Tuesday, November 30, 2010

More Petty Gods Artwork

I'm getting closer to working my way through the Petty Gods submissions, but there are still many more to sort, so never fear if you haven't yet heard from me, either for a submission or an offer of helping out with artwork. My hope (ha, ha) is to be fully caught up by Friday, December 3, 2010. I will also make a point of posting an updated listing of all the accepted submissions to date, so that anyone still thinking of making a submission will see which petty gods are already accounted for.

In the meantime, enjoy these two illustrations by the ever-awesome Mark Allen. First, Tau, guardian of tombs and cemeteries:

Second, Drasheeng, petty goddess of misperception due to intoxication:

Possibly Intriguing D&D Virtual Table News

Jeff Faller sent me the following link to a post on a website I otherwise would never have visited, as it's focused on D&D IV, a game I don't play. The post is written by a beta tester of WotC's upcoming D&D Virtual Table, which is apparently -- more knowledgeable folks than I can chime in here -- a tool for running online games. Now, I personally have zero interest in such a tool, as I have a gaming group with which I'm happy, but I understand that not everyone is so fortunate. For them, something like this might well be a boon.

Anyway, what's intriguing about the linked post is that, about 0:30 into the first video, the presenter notes that the Virtual Table seems to include options for D&D rulesets other than Fourth Edition, including First Edition AD&D. Exactly what this means, if anything, is uncertain, since the presenter didn't attempt to use a ruleset other than 4e in his test of the software. My gut tells me that it's not going to amount to much, but I'm notoriously cynical and pessimistic. On the other hand, given the way WotC has lately been playing the nostalgia card in their advertising, I suppose there's a slim chance they're serious about trying to support older editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

Time will tell. I have no use for a Virtual Table myself, regardless of what rulesets it supports. However, if WotC really does make it meaningfully useful to players of, say, AD&D or OD&D, I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Paging Ed

If you're the Ed whose OpenID page can be found here, can you drop me a note via email? My address is jmaliszeATgmail.com.


Grognard's Grimoire: Summon Protector

When the idea of the Animal Kings first occurred to me, it seemed obvious their existence would also imply the existence of animal clerics. Over the course of play, I came to realize that animals needed magic-users too. Even if I hadn't, my inclusion of the Boss of the Rats more or less required that I postulate their existence.

In the course of thinking about animal magic-users, I realized that, like their clerical counterparts, certain spells would need to be re-imagined. This in turn led me to give some more thought to the way that animals and Men interacted with one another. Thus was born the summon protector spell.

The text in the quote box below is hereby designated Open Game Content via the Open Game License.
Summon Protector
Level: 1 (Animal Only)
Duration: See Below
Range: 1 mile per level

By casting this spell, an animal magic-user can obtain a human protector. The casting takes from 1-24 hours (referee's discretion) and uses up items of value appropriate to the caster's species (e.g. meaty bones for a dog, sparkly shards of glass for a rat, etc.) that have an equivalent value of 100 gp. The materials are consumed during the ritual. The referee decides the probability that a protector will respond to the spell and which type of protector is summoned within range. It is possible that no human will respond. This spell may only be attempted one time per year.

A protector is able to grant the caster access to its own senses and is able to understand the caster's wishes in a general, non-verbal way. In addition, a protector is loyal to the caster and will do everything in its power to aid and protect the caster, provided that doing so will not bring harm upon the protector. Protectors are more intelligent than ordinary Men (+1 Intelligence); they always possess a class and 1d4 levels (i.e. no 0 Humans). A protector grants the caster additional hit points equal to one-third of the protector's maximum hit points, when the two are within 120' of one another. However, if a protector is slain, the magic-user must subtract one-quarter of the protector's maximum hit points from his own maximum hit points, permanently.

A new protector may not be summoned for one year. If a protector is located, the referee may use the following as examples:


Abilities Augmented


+1 to armor class


+1 to hit


+1 damage per die with spells


+1 saving throws

Anytime a protector is summoned, there is a 5% chance it is a special protector. The type is determined by the caster's alignment. Special protectors still have a class and level, as above, but they also have a role in human society that gives the caster a possible advantage. A potential protector is entitled to a saving throw versus spells and, if successful, the spell fails and the caster must wait 1 year before trying again.



Lawful (Good)




Lawful (Evil)




Neutral (Balance)




Monday, November 29, 2010

Before There Was Captain Kirk ...

... there was Commander John J. Adams of United Planets Cruiser C-57D.

How I could not have commented upon the recent death of Leslie Nielsen, I do not know, if only because Forbidden Planet is one of my favorite movies of all time. In that 1956 film, Nielsen established the cinematic template for what a starship captain is and ought to be -- charismatic and thoughtful, yet perfectly willing to break out the blasters if the situation called for it. Neilsen gave a standout performance in a film replete with them. He was the human center in a movie whose groundbreaking special effects could easily have become its main attraction. Without him, neither Forbidden Planet nor science fiction would have been the same.

Rest in peace, Mr Neilsen.

A High Gygaxian Call to Arms

Over at the Matador Network, there's an amusing article on "20 Obsolete English Words that Should Make a Comeback." The article evinces a distinctly "High Gygaxian" flavor in its word choices, a judgment made all the more clear when you reach entry number 14.

Take a look.

Games Workshop History

Over at Yog-Sothoth.com, you can listen to a seminar at last June's UK Games Expo, where Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone talk about the early days of Games Workshop. There are a lot of truly fascinating tidbits in it, including the origin of the name "Games Workshop" and details about GW's relationship with important figures of the early hobby, such as Gary Gygax and Brian Blume. If you've got an hour to spare, give it a listen and hear a perspective on the history of the hobby that's not often heard on this side of the Atlantic.

RIP: Irvin Kershner (1923-2010)

Irvin Kershner, perhaps best known to geeks everywhere for his direction of the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, is dead at the age of 87. Although I don't share the opinion that The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film -- I still prefer the original -- there's no question that Kershner was a much better director than Lucas and The Empire Strikes Back benefited greatly from his talents. It's a great film in its own right and has had a profound influence on my imagination in the 30 years since its release. Kershner will be missed.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Beyond the Black River

"Beyond the Black River" is consistently cited as among the best of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories and it's easy to see why. Published as a two-part serial whose first installment appeared in the May 1935 issue of Weird Tales, "Beyond the Black River" simultaneously defies the facile caricatures of REH's Conan yarns while affirming the thematic core of those same writings. It is from this story, after all, that the oft-quoted line, "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind," comes, although its speaker and context are rarely presented correctly, since doing so would put the lie to the notion that Howard was merely an avatar of adolescent machismo.

"Beyond the Black River" takes place beyond the northern borders of Aquilonia, among settlers who dare to build homes for themselves in Pictish lands, a move Conan deems both unwise and, ultimately, untenable.
"... you Hyborians have expanded as far as you'll be allowed to expand. You've crossed the marches, burned a few villages, exterminated a few clans and pushed back the frontier to Black River; but I doubt if you'll even be able to hold what you've conquered, and you'll never push the frontier any further westward. Your idiotic king doesn't understand conditions here. He won't send you enough reinforcements, and there are not enough settlers to withstand the shock of a concerted attack from across the river."
Balthus, a borderer and Conan's interlocutor in this dialog, cannot bring himself to believe this claim -- until he's reminded of the way the Cimmerians destroyed Venarium, a "red disaster" in which Conan himself participated as a youth: "I was one of the horde that swarmed over the walls. I hadn't yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires." (Strangely, he makes no mention of his family being slain by Thulsa Doom or having become a slave lashed the Wheel of Pain -- an oversight on Howard's part, no doubt)

Conan accompanies Balthus back to Fort Tuscelan, where the Aquilonians have established themselves.
There, at the fort, civilization ended. This was no empty phrase. Fort Tuscelan was the last outpost of a civilized world; it represented the westernmost thrust of the dominant Hyborian races. Beyond the river the primitive still reigned in shadowy forests, brush-thatched huts where hung the grinning skulls of men, and mud-walled enclosures where fires flickered and drums rumbled, and spears were whetted in the hands of dark, silent men with tangled black hair and the eyes of serpents.
Worse still, those "dark, silent men" have turned to a man named Zogar Sag to lead them. A wild sorcerer who spent time as a prisoner of the Aquilonians, Conan explains that "there'll be no peace on the border so long as Zogar lives and remembers the cell he sweated in." The governor of the fort thus begs Conan to slay Zogar before his designs against the Aquilonian settlements can come to fruition, a mission the Cimmerian accepts, taking with him a dozen men of his own choosing, none of them soldiers but all of them skilled foresters.

The remainder of the story describes Conan's efforts in the wilderness to find Zogar Sag before it is too late to save the Aquilonians. For the benefit of those who've never read the story before, I won't so any more about how events unfold, except that I find it hard to imagine how anyone, after reading this tale, could continue to suggest that Howard lacked either subtlety or insight. "Beyond the Black River" can't, I think, be read as an unapologetic paean to barbarism, as it is often portrayed. Like a lot of Westerns, which clearly served as its inspiration, the story regretfully suggests that civilized men are never a match for barbarians, which is why, being a barbarian himself, Conan knows how this latest clash between civilization and barbarism will end. It's one of my favorite Howard stories and well the time spent reading it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thank You, Ryan Dancey

I had several people send me links to this post over at the Paizo forums, which I otherwise would never have seen. In it, Ryan Dancey, formerly of Wizards of the Coast, talks about the rationales behind the Open Game License, one of which was:
I also had the goal that the release of the SRD would ensure that D&D in a format that I felt was true to its legacy could never be removed from the market by capricious decisions by its owners.
I can attest to the fact that this particular rationale is not an ex post facto justification on the part of Dancey. I very distinctly recall his having used words very similar to this back in 1999-2000, during the run-up to the release of D&D III (and I'm sure those more Internet savvy than I can dig up the quotes in question). Likewise, the history of the last few years shows that the combination of the SRD and OGL did in fact help to ensure that "D&D in a format ... true to its legacy" would survive "capricious decisions by its owners."

I won't go so far as to say that we'd never have seen retro-clones/simulacra without the SRD and OGL, but, without them, the process of creating them would undoubtedly have been more difficult, both creatively and legally. I've frankly never understood the belief that the SRD and OGL were mistakes on the part of WotC. To my mind, they're probably the company's greatest contribution to the hobby, which is why, despite my disinterest in D&D IV and the burnout I experienced with its predecessor, I still feel indebted to the company -- and to Ryan Dancey, who, in the words of Lisa Stevens, CEO of Paizo, "champion[ed] [them] through the halls of WotC when all of us thought that you were insane."

Thanks, Mr Dancey. The old school renaissance owes you a lot.

Slow but Steady

For everyone who's asked me in recent weeks whether I still plan to release Dwimmermount, the answer is yes. Work on it has been continuing -- more slowly than I'd like, true -- and it's on the schedule for the first quarter of 2011. Here's the cover image:

As things get closer to the actual release date, I'll have more specific information to share, but that'll have to wait until after I've finished my other more immediate projects, including Petty Gods.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Unconscious Influences

When you read enough, I suppose it's inevitable that one might be unconsciously influenced by a particular work and only later recognize this fact. Still, it can sometimes be a bit embarrassing to realize that a supposedly clever "invention" by oneself is nothing of the sort, especially when the origin of the invention ought to be obvious. Today, I suddenly realized that an element of my Dwimmermount campaign pertaining to the cult of Turms Termax is strongly inspired by a book I first read in high school and that I actually consider one of the better works of 20th century fantasy/science fiction. How I failed to recognize the source of my inspiration, I do not know; I can only assume it's because I haven't read the book in question in many years and so had forgotten the detail that inspired me.

Ah well.

Sci-Fi Archetypes

Although it's arguable that D&D has ever purely adhered to the notion of class-as-archetype, I nevertheless think a case can be made that that was the intention behind character classes. Regardless, I've been thinking a lot lately about what archetypes would make good character classes in a science fiction RPG. Space Opera and Starships & Spacemen are two examples of SF RPGs that included classes, but those in S&S are very specific to the game's setting, while I think Space Opera's are a mixed bag of specific and broad. Consequently, neither game quite provides what I think is an ideal selection of character classes based on sci-fi archetypes.

Anyway, I've been racking my brain to come up with a good -- and preferably short -- list of sci-fi archetypes that could conceivably be used as the basis for some SF character classes. So far, I've got:
  • Soldier/Warrior: The straight-up combat guy.
  • Rogue/Scoundrel: The sneaky/disreputable guy.
  • Diplomat: The persuasive guy.
  • Scientist: Concerned with abstract knowledge.
  • Technician: Concerned with practical/technological knowledge.
  • Mystic/Adept: The guy whose knowledge transcends science.
One could argue that Scientist and Technician are just two sides of the same coin, namely an "expert" of some kind and I'm sympathetic to that argument. I separated them for the moment, just because I instinctively tend to think of, say, Spock and Scotty as representing two different archetypes.

There might also be room for a "barbarian/outsider" archetype as well -- a guy from some backwater or unusual place and, because of that, possesses uncommon skills and abilities from the norm. The problem is that the archetype might be too broad to be meaningful as a basis for a character class, though, so I'm not sure if it fits in with the others.

So, where have I gone wrong? What am I missing? What further divisions/amalgamations would you recommend? I realize it's hard to offer truly useful advice since I haven't said what function a "class" will play mechanically (mostly because I haven't fully decided yet). For now, assume something akin to D&D's classes and assume a very broad "space opera" kind of science fiction -- definitely not hard SF -- and you should be good.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Open Friday: Christmas Gaming Gift Wishes

Since today's the "official" start of the Christmas shopping season -- or at least it was when I was a kid -- I'd like to know if anyone has any gaming-related gift wishes for themselves or someone on their Christmas list. Other than volume 5 of The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, which isn't precisely gaming-related, I don't have any such wishes myself, but I'm sure at least some of you must. Please feel free to share them.

See you, Saturday.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Space Opera Help Requested

As I have admitted, I've lately been oddly obsessed by both Chivalry and Sorcery and Space Opera, two FGU games I never played back in the day and that each have the reputation of being "unplayable." I was all prepared to put the lie to the notion that Space Opera at least was unplayable by creating and posting a character I'd created for the game. And, though a bit confusingly worded and organized, the character generation rules work, more or less, so that much of the game at least is viable.

In creating my character, though, I soon realized that, so far as I could see, there's no skill mechanic in the game whatsoever. There are "characteristic rolls" (CRs), which are 1D20 rolls under inconsistently variable target numbers (i.e. some CRs use the characteristic itself as the target, while others have a fixed target and have modifiers derived from the characteristic being tested), but there don't appear to be any skill rolls, unless I'm missing something. The descriptions of skills sometimes note specific game mechanic benefits (e.g. "build structures 5% faster for every level of experience"). Other skill descriptions provide no such guidance, despite the fact that all skills have levels and its implied that having, say, Advanced Mathemetics/5 is better than having Advanced Mathematics/4.

So, does anyone out there have any idea what I'm missing? I confess that a big part of the problem is that Space Opera is simply horribly organized and needed information is often difficult to find. Once you know where everything can be found in the two rulebooks, it's not so bad, but the trick is figuring out where everything can be found. In this case, I confess I can't quite figure out if there are rules for skill use I simply haven't found or there are no rules at all, at least none beyond the jumble of sub-systems found in some of the skill descriptions. As I said, if anyone knows better, please enlighten me.


Dwimmermount, Session 57

After spending so many sessions trapped in Dwimmermount, I'll admit that I was glad to see the characters free to roam around the wider world once more. What I have come to realize is that, even though a megadungeon makes a terrific "tent pole" for a campaign, it's good to have regular breaks from it. Relentless megadungeoneering is a recipe for burn out, no matter how well designed the megadungeon and how enthusiastic the players and referee. I suspect a lot of the drag I felt in running recent sessions was due to the fact that it was one session after another of dungeon exploration without anything "palette cleansers" in between. That's why I had hoped, for example, that my players might decide to send their characters through the portal to Areon (or Kythirea) -- it would have provided a welcome respite from Dwimmermount itself.

Fortunately, there was a lot for the characters to do on the surface and they spent the entirety of the session doing it. I don't believe a single die was rolled the entire evening; I know there was no combat. Indeed, I spent an hour or so sitting back and doing very well little while the players, in character, no less, debated various courses of action amongst themselves. One of the interesting things that's evolving is that Brother Candor is seriously re-evaluating his place within the priesthood of Tyche. Now 7th level, he possesses a fair degree of power. He's noticed that the high priestess Morna has become more stand-offish and reluctant to aid him, possibly seeing him as a rival in the making. Likewise, he's come to think of himself more and more as being the Iron God's servant, or at least agent, which often leads him to wonder if perhaps he shouldn't break away from the temple of Tyche and start up his own cult.

There's also the fact that, since exploring Dwimmermount, Brother Candor has begun to wonder very seriously about the nature of the gods and their relationship to the world. Leaving aside the whispers of the demons, who claim there are no gods at all, there's the notion of the Termaxians -- or "false Termaxians," as the foreign magic-user Fulk called them -- that apotheosis is something that "true spirits" can achieve with enough effort. Likewise, Candor has seen evidence of gods other than the eight worshiped as part of the Thulian Great Church and it's made him wonder just what the truth is. Dordagdonar, though, as an elf, an unbeliever in any gods himself, is likewise interested in this question, which is why the two adventurers hoped they might find answers to their questions in hidden libraries either in Adamas or Dwimmermount -- if only they could find them.

There was briefly talk of approaching Saidon, the high priest of Typhon, about using his library, but Candor ultimately decided against it. Typhon's cult is officially support by the Despot of Adamas and would have little to gain by assisting a couple of ne'er-do-wells in undermining its position. Likewise, Saidon remains an ally to the PCs and Candor worried that such a request might jeopardize that alliance. That's why the cleric sent Gaztea to seek out the aforementioned Fulk. As a self-proclaimed "true son of Turms" and "servant of the throne of Thule," Candor thought he might know more. Unfortunately, Gaztea discovered that Fulk had not been seen in several weeks, after having had several meetings with cloaked figures in various out of the way places. With Fulk nowhere to be found, this left the PCs with one choice: the Boss of the Rats.

Following Rico's instructions, they descended into the sewers beneath Adamas, before coming to the court of the Boss, where hundreds of rats, mice, and other rodents were gathered, many with petitions to make before their leader. An important-looking rat came up to Candor and addressed him, while Dordagdonar and Dr. Halsey -- who insisted on coming along -- looked on. Using speak with animals, Brother Candor learned that the Boss was beside himself with anger and frustration, ever since his daughter, Muriel, had been kidnapped by some humans. Muriel was apparently already a source of embarrassment to the Boss for unspecified reasons and other rats were keen to use her to overthrow him and put themselves on the top of the rodent heap. Smelling an opportunity to make a deal with the Boss for mutual assistance, the PCs sought an audience with him.

The Boss's chambers were located inside a large wooden tun accessible through a grand -- to a rat, anyway -- circular door, with a raised dais at the far end on which the Boss stood. To enter, Candor and Dordagdonar had to crawl in on their hands and knees, while Dr. Halsey waited outside in order "to observe these fascinating creatures more closely." The Boss knew a lot about the characters, implying that his rats had been keeping an eye on them ever since the "zombie incident" several months ago. Brother Candor asked if the rats could help them locate some books that might answer some questions they have, leading the Boss to suggest they talk to another rat named Specs about that.

Candor also asked about Fulk, which led the Boss to explain that the magic-user -- who is from the city of Volmar, an ancient Thulian colony to the south that never fell and whose leader calls himself the emperor of Thule -- has been causing trouble for the rats. The rats make a good living by sneaking humans and others into Adamas through the sewer system. Lately, the passages they use have been blocked by human guards in the employ of Fulk and "a scary mug called Cyrus." Hearing the name of the Thulian vampire did not make anyone happy and led Dordagdonar to curse Candor for his having allowed the undead soldier to survive when they had several opportunities to destroy him. Fulk and Cyrus have teamed up and are bringing a number of wizardly types into the city through the sewers, along with a lot of "arcane equipment." Dordagdonar suggested that some of this equipment is likely the alchemical gear missing from Dwimmermount and that Cyrus intends to use to create more vampires like himself, though to what end he could not guess.

Needless to say, this didn't make the Boss very happy, who added that Cyrus was responsible for kidnapping his daughter as a way to ensure the rats' non-interference in his plans. Since the PCs want to find Fulk (and Cyrus) and the rats aren't able to do much on their own against him, the Boss suggested they work together to deal with this problem. In exchange, he'd help them get the information they needed and do anything else they could for the party. His only non-negotiable condition was that his daughter not be harmed, since she was "special." When pressed on what this meant, he stated that "she takes after her mother," which the PCs eventually learned meant that she could take on human form. In fact, Muriel spent most of her time as a human, getting into all sorts of trouble -- "She got us into a turf war with the Thieves' Guild a couple of years ago" -- and generally proving an embarrassment to the boss. If the PCs promised to bring her back safely, the Boss would spare no expense in helping them "whack Cyrus and that wizard guy."

The party agreed and then set off to restock their supplies and ponder how they might proceed. Brother Candor worried that Muriel might in fact not have been kidnapped at all but rather willingly working with the Thulians. If true, that complicates the situation considerably. However, they had little choice but to involve themselves in this bizarre matter, if only because Cyrus' release was their fault and the last thing they needed was more vampires on the loose in the city-state of Adamas.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

More Down in the Dungeon Fun

On the page face the introduction to Down in the Dungeon I posted the other day, there's this amusing bit of text:
If you have any photographs of Orcs, Dragons, Monsters, or Dungeon Dwellers of any nation, particularly of Dungeon locations, why not share them with us and help make Squadron/Signal books all the more interesting and complete in the future. Any photographs sent to us will be copies and the original returned. The donor will be fully credited for any photos used.
I can't help but wonder whether anyone ever sent in any photographs and, if so, what they were like.

White Box Christmas Special

S&W White Box Contents
The third printing of the highly-regarded Swords & Wizardry: White Box is available for order -- and just in time for Christmas! Though I don't play Swords & Wizardry myself, White Box is by far my favorite iteration of the rules and Brave Halfling's edition is one of the best intro products for anyone curious about old school gaming.

This boxed set sells for just $25 (plus shipping) and literally contains everything you need to play:
  • 6″ x 9″ Game Box (This is an actual game box manufactured for just this purpose)
  • Four Rule Booklets (Characters, Spells, Monsters, & Treasures)
  • A digest-sized copy of Matt Finch’s “Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming”
  • Ten digest-sized Character Sheets
  • Set of Polyhedral Dice
  • Pencil
The first 50 orders will also receive two complimentary modules – The Vile Worm of the Eldritch Oak & The Ruins of Ramat.

Spanish Old School RPG on the Horizon

My apologies for this pics-heavy post, but this is a case where I think it's justified to bombard you with lots of photographs. The Spanish old school RPG Aventuras en la Marca del Este is about to be released and one of its authors, Pedro Gil, kindly sent me some pictures of this boxed set and its contents that I'd like to share with everyone.

Here's a nice shot of the box itself. As you can see, it's a large box.

Here's the box opened, so that you can see its contents: a rulebook, some dice, a referee's screen (which isn't easily visible in this shot) -- and plenty of room for more stuff.

Here's a better shot of the rulebook, which is a little over 140 pages in length, I believe. Bear in mind that those 140 pages cover the same ground as Moldvay/Cook's 128 combined pages, plus a setting overview, and introductory adventures.

Here's the back cover:

Here's a photo of the character generation chapter.

Weapon and armor illustrations:

The monsters chapter:

And here's the map from the setting chapter. I really like the style chosen for the cartography.

As you can see, La Marca del Este is a very attractive game, certainly one of the nicest looking retro-clones published to date. I'm not sure why RPGs from outside North America almost universally look better than what we get over here, but this game does little to make me think any differently.

There are rumors of a possible English-language version in the future, which, if they prove true, would be of interest to me. I read, to the extent my meager facility with Spanish allowed me to do so, a pre-release copy of the rules and I was quite impressed by what I saw. La Marca del Este is a complete game under a single cover and, while a lot of its content should be familiar to long-time fans of old school D&D, there are some nice new wrinkles of interest even to experienced players, such as a non-spellcasting ranger known as an "explorer," for example. And of course there's the artwork and graphic design, which is in a class all by itself from what I have seen thus far.

All in all, this is good news for old school gaming, particularly in Spanish-speaking countries. I hope Aventuras en la Marca del Este proves successful and exceeds the expectations of everyone involved.

Christopher Lee Explains Tékumel to Me

Not M.A.R. Barker
I woke up this morning very excited, because I was looking forward to penning this great post about how I'd just met Professor M.A.R. Barker and talked to him at length about the creation of Tékumel. He even allowed my wife to take a photo of the two of us standing side by side that I planned to use with the entry. Then, I realized it was all a dream.

What's funny is that, even while I was having this dream, my subconscious mind must have been dimly aware that it wasn't reality. In my dream, Professor Barker looked like Christopher Lee, a fact I actually commented upon to the dream-Barker. I said to him, "You're a lot taller in person." He explained, "I don't photograph well." "So, just like Tékumel?" I answered, to which he replied simply, "Just so."

In my dream, this exchange struck me as insightful, a feeling I still had in the initial stages of wakefulness, when many otherwise silly dreams remain imbued with profundity. Yet, in thinking about it further, I did actually gain some insight into both Tékumel and the presentation of imaginary settings generally. Tékumel has this reputation, mostly among gamers who, I'd wager, have never looked seriously into the setting, let alone played in it, as being uniquely inaccessible and obscure.

It's a long-standing myth, one that probably goes all the way back to the release of Empire of the Petal Throne in 1975, so I suppose I should forgive those who believe it uncritically. Goodness knows I believed it myself for a long time, as I'd heard it repeated often enough among the older gamers I met back in the late 70s and early 80s. The truth of the matter, though, is that, as I learned in my dream, Tékumel "doesn't photograph well." That is, it's not easy to explain through the use of a single image. Unlike D&D, there's no single iconic image that sums it up in a way that makes most gamers jump up and say, "I want to play in this setting!" Consequently, it's come to be viewed as "inaccessible" (and other more pejorative adjectives).

Back in the late 90s, when I was doing the freelance writing thing, there was a widely-circulated notion that "if you can't explain a RPG in a dozen words or less, it's not focused enough." There's a sense in which that's true, but, even so, I'm not sure that being "focused" should be taken as the defining characteristic of a good roleplaying game -- or indeed any creative endeavor. In my opinion, reductionism of this sort is often poisonous to human creativity and, frankly, that's the last thing roleplaying games need to embrace.

Tékumel's inability to be summed up in a soundbite is precisely why it continues to hold my attention. Yet, despite that, it's not truly as alien a setting as its reputation would suggest. It's different from bog standard fantasy, yes, but "inaccessible?" Hardly. Professor Barker himself addresses this very question in his original introduction:
One may 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 Tekumel? I believe that it is indeed possible, and once one gets past the original alienness, it is easy for others to become immersed in the elaborate societies, politics, and adventures of Tekumel. Players of my World of the Petal Throne quickly learn to shiver just as much at the mention of the sound of chiming and the odour of musty cinnamon (you may find out why below) as they do at the creaking of Dracula's coffin and the distant bellowing of the minotaur. The rules given below thus present a familiar game structure centred upon an alien mythos, but any obstacle to pleasurable gaming will disappear after a few readings, and a special section for referees will be appended further on. Continue reading and let me wish you the same pleasures I have enjoyed with the strange world of Tekumel!
What Professor Barker says above about Tékumel is just as true of many other imaginary worlds. That's why I no longer worry about whether I can explain a game or setting in a single sentence composed entirely of monosyllabic words. There's no reason to limit one's creativity in such a fashion and I, for one, am glad that Professor Barker has never really tried to do so. The truth is we need more gaming products that "don't photograph well," not less.

Retrospective: The Price of Freedom

1986 is usually well outside the timeframe of the gaming products I highlight in my weekly retrospectives, but I'm going to make an exception in the case of Greg Costikyan's The Price of Freedom. Published by a pre-Star Wars RPG West End Games, back when the company produced more wargames than roleplaying games (though it had released Costikyan's earlier effort, Paranoia, two years earlier), The Price of Freedom was a game of "roleplaying in occupied America," as its cover proclaimed. Its basic premise was that, thanks to the election of a "gutless" president and the USA's signing of agreements that prohibited the continuation of the Strategic Defense Initiative -- agreements by which the USSR of course did not itself abide -- the Soviets gain the military and political upper hand that enables them to launch a successful invasion and occupation of North America. Players take the role of individuals committed to fighting the Soviets and ending their reign of tyranny.

Students of history will no doubt chime in that The Price of Freedom's premise was always a ridiculous one, particularly so in 1986, a year after Mikhail Gorbachev launched a series of wide-ranging initiatives intended to reform the policies of the USSR and a mere three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And, if you actually read The Price of Freedom, there's little doubt that Greg Costikyan didn't think its premise plausible either, but to fixate on its plausibility is to miss the point entirely. This is, after all, a game that includes a brief English-Russian phrasebook that includes the phrase, "I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Republican Party." This isn't exactly a game that takes itself too seriously.

In an amusingly titled section of the rules called "A Note to Liberal Readers," Costikyan asks his readers to "think of the game as The Lord of the Rings meets William F. Buckley" -- in short a fantasy roleplaying game, but with an Evil Empire and "orcs" grounded at least partly in the real world. Costikyan goes on to say, "The question isn't whether or not such a terrible thing could happen, but whether or not you could enjoy pretending it has." My limited experience suggests that a lot of gamers could not bring themselves to do so. Indeed, I met many who seemed to believe that The Price of Freedom was deadly serious, a kind of right-wing fever dream given life as an RPG. How anyone familiar with Greg Costikyan's earlier work could think such a thing beggars the imagination, but there it is.

And that's a shame, because, like Paranoia, The Price of Freedom is actually a well-designed little game. System-wise, it's straightforward and (mostly) uncomplicated, using a 1D20 roll under an attribute or a skill. Characters also have Hero Points that can be spent in order to save a character from death or enable them to perform an action above and beyond what would normally be allowed (such as taking two actions in a single combat round). Hero Points can only be accrued through "heroic" actions, at the discretion of the Gamemaster. What's interesting is that the Player Book, which includes everything needed to play, is only 32 pages long and much of it is taken up with topics other than rules, such as information on the Soviet occupation and how to wage a guerrilla war. The Gamemaster Book is 64 pages long and less than half of its pagecount is devoted to rules. Instead, you get several sample scenarios, adventure hooks, and advice on creating and running a campaign.

The Price of Freedom is thus an object lesson in the virtues of concision. Granted, the focus of the game is quite narrow -- rebels against the Soviet empire -- but a great deal of ground is covered nonetheless. You really could run a successful campaign with nothing more than what's in this box, which, in addition to the two rulebooks, consisted of maps and counters for use in adjudicating large combats. After all, what's a game of righteous insurgency against the godless Commies without the opportunity to engage in mass battles? The Price of Freedom is a game that knows what it's about and provides you with all the tools you need to play many adventures based on its central premise.

But, ultimately, it's that very premise that wrecks the game for a lot of people. For whatever reason, they were unable or unwilling to use the overblown fears of Soviet aggression as a springboard for a different flavor of fantasy roleplaying. Consequently, I never had the chance to play The Price of Freedom back in the day. I don't imagine the situation would be even better nowadays. It's hard, in 2010, to really remember what it was like to unironically look on the Soviet Union as a modern-day Mordor and, for many gamers, the Cold War is about as intelligible as living in fear of Napoleon Bonaparte or the Spanish Inquisition. That's too bad, because I've long wanted to run a campaign about guerrillas warfare against an implacable foe, but I've never managed to find the right inspiration to do so. For someone of my generation, the USSR seems ready-made to fill a role that, at the moment, only extraterrestrials could conceivably occupy as well -- except that aliens probably won't have an anthem as strangely compelling as the Gosudarstvenniy Gimn SSSR. Ah well.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Exploring the Dungeon

Last month, as you may recall, I was reminded of the 1981 art book, Down in the Dungeon, that a childhood friend's older brother owned and so inspired us kids back then. As I said in my original, I never owned a copy of the thing myself, something I set out to rectify through the wonders of eBay. Today, I received the treasured volume in the mail and have been looking it over with great enjoyment; it's a nostalgia rush the likes of which I've not had in a very long time.

Anyway, I was particularly struck by the book's introduction, an image of which appears below:

I hope the text is legible to most readers' eyes. In case it isn't, the part that struck me was the last paragraph, which reads:
We stumbled upon Zarakan's Dungeon quite by accident while on a camping trip in the Southwestern United States. The following are some friends, enemies and situations we encountered while briefly exploring a small section of Zarakan's lair.
Maybe I've completed my transformation into a silly old man, I don't know, but that paragraph really hit home with me. The way it's written, as if Don Greer and Rob Stern had actually discovered Zarakan's Dungeon while on a camping trip rang true for me, because, as a kid, I felt the same way about Quasqueton, Twilight's Peak, R'lyeh and many other places. Sure, my friends and I never physically explored those places, but we explored them just the same and our explorations of them affected me as strongly as my explorations of many real world locales.

For a lot of non-gamers, what I just wrote is simply crazy-talk. I certainly hope that anyone who's here and reading this entry understands what I'm saying, though. Imagined places may not exist, they may not be real in the common sense usage of the term, but that doesn't mean our experiences of them are mere fancy without any value. We may instinctively laugh at the guy who claims, "I didn't spend all those years playing Dungeons & Dragons and not learn a little something about courage" and yet, there is a sense in which that guy speaks the truth. I wouldn't hesitate to admit that I'm a better person for having spent a large part of my youth imagining myself to be one of many characters in several imaginary worlds.

Roleplaying has taught me a lot over the years, just as I am sure it's taught others. I see no reason why anyone should be ashamed to admit this. Indeed, I might go so far as to say that, as roleplayers, we do our hobby a disservice by not emphasizing this point about ourselves and the games we play. Indeed, I think it's this aspect of tabletop gaming that so strongly differentiates it from its electronic by-blows. We need to do a better job of promoting this fact.

Some Links and a Cryptic Remark

Here's a fun little blog by Justin S. Davis, A Field Guide to Doomsday, where he provides readers with a bunch of new creatures for Mutant Future, complete with original illustrations.

The editor of the fanzine Oubliette would like everyone to know that it's now available in print through Lulu.com, including a compilation of the first four issue in a single volume.

Reader Richard Guy sends along this great link to the Nottingham Caves Survey homepage, where researchers are in the process of cataloging all 450+ sandstone caves beneath the city of Nottingham, complete with visual representations and 3-D fly-throughs.

Richard also offers a link to a review of the book Rats, which about how a city looks through the eyes of its pest-control industry -- great inspiration for anyone whose fantasy campaigns heavily involve cities.

And, finally, there's a very good chance that Petty Gods will include an introduction by an appropriate luminary of the early hobby. I hate being cryptic about such things, but a) I couldn't contain my enthusiasm and b) I didn't want to make an announcement until I was 100% certain it would come to pass. When I have confirmation that it's a go, I'll let everyone know.

The RPG Ecology

Lately, I've found myself spending a lot of time re-reading several of FGU's games, particularly Chivalry and Sorcery and Space Opera. Now, as I've regularly noted, FGU's games have a deserved reputation for being unclear, poorly edited, and unnecessarily complex. When I was a kid, I never seriously considered playing most of FGU's catalog (with a couple of notable exceptions), but I knew people who did and, unless they were lying to me, they had a lot of fun doing so. With hindsight, what's clear to me now is that almost everyone I knew who played and enjoyed FGU's games (and games like them) was older than I and often had a much longer association with the hobby.

That may seem like an insignificant detail, but I don't think it is. I've come to realize that, back in my youth, there was an RPG "ecology." Nearly everyone I ever met who played RPGs started with D&D, whether it was the White Box or Holmes or Moldvay or even AD&D. There were a couple of older weirdos I knew who started with Tunnels & Trolls and one guy who started with Traveller, but, by and large, some form of Dungeons & Dragons was the entry point for the overwhelming majority of roleplayers. Then, as now, many gamers got tired of playing D&D, either because they simply wanted a change or because they'd grown to dislike the game in some fashion. Finding D&D wanting in some way is probably the hobby's oldest tradition, after all. And when this happened, where did these gamers go?

That's where "second tier" RPGs like RuneQuest and Chivalry and Sorcery and RoleMaster came into the picture. These were the games to which disaffected D&D players turned when they could no longer stomach the infelicities of Gygax and Arneson's creation. All of these games "fixed" D&D in various ways, in the process becoming more complex than the game they had rejected. But that was OK, because complexity was part of the point. They had a lot of experience with roleplaying games already; they'd been playing D&D and other games for years. They were ready for all the niggling little details and confusing charts and special cases. Indeed, they craved this sort of thing.

Nowadays, it's popular to suggest, falsely, that a characteristic of old school gaming is its rules "lightness." Historically speaking, this suggestion fails to account for games like the ones I've been re-reading lately. I suspect the reason for this failure is that many gamers either never played or never understood the appeal of those rules-heavy games existed on the fringes of TSR's empire. And let's be clear: they existed quite well. Certainly, neither Chaosium nor FGU were ever making as much money as TSR certainly was, but I have little doubt they were more profitable than most RPG companies today. There were a lot of gamers back then for whom games like Dungeons & Dragons were "entry-level," which is to say, strictly for neophytes. Experienced and sophisticated gamers eventually "grew out" of D&D and the games I'm calling "second tier" were there to provide for them.

Obviously, as time went on, many of these games (RuneQuest being a prime example) no longer required disaffection with D&D to generate interest, but that doesn't change the fact that disaffection with D&D was the wellspring for a great many new RPGs in the late 70s and early 80s. But, even so, it wasn't just disaffection with D&D; there was also the question of experience. As one develops more facility with the concept of RPGs, one is (in my experience anyway) much more prone to tinker with their rules, adding complexity and detail that, at the beginning of one's entry into the hobby, would likely have been bewildering and off-putting. "Simple" games are much less satisfying to many experienced gamers, who've "been there, done that" and so they often seek out RPGs that are written to accommodate their tastes.

Again, none of this is to suggest that experienced players can't find enjoyment in simple games -- far from it! Yet, there's no denying that there has always been a segment of the hobby who, as they gained more familiarity and facility with RPGs, needed increased complexity to hold their attention. These are the guys who like to spend hours poring over their rulebooks looking for the perfect combination of abilities for their characters and who think that nothing less than dozens of nested, cross-referenced encounter charts containing hundreds of entries is sufficient to create a "realistic" campaign world. That's definitely not what I want in a RPG, but I won't deny that there are gamers out there who do -- and there always have been.

The problem today, I think, is that the hobby has suffered severe "ecological damage." There aren't many "entry-level" RPGs anymore. Most RPGs would have belonged to the second tier in the past, as they assume a degree of familiarity and experience that many potential players don't actually possess. If there were more entry-level games -- heck, if D&D were still an entry-level game -- the RPG ecology might be very different. Alas, RPGs have, since the late 1980s at least catered increasingly to already-experienced gamers, who crave the complexity and sophistication that, in the past, would have primarily been found in those second tier games the older, more experienced guys played back in the day.

There should always be a place for those older, more experienced guys in the hobby, but the kinds of games that are satisfying to them aren't (generally) the kind that are accessible to complete newcomers. And, more importantly, those second tier games depend heavily on the existence of entry-level games to provide a steady stream of players hungry for the greater complexity they have to offer. In short, the RPG ecology is out of balance and it needs to be repaired. I wish I knew how.

Monday, November 22, 2010

More Petty Gods Art

Here's Odxit, the petty god of unexplained smells, courtesy of Ndege Diamond:

By now, you know the drill: I'm still receiving submissions and still working through them, so bear with me. Thanks to everyone who's keeping me busy with this stuff, though. This is going to be an awesome book.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Swords of Lankhmar

If there's a fantasy writer whose books begin more engagingly than those of Fritz Leiber, I've never read them. His 1968 novel, The Swords of Lankhmar (an expansion of his 1961 novella "Scylla's Daughter), begins thusly:
"I see we're expected," the small man said, continuing to stroll toward the large open gate in the long, high, ancient wall. As if by chance, his hand brushed the hilt of his long, slim rapier.

"At over a bowshot distance how can you--" the big man began. "I get it. Bashabeck's orange headcloth. Stands out like a whore in church. And where Bashabeck is, his bullies are. You should have kept your dues to the Thieves Guild paid up."

"It's not so much the dues," the small man said. "It slopped my mind to split with them after the last job, when I lifted those eight diamonds from the Spider God's temple."

The big man sucked his tongue in disapproval. "I sometimes wonder why I associate with faithless rogues like you."

The small man shrugged. "I was in a hurry. The Spider God was after me."
The small man is, of course, the Gray Mouser and the big one Fafhrd, the two greatest adventurers in Lankhmar. Once again, the Twain find themselves being pursued by armed men, intent on doing them harm. This time, however, their pursuers are of a somewhat different sort, employed by "a venerable, clean-shaven, stern-visaged man in a black toga narrowly bordered with silver."
He raised his hand in a dignified salute. He said gravely, "I am chamberlain of Glipkerio Kistomerces, Overlord of Lankhmar, and here is my wand of authority." He produced a small silver wand tipped with a five-pointed bronze emblem in the form of a starfish.

The two men nodded slightly, as though to say, "We accept your statement for what it's worth."

The chamberlain faced the big man. He drew a scroll from his toga, unrolled it, scanned it briefly, then looked up. "Are you Fafhrd the northern barbarian and brawler?"

The big man considered that for a bit, then said, "And if I am?"

The chamberlain turned toward the small man. He once more consulted his parchment. "And are you--your pardon, but it's written here--that mongrel and long-suspected burglar, cutpurse, swindler, and assassin, the Gray Mouser?"

The small man fluffed his gray cape and said, "If it's any business of yours--well, he and I might be connected in some way."

As if those vaguest answers settled everything, the chamberlain rolled up his parchment with a snap and tucked it inside his toga. "Then my master wishes to see you. There is a service which you can render him, to your own considerable profit."
The service the Overlord of Lankhmar wishes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to undertake is a seemingly easy one: to escort a shipment of grain by ship as a show of gratitude to the Eight Cities for having fought off Mingol pirates and raiders that were harassing Lankhmar. In addition to the grain, the Overlord is also sending along "twelve large white rats distributed among four silver-barred cages" who, have been trained to "dance to music, to drink from cups, hold tiny spears and swords, even fence." Their trainer, a young woman named Hisvet, is also aboard ship and Fafhrd worries, somewhat uncharacteristically, that she too is part of the Overlord's gift to the leader of the Eight Cities.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that this mission for the Overlord is not as simple as it first appears. Before long, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser find themselves contending with unexpected obstacles, not least being the truth about the rats and their trainer, leading to one of the more unusual adventures they've ever undertaken, which is saying something!

As I mentioned some weeks ago in another context, I'd never read this novel in my younger years. I'm not even sure I was aware of its existence until comparatively recently, when I was warned by others that Leiber's later Lankhmar tales, starting with The Swords of Lankhmar were not as accomplished as his earlier ones. I think that warning was a fair one, if taken in context. This novel is a bit more ponderous than the short stories that won me over to Leiber as a teenager. Some of that is a function of its length: novels are almost always less fast-paced than are short stories. However, some of it is also a function of Leiber's having changed -- or "matured," if you prefer -- as a writer when he wrote this. Though still packed with all the excitement and derring-do one would expect of a swords-and-sorcery story by one of its acknowledged masters, it's also strangely introspective at time, a reflection not only of its writer's age but also of his characters', for, unlike many pulp fantasy writers, Leiber does not shy away from showing his protagonists growing older and being affected by that growth.

Regardless, The Swords of Lankhmar is a superb fantasy story well told. Reading through it, I found myself many times thinking, "This is what D&D is supposed to be like" -- lovable rogues, evil wizards, dimension-hopping zookeepers, dark and decadent cities, and rats. Forget Vance and Howard and Tolkien (well, not literally), because Leiber is where Dungeons & Dragons was born. Even if you've already read and enjoyed his stuff, it's worth picking up again. You won't regret it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Intriguing Quote

Looking through an old Space Opera adventure, Stephen Kingsley's Martigan Belt, I noticed the following "editorial introduction" on its table of contents:
Players should note that the various scenarios produced for use with Space Opera are not necessarily from the same game universe. There are many possible universes and settings for Space Opera and each scenario will be from the campaign of the scenario designer, not necessarily from the original campaign of the original designers. As each campaign and scenario are different, it is still possible to place the region described in any scenario, Martigan Belt included, in a different region of any Star Master's campaign universe.

Other scenarios by the same designer will be from the same campaign universe so that entire regions may be placed in out-of-the-way corners of the galaxy by a Star Master. There will be a continuing series of such scenarios by this designer and by other designers.
I find the sentiments expressed above to be ones with which I largely agree, though I do wonder why it was that this particular Space Opera adventure is the only one to carry such an editorial note, so far as I can tell. It's also worth noting that, despite what's written above, this is the only module for the game ever to appear carrying Stephen Kingsley's byline. Indeed, almost all of the modules released for the game were one-offs whose writers never wrote another adventure for Space Opera. That's a shame, because I really like the idea of a kitchen sink, toolkit ruleset supported by several series of adventures that show how one referee took that ruleset and ran with it in his home campaign.

C&S Question

Does anyone out there in the ether know who currently holds the rights to Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus's fantasy RPG, Chivalry & Sorcery, originally published by FGU? As I understand it, the rights to C&S were acquired by a company called Highlander Designs sometime in the 1990s, resulting in a new edition of the game. Highlander Designs eventually goes under and the game passes on -- whether under license or having been bought wholesale, I don't know -- to another company called Britannia Game Designs, who publish yet another edition around the turn of the century. Since then, I've heard nothing about Chivalry & Sorcery or Britannia Game Designs and I have read in various places that the company no longer exists. Sadly, both Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus are now dead.

So, does anyone know the current status of C&S? Who owns it? And how might one find out who legally holds the right if one wished to do so? I ask this almost entirely out of personal curiosity, with a slight hint of an ulterior motive. If anyone can point me in the right direction, I'd be appreciative.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Friends of Starship Warden

Several people have asked me to spread the word about a new website, Friends of Starship Warden, that's been established to accept donations for deferring some of the expenses of Gamma World creator James Ward's medical treatments. At the above website, Tim Kask had the following to say about Mr Ward's situation:
He has been diagnosed, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, with a serious neurological disorder. The gaming world came close to saying goodbye to yet another of the pioneers of RPGing several months ago. The experts say that Jim's condition is treatable and manageable, but will remain very serious forever.

Jim is very, very slowly recovering; every day is a new skirmmish with the disorder. He still suffers from acute bouts of dizziness and a pervasive lassitude due to bodily energy issues.

While Jim and his family are fortunate to have some health insurance, the co-pays are mounting at an alarming rate, having hit five digits some while ago and showing no signs of abating any time soon.

While we can't make Jim well, perhaps we can alleviate some of his financial worries and remove some of the burden from his family. I hope you can help my friend of 35 years in his most low-down time.

This is a good cause, so, if you have fond memories of Metamorphosis Alpha or Gamma World and a little money to spare, consider making a donation to the fund.

Spell Complexity

As most of you almost certainly know already, spells in Chainmail are rated according to their complexity. There are six levels of complexity, which not at all coincidentally maps on to the six levels of magic-user spells in LBB-only OD&D. An optional rule pertaining to complexity compares the complexity rating to to power of the magic-user casting it (there are, in descending order of power, wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, magicians, and seers). The more powerful the magic-user, the more likely his spells will take immediate effect, while less potent casters have a greater chance for their spells to be delayed until the next turn or to be negated entirely.

This is a rule I find intriguing and one I've often contemplated adding into my OD&D game, but I've never done so, both because I'm not sure how I'd implement it and I'm uncertain the effect it'd have on gameplay. I'm familiar with the original Chainmail rules, as well as adaptations of the spell complexity system in Spellcraft & Swordplay and Brendan Falconer's article from issue 2 of Knockspell, so I do have resources to draw upon should I ever go ahead with the idea. However, I do worry about the impact it'd have on spellcasting in an OD&D campaign. Clearly, it'd make things more unpredictable, which I like, but it might also make magic-users more ineffective as well, unless one adopts the interpretation that only negated spells vanish from the magic-user's memory. In that case, it might be a fair trade-off, I don't know.

Does anyone have experience with using spell complexity on a long-term basis?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Open Friday: Gaming "Treasures"

As I've made clear on many occasions, I don't think much of game collecting for its own sake. I'd much rather that games be in the hands of people who'll actually, you know, play them instead being locked away in a climate controlled room somewhere so that they can appreciate in value. That said, I have a number of older games in my possession I'm very proud to own, chief among them being an original Empire of the Petal Throne boxed set that's in very good condition and that I acquired for surprisingly little money. I'm also happy to own a complete set of the LBBs + four supplements + Swords & Spells that I use while playing my Dwimmermount campaign.

So, what are your greatest gaming "treasures?"

Thursday, November 18, 2010

In Praise of D&D III

One of the more absurd bits of misinformation I've seen mentioned in reference to myself is that I hadn't been playing D&D for many years prior to Gary Gygax's death in March 2008, the implication being that my current love affair with OD&D is, at best, a passing fancy or, at worst, a put-on. The truth of the matter is that, as I've explained here numerous times, Dungeons & Dragons is my perennial roleplaying game. Since I first entered the hobby in late 1979, I've gone through several periods during which I dropped D&D for a time, sometimes in disgust at some aspect of it, but I've always returned to it later, often with a better understanding of just why I so strongly enjoy it.

My longest stretch of not playing D&D occurred during the 2e era. Between about 1996 and 2000, I didn't play D&D at all, after having been involved in a long-running campaign since Summer 1992. The end of that campaign was partially due to external factors, but a good part of it was unhappiness with the way TSR was shepherding the game. Even the best D&D products of the 90s have an "autumnal" feel about them -- brightly colored leaves whose beauty signalled the inevitable coming of winter. And the latter half of the 1990s definitely was a "winter" for D&D, at least as far as I am concerned. I gave up playing the game entirely and might well have never returned to it at all had it not been for a wholly unexpected turn of events.

That turn of events occurred in 2000. At the time, I was writing for the now-defunct InQuest magazine and was given the opportunity to produce an article on the then-upcoming Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons from Wizards of the Coast. As part of my research for the article, WotC sent me a large number of playtest files for the game, including the entirety of the Player's Handbook. I was initially quite unenthusiastic about the assignment, but, reading through the files WotC sent me, I slowly found myself becoming rather impressed with the way that my favorite game of old had been given a revamp. I liked it so much, in fact, that I decided to start a D&D III campaign once I was given the OK to share the files with my friends, several months before the game was released. I was thus what you'd call an "early adopter" of 3e.

And so it was that I was reunited with my first love, thanks to Wizards of the Coast. Lest anyone find this implausible, let me reassure you that, from the first, there were things I disliked about D&D III -- the unified XP table, ascending AC, and, most of all, its obsession with "balance." I learned to live with the first two and simply ignored the other one, running the game the way I'd run 1e and 2e in the past. Unsurprisingly, I had few problems with this approach. Indeed, it was remarkably easy to use old materials with the new edition; hardly any conversion was necessary.

was what I found most impressive about the new edition, actually: though it was clearly rebuilt from the ground up, the old foundations were still there, as were a myriad of little details. I once did a comparison of spell descriptions from OD&D through 3e and what's amazing is just how much continuity there is, not just in conception but even in verbiage. D&D III contains a surprising amount of Gygaxian text -- not mere echoes of his words but the actual words themselves. That's why, for me, despite the dropping of the word "advanced," I still look on Third Edition as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. There's simply too much continuity, both mechanically and, especially, flavor-wise to think differently.

This isn't to suggest, by any means, that 3e is the game Gary would have written had he retained control over the game into the 21st century. Given the direction he was already taking the game in the late 1e era, I'm not certain I would necessarily have enjoyed what he'd have done with latter day AD&D anyway. But I think it's important to point out that, for all the clear deviations from what had come before, D&D III still recognizably possesses Gygaxian "DNA." I thought that in 2000 and I still think that now, after several years of examining and playing the original game. This is an undeniable truth, as anyone who's used the 3e-derived D20 SRD to retro-clone old school rules can tell you. If there weren't a lot of similarity between D&D III and its predecessors, games like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord would have been impossible.

Which brings me to another important point: the Open Game License and SRD. Together, these two things "freed" D&D forever, making most of its core concepts and ideas the property of us all. Looking back now, a decade later, as piles of D20 shovelware clogs up bookshelves and (no doubt) landfills across the world, it's hard to remember just how amazing things felt back then. To a lot of us, it felt, if only briefly, like we were on the cusp of a new Golden Age, one where gaming was every bit as vibrant, varied, and imaginative as it had been back in the heady times of my youth. Sure, there was a lot of junk being made, but there was also a lot of amazing product being released and, best of all, shared. For several years, it was 1979 again, at least for me, and I'm glad I got to experience that.

But it was no new Golden Age but rather a Gilded one. The advent of v.3.5 -- even its self-designation is awful -- presaged a shift in tone, content, and business plan that slowly lost me. I continued to play D&D, of course; I was involved in two very lengthy campaigns, including the continuation and conclusion of the one I'd begun in early 2000. I had a lot of fun and my love for D&D had been successfully reignited. And thank goodness for that, because, if my love had not genuinely returned, I probably would have again dropped the game, thanks to the endless churn of splatbooks, rules expansions, and increasingly ridiculous material WotC was producing in the wake of v.3.5. I stopped buying D&D books entirely and felt ever more strongly that many of the things I first disliked back in 2000, particularly the obsession with balance, would be the death of what was, at its roots, a very good iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.

During 2006-2007, I started casting about for alternatives, a path that ultimately led me to where I am today. Had things been different, had D&D IV not shed its Gygaxian heritage and fixed the things I actually thought were wrong with 3e, I might well have never taken up OD&D. Consequently, I feel I owe a debt of thanks to D&D III, first, for having restored my love for D&D and, second, for having taught me what it was I loved about it in the first place. Without 3e, I probably would never have played Dungeons & Dragons again at all. And while I now look back on it as a game I would never choose to play again if other alternatives are available, I cannot say it was a bad game. It's a game with some serious flaws, chief being its balance fetish, but I enjoyed it for quite a few years and whose design does more than pay lip service to the game's past.

So, here's a tip of the proverbial hat to Third Edition.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

First Petty Gods Art

I'm knee-deep in selecting entries to include in Petty Gods, but there are already several entries that stand out as particularly good. For these, I've already contacted a few artists about getting illustrations to accompany them and I've been frankly amazed by not only the quick turnaround time for these illustrations but also by their quality. For example, here's a terrific piece by Chris Huth that depicts Tricruxia, the petty goddess of forked tunnels (submitted by John Stater).

Anyway, this is just a brief update to let everyone know that I am working through all the entries and am (slowly) getting in touch with artists, but it's a time-consuming process, so I appreciate the continued indulgence. If you haven't heard from me yet, don't worry. That's not an indication of anything other than my simply being a slacker who's not yet caught up with all his emails.

On the plus side, as I work my way through all the submissions and start to see some of the artwork, I am more convinced than ever that this is going to be an awesome little book.

Speaking of Knight Hawks ...

Here's an illustration I remember very fondly from the included adventure module, The Warriors of White Light, in which the characters enlist in the Royal Marines of Clarion, a human-controlled star system beset by space pirates and other interstellar bad guys. Serendipitously, the starship to which the characters are assigned is called the Osprey, the same name used in The Travellers comic I mentioned yesterday.

I'm fond of Jim Holloway's artwork, so I'm not a good person to judge the merits of this particular illustration. Still, it brings back fond memories and encapsulates some of the feel of that era of gaming (1983). It's the tail end of the Golden Age (or solidly in the Electrum, if you prefer) and the hobby hasn't yet become so self-serious that goofy pieces like this are out of place. Yet, for all its goofiness, there's a strange kind of "weight" to it, with "realistically" drawn starships, equipment, and, most of all, people. None of the dudes posing with the Dralasite look like Hollywood actors or underwear models. And when was the last time you saw a burly, bearded guy in a Tam on the cover of a SF RPG product? Yep, those were the days.

Retrospective: Knight Hawks

I've made no secret of my love for Traveller. It was my go-to SF RPG when I was a kid and I retain a special place in my heart for it. Despite this -- or, perhaps, because of it -- I was always keenly aware of its shortcomings as a game and one was in the area of starship combat. Don't misunderstand me: Traveller's starship combat works just fine, but it's not particularly fun or exciting. Like many aspects of Traveller, it feels a bit like an exercise in double-column bookkeeping and it's decidedly lacking in the Big Explosions® department. That's probably due to the game's literary inspirations, none of which, to my recollection, has particularly memorable space battles in it.

Consequently, I very rarely ran space battle when I refereed Traveller, an omission that tended to limit the game's appeal among my friends, most of whom not unreasonably expected that there'd be lots of them in a science fiction RPG campaign. Enter Knight Hawks, the 1983 boxed expansion to TSR's Star Frontiers. Written and designed by Douglas Niles, Knight Hawks was produced to patch a glaring hole in the original Star Frontiers boxed set: no starship rules of any kind. This was a source of much annoyance among purchasers of the game, who'd mistakenly believed that any SF RPG would necessarily include starship rules in its initial release. Whatever virtues Star Frontiers had as a game were lost in the fact that it wasn't complete. Even my friends, who generally preferred the more wild and woolly approach of Star Frontiers to Traveller, were sufficiently displeased with its lack of starship rules that they never pressured me to run it very often.

All that changed with the release of Knight Hawks. It might be an exaggeration to say that this boxed set "saved" Star Frontiers in any absolute sense, but it certainly did amongst my friends and I. Consisting of a single 64-page campaign book, a 16-page rulebook, a 16-page adventure module, a double-sided map, a sheet of cardboard counters, and some percentile dice, Knight Hawks was a terrifically complete package. Better still, it was extremely well designed. Its starship rules, which were divided into basic and advanced versions, didn't even take up all 16 pages of the rulebook, some of which was filled with examples and short scenarios. What's more, the rules were scalable, allowing the referee to use them to handle anything from one-on-one dogfights to huge fleet engagements with a dozen or more ships per side.

This scalability was what really won me over to Knight Hawks. Traveller's starship rules weren't particularly complex, but they were just complex enough that I'd never have considered using them to run a battle involving more than a handful of ships at a time. Knight Hawks, on the other hand, seemed to revel in its ability to handle such large battles, with three different "levels" of action, corresponding to amount of rules detail employed. For large battles, only the basic rules were used. For smaller engagements, the advanced rules were suggested. And for small fights in which the PCs could reasonably play a significant part, the "extra-advanced" rules, where individual character skills come into play, were suggested. But of course all three levels were, by most standards, simple enough that an experienced referee could mix and match as he felt appropriate, such as the way I used to run big battles using only the basic rules but would "zoom in" when the ship on which the PCs served became involved in combat. It was a very clever design, all the more remarkable because it took up very few pages to present.

I absolutely adored Knight Hawks. I think only the starship combat rules from FASA's Star Trek come close to eclipsing it in my affections and the FASA rules suffer from being a bit slow at times, whereas Knights Hawks was always fast and furious. Now, I don't think this style of combat is appropriate for every SF campaign. Knight Hawks, like Star Frontiers itself, has a decidedly "bubblegum space opera" feel to it rather than something more "serious." That's not a criticism, merely an observation, lest anyone get the false impression that its design is universally applicable to any science fiction game or setting.

That said, contemporary game designers would be well advised to take to heart its emphasis on simple, scalable rules presented succinctly. Knight Hawks is clear, concise, and easy-to-use, yet very flexible, making good use of a few tables and without resorting either to abstraction or a one-size-fits-all universal mechanic. Knight Hawks was very accessible and had a low buy-in, two factors that I'd love to see employed more widely in 21st century game design. This is a forgotten classic and one from which I personally derived a great deal of pleasure over the years. Maybe I need to give it a whirl again sometime ...