Thursday, 30 April 2015

Ode to a Portable Hole

I remember the day I finally got my hands on the AD&D, DM’s book like it was yesterday. A guy I knew had snagged a copy when he had been in the UK, so I asked if I could borrow it, and miracle of miracles, he said, yes. He gave it to me before first period so I had no time to look at it, but as the RPG gods decreed, and as luck would have it, the fourth period teacher was off sick, so I had about 45 minutes to see what this was all about.

Man, there are certain light bulb moments in your life, and this was one of them; when things just click, and go BOOM. The cover, the weight of the thing, the thickness, even the smell, were just brilliant. At that stage, we had been playing the Mentzer rules only, and I was sort of acclimatised to how I thought D&D woud look. But that all went out the window when I saw what Gygax had created back in ’79 when I was still a nipper.

It was the iconic cover, the one we all know and love by David C. Sutherland III. It just set the tone from the get-go.  I opened it and flicked through the 232 pages in amazement. This looked as if it had been written by Professors! Finally something I could show my parents and make them understand that D&D was a serious game, not just some pew-pew facsimile we played every other weekend. (It didn’t work. Still hasn’t actually.)

The scope of what I was seeing was just unbelievable and I could feel my creative juices firing up, but then I saw it… and let me tell you, it was love at first sight.

My eyes stopped on page 152, about halfway down the page, nestled comfortably between ‘Pipes of the Sewers’ and ‘Quaal’s Feather Token’, a magical item that made me sit up and really take notice…it was the Portable Hole. I don’t know why, it just lit my imagination to no end. I was used to most magical items in D&D, but as cool as they were, they were no match for something as left field as this beauty was.

Portable Hole: A portable hole is a circle of magical cloth spun from the webs of a phase spider interwoven with strands of ether and beams of Astral Plane luminaries. When opened fully, a portable hole is 6' in diameter, but it can be folded as small as a pocket handkerchief. When spread upon any surface, it causes an extra-dimensional hole 10' deep to come into being. This hole can be "picked up" from inside or out by simply taking hold of the edges of the magical cloth and folding it up. Either way, the entrance disappears, but anything inside the "hole" remains. The only oxygen in the "hole" is that allowed by creation of the space, so creatures requiring the gas cannot remain inside for more than a turn or so without opening the space again by means of the magical cloth. The cloth does not accumulate weight even if its hole is filled with gold, for example. Each portable hole opens on its own particular non-dimensional space. If a bag of holding is placed within a portable hole, a rift to the Astral Plane is torn in the space, and the bag and the cloth are sucked into the void and forever lost. If a portable hole is placed within a bag of holding, it opens a gate to another plane, and the 'hole, bag' and any creatures within a 10' radius are drawn to the plane, the portable hole and bag of holding being destroyed in the process.

That was my touchstone moment and introduction into AD&D. Having a book like that, that contained such creative magical items made want to be a better DM. It still does actually.
It was a few weeks later and I was at the local library. It was a slow day and all the good stuff was gone so I picked up a copy of E.T. I presumed it was written after the movie came out. I hadn’t seen it at that stage, so I figured, what the hell, let me give it a bash. And lo and behold, there in Chapter Two was my dear friend, the portable hole.
They were playing D&D around the table, I can’t find what was in the book, but I did manage to get a copy of the screenplay and it had:

Okay then, so I run out of the
forest and I think I’ll shoot
just my arrows at the goblins
to make them chase me. I
keep running and shooting and
running and shooting and just
when they’re really mad and
about to get me… I throw down
my portable hole and climb in
and pull the lid closed.
Presto. Vanished.

Then later on the DM, Steve says:
You can only use a portable hole
once, you know?

And finally:
Okay, I can only let you stay in the
hole for ten millirounds, Elliott.

Not sure if it made it into the movie though, but fairly interesting none the less. So yeah, loved the book, loved the magic item, and still loving AD&D!


  1. The AD&D DMG is still one of my favorite game books after all of these years.

    When I first saw the Portable Hole entry, way back in the day, my first thought was, "Oh, they took this from Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes." (I was 9 or 10)

    My real light bulb moment was the Random Dungeon Generator, followed by Construction and Siege rules. For some reason I really liked siege towers and included one in the very first game I ran.

  2. The Dungeon Masters Guide is one of my three all-time favorite game books. The other two are the Players Handbook and Fiend Folio.

    Perhaps it's nostalgia or just plain laziness, but try as I might I just can't get into most of the newer games & systems. I'm currently playing 5E and Shadowrun, and frankly find them a bit overwhelming & underwhelming at the same time. There's just too much stuff going on, too many things to keep track of, too many rules defining too many options which oddly seems to only bog things down and limit game play.

    My first love is classic D&D, because anything really is possible. You get a few creative people together and the sky really is the limit. AD&D, of course, is more structured & well defined, with more rules & options. But unlike newer systems wherein rules & options seem to somehow define limits, the rules & options presented in AD&D expand the horizons of play.

    My first exposure to AD&D came during the summer of 1981. At the time my brother & I had been playing Basic. We'd heard of AD&D, but didn't know much about it. I was attending summer school and there was a kid in my class who would bring the Dungeon Masters Guide & Players Handbook with him every day. Just a glimpse of those covers was enough to sell me on this "advanced" version of the game! For whatever reason I didn't much care for that kid, so we never really talked much. But he did let me flip through those mesmerizing tomes. Needless to say, it wasn't long before I bought my own copy of the PHB, then my brother & I pooled our resources to get the DMG and we were off & running!

    As for the Fiend Folio, I know the Monster Manual is the iconic bestiary of not just AD&D, but the entire genre. But it just never grabbed me the way the Fiend Folio did...and still does. The nasties found within Folio's pages seemed so new & exciting. I also liked the fact that they were culled from White Dwarf, a great old mag. I used to spend over an hour on the bus & El (for the uninitiated, that's the elevated train) traveling to the only store I knew that carried it...and that was each way, mind you. But what really sets the FF apart are its illustrations, especially those of Russ Nicholson. He had an uncanny ability to pen those nasties exactly as I envision them in my mind's eye! The work of the other contributing artists is excellent as well. IMHO there is nothing in the Monster Manual or Monster Manual II that even comes close.

  3. John, thanks for sharing those memories.. The Fiend Folio is also a favorite of mine, and I know just what you mean. While on the subject, what was your favorite module?

  4. For classic, it has to be Keep on the Borderlands. To folks coming into the game today the premise may seem odd, maybe even stupid---monster condos within walking distance of the Great Keep. Doesn't make any sense! I mean, what are they all doing there...why don't they kill each other...or at least the strongest kill off the weakest & take their stuff...the way monsters do....and what's the deal with the evil shrine & its priests? But for players of my age (49), those questions don't need to be asked, let alone answered. KotB is what it is, the perfect module to cut your teeth on & learn the game. It was starting off point for more adventures than I can count. My brother, friends & I explored every nook-&-cranny of that map--the Great Keep, Caves of Chaos, hermit's lair, fetid swamp with its lizard men lairs, web strewn pine grove infested with giant spiders, secret brigands' camp in the dark forest... And then there were the adventures of our own imagining, all set in the area around the Great Keep. I'm fortunate to still have a few old maps I made--some detailed dungeon or temple designs, others spur of the moment skirmish outlines. Yep, it's gotta be Keep on the Borderlands because of the endless hours of high adventure it provided!

    Talking Advanced, we used Village of Hommlet similarly to KotB--an old stand-by we went back to again & again!

    You may find it odd that I chose two low level mods, but the fact is I think the group I played with was a little odd. Although as hungry for treasure and magic weapons as the next party, we never really had an appetite for leveling up. Our adventures were typically violent hack-&-slash affairs and we rarely survive long enough to rise higher than perhaps 4th or 5th level...and that never seemed to bother us! We occasionally did play higher level modules...Ghost Tower of Inverness, White Plume Mountain, Queen of the Demonweb Pits come to mind. But those were one offs using pre-gens or PCs rolled specifically for those adventures. Of those, White Plume Mountain was easily my favorite.

  5. I am also partial to Keep, and have written about it a few times. Never played Hommlet though, or white plume. I managed to snag it from Noble Knight, along with Queen, Giants and Slavers. I am hoping to string them along into one huge campaign. Well, that's the plan anyway, whether it pans out or not...

  6. I believe I started following your blog after reading a piece you wrote on the Keep! And that campaign idea sounds pretty cool. Good luck with it! Another oldie but goodie is Judges Guild's Dark Tower, a true classic. On a related note...

    I belong to Over the Hill Gamers, a local gaming group. In early June we're hosting a one day event called OldCon featuring 10 different gaming session from a variety of genres (Trail of Cthulhu, Traveller, Gamma World, Dragon Age, AD&D 1e and several 5e events) on the schedule. I'm going to run an AD&D 1e session featuring Dark Tower. I threw that module out as an idea because I remember it fondly from the last time I played it...30 odd years ago. Several people responded enthusiastically, so it got scheduled. Trouble is, reading it over in preparation I'm finding it's more complex than I recalled and not as suited to a single session event as I thought. So now I'm in the process of figuring a way to narrow its focus. In retrospect, White Plume Mountain might have been a better choice, definitely easier to run. But I'm looking forward to the challenge. Dark Tower is recommended for 7th-11th level PCs, so we'll use pre-gens. To lend an added level of old school authenticity I plan to pull the pre-gens from The Rogues Gallery. Familiar with that old TSR supplement?

  7. The Rogues Gallery? I am now, but when I was kid it was just one of those cool products TSR would advertise in the back of their books. There was zero chance of me ever finding it in SA, especially as it would have been an older product when gaming became big over here. It would go on my wishlist along with just about everything else they would advertise. But thanks to the internet and companies like Noble Knight, my wishlist get smaller each year! Dark Tower is going to be a tough one, but I am sure they will have an absolute blast playing it. I have a hankering to start playing OD&D using the Chainmail rules for combat. I have been thinking about it for a while now, so I guess it may just be time. But AD&D for me is where it's at. I love the rule-books so much. In fact, my editions from the 70's have stood up better to the test of time than the reprints done in the 80's. My UA is on its last legs, so is my DM's (the one with mage throwing open the doors) but my originals are still going strong. A module i used to run a fair bit, many years ago, was The Tomb of the Lizard King. I always really enjoyed that one. So, when you run Combat in AD&D, by the book? Or some judicious hand waving?

  8. I never had The Rogues Gallery back in the day either, although I’ve picked up a .PDF since I got back into gaming. I knew it contained a ton of pre-gen NPCs, but was never aware that the entire last section was filled with detailed descriptions of the original PCs run by the folks who developed D&D! If my brother & I been had known that, we’d surely have gotten our hands on a copy. It’s this last section of the supplement that I plan to pull my Dark Tower pre-gens from.

    As for AD&D combat, I don’t know anyone who runs it strictly by the book. From what I understand not even ol’ EGG himself did it that way! Like most folks, I play combat a little loose…spell casting & time keeping too. Which is not to say I just make things up, but rather I apply the most basic rules along with common sense (i.e., in combat I use initiative, but don’t bother with weapon speed factors & encumbrance; during spell casting I adhere verbal & somatic requirements but typically ignore material components unless it’s a special or particularly powerful spell, likewise casting times unless the spell is unusually long; and as for timekeeping, I guesstimate), exercise DM fiat when issues arise and always try to be consistent. As I intimated previously, I’m not a fan of complicated rules or number crunching which I think interfere with story & game flow. A simpler system that makes sense & works efficiently will always trump a clunky one attempting to perfectly simulate reality, at least in my book.

    Your experience with your UA sounds typical. My own UA and a few other goodies were lost to wherever lost things are lost to during my hiatus from gaming (1992-2013). Pages started falling out long before it showed any signs of real wear-&-tear. My MMII, another book with a rep for not aging well, survived in near perfect condition. But that’s mainly because there is very little in it I like, so it almost never got used it.

    Regarding OD&D, I’ve never played using the little brown books and especially not by the Chainmail combat rules. But I've read through them and am sure it would be fun to try. I hope you’re able to pull it off! On a related note, Chainmail’s jousting rules look pretty wild. I always thought it would be cool to have a tourney using them. Also like its explanation of alignment, which I believe is referred to as “line up” and described as a sort of rule for making battle orders. It says something to the effect you can’t distinguish between good & evil, only law (order?), neutrality & chaos (disorder?). That’s a little different than classic D&D, in which I’m pretty sure law is presupposed to be good and chaos evil, and more along the lines of how I run my classic games.

    Finally, thanks for the module recommendation. I’ve never played Tomb of the Lizard King, but it just so happens I have a .PFD copy! One of these days I’ll have to give it a go.