Recently in the "Reference Desk" Category

Don Featherstone, 1918-2013


NavalWarGames_Featherstone.jpgIt's interesting how discoveries are often serendipitous.

I've long had a fascination with the history of role playing games, and have recently been delving into the history (and prehistory) of the role playing hobby. In the course of my reading, famed "Appendix N" author Fletcher Pratt's 1940's vintage naval war game rules were mentioned several times as being popular and influential in the wargaming scene of the 1960s. Additionally, Pratt's games just sound fascinating; they often occupied the floor of an entire ballroom, with people crouching on the floor sighting their targets and pointing little paper arrows to indicate their intended direction of cannon fire. People running submarines were relegated to another room.

I wanted to track down a set of these rules to see what all the fuss was about back in the early '60s when the rules were revived by the wargaming scene of the time (particularly by a couple of Midwesterners by the names of Arneson and Gygax). I don't plan on playing Pratt's naval war game, but I was interested in reading the rules partly out of historical interest and partly to mine for ideas for my own game designs. Well, original copies of the rules proved difficult to find, but I came across a book called "Naval War Games" by British author Don Featherstone, which contained a summary and restatement of Pratt's rules, along with a number of other rulesets used to simulate different eras of naval warfare.

Well, I ordered the book and it arrived on August 31. Published in 1965, it's a time capsule of an era in gaming I was not around to experience. I did a little more research and found that Mr. Featherstone was 95 years old and had authored dozens of books on wargaming. He was also none too fond of the introduction of fantasy elements into wargaming, which put him at odds with a certain gaming trend of the mid '70s. In fact, in his 1975 book "Skirmish Wargaming," Don refers to a concept in which players assuming the role of a single character on the gaming table as "Individual Wargaming," which given the timing of the book (published one year after Dungeons & Dragons), can't help but seem like a snub to role playing games.

In any case, a few days later, I checked the Wikipedia entry to review Featherstone's bibliography, only to find that he had passed away on September 3. Thanks for your contributions to the hobby, Don, even if I was late to the game.

Featherstone, Donald F. Naval War Games; Fighting Sea Battles with Model Ships. London: S. Paul, 1965. Print.

A Field Guide to the Little People


"A Field Guide to the Little People" by Nancy Arrowsmith and George Moorse is a great little book in the "fairies and elves" genre of the '70s. Published in 1977, this book is structured like a naturalists' field guide. It describes approximately 80 creatures, divided into Light Elves, Dark Elves, and Dusky Elves. Each creature entry begins with an overview of its place in folklore, followed by a description of the creature's physical appearance and habitat. Many of the entries also include a few short folktales to put the creature in their cultural context.


What really sets this book apart and makes it one of my favorites is the layout and artwork. First of all, the section headers in the book are calligraphy instead of type. The true stars of the book, however, are the pen and ink illustrations. They're done in a loose, gestural style that complements the primitive darkness inherent in much of the folklore described in the book. They're occasionally indistinct, like the vague afterimage of a nightmare left after waking. These are not sweetness-and-light pastel watercolor fairies. These are the dark, mischievous and occasionally downright evil creatures that lurk in the dark corners of the Dark Ages. In some ways, the illustrations remind me a bit of Goya's phantasms in "Los Caprichos," but that is another post for another time.


I bought this book a number of years ago and always loved the illustrations, but it was only recently that I realized that the illustrator, Heinz Edelmann, is the artist responsible for the visual design of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" animated film. Now, I'm not exactly the world's biggest Beatles fan, but as a kid, I always thought the psychedelic visual design of that film was, well, more than a little creepy (just look at the Blue Meanies and the giant pointing hand and you'll see what I mean). The fact that the same artist is responsible for the disturbing, primitive and borderline obscene creatures found in this book confirms that Edelmann had a knack for combining the whimsical and the disturbing.


Several of my favorite illustrations from the book are reproduced here, including the Night Elves (which look like they're straight out of a Goya etching), the Rusalka from the Ukraine and the Callicantzaro and the Koutsodaimonas from Greece. There are too many excellent illustrations in the book to reproduce here, so I recommend picking up a copy if you feel so inclined. Who knows, maybe I'll do my own interpretation of one of the creatures from this book at some point.

Arrowsmith, Nancy, and George Moorse. Illus. Heinz Edelmann. A Field Guide to the Little People. New York: Pocket, 1977. Print.

Weighing In...


In the ongoing quest to quantify the imaginary, I found myself wondering if there's a way to approximate the weight of a monster. I came across an article at the University of Arizona's website which provides formulas used in the estimation of livestock weight. They seemed like they might be useful in the approximation of monster weights. For the math behind the formula, check out the article.

Basically, to approximate the weight, you need two cross sectional diameters and the length of the torso (in feet). We'll use the monsters in the above sketch as an example. The illustration depicts an intrepid adventurer fighting off a razorbacked wormhound while a giant orthoceras surfaces behind him. Depending on which way the combat goes, it's either crunchy monster snack time or the knight is going to be having king-size calamari for dinner.

We'll start with the orthoceras (my favorite extinct nautiloid cephalopod). If the adventurer is approximately 6' tall, then the orthoceras is approximately 18' long and has a cross sectional diameter of 3' at the front tapering towards the back. So the numbers we'll use in the calculator are: 3, 1 and 18. JavaScript crunches the math for us and we find that the giant orthoceras is approximately 2,302 lbs, which seems reasonable for an eighteen foot armored squid.

Now we'll turn to the wormhound. I'll approximate that the creature's torso is 3.5' in length and the relevant cross sectional diameters are 2' and 1'. Plugging those numbers into the calculator gives us an estimated weight of 298 lbs., which also seems reasonable.

Is this useful? Probably not. Are these results scientifically accurate? No. Are they based on real world principles? Certainly. But when your gaming group insists on dragging that monster corpse back to town to the village taxidermist as a trophy, you can give them an idea as to how difficult the task will actually be.

Monster Weight Calculator
All measurements in feet
Cross Sectional Diameter 1:
Cross Sectional Diameter 2:
Torso Length:
Monster Weight (Pounds):

Pater, Susan. "How Much Does Your Animal Weigh?" Backyards & Beyond. 1.3 (2007): 11-12. Print.

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