Monday, December 31, 2007

Dreams are slippery stuff...

But here's my best effort to make sense of one.

Try to imagine for a moment what the world of 1985 looked like to someone born in just before the turn of the 20th century, in 1899. The Old Timer's life was like that but even more so. The 21st century turned out to hold even more changes for humanity than the previous one.

No one had been in the Space Service longer than he had, the Old Timer was present right at the founding. With almost fifty years in, everybody assumed that he used some sort of secret clout to stay on active duty long after the mandatory retirement age. Every year on his birthday he would go to the officer's lounge and chew the fat with the latest batch of academy brats. He would amaze them of tales of the Bad Old Days. Those kids would be amazed to hear of a world without interstellar travel. When he was a kid on one system was inhabited by humans, not the forty we have today! And on Earth instead of a unified planetary government we had dozens of independant political units! Terraforming hadn't been invented yet, so everyone breathed poisoned air, even on the planet we evolved on!

Once, a few birthdays back, he mentioned that his favorite change were the six Earthlike worlds with proper stocks of fish. He could catch a salmon or tuna and chop it up for sushi right on the spot. A terrible slip. The Old Timer had forgotten that meat eaters were considered something like serial killers these days. Fortunately he knew one of the captain's fathers and the incident hadn't been reported. There's no such thing as a fishing license on any of the Earthlikes and his little sushi expeditions were all technically criminal.So that's the gist of the dream, minus the crazy stuff like the fact that the officer's lounge on an exploration spaceship happened to look exactly like my high school chemistry lab, or that the redheaded gal playing Danny Boy on the piano wore here keyboard around her waist, like some sort of portable Sy Snootles gear. Oh, and computers were no longer called computers. They were all "googles". Load the Navigation program into the Google-3, we're ready to plot our jump.

But anyway, the basic idea seems to have been that we go from the world we know to a standard Traveller single subsector set-up in the course of one lifetime. The oldsters in the campaign would remember the bygone days of Britney Spears and reality TV, but everyone would live in a world much more like Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

...and we're back.

So I've been mostly internets-free during my Xmas festivities. How are things going, internets? I'm working off a crappy connection right now so I can't do images or even things like font changes and italics. Maybe I'll be able to tart up this post tomorrow. [Update -Added some pics and stuff 1/1/08]

Two of the cool presents I got seem to me to be very suitable to prospective Nobilis GMs. I know I'm behind the curve on trendy videogames, but Katamari Damacy strikes me as a perfect exploration of the dysfunctional relations ship between a Noble PC and a crazy Imperator boss. The King of All Cosmos is a great template for a testy and inexplicable Imperator to keep the PCs lives interesting. Anyone who runs Nobilis ought to check out that beautiful little console gem. Heck, anybody who likes quirky little videogames should check it out. The other game that might be of use to Nobilis GMs is En Garde!, the oldey moldey proto-RPG (1st edition 1975) of 17th century gentlemen of adventure. Like Nobilis everyone is ostensibly fighting some sort of war, but the real action is at court, with political intrigues, deadly duels, and romantic entanglements. A look at how players can pimp each other over in grand old France might serve a Nobilis GM well. Or combine these two items, replacing the King of France with the King of All Cosmos, for extra crazy-go-nuts fun!

Tomorrow I'll tell you all about this little Traveller setting idea that came to me in a dream. For reals.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Christmas Box

Every family has its share of idiosyncratic Christmas traditions. When my wife (then fiancée) first told me about her family's Christmas Box thing, I immediately fell in love with it. Each member of the family takes a box, like maybe the kind copier paper comes in, and decorates it. Making your box as hideous as possible is recommended. In the past I've done things like print out screengrabs from Decemberween cartoons and glue them to the box, or crayon-colored scans of various Erol Otus art. This year I took an box (my in-laws maintain wishlists, making Chrsitmas shopping super-easy) and went for a simple magic marker on cardboard look:

Rupert the Christmas Spider was made up on the spot. No doubt he saves Christmas at some point, possibly by catching the Cold Miser in a web.

When Christmas Day arrives everyone puts small and cheap extra gifts into the various boxes, in addition to your "real" present. Various items like novelty pencils, various trade convention freebies, random flavors of Jones Soda, Dover Thrift Editions of great works of literature, lotto tickets, and inevitably someone gets a can of olives. I don't know why someone gets olives, some sort of cryptic family in-joke. In the past someone usually buys one of each tabloid on the local newstand and we would all take turns reading the ridiculous stories found therein, but this year it won't be the same without the Weekly World News.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Wi+ches & Wiz_rds 4: George Barr

I had no idea who George Barr was before I started this article series, but he's seven shades of awesome. And he's been doing sci-fi and fantasy art for a long time. For more Barr goodness beyond the brief selection below check out either this fan site or Barr's official site, The Enchanted Thingmajig.
The little guy on the left is what goblins are going to look like in my next D&D campaign.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Quote of the Day and micro-review

Harry Harrison's Deathworld trilogy, Frank Herbert's Dune series and many of the most successful episodes of Star Trek owe part of their appeal to a common factor aside from well-created characters and plotline. Each work shares a common premise: the heroes (Jason dinAlt, Paul Muad'dib and Kirk/Spock/Bones et al., respectively) are thrust into an unepxected situation completely new and alien to them, a situation which must be understood before it can be changed, or at least escaped. The protagonists enter these situations through little or no choice of their own: they are not asked to become involved , they are not paid for their services, and their major reward at the end of their endeavors is that they regain power over their own destiny. As the characters interact with the environment, and begin to recognize the nature of the challenge to face, the reader/viewer also learns the same facts, and can make his/her own guesses about the proper course to be taken. This formula makes for gripping and exhilarating science fiction adventure.

-from Lee's Guide to Interstellar Adventure, by Gregory Lee, published by Gamelord, Ltd. back in '83. Bolding mine. Lee's Guide is a great little book of ten worlds full of Traveller adventure. Each world is given a UPP range like this:

Port X-E Atmo 0-3 Pop 0 LL 0
Size Any Hyd 0-2 Gov 0 TL Any

So you can drop any of these planets into your own campaign. Each world is given one or more possible locations in both the Spinward Marches and Solomani Rim. Very useful stuff. You can get a cheap copy of this book and several other Gamelords classics from ol' Tadashi at his Different Worlds pages. Linky.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Wi+ches & Wiz_rds 3: The Unsettling Art of Buburuz

These pieces by Cathy Buburuz remind me a bit of Erol Otus, in that stylization trumps realism, allowing for eerie effects that maybe wouldn't translate well had the pieces been done in the Renfaire Fantasy tradition of Easley and such. Also, holy crap Yog-Sothoth is wrapping a tentacle around Saturn!

Double dog dare to all the DMs out there: Next time you use nagas in your game, show the players the picture above or below this text.

Buburuz's spiders creep me the hell out.

A spaceship flying through space? Best post-Kirby use of inexplicable space-dots I've ever seen.

This tower or one like appears in several images. I am totally writing an adventure around it.

Apart from the facial hair this 4-armed person looks feminine to me. A four-armed mutant hermaphrodite wizard, perhaps? The king/queen of the strange tower? Are those eyes closed or are they angry pupiless orbs?

So this Catherine Buburuz artist seems totally rad to the max to me. Judging by the few pieces I have it seems to me that she's got something unique to share and the means to articulate it to the audience. That's a lot more interesting to me than one more pic of a dude with a sword throwing down with a dragon. Not that I'm against that sort of thing.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Wi+ches & Wiz_rds, part 2: The Centaur Files

As I stated yesterday I don't really dig too much on the anthropomorphic animals. However, I do think that centaurs are pretty cool. Here are the five such critters I found on my Witches & Wizards clipart CD-ROM.I like this dude's look, but I can't help but think he's short at least one pair of legs.

Dinocentaur! This piece is by George Barr, who will get his own post in this series.

I'm pretty sure I've seen stats for a wolf-headed wolftaur somewhere. An Arduin Grimoire, maybe?

Is this art from that old centaurs & swashbucklers RPG? What was that called, Lace & Steel? If memory serves that was the first game I ever heard of that had formal social combat rules, which were mapped directly onto the fencing system.

Hidden amidst the furry cheesecake were a couple dragons and this pic of a centaur. I kinda like the color scheme and the hairdo is nifty.

My old foe, Hot Sauce Packet.

He thought I was killed after the fracas with the SMERSH-affiliated pirogies.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

two answers without context

1) IIRC, it's a command to the inexplicable giant claw to seize the intruder.


Sorry it took me a while to get back to both of you.

Wi+ches & Wiz_rds, part 1

Back around '98 or so I bought a CD-ROM full of fantasy clipart. Here's what it looks like:

You see he's casting a spell while casting the sword.

At the time I got it I quickly found a suitable Slinky Vampiress image for the con flyer I was working on and pretty much forgot I had the thing for a decade or so. I rediscovered the disc in my most recent move and today on a lark I flipped through the whole dang disk. From the looks of it I was expecting folders full of traditional renfaire fantasy illos. I opened the folder labeled "Animals" expecting to find unicorns and dragons and such. Instead, I got a few hundred pics like this:

No comment.Smoldering cheetah temptresses aren't really my bag, but I decided to check out the other folders anyway. Turns out there's some really neat stuff on the disk as well, which I plan on sharing with all y'all over the next few days. Take, for instance, Conan totally throwing down on a lion!

So let me get this straight.  The adventure is called the Tower of the Elephant but the first encounter is with a lion?  REH must be one of those DMs that love to mess with your head.

More cool images later in the week.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Increbidle Cross-sections

In a big dungeon designed for multiple forays (perhaps as the campaign centerpiece, like Castles Greyhawk and Blackmoor were) it can be very useful for the DM to do a little vertical mapping. This sort of info is especially handy when the PCs start digging their own tunnels or when a teleport goes awry. Here are some examples of the sort of thing I'm talking about.

The original sample cross-section, from OD&D Volume 3:

One of the awesomest examples in the field comes from the '78 Basic Rules, the so-called Blue Book version of D&D. Dig that skull-faced dungeon entrance!

I am just childish enough to put green slime in the nose-chamber."The Pit" is the sort of feature that is absolutely necessary for a good megadungeon. Quick access to lower levels is important later in the campaign, as higher level PCs will bore of constantly having to traverse levels 1, 2, and 3 just to reach the 'real adventure' beyond. And any low level party bold enough to make the descent into the Pit deserves whatever treasure they can wrest from level 6!

Here's my man Erol Otus with his sample cross-section from the '81 Basic Rules. What's extra cool about this example is that it ties in directly with the sample level provided, making this chart a blueprint for fleshing out the rest of the Haunted Keep dungeons.

Here's the cross-section from module B4 The Lost City. That module is wicked cool. It's a great example of a sword & sorcery/lost world outing and is easily expandable into a full-fledged campaign.

For a scan of one DM's use of cross-sections, check out the "Dungeon Elevations" pics at grodog's Castle Greyhawk Archive.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

a grab bag of bloggery

I had a dream last night that I was trying to develop Bacon Mail armor. The idea was that the uncooked bacon would protect you and if a dragon breathed fire on you it would cook the bacon. And who doesn't like bacon? The first test under dungeon conditions established that even in my dreams a suit of bacon is an inadequate source of protection in combat. Undaunted, I set to work on a set of normal armor with bacon plated on the outside of it.
Confucius must have been feeling particularly stand-offish the day he wrote this fortune cookie:
Image courtesy the Peking Garden.
Local item: The bank and I parted ways last week. Anyone with a leg up on employment prospects in the area please email me at jrients to the gmail dot com. Please no comments on this matter, as I already used up my monthly allotment of blog-pity with last week's post on the death of my uncle.
Last year, in one of my more grandiose moments of bloggery, I unilaterally declared that I owned the coolest dicebag in the universe. I was wrong. I now own the coolest dicebag in the universe. As a fundraiser my daughter's school partnered up with a company that will put student's artwork on various and sundry items, such as a drawstring bag. Dig it:

Let's get a close up, shall we?

That, my friends, is a six-legged, three-eyed FLYING unicorn as drawn by my little sweetpea. And it holds more dice than my old sack.
Comic bloggers greater than I have already written much about I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets, the volume of twisted Fletcher Hank comic reprints. I just want to share my three favorite panels from the book. The first two need no context whatsoever.

This last panel shows Big Red McLane ("King of the North Woods" and my new idol for sheer damn manliness) disappearing behind the horizon. Meanwhile, he beat the guy in the foreground so hard that he now seems to genuinely appreciate the pummeling!

Big thanks to Pat for lending me his copy of this awesome work.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

quote of the day

"Rosenberg’s First Law of Reading: Never Apologize for Your Reading Tastes."

-reputedly posted above the service desk of the public library of Downer's Grove, IL

my uncle died yesterday

He was terminally ill, but it just sort of happened yesterday. I wasn't expecting it quite so soon, mostly due to deep denial. This is going to sound way more emo than it is, given that my own childhood was better than 99.999% of everyone in the world, but Uncle Jim was the only grown-up who understood me as a child. He was my lifeline to the world of stupid fun geek stuff. He understood that is was okay to not outgrow thinking about faraway lands and spaceships and stuff like that. Uncle Jim was the first guy who ever spoke to me in that Long John Silver pirate voice we all use every September. He once told me he'd take a job cleaning toilets on the Enterprise just so he could zoom around in space. He was a fun guy and a good man.

Sometimes over the years I got the impression that some of my relatives thought I was a damn weirdo. It was never that way with Jim. And then there was the Thanksgiving that my friend Fred couldn't make it to his home for the holiday so I brought him with me. I got a distinct vibe that some of my relations started to suspect that I was gay after that. Which was kinda weirding me out at the time but in retrospect I find the whole thing pretty funny. So now I'm rambling.

I'll just end this post with this: Those of you or bought and/or downloaded Asteroid 1618, my Encounter Critical module, can look on page 2 and see that fake author "A.J. Putnam" dedicates the book to his uncle Jim. A.J. Putnam may not exist but that dedication is as genuine as anything I've ever written.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

this ad is annoying me

From ODD74:
I have no agency and I must scream.What is the message here? "Hey, fanboy! You like the Dungeons & Dragons? Then check out this chick's crotch!"? I understand that gratuitous displays of flesh are part and parcel of the art direction of the hobby, but this particular example is about as vulgar as you can get without going for outright nudity. Hell, there's plenty of ways a completely nude female could be used in a more tasteful ad.

Monday, December 03, 2007

What Went Wrong

or Why Jeff Got Burnt Out

I'm starting to suspect that I unintentionally set myself up for failure over the course of the last few campaign attempts. Simple common sense indicates that I should have taken a good long break after Wild Times, my 18-month 3.5 campaign. It was a lot of fun but it was also a lot of work. I didn't because I was riding a very good vibe and didn't want to give that sensation up. So I tried soldiering on and the result was a series of half-baked campaigns that had strong moments and weak moments: Sky Pirates of Eberron, Beyond Vinland, and Rebel Scum. I should probably also throw my Home Team superhero outing onto the smoldering pile of relatively recent campaign corpses. Simple exhaustion was clearly a factor at work, but I think other problems also contributed to me taking a time out on GMing.

What made Wild Times work and the others not so much? Let's take each of the others in turn and try to find their weak points.

Home Team: Tried two systems (Heroes Unlimited, Mutants & Masterminds) and wasn't comfortable with either. Building opposition was a chore. I still don't know how to construct effective adventure sessions that emulate superheroics.

Sky Pirates: Building opposition was a chore. None of the published adventures enthused me. The aerial pirate angle was not completely thought through. Part of the group wanted to ignore the hierarchy of shipboard life, the other part wanted to use it as a springboard for inter-party rivalry. Personal issues beyond the scope of the campaign also intruded.

Beyond Vinland: Building opposition was a chore. Adapting a published adventure felt a bit like cheating when I was trying to develop my own setting. Not using published adventures increased the workload considerably and each week I had to choose between working on the next adventure or fleshing out the campaign world.

Rebel Scum: Building opposition was a chore. (See a pattern here?) Lack of familiarity with the non-D&D subsystems. Some difficulty lining up Star Wars style heroics with hack and loot oriented players.

Looking this list over, it feels like I ended up with the worst of both worlds. Heavy systems without the support of modules and such can work just fine, but not necessarily for me. Family commitments all too often trump prep time. Wild Times worked, at least in part, because I let published modules do the heavy lifting for at least the first half of the campaign. The Bandit Kingdoms, my most successful campaign of the 90s, worked because I was running AD&D and by then I could do many of the necessary operations in my head or just fudge it. Even then I ran some published stuff.

So I think going forward I need to look at running games where I rely heavily on product support, such as the string-of-modules-as-campaign model, or else I need to use systems that will not punish me as harshly for GMing on-the-fly. Star Wars Saga Edition is still super-cool in my book, but the product support isn't there the way it is with something like Traveller (which has the advantage of being both well-supported and suitable to seat-of-pants GMing). We had a lot of fun with 3.5, but for it to work for me I need a stack of adventures to serve as a jumping off point. Or I can dump product support and run simpler systems like OD&D, Encounter Critical, or Traveller sans the 3rd Imperium support. Another option in the supported column would be the Plot Point books for Savage Worlds. I have one entry in the series, Andy Hopp's Low Life. It is a true gem. And Savage Worlds is pretty forgiving on improvisational GMing.

So I guess right now I see three categories of games that I could run: Heavy, But Supported; Light and Improvisational; and Light and Supported. Each has its advantages. My current playgroup has been very fond of the whole "game mastery" concept associated with 3.x play. They enjoy optimizing characters and becoming savvy with the combat rules. That suggests Heavy, But Supported would be well-received by the players. Light and Supported might also work, as the exploration-of-setting thing inherent to say, the Spinward Marches, might give them something else to grab hold of and wrestle to the ground. Light and Improvisational would probably be the hardest for the current group, as we've all been trained to think of the mechanics as What We Can Do. To be handed an OD&D fighter with no skills, no feats, no nothing and then be told to go do stuff might cause mental whiplash.

And now, a list:

Heavy, But Supported

3.0/3.5 with string o' modules, such as Dungeon Crawl Classics
3.0/3.5 with Wilderlands and/or Worlds Largest Dungeon
AD&D with string o’ modules
HackMaster w/modules

Light and Improvisational

Encounter Critical
Traveller w/homemade subsector

Light and Supported

OD&D with Verbosh and other musty old JG stuff
Gamma World 1st or 2nd with modules
Boot Hill with modules
Traveller w/3rd Imperium
Encounter Critical w/Asteroid 1618 & stuff
Savage Worlds w/Low Life or other Plot Point adventure
Marvel Superheroes w/modules
Rules Cyclopedia with modules & Gazetteers

The Traveller w/homemade subsector option could actually work as a conversion of the Star Wars campaign. Set the PCs loose in a subsector with the simple charge to "cause trouble for the Empire" and go. But if I was going to go with Trav, I also have a half-baked idea that could work to thematically tie together a string of modules set in the Spinward Marches.

Saturday, December 01, 2007