Reading Roundup: 2022

Of the dozen or so books I read this year, I recommend the following seven. Four were published this year; two I was catching up on; and one of them was published five centuries ago.

1. The Critical Qur’an: Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research. Robert Spencer, 2022. This is the Qur’an I keep close at hand now for ready reference. To describe it, imagine a certain translation of the Bible (say the RSV) that is footnoted with textual variants, theological commentary from Christian authorities spanning antiquity to the present, and also modern historical-critical commentary. The Critical Qur’an is a tool like that, and one that we’ve needed for a long time. Spencer’s book offers four features that are impossible to find elsewhere in a single volume: (1) Variant readings: It’s one of the first Qur’anic commentaries, if not the very first, to provide variant readings from different manuscripts, in the same way that variant readings are found in most study Bibles for the Tanakh and New Testament. (2) Tafsir commentary: Citations from mainstream Muslim exegetes (the tafsir) are provided, spanning the 8th to 21st centuries. This is highly valuable since all these theologians and jurists are held to be authoritative, and their commentary allows the reader to understand how the Qur’anic texts have been, and continue to be, understood in mainstream Islam. (3) Critical commentary: Citations from academic scholars shed light on the textual evolution of the Qur’an. (4) Clarity: This Qur’an clarifies difficult or troublesome passages, for example like the many exhortations to jihad; the words is usually translated as “strive hard” in the way of Allah — which is legitimate, since “jihad” means “strive” or “struggle” — but the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic theology is warfare against unbelievers. Importantly, the suras are explained in view of the doctrine of abrogation (the late suras of Medina supersede or take precedence over the early suras of Mecca) and that if there is any one sura that has the “final say” in mainstream Islam, it’s sura 9. This easily tops my list; see here for a full review.

2. Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. Jacob Mchangama, 2022. Absolutely required reading — a history of the world seen through the lens of free expression. I’m surprised no one thought to write a book like this before. Even free-speech gurus will learn much from it; I certainly did. Its thesis is twofold, first that free speech almost always sets in motion a process of entropy — even its most passionate defenders want exceptions made (based on what offends them), while others ultimately can’t resist the censoring impulse. Second, that free speech culture is as important as the legal apparatus of free speech — perhaps even more so. Without the former, the latter is doomed to dissolve; the abundant examples of history make this clear. Thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, John Stuart Mill, and George Orwell warned about society’s tendencies to impose conformity apart from the government, and that unwelcome ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without an official ban. This is history as it should be written, in a clear arresting framework. At every point you want to keep going, to see how societies never learn their lesson. Full review in three parts: one, two, three.

3. Castaways. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, 1542 (English translation: 1993). Written by a Spanish explorer, this journal is a wealth of anthropological information about Native American tribes that are unattested anywhere else. It’s a fantastic read on its own right, and certainly the best book I’ve ever read about the conquistador era. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca lived among the coastal natives of Texas for six and a half years (Nov 1528 – May 1535) and then among the natives of Mexico for about a year (May 1535 – March 1536), and it’s incredible that he survived to leave us the details. He was naked for the full eight years, freezing during the cold seasons, and often lived on a diet of spiders, worms, and cacti. It’s no surprise that from the original expedition of 600 Spaniards, only he and three others survived (the only surprise being that any of them survived), mostly by being accepted among the various native tribes as witch-doctors who performed faith-healings. For a man of his times Álvar Núñez was admirable: a proud evangelical who came to accept the natives mostly on their own terms, and who was enraged when he finally reconnected to Spanish civilization in Mexico and found that his countrymen wanted to make war on the natives and enslave them. Full review here.

4. Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons. Ben Riggs, 2022. If you really want the dirt on TSR, this is the book to read. My biggest takeaways: (1) “Saint” Gary Gygax was no saint, and he often lied about his supposed powerlessness and ignorance. Not only was he aware of TSR’s disastrous errors, he participated in them as they were happening. (2) Lorraine Williams was even less admirable, notwithstanding the author’s attempts to reconsider her legacy. After Gary hired her to manage the company in 1985, she managed a hostile takeover of sorts, forcing Gary out of the company by the end of the year. (Though Gary has largely himself to blame for being victimized here.) The biggest problem with Lorraine is that she wasn’t a gamer, disdained gamers (didn’t consider them social equals), treated her staff like shit, and as a result had a hard time holding onto talented writers. Genius designers kept leaving TSR for greener pastures. (3) By the middle of ’95, TSR owed its distributor Random House almost 12 million dollars, and Random House was demanding that most of this debt be paid off within two years. This was the culmination of a ponzi scheme that had been in place, going all the way back to ’79 (in Gary’s day), whereby Random House paid TSR for the products TSR gave it to distribute, whether those products sold or not. There is more here. Old-school gamers will definitely enjoy (?) this book.

5. Islam and Nazi Germany’s War. David Motadel, 2014. This won the Wiener Library Ernst Fraenkel prize, but it somehow never got on my radar until this year. It’s a study of how Nazi Germany used the Islamic religion to expand its influence and wage war. “Scholars have paid less attention to this phenomenon that one might imagine”, writes the author, and though I always knew of the Nazi-Islam bonding during World War II, I didn’t know nearly enough of the sordid details, for example that Germany’s accommodating policies with the Islamic world go all the way back to the late 1800s. The book’s thesis is that Berlin’s engagement with Islam in 1941-45 was at least as extensive as in 1914-18, if not more so. Motadel examines the way Nazi Germany promoted Islam, and the ramifications of that alliance in terms of both race/ethnicity and religion/ideology. Hitler devalued Christianity while extolling Islam; for him Christianity was soft, artificial, and weak, while Islam was a strong and a practical faith, and much more suited to the Germanic spirit. In the table talks he expressed regret over the victory of Charles Martel in 732 CE, saying that if Martel hadn’t been victorious, then the Germans would have been converted to Islam, which would have allowed the Germanic races to conquer the world. It’s intriguing that Hitler believed Islam was a superior religion, but that its Arab adherents were an inferior race. That second part was a problem for the Reich, no matter how diligently their propaganda machines tried papering over it (by upholding white supremacy in “Muslim-friendly” ways). This book is utterly fascinating and the research behind it impeccable. Full review here.

6. The Jazz-Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding. Ryan S. Walters, 2022. I can’t think of a better way to honor the 100th anniversary of Harding’s presidency. I rate him the second best president of all time for all the reasons Walters covers in his book. Harding slashed taxes and government spending, started a booming economy, and achieved world peace through international cooperation instead of war-mongering. He went to bat for African Americans, even going so far as to address a crowd in the deep south (Birmingham, Alabama) at a time when Jim Crow laws were in full swing: he insisted on the need for equal rights for blacks, many of whom listened to the speech behind a segregated barrier. He urged the passing of anti-lynching legislation, appointed liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices, and pardoned hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly criminalized by Woodrow Wilson during the first world war. To this day, Harding is remembered for almost none of this. After he died the scandals of his administration were uncovered — scandals that were no worse than those that plagued many other presidential administrations, and Harding didn’t even participate or gain anything from them. But for bizarre reasons, historians continue to exaggerate them. Read this book (as well as my Rescuing a Reputation) and allow the real Harding to overthrow the demonized Harding.

7. The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History. Dale Allison, 2021. Like Allison I aspire to be led to my conclusions, not led by them, and this book is a model of such aspiration. In 400 pages it reworks and hugely expands on the 177-page essay from Resurrecting Jesus (2005), and amounts to the best treatment of Jesus’s (alleged) resurrection that I know of. It covers a lot of interesting ground, the most interesting being the arguments for the empty tomb; those arguments have been revised for both better and worse, though the overall conclusion remains intact. I reviewed those particular arguments (from chapters 6 and 8) here, but the whole book is worth going through. There’s a chapter, for example, on the rainbow body phenomenon in Buddhist thought (disappearing bodies), and parallels between stories of people who achieve the rainbow body and the stories of Jesus’s resurrection. Allison mines the fields of psychology and parapsychology in accounting for how humanity copes with bereavement and dead loved ones, while steering clear of any reductionist explanations. With regards to the empty tomb, I think he makes a plausible case both for and against, and I agree with him that the scales tip slightly — ever so slightly — in favor of Jesus’s body being gone from the tomb on Easter morning. Though what that means or implies is still anyone’s guess.

Modules from Dragon that have aged well

Last year I did my Dungeon Magazine picks, and now it’s time for the best modules from Dragon magazine. I came up with nine. Rereading them gave me an itch to play again; they’re even better than I remember.

1. The Dancing Hut, by Roger Moore. Issue #83, March 1984. Levels 10-14. In the halls of RPG infamy, The Dancing Hut stands proudly alongside Tomb of Horrors and Dol Guldur as impossible challenges. Like the demi-lich Acererak and the Nazgul Khamul, the witch Baba Yaga is for all practical purposes invincible. If you run into her, you don’t stand a chance of surviving (unless you come as a very polite supplicant); the way to survive her is by avoiding her. There are 48 rooms inside her hut, some as big as palace halls, many of which can deliver a TPK in a few rounds. Baba Yaga is aware of what is going on in almost every room at any time (through scrying), is free to teleport around at will and bring enough of her minions to slaughter those whom she deems a threat. As for why anyone would venture into the hut, the module supplies some hooks. The PCs may want a magical artifact owned by the witch. More likely they need to stop the bitch from terrorizing the country-side and kidnapping kids for her midnight supper. Baba Yaga never plants her hut in the same place for long. The hut travels far and wide (across planes, let alone vast distances) and rests somewhere deep in a forest or a sparsely populated region. Animals in a five-mile radius instinctively flee in terror, and people living in a ten-mile radius had best not let their kids out of sight. The Dancing Hut inspired a novel I wrote, and it’s my favorite Dragon module by far.

2. Death of an Arch-Mage, by Michael Selinker. Issue #111, July 1986. Levels 7-9. I love murder mysteries in RPGs, the masterpiece being Traveller’s Murder on Arcturus Station (1983). Some are let-downs, however, like the D&D classic The Assassin’s Knot (1983). Dragon issue #111 finally provided an excellent whodunnit for the D&D game. It occurs at a wealthy mansion and has a precise 4-hour time limit that plays out in real time; it has an ongoing plot line that unfolds with specific events going on in the house as the PCs conduct their investigation. The key to running this module is that the DM must have at his fingertips every detail the characters may never receive. Fortunately, the module presents all the detail wonderfully. A wealthy arch-mage has been murdered in his own home, and there are six suspects. Two of them will appear very likely ones; the actual murderer less so, depending on how shrewd the players are. There’s a thoroughly detailed timeline specifying what all the NPCs are doing in the house between 8:00 AM-12:00 PM (the period the PCs have to solve the mystery). I used this module in southern Middle-Earth, in the city of Korlan, and changed some of the NPCs to reflect the triangular politics of the Koranande, Tanturak, and Mumakan regions. Put simply, this is the absolute go-to module if you want a D&D murder mystery, one that demands intelligent players, and one that has every potential to end on a lethal showdown.

3. The Temple of Poseidon, by Paul Reiche. Issue #46, February 1981. Levels 7-9. The year 1981 was the peak of D&D’s golden age, and so it’s no surprise that three of my nine favorite Dragon modules come from that year (the others are at #5 and #7). This one is thoroughly indebted to the pulps. In another couple of years it would be hard if not impossible to come by D&D modules like this — Tom Moldvay’s The Lost City (1982) and Gygax’s The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (1982) were the last of such efforts. The influence of Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft can be felt in every room of Reiche’s dungeon. It starts with earthquakes rocking a coastal area, unnatural births occurring, and farmers finding their farm animals crucified and left on their front porches. This leads the PCs to investigate the nearby underground Temple of Poseidon. The dungeon starts out as one thing and then takes a hard left into horror and insanity (like Tharizdun), meaning that PCs will think they have it hard enough dealing with the Poseidon temple, until they realize the temple has been built over something horrifically worse. The worse — the priesthood of Ythog-Nthlei — has wiped out the Poseidon cultists, and are now preparing for their Cthulhu-like deity’s release. A grade-A module with dangerous combat, creative traps and puzzles, and more than enough weirdness (like a conniving and manipulative efreeti)… put simply, this is the best dungeon crawl that Dragon ever published.

4. Aesirhamar, by Roger Moore. Issue #90, September 1984. Levels 9-12. I may rank it fourth, but of all the Dragon modules this is the one I got the most mileage from. (And was Roger Moore on a roll in ’84, or what? First Baba Yaga and now the Norse gods.) In addition to the Aesirhamar adventure module itself, Moore wrote a preface article that maps the outer plane of Gladsheim like a mini-gazetteer. The Norse pantheon was my favorite back in the day, and so this issue of Dragon became something of an obsession — my most heavily used issue, worn and torn within weeks. I dreamed of going to Gladsheim. The adventure involves a war hammer as powerful as Thor’s Mjölnir, forged by a dwarf at the behest of a vengeful giant who wants to kill Thor. (The giant is an entertaining villain named Hargnar Left-Hand, fond of quoting the proverb, “Two eyes for an eye, with a rock through the head as well.”) The Aesir gods get wind of the weapon’s existence and decide to recruit some powerful mortals (the PCs) to retrieve the weapon before it falls into the hands of the giants. I never ran this particular adventure though; I came up with a far nastier plot in the Jotunheim mountains involving the precipitation of Ragnarok itself — it was quite an adventure. Roger Moore’s vision of Gladsheim is one that has stayed with me for many years.

5. The Chapel of Silence, by Mollie Plants. Issue #50, June 1981. Levels 2-3. A creative module — and a rather terrifying one — for beginners. Once a chapel dedicated to benign deities, it’s now been revived by a cult led by a vampire. Yes, the module is for 2nd-3rd level characters, but if the PCs are shrewd, they will find a certain magic item that enables them to kill the vampire. And believe it or not, the vampire is actually the secondary danger; halfway through the chapel the PCs will in all likelihood be struck dumb with such terror that they won’t be able speak for the rest of the adventure (until they put a couple of souls to rest at the very end). That makes for an interesting dynamic, as players won’t be allowed to communicate with each other vocally; they have to use gestures or pictures, or by writing things down which takes time. There are all sorts of terrors waiting in this chapel — paintings of beings that come to life and attack, undead lairs, and more. I wish I’d gotten use out of it back in the day.

6. The House in the Frozen Lands, by James Adams. Issue #110, June 1986. Levels 4-8. For my money, this is one of the best “hostile takeover” modules ever designed for an RPG. (The very best is the abbey in X4: Master of the Desert Nomads.) A matriarchal cult (the Sept of Infamy) has taken over a teaching house (the Scholia). The scholars and priests of the house have either been imprisoned (in a mirror of life trapping), tortured, raped, and/or enslaved — save for one of them, who prowls the house (wearing a ring of invisibility), though he’s a pacifist who refuses to harm any of the cultists as they damn well deserve. The house is way out in an arctic wilderness, and so no one knows about the terror that has fallen on these poor scholars, including the PCs, who are on their way to get a rude surprise. The dynamic that drives the adventure is top-notch, as the PCs work their way through the Scholia, rescuing those they can while learning the best way to overcome the terrorists — the worst of them being a mage/were-tiger (the lead matriarch and full-blown sadist), a fanatical priest, an illusionist, two female warrior twins, and a male warrior. It’s a suspenseful module demanding brains as much as combat ability, as well as the skills of many character classes (ranger, thief, fighter, magic-user, cleric), and one that I’d love to run again.

7. The Garden of Nefaron, by Howard de Wied. Issue #53, September 1981. Levels 7-10. This one punishes good-aligned PCs (even compromising their alignments) while rewarding evil ones — a big plus right off the bat. The premise involves the trapped soul of a high-level mage-warrior (Malakon) possessing ruthless psionic abilities. The thing is, Malakon’s soul was trapped long ago by an alliance and his cage is still secure and guarded by wards and powerful spells (as well as by a ki-rin). He’s as powerless as ever, and so there’s no need to venture into the dungeon and try to destroy the psychogem that has him trapped (an exceedingly difficult task in any case). The party is misled — by a damaged scroll that reveals only fragments of information — into thinking that Malakon or his spirit is somehow responsible for evil shenanigans going in a village by a forest, and so they venture into the dungeon where he was imprisoned. To kill Malakon permanently requires destroying the psychogem that holds his soul while also preventing him from possessing any of the PCs and gaining his freedom. It’s a horribly difficult task set in a ruthless dungeon that abuses the players’ trust left and right. It’s fantastic.

8. Citadel by the Sea, by Sid Fisher. Issue #78, October 1983. Levels 1-3. The premise to this one may seem a bit mundane: orcs have taken over the ruins of an old fort, and they are searching for a spear that allows an orc to wield mighty power. It’s the plot that elevates Citadel by the Sea and makes it a favorite among Dragon readers: the orcs are led by a half-orc disguised as a human archeologist who is “friendly” to the nearby town full of superstitious people, half of whom who have fled their homes. Everyone is convinced (thanks to the “archaeologist”) that a plague is coming out of the old ruins, and that the plague was caused by elves. The townspeople will distrust any elvish PCs as a result. The half-orc wants to find the spear-artifact and become king of the orcs, and make the orcs a mighty and feared race once again. The fun of the adventure is learning exactly what’s going on as the PCs descend deeper into the dungeon of the old ruins.

9. The City Beyond the Gate, by Robert Schroeck. Issue #100, August 1985. Levels 9-12. Every once in a great, great while you can get away with bastardizing D&D, if you know what you’re doing. Gary Gygax did it in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, giving us robots and laser guns on a crashed spaceship. It shouldn’t have worked but it did. The centennial issue of Dragon does something similar. There are no spaceships or robots, but 20th-century planet Earth qualifies as science fiction by D&D standards. There’s even a flowchart modeled on Barrier Peak’s die rolls for PCs to figure out how alien technology works — guns, cars, computer terminals, flashlights, etc. The PCs’ mission is to find a magical artifact (The Mace of St. Cuthbert), which has been hidden on our prime material plane, and put on display in a London museum in the year 1985. So it becomes a fishbowl experience as the PCs bustle about London and run afoul the law, for the medieval weapons they carry and the outrageous way they’re dressed… and for who knows what kind of hell they end up raising in our world.

James Maliszewski’s List of Imaginary Settings

Over on Grognardia, James Maliszewski lists his favorite imaginary settings, whether they are RPG worlds or strictly literary ones. You can read his commentary in the first post (numbers 10-6) and the second post (numbers 5-1), which add up to the following ranking:

1. The Third Imperium
2. Tekumel
3. Glorantha
4. Lankhmar
5. Zothique
6. The Dying Earth
7. The Hyborian Age
8. The Known Worlds of Fading Suns
9. Barsoom
10. Middle Earth

James got me thinking about my own favorite settings, and I’ve ranked them below. Seven have been designed specifically for RPGs, and one of them (#4) has inspired an RPG setting, so, like James, my heart is clearly game oriented when I think of alternate worlds.

1. Middle-Earth. Of course it’s my favorite: the world of Tolkien’s source material and also how it was developed in ICE’s gaming modules. Those modules (published from 1982-1999) weren’t made for D&D specifically, but I had no trouble adapting them. There’s a lot about Middle-Earth that sails over the casual reader’s head. It’s grounded in the “long defeat” theme — the ultimate powerlessness of good over evil — meaning that when good does triumph it’s a just holding action; worse is to come. Magic is subdued in this world, and (after the First Age anyway), the gods seldom involve themselves directly. The lands are in a constant state of fading, or “lowering” their fantasy context with the passage of time. It’s the most genius imaginary creation, with cultures, languages, and history so detailed it doesn’t seem like fantasy; and in fact it was intended by Tolkien as a prehistory to our own world and so it resonates with a realism that’s hard to come by in high fantasy. The folks at ICE fleshed out Tolkien’s labors with scholarship of their own, especially in exploring lands to the south, and it was a sad day for me when Tolkien Enterprise took away their license.

2. Tekumel. I’m new to this setting, coming to it just this year under a grim cloud: the exposure of M.A.R. Barker’s neo-Nazi beliefs. It seems too bizarre to be true. Barker studied for a long time in India, converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad, and became of a Professor of South Asian Languages. He created Tekumel, the first gaming world not based on a European white setting. It’s populated by brown people and their cultures are based on Middle-Eastern and Eastern models. How on earth could this guy be a white supremacist? But then looking into it more, I saw that it’s not as surprising as you might imagine, considering the strong link between Islam and Nazi Germany’s war. In any case, I’ve never had a problem separating artists from their socio-political views; I wouldn’t be able to appreciate much art if I did. And Barker was a genius. After only months of pouring over the Tekumel setting, I join Maliszewski unreservedly in calling it the second best imaginary setting of all time. Like Middle-Earth, it’s detailed and complex, especially regarding the cultures and languages. It’s basically a Middle-Earth grounded in Indian, Middle-Eastern, and Meso-American mythologies.

3. Mystara. I always played AD&D, not Basic, but I liked the setting for Basic much better than Greyhawk. The Isle of Dread was the first module I read in full and prepared as a DM (not Keep on the Borderlands, which was the first module I played under the DM’ing of a friend), and so for me, Mystara, or the “Known World”, was there from the start; it was my official D&D sandbox. When the gazetteers started coming out, I was in hog heaven. The nations are medieval European analogs of our own world and so it feels real: the Thyatian Empire = the Byzantine, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos = southeastern Europe, the Principalities of Glantri = western Europe ruled by wizard-princes, the Ethengar Khanate = the Mongols, the Republic of Darokin = the mercantile states of medieval Italy, the Emirates of Ylaruam = the Middle East, the Northern Reaches of Ostland/Vestland/Soderfjord = Scandinavia, plus regions for the dwarves, elves, and halflings. There’s nothing artificial about it like Greyhawk, and I still consider Mystara the most ideal setting for D&D campaigns.

4. Averoigne. If Elric of Melniboné is the best pulp fantasy hero, the world of Averoigne is the best pulp fantasy setting. I’ve known Averoigne primarily through the D&D module Castle Amber. As a teen way back in 1981, I went there as a mage, and had to keep my spells under wraps lest I fell prey to the inquisition. In the module Averoigne is lifted right from the stories of Clark Ashton Smith: a province in a parallel world similar to medieval France, but where magic is real and considered to be an evil pagan practice. Clerics (priests and bishops) don’t cast spells, and spell casters in general are viewed with suspicion and subject to arrest by the church authorities. It’s an analog of the province of Auvergne in particular, with the capital Vyones standing for Clermont (where the First Crusade was preached), Ximes for St. Flour, etc. Of course, Smith wrote his stories long before D&D was a thing, between 1930-1941, but he may as well have been gazing into the late ’70s and early ’80s. Averoigne is practically a blueprint for a D&D campaign setting, and I can’t stress enough how inspiring Smith’s tales are. I’ve read some of them many times — The Holiness of Azédarac, The Beast of Averoigne, and The Maker of Gargoyles being my top favorites.

5. The Land. It’s not the most D&D-friendly setting, but The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were a milestone for me. By rights, this entry probably deserves to be higher, considering the impact on my imagination in my formative years, second only to Middle-Earth. Especially the Second Chronicles. The First established a vibrant Land with natural magic — Earthpower everywhere, in the trees, rivers, hills, and stone. In the second trilogy, Donaldson nuked the Land we love so dearly, with one of the most creative and nasty evils I’ve read in a work of fiction: the Sunbane, a corruption of Earthpower, affected by blood sacrifice, inflicting the Land with 3-day cycles of (a) a desert sun (evaporating all water and vegetation everywhere for three days), (b) a fertile sun (causing vegetation to grow fast, but the vegetation is in tortured pain), (c) a rain sun (causing relentless cold and windy storms), and (d) a pestilent sun (causing rot and decay, water to go bad, and swarms of poison insects to attack). How Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery manage to heal the Land is among the most epic tales of fantasy literature.

6. Newhon. Though I agree with Maliszewski that Lankhmar City is its crown jewel, the entire world of Newhon inspires me. I love the City of Ghouls, and the Sinking Lands in particular, and have used variants of the latter in more than one setting. But there’s no denying the primacy of Lankhmar, the greatest city ever imagined in any work of fantasy — a vile cesspit, corrupt at every level, a place where you have to worry about being backstabbed (literally and figuratively) at every turn. I was delighted when TSR began publishing the Lankhmar resources in the mid-’80s, especially since this was a turbulent time when Dragonlance was changing the face of D&D for the worse. I dreamed a lot about Nehwon as a teen, and being sent on the same kind of ludicrous missions Fafhrd and Mouser suffered under their wizard patrons, Ningauble and Sheelba. Even though Elric is the supreme pulp hero, and Averoigne the best pulp setting, it’s Newhon that most aligns with the D&D universe as conceived by Gary Gygax; the tales of Fafhrd and Mouser have a D&D feel to them that’s unmatched by other pulp tales (including even Conan).

7. The Third Imperium. I’m not big on sci-fic, but Traveler is like old-school D&D — gritty, not glitzy. Both games assume the characters are roguish adventurers “on the make”; adventures typically involve shady activities in order to acquire money, and the characters are outsiders (“travellers”) without commitments to local planetary societies. (The Raza crew in the TV series Dark Matter remind me of Traveller, and their spaceship is very Traveller-esque.) The space world has lawless frontiers (like the Spinward Marches and Solomani Rim), where authorities are distant and corrupt. And it’s damn perilous. There are no healing potions or rods of resurrection. When you engage combat, you feel that you’re risking your life for good. Hell, you can actually die as you are rolling up a character — before even beginning to play the game — the only RPG I know of that has this mechanism in place. As for Traveller’s setting, The Third Imperium is as vast and unending as you’d imagine the universe, and I’m in awe of its design.

8. Athas. Launched the year I stopped playing D&D for a long time (1991), The Dark Sun products are among the few decencies of the 2e period, superb in fact, set on a planet so saturated with Dune overtones you expect sandworms to appear. Athas is a land of ecological disaster, constant thirst, grinding poverty, and like most dying worlds has a history reaching back to a glorious age now forever out of reach. In this sense it’s reminiscent of Middle-Earth’s long defeat and foreordained passing, but even more depressing for its lack of deities; there are no Valar equivalents to assist, however obliquely, in keeping the tide of evil at bay. Druids draw their power from elemental forces, and wizards use magic at their own risk. It’s a world where halflings are cannibals, heroes are almost unheard of, and sorcerer-kings hold city-states under complete tyranny. The modules are railroady as hell (as everything was in the ’90s). but the setting itself is brilliantly conceived.

9. The Lands of Dus. I dare say there are many grognards who haven’t heard of, let alone read, the Lords of Dus novels. Even in my day they were an obscurity, a sword-and-sorcery series in the vein of the early pulps. It was especially the second novel, The Seven Altars of Dusarra, that was classic D&D come to life. The story’s hero is Garth the Overman, and the world he inhabits is like those of the pulps: decadent and grim, full of shady rogues, evil priests, and self-serving wizards. The city of Dusarra in particular reminds me of Lankhmar, especially the Street of the Temples devoted to a variety of perverse deities. There’s Tema (goddess of the night), Andhur Regvos (god of darkness and blindness), Aghad (god of hate and treachery), Sai (goddess of torture and pain), P’hul (goddess of disease and decay), Bheleu (god of war and destruction), and finally, the one whose “name is not spoken” (god of death). Garth’s mission is to rob these temples, and he causes a shitload of suffering for doing that, not least because he sets off a new era of war. In the post-Game of Thrones era we tend to think George Martin invented “brutal fantasy”, but as I see it, Martin essentially took the dark amoral elements of sword-and-sorcery fantasy and brought them into high fantasy. There’s a lot I miss about those stripped down worlds of the pulps that told straightforward stories, unencumbered by epic ambitions, and the Lands of Dus is by far the most underrated of those imaginative worlds.

10. The post-apocalyptic America of Gamma World. I can’t exclude this one. Gamma World was the only sci-fic RPG I had any use for besides Traveller. Its vision of a post-apocalyptic United States was basically the Dark Ages of Our Future — a vision born in the ’80s, during the Reagan era when everyone worried about nuclear holocaust. But what raises this setting above other post-apocalyptic worlds is that the apocalypse is so far into future (the 24th century, 2322 AD), which allows the pre-apocalyptic world to be just as futuristic and alien. There are high-tech artifacts like blaster pistols and robots, and cars that fly. The world of the ancients is filled with as much mystery and wonder for players as it is for player characters. (PCs start adventuring in 2450, about a century and a half after the nuclear wipe out.) It’s a global sandbox like classic D&D settings, in which PCs move from one pocket of civilization to another, plundering lost wealth and artifacts — the kind of America I thrilled to playing in, with a film like The Road Warrior being so popular in the ’80s.

The Outer Planes: The Best and Worst Afterlife Options

I was drawn into an exercise with Manual of the Planes (1987) and Planescape (1994), both of which detail the planes of existence in the D&D universe. (If you play D&D but don’t own either of these products, I’d recommend getting one if not both.) The question: if all these planes actually existed, (a) which of the outer planes would be your preferred afterlife, and (b) which would you beg the gods to spare you from?

(a) Of the 17 outer planes, these are the places I’d like to go when I die, in descending order:

1. Elysium. Plane of neutral good. The Elysian fields are my top choice, but they’re a dangerous narcotic. The atmosphere induces a state of self-satisfaction and contentment, but it also robs much of your self-determination in order to ensure the fostering of “pure goodness” — peace, love, and good will from all the plane’s inhabitants. The Oceanus river dominates all four layers, and for me it’s a coin toss between layers 2 (Eronia) and 4 (Thalasia). Eronia has mountains and the largest waterfalls in any of the outer planes, while Thalasia is the quintessential paradise — where the Oceanus becomes a sea, with only islands for dry land, and the islands are the final resting places for heroes who died for good cause. But while Elysium is my favorite plane for atmosphere, I’m not wild about losing my memories and sense of free will, which is what the drug-like environment does to you. Rating: 4 ½ stars.

2. Gladsheim. Plane of chaotic neutral with good tendencies. It has the best pantheon of gods (the Norse of course), and a mythology that points to an apocalypse to end all apocalypses (Ragnarok). The geography is great: vast floating islands suspended in air and connected by bridges. The idea in Gladsheim is that people’s ideals are best proven through conflict and challenge (sort of the opposite of Elysium), and the best part is that you don’t have to worry about dying permanently if you’re killed in combat; resurrection awaits you in Valhalla. As the Norse put it, “It’s a perfect day to die — just like yesterday, and the day before.” And since I’m a laughable excuse for a warrior, I’d surely be killed almost every day indeed, before even drawing my weapon. I’d probably seek refuge among the elves of Alfeim, and only go into the regions of Asgard or Vaneheim when I’m in a reckless mood. Weakling or not, I love Gladsheim and everything about the Norse pantheon. Rating 4 ½ stars.

3. The Twin Paradises. Plane of neutral good with lawful tendencies. You can’t beat the politics of this plane. It’s a quasi-libertarian commune, organized by the individualist ideal — that people who work toward their dreams and individual strengths produce a better society for all. A place for merchants, business owners, and artists who love and want to improve their craft. There are no free handouts in the Twin Paradises, but there’s a huge influx of opportunity and talent (both scientific and magical) given the healthy unregulated competition. The first paradise (Dothian) is the gentle one, the second (Shurrock) the inhospitable one of rugged mountains and hidden alpines and lethal predators — but a perfect haven for privacy seekers like mages and scientists who need isolated environments, or wilderness explorers who just need the world to themselves. Shurrock would be my choice. Rating: 4 ½ stars.

4. The Seven Heavens. Plane of lawful good. I like the first heaven (Lunia), which is always night but illuminated by stars, and which has the ocean surf, and a perfect view of the next six heavens ascending the mountain. But I also like the third heaven (Venya), which is basically a Shire paradise of rolling hills for the hobbit pantheon. The downside to the Seven Heavens is its collectivist culture, and the numerous tests and trials one undergoes for self-improvement. I mean, I’m not looking to improve myself all that much in the afterlife, though I can tolerate a bit of it. Rating: 4 stars.

5. The Beastlands. Plane of neutral good with chaotic tendencies. Also known as “The Happy Hunting Grounds”, these three layers are filled with forestry, huge plants, and mammals that are sentient and speak. There are also the creepy mortai (faces in the sky) that seem to watch everyone’s move. I’d go with the second layer (Brux), because it has two suns perpetually rising and setting opposite each other, for an eternal dawn/dusk. (The first layer has a constant midday sun, and the third layer is a constant starlit night.) The Beastlands are a nature’s paradise, and quite beautiful, but the downside is the highly collectivist spirit that drives the principle of consumption — that everyone, and every mammal and plant, is going to be another’s dinner at some point, at which point the soul of the consumed merges with that of its killer. This is understood to be the way of things in the Beastlands: all living things are part of the food chain and are ultimately consumed by a predator for the greater good. Rating: 3 ½ stars.

6. Arcadia. Plane of lawful neutral with good tendencies. Arcadia is way too collectivist for my taste, not to mention imperialist; the inhabitants colonize distant planes and worlds to remake as much of the multiverse in their image as possible. But the sheer mystery of the plane is fascinating. It’s the plane of utter perfection where harmony itself is born. The lands are filled with orchards of perfectly lined trees, ruler-straight streams, orderly fields, and cities laid out in geometrically pleasing shapes. The mountains suffer no erosion at all. There used to be three layers, but now there are only two, since the third (Nemausus) was so stiflingly lawful that it became absorbed into the purely lawful neutral plane of Nirvana. The second layer (Buxenus) has “retraining camps” for those who are punished through ostracizing and other forms of shaming; the Arcadian authorities are not above kidnapping and brainwashing to keep people in line “for the betterment of society”. I would stick with the first layer (Abellio) and mind myself accordingly. It’s certainly not an afterlife where one can feel “free” in the genuine sense of the word. Rating: 2 ½ stars.

7. Olympus. Plane of chaotic good. This is the afterlife of eternal orgies and wild parties — and uninhibited individualism — and so by rights it should be higher on my list. But I’m not wild about how Olympus is the most emotionally volatile of the outer planes, where love and hate, rage and joy, run over logic at every turn and make everyone short-tempered. Though it’s not an evil place, there’s plenty of greed, wrath, and envy on Olympus that’s often released with dangerous consequences. My choice would be layer 1 (Arvandor), for its rolling forests and since it’s the domain of the elves. But it’s also the domain of the Greek gods, whom I find annoying in the extreme. (In a structural sense, Olympus is a lot like the first layer of Gladsheim, which has the Norse gods and elves.) There’s also the mercurial weather. Of all the upper planes, Olympus would be my last choice. Rating: 2 stars.

 

(b) These are the last places I would want to go when I die, in descending order.

1. The Nine Hells. Plane of lawful evil. Although I believe Hades and the Abyss are objectively worse, I find the Hells so gruelingly punitive in its torments, and the fact that it’s run by lawfuls makes it oppressively organized. Probably the worst punishments come by ice and fire — the former on layer 9 (Cocytus), the frozen lake, where traitors are buried up to their heads and devils swing mallets against them, and the latter on layer 7, where blasphemers roasting on their backs in 125-degree heat and getting rained on by fire as they curse the sky. But I think the layer I’d hate most is 8, where you spend eternity in a pit of feces. As a fan of Dante’s Inferno, I can’t help but fear the Nine Hells more than any other plane.

2. The Abyss. Plane of chaotic evil. Of all its nasty 666 layers, it’s the 503rd (Torremor) that would have me shitting my pants. Torremor has no solid ground. It’s a tangled nest of beams and perches, rooks and pinnacles, bridges and arches, connected by unreliable ropes and chains. One false slip (which is very easy to do) sends you falling and falling, eventually to be broken and shattered on bridges and pinnacles lower still. (Levitate and fly spells don’t work on Torremor.) There are filthy waterfalls of shit and offal that tumble forever. Torremor is the home of the demon Pazuzu from The Exorcist film, which has given me the worst nightmares of my life.

3. Hades. Plane of neutral evil. Objectively speaking, this is probably the very worst of the outer planes. The three layers consist of realms utterly devoid of emotion and hope. There are no colors, just gray lands and skies throughout, with no sun, moon or seasons to break the bleak monotony. Anything that has color entering Hades soon fades to gray. Optimists who enter soon become suicidal. Everyone despairs and becomes depressed. All the layers are bad, but I’d fear the first in particular (Oinos), which is filled with stunted and withered gray plants, and where any number of diseases are almost guaranteed to be contracted.

4. Gehenna. Plane of neutral evil with lawful tendencies. The environment on these four layers is nasty — mountains without any bases or peaks, with everything built into the sides. In other words, you’re always on a 45-degree slope, in danger of falling and tumbling down a mountainside that never ends. Layer 2 (Chamada) is especially nasty, containing the most violent terrain of the four, and where lava flows in cascades thousands of miles wide, enough to bury and swallow entire cities.

5. Tarterus. Plane of neutral evil with chaotic tendencies. The prison worlds of Tarterus — planet-orbs arranged like a string of pearls stretching into the void — are the stuff of nightmares. There’s no sun on any of the layers; the soil of the planet-orbs gives off heat and a reddish glow, bathing the worlds in a hellish light. There are six layers of these worlds, and I’d pray to avoid especially the fifth (Porphatys), which is wet and cold, and the black clouds over each planet-orb unleashes black snow that burns like acid.

6. Pandemonium. Plane of chaotic neutral with evil tendencies. No known life exists on this plane (save a few deities, like Loki), and it’s made entirely of rock with tunnels and caverns. All the open space is filled with howling winds that screams the sound of everything said in the place. Normal fires cannot survive, there is no natural light, and conversation can only be accomplished by shouting at close range. The fourth layer (Agathion) is the worst; the tunnel winds are so strong they smash you against the walls.

7. Acheron. Plane of lawful neutral with evil tendencies. This one isn’t quite so terrifying as the above six. It’s basically a Gladsheim for the opposite alignment (lawful neutrals with evil tendencies, as opposed to chaotic neutrals with good tendencies). It’s the “Infinite Battlefield” of wars without meaning, rebels without causes, soldiers who fight for good reasons, bad reasons, and no reasons at all. Massive blocks drift in the atmosphere and crash into one another; each block contains armies (of orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, etc.) waiting for their block to bump into another so they can continue waging pointless war.

To recap, my top choices:

1. Eronia, 2nd layer of Elysium, or Thalasia, 4th layer of Elysium
2. Asgard, 1st layer of Gladsheim
3. Shurrock, 2nd layer of the Twin Paradises
4. Lunia, 1st layer of the Seven Heavens, or Venya, 3rd layer of the Seven Heavens
5. Brux, 2nd layer of the Beastlands
6. Abellio, 1st layer of Arcadia
7. Arvendor, 1st layer of Olympus

My nightmares:

1. Malebolge, 8th layer of the Nine Hells
2. Torremor, 503rd layer of the Abyss
3. Oinos, 1st layer of Hades
4. Chamada, 2nd layer of Gehenna
5. Porphatys, 5th layer of Tarterus
6. Agathion, 4th layer of Pandemonium
7. Avalas, 1st layer of Acheron

The Rise and Fall of TSR (Slaying the Dragon)

I enjoyed Slaying the Dragon and learned a lot about the rise and fall of TSR, especially the latter. My biggest takeaways from the book:

(1) Re: Gary Gygax. Saint Gary was no saint, and he often lied about his supposed powerlessness and ignorance. Not only was he aware of TSR’s disastrous errors, he participated in them as they were happening. He threw his business partners (Brian and Kevin Blume) under the bus, martyring himself to the board of directors. Hate to say it, but he almost deserved to be dethroned. The Blume brothers offered him their stock shares which he spurned; so when they sold their shares to Lorraine Williams instead, he had largely himself to blame.

(2) Re: Lorraine Williams. She was even less admirable — notwithstanding the author’s attempts to “reconsider her legacy”. After Gary hired her to manage the company in 1985, she managed a hostile takeover of sorts, forcing Gary out of the company by the end of the year. (Though Gary has largely himself to blame for being victimized here; see above.) The biggest problem with Lorraine is that she wasn’t a gamer, disdained gamers (didn’t consider them “social equals”), didn’t treat her staff well, and as a result had a hard time holding onto talented writers. Genius designers kept leaving TSR for greener pastures. An “outsider” being in charge of a gaming company made it impossible for TSR to reclaim its glory years of ’74-’83. On the other hand, it’s true that Lorraine pulled TSR out of debt (from the mismanagement sins of Gary and the Blume Brothers) and thus saved D&D from extinction, and there were some admittedly top-quality products made during her reign between ’85-’97. Most notably, the 2nd edition D&D settings (though not so much the railroady adventure modules) of Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and especially Planescape. Speaking of which…

(3) Re: Zeb Crook. He designed the most brilliant post-’83 setting in D&D history: Planescape (’94). After ’91 I lost interest in D&D and wouldn’t become re-obsessed until the late aughts. I really missed out on Planescape. I’m immersing myself in it now, and have to say it’s worthy of golden-age products. And yet, despite the praises sung by critics and consumers alike, sales continued to drop in the “Reign of Lorraine”, irrespective of the product’s quality. Sometimes these new stunning products and boxed sets (like Planescape and some of the Dark Sun adventures) were so expensive that they actually lost the company money with every copy sold.

(4) Re: The Random House Ponzi Scheme. Shit like this sticks. By the middle of ’95, TSR owed its distributor Random House almost 12 million dollars, and Random House was demanding that most of this debt be paid off within two years. This was the culmination of a ponzi scheme that had been in place, going all the way back to ’79 (in Gary’s day), whereby Random House paid TSR for the products TSR gave it to distribute, whether those products sold or not. The money that flowed into TSR’s coffers wasn’t dependent on sales: “All the company had to do was create, print, and ship products, and cash would flow like the mighty Mississippi back to Lake Geneva. The printing of products was essentially the printing of money. TSR had broken free of supply and demand.” Until Random House had had enough. TSR was suddenly held accountable in ’95, and it was only a matter of time before…

(5) Re: The Takeover by Wizards of the Coast. Lorraine, for all her unconscionable sins, must be given credit for saving D&D a second time. The first time was in ’85 (see 2, above) when she saved TSR from bankruptcy. She kept TSR on its feet for 12 years, producing loads of content, a lot of it bad — though a significant amount surprisingly good — even if she didn’t have the vision to grow the business. The second time was at the end in ’97, when TSR was so drowning in debt that Lorraine sold the company to Wizards of the Coast — which saved D&D yet again, since WotC was packed full of D&D geeks and fanatics. I doubt there would have been the gilded age of 3rd edition D&D had this not happened. Notably, Lorraine almost refused to sell to WotC, for no other reason than she hated its CEO Peter Adkison. But for whatever reason she relented, and wounds began to heal almost immediately under the new management. Under Lorraine, brand had come first, and staff were replaceable, no matter how creative. Under Peter, staff weren’t expendable cogs: “they were holy orders, the massed brothers and sisters who had imagined strange new worlds, then heaved them out of the black depths and into the light”. Staff retention was one of the biggest reasons Peter Adkison bought TSR; to get the most out of peoples’ talents.

Readers know that I’m not a fan of what Wizards of the Coast has done with D&D in more recent years. 5th edition has been cheesified and wokeified. But at least the game lives on, and under company management unlike the TSR years, where nepotism, bad investments, overextension of business, ponzi scheming, and treating staff like shit had been the way of things. I always knew TSR had its problems, but I never knew how deep and subterranean they went.

 

The Best Scenes in Stranger Things

Fifty of them. Most are from seasons 1, 2, and 4. Only six are from season 3.

(See also my rankings of all the episodes and the four seasons.)

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1. The Snow Ball (Season 2, Episode 9). Happy endings aren’t my usually thing, but there are great exceptions. After a season of misery and estrangement, the kids find happiness on the dance floor, as each of the four boys ends up with the “right girl” — Mike with El, Lucas with Max, Dustin with Nancy-to-the rescue, Will and a nameless “Zombie Boy” fan. To the stalker smash “Every Breath You Take”, as only appropriate, since El has been stalking Mike in the Void for a whole year. I’m hard pressed to think of an epilogue in TV history that pays off the entire season like the Snow Ball does in Stranger Things 2. Of course it’s my favorite scene of the series.

Stranger Things Finale: 6 Questions After Season 3, Episode 8
2. Leaving Hawkins (Season 3, Episode 8). No, you’re not misreading this. For all my trashing of season 3, the finale is excellent and its epilogue almost as good as season-2’s (see #1 above). The Duffers managed to produce a Stranger Things equivalent of the Grey Havens. Mike, Lucas, and Dustin are Sam, Merry, and Pippin tearfully watching the departure of “Ring-bearers” Eleven and Will, who have taken the most punishment in the series and are sailing west to start over. The reprisal of “Heroes” (the Peter Gabriel cover) is perfect for this montage after Hopper’s voice-over.

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3. Max and Vecna (Season 4, Episode 4). The final sixteen minutes of Dear Billy could be rewatched a million times and never get old. The sequence starts with Max reading her letter by Billy’s grave, and ends with her falling from the sky into Lucas’s arms, while in between she is pulled into a waking nightmare that I keep thinking will kill her even though I know she escapes it. The power of music is portrayed in a way never seen before. I’m not sure what my song would be to save me from Vecna (any of these might work), but the Kate Bush song works cinematically, and the montage that plays as she resists Vecna is brilliant. Those flashbacks are virtually the only times we see Max and Eleven happy this season, underscoring how grim the fourth season is for each of them.

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4. Mike and El’s Reunion / Mike Attacks Hopper (Season 2, Episodes 8 & 9). From the end of season 2, where everyone is huddled inside Hopper’s cabin bracing for a demo-dog attack, to El’s surprise rescue, to her reunion with Mike, to Mike’s furious assault on Hopper. All of this enormously pays off El’s season-long absence, and for me it’s the highest emotional point of the series. You feel Mike’s rage at Hopper for keeping her hidden so long. You feel El’s jealousy over Max when she snubs the poor girl (Max has been shat on by everyone except Lucas throughout this season). You want Mike and El to hold each other forever; Finn Wolfhard plays it wonderfully, asking heartbroken why El never called back to him in the Void.

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5. The Massacre at Hawkins Lab (Season 4, Episode 7). The final eighteen minutes of this episode involve the most despicable acts of violence in the series, with twists and reveals brilliantly executed. Eleven leaves the closet to find One and finds mangled corpses down every hall. She bursts into the Rainbow Room and sees One killing the last child (Two), and then listens to his sickening views of humanity and the world. She attacks him in rage and almost gets torn apart for it, before blasting him into the shadow realm where he turns into Vecna. This is the culmination of three episodes in which El is put through the Nina ringer, reliving traumas far worse than high school bullying.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2022/06/goofbye-hello.png6. Good-bye Mike, Hello Will (Season 1, Episode 8). Even if El doesn’t really die, her sacrifice hits hard; she certainly thinks she’s about to die as she blasts the demogorgon and follows its disintegration into the Upside Down. It’s the ending the season deserves, with Mike left crushed, not fully understanding how he came to love this girl in the space of six days. Meanwhile, as his girlfriend vanishes, his lost friend is resuscitated in the Upside Down by Hopper and Joyce, with extremely emotional flashbacks of Sara Hopper dying in the hospital. The double climax pays off everyone’s arc perfectly.

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7. Max’s Death / The Apocalypse Begins (Season 4, Episode 9). By far the most upsetting scene of the series, and the most catastrophic. Max’s death initiates the apocalypse (the earthquake does take at least one satisfying victim, ripping Jason in half), and Lucas and El unleash enough tears and anguish to indict the gods. And though Max is resurrected, it isn’t a cheat, since she is broken and blind and returns in a coma. I’d rather be dead than come back like that. As a post-script, the book Lucas reads to Max in the hospital is probably the most brilliant homage of the series to date: The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub. The novel is about a dark parallel world — a medieval version of the United States — and the passage Lucas reads involves the blind character Speedy. A not so subtle hint about what may be in store for Max if she ever wakes from her coma.

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8. “Home” (Season 2, Episodes 3, 5, & 7). In each of these scenes El seizes onto the idea that she has found her true home. The first comes in the flashback with Hopper (episode 3), when he brings her to his cabin. The second comes at her Aunt Becky’s house (episode 5), where she is invited to live. The third comes in Chicago, at the abandoned warehouse of Kali and her crew (episode 7). That last one especially is poignant, but the “home” theme works powerfully as an arc over all the episodes. At each place — cabin, house, and warehouse — El repeats the word “home”, with an increased desperation to know her place in the world outside Hawkins Lab.

7 Details You Might Have Missed In 'Stranger Things 3'
9. “Heroes” (Season 1, Episode 3). The scene that made me an obsessive fan. A corpse is dragged from the quarry and everyone thinks it’s Will’s. Mike’s furious reaction as he accuses El and runs home enraged, to the scoring of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes”, is a rare piece of cinematic art. It’s in this scene that two things come sharply into focus: the kids’ acting talents, and the Duffers’ writing-directing skills. From here I binged the rest of the episodes and never looked back.

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10. Snow Ball Nightmare (Season 4, Episode 9). In this dark homage to the season-2 Snow Ball dance, Max hides from Vecna inside her happiest memory. There are the blue and white balloons, the glitzy decoratives, and “Every Breath You Take” is playing. But it all quickly unravels as Vecna breaks down her mental barriers. The Police song segues into the eerie-sounding “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (the favorite tune of Vecna’s father), the balloons explode into blood, and everything turns gray and Upside-Downish. Vecna arrives to finish Max off, but then Eleven intervenes — having piggybacked onto Max’s mind — and a battle on the dance floor paves the way to more pain. The Snow Ball nightmare is cut into six scenes adding up to about ten minutes, and it’s brilliantly constructed.

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11. Closing the Gate (Season 2, Episode 9). Pulling this off requires more than an expenditure of power. El must look within and face herself, lest she be paralyzed by her inadequacies. The flashbacks of her lab traumas, trials with Kali, and the ghost of Papa are brilliantly used to show the conflict raging inside her: “You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound. And it’s festering. It’s rotting. And it will grow. Spread. And eventually, it will kill you.” Kali urged that the wound comes from Dr. Brenner and his abuse, making vigilante justice the path to healing; El sees that the wound comes less from Papa and more from herself, even if by accident. Giving in to homicidal urges is self-destructive — and it’s this epiphany that liberates her from self-paralysis, allowing her to blast the Mind Flayer and close the real wound.

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12. El and Hopper’s Heart-to-Heart (Season 2, Episode 9). I use those words deliberately. In episode 1 of season 3, we were supposed to believe that Hopper found the idea of a “heart to heart” wholly alien; that discussing serious issues with his daughter was out of his comfort zone and beyond his comprehension (such that he needed Joyce to coach him every step of the way). This despite the fact that in the last episode we saw him in — this one, episode 9 of season 2 — he was having the purest heart to heart you could imagine. Hopper and El have a lot of great scenes together in season 2, but this one is their best, as they each admit to each other how wrong they’ve been.

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13. Will Inside the Wall (Season 1, Episode 4). This scene has given me a few nightmares, at least three or four that I recall, maybe more. Joyce rips down her wallpaper and sees her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. Her hysterics are convincing; this is the way a mother would act. Stranger Things is at its scariest when it does weird shit like this, and although seasons 2 and 4 are darker and scarier on whole, season 1 managed to land what I consider to be the most frightening scene. It makes us feel as helpless as Joyce. Will is up close but out of reach, alone in Hell, being terrorized out of his mind.

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14. Helicopter Sniper/Papa’s Death (Season 4, Episode 8). Eleven’s farewell to Papa doesn’t miss a beat, nailing all the right cords of love and loathing. She loves Brenner yet despises him for his monstrous manipulations, for trying to convince her that she’s a monster, for abusing her mother, and for robbing her of choice in the name of liberation. When he begs for understanding as he dies, she feels a genuine pull toward forgiveness, but is strong enough to refuse absolving him. A heartfelt “good-bye” is all she has to give; it suffices. The prelude to this is the explosive spectacle of her bringing down the helicopter containing the sniper — the most spectacular use of her powers since flipping the van in season 1.

Stranger Things Season 3|Billy saves Eleven from The Mind Flayer - YouTube
15. “The Wave Was Seven Feet” (Season 3, Episode 8). Oh, season 3, how shitty thou art. Your plot is a carbon copy of season 2’s: the Mind Flayer has taken over a human host (Billy this time instead of Will); there is a Gate that makes this possible (at the Mall instead of the Lab); the Gate thus needs to be closed, to sever the connection to the Upside Down. El can’t close the Gate this time though, because she has lost her powers. And yet the Duffers were able to make lemonade out of these lemons in the way El defeats the Mind Flayer: by empowering its victim. She describes a memory she had shared while inside Billy’s mind, and manages to reach Billy, who sacrifices himself. It’s an extremely moving scene.

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16. D&D Campaign: The Demogorgon (Season 1, Episode 1). The next two are really a tie, but I’m giving pride of place to the season-1 game. It’s the first scene of the series and does more with less. The boys’ campaign is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and shows why the game was so fun in the early ’80s. Mike is established as the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master), Lucas the pragmatic skeptic, Dustin the hilarious, and Will the sensitive kid. It also establishes the series trope of using D&D creature names for the real shadow threats about to devastate Hawkins. It’s almost as though these D&D games are summoning evil from the Upside Down.

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17. D&D Campaign: The Cult of Vecna (Season 4, Episode 1). Be assured that the season-3 game is nowhere on this list. Will’s dungeon-master costume was ridiculous, his DM skills were atrocious, and Mike and Lucas were a pair of jerks. The season-4 game makes D&D shine again. Eddie is the supreme DM, his Hellfire pals rock, and Mike and Dustin are in top form. The power of this scene is magnified by the basketball intercut. Lucas’s final shot and Erica’s last die roll have me holding my breath every time I watch it. “That’s why we play,” says Eddie, when only two player characters are left standing, and how bloody right he is.

Stranger Things] Hopper & Eleven Fight dub w/ CamdoesDubs - YouTube
18. Telekinetic Tantrum (Season 2, Episode 4). El and Hopper are so pissed at each other you can feel the fire. She returns from stalking Mike at the school — having flouted Hopper’s rules that keep her confined in his cabin — and he goes through the roof, screaming in her face and taking away her Eggo and TV privileges. She retaliates by throwing a mega-tantrum, hurling books and shattering windows. She’ll have to clean up her mess the next day, but it’s pretty sweet to see a frustrated kid let loose like this. Some of the rawest acting talent is on display between Millie and David Harbour in the tantrum scene, and I’m not surprised it’s a favorite of Ross Duffer.

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19. Possession Trauma (Season 2, Episode 4). Possession is the king of horror tropes, but also the riskiest because it’s hard to do right. Noah nailed it with subtleties that even Linda Blair didn’t pull off in The Exorcist — alternating between being shaken and terrified, to making resolute demands (that his mother run him a freezing bath, because his possessor “likes it cold”), to stalking about the house confused — and it’s the first of those that he delivers at the start of Will the Wise. Season 2 then becomes an assault-on-all-fronts, as the Mind Flayer plans to wreak devastation through this kid, and slowly eats away his mind.

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20. Tracking-Shot: Home Invasion (Season 4, Episode 4). The Dear Billy episode is known for Max and Vecna (see #3 on this list), but this scene did just as much to make me a nervous wreck. It’s prefaced by a touching moment between Mike and Will, as Mike admits he’s been a jerk and Will so obviously wants to fuck him on the bed right there, to Mike’s utter obliviousness. Then the government goons crash the house and start shooting. A shootout like this is surprising enough in Stranger Things, but it’s done in a single tracking shot that looks viscerally real. The last time I was this impressed by a tracking shot in a TV series was True Detective‘s “Who Goes There?”

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2022/06/save-them.png21. “I Can Save Them” (Season 2, Episode 7). Contrary to popular opinion, The Lost Sister is one of the best episodes of season 2 (my third favorite, after The Gate and Will the Wise). The fact that Kali isn’t the strongest character is irrelevant; she’s all that she needs to be. The episode isn’t about her (despite the title), it’s about Eleven, and how she comes to terms with herself — her murderous impulses, the question of where she belongs — to which Kali serves as a mentor to follow or reject. Without Kali, Eleven wouldn’t have had an arc to speak of in season 2. Her decision to return to Hawkins and her real friends is one of her best moments.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2022/07/el-will-needs-mike.png22. Can’t Say the Words (Season 4, Episode 8). This has to be the most heartbreaking scene of the series. Will assures Mike that El needs him, loves him, and can’t live without him, but of course he’s talking about himself, not El. The look on Jonathan’s face in the driver’s seat, as it begins to dawn on him what’s really up with his brother, is some fine subtle acting. The genius of Will’s arc is that his sexual orientation is never spelled out. It doesn’t need to be, and the drama is stronger for it.

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23. Flipping the Van (Season 1, Episode 7). The pre-credits sequence of The Bathtub episode could stand on its own as a short film. As Mike and El almost share a first kiss in the bathroom, Dustin barges in, and all hell breaks loose. The government goons descend, and the kids take to their bikes, flying down roads and around corners, side paths that cut between homes, rendez-vousing with Lucas, until they’re sandwiched between oncoming vans. The van-flip is spectacular, as are the reconciliation scenes — between Lucas and El, and Lucas and Mike — in the junkyard. Did all that really happen in a pre-credits sequence? Yep.

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24. Emo Mike & Nancy (Season 2, Episode 1). These two scenes play wonderfully back to back: Mike getting scolded at the dinner table for acting out in school, and Nancy having dinner with Barb’s parents, who tragically believe their daughter is still alive. Mike retreats to his basement where he still keeps El’s fort; Nancy retreats to the bathroom where she breaks down over Barb. Through the Wheeler siblings we feel the cost of the season-1 losses, and I was glad the Duffers had the nerve to take those losses seriously throughout season 2. In the hands of other show writers, Nancy would have moved on already, and El would have reunited with Mike early in the season instead of at the end.

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25. Hopper in the Demo-Pit (Season 4, Episode 7). The best demogorgon outing is the season-1 classroom scene (see # 6) — with the boys shouting over each other and Lucas vainly firing his slingshot until El steps in — but the Russian Demo-Pit shows how fast these beasts are. Truth told, the boys in season 1 were confronted by a very slow one; Lucas wouldn’t have gotten off two rocks, let alone four, against the one in the demo-pit. Hopper has quite a time of it, as the creature tears his fellow inmates apart.

Stranger Things: 10 Things You Didn't Know About the Byers House | Flipboard
26. Joyce’s Ouija Wall (Season 1, Episode 3). If there’s a scene in Stranger Things that shouts classic, this is probably it. Joyce’s Ouija Wall has become such an iconic image that restaurants and fun houses have replicated it. The scene, in conjunction with “Heroes” (#10 above) — both from the Holly Jolly episode — is what turned me into a hard-core fan. It represents Joyce’s breakthrough with Will, as she communicates with him through the Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to run from the house as the demogorgon bursts through.

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27. Stalking Mike (Season 2, Episode 2). Much of the drama in season 2 is carried on El’s presumed death, with Mike in denial. He has no idea how right he is, that El hears him calling her all the time and wants to let him know she’s okay. The scene that shows her stalking him in the Void is especially well shot, flicking back and forth between Mike alone and El only inches away from him in the black background. Their mutual pain is felt acutely in this scene.

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28. Inside Billy’s Mind (Season 3, Episode 6). One of the few scenes that justifies season 3’s existence. It runs eleven minutes, from the point of El washing up on the California beach, to being assaulted by chaotic images of Billy’s past, to finally returning to herself in Hopper’s cabin — only to find out that it’s a nightmare cabin, with her friends gone and Billy waiting there to torment her. It’s one of the freakiest scenes in the series that makes you feel the terror of being mentally trapped and unable to wake up.

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29. Reunion with Papa (Season 4, Episode 5). Not a happy one for El, but shocking and powerful. I was expecting Brenner to return in season 4 for flashbacks, but wasn’t thinking he was still alive. It was a strong move to bring him back and mentor El once again. Their dysfunctional relationship, and El’s Stockholm dependency, was so well presented in season 1 that it demanded a follow-up, and season 4 takes it to the next level. That Owens is working with Brenner (with mixed feelings) is a big bonus.

Visiting Stranger Things Filming Locations in Atlanta » Whisky + Sunshine
30. A Bromance is Born (Season 2, Episode 6). Almost any scene between Steve and Dustin is list-worthy, and I could name several. But the train-track scene is where the bromance was born and it has attained a near mythological status. It’s hard to believe Dustin once had a crush on Max. Maybe he still would if not for Steve.

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31. The Diner Scene (“The Return of the Superhero”) (Season 4, Episode 3). Paul Reiser is a great actor, Sam Owens a great character, and the diner scene a great homage to Reiser’s role in the 1982 film. His speech marks a turning point in season 4, as Eleven is offered a window of opportunity: to trade in the misery of school bullying for the monstrous torments of getting her powers back. The scene is shot as an epic montage with soaring music. We see (or hear) Vecna closing in on Max, as Owens explains to El the last resort he’s had in place in case a threat like Vecna emerged — and assures her that she’s probably not the bad person she thinks she is.

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32. “She Tried to Get Naked!” (Season 1, Episode 2). Unlike the slapstick comedy of season 3, the humor in the early seasons is natural and organic and genuinely funny. This scene being an excellent case in point. It’s exactly the way 12-year old boys would react to a girl about to take her clothes off. Mike is sweet as he takes care of this strange girl and gives her fresh clothes and a towel and teaches her about the need for privacy.

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33. Steve and the Demo-Bats (Season 4, Episode 7). The next three are Steve’s demo-fights from seasons 1, 2, and 4. This one gets priority for taking place in the Upside Down. The demo-bats are terrifying against the red and purple hues of the landscape. Steve doesn’t get to use the spiked bat this time — instead he pulls an Ozzy move and tears apart a bat with his teeth.

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34. Steve and the Demo-Dogs (Season 2, Episode 6). A brutally intense scene in which Steve gets flanked by a second demo-dog as he faces the one ahead, and barely manages to bat them away. He beats a hasty retreat into the bus with Dustin, Lucas, and Max — who begin screaming their heads off when one of the beasts appears above them, looking down the ladder hole. I almost shit my pants when I first watched this.

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35. Steve and the Demogorgon (Season 1, Episode 8). Steve’s turning point, when he decides that his assholeries require atonement. He has had a genuine change of heart (finding that he doesn’t like being an asshole), making his character arc one of the series’ best. He goes back into the Byers’ house to help Nancy and Jonathan, and the strobe light works to great effect against the backdrop of the Christmas-tree lights, making his fight with the demogorgon mega-intense.

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36. Sauna Battle (Season 3, Episode 4). The next two are Eleven’s battles with the Mind Flayer in season 3, the first against Billy and the second against the Flayed. It was nice that El got to kick some ass before losing her powers in the finale, and equally nice that we never lose sight of her vulnerability. Billy nearly strangles her before she manages to throw him through a brick wall. Interesting post-script to this scene: when El collapses into Mike’s arms crying, that wasn’t acting on Millie’s part; shooting this scene put her through the ringer.

Stranger Things Season 3 ⁄ Hawkins Crew vs Mind Flayer Scene - YouTube | Stranger things, Robert englund, Netflix
37. Cabin Battle (Season 3, Episode 7). The last ass-kicking that El dishes out on the Mind Flayer before losing her powers, and brilliantly choreographed. Hopper’s cabin is devastated as the Flayed Beast punches holes through it to seize her. It’s a miracle she’s not torn in half by the tug-of-war between her friends and the Flayed, and also miraculous that no one in the cabin is killed by Nancy’s shotgun blasts. Mike ripping the flayed piece off El’s leg is excruciating to watch, and her splitting the monster apart gratifying.

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38. Mike Jumps (Season 1, Episode 6). Bullying is major theme in Stranger Things (except in season 3), and Mike’s bullies are the worst, making him jump off a cliff for humiliating them in front of the entire school. El’s surprise rescue is sublime, and the flashback of her opening the Gate is heart rending, as she sincerely believes that she’s the monster, despite Mike’s assurances.

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39. El Smashes Angela’s Face (Season 4, Episode 2). When it comes to her own bullies El is less effective. Without her powers and sense of self-worth she’s defenseless, and in this sense I felt far more sorry for her than for Mike in season 1 (who for the most part took Troy in stride). It was hugely satisfying to see her smash Angela in the face with a roller-skate — even more than seeing her break Troy’s arm with telekinetic powers. (I place Mike’s cliff rescue above the roller-skate incident because of the iconic moment when El, Mike, and Dustin share a group hug.) Once again her flashbacks reinforce her view of herself as a monster, only this time Mike isn’t the best shoulder to cry on.

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40. El Rips Mike a New One (Season 4, Episode 3). You can hardly blame her. Mike isn’t the most supportive or discerning boyfriend even when the pain is plain. He can’t say (or write) that he loves her, and digs himself in deeper by protesting that he thinks she’s the most incredible person in the world and a superhero — which she obviously isn’t anymore, but it’s the wrong thing to say in any case. This is how their season-3 fight/breakup should have been handled; with the seriousness it deserved.

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41. Eddie’s Death (Season 4, Episode 9). Eddie is the secret hero of season 4. Not just because he finally steps up and faces down the Upside-Down with metal jams, but for his cafeteria wisdom in his very first scene — his unabashed pronouncements like “forced conformity is what’s really killing kids” (see #47 below). Dustin’s reaction to Eddie’s death is the culmination of a bromance over season 4 which for my money is just as compelling as his bromance with Steve over seasons 2 through 4.

We Gotta Talk About Bob In "Stranger Things 2"
42. Bob’s Death (Season 2, Episode 8). On my first watch of season 2, the death of Bob Newbie took me completely off guard. Yes, the Duffers had killed off Barb in season 1, but that was as early as episode 3. Bob made it to the penultimate episode, was a lovable character and partner to Joyce, and I couldn’t see him getting the axe. When he outran the demo-dogs, I breathed again, knowing I was foolish for worrying… and then the doors crashed down. It’s a wonder Joyce didn’t go to Pennhurst after watching Bob torn apart and eaten.

The Full Significance of Barb's Death on STRANGER THINGS - Nerdist
43. Barb’s Death (Season 1, Episode 3). This is the scene I return to when I think of the “horrors” of season 3 that weren’t at all scary. Season 3 was body-horror (gross-out horror), and as far as that goes it’s okay. I like David Cronenberg films as much as the Duffers. But body horror isn’t menacing like the deeper and more feral horrors of seasons 1, 2, and 4. Barb’s death remains one of the most terrifying scenes in the series, relying on what you can hear and sense but not see (the demogorgon), and an utterly terrified Barb who fights vainly for her life.

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44. Conversational Affection (Season 4, Episode 9). As the bathtub is prepared for El, she and Mike enjoy some lighter moments, including an argument over pineapple pizza, which Mike rightly calls blasphemous. Will and Jonathan have a more serious talk, and as usual in season 4, Will is heartbreaking to watch as he can’t discuss what’s tearing him up inside. Though Jonathan seems to get it now.

pinterest || кαℓєyнσggℓє | Stranger things, Stranger, Historical figures
45. “Crazy Together” (Season 2, Episode 2). This moment shows Mike and Will taking comfort in each others damage. It’s almost as if Mike thinks Will is the only one worthy of his affections, on the logic that if he suffering so much (from the loss of El) then so should others suffer. It’s why he finds Lucas and Dustin so goddamn insufferable (as they persist in having a good time, and with a girl from California to boot), and ditches Halloween night to take Will back home with him. So they can be crazy together alone.

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46. Eddie’s Cafeteria Rant (Season 4, Episode 1). The moment Eddie walks that cafeteria table is the moment season 4 makes clear that Stranger Things is back in top form. You know you’re going to love this guy, you know you’ll love the Hellfire Club, and you know those damn basketball jocks will eventually join the Satanic Panic that Eddie is making fun of. The way he rips into Mike and Dustin when they tell him Lucas has gone to the dark side (i.e. joined the basketball team) is hilarious.

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47. Burning Inside Out (Season 2, Episode 6). As an Exorcist fan I got considerable mileage out of season 2, and the opening scene The Spy is inspired by Regan McNeill’s hideous PEG procedure. Will Byers is having it even worse than Regan, convulsing under the doctors who ask him where it hurts, to which he can only scream “everywhere”. Noah’s acting is so convincing that the actors thought he was really in agony during the shoot.

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48. Eleven’s Self-Surgery (Season 3, Episode 8). The season 3 finale is bookmarked by three mighty El moments. The last occurs in the epilogue when she reads Hopper’s letter (see #2), the middle is her transcendent moment with Billy (see #9), and the other is the very first scene, in which she rips the flayed piece out of her leg. It’s possibly the most visceral scene in the series. Millie screams so fucking loud I can imagine those mall windows really broke on set from sonic devastation.

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49. El’s Reunion With Hopper (Season 4, Episode 9). This was bound to be a tear-jerker, but with Millie driving the scene, it’s an ultra tear-jerker. I love how they comment on each others loss of hair.

Mike And Eleven (Mileven): Adorable Or Disastrous? • The Daily Fandom
50. Mike Makes His Move (Season 1, Episode 8). Can’t forget this one. Mike and El’s first kiss. He got the best girlfriend on the planet.

Eddie Van Halen Munson: The Secret Hero of Stranger Things 4

One of my favorite scenes in Stranger Things 4 comes in the school cafeteria, where Eddie Van Halen Munson regales his pals by mocking the D&D Satanic Panic. He reads the following from a Newsweek article:

“The Devil has come to America. Dungeons & Dragons, at first regarded as a harmless game of make-believe, now has both parents and psychologists concerned. Studies have linked violent behavior to the game, saying it promotes Satanic worship, ritual sacrifice, sodomy, suicide, and even murder.”

To which he and his Hellfire buddies have a good laugh. The article is called “D and D: The Devil’s Game”, and is shown to be from the March 3, 1986 of Newsweek (the episode takes place on March 21), but no such article was ever printed in the 3/3/86 issue. Newsweek did cover the D&D Satanic panic six months prior to the setting of Stranger Things 4, in the September 9, 1985 issue: “Kids: The Deadliest Game?” called out the paranoia for what it was, concluding that parents (often religious ones) wanted a scapegoat for teen mental health problems.

It’s easy to join Eddie, Mike, and Dustin in laughing at the fundie idiocy (you can watch the scene here), but no one’s laughing when the Satanic Panic comes to Hawkins, and the jocks — led by Captain Jason — ignite a crusade at a town hall. It happens in episode 6 (you can watch that scene here), when after a string of serial killings Eddie Van Halen Munson is blamed for them, denounced as a vessel of diabolical evil. This triggers a vigilante witch-hunt for him and other members of the Hellfire Club.

The Duffers milked the Panic for all its worth and it’s fantastic drama. I came of age during the Panic and was only slightly older than Mike and Dustin. I knew how the D&D game was being scapegoated though never got a direct taste. I was an Episcopalian attending Roman Catholic High School, and the Catholics (whether Anglican or Roman) just weren’t good for these kind of fears. My high school was conservative to say the least, both socially and politically, but D&D was never seen as a problem. Students didn’t bully others (that I saw) and teachers supported the gaming club. For panic attacks, you needed fire-and-brimstone fundies and evangelicals.

Eddie Van Halen Munson is the secret hero of Stranger Things 4. Not just because he finally steps up and stares down the Upside-Down with his guitar, but for his cafeteria wisdom in the first episode — and unabashed pronouncements like “forced conformity is what’s really killing kids”. If not for D&D, my teen years would have been a lot less imaginative and rewarding. I’m glad I never conformed to what was popular or in vogue. Today D&D has become very popular, but the same principle holds: you don’t have to conform to whatever sanitized or woke standards are being imposed on the game. Do your thing. And be proud to be unpopular for it.

Parallels Between My Novels and Stranger Things 3 and 4

There are strong parallels between Stranger Things 3 and 4, and and my fanfiction series. I wrote my stories with no knowledge at all of what would happen in those later seasons, so these similarities are striking to say the least.

1. El dumps Mike, at the engineering of Hopper. In the TV series (season 3, episodes 1 & 2), Hopper manipulates Mike, and also threatens him, in order to break up the relationship between him and Eleven. In my story, Hopper manipulates Eleven rather than Mike, in order to achieve the same goal. In each case the person being manipulated by Hopper doesn’t come clean: in the TV series, Mike starts avoiding El but lies about his reasons for doing so, to which she responds by “dumping his ass”. In my story, El tells Mike that she needs to break up with him, but won’t say why, which breaks his heart.

2. Dangers of the Void. In the TV series (season 3, episode 6), Mike warns Eleven of the dangers of communing with Billy in the Void. She has only tried this once before, when she accessed the memories of her mother in season 2 (and her mother was a willing subject who wanted to show El what Dr. Brenner did to her). Sure enough, when El accesses Billy’s memories, he is able to latch onto her mind, and see where she is in Hopper’s cabin. In my story, El warns Hopper of the same dangers, when he wants her to access the memories of a comatose hospital victim. She tells her father that the victim may rebel against her intrusion or even die from shock. Sure enough, that almost happens; the victim’s monitors bleep momentarily, though she doesn’t end up dying.

3. El loses her psychic powers, thanks to a creature of the Upside Down. In the TV series (season 3, episode 8), El loses her powers after a piece of the Mind Flayer gets in her leg. In my story, she loses her powers for two days (January 22-24, 1987), when she’s snared on the shadow tree and injected with anti-psychic sap.

4. El leaves Hawkins for the West Coast. In the TV series (season 3, episode 8), Joyce moves out of Hawkins, taking Will, Jonathan, and El to California (in October 1985). In my story, Hopper leaves Hawkins with El (in April 1987), when he takes a job as Sheriff of Yamhill County in Oregon.

5. D&D game. In the TV series (season 4, episode 1), there is a new dungeon-master (Eddie Munson), who puts a lot of players through a killer module. All the PCs are killed, except for Dustin and newcomer Erica. Dustin screws up, and newcomer Erica completes the quest. In my story, there is a new dungeon-master (Vijay Agarwal), who puts a lot of players through a killer module. All the PCs are killed, except for Dustin and newcomer Eleven. Dustin screws up, and newcomer Eleven completes the quest.

6. A major character assumed dead is alive and fighting like a gladiator. In the TV series (season 4, episode 7), Hopper is assumed dead, but is captive in a Russian prison and forced to fight a demogorgon in a “demo-pit” for the guards’ entertainment. In my story, Mike is assumed dead, but enslaved in the Upside Down and forced to fight shadow creatures, also like a gladiator, for the amusement of the Illithid.

7. Vecna. In the TV series (season 4, episodes 4 and 7), Max and Nancy are inflicted by a curse inspired by the figure of Vecna. In my story, Will and Mike are inflicted by a curse inspired by the figure of Vecna.

8. Speaking humanoid more powerful than the Mind Flayer. In the TV series (seasons 4 and 5), the Big Bad (Vecna) who rules the Upside Down is smaller than the Mind Flayer but more powerful, and he speaks. In my story, the Illithid rules the Upside Down; he too is humanoid sized and speaks.

9. A major character dies and is soon after resurrected. That character is also blinded and crippled. In the TV series (season 4, episode 9), Max is killed by Vecna through the creature’s process of blinding and disfigurement. Max is then resurrected by Eleven into a coma state; if she comes out of her coma in season 5, she will be disfigured and (presumably) blind. In my story, Mike is killed by the Illithid and then raised back to life by the same creature. Much later the creature forces him to tear out his own eyeballs, and it also cripples his leg.

10. The End of the World. In the TV series (season 4, episode 9), multiple gates open in Hawkins, initiating the apocalypse — the “beginning of the end of the world”, as Vecna calls it. In my story, multiples gates open in Hawkins, blooming out across Indiana and many other states, initiating a shadow apocalypse — or, as my novella is titled, the “World’s End”.

Happy 40th: Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian is a special film for me. Released on May 14, 1982, it was my first R-rated experience in a theater, and did a wonder on my youthful sensibilities. Between scenes of graphic sex — especially Conan’s coupling with a vampire who goes rabid on him at the moment of orgasm — and a deluge of gore, I was utterly stupefied, and if not for the subject material which interested me, would have probably taken days to recover. Conan threw me into a world of lust and brutality I was so unprepared for at age 13, but it also felt like a real-life Dungeons and Dragons game. This was high adventure in which thieves robbed the temples of evil priests, rescued their victims, battled giant snakes, and stumbled on forgotten swords held in the clutches of cobwebbed skeletons — the kind of scenarios I fantasized about daily when throwing the 20-sided die.

Today it holds up well — astonishingly well, in fact, when compared to inferior PG cousins like Willow, Krull, Legend, and of course the abysmal sequel Conan the Destroyer. The ’80s gave fantasy such a bad name that I came to view Conan the Barbarian as a one-time exception in a genre flooded by cliche and hollow characters, and not until Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings would I be forced to revise my opinion. The first fifteen minutes alone make clear that Milius is about serious business and refuses to pull punches, as the young Conan witnesses his entire people slaughtered in a village raid, and his mother decapitated as he clings to her. Battles are so violent that the film feels like an historical epic instead of fantasy, as if Hyboria were exactly as Robert Howard intended: a mythic version of the ancient world, like Middle-Earth.

The film in fact anticipates Lord of the Rings in some interesting ways, but most fundamentally with the score. It is no exaggeration to say that Basil Poledouris’ compositions are amongst the most powerful ever written for any film, and this is agreed on by critics who aren’t terribly wild about Conan. Thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme play at just the right moments, and a gothic choir creeps in almost unnoticeably on the slow melodies. Then there is the waltz, one of my favorite pieces, for the orgy scene: the redundant movements fit perfectly over the sex, cannibalism, and Thulsa Doom polymorphing into a snake, and puts me in mind of Ravel’s Bolero. I still listen to this soundtrack as much as I do Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings, and am floored by how much talent Poledouris was able to poor into such an obscure project.

The acting performances are the film’s only liability, but not in a major way, and in Schwarzenegger’s case his poor talents actually work for him. His barbaric role demands little more than grunting out one-liners, swinging a sword, maiming foes, punching camels, and fucking women, and his Austrian accent somehow, amusingly, fits just right in this context. Dialogue is used frugally throughout the film in any case, so Conan’s companions (cast more for their athletic than acting talents) don’t come off terribly bad either. But James Earl Jones is genius, and he completely steals the show as Thulsa Doom, the high priest of Set based on Thoth-Amon from Howard’s books. Jones oozes malevolence with all the trappings of a hippy cult leader, hypnotizing with a stare, and commanding loyal followers to jump to their deaths on a whim. The snake theme is milked for all its worth, and considering production values of the early ’80s it’s a wonder how convincing the giant serpents are. Doom even shoots snakes from his longbow, and one of them of course kills Valeria, pushing Conan completely over the edge in his hunger for revenge.

In terms of its treatment of source material, Conan has been a bone of contention, pleasing and displeasing fans of the Howard classics in equal measure. Most everything is pastiche (Valeria is an acrobatic thief more like Belit instead of Howard’s pirate; the high priest of Set is named after a sorcerer who never even met Conan), distortion (the god Crom invites prayer-challenges and has a jovial side reminiscent of our viking gods, unlike Howard’s Crom who disdains all prayer as weak and is completely cheerless), or invention (Conan’s early years on the Wheel of Pain). As one who never got around to reading Howard’s books until much later, none of this could bother me, but my best friend knew Howard inside and out and loved the film as much I did. I’ve always believed that strict adaptations are too stifling (and again Lord of the Rings is instructive), and anyone with a good ear knows that the name of Thulsa Doom cuts deeper than Thoth-Amon.

For all it’s gravity and grim outlook, Milius’ film is not without humor. Conan praying to Crom and telling the god to fuck off is priceless. So is his punching the camel’s face. My favorite line is his answer to the question, “What is best in life?” You have to imagine Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent for the full effect: “Crush the enemy, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!” My friend and I got more mileage out of that ridiculous saying than it deserves, and it pretty much sums up Conan better than anything I can think of.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

 

This review is reposted, with some modifications, from a blogpost I wrote in 2011.

The Temple of Elemental Evil: “Children to the fire, men to the water, and women to the blackest evil”

The Temple of Elemental Evil holds an ambiguous reputation among grognards, ranging from great to mediocre. The naysayers feel that it didn’t live up to its potential. I’m not one of them. Even though Frank Mentzer took over from Gary, there’s enough Gary that comes through. This is quite unlike the case of Queen of the Demonweb Pits, which was utterly ruined by Dave Sutherland — though as we will see, both Temple and Queen omitted the same critical feature. In Queen‘s case the omission was disastrous; in Temple it was a missed opportunity. But more on that down below.

To be fair, I can see why the Temple bugs people. As a mega-dungeon it can be a real slog in the hands of a bad DM. But it’s not meant to be treated as a pure dungeon-crawl, with PCs going from one room to the next, slaying bugbear after gnoll after troll. No, this is a module of cold-war politics, involving cults within a cult, all at each others’ throats. If you like huge underground scenarios like that (The Lost City, Caverns of Thracia), then you should enjoy Temple of Elemental Evil.

Consider the four elemental priests. There’s Romag, curate of the Earth cult, determined to become the lead cleric of the whole Temple; Kelno, prefect of the Air cult, nursing bitterness and hatred for the Water and Fire factions, willing to bribe and bargain with anyone to take them down; Belsornig, canon of the Water cult, the most malicious and powerful of the four elemental priests, and currently holding the upper hand; and Alrrem, prefect of the Fire cult, in desperate straits, currently the underdog, though in quasi-denial about it, making arrogant demands on Romag to turn from the Earth and bend the knee to Fire. I run wild with NPCs like this.

Deeper on the fourth level are Barkinar and Deggum, who command the Troops and Guards; also Senshock the Lord Wizard, who thinks he’s above everyone (and with good reason); and Hedrack the Supreme Commander and High Priest, who can hardly enjoy his rank knowing it’s coveted by everyone (the elemental priests, as well as Barkinar).

This factionalism alone elevates the mega-dungeon over the standard hack-and-slash. And here are some other pluses:

1. The “long defeat”. The module extends the theme felt in The Village of Hommlet, as gleaned by James Maliszewski:

“I share with Tolkien the conception of history as a ‘long defeat’ and The Village of Hommlet touches on that theme obliquely — the notion that each generation must stare Evil in the face and bar the way of its advance, even if it’s ultimately just a holding action, for Evil can never truly be defeated in this life.”

That description applies no less to The Temple of Elemental Evil (though Maliszewski isn’t a fan of the Temple), and actually even more so. For look: vanquishing the Temple’s demoness is a foreordained failure. Not in a railroad sense; in this module players have all the agency in the world. It’s just too damn hard to kill Zuggtmoy — 99+% impossible, I’d say, like trying to kill Acererak in Tomb of Horrors. If they insist on trying, they stand a good chance of getting permanently stranded in the Nodes. If they can even locate the Orb of Golden Death, the trick to using it properly (to banish Zuggtmoy to the Abyss and make the Temple collapse into rubble) is all but impossible to figure out. Amusingly, the Goodman’s reincarnated module advises toning things down in order to give players a reasonable chance. I advise against that advice; it misses the whole point. Players are supposed to fail unless they’re exceptionally shrewd.

In fact, they stand a good chance of making things even worse. They could actually liberate Zuggtmoy from her interdicted prison, if they become so determined to break down the four gates in the belief that they’re doing what’s necessary. I put the odds of that outcome at about 50-70% for many players.

Which isn’t to say the PCs can’t do anything positive. They might, for example, succeed in putting down the resurgence of the Temple’s military forces. But that’s just a holding measure, putting off the inevitable day when those forces (yet again) regroup under the demonic power that remains. Hommlet is practically destined to remain under a shadow; it’s just a question of how dark the shadow.

In that sense The Temple of Elemental Evil is like Revelations, Tomb of Horrors, and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun — modules unapologetic in portraying Evil as mightier than Good, and making PCs realize how puny they are regardless of their level.

2. “Children to the fire, men to the water, and women to the blackest evil.” Frank Mentzer may have taken control of the Temple’s design, but he didn’t erase Gary’s influence. The Goodman’s Reincarnated version of the module shows a photocopy of Gygax’s original 1976 write up for the Temple’s setting, which Mentzer used almost word-for-word on pp 27-28 (under the historical notes that players obtain in the village of Hommlet). This is how Gygax described the elemental factions:

“The cult was based on the premise that the elemental forces of the universe are Chaotic and opposed to mankind, and are thus (from a humanocentric viewpoint) Evil. The Temple of the cult sought to destroy all works of Good and to disrupt order. Its members were thieves, assassins, brigands, and the like. Fire was regarded as the first elemental evil, and its penchant for Chaos fitted the premise of the cult. Water was likewise worshiped as an even more powerful force of Chaotic Evil, in the form of floods, storms, and raging seas beating upon the land and ocean vessels. The epitome of Chaotic Evil, however, was regarded as a combination of air and earth, represented by blackness and corresponding with the demonic Abyss. This combination was regarded as a complete negation of matter.

The cult grew powerful and rich, attracting followers of the worst sort and offering them safety within the walls of the Temple stronghold. From this fortress would the followers ride to rob, pillage, and lay waste the lands about, tithing the cult from the spoils of the carnage. Captives from those raids were brought back to the Temple to serve as human sacrifices (children to the fire, men to the water, and women to the blackest Evil) or to slave their lives away in bondage. Besides the extensive upper works of the Temple, a deep labyrinth beneath the place was constructed, but virtually nothing is known about these dungeons except that they were inhabited by a plethora of creatures serving Chaos and Evil. It is rumored that a demon took up abode in the deepest level, to better receive the sacrifices to it.”

It’s great stuff but Mentzer didn’t run with it. He reproduced it and then promptly ignored all the interesting parts (that I bolded). The ranking of the elemental powers and the sacrificial scheme — children to the fire, men to the water, and women to the blackest evil — never come into play. The prisoner cells of the Water cult (room 228a) contain four elves, one of them a woman. Those of the Fire cult (room 228b) hold three human men, not children. (Those of the Earth and Air cults are empty.) I would alter these occupants to reflect Gygax’s vision: three children in the Fire cult cells, four elvish men in the Water cult cells, and some women in either (or both) of the Earth and Air cult cells.

It’s a weird creepy scheme with a certain logic. If Fire is the weakest force, it makes sense that the cult would target the weakest victims (children). But if Air and Earth (combined) are more powerful than Water, then the implication is that the cult regards women as more powerful than men — or at least more dangerous than men. It’s a misogynist theology, and the Temple is a patriarchal cult after all.

Currently the Water faction has the upper hand, not Earth or Air — as everywhere, power politics don’t necessarily align with theology — though the Fire faction is indeed the weakest. The Earth faction has the most dungeon territory, and Air the least. Each cult, in other words, is distinctive (apart from the obvious elemental differences), and this can be exploited to paint a rich demented atmosphere beyond what’s presented in the encounter areas.

But it’s the one line especially, so criminally ignored by Mentzer, that haunts me: Children to the fire, men to the water, and women to the blackest Evil. Who else but Gary could have come up with that?

3. The Lolth connection. Yes, it’s there. It’s not an editorial oversight. The spider goddess Lolth has spies near Hommlet (Lareth) and in the Temple (Farlinth), which means there are a total of seven competing groups in the Temple, just as the module says (on p 29): four serving the Elemental powers, one serving Zuggtmoy (demon queen of fungi, who uses Elemental Evil as a cover for her own expansive purposes), one serving Iuz (demon lord of pain and oppression, loosely allied with Zuggtmoy), and secret spies serving Lolth (demon queen of spiders, who despises Zuggtmoy and the entire nature of the Temple). This has always raised the question as to why Lolth would invest her resources in the Temple, if she has no use for it. The answer — which never made it into Mentzer’s module — is that the Temple is also tied to Lolth’s arch-enemy: the Elder Elemental God.

That sickening Lovecraftian deity — barely even aware of its worshipers aside from the pain/pleasure it receives from blood sacrifice — is never mentioned in the module, but we know that Gygax intended a role for it. In the Oerth Journal he wrote:

“The Elder Elemental God was indeed meant by me to have a place in the very nethermost recesses of the Temple of Elemental Evil. An anomaly there allowed him to manifest a portion of himself.”

Thanks to Joe Bloch, we now have access to that nethermost area. Bloch designed a fifth level for the Temple in Beneath the Temple of Elemental Evil, which is a free downloadable. Room 503 (click on right map) is a shrine to the Elder Elemental God, like the ones found in The Hall of the Fire Giant King and Vault of the Drow. (Something you want to steer clear of, in other words, lest the deity’s Eye appear above the altar and render you insane, age you up to 20 years, fill you with bottomless rage, or simply kill you on the spot.)

It was precisely the anomaly (the altar to the Elder Elemental God) that Zuggtmoy found attractive for the construction of the Temple, as it made possible the creation of the elemental Nodes. As a goddess of fungi she was of course just piggy-backing on Elemental Evil as an efficient way to expand her own sphere of influence… but it worked very nicely for her.

The beauty to this is that The Temple of Elemental Evil now belongs to the G-D-Q series as it was likely intended from the start. It’s the first part of it, fitting like a glove, even level-wise. Characters can go from 1st to 8th level in the mega-dungeon of T1-T4, so that when they emerge they are high-leveled as required by the G, D, and Q adventures. When they take on the giants raids, they will probably be cleaning up their own mess. If they freed Zuggtmoy in the Temple (which as I said, is not at all unlikely), then the sundering of the wards will have also (partially) liberated the Elder Elemental God, who can once again grant his clerics spells (up to mid-level) and magic items to work his perverse will on the prime material plane.

The details of the Elder Elemental God are worked out in Joe Bloch’s two excellent supplements to the G-D-Q series, City of Spiders and Web of Souls. The first is a supplement to the masterpiece Vault of the Drow and the second is a replacement of the abominable Queen of the Demonweb Pits. These modules reveal how the Elder Elemental God can be fully liberated or (as the PCs want) fully imprisoned. They must locate the Final Anomaly, which can be accessed via Lolth’s domain on the 66th layer of the Abyss. But there’s a nasty catch: whoever permanently imprisons the deity does the same thing to him or herself — which is why Lolth can’t do the job, and must manipulate the PCs into the suicidal task.

Reinstating the Elder Elemental God in the Temple (as Gygax had intended) is what finally makes sense of Lolth’s involvement in the Temple, which has always confounded people. Reinstating the deity in Q2, the final confrontation with Lolth (as Gygax had intended in Q1) makes the final showdown with the spider goddess a much more interesting and complex one — and more importantly a believable one. The Elder Elemental God, after all, is the villain of the giants-drow series. Lolth becomes another villain only when the PCs discover that she’s up to something horrible during their quest to take down the Elder Elemental God as they trek through the Abyss.

The upshot: a much maligned module

For all these reasons — the factional intrigue, the epic hopelessness of trying to defeat the Temple’s Evil, the cult’s weird and disturbing theology, and Joe Bloch’s modules which brilliantly tie the T series with G-D-Q series — I’m rather a fan of The Temple of Elemental Evil.