Saturday, May 31, 2008

two unrelated items

I pretty only read the Paizo e-newsletter when the subject line catches my eye. The most recent edition mentioned Gygax in the title. I'm not in a big hurry to read Gygax's fiction, but in the body of the email I found out that Reaper has rolled out some sweet new prepainted plastic. I'm not really into figures right now, except for paper stuff like Sparks, but I like what Reaper is doing.

I'm not a strict medievalist, but I do like some knights in my D&D.

Aw, yeah! Nothing says 'D&D' quite like a titanic lavender earthworm swallowing PCs whole.

The green dress on this Mind Flayer, er, "Bathalian" looks uninteresting, but I'm thinking most of the mind flayers in the D&D lines are rather pricey in comparison to this fellow. And dig that collar!

Recently I've purchased copies of Monsters! Monsters! (which I've wanted ever since buying the excellent Judges Guild module Rat on a Stick so many years ago) and the Tunnels & Trolls anniversary edition. Doctor Rotwang! put me over the top on buying the latter and he did not steer me wrong. I owned an earlier editions in the late eighties but it just didn't take back then. Sometimes it takes me a long time to 'get' a game.

Anyway, in the intro to this incarnation of T&T author Ken St. Andre notes that he runs a fansite for the game called Trollhalla. Since I spend something like 99% of my internet time goofing around on RPG sites, I decided to check the place out. I was astonished to find that it was a pay site. Certainly Mr. St. Andre can run his affairs as it pleases him, but this just strikes me as dumb.

There are plenty of ways you make some money off of the fans. Put ads on the site with Google or any of the other ad vendors. Sell T-shirts and crap with Cafe Press. Put out old or new material via PDF with YourGamesNow or in print with Lulu. Those ideas are all off the top of my head, there have got to be others. Instead, St. Andre is basically saying to newly minted enthusiasts like me "Hey, kid, glad you T&T. Now give me twenty more bucks for the privilege of being my fan."

Still, the games themselves are golden. I might blog about them more. Because I can't shut up about games I like. Which you probably already know.

Friday, May 30, 2008

WTF? Theatre proudly presents...

...Batman and a cowboy discussing Scooby-Doo.

I'm racking my brain to figure out a way to use this panel as evidence that the old Scooby Doo/Batman & Robin crossovers are in continuity. Considering everyone that the Mystery Inc. gang has encountered over the years, that would be mind-bogglingly awesome.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Miller Park Memories

Yesterday I chaperoned my daughter's class on a field trip to Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Illinois. Despite the rain, we had a great time. We brown-bagged lunch at the Miller Park Pavilion, an august edifice undoubtedly erected during the grand period of civic construction in Illinois, circa 1900 to 1910. The Pavilion has a special place in my heart, as I attended my first game convention there.

The first con I attempted to attend was Wil-Con in Wilmington, Illinois. I talked my parents into driving my crew and I the considerable distance to Wilmington only to find a handwritten sign taped to the venue door: "Wil-Con is canceled." That's it. I never found out any more about what happened. Fortunately, Bloomington is much closer and the nearest place to my home to go for serious shopping. Otherwise, I doubt my parents would have tried this weird "con" thing again.

Anyhoo, the con in Bloomington was called Frontier Wars. It was 15 years or more later that I made the connection between the con name and the Frontier Wars of Traveller canon. If GDW was an official sponsor of the con, they were extremely laid back about it. We couldn't tell and I still don't know. Walking through the con during the mid to late eighties, you would have thought that FASA was the big dog in town, because BattleTech was the game to play.

My group discovered BattleTech at our first Frontier War. In the dealer area on the main floor one table had a Chessex hexmap (IIRC), some mode railroad terrain, and these little painted robots. My whole gang fell in love with the little painted robots. I immediately bought the boxed set (That'd be the 2nd edition, the one that came out after Lucas's lawyer told them that the original name of the game, BattleDroids, was not going to work.) I didn't have the money to get any robots, because earlier that weekend I had already bought the 3rd edition Call of Cthulhu boxed set.

Funny thing about CoC, I bought it several years before reading any H.P. Lovecraft. I got into CoC based upon the Dragon review alone. I couldn't find a Lovecraft book in my neck of the woods until 1988 or so. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I discovered both Wil-Con and Frontier Wars in the Convention Calendar section of Dragon. And I learned about the existence of a game store in Bloomington by going to Frontier Wars. So basically you can draw a straight line from Dragon magazine to all my other participation with the rest of the hobby. The fact that Dragon could be found on the magazine rack of ordinary bookstores is pretty much why I'm blogging about stupid games a quarter century or so later. D&D got me into gaming, but it was a regular dose of Dragon that sustained my interest.

(But I'm sure Wizards of the Coast knew what they were doing when they pulled the plug on Dragon. It's not like they were killing an institution of the hobby. And it's not like video games have their own print magazines or anything, right? And since everybody buys music online these days, Rolling Stone has gone to an all-digital format.)

In addition to getting my group into BattleTech and, to a lesser extent, Call of Cthulhu, some of the events at the various Frontier Wars served as important negative examples. Some of the D&D games I played there were pretty effin' weak, which only spurred me to run my own con games and to do it better than those events. Not all the D&D at Frontier War was lame, but the average quality was so low that one year we decided that we'd be better off just breaking out my buddy Dave's campaign materials in the open gaming area. And then there was the Traveller game that put me off that system for almost two decades.

But we also played some great games at Frontier Wars. Foremost in my mind is a little adventure that was called "Fun on Skull Island". I recall my magic-user climbing to the top of the "smoking mountain", expecting for some reason to find the entrance to a lava dungeon. Instead I found an open Eversmoking Bottle set at the peak of an ordinary mountain. Then I got the bright idea that there might be a clue inside the bottle, so I attempt to peer inside despite the smoke. I nearly asphyxiated. Later we found a door that could only be opened by solving one of these puzzles:

After each real minute of manipulation of the puzzle you got zapped for an ever-increasing amount of electrical damage. My guy got fried pretty badly.

I won a competitive AD&D at Frontier War one year. It was called "Run, Hobbit, Run!" even though it had no hobbits in it whatsoever. I think the guy running it just liked the name. It was an every man for himself dungeon crawl, where the only monsters were the other players. Something like 20 people participated. The pregens were designed to be balanced, but not identical. I wound up with a fourth level fighter, one of the lowest level characters at the table, but I was armed with a sword +4 and a displacer cloak. All movement was pre-plotted and simultaneous, until two characters encountered one another, then normal AD&D combat was used. The last man standing was the winner.

Some of the older players were upset that a stupid kid won the event, but this stupid kid spent 3 and a half hours avoiding every fight he could. I ended up only having to fight just one foe to the death, a Lord whose hitpoints had been whittled down by several previous encounters. When I finally dropped him my crew cheered and patted me on the back. The prize for winning the event was a copy of this module:

My dad took one look at the cover and said something along the lines of "Huh. I think I'm starting to see the appeal of this Dungeons & Dragons stuff."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Calvalcade of Characters Sheets, part 2

In my youth Jim was the older, wiser AD&D guru all us dumb kids looked up to. We were still in high school and he had a house and a wife, so even though he wasn't really that much older than us, we pretty much hailed him as our hero. That's why we put up with so much crap from him. He killed A LOT of our characters. We carpooled to his house and on the drive over we would talk about the cool replacement characters we had made. I usually brought two or three new PCs every session, under the assumption that my current dude and at least one replacement would die during the next few hours. Below are all my characters that lasted more than one session. Behold, the victims of Jim.

Chester of the Pointy Hat, page 2
Chester, page 3
Chester, page 4
Chester, page 5

Jim may have been a killer DM but Chester's death was all my fault. The party was trying to locate and slay a black dragon. We figured out where the dragon lived on the dungeon level, but the party couldn't agree as to the right course of action. After much heated debate, I declared in a loud voice "FINE! I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU GUYS DO! I'M GONNA GO THROW MY FIREBALL AND YOU GUYS CAN CLEAN UP AFTERWARDS!" We were only 50 feet or so from the dragon's lair, so of course it heard the whole damn conversation. When I kicked open the door I was promptly melted with acid breath.

Razzak Gristlyguts, page 2
Razzak, page 3

Razzak was once in a really tight spot so he started chanting "Demogorgon, Orcus, Demogorgon, Orcus." This was back when saying a demons name gave a flat 5% chance they would take notice. The dice eventually came up for Demogorgon and he sent a retriever to investigate. The retriever tore through whatever menace we were fighting at the time and then turned its attention to the party. I had to throw myself into a rapid river to escape, nearly drowning. The rest of the party were slaughtered to a man. That was effin' awesome.

Arius Claudius, page 2
Arius, page 3
Arius, page 4

Arius was my PC who entered play as the bondage slave of a troll. Despite this rather inauspicious beginning, I got a lot of good play out of him.

Botonimous Bradelbreek, page 2

I retold this dude's most memorable adventure here. At one point in the campaign he was significantly higher in level, but then he got drained several levels in a wight attack.

Mochimoto Tojo, page 2

Wow, this dude's stats were egregious even beyond the usual level of cheating in that campaign. Not that high stats ever helped us that much.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Beware the Ninny

The Haunted Swords of Cinder tend to acquire more than one name, as they weave their way in and out of history and legend. The Midrealm's most infamous magic blade is called Rekknpychn Inne Møguet by the Adelians, while the Elves know it as Morissё Ninniach. The Common Tongue name for the sword is a corruption of the Elvish moniker. It's just one of the absurd facets of life in Cinder that the deadliest weapon in the land is called Morrisey's Ninny, or just The Ninny.

Several lays have been written about the hero Morrisey (despite never existing) and his Blade of Seven Dooms, another name for the Ninny. One plagiaristic minstrel even took the entire corpus of the Epic of Crugal and clumsily reworked it into the Epic of Morris, ruining some really great alliterative rhymes in the process. But Crugal's popularity as a subject of tales was on the wane, so it was probably a wise move to try to cash in on Morrisey's rising star. But it's unfortunate that the legends of Crugal's blade have become confused with the Ninny corpus. Now no two rhymers can agree on the Seven Dooms, or powers, of the The Ninny. All agree that the blade flashes a different color for each power, but no sage has yet untangled all the threads in the legends to ascertain an original list of powers.

Perhaps it is this ambiguity that fuels the imagination of so many treasure-hunters. In the last quarter-century at least a dozen adventurers have traveled to the Midrealm solely to seek out Morrisey's Ninny. The most recent sword-seeker, a dwarf called Ugrod Rustybeard, disappeared while searching for clues to the location of the Unseen Hermitage, a possible resting place of the Ninny. It is said that he had rented rooms at the Crossroads Inn. Six months ago the proprietor sold off most of Rustybeard's stuff to pay off the missing dwarf's debts. Only a journal, presumably written in Dwarvish, remains unsold.

This dude is great

One of the mags available this Free Comic Day was a sampler of EC Comic reprints. EC had a great range of comics like Weird Science and Tales from the Crypt. The Comic Code that was supposed protect America's youth was basically designed to put EC out of business. Gemstone Publishing has been releasing archive editions of this stuff, with six issues to a volume. I didn't know this until I got this freebie comic. I'm definitely putting some Weird Science on the ol' Amazon wishlist. That stuff is awesome.

Take, for example, this tale from the reprint. A blob from Venus is loose on the Earth, devouring everything in its path. The President calls on his Top Men for a solution to this problem. Enter a guy who looks a bit like Leslie Groves without his mustache:

What I love about this guy is his casual attitude towards unleashing nuclear hellfire on American soil. There he is sitting with his knees crossed, smirking behind his corncob pipe. All of a sudden he has this hum-dinger of an idea. "Gosh gee-whiz, boss! We've got all these gol-durned A-bombs sitting around gathering dust. Maybe we could fire one off and see what happens?"

I know his cavalier attitude towards launching atomics can be partially blamed on this comic's origin in the fifties. In any later era he'd be standing up, hunched over the sitting President, his clenched fists slamming the desk. "With all due respect, Sir, nuclear weapons are our only option." Instead, this guy's almost jolly about it.

Friday, May 23, 2008

answering Mike Carr

Before I pick on Mike Carr I should take some time to sing his praises. Mr. Carr is one of the less-remembered greats of the hobby. If you catch me in an ornery enough mood I will argue, perhaps at length, that his Fight in the Skies (a.k.a. Dawn Patrol) was the first published RPG and not that johnny-come-lately Dungeons & Dragons. He wrote module B1 In Search of the Unknown, a classic of the Whisky Tango Foxtrot school of dungeon design and an excellent tool for getting new DM's up and running. He also edited a crapload of early AD&D material.

So why am I picking on him today? Late last week I re-read his foreward to the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide. I read the DMG cover-to-cover about once a year or so, because I'm loony that way. As a dumb kid in 1983 I thought the opening to Mike Carr's foreward was like, deep, man.
Is Dungeon Mastering an art or a science? An interesting question!
Back in the day I was too young and naive to see the way Mike pats himself on the back almost immediately. I was too busy feeling all puffed up because as a fledgling DM I was apparently some sort of superdude: half artiste, half Man of Science. At least that's how it sounds as Mike goes on to explain:
If you consider the pure creative aspect of starting from scratch, the "personal touch" of individual flair that goes into preparing and running a unique campaign, or the particular style of moderating a game adventure, then Dungeon Mastering may indeed be thought of as an art.

If you consider the aspect of experimentation, the painstaking effort of preparation and attention to detail, and the continuing search for new ideas and approaches, then Dungeon Mastering is perhaps more like a science--not always exacting in a literal sense, but exacting in terms of what is required to do the job well.
Last week as I re-read this passage for maybe the 25th time in as many years, I was finally struck by how much pure government-certified grade 'A' bullshit Carr was shoveling in this passage. Again, I've got nothing but love in my heart for Mike Carr, but here he's so far gone he's not in left field, he's complete out of the friggin' ballpark. Let me explain.

First of all, Dungeons & Dragons, this silly little thing we do, has as much to do with science as intelligent design does. Yeah, I went there. I don't normally get political or religious in this here blog, but there it is. My point is that there's a staggering difference between one of the foundations of modern civilization and whether or not I keep better track of how long the PC's torches have been burning.

More importantly, I get from this passage that Mike Carr circa 1979 had no idea how art really works. His criteria for 'scientific' dungeomastering, the need for "experimentation, the painstaking effort of preparation and attention to detail, and the continuing search for new ideas and approaches" describes good artistry to a 'T'. A painter doesn't just throw some pigments on a canvas and call it art. Well, a good painter who knows what they're doing probably doesn't do it that way. Similarly, I can write ten lines of doggerel and pretend I'm a poet, but I'm not.

Good artists spend years honing their craft, practicing techniques, and seeking out new materials and methods. Which is why I'm coming around to the idea that calling what roleplayers do an artform maybe isn't as pretentious as I once thought. It isn't about being a wordsmith or a master thespian or whatever. Roleplaying is its own artform with its own body of rules and techniques.

What's really exciting is that this artform is still in its infancy. Like Doc Rotwang! has said on several occasions, a big reason to still do vanilla fantasy is because you're not done speaking with that voice. Other artists have moved on, the same way some folks abandoned painting with oils on canvas for acrylics on formica, or whatever. But the artist smearing motor oil on tarpaulin probably doesn't assume that no one can ever say anything new with water colors on paper. Similarly, I think little ol' OD&D still holds the promise of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, just like pretty much every other RPG.

July is Worldwide Adventure Writing Month

Just a quick public service note that WoAdWriMo '08 will be in July instead of June. For details why, please pick any one reason from the handy list below:
  • D&D 4e's release partway through the month would be too disruptive to the WoAdWriMo schedule.
  • I let May get away from me and am totally not ready to fly this crate.

Once again, this year's WoAdWriMo will feature no pagecount goal. Too many people took my arbitrary goalpost way too seriously. Just write the adventure in a way that leaves you satisfied you gave it your best effort.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Calvalcade of Characters Sheets, part 1

Among my game crap I have a folder labeled "Favorite PCs". I thought it might be fun to scan in and share some old PCs of mine.

Nannok up there (not spelled Nanoc as a bit of a figleaf) is my oldest PC on file. He dates somewhere between '85 and '89, as he was an Unearthed Arcana-powered barbarian and my group stopped using the UA after 2nd edition came out. Nannok was the only 1st edition barbarian I've seen played from 0xp to 2nd level. That 6,001xp requirement for second level was too daunting a hill for most players to even try.

My schoolchum Dave Dalley was the DM for the adventures of Nannok, which were done as a one-on-one thing. I started out in some random hex up in the realm of the Frost Barbarians, the Viking equivalent region in the World of Greyhawk. I hexcrawled my way down to Ratik or the Bone March. Nannok biggest accomplishment was clearing out a small kobold lair single-handedly. I took the time to try to hatch the kobold eggs and raise the young. Only two of the poor things survived having a barbarian dude for a mom. I then resumed my adventuring career with 2 loyal kobold henchmen. Dave ruled the kobold would be true neutral alignment. Thus my barbarian unwittingly proved that nurture trumps nature in his World of Greyhawk.

Sadly, I couldn't find the charsheets for Nannok's hench-kobolds.

Alexander got all his loot and xp in two runs in the mid-90's. The DM was Ray St. John, the dude who tricked a silver dragon in my Bandit Kingdoms campaign and wrecked my Atlantis campaign when his PC refused to wear pants. (Someday I really need to type up the latter story.) My buddy Pat was the only other guy for this particular outing. He played Stumpy, a standard-issue dwarf fighter/thief/arsehole. In our first outing the major villain was a vampire. I thought Ray was setting him up as the Big Bad of a major plot arc. No, we ended up fighting that mofo at the end of session two. Here we were, two first level nobodies, trying to stake a vampire in melee combat. It was pure luck that neither of us got drained.

Next up is one of my all time favorite PCs. For a brief period my Bandit Kingdoms campaign was run on a rotating DM basis, allowing me to play for a bit. Here's my dude, in all his 3-page glory.

Lord Munge, as he styled himself, was a reject from the Horned Society, a Demogorgon-worshipping heretic. The diabolists of the Society were regular whipping boys in the campaign.

This is the most pimped-out character I ever played in D&D, apart from the odd high-level pregen or one-shot PC.

The Baron and Sir Cleave were the other regular PCs in the campaign. Lord Zarebean bought the farm in Doctor Wu's War of Vengeance and I promptly moved into his castle and assumed his title. Shriek actually started out play as a mongrelwoman henchwoman, but she died. My dude had too much pride to pay the cleric of another church for a resurrection, so I hired a magic-user to cast reincarnation instead. So my evil half-orc ended up with an elf sidekick. Lord Skullos was rescued from Vecna's Dimension of Undeath. In exchange for figuring out how to reattach his skull to a body, I put him to work leading my animated troops. The Gang previously worked for the Evil Paladin (like an Anti-Paladin, but more self-righteous and less explicable) until we killed that dude. Since I generally pay my troops rather than command through fear and mind control, they took my offer to change sides. Dia entered Lord Munge's employ when a tavern owner needed an assassination done but lacked hard coin. I agreed to take one of his bar wenches in lieu of the requisite gold.

Quote of the Day

This guy knows how to sell a setting:
Obscene riotous fungal forests choke the valleys and glens; twisted boneless blasphemies dance around impact craters, slurping their nourishment from lakes of slime. Zeppelins drift and flying saucers hurtle through the vapor-filled skies between crystal-domed cities and reeking jungles; savage barbarian shamans guard their herds of creeping terrestrial starfish from cannibal mutant psychics and astro-zombies in the moss-covered beds of evaporated seas; deviant necromancers in their spiraling towers of basalt engage in congress with ambulatory plants from Beyond.
-Scott (a.k.a. driver) describing his new Risus campaign over on an odd74 Arduin thread.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

FYI: don't mess with the Chief

Calling the Chief a cripple?  Ill-advised.
From volume 1 of the collected run of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol.

Act Now to Win Fabulous RPG Prizes!

All you have to do is go to this thread at theRPGsite and follow the simple rules in the opening post to enter Zachary's Indy 500 themed contest. I don't know beans about auto racing, but I signed up. Only 33 entrants will be allowed and I just snagged spot #22, so hurry!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Quote of the Day

[F]irst level for us was all about avoiding the dice. It was about luring the goblins into slicks of lamp oil, and then lighting them ablaze. Or even better, trapping them between the blazing oil and the gelatinous cube. Or bribing the orcs to fight the goblins for us. If you had to go to dice, it meant someone was likely to die. So you did everything you could to avoid it.
-Trollsmyth, commenting at this great blog post

Friday, May 16, 2008

the nebula is haunted

Click on the tiny pic below to see one of my ongoing side-projects.

Odds are that your favorite campaign world is one insignificant corner of my homebrew setting.I'm still working on the UWPs and planet write-ups. This little subsector is just southeast (galactically speaking) from Vanth Subsector as detailed in Asteroid 1618, both of which are in the Medieval Rim Sector, a barbaric backwater of the Reorganized Methanic Empire.

And now, I quote myself

Today James Maliszewski linked to an old post of mine. Because I'm a total egomaniac, I followed the link. Man, I totally forgot writing this in the comments section of that old post of mine:
I suppose D&D could be reinvented, repackaged, and remarketed to the world at large. To what end, though? I already go through long periods of alienation from the modern iterations of D&D and I don't think I'm the only longtime player that feels that way from time to time. What good would it be to save roleplaying if by doing so we have to transform it into something unrecognizable to the loyal fans?
I wrote that in December 2005!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Glooms of Cinder

The planet Cinder is less geologically stable than most Class M worlds. Earthquakes are the source of nearly as many of the many ruins that dot the landscape as all other causes combined. Viewed from space many sections of the planet glow, as lava runs in rivers or pools into seas. The Midrealms of Cinder, with its meager scattering of volcanoes, enjoy a relatively lava-free existence. Life in the Midrealms seems positively pastoral compared to that lived by the poor, pitiful bastards in Volcanistan, who are harshly oppressed by both the terrible environment and the cruel Lava Lords.

But the Midrealms are still a dangerous place. Those smoking mountains do erupt from time to time. And the Smoldering Plains are dangerous to cross without a guide. Vents in the earth occasionally release clouds of poisonous gas. An old traveler's tip says run perpendicular to the wind when a hazy cloud is blowing in, but that doesn't work with Poison Wraiths. And only crazy people dare enter the Fire Swamp.

Most of the above listed hazards can be avoided by simply staying the hell away from the most active regions of the Midrealms. Hey, if you build your house on the slope of Mount Burningdeath, that's pretty much your own dang problem. But the Glooms can affect all the peaceful inhabitants of the Midrealms. No one understands the underground forces that lead to the Glooms. All that is known is that a couple times a year the volcanoes and the ground level vents of the region simultaneously release a large quantity of smoke and ash into the atmosphere. Usually this ejecta hovers in the sky for three or four days before blowing away or coming down to earth as "black snow". During this time the sun is dimmed or even blotted out completely and monsters roam the lands in great numbers. Orcs basically consider a Gloom to be a loot-and-pillage holiday.

Those are the "good" Glooms. Bad ones can last for weeks instead of days. A long Gloom in the spring can kill an entire crop. And three generations later people still speak in whispered tones about the Year With No Sun. In some ways the ground Glooms are worse. The ash and smoke stay low near the ground, reducing visibility to near zero and filling the lungs with slow poison. Bad times. Whole towns can die during a ground Gloom.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

five links, special actual relevant content edition

TheRPGsite Fund Drive is almost over. - Please consider a donation if you're a regular user.

Monte Cook plus Pathfinder for the win? - This isn't a deathblow to 4e or anything, but it sure makes the situation a lot more interesting.

Summer Adventure Contest - Write an old school module, win fabulous prizes.

As usual, my readers are smarter than I am. - It really pays to read the comments here.

Gnome Stew - a new group blog featuring, among others, Martin Ralya of Treasure Tables.

Sorry 'bout the lack of updates. World of Cinder post tomorrow.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Jamie Mal is making sense again

Okay, as far as I know no one ever refers to James Maliszewski as "Jamie Mal". Sometimes I just feel the need to come up with stupid nicknames for people. I don't mean nothing by it. Anyway, here's a quote from over at his blog:

Honestly, I don't need yet another product that apes TSR's trade dress from 1980 or that use badly executed, amateurish black and white line art. And the "blueprint" style dungeon maps? You can keep those in the vault. As I noted elsewhere, I think the one area where modern games and game companies have it over their illustrious predecessors is in the field of graphic design and presentation. Most old school products simply look awful, even if their content has yet to be surpassed.

A marriage between old school content and new school presentation would make me very happy indeed and would go far to get old school products out of the nostalgia ghetto. Because let's face it: that's where most old school products exist. They're specifically geared to appeal to aging gamers who want to remember the good times of their youths. Now, there's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, I think nostalgia is a good and powerful feeling that, properly harnessed, will help the hobby immensely. But making products in 2008 with the production values of 1978 isn't what I'd call properly harnessing nostalgia. What it does is make old school products even easier to dismiss as irrelevant than it already is. Old school games face an uphill battle in gaining the hearts and minds of younger gamers as it is; why make it even harder by producing games and supplements that look terrible? The technology now exists for even hobbyists to make slick, well presented products without having to spend a fortune. Why not avail ourselves of that technology? Old school content kicks ass in so many ways.
Now, personally, I love all the nice folks who use old TSR trade dress on their products. It's a clear-cut sign that I'm in the target audience. To be honest, I probably would have never given Goodman Games and their Dungeon Crawl Classics line a shot without the old module cover design. Out of all the publishers slinging D20 hash, I was able to zero in on them because they took the time to send up a big ol' signal flare with covers that instantly invoked the heady days of the eighties.

But I believe this constant looking back is ultimately bad for the hobby. Ideally, we should be keeping on eye on where we've been and one eye on where we're going. Okay, maybe actually doing that would hurt, but I think you know what I mean. To put it another way, a few years back I didn't track down copies of the OD&D books because I wanted to join the Grumbling Greybeard Legion Who Likes The Way Things Used To Be. I signed on to this crazy retro movement* because there's lots of fun to be had with playstyles no longer fully supported by a lot of the mainstream publishers in the game industry.

Have you seen the Judges Guild modules released by Goodman Games? I bought several of them recently, because I didn't have the originals and, unlike some folks, I'm not afraid of 3.x stat blocks. I pretty much loathe 3.x statblocks, but I'm not prepared to turn my nose up at a good bit of fun just because a book is loaded down by 'em. Anyway, check out this cover:

I'm hardpressed to think of a cover design that so easily tells the story of adventuring in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. The cover literally depicts hexes full of adventure! That, my friends, is frickin' genius. More importantly, it's new and exciting and not just another ripoff of the cover of The Keep on the Borderlands. That's where we need to be going folks, blazing new trails of old school awesomeness. This trade dress thing so many of us do is symptomatic of stodginess.

But again, using the old trade dress makes it easy for me to find the stuff I want. If everyone starts doing their own cover design instead of relying on TSR's schemes, how will I find stuff I want among all the 4e third party stuff? Do we need a community logo, like the d20 logo was a signal to the 3.x crowd? I hate to even suggest a wizard with a pointy hat and a wand or a lizard man holding a halberd. What about a dragon in a dungeon? 3d6 showing a fairly average result?

I don't think Kenzer or Goodman or Troll Lords are going to be in a huge rush to adopt some new thing-a-ma-bob to clutter up their covers, but they aren't the publishers I need help with. It's the one-man shops run by amateurs and semi-pros.

*Note: I don't really think we have a 'movement'. That's way too grandiose a term for a bunch of people pretending to beat up orcs.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Jeff plays Exalted

Last night Doug, one of my regular players for the last two or three years (or is it longer), ran session one of his new Exalted campaign set in the northern reaches of Creation.

Before we began play we spent about an hour gossiping about 4e and looking over Pat's new D&D Minis set. You'd have been hardpressed to find an upbeat opinion at that table, which is pretty damning. The four of us may be all D&D players, but we're all over the map in terms of playstyle preferences. Not a man jack of us is convinced that Wizards can deliver a decent online product and no one seemed real enthused about buying the corebooks next month. Doug even discussed getting off the D&D train altogether. Grim times. I hope we're all wrong.

Let me tell you about our characters. Stuart is playing Blindclaw. I don't know much about his PC other than he's some sort of witch-hunter/occult investigator and he's got kung fu with his bow. Pat's PC is modeled after his favorite 3 Kingdoms era scholar-general (Pang Po? I probably got that wrong) and goes by the name Reaper Elkwitch. Here's a dramatization of our discussion of that PC moniker.

Stuart: Reaper Elkwitch? How did you come up with that?

Pat: I plugged my own name into an online anagram gizmo. "Reaper Elkwitch" was one of the few names that came out that didn't have "Hitler" in it.

Stuart: I'm surprised you didn't go with one of the Hitlers.

Me: Uhhh, I have this rule at my table. No Hitlers.

Pat: Yeah, we see a swastika, we punch it.

Stuart: What about the swastika as used in Native American art?

Me: We'd punch it, just to be safe. Then we'd apologize.

Pat: There was one guy up on Red Lake that was a Nazi, but he offed himself.

Me: Well, yay for that.

Stuart: Alrighty then.

My character is Torgo, Chief of the Mammoth Totem Cave People and Foe-Hammer of the Wizard-Kings of the North. My destiny is to unite the twelve tribes of the cave people and overthrow the Wizard-Kings. I've got this pimped out black orichacalum grand daiklave with the pommel from Hawk the Slayer's sword.

A lot of my stats and charms go into kicking ass and taking names, but I am not playing a Dawn caste, the premier warrior class in the game. Instead, my guy is an Eclipse. Torgo was sort of a tricky Odysseus/omega wolf type prior to his exaltation, which turned him into this badass warrior. But he's still glib when he needs to be, even preternaturally so. Early in character conceptualization I considered riding around on a war-dinosaur named Boo-boo, but given the more arctic clime proposed I instead opted for a polar bear named Ooklamok. My dude also has a Manse, which is the Exalted term for your own personal Batcave. I call my place the House of Bones. It overlooks the Mammoth Graveyard, where wooly mammoths go to die, and is made out of tusks and mammoth skulls and bigass ribs and stuff.

I know what you are all thinking right now. Jeff, that is the single coolest character in the entire history of roleplaying games. And of course you're right. How could I disagree with all of my readers, who are classy sophisticates like myself? Unfortunately, I couldn't quite shake the feeling all night that Torgo was an utter fraud. I kept thinking to myself that Torgo is awesome by rules fiat, not through any accomplishment on my part. My gut keeps telling me that the only way I could really make Torgo work would be to start out with a first level Cave Man Rogue (or whatever) and to earn all that awesome-osity. Anything else feels like cheating.

Anyway, the session itself was a fairly standard "let's get the PCs together and try out the combat system" affair. Traveling north to investigate rumours of rogue occult activity, Reaper and Blindclaw began the session aboard an airship. A pair of Dragonblooded warriors riding a flaming pterodactyle or something like that intercept the ship, forcing it down where they have a large group of chump soldiers gathered. At one point Doug couldn't decide whether to call the soldiers "mooks" or "extras", so he invented the new term "mookstras". One of the Dragonblooded, who I imagined as Darth Vader in Red Jade armor and on fire, leaps onto the gondola of the airship and starts kung fuing with Stuart and Pat.

My dude comes riding over the hill and sees the soldiers approaching the airship. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I'm just a cave man. Your modern Exalted world frightens and confuses me. Cave people don't have "soldiers", we have "warriors". The only guys I know who keep soldiers on the payroll are those pesky Wizard-Kings. So I decide they need to be killerfied. While I am slaying the mookstras with only half-hearted effort, the second Dragonblooded (an archer chick riding the phoenix or whatever) starts peppering me with arrows. So I use one of my Charms to anime leap from the back of my warbear up to the roc flying overhead. The gal with the bow pulls out a sword and we proceed to have a swordfight on top of the flaming thunderbird.

Now Stuart, who has played Exalted before, was so kind as to build my PC for me. He noted on my charsheet that my un-Charmed defenses were weak. Man, he was not kidding. This dame started whupping on me pretty bad. But for her part she ended up hurt bad enough that she decided to brick and pulled her fiery battlebird into tricky maneuver to attempt to throw me. I opted to bail rather than play that game much longer, landing on the gasbag of the airship and neatly rolling onto the back of my bear, who spent this whole time mauling soldiers. Meanwhile, Stuart and Pat had worked out the teaming-up rules sufficiently that Darth Jader was in a world of hurt. He tried to flee on foot but Stuart's bow has way to much range for that to work out. At that point we packed it in.

After one session of this stuff I still pretty much believe that dice pools are the Devil's game mechanics, but rolling big handfuls of dice can be lots of fun. The Charm mechanics were fun, very reminiscent of the kung fu powers in Feng Shui. My biggest problem with the system is that to-hits and damage both involve rolling die pools for successes. That tended to muddle the operations in my mind. I didn't have that problem with In Harm's Way: Aces in Spades, but here I was constantly tripping over myself.

Overall I'm not yet sold that this game rocks as hard as its promoters claim, but I'm willing to give it another session.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Yo! Five links!

Barroom Brawling 101 - The "Unstated Rules" really need to be stated to some players.

The first 4e news in a long time that I've really liked.

John Gyorki - This guy's blog has nothing to do with gaming. I just like a good curmudgeon.

Shields Shall Be Splintered!

Lamentations of the Flame Princess - I think I'm going to have to figure out how to buy something priced in euros.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

One more comment on Kobolds Are My Baby!

Dig this sweet Kobold Apprentice mini:

You can get this wee git and several of his buds from Paizo. If I could paint worth a darn I would totally get this little guy for my dream project of running Encounter Critical as a convention miniatures battle. I'm still looking at running EC as a mini's game, mind you. But with paper figures instead of lead.

The D&D Toolbox

I started gaming as a snotnose kid back in the 80's. Over the years I've talked to a lot of gamers and past gamers who started as snotnose kids back in the 80's and most of the time I hear much the same story from them. We generally all started out with either the '81 or '83 Basic D&D rules. I started with Moldvay's near-flawless '81 edit but at least as many, if not more, got on the bandwagon with Mentzer's even-better-for-newbies '83 stuff. At some point thereafter the existence of Advanced Advanced clearly means better, don't you know.Dungeons & Dragons became known to us. We were all dumb kids in a hobby clearly originally aimed at a much older and more sophisticated audience, so we of course all had to get in on this 'Advanced' stuff.

The immediate problem, of course, is that AD&D was a LOT more game than Basic/Expert D&D, with a lot more fiddly bits. So we basically lied to ourselves. My group said we played AD&D. We had the AD&D books at the table. But whenever we found a mechanic we considered too cumbersome, we ignored it in favor of D&D as Tom Moldvay had taught us. AD&D initiative? Forget it. We used Basic D&D's super-simple group initiative rules. Material components? Naw. Our Basic D&D m-u's could cast spells without components, so why should our Advanced guys be saddled with that crap?

I'm painting with a broad brush here, but basically for an entire generation of D&D kids we tended to play Basic D&D but bolted on the bits from Advanced that we liked. More class and race options? Sign us up! Higher level spells? We'll take all you can spare! Two-handed swords that do an amazing 3d6 damage against big dudes? You know we want in on that action!

So this is where maybe OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord and such are missing the boat. As I recently proved in my own gaming group, not that many gamers want to play AD&D 1st edition as written. Hell, in a quarter century of gaming I've only met one guy that claimed his group played 1st edition AD&D exactly as written. On the other end of the spectrum, Basic/Expert type D&D can be a little too simplistic for some people. That goes right back to why my group and so many others hybridized the two games: we wanted to pick and choose a level of complexity between the two published extremes.

Changing gears for just a moment, is everyone familiar with 0one Games? (I think that's supposed to be pronounced "zero one" but I always want to say "oon".) They make some of the best dang maps you can buy. Their Caverns of Chaos is a gorgeous and utterly gameable homage to the original Caves of Chaos. And if you always wanted your own megadungeon but hate mapping, you really need to check out their series of super-mega Under the Mountain level maps. 0one is part of the YourGamesNow collective, which is a fabulous place to get gaming PDFs.

At least some of the 0one maps come with this great feature called "Rule the Dungeon!". You open up the PDF and it comes with these little clicky buttons. Let's say that the map is in color but you want to print in black & white. Click the right button and the color layers are hidden. If you like the map, but think the furniture in the rooms won't suit your uses, you can click to basically turn the furniture off. The basic layout of the map is always the same, but you can customize the presentation for your own specific needs.
THAT is what I want from an OGL D&D pdf. Total effin' customizability. Give me a bigass checklist in the front of the file, like the ones that you can find in the back of old RoleMaster Companions. Allow me, through judicious checking and unchecking of little option boxes, to drill down to the exact version of D&D that suits my tastes. Give me the option of typing in additional text, or have the output of the program be in a form that I can easily edit. Then I can print out a copy for each player in a campaign and I will know that we're all on the exact same page.
Somebody, please, steal this idea and run with it. Everybody already runs their own version of D&D. We're finally within reach of technology that should allow us to easily share our personal D&D's with all the other fans of the game.

Monday, May 05, 2008

I went to the bookstore over lunch

In the RPG section I found this:

I've not had any firsthand experience with Kobolds Ate My Baby!, but a dude I game with every year at Winter War recommends it. Assuming you're not too squeamish about the occasional baby-eating joke, this game looks like good, unwholesome fun. And I'm tempted to use some of the stupid setting info in future D&D games.

this is an improvement

The logo for the first issue of Fight On! was my first attempt to make such a thing. I was shooting for something like the logo on the earlier D&D books, the one that always looked more "old west" than "fantasy" to me. But the results look kinda hokey on the printed page. Worse yet, I made the amateurish mistake of sending the logo to the editor as a .jpg file, which caused some ugly pixelfuzz. Here's the new logo I designed over the weekend.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

I am a villain of the basest sort.

I went to Free Comic Book Day and didn't buy a damn thing. I will offer up two points in defense of this churlish behavior:

1) You would not believe the money I've spent at my local shop on Bronze Age comics. Sure, it wasn't much per issue, but since when did The Human Fly sell for more than cover price? Three bucks a mag is way more than anyone should pay for that sort of thing.

2) The 501st were out to promote the event and my daughter was absolutely freaked out by Vader and his homies. She's actually a big Star Wars fan, but anyone in a full-body costume tends to give her the jibblies.

Anyway, below is one of my favorite panels from this year's Simpson's freebie. In the previous panel superheroes have just been banned from operating in Springfield.
I'm still working through all the stuff I nabbed, but Atomic Robo and Tiny Titans were both fun reads. The Archie freebie seemed a little off, as it spent some time explaining to readers a method for stealing valuable comic books. WTF?

Friday, May 02, 2008

Help! WoAdWriMo!

Next month I'd like to do Worldwide Adventure Writing Month again, but since Martin put Treasure Tables on hibernation I need a new host. I had hopes that theRPGsite would be the new home of WoAdWriMo, but the present server crisis and need for better software makes that a no-go.

I'll make a new Yahoo Group if I need to, but does anyone have any other ideas for a place that can host the finished adventures and maybe a discussion forum? The forum was relatively low-key last time, but the download section needs to be able to handle at least a couple thousand 5 or 10 MB downloads over the course of a week.

Incidentally, the WoAdWriMo challenge will change in one regard this year. I had originally called for people to try to write adventures of 32 pages in length. In retrospect, I think that parameter discouraged more people than it motivated. So I'm removing that limit entirely. If you want to contribute a single brief encounter to the WoAdWriMo effort, we'll take it. Anything you want to submit that might help a GM where the dice hit the table is welcome.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Look out! It's the wizard's ghost!

My buddy Stuart likes to doodle while he plays. Usually he does abstract geometrical stuff, but last Wednesday he produced this:

He left it on the game table so I had to scan it in. Stuart talks a bit about this session over on his blog. I'm kinda bummed to see our Gygax memorial campaign end with the conclusion of the Moathouse. Certainly, a good pile of the blame lies at my feet. Endeavouring to play AD&D 1st edition by the book is generally an exercise in masochism. The starting spell charts and training rules were like an albatross 'round the campaign's neck. And Wednesday I discovered first hand what a pain in the ass the weapon type versus armor rules can be. Maybe if we had something like the old Judges Guild product Dungeon Tac Cards that would have sped things along a bit, or simply having a slick character sheet where you could record all the modifiers. As it stood, I was just doing lots of extra look-ups on a chart with no real fun added to the game.

The back half of the session was fabulous. The players figured out that brute force was not going to work against the evil cleric Lareth the Beautiful and his soldiers. So they started getting creative, like setting ambushes with flaming oil. I really dug it when removed a door from its hinges and then used it as a mantlet shield to force their way in, toppling several of Lareth's men. Finally it came down to just the PCs against Lareth and his nigh-impossible-to-hit Armor Class.

That's when Doug declared that they were going to attempt to overbear Lareth. Bless their miscreant hearts, that was the first time I've ever been in a AD&D game that actually used the overbearing rules. And it worked, too! Four PCs (two were down by this point) against a single man was just overwhelming. So congrats to them for making Beggar Mobs work in their favor.

It was beautiful. Knocking down orcs or whatever is always a good time, but what really excites me is when the PC party starts looking for creative solutions, when they go from being a thrown-together gang of stumblebums with swords to an elite cadre of well-organized crimefighting criminals.

Unfortunately, that's not exactly where my players go to get their buzz. There's a bit of a gulf growing in my group as far as preferred playstyle. I would have happily ran lots more AD&D, or some OD&D, or Castles & Crusades, or lots of other Retro Stupid games. Stuart and Doug seem more interested in the modern kung-fu-superheroes-with-swords mode of 3.x and Exalted.

I'm not prepared to run that sort of thing right now. Or maybe ever again, I dunno. So Doug's going to take a turn GMing Exalted, but with an alternate setting involving the great frozen north. That ought to be interesting, especially considering that the dice pools used in White Wolf games make no friggin' sense to me whatsoever.

Here's my character idea in a nutshell: a caveman who found one of those 2001 monoliths, but in handy daiklaive form.