Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Year in Awesome

Man, '08 was a great year for gaming. Here's some of my favorite stuff.

The Joys of Small Cons


I got to three local cons this year, two of which I was able to run some fun games at. Winter War continues to be the big event of my gaming year. Anybody willing to brave Illinois weather in early February is welcome to sling dice with me at next year’s ‘War. Just down the road is Flat Con, another great little con even if they do run it in a bigass warehouse-type space. I went to I-Con in Springfield for the first time. That last one was kind of a bust; apart from finding an old Gamma World module at one of the dealer’s tables I didn’t see much to interest me. The obvious solution here is to go again next year and run some stuff.

Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom

S. John Ross has pretty much ruined my chances of ever being a stalker of game designers by being so dang accessible online. It’s just hard to sustain that special level of maniacal devotion required for creeper uber-fandom when you can just send the guy an email and he responds all nice and friendly-like. Where’s the aloofness, the subtle contempt for the fans? Despite these flaws, Ross did get me to play a text adventure game again, a feat I would have thought impossible until the release of Treasure of a Slaver’s Kingdom. Hell I didn’t even play Peasant Quest when it was released, even though at the time I was clicking to Homestar Runner multiple times a day looking for new sbemail and whatnot. Anyway, Treasures is set in the world of Encounter Critical, which should tell you all you need to know to decide whether you should be playing this game or not. (Hint: if you like things that are awesome, you should.) Ross, here’s my request for ’09: Vanthian Battle-Doxies pinball machine.

Adventure Games Journal #1

One issue does not a great magazine make, but man, Adventure Games Journal #1 is a hell of an issue! You can really tell how much James Mishler loves the Wilderlands and he's got the chops needed to pull off a one-man magazine on the subject. I've already talked about this one at length, so I won't repeat myself here. Hopefully, we'll see more issues in '09.

The Esoteric Whachamacallit & their Simulcra

Okay, the real name of this book is The Random Esoteric Creature Generator For Classic Fantasy Role-Playing Games And Their Modern Simulcra. The title above started as a placeholder because I began this post without the book at hand. I just can't bear to take it down now that I've typed it. Anway, I’ve got the too-cool-for-school ashcan edition, but you can get the big commercial sell-out version from Goodman Games. This little beauty is a book of random monster generation tables written by James Raggi, a dude so metal he moved to Finland just for the music scene. Raggi is exactly the sort of brash, smart, opinionated jerk the old school renaissance needs. His game blog is one of my favoritest, cutting through a lot of the bullcrap and calling things like they are. James also gets all worked up in the The Random Esoteric Yada Yada, which I love. The ranty designer’s notes are almost better than the superb monster charts, and I say this as a guy who can’t get enough dice charts.

Points of Light

2008 is the year the hobby woke up and remembered the sandbox campaign. Like forgetting about Dre or Poland, I still don’t understand how exactly we let this powerful gaming tool slip out of our collective consciousness. As with everything else wrong with the hobby, I’ll just assume that [pick one: Runequest/Lorraine Williams/Vampire/Wizards of the Coast/your mom] is to blame. Rob Conley is a key figure leading the charge on bringing sandbox play back into the fore. Like Mishler above, he’s done great work updating and expanding the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. But with Points of Light Conley and his partners in crime produce four new ready-to-game sandbox settings in one neat little package with all the modern production values. If you’re running ANY edition of D&D or a similar game and need a place to set your adventures, forget those big boxes and full color hardbounds. There’s more actual game material in tiny little Points of Light than in many settings five times its size. You ever read a gigantic setting book and then ask yourself “But how the hell do I run this?” With Points of Light the answer is literally this simple: put the PCs on the map and go.

The Passing of Great Ones

I mean absolutely no disrespect by mentioning the deaths of Gary Gygax and Bob Bledsaw in my list of ‘awesome’ things that happened this year. The world is a less lustrous for their leaving us. But there’s a thin silver line around that otherwise dark cloud, a moment of bittersweet joy that should not be ignored. The unfortunate loss of Gygax resulted in worldwide mourning and for a brief time the whole world got to see the impact made by this funny little man with his silly little dice and crazy dreams of fantastical adventure. It’s a beautiful thing that Gygax did for us and we’re all a little bit richer for anything that can remind of us of that fact, even the man’s death.

Bledsaw’s name is far less known both to general public and to gamerdom at large, but I salute him as one of the true giants of the field. Count him and his guild of judges among the blessed few that held the hobby dear in its earliest days. Had it not been for his efforts and the efforts of others like him, the rpg hobby might have withered in obscurity and it may have never come to pass that a redheaded farmboy of nerdy disposition would wander into a toy store to discover a strange pink box with the words "Dungeons & Dragons" blazoned on the cover. Here I am a quarter century later, still fascinated by the worlds of adventure barely contained by that game. Bob Bledsaw had a part to play in that. That it took the man’s passing for me to fully appreciate his contribution is unfortunate, but at least we still have a chance to honor his memory.

Game store demos

Man, I was a fool all the years I could have been running demos at my local store and didn’t. Don’t underestimate the sheer joy of saying to a random dude who walks into the shop, “Hey, man. Wanna play an elf? We also got this beardy wizard that needs a player.” There was no outside pressure on the situation. Unlike a con, we didn’t have to worry about sticking to the schedule or making sure everyone had paid to play. And I didn’t worry needlessly over the fact that people paid cash money to sit at my table. And unlike a normal campaign, we didn’t have to worry about the normal social concerns that surround an ongoing group. We just had a couple of hours of pure gaming bliss, no strings attached.

The Gospel According to Lou Zocchi

There's just something keen about watching a grognard natter on about dice for twenty minutes.

Mutant Future

I consider Mutant Future important to the hobby for three reasons. First, it’s just friggin’ awesome, what with the laser-eyes mutant and spidergoats and zombies and all. Second, the last version of Gamma World kinda seemed like a knee to the collective groin of post-apoc fandom. Mutant Future offers an alternative vision for the genre. Third, we’ve seen a lot of good non-clone retro rpgs on the fringes of this crazy old school renaissance, such as Encounter Critical, Mazes & Minotaurs, and Forward… to Adventure!, but MF is the first neo-retro game produced by one of the retro-clone outfits. You can’t point an accusatory finger at Mutant Future and deride it as simply aping an earlier design. Sure it has a lot in common with Gamma World and Basic D&D, but it also does a lot of things its own way. I love the old ways and the old games that them taught to us, but there’s a difference between appreciating that stuff and allowing it to distort or frustrate new creative endeavors. I celebrate this new golden age of crappy old games we seem to be enjoying, but I am not content to simply game like its 1979. We need to take the old school techniques and move boldly forward in new directions. Which brings me to…

Carcosa

Not everyone liked this one and I respect the opinions of most of the people who thought Geoffrey McKinney went one step too far. But man, Carcosa’s just so damn good that I feel there has to be a little wiggle room for the artist here. The horrid details of the ritual sacrifices are such a small and relatively uninteresting part of the book that flying into a moral panic about it strikes me as an overreaction, but that’s just one dude’s opinion. (Furthermore, somewhere between that moral panic and my opinion there’s room for thoughtful criticism, which is always welcome.) Personally, ever since reading “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” as a schoolboy I’ve wanted to see a game world with brooding horror and phantasmagorical strangeness. Chaosium’s Dreamlands didn’t quite get the job done, leaning too heavily on the waking world of Call of Cthulhu. Empire of the Petal Throne almost achieved what I wanted, but seemed bogged down by linguistic trifles. And Chaosium had another chance to grab the ball and run with it during the d20 boom, but their Melnibonéan book was one of the great disappointments of that period. Carcosa is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to what I’ve long wanted, and where it diverges from my ill-formed desires it does so delightfully, offering strange new vistas I would have never imagined myself. Do you seek exciting new worlds to explore or to conquer? Carcosa awaits. Let the clever and the brave try their might against it.

Fight On! Magazine

When I started this post I considered doing it as a Top Ten sort of affair, but I quickly realized that I would find it impossible to rate all of this stuff. However I know Fight On! magazine would have been #1. Born in the cauldron of the OD&D Discussion forum, Fight On! consists of three (soon to be four) issues of pure gaming goodness. Most of the articles will work across many editions of D&D and other related systems. A few articles are aimed specifically at other games, like Empire of the Petal Throne or Mutant Future. I am truly humbled that my own meager submissions can be found alongside such vibrant, imaginative work as Gabor Lux’s Fomalhaut material or Kesher’s wonderful demi-human pieces or many others. Fight On! is full of all the stuff that made the bygone years of Dragon so golden: adventures, monsters, treasures, and new rules unfiltered by a corporate vision. You really get to see lots of very cool individual takes on old school gaming. Pseudonymous editor Ignatius Ümlaut deserves a huge amount of kudos for all the work he does to put this ass-kicking pile of awesome together each issue.