Sunday, February 28, 2010

Things of Beauty

They really are gorgeous, aren't they? I haven't ordered anything through Lulu in a very long time, because of the shipping costs, but I happily sprung for these and would do so again. Absolutely beautiful. Dan and Steve should be very proud.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Help Requested

Does anyone know where I might be able to purchase copies of the Gloranthan Classics reprints of old RuneQuest materials? There doesn't appear to be a website that I can find for its publisher (Moon Design), but perhaps I'm just missing something obvious.

Any help on this score would be appreciated, since I'm rather keen to obtain copies before they're no longer available, assuming that's not already the case.


My Refereeing Hero

Sometimes you read an account of another referee's RPG campaign and you can't help but marvel at it and think, "That's who I want to be when I grow up." Blair over at Planet Algol is my refereeing hero these days. His latest post is a paean to the heady alchemy of random rolls, trusting players, and sticking to one's guns even in the face of seeming absurdity. As he notes:
And it all worked out in the end. Be true to your DM bad-assery. Follow through on your madness. Don't fudge the dice. Put the players through hell. If they're true, if they're tough, if they're the leather and iron that adventurers are made of, they'll eat it up and than say "That's all you got?"
Simply awesome.

Dwimmermount, Session 32

Having left Dwimmermount, Brother Candor decided that now was the time to return to Adamas to discuss the matter of Xaranes with Morna, the high priestess of Tyche. He wasn't looking forward to this, but he also knew it was necessary. Surprisingly, Morna was not angered by the information he passed along so much as concerned. The political situation in Adamas was fragile in the aftermath of the zombie invasion of the previous weeks. The church of Tyche was in a better position than the church of Typhon, as it had acted decisively in order to protect the city-state, while the Typhonists dithered.

At the same time, the church of Typhon remains powerful and influential. Though harsh and unforgiving, the religion remains popular because it has a history of defending Adamas and other bastions of civilization in times of need, whereas the church of Tyche is seen as more "flighty" and less reliable. If Morna were to sanction an expansion of her church through the adoption of Xaranes as a saint or hero of Tyche, as Brother Candor suggested, it might look like a bid to gain more power and influence and turn opinion against her, just as her temple's star is rising. Consequently, she did not agree to Brother Candor's plan -- not yet anyway. Instead, she suggested that they wait until after the imminent arrival of a Typhonian inquisitor in Adamas, who would be attempting to clear his church's name by finding scapegoats to blame for its slowness in responding to the zombies.

Brother Candor and Dordagdonar also did some further research into the Iron God's history and beliefs. There was comparatively little information, but there was some. They discovered that the cult was older than they'd realized, stretching back at least a thousand years, which meant that it predated the Termaxian ascendancy by at least 500 years. The cult never seemed to enjoy a huge following, being primarily one adopted by Thulian soldiers who'd been stationed at Dwimmermount at some time in their careers. Its beliefs remained obscure but it seems to have shared a fair bit with the religion of Typhon but with a wider focus and a less harsh approach to problem-solving. And of course the cult of the Iron God was strongly devoted to the protection of the dead, both their physical remains and their spirits/souls. Precisely why this cult was singled out for special hatred by the Termaxians is unclear.

The party then returned to Dwimmermount to continue exploring. Along the way, Brother Candor decided to pay a visit to the temple of the Iron God to see if, thanks to the clerical regalia of the cult he now possessed, he might demonstrate any extra authority there. As it turns out, he was able to command a mechanical three-headed guard dog that the party had encountered earlier. He also discovered that his ceremonial lantern, when lit, dispelled even magical darkness, the lantern being an important holy symbol of the Iron God.

After that, the party descended deeper into the dungeon and more fully mapped out the area they'd explored the previous week. What they noticed was that the ceiling pipes, which had carried azoth in the past, were limited to a particular area of the dungeon. They did not extend beyond a handful of rooms and corridors, suggesting that they were the site of an experiment to determine the effect of azoth exposure on living creatures both sentient and not. Interestingly, the characters encountered very little in the way living things in this part of the dungeon, with the exception of the mushroom men they'd battled previously. Most of the azoth-changed creatures, including many plants, were already dead, presumably from the adverse effects of the magical liquid but they could not be sure. Brother Candor also suspected that the vampire Cyrus might have had a hand in all of this too.

Moving on, more "beast men" were encountered, but they seemed to be from a different part of the dungeon. They were out on patrol, gathering supplies to take back to their lair, wherever that was. The characters defeated them and decided to seek out where these creatures might have come from. It was at that point that we ended for the evening.

All in all, it was a fairly "workmanlike" evening of play -- no great revelations or events but more fodder for making ex post facto making sense of it all. As I've said many times before, the secret to the longevity of any campaign, particular one without an explicit story or plot, is that you play regularly. Every minute you spend playing, even if it's just mapping out the dungeon, searching for secret doors, or battling wandering monsters adds elements that, in retrospect, might take on greater significance. They all add to the texture and depth of the campaign, even when the specific details of "slow" sessions fade into indistinctness.

Dwimmermount has proven far more successful than I ever expected it would. I've kept things as minimalist as is feasible, allowing details to grow through play rather than through any plan of my own. It's been a valuable learning experience, one that's all the more gratifying because it's managed to hold the interests of my players for so long. Like a lot of things in life, not every session is unadulterated joy or even particularly memorable; some of them have been downright dull. But we pressed on nonetheless and, while I won't go so far as to say that those dull sessions were necessary for the longevity of the campaign, but I do think they were inevitable. That's why I've found it so essential to get together regularly: the dull sessions are less likely to set the tone for the whole campaign if you have lots of other more enjoyable ones to overwhelm the dull ones in your memory.

In any case, the campaign continues on.

Friday, February 26, 2010

I Hate Change

As I've probably mentioned far too many times, I entered the hobby with the 1978 edition of Dungeons & Dragons edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes. It was through it that I first encountered D&D and it has forever colored my sense of what the game is and should be.

As I've also probably mentioned far too many times, my next D&D purchase -- my first actually, since the Holmes boxed set was actually a gift for my father that I appropriated when he showed no interest in it -- was the Monster Manual. Now, the Monster Manual is in fact an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book and, while the precise meaning of "advanced" in this context did make me wonder at the time, it had zero impact on my ability to use it with Holmes. Indeed, it works better with Holmes than with AD&D proper, since it shares Holmes's fivefold alignment system and armor class system (which it also shares with OD&D) rather than their equivalents in AD&D.

My next purchase was the AD&D Players Handbook and it was the first D&D book that made me scratch my head. I had no problem with the addition of four more alignments; I rarely have problems with additions to the game. The same went for all the new classes, races, and spells. I actually welcomed the broadening of the game they brought, much in the same way that the Monster Manual gave me a greater variety of beasties to throw up against the PCs.

But there were also things that confused me. Why, for example, had most of the Hit Dice changed? Why did a magic missile only do 1d4+1 damage rather than 1d6+1? Why did clerics now get a spell at 1st level rather than having to wait till 2nd level to do so? Why was an unarmored opponent now AC 10 rather than AC9? There were lots of little confusions like this and it took me a long time to acclimate myself to them (some I never did learn).

Then, in 1981 came the Tom Moldvay-edited Basic Rulebook, which many of my friends, who'd never bought either Holmes or the PHB, picked up and used. Once more, I was confused. All the Hit Dice went back to the way they were in Holmes, as did Armor Class. Magic missile did the "right" amount of damage again and clerics once more needed to gain a level before acquiring spells. But alignment changed for the third time. Only three alignments? What's up with that? And demihumans now had their own classes with different XP requirements. How odd, I thought.

My friends and I weren't quite sure how to handle all these contradictions, so we muddled through, picking those things we liked the best or that made the most sense from our perspective. The result was a weird amalgam of Holmes, AD&D, and Moldvay, which grew ever more like AD&D-flavored Moldvay as the years dragged on.

This process repeated itself every time some new official D&D rulebook or boxed set was released: confusion followed acquiescent syncretism. It was frustrating, all these little niggling differences between Holmes and Gygax and Moldvay, but at least all the games were sufficiently similar to one another that it was possible to kludge it all together in a vaguely satisfactory fashion. Moreover, the basic terms and, more importantly, their meanings were consistent across the games, even if the minutiae differed. Everyone understood that the Fighter had the highest Hit Dice, whatever those Hit Dice were, just as everyone knew the Cleric was a "healing class," regardless of when he gained that ability. (Alignment, to be fair, never achieved any kind of equilibrium and remained a regular source of confusion).

From what I have gathered, most gaming groups behaved much as mine did. I know this firsthand from having occasionally played pick-up games at hobby shops and libraries and having visited schoolmates' home groups. Each one engaged in their own kind of acquiescent syncretism, often making choices different than the ones my group made. But -- and this is the crucial thing -- they still spoke the same gaming "language," so I could understand their choices, even if they weren't ones I would have made. This "language" was remarkably consistent, being steeped in D&D's rules. Thus, we could, regardless of whether our home games were based primarily on Holmes or Moldvay or Gygax, profitably talk about, say, a fireball spell and all know that it did xD6 damage, with x being the level of the caster. Likewise, when someone talked about AC 2, we knew they meant someone wearing plate mail and carrying a shield. In the midst of immense variety of campaign-specific rules kludges, there remained a remarkable consistency.

D&D III forever shattered that by changing the terms and meanings of many elements of the game, a process it inherited from the latter days of 2e and that D&D IV has taken to even more extreme levels. Whereas it really is possible for a player of LBB-only OD&D and a Realms-loving 2e'er to talk about game mechanics in an unequivocal fashion, the same is vastly harder once you throw players of the WotC editions into the mix. And that's why I hate change: it makes conversation between gamers harder.

Every change in terminology and meaning in an effort to make the game "better" is also inevitably cutting the game loose from the traditions and community into which it was born and out of which it grew. What is so amazing about the old school blogs and forums is that, even though we all play a mish-mash of early editions, retro-clones, and simulacra, we nevertheless share a common vocabulary. We speak the same language even if there are lots of regional "accents." This is why I dislike ascending AC, for example. Whatever its mechanical benefits may or may not be, it's a divergence from tradition that makes it harder to communicate with my fellow players of D&D without a "translator." A degree of immediacy is lost.

That's also why, for all my musings about changing this or that foundational element of D&D, I never actually do so. I care too much about keeping my game within the existing tradition and thus intelligible to outsiders without having to explain all its rules intricacies beforehand. I can simply say "fireball" or "cleric" or "orc" and everyone knows what I mean, more or less. There's no confusion about basic terms and thus anyone, regardless of when he entered the hobby or what house rules he uses in his home game, will know what I mean when I use these terms.

I realize not every gamer values this as much as I do and that's fine. I'm not suggesting it's the best approach in any absolute sense, but it's the one that suits me best and, from what I've seen these last few years, I'm not alone in feeling this way. I hate change, because it separates the present from the past and all but guarantees a similar separation from the future. Back in the day, I loved the fact that I, a know-nothing neophyte gamer, could talk to the old wargamers who still played White Box OD&D and they understood me even though I played a kit-bashed amalgam of later editions. And nowadays I love being able to talk to new gamers who discovered D&D through Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry.

This is only possible because we're all using the same language, a language some of us have preserved despite lots of pressure to adopt the latest slang or jargon and thereby reduce our preferred tongue to a dead one, to be studied and admired under glass rather than kept alive and passed on to the next generation. So, I plan on speaking the auld tongue. It's familiar and pleasant to the ear and, as many linguists will tell you, nothing can compare to approaching a work in its original language.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Attitudes Toward Dice

Noisms over at Monsters & Manuals has a very sensible post about attitudes towards the use of dice in RPGs. I'm not entirely clear why anyone would find it controversial, especially when he explicitly does not pass judgment on either diceless gaming or games where "story" has primacy. My own advice is this: never roll dice (or make the players roll them) if you're not prepared to accept a negative outcome. That's why I don't include monsters, traps, or magic items that require saving throws unless I am willing to allow them to harm, injure, or kill the player characters and/or their henchmen/hirelings should things go awry. Conversely, I roll all my dice out in the open, lest I fall into the temptation to ignore the results.

I recognize that I have a higher than normal tolerance for letting the dice fall where they may, but I share Noisms's bafflement at fudging the dice. I think there are many perfectly valid reasons for not rolling dice to determine the outcome of an action in a RPG, but, if one is going to roll dice, why not accept their results?

In Praise of Jim Roslof

Michael Curtis's The Dungeon Alphabet is an amazing book, all the more amazing, I think, because it made me reconsider my opinions of two artists I'd previously not cared much for. One of these artists is Jim Roslof and to say that I'd not cared much for his art is a gross overstatement. In reality, I was simply not conscious of the fact that several pieces of old school D&D art I liked a great deal had in fact been his handiwork.

Unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries, the distinctive qualities of Roslof's art never really gelled in my mind and so my cognizance of his contributions was vague and, as it turns out, largely mistaken. I'd somehow lumped Roslof in with Willingham and Dee, about whose "superheroic" style I am deeply ambivalent. Because Roslof's work is subtle and understated -- it reminds me of a more technically proficient version of Sutherland -- it doesn't leave as strong an impression, even if, at the time one is looking at it, one is struck by its attractiveness.

I spent a while last night looking back over D&D books and modules from 1980-1983, looking for examples of Roslof's art to post here. There was more of it than I'd recalled and, as I noted earlier, it was quite different than I'd remembered its being. In particular, I noticed that Roslof's figures tend to have "realistic" armor and weapons rather than wholly fantastical ones -- fighters almost always wear helms, for example. I'm very keen on such things myself, so it only added to my growing sense that I'd done Roslof a disservice all these years in not holding him in higher esteem.

Here are a handful of pieces that nicely demonstrate why Jim Roslof deserves more praise than he typically gets:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

REVIEW: Ice Tower of the Salka

James Boney has repeatedly distinguished himself as one of the most astute creators of dungeon modules in the old school renaissance. His low-level adventure, The Idol of the Orcs, for example, managed to inject some new life into the hoary old trope of humanoids raiding an isolated village -- no mean feat 31 years after The Keep on the Borderlands first appeared. Similar high praise could be said of his work for Expeditious Retreat Press, all of which displays the same ability to pay homage to the past without aping it. That's a rare talent in a segment of the hobby where slavish imitation is often lauded more than originality.

Ice Tower of the Salka is Boney's attempt at a high-level (8-12) module for Swords & Wizardry. Produced by Black Blade Publishing, it's a 22-page adventure available either as a saddle-stitched hardcopy for $11.00 or a PDF download for $5.00. I probably sound like a broken record on this score, but I'll say again that I think this pricing, while typical for old school products these days, is rather high. I understand well the costs involved in publishing old school materials, especially ones including original art and maps, as this one does. Still, I hold out hope that we might see more old school print products released with a better dollar per page ratio than we typically get nowadays.

As its title suggests, Ice Tower of the Salka concerns itself with a tower that was, until recently, completely buried beneath the ice. Formerly home to the mysterious sorceress known only as the Salka, it's now the subject of many unwholesome legends and the object of much greed by those who know of the wealth and magic reputed to lie within. The module helpfully includes a rumor table to represent some of the information, both true and false, the player characters might learn about the place before setting off to explore its four levels (three tower levels plus one dungeon level) and 54 rooms. Also included with the module are some new spells, magic items, and monsters (only one of which has never seen print before, the rest having appeared previously in the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book).

Each level of the Ice Tower has a "theme," which is to say, the majority of the inhabitants and challenges of any given level "belong" together. Thus, the third level, which is the first the characters will enter, since it's the topmost portion of the ice-encased tower, is the abode of demons. You can find lots of demons here, along with tricks and traps pertaining to other planes/dimensions. The second level, on the other hand, is home primarily to a wide variety of undead, themselves the victims of a peculiar device -- a magical chandelier -- whose baleful effects can be felt throughout the tower. The first level and dungeon are little less obviously thematic in presentation, but that may be because their explicit purposes, as an entrance area and a place of imprisonment respectively, are more naturally suggestive.

These "themes" provide some coherence to what might otherwise seem to be a random collection of rooms and encounters, because, if Ice Tower of the Salka has a weakness, it's that it's "just a dungeon." By that I mean that, without the context provided by the referee and the players, this module will probably feel somewhat "flat." There's a lot less implied background in this place than has been in previous efforts by Boney. That is, I didn't feel as if the Salka, whose tower this was and whose mysterious fate left the tower bereft of its mistress, had much of a presence here. Certainly there are rooms like the "Throne Room of the Salka" that include features or traps of genuine interest, but they don't do much to flesh out the whys and wherefores of what is going on here. There is, at the module's end, something of a pay-off in this regard, but I think it comes too late to lend much flavor to Ice Tower of the Salka, even if it does make excellent fodder for follow-up adventures.

This lack of background probably makes the module easier to drop into an existing campaign, either as a stand-alone adventure or as part of a dungeon or similar complex, which may actually increase its attractiveness to some referees. Others, though, may feel as I did that the adventure could have done with a bit more internal unity to make the whole as memorable as many of its individual parts. Simply as presented, Ice Tower of the Salka has a somewhat disjointed feel to it that may be off-putting to buyers looking for a wholly "ready-to-go" adventure module.

Ice Tower of the Salka is what I'd call a "fixer-upper" module -- great for referees looking for an outline for an adventure, along with already-keyed maps, from which they can craft their own adventure. Judged as such, it's very well done and shows many of the same elements I liked in Boney's previous work. Referees not of a do-it-yourself mindset will likely find the module less satisfying, particularly at this price point. It's unfortunate, because, as I said, Ice Tower of the Salka has a number of excellent elements, but not enough, I think, to appeal to gamers who crave highly polished modules nor enough at its cost (at least not in the print edition). I liked the module myself and appreciated its virtues, but then mine was a review copy rather than one I purchased with my own money and it's on this point that I think Ice Tower of the Salka stumbles in comparison to its competitors, both professional and amateur.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Get This If:
You're looking for a dungeon filled with high-level challenges from which to craft your own adventures.
Don't Get This If: You're looking for a high-level dungeon you can buy and run without having to ad a fair bit of your own elbow grease.

A New Ages Dawns

This cover, my friends, marks the beginning of a new age -- the return of Judges Guild!

There's a lot to be excited about here. Firstly, unless I am mistaken, this product, along with two others, Lost Man's Trail and City State of the Sea King (presumably focused on Rallu), are entirely new products rather than rehashes of older ones. Excellent though the Necromancer and Goodman Games JG products were -- and I still consider Necromancer's Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set to be one of the finest, if not the finest product of the D20 era -- they mostly trod on ground already well covered in the past.

Now, "newness" is, in and of itself, worthy of neither praise nor disdain. Indeed, I'm on record of having little patience for those who prefer Thursday to Wednesday simply because it is Thursday, but, that said, it's nice to see a resurgent Judges Guild do more than simply update and re-publish the same products I saw when I first entered the hobby three decades ago.

Secondly, if Tegel Manor II is any indication, Judges Guild is in good hands, possessing both an appreciation for the past and a willingness not to take itself too seriously. "Night of the Living Rumps" is a terrific subtitle and a fun Easter egg for those of us who look back fondly on the original module.

No word yet on the release dates, formats, or prices of these products. When I know more, I'll be sure to post it here.

Otherworld Miniatures News

Richard Scott of Otherworld Miniatures passes along the following news:
Otherworld Miniatures is on the move! The business has now outgrown the facilities that I have available at home, and I’m hoping to move into new, dedicated business premises in the next few months. However, this move will be fairly costly, and I need to raise some funds to make this possible.

So, for the next few weeks, in a scheme shamelessly plagiarised from Hasslefree, I will be making vouchers available to customers of Otherworld Miniatures. Three different vouchers will be available.

1) Bronze Voucher – This will cost £50.00, and will be redeemable for £65.00 of Otherworld Miniatures.
2) Silver Voucher – This will cost £100.00, and will be redeemable for £140.00 of Otherworld Miniatures.
3) Gold Voucher – This will cost £200.00, and will be redeemable for £300.00 of Otherworld Miniatures.

In addition, each voucher buyer will receive a free figure which will be produced in the summer of 2010. It will be a variant model of the DM6 – Minotaur, wearing armour and wielding a spear. It will go on sale at a later date, but voucher holders will receive master castings (which will be marked on the packaging).

Vouchers will be valid until 1st April 2011, and may be spent in small portions, or as large purchases. Alternatively, a voucher may be used as a standing order to pay for all subsequent new releases until the voucher is used up.

To spend a voucher, or part of it, the holder will need to place an order by email, rather than using the usual webstore checkout system.

Vouchers may be purchased in the Otherworld Miniatures webstore until 31st March 2010. Vouchers are limited to a maximum of 2 per person, and may not be used in conjunction with other special offers or sales.

"Ideal" Dungeon Explorers

Mike Monaco, over at Swords & Dorkery, sent along a link to his post where he examines a set of Grenadier AD&D miniatures whose contents were designed by Gary Gygax "to be the ideal small party to explore any Dungeon." Oddly enough, I owned this set and didn't remember until Mike's posted that Gary had had a hand in selecting the minis included in it. While it's probably a mistake to read too much into his selections, I don't think his selections were arbitrary. They certainly do shed some light on his conception of D&D, particularly with regard to its humanocentric focus.

Thanks for bringing this to light, Mike.

Retrospective: RuneQuest

I have a very complicated relationship with RuneQuest, whose first edition (which I never saw, let alone played) was released in 1978 by Chaosium. Like Tunnels & Trolls, RuneQuest was a game spoken of mostly in derisive whispers by the older gamers who initiated me into the hobby. Unlike T&T, which was mocked for being "too silly," RQ caught flak for being "too trippy." When I asked for elaboration on this point, I received a lot of different answers, most of which pointed out, in addition to other things, that, in RQ, "everyone could use magic" and "you can play a duck man." These two facts, along with sundry other crimes against good gaming taste, made it damnably hard for me to learn much more about RuneQuest firsthand, as my attempts to do so were regularly rebuffed and I, being a newcomer to the hobby, simply accepted the wisdom of my elders.

But then I discovered White Dwarf, which, as I've noted before, contained a surprisingly large amount of material for RQ. This made me think that maybe, just maybe, my feeling that it'd be worthwhile to investigate RuneQuest more fully was a good one. Unfortunately, finding players of the game was quite difficult and I wasn't prepared to blow any money on RQ products without having had a chance to play the game first, even if it was published by the same company that made my beloved Call of Cthulhu. As luck would have it, I chanced upon a group of guys who were playing RQ at a games day at a local library -- those were the days! -- and they took pity on me and let me join them.

I don't remember much about the adventure or my character, but what I do recall are the feelings the the game and its setting evoked in me. It was at once frightened and exhilarated -- frightened because RQ is a lethal, unforgiving game where any combat could kill or maim your character permanently and exhilarated because this was the first fantasy game I'd ever played that felt viscerally different than D&D on almost every level. A big part of that was the game's default setting of Glorantha, which, at this stage (1982 or thereabouts) had a powerfully "ancient world" feel to it, as opposed to D&D's pseudo-medievalism. Being a big fan of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern history, I was hooked and simply could not understand how many could deem RQ "too trippy" or "too Californian" or whatever other derogatory comments I'd heard about it.

Glorantha has a reputation, like Tékumel, for being arcane and inaccessible to newcomers. I won't deny that there's more than kernel of truth in this reputation, but my experience has been that, also like Tékumel, it's often exaggerated. Certainly one can easily become obsessed with all the minutiae of Glorantha, treating it more as an exercise in fantasy sociology than as an imaginative RPG setting. But it's not required in order to enjoy the setting and I daresay that Glorantha (again, like Tékumel) is best enjoyed as an idea mine for making one's own setting that just happens to use the same maps and place names as those in published products. This not only makes it far less onerous to referee, it also saves one from having to deal with aspects or developments of the setting that simply don't appeal to one's sensibilities.

I have never played in or run a RuneQuest campaign that's last more than a couple of sessions. For one reason or other, the game has never managed to "click" with most of the groups I've been in and, nowadays, my limited gaming time is dedicated pretty solidly to D&D, as it has been for most of my years in the hobby. That's a shame, because RuneQuest really is something special and unique, which is difficult to say about most RPGs, especially fantasy ones. In RQ's case, though, it's true. The game nicely marries a brutally simulationist rules set -- which evolved out of the Perrin Conventions for OD&D -- with a genuinely mythic world and worldview. The result is sui generis, ensuring that, in the annals of our hobby, RuneQuest will forever be remembered as one of its greatest games.

Before the Fall

We knew we were lucky. The only downside was that TSR wouldn't be around for long as it was. We had the feeling we were riding a wave, and we knew it. The company was always badly mismanaged, and there were a lot of fights among the management and a lot of wasted money. The company would take hit after hit, and you'd wonder, "How can they go on?" You felt like it was going to sink, and sink some day soon.

There was a lot of money there, and the owners and partial owners were all fighting over it, and it was hurting the company. All the creative people wanted to do was just have fun and make thing we would like. They fought the creative people a lot. The management had their own ideas, which usually sucked.

This is just one brief comment among many interesting and often insightful ones in an interview with Larry Elmore by the Chattanooga Times Free Press. It's well worth your time, even if, like me, your artistic tastes tend toward Trampier and Otus rather than the "fantastic realism" of Elmore and Parkinson.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Solomon Kane: Yay or Nay?

The Cimmerian's Al Harron weighs in on Michael J. Bassett's Solomon Kane, concluding:
There are two types of Howard adaptations: those that can, through contrast and comparison, make you look at the source material in a new way, or at least appreciate it even more; and those that don’t, because they are so trite and shallow they don’t even warrant further discussion. Conan the Barbarian, with its Nietzsche allusions and philosophical metaphors, is of the former: even if you despise it, you can look at the original stories in a way that you might not normally due to the differences of the two creations. Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja and Kull the Conqueror? Meaningless, bereft of depth, no more worthy of discussion than a satirical newspaper cartoon. In my opinion, despite its considerable faults, Solomon Kane is of the first variety.

Bassett’s interpretation of Kane’s origin is wholly alien to just about every Howard fan’s I know, but it’s at least derived from the source material. He made Kane into the character he is not because of some arbitrary factor like a star that needed a vehicle or cashing in on a current fad, but because it was part of the story he wanted to tell. It’s an intellectual decision on his part, one that you can disagree with, and one that you could accuse of being hackneyed and cliche, but it’s one that can be respected as an artistic choice. The same simply can’t be said for the other films, which function purely as mindless action flicks, vehicles for their respective stars, with no thought to any sort of dimension. Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane are films that can be argued against: the other three are films that can just be ignored.

That's rather a more positive review than I was expecting. I'm actually fond of James Purefoy as an actor, though he wouldn't be my first choice to play Kane. So, it gladdens me a little that the film might not be wholly irredeemable, even if it's about as far from its Howardian origins as Milius's Conan the Barbarian. That means it might be worth seeing if only as a conversation piece (assuming it's ever released in North America) -- which is higher praise than most films get these days, especially ones based on writers of whom I am fond.

More food for thought.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Out for the Day

I'll be out for the day, visiting a museum with my seven year-old son's Grade 2 class today, so don't expect any additional posts, comments, or replies to emails until tomorrow in all likelihood.

Play nice while I'm away.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Empire of the Necromancers

The legend of Mmatmuor and Sodosma shall arise only in the latter cycles of Earth, when the glad legends of the prime have been forgotten. Before the time of its telling, many epochs shall have passed away, and the seas shall have fallen in their beds, and new continents shall have come to birth. Perhaps, in that day, it will serve to beguile for a little the black weariness of a dying race, grown hopeless of all but oblivion. I tell the tale as men shall tell it in Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide.
So begins the inaugural story of Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique cycle, "The Empire of the Necromancers," which was first published in the September 1932 issue of Weird Tales. As its opening paragraph -- one of the most potent CAS ever wrote in my opinion -- makes clear, it's the story of two necromancers, driven from country to country for their practice of the dark arts, before they at last decide to set out for the defunct land of Cincor, now a corpse-filled desert whose inhabitants were slain some centuries past by a plague.
"It's a goodly land," said Mmatmuor, "and you and I will share it between us, and hold dominion over all its dead, and be crowned as emperors on the morrow in Yethlyreom."

"Aye," replied Sodosma, "for there is none living to dispute us here; and those that we have summoned from the tomb shall move and breathe only at our dictation, and may not rebel against us."
This being a Clark Ashton Smith story, things don't go quite as the two necromancers have planned, resulting in a tale that some have reasonably called Smith greatest prose work. I'm unwilling to make such a bold claim myself, but there's no question that "The Empire of the Necromancers" is one of Smith's best fantasies and certainly a good contender for the best story of the Zothique cycle.

It's one of my personal favorites too, serving as inspiration for a necromancer-ruled city-state in my own Dwimmermount campaign, where the risen dead, from the mightiest sorcerer to the lowliest street urchin, serve and protect it in one capacity or another. It's a gloomy and unpleasant place but nevertheless a bastion against Chaos, its unliving armies regularly doing battle against demons and their earthly thralls. Brother Candor, Dordagdonar, and the other Fortune's Fools have yet to venture there, but they know of its existence and may well do so one day. I rather look forward to that, since it'll give me an opportunity to inject a little more Smithian black humor into the game -- an opportunity I rarely pass up.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Fighting Men and Level Titles

As I've stated many times before, I'm very fond of level titles and regret they weren't included in any retro-clone I've seen thus far. I've come up with some titles for use by magic-users and clerics in my Dwimmermount campaign and am (mostly) happy with them. They're evocative and have a solid in-game justification for their existence.

The same cannot be of fighting men. Unlike clerics or magic-users, whose place in the setting can be tied to some sort of over-arching organizational structure, the same isn't the case for fighters, a class that's a lot more varied, encompassing everything from a battle-hardened northern barbarian to a highly trained knight to a peasant boy just off the farm. Is it even possible to find level titles that make sense for such a class?

I'd originally thought of coming up with some kind of pseudo-military ranking system for fighting men, but I'm honestly not sure that works very well. Why would a rootless mercenary call himself by the title as soldier in the employ of the city-state of Adamas, never mind a Northman raider? It may be that one of the unique aspects of the fighting man class is that it's so broad -- in effect the default class of anyone who isn't obviously any other class -- and thus lacks level titles of its own. In itself, that's not a bad idea, but there's still part of me that wishes there were an obvious solution.

If anyone comes up with one, please do share it; I'd appreciate it.

Mapping and Me

A reader asks in the comments to my latest Dwimmermount session report: "How do you handle mapping in your games?"

I am fortunate to have a player in my campaign who is both interested in mapping and is a good mapper to boot (that's Dordagdonar's player, for those keeping score). For as long as I've known him, he's been our group's official cartographer, producing some very impressive maps for a variety of campaigns, from D&D to Traveller. When I started up Dwimmermount over a year ago, he happily offered to take up the job of committing to paper the rooms, corridors, and caves of the ancient mountain fortress.

My practice, in general, is to verbally describe a room in a fashion like this: "The room runs 20 feet east to west and 30 feet north to south. There are doors on the eastern and western walls, in addition to the one on the south side through which you came. The eastern and western doors are in the middle of their respective walls, while the door you came through is in the southeast corner of the southern wall." Etc. If there is confusion about what I mean -- and there often is, because I have a very poor spatial vocabulary -- questions are asked and I do my best to clarify what I meant. Earlier in the campaign, we were regularly using plaster-cast dungeon blocks to represent the rooms, but we've become lazy over the many months and we rarely bring them out nowadays. It's a practice I probably should resume, given how many Otherworld minis I now own and because, truthfully, OD&D combat is much more interesting for us when we have a clear sense of who is where within the dungeon.

With few exceptions, I make a point of correcting any errors in the player map that arise from a misunderstanding of what I said. I don't think it's fair to penalize my players because I said "southeast" when I meant "southwest," for example. Those aren't the kinds of mistakes the characters would make, since they're physically present in the dungeon and can see plainly where a door or a yawning pit is located relative to themselves. On the other hand, if the characters believe that an illusory corridor is real and draw their map accordingly, I don't correct this, as they have no way of knowing that what they think they're seeing is mistaken. The same is true of any other type of error or misapprehension that stems from character knowledge rather than from a mere mistake of the player or, more often, the referee.

One of the benefits of keeping a careful map is the finding of secret doors, traps, and other dungeon oddities. In straight OD&D, finding a secret door, even for an elf, is something of a crap shoot. That's why I only make the characters roll for such things when they're literally fumbling around, banging on walls, pushing on stones, and otherwise wildly guessing where a secret door might be located. However, if the characters deduce, based on the layout of the map, that a secret door or trap or whatever is likely in a particular area, I either up their chances of finding it considerably (1-4 on 1D6, for example) or dispense with a roll entirely. To my way of thinking, using a hand-drawn map to figure out aspects of the dungeon's layout ought to be rewarded. Moreover, OD&D's extremely slim chances of finding secret doors only makes sense if you assume it represents random shots in the dark rather than informed investigation.

And that's the gist of it. I think the creation of maps by the players helps keep exploration at the forefront of most sessions. It also adds, for lack of a better word, a strategic element to the campaign, as the players get a "big picture" of Dwimmermount, the interrelationships between its levels and its inhabitants, and can plan their own actions accordingly. More than a few of their decisions have been based on assumptions drawn from the way the maps hung together. It's a nice counterpoint to the tactical elements we sometimes get in combats, particularly big ones. Far from bogging things down, I actually think detailed mapping has made the campaign more enjoyable for everyone involved. It's certainly contributed to the feeling of Dwimmermount as a place rather than as a mere "stage" for strings of disparate encounters.

The approach we've adopted in our campaign probably isn't for everyone, even many old schoolers, but it works well and we're enjoying it. This weekend I'm going to try to break out the minis and dungeon blocks again. As I said, I've rather missed using them and I suspect I'm not the only one.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Because It Can't Be Said Often Enough ...

Virgil Finlay is awesome.

Footnotes to OD&D

The other day, Rob Conley posted a link to another site in which it's revealed that Goodman Games is working on a "Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG." Very few details are given beyond stating that the game will be "a streamlined, deadly, 1st Edition D&D throwback with some D&D 3.5e influences," which sounds similar to Troll Lord's Castles & Crusades (though, to be fair, I don't believe I've ever heard anyone describe C&C as "deadly"). More details are supposed to be forthcoming next week, so I'll keep my eyes peeled for them.

It's interesting to note that, with the end of the D20 System Trademark License and WotC's abandonment of open gaming with D&D IV, there's been an explosion of new fantasy RPGs, most of them claiming an old school heritage to one degree or another. I don't think this is a bad thing, as I've noted before, although I do think anyone who's writing and producing their own fantasy RPG needs to realize that the odds against theirs seizing the vacant throne of D&D is extremely small.

I can't say with any certainty whether, from a business perspective, the OGL and D20 STL were bad for WotC, but I don't think, contrary to Gygax's opinions on the matter, that they were bad for D&D. Before the v.3.5 fiasco, most game companies were paying fealty to D&D in the form of products that supported it and shored up its claims to being the fantasy RPG. Now, everyone and their brother is putting out their own games, many of them clearly derivative of D&D in form, content, or both, in the process weakening the claims of any one of them, including WotC's current version, being the "true" heir to the world's first RPG.

In a very real sense, every RPG, even those specifically written as a rejection of Dungeons & Dragons, are its heirs. To paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead, the entire history of our hobby consists of a series of footnotes to OD&D. It's all just a matter of emphasizing this aspect of the game or downplaying that one, adding and subtracting to the basic template laid down by Gygax and Arneson between 1970 and 1974. In that sense, yet another fantasy RPG is no less worthy of one's consideration than any other new RPG. Granted, fantasy RPGs are a very crowded field but then that's true of roleplaying games generally and has been for as long as I can remember.

The desire to make one's own game -- to do it "right" -- is probably the oldest of all old school impulses; it's also the noblest. It's the same impulse that drove Gary to add dragons and giants to his medieval miniatures battles and Dave to zoom in on a single hero rather than an entire unit of soldiers. That's why I'll never believe there are "too many" RPGs, even if I often have zero interest in many (most?) of them. So, good luck to Goodman Games -- and anyone else who decides to publish their own RPG. Doing so is in the best traditions of our hobby.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

REVIEW: Hackmaster Basic

When you hire legendary gaming artist Erol Otus to do the cover for a new RPG rulebook with the word "basic" in its title, it seems pretty clear to me that a big part of your sales pitch is nostalgia. For gamers of a certain age, the 1981 Basic Rulebook for Dungeons & Dragons will always be the definitive version of the game, the one that not only initiated them into the hobby but also shaped their notions of what an introductory roleplaying game should be. Given that, I expected Kenzer & Company's HackMaster Basic to draw heavily on D&D Basic for inspiration. Other than its title and its cover illustration, that's not the case. Whether one views this as a good thing or a bad thing depends, I imagine, on one's feelings about what constitutes a "basic" RPG, a topic to which I'll return throughout this review.

Let's talk briefly about the physical appearance of the book itself. At 198 pages, HackMaster Basic is a large book, its two-column text being dense and chart-heavy. The text reads well, lacking the grating "gamer macho" tone of HackMaster 4th Edition, but still possessing a unique -- and occasionally still grating -- voice of its own. That said, Basic isn't generic; it's very clearly its own game, with its own style, and, while that style isn't my cup of tea, I nevertheless appreciate a game that knows what it's about and makes no bones about it. The book is well illustrated throughout, with art ranging from the cartoony to the realistic. A number of pieces explicitly recall classic images from early editions of D&D, once again playing the nostalgia card. All in all, Basic is a well put together book that's easy to read and, thanks to an index, easy to navigate.

The book begins with 6 pages of "quick start rules," which, despite the name, focus more on quickly generating a character rather than teaching you how to play the game. Because of their brevity, characters generated according to the quick start rules lack many elements of the full character generation system, such as racial ability adjustments and the like. The full character generation chapter takes up 13 pages and that's not including specific treatments of important character-related topics, such as honor, quirks & flaws, skills, talents, and proficiencies, not to mention the descriptions of the game's four character classes, which alone require more page count than the character generation chapter itself.

I mention this not to damn HackMaster Basic, which, as you'll see, I think is a very well designed RPG, but to point out that it's "basic" only in the sense that it's less complex than the forthcoming Advanced HackMaster. It's certainly not basic compared to any edition of D&D, including AD&D First Edition, whose Players Handbook included three times as many class descriptions in fewer pages than HackMaster Basic manages. To put it inelegantly, this nearly 200-page book provides the rules for "Basic Advanced HackMaster" -- a cut-down version of what is sure to be lengthy and complex set of fantasy RPG rules.

HackMaster Basic characters have seven ability scores: the six traditional D&D ones plus Looks. Race options are the classic four: human, elf, dwarf, and halfling. Class options are likewise the classic four: fighter, thief, mage, and cleric. Alignment is the ninefold style of AD&D and its descendants. Basic makes regular -- some might say too much -- use of random rolls in character generation. In this respect, its old school heritage is clear. However, randomness can be mitigated through the use of "Building Points" (or BPs), usually used to purchase skills and other secondary abilities. For example, spending BPs allows a player to rearrange or swap randomly-determined ability scores, while keeping them as rolled earns one additional BPs. Likewise, while each race can take any class, choosing a class "against type" -- a halfling mage, say -- costs more BPs than choosing a class more in keeping with the race's archetype. This is an interesting design choice that I think goes part of the way toward addressing the usual whines about old school randomness without reducing HackMaster Basic to yet another bland point-buy system. At the same time, keeping track of Building Points can be somewhat tedious and I can't help but wonder if the character customization they offer is more than offset by the bookkeeping they necessitate.

And bookkeeping seems an integral part of HackMaster. There are many stats, derived scores, and calculations involved in not only creating a character but also leveling him up. A quick look at the downloadable character sheet makes the point better than I ever could. Ability scores not only include multiple columns of modifiers associated with them, but each ability also has a fractional score as well, such as Strength 15/45 or Wisdom 13/98, which shows how close they are to increasing that ability to the next whole number, much like Cavaliers in Unearthed Arcana. Characters also have an Honor score that goes up or down based on a player's adherence to his character's class, alignment, and so on. Some will no doubt find the concept of Honor a heavy-handed way to enforce "proper" roleplaying and so it is. For myself, its looseness reminds me uncomfortably of 2e's XP awards system.

As I noted earlier, HackMaster Basic includes not only quirks and flaws (minor advantages and disadvantages), but also skills, talents, and proficiencies, each of which is subtly different in concept and mechanics. Skills are much as you'd expect, while talents are similar to what D&D III called "feats." Proficiencies mostly pertain to weapons and armor use. Taken together, it's all a bit much for my tastes, but, like the random detailed character backgrounds (height, weight, handedness, family ties, etc.), these things do add a kind of goofy depth that I associate with the Silver Age of D&D. Indeed, HackMaster Basic feels very much like a product of that era and I suspect one's opinion of it will depend greatly on how much one liked late 1e.

Character classes are fairly straightforward, each with its own feel and mechanics. I appreciate the lack of homogenization here, with the fighter being the simple hit-stuff-until-it-dies class suitable for newbies, while mages require more cleverness and skill to play effectively. Arcane magic is somewhat different than in D&D, with spells costing Spell Points (SPs) to cast. Spells can still be memorized and doing so halves their cost in SPs. Clerics, on the other hand, differ much less from their D&D inspirations, although Basic presents several generic religions -- The True, The Caregiver, The Overlord, etc. -- that dictate what spells, weapons, and special abilities a cleric can wield.

All classes are much beefier than their D&D counterparts, starting with hit points equal to their Constitution + Hit Dice. New Hit Dice are gained every other level, with "dead" levels granting a re-roll of current hit points in order to improve the score. Again, I'm of multiple minds about this, but, ultimately, I find it mildly baffling that game like HackMaster, which claims to be "hard hitting old-school gaming," should care much about the supposed fragility of low-level characters. (In fairness, I should add that dice "penetrate" in HackMaster, which means you get to re-roll and add if your first roll is a maximum result. This process is open-ended, so it is possible to kill even the toughest character with a single stab from a dagger, even though it's extraordinarily unlikely)

HackMaster Basic's claims to basic-ness is sorely tested in its combat rules, which are lengthy and complex, with lots of sub-rules, special cases, and exceptions. Granted, many of these could, as in D&D, be safely ignored, but I have to wonder why an introductory game includes them at all. Wouldn't things like knockbacks and trauma, to cite but two examples, have been better saved for Advanced HackMaster? I ask, because the underlying combat system, consisting of opposed rolls between an attacker and a defender, is simple and reasonably intuitive (though the same cannot be said for its initiative system, which reminded me unhappily of Champions, though that's probably unfair). The game does include a helpful 9-page, text-heavy Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip to show how combat works. Again, pictures speak louder than words.

Rounding out the book are chapters on dice and the "proper" use of them in the game (11 pages in length), monsters, treasure, and a cursory (2 pages) presentation of the "canons" of conduct for a Game Master, such as "The GM is Always Right" and "Let the Dice Fall Where They May." It's difficult to tell whether these canons are meant seriously or as a joke, but, like most things associated with HackMaster, it's probably not an either/or proposition. The monster section is solid and includes a good stable of creatures to use, while the treasure section is a bit spottier, which I suppose is to be expected given HackMaster Basic's focus on levels 1-5. The rules heavily imply a "proper" amount of treasure and magic items based on a chart that reminds me of D&D III's encounter levels -- indeed, the term "encounter levels" is explicitly used -- so that's worrisome but easily dispensed with if one is so inclined. Unless I missed something, XP is gained solely through defeating opponents.

And that, in a nutshell, is HackMaster Basic. It's difficult to do full justice to this game in my review, however lengthy and detailed I made it and I have certainly overlooked and maybe even misrepresented some aspects of its contents. That, to me, is its great glory and its great disappointment. Its glory is that this a game you can really sink your teeth into; it's not an airy, calorie-free indie game but a super-sized bacon cheeseburger of the old school variety. Its disappointment is that it's neither a good introductory RPG in its own right nor even a particularly good introduction to HackMaster for those not already well versed in its idiosyncratic ways. The game is needlessly complex and arcane for anything calling itself "basic" and I think that's a pity, because I can see how one could really enjoy a game like this. As I said, it's meaty and flavorful and probably one of the more cleverly done D&D pastiches in a hobby filled with them.

I doubt I'd ever play, let alone run, a HackMaster Basic campaign; it's, as I said early, "too much" for me. Still, in the midst of an old school renaissance that's made "rules light" (or whatever other phrase we're using these days to describe do-it-yourself gaming) a singular virtue, HackMaster defiantly hoists the flag for the days when calculating the bone density of giants and arguing over terminal velocity in order to get your falling damage article published in Dragon was the cool thing to do. That it does this without pretension or self-seriousness and without descending into parody is a pretty remarkable thing. Again, it's not for me, but then I've already got plenty of games that are. For old schoolers who prefer their fantasy a bit more "buff," though, HackMaster Basic may be just what they're looking for.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Get This If:
You're looking for an alternative to the "light" old school RPGs out there these days.
Don't Get This If: You don't like random chargen, derived statistics, complex combat systems, and fantasy that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Dwimmermount, Session 31

Last weekend's session of the Dwimmermount campaign was a good, solid one, even if it felt a little underwhelming compared to the previous week's revelations. Brother Candor decided to forgo the question of how to deal with Xaranes' request to him, waiting until he'd had more time to think about the matter. Furthermore, he felt that the party should explore more of Dwimmermount itself before making a decision. So, they returned to Muntburg, connected with Iriadessa and the hirelings and henchmen, and re-supplied themselves before heading back into the dungeon.

One of the terrific things about the detailed maps Dordagdonar keeps of Dwimmermount is that the characters know very well what avenues of exploration they have no yet taken up. Though the sub-levels associated with the Temple of the Iron God had been fully explored, there were many other areas the PCs had not yet entered. One such area was reachable by a set of stairs the characters had avoided earlier in the belief that it led to a level of the dungeon too difficult for them to handle at that time. Now, months -- and experience levels -- later, they felt better equipped to handle what dangers might lie ahead and descended into the depths.

According to Dordagdonar's maps, this new level was beneath the azoth processing machine they'd encountered some time earlier. Sure enough, the first room they entered included an elaborate mechanism that seemed to be an azoth "pump" of some sort. The pump was connected to a series of metallic tubes that ran along the ceilings of all the chambers and corridors of this level. These tubes had crystalline tops, allowing the characters to see inside of them and, from the looks of it, they once -- and recently -- contained azoth, as there was obvious residue of the magical liquid in the tubes (and in the pump itself). Every so often, typically in corridor junctions and large rooms, the tubes were fitted with devices that looked as if they were intended to "mist" azoth into these areas, like water sprinklers but with much finer nozzles.

Seeing that the pump and these devices were no longer functional, Brother Candor surmised that the Thulian vampire Cyrus may have been involved. He'd learned earlier that Cyrus had returned to Dwimmermount in order to effect some sort of revenge against the cult of Turms Termax responsible for his state of undeath. He also learned that Dusty and the other cats inhabiting the dungeon had seen the vampire heading down into lower levels, although for what purpose they did not know. Originally, the PCs thought he might have been heading into the azoth-filled caverns they never explored, but now there was evidence that he might have headed into this level instead (or in addition to).

The small section of the level the party explored was very odd, feeling slightly warmer and more humid than they expected given its depth. They found evidence of molds, fungi, and lichens running riot throughout the place -- all in unnatural colors and shapes but seemingly harmless. They also came across dead or dying "mutant" plants, including mushroom people, who attacked them with great ferocity under the leadership of a strange tree-like being, who escaped the PCs' onslaught. These creatures gave some evidence to support the notion that someone, whether in the past or the present, had been using azoth in order to warp the development of plants in unwholesome ways. Needless to say, this concerned the PCs, who had long been wondering to what end the azoth still being processed in Dwimmermount was being put.

The session concluded as the party entered what seemed to be the room of some sort of magical supervisor of the azoth experiments, judging by its contents. They were attacked by an animated statue of Turms Termax, which acted as the room's guardian and which they dispatched comparatively easily. Grabbing the contents of the room, they PCs decided to return to Muntburg and then possibly to Adamas in order to decide what to do next.

Vargold: The Wolf-Time

An old Internet acquaintance of mine, Rob Barrett, has started up "a blog for barbaric gaming" dedicated to his just-started Barbarians of Lemuria campaign and related thoughts. Barbarians of Lemuria is an RPG I've had my eye on for a while, but I've never gotten round to looking at it closely. Perhaps Rob's new venture will give me reason to do so.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Retrospective: Chill

For a great many gamers, horror roleplaying begins and ends with Call of Cthulhu and it's not difficult to see why. CoC established itself early as the leader within its genre and, while the game's focus is the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, since its initial release in 1981, the game has included plenty of support for more "traditional" horror adventures and campaigns featuring werewolves, mummies, and zombies.

At the same time, there have always been gamers who didn't like Call of Cthulhu for whatever reason -- too "literary," too bleak, too deadly -- which left room in the RPG marketplace for other takes on horror. One such take was Chill: Adventures into the Unknown. Its first edition was published in 1984 by Pacesetter, a gaming company founded and staffed primarily by ex-TSR staffers and whose brief existence (1984-1986) was, in my opinion, a glorious misadventure. Pacesetter's RPGs all possessed a certain zest to them, the kind of enthusiasm that can only be found in the young and naive who truly believe that their ideas can change the world. Nevertheless, they're very hit or miss, both mechanically and esthetically and Chill was no different.

Whereas Call of Cthulhu took its main inspirations from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and his disciples and imitators, Chill was, for good and for ill, inspired by monster movies, particularly those produced by Universal Studios and Hammer Films. Player characters were assumed to be professional monster hunters called "envoys" in the service of a secret society known by the faintly ridiculous acronym of S.A.V.E., which stood for Societas Albae Viae Eternitata -- "Eternal Society of the White Way" -- and whose purpose was to protect mankind from the dark forces that lurked in the shadows. As a framing device for an episodic monster hunting game, S.A.V.E. worked well enough, although, even as a younger person, I found it a mite unsophisticated.

The game's rules were unremarkable, being a serviceable, but not inspired, variation on the mid-80s fad for chart-based action resolution pioneered by Marvel Super Heroes. Character generation was a mix of weighted random rolls (for basic abilities) and choice (for skills). Skills all had a chance to succeed based on an average of two to three relevant abilities, with bonuses and penalties assessed to the roll. Combat involved comparing one character's "attack margin" versus another character's defense on the action table to determine both success and damage. Like most of Chill, it worked well enough, but was neither particularly innovative nor flavorful. Characters could also learn disciplines of "the Art," which was a kind of low-level magic appropriate the style of horror the game emulated.

What really made Chill work, though, was its attitude and approach. The game was not a doom-laden meditation on man's insignificance. Neither was it filled with angsty melodrama. Chill was unapologetically -- even gleefully -- a game about kicking monster butt in the name of goodness, just like Peter Cushing did back in the day. To call it a "horror" game is, in many ways, a mistake, because it was "scary" only in the same way that Halloween is scary. Chill was never intended to be soul-shatteringly frightening, a fact many reviewers missed when the game was first released. Its horrors weren't intended to shock or terrify; rather they were meant to be opposed and, ultimately, beaten.

Pacesetter released a slew of modules and supplements for Chill, many of which were quite good, assuming what one wanted was to run a campaign about professional monster hunters. This earned the game a "lightweight" reputation in many circles, which is probably why, when Mayfair produced a second edition in the mid-90s, they -- foolishly in my opinion -- made the game darker and grittier, turning it into a faux Call of Cthulhu by way of White Wolf. It's a shame, because I had a lot of fun with the original Chill and I'd hoped that Mayfair's revival of the game might provide the same kind of fun, "beer and pretzels" monster bashing I remembered so fondly. Alas, it was not to be.


Gamers of my vintage will fondly remember the 1979 Atari video game entitled simply Adventure. Though the gameplay and graphics were decidedly primitive, I nevertheless had a great deal of fun with the game, which involved a quest to find a magical chalice hidden away in a locked castle, protected by dragons, a mischievous bat, and a maze, and whose gate could only be opened by discovering a key that was place randomly within the game "world." Hard though it is to imagine nowadays, Adventure was innovative for its time and was another step along the road to the D&D-fueled ascendancy of fantasy as the premier genre for video games.

Reader Matthew Fox pointed out that the Atari website includes a Flash-based port of the game that you can play online if you're looking for a little blast from the past.

Gygax on OD&D and AD&D

Since it frequently gets referenced and because not everyone is familiar with the original quote, here again is the famous June 1979 quote from issue 26 of The Dragon, where Gary Gygax discusses the differences between D&D -- what we refer to today as OD&D -- and AD&D, the latter of which would be completed with the then-imminent release of the Dungeon Masters Guide.
Because D&D allowed such freedom, because the work itself said so, because the initial batch of DMs were so imaginative and creative, because the rules wre incomplete, vague and often ambiguous, D&D has turned into a non-game. That is, there is so much variation between the way the game is played from region to region, state to state, area to area, and even from group to group within a metropolitan district, there is no continuity and little agreement as to just what the game is and how best to play it. Without destroying the imagination and individual creativity which go into a campaign, AD&D rectifies the shortcomings of D&D. There are few grey areas in AD&D, and there will be no question in the mind of participants as to what the game is and is all about. There is form and structure to AD&D, and any variation of these integral portions of the game will obviously make it something else.
I've bolded the phrase "D&D has turned into a non-game," because it's a really remarkable turn of phrase, both in terms of its actual content and because of the way it marks a turning point in the history of the hobby -- the point at which the demands of TSR's business interests took precedence in determining the future direction of Dungeons & Dragons.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Attention Dragonquest Players

Tom Miller of the Dragonquest Players Association recently pointed me to their website, which includes lots of information about the game, as well as links to other DQ-oriented sites. It's well worth a look if you're a fan of SPI's fantasy RPG or if you're just curious to learn more about another classic old school game.

Support Fatigue

Over at Lord Kilgore's blog, Dan Proctor, creator of Labyrinth Lord, made a very interesting comment:
I think the real concern people have but have a hard time putting into words is that it is hard to support every clone (ish) game that is coming out or will come out. Many many more will come out, I have no doubt. I think what people are feeling is “support fatigue.” How many more of these should we high-five before we say screw it, who cares? That’s a legit question, and I don’t have an answer. Honesty I don’t think any of us should feel an obligation to support every new retro game that comes out.
Dan's comment resonates strongly with me, as I've occasionally felt that there was "too much" old school product being produced -- too much in the sense that there was no way I could possibly keep up with it all, let alone buy it and use it in the course of my weekly OD&D game. In fact, Victor Raymond regularly points out to me that, through a mere seven issues of Fight On! alone, the old school renaissance has produced more material (in terms of word count) than was ever produced for OD&D by TSR or through the pre-AD&D issues of Dragon. That's staggering, when you think about it, and it's a testament to the enthusiasm old school gamers have for their favorite games.

As the months have worn on, though, and as I've had more time to think about it, my opinion has changed considerably. I don't think it's possible for there to be "too much" old school product. There might be too much for me personally, but what does that mean? I'm just one gamer and my limited capacity to buy and use everything that comes out shouldn't dissuade anyone from producing more stuff for others, whose capacities for the same are certainly different. More significantly, I think variety is good. What the old school renaissance needs is more variety, not less.

I'm very critical of the way that TSR, with the advent of AD&D, did its best to marginalize and, in some cases, quash the beautiful riot of OD&D and OD&D-derived materials that literally created this hobby we all share. The company's attempts to put the genie back in the bottle and funnel creativity into only officially-sanctioned ways contributed greatly, I think, to the end of the Golden Age and, ultimately, to the decline of the hobby, even as it shored up (for a time) the profits of the industry. I don't want to see a repeat of that and I doubt that very few people in the old school renaissance do either.

That's why I take pleasure in the publication of every new old school game, retro-clone, and simulacrum, even the ones I won't ever buy and play. The more options out there, the less likely it will be that any one of them, whether it be OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, or whatever will become the old school game. We don't need a single standard bearer for our little niche; that way of thinking leads nowhere good, at least from my point of view. Some will no doubt say that the existence of so many retro-clones will make old school gaming confusing to newcomers and make it difficult for them to gain much traction with "mainstream" gamers. To that, I say: "So what?" The old school renaissance, while real, was never going to reignite the 80s RPG craze, which was (probably) a perfect cultural storm whose like we cannot simply bring into existence by uniting behind a single banner. Moreover, while there has been a noticeable increase in interest in old school gaming, it's no more than a drop in the bucket compared to the oceans of gamers who play video games, MMOs, and D&D IV.

And I'm OK with that. The old school renaissance, in my opinion, exists to support existing old school gamers and interested outsiders who possess the wherewithal to navigate the chaos of our little corner of the hobby. This is a good thing and it's important to bear in mind. History shows pretty clearly that the industry has rarely done old school gaming any favors -- the Open Game License being a rare example to the contrary -- so why would we want to imitate its methods? What distinguishes old school gaming is, among other things, its open-armed embrace house rules, variants, kit bashing, and wacky ideas, the kind of stuff that led Gary Gygax to famously declare that OD&D, the first RPG, was "a non-game." What Gary saw as a vice, old schoolers see as a virtue.

May it ever remain so.

Monday, February 15, 2010

REVIEW: Old-School Psionics

Old-School Psionics by Charles Rice is an optional supplement for OSRIC that presents a psionics system for use with that game. Unlike OSRIC itself, which hews as closely to its AD&D inspirations as possible within the restrictions of the Open Game License and copyright law, Old-School Psionics is a fresh take on its subject matter, a "what if" product in the words of its author. Consequently, the system it presents, while having some elements in common with its 1e predecessor, is largely an original creation. That's frankly a wise decision, as AD&D's psionics, like those in OD&D's Eldritch Wizardry, are an unholy mess that no one I've ever met could use without significant house ruling.

Unlike AD&D psionics, which was intended primarily as an adjunct to the existing class system, Rice instead presents psionics as the domain of a new character class called the mentalist. There are provisions for "wild talents," which is to say, psionic members of other classes but they're supposed to be exceedingly rare and their aptitude with psychic abilities is decidedly lesser. Again, this is a good decision and reminds me of the psionicist class created by Arthur Collins and appearing in issue 78 of Dragon, one of my favorite articles from the magazine back in the day and one I used extensively as the basis for a psionics-based AD&D campaign.

Where Collins's class was tied into the existing AD&D psionics system (albeit with modifications), Rice's mentalist is its own creature, being somewhat like an illusionist who wields psychic abilities instead of spells. These abilities are divided into four disciplines, with the mentalist acquiring greater access to them as he advances in levels. Psychic abilities are cast not from slots but through the expenditure of psionic strength points, the mentalist's pool of which increases with level. The class also gains a few other level-dependent abilities, such as crafting psychic items and traveling to the astral and other planes. As with the previously-reviewed alchemist class, I would quibble with any level-based ability being placed at 20th level, which makes it even less likely to be obtained than mighty spells such as wish, but that may be a matter of taste.

Each of the psionic disciplines has seven levels of abilities, with 3 or 4 such abilities per level. The result is a very tight collection of powers rather than the usual cornucopia I associate with AD&D spells. In this respect, the abilities more closely resemble AD&D psionic powers and their fewer number helps lend a different flavor to them compared to standard magic. They likewise seem to be well matched against magic, being somewhat more potent individually but balanced by the fact that they can be used more rarely, given the number of psionic strength points needed to do so.

Old-School Psionics also includes a number of psionic monsters, many of them old favorites, such as the aboleth, brain mole, and intellect devourer, as well as "new" ones that reinvent D&D favorites that WotC did not include in the D20 SRD. These are all nicely presented and tie into the new psionics system so that they can be used to their full potential. Rounding out the 22-page PDF is an overview of the Nexus Campaign, an extraplanar setting based around the city of Nexus where one can find portals to infinite worlds and whose governance is in the tentacles of the mysterious Unseen Masters, an ancient psionic race.

Retailing for $3.00, Old-School Psionics is well worth picking up, if only for inspiration in constructing one's own psionics system for AD&D, OSRIC, or another retro-clone. The system Rice presents is easy to use and flavorful, feeling sufficiently different from "ordinary" magic that including it in one's campaign would bring something genuinely new to it. That said, I was disappointed that Old-School Psionics does not include a psionic combat system, which was the part of AD&D's psionics rules that were perhaps the most unintelligible -- and the ones I most wanted to find some way to use. As someone who attempted to make sense of it myself, I am deeply sympathetic to Rice's decision to avoid it, but I nevertheless had hoped that a product calling itself Old-School Psionics would have included it. Secondly, unless I somehow missed it (which is possible), there is no discussion of how psionic strength points are regained after being used by a mentalist.

In the end, though, these are quibbles. Old-School Psionics is a solid product and one I'm glad to own. It's a good example of the kind of mechanical material I'd like to see more of: presenting simple but still flavorful rules for subjects that aren't covered in existing retro-clones and simulacra. Here's hoping we'll see a future expansion that tackles psionic combat.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Get This If:
You're looking for a straightforward way to add psionic abilities to your D&D game.
Don't Get This If: You somehow understand the original AD&D psionics rules or don't think mental powers belong in a fantasy game.

REVIEW: Maxolt's Magical Menagerie #1

Maxolt's Magical Menagerie #1 by Bret Boyd is a 6-page PDF from Tricky Owlbear Publishing, detailing 12 new magical items for use with Swords & Wizardry, although they should be perfectly usable with any retro-clone or old school fantasy RPG.
The PDF is laid out simply, using two columns of text per page and without any artwork beyond the cover image. The text is free of any noticeable editorial problems, although there were occasions when I found it somewhat unclear due to its slightly "stream of consciousness" feel, as if the author were committing his thoughts to paper rather than presenting them for a more general audience. It's not a damning criticism, but it does contribute to the "ripped from an old school blog" feel the product has, about which I'll say more later.

The format of magical items -- 8 miscellaneous items and 4 pieces of magical ammunition (arrows and bolts) -- is simple and straightforward, with game mechanics described upfront, followed by "commentary" from Maxolt Alberiim, a gold dragon who's adopted a human guise as a means of disseminating magical knowledge throughout the world. The commentary varies is interest, with some of being fairly banal and others more inspirational. Much the same could be said of the magical items themselves, several of which, such as the boots of tremors and the necklace of skulls, to name but two, are quite clever and may well find a home in my Dwimmermount campaign, while others are variations on items we've all seen in dozens of places over the years. That said, most of the items do exhibit solid old school sensibilities, being low key and/or situational powerful. The author is to be commended on that score.

Maxolt's Magical Menagerie #1 is nevertheless a very mixed bag. At only $1, it's probably worth it for referees looking for a quick bit of inspiration, but even its cleverest items don't stand out as anything you couldn't find for free on almost any of the old school blogs that we all read every day. And that's where I think products like this are in a bit of a bind. A couple of years ago, a collection of magic items written with old school rules and sensibilities in mind would be unusual. Nowadays, though, with literally dozens of blogs and forums dedicated to these games and more springing up every week, a product needs more than that to compete for your patronage.

To illustrate my point, let's briefly consider Jeff Rients's Miscellaneum of Cinder, which is little more than a collection of random tables and whose production volumes are most assuredly at the "hobbyist" end of the spectrum. This too is a product that has a strong "ripped from an old school blog" feel to it, as Jeff would readily admit, but, because of its nature -- random tables -- it has a lot of long-term utility, which is why I keep a copy of it handy when refereeing my Dwimmermount campaign. Miscellaneum of Cinder is a great example of how one need not have slick graphics or tons of mechanical crunch in order to create an invaluable old school product and I hope it serves as a model for writers and publishers looking into the old school scene these days.

I bring all this up not to knock Maxolt's Magical Menagerie #1, which is a worthy first foray into this niche market, but to point out that, with so many bloggers, forum-goers, and other sundry Internet denizens literally giving away reams of material as good, if not better, than what TSR produced in almost any given year of its existence, you need to provide potential buyers with something they cannot get elsewhere. I'm not sure I can say that about Maxolt's Magical Menagerie #1, which, as individually good as some of its contents are, lacks that ineffable something that distinguishes great products from the merely good.

This isn't a problem unique to this product by a long shot -- lots of old school efforts suffer from the same malady -- but I'd strongly recommend that, if Tricky Owlbear intends to publish further installments in this series, they find something to make it stand out more, something that makes it more than just another collection of magic items. Most of us already have more magic items than we could ever use over the course of many campaigns. We don't have enough of are collections of magic items that demand they be used. That is something I'd like to see and I'm sure I'm not alone.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 5 out of 10
Utility: 4 out of 10

Get This If:
You don't mind spending a little money for a handful of magic items that might inspire you.
Don't Get This If: You've already got enough disposable magic items to toss into your campaign.