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TSR [Let's Read] Polyhedron/Dungeon

What, you really thought I wouldn't include one of these? As if!


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(un)reason

Adventurer
Polyhedron Issue 74: August 1992



part 2/5



The Living City: As is often the case, the Raven's Bluff content is the cover story. The eagle is the mascot of an inn called The Ill Eagle. Why is the eagle ill, you may ask? Does it have a rare degenerative illness that some heroes need to go on an epic quest to find the cure for? Or is it known for it's sick lyrical skills and way it busts a rhyme when it gets on the mic? :checks notes: We regret to inform you that the eagle is racist. He was given intelligence by a mad wizard, raised by followers of Wastri, (because the Realms doesn't have any homegrown racist deities to use apparently, another thing to praise Ed's work for over Gary) and now spends his time screeching slurs at any demihumans who enter the premises, to the amusement of the regular patrons. So this is the same joke as people who teach their parrot to swear in real life writ large. Oh, he's such a card, lol. It's a textbook example of Polyhedron's tendency to use casual racism as humour, that Dragon & Dungeon are mercifully free of by comparison. The lower module quality is excusable, as they have to publish more while getting fewer submissions, but racism as a joke (as opposed to something you depict in the villains to make it extra clear they're terrible people you can kick the ass of guilt-free) is the kind of thing you only let through if you agree with it on some level, no matter how few submissions you're getting. The kind of thing that makes me sigh heavily and apply a suspicious side-eye to all the staff, because no matter who's primarily responsible for picking this out of the slush pile, all the others didn't care enough or were too scared for their jobs to complain about it at the time. Is this really the kind of roleplaying you want to encourage in your members? If they weren't already more than 95% white male, this would drive people away and skew the demographics even more in that direction. I think it's pretty safe to say this is one that'll never be appearing in any form in any of my campaigns.



Secrets Best Kept Hidden: Fresh from that bit of awfulness, we have a more common and mundane annoyance to deal with, the low-content promotional article that's useless once you've actually bought the thing being promoted. This time it's the Forbidden Lore boxed set, a grab-bag of things for Ravenloft, many of which will be incorporated into the next revision of the core rules. Lots of details on how various spells & psionics are affected by being in Ravenloft, making escape impossible and telling who the good & bad guys are much trickier. Various organisations that do their best to make the domains better or worse places. What you can do with those tarroka cards. But the majority of the preview is devoted to Powers Checks, that reminder that the Dark Powers may or may not corrupt you if you commit evil deeds and cast certain kinds of spells, and it's deeply arbitrary who winds up as a darklord for their sins, as there's only 10% chance of going up a level for even the worst acts. Some people can do a whole ton of them and remain completely normal, some will gain awesome powers and near indestructibility with relatively minor curses, while others will be pushed into falling by events outside their control and then punished disproportionately as soon as they step out of line. (what a coincidence that Von Kharkov, the only black darklord, is one of those) A reminder that part of the horror of Ravenloft is a deep degree of unfairness and disempowerment as PC's. To enjoy a long-term campaign set there, (as opposed to a weekend in hell adventure where you come in, beat the Darklord in a few sessions, and then escape back to your regular setting) you need to accept that as players, no matter how hard your characters struggle against it IC. Some people will love that, others hate it, and it's a good idea to know which type you're playing with and how far you can take inflicting horrifying things on their characters before it stops being fun. Otherwise, you could wind up destroying the biggest city in the setting and turning any adventurers that investigate it into undead, which proved to be a bit much for most players.
 

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(un)reason

Adventurer
Polyhedron Issue 74: August 1992



part 3/5



The Everwinking Eye: Setting material continues to grow in importance in most RPG's. White Wolf will rapidly become notorious for including a glossary of terms that each of their supernatural types use to refer to each other and the common things they do without alerting the mundanes in every corebook. Ed decides to get in on this action with a couple of pages of Realms slang, proper nomenclature and pronunciation guides. The kind of thing people who are obsessive enough to construct whole languages for their fantasy worlds will eat up, and everyone else might remember one or two bits of, at most. Good to see him keeping up with the times. (although with Ed, you never know which bits were written years in advance, and only assembled into an article once he's accumulated enough or found a good spot for them) Worldbuilding isn't just new people to fight and dungeons to delve, but all the little stuff like languages, cuisine and musical instruments. It's good to know those details are there if you need them, so I approve of this.



Experience Preferred pt 3: The final part of this adventure continues in much the vein as the previous one, quite linear, but thankfully only moderately silly. After finally reaching the plane you were shooting for in the first place, you eventually catch up with the evil wizard and find out why he left the retirement home in the first place. He was sick of one of the PC's getting all the credit for the adventures they had together, and wants to prove his superiority once and for all, preferably in front of an audience. So he's assembled a team of similarly statted villainous counterparts for the party, taken a hostage, and wants the PC's to fight one-on-one duels with their counterparts to settle the score. Whether you go along with that, or just rush them, it'll probably take a similar amount of time to resolve given the way D&D combat works. Hopefully, you'll be able to beat them, and return home to rest your aching bones. Overall, I think this one has turned out mildly above average for a tournament adventure, but due to it's backstory specificity it wouldn't work in most regular campaigns without some adaption, and it's not as good as the average Dungeon adventure. I can at least see how this would be fun in the original context, with plenty of opportunities for roleplaying amid pursuing the mission as long as you get the right group of players, but I probably won't ever wind up using it personally.
 

(un)reason

Adventurer
Polyhedron Issue 74: August 1992



part 4/5



A New Crystal Sphere: The second half of the Spelljammer/Space:1889 conversion stuff is slightly smaller, but still contains a fair bit of crucial information, such as the full stats for the various martian races and thoughts on how the crossovers might go. Spelljammers are massively faster than Ether Flyers, but the earthly vessels usually have superior weaponry and armor installed on their ships. It illustrates the difference between a setting which is at least somewhat grounded in 1800's science, and the pure fantasy of D&D. The long term winner will be determined by which side figures out how to combine the enemy tech with their own first, and enjoy the best of both worlds. An interestingly crunchy article that reminds us just how different the assumptions of different games can be, resulting in substantial power disparities if you try to remain faithful to both settings in one system. Of course, that only matters if a game is tightly point balanced in the first place, which definitely doesn't apply to either edition of AD&D. I think you could get a decent campaign out of this scenario under either rules engine. Just got to be ready to tweak things if one exploit dominates too much and have the opponents come up with IC counters.



Into The Dark: Another themeless grab-bag of film reviews this time, mostly on the horror end of the spectrum. As is often the case though, skipping the theme means they get higher average ratings. This is one collection James can recommend all the films in, albeit with various degrees of enthusiasm.

Cast a Deadly Spell merges lovecraftian lore with a hardboiled private detective story, which is actually a pretty decent combination. There's a few too many in-jokes and references for it to be truly horrifying, but it's still interesting, especially if you know where all the references come from.

Curse of the Demon is one of the films referenced in the previous one, a 1957 adaption of an M. R. James story. Aside from the special effects, which thankfully are shown sparingly because even at the time the director thought they weren't good enough, it holds up excellently. Well worth watching if you like that black & white atmosphere.

The Body Snatcher features both Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi, and reminds us why they were some of the best early horror stars, managing to be deeply creepy without any cheap jump scares or overt supernatural elements. Monsters may come and go out of fashion, but man's inhumanity to man will always be able to scare with the right actions.

The Monster Squad is now mainly remembered as the source of the "Wolfman's got Nards!" meme. It's not particularly horrifying, but the costumes & sfx are decent and the kids act more realistically like actual kids than most movies. An amusing enough bit of kitchen-sinkery to fill an evening with.

Frankenweenie is a low budget Tim Burton short from before he made it big. A kid resurrects his sausage dog but it doesn't come back quite right. Hijinks ensue. As usual for his films, the real bad guys are the conformist suburbanites, not the "monster" who just wants to be loved. Some things never change, i guess.
 

(un)reason

Adventurer
Polyhedron Issue 74: August 1992



part 5/5



The Living Galaxy: Like James, Roger can't think of a theme this month, so he offloads a bunch of little ideas that wouldn't have made a full column on their own. The danger of a computer virus pandemic destroying all your data and connections. (much scarier and more plausible now the internet has become ubiquitous.) Gritty sci-fi where players have to deal with all the hassles of zero-g. Definitely not enough systems that go into that in the same way D&D does with encumbrance tracking. The merits of making a smaller setting where you travel between the multiple habitable moons of a gas giant rather than having to deal with the hassles of FTL travel. Going the opposite direction, and having a campaign set entirely on a STL generation ship, dealing with internal politics and occasional repair crises. The hassles of interacting with intelligent creatures from vastly different environments, like the underground seas of ice planets or deep in the high pressure clouds of gas giants. The many ways you can upgrade your characters with genetic engineering, possibly enabling them to cross those great divides, but also raising serious questions of character balance & screentime in an RPG environment. There might be full books on each of these topics, but they're mostly ones that don't convert very well to the small group tabletop RPG formula, either due to the challenge of finding rulesets that cover these situations, or being generally unfun when you try to track all the realistic details. Like adventuring in the elemental planes, you're dealing with things that make no allowances for your squishy organic body, and while there might be great rewards to be found there, you've got to know what you're doing and be well prepared before even starting. Good luck finding a similarly nerdy group willing to take on these topics and explore them in detail over the course of a long-term campaign.



Wolff & Byrd wish a good knight to all, especially the dark knight who badly needs teaching some manners in his interactions with the peasantry.



Bloodmoose & Company find out that a well-designed gun is not a double-edged sword, so make sure you know which end is which.



Another issue where there are some good articles, but they almost seem to be in spite of the terrible standards of the editorial team, rather than because of them, with some of their choices being actively unpleasant. It's becoming increasingly obvious that they're not held to the same standards or subject to the same scrutiny as their bigger-selling books & publications, which leaves them free to indulge their worst impulses here. Once again I find myself looking forward to the next big changeover and not wanting to stick around. Let's see if next issue manages to be interestingly bad, or just typically linear and hack & slashy.
 

(un)reason

Adventurer
Polyhedron Issue 75: September 1992



part 1/5



32 pages. They must like this cover a lot, because they've put it on a t-shirt. That protagonist definitely looks like he's been taking influence from the rising wave of JRPG adventures and spending plenty of time at the hairdresser & carefully applying eyeliner before setting out. Let's hope his sword skills are similarly precise because that castle looks pretty foreboding. Time to see what challenges lie within.



Good Con Goer: Just two issues after the last one, they lead with another bit of ultra-basic advice on what to do and what to avoid at conventions. A little politeness goes a long way. Keep track of which events you've booked for, and show up on time, otherwise you'll hold everyone up and decrease the chances of getting through the adventure with a decent score. Try to be nice to everyone, but particularly the guests of honour, because many of them are sensitive divas who will respond to even mild criticism by chewing out the organisers and never attending that particular convention again. How would they ever cope with the hard life of having a high follower count on modern social media? :p It all reads like a specific attempt to avoid the problems of last year's Gen Con, where they had an unusually high level of flakiness result in a whole load of cancellations. It pushes quite strongly on the idea that it only takes a few bad actors to ruin things for everyone there, so behave you 'orrible lot! To be honest, it feels like the kind of lecture you'd get in school when a few people had broken the rules, but they weren't sure who, so the whole student body suffered the consequences, which isn't a particularly good way to start things off.



Notes From HQ: The editorial is also very repetitive from two issues ago, reminding us that the contest for membership of the advisory council is a big deal, so they want lots of participation or they probably won't bother to do something like it again. Why would you & your PC make good candidates? What ways would you improve Raven's Bluff if you were in charge? You need to figure out how to stand out from the crowd and win popularity if you want to have a chance. Keeping the membership engaged and growing is hard work. Will this particular gimmick be a success? It might still be touch and go. In more mundane administrative matters, they remind us that if you're buying anything secondhand through the classifieds, watch out for scams, and they take no liability if you get something broken or they take the money & send you nothing. Another of those things the internet has definitely made a bit easier in resolving, with places like ebay letting you easily see how many good transactions an account has made and get refunds if things go wrong. The past might be fun to look back on, but I wouldn't want to live there, missing basic conveniences we take for granted now.



Letters: The first letter continues the debate on ways you can reward Judges for judging without encouraging them to go easy on their players to get more points and undermining the integrity of the tournaments. Instead of by vote, the australians give them one ticket in the hat per slot they run, and then draw for prizes at the end. That way, they're less likely to run one and then quit if they get a good vote to preserve their batting average.

Second raises a related problem. If you are going to rate judges, there should be at least some degree of anonymity so problematic ones can't immediately see who has an issue with them and retaliate. Not really possible when all the forms are done on paper and handed in immediately after the round, but maybe if they were handled electronically. It'd be easy now, as you could put it all on an app linked to your membership, but in the early 90's, this would be pretty challenging. Another thing for them to seriously consider on a logistic level.

Finally, a bit of general opinion on recent articles, and asking why they haven't done a Living Mystara location. They barely get any basic D&D submissions at the moment, so they don't think they'd be able to keep it alive. If you want to prove them wrong, step it up significantly and they'll happily reconsider.
 

(un)reason

Adventurer
Polyhedron Issue 75: September 1992



part 2/5



The Living City: We have not just one, but a pair of linked establishments here, courtesy of future Changeling: the Dreaming authors Carla Hollar & Nicky Rea. A spell component shop for the discerning spellcaster, then right next door, a restaurant that's specifically designed to be familiar friendly, so you can bring nearly any well-trained pet in and they'll have something suitable for it to eat. No more worrying about hiding them away in your coat pocket or leaving them at home on a date, here your wizardly eccentricities are expected and catered for. They're run by a typically chalk & cheese married couple. He's meticulously organised, she's messy, and only by setting boundaries so they each have their own spaces the other leaves alone do they keep the partnership stable. They have a daughter, who after a lifetime of the little annoyances of being around other people's spell components wants to be anything but a wizard, to her dad's disappointment. An entry that's full of both attention to detail and opportunities for roleplaying, this definitely has several good plot hooks for your characters to engage with, be it being employed to get hold of some particularly rare & valuable spell components for the shop, forming friendships or rivalries and negotiating to learn new spells with the other wizards who shop there, or the increasingly ubiquitous cliche of the teenage kid rebelling and leaving their parents to join an adventuring party. It won't win any awards for originality this far in, but it's another light-hearted but structurally solid entry that you can use to fill out your higher-magic settings with.



The Everwinking Eye: In the course of publishing the Realms books, errors inevitably slip in. Elminster of course takes no responsibility for this, foisting all the blame on that incompetent scribe Ed Greenwood and his cow-orkers. They even managed to screw up the literal cows! How hard is that to get right? Messing up the rules for Spellfire is understandable, as it's ultra-rare and even the people who have it struggle to control it properly, so no-one really knows how it works, but basic geography and history errors? Any educated native would spot them straight away! So this is him taking the issuing of errata, which is normally very dull indeed, and making it more palatable by spicing it up with his distinctive sense of humour, bending the 4th wall and blurring the boundary between author and character. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, etc, and he doesn't forget that even when dealing with serious topics. Another demonstration of why he's the guy at the top of the pile when it comes to worldbuilding.
 

(un)reason

Adventurer
Polyhedron Issue 75: September 1992



part 3/5



You've Lost Your Marbles: After seeing they can still do decent length adventures in here, it's quite disappointing that they go back to a short, easy and linear one that easily fits in a single tournament slot, so the vast majority of groups will get through it in one session with time to spare unless they really faff around in the roleplaying portions. A kid has lost his marbles in the sewer. He's a rich kid, so they're actually quite valuable marbles and his parents will be mad if they find out, but still, this is already immediately silly and inconsequential as a premise. The contents are similarly inconsequential, leading you on a straight line from one encounter to the next whichever route you take, so the recovery doesn't even involve getting lost and using proper search procedures with a chance of getting some, but not all of them back. (unlike, say, the Dungeon one where you hunt down dinosaurs in Waterdeep's sewer.) Fight crocodiles, & leeches, maybe fight a mimic, maybe talk to it, and talk to an intelligent toad & a pitiful mongrelman (unless you're in an ultra-killy mood, which you might be after putting up with this despite the flavor text discouraging it.) it does at least have a decent mix of roleplaying & combat encounters, but neither are particularly challenging, and many of them are played for comedy. It's not so much an adventure for people who roleplay for the challenge of solving puzzles, the worldbuilding or the character immersion, as an excuse to get together and socialise for a few hours, and maybe add on a few points to your RPGA ranking in the process. It once again shows that a big part of the problem is their editorial direction, as the old tournament modules were at least challenging (in many cases far moreso than ones aimed at home campaigns. ) and nonlinear within the bounds of their time limits. This is just weak formulaic drivel by comparison. Why are they making current adventures so much easier? Is that really what the players want? Is being able to carry over characters between adventures and the fear of losing them making them overcautious? Another one that makes me want to finish this issue quickly and get back to the decent adventures in Dungeon.



With Great Power: Dale follows on from last time, reminding us that if you're going to be point-buying your characters rather than rolling them randomly, you need to have more of a concept for what you're doing. Fortunately, they already did an article on common character types in Dragon 171 fairly recently, so he can recycle a big chunk of that to pad this out. The rest of it is fairly familiar advice on not only designing your character's personality & history, but also their relationship with the team, and how they fit together as a combat unit as well as what everybody in the group thinks of each other & their original reason for getting together. A bunch of individually powerful characters may overlap a lot and get in each other's way if you don't talk it out as a group, leaving themselves open to weaker ones who are capable of teamwork. Nothing we haven't seen before, but it's good to see they're applying it to this genre as well as their fantasy works.



Thri-Kreen: Ed talked a little bit about Forgotten Realms linguistics last month. Not to be outdone, Tim Brown goes into the linguistic quirks of Thri-Kreen, which is obviously most useful for Dark Sun players, but might well become important in other settings too. Having mandibles and no lips, some of our consonants are impossible for them to duplicate, but they can also make an array of clicking and grinding sounds that the human mouth would find similarly problematic. Sign language runs into similar problems, as four four-fingered hands vs two five-fingered hands also creates some puzzling translation ambiguities. It's a good thing psionics are so frequent on athas, so hopefully someone in a group'll have the telepathic capabilities to enable smooth communication. Like Roger's talk on playing alien creatures that live in dramatically different environments to humans, this is a reminder that it's a big universe out there, and all it takes is a few small differences from the basic human body plan to cause all manner of hassles in interaction and getting through adventures. The addition of flight and the removal of opposable thumbs in particular can completely throw off any normal expectations of what is an appropriate challenge for a group of a particular power level, and being even one size category above or below normal can also make things unexpectedly effortless or impossible. But anyway, this is a pretty interesting and logical little bit of worldbuilding, showing how the communication problems go both ways, and one isn't obviously superior to the other. If you're playing a Kreen character, leaving out your labial fricatives is as important as the scottish accent for dwarves or the attitude of insufferable smugness for elves. Used in moderation, it can really improve your roleplaying.
 

(un)reason

Adventurer
Polyhedron Issue 75: September 1992



part 4/5



The Living Galaxy: Roger gives another reference-heavy article that reminds us that not only does he have a huge amount of general RPG knowledge, he's been responsible for writing a fair few books of his own over the past decade. This time, it's a list of published adventures for sci-fi rpg's, with a particular eye on things that can be easily converted to any system of your choice. After all, there's probably fewer prefab adventures for all the sci-fi RPG's put together than D&D alone, so you need to get used to adapting them or creating your own. Traveller is probably the system that has the most published adventures that are usable straight out the box, while GURPS has easily the most different but intercompatible sci-fi setting books. (which usually also contain plenty of adventure ideas) Despite being technically a modern day setting, Top Secret:SI also pushes the tech envelope just enough to have lots of inspiration for the more grounded sci-fi settings. Shadowrun is also pretty well equipped, even moreso now than then, although many of it's adventures fall into the railroady metaplot trap so they might need a little more adaption to work in other systems. The kind of list that would have been decent enough at the time, but is now 30 years out of date, with most of the specific examples out of print. (although the ratio of D&D adventures to all the sci-fi ones put together remains just as lopsided) No way you're going to be able to get hold of many of these without resorting to piracy. So this one isn't hugely useful to me, even though I can respect the time and effort that's gone into it. Mainly interesting on a statistical level then.



Into the Dark: James decides not to go for an obvious theme this time, but instead review movies who's only connection is that they were all released in 1975. I have no idea if that was a good year for cinema or not, so I'm very interested in seeing what he picks from the rental store this time. (and if they're available on streaming sites so I can see if I agree with his conclusions)

Beyond the Door (not the green door, which takes you somewhere completely different :p ) is a particularly poorly made bit of satanic possession schlock. A mix of The Exorcist & Rosemary's Baby without the charm or coherent editing, James finds absolutely no value in it whatsoever.

The Love Butcher is the kind of non-supernatural slasher movie that's long since gone out of fashion in the face of indestructible supervillains who make better franchise-headers. A guy pretends to be a mentally handicapped gardener, and then gruesomely murders the women who look down on the hired help as his suave alter-ego. The police are incompetent enough that he racks up a substantial body count before being stopped, along with quite a few terrible one-liners relating to the way he kills them. With terrible production values and a premise that definitely wouldn't pass the political correctness test these days, this can probably be left safely in the past where it belongs.

Death Race 2000 is basically a big-budget wacky races cartoon with real gore and consequences for crashing. It's pretty much the perfect inspiration for the Car Wars rpg. Watch David Carradine & Sylvester Stallone duke it out for the big prize, along with plenty of other quirky characters and their highly customised cars. Not particularly deep, but a fun way to spend an evening.

Jaws gets a 5-star review from James, reminding us that while the sequels might have sucked and run the idea of a scary shark into the ground, the original is a well-paced story where there's more emphasis on the stupidity of humanity and their desire to protect profits than showing the monster, ironically resulting in more deaths and loss of money than taking the threat seriously straight away would have resulted in. (Another thing that shows how little things have changed decades later with the USA's reaction to the pandemic.) All good horror stories are ultimately about humanity, and unless we genetically engineer ourselves to remove our flaws (something which has it's own fair share of horror stories involving all the many ways it could go wrong) the core of what horrifies us and how we deal with it isn't going to change that much no matter how many years pass.

Trilogy of Terror is unsurprisingly one of those collections of shorter horror stories that wouldn't make sense as a theatrical release otherwise, as still parodied in The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror episodes long after most of the watchers have forgotten or grown up too young to ever know what the reference was. Like those, it reuses the same actors in completely different continuities to tell it's stories. The third of them is by far the scariest and best. Another of those reminders how ideas can be traced back through history, with true originality being surprisingly rare.
 

(un)reason

Adventurer
Polyhedron Issue 75: September 1992



part 5/5



Of Lamps And Logic: Al Qadim gets in on the logic puzzles business. You are presented with 5 lamps. One contains a genie who will grant you a wish getting you out of your predicament. The others will be either lacking that power or not nearly so nice when released. You know the drill by now. Figure out by process of elimination by name, material the lamp is made of, color of turban, favourite food & gemstone. Nothing particularly noteworthy, but it keeps the new setting in people's minds, increasing the odds they'll buy it.



Bestiary: Blade Golems are for those wizards who want to be a little more edgy than the average bear. They're somewhat intelligent, surprisingly stealthy, can track anyone they've wounded automatically and completely loyal to their creators with no chance of going on an unscheduled rampage. They can also explode their blades outwards, a signature move that will be shared (in a somewhat weaker form) by Planescape's Bladelings. Good to see a bit of thematic consistency there. I can definitely see why you'd want to build one over the more commonly known types.



Bloodmoose & Company try to act a little classier in the hopes of blending into high society, but that good ol' murderhobo spirit soon slips out again.



Wolff & Byrd get very meta indeed, as they represent a character from a D&D game who's wound up in theirs, then the people playing him realise what's going on. How will they disrupt legal proceedings in response?



Some fairly interesting D&D bits in here, while the more generic articles were considerably more repetitive and less useful in general. The longer I do this, the more I come to value specificity, as that's where I learn new things. Despite the overall flaws in the D&D system compared to more flexible point-based ones, the sheer amount of material lets it stay interesting and cover ground nothing else can touch. If only we had a sci-fi system that dominated the market in the same way D&D does the fantasy one they might have accumulated enough material for similar ultra-specialisation. But so far, it still hasn't happened. Maybe some day. In the meantime, let's keep on heading through the obscure corners of the 90's and seeing what we find.
 


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