The Alexandrian

Van Helsing - Peter CushingDH Boggs at Hidden in Shadows has put together an absolutely fascinating bibliographic analysis of the earliest versions of the turn undead ability in D&D.

The short version: Virtually no explanation of the “turn undead” ability was provided in the original edition of D&D. Boggs makes a strong case that the ability was only being used by Arneson’s Blackmoor group in Minneapolis and not being used by Gygax’s Greyhawk group in Lake Geneva. Gygax, therefore, gave the ability short shrift in compiling the 1974 rulebooks; this short shrift, in turn, resulted in people interpreting the ability in a way that was much more powerful than Arneson intended (or the Blackmoor group was experiencing). And the legacy of that power-up is something that the game is still dealing with 5+ editions later.

This is a great example of the “Ur-Game” of D&D, as I described it in my Reactions to OD&D several years ago.

What’s also interesting to me is how closely Boggs’ reconstruction of Arneson’s original rules mirror the house rules for turning that I posted here on the Alexandrian back in 2007. (These rules are still being regularly used in my 3.5 Ptolus campaign. And they’re great: Streamlined resolution paired with a range of effects which is less overpowered and, simultaneously, more interesting in the results it produces.)

Hack & Slash posted On the Visual History of the Illithid the other day and pointed out that, in the original Monster Manual, the portrait of the mind flayer was surrounded by an irregular octagon that was completely unique within that tome:

Mind Flayer - Monster Manual (1977)

“Although several creatures in the monster manual have borders, most are square. Only two other creatures, the Bugbear and Type V demons have octagonal borders and both of their borders are more regular. Each pane of the mind flayer border is of a different length, no two matching.” Which feels oddly appropriate, given the dimension-rending origins of the mind flayer in many versions of their mythos.

I was struck by the idea that you might be able to take that octagonal border and turn it into an iconic symbol or badge. An Icon of the Flayer. A couple dozen minutes of fiddling around in Photoshop gave me this:

Icon of the Flayers

Second Maiden's Tragedy

A fellow by the name of John Warburton was once a huge fan of Elizabethan theater. He spent a great deal of time collecting original manuscripts of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. By the time he was done, he had most likely accumulated the largest and most impressive such collection in the known world.

One day, John Warburton sat down to enjoy a nice pie that his cook had prepared for him. Stuck to the bottom of it he found a piece of paper with Elizabethan handwriting on it.

His cook had been tearing pages off the scripts and used them to cook pies on. And she’d been doing it for years. According to Warburton, dozens of scripts had been destroyed by his illiterate cook.

It’s a tale so horrifying that it could very easily be true.

Some, perhaps shying away from the idea of a cultural conflagration infinitely more pathetic than the Library of Alexandria, suggest that Warburton may have simply invented the story in order to claim greater treasures than he had ever truly possessed. But whatever the case may be, very few Elizabethan or Jacobean play scripts have survived to the modern day. The vast majority of the plays which have survived (including all of those commonly ascribed to Shakespeare) have done so in editions published during the 16th and 17th centuries shortly after they were originally performed. (The academic slogan of “publish or perish” has never rung quite so true.)

It should perhaps be noted at this juncture that the search for original Elizabethan play manuscripts is not merely an endeavor to fill reliquaries with interesting bits of historical trivia: Finding an author’s original manuscript would obviously and immediately resolve dozens or even hundreds of textual problems introduced by the text’s imperfect transmission through scribes and printers. (In cases where a text’s lineage can be tracked, it’s possible to trace the slow accumulation of its errors, like a game of Telephone played in slow motion across decades of history).

But of perhaps equal importance is the fact that in an era before ubiquitous printing and copying, plays were produced from handwritten scripts: Scribes would prepare a fair copy of the author’s foul papers. And then additional scribing would prepare handwritten sides for each actor (listing their cues and their lines).

These handwritten documents were the heart of Elizabethan theater. And the few of them that survive provide an invaluable and unique insight into how that theater operated.

The play most often referred to as The Second Maiden’s Tragedy survived to the 20th century only as a handwritten document. It was among those texts which survived Warburton’s cook, apparently being professionally bound by Warburton along with several other scripts into a volume which is now referred to as Lansdowne 807 in the collection of the British Museum.

And this script does, in fact, provide invaluable insight. For example, the reason the play is referred to as The Second Maiden’s Tragedy is because King James’ censor, George Buc, wrote on its back page:

This second Maydens tragedy (for it hath no name inscribed) may wth the reformations be acted publikely. 31 Octobr.
1611. /. G. Buc.

And throughout the script we can see the “reformations” (i.e. censorship) of Buc, and the exact ways in which he modified the play both in terms of form and content.

The script also served as the promptbook for the King’s Men. This tells us a lot about how much recorded detail the Jacobean theater felt was necessary for staging and re-staging a play, but it also tells us about how prompters wrote their cues and the physical format of the script (which can, in turn, tell us something about what Jacobean printers were looking at as they set the type for a playscript and, by extension, what information can be gleaned from the printed copies of those plays). For example, we can identify the play as having belonged to the King’s Men because the names of several actors have been written into the script’s cues by the prompter. This might seem like a small thing, but beyond its immediate import in terms of identifying the place of The Second Maiden’s Tragedy in history, it can inform in a broader sense.

In Romeo & Juliet, for example, there is a stage direction in the earliest printed versions of the play which reads “Enter Will Kemp”. Will Kemp was the name of the clown worked for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and for many years it was not uncommon to see commentators on the play conclude that Shakespeare wrote his characters with specific actors in mind (since he had referred to the character by the name of actor he intended to play him). It is certainly possible (and even likely) that Shakespeare did so. But as we can see from The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, it’s just as possible (and even likely) that Kemp’s name was added to the script by the prompter.

Another interesting feature of the Second Maiden’s Tragedy manuscript is the method of deletion: Although often individual words and lines will be struck out (in a familiar manner), longer passages (and some shorter ones) are frequently marked for deletion (by both the censor, the prompter, and the scribe) by simply placing a large X in the margin next to the offending text.

Turning to Romeo & Juliet again, we can find in the original printed versions of the text numerous passages which contain strange repetitions. For example, in Act IV, Scene 1, Friar Lawrence tells Juliet:

Then as the manner of our country is,
In thy best robes uncover’d on the bier
Be borne to burial in thy kindreds’ grave:
Thou shall be borne to that same ancient vault
Where all the kindred of the Capulets lie.

But with The Second Maiden’s Tragedy as our guide, we can hypothesize what happened. One of these lines was marked for deletion, but the mark for deletion was ignored (or misunderstood) by the compositor responsible for typesetting the play. The passage should be properly read as:

Then as the manner of our country is,
In thy best robes uncover’d on the bier
Be borne to burial in thy kindreds’ grave:
Thou shall be borne to that same ancient vault
Where all the kindred of the Capulets lie.

(This is a smaller example. Other examples in Romeo & Juliet can run to half a dozen verse lines or more before restarting.)

In short, The Second Maiden’s Tragedy is a fascinating document. It’s one which has been periodically picked up, examined, and re-examined countless times over the centuries since it was first written. But in the 1990′s, interest in The Second Maiden’s Tragedy suddenly spiked to a fever pitch.

And it was all because of a man named Charles Hamilton.

Go to Part 2

Originally posted August 2010.

A hodgepodge of updates about the site that you may find useful.


Many, many moons ago I updated the Alexandrian to WordPress. One of the things that got lost during that transition were the old index pages (like this one for RPG-related content). I was hoping to rebuild them quickly, but it turned out to be time-consuming and WordPress wasn’t friendly towards the formatting and… well, it didn’t happen.

It still hasn’t happened. But I have added a couple of indices that you may find useful: Gamemastery 101 (featuring links to the various adventure design essays, the Art of Running articles, open game table stuff, and Random GM Tips) and RPG Scenarios (including original scenarios and remixes for D&D, Gamma World, Orkworld, and Eclipse Phase). Links to these can also be found in the sidebar on the right.

I do try to make robust use of tagging and categories. Hopefully those, combined with the search function, will help you find other stuff quickly. But the primary utility of the indices is to make it easy for new readers to find the “big” stuff quickly, so hopefully I’ll find time to do more of these in the near-ish future.


I’ve added a Twitter feed to the right sidebar. If you’re also a twitterer, I would like to encourage you to do the thing where you stalk me online (or follow me or whatever). I don’t know if I’ll be saying anything as interesting as “the piercer is now the juvenile form of the roper”:


But if you find the things I say here vaguely interesting, you might find the things I say on Twitter vaguely amusing.


A few years back I ran a theater company called the American Shakespeare Repertory. Our primary project was the Complete Readings of William Shakespeare and while running that project I wrote a number of (hopefully elucidating) essays and posted them to ASR’s website. In the near-ish future, I’ll be shutting down ASR’s old website, so I’ll be transferring this old Shakespeare-related content here to the Alexandrian in the form of “Shakespeare Sundays” over the next several months.

Eternal Lies - Will Hindmarch, Jeff Tidball, and Jeremy KellerThe effect of prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures in Trail of Cthulhu is very straight-forward: Investigators are considered to be hurt, resulting in them suffering a +1 difficulty on all tests.

The designers of Eternal Lies had a desire to make exposure to extreme heat more mechanically interesting and they introduced a rudimentary heat track. I found their treatment interesting, but wanted something a little more robust (particularly when it came to treatment and recovery). These mechanics are specifically designed for desert travel.

(They’re also not exactly “untested”, but I don’t have a series of posts called “minimally tested”, so here we go.)


0. Not suffering heat.

1. Can only make spends after first resting for 10 minutes (to gather their thoughts and spirits).

2. Difficulty of contests +1 (including hit thresholds).

3. Difficulty of tests at +1.

4. Can only make 1 spend per day and must make it in the morning after a good night’s sleep, before the day’s temperatures begin to rise.

5. Cannot make any spends.

6. Can only refresh 1 Health per day. If Heat Track would advance, it remains at 6 but character suffers 1 damage.


Desert Travel: +1 Heat track per day. Characters who traveled during the day are considered to be under extreme heat conditions for the purposes of treating heat.

Camping: Characters who take a rest from traveling by camping for one full day are considered to be in favorable conditions for the purposes of treating heat.

Oasis: An oasis or similar place of significant respite may be considered “controlled conditions” for the purposes of treating heat.


A given character can be treated for heat once per day.

First Aid/Medicine in favorable conditions to prevent advancement or reduce position on the heat track by 1.

First Aid/Medicine (difficulty 3 + heat track) in extreme heat conditions to prevent advancement or reduce position on the heat track.

First Aid 1 / Medicine 1 in controlled conditions to bring an investigator back to 0.



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