Thursday, April 30, 2009

Geocities Redux: Space Invaders

I believe I first played Space Invaders at Glen’s Pizza in Flanagan, Illinois. Flanagan was the closest town to the farm I grew up on, and Glen’s was the only pizza place there. They did a nice little thin crust pizza.

I loved the art on the machine almost as much as playing the game: these weird energy creatures hurling missiles Zeus-style down at your sorry ass.

Later, when my family got an Atari 2600 (back then it was the Atari Video Console System) my sister and I played a lot of Space Invaders on it. Sure, we played other games. Lots of other games. But nowadays when you can download damn near every Atari game they made, I find myself playing Space Invaders over and over again.

For all its graphical crudeness, Space Invaders was an elegant game design. It had a sense of psychology to it. These days, video games tend to be graphical masterpieces but sometimes they fall down in terms of plot, pacing, or storyline. Space Invaders managed to deliver on all of these items, admittedly in a minimalist way.

First, the premise was a classic: stop the inexplicable Other from attempting to take over your world. Nothing fit better in the Reagan 80’s remix of 50’s cold war paranoia.

Maybe I watched too many old black-and-white B-grade sci-fi flicks as a youth, but the premise clicked for me right away. Zap the bug-eyed monsters from outer space. Right now! Who knows what they will do to us if they land?

The gameplay was simplicity itself: joystick moved you side-to-side. Press the button to fire the gun straight up. You faced two main complicating factors. For starters you could only have one bullet on the screen at time. This fact meant that a clean miss cost you precious seconds that you didn’t have. You were trying to stop an alien invasion, for chrissake! When is that gun going to reload?

The other complication was the three barriers that hovered just above your little battle platform. Ostensibly these things were there to shield you from alien fire. And I did duck behind them plenty of times. Unfortunately they all too often shielded the aliens from a shot I was trying to line up. Heck, sometimes I found it necessary to blast a hole through my own defenses.

Above all other considerations, the thing that made the game truly one of the best of all time was the nature of the Invaders themselves. They came in a confusing variety of weird designs, yet they attacked in well-ordered, tightly disciplined formations.

What were these creeps? Why were they working together? The extra creepy part was the fact that the invaders had eyes, they had faces. For the love of God, Montresor, they had faces. Those weren’t gigantic alien saucers coming at you, they were space monsters. These handfuls of freakishly arranged pixels filled me with uncertainty and dread. The only thing I knew for sure was that they had to die.

So I blasted ‘em and blasted ‘em. And then they would go into uberweird mode. As the number of invaders dwindled on the screen, the speed of the survivors increased. Soon the last few would be flying like madasses, trying to blast me, the lone defender of the Earth, to smithereens. Those last seconds of the round were tense, because hitting the last Invader was hard. One miss and I’d be kicking myself as your laser blast crept up the screen. Meanwhile, the last baddie kept getting closer and closer.

And if even one of those bastards planted their tentacles or whatever on good old Mother Earth, that’s it. Game over. You lose. You let the earth be conquered by the Nazi Mutant Hell-creatures or whatever. Smooth move, ex-lax.

But what if you got that last guy? Somewhere the bug-eyed overleader yawns at the report that one of his 200 bazillion legions being destroyed by primitive apemen. “Send in another legion. Maybe one with training or some field experience.”

So another space army would appear on your screen. They warp in from hyperspace a little bit closer to Earth than the last one. They’d be just a hair faster than the previous squad. And they would slowly creep toward you, using the exact same tactics as the guys you just blew up. It was almost as if by stopping the first batch of monsters I had made things worse, not better.

It was as if the makers of Space Invaders had managed to tap into a sort of bleak, nihilistic heroism. You look into the sky and see an enemy that you can’t comprehend, much less defeat. They are numerous beyond counting. You have no chance against them. They will conquer the Earth. Despite knowing these facts, you choose to fight. Better to die free than live a slave! Aieeeee!

What a great game.

Dig these screenshots from Space Invaders '95 disproving my theory that any game can be improved with a little toilet humor!

Do you remember when video games were cool, when hot chicks used to hang out at arcades? Me neither.

Monday, April 27, 2009

By Thrazar's Katzbalger!

So here's a fun little toy I found via a link on my buddy's blog. It takes a text input (a name) and puts it through mathemagraphical transmogrifications to turn it into some sort of fantastic weapon. For example, I type 'Thrazar' and got this:

I'm lsightly disappointed I didn't get an axe.
A katzbalger is obviously a blade of some sort but I had to look it up on the Wikipedia to find out more.

Review: Delving Deeper - Gnome

John Adams of Brave Halfling Publishing was kind enough to send me a copy of his outfit's new PDF for Labyrinth Lord-playable gnomes. Delving Deeper - Gnomes is a three page PDF written by Luke Fleeman with the cover by Jason Braun. Since the first page is the neat cover by Mr. Braun and the last page is the Open Game License, we're only talking about one page of gameable content. Even at 75 cents for the download some people might find it hard to swallow paying for such a small dose of gaming material. Personally, I don't find cost per page analyses to be very useful. Either I need a page full of gnome stats or I don't and either this particular product helps my game or it doesn't. At under a buck the cost is so close to free I just don't consider it a relevant issue. But I got a comp copy, so what do I know?

The gnome as presented by Mr. Fleeman gives an operational framework that includes both of the mechanical aptitude of the tinker gnome archetype and the illusionist magic of the pre-Dragonlance era version. The mechanics are straightforward, relying on previously established LL/D&D norms. I like the class. It's simple enough to be used for NPCs and I would definitely try it as a player. In fact, I think I like this incarnation of the gnome more than any other version I've seen to date.

I do have three little issues with this product. First is the XP chart. Per Fleeman gnomes need 4,065 experience points to get to second level. That's the same as an Elf run under Labyrinth Lord. I just don't buy the implication that the two classes are equivalent in power. The Elf is better than the Gnome in in terms of hit points, spell ability, armor usage and attacks. My gut tells me these disadvantages are not offset by the gnomes mechanical ability, 90' infravision or better saves. The point is debatable, but the XP chart was a definite WTF? moment for me.

The second issue that may annoy some people is that the Delving Deeper version of the gnome doesn't interact with the gnome as presented in the Labyrinth Lord rulebook. Gnomes in LL are creatures of base 1d8 hit dice and leader types of up to 4HD ability. None of these NPC gnomes have any spell abilities, so it is impossible to stat up baseline LL gnomes with this class. I don't consider that a huge issue, but I wouldn't have minded a second page (or even half a page) with rules and XP chart for more fighterish gnomes like in the main rulebook.

Finally, that 90' infravision I mentioned before bugs me a little. In my games I try to take dungeoneering seriously and just handing out infravsion that's 150% better than standard to some pudknocker illusion jockies rubs me the wrong way. I doubt it would screw up things up, but I don't like messing with dungeon operations without clear signs that the implications have been thought through.

None of these issues is a dealbreaker for me. As I said, I like this class. I would have no problem using it in my campaign, though I would do so in the form of additional rules to supplement the pre-existing version of the gnome. So in my campaign world the Delving Deeper rules would describe a magic-using subset of the overall gnome population. I haven't decided yet whether to update my "How to Make a PC" handout to include gnomes or not, but the very fact that I'm considering doing so is a pretty positive sign.

You can get your own copy of Delving Deeper - Gnome and lots of other cool Brave Halfling Publishing products at their YourGamesNow page or at the Old School Renaissance.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

I said "Happy Shatnerday!"

Thanks to Mr. Castle for suggesting this one.

Friday, April 24, 2009

from the bygone era of a few years ago

So GeoCities is being sent to the termination booth in the near future. My earliest webpages were done on GeoCities, before I switched to Tripod and later focused on this here blog. As a way of keeping some of this stuff from going the way of the dodo, I'll be doing some reposting here. Today I'll be starting with my old quotes file.

[Psycho Dave] was the only guy I know who used a random monster encounter chart for Call of Cthulhu. You haven't lived until you've had a character go mad because he saw a nightgaunt sitting in a restroom stall reading a copy of the Necronomicon.

-Al Bruno III

Star Wars probably wouldn't have been quite as big a success if Darth Vader had been named Mungo Dingleberry, Luke had been Willmer Dadlikemey and Obi-Wan been Dingo Frootbat.

-Marius Bredsdorff, Godless Commie

I wish I could find some people to play straight up OD&D. No character development, no nothing. Just a posse and a dungeon. And also, a dragon.

-King of NoPants, Pantsless Wonder

a bad GM won't be able to keep even a game of Dungeons and Dragons from overwhelming him

-Kevin Maginn, talking smack in his review of Nobilis

The original D&D seems, quite obviously, to be a pastiche of Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard adventure stories, set in a Tolkeinian world of Moorcockian morality, using Jack Vance's magic system, redacted for multiple protagonists. No wonder things are confused.

-Kenneth Hite

The other night, I whipped out my Rules Cyclopedia and B2 Keep on the Borderlands. We had an absolute freaking blast.

-Jeffrey A. Webb

How many times can you meet at the Gold Dragon Inn to go off to far away StrangeLand and fight the evil mage BadGuy?

-Gary Pellino

AD&D has probably brought more new gamers to the hobby than all other games combined. On that merit alone, it deserves our respect. Of course, for some of us, that's AD&D's only merit. But that's another story altogether.

-Jake de Oude

I'm afraid that nostalgia clouds my thoughts so much when it comes to discussing any version of DnD that I find myself at a loss. I always start drifting of into daydreams where Elf and Dwarf are classes and The Caves of Chaos are the only rpg lovin that I need.

-Chris Edwards, on the Forge

random thoughts

The part of me that appreciates the romantic allure of worldbuilding rarely shows up to the game table. When it comes time to roll dice I need a board the players can move their pieces across more than a dreamscape for shared hallucination.

Would chess be less popular without the fluff of kings and queens and their servants going to war? What if the knight wasn't shaped like a horsey or the rook like a tower?

A simple rule that approximates the desired effect is often better than a complex rule that hits the nail squarely on the head.

For every Gygax quote there is an equal and opposite Gygax quote.

Joe the Fighter and Bob the Magic-User fight orcs and giant rats in the Generic Dungeon of Randomized Peril. If everyone had a good time, would it necessarily have been better if the setting was less vanilla? If the session was a dud, would anything have been gained by glitzing up the joint?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

she's doing fine

Thanks for all the sympathetic inquiries about my wife's illness. Turned out to be one of those 24 hour bugs. And so far she hasn't passed it on to the rest of the family.

By the way, did you see Oddysey's comment suggesting the use of the Oriental Adventures family chart for Traveller nobility? As Lord Kilgore responded, that's genius. Getting good comments rules!

Maybe I need to throw together some Trav-oriented random family legacy charts similar to the ones in OA. A d66 chart ought to do it.

it's a family affair

The last page of the original Oriental Adventures rulebook contains the following chart:

Players of most OA classes are expected to fill one of these babies out. The basic deal is that you identify the head of the clan and 0-7 siblings and then figure out which one of these people is your PC's grandfather. You then identify your father and 0-7 uncles/aunts. After that you name 0-7 siblings. There's a spot for recording other bits of family info that you can dice up in chargen, such as properties owned by the family. A completed form looks something like this:

All the names were rolled up on the charts from the Dragon article "Whaddya mean, Jack the Samurai?" (issue #121, I think). That article consists of 400 random family names and 400 given names for Japanese characters, split into eight percentile charts.

Anyway, look at all the neat potential trouble lurking in that clan chart. The PC's father and grandfather control all the clan holdings. Does that rankle Great Uncle Sorai or Great Uncle Ikku or any of their children or grandchildren? And are they willing to do anything about it? And what's up with Aunt Izuka? She's childless and apparently not married off to another clan. Is she a widow, her husband and/or children slain by Clan Kadono's traditional enemies? Or maybe she's an independant woman, a samurai in her own right or a sorceress or something like that. Or maybe she was married at one time but fled her husband's household for some reason. Either way, there's possibilities here that didn't exist prior to the dice hitting the table.

But the most interesting thing in the OA family rules (and the thing that may most distinguish Oriental Adventures from baseline D&D) is the fact that everyone on the bottom line of the chart has d8-2 children. That's the PC's generation and the implication is that 75% of all PC samurai, kensai, barbarian, bushi, ninja and yakuza start play as parents. That fact strongly implies that many starting PCs are married as well.

Adventurers with a wife and kids back home is a big conceptual leap from the (oft unstated) default position that PCs are unattached. I'm pretty sure even Pendragon, a game where establishing a dynasty is crucial, waits for play to begin before PCs get married and start families of their own. I'm not sure what all these spouses and kids mean for my still-in-development Saikaido sandbox. My assumption up until this point is that all the starting PCs enter the wilderness map from the more civilized regions off map to the northeast. Maybe I should change that so that PCs who desire to travel home can do so without leaving the campaign area.

One neat thing about the OA family rules is that integrating replacement PCs becomes easy. If Kadono Rikyu dies in battle, his little brother Yabe can show up to avenge him.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Game Cancelled Tonight

My wife is ill and I need to take care of her and lil' sweetpea.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

historical evidence of the daiklave!

From The Book of the Samurai: The Warrior Class of Japan, another tome from Stephen Turnbull.

It came from 1974

I thought it might be neat to see what else came out the same year as the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set.

  • By the Light of the Green Star
  • Carrie
  • Centennial
  • The Forever War
  • The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
  • Jaws
  • A Midsummer Tempest
  • The Mote in God's Eye
  • Six Days of the Condor
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  • Deadly Hands of Kung Fu
  • Marvel Two-In-On - probably my favoritest series ever
  • Métal Hurlant - which you may know by its English title, Heavy Metal
  • One-Man Army Corps - one of Kirby's greatest creations
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Star*Reach - Which I did not know existed until I started hitting wikipedia for this article
  • Savage Sword of Conan
  • Superman Family

  • Chico and the Man
  • Good Times
  • Hong Kong Phooey
  • Kolchak: The Night Stalker
  • Land of the Lost
  • Little House on the Priairie
  • Nova
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Rhoda
  • The Rockford Files
  • Shazam!
  • The Six Million Dollar Man

  • Benji
  • Blazing Saddles
  • Caged Heat
  • Chinatown
  • Dark Star
  • F for Fake
  • The Godfather part II
  • Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla
  • The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
  • The Longest Yard
  • The Man with the Golden Gun
  • Murder on the Orient Express
  • The Street Fighter
  • Vampyres
  • Young Frankenstein
  • Zardoz

  • HMS Alacrity, HMS Arrow, HMS Cardiff, HMS Coventry - all of which later saw action in the Falklands War
  • Bailey's Irish Creme
  • Intel 8080 microprocessor
  • the San Diego Chicken

Monday, April 20, 2009

this dude is awesome

The back cover is a woodblock print by Kuniyoshi depicting the death of Banzuin Chobe'e, the leader of a prominent gang of the townsmen of Edo...
I think this guy's name is also spelled Chobei or Kobei in some sources. According to some online sources the yakuza consider him a founding father, while in kabuki he's often an honorable Robin Hood figure. Either way, he looks totally badass here. For crying out loud, he's got a spear going through his leg and the dude is just kicking back having a drink. And then apparently he dies.

I wish I had a better scan to share with you, but this is from the back cover of a library book with a plastic cover protector taped in place. By the way, the book is Samurai Warlords: The Book of the Daimyo by Stephen Turnbull. Mr. Turnbull penned several books on the subject.

WotC's greatest foe?

Trying to figure out what the heck Wizards is up to has become a sort of cottage industry among the roleplaying blogosphere. Whenever the chatter reaches a certain pitch I sometimes think about these lines from the film Other People's Money:

"This company is dead. I didn't kill it. Don't blame me. It was dead when I got here. It's too late for prayers. For even if the prayers were answered, and a miracle occurred, and the yen did this, and the dollar did that, and the infrastructure did the other thing, we would still be dead. You know why? Fiber optics. New technologies. Obsolescence. We're dead alright. We're just not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.

You know, at one time there must've been dozens of companies makin' buggy whips. And I'll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company? You invested in a business and this business is dead. Let's have the intelligence, let's have the decency to sign the death certificate, collect the insurance, and invest in something with a future."

Larry the Liquedator (played brilliantly by Danny Devito) may come off as a jerk, but he's not acting illogically. Within the corporate paradigm, he makes a helluva lot of sense. Does anyone seriously doubt that there's at least one guy just like that at Hasbro, waiting to pounce? If I was a Hasbro stockholder I'd want a cutthroat guy with Larry's attitude on the team. Even if I didn't follow all his advice, just to keep the organization more grounded in economic reality.

I think that's why sometimes WotC's decisions seem so opaque. Some moves have nothing to do with us. A perfectly rational response to the Larry the Liquidators could look like utter nonsense to actual participants in the hobby.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

a pet peeve

Gamer1: One reason I don't play [HERO System/Rolemaster/3e/whatever] is because character generation takes too effin' long.

Gamer2: It only takes me about ten minutes to whip up a new character.

The first gamer is probably misdiagnosing the problem. I've done that before. I think people will put up with longer chargen time if the process is engaging. "Here pick 14 items off of our lame list of poorly conceived skills" is not a method that gets people interested. Generally if asked I'll tell you I like super-short chargen, but in fact I'll roll lifepath style random charts (Traveller, the R. Talsorian systems, etc) for as long as it takes just to find out what kind of weirdo I'll end up with. "I get bored and/or confused making characters for system X" would be a better way to phrase the problem.

Gamer2, whether he realizes it or not, is being a pain in the ass. Reporting how quickly he can make a character does absolutely nothing to solve Gamer1's poorly-worded problem. And it's easy for Gamer1 to see the statement as a veiled denigration of his or her intelligence. "Oh, so I must be some sort of idiot because I take six times as long to make a character." If Gamer2 wants to add something useful to the conversation, he should consider asking where Gamer1 is getting bogged down and/or offer some helpful tips for shortening the process.

Just my 2 cents on an all-too-common situation.

Hogan the Bardbarian

Flipping through some old Dragon mags I found this illo from issue #107. I've seen this illo a bazillion times before, since I got the issue when it came out in 1985. But today it struck me what a fun idea it would be to play a bard based upon Hulk Hogan. As I recall in 3.5 a bard can define his or her Perform skill as pretty much anything the DM will tolerate. So Hogan the Barbarian would be a high Strength, high Charisma bard with Perform (battle theatrics). You could let all the fighters do the hard work and try to steal all the glory for it. But for putting up with your antics they get all the usual benefits of bardish buffing.


An old Dragon magazine ad submitted by Matt of the Dwarf and the Basilisk. I never played this one. The last Trek computer game I played was that one where the proton torpedoes were represented by asterisks flying across the sector.

Friday, April 17, 2009

on being a moron

Q: When the hell is Mike going to update his blog with more cool Ruins & Ronin stuff?

A: He already has. I just forgot to put Sword+1 in my feed.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

hey, let's talk about something besides Japan today

Adventure 4: Leviathan is a neat-o Trav product I've long wanted to run. Design-wise it combines a two subsector sandbox with a straightforward mission: mercantile exploration. A big portion of this booklet is devoted to the Leviathan class merchant cruisers.

I've never run A4 for3 big reasons.
1) Traveller is a crusty old game that no one plays anymore.
2) Not that many players actually want to deal with the personnel and logistical issues of running a big ship. In my experience most players want a Millenium Falcon sized operation or Constellation-class hand wavery.
3) Not that many players want to plan out something as complicated as a long multi-jump loop route through a couple of subsectors. Especially when they know the referee is just going to monkey the whole thing up.

So here's my idea on how to get some use out of my copy of Leviathan.

1) Use Mongoose's new Traveller. If necessary trick prospective players by describing it as a shiny new sci-fi game. "Inspired by Firefly."
2) Make most of the crewmembers myself, possibly cribbing from 1,001 Characters if that supplement is sufficiently compatible with the new Mongoose edition.
3) Make the captain an NPC.
4) Use the module as a springboard for episodic adventures. Examples:
  • "Tonight we're starting out with all of you in the shuttlecraft, scouting out a gas giant as a fuel source. You're six hours from the mothership when you pick up a faint distress beacon."
  • "Shore leave on non-imperial worlds can be interesting. The cops wake you up just in time to board the bus for the prison work camp."
  • "That dodgy cargo you picked up two jumps back turns out to be xenomorph eggs. Roll for initiative, suckers."
5) In between sessions, I'd play out the strategic portions of the game as a solo operation.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

better than witchfinder general

My internets for the past couple of days has consisted of men slogging through a whole bunch of wikipedia articles on medieval Japan. So if you've emailed me, I must apologize. I've got a crapload of unopened mail in the ol' inbox right now.

I've found a lot of neat stuff that could inform the Oriental Adventures campaign idea I've been kicking around. Here's one little juicy bit I dug up: the imperial Ministry of Ceremonies maintained a small cadre of officials dedicated to the inspection of tombs. What a great gig for an NPC! Assume the elaborate tomb of an ancient emperor has degenerated into a dungeon full of evil spirits and monsters. The local Tomb Inspector could serve as the patron of a good party devoted to clearing the monsters or as the foil of a more larcenous party intent on pillaging imperial grave goods. Maybe he sponsors his own party that serve as rivals to the PC group.

Think about it: who could the PCs hate more than a meddlesome bureaucrat intent on sucking all the fun out of dungeoneering? I wouldn't expect such a character to live very long, but unless the party is very careful in disposing of him they could be borrowing a lot more trouble than they want.

Monday, April 13, 2009

So Google Maps is pretty awesome

If my calculations are right each half of this map (above and below the red line) is equal to one standard Judges Guild hexmap at 5 miles per hex.

If memory serves one JG map equals one Indiana turned sideways.

The main island there is Kyushu, known in earlier times as Saikaido. It's the southermost of the four big Japanese islands. In the upper lefthand corner is a little piece of the Korean peninsula.

Towards the end of the 13th century good ol' Kublai Khan mounted two joint Mongol/Imperial Chinese/Korean expeditions to take the islands. Both launched from Korea and both made landfall on Kyushu. The Japanese didn't exactly defeat the forces of the Master of Xanadu. Bad weather did more than katana work to scuttle the invasions.

I don't know about you, but to me the six or so years between the two invasions sounds like a perfect setting for some quasi-historical Oriental Adventures D&D. Especially if you assume that the first invasion wasn't a complete trainwreck, thereby allowing you to pepper the hexmap with some remnants of the invader army: steppeland barbarians, evil old Fu Manchu type wizards, and Chinese-imported hobgoblins.

Also, Kyushu has a bigass volcano in the middle of the island. That's always a plus.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

a Shatnerday I couldn't pass up

Jonathan over at the Core Mechanic created this motivational poster combining an iconic piece of Shatneria with a quote by yours truly (from James "the Commish" Mishler's blog when the Wizards PDF story broke). All of Mishler's C&C/Wilderlands stuff is on sale right now, by the way.
(Matt, I haven't forgotten about your Shatnerday submission. It just got pushed back a week.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

more OA inspired chartery

So I'm still obsessing over Oriental Adventures today. I've even come up with this little semi-historical campaign concept working through my brain. But tonight I wanted to compare what is required stat-wise to qualify for the various Asian and European classes. Here's a chart comparing the two:

I've omitted the Kensai because there's no comparable baseline AD&D character class. Also not appearing on the chart are the Barbarian and the Monk, as their requirements are exactly the same, despite the differences between the Eastern and Western versions of those classes.

Looking at the classes on the chart, you can see that in most cases it is noticeably harder to qualify for an Oriental Adventures class than for the corresponding Player Handbook/Unearthed Arcana class. The Samurai/Cavalier pairing is a possible exception here. I don't know for sure that 15/15/15/10/10 is harder to qualify for than 13/13/14/13. The math would be a pain because both UA and OA assume your going to use one of the various 'cheater' methods to generate stats. But my best guess is that Cavalierdom is the harder club to join, stat-wise.

If you assume that the stat rules inform the game world, here are a few conclusions you can draw from this chart. For one thing pretty much all character classes are rarer in the Mythical Orient than their Fantasy Europe equivalent, with the possible exception of the Samurai. That suggests most warriors, gangsters, priests, etc. will use the Normal Man rules. For instance, many of the less talented warriors in a Samurai clan will have all the equipment and attitude of the samurai, but in combat they won't amount to much more than one hit die goobers.

Another interesting thing to be learned here is the difference between Eastern and Western organized crime. The assassin needs brute Strength, while the ninja focuses more on influence via Charisma. Similarly what the Yakuza acquires through social engineering the Thief simply sneaks in and takes.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

best laid plans

So last night’s Cinder session was a bust. Only one player showed up. Carl and I agreed that we weren’t really into one-on-one D&D so we shot the breeze for an hour or so and then headed home. Squirrel, Christy and Sonoma had to go to a funeral and Joe was sleeping off the effects of extra hours at work. Since Wednesday is Squirrel’s night to mind the store, Dave was in as a replacement. But he ended up playing in the other Wednesday night game at Armored Gopher, a Miami Vice sort of thing run with d20 Modern or something like that. I’d hold him picking Sonny Crockett over my game except for the fact that his wife Heather plays in that campaign. Can you believe the audacity of this guy, choosing to game with his wife rather than me?

The prime topic of my chat with Carl was Wizards most recent boneheadedness. Fun Fact: Turns out that Carl discovered RPGnow just last weekend and had put together a wishlist a mile long just in time to not be able to buy any of it. I guess he gets to keep all that money now whether he chooses to get the PDFs or not.

On a totally unrelated note, I took some crap gathering dust on my shelves along me. The Armored Gopher used section was looking anemic and I figured some store credit wouldn’t hurt me. I was surprised when Dave told me that he might very well be able to sell my 3.5 corebooks for cover price due to local market conditions. Personally, as long as I can access the Online SRD, Microlite20 and/or M74 I just don’t have that much use for them.

The biggest disappointment of no game night was it upturned my plan to run Castle Blackmoor out of Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign. You know how lately I’ve been harping on open starting areas and vertical traffic in dungeons? Right at the beginning of the hobby Castle Blackmoor had both of those. I might still run Blackmoor in 2 weeks or maybe I’ll use The Fane of St. Toad instead. Either would be a hoot.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Lopsided for Law

I'm still musing over 1st edition Oriental Adventures here. I decided to compare the class options by alignment between baseline AD&D and OA. Here are the classes from the 1st edition PHB laid out in standard the standard alignment format (Lawful Good upper left, Chaotic Evil lower right).

Ever alignment has six or seven class choices, except for Chaotic Good. CG gets the short end of the stick with only five. If you take out the ever-problematic Bard then CN also only has 5 options and the LG and LE become the only alignments with seven class options. Either way you cut it, each alignment has 6 +/-1 classes associated with it. Law is slightly favored over Chaos, but not by much.

Looking at OA, the situation is much more asymmetrical. Dig it:

The Lawfuls get seven classes and every other alignment only get four. This design choice seems aimed at an overall theme in OA: that the Mysterious East has a more rigidly organized societies than good ol' Pseudo-Europe. I'm not really against this particular conceptualizing of Totally Fake Orientland, but that uneven distribution feels pretty odd compared to normal Gygaxian set-up where every alignment has a fair share of the goodies.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Monday, April 06, 2009

It's a visceral reaction

...due to recent findings of illegal copying and online distribution (piracy) of our products, Wizards of the Coast has decided to cease the sales of online PDFs.

The Pekulish Script

Most gamers I know seem to agree that Darlene's map of the Flanaess (the core region of the World of Greyhawk) is one of the best examples of fantasy cartography in the business. There are several reasons why Darlene's map stands out among the crowd of competitors. I want to share just one of those reasons today: the labels. All the labels on the map are hand-drawn. There's a unity of vision to them but unlike a map that relies on a font for the heavy lifting the labels have some interesting variety to them. This gives the Flanaess map a layer of depth and nuanced authenticity missing from many later computer-generated rivals.

I'm sure there's a technical term for the decorations on the W and Y on White Fanged Bay, but I don't know enough about calligraphy or fontography to say anything other than "Man, that looks cool." The upper case F that drops down low is a neat effect repeated on many other labels on the map.

That N has to be the greatest N in the history of the letter N. The E and R are neat, too.

See how the A in Uplands is nested in the L? You can't do that with a normal font. In many places Darlene also uses the same technique with the double L's in the word Hills:

But she's also not afraid to mix it up a little:

That double T is a pretty cool effect as well. Note also the tall L's in Little and the 'high hat' drop-down H.

The F nested in the O to make 'of' into a single glyph is a fun little trick.

You might want to click this one to see a larger version. Note how the two Ruins are essentially the same, but have minor differences, particularly in the R's and S's.

While I love the J and the Y here, this is the one label on the map I have trouble reading on a casual pass. Is that 'Jeklea Bay' or 'Jerlea Bay'? In fact, I tend to see it as 'Jerklea Bay', the Bay of Jerks.

I love how the A and Y intertwine here. Those hooked E's appear nowhere else on the map.

Lots of interations between letters here. My eye first picks up the R and the C up to no good, but then scans over to the menage a trois of the D, J, and N. Kinky.

This is the only place on the map where N and E are combined into a single character.

I like how the L and K poke up above the rest of the letters. Also check out the two O's. They're clearly not identical but clearly the same letter. That's gives a sort of organic feel to the word that a normal computer font doesn't produce.

Notice the differences between the initial A in Azure and the final A in Sea. Also, that Z rocks on toast. Zorro wouldn't hesitate to use that puppy.

The Axewood is a tiny little no-account forest on the map. I had to blow up the scan to even show you the label. But Darlene takes the time to do something different; that double hook E appears nowhere else on the map. That's an act of love, I think.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Five Links on a lazy Sunday

MagCloud - New Print-on-Demand publisher, they only do saddle-stitched, color, in letter size but for that configuration they're cheaper than Lulu. Currently in Beta.

Tales of the Ink Knight - Where I found out about MagCloud

The Uncarrot Tarot - WTF?

Planet Koozebane - I dare you to use this in your next sci-fi game.

Hack/ random dungeon generator - Probably my favorite online random dungeon map generator. It doesn't do any of the stocking for you, though.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

more orientation

Two more brief thoughts inspired by Thursday's post on Oriental Adventures.

1) Remember how I said OA was AD&D with another set of Gygaxian building blocks and that's a great template for making your own campaign? I realized today that there's at least one more commercial product with the same concept: Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed/Arcana Evolved. I really, really wanted to get into that game, but 3.x was hard enough to manage. I couldn't wrap my head around AU enough to get a game off the ground, but a Labyrinth Lord powered version would rock on toast.

2) I think OA was the first place I discovered random event charts, allowing you to generate events on a yearly, monthly and daily basis. Those things are excellent tools for sandbox play. I even used the OA charts for some Greyhawk games, rolling up a couple years worth of events ahead of time. MechWarrior 1st edition also has a neat set of event charts, as I recall. Anybody know of any other sources of cool random event tables?

an icon for our times

Friday, April 03, 2009

3D dungeons follow-up

I wanted to take a moment to respond to two comments on Wednesday's post about adding more three dimensionality to dungeon environs. First up is kelvin green:
I think part of the problem is that dungeon levels are part of the game's in-built difficulty "switch". The whole system is built around an assumption that levels are going to be largely independent of each other, and will increase in difficulty as they go deeper. If you plonk a big room somewhere that plunges through multiple levels, then the players can get (literally) beyond their depth much more easily than normal.

Not that such a situation would necessarily be a bad thing, of course, but I do wonder how many designers are reluctant to do so because they're unconsciously obeying these in-built principles of "game balance".
I agree. Players are supposed to be able to roughly gauge their risk based upon the level they're on. But I also think it's important to yank that rug out from under them every once in a while. And sometimes the party's intelligence about the WMDs is just going to be plane wrong, owing to stairs that don't really change the level you're on or mistaking stairs up to level 3b for a route to the main level 3 or rooms that sink imperceptably or all sorts of stuff like that.

And here's a comment from Restless:

This [my proposal for planning 3D spaces] runs a bit counter to the notion that you may build a megadungeon organically by just putting together three levels and getting some players in there to start mixing things up. To do this sort of thing properly requires planning that might squelch some ideas or lock you into others.

A novice DM should entirely ignore my suggestion. Feel free to consider my ideas about 3D dungeons as an advanced technique that's probably more suitable after you have a couple Easy Stack™ dungeons under your belt. I'm not saying a newbie would be incapable of doing a good 3D dungeon, I'm just opposed to anything that makes getting over that first time DM hump any harder.

I made these.

(Click for bigger versions.)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Orientalist Adventures

I'm betting on the dude in black.I will readily admit to being the kind of provincial yokel whose ideas about Asia are unduly influenced by martial arts movies, anime, and stuff like that, though perhaps realizing that fact gives me a leg up on some people. Either way, I’ve long operated on the assumption that the 1st edition Oriental Adventures gets at least as much stuff wrong as it gets right, culturally speaking. For example, OA tracks an Honor stat and places importance on family ties when baseline AD&D clearly does not. To somehow attribute honor and familial duty as specifically Asian virtues clearly misses the bus on vast swaths of Western culture. Pendragon and Hackmaster both demonstrate the neat things you can do with some sort of occidental honor system and darn near any campaign can be enhanced with a dash of family soap operatics.

Two big things continue to draw me to the idea of running an Oriental Adventures campaign. The first is the basic awesomeness of desperate ronin, sneaky ninjas, and kung-fu masters. That’s a pretty shallow reason to play OA but keep in mind that “OMG! Dragons!” is pretty much the line of thinking that got me into this crazy hobby. The second reason OA intrigues me to this day is its presentation as a D&D game where nearly all the Gygaxian building blocks have been replaced by analogs but otherwise the system remains intact. You can find a bazillion games that mess with both the building blocks and the system, but precious few that leave unmarred ancient landmarks like classes, Vancian magic and hit points.

(Just for a moment imagine that concept as a template for campaign creation by individual referees: keep all the crazy rules but completely homebrew all the classes, races, spells, monsters and magic items. That would rock in nine flavors of radical. You could probably cobble together one example of such a set-up just with a long afternoon and a stack full of old Dragons.)

Once I realized that OA is little more than plain vanilla AD&D with blue legos in the box instead of red ones, the question of how to do a campaign immediately answered itself. All I would need is a numbered hexmap, some dungeon levels, and a starting base all stocked with stuff from the OA book. Questions about “authenticity” that used to bug me don’t even enter the equation. When we take the meat and gristle of Western literature and turn it into the sausage of gaming very little is gained by stopping the show to discuss whether or not we’re being fair to the inspirational source material. Why should it be any different with Asian-influenced games? Does it really matter whether this 21st century American mangles the Odyssey or Outlaws of the Water Margin to power a game? Probably not. The level of cultural disconnect is pretty large either way.

PS: This post was inspired by Alex Schroeder's "The Kitsunemori Campaign", an mythic Japanese micro-sandbox in Fight On! #4 and Mike D.'s Ruins & Ronin project. Good stuff.

PPS: While working on this post I finally put my finger on something that's been bugging me about the Oriental Adventures hardbound since 1985. Why is their no frickin' character art in the classes and races section? You get a ninja and a samurai on the cover, but then you don't see another character until the yakuza in the equipment chapter. After that you get two or three spellcasters in the magic section. Flipping through the classes is just less fun without the "Holy crap! I need to play this dude!" full body character shots, even if I don't need to be shown what a Shaolin warrior monk looks like. And introducing a new set of races without illos is just plain dumb. To this day I don't really know what the heck a korobokuru is supposed to look like. They're basically described as dwarves but even hairier. I tend to envisage them as Cousin It wielding a naginata.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

He's intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates 2-dimensional thinking...

Anybody else remember that line from Wrath of Khan? Ricardo Montalban has been kicking Kirk's ass all over the Mutara Nebula when good ol' Spock comes through with this little observation. The Enterprise and her crew beat the eugenic madman by exploiting his inability to consider space as a three-dimensional battlefield.

Khan's vulnerability to the third dimension reminds me of an issue I see with a lot of dungeons. Even many incredibly awesome dungeons suffer from a basic problem in that we, the dungeon designers, allow the graph paper to do some of the thinking for us. My own dungeons, such as Under Xylarthen's Tower, suffer from this issue, as do Stonehell and Mad Archmage, and many other great fan efforts and commercial releases. We end up with levels as discrete layers stacked one upon another. The connections between the levels often appear as rare accidents or afterthoughts.

One effect of Khan's Disease is that the vertical cross-section views of many dungeons, even well-rendered ones, end up being orders of magnitude less interesting than the horizontal levels. If all a cross-section does is point out that level 3 is above level 4 then I think maybe it's time to go back to the drawing board. I'm not saying there's anything inherently wrong with a dungeon where each level is neatly stacked upon the next and they're connected only by the occasional staircase/slide/elevator. My point is that there are a lot of other possible configurations that we could be exploring.

I'm mostly thinking about big open spaces that connect a multitude of levels. Imagine the entrance to the Caves of Chaos as a cave deep in a dungeon. From where you enter this vast chamber on level X you can climb up to level X-1 or down and across to levels X+1, X+2, etc. A simple example of this sort of thing can be found in the old Judges Guild module The Caverns of Thracia:

Thos craggy black spaces are voids in the rock. If the PCs fall off the bridges that span them, they land on the level below. More important, if they have some rope or levitation magic or something like that the party can choose to desend into that inky black darkness.

Additionally, those wide open spaces also serve as a nice counterpoint to the claustrophobic dungeon room more typical of level design. Imagine your party crossing a bridge over a gulf so vast that their torches fail to illuminate the floor below, the ceiling above, or either end of the bridge. That'd creep me out.

Or focusing on just a single level for a moment, instead of a completely flat dungeon level consider the possibilities in something like this level from the more-obscure-than-it-deserves "Night of the Walking Wet" (from the Dungeoneer Compendium published by Judges Guild):

Passing under and over passageways on the same level may leave the party wondering exactly what level they are on. That is not a bad thing.

Another great example of 3-D dungeon design is the cheap-as-free Mines of Khunmar by Stefan Poag. The dungeon key is woefully incomplete but the map is definitely worth the price of admission! These old Judges Guild maps also have some interesting features work looking at.

Poag and Paul Jaquay (who did both maps above) worked at the dawn of our fair hobby. With three decades under our collective belt I think we can do at least as well as those pioneers. The simple fact is that a good 3-D dungeon design equals more prep work and more forethought. As a dungeon designer you can't just start at level one and slog your way down if you want to end up with an integrated 3-D design. Instead, you need to develop a plan. Examples:
  • level 4 contains the main entrance to a vast temple of evil, but you can access the balcony over the pews from level 2 and the EHP's offices on level 3 have a secret door leading to the pulpit
  • a chasm cuts across the northwest quadrant of levels 5 through 7, ending in a lava pool on level 8
  • Trolltown occupies the floor of a large circular cavern. It sits on level 4 but the cavern can be seen from three points on level 2, but there's no easy way down. There's a bridge on level 3 that leads to the top floor of one of the taller buildings.
The other challenge is effectively communicating the third dimension to the PCs as they encounter these areas. They need to know if they can climb, fly, or crawl to reach various parts of the level.

I'll end the post with some inspirational illustrations. If you dig dungeon design do yourself a favor and track down a copy of Scooby-Doo in Where's My Mummy? A big part of this movie-length adventure occurs in the secret Tomb of Cleopatra located under the Great Sphinx. Here's the Mystery, Inc. gang as they first enter the tomb:

I still check out RPGnet once in a while...

...mostly for the Motivational Posters and other picture threads.