't say fairer than that.

The Compleat Fantasist gets an exceedingly vicious slating indeed. A shoddy unofficial conversion guide between a whole bunch of roleplaying systems that doesn't really do any of them justice, and wastes a load of page count on wishy washy waffle? Yeah, I'd warn people away from that too. There's always been cheap cash-in crap, and thankfully most of it gets washed away by the tides of history. Don't let false nostalgia fool you into thinking things were better back then.



Feedback: Since they now have a full year to look back on, the questionaire sorts through the different kinds of articles, and asks which was your favourite in each category, as well as which issue was overall best. The games they're asking to you to consider for production have also cycled to a completely new set, most of which will unfortunately never come out, despite sounding pretty interesting. I once again feel a little frustration on how much work they put into this area, and how little they'll get out of it. Good customer feedback should be encouraged, and reality doesn't seem to reflect that.



The dramatic uptick in game material in this issue made it much easier to to write about than the last few, as I had things I could actually analyse rather than just making purely subjective judgements. It actually feels like a gaming magazine, rather than just a magazine that happens to include a game in it. And since that trend will probably continue, hopefully I will be able to move a little faster. Seems like a promising development. Let's see what next issue brings in turn.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 08 - Ragnarok: May 1981



43 pages. After the schlock fantasy of Loki Hellson 3 issues ago, now it's time for the genuine article to make an appearance, along with the rest of the norse gods. Not that they look particularly godly on the cover, being both too skinny and underdressed for the climate, but oh well, it's what's inside that counts. And since the whole point of Ragnarok is that most of them die in the process, you don't want them too overpowered and infallible. Let's see how this saga follows along with the predictions …… or not, and how much influence you'll have over the outcome as players.



Muse: I've certainly noticed how much effort they put into their customer feedback compared to any other magazine I've read. The editorial is all about that, and reinforces that it does make a difference to them what you say, as many of their game ideas are derived from customer suggestions, and their own ideas still get run through the feedback process to see which are most popular. As usual, emphasising this this makes their ultimate fate seem all the sadder, as putting in the effort to understand your audience should be rewarded. (it certainly was in the 2e > 3e transfer by WotC, after all) I guess no matter how well you market to your existing audience, if you don't bring new people in, attrition and saturation will eventually take their toll. Plus if they market heavily to the people who fill in feedback forms, they will inevitably skew towards the hardcore gamer market, and that in itself can drive some people away. I guess there are no guarantees in life, no matter how hard you try to push the odds in your favor.



Ragnarok - The Mythic Story: Completely unsurprisingly, our setting detail this month is a condensed retelling of norse myth for those philistines who don't already know it. (TL:DR, Loki is a dick, and both the source of and solution to everyone's problems until everyone else gets sick of his :):):):) and locks him up. He escapes, Giants attack, monsters get loose, everything goes to :):):):), but a few survive and maybe the next generation will do better.) It's written by the same person who does the Facts for Fantasy column, and like that, makes these exciting stories far less so in the translation, stripped of their poetry and narrative style. So weirdly enough, this is actually a less entertaining read than most of the original settings for their games, because it's not new enough to be novel to me, or creative enough in it's retelling to put an interesting twist on things. Let's hope the game itself is a little more exciting.



Pandora's Link: An article tying the two BSM Pandora games into a larger whole? Just what I hoped they'd do when I saw the second one.
This means that you can play Wreck with different starting conditions based on what your characters got in Voyage, giving both more replay value. It also gives them an opportunity to make a whole bunch of little tweaks, some of which are to make them fit together better, and some are simply errata to the individual games that they would have put in the magazine at some point anyway. (but like this, they're more likely to be noticed and implemented) They even include tournament play options for a more multiplayer experience, which again gives you another round of replays before things start to get repetitive. This is indeed pretty nifty, multiplying the usability of their previous articles in only a single page. It's always nice when you can get the benefits of quadratic scaling when combining existing material. I hope we'll see some more of these in the future, but it's hard to see where they'll get the opportunity.



Facts for Fantasy: These columns are still 2 pages each, but split into 4 half pages, with fantasy on top, and sci-fi underneath. They finally get through a whole column without mentioning Herodotus once, which is a relief, and they have material from Russia, India and Japan to broaden our horizons further. Only the one from Ainu myth is unfamiliar to me though, which means I'm still finding this pretty dull going. These ultra compact bits of info just don't have enough meat for me to get my teeth into.



Science for Science Fiction: This column has far fewer, longer topics than it's fantasy counterpart, and is slightly more interesting as a result. The most detailed of all is one on ecological niches, and how creatures evolve convergently to fill them and get displaced and driven to extinction when something better appears elsewhere and spreads. This definitely applies to humanity, which increasingly rolls over the rest of the ecosystem unopposed the further away we get from Africa. The recent occupiers of that niche, Baboons and Gigantopithicus, have lost out pretty badly, illustrating just how dangerous we are even against creatures considerably larger and stronger than us. There's also a greater than usual amount of fantasy crossover, with talk about judaic astronomy, lost continents, and the origins of the unicorn myth. The best stories have enough basis in fact to be plausible, even if the details have been twisted around over time. I think that this once again shows how doing your own primary research can help you make better stories.



DragonNotes is fairly dull this month, as it's comprised entirely of errata. Lots of little rules corrections and clarifications, and an adjustment of the XP system to make advancement a bit quicker, as player feedback has not been favourable on that front. I guess power creep is inevitable, especially when you're planning on releasing supplements as fast as you can write them. Better to start conservative and gradually revise upwards than the other way around, which gets a far more negative reception from the audience. Whatever the system, we see this struggle play out again and again in slightly different forms. The designers try to make the rules work clearly, without ambiguities and loopholes, and the players find new and interesting ways to break them. Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme and all that. Next!



Designer's Notes: Universe moves a little closer to release, and they give us a little playtest info to whet our appetites. The random generation for both characters and star systems is shaping up nicely, and the sample adventures are proving interestingly lethal in the classic Star Trek fashion. Make sure you generate more characters than you need, so the redshirts can take the brunt of the hazards and the others have a chance at advancement. So they're making it quite clear that they're still designing in an old school competitive way, and you need to be both skilled and lucky if you want to live long and prosper through an extended campaign. Fair enough. As long as that's their intention, and they're not trying to sell the game as something it's not, that's not a bad goal to aim for. Just as with DragonQuest, it's better to start conservatively and then maybe increase the power level in the supplements than the other way around. Just have to hope that's still what the audience wants after several years of brutal dungeon crawling.



Ragnarok - Twilight of the Gods: Like the description earlier on, the game of Ragnarok manages to take an interesting topic, and make it bizarrely dull. This is the reason this issue was delayed for months. I'd done all the other articles, but kept looking at this, putting it away, and looking at it again, finding nothing to say, and repeating the process. It's not actively terrible, but the writing is dull and repetitive to the point where I found it indigestible, breaking the rules into subclauses even where they don't really need to be, just to make it clear that the same rules apply to various units. I have no idea if it could be fun in actual play, and particularly doubt I'll get to test this one as I don't think I could explain the rules quickly to a group to get it going. Definitely disappointing, given the idea's epic potential.



An SF Game Sampler: Over the past year, they've gradually tended towards fewer, more detailed reviews. But games are being released far faster than they can review them, so it's time to roll up our sleeves and play catch-up with a burst of capsule critiques. Who will be the winners and losers this time?

Starfall is challenging, with plenty of depth and strategy to reward experienced players, but exploration still has a fair bit of randomness. Since the exploration part is as important as the competition, it works as both a solitaire and multiplayer experience.

Dark Stars gets a fairly negative review, mainly for being unrealistic, too simple, and too small in scope for a game of interstellar exploration. It also casts the humans as the clear villains, with no goal other than killing all the aliens, which is a curious design choice considering the target audience. :p The ideas might not be terrible, but they need serious developing on to make a more satisfying product.

Timelag also gets a negative review, for it's unsatisfying portrayal of relativistic travel. It's once again too simple, and the graphics suck. You know, I don't think I've ever seen a good game treatment of relativity, so don't be too hard on yourselves. The human brain just isn't designed to handle it.

Warp War gets good review despite probably actually being simpler, because it's a microgame, and so different standards apply. It's all about information density and making the best use of your medium. Their only real complaint is that it doesn't work at all played solitaire, which can be said of many still good games.

Starfire is a versatile large scale ship combat game, with s built in sample campaign, but plenty of scope for creating your own, which pleases both their wargaming and roleplaying sides. The main complaint is that the scale is completely off in terms of realistic space distances, which like relativity, is always a headache if you want simple enough rules to be fun. Tracking the realistic orbits of everything in a solar system is a headache even for a computer, let alone pen and paper. They badly need to accept that abstraction is necessary in gaming.

Starfire II builds on the original, but is still a stand-alone game in itself with lots of new bits and pieces. It's improved on many details, but the fundamental complaint about unrealistic scale remains. There's always limitations to what you can do with edition changes, as you have to deal with established expectations.

Star Fleet Battles is not actually an official licenced star trek game, but the names and scenarios are so obvious that it would be unlikely to stand up in court if challenged. As befits it's source material, it's pretty fun as one-on-one tactical ship combat, but gets unwieldy if you try to control entire fleets. That's what the Star Wars ripoffs are for. :p

Star Fleet Battles Expansion I incorporates a load of errata, and adds new equipment and scenarios, including ones that aren't complete ripoffs. And given the nature of the system, there's room for plenty more if this one sells well. Being prepared for success as well as failure is important from a commercial point of view.



Games: Quirks is a lighthearted game of evolution and mutation, in which players compete to evolve creatures that fill as many ecological niches as possible. It has a fair bit of randomness, as you'd expect from the theme, and the possibility of last minute reversals even when it looks like one player is about to win, but those just add to the fun, as creature traits pile up in increasingly weird combinations. The biggest complaint is that it doesn't support too many replays before getting repetitive, but thankfully, there are several expansions adding new cards to make up for that. Still probably can't quite catch up to the strangeness if reality though.

Dark Stars gets a second, slightly longer review here too. It's slightly more positive, and recommends it in particular for PbP gaming, but still points out much the same flaws. As ever, peoples desire for simple or complex games varies widely, and what's suitable for a group of regular gamers would put off a more casual pickup audience, so you can't take one reviewer's word as god.



Film & Television: Scanners gets a very positive review indeed, for being both an excellent horror story, and relatively hard science fiction as well. It's atmospheric, the effects are interestingly gruesome, and the plot doesn't dumb itself down for the audience. I think this one has sufficiently passed the test of time, even if it would look very different if remade today. (the thalidomide baby part of the metaphor in particular is thankfully no longer topical) Well worth a rewatch.

Hanger 18, on the other hand, gets a very mixed one, giving with one hand, and then taking with the other several times over the course of the review, leaving me more than a little nonplussed. Sometimes a writers attempts at being witty winds up obscuring their overall judgement rather than illuminating, and that seems to be the case here.

Starblazers gets one of their context heavy reviews, talking about the general differences between western and japanese animation, and giving anime a good deal of praise for containing adult storylines, continuity between episodes, character development, and all those things we take for granted today, but were practically nonexistent in cartoons back then. Another of those cases where nostalgia definitely isn't what it used to be, as we have so much more choice in media from around the world to enjoy, and no longer have to watch it at a set broadcast time. Most households back then didn't even have VHS yet. It's nice to not be so dependent on the whims of the network, dictating to us and underestimating the intelligence of it's viewers.



Media: This column is also as intelligent and analytical as ever, talking about the details of the trailer system used to promote upcoming films. This once again makes it clear how things have both changed and stayed the same since then. Cleverly edited good trailers for bad films, trailers that spoil the entire plot and make seeing the movie virtually redundant, trailers that contain material that's not even in the final cut of the film, these still seem all too familiar complaints today. The details about the costs of making and printing trailers, and the weird secondary market for those prints after films are actually released and the trailers are no longer needed seems like another world though, since these days you'd just download them off youtube if you did for some reason want to keep a copy for yourself. (also illustrating just how much easier and more taken for granted piracy is these days. ) It's all very interesting, and pretty informative too, despite not being a particularly large article. When you're learning from materials written in the time you're studying, it's a very different experience to history books.



Books: Myth Conceptions by Robert Asprin is fantasy with a fair bit of humour in it. (as you could probably guess from the pun title) It puts it's heroes in a no-win situation, which of course they find their way out of in an entertaining way. Since there's not enough people around filling the lighthearted fantasy niche, the reviewer is glad someone's doing it, as ploughing through epic darkness all the time gets very tedious.

Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn is a set of short stories in the same universe, edited by Robert Asprin. It shows a fairly tight editorial hand, sequencing the stories to build upon one another despite having different authors and maintaining the humorous tone throughout. it's good to be able to share the load, even discounting all the cross-promotion benefits in doing so.

Expanded Universe by Robert Heinlein is a collection of short stories and essays intended to give you more insight into both his fictional multiverse, and his real-life political views. Since this is Heinlein we're talking about, they're interesting, but more than a little problematic by modern standards. Wether they're still worth learning from is very much a matter of opinion, and this reviewer doesn't think they are at book prices back then. I'm inclined to agree.

Dragon's Egg by Robert L Forward is one of those odd novels that's more interesting for it's theoretical ideas than the actual story, like A Space Odyssey or the Long Earth series. That said, the work on creating a plausible way life could exist on a neutron star, made from degenerate matter, and operating at a timescale a million times faster than human perception is pretty damn cool, and it would be interesting if this is one sci-fi prediction that would be borne out by reality. But I guess it'll be a very long time indeed before we can get anywhere near a neutron star and get a better idea of what goes on down there. Like the martian canals, the truth probably won't be what we expect.

Transfigurations by Michael Bishop gets a mixed review for demonstrating that what works in a short story may not be so effective when stretched out to novel length. That said, it's not exactly negative, just disappointed. Building a sustainable career on creativity is hard work, and even most big authors fall into formulas over time.

Songs from the Stars by Norman Spinrad gets a mixed review in a different way. There's a lot to like, but also some little things that bug them persistently, and by focusing on those, they may wind up seeming more negative than they actually are. Nitpicking the things you're a fan of because you care of is a classic geek issue, and it's amusing to see that hasn't changed with time either.

The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones, on the other hand, gets an unreserved two thumbs up, working as both story and worldbuilding of magical physics. Not arguing with that one. She fully deserves both critical and commercial success.



Feedback introduces several strange new questions amongst the now familiar selection. The first is an incredibly specific counting of exactly how much you play boardgames and RPG's, in both hours and percentages of your time. The second asks which of their existing games would be most easily converted to solitaire play, which indicates that there might well be more follow-up articles on the way. The pitches for new games bit also starts including deluxe editions of their existing ones, as well as introducing quite a few more supplement ideas for DragonQuest, and also pitches a boardgame idea for Dragon's Egg, which I very much wish they'd got around to doing. So continuity is very definitely on the up here, and they'd like to build upon their existing works to create something with a little more depth. As usual when I see these hints of what could have been if they had more time and money, it makes me sad. Still, I suppose it's better to have an ambition that outreaches your resources than the other way around, which we're seeing with 5e these days.



Well, that wasn't a bad issue overall, but the seriously boring centrepiece bogged the rest of it down, making the historical information on media far more interesting than the gaming material. It's a testament to how presentation is important, as if you're too boring, you wind up driving people away no matter how good your intentions are. Oh well. Let's see what direction the next issue goes in, and if it'll be any easier to digest.
 

Jhaelen

Villager
Good to see you've not abandoned your Let's Read of the Ares issues!

It's not been that long since I watched Scanners for the first(!) time. The movie had been banned in Germany for a long time but was reduced to FSK16 after a recent re-evaluation. I thought it was still pretty good and 'watchable' given it's age. (I don't think the same can be said of 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' which went through a similar process.)
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 09 - DeltaVee: July 1981



55 pages. The balancing of sci-fi and fantasy continues with a split cover, advertising both this month's game, and a big feature on an upcoming movie. Guess that's another sign that they've got media awareness beyond just wargaming geeks. Let's see how they juggle their various responsibilities this time, and if they'll drop the ball and wind up looking like fools.



Muse: Once again they acknowledge that they're gradually pushing up the amount of gaming material, and accept that some people will like that, and others won't. When you have detailed survey material like they do, you can crunch the odds, but it's still a gamble in the end. If they focus on the people who like gaming correctly, chances are they'll also buy more of their other games as well as sticking with the magazine. As with most of their statements here, this seems sensible with the information they had, and makes their demise seem all the more undeserved. That doesn't seem to be changing as the magazine progresses.



Dragonslayer also advertises a tie-in boardgame (by SPI themselves, which explains a lot) before the big feature, showing that even back then, Disney really didn't mess around when it comes to their cross-marketing and self-promotion. Get your fingers in as many pies as possible, as it makes the company as a whole harder to kill even when one product doesn't do so well.



Dragonslayer: So yeah, they're doing some serious promotion on the movie Dragonslayer this issue. Now there's a film I haven't thought about in many years. They take a fairly interesting tack, too, as it stars an apprentice wizard, while simultaneously taking steps to make magic mysterious and unreliable, and the overall setting gritty (and the color palette oversaturated by brown, showing that this isn't just a thing in modern computer games) and focussed on the human characters rather than the monster. It's an offbeat combo, but as there's a whole load of other fantasy movies coming out around the same time, they're hoping this'll work out in their favor and help them stand out. They talk a fair amount about the special effects, which were by ILM, and haven't actually dated too badly, apart from some of the stop motion, which is a bit obvious to my modern eye. They also talk a fair bit about wargaming and roleplaying, largely in the sense that they're pleased that exists, but had never heard of it before the interview, (as they'd spent the last couple of years working hard on the movie and not keeping up with current events) and view it as just another manifestation of the same trends. Sometimes, a whole bunch of people seem to independently come up with the same ideas, and you'd need a lot of info and understanding of the butterfly effect to figure out what the cause was. So like a lot of the media articles in here, this is a very interesting bit of historical perspective, reminding us what people thought of the changes in fashion at the time, and also the ways technology was advancing that we've now superceded or take for granted. I wouldn't mind a few more of these.



The sword and the stars: On top of our regular boardgame and roleplaying material, we also have this bit of promotion and errata for another of their new games by the designer and playtesters. The Sword and the Stars takes the system they used for Empires of the Middle Ages, and updates it for a Sci-fi setting. The primary means of FTL travel is stargates, which means who is adjacent to each other is far less important, and they can keep the map two dimensional and compact and not have to worry about the complex trigonometry of 3D travel times. You aren't limited by historical accuracy, so you can make sure all the factions are approximately balanced and equally interesting. You can create a greater variety of scenarios, and use your imagination more as a designer. Once again demonstrating why sci-fi and fantasy are more popular with writers than strict historical games and stories. Still, this article manages to make the game seem interesting without being blatant shilling, and the extra rules bits means it's useful once you buy the game, so it falls on the positive side of the spectrum. Just another way the proportion of mechanical stuff in the magazine can gradually increase.



Lasers in Space: John Boardman gives us another of his pessimistic hard science essays, talking about exactly what lasers are, how they're created, and why they can't be used to easily disintegrate things from huge distances like sci-fi rayguns. That's not to say they can't do some pretty awesome things, including nonviolent uses such as eye surgery and holograms when used precisely, but they aren't some kind of miracle device, and are an exceedingly inefficient way of expending energy. Unlike the movie effects stuff, this all feels quite familiar, as laser technology hasn't advanced vast orders of magnitude like computers. (although they're a lot more common, as they're a part of every CD and DVD drive. ) Which makes it a good contrast, as what stays the same is just as important as what changes. It's good to know that the laws of physics remain constant (rather than being shaped by belief like certain RPG's) and it's merely our understanding of them that improves, because the other option would be a lot scarier to live in.



Facts for Fantasy: Apparently the last two thousand years of domestication has made cats slightly less assholish after all. Or maybe it's the neutering. Either way, while domestic tomcats do still sometimes kill kittens from other males, research shows it's no longer the default, and they can be devoted father figures as well. Their ability to inspire love out of all proportion to what we actually get from the little monsters hasn't changed though. This column is almost entirely historical rather than mythological this month, and the only definitely fantastical part is another pet related one, that of Sir Tristan's many-coloured dog, which is a cute little story I'd somehow missed from my readings of arthurian mythos. This column continues to be far drier than I'd prefer, and a real pain to think of anything to say about. It's really slowing me down.



Science for Science Fiction: Three decades ago we were still wondering if there was a 10th planet out there. Now we know there's a whole load of them, many larger than Pluto, with eccentric orbits that take them many orders of magnitude further away from the sun, and make numbering them in order of distance futile because the order would change on a regular basis. Do we call them full planets, or merely dwarf ones? Does the universe care about our attempts to categorise it's contents? Things aren't as neat as we'd like them to be. Similarly, the truism that plants can't move quickly is upended by venus fly traps, which can be pretty scary if you're the right size to become their dinner. And one thing that has become even more nebulous today is when you can actually call yourself an adult, with not only the destruction of traditional coming of age rituals, but the increasing difficulty of earning enough to own your own house and support a family. So the usual mix of things I already know, things that have changed, and things that have stayed the same here.


The Embracing: The fiction this issue is a shockingly dark piece about what living in a dystopia can do to a person. Crippled and thrown into a prison where only the strongest survive to rot, the things you do to survive can turn you into a monster that can never go back to a normal life, and destroys those that you loved because you can't face living with them as you are. No happy ending here, only living another day, and hopefully doing some damage to the system in the process. Well, that's definitely a downer, even by my standards, making this interesting, but not particularly enjoyable.



Film & Television: Raiders of the Lost Ark gets a review that's superficially positive, but also points out that while well done for what it is, it's purely a fun popcorn movie, with no deeper message or artistic subtlety. Don't go into it expecting it to change your life, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Superman II gets a review that makes it very clear that while it's not terrible, diminishing returns and stupid comedy are already creeping in compared to the first movie. Fair enough. After all, we know with hindsight what happens next, and it does indeed get much much worse before they decide to reboot the series. Sometimes when you get it right first time, the only way to go is down.

Excalibur, on the other hand, gets a very positive review filled with lots of highly specific superlatives. The cast is excellent, the plot is intricate, the fights are gritty, and the sets are well-designed. There's plenty of social allegory and depth to the design too. If you see just one of these films, it's obvious which they'd prefer.

Knightriders (not to be confused with Knight Rider, which won't be out until next year) is a movie about internal conflict in a travelling SCA jousting group. The somewhat ludicrous concept is turned into a genuinely intelligent examination of the stresses and backstage politics of showbiz and organised sport by none other than zombie guru George Romero. That's incredibly interesting to find out about, and leaves me very interested in checking this out for myself.

Clash of the Titans is another big blockbuster that they're somewhat disparaging about. The lead actor is absolutely wooden, and a complete pawn in the hands of the gods, who are far more interesting. The mechanical owl obviously wants to cash in on R2D2. The stop-frame work doesn't look convincing and blend well with the real action. Special effects technology has a long way to go to make truly fantastical fantasy convincing.



Media: We tackle another interesting topic that thankfully has got better over the decades, that of the hassles of back catalogues. A retailer has to carefully manage their shelf inventory for maximum sales, as most products sell a lot when first released and then slow to a trickle, and it's hard to tell what will become a perennial seller that needs regular reprints. If you get it wrong and don't purge occasionally, you end up with a load of crap that just sits there forever. This is further compounded by the issues of warehouse stock. You don't want to just destroy it, but keeping stuff for years costs money, and it's tricky to get it to the right place at the right time to sell the remainder of it. The joys of ordering off the internet have gone a long way towards letting us find old, rare, and obscure things, and the combination of preorders to accurately judge demand, and electronic products with optional print on demand that don't require any physical space also helps keep companies from losing money by making too many copies of their products. Once again, this makes it very clear that the past might be an interesting place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there, as there's just so many more conveniences now. It's good to get perspective.



Books: Savage Empire by Jean Lorrah is correctly predicted as the kind of novel that wants to be the start of a series, as it creates two mutually antagonistic kinds of supernatural powers, and then does it's worldbuilding around the interplay of those abilities and the human drama that results. The reviewer isn't entirely convinced by the worldbuilding, and is distinctly unimpressed by the political stance of the book, but still finds it an interesting read anyway. If you like the romantic fantasy subgenre, this'll make for a good way to pass a few days.

Sword of the Lamb by M. K. Wren also looks like it could run and run, as it's basically a historical family drama, only set in the future. (which is only mildly more technologically advanced than their present, and almost definitely less advanced than the real changes that have happened in computing over the past 30 years) Once again, they find it addictive in a junk food kinda way, but don't think the worldbuilding holds up to serious scrutiny. Very few books do, because you'd need to be familiar with virtually every technical discipline in existence to make it completely accurate, and that would get in the way of telling a compelling story.

A Planet in Arms by Donald Barr gets a much more positive review than the last two, with only one little nitpick about philosophy to even things up. Wouldn't we all like to tell the banks where to stick it with their manipulative debt traps and make a society that doesn't depend on them. That's a theme that hasn't changed at all in the intervening decades, even if inflation is somewhat lower than it was then.

Valis by Philip K. Dick gets an ambivalent review. Is he really a genius, or just a purveyor of drug-fuelled gibberish who gets critically acclaimed because people don't understand it, so it must be deep. Now that's a can of worms if you want a debate. That kind of psychedelic thing has fallen out of fashion since then, and there's probably a good reason for that. If you're going to be experimental, they should be different experiments each time, not repeating the same experiment without learning from it.

Masks of the Illuminati by Robert Anton Wilson also has some profoundly silly drug-fueled bits in it, but is a more coherent story, and so gets higher marks. As is often the case, what you juxtapose something with can have a big impact on if it seems good or not.

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe gets unstinting praise as an epic fantasy series done the way it should be, taking the protagonist from lowly torturer to world-conquering hero through all sorts of fantastical adventures. Another case where the books that'll be remembered decades later actually got spotted successfully by the critics.

Too Long a Sacrifice by Mildred Downey Broxon is the story of what happens to a couple who've spent centuries in faerie lands, and then get out, only to find themselves in the middle of the irish Troubles. The juxtaposition of ancient myths and modern explosives provides plenty of opportunity for drama and plot twists, and this time the one minor criticism is about stilted dialogue. Still worth revisiting to remind us how close violence has always been even in "civilised" countries, and how easily it could break out again.

Dragonslayer also gets a review here, placing the book in context with the film version. It's obviously a straight conversion of the script, and suffers a little for this, but still makes an entertaining story. If you only choose one though, go for the movie.



Games: Amoeba Wars gets a slightly disappointed review, as it's not about wars between amoebas, but humans vs giant space amoeba. It's not entirely negative, but they're as nitpicky as ever about little details and how they could be different. This is what happens when you let professional designers become reviewers. They overthink stuff normal players wouldn't even notice.

War of the Worlds completely changes things from the book so we can have a viable game in which the human and martian players have approximately equal chances of winning, and the reviewer is somewhat scathing about using a property if you're going to miss the point of it. They're also not particularly impressed with the system, which is mathematically simple enough that they'd worked out the optimal tactics for both players within a couple of plays. Not one worth keeping and remembering.

High Fantasy and it's adventure book also gets a review that carefully lists out good and bad points of the rules, but ultimately comes down on the negative. It might have a universal resolution mechanic and be better organised than D&D, but it's still no Runequest in terms of design stylishness and setting depth. Really, it feels like bandwagon jumping from the publisher, as they've spotted a new market, and want some of that money. Yeah, there's going to be a lot more fantasy heartbreakers like this along in the next few years. If you want a game that survives, it has to establish it's own identity, not just be generic fantasy RPG no 1653.



Designer's Notes: This article is heavily spoileriffic, talking about the development of the games in the next three issues, and how their rules work. As such, there's some interesting stuff here, but I think I'll pass lightly, and save detailed talk for when I actually get to them. They also warn about a postal strike, which is also vaguely amusing. That's another thing that hasn't changed much.



Feedback: This is much the same as usual, but with lots of new game ideas submitted for consideration. The most notable is a wargame based on the Thomas Covenant series, which seems to me like COMPLETELY missing the point of the books to the point where it's funny. (which is extra ironic in light of the earlier War of the Worlds review.) They also want to play in Robert Adam's War of the Horseclans setting, Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures series, and have two different ideas for Invasion America, along with the plentiful ideas for Dragonquest and Universe. Are they doing this before or after they get the licenses to do so? Where does getting the permission of the authors come in, and what happens if the public is vocally negative about the idea of the game after they've already committed to doing it? These things can be such a headache. After all, look what happened to Eden Studios after Buffy left. Was that also a factor in SPI's mounting debts? Another case where I'd really like to know more about the behind the scenes mechanics of things to form a better opinion.



DragonNotes: Another single page article here that's half upcoming products, half Sage Advice. One setting book, one adventure, and one more general GM advice supplement, they're still covering their bases sensibly in this area, even if they really could do with some more player focussed material. The new rules are probabilities for weapon breakage, which is one of those gritty things that shows up over and over, yet most players ignore, so I can't see this one becoming essential. Just another day at the office, I'm afraid. Wake me when they do something bigger.



DeltaVee: The game is moved to it's own separate insert, which results in it's being moved to the back of the .pdf (Which ironically, is the opposite of what happened over the course of the Dragon Magazine scans.) As you can guess from the name, it's an attempt at realistic space combat where momentum is conserved from turn to turn unless you actively change it, fuel is limited, and controlling them crucial to your tactics. This requires keeping a log book each turn, so while it can work for more than two players fighting, it does rack up in complexity of interactions fairly quickly, as actions are interleaved to simulate the slow reaction times of spaceships and force you to anticipate your opponent's moves to succeed. Spaceships are statted up in terms of pods, which each add a certain amount of capabilities onto the overall ship, and are destroyed individually, which gives ships a very definite death spiral in combat. The whole thing is designed to be slotted into the Universe RPG as their tactical space combat system, so it's quite open to new things being added in terms of ships and equipment. It's all pretty easy to understand, and is one I could see myself, not only using, but kitbashing to expand the scope. It's a good bit of joined-up thinking, and shows they're thinking about their games as an ecosystem rather than just a bunch of games. Two thumbs up.



Once again the amount of gaming material gradually sneaks upwards, and diversifies in form, making this a very different magazine from when it first started, and somewhat less accessible to newcomers. It still has some interesting bits, but then again, it also has some very dull ones too. It still feels like much harder work doing this than Dragon, as it's so much less familiar to me, but it's starting to cohere into it's own picture. Time to get to double figures, and see where that takes us.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 10 - The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat: September 1981



55 pages. Well, this is a very interesting tie-in to see indeed. Harry Harrison's roguish adventurer gets the big tie-in game this month. Given his adventures are as much puzzles as they involve personal danger, that definitely has potential for a different kind of game in here. Will it accurately simulate the books? Definitely hoping this one does it's source material justice.



Muse: Yet again, they make it clear that the amount of gaming material is only going to increase, but their magazines' material is going to stay segregated, with Ares taking the fantastical stuff, and Moves handling all the historical and modern day topics. They also solicit for articles, as like any magazine, they can't do it all alone, and freelancers are cheaper than full time staff. An involved readership putting their own twists on the companies ideas makes for much more interesting games than everything being written in house, as we also saw all too well in Dragon as it changed over the years. I wonder if they'll actually get any in the time they have remaining, or if it'll be mostly the TSR incarnation that deals with that.



Designer's Notes: One adventure and two new games promoted in here. An RPG is nothing without a few modules, so Universe has it's own ones in the pipeline, to come out very soon after the core set. Meanwhile, the standalone stuff they want us to know about are Ghostship and Star Trader, both space based sci-fi games, but very different in scope and playstyle. Horror exploration, or economics, which sounds more fun to you? I'll wager horror is the more immediate sell, but economics has more long-term complexities that make for greater replayability. If only there were some way to combine the two. :p



The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat: Unsurprisingly, the fiction this month is pure tie-in written by Harry Harrison himself, showing us how the adventure could go. (spoilers, but not really, as in the actual adventure a big chunk of the challenges are randomly generated, so this is only one of many options) He's called upon to rescue a space station who's computer has gone haywire. Hijinks and double-crosses ensue, as he has to not only figure out how to get too and fix the computer, but find out who sabotaged it in the first place. While short and obviously written to formula compared to the actual books, you'd expect that, as what's the point of getting the licence if you're not going to make a representative example of them. It's still a fun bit of sci-fi heist adventure that doesn't take itself seriously. You could well use his adventures as inspiration in a more modern system like Leverage as well.



Science for Science Fiction: These two columns go back on individual pages instead of being interleaved. Along with the usual stuff about the cosmos, we also have a rather more down to earth piece about the horrors of modern grain growing, and how creating hybrid crops that don't breed true and need recreating each year can leave farmers dependent upon a big company, and a weird bit of advertising for maps of the other planets in the solar system that feels like cross-promotion, and leaves me interested, but also dubious. They'll definitely have been well and truly supplanted by the modern day.



Facts for Fantasy: The information this month shows how things can have interestingly contradictory elements. Charlemagne was tough on his sons, but completely spoiled his daughters. African kings might be supreme rulers, but several countries had strong superstitions against them crossing rivers, or even seeing the sea, which means for all their authority, they were limited in strange ways. Siva is both the god of destruction and creation, aeseticism and fertility, because they see these things as part of a cycle rather than opposed. Some more reminders that reality is complex and messy, and you need some of that if you want your fantasy world to feel real.



Film & Television: Outland is grimy, claustrophobic sci-fi about drug abuse and corporate corruption in a mining colony on Io. As is frequent with sci-fi this allows them to engage in social commentary by filing off the serial numbers and giving the issues a more interesting backdrop. Low on special effects, and high on cynicism, it's interesting, but hardly light entertainment. These guys love it, unsurprisingly, as it fits their worldview to a tee.

Escape from New York is somewhat less intellectual, but there's still a fair amount of craft to the action-packed tale of future dystopia where only Snake Plissken is a bad enough hombre to save the president. Despite being set in a future that's well into the past by now, and not an accurate prediction at all, it still holds up as entertainment. (although definitions of fast-paced have also changed since then with digital editing making more and faster cuts easy.) Definitely one I'm pleased to have been reminded of and rewatched.

Dragonslayer gets slightly late coverage by this column as well. As you'd expect, it gets a strongly positive review, pointing out all it's strong points, and carefully avoiding any weaknesses. They've got a stake in this being a success, and if the film flops, then their tie-ins don't stand much chance, so the usual cynicism of their reviewers is duly suspended.



Media: The massive cynicism about the workings of the entertainment industry resumes with this piece on cable TV. On the plus side, you get to enjoy movies uncut and uncensored, which is a powerful draw to those who crave nudity in a pre-internet world, or dislike intrusive adverts every 15 minutes. On the negative side, they still lose a fair bit in the translation from a massive wide screen in a custom built room with surround sound to a little 4:3 aspect ratio box. And then there's the political aspect, where particular channels snap up exclusive rights, and movies appear on the small screen faster than they used too, making you question if it's worth spending the money on going out to the cinema in the first place. As usual, much of this has got better in the intervening years, as TV's are far higher resolution than they used to be, the internet has made network censorship laughable, and intelligence demanding long-form serialised storytelling has become far more common since it's easy to buy entire series and watch them on your own schedule. And somehow, there's still demand for cinema as well, despite all the naysaying that it's going to be replaced, it still has a profitable niche in society. So as usual, this manages to make me feel a little better by showing how things have improved over the past generation in quite specific quantifiable ways. And barring the outright collapse of civilisation, they aren't the kind of things that go backwards either, which is extra positive.



Books: Star Drifter by Dale Aycock gets one of those reviews where the reviewer gets distracted and goes off on a rant about the overall state of the industry and changing of fashion. Space Opera may be out of fashion at the moment, but this book is still a good example of it, and makes for fun reading unless you're going to be a snob about stuff like that.

War Games by Karl Hansen continues the space opera theme, although it contains more explicit sex and violence than they could get away with in the 30's. There are certain advantages to revisiting a genre once hindsight and technology lets you do things that were previously impossible and putting new twists on them. Makes me wonder if we'll ever see a revival of Westerns.

Homeworld, Wheelworld, Starworld by Harry Harrison gets a surprisingly mixed review given that he's being featured in this issue, mainly because he's trying to be serious here, which doesn't quite suit his writing style. A spoonful of sarcasm helps the moralising go down in a more memorable way. Trying to be a "proper artiste" is a trap that has ruined the career of many an entertainer. Don't fall for it.

Space Doctor by Lee Correy takes us back to hard sci-fi, examining the challenges of medicine in orbit, including microgravity, radiation, and highly limited resources. The kind of thing that would be quite different if it was written today, as we have a lot more information about what happens to people spending extended amounts of time in low orbit. (and the effects aren't good for potential interplanetary explorers, including bone degeneration, muscle wastage and longsightedness.) As with a lot of big idea sci-fi, the actual plot comes second to the science, so this probably hasn't aged well as a story.

Vampires of Nightworld by David Bischoff keeps the sci-fi theme, and does vampires as genetically engineered disease, which allows them to play up the uncontrollable urges from infection while retaining some humanity element. Once again, it gets a mostly positive review, which means this column is being a lot more lenient than usual. I suppose vampires are perennially popular in their many forms, so it's not too surprising.

Schrodinger's Cat II by Robert Anton Wilson is an examination of quantum theory and parallel universes that in practice, takes the form of a whole load of semi-interconnected short stories that thoroughly stretch the concept of narrative and continuity in all sorts of weird ways. Like Philip K Dick, this will divide the readership, with some loving it, and others being baffled. Sounds like a worthy challenge to me.



The Camp of Alla-Akabar: Our second DragonQuest adventure moves away from the dungeon crawl formula a little more, with an adventure that they intend you to solve through roleplaying or stealth. It still follows the formula of being hired by a mysterious person to rescue their kidnapped daughter, but this time the kidnappers are a nomadic bunch of Bedouin, with the only supernatural monsters a hobgoblin (who is still one of the most complex and well developed characters) and a few sand golems. So while this might not pass the political correctness test today, it has a fair bit of depth to it, and has lots of opportunity for plot and roleplaying without being at all railroady. It also has some designers notes that detail how it turned out for him in actual play, which is very promising indeed, as that shows it's actually been tested, not just shovelled out there. And it's pretty easy to convert to D&D if that's what you'd prefer, which makes it even more likely I'll get some use out of it at some point. Two thumbs up.



DragonNotes: Gerry Klug, the writer of the DragonQuest adventure, also takes over this column, which means the first half is just getting to know him (and presenting his credentials, which seems kinda pointless in a hobby less than a decade old. You're all just starting, you don't have anything to prove apart from how well you can write and how good your ideas are. And since you managed to come up with a pretty good adventure last article, I'll forgive the rest of this one being realism heavy new rules about riding various types of animals, which might be handy, but are also quite dull to read. Looks like things'll be staying on the gritty side for his tenure, however long that'll be.



DeltaVee Enhanced: Another revisiting of their existing games to give them more longevity. Five new scenarios for DeltaVee, which instantly doubles your options, along with a few new ship types. (including a ghost ship that's indestructible and only there to troll players) There's a pretty decent variety of scenarios here, and they introduce the idea of alien threats that were absent in the original. So I can see why they didn't lead with these, as it's easier to start conservative and then become more gonzo with time. And thankfully a boardgame will never get the kind of accumulated continuity that strangles comics and RPG settings, no matter how popular it becomes, because you'll rarely be using more than one add-on at a time, and you can always turn the options off again. This is the kind of thing I can see myself using, so I approve of this article as well.



There's only one Universe: Gerry Klug gets a third article in quick succession, which shows how much he's doing for the company at the moment. This is another of those promotional ones trying to sell their upcoming Universe system, which I must admit is dragging on a bit. Hurry up and release it, so you can start selling supplements instead of going over what's in the core set again in greater detail. I know it's a big involved process, especially when trying to simulate entire star systems in an accessible way, but you can't keep on going on about it without giving me advertising fatigue. Let's skip onwards and see if they manage to get any further with this next issue.



Games: Griffin Mountain gets a fairly positive review that shows once again they think Runequest is the RPG that does things mostly right, even if they still put some D&Disms in there out of reflex or the desire to sell. As a mostly self-contained area in a bigger world, it has plenty of opportunities for adventure without making you reliant on a plethora of other sourcebooks (which don't exist yet anyway.) and the formatting makes it easy to read and reference, which is important when working on the fly. Hopefully other companies will learn from it in their own worldbuilding efforts.

The Lords of Underearth also gets a positive review, although in the process they take shots at a whole bunch of other minigames that they think suck. It takes advantage of the underground theme by creating tunnels and creatures of varying sizes, so there's places the big ones can't fit, while the smaller ones still have to struggle with co-ordinating their forces. If you think you could have done better than the dwarves in the hobbit against a marauding dragon, this is the system to play it out in.



Feedback: The exceedingly specific questions this month turn to your electronic equipment, asking if you own various things like a video player, camera, stereo, video games, and even a digital watch. They also ask if you belong to clubs involving the analysis and sharing of these various types of media. It reminds us that many things we take for granted were just being introduced then, and were an indicator of your socioeconomic status, and the lack of an internet forced you to actually physically go and see people if you wanted to discuss and develop a consensus on the latest releases. With a more efficient system developed, those kind of things gradually wither away like vestigial organs. On the gaming side, they have ideas for games based on James Bond and the Amber chronicles, and float the idea of spinning off a magazine dedicated to roleplaying, so ARES can concentrate on the fantastical war and boardgaming. Once again overestimating their long-term survival prospects, but you've got to keep on trying, especially since RPG's are a growth industry while wargaming is now in decline.



The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat: It's finally time for the stainless steel rat (and his mechanically superior wife) to save the day. For a second time, they do their best to squeeze an entire choose your own adventure book into 16 pages at the back of the magazine. It's a tall order, but they can pull it off, which just goes to show how inefficient most books are when they put pleasing layout over maximum density of information. On the other hand, the sheer density of information, and the very heavy reliance on random rolls to generate the challenges means I have no idea what this will turn out like in actual play, and suspect replays will look quite different each time. Make your way through the space station, facing both out of control robots and treacherous employees. When things don't go your way, decide whether you take actual damage, or raise the suspension of disbelief meter to represent his talent for getting out of scrapes in ridiculously improbable ways. So this is not only quite cool as a game, but also a precursor of RPG's with dramatic editing, fate points, and similar systems that allow the players control of the narrative. Anyone know of any even older games that did this, as I know it wasn't common then, but I don't know who did it first?



A noticeably more positive issue than most of them, with most of their coverage actively enthusiastic about whatever they're tackling. (with the continued exception of the media column. ) Not sure if that would be a good thing if taken even further, but along with the continued increase in gaming material, it's definitely worth noting. Too far that way lies becoming a pure promotional house organ, although I don't think they'll get that far in the time remaining. I could be wrong though. Let's find out if the next issue continues the same trends.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 11 - Albion: Land of Faerie: November 1981



55 pages. Just from looking at the cover, we can once again tell that they've put way more work into designing a setting and backstory for this issue's game than they needed too. A History of the Troll/Elf war? This definitely sound like it might be mineable for RPG use as well as wargaming. Let's see how the supernatural element here makes this different from straight historical reenactment and what interesting things they do with the material.



Muse: Steaming enthusiastically ahead in the editorial. DragonQuest won best roleplaying game at Origins this year, and has already sold out it's original printing, so they're planning a new edition. Whatever it was that killed the company, that certainly wasn't it. Maybe it was dabbling in computer games, which are an order of magnitude more expensive to develop and do well than pen & paper based games, as you don't have the same leeway with loose rules when it's a machine rather than a human interpreting and implementing them. Far bigger companies have been killed by a single heavily hyped game flopping or getting stuck in development hell. Seeing them try to get into that field when I know there's going to be a big crash in a couple of years definitely gets my attention, and not in a good way. What will come of this?



A History of the Third Formorian War: Unsurprisingly, when it comes to detailing the fae, they go straight to Celtic myth and try to assemble a timeline from a bunch of the stories within. Since they're approaching this from a wargame perspective, they're considerably drier about it than say, Changeling: the Dreaming's mythic age, but a lot of the names and broad details are the same. (particularly the ending, where all the conflict is ultimately rendered irrelevant by humanity and the fading of magic, whoever wins.) It covers 7 months of conflict, which doesn't seem like a huge amount of time compared to modern wars, but I guess even the fae have to time their wars around the weather back then. I guess that indicates the game will be on the gritty side of things with the supernatural elements just a replacement for modern technology rather than massively warping space and time at their whim. Well, at least I know what to expect. We'll see if they come up with some big twist when we get that far through the issue.



Chichevache: We stay in the same place but skip forward a few centuries for some amusing Arthurian fiction featuring a young Mordred as the protagonist. While still a fair way away from overthrowing the kingdom, he's already sneaky, dishonorable, disrespectful, lecherous, and generally an all-round cad. This of course makes him perfect for solving problems by using his brain that would get any ordinary knight killed, as he faces a massive ogre with some very distinct fairytale style quirks that he can exploit to it's downfall. a highly entertaining read that also fits the theme of the issue. I strongly approve.



The Power Points of Albion: Continuing the theme, an article on ancient stone circles, chalk figures carved into hills, and similar cool landmarks of the UK. There's a rich history of them, and the legends associated with them, that can and has had massive books written about it. So this is one of those articles that's not exactly bad, but feels a bit shallow to me, as it's tackling a topic that I've already read about in orders of magnitude more detail. Thankfully, it includes a bibliography at the end, so check those books out if you want to know about the real meat of British mythological geography. Your campaign settings will thank you for it.



You Against the System: A rather interesting article on solitaire gaming here, showing us the current state of both procedurally controlled solo wargames, and choose your own adventure style games where you reference a paragraph, make a choice and possibly roll the dice, and see where the story takes you from there. Includes plenty of notes on SPI's recent games in this style, and why they designed them in the way they did. A very cool historical snapshot that's well worth referencing if you're investigating the history of solo adventure books, and want a contemporary perspective on them. They would have been much bigger if computer games hadn't come along and competed for the same leisure time and money with better graphics and a faster pace.



Science for Science Fiction: Two large ideas and one amusing little one in here this month. The brightness of stars varies a lot by wavelength, and wide range spectrographic analysis can reveal a lot about their composition and even the things surrounding them. Tectonic plates are messy complicated things, and only the slowness with which they move compared to our lifespan
lets us have any illusion of stability. There's even places where whole chunks get turned on their side, completely messing up the usual rock strata. And preservation of fossils is an even more unpredictable thing. The tiniest amount of exposure to the outside world will increase the rate of deterioration by orders of magnitude. Which is why finding complete dinosaur fossils is so rare and celebrated when it does happen.


Facts for Fantasy: This column is in theme this month, with all it's sections focussed on celtic lore. Although it can't resist being pedantic and pointing out that although that's what we call them, it's not what they called themselves, and there were previous ethnic groups that they conquered and displaced in turn when they arrived in the British isles. There's also some speculation on how they built those massive stone circles, and the expected stuff on their gods. Nothing too surprising then, apart from being more connected to the wider picture in the magazine this month.



Film & Television: Heavy Metal is our only review here, the anthology film based on the magazine. It gets a very critical review, pointing out that while it may look cool in places, as an overall product it's a complete mess, with a nonsensical framing device, stories that go nowhere, egregious sexism, gratuitous gore and nudity, and inconsistent animation. Not going to argue with that analysis, as even the people who like it do so because of those things. Sometimes you're in the mood to get a bit gratuitous, and at least it's an interesting failure rather than a boring one.



Media: This column's grumbles are unusually incoherent this month. Film is becoming more like TV, and TV is becoming more like film? I fail to see the problem. Remakes, sequels and adaptions are more common than original material? Same as it ever was. Stories get watered down either due to censorship, or a desire to preserve the status quo and string out the series longer to maximise profits? Yeah, those are genuine problems, but it's not as if they're new in any way, even back then. It all seems a bit unfocussed, and like they're just grumbling because that's what this column has got into the habit of doing rather than because they have any good ideas about what to complain about. Neither as informative or as entertaining as usual.



Books: Dream Park by Larry Niven & Steven Barnes gets a quite positive review. The whole virtual reality thing was big then, and technology has only made it more relevant, so it's not surprising this has stood the test of time and been adapted and sequelised repeatedly. Well worth revisiting.

Octagon by Fred Saberhagen is a murder mystery built around intrigue in a play-by-mail game. Since it relies on what was once cutting edge technology, it'll definitely seem a bit weird today, but the fundamentals of the story could still work, especially the stuff involving manipulation of computer records, which would be even more terrifying in the internet age.

The House Between Worlds by Marion Zimmer Bradley is a fantasy novel which also features the characters within roleplaying, and speculating that it was introduced by planehoppers to make people more receptive to their existence. The main plot is pretty good too, making the reviewer happy to give this one good marks. Always interesting to see writers deconstruct their own conventions.

Their Majesties' Bucketeers by L. Neil Smith takes a potentially very alien tripedal and tri-gendered alien race and makes their adventures and society entirely relatable and entertaining. There's a little bit of using the sci-fi elements for real world social commentary, but it's not as obtrusive as the author's previous works. Another one they recommend.

Systemic Shock by Dean Ing gets a somewhat more mixed review, as while his tale of WWIV is entertaining, the course of future history it takes strains their credulity. At this point, I'm not going to worry about that, given how inaccurate most serious predictions of the future have turned out.

Schrodinger's Cat III by Robert Anton Wilson continues the semiconnected stories about the nature of quantum mechanics, consciousness, alternate universes, and reality in general. This time, the concept of value gets particularly focussed upon. What exactly is value, and why do we value things? As before, the humour helps the big philosophical ideas go down in the most delightful way.

Starspinner by Dale Aycock gets a review that's mostly complementary of the writing, but very critical of the cover and font it's printed in. The publisher needs to step up their formatting game, or they'll drive people away through rookie errors, because people do judge a book by it's cover.

Shadow of the Swan by M. K. Wren continues from the book reviewed in issue 9. As with that, it's entertaining reading, but don't expect the philosophical depth some of the other reviews here offer. Sometimes you're in the mood for popcorn, and there's nothing wrong with that.



Games: Star Patrol gets the lion's share of this column, a full 1+1/2 pages in which they detail plenty of both positive and negative points, before ultimately coming down on the negative side. It has some cool ideas, but it's nowhere near comprehensive enough for the reviewer, and the art direction & writing are at odds with one-another. They're hard to satisfy in here.

Arms Law & Spell Law for Rolemaster (well, they will be, even though they're currently being sold as a generic system, and they were blatantly intended as unofficial D&D add-ons at first) get a collective review. They epitomised ridiculously complicated "realistic" gaming back then with vast spell lists and brutal critical hit tables, and it's a reputation they've kept over the years. These reviewers are no exception, being fairly scathing about both the minor errors in historical accuracy, and how slowly the whole thing goes in actual play due to all the looking stuff up and cross-referencing for every roll. Yeah, I think I'll continue to pass on this one. Hindsight has changed nothing.

The Wizard & the Princess is our first computer game review. It's a text controlled RPG adventure, but includes full color images that the reviewer finds quite impressive. As with many games of the time, it's pretty brutal, and it'll take a lot of trial and error just to get out of the starting village, let alone explore everywhere and finish the game. Good luck getting through it without using a guide.

Bill Budge's Space Album is one of those compilations of minigames that were common in those days, all with a sci-fi theme, unsurprisingly. This gets a positive review, as all the games are short but fun, and the graphics are quite good by the standards of the day. These day's, there's no way one person could produce and release that many games on their own in one go.

Planetoids is an obvious rip-off of Asteroids. It still gets a good review as the controls might be a little fiddly, but it's a good version with plenty of adjustable difficulty options to keep you from mastering it and getting bored too quickly. The gaming industry is still young, they aren't going to be sueing each other for making games that are too similar just yet. OR ARE THEY?! (spoiler, they totally were)



DragonNotes: In fitting with their love for random generation, here they have a system for creating random NPC's, for when you find yourself completely devoid of inspiration, but need to keep the game going anyway. This is of course interesting because it lets us get a look at what the designer considers good demographics in DragonQuest's default setting. More helpful than hostile, more spellcasters than nonspellcasters, the obvious races are by far the most common. It's not so much intended as a wandering monster generation method, as it is a means of regulating what the PC's can learn, by controlling how hard they'll have to work to find someone who can teach them a particular skill. Which is definitely not the set of priorities I would have chosen. (I'm not fond of requiring a teacher rules in games in the first place, as it downplays the ability of people to innovate and come up with the same ideas independently from first principles reality demonstrates. ) It shows his desires to make a good game, and to simulate a world are somewhat at odds. So I don't see myself ever using this, even if I did play DragonQuest, but it's still interesting to read and reveal more about their design philosophy.



Feedback: Having been around for a while now, their new questions include if you've subscribed to the magazine, and if so, for how long. The new ideas they're floating include a Universe supplement covering Larry Niven's Known Space, a mass combat system for DragonQuest, (cannibalised from one of their other systems, of course.) Along with the usual fantasy and sci-fi standalones, they also float an idea for a game of pulp serial cliffhangers, and what looks suspiciously like proto-cyberpunk in the judge dredd mould. Even if they haven't invented some of the terms we use today, the underlying conditions that produce those lines of thinking are already there. That's quite interesting to see.



Designer's Notes: This column is quite honest about the struggles facing a line developer trying to create good game material. Sometimes you've got to be prepared to tell your writers that what they've done sucks, and they'll need to redo it, or else you'll have to heavily edit it anyway. Sometimes you realise your rules design has led to a dead end, and need to throw big chunks of it out and start again if you want to improve. This is particularly the case when dealing with freelancers, who may be writing hundreds of miles away where every bit of communication costs. (or at least, did back then) So yeah, there's going to be a book full of new magic types for DragonQuest, which hopefully will not be horribly broken after editing is through with them. The second edition is going to be substantially streamlined. (which might break those magic systems anyway if they weren't edited with the new edition in mind) Their standalone games have similarly convoluted developments. Once again, this is all the more interesting because of it's cynicism and honesty, not trying to sanitise the complexities of the creative process. Everyone goes through it, some just try to pretend they don't. This is why you don't try to set a strict schedule for creative work. It only leads to disappointment or burnout unless you have plenty of people and budget to spread the load.



Albion: Land of Faerie: So it's time for the Elves and Formorians to go to war over the fate of albion. They certainly manage an impressive scale, squeezing the UK into an 8 page fold out hex map that'll fill a lot of tables when spread out all the way. (and printing out in it's original size will be an obstacle if you want to play this from the .pdf) With a scale like this, the size of the armies is fairly abstracted, the length of turns is quite long (each one represents 2 weeks, so long games could easily last over a year if they didn't implement a time limit in the default scenarios) and given the theme, the power of individual heroes is pretty important. The stats are fairly standard for a game of this type, speed, combat strength for all units, plus magic rating & command strength for the named characters. The places of power detailed earlier in the issue are significant because once taken you can teleport between the ones you hold. There are 13 spells and 23 magic items you can get hold of, and some are quite powerful, particularly the weather ones which can affect the entire board. It's better than I though it was going to be from the conservativeness of the earlier setting material, and looks like there's a lot of tactical depth to the positioning and control of your units, although luck still plays a part in individual engagements. Definitely one I wouldn't mind playing.


With an unusually high proportion of material connected to the theme, this is quite a strong issue, even if their approach is slower and more pedantic than I'd prefer. I guess that's another demonstration of how the improved tools we have for researching, writing, editing and transmitting have speeded up media in general, and it's easy to take that for granted and get impatient with older material. Still, it continues the overall trend of having things more connected up and game focussed. If it continues, they'll soon run out of space for other stuff. Oh well, let's see if the trend accelerates or decelerates in the next issue.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 12 - Star Trader: January 1982



59 pages. So they've managed to get this game out after a fair bit of development time. Economics IIIIINNNN SPAAACE! How will they abstract that so as to make it interesting to play? They've been dropping little bits of information on this for quite some time. Let's see what the results are.



Muse: The editorial is longer than usual, and tackles a topic I've noted several times in my reviewing. Their hard science pieces are intentionally conservative and pessimistic as a way of presenting contrast to the more fantastical settings of their games. They've got a number of critical letters about those pieces, and this is basically just to confirm that this is entirely intentional, and they intend to keep on doing it, so nyah. You've got to have your fibre or you won't appreciate the sweets as much, and your health will suffer. Yeah, I approve this message, since I've seen what happens when they try to please everyone in every single article and the blandness that results. It's not the way to keep your publication healthy in the long run. On with the show.



New Minds: Appropriately, following straight on from the editorial, we have one of their hard science pieces that seems incredibly dated today, on the problems facing artificial intelligence. Getting computers to understand sensory input, and respond to it in a coherent and useful way is a monumental task, but it gets a lot easier as you increase both the quality of the input, and the quantity of processing power and memory your computer has. And since they were measuring memory in kilobytes back them, while we can comfortably work in terabytes, it's no surprise we've surpassed a lot of the old constraints in things like voice and facial recognition. We still might be some distance away from a machine being truly sentient, and even if we succeeded, it's mind probably wouldn't think like ours, but it's safe to say this is a goal we've made genuine progress towards. (unlike cold fusion, which still seems like just a pipe dream) So this is another of their articles that's interesting precisely because of the pessimism, as it shows what things were like then, and how they've improved in concrete measurable ways. We can and are making progress, although it's often in spite of the government rather than aided by it. It'll be interesting to look back at today's articles decades in the future and see which ones hindsight vindicates as well.



Adventures in Albion: Completely unsurprisingly, they follow up last issue's game with DragonQuest conversions for the stuff described in it. 44 characters, 23 magical items, 13 spells, and some statistical information about how common various things are there. The kind of dense, table based information that TSR used sometimes in the same era, and then increasingly forgot in the interests of padding articles out with waffle to fill space. They aren't particularly nerfed to fit into an RPG either, with the spells still covering vast areas, and the items having sweeping effects with no saving throws. Use with caution, especially in the relatively grounded default DragonQuest setting. Amusing that the stuff based on real world myths would be less balanced than stuff invented just for the game. I guess that's also a pattern I've seen before in D&D as well. Writers of fiction aren't bound by the same standards of fairness, so you need an intelligent GM to keep the game fun despite the unfairness.



The 11 Billion dollar bottle of wine: Our first bit of themed material is another serious hard sci-fi piece about just how big space is, how much fuel it takes to travel at any kind of speed, and how much of a pain in the ass it would be to transport any kind of perishables across that distance. The numbers are quite horrendous, and even if we overcame the mechanical challenges, barring the invention of some kind of faster than light travel, we'd still find it a struggle to make it profitable due to our own lifespans and the short-term thinking inherent to that. Who's willing to spend billions to send a spaceship off in the hope that their descendants will get a multi-trillion windfall a few thousand years later? How do you deal with the prisoner's dilemma when it comes to profiting by mutual sharing of information. How do you even begin to handle sanctions or actual war if you fall out when your reaction time is measured in decades? It's not completely pessimistic, but yeah, it's not an easy task, and unlike AI, this is something we're no closer to accomplishing than we were 30 years ago. If we ever crack it, that'll be a story worth telling.



Designer's Notes: This column continues to be interestingly candid about their struggles to get things done. Too many standalone game ideas, too much demand for Dragonquest supplements, and not enough time or people to get everything they'd like to do done, especially when they go down dead ends, and wind up having to scrap a load of design work and start again. Ever the way with creative endeavours. You either don't have enough time and money to do your dream perfectly, or you're juggling a big bureaucracy and getting everything organised and moving in the right direction is like herding cats. It's no wonder that even big, successful seeming companies can suddenly go under, and you only find out in hindsight how much of a mess they were in.



Startrader!: Our second tie-in is a comic showing a seedy deal going down. (IN SPAAAACE!) Unsurprisingly, the Johnson tries to betray our protagonist, and equally unsurprisingly, the protagonist has taken inventively horrible precautions against betrayal, and comes out on top. Pretty standard narrative arc, made more entertaining by the exceedingly dated fashions of the characters, which manage to be terribly 80's despite being set in the future. This kind of story never gets old as long as the writer can come up with different twists each time, as people love ironically appropriate comeuppances.



Science for Science Fiction: A mix of universal and very specific questions here. Attempts to resolve the paradoxes inherent in infinity and space travel. The mathematics that look elegant on paper are not borne out by the messy reality of how things actually are. The mechanics of creating a fake unicorn to bilk money from rubes. It's not pleasant, but it's not that complicated a procedure. And combining the two, a lecture on the need for absolute lack of ambiguity when communicating with computers. They may not actively try to pervert your instructions like literary demons and genies, but bugs can still cause all kinds of unexpected results that are a real pain to track down and fix. Choosing the right programming language for the right task can make things a lot easier to accomplish.



Facts for Fantasy: As usual, this column tackles more topics in less detail than the science one. Two slightly disjointed bits of information on the runic alphabet, the phonemes it contains, and how it's organised. The creation myth of the Gilbert Islands in the south pacific, which unsurprisingly is heavily shaped by the native creatures and environment. Human imagination can only extrapolate so far beyond it's inputs. The cosmology of the inuits, which seems like pretty standard animism. And the economic classes in 500BC athens. Still true how much more specific the details get the closer we stay to there. They have got to get themselves some new primary sources.



Film & Television: Time Bandits gets a mixed but ultimately positive review. The production problems are pretty obvious in the final product, but it's still a tremendously entertaining film that completely defies categorisation. While working to formulas helps a lot of the time if you want to make something good, sometimes you should just throw them out and see what happens, as novelty is a good thing in itself in the entertainment industry. If it works, you might spawn a whole legion of imitators.



Books: Starship & Haiku by Somtow Sucharitkul gets a mixed review because it's well written, but has a very bleak and depressing worldview indeed. Yeah, preaching ecological doom will do that for you. We might still get there, but it's clear by now that it'll be a long process of things gradually getting more unpleasant, not some big end of the world. Trying to panic people with exaggeration will solve nothing.

Spacetime Donuts by Rudy Rucker mixes extremely high concept mathematics and metaphysical speculation with rather more lowbrow sex, drugs & rock n' roll. The reviewer finds the results interesting, but also rather absurd. Things on a quantum level often do, as they're not intuitive to the physics we see at macro size. You just have to deal with it.

Long shot for Rosinante by Alexis Gilliand isn't bad, but shows the effects of sequelitus and diminishing returns. If you tell basically the same story twice, what's the point of writing it anyway?

Last Communion by Nicholas Yermakov also gets a good result, but not as good as his last novel, which is still a compliment, but doesn't feel like it. The higher you climb, the higher the standards you get held too.

The Janus Syndrome by Steven McDonald gets a short, but unmitigated slating. Shallow, badly written action movie fodder. Not even worth picking apart and mocking.

Lilith: A snake in the Grass by Jack Chalker showcases another of his really weird and interesting worlds, and unconvincing human characterisations.
Goes to show, you need a strange mind to come up with this stuff, and that's it's own benefit and drawback.

Tomorrow's Heritage by Juanita Coulson is a family drama with sci-fi trappings, as a ludicrously megarich family engage in political squabbles, while a potential alien invasion lurks in the background. Seems like good fodder for an HBO adaption. :p

Reefs by Kevin O'Donnell Jr has an interesting plot, but it struggles to challenge it's protagonist, as he has powerful teleportation and the brains to exploit it logically in devastating ways. He needs an antagonist with similarly flexible capabilities to keep the series from turning into a mary-sue fest.

The Great Rock n Roll Swindle by Michael Moorcock sees him tackling the punk rock phenomenon in his idiosyncratic style. His very british references leave the american reviewer amused but frequently baffled. I suspect it'd be a lot easier to unpick in hindsight with the help of google.

Shadows of Sanctuary by Robert Asprin sees the Thieves world anthologies maintain their high standards, once again showing why they've had lots of longevity and make good inspiration for RPGs. A world built by multiple people can gain a level of complexity no one person could ever manage alone, but not without an editor to keep things consistent.

The Seven Altars of Dusarra by Lawrence Watt-Evans sees a RPGer becoming an author, and incorporating stuff from his campaign into his novels. Now there's something that'll become increasingly common as decades go by.

Lord Darcy Investigates by Randal Garrett is a fantasy detective story where the protagonist uses magic to solve the crimes. Our reviewer doesn't enjoy it much, but can see why other people would. Mysteries in magical worlds have to tread an extra fine line to maintain internal consistency, without which the puzzles are just asspulls, and where's the fun in that for the readers?

The Elves and the Otterskin by Elizabeth Boyer, and The Ring of Allaire by Susan Dexter both get resounding mehs and virtually no descriptive detail. This is not the way to write a satisfying review. If it isn't good or interestingly bad, leave it out. You only have so much space and it would be better spent that way than trying to cover all the shovelware the book companies produce. No sense in spreading yourself too thin.



Media: This column has a complaint that seems particularly bizarrely dated this month. The rise of multiplex cinemas, multiple smaller screens under one roof rather than just one? (and usually part of an even larger mall complex in turn. ) That's been standard for as long as I can remember. Which I guess shows my age, and also that commercialisation is like urbanisation or entropy. You see the state of things when you were young as normal, but there are already many generations of gradual development that they were built on in turn, and there was never a true status quo in nature for more than a few million years at a time. I can't get worked up about this at all, as more choice is a good thing, especially in movies, which are considerably fewer in numbers than songs or books due to the more complex and expensive creation process. Lighten up, Francis.



Games: This column tries to expand by soliciting for freelance reviews, as they simply don't have the time to cover everything that's being released. And you never will, because complete comprehensiveness is impossible in one little bimonthly magazine, especially when you're talking about an industry with lots of small press publishers that can easily slip under the radar. Since I definitely prefer longer, more comprehensive reviews that give the reviewer more opportunity to express their opinions and preferences, I'm not optimistic about this change. But on with the show.

Barbarian Prince gets a mildly negative review, simply because the reviewer has played it several times and hasn't managed to beat it yet. With solitaire games, it's so easy to cheat. You have to include lots of options, many of them wrong, otherwise people will beat them first try and then forget about the game entirely.

Star Viking gets a fairly positive review, as it's rules are detailed, but concisely explained. The Star Vikings vs the Federation seems like a david & goliath battle at first, but they have different win conditions that make the game fairly evenly matched, and the ability to pick different units for your forces each time gives it plenty of tactical elements and replayability. Nothing wrong with a little marauding if it's done in good taste.

Outpost Gamma is a game of natives revolting against their colonial oppressors IIINNN SPAAACE!!! (that never gets old, does it) Unsurprisingly, the humans are outnumbered, but have considerably better equipment. While it looks nice, the rules don't get particularly high marks, as they aren't particularly well balanced or tuned. This can stay in the past along with it's source material.

Demonlord is a game of a human empire trying to avoid being taken over by demonic invaders. It gets a moderately positive review, as it has several different sets of tactics you can use, and none of them is blatantly most powerful. A bit of depth does wonders for replayability.

Champions gets a fairly positive review too, although they wind up giving the edge to Villains & Vigilantes. (the name is certainly more trademarkable.) Given the wild diversity of superhero powers, the systems are always going to have to be widely applicable, and evolve towards genericness, and that's very much the case here, with powers and disadvantages aplenty. It still needs a fair few supplements to make it comprehensive and capable of sustaining extended campaigns though.



RPGaming: Dwellers of the Forbidden City gets a viciously negative review that makes it clear that they think TSR's rapid expansion is already resulting in lowered standards of writing and editing. The plot is paper thin, the cartography is hard to make out, the monsters' positioning and relationships make no sense ecologically, and they no longer have separate descriptions of the rooms to read to players. It's amazing how quickly these kinds of complaints crop up after a company gets going. Same as it ever was.

The Secret of Bone Hill gets a somewhat more positive, but still ultimately ambivalent result. The town is interesting and decently fleshed out, but the dungeon feels perfunctory and there's no actual secret at the end of it, which makes the name seem stupid. It's as if TSR would have liked to do a setting sourcebook, but didn't think it would sell without the dungeon crawl. It's still a long time before they'll really embrace worldbuilding. In the meantime, we had to live with these half-measures, make our own, or move to a game like Runequest that has already massively outpaced TSR in this area. Good thing those days are over, and we have vast amounts of choice in well developed settings to draw inspiration from.



Software: Robot Attack manages to grab the reviewers attention by including actual spoken words in it's sounds. it has several other features that make it cutting edge for it's time too, although it would still be pretty clunky by modern standards. It's amazing just how much data can be compressed if you have good programmers, but some things can only be accomplished with more raw power.

Master Trader is one of those games that tries to do economics IIINNN SPAAACE!!! It gets a so-so review, as it's decently designed, and has some nicely humorous moments, but it's also long and a little too boring for people who prefer their games with lots of action. it's always going to be a niche genre.

Cosmic Trader has exactly the same premise, but isn't implemented as well, being both simpler and more boring in design. It can stay buried in the scrapheap of history with many other mediocre games.



Feedback: The mooted games reach the point where none of them are actually going to be published in the magazine in the future, which is a shame, because the pitches are still pretty cool. Several very different types of interstellar war, some extradimensional exploration, wizardly intrigue and battle, and three potential novel licences, including a second Stainless Steel Rat one. They certainly don't lack for variation or nuance in their game designs. The RPG stuff seems somewhat more generic. DragonQuest rules for priests & religion, and books filled with more treasure and monsters. The only quirky one here is a system for generating adventures using tarot cards, which should stand up to a fair few replays. Well, Ravenloft did something similar, and look how successful that was, so it could well have been a hit for them if they'd got round to it. Once again we wonder about the path not taken with a fair amount of melancholy.



Questing: Lots of new rules material here, compressed into a small space. The push for more informed choice and less randomness in character generation continues to creep through the system, as it will for decades to come. And PC rules for Half-elves, Lizard Men and Giants, which is slightly more adventurous than AD&D had reached in it's official publications at the same point. Each has some quite specific quirks, half-elves getting to choose between mortality & immortality a la Tolkien, lizard-men having some very specific skill benefits & penalties, and giants getting the obvious high physical stats. Seems like pretty decent material if you ever get round to playing the game.



Universe Commlink: As with their DragonQuest setting, they're scrambling to build up the Universe setting, and here's where they elaborate on that. Unsurprisingly, more gear and spaceships are first on the agenda, with more adventures, monsters and alien races following after that. A separate magazine isn't on the agenda yet, but it will be if they can justify it financially. The thing that the public conspicuously didn't want though was underwater & underground expansions, which goes to show, it may be sci-fi, but we still don't want the realistic hassle of dealing with hostile environments in great detail in our gaming. Waterworlds, and ice worlds with underground oceans may look increasingly common in the cosmos as our instruments increase in precision, but we won't be seeing an RPG based entirely in one where no human could venture unprotected anytime soon. Once again shows the limitations to our own imaginations. So many more environments we can't survive in compared to the few we can, but since we live in them, we think they're disproportionately more common than they are. So even the strangest and toughest worlds we create will still be more forgiving than the real ones out there. All the design rigour in the world can't entirely prevent that.



StarTrader: So after an issue in which they've faced their own economic limitations a fair bit, it's time to make a game of it. It's designed to be integrated into the Universe system as a minigame, but can also be played standalone. A lot of effort is put into not only trading physical items, but also information, with a fair bit of blind bidding and different people being told different things, then deciding if they want to keep it to themselves or sell that to other players. It's considerably more complex than monopoly, but like that, once someone gets ahead, they'll tend to pull further ahead until they eventually win unless they get very unlucky with the dice and random events. Reputation and political influence is formalised based on your actions, and has a considerable effect on how the game plays, but you can also make big profits from illegal double-dealing, so whether you play fair or backstab the other players is a genuine choice. As with most of these, they have several variants to increase the replay value, so you can get plenty of use out of it even if you aren't mixing it with your RPGing. The trickiest thing, as ever, is finding enough people to play it with to exhaust all those possibilities.



By integrating the boardgaming and rpging sides of their writing, this issue once again continues the trend of having an increasing amount of material connected to the theme, with only the media reviews really staying out of it. Shows just how quickly a magazine can transform as the writers go from tentatively feeling around, to hitting their stride and finding they have more to say on subjects than they can fit in the periodical format. If only the budget had matched their ambitions. If they were around today, they could manage considerably higher production values with the same resources. Let's see how quickly they carry on progressing next issue.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 13 - First Contact: Winter 1983



60 pages. So much for the best-laid plans of mice and men. In the time between the last issue and this, SPI went bankrupt and TSR nabbed all their intellectual property. Ares laid fallow for a year before they decided to revive it. Although it looks like this issue was pretty much ready to go before the hiatus, as while the backstage staff have changed on the mast, the writers and contents remain exactly the same, at least for this issue. Just as with the TSR-WotC takeover and issue 237 of Dragon, it'll take a few issues for the new masters to decide what they want to change and implement it fully. Let's see how fast and smooth the transition is.



Muse: The editorial, unsurprisingly, is talking about the changeover. And also not too surprisingly, it's talking complete and utter :):):):):):):):). They're cutting the number of games we get from one every issue to 4 out of 6 per year, yet somehow trying to sell it as an increase. ( I suspect their initial plan was to cut it to every other, then they changed their mind, and forgot they never announced that in the first place, so their attempt to sell this version as an improvement seems very stupid. ) They're going to make the games shorter and less well playtested, as they need to cut costs (the fact that the magazines were being sold by SPI at a loss seems utterly ridiculous, yet unsurprising in hindsight given what I know of other companies that got into the same predicament.) which they also brazenly try to say is a good thing. They plan to make Ares all sci-fi as soon as they burn through their currently contracted articles, and all future Dragonquest articles will be in Dragon. (which makes sense, I guess) Basically, this rubs in that while Ares was an important part of SPI, it's now just a tiny part of TSR, so it gets lower priority than their homegrown properties and will be jerked around as they see fit before eventually being cancelled over the next few years. (all the while gaslighting us that this is a GOOD thing to happen, and anyone who disagrees can go to the cornfield. ) This is all a lot more unpleasant than it seemed when I was reading the same era in Dragon. Goes to show, the nearer the top you are, the smoother life goes, and you can easily not even notice the suffering of those beneath you.



Damocles Mission: In a fairly interesting turnup for the books, the tie-in fiction this month is by Timothy Zahn, best known for doing many Star Wars EU novels, but he's also had a long career writing both original books and other licensed IP. It's presented as in-universe mission logs as a group of astronauts arrive at an unidentified alien artifact, to be presented with a series of increasingly strange and complex puzzles, and then gradually go insane from paranoia (and possibly subliminal messaging of some sort) and kill each other, leaving the big questions unspoiled so you still want to play the game. It's short, and padded out to made to look longer than it is by lots of large illustrations, but the terse tone works to establish the atmosphere and keep the horror slowly mounting more effectively than jump scares, which don't really work in the written medium. So this is pretty good, and if he can turn out stuff like this to spec, I'm not surprised he has a long career in the same vein ahead of him.



Facts for Fantasy: This column has been served notice that it's on the chopping block, so it's not surprising that it's pretty small and unenthusiastic. The reason snakes are associated with evil in egyptian mythology. Surprise surprise, it's due to their fear of death and ritualistic burial practices. The tricks pacific islanders used to navigate by the stars across vast distances. It requires a lot of star chart memorisation, which goes to show how much understanding underlying principles reduces the need to do things by rote. And finally some very basic info indeed on historical bards. As usual, the sheer basicness of this stuff leaves me very unsatisfied. I shall not mourn it.


Science for Science Fiction: This column once again gives us info that has since been proven wrong. DNA testing has shown that neanderthals didn't just die out, they DID interbreed with various other proto-human subspecies, there's a fair amount of it still in modern people, and we can track our ancestor's movements to a surprisingly high degree simply via various genetic markers. It's nice to see progress being made, and for that reason, I shall probably miss this column a little more.



The Space Shuttle: These fact heavy, pessimistic articles are unlikely to survive long either under the new management, but as with FfF, why not use up the ones they had already. So here we have a math heavy piece on the capabilities, and more importantly the limitations of the space shuttle. It's definitely not like in the movies, where getting too and surviving in space is a relatively minor speedbump on the way to more spectacular adventures. Getting out of earth's gravity well requires massive amounts of power, and keeping everything sealed enough for astronauts to survive for any length of time is a serious engineering and ecological challenge. (and space is big, so it takes a long time to get places. ) This demonstrates precisely why we haven't travelled to other planets or set up long-term space colonies, as the energy costs and engineering challenges may not be insurmountable, but they'd require a far larger budget to get anything serious done, and it'd still take years to design and build new improved spacecraft. If an alien spaceship showed up in our solar system right now, we'd be woefully unprepared to scramble out anything to investigate or counter it. Really, our whole method of using tons of non-renewable petrochemical fuel to launch is hugely wasteful, and we'd be better served by a solar powered maglev based method of acceleration, preferably built on the moon, where there's reliable sunlight and no weather or atmospheric drag to disrupt launches. (but we'd still have to get there and set up a self-sustaining colony somehow) It is indeed pretty depressing, as despite all the advancements in technology in 35 years, we're still no closer to making this work, and using the existing things we have well past when they should have been retired instead of replacing them with better due to budget cuts. Absolutely no Wahoo to be had here at all.



StarTrader Game Enhanced: As they often do, they follow up last issue's game with some optional rules to fill in gaps and encourage replays. Boarding ships, insuring your cargo, bribery and corruption. The kind of stuff that depends heavily on individual interaction rather than macroeconomics, and so pushes this in the direction of being a full rpg rather than just a boardgame. Which since it's already integratable with the Universe system, seems mildly redundant if you want to go full sandbox, but sometimes you want that crunchy middle ground to keep the game from getting sidetracked. Seems decent enough, as usual. Hopefully reducing playtesting won't make them introduce obvious errors to these expansions.



Games: Fifth Frontier War gets a lengthy and overall positive review. Marc Miller creates a wargame steeped in lore from the Traveller RPG yet still functional standalone, that models the logistics of large scale space travel somewhat realistically. There's FTL, but it does consume vast amounts of fuel, so finding places to refuel is a big deal. You can't send messages FTL except by carrying them in a ship, so you have to give orders well in advance and hope they still make sense in the everchanging battle situation. if you can deal with the system heaviness it sounds pretty good. Another interesting spinoff from a game that still has plenty of fans today.

Ultra-Warrior doesn't impress them so much, being a basic game of one-on-one combat between super soldiers. Serviceable, but nothing particularly ambitious or innovative. There's a ton of other games that could do the same job.

Helltank sees the creators of OGRE return to the same well, with another game about ridiculously powerful future vehicles fighting large numbers of other ones. This one seems faster and simpler than that, but there's still plenty of tactical fun to be had here. Diminishing returns may be an issue, but that doesn't mean this is worse than it's precursor. Wargaming has shrunk in the intervening years as well, so it's not surprising this is less remembered in hindsight.

Starfire III:Empires builds on Starfire I & II to the point where the rules get a bit unwieldy, as interstellar empires are always going to be huge and difficult to model in a game. This is not helped by the fact that the writing and editing is not the greatest, so the reviewer is left unclear on a few points. Some systems just weren't built to be scaled up effectively.



Software: Space Ace 21 (not to be confused with the many other Space Aces, as it's a very common title) is a game of ship to ship combat. Assemble your craft, fight a bunch of different scenarios, and when you get bored, hack the system to increase the variety of opponents. Ah, the days when BASIC was a simple enough programming language any kid could deconstruct and mess around with their own games, changing variables and seeing how the game got easier or harder in response. I definitely miss that.

Meteor Mission II, on the other hand, gets a competent but dull verdict. There's nothing obviously wrong with it, but it's pretty easy and repetitive. Might be worth playing in an arcade once, but not buying.

Oo-Topos is a good old fashioned text adventure, boasting that it understands over 70 different verb classes. As usual with these things, the puzzles involve not only figuring out what to do, but how to communicate it in the computer's vocabulary. It'd be a lot easier to complete these days, but since I never particularly enjoyed this genre, I have no desire to do so.



Damocles Mission: Our game this time is another solitaire one with plenty of random elements to keep it challenging in replays. As set up in the fiction, you explore the innards of an alien spaceship that recently appeared above earth and try to figure out how to work it. Pick your team and the gear they bring with them wisely, because having a well-rounded skillset will definitely improve your odds. They encourage replay by a system that gives you more time in your next game if you did badly, or less if you won particularly well, so the difficulty will naturally scale to your competence level over repeated replays, and you can work to increase your rating. Since it's a fairly complicated game, you'll probably need those extra goes to really get the hang of it. So another interesting variant on the choose your own adventure idea that's growing in popularity in that era.



Universe Commlink: As is usual with a new system, it looks like the developers are in a constant state of tweaking even after the game has been released. They decide that what the game really needs is a Perception stat. Yeah, we've definitely been here before. In a combat light game, that's THE thing you can wind up rolling most of all, and it's surprising how many games miss it out. It's like their expectations of what's needed to play the game, and what happens in actual sessions are out of sync. Also an indicator of real world stress testing getting back to them is the creation of abbreviated cards for NPC stats, giving the essential information in as compact a form as possible. You can be finicky with PC design, but there's just no point doing it for NPC's that are unlikely to survive more than a few rounds of combat. Just bash out what you really need and get to playing.



Questing: This month's DragonQuest column is all about clearing up the rules on summoning. Now there's something we've seen complained about quite a few times in D&D as well. But interestingly, the issues are completely different, because DragonQuest summoning is a long and involved process, and so doesn't break the combat action economy in the first place. Instead it's about the minutia of demon binding and banishment, with a particular focus on the dark desires of succubi. Goes to show that DragonQuest is a considerably lower magic game than D&D, and also considerably less concerned with bowdlerising real world occult practices to avoid annoying the moral majority. (although that may well change now TSR is in charge) Every system has it's problems, and it's interesting to see just how widely they vary. Nice to know they're in no danger of an uncontrolled spawn cascade taking over the world there. :p



RPGaming: Thieves World is our only review in here. Like the fiction anthologies themselves, they've got a whole bunch of writers in to convert it to as many games as they possibly can. In trying to provide stats for nine different systems, it shows just how widely different writers interpret the same books, (as the same characters differ surprisingly widely from system to system) and how much easier it is to emulate books in general in some systems. However, in trying to cater to everyone, it's probably spreading itself too thin and not doing anything brilliantly. Just pick one good system and stick to it, it'll be much less hassle. An interesting curiosity that shows just how much looser people were about licensing and copyright restrictions in the early days of roleplaying.



Film & Television: Since the magazine has skipped a full year, this column tries to play catch-up in a rush by doing lots of little reviews of 1982's biggest movies. Bottom of his rankings is the new remake of The Thing, where he likes the special effects, but is extremely scathing of the acting and characterisation. ET also faces his ire, as it may be heart-warming family entertainment, but has no real scientific rigour or big ideas behind the visual spectacle. Wrath of Khan gets the same marks, but the writeup seems more positive. It's a substantial improvement on both the series and first movie, even if it still feels like a big budget TV show at times. More positively treated are the delightfully creepy Cat People, Mad Max: The Road Warrior, and Bladerunner, all of which have the storytelling chops to back up their premises. Definitely shows that his tastes aren't following the herd, and very interesting how differently hindsight has treated these films. Time has definitely been kinder to The Thing than Cat People, while Mad Max and Bladerunner have had huge ups and downs in critical reappraisal despite relatively few follow-ups in the series. It's so hard to predict what will last and be referenced in the future.



Media: This column is once again railing against the corruption of the big studio system. This time it's the blind bidding system, where studios force cinemas to buy blocs of their films and keep them on their screens for weeks without having the slightest idea if they're any good, making success more a matter of promotion than critical acclaim. The usual petty nepotism that ensures once companies get big, they tend to stay big even if what they're producing goes downhill, because they have the money and connections to bend the right ears. Yeah, that stuff pisses me off too, and people are quite right to try and pass regulations curbing the worst excesses of it. They also talk about the rules lawyering and shenanigans involved in the age rating system, which also involves a fair bit of :):):):):):):):) as companies cut films to a lower rating than they should for commercial reasons, or occasionally do the opposite because they think being edgy will sell, and either way it hurts the artistic integrity of the story. Yeah, that's still very much a problem in the modern day too. The internet may have made bypassing censors easier, but they're still here and pushing their way into the new power structures. As long as people are uncomfortable with sex and violence, that's not going to change.



Books: Madwand by Roger Zelazny gets a result of entertaining, but not as good as his previous books, mostly because the protagonist is an undeveloped cypher who's past and motivations don't quite add up. Complacency is a terrible thing, and even the best of us can fall prey to it.

Esbae: A Winter's Tale by Linda Haldeman sees a student summon a demon to help him with his essays, and then spends the rest of the novel dealing with the fallout. This could be a lot darker, but in practice turns out to be on the quaint and comedic side of school fantasy stories. No problem reading it to kids who enjoyed Harry Potter.

The Anarch Lords by A. Bertram Chandler sees his long-running space adventurer character temporarily stuck with a desk job, much to his displeasure. Fortunately for us, it's governorship of an extremely unruly planet, so there's plenty of adventure to be had surviving the political maze and making it a better place. So more entertaining pulpy fun here.

The Morphodite by M. A. Foster is about a shapeshifting assassin trying to destabilise a society from within by identifying and killing key people. A cool premise, but it fails to go into enough depth about the society and people to make this kind of drastic measure to overthrow it seem justified. Some stories would be better if made longer and more convoluted.

Tintagel by Paul H. Cook intrigues but also frustrates the reviewer, mixing philosophy and action in ways that are interesting, but don't quite cohere properly, leaving some obvious plot holes. Some sci-fi futures are more implausible than others, and this one is way into the fantastical spectrum, not any kind of realistic allegory.

The Soul Eater by Mike Resnick turns out to be a sci-fi reskin of Moby Dick, a tale of how a man's obsession with pursuing a mystical creature takes over and ruins his life. It's not as deep as it would like to be, so our reviewer does not give it high marks. Failed pretentiousness is worse than just being unashamed popcorn entertainment.

The Restaurant at the end of the Universe by Douglas Adams gets a result of good, but not as good as the original, and says he seems to be struggling for ideas. Since I've read interviews where Adams admits he procrastinated in his writing for ages and then usually dashed his books off just before the deadline, this is an entirely accurate criticism. He always struggled with both productivity and depression, and that's part of the charm of what he created.



The Treasure of Socantri: Our features finish off with an 8 page DragonQuest module. It's very much a site based D&D tournament module with different stats, right down to putting an emphasis on new monsters with screwage powers to catch players who think they know it all off guard and force them to use their brains if they want to survive. The writer notes in the postscript that this pissed off some of the groups that ran through it, as they specifically switched systems to get away from the D&D meatgrinder, which amuses me in a sadistic way. If you don't want to be challenged, stick to systemless roleplay. So this module is very much of it's time, and would be easily converted to D&D if you were so inclined. We can always do with another session filler for when we're short on ideas.



Feedback: The short time the magazine'll survive under TSR is already evident in the feedback page, as not only will none of the pitched games here be published, most are completely unfamiliar. Particularly jarring is the idea of one based on A. E. van Vogt's anti gun control parable The Weapon Shops of Isher. That would cause a fair few flamewars if revived today. Less interesting are the DragonQuest supplement ideas. A calendar, and an expanded book on their horoscope system. Shows how much less commercially focussed their ideas were, and also how much shorter the average book was back then, as both of those put together wouldn't fill a regular sized splatbook now. Once again, the things they're pitching showed why they failed in the first place, as I can't see myself buying the vast majority of them.



As is often the case after a change of management, inertia means this issue is mostly the same as the one preceding it, if a little less joined up themeswise. But even if I didn't know exactly how short the rest of the magazine's run was, the signs here aren't positive ones. A combination of :):):):):):):):) and openly admitting they're a much smaller priority to TSR than they were to SPI? No good way to spin that. Let's see just how much and how fast they change over the last few issues.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 14 - The Omega Wars: Spring 1983



55 pages: Just one issue later and both the cover and contents have indeed been purged of any fantasy content. From here on out, it's all sci-fi, all the time. That was quicker than I expected. Oh well, at least that shows they're trying to put their own stamp on things, not just coasting on a backlog of submissions. Let's see if tightening the focus actually increases the average quality, or if it's just niche protection to keep them out of the way of Dragon magazine.



Muse: Not only is the content being refocused, they're also going to put their own stamp on the formatting, and this editorial is where they boast about that. I'm not surprised, since the ARES section in Dragon had very different formatting to what I've seen so far. It'd make sense that it would appear here for at least a few issues before being transferred over there. TSR has more money, and that means better computer technology than SPI had. If they can use that to make things look better, while also taking less effort, that's just sensible.



Science for Science Fiction: This column consumes it's counterpart's wordcount and doubles in size, letting it go into a little more depth, although it's still never going to give comprehensive scientific explanations. Egypt's water problems are still an issue all these years later, if anything getting worse as they gradually tap deeper into the water table to sustain their population. Eventually, the :):):):) is going to hit the fan there, and it's not going to be pretty. On the other hand, the depletion of the ozone layer no longer seems like a big threat, as banning CFC's has led it to recover nicely. And the birth rate is slowing down. We might be able to deal with overpopulation without mass migration or starvation as well. We'll also easily be able to deal with the gradual reduction in tooth size over the centuries if it becomes an issue, given the state of modern dentistry and culinary arts. Making planets explode in real life, not just the movies is still probably beyond our technology for a very long time though.



The Troubled Sun: Our big hard science piece this month is slightly less pessimistic than usual, but still paints a grim picture of our long-term prospects as a species. A detailed look at our sun, it's place in the universe, and various quirks compared to other stars. It might be near the middle in terms of types of star, but in terms of size, it's easily in the top 5%. Smaller ones are more prone to fluctuations that would make habitable planets unstable, while really large ones probably wouldn't last long enough for life to evolve around them. Our existence is horrifyingly fragile, and both increases or decreases in worldwide temperature would cause dramatic, quite possibly civilisation-destroying events. As is often the case, the degree of grimness seems a little excessive in hindsight. Increases in telescopy have shown that even very large and small stars have planets, and since gravity and stable orbital spacing is quadratic, not linear, even very small ones can have multiple planets orbiting in their habitable zones. Similarly, we've discovered single celled organisms that can hibernate to survive in space for extended periods, so life doesn't have to develop completely from scratch every time on new planets. Life finds a way, even if more than 99% of individuals are wiped out, and that's small comfort to the ones that die. And humans are far more adaptable than most species. We can figure this out.



Film: High Road to China gets a fairly negative review. It's sold as a pulp action film when it's really more of a romance, and the whole thing is just too slow and silly to hit the right spots for them. It's definitely not going to replace Indiana Jones in the public consciousness anytime soon.

Videodrome, on the other hand, is still fairly well remembered today. David Cronenberg's creepy and offbeat style is far less imitated than generic action/romance films, and for that reason it actually remains fresher on rewatching, even if the ease of finding porn on the internet has blunted the idea of secret unregulated broadcasts a fair bit. Let your depravity free in a controlled manner, and we'll all be much healthier in the long run.

Blue Thunder also gets a good review. The idea of the government creating a special division of attack helicopters to keep the population in line seems all too relevant today, and the action & special effects impress them as well. Get the right blend of action and story, and hopefully it'll still hold up decades to come.



Feedback Questions: The feedback is one of the first things to get a rejigged layout with a clearer font, and switches from prioritising SPI properties to TSR ones. While they're still interested in the competition, they're now putting their detailed rankings of various properties to things like Gamma World and Boot Hill as well. All the pitched games are now sci-fi ones, unsurprisingly, although a few feel like rewritten fantasy ideas that they had before and still want to use, so they merely changed the fluff around a bit. One of the pitches is Space 1889, which would eventually be published by GDW in 1988, but the others are once again unfamiliar to me. At least that indicates they aren't forcing the pitchers to sign contracts that give the company their copyright indefinitely even if they don't make the game. Even the evil empire of roleplaying isn't that bad compared to the REALLY big media companies.



Braskan Gambit: The tie-in fiction for our game this issue is another comic, taking us down and dirty in a postapocalyptic warzone. All's fair in love and war, and when civilisation's collapsed and you're facing a mishmash of high and low technology, you've definitely got to play it smart, because you never know what you'll be facing from one fight to the next. So this serves to set the aesthetic for the game, which is very Mad Max/Tank Girl, and get you in the mood as usual, for which it does a decent job. That doesn't look like changing despite the management turmoil.



The Omega War: Straight from the fiction into the action. It's basically the same kind of setup as the Command & Conquer games. Far future with weird tech, decaying government vs populist rebel movement. Who will win? Obviously for game purposes they're fairly balanced despite the different logistic setups, unlike most real word resistance movements. The map covers the mainland USA in 130km hexes. (which seems an odd number, but I guess they needed them that size to fit in the magazine and accommodate the counters. ) The writing format has indeed been cleaned up, making this far easier to play than previous games in the magazine just by reading linearly, rather than having to have read everything before you even begin to understand how it works. As usual, the fact that I don't have much wargaming experience means I can't be certain, but it seems decent enough, and shares a fair bit of DNA with their previous games. I guess that like RPG's there's only so many ways you can do mechanics, so the same ones tend to crop up over and over again.



The Alpha of Omega: Another behind the scenes showing us the designer's thought processes follows. The references I made were completely not the ones he had in mind making it, instead being mostly influenced by Buck Rogers' tales of derring-do in the 25th century, and the events of recent real world wars. While realism wasn't a huge concern, making the setting compelling, the action dynamic and the two sides distinct was. It definitely helps give me some more appreciation for the effort that went into it's making. When you're a designer, you can go for generic rules, or ones highly specific to the scenario, and this one definitely thought about the customisation side. I approve.



Software: Crush, Crumble & Chomp is an awesomely named game of Kaiju vs the military. Build your monster, set your objectives, and get to smashing those cities. Sounds pretty fun to me. As with the last issue, they tell you how to hack it to tweak the difficulty so you can increase the replayability, which continues to please me. These reviews do seem to have been improved by the change in companies.

Sword Thrust is a core disk and series of expansion adventures. Build your characters, level them up through the adventures, see them die horribly, do it again. Seems a fairly standard representation of the D&D experience in computer form, albeit with permadeath that would never fly in modern computer games. Given how much more flexibility you can have in both RPG's and computer games nowadays, I don't think this series is worth digging up and emulating, even if it was good at the time.



Books: The Guardians by Lynn Abbey gets a very good review indeed, reminding us she has a long and productive future with fantasy roleplaying tie-in books ahead of her. In the meantime you can enjoy this tale of the fantastical intruding on the real world to gradually mounting horror.

A Rose for Armageddon by Hilbert Schenck also gets plenty of praise. An earthbound relative of the Foundation series, it shows people trying to stave off societal collapse by the analysis of geographical history. Only with a better focus on the human element than the grand sweep of things than Asimov, which is fair enough.

A Rebel in Time by Harry Harrison sees a black guy sent back in time to the civil war to prevent another set of time travellers from helping the south to win. Unsurprisingly, hijinks ensue, and the racism he faces makes them all the more interesting for us as readers. Since I like his work in general, I should definitely find out if this one holds up today.

Mike Resnick's Tales of the Galactic Midway series chronicles the adventures of a travelling carnival …… IIIIINNN SPAAAACE!!!!! The performers might be freaks, but the aliens and their cultures they pass through are even weirder. It's another positive review, but by a narrower margin, as the reviewer thinks this schtick could easily get tedious if dragged out too long.

Janissaries: Clan & Crown by Jerry Pournelle & Roland Green and Lady of Light by Diana L. Paxton have their reviews missing from the scan, so unfortunately I can't comment on them.



Games: Invasion:Earth shows what happened to Earth in the Traveller universe in 5511AD. A brutal guerilla war for freedom against the conquering imperium, the earth players seem outmatched initially, but as we know from real wars like vietnam and afganistan, you might be able to smash 'em from above, but holding the territory is a whole other matter, and the odds of winning are fairly balanced overall. Both the mechanics and setting detail are well thought out, and it also includes some adventures for the Traveller RPG using it as a background. Sounds like a pretty full package you could get a lot of use out of.

Dragon Pass is an updated version of Greg Stafford's original Gloranthan wargame White Bear & Red Moon. As is often the case in revisions, it might lose a little bit in charm, but makes up for it in improved production values and clarity of rules writing. It continues to include a ton of setting detail that crosses over with the RPG, and is generally full of the flavour and unique interactions that you only get in a well developed alternate world. Long may it continue to inspire further games.



Curiously enough, it does seem like TSR's changes are improvements so far, as they leverage their greater budget and better equipment to change the format for the better. But they are still using the same backlog of articles, so I guess the real litmus test will be when that stuff is all new. And also what they'll do differently in the issues without a game for the centrepiece, which uncoincidentally is what's coming up next. How will they fill the page count, and will it be thematically connected in other ways like many Dragon issues, or just a greater number of little articles and reviews? I don't like hanging around, so let's move it move it to the next one.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares Special Edition 1: Summer 1983



64 pages. So here we are, breaking up the chronology of the magazine into two different paths. From looking at the contents page, it seems like they're going to be using the freed up page count to burn through the remainder of their fantasy submissions faster, as the issue is packed with them. But there's also a fair bit of sci-fi too, including a longer bit of RPG material than they've ever done before. Let's see if the contents of this extinction burst are any good.



Ares Log: The editorial gets renamed to be a bit more sci-fi appropriate, with the name it'd keep all through it's time in Dragon. Unsurprisingly, the rest of it is a mix of the usual self-promotion, and trying to make the magazine more like Dragon, since they're trying to turn it into it's sci-fi counterpart. Letters, classifieds, and more little articles with crunchy bits in. But of course, to do those things, they need reader submissions. Yeah, that's probably going to be the sticking point, isn't it, since not only do they have far fewer readers than Dragon, but they also alienated some of the long-term hardcore fans by not honoring SPI's subscriptions, which is the kind of petty douchery that backfires by turning your previous strongest supporters into vocally complaining ex-fans. That probably had a fair bit of influence on Ares failing to thrive as it's own thing and being folded into Dragon in the end. I guess we all sow the seeds of our own downfall.



White Hole Bomb: Our hard physics piece this month is on the mechanics of black (and white) holes. Since black holes do actually radiate away mass inversely proportional to their size via hawking radiation, (at least, according to the most popular current theory) they do have a limited llfespan, even if it's many orders of magnitude longer than anything else in the universe, and a white hole is simply a black hole that's become small enough that it's radiating significantly more energy than it's taking in. (which won't be for long, as that's only when it's very small indeed) So while it is possible to use one as a power source by stealing rotational energy, transporting one and using it as a bomb is completely ridiculous on a logistical level unless you have teleportation, in which case physics already works so differently from reality as we know it that there's no point worrying about it. Creating and storing enough antimatter to use as a weapon is even more implausible still. So this is one article where our understanding of physics hasn't improved much in 30-odd years simply because we still don't have access to any black holes to get more practical data, so it's still mostly fancy theoretical models. A little less depressing than some of these, but still very much about what we can't do rather than what we can. Oh well, at least that's several fewer ways the world could be destroyed. We should be grateful for that at least.



Conan the Barbarian: Ah yes, L. Sprague de Camp's attempts to turn the adventures of Conan into a consistent chronology. Now there's a topic that still proves divisive today, both because the quality of other authors playing in the universe is variable to say the least, and because trying to say they're all canon results in him having an improbable quantity of adventures packed into every moment of his life, especially given travel times in a low tech world. This is the problem with trying to turn something that wasn't originally designed as a cohesive world suitable for a franchise into one post hoc, and is why comics universes wind up repeatedly rebooting and retconning stuff to keep popular characters around and not aged out of the points where their stories make sense. So this is a somewhat irritating promotional article that reminds me that Conan remaining a famous character after his original author died was not entirely for nice reasons. Like a lot of things, showbiz is a lot more pleasant when you don't know how the sausage is made.



The Oaken Sword: Ian McDowell returns for a second piece of fiction about the younger escapades of Mordred before he went full-on villain. Once again, he gets into trouble due to his personality flaws, which ironically, are also the things that get him out of the trouble again where a stalwart and true knight would face it head-on and die. This time, he trespasses on faerie ground, and gets geased to retrieve a magic sword, which obviously he'd like to keep, but fate wouldn't be so kind to him, and he ends the story no better off, but no worse either for future instalments. He continues to be a selfish dick, but not so awful it's impossible to root for him, so while this isn't original, it's still pretty entertaining. This seems like a fairly rich vein of inspiration ready for the tapping.



Mordred Mac Lot: A short behind the scenes piece following up on the fiction about the adventures of young Mordred. Unsurprisingly, the author has decided to spin out the idea to a whole novel, where our hapless antihero goes from one scrape to another trying to have a good time, earn his dad's approval and stay out of any epic heroic quests. (and definitely failing miserably at that last one) Yup, that definitely sounds like a premise capable of supporting a good few books, as series like the adventures of Flashman prove. Rogues make more interesting protagonists than paladins precisely because of the troubles they cause for themselves and those around them. So this is well written and interesting at first, but look behind the curtain and it's also a fairly formulaic bit of promotion. We've seen many stories in this vein before, and we will see many like it in the future, because most authors will stick with what works.



Nitimandrey & the cabinet maker's vision: Our second bit of fiction this month is far less formulaic, a poetically written fantasy fable that seems heavily influenced by the stylings of Lord Dunsany, which is definitely something that has fallen out of fashion with the rise of Tolkien knockoff worldbuilding heavy doorstoppers. A battle between gods from the perspective of an ordinary cabinet-maker swept up into events way above his reckoning, the rules of what's going on remain ambiguous right up to the end, at which point you're definitely rewarded by reading it a second time with a better idea of what's going on. There's a lot of buildup, and then when the action does come, it's sudden and unexpected, with a dark twist of an ending. It might not be so easy to make a game out of as a story where the rules are consistent and explained, but as a story, it's a nice breath of fresh air. I definitely approve of this.



Dawn of the Dead: They might not be giving us a new game in here for the first time, but they're still posting an expansion for one of their existing ones. A tie-in game to George Romero's movie? Not the most obvious choice for toyetic cross-marketing, but fair enough. They tweak the rules for the humans so they're more likely to do stupid impulsive :):):):) in the heat of the moment, and thus cause their own downfall, making the game play more like the movie while also pushing things closer towards balance between the two sides. Curiously, the rules use the old SPI method of numbered clauses and subclauses rather than the more natural language introduced last issue, showing this was probably in the queue for a while and they're still not fully up to date with their reorganisation. So this isn't that interesting to me as an article, since I don't have the game it's expanding upon, but that bit of behind the scenes knowledge is interesting. They probably could have rewritten it if they really wanted, but it wasn't high enough priority to do so. Another reminder that the people at the top don't really care that much about their new acquisition.



First Contacts: Our final article also shows definite signs of having been written and formatted before the changeover. It also feels less like a magazine supplement, and more like a full module that they didn't think would sell enough standalone, as it's a full 28 pages long. (which would become the standard for the era 32 once the cover was added) So this introduces the Sh'k'tlp to the Universe RPG, giving us an extensive lowdown on rules to play them, along with plenty of detail on their psychology, history, how they meet humanity, and a bunch of new equipment and psionic powers connected to them. (plus the odd bit of more general setting material and errata they just happened to be thinking of at the time. ) It's all interestingly crunchy and old school, as the Sh'k'tlp are indeed pretty alien, and so need a fair bit of rules work to incorporate. Natural shapeshifters on a planet dominated by various species of natural shapeshifters, they have to deal with the fact that anyone could change their appearance to look like anyone else, and any object could be a shapeshifted predator waiting to strike. They deal with this via an eidetic memory and a truly epic degree of obsessive compulsive orderliness, (which contrasts sharply with the freewheeling nature of most D&D shapeshifters) allowing them to spot anything that's even slightly out of place, and making them a real pain in the butt when living in close quarters with the generally more slobby humanity. So they're challengingly alien to play, but in a way that's derived logically from their physiology and powers rather than being incomprehensibly weird for the sake of it. It's pleasingly ambitious work packed into a compact package instead of rubber forehead aliens and demihumans that don't even vary a size class. Even if I'll probably never use it, I still respect the quality of their worldbuilding.



Despite the lack of a centrepiece game, this issue actually felt more SPI and less TSR than the last one, in terms of aesthetics and topics chosen. I guess that's a reminder that the assembly of magazines is a very nonlinear process, with some things scheduled way in advance, and some only finalised just before they go to the presses. So this was probably the equivalent of two issues of old material burnt through. Which will probably make the changes next issue feel even bigger. Oh well. I'm definitely finding this stuff more interesting and easier to get through than the early issues, so let's see what the next one brings.
 

(un)reason

Explorer
Ares 15 - Nightmare House: Fall 1983



68 pages. Huh. So even Ares gets a Halloween themed issue, such is it's popularity. Does horror count as sci-fi or fantasy, or as in novels, it's own genre due to the different audience? Oh well, at least it keeps the variety up for me. And I do remember enjoying the October issues of Dragon more than average. Let's see if that's true here as well, or it'll scare me in the bad way.



Ares Log: This isn't saying anything new, just reiterating that this is now the Sci-fi counterpart to Dragon. If you like both, buy both! Gotta collect 'em all! And since TSR is primarily an RPG company by this point, with plenty of sci-fi games, they're going to be appearing a lot more in here in the future. Yeah, nothing surprising about that at all. Not worth commenting on more.



Matters of Fact: Science for Science Fiction is rebranded and expanded now it's counterpart is gone, with a new writer, and a very cramped four column per page formatting. The individual topics are just as shallowly covered as before though, apart from the last one about 2010, the sequel to 2001, which gets an extensive sidebar about the gaming implications of von neuman machines, (do spawn cascading undead count?) and stats for several of them in the Star Frontiers system. Also pretty interesting is a study on the vast variety of micro ecosystems created by human gardens, where each one in a road can differ dramatically, and thus there's far more ecological niches than would occur naturally in a space that size. This relates closely to another piece on fractal geometry, and how area to volume ratios of a place can change dramatically depending on the precision of your measuring tool. Some utopians think the world would be better with no borders, but in reality, borders are where most of the interesting stuff happens in the world. The more of them there are, the greater the quantity and variety of life becomes. We should be trying to increase the number of them in the world, not tear them down.



Film: Return of the Jedi gets a long and very scathing review indeed. It's poorly directed, kiddified, toyetic, pandering to the international market, inconsistent with the previous films, and the special effects look cheap and unfinished. And yet by the time the phantom menace comes out even this'll be held up as a masterpiece by comparison. Just goes to show, Star Wars has never been a critical darling despite it's massive commercial success, and people claiming otherwise have had their perspective skewed by nostalgia. What looks awesome when you're a little kid often doesn't hold up to closer examination, and so it has ever been.

War Games is a story of a teenager hacking into the government's computers with embarrassing ease, and then having to deal with the consequences. The reviewer thinks that's implausible, which now seems very dated indeed with the rise of the internet, and multiple high profile IT :):):):)ups by big companies and governments. They're funded by people who know nothing about computers, and the people running they day-to-day side are frequently overworked, underresourced and trying to juggle contradictory bureaucratic imperatives on equipment of various ages that requires jury-rigs to keep running and communicating with each other. It's more surprising that we don't see more of these stories, and I suspect that's because they happen, but the people responsible are never discovered or caught.

Psycho 2 gets a surprisingly strong review. It deliberately subverts our expectations from the first one, and the set, soundtrack and cinematographic work is easily up to the standard of the original. Now there's an opinion many reviews in hindsight don't share. Funny how that happens.

The Hunger gets a short and negative review, good looking but dull. Without a substantial story, cool visuals are ultimately an empty experience. Yup, heard that one before. Trying to make a full length theatrical movie out of a fairytale takes a lot of padding, and many adaptors aren't up to it.

Something Wicked This Way Comes also goes against the tide, giving it a positive reception while bemoaning it's poor commercial performance. It might not be the fastest or flashiest, but it sets a good creeping horror atmosphere, and the special effects and soundtrack work well to support that. Worth digging up and revisiting.



Lexicon: The media column is axed and replaced by this piece of meta analysis, talking about the new jargon and subgenres of sci-fi. It's one of their more conservative ones, mostly mocking things like turning verbs into nouns, dressing up menial job descriptions with fancy titles, and the general dearth of originality or artistic integrity in the movie industry in general. So not that different to before, but without any real education to go with the snark. That's a bit of a step down overall. We already know creative industries are cesspits filled with backstabbing sharks, but we don't know all the complex technical ways they accomplish their goals. Snark may be entertaining, but if you can educate and entertain at the same time, that's even better. I mildly disapprove of this change.



Games: Star Fleet Battles Expansion Module 2 gets a purely descriptive review that gives me no idea what he actually thinks about it. A ton of new crunch, and a fairly extensive amount of errata for the previous instalments. The kind of thing that's incredibly common in games of all kinds, and subject to definite diminishing returns. I guess that is pretty common, to the point where you might get bored and skim over it instead of developing a proper opinion. ;) It would be oh so easy.

Striker is another spinoff game from the Traveller RPG setting. Where Invasion: Earth was large scale and highly specific in it's scenario, this is a more flexible squad level tactical wargame. It gets plenty of praise, as it's rules are clear and concise, yet not so simple as to lack tactical options, and it has plenty of room for expansion in new infantry and unit types, and so you can create new scenarios easily as well. Their willingness to branch out shows why Traveller became the biggest sci-fi RPG out there for quite a few years.

Moon Base Clavius, on the other hand, gets a sardonically vicious negative review. It's mostly a poor ripoff off a better game, the bits that are original are stupid, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a poorly edited, typo filled package. Why even bother if you're going to make a job this sloppy?



Visitation: We warm up for this issue's theme with a bit of creepy fiction to set the mood. It's an interestingly meta one, positing a universe where the supernatural is shaped by human belief, so all the monsters and their strengths and weaknesses aren't truly real, but they're tailored to your fears and more than real enough to thoroughly mess you up if your subconscious wavers. We've seen that quite a few times, and will again in many RPG's in various permutations, showing it's a common idea. It's probably not quite what they really need to set the scene as it undercuts the whole idea of the supernatural, but it's still pretty well written, and I guess adaptive fears can remain scary in a way concrete ones can't once solved. All a matter of taste, really.



Nightmare House: The actual boardgame doesn't follow the metaphysics of the fiction, instead being a more traditional take on the gothic haunted house subgenre. Darkholm Manor was built on cursed ground, and each generation since then has added their own unpleasant touch to proceedings, racking up an increasing number of melodramatic ghosts trapped within it's walls until it became impossible for even the most hardened skeptic to live in and left abandoned and mouldering for decades. Choose from 12 investigators, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and reasons for coming to the house, and figure out how to break the curse. It's more psychological horror than slasher movie, as the house has limited energy to manifest supernatural occurrences, and needs to psychologically wear it's victims down before possessing them instead of going straight for a bloodbath. Similarly, the other players need to systematically exorcise the rooms in the house to weaken the entity before they can get rid of it for good, giving plenty of room for dramatic back and forth progression. The odds of success definitely increase if there are multiple players, and they pick characters with contrasting abilities to make a well rounded team. As usual with this magazine's games, the rules are fairly complex, with a lot of phases in each turn, some only relevant to certain characters, and require a mix of skill and luck that'll take a few tries to figure out good tactics. If you only play it once a year on halloween you'll probably never master it. Oh well, at least that keeps it open to new players.



Books: Millennium by John Varley gets a review that's overall positive, but also pours water on previous, even more rapturous reviews in other publications. Yes, it's both competently written and has a good story, but it's hardly original. That's the thing when you manage to appeal to a younger or wider readerbase than normal. They're not as cynical as hardcore consumers, so they're more impressed by clever tricks. Plus in a pre-internet age, it was harder to check if someone else has already had the same idea. Things wouldn't play out in the same way today.

Lyonesse by Jack Vance gets a review that's positive overall, but also points out that his writing style isn't for everyone. it's not quite style over substance, but the floridity does make for challenging reading. Stick with it, expand your vocabulary, it'll be worth it.

The Prisoner of Zhamanak by L. Sprague de Camp also gets plenty of praise. His tales of weird and wonderful alien worlds consistently manage to come up with new twists to entertain readers. No argument with that.



Haunted Places: The second tie-in to our big game this time isn't a behind the scenes debriefing, but a short introduction to the tropes of the horror genre. It's written from the perspective of introducing sci-fi fans who are completely ignorant of the other genre, which means it definitely feels pretty shallow and redundant to me, especially after the very self-aware fiction, saying nothing I didn't know already. Really, how many people are that blinkered and specific in their reading and tv watching choices? Who doesn't know what haunted houses, ghosts, serial killers or vampires are? I really don't see much point in this article for any but their youngest readers.



Into the Void pt 1: Our second bit of fiction this month eschews the horror and philosophy for some fast paced sci-fi action. A racially diverse and snarky space crew have to fend off an alien attack. Their ship gets damaged, and they survive through ingenuity rather than raw power, using their remaining options in a way the enemy wouldn't expect. It feels very much like a group of PC's, as they mostly treat each other as equals despite the theoretical chain of command, and the banter is pretty engaging. So this works pretty well as an example of actual play, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was based off one. I suppose if they're going to be a gaming magazine, they want to lead by example.



Into the Void pt 2: Following directly on from the fiction is a 6 page module for Star Frontiers, using the characters there as pregens. Unlike most modules of this era, this is a complete railroad rather than a sandbox, with the encounters presented in exactly the order they appeared in the fiction, and the players expected to choose the same solutions if they want to progress. That's not the kind of writing I'm very pleased to see. Looking at the writer's resume, it looks like he was one of the guys responsible for the first wave of Dragonlance modules, which also pushed linear stories rather than letting players loose on the setting to make their own. So it looks like this is one of the first signs of the second wave of adventure design, where frustrated novelists replace wargamers, and as sole writer on both fiction and module, it was his own idea. He definitely deserves some of the blame for the next few years then. I have no interest in playing or running that kind of railroading crap, and I doubt I ever will, so I definitely disapprove of this one. Let players create their own solutions, don't expect them to read the designer's mind to do things the One True Way.



Ringshipper: Another sign of TSR's style taking over is the start of a regular comic series, a bit of sci-fi action which looks like it's about space traders and raiders fighting over the artefacts of a lost civilisation. It's only a single page, so not a lot has time to happen, and since we've only got a few issues to go, I suspect this won't be resolved, just like Jasmine, Pinsom, Wormy, and most of their other comics with continuity from this era. Serialised fiction in monthly publications is hard to sustain, especially in comic format, where a single busy day can take over a year to write and draw, and so it's saddening but not surprising it's filled with false starts that wind up going nowhere.



Feedback Questions: The feedback section loses it's most interesting part, the pitches for new games. That's definitely not a good sign, and reminds us TSR's lack of interest in audience feedback was one of the reasons for their downfall a decade later. Have they already decided the magazine's days are numbered, or is that still up in the air for a few months yet? In either case, this is a pretty unwelcome change. All those cool game ideas, shelved and sat on indefinitely because someone at TSR thought they probably wouldn't be profitable without asking their audience if they wanted them. I suppose this is the great thing about Kickstarter and it's ilk. Anyone can get an idea out to the public, and if it's good enough, they can make it in the right quantities, no worry about over or under production and dealing with storing lots of unsold stock for years. That's a definite improvement over the old days.



In sharp contrast with last issue, this one brings the negative aspects of TSR's management compared to SPI's into focus. Dumbing down for a wider audience, railroading, and lack of interest in listening to feedback are all things I've been annoyed about in the past, and getting all three in quick succession does not amuse, even if there are still plenty of good articles in here as well. Such is the nature of change, giving with one hand but taking with the other. Let's see where next issue falls in the overall balance of things.
 

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