Saturday, January 31, 2009

Campaign Map

This is the current version of the map for my Dwimmermount campaign. Each hex is 5 miles across. As you can see, not a lot of it has been fleshed out just yet, since, aside from the fortress of Muntburg, nearby Dwimmermount, and the City-State of Adamas to the south, the PCs haven't ventured very far into the wider world. As you can see, even geographical features don't have any names yet. I'd been very tempted to name them, but I've thus far resisted, since I decided that it was unnecessary information until such time as the PCs had reason to know the names.

I keep a list of words -- some real, some imaginary -- with me, so that I can create names on the fly as needed, either randomly determining them or choosing one that seems appropriate given the way the campaign is evolving. So far no one has complained about the "lack of detail" and I'm glad of that, since it makes it much easier for me to focus on what's important for actual play rather than world building flights of fancy.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with world building. I simply know, based on the past, that I can get very obsessive about such things if I let myself do so. For a long time, world building for its own sake was a major pastime for myself and I now realize that, in some cases, it probably prevented me from actually playing. I don't want to repeat such mistakes, so I've kept the world simple for the time being and don't really think much about what it's like outside of our weekly sessions. I'm sure that will inevitably change as time goes on and the campaign expands beyond Dwimmermount itself, but that time hasn't come just yet.

And, yes, the map is based on a section of the Outdoor Survival map. Shock and surprise, I know.

Dwimmermount (Session 4)

Last weekend, my group and I played the fourth session of the Dwimmermount campaign. Unfortunately, I have no photos this week, since there wasn't anything to show off that I haven't already shown off in previously installments. I hope to have some new things to show for the fifth session, because at least some of my Otherworld miniatures should finally be painted and I fully intend to use them. Owing to scheduling conflicts, there will be no session this weekend, which is the first time we'll have missed a week since the campaign's start. I'll be very curious to see if the break has any deleterious effects on play, since it's my growing belief that one of the salient features of old school play is that it not episodic in nature. Consequently, regular play that picks up (more or less) precisely where the last session left off is key. To date, it's worked very well, so I'm hoping that we can continue the same way despite the weekend off.

Session 4 was significant for a number of reasons. First, by the end, all the characters present (Brother Candor, Dordagdonar, and Pike) had reached level 2. I'm pretty happy with the pace of advancement overall, as it's ensured that the exploration of Level 1 of the dungeon remains challenging -- and dangerous -- which brings me to the second significant event: the near-death of Brother Candor. This wasn't the first time that a PC nearly died (that happened in the very first session), but it was the first time that one of the more cautious PCs nearly did so. The party ran afoul of a chamber containing a number of Ranine and he bore the brunt of their assault, thanks to some lucky rolls on my part. In the end, he didn't die and, as his hit points inched slowly downwards, I have to confess that I considered fudging my dice rolls to keep him alive. I'm rather fond of the character, who's amusingly portrayed and I like the irony of a cleric devoted to the goddess of Chance being the primary most moral force among the PCs. But I made a commitment early on to roll my dice in the open and to stand by the results regardless, so Lady Luck favored Brother Candor in the end that night.

One of the great things about a properly designed megadungeon is that it's big. After four sessions of rather extensive exploration, using a map that helped them intuit the likely locations of secret doors, hidden passages, and other such obstacles, they still haven't explored its entirety. Partly, this is by choice. Early on they encountered some rather nasty kobolds who seem to live in some natural warrens that honeycomb the first level. The PCs have diligently avoided going anywhere they suspect more kobolds might be found, since their early encounter with them nearly resulted in a total party kill. Likewise, they've come across at least one room whose set-up is seemingly treacherous enough that they're unwilling to enter it, for fear of activating some trap that could spell their doom. So, they've been traveling around certain areas and still have plenty of explore. Megadungeons need to have lots of options and alternatives so that the players never feel forced to go somewhere they don't want to go. Giving the players a wide capacity for risk management is vital in my opinion, given that so many of the dangers they face will be utterly outside their control. They must at least be able to choose when they're willing to proceed and under what circumstances or else the whole things risks collapsing into something resembling the fable "killer dungeon" of old.

I also had a couple of combat-related insights. I noticed that, if you keep combat bonuses to a minimum, having a good armor class (5 and below) is really useful. Having a bunch of orcs kitted out in chainmail and carrying shields makes the encounter a lot tougher than if they had less impressive armor; I was rather pleased to note this. The other thing I found was that, if you don't want to check combat charts in play, you can just roll a D20, add the attacker's base hit bonus (or Hit Dice in the case of monsters), the target's AC, and any modifiers. If the result is 20 or higher, you've scored a hit that deals damage. The nice thing about it is that it gives a mechanical rationale to "lower is better" when it comes to Armor Class -- not that I needed one but hey :)

All in all, another good session and one that provided me with plenty of food for thought as I work my way through the hidden implications of old school megadungeon play.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

As one might expect, my new hard drive was delivered yesterday while I was out of the house. Since said replacement drive was delivered by UPS, who doesn't deliver on the weekends in Canada, I have to wait till Monday till I'm back up and running at full speed. Needless to say, I am not happy.

Nevertheless, I do have some posts I'll be making later today and tomorrow. I have access to my old computer (obviously) and, though it now feels odd to use it -- the keyboard is not quite "right" -- it's still functional and should allow me to post at a slightly reduced rate. In the meantime, my apologies if I'm slow to respond to emails or to comments on any of my recent posts. As with posting, I find it more difficult to do such things on my old computer than on my new one, so they tend to get pushed aside in my priorities.

Anyway, more soon.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Yet Another Update

Even if my computer were fixed, which it's not, I'll probably not get the chance to post much, if anything, today. I'm off to a conference this afternoon (my wife is dragging me to a library conference to talk about RPGs and computer games), so I won't be back till later. I should have a few posts this weekend, regardless of whether my computer gets repaired, but they likely won't appear till Saturday and/or Sunday.

Till then.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Retrospective: Dark Tower

Along with Tegel Manor (by Bob Bledsaw) and his earlier Caverns of Thracia, Paul Jaquays' Dark Tower is probably one of the most famous and well loved adventure modules ever produced by Judges Guild. So great is its reputation that it even made Dungeon's "30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time," the sole non-TSR/WotC product to appear on a list that, by my lights, was filled with lots of self-congratulatory nods to modules of little lasting import.

As I said in commenting on the Dungeon list, I think 1979's Dark Tower certainly deserves to be on Top 30 list, as, like most of Jaquays' work, it's masterfully done. I personally don't consider it his best -- I prefer Caverns of Thracia -- but there's no arguing that it's a brilliant piece of work. It's also noteworthy because it's an AD&D module rather than a OD&D one, which only makes sense given its late date. At this point in time, Judges Guild still held a license from TSR to produce official support products for their games and AD&D was the "rising star" in TSR's stable. Mechanically, though, this makes little difference, because, with a few small exceptions here and there, it's perfectly usable with OD&D and I suspect many people used it in such a fashion.

The module itself concerns the town of Mitra's Fist, formerly the hermitage of its namesake before he achieved apotheosis as one of the greatest gods of Law and Goodness. During his mortal existence, Mitra opposed the serpent-demon Set, who himself achieved divine status and sought revenge on his rival by creating a dark tower in Mitra's Fist, out of which poured his minions, who destroyed the town, its inhabitants, and, most importantly, the priesthood of Mitra who tended to the shrine of their deity's ascension here. Of course, over time, treasure seekers returned to Mitra's Fist, under the watchful eye of the clerics of Mitra, hoping to uncover some of the lost treasures buried in the rubble of the town. Unfortunately, in doing so, they have awakened the ancient evil of Set's dark tower and, unless someone acts to defeat it, history may repeat itself.

The dungeons consist of four levels that represent the buried ruins of Mitra's Fist, plus the eponymous Dark Tower and the Tower of Mitra, both of which were also buried when Set's minions destroyed the town. These areas contain a good mix of encounters, tricks, traps, and oddities. In addition, as one might expect from a Jaquays module, there are various antagonistic factions with which the PCs must interact, the results of which affect their progress in exploring the dungeons. Fascinatingly, the possibility of evil PCs aligned with Set is noted and there are even rules for the bonuses clerics of that god get while in areas dedicated to their deity (the same is true for clerics of Mitra).

Dark Tower has a lot to recommend it, chiefly its open-endedness. While not as large a complex as Caverns of Thracia, there's plenty to do here and, beyond the basic background that gives context to the whole place, there's no plot or purpose to get in the way of some good old fashioned dungeon crawling. The module is tough and unforgiving. It assumes a party of 6-10 characters of level 7-11; anything less than that I expect it could easily turn into a bloodbath in a few places. I understand this module was re-released under the 3e rules, but I've never seen a copy. If anyone has any experience with it, I'd love to know what it's like.

Excellent Gygax Quote

Shortly before the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide was published, Gary Gygax wrote an article in The Dragon in which he discussed the differences in approach and presentation between the now-complete AD&D system and OD&D (which Gary simply calls "D&D"). As a historical document, it's a very intriguing article, because it suggests a relationship between the two games that clearly never came to pass, with OD&D eventually morphing into something very different than what is described in this quote:
The D&D game will always be with us, and that is a good thing. The D&D system allows the highly talented, individualistic, and imaginative hobbyist a vehicle for devising an adventure game form which is tailored to him or her and his or her group. One can take great liberties with the game and not be questioned.
There are many reasons why the version of D&D described in the quote ceased to exist, at least as far as TSR was concerned, but it's a shame nonetheless. I suppose there was simply an insufficiently large market for this vision of OD&D. Had there been more demand for such a beast, I don't doubt TSR would have supported and promoted it. What an alternate universe that would have been!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Computer Update

Looks like my hard drive is dead. Fortunately, I'm under warranty, so I can get a new one, but it may take as long as February 5 before I have it in my hands. Until then, I'll be using my old computer, whose sole virtue is that it's functional. I'll try to stay on top of things until my main computer is operational again, but I expect my productivity will be much lower until then. My apologies for that in advance.

Computer Troubles

My main computer is experiencing some ... issues, so I'll likely be spending much of the day dealing with them, which means my output will be limited or non-existent until the problems are resolved.

This is why I hate technology. Or maybe I just hate my dependence on them.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

No Game for Young Men

If you're an old Traveller hand, the fellow above needs no introduction; you know exactly who he is. Heck, you might even be able to rattle off his UPP -- 779C99 --and tell me how many tours he did with the merchant service before being forced out.

Drawn by the incomparable David R. Dietrick, this illustration of Captain Alexander Lascelles Jamison is for me one of the iconic images of Traveller. Gamers not familiar with this classic SF RPG might not understand the power this image holds. After all, Captain Jamison is just some jowly, middle aged guy who's grown his hair a bit too long to compensate for his rapidly receding hairline. What's so special about that?

It's hard to explain, but part of the appeal of Traveller for me is that it's always been a game about "real life." Yes, yes, I know that's absurd, but that's how it looked to me as a kid. I mean, how many games assume your character has a mortgage, let alone a mortgage on his starship? Traveller characters go on adventures not gain XP -- they don't improve through play -- but to make enough money to meet their next mortgage payment. Combine that with the fact that most Traveller PCs were in the 40s or 50s, collected a pension, and had already had a career before they took to traveling Charted Space and it's a recipe for a game unlike any other I'd ever played.

It certainly was utterly unlike what I expected from science fiction, this being the era of Star Wars and its many imitators. Playing an old ex-military guy who undertook missions to make ends meet probably isn't anyone's vision of what a SF RPG should be about -- unless they've played Traveller for years. Now, it's hard to shake that vision out of my head. It's become my default assumption of what an old school SF RPG campaign should be like. Anything more "glamorous" somehow doesn't seem right, as if it's somehow a violation of some deep principles. It's not, of course, but such is the power of Traveller for me, a game that had the benefit of not only being the first significant SF RPG (spare me the corrections; I'm aware of the other contenders) but also one with a unique vision that defied expectations.

That, right there, is why Traveller endures, despite a mountain of bad design decisions by its creators over the years: it's a SF RPG that defies expectations. It's a relic from an age when books were the main engine of speculative fiction and before the success of Star Wars had fully taken hold. Like OD&D, it's a game that, to many people, probably seems very odd, because it's not at all in line with popular conceptions of what a game of its genre ought to be. I think that's all to the good, especially as I find myself and my gaming group looking more like Alexander Jamison every day.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Castle of the Mad Archmage

Joseph, the Greyhawk Grognard, has released a free PDF that includes his vision of Level 2 of the legendary Castle Greyhawk. It's over 20 pages of material, including new monsters, magic items, hand-drawn maps, and descriptions of nearly 200 rooms -- quite an impressive piece of work!

Best of all in my opinion is the "bare bones" approach Joseph takes in detailing the level. The minimum of mechanics means that the module will easily work with any D&D-derived old school game. Likewise, the spartan descriptions enable each referee to make the place his own, which is exactly what a good module should do.

Good stuff. Keep up the excellent work, Joseph!

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Carnelian Cube

As further evidence for my thesis that L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt are important keys to understanding Gary Gygax's vision for Dungeons & Dragons, there's their 1948 collaboration, The Carnelian Cube. Like many of the titles listed in Appendix N, this novel is a story of alternate realities and of a modern man transported between them. This is a such a common theme in Gygax's list of "inspirational and educational reading" that I can't help but wonder why no published D&D product, either during his time at TSR or subsequently, dealt with it, except very obliquely. The notion of a person from contemporary society flung into another world has a long pedigree and contains rich veins of adventure to mine. One wonders why it never seems to have had been an appreciable impact on the development of D&D, despite Gary's repeated references to books dealing with precisely this theme.

The Carnelian Cube itself tells the tale of an archeologist named Arthur Finch who confiscates a weird stone -- the eponymous carnelian cube -- from one of the workers at his dig in Turkey. The stone, it turns out, belonged to the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, to whom later generations attributed various occult powers. When Finch places the stone under his pillow and goes to sleep dreaming of a more perfect, "rational" world, he awakens to find himself in a parallel Earth, where everything is done on a solely rational basis, resulting in the elevation of self-interest above all else. Finch wishes to escape but, unfortunately, the carnelian cube does not make its way with him and he must seek out the parallel version of the worker from whom he confiscated the stone so he can return home. Regain the cube he does, but with unintended effects, for each time he steals it and dreams, he finds himself transported into yet another parallel world that isn't quite what he wanted.

The Carnelian Cube may not have had any specific influence over D&D, but I can see its influence over the World of Greyawk, as Oerth is one of a series of parallel worlds, each one containing versions of the same people and places but subtly different, owing to the unique nature of each parallel. Likewise, if you look at Gary Gygax's work as a whole, you can see plenty of examples where he treated the topic of alternate worlds and realities and the possibilities for adventure therein. One might be able to argue that D&D's portrayal of the multiverse owes something to Gary's enjoyment of alternate world tales. Like most things in the game, the application of its inspirations is often quirky and not immediately obvious. That probably is the case here too, but I am nevertheless left wondering what Dungeons & Dragons -- and the wider hobby -- might be like today if stories like The Carnelian Cube had exercised a more clear influence.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Hex Maps

I seem to recall coming across a really simple-to-use -- and free -- program that used tiles to create a wilderness hex map. I can't find it any longer and would dearly love to do so, because I may have need of it for this weekend's session of the Dwimmermount campaign.

Anyone have any idea what I might have found all those months ago?

Dwimmermount: The Product

So, I've been toying with the idea of releasing an old school product derived from my Dwimmermount campaign. In practice, it'd a supplement to Swords & Wizardry, but I probably won't use the S&W Compatibility-Statement License, because I'm not super-keen about the ascending AC system and prefer the standard D&D system. Mind you, all the pre-WotC editions of D&D are close enough mechanically that, with a few little wrinkles here and there, products written for one are all eminently usable with the others, so the system under which it's ostensibly written doesn't really matter.

There are a couple of reasons why I'm thinking of doing this. Firstly, I've created some nifty house rules, monsters, spells, magic items, and other such things that I'd like to share in a format more "solid" than this blog. Second, I have some ideas I'd like to try out regarding the "ideal" way to present supplementary material for RPGs. While I take a lot of inspiration from the "grab bag" approach used in the original OD&D supplements, it's not quite the approach I want to take. Likewise, I regard most modern supplements to be unhappily systematic in their approach, favoring clarity and comprehensiveness over suggestiveness and brevity.

(Much as I love the nostalgia value of seeing new books done in the style of OD&D's little brown books, that's not a style I have any interest in adopting as my own either.)

As I conceive it now, this theoretical product would consist of two parts. The first would have all the "goodies" that are the staple of such supplements, with an emphasis not so much on new rules as one new ideas/examples that work with the existing rules. I'm actually coming round to the notion that, except in the case of entirely new systems without any coverage in the core rules -- such as mass combat in the case of S&W, for example -- there's no good reason to include new rules that could just as easily be created through play on an ad hoc basis.

The second part would be campaign-oriented stuff. I'd give some slices of what my Dwimmermount campaign is like without going overboard. So, there might be a map of the starting campaign area, used as a literal example of how to create one's own. Likewise, I'm thinking I might well include several levels of Dwimmermount's dungeons itself, presented in abbreviated form thanks to the wonderful one-page templates that Sham, Chgowiz, and Mike originated and developed. The more I interact with people, the more I realize that, even among old schoolers of long years, the megadungeon and sandbox concepts aren't well understood. What's needed is more than mere philosophizing about the finer points of these foundational concepts and more practical examples and advice on how to use them to good effect.

Like a lot of my theoretical projects, this one may never come to pass, but I hope it does. The campaign is going very well, despite the obstacles and I feel like I've gleaned a lot of useful insights through refereeing it. Plus, in all honesty: there's never been a better time to produce and publish your own old school books and I want to get in on that action.

One of Those Days

You ever have one of those days when you suddenly realize, "There are a lot of really crazy people in this hobby?"

Then the creeping realization dawns on you: "Could I be one of them?"

Thursday, January 22, 2009

S&W: White Box Now Available ...

... in print.

Get thee to Mythmere Games' storefront and buy a copy. It's cheap, has an amazing cover, and is a great example of how wonderfully flexible Swords & Wizardry is.

Get moving!

Libations for Two-Gun Bob

On this day, 103 years ago, Robert Ervin Howard was born in Peaster, Texas. Though he tragically took his own life at the age of 30, his boundless imagination, as exemplified by his greatest creation, Conan the Cimmerian, lives on. Indeed, if one were to take into account how widely-known the name of Conan has become, it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to claim that Howard was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

Quibbles on that score aside, there's no question that REH's writings are one primary of the wellsprings of the genre we now call "fantasy," making him a spiritual ancestor of the hobby of roleplaying. Howard is one of only a handful of writers mentioned by name in both OD&D and Empire of the Petal Throne as an inspiration for their creation; countless more gamers and game designers alike have looked to the stories of Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane for the same.

For myself, Howard has long been a writer I admire. Like Lovecraft, his worldview is rather different than my own, but that has never prevented me from gleaning genuine insights from his writings. It's a shame that many people still dismiss REH as a hack pulp writer, never realizing how much they're missing by doing so. Howard has his flaws and falls too easily into a certain repetitiveness from time to time, but about what great writer could we not say the same, particularly ones whose writings formed the template for an entire genre?

If by some chance you read this blog and you haven't read a Robert E. Howard story lately, I urge you to do so; you won't be sorry. In the meantime, I raise my glass to the memory of the Last Celt.

Now That's Hardcore

Flipping through my Traveller books, I came across a section I'd forgotten about: the experience "rules." One of the really interesting things about this game is that, unlike in OD&D, characters don't start out as inexperienced youths looking to make a name for themselves. No, they start out as experienced middle-aged guys looking to make a name for themselves. The average Traveller character, in my experience, is between 38 and 50 years of age and starts play after 20+ years of service in one or more military careers. Compared to a level 1 OD&D character, he's pretty bad-ass -- "bad-ass" being a relative term, since high tech weapons make it easy to eliminate most Traveller characters if they're not careful.

So how do these characters improve over time? Here's what the game itself says on the matter:
The experience which is gained as the individual character travels and adventures is, in a very real sense, an increased ability to play the role which he has assumed.
What that means is that characters don't improve in Traveller but players do. How old school is that? To be fair, there are rules for taking courses, including by correspondence, to slowly improve one's skills, but this avenue takes years of game time, costs money, and isn't guaranteed. As in real life, it's quite possible to take a course and come away with no meaningful benefit for one's efforts.

What's funny is that, as a younger guy playing Traveller, we never even noticed the lack of experience rules. I can tell you for a fact that not a single one of my players ever asked to have his character attend the local technical university to improve his Computer or Electronic skills. Even though level advancement was deeply ingrained in us through regular play of D&D (and, to a lesser extent, Gamma World, whose advancement system is a bit peculiar), we just took it as given that characters who were in the mid-40s probably didn't get much "better" over time, although they did become richer, more influential, and more knowledgeable about the universe around them -- and we were OK with that.

Makes me wonder what RPGs might have been like if OD&D had been built on similar presumptions about experience and learning as Traveller ...

Time Waster

If you ever want to know why, despite it all, I still retain a great fondness for both Traveller and the Third Imperium setting, take a look at this. Really, what's not to love?

Thanks to Rob Conley for the link.

An Ancient Scourge

One might ask whether it is possible for players of "Dungeons and Dragons" (and other games of the genre) to enter into such an intensely personal creation. More to the point, can anyone besides myself referee adventures in Tékumel?
The above is a quote from the introduction to M.A.R. Barker's 1975 roleplaying game, Empire of the Petal Throne. I quote it because it's an oft-asked question with regards to Tékumel, one that's frequently given as an explanation for why gamers would rather read about this remarkable campaign world rather than play in it.

On one level, I think it's a fair question, but that's because I often think that every campaign setting should be an intensely personal creation, unique to the people who play in it regularly and almost unintelligible to outsiders. Now don't get me wrong: I love to read about other people's campaign worlds, but I don't think reading is a substitute for creating. To my mind, the biggest problem with most "pre-fab" campaign settings is that they tend to encourage the former far more than the latter, a situation aided and abetted by the production of ever more source material written on the (correct) assumption that many gamers will buy setting books they never intend to use. I think it ironic that many of the gamers who'd call Empire of the Petal Throne unplayable because of its six pages of history wouldn't bat an eye at buying, say, a Forgotten Realms book with ten times that information. Again, make no mistake: I love well-detailed campaign settings too and take a lot of pleasure in reading them. However, nothing I read, no matter how well conceived and presented, can compare to what I create and detail through play with my friends. It's in this activity that I think the heart and soul of our hobby lies.

I don't think pre-fab campaign settings need to be impediments to creation through play. Indeed, in some cases, they can be great spurs to creativity. I do think, though, that there's a danger inherent in such settings and that's the false perception that there's a "right" way to play in Tékumel or Greyhawk or Glorantha. Once this pernicious idea takes hold, you close yourself off to many terrific possibilities and contribute to the reduction of roleplaying games to an activity of passive consumption rather than active engagement no different than watching movies or television. This is the reason why analogies with those media tend to raise my hackles. It's not that I think there's anything wrong with wanting one's campaign to be as exciting and "alive" as the best movies or TV shows; it's that I don't think that worthy goal can be achieved by looking to those media as models rather than inspirations for good gaming.

This isn't a new problem for the hobby. As the quote above shows, it's been with us since the beginning. And, if the past is any guide, it'll be with us for a long time to come.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Retrospective: Empire of the Petal Throne

Empire of the Petal Throne is my favorite game I've never played. Oh, I've played in Tékumel before, but I never used the original 1975 TSR-published rules. I think that's a great shame, because, as OD&D rules variants go -- and that's more or less what EPT is -- it's hard to beat this game. For old schoolers looking for some intriguing alternatives to the way OD&D handles things, it's well worth reading.

Of course, very few gamers love Tékumel for its rules. It's the fabulous pulp fantasy world that makes this game stand head and shoulders above its contemporaries, not to mention the lavishness of the game's components. In addition to including a 114-page spiral-bound book, the box also contains three large and terrifically sturdy maps of the starting campaign area and a large port city. This made the game very expensive -- $25 in 1975 -- which may have inadvertently contributed to its inaccessibility to many hobbyists. By the time I started gaming in 1979, EPT was legendary for being "the most expensive RPG ever made." I don't know if that was literally true at that time, but it's how the game was remembered among the older crowd who initiated me into the hobby.

I say "remembered" for a very good reason: no one played EPT. I never ever saw a copy of the original rules until the late 90s. I knew of the setting, naturally, at least in broad outline -- a colony world in the far future gets mysteriously shunted into its own pocket dimension where magic works. That the setting's creator, M.A.R. Barker, was a professor of linguistics with firsthand experience of India and Pakistan, as well as a lifelong love for the pulp greats, Egyptology, and ancient American civilizations pretty much ensure that it'd be like nothing anyone had ever seen -- and it is.

In his effusive introduction to the game, Gary Gygax compares Barker to Tolkien, with the caveat that, while Barker's creation possesses the same depth and breadth as Middle-earth, it was revealed to the world as a game. I think this is an important point. I'm on record as stating that I don't think Middle-earth is very gameable, because it's too tightly wound up, both thematically and dramatically, in things that don't easily lend themselves to good roleplaying. Tékumel, on the other hand, is eminently gameable and it's frankly a pity that more people haven't had the chance to sample its unique pleasures.

To be fair, some of Tékumel's troubles are self-inflicted. Because Barker was an academic, his writings carry an air of "realism" to them that intimidated some potential players, even though the author specifically counsels against this fear in his own prefatory remarks to the game. Worse still, to my mind, is the tendency of Tékumel fans, then and now, to obsess over minute details and seek out ever ever more exhaustive descriptions of this alien world and its inhabitants. Sadly, the history of the game is less about people playing games set in Tékumel and more about people talking about Tékumel, a history aided and abetted by a dearth of adventures for the game and a surfeit of products describing the setting in anthropological detail.

This saddens me, because Tékumel is amazingly cool: a brilliant cross between a sword-and-planet and dying earth setting that evokes writers like Burroughs, Howard, Smith, and Vance without being a pastiche of any one of them. Far moreso than OD&D, Empire of the Petal Throne is a game that wears its pulp fantasy roots on its sleeve, provided you're willing to look beneath its baroque surface. Like many things about Tékumel, its literary origins are hidden, sometimes in plain sight. It's also the only game I've ever encountered that includes culturally sophisticated rationales for dungeon crawling that enables expeditions into the Underworld to serve as the axis around which a larger campaign could be structured. But then this is an old school RPG of the first rank, so this should come as no surprise.

I'm too busy with Dwimmermount these days to even consider starting up an EPT campaign, but I'd dearly love to do so. It's a game that I don't think ever really got its due and I'd love to play a small role in rectifying that.

Attention, Seattle Area Old Schoolers

If you're a gamer involved in the old school renaissance living in the Seattle area and are open to being interviewed for a possible article about our little corner of the hobby, shoot me a quick email at the address to the right.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Traveller and D&D

Just a quick note of something I may return to later: the underlying ethos of Traveller is almost the twin of that of OD&D.

Both games assume the characters are ne'er-do-wells on the make. The classic format of a Traveller adventure involves the characters undertaking illicit activities in order to make large sums of cash, this way of life being made possible because they're outsiders -- travellers -- unconnected to the local planetary social structure. The larger social context of the game is a lawless (or nearly so) frontier where legitimate authority is distant, corrupt, or both. In short, it's another example of Western tropes being applied to a different genre, just like D&D.

Travel(l)ing Man

I've never been able to kick Traveller to the curb, though I've tried many times. I've successfully gone for years without having anything to do with the game, but I always come back to it. Even now, after I've written my own homage to this classic of the hobby, it's hard not to feel that those three little black books -- the other LBBs -- aren't the most perfect roleplaying books ever written.

Certainly there have been many fine SF RPGs written over the years, some of them taking far "science fiction" far more seriously than did Traveller. But then Traveller was never just a science fiction game. As its subtitle proclaims, it's a game of "science-fiction adventure in the far future." I'm not quibbling when I note this, because I think it's key to understanding Traveller's lasting appeal, not just for me, but for many older gamers, who fell in love with this masterpiece of rules elegance and concision.

What Marc Miller understood, as had Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson before him, was that roleplaying games are, first and foremost, about adventures. Adventures, by their very nature, are risky and uncertain experiences and they don't necessarily have any meaning beyond what we invest in them. That's why Traveller's three little black books provide little or no context for the dozens of mechanical sub-systems they present. Each and every one of them, from trading to combat to animal encounters to world generation and, yes, even character creation is an opportunity for adventure and a call to invest them with meaning -- or not. That's part of the point really: not everything has a meaning beyond bare facts and that's especially true in the case of adventures, where what matters is not a grand narrative so much as thrilling escapism.

Taken purely as a vehicle for scientific speculation, Traveller could best be described as "quaint." Even in 1977, its science was outdated and its esthetics old-fashioned. Like OD&D, the game drew inspiration from the literature of an earlier era rather than what was current at the time. That never bothered me as a kid, child of Star Wars though I was, because, then as now, Traveller screamed "Adventure!" and the rest was mostly secondary. That's not to say that the game is incapable of supporting "deep" scientific speculation as the impetus for adventure, but the focus remains squarely on adventure. It's perhaps a simple, even banal, thing to say about Traveller and yet it contains, in my opinion, the secret of the game's lasting appeal.

Indeed, Game Designers Workshop produced a great many adventures during the run of "classic" Traveller -- 13 plus 6 double adventures and every issue of the Journal of the Travellers Aid Society included at least one adventure, plus patron encounters and other "adventurous" bits from which to build one's own adventures. The beauty of the original three little black books is that they consist almost entirely of rules and all of those rules exist to create and/or adjudicate the basic needs of any starfaring campaign. Some, like the economically dubious trade system remain, in my view, among the greatest game mechancis ever created for any RPG. They're literally adventure-generators disguised as simple algorithms. They may not make sense if taken out of their context, but why would anyone want to do that?

Sadly, Traveller very quickly came to be dominated, both at GDW and among its fanbase, by folks who wanted to do just that: make sense of it all. Thus did we get ever more elaborate and "realistic" improvements to the rules of the three LBBs. It was no longer enough to know one's Marine served five terms before mustering out; now you had to know precisely what he did during each of these 20 years in the service. It was no longer enough to know that a world had a "thick" atmosphere; now you had to calculate its albedo to three decimal places. And, worst of all, GDW's example setting, the Third Imperium, ceased to be an example and become what Traveller was all about.

Talk to almost any fan of Traveller and chances are they'll eventually start blathering on about the minutiae of the Third Imperium setting. I say this not out of malice or superiority, because I was once an addict of this kind as well. By the late 80s, I remained a Traveller fan out of my love for the Third Imperium, but I could not be called by any reasonable definition a Traveller player any longer. At some point or other, I stopped treating the game as, well, a game and instead fixated on its every detail, as if this were what drew me to the game in the first place. Gone was the focus on science fiction adventure, replaced by obsession with the details of a setting created by someone else and in which I'd barely ever played. Back in the day, I created my own setting for my Traveller campaigns and, to my mind, that's how Traveller ought to be played; that's where the heart and soul of Marc Miller's brilliant creation lie.

I've read Mongoose's recent edition of Traveller and think it's pretty good -- certainly better than anything we've had in years. Rules-wise, it's a bit too clearly a descendant of late classic Traveller, after supplementitis had set in, and there are a few more attempts to "update" its assumptions than I like, but it looks decent enough. There also doesn't (yet) appear to be much of a fixation on the Third Imperium and that's all to the good. I love the Third Imperium to pieces, but, in the end, it helped kill Traveller.

As for me, I just snagged myself a mint copy of the first edition boxed set from 1977 for a reasonable price. Once I have it, I intend to set aside some time and read all three books from cover to cover. The classics only improve with each reading and it's been a while since I spent time with this one.

Monday, January 19, 2009

OSR Publishing Group

Dan Proctor, the mind behind Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future, has created a publishing group on -- the Old-School Renaissance Publishing Group -- that brings several retro-clone publishers under a single virtual "roof." At the moment, the group includes Dan's own Goblinoid Games, Matt Finch's Mythmere Games, John Adams's Brave Halfling Publishing, and Fight On! magazine.

My hat's off to Dan for getting this moving. This is a terrific idea and it's something I hope more old school publishers get behind it and work together to raise the visibility of all their products.

Dwimmermount (Session 3)

Session 3 of my Dwimmermount campaign occurred yesterday, despite the absence of two of the players. This left only Brother Candor, cleric of Tyche, and Dordagdonar the elf, along with their hirelings to return to Level 1. Because their explorations last time stalled owing to the discovery of a large chamber they believed to be occupied by a great number of orcs, they hired an additional hireling -- an archer named Sam -- for additional muscle, given the fact that both Pike and Vladimir weren't present.

Their explorations led them to encounter primarily orcs, who seem to have taken up residence in this area of the dungeon. They even discovered yet another hidden entrance from the outside -- a mountainside cave -- that they presumed the orcs used to enter in the first place. These orcs seemed to have a penchant for using wolves as guards and companions. Unfortunately, I didn't have any wolf miniatures.

Along the way, they made great strides in mapping out more of the first level, discovering several more sets of stairs they assumed led to a lower level, although they have yet to test that theory. They also circumvented a few traps -- they're getting better at detecting them -- and stumbled across a few unexplained oddities whose purpose they haven't yet determined to any degree of satisfaction. This was the first session without any deaths in the adventuring party, so, by that metric, it was a great success.

I continue to find the unfolding of the campaign enjoyable and enlightening. I won't go so far as to say I'm watching history recapitulate itself, but there is a sense in which I am seeing my players go through a similar process as many early gamers did in coming to grips with what a megadungeon campaign is and how best to proceed within it. I take particular pleasure in the way that the map has been used. They've been able to intuit the likely location of secret doors, traps, and other obstacles simply by looking at the map and that makes me very happy. Dungeon mapping really is a lost art and I genuinely believe a lot is lost by its having fallen by the wayside over the years. Likewise, the lack of a thief class had been a boon to my players, who've developed very good instincts about when, where, and how to look for traps, as well as ways to overcome them.

I'm alslo enjoying watching the characters slowly take on distinct personalities. Brother Candor, for example, is genuinely concerned about the fates of his hirelings, whereas Dordagdonar treats non-elves as "ephemerals," as he calls them, and shows a certain nonchalance about their fates that's at once disturbing and strangely endearing. Brak, the goblin torch bearer, has proven his worth on more than one occasion. He's also become a source of comic relief, which I think is important. In my experience, most roleplaying campaigns need moments of light-heartedness and the secret to preventing their becoming too "jokey" is to find a good in-game "safety valve" for such humor. Brak is it in the Dwimmermount campaign and it's helped keep our sessions fun without descending into utter silliness.

Once again, a good session. Of course, we had brownies and ice cream, so of course it was a good session.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Star Man's Son

Yes, I know this cover bears a different title than the one in the header of this post. There's two reasons for that, one practical and one historical. The practical reason is that I simply couldn't find a good image of the original 1952 hardcover release of this Andre Norton novel. The historical reason is that, in the 1954 Ace Double edition (which it shared with Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore's Beyond Earth's Gates) bearing the title Daybreak - 2250 A.D., the novel went on to sell over 1 million copies, thereby ensuring that a large number of sci-fi and fantasy fans would read its story, including Gary Gygax, who cites it in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, and James Ward, who considered it a seminal influence on his own Gamma World.

Star Man's Son
tells the story of a silver-haired mutant named Fors, who lives in a post-apocalyptic North America some centuries in the future. Because of his genetic background, he is distrusted and feared by the Puma clan of which he is a part. He is tolerated primarily because his father, Langdon, is a star man -- a scout and explorer who aids his people by traveling widely in search of knowledge and ancient technology. Fors dreams of one day following in his father's footsteps, a dream made even more urgent when his father disappears in the lands of the Beast Things, mutants who may or may not be degenerate humans. Eventually, Fors realizes that the other star men will never accept him as one of their number and so sets off, in the company of a mutant wildcat with whom he can communicate telepathically, in search of a lost city that was supposedly left intact amidst the devastation that destroyed human civilization.

Star Man's Son is a fun and inspiring novel, one of my favorites by Norton. There's no question in my mind why it exerted such an influence over not only Gygax and Ward, but a host of science fiction and fantasy writers since it was first published. The story -- an outcast on a quest to prove his worth, both to others and to himself -- is an old one, but it's one with which most people, espcially young men, can empathize. Add to that the terror and mystery of a world destroyed by man's own folly and you have the recipe for a classic adventure tale. If you haven't read it, I heartily recommend you do so, if only to see the wellspring of what would eventually become science fantasy clichés. But Andre Norton wrote these things first and, in my opinion, best and deserves to be given her due.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Review Suggestions

I'm reaching the bottom of my review pile. I currently have two more products from Adventure Games Publishing to review and three more from Brave Halfling Publishing. Most of these products are fairly short and I'll probably finish them up this coming week.

With that in mind, does anyone have any suggestions for future products they'd like to see reviewed here?

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Talk Wargames

Here's an amusing bit from issue 1 of The Dragon: an article by Fritz Leiber in which he engages in a brief discussion about wargames with his creations.
I tried to explain to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser about wargamers and the game of Lankhmar.

“You mean they’re using our territory to fight in?” the Mouser demanded. “We ought to charge ‘em toll or tariff, ambushing those who refuse to pay.”

I tried some more.

“Oh, so they fight only with their minds?” Fafhrd said.

“That sounds sick to me. I keep my mind solely for enshrining the images of beautiful women.”

“A sort of penny peep-show, eh?” the Mouser observed to him. “Frix and her tricks, et cetera.”

“Say rather a temple,” Fafhrd replied decorously, with admirable self-control.

“But about these wargamers or mind-fighters,” the Mouser said, turning back to me. “I’ll wager some of ‘em aren’t above using a real knife under the table, especially if the games goes against ‘em.”

“A man could keep on playing a table game, though hamstrung,” Fafhrd put in.

“Still, it would probably upset his judgment, don’t you think?” the Mouser pointed out to him.
Pretty insightful fellows for fictional characters.

Quick Hits

Mythmere Games has released the free PDF version of Swords & Wizardry: White Box, which is a version of the S&W rules that more closely approximates the content of the three little brown books of OD&D without any material from the supplements. It's really a nice piece of work, both in terms of its content and its presentation. A print version of White Box should be available early next week.

Richard at Otherworld Miniatures is suffering from unexpected (and painful) health problems and could really use our support during this difficult time. This turn of events is going to delay the scheduled January releases in his phenomenal old school miniatures line a bit, so he's offering a nice little promotion to anyone who places orders of at least £25.00 between now and February 1. If you've ever considered buying some pig-faced orcs or that hill giant who looks like Abe Lincoln, now's the time to do it.

REVIEW: A Tale of Two Monks

Or a monk and a martial artist anyway.

This review is the first time I've ever directly compared two similar products. As a rule, I don't like the notion of comparing and contrasting RPG products, because I think that even ostensibly similar products can have very different goals and intended audiences. I remember an article in an old issue of Dragon that was ostensibly a review of TSR's SF game, Star Frontiers. While the review was quite thorough, what I remember most about it was that the reviewer frequently compared it unfavorably to GDW's Traveller. Now, as everyone knows, I'm a Traveller geek and make no bones about that. I rank the original 1977 boxed set up there with OD&D in terms of being one of the greatest works of imagination ever produced by this hobby. That said, even at the time, I thought Star Frontiers deserved to be taken on its own merits and reviewed solely on that basis.

Consequently, this review isn't so much a comparison of Adventure Games Publishing's Martial Artist Class and Brave Halfling Publishing's Delving Deeper - Monk as a discussion of how two two different writers writing for two different games can draw on the same source material and spin it in different ways. One of the joys of the old school revival is watching how a wide variety of people take the same inspirations and present them in so many unique ways. What's even better is that, because old school games have such simple mechanics, it's very easy for me to buy a product intended for, say, OSRIC and adapt it to my Swords & Wizardry game. If anything about 2009 reminds me of 1979 it's this glorious smorgasbord of product offerings from which to swipe cool ideas and not have to worry about whether they'll "work" in my home game.

Let's start with AGP's Martial Artist Class. Written for Castles & Crusades and selling for $1.00, this 7-page PDF follows the same basic format of other recent electronic products by James Mishler. Although completely lacking in art, the product more than makes up for it by the density of its two-column text, which presents an alternative to C&C's monk class. Using Strength as its Prime (rather than Constitution, as the standard monk does), the martial artist is focused primarily on combat, both unarmed and armed. That's not to say that it's lacking in other class abilities, but it's clear that, as its name suggests, the martial artist is intended for players who want to play characters who've devoted themselves, bodily and spiritually, to becoming living weapons. In this respect, the martial artist is a broader archetype than the monk, since the class lends itself to a variety of character types that break the "militant ascetic" mold. Rounding out the PDF is a collection of descriptions of exotic and mundane weapons and how they might be used by martial artists.

Brave Halfling's Delving Deeper - Monk is also a 7-page PDF, written by Luke Fleeman and selling for $0.75. Of those seven pages, one is taken up by the cover, another by the Open Game License, and a third by a piece of short fiction. In addition, the product includes a couple of pieces of black and white line art by Brian Thomas. As a result, Delving Deeper - Monk isn't nearly as textually dense of Martial Artist Class, but that's to be expected in a PDF supporting Labyrinth Lord, which is far simpler mechanically than Castles & Crusades. The monk presented here is much closer in concept and presentation to the monk of OD&D/AD&D, being a more "generalist" class with abilities beyond those focused primarily on combat. The monk is thus the class for people who wish to play characters that cleave closely to "inscrutable mystic warrior" archetype -- equally adept at conversing with animals as kicking ass. The product also helpfully includes some advice on integrating monks into a campaign, either as PCs or NPCs.

I like both these products. They're both a terrific value and have the benefit of including lots of simple mechanics that can be lifted for use in almost any old school game. In addition, their differences highlight the fact that there's no "right" way to present anything in an old school game except what works for the referee and his players. Despite having already offered up my own version of the monk some months ago, I still found lots of food for thought in these two PDFs. Of the two, I give Deliving Deeper - Monk a slight edge, because it's closer to the monk of Blackmoor and thus closer to the kind of class I'd use in my own campaign. Mind you, the martial artist isn't intended to be a replacement for the monk class of C&C, nor does it occupy exactly the same mental space. It's closely related, to be sure, but there are subtle differences and, in some campaigns, the monk and the martial artist could reasonably exist side-by-side without any contradiction. I still prefer the monk for its closer connection to tradition, but I can easily imagine that others might feel the martial artist is a broader and thus "better" class.

Chacun à son goût.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 polearms for one, 4½ out of 5 polearms for the other -- You decide.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Science Fantasy D&D

My copy of issue 3 of Fight On! arrived the other day. Since I was too much of a slacker to submit anything to it (though I remain hopeful I can finish up something for issue 4 and my level of "The Darkness Beneath" collaborative megadungeon is shaping up nicely -- surprise, surprise, it borrows elements from my own Dwimmermount megadungeon), I had the rare pleasure of being able to read its contents with virgin eyes. Dedicated to the memory of Bob Bledsaw, it's another tour de force of old school gaming goodness and my favorite issue so far, providing just the right mix of contents. It's really an amazing thing watching this magazine blossom before my eyes; it's like giving me the chance to see The Dragon come into being a second time, which is great, since, old though I may be, I'm not quite old enough to have seen it the first time.

One of the articles that really grabbed me in issue 3 was Melan's "Fomalhaut," which gives a brief overview of his campaign setting of the same name. Reading it I was reminded of M.A.R. Barker's Tékumel, not so much for the specific details, which are quite different, but for the general idea of it: a fantasy world set far in the future after the collapse of high-tech interstellar civilization. It's an idea that lurks beneath the surface of OD&D and you can certainly see it in Gygax's selections for Appendix N. The RPG Jorune has a similar premise and, by all accounts, began as a wacky Metamorphosis Alpha campaign, which is pretty old school. For that matter, the introduction to the first edition of Gamma World offered the possibility of mixing magic and mutants, a possibility that the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide even provided rules for.

It's an idea I keep toying with. For whatever reason, I'm generally reluctant simply to import sci-fi stuff into my fantasy campaigns without some underlying rationale for it. On the other hand, I find it much easier to accept a science fiction setting where technology is so advanced as to appear like -- and thus effectively to be -- magic. That certainly explains why I spend so much time working out the hows and whys of magic and how it relates to the underlying metaphysics of the setting. I keep trying to hit on a rationale that would allow me to create a really fun science fantasy setting for use with OD&D, because I'm convinced that it's a neglected part of the game's heritage. The closest TSR ever came to paying homage to it (besides Empire of the Petal Throne, of course) was 2e's Dark Sun, which I actually liked in spite of its many flaws, but I think we can do better than that.

A few years ago, I had this idea of a campaign set on Earth in the very far future, after the collapse of technological civilization due to some catastrophe or other. Science had advanced to the point where genetic engineering was routine and where nanotechnology was similarly commonplace. Magic-users would be individuals who'd been taught how to use "free" nanites to create various effects. Clerics would be similar, except that they tapped into the power of various "oracles," which were artificial intelligences worshipped as -- and in some cases believed themselves to be -- gods and who likewise had the ability to manipulate nanites. From the perspective of the characters, this setting would be just a typical fantasy world with all the requisite tropes. Over time, though, they'd encounter stuff that "wouldn't fit" into the world they thought they inhabited but that made perfect sense within the context I'd established behind the scenes. Plus, how hard is it to recast most of D&D into something pseudo-scientific? A few moments thought and it's pretty easy to imagine wands as high-tech tools/weapons, golems as robots, and orcs as uplifted animals used as soldiers.

I didn't go this route with my Dwimmermount campaign, preferring instead to adopt a more "expansive" notion of fantasy, with other planets being little different than other dimensions/planes, for example. But I'm still very interested in a truly science fantasy campaign. It's something that has powerful literary antecedents and it's something we've never seen much of in canonical D&D, particularly after the early-to-middle Golden Age. And that's a shame.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Grognard's Grimoire: The Ranine

Much as I like Swords & Wizardry, it's distinctly lacking in malevolent frog-men carrying out the will of Tsathoggua. I now shall rectify this oversight.

Players in my Dwimmermount campaign should not, of course, interpret this post as indicative of anything they may or may not encounter in the bowels of that mystic mountain. Really.

Armor Class:
4 [15]
Hit Dice: 2
Attacks: 2 claws (1d6), 1 bite (1d4) or 1 weapon (1d8)
Saving Throw: 16
Special: Breathe Water, Hop, Paralyzing Bite
Move: 9 (swim 12)
Challenge Level/XP: 4/120 XP

Ranine are degenerate, subterranean creatures who serve the foul frog-demon Tsathoggua. Like their master, the Ranine are of broadly batrachian appearance but possess small bat-like ears in addition to vicious fangs and, in many cases, small horns. They are drawn to underground locations suffused with Chaotic energies, so many also possess chaotic traits of both the major and minor varieties.

Ranine shy away from sunlight and suffer a -1 penalty to their attack rolls and saving throws when they operate aboveground. If given sufficient room in combat, these creatures can hop at enemies, which gives them a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls. When fighting at close quarters, they try to bite opponents in order to inject them with a paralyzing poison. Failure to save against it results in paralysis for 3D6 turns. Ranine in groups larger than six typically include a leader, who can cast clerical spells as if it were a cleric of the same level as his hit dice.

Precisely how the Ranine reproduce is a mystery, as they appear to be completely asexual. Given that these beings prefer to take opponents prisoner rather than slay them outright, some sages have postulated that the Ranine somehow "convert" their prey into new frog-men to swell their ranks. If true, these creatures pose an even more terrible threat to civilization than is commonly supposed.

A Rising Tide

Over the course of the nearly-ten months I've been writing this blog, its readership has been steadily increasing. By the Fall of 2008, though, it had stabilized to about 700-ish daily readers, if my web stats are to be believed. That seemed about right to me, given my estimation of the number of old schoolers active on the Internet nowadays.

Over the last three months, though, my readership has been steadily climbing and I typically get over 1000 daily readers. I've also noticed a big jump in the number of referrals to the blog from other gaming sites not associated with the old school revival. That's not completely beyond the pale, since it would happen from time to time in the past, but the frequency has been increasing.

I have heard from a couple of others that what I'm experiencing isn't unique to me. That leads me to believe that there's, if nothing else, a lot more curiosity about the old school community than there was in December 2007, when I first joined Original D&D Discussion and started down this crazy path I walk today. I have some theories as to why this might be the case, but they're only theories; I have no evidence to support them beyond anecdotes and gut impressions. Still, it is interesting and I can't help but think this is only the tip of the iceberg.

REVIEW: Wayfarers

I hate the term "fantasy heartbreaker," not so much for its original purpose -- though I do have serious issues with it even in that form -- but for the way it's become shorthand in some quarters for simply dismissing a fantasy game without the need for rational discussion of its merits or flaws. Like "nerd rage," it's used as a substitute for both thought and empathy and I loathe it. That's why, when I was asked by Jimmy Swill of Ye Olde Gaming Companye (YOGC) to read its new fantasy roleplaying game, Wayfarers, I agreed to do so. Though I already have D&D in various forms for my gaming needs, that doesn't mean I can't potentially learn a thing or two from other RPGs, particularly ones that explicitly tout their "old-school feel."

Physically, Wayfarers is an impressive tome, particularly when you consider that it's not the product of a big gaming company but rather "a group of RPG enthusiasts that have been gaming in one form or another for nearly 30 years," as explained on the website of YOGC. At 436 pages in length, it's also somewhat intimidating. Of course, one must consider that the book includes everything needed to play in a single volume, including nearly 100 pages of information on the game's setting, Twylos. It's thus a truly complete game, which I appreciate, particularly in this age of interminable supplements.

Wayfarers uses a clean two-column layout. It's not beautiful but it's very serviceable, which is important since the text density is quite high. I sometimes found myself wishing YOGC had used a serifed font, because, in some places, the text is harder to read than I'd have liked, but that probably says more about my failing eyesight than it does about the book itself. For the most part, the text is easy to understand, being written in a straightforward, almost academic fashion. It's also well edited and proofread -- rarities even in professional products! Wayfarers is filled with artwork, a lot of it reminiscent of the kind of art we saw during the Golden Age of D&D, though there are some notable exceptions, including the cover art by Leo Lingas, which recalls the Silver and Bronze Ages of the game. All in all, it's a very impressive package and serves as a reminder of how much technology has advanced since 1974.

Wayfarers isn't Dungeons & Dragons, but it's clearly derived from D&D, as attested to by its use of the Open Game License. Even without that clue, its lineage is obvious. Though many things are renamed or altered and there are no character classes or levels, Wayfarers is quite obviously a descendant of D&D. Indeed, the game feels very much like an example of the time-honored genre of "D&D done right." Beginning with Arduin in 1977 and RuneQuest in 1978, there have long been games that seek to "correct" the perceived flaws of D&D. The best of them manage to transcend this origin and become solid games in their own right. In my opinion, RuneQuest achieve such an apotheosis, while Arduin never really managed it. Not having had the opportunity to play Wayfarers, it's hard to tell whether it is more like RuneQuest or Arduin in this regard.

How does Wayfarers differ from D&D mechanically? As noted, it's class-less, relying instead on two types of skills -- proficiencies and disciplines -- to handle most character abilities. Proficiencies are tied to character attributes (Agility, Endurance, Intellect, Presence, and Strength -- no Wisdom equivalent, as you can see) and are most like what gamers think of when they hear the word "skills." Disciplines, on the other hand, are very much like the feats of 3e. Indeed, many disciplines are in fact 3e feats renamed or slightly altered. Characters don't gain experience points through play but rather skill points, which are awarded by the Game Master based on how well the characters achieve their goals and also how well they are played, which shows that it's a game more in tune with later conceptions of what an RPG is. Once characters acquire enough skill points, they reach a new "skill level" that grants additional points they can then use to improve their existing proficiencies or disciplines or buy new ones. They also gain additional health points as their skill level increases. If this sounds a bit confusing, it is. I think it would have been far easier to have simply called skill points experience points and skill level experience level. This is a case where the game's penchant for renaming trips it up needlessly.

There are no halflings in Wayfarers, but its other races are all familiar, including full-blooded orcs. Racial abilities are all balanced against one another, which is consistent with the game's overall point-buy philosophy. In this respect, Wayfarers is more like Third Edition than any other edition of D&D. There's fortunately no need for prestige classes, since any ability is potentially learnable by any character if a player is willing to spend the requisite skill points necessary to do so. This includes magic, which is broken up into hermetic, hedge, faith, and ritual types, each with extensive spell lists, divided into "circles" that gauge their relative power and complexity. Both hermetic and hedge magic function similarly to D&D's "Vancian" system, while faith magic is more like 3e's sorcery and ritual magic a hybrid of the two approaches.

Combat is similar in broad outline to D&D, using a dodge score as a target number rather than armor class, since armor is ablative (although randomly so). Characters begin the game with more health points than a typical D&D character has hit points, but gain additional health points at a slower rate, so combat is likely less deadly at low levels but moreso at high ones. Interestingly, the game explicitly notes that characters can and will die and that death ought to be accepted as part of the game, even calling it "essential." I have to admit that, having read that, I was much more well-disposed toward Wayfarers than I had been previously.

As I said, Wayfarers is complete. It includes extensive information of monsters, magic items (and how to make them), along with plenty of advice and suggestions for the Game Master. The game's default setting of Twylos is detailed extensively -- a bit too extensively for my tastes. On the plus side, the details feel "lived in," which is to say, they're the kinds of things one might expect to find in a campaign world that's been used over the course of many years (as Twylos apparently was). There's little evidence of auctorial indulgence so much as a genuine enthusiasm for a campaign setting that was the site of many cool adventures in the past. The Twylos section of Wayfarers comes across as much more vibrant and "alive" than the rest of the book, which is a pity, because it's the section that was of least interest to me personally -- not because it was poorly written but because it represents a Silver Age approach to setting design that's rather alien to my mindset nowadays.

Indeed, Wayfarers comes across as a latter day product of the Silver Age. Its mechanics are very much concerned with "improving" upon the basic D&D template, by providing greater detail and flexibility, but the basic template is still that of the Golden Age. And Twylos, for all its detail, is utterly lacking in the grand plots and uber-NPCs I associate with the Bronze Age. Sandbox play is still possible and, while I wouldn't call the game pulp fantasy by any means, it's much more amenable to that style than were most products of the Bronze and Dark Ages of D&D.

I'd not be surprised to learn that the creators of Wayfarers entered the hobby sometime after about 1983 and played D&D a lot in the years between 1985 and 1989. Wayfarers reads like a well-written, edited, and illustrated collection of house rules for someone's awesome Silver Age Dungeons & Dragons rules variant. I think that's terrific, but it's definitely not for me. That's not a knock against the game by any stretch. I actually think there's a lot to commend in Wayfarers, particularly if the Silver Age is your personal Golden Age of gaming.

There's a gloriously "professional amateur" quality to this game that I think speaks well of it and its creators. Though well presented, it isn't a soulless installment in a trademarked corporate brand; it's an idiosyncratic product of years of play by some guys whose tastes in fantasy roleplaying are just a bit to the left of my own. Does that mean it's not old school? That only matters if you want to align your gaming 100% to my own tastes and, honestly, why would you want to do that? As I said, there are many things in Wayfarers that I wouldn't do in my own games, but that's no crime. Rather, I find the willingness to do things differently because it works for the authors to be quite refreshing. And I admire their chutzpah in putting the fruits of their labors out there for an opinionated curmudgeon like me to review. That right there is what makes this hobby such a wonderful thing and they get extra points in my book just for that.

Final Score: 3½* out of 5 polearms

*If I was a Silver Age kind of guy, I'd easily give it a 4, so take that as you will.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Conversation with My Daughter

My nearly-nine year-old daughter (her birthday is Friday) and I have many fascinating conversations. Today, before she went off to school, the topic turned to Tarzan. She asked me if Tarzan had a son named "Boy." I told her, no, he didn't; he had a son but his English name was Jack and his Ape name was Korak. My daughter then asked me where Boy came from and I explained that he was invented for a series of movies back in the 1930s. This led to the further question of why Boy "didn't have a real name." My reply was that, in those old movies, Tarzan wasn't portrayed the way he was in the original stories. He was a grunting brute who barely spoke English and so "Boy" was the kind of name they figured he's give his adoptive son. "Why do they always have to ruin books when they make movies?" She asked.

That's my girl.

Retrospective: Pharaoh

Module I3, Pharaoh, was a minor revelation to me in 1982, when it was released. I don't know that it was in fact the first module TSR published after it had changed AD&D's logo and trade dress -- I suspect it wasn't -- but it's the one "new look" module whose appearance is forever seared in my memory. I'm generally very ambivalent about Jim Holloway's art. He definitely has a flair of the "extraordinary ordinary," but he also has a tendency to veer too wildly into Three Stooges territory, with illustrations lacking either in the whimsy of Tom Wham or the quirkiness of Will McLean. But the cover of Pharaoh is moody, evocative piece of work and it really won me over at the time. Of course, it helps that I'm a big fan of ancient Egypt, but that shouldn't minimize the power of Holloway's artwork or how it signaled to me that the times they were a-changin' for D&D.

Pharaoh is, in some respects, more and less an example of the Hickman Revolution than is the later Ravenloft. It's less, because, even moreso than Ravenloft, it's a first class old school dungeon crawl. The Pyramid of Amun-Re, though small in size, packs a lot of punch in terms of its fiendish inventiveness. It's chock full of great puzzles and well-conceived traps, some of which are sufficiently elaborate to require diagrams to explain properly. That's something you don't see much nowadays. The maps of the Pyramid's various levels are very nice too. They're rendered in 2-D without the need for the over-hyped isometric cartography of Ravenloft, since a simple cross-section drawing of the Pyramid achieves the same effect without any fuss. The levels themselves adhere to a number of old school design principles too, allowing lots of lateral movement and offering plenty of choices about how to proceed. One level is made up of a large maze that causes magical confusion and disorientation, demanding that the players keep their wits about them if they ever hope to find their way out.

On the other hand, Pharaoh is explicitly billed as "The 1st module in the DESERT OF DESOLATION series." While it is eminently playable in its own right, its sequels, Oasis of the White Palm and Lost Tomb of Martek are much less stand-alone. Likewise, even within Pharaoh, there's a powerful undercurrent of a larger story above and beyond the characters' stumbling upon a cursed pyramid while wandering in the desert. A lot of the module is given over to providing background and in-game "texts" intended to advance this story along. Within Pharaoh alone, this can be ignored without too much difficulty, but, once a referee has committed himself to the module's sequels, there's no escaping it. In this respect, I3 is far more committed to the project of remaking the concept of an "adventure module" than is I6, which, for all its melodramatic excesses, is but a single -- and fairly simple -- story, not the kick-off to an epic story of prophecies and legends in the making.

I still like Pharaoh a great deal; it's proof that, for all the changes his work wrought on D&D, Tracy Hickman knew how to craft a very fine dungeon crawl. As a younger man, I played the heck out of this series and loved every minute of it. Pharaoh is definitely a product strongly grounded in the old school but you can see that it's trying fitfully to break free from its conventions. In its day, that was seen as a very good thing; goodness knows I loved it. Now, I feel a lot more ambivalent about its approach.

The Extraordinary Ordinary

No matter how old I get, I think this illustration by Dave Sutherland will always be the closest anyone has ever come to encapsulating Dungeons & Dragons in a single image. That's in large part because it adorns the inside cover of the rules edited by J. Eric Holmes, which was the first D&D product I ever owned. So, it's invested with a hefty dose of nostalgia. Of course, I also happen to like the image: two fighting men with historical armor and weapons holding back a veritable horde of pig-faced orcs, also with historical armor and weapons, while the magic-user -- complete with a bestarred conical cap -- stands behind them casting a spell.

That's pretty much my mind's eye view of the game, then and now. It's a particular conception of the game, I'll grant. Even in 1977, when this image first appeared, it wasn't the only approach to it, but it was certainly the one I had the most contact with. Looking back on it, what I found appealing was its "groundedness." The armor and weapons in the picture are all based on real armor and weapons from the Middle Ages. Though a mishmash of periods and styles, they're not at all fantastical in origin, which nicely contrasts with the orcs. The magic-user is an interesting case, because, while not "real" in any sense, he's so archetypal that I somehow don't put him in the same category of unreality as the orcs.

One of the interesting things about this illustration is that you can see in it the seeds that would blossom into the fantastic realism of the Silver Age. In a certain sense, guys like Larry Elmore and Keith Parkinson are very much in the same tradition as this early work. In another sense, though, there's a clear difference. Sutherland's men aren't buffed action heroes and his women -- what few of them there are -- don't look like supermodels. This helps reinforce the notion that D&D adventurers are ordinary people, albeit extraordinarily courageous (or foolhardy) ones.

I think it's an important difference and it almost certainly explains both my mild distaste for the Silver Age generally and the continued appeal of the Holmes rulebook. The book includes several other examples of very ordinary looking fighters engage in battle against monstrous opponents. None of these fighters look like Schwarzenegger and that's important to me. The issues I have with post-Golden Age D&D art are not technical in nature but conceptual: the abandonment first of anatomical verisimilitude, reflecting the growing focus on the character as the "star" of his own story, and then of physical verisimilitude, reflecting the shift away from groundedness more generally -- oversized weapons, impractical armor, gravity-defying poses, etc.

All these things seem a break with the past and that saddens me. D&D needs more extraordinary ordinariness in my opinion. Not only would it be a return to the game's esthetic roots but it'd also help distinguish the game better from its bastard descendants, most of which abandoned verisimilitude long before D&D art directors decided aping them was the way to go. Instead of dancing to someone else's tune, wouldn't it be nice to see D&D calling its own once again?