Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds: An Introduction

For several weeks now, we’ve been hyping up the Gygaxian Fantasy World series on various platforms, Facebook, X, Instagram, and Twitch. It is something near and dear to most of us here in the Dens, even though all seven books were pulled from us in 2008. The echo of them remains, both at our tables, on our shelves, and at the outrageously high prices they cost on sites like eBay. But the more I post about them, the more I realize that though these world-building books might be household names here, their content and purpose might be unknown to others.

 In short, in 2001 Troll Lord Games reached out to Gary Gygax and asked him to write adventure modules for us, he replied with a friendly and heartfelt “no,” but countered, “I have something better. I have a series of books I would like to publish, an encyclopedia of sorts.”  In that same conversation, he spoke of Gord the Rogue and The Lost City of Gaxmoor, but the subject dearest to his heart in those days, as dear to him as Kings of England and Kings of France is today, was what he called the Gygaxian Fantasy Series.

 Side note for the beleaguered reader: I’m of course paraphrasing here, as the conversation between myself and Gary happened back in May of 2001, but as Othello says, “men are men, the best sometimes forget.” I have a smattering of emails about the opening round of negotiations (saved and printed by Mac Golden), but nothing beyond that from the early days. 

 Once the full scope of the Gygaxian Series was pitched it became obvious that what he intended was an open-ended series of books, an encyclopedia of RPGs and world-building. The first of the books was written and had been burning a hole in his noddle plate for some time. He described The Canting Crew as a “generic book from start to finish” which stood out as a book for the underworld. Long before Gangs of New York was playing on the big screen, Gary had created a sourcebook of such scholarly material that it was as close to a history book of thieves and the underworld’s classless society in the 1600s than it was a fantasy sourcebook. From there he wanted to publish even more, pitching titles like World Builder, another he had written called Living Fantasy and World Builder, as well as a Nations and Fortress book.

In the end, after several days of back and forth in legal wrangling in which Gary insisted on TLG paying him less than offered, saying “generous as that is Steve, such a royalty will bankrupt you,” we settled and signed a contract for an open-ended series called Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds.

 Side note for the beleaguered reader: The Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds led to one of the few arguments between Gary and myself. I thought the name too cumbersome; no one would remember it or be able to say it. We were coming off of a hard sales lesson in which we learned that Malady of Kings outsold Dzeebagd almost 3-1 (or 4-1 I can’t recall now and have little interest in going to look up those ancient reports) because retailers couldn’t pronounce the title of Dzeebagd, so they ordered Malady. But Gary, calmly explained it was a must to have his name in there, and the derivation would work perfectly. He was, as I told him later and happily admit now, right.

 We eventually published seven books for the Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds, three more were in the works when our adventure with Gary abruptly ended in 2008. But now, that time has slipped past, and the books returned to the Dens, we get to reinvent them and bring them back. This series of World Building books should never have left the shelves now returns. This March they come to Kickstarter.

 The Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds is an open-ended series of world-building, game, and character design encyclopedias that eventually included seven published books. There were more in the works, three nearing completion and more in the concept phase when the license was pulled, but Gary saw no end to the series. Troll Lord Games began publishing them in 2001 and continued until shortly after Gary crossed the bar. The books were published in the order they were received and Gary had no particular order in mind. The published books, the ones that will people the Kickstarter this March, were as follows:

·        The Canting Crew

·         World Builder

·         Living Fantasy

·         The Extraordinary Book of Names

·         Insidae An Adventure Builder

·         Nation Builder

·         Cosmos Builder

 But what are they? What fills these esoteric tomes of knowledge? In the following posts we’ll take a slightly closer look at each of these amazing books.

Tales from the Dens

 

Two Up Front, One in the Bed

On our first trip to Vegas, we crossed the Arkansas River and hit I40 West sometime in the mid-morning. We crossed the forested hills of western Arkansas, passed across the border into the dry gulch country of Oklahoma, skirted the Staked Plains in Texas and New Mexico, climbed up the Colorado Plateau, and at last banked right and crossed the Hoover Dam slipped into the dry wasteland that lay around Las Vegas. It took us 24 odd hours of driving in a pickup truck with two up front and one in the bed.

I’m not going to swear to it, but I think it was Mac Golden (one of the three founders of Troll Lord Games) who early on pushed our attendance at the GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas. The consolidator Wizards Attic picked us up for distribution in 2000 and the trade show’s purpose was to introduce retailers to publishers, their wares, discounts, offerings, people, and other sundries. Mac of course couldn’t go, and Davis (the other of three partners) was out west on an archeological dig, so it fell to me. I enlisted Todd Gray to travel with me, even though he really wasn’t working for us in those days, and a good friend of mine Kenneth Neely joined for the fun of riding out to Vegas. Kenneth and I were veterans of meandering as we had annually traveled east to poke around the eastern seaboard back in the 90s.

 Flying wasn’t an option on the TLG budget, and no train takes you easily to Vegas from Little Rock, so driving was the way. There wasn’t really a debate. The black top calls and all that. What was discussed was how to fit the three of us in the cab of the truck, Old Blue as it affectionately became known in later years, comfortably for the 21 or so hours it would take us to get to the Orleans Hotel, that lay just off the strip.

 Our solution was wonderful, probably illegal, definitely dangerous, and rather funny. Old Blue came to me stripped down, very basic. My mom always says to me “you’re a pretty simple man” (I assume that’s a compliment, but perhaps not) and all my vehicles are fairly stripped out. I don’t care much for gadgets. At any rate, I had the back window knocked out and replaced with a sliding glass, purchased an aluminum camper shell that had a sliding glass in it, and mounted that on the rig. This little arrangement gave us access to the bed of the truck from the cab.

 We loaded our extremely heavy backdrop of 3 4x8 ¾ inch plywood carpeted panels into the truck. This elevated the bed a few inches, but there wasn’t much space to begin with, maybe 3 feet from bed to the top of the camper. We then slid my old army cot in on the right side, put the cooler next to it and tossed some pillows and a sleeping bag on the cot. The cooler of course was filled with food and Dr. Pepper. Todd has an old radio we put in there (later replaced with a small tv). We hung a small fluorescent light from the top of the camper shell. All the rest of the troll gear, racks, posters, books, etc. we piled around the cot and cooler. We ran a cord from the dashboard lighter through the two sliding glass windows, bringing power to the light and tv, all in the bed of the truck.

We were ready to roll. I believe Kenneth took the first leg in the rig, I took the second, and Todd later. It was an interesting way to travel. Two up front and one in the bed. There was no room to sit up back there, and it got cold crossing into the mountains west of Albuquerque and into Arizona, but overall it was comfortable. We closed the sliding glass windows as much as the cords would allow, so the cab could stay warm and the humming sound of the tires on the road wouldn’t crowd either party out of music or chatter.

 I remember my turn in the bed, stretching out in that cot, turning the light on, and tuning the radio into whatever local radio station we could pick up. In the back, it was a feeling of weightlessness. Laying there in the cot, warm in the sleeping bag, looking out the plexiglass window at a world dark on the landside but crowned by deeper shadows of mountains and stars a’plenty. The towns and houses in the plains and mountains shone that peculiar yellow-white light that they do at night, a light that always conjures images of a happy couple sitting in their easy chairs, between warm walls, feet soaked into shag carpet, enjoying some half interesting show on a tv with rabbit ears stretched high for the signal’s sake. I lay that way for hours, sleeping some, but watching mostly. Watching the world rumble by. The radio offered a nice distraction but picking up stations was challenging, as it would catch one, but within a few minutes we’d leave its range it would be gone, and the search would begin all over again.

 We drove that way to Vegas for at least four trips until we shifted to airplane travel and eventually abandoned the show altogether when times got lean and budgets had to be cut. But I can still feel the road on the cot and see that blackened horizon as we climb into the mountains like few others before us.

Monday, February 12, 2024

State of The Dens, 2024

Our commemorative 25/20 anniversary patch, courtesy of Nick Kirkland


First Note to the Afflicted Reader: the “Dens” references that warren of offices, in three countries and fives states, warehousing, and print shop that constitute Troll Lord Games: The Troll Dens. In short, the Dens.

pictured: The Troll Lord, circa '03
The last time I put out a State of the Dens was back in November of 2021, just over two years ago. I was beginning work on the Codex of the Planes, a pet project of mine. In my fevered mind there seems to be this strange wall of inertia that stands between the world pre-covid and the world after, a foggy confusion that makes both then and now seem unreal. At the time of my last State of the Dens the pandemic was in full swing, chaos lay across supply chains and distribution, everything seemed in flux as businesses and people chose or were forced to abandon old patterns, to adopt new ones or, at the very least, adjust to them.  Since it ended, whenever that was, much seems unmoored, listless, somehow disjointed and without purpose. The fog of confusion seems to cling to the shores of the here and now. However, Troll Lord Games, for me, remains a constant, a steady stream that tumbles past those cloudy shores growing ever wider, deeper, and swifter as it flows onward. 

Below is a rambling State of the Dens to let you all know where we are, where we are going, and other sundries. If you don’t want to read it all, The SHORT gives you a brief synopsis. For those hungry for detail, The LONG is for you. I will do this with minimal references to UFOs or Cheeseburgers, though I cannot promise their complete absence.

The SHORT    

TLG has experienced amazing growth in the past half decade, each year outdoing the last. Last year, 2023, beat them all. WOTC threatened to pull the OGL, so we pulled it for them. New employees: Jeremy Farkas as Production Assistant and Grace Carras as Social Media Manager. Finley Clayton has joined us as an editor. AA out this spring. 10th printing of the C&C PHB out this summer. All without OGL. Gygax contracts awarded including Castle Zagyg. Codex of the Planes coming by year’s end.

The LONG    

Vino's: Where it all began
Vinos is a great pizza dive on the edge of the downtown in Little Rock Arkansas. An old building, leaning
a little in on itself houses a host of tables set on an uneven floor that plays host to some of the best, if not the best, pizza in Little Rock. It’s there, 25 years ago, that I joined Mac and Davis* to form a game company. A half dozen slices, some beer and Dr. Pepper, and enthused conversation manifested Troll Lord Games. It has been a wild ride from that pizza to this desk. A lot has changed in 25 years. Some has remained the same.

Second Note to the Afflicted Reader: Troll Lord Games was founded by Mac Golden, Davis Chenault, and myself, Stephen Chenault. Mac left the company in and around ’03, but remains a vital part of almost every conversation. Todd Gray came on board to replace him.

25/20    

We launched with Swords and Sorcery, a game developed by Mac and Davis, a smattering of adventures and the world of Aihrde Setting. Mac signed us up for a little company called PayPal and another one that was gaining traction, Amazon. We were picked up for distribution, James Mishler the buyer for ACD, starting us on that road. We joined forces with Gary Gygax in 2000 and worked with him until he died and his wife for a few months after until she pulled the licenses. Peter Bradley joined us in 2003 and quickly took over direction of art and layout. In 2004 Castles & Crusades became a thing, launching long before any retro-clones, OSR or other games. It was then and remains the Rosetta Stone of D&D style RPGs. In 2005, after a horrible bruising with a small print on demand printer, which cost the company far more than the value it added, at Davis’ urging we invested in a print shop which took on the name of the Troll Den. We founded our own conventions in those years, three to be precise. We printed the 2nd and 3rd printings of the Players Handbook. Re-launched Aihrde, dabbled in board games, a dice game, and expanded the overall to include the long-anticipated Castle Keepers Guide. On that last we passed on using a new service that had just surfaced: Kickstarter. It seemed too outlandish. Amazing Adventures joined the family with Jason Vey. We expanded the print in 2010 to include hardcovers and worked that for a year before abandoning it. A 4th and 5th printing hit the streets, with a 2nd and 3rd of the M&T. We expanded the line with the Mythos series, and a small host of adventures and supplements. Cards joined the pile of treasure. A 6th printing hit the streets and a 2nd of the CKG.

Gygax and the Troll Lord, circa '03? '04? How time flies.

Troubles we had a plenty. The d20 collapse in ’05 nearly destroyed the company and it was saved by two things: Gary Gygax’s Gygaxian Fantasy World series and little known to anyone, and I can safely talk about it now, a direct infusion of cash by Aldo Ghiozi of Impressions fame. “I’m going under, Aldo. I don’t think we can hold on.” “How much do you need?” The company lived on. Davis joined Mac in leaving and left me, Peter and Mark Sandy. Recovering from that through the growth of C&C we took another massive hit after Gary’s passing and the licenses were pulled. The light went out for a while but I patched it together after much encouragement from Kathy.* Mark left in 2017, bringing the print shop to a slow crawl, forcing Todd Gray and myself to step in.

Third Note to the Afflicted Reader: Despite what my Facebook page says I’ve been married to Kathy since 1997, she has stood tirelessly behind TLG. Without her, this would not be.

Castles & Crusades carried TLG after the Gygax licenses were surrendered. It carried it then as it does now. When the 7th printing hit, TLG’s growth began to pick up.* Sales accelerated. Print runs deepened. Workloads increased. We brought on Chuck Cumbow to augment a growing number of contract laborers who kept us full steam.

Fourth Note to the Afflicted Reader: Mac hired Jason Walton to do the covers and a great deal of art for our first run of books in 2000. We have worked with Jason since those days, and still work with him now. Jason and I have been a constant presence since the very beginning. His 7th printing cover lit that printing on fire and drove sales like never before.

The 7th gave us impetus to redesign the line, the third or fourth overhaul (check our Pinterest account for all the covers of the various printings), but this time we went all in. New covers from both Peter and Jason, all new art, new layout, new design. A whole new trade dress designed by Tom Tullis.

Fifth Note to the Afflicted Reader: The least known of all the Troll Lords, Tom Tullis of Fat Dragon Games. Outside of the Dens, aside from Aldo, it is to Tom I turn to for advice, help, and whatever the Troll Lord may need. If asked, he may deny his troll-lordness, but it is what it is, whether he wills it or not!

The 8th printing rolled out and sales exploded. It sold so fast that we announced the 9th printing in very short order. Deciding to push the limit and really desiring to focus on the Codex of the Planes, we printed the 9th printing deep. We coupled this with a revised 5th printing of the M&T and a 4th printing of the CKG. At last comfortable in the knowledge that we had at least 2 years supply of books we turned our full attention to new projects: the Armory book, Planes Book, overhauling Amazing Adventures and other various and sundries. 

The OGL    

Here a third party stepped in and decided that they would have none of that. Wizards of the Coast announced they were pulling the OGL 1.0a and creating a new one. This news broke over everyone but me. I tried to ignore it, but sometimes the wizard just casts the fireball without thinking, without regard to who or what they are going to burn. At last, later in the day, I agonizingly stopped work on the Codex of the Planes and joined Davis and Chuck, entering the firestorm. Within a few hours Davis jumped on a vid meeting and we very quickly decided we were pulling the OGL from the game. The decision was one that circulated from time to time, particularly after D&D 4th edition when they tried something similar. But at the end of the day, it was time to unmoor our game from their game. Their game was becoming ever more complex and ours was not. Twenty years and no added fuss? We are all immensely proud of that.

With the decision to pull from the OGL on the table, work on the Codex of the Planes was reluctantly set aside and work on the PHB 10th printing began. It was slow at first, but by late spring was picking up speed, to the point it is almost completed and gearing up for a release this spring. The changes are mostly names and rewrites. The game stays the same. Spell affects the same. Abilities the same. Just the window dressing. It is long overdue to be honest. 

Into all this, I instituted our first major change in how the company was/is being run. My nephew, Dakota McMurry had been attending Gary Con for years. I asked him to take over all booth operations, and after he accepted, hired Grace Carras to help him. She promised me a stellar crew to help her and delivered. Grace had been doing readings for us on the TLG twitch channel and was very familiar with the Codex of Aihrde, the world and all that it involved, having read it in full at least once on air. Chuck focused on getting us more events, landing over 60 at the show. All these changes altered the chemistry of our booth, making it the most successful Gary Con for TLG since Gary Cons beginning.

TLG and the Booth Crew: GaryCon '23

But all this did nothing to slacken sales. The 9th printing dwindled and continues to dwindle to the point that we are now threatened with being out of PHBs before the 10th lands. The CKG and M&T are right behind. The Adventurers Backpack too. 

Into this mix of chaos and schedule restructuring came the ghost of Gary Gygax. If you take a moment and look at our yearly Christmas Cards, you’ll notice that starting in 2008 there is a ghostly apparition on our cards. It is a homage I asked Jason Walton to put there to our friend and business partner. That spirit manifested in the summer when TLG took up publishing Gary’s material once again. At first limited, but with promises of more, the return of Gygaxian material created a whole new current in our widening stream. Now of course, with the expansion of the Castle Zagyg line, awarded in January of this year, it is an even greater, wider current.

New Faces    

All of this has led to some wonderful changes here and an expansion of the trolls in the Dens like never before.

In the middle of summer months of ’23 the work load became too great, everyone here was swamped and falling ever more behind. We turned to Jeremy Farkas. Jeremy was well known to us from his own publishing, but also having been part of the Gary Con crew and a frequent visitor on our twitch shows. Jeremy was at first promised a few hours a week and given the I series to work on. That series was woefully abandoned and needed cleaning up. He finished his work so fast that we piled more work on him and them more. His job now includes OGL overhaul, line production, content management, rules quality (where he must argue his points with my fevered brain) some writing, editing and other tasks as needed. If not full time, he is close and will soon be.

Jeremy Farkas, the overqualified Troll


Sixth Note to the Afflicted Reader: Jeremy has published his own game, Swords and Chaos using the Siege Engine from C&C and possesses a wealth of knowledge about C&C, the OGL, games in general and publishing.

Grace Carras: a poet and a Troll
As all our attention remained focused on the line, I noticed a deafening silence in the public arena. Tim Burns, who handled all our marketing for many years, had stepped away and left a huge gap in the company’s operations. This was obvious to anyone watching, and everyone here, but was particularly noticeable during Christmas. We announced our 12 days of Christmas once in the first 10 days or so, and aside from a few twitter posts didn’t mention it again. Our public sphere, aside from Davis’ twitter ramblings, was dying a fast and rapid death. Turning to one of the driving forces behind the Gary Con success I reached out to Grace Carras and offered her the job of Social Media Manager. After a nail biting few days, she accepted the job and joined the Dens, taking over Instagram, Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, emails, newsletter and wherever else she feels we need a presence.

Seventh Note to the Afflicted Reader: Grace and I had worked on several projects outside of her twitch readings and Gary Con. Most notably her rendition of Tin Cup Tom, an Aihrdian Nursery Rhyme I wrote and she put to music. It is about 1 in the A.M. as I write this and I cannot find that file, as I wanted to listen to it while I typed away. Sadly, everyone is asleep and no one answers the night owl Troll when he asks random questions.

Finn Clayton: the distinguished Troll

Others were added to the roster. Finley Clayton has come on as editor and writer. It is my intent to have him overhaul the Mythos line. Coming from a Medieval studies background with a focus on Norse history and myths, he is more than able to do so. William Edmunds too has joined the crew, recreating the maps for all our many publications. 


As the crew grows, so does the prospects for the future.

Ghosts of Future Trolls    
The company has grown at a fair, steady pace. The C&C line is much larger and will soon be free of the OGL. Amazing Adventures is set for a new release in the coming months. The Gygaxian Fantasy World series, that set of books that saved TLG from Valhalla’s Game halls, returns this March. Gary’s whole Zagyg world lands back where he left it. The mythos line begins its overhaul. Jason and I will hammer out the Exaltum and Inferno books. Davis will turn his attention to Inzae, his own world.

It is going to be a busy year. A very busy year.

Gary Gygax, circa '07

The Gygax line offers the most interesting challenge and one we are quickly working toward conquering. It has always been our hope to see the return of Gygax’s properties to Troll Lord Games. It is where he left them when he crossed the bar and where he wanted them. Because of that it is my hope that we can pick back up where he left off. Work has already begun to put the old band back together. All those people that Gary was working with on Yggsburgh and the castle and other projects, we have begun reaching out to. If Gary approved them, then we most certainly will. To that end we have hired Michael Stewart to headline the writing, Luke Gygax will join him and Jason Vey, Jeremy and Davis as needed. We have also, as of about 3 hours ago (as I’m writing this), hired Dan Cross to manage the massive line of GFW and CZ books, close to 40 so far. Dan will be an immense help, having worked closely with Gary in the past and being an accomplished game designer himself.

As the clock winds toward 2 AM it is past time for this wandering State of the Dens to close. It has been an exciting year, exciting several years truthfully. Years filled with ups and downs, frustrations, rages, triumphs and joy, all the maundered mixtures that make up life and make it worth living, giving weight to my own credo, “the fight is what matters, not the ending.”  And I want to thank everyone who has supported us these past 25 years. Your support has made all this possible and with you at our table, the possibilities are endless. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart. Thank you. 

Also, I would be remiss if I did not thank all the Troll Lords, those who have been with us since the beginning and those who have just joined us. The team here is amazing, in all their joyful chaos and rambling lunacy, they are amazing. Thank you all. 

Now, with all that being said, and the host of interruptions, good and bad, safely tucked in with dreams of sugar cane, and confident that all projects are in good hands, like a sleepwalker lost in a haze of comic book bubbles, I return to the outer planes, to Tartarus I believe, where last I set my metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper.

Where the magic happens


Monday, February 05, 2024

I Want to Believe

The UFO, or UAP as they call it now, is an interesting phenomenon and a personal one for me. 

At least once a year, and usually more often than that, something triggers my interest and I circle back around to it. I devour some literature, scour the internet, head over to the MUFON page to see what they are up to, watch some videos that the Pentagon puts out (which seems to be far too often for anyone's comfort), or, and as often as not, end up plopped in my chair in front of the flat screen watching old episodes of the X-Files.

When we ponder all the avenues we have to adventure, to explore, to wander, and seek out...avenues from soldiering to backpacking...the UFO hunter seems, somehow the most glamorous. Chasing lights in the sky, unriddling the government's motives and agendas, traveling about the wastelands looking for debris, and talking to people who truly believe. What more could you ask?

I'm about due for a trip to New Mexico I think.

Memories from the Office of a Game Publisher – Office Space

Everywhere I look across social media I seem to be encountering two things. Economic news about the pending commercial real estate collapse,...