Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Say It With Monsters

I think one of the key things that drew me to becoming a DM was the monsters. As a youth I was never much of a world-builder. My Cinder setting is in fact my first from the ground up go at such stuff. Previously I would simply build upon a pre-existing framework, usually Greyhawk or Mystara. But monsters spoke to me. Many Saturdays I would sit at the TV, trying futilely to tune in a signal from Chicago, so I could watch the Son of Svenghouli host a crappy old monster movie. My grade school library featured several tomes on mythological monsters and books about old horror movies complete with photos, all of which I checked out again and again. I ate it all up: vampires, Frankenstein, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, the Dover Demon, the Mothman (which still creeps me out to this day), Godzilla (& crew), the Blob, the Jersey Devil, Spring-Heeled Jack, big-headed aliens, giant insects, etc.

As a kid I also read a lot about dinosaurs, but they eventually grew tiresome because the books all maintained that dinosaurs lived so long ago there were no people around. With no cavemen to menace, dinosaurs aren’t quite as cool. My buddy Dave had a dinosaur book for kids written by creationists. It argued vehemently that dinosaurs were around in Biblical times. Samson beating up T-rexes with the jawbone of an ass sounds pretty awesome if you think about it. Or Phillistines riding triceratops into battle against the Israelites, with the Ark of the Covenant blasting the dino-riders with death rays. The book even attempted to argue that the weird skull structure of some dinosaurs allowed them to store methane, which they could ignite and expel from their nostrils via some physiological mechanisms similar to the defense mechanism of bombardier beetles. I think that chapter was meant to prove that Biblical references to dragons were full of true scientific realism. The authors offered no explanation for the unicorns mentioned in more than one book in the Old Testament. Maybe they saved that for the sequel.

Wow, that last paragraph got weird. Anyway, D&D stoked my love of monsters by giving me whole volumes of creatures, with bizarre statistical information to boot. And as DM I get to inflict these creeps upon the poor hapless players. Some DMs like to ruin the player’s day with intricate, sadistic deathtraps. While I can appreciate the mad genius behind such devices, sending in monsters to beat up the party appeals to me much more. So my dungeons generally run light on traps and heavy on critters. I used to think that more monsters was always automatically better than fewer monsters. Most players can only murder so many orcs before they start getting bored. Add in a couple of horrors pulled from something like the Arduin Grimoires and suddenly the players sit up and take notice.

When building a campaign milieu, I think the less-is-more approach is a good one. Trimming down the list of important monsters to a select few that count for something geopolitically will make managing the game a lot smoother. In my Cinder setting hobgoblins are the only humanoid race capable of going to war or occupying land on a large scale. Bands of orcs serve various evil masters, gnolls work as mercenaries, and goblins are conscripted into lots of armies, but only the hobgobs have a direct impact on the world stage. Similarly, humans pretty much eclipse the demihuman races on the global scale of events. There’s no place on the map where elves or dwarves rule, except in small pockets (i.e. the local Fey Forest or Lonely Mountain). The elves claim rulership of the whole dang planet, but no one pays any attention to that. Arguably the halflings have more clout than the elves, owing to the activity of their mercantile clans.

For more monstrous beings, the structure of the planet allows me to whittle down the list of important critters. One way I think of Cinder is as the love child of Terra and Io. Speaking broadly, whatever isn’t green and pleasant is covered with lava. Fire breathing dragons, salamanders, flaming demon types, and fire giants control big chunks of the world. Ice creatures and aquatic monsters might have local power at the one hex = 5 miles scale, but they don’t matter much in the overall scheme of things.

That sort of analysis involves looking at the impact of monsters on international affairs. But beyond the borders of civilization or deep down in the dungeon? At some point the kid gloves have to come off. I’m not a killer DM by inclination, but few things beat the thrill of the party beating a hasty retreat from a dungeon level, maybe leaving some of their comrades for dead, and someone at the table asking “What the hell was that thing!?” By my lights monsters in the underworlds and wilderlands owe no strict allegiance to rational thought or gygaxian naturalism. I find it more useful to structure multi-level dungeons as a slow descent into madness. The first level of the dungeon usually should have the most concessions to logic, with accoutrements such as ventilation shafts, potable water sources, and latrines for the more human-like residents. But as one progresses deeper into the dungeon the less it resembles the waking world of cause and effect and the more it falls under the jurisdiction of dream-logic. That’s why I’ve never personally had a problem with so-called ‘funhouse’ dungeons, where a ki-rin might live next door to a shedu. Asking why they don’t fight each other while the PCs are away makes as much sense as asking what the monsters in my nightmares are up to when I’m not asleep.

So I guess I would put monsters into two different classifications based upon their use. On one hand we have the general grab bag of bogey men. These critters are generally reserved for the hidden places of the world and don’t have any real need to for attention to ecology. They don’t even have to make sense, like the balloon men that live Under the Storm Giants Castle. By hiding these critters in out-of-the-way places you give your campaign setting plausible deniability, which is even better than plain ol’ plausibility because you can still include flumphs in your adventures. In my experience many players who say they want ‘realism’ in their game will accept a plausible deniability set-up, it’s when you make ducks a playable PC race that you start to run into trouble.

The other group of monsters is the select few you choose to make centerpieces of the overall campaign world. As I said before, I think a short list is important here just to make handling the campaign smoother. Think of the situation the way Traveller has handled aliens. You can fill a pretty big cantina with all different alien species that have made appearances in Trav products over the years. But the only races that matter for most affairs of galactic politics are the humans, the centauroids, the lion people, the dog people, the starfishies, and the space dragons.

Even more important that who holds what parts of your hexmap, though, is what you do with the monsters you choose. It’s not enough, I think, that I choose hobgoblins as the primary humanoid menace of the campaign setting. Or opting to excise metallic dragons altogether from my world. Both of these decisions were made for very prosaic reasons. At the one on one level I wanted the vast humanoid menace to be equal to or just slightly better than a 1st level fighter and clearly superior to a normal man. And I wanted good dragons out of the campaign simply because I wanted all dragons to be horrible and scary. But those decisions informed the campaign world further.

Hobgoblins have a slight edge over humans because they were the ones who originally terraformed the green parts of the planet. They’re better adapted to Cinder because the environment was originally custom-made for their biology. Human and elvish immigrants (and their imported plant and animal life) have ruined a lot of that work, which explains why the hobgobs are only slightly superior under present conditions. It also explains why the hobgoblins are so pissed at humanity. We literally wrecked their paradise. They even went to the trouble to build their Eden on a lava planet so that the humans wouldn’t move in next door. Similarly, my decision to cut gold dragons enhances Cinder’s faux medieval Catholic Church, which preaches the good news of a gold dragon Messiah. The Dragon Pope can’t really strive for a new age of faith if I have real live gold dragons running about the place. And that decision fed into using killable gods and frog demons for the Neutral and Chaotic pantheons. The simple threat of being stabbed by an adventurer keeps the gods off the playing field much of the time, giving more room for their minions to act on their own.

Boy, this post went all sorts of places I wasn’t expecting when I started. I never even quite got around to talking about the gnolls of Cinder. Thinking about them was what got me started on this ramble. Oh, well. Maybe next post.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Check this dude out!


Now that's a keen looking fighting man! He's part of Bronze Age Miniatures line of Dead Earth (read 'Barsoom') figures. The folks at Bronze Age also have some great Tolkienesque fantasy figures. Their dwarves look like they just stepped out of a Hildebrandt painting. And their Big Bad Wolf figure makes for a great lycanthrope, though to get it you also have buy a tarted-up Little Red Riding Hood.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Bestiary of Bob

For years one of my favorite webcomics has been Bob the Angry Flower. The subject matter of the strip runs the gamut from international politics to mad science (real and imaginary) to the horrors of trying to give up smoking, all with easy cartoony linework, weird characters and fun dialogue. And along the way creator Stephen Notley whips up quite a few monsters, which leads to today's post.

Stab Fairy
Number Encountered: 1d6
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 60' (20') Fly: 180' (60')
Armor Class: 3
Hit Dice: 1+1
Attacks: 4
Damage: 1d4
Save: Elf 2
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: III + IV

Stab Fairies are the warrior class among fey peoples such as pixies and sprites. They attack larger creatures by flying into their foe's faces and slashing with all four blade limbs. Survivors of combats with these little maniacs often sport jagged facial scars.

Knife Ghost
Number Encountered: 2d4
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 120' (40') Fly: 240' (80')
Armor Class: 2
Hit Dice: 6
Attacks: 2
Damage: 2d4
Save: Fighter 6
Morale: 11
Hoard Class: XVII

These undead have slashing knives, snipping scissors and spinning dental instruments where their hands should be. Knife ghosts are immune to sleep, charm, hold and invulnerable to normal weapons, including silver. The wounds caused by these creatures rusty and dirty blades may not be healed in any manner until the victim is the recipient of a cure disease spell. [My bud Stuart whipped me up some 3E stats for Knife Ghosts back in '04 or so, but I'll be damned if I can find them right now.]

Cephalogod
Number Encountered: 1
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 30' (10') Swim 120' (40')
Armor Class: 7
Hit Dice: 20
Attacks: 10
Damage: 1d12
Save: Fighter 20
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: XV

These tentacled horrors normally lurk in the deepest ocean trenches and certain murky underground lakes, but they occasionally visit the surface world for the purpose of rampage. Instead of attacking with its mighty tentacles a cephalogod may opt to fix its loathsome gaze upon any single creature, who must save versus paralysis at -4 or be held for 2d6 turns.

Belaphathon
Number Encountered: 1 (unique)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 120' (40') Fly: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 8
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d6
Save: Magic User 8
Morale: 11
Hoard Class: XVIII (none if summoned)

Certain horrible grimoires record the ritual necessary for the conjuration of this infernal terror. Belaphathon casts spells as an 8th level magic-user and it is usually called to teach the summoner new spells. Note that it will only teach one spell per summoning unless the parties can agree to some long term pact. As is normal with such beings, Belaphathon will twist the meaning of commands, seek to bargain for the eternal soul of the conjurer, etc. Belaphathon cannot be harmed by normal weapons, but is vulnerable to silver and any weapon that has been blessed by a cleric since it last shed blood.

Attack Banana
Number Encountered: 1d6
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 90' (30')
Armor Class: 9
Hit Dice: 1
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d4
Save: Fighter 1
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: none

These guys aren't automatically hostile, but they have very short tempers. Angry attack bananas hop up to foes and latch on with their vicious fangs. Once they have sunk teeth into their victim they will not let go, doing automatic damage each round until dead. No doubt another creation of some smirking archmage with too much time on his hands.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

belated Shatnerday


With apologies to Clovis!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Clerics of Cinder

In part 2 of my draft Labyrinth Lord house rules I added some details to the way magic-users operate in my Cinder campaign setting. Today I’m tackling clerics.

Turn, turn, turn that gang of vampires. That gang of vampires.
When a cleric succeeds at turning undead roll 2d6 for number of creatures affected, regardless of hit dice. (This really gives turning some oomph at higher levels. And it gives me an excuse to use oodles of badass undead.)

The gods loathe fence-sitters
Low level clerics can be of any of the three alignments, just like any other class. However, upon achieving seventh level a neutral cleric must choose to align themselves with Law or Chaos. Staying with neutrality means you’re stuck at sixth level forever. If you’re a neutral cleric of the Lawful-oriented Church of the Great Gold Dragon the presumption is that you’ll go with Law. Similarly, neutral clerics of the Frog Gods of Chaos generally join the chaotics. You may opt to go the other way, but you are considered to have secretly converted. Only clerics of chaos can cast the reversed versions of standard cleric spells and they cannot cast the normal non-reversed spells.

It’s not just an adventure, it’s a job.
Every cleric is a member of a hierarchy of their faith, and must answer to that hierarchy. When a cleric reaches third level they can expect an appointment to a post as a village priest, whereby they will be responsible for maintenance of the local shrine, oversight of the lay members of the faith and officiating at the proper festivals. Reaching sixth level generally leads to further promotion to a bishopric, resulting in either appointment to the leadership of a large urban temple or as a supervisor over a group of village priests.

No double dipping
Miracles are not dime-a-dozen repeatable events and therefore the same spell cannot be memorized twice. That is to say a second level cleric can memorize one cure light wounds and one resist cold, but not two cure lights or two resist colds.

The above rules are ultimately derived from my reading of the cleric material in OD&D. I kicked around the idea of using the cleric spell chart from Men & Magic, because I like that 6th level OD&D clerics inexplicably gain access to both third and fourth level spells. (You go from 2 first and 2 second level spells at fifth level to 2/2/1/1.) But I didn't want to take away the first level spell that newly minted clerics get under Labyrinth Lord. That goes against my general house-ruling philosophy that PCs should be at least as awesome under my house rules as they are in the book. ("No double dipping" is in direct opposition to this rule-of-thumb and I should probably devote a future post to why I'm imposing this rule.)

Also, for players who want to play clerics but don't want to delve too deeply into the campaign background, I intend to have some dice charts for random divine allegiance. For the average dungeon delve it doesn't matter that much whether a Lawful cleric is a member of the mainstream Universal Church of the Great Gold Dragon or the rival Ancient Church or one of the Brass Heretics. But it will matter in adventures in towns and NPC encounters.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Party like it's 999

Here's a first go at specifics for my 'Ale & Wenches' rule from my Cinder house rules. I'm not entirely satisfied with these rules, but I can't quite put my finger on the problem.

Under my draft Labyrinth Lord house rules players can opt to earn some extra XPs by carousing. At the beginning of a session if a PC is hanging around Ye Olde Village Inne with nothing better to do, they can roll 1d6 and spend 100gp times the roll on liquor and/or lechery. The character gains experience equal to the gold spent. The d6 x 100 standard applies to villages only. A PC could travel to a town or city and debauch much more efficiently. Towns are worth d8 x 150 gp/xp and cities d10 x 200. The city of Hautville is worth d12 x 250 owing to its extreme wickedness. Carousing occurs at the beginning of a session and normally only characters that ended their last adventure in a town or city can take advantage of the bigger dice and higher standard of living sinfully. Thieves who are members of the local guild can spend 50gp more per pip if they so desire, while their friends can spend 25gp extra. Being mobbed up gets you first crack at the really good lotus powder, etc.

If the die roll is equal to or less than the character’s level, the result is a rousing good time and no harm done. Rolling above the character’s level indicates things got out of hand one way or another and the poor sucker must roll d20 and consult the chart below.   If a character cannot afford the carousing they have rolled, they also must consult the chart and they only gain XP equal to half their money (though all the money is spent). Fellow PCs can chip in to cover a character’s bar tab, but henchmen only do so to avoid the imprisonment of the PC and then only if a loyalty check is successful.

[Update: I know use a straight save vs. poison to avoid mishap.  Also I let people borrow to carouse as normal, but any money spent this way is owed to some local organized crime figure.]
Carousing Mishaps

1) Make a fool of yourself in public. Gain no XP. Roll Charisma check or gain reputation in this town as a drunken lout.
2) Involved in random brawl. Roll Strength check or start adventure d3 hit points short.
3) Minor misunderstanding with local authorities. Roll Charisma check. Success indicates a fine of 2d6 x 25gp. Failure or (inability to pay fine) indicates d6 days in the pokey.
4) Romantic entanglement. Roll Wisdom check to avoid nuptials. Otherwise 1-3 scorned lover, 4-6 angered parents.
5) Gambling losses. Roll the dice as if you caroused again to see how much you lose. (No additional XP for the second carousing roll.)
6) Gain local reputation as the life of a party. Unless a Charisma check is failed, all future carousing in this burg costs double due to barflies and other parasites.
7) Insult local person of rank. A successful Charisma check indicates the personage is amenable to some sort of apology and reparations.
8) You couldn’t really see the rash in the candlelight. Roll Constitution check to avoid venereal disease.
9) New tattoo. 1-3 it’s actually pretty cool 4 it’s lame 5 it could have been badass, but something is goofed up or misspelled 6 it says something insulting, crude or stupid in an unknown language.
10) Beaten and robbed. Lose all your personal effects and reduced to half hit points.
11) Gambling binge. Lose all your gold, gems, jewelry. Roll Wisdom check for each magic item in your possession. Failure indicates it’s gone.
12) Hangover from hell. First day of adventuring is at -2 to-hit and saves. Casters must roll Int check with each spell to avoid mishap.
13) Target of lewd advances turns out to be a witch. Save versus polymorph or you’re literally a swine.
14) One of us! One of us! You’re not sure how it happened, but you’ve been initiated into some sort of secret society or weird cult. Did you really make out with an emu of was that just the drugs? Roll Int check to remember the signs and passes.
15) Invest all your spare cash (50% chance all gems and jewelry, too) in some smooth-tongued merchant’s scheme. 1-4 it’s bogus 5 it’s bogus and Johnny Law thinks you’re in on it 6 actual money making opportunity returns d% profits in 3d4 months.
16) Wake up stark naked in a random local temple. 1-3 the clerics are majorly pissed off 4-6 they smile and thank you for stopping by.
17) Major misunderstanding with local authorities. Imprisoned until fines and bribes totaling d6 x 1,000gp paid. All weapons, armor, and magic items confiscated.
18) Despite your best efforts, you fall head over heels for your latest dalliance. 75% chance your beloved is already married.
19) When in a drunken stupor you asked your god(s) to get you out of some stupid mess. Turns out they heard you! Now as repayment for saving your sorry ass, you’re under the effects of a quest spell.
20) The roof! The roof! The roof is on fire! Accidentally start a conflagration. Roll d6 twice. 1-2 burn down your favorite inn 3-4 some other den of ill repute is reduced to ash 5-6 a big chunk of town goes up in smoke. 1-2 no one knows it was you 3-4 your fellow carousers know you did it 5 someone else knows, perhaps a blackmailer 6 everybody knows.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

fra-gee-lay

So while I've been busy with holiday season stuff James "the Commish" Mishler of Adventures in Gaming has seen fit to give me a major award!



Oops! Wrong image. This is the award he actually gave me:


Per the rules of this game I must now share the love with five others deserving of recognition.

Stuart's Neitherworld Stories is a very cool blog. I know him personally and he's also a really nice guy.

The RPG Pundit is an ornery cuss, but a very insightful and entertaining one.

Berin Kinsmen, a.k.a. Uncle Bear, deserves some sort of award just for being able to keep up such an awesome stream of content for as long as he has. Rock, rock on!

Levi Kornelsen is the coolest dude in indie gaming.

Edsan runs the coolest Mutant Future/Empire of the Petal Throne blog on the planet.

The Fine Print:
  • Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.

  • Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.

  • Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to This Post, which explains The Award.

  • Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!

  • Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

For just one Google searcher

Dan Brown is not a Rosicrucian, he's just a hack. Okay, maybe he sent a membership fee into AMORC or something (do those guys still advertise in the back of science magazines?), but that totally doesn't count. Even if Rosicrucianism is complete hooey, that still doesn't count.

Monday, December 15, 2008

quoting Gygax

Read how and why the system is as it is, follow the parameters, and then cut portions as needed to maintain excitement. [emphasis mine] For example, the rules call for wandering monsters, but these can be not only irritating -- if not deadly -- but the appearance of such can actually spoil a game by interfering with an orderly expedition.

...

Know the game systems, and you will know how and when to take upon yourself the ultimate power. To become the final arbiter, rather than interpreter of the rules, can be a difficult and demanding task, and it cannot be undertaken lightly, for your players expect to play this game, not one you made up on the spot. By the same token, they are playing the game the way you, their DM, imagines and creates it.

...

As the DM, you have to prove in every game that you are still the best. This book is dedicated to helping to assure that you are.

All the above come from the introduction to the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide. In my original copy (I'm on my second copy, having worn out the first one) that last passage is outlined in pencil. I did that back around 1983 or so.

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.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

Pick Four

In AD&D your starting 1st level fighter is allowed four weapon proficiencies. That is to say, a Veteran knows how to properly wield 4 different implements of death and any others they employ will be at a penalty to-hit. My crew back in the day spent a lot of time discussing what four weapons would be ideal, at least back before Unearthed Arcana gummed the system up by allowing you to spend extra slots to specialize in a particular weapon.

Pretty much everyone agreed that the long sword was an ideal first pick. Its damage output was excellent, especially versus large monsters. Another big issue was the breakdown of random magic weapons in the Dungeon Masters Guide, where 70% of all enchanted blades encountered are long swords. No one wanted to be swinging a magic sword with a non-proficiency penalty. Finally, it was a one-handed weapon, which allowed you to use a shield in melee. A lot of people over the years have harped on the measly 5% bonus to defense a shield gives you. While I don’t disagree, a 1st level character with a single hit die needs all the help they can get surviving combats.

Another way to survive combats is to kill the monsters before they can lay their claws on you. We favored the shortbow in the 1st edition era, as the mighty two attacks per round plus the compact size seemed like an awesome combo. My buddy Eric and I were in a minority who thought the slower and less potent crossbows had their place in the game. The two of us assumed that you could keep a crossbow cocked indefinitely and would run around dungeons making SWAT-style sweeps of rooms. I was really disappointed when I first read (in Dragon maybe?) that medieval crossbow strings didn’t work like that. Later when second edition came out sheaf arrows with their d8 damage made crossbows even more obsolete. I responded by continuing to favor crossbowmen. Sometimes I’m ornery that way.

I always maintained that one of the weapons a fighter selected should be a hold-out weapon, usually a dagger. It doesn’t do much damage, but it’s lightweight, can be concealed, and is your only hope if you’re swallowed by a purple worm or enveloped by a lurker below. Sometimes I would choose a club instead, figuring in desperate situations I could pick up any handy legbone or hunk of wood. The club also had two other advantages. A blunt weapon works against monsters like skeletons that are resistant to edges and points. And wooden weapons are great for fighting rust monsters or critters that conduct electricity.

Sometimes I would put together a package of weapon proficiencies based upon a theme. For knightly types I would go with longsword, dagger, and lance. The PHB charts had multiple lances which suggested separate proficiencies, but I often I would just write down ‘lance’ and hope the DM would go along with it. For the fourth weapon the wussboy option would be a missile weapon as per above, while the hardcore stupid knight option would be another melee weapon. Maybe a morningstar or two-handed sword like the Arthurian knights described in the Deities & Demi-Gods. The two-hander was considered a good choice by all because of the monstrous damage output and the eternally springing hope of finding a magic two-handed sword. To this day I fancy the morningstar for its sheer, unadulterated brutality.

The Robin Hood package consisted of long bow, long sword, dagger, and quarterstaff. I generated many a half-elf fighter/something-or-other with that set-up, especially if one of the dude’s classes was magic-user. I didn’t want to find a sweet magic staff and not be able to clubber baddies with it.

Another package of weapons I used more than once was designed around maximizing melee options just for variety’s sake. The components were bastard sword, hand axe, and dagger, with probably a shortbow as the fourth option. If you carried a sword, 2 axes, 2 daggers, and a shield dig all the fighting options:

Sword & Shield
Sword in 2 hands
Sword & Axe
Sword & Dagger
2 Axes
Axe & Shield
Axe & Dagger
2 Daggers
Dagger & Shield

I ran more than one character where I started each combat by rolling a die to pick my weapon load. Usually I would go with a d6 chart with the first six combos listed above. Dagger and shield is just too whimpy.

For serious dungeoneering with lots of pits and traps I would often pick a spear, to serve double duty as a 10’ pole. A ranseur or spetum are also good choices for this kind of work. You can’t throw them, but their higher damage and ability to disarm foes if you hit Ac 8 is pretty sweet. If you’ve got the kind of DM who rigorously enforces the non-proficiency penalties then taking ‘grenade-like missile’ might be a good option. I’d hate to waste perfectly good flaming oil or holy water because the non-prof penalty cruddied up the to-hit roll. And while I’ve never played a character who was proficient with siege weapons, the idea of hauling a ballista into a dungeon amuses me to no end.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dice Idiosyncrasies

My recent non-exposé of Lou Zocchi has gotten me thinking more about dice. Unlike many players I’ve known over the years, I’ve never been particularly superstitious about dice. I’ve never had a set or even a single die that I cherished because I thought it was luckier than other polyhedrals. I used to be a little smug about that, but thanks to Colonel Lou now I know that lots of hobby dice really do get skewed results. I do have lots of other little psychological quirks when it comes to dice, though. Here are a few of them.

1) Mixing dice with numerals and dice with pips in a single roll is anathema to me. If I have to roll a bunch of sixers for a fireball or something, I always try to roll one kind of d6 or the other. I get tripped up adding all the dice if the numbers are represented in two different formats.

2) I like percentile dice for sci-fi games and Call of Cthulhu, and that’s about it. I much prefer d6-based resolution or mixed handfuls of polyhedrons for other genres. I think my mind perceives percentile dice and base ten math as more scientific. This delusion is probably related to how I prefer metric measurements in sci-fi and imperial measurements in fantasy.

3) When I set up for a game that uses lotsa different dice, I begin each session by sorting the die types into the groups. All the d20’s go in one spot, all the d6’s in another, etc. Ostensibly I do this to make finding the right dice easier during play, but the real reason is an obsessive need to sort the dice.

4) I generally prefer rolling one or two dice for standard actions. Three dice for resolution isn’t a deal-breaker, but the rest of the system has to be good. Personally, GURPS doesn’t quite make the cut. HERO System used to, but the constant need to roll ten or twenty dice for damage drug it down. Four dice for resolving a standard dice-needing action requires a truly superb game, like Risus. Pretty much any game that actually has the phrase “dice pool” in it just isn’t going to light my jets.

4a) Counting “successes” sucks donkey balls. Please quit mangling the word “success” while simultaneously calling on the players to count/add something besides the numbers on the dice! There. I said it. And I’m not taking it back.

5) I like the occasional, spectacular giant fistful o’ dice as a way to punctuate that something awesome is happening. I.e. a bucket of dice for an occasional fireball is just dandy in my book. Or rolling 30d10 to determine exactly how many orcs are ruining your wilderness expedition.

6) You know all those dice that have something cool on them besides numbers? Like skulls for the sixes or a die that rolls what kind of trap you encounter or something like that? The dice companies need to either make sure that stuff doesn’t rub off the die or quit making the damn things. I’m still burned about my ghost die mysteriously mutating into a cubical d5.

7) Speckled dice? Translucent gem dice? You know what kind of dice I like best? The kind you can frickin’ read under the less-than-ideal lighting conditions of a random con event or game store demo.

8) Occasionally I’ve heard people talk up those d10’s marked 00, 10, 20, etc because they discourage cheating on percentile throws. Personally I like them because in the split second between selecting a tens die and rolling the pair I often forget which die is which. Yes, I am that dumb.

9) I like dice that are purple. Green dice are cool, too.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

I WILL JUDGE YOU!

Jeff Hebert is running another of his caption contests over at his Heromachine blog, and I am acting as guest judge. Here's the pic to be used.


That's Conan holding the blade, by the way. If you can think of something awesome to put in that word balloon just follow this link and enter the contest. Since the contest is over there and not here, I'm turning off comments on this post.

And if you haven't checked out the Heromachine software yet, do yourself a favor and give it a spin. It's Grodd's gift to artistically disinclined types like myself.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Joe the Averagest

So I seem to be making some progress on my spreadsheet-based Labyrinth Lord character generator. Crom only knows why I thought it would be easier to make a generator rather than just roll up the PCs for my Big Stupid Dungeon Party, but figuring out how to call an array has opened up vast new worlds for me to conquer. Anyhoo, I wanted to share this stat set with you, the fourth proto-PC I successfully generated.

Str 9 -
Dex 10 -
Con 9 -
Int 9 -
Wis 12 -
Cha 10 4 retainers, morale 7

I think that’s about the least interesting stat rolls I’ve every seen, but the neat thing about these plain vanilla stats is that, under LL's rules, you can still be anyone. So here’s the query of the day for you, my esteemed readers: If these were your rolls, what class would you pick and why? Your choices are Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric, Thief, Dwarf [fighter], Halfling [fighter], and Elf [fighter/magic-user]. And yes, you are starting at first level.

Using the time-honored method of going with your highest stat would suggest making these rolls into a Cleric. But the reason to use that rule of thumb is for the prime requisite bonus to experience and a 12 doesn’t get you jack or squat in that regards. A long term thinker might go with Cleric anyway, in hopes of somehow scoring a Wisdom boost in play. Personally I lean towards Fighter, because when in doubt I tend to play a guy with a sword or axe or something. I’d also consider playing a Halfling with this set, since the hobbits of the Lord of the Rings pretty much personify ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

five links along the great chain of being

Dig this awesome 40K mecha!

Set the wayback machine to a Gateway to Adventure.

Dice machined to order!

The Devil Wore Polyester

Alarums & Excursions, with back issues for sale!


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Stackpole's Bastards

I've mentioned Sorcerer's Apprentice magazine once before, in connection with the T&T adaptation of Dave "I created Arduin so I'm awesome" Hargrave's Techno class. As I said in that post, SA was basically the same concept as the Dragon but aimed at T&T fandom. I only own this one issue, but I wanted to share another item from it. Many of you probably recall "Sage Advice", Dragon's long-running Q&A column with official rulings on write-in rules queries. (Paging Jamie Mal! Paging Jamie Mal! Long post needed explaining how Sage Advice contributed to the destruction of the hobby and the corruption of our youth!)

Sorcerer's Apprentice had it's own Q&A column called "Queries & Quandries" Folks familiar with the more laid-back vibe of T&T won't be surprised that the column didn't take itself super-seriously. "Q&Q" (notice the lack of "A" in there!) opened with this preamble:
A forum for questions and answers about T&T, about the solo adventures, and about anything else in FRP you readers can come up for us to answer (if we can)! One of the most basic philosophies of T&T is to adjust the game as you see fit to suit your own style of play -- so don't misuse the answers given here. If our point of view seems reasonable, feel free to use it, but do not feel compelled to do so. --Mike Stackpole
Since Mr. Stackpole (author of the Pulling Report and lots of other stuff) signs the intro and no one else is credited for the body of the text, I assume he wrote the answers here as well. Most of the questions are straightforward affairs: an inquiry about using torches in combat, a clarification of the spell Catseye and whether it works in total darkness, a question about a special situation in a solo adventure, etc. I particularly like the answer to the torch question, where Stackpole gives the damage for whacking someone with an unlit torch, then calls on the referee to adjudicate adds based on the flammability of the monster being fought.

But what prompted this post was this item:
How would I figure the modifiers for a half-breed's prime requisite?
Half-breed's tend to be rare. Chances are that most half-breeds will be the offspring of dungeon-delving or adventuring characters. In addition, only logical creatures could breed together (fairies and giants don't cut it.)

To create a half-breed, roll 3d6.
--If you don't roll triples, the child is not a noticeable half-breed. Roll one more die: if it comes up even, the child will resemble its mother; odd and it will resemble the father.
--If you roll triples (other than three 6's), the child is a half-breed. To determine its attributes, average the modifiers of the parents.
--If you have rolled an 18 on three dice, you have a super breed. This child has the greatest attribute modifier of its parents per attribute. (A dwarf's CON modifier of x2 will take effect, rather than the elf's CON modifier of x 2/3.) These superbreeds are usually sterile.

One other note should be made. If dear olf Dad or Mom has received some tremendous magical gift (like the ability to shapeshift), this is not passed on to children. Only vampirism or lycanthropy are hereditary traits, although a family curse will also follow bloodlines. Of course, all children are first level characters and must be rolled up as such.
I love this system! But I'm a sucker for rolling extra dice at chargen, especially when it gives me a slight chance of being some sort of super-mutant half-dwarf half-elf. But shouldn't triple ones on the dice mean you're a loathsome reject with the worst modifiers of both races?

One other neat thing for SA #11. This ad is opposite the "Queries & Quandries" column:

Let's kill some unkillable players! I can't tell you which phrase I like more "no player is save" or "etc. of a Most Dangerous Sort".

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Diceman Cometh

Fairly recently a couple of youtube videos have been making the rounds. These clips are a recording at the most recent GenCon of Lou Zocchi giving his infamous spiel about dice. Before I go any further, I want to make sure everyone reading this understands that Zocchi is maybe one of the most underappreciated figures in the hobby. He's designed some great games, such as his Star Fleet Battle Manual. I've never had the chance to play SFBM but on paper it looks a lot more like what I wanted Task Force's Star Fleet Battles to be. He's published great stuff done by other people, such as the generic stat version of Bob Bledsaw's wicked awesome haunted house dungeon Tegel Manor. And in the early days of the hobby he was the only place to go for polyhedrals. I have huge respect for the man and everything he's done for our crazy little hobby.

But when I first watched those videos I linked above, I did so intently but not reverently. Colonel Zocchi's explanations and demonstrations arguing for the superiority of his dice were very interesting stuff. But at the end I asked myself "Is this just a sales pitch?" After all, I don't know crap about making dice. Why should I take Lou Zocchi's word on dice, knowing that he's an interested party in the affair?

So I asked some people for a second opinion. Specifically, I emailed three dice outfits (Chessex, Koplow, and Crystal Caste) and Kevin Cook, a.k.a. the Dice Collector. I sent them all links to the videos and asked for their take on the situation. Mr. Cook was the first one to get back to me. Here's what he said:
I have known Louis Zocchi since 1988 and he has come to become one of my favorite people

He is a showman ... he is very frugal ... but he is not a Liar nor does he stretch the truth

His demonstration does show the tolerances that GameScience dice have ... that other manufacturers do not

Dr Daniel Murray in Canada (developer of a dice rolling and recording machine) tested Gamescience dice and found that they are indeed as close to random as are possible with current mass production techniques
Obviously the Dice Collector isn't an impartial observer either, but this bit about Dr. Murray seems sound. I've also heard back from two of the three members of the distinguished competition. One of the nice folks at Crystal Caste declined to make a detailed comment, offering only that Zocchi was a friend but they disagreed on some points. That seems like a fair reply to me. No need to step on anyone's toes in what is a small industry. Chessex offers a longer response, which I will quote in full:
Much of what Lou discusses in the video about production of dice is accurate, however much of it is based on production in the 70's and 80's, such as the old TSR dice that were in the D&D Basic Set he mentioned (which were very poor quality dice). We used to import dice from Asia in the 1980's, but gradually went away from those sources for many of the reasons Lou articulated and stopped buying dice from Asia in the early to mid 1990's. Since then, our dice are manufactured from molds we had made for the factories in Europe and we feel make well-balanced dice. I am not sure of the exact tolerances from face to face, but the last time we checked, they seemed pretty close to each other. Having said all this, for the customers who we see at shows, a surprising number of them actually want dice that seem to roll high or in a certain way. Besides, every one is looking for their "lucky" die. So, the question really is how important are the dice to be perfectly balanced?

Nearly all that Lou talked about did not pertain to our dice since the focus of his video was his dice versus dice made in China or Taiwan. The only part of his video that was directed towards us were the use of lamps at our booth to highlight our dice. The biggest reason we have the lamps is because we sell at a lot of show venues where the lighting is terrible, so poor that it is often difficult to distinguish colors like blue and purple apart from one another. We find it easier for preparations to have the lamps at all shows rather than have them at some and not others, even though it costs $100-$200 for the electrical hookup. The other main reason for the lamps is the extra light helps to bring out the details in the materials we use that normally would be missed by customers when they QUICKLY pass by our booth (after all, at big shows like Gen Con, we only have a few seconds of each attendees time to impress them enough to want to stop to take a closer look at our dice and we think the lamps do help us achieve this result).

So, the lamps are not there only to increase the luster of them, though this is does occur. For example, our opaque dice have not been polished to anything close to a high luster because we think they look better with a slightly matte finish. So, the lamps don't help here.

We actually sell Lou's dice at shows where he does not exhibit as well as to the trade. We think they are a quality product and there is a market for his dice and, since I have always liked Lou, try to help him out by increasing his outlets of distribution. We don't know if this is common knowledge or not, but the producer of the video, Gamestation (or their owners), are in the process of purchasing Gamescience from Lou. Our guess is the promotional value gained from being on You Tube is why the video was made and put up there. We don't have any problem with this and think it is a good idea on their part, but we think they could have been a little more forthcoming in their motivation as to why the video was made. Perhaps we should do some informational videos about our dice, the history of some color developments, etc.

I hope this answers your questions and thanks for sending us the video link.
We found it interesting.

Regards,
Chessex
I agree that some of Lou's spiel seems targeted at older dice, like the infamously bad TSR dice of days gone. But for me the most interesting thing here is what Chessex doesn't say. There's no denial of Zocchi's claims about his competitors' inking process, which he suggests as the main place in the process where dice become lopsided. For me personally that was the most important part of the Colonel's patter.

I think it's important to note here that dice are simultaneously two different things in our hobby. On the one hand they are random number generators, intended to provide fair results to all players. On the other hand they are potent totems of gamer culture. The fact that we use weird poly dice is part of our geek heritage. I don't like diceless games or games that use spinners or cards as randomizers because that's not the way we do things. Similarly, Zocchi's technical issues are easily solved by using computerized randomization. A couple of times I tried using columns of electronically produced die-rolls hidden behing my screen, but it felt cold and lifeless to me.

So it seems to me that Zocchi is selling what I want. Gaming as I understand it involves rolling handfuls of weird dice, but it is equally important that those dice work as random number generators. As far as I can tell Colonel Lou doesn't make a d30, so I'm keeping my big purple thirty-sider from the Armory. Other than that, my plan is to rely on Gamescience for my future polyhedral needs.

Shatnerdays of yore


Thanks for the link to the pic, Stuart!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Chowder: Fireheart

In this episode Chowder eats the hottest peppers known to man and his every breath is flame. So he runs away to live with the only people who will understand him, the dragons.

updated chart


Courtesy commenters here and Settembrini (who did the stuff in green).

Sometimes a chart can be helpful...

...and this might even be one of these times. There are two foreign language gaming blogs that I check up on from time to time, even though I can't read the text. Normally I just check out the pics and mouse over the links in hopes they might lead to a cool site that happens to be in English. One of the sites is The Prussian Gamer, which is in German, while the other is Demons & Dragons, a Polish-language blog.

Anyway, I found this chart recently on Demons & Dragons:


That's a really nifty chart, but I decided to add some stuff to it. You'll probably need to click on this one to be able to read it.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Deep Ones & Dynamite

Every once in a while some of my favorite people on the internets complain about all the people ruining the Call of Cthulhu scene. It's been a while since I ran CoC, but it will always have a special place in my heart. One of my earliest successful (at least by some standards) campaigns was a CoC outing that ended when Gopher's big game hunter used the Mi-Go freeze ray on Tsathogghua's warpdrive, which brought down the whole engine room of the toad-gog's spaceship. Dave's professor escaped, but I think he drowned in a river shortly thereafter. Anyway, what my online pals (and others) claim is that CoC fandom is infested with a bunch of people who think that Call of Cthulhu should be run light on combat and heavy on all that crap that "ROLE players not ROLL players" seem to love.

Now I will readily admit that in some ways I am a provincial yokel. Nearly every game table I've ever sat down at has been in central Illinois. So I don't expect that my experiences with RPG fandom are going to line up with those in Prussia or Uruguay. But I think it is somewhat interesting to note that having run more CoC con games than I can readily remember, I don't once recall encountering someone who bristled at the way I run Call of Cthulhu. And how do I run it? With automatic gunfire and explosions. Flipping through my 3rd edition Keeper's Book, I am reminded how many monsters can be killed with tommy guns and/or dynamite. And I generally allowed my players such equipment, though the smarter players opted for shotguns if their PC wasn't a gunbunny.

My normal con experience would go something like this:

1) I hand out some character sheets.
2) The players celebrate "My mobbed up hit man has a tommy gun and a switchblade and the skills to use them? Sweet!" or "My professor knows three spells and one of them is actually useful! Yippee!"
3) We spend an hour or two carefully investigating the lurking menace followed by a similar amount of time blasting the holy hell out of cultists, Deep Ones, ghouls, werewolves, Tully's monsters, mummies, little old ladies, IRS officials, zombies, etc.
4) Cthulhu, Azathoth, or Dracula shows up and everybody dies.
5) Players go home happy.

In short, Call of Cthulhu ain't deep and it ain't rocket science. The fact that I can run it successfully when lots of other games elude me pretty much proves that point. The only thing baffling me is that out there one can apparently find people who play CoC for the nuance and subtlety. Personally, I find CoC about as nuanced and subtle as rolled up back issue of Power Man & Iron Fist whacking you in the nose.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Stay Weird

Here’s the sort of thing I have trouble passing up when I spot it in the bargain bin of a comic shop.


I don't know much more than To Be Announced was a black & white ‘humor’ comic published in Ontario. I want to like this book, but it’s not very good. However I really dig the mag’s mascot:


Yet another reason why I should never be made Emperor of the World (or Canadia): I would have a special prison set up for colorists who screw up rainbows that badly. Maybe if I was feeling particularly merciful on a given day I would allow the dude a chance to explain the artistic effect he was attempting to achieve with this brave new spectrum. But most of the time I would simply send such prismatic offenders to Bifrostcatraz where they would be made to write the mnemonic Roy G. Biv one zillion times on a chalkboard.

Anyway, here’s another pic of the unnamed mascot. I think I’ll call him the Cathode Gorilla.


I like that tree, too. Comics.org says artist Mike Bannon also did later work on Oombah the Jungle Moon Man. Dig the trippy cover, man.

The not-quite-humurous back-up story is actually better written than the feature, though the art is a lot rougher. The plot could easily be swiped for a sci-fi game: tow intergalactic con men are selling bogus real estate deeds on two planets in the middle of the neutral zone. It turns out that the folks on the other side of the neutral zone have taken an interest in the world. Suddenly the local government needs the con men's dog & pony show to serve as evidence that their own claim to the two planets is stronger!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Magical Graffiti of Samehz the Lesser

One of the most successful and celebrated adventuring bands of recent years was the group known simply as the Riders. All known members are either dead, missing, or retired from active adventuring, but a decade or two ago they wandered Cinder leaving behind a path of destruction littered with emptied treasure chests, broken foes, and fatigued doxies.* In time even the dread Lava Lords grew to fear the wrath of the Riders. Some tales tell that the Riders stopped using ordinary steeds and in their later years the whole company rode across the sky on the backs of subdued dragons. Among their legendary accomplishments the Riders are the only known adventuring party to enter and return from the ancient inhuman city deep below Ploonkoon, the Castle That Drips Green Blood. But not all returned from this harrowing expedition. Many henchmen and miscellaneous cannon fodder no doubt fell to the traps and monsters of the Greenblood Dungeons, but the greatest blow to the company was the loss of two of its three wizards.

Samehz the Greater was already past his prime when he joined the Riders. Through years of magical toil and political intrigue he had risen to occupy the Chair of Ivory and Pearls, one of the seats on the grand council of sorcerers that rule the city of H’kaag. Samehz the Greater was among the minority on the council who disagreed with the Adelian Compromise and found himself ousted during the most recent troubles with the Necromaster of the North. However, his apprentice Tullius managed to secure his master’s old position following the eviction of the Necromaster’s forces from the Midrealm. In many ways Tullius surpassed the learning and powers of his old teacher, but he never forgot the man that put his feet on the path to greatness. Thus when the Riders attempted their pillage of Greenblood, Samehz was invited to share the risk and reward as a full member of the band. With him Samehz brought what was to be his final apprentice in sorcery, a young man also named Samehz. The story goes that, years ago, the elder Samehz had saved the life of a noblewoman, who in thanks named a child after him. Rumors that Samehz the Greater was secretly the father of the younger man circulate to this day.

The two mages Samehz and their ally Tullius were joined in the expedition under Greenblood by some of the finest adventurers of the past generation, among them the fierce fighting-men Naach Argentius (who once famously boasted that no man had ever killed him twice) and the slayer Lundar the Profound; the adventuring priest Nebrod (now patriarch of the Glittering Cathedral of Hauteville); the dwarves Oyt of the Jagged Scars and Zerob (called the Son of Ice); and the mysterious elves known only as the Brothers of the Black Wind. Accounts vary as to whether the barbarian Loogrim the Haughty, the amazon Maxinelle or the sorceress Divanna Star-Wanderer accompanied the Riders on this adventure.

What little is known of the Riders descent into the Underworlds of Ploonkoon comes from half-heard whispers and guesswork, as all who made it out alive seem silenced by some still-lurking fear. Even the carouses of the ever-exuberant Lord Naach grow still when the subject of Castle Ploonkoon is raised. And Lundar strikes to maim before the last syllables of a question about the matter dare be uttered. Once before his death Oyt the Dwarf was asked about the expedition. He purportedly sobbed uncontrollably, weeping tears that flamed and burned like greek fire.

Given the reticence of the Riders to discuss the affair, it is no surprise that the fate of the wizard Tullius, one of the two not to return with the group, remains unknown to this day. Some cite the Grand Council of H’kaag’s unwillingness to find a replacement as evidence that they know Tullius to still be alive. Others say that some unknown internal squabble prevents the chair from being filled. The Council elects its own members and it is not unknown for an empty seat to go unoccupied for years if the councilors are evenly split in opinion. No Rider objected when Tullius was declared legally dead and his estranged wife/presumed widow auctioned off his tower and magical paraphernalia. But Tullius, ever extravagant in his magical experiments and pharmaceutical recreations, owed money to several of the party and by this they were able to recoup some loss.

Hints as to the ultimate doom of the apprentice Samehz have recently come to light, as a new generation of treasure-hunters takes its first tentative steps into the gloomy realms beneath the Castle of Green Blood. It seems that all these years later Samehz the Lesser is still down there, wandering lost through that dismal hell. The primary evidence for this supposition is the signed graffiti that can be found in some out-of-the-way places in the dungeon. Written upon the stone with ash as if from the charred end of a splinter of wood, each grafitto purports to be a magical spell that Samehz apparently transcribed from his addled memory. The years of imprisonment within that midnight realm have taken a toll upon the mind of the apprentice, as the various incantations have become jumbled in Samehz’s mind. Some adventuring magic-users who copy down the wall-scrawled spells and study them at length have been able to puzzle out a castable spell. Since the psychic-mathematical formulae for Samehz’s spells are less exacting than most spells, the chance to understand them, as per my house rules, is halved. But when successfully understood the results vary wildly in utility. Below are three examples from the dungeon wall ‘spellbook’ of Samehz the Lesser.

Hold Web
Level: 1
Duration: 2d6 turns
Range: 10’

This spell affects webs of both spell and spider. By means of it the web becomes hardened to a consistency somewhat like old dried glue and it loses all stickiness as well. Anyone doing at least one point of physical damage with a blunt implement or three points with a blade will shatter the webs completely. Someone trapped inside a held web can shatter the web by rolling their Strength or less on d20. The web is no longer flammable, but can be melted in 1d6 rounds by use of torch flame. When this spell ends the webs regain their normal properties.

Secret Downside: If the web is shattered all trapped inside and anyone else within 10’ (including possibly the poor schmuck who just cast the spell) will take 1d6-1 points of damage from web shrapnel. Then when the spell is over you’ve got these gross hunks of web-snot lodged in your wounds. Yuck!

Self Clairvoyance
Level: 1
Duration: 2d6 turns
Range: Caster

The caster of this spell is able to see the world through their own eyes. This effect is of no benefit whatsoever unless the caster’s eyeballs happen to be somewhere besides in the caster’s head. Which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Self Clairvoyance cannot circumvent any blindness effect aside from physical removal of the eyeball.

Secret Downside: The caster must make a saving throw versus spells or the psychic recursion of hacking one’s own ocular nerves will cause the caster to do nothing but babble incoherently for the duration of the spell. It’s a pretty good high, but one is not allowed to intentionally fail the saving throw.

Charm Shield
Level: 2
Duration: d12 rounds
Range: 60’

This spell can only be cast upon a shield held ready for use. If the owner of the shield fails a saving throw versus spells, the shield flies to the caster, dragging its owner behind it. The shield will then dance about the caster, deflecting blows. This grants to the caster the normal Armor Class bonus associated with the shield in question for the duration of the spell. If the victim of the spell dies before the duration ends the spell continues to function, dragging and flinging the corpse about like a gruesome ragdoll.

Fairly Obvious Downside: The victim of the spell is now standing right next to the caster. Hello! Although probably befuddled thanks to being jerked around by their otherwise-faithful shield, the foe may attack the caster at -2 to-hit. Note that the victim of Charm Shield cannot drop the shield for the duration of the spell, though they may (10% per 10’ distance travelled) drop any weapon held in their other hand when yanked across the battlefield.
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* I’m pretty sure I stole this line from S. John Ross. He probably did it better the first time, but at the moment I don’t remember where I read it so I can’t be sure. S. John may have said “exhausted wenches” instead of “fatigued doxies”.

Monday, December 01, 2008

On the horizon

I don’t follow release schedules and product announcements with the same level of interest I had back when I was reading rpg.net regularly. I think my enthusiasm was curbed primarily by the realization that all the dates supplied by most publishers are selected by reading pig entrails and watching the flight of birds. Oh, and avidly following the Wraeththu rpg through the entire cycle from announcement to finished product probably didn’t help either. But there are a few items coming down the pipe that seem promising to me.

Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox – The original Swords & Wizardry is an Open Game License retro-clone of Original D&D plus the Supplementary material. The forthcoming Whitebox version of S&W is supposed to peels away the AD&Disms, reverting some of the subsystems that were ‘upgraded’ in the Supps. For some tastes this will be one step too far, a retrograde movement into territory originally abandoned for good reasons. Me, I just want an OGL version of the three little books that started it all. Not because OD&D is inherently superior to all those later edits, amendments, revisions, corrections, clarifications, misunderstandings, and manglings, but simply because OD&D is a fun game. By my lights Whitebox needs no further justification other than helping keep a fun game in circulation. That it also helps us stay in touch with our gaming heritage blah, blah, blah is just a bonus.

Hackmaster Basic – I’ve wanted a Hackmaster Basic rules since the game originally came out. I’m not particularly thrilled that it has taken an edition overall to get one published, but beggars can’t be choosers. HM Basic will be a relatively cheap and easy way to survey the new edition. And I like the prospect of taking a simplified core of materials to which I can tack on subsytems and doodads from the full-fledged HackMaster. That’s how my group handled D&D Basic and AD&D as kids.

The Southern Reaches Gazetteer – While I’m happy as a clam to be working on my own Cinder campaign setting, there are still a few commercially released settings that I follow. James Mishler’s new version of Judges Guild’s classic Wilderlands setting is one of them. The Southern Reaches will be Adventure Games Publishing's first campaign installment and I can’t wait to see it in its full glory. The map is already available and it hits that sweep spot between eye candy and utility where you can both enjoy looking at it but also get serious gaming done with the thing.

Uresia 3rd edition – Honestly, I don’t plan to rush out to get this one when it’s released simply because I bought both of the first two editions of Uresia back when they were a print product from now-defunct publisher Guardians of Order. But I probably will pick it up eventually because it’s from the always-rad S. John Ross and I’m sure there’ll be plenty of new stuff in it. Unlike the first two editions, where the main differences I could find were ignorable BESM statblocks vesus ignorable BESM d20 statblocks. I decided to keep the original BESM version because of its handy digest size. And also because I’m amused that the cool elf chick GoO put on the cover seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the contents, other than the setting containing some cute elf chicks. Anyway, here’s the most important thing to know about the world of Uresia if you’re unfamiliar with it: the publishers of Cute & Fuzzy Cockfighting Seizure Monsters cut some stuff from the manuscript because they thought it was too over the top. I am totally not making that up.

Opponent Opuscule #2 – Evil schemer Christian Conkle was one of the original people to really get the Encounter Critical vibe. I honestly don’t know if he plans on actually writing the sequel to his awesome EC monster book, but I sure hope he does! Opponent Opuscule #1 is basically the Monster Manual to EC’s terse OD&D-style approach to monster write-ups. All the same monsters are there but whereas the core EC rules give you a statline and nothing more, Conkle’s work gives you a full write-up and some nifty illos. Dig this example:


Drawings by Conkle. Colors by yours truly. Yes, that is crayon. Anyhoo, OO #1 covers all the official critters from Asteroid Worm to Whirling Dervish, so that means that book two in the series would be all new critters. That would be so sweet!

The Mooger Incident – I’m not entirely sure what this is going to be, but it’s for Encounter Critical and being written by Rondoo the Mesmerator. Sign me up.

What are all y’all awaiting with baited breath?