Friday, December 31, 2010

Open Friday: New Year's Predictions

Once again, unless one is being charitable, I was off the mark on about half the predictions I made this time last year. I was at least correct in saying that the OSR would continue apace and that "old school" -- or at least memories of it -- would become a marketing gimmick used by companies whose products are decidedly not old school. We didn't see as much (or any) science fantasy or otherworldly type products as I'd expected we might, partially due to the fact that every one of those slated for release in 2009 didn't appear, but a false prediction is still a false prediction. I hereby turn in my prophet's hat.

So, rather than embarrass myself with further guesses that don't come to pass, I'm going to open up the floor to everyone else. What do you think is likely to happen in the old school world in 2011?

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Now That's a Box

Yesterday, I was very happy to receive a copy of the Spanish-language old school RPG, Aventuras en la Marca del Este. Many thanks to Pedro Gil and his colleagues for sending it to me all the way across the Atlantic. I'll almost certainly have more to say about the game in coming days, but what I wanted to share immediately was just how impressed I was by the box in which the rules are packaged.

Now, unlike a lot of old schoolers, I'm not a box fetishist. I don't believe for a second that all that's needed for the second coming of 80s faddishness is more boxed RPGs. The hobby's falling away from mainstream consciousness has very little to do with the fact that most RPGs these days are sold as books, but that's a topic for another day.

That said, I do appreciate boxed RPGs and consider both Brave Halfling's Swords & Wizardry: White Box and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing to be terrific products. Heck, I even appreciate that WotC came out with a boxed edition of D&D IV. But none of them has a box to compare with the one that came with Aventuras en la Marca del Este. It's big, well-made, and extremely sturdy. I could easily see carrying this box from place to place without its slowly coming apart over time.

I'm not sure you can see very clearly how thick the box is in the above photo, but it really does put all other boxes I've seen (including WotC's very nice box) to shame.

My apologies for a blurry image here; I'm a terrible photographer. Still, I think this picture goes a little way toward showing the thickness and sturdiness of the box. It's completely unlike any I've ever seen before, reminding more of a boardgame's box than what we've typically seen for RPGs in the past. I absolutely adore it (and the game too -- more on that later).

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Kenzer & Company Cyber-Holiday Sale

This is probably old news to some, but I only just discovered it, so I'm passing it along. Until the end of the year, Kenzer & Company is offering a 50% discount on most products purchased through their online store. That's a great deal, especially if you're looking to snag HackMaster Basic for a measly $9.99. There's a bunch of Aces & Eights stuff available at the discount, though, sadly, not the hardcover rulebook.

I am seriously considering snagging a couple of books myself, but I'll have to give it some more thought, since I've treated myself a lot lately.

Behold My Villainy

Seeing as I'm regarded in some corners of the Net as the gaming equivalent of Morgoth Bauglir, I figured it was about time I got hold of my very own Grond.

Here's an unflattering action shot of myself wielding the Hammer of the Underworld in my cave-like basement while doing battle with my eight year-old son, who was armed with a Nerf sword. Many thanks to my wife for recording this epic battle between Good and Evil for posterity.

Retrospective: The Palladium Role-Playing Game

There's an old joke intended to poke fun at the aloofness of people who boggle at the election of a popular political candidate: "How did so-and-so get elected? Nobody I know voted for him." That joke seems to apply to The Palladium Role-Playing Game (now called Palladium Fantasy) and its spin-offs, because, for many gamers, it's absolutely true. Speaking for myself, in all my years of involvement in the hobby, I've only ever encountered one person whom I knew at the time was playing a Palladium RPG. This seems a common experience. Where are these Palladium players who've managed to keep these games alive and well for all these years? It's a mystery that I know I'm not alone in pondering, a mystery all the more baffling because I know that these games are actually quite popular -- or at least what passes for popular in the post-fad age of RPGs.

That enigma aside, Palladium has been around a very long time. I remember seeing ads for the company's products in Dragon in the early 80s, such as its weapons and armor guides, as well as for its fantasy RPG. And of course I was already familiar with Kevin Siembieda's name as an illustrator of many Judges Guild products. Despite this, I never actually picked up The Palladium Role-Playing Game. In fact, I never even saw a copy until the very late 80s, by which point my tastes for Yet Another Fantasy RPG had long since been sated. More to the point, conventional gamer wisdom (at least in the circles in which I moved) informed me that The Palladium Role-Playing Game was just a D&D knock-off -- someone's house rules masquerading as an original game. So I never made any effort to sit down and read the game on its own merits.

That is, until the mid-90s, when I'd become so disenchanted with the direction of AD&D that I started to cast about for alternatives. The original edition of The Palladium Role-Playing Game came out in 1983, with a revision in 1984 (and further revised and expanded in 1998). On a purely cursory inspection, I can certainly see why the game was viewed as little more than someone's D&D house rules. There are eight randomly rolled attributes, most of which are the standard ones renamed. There are hit points, races, and character classes. There are even alignments, which, though renamed, map pretty closely to those in AD&D. And there are lots and lots of random tables to determine many aspects of your character's background, training, and physical appearance.

There are plenty of differences too, from the way combat and magic work to the inclusion of skills, not to mention the world in which it is set, both explicitly and implicitly. I suspect that whether one views The Palladium Role-Playing Game as a unique creation or a mere ape of D&D depends greatly on what aspects of its rules one focuses on. There's no question that D&D exercised a strong influence over Siembieda in creating this game, but, then, how many early RPG designers can claim not to have been influenced by it, if only negatively? After all, what is Basic Roleplaying/RuneQuest other than a codification and development of the Perrin Conventions, which were house rules to OD&D designed to make them more "realistic?" Obviously, that's an extreme simplification of the matter, but I think that's the case with The Palladium Role-Playing Game as well. The D&D influence is there, but it's not the only influence. Moreover, there's more to the game than what it has in common with Dungeons & Dragons (and, by extension, many other early RPGs).

Re-reading the game recently I was struck less by its specific affinity with D&D and more by its connection to old school design principles more generally. The Palladium Role-Playing Game is not one that frets about "balance" or shies away from "swinginess" or any of the other buzzwords of contemporary RPG design. This is a game very much in the mold of the early days of the hobby, a joyous goulash, equal parts randomness and brilliance, that wasn't tailored to provide a particular kind of play experience. It's a toolbox, filled with more than any single referee could ever possibly need for a single campaign, but, since its designer doesn't know -- let alone mandate -- what each referee might need, he includes it all and allows the referee to pick and choose as he wishes. This is not a game that worries about being coherent.

I've never had the chance to play The Palladium Role-Playing Game in any version and I doubt I ever will. I already have D&D for all my incoherent fantasy gaming needs. Still, it's good to be reminded that, when Dungeons & Dragons was abandoning the Old Ways, Palladium was still there, keeping the faith and providing gamers with the kind of stuff that first attracted me to the hobby in the first place. The Palladium Role-Playing Game may not be my game, but I now feel a strange kind of kinship toward it and its legions of players out there whom I've never met.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Castle Keepers Guide Released At Last

I've had several people point me toward this thread over at the Troll Lord Games forums, where there would appear to be visual proof that the Castle Keepers Guide for Castles & Crusades actually exists. I know that's hard to believe, since the book has been delayed repeatedly since the middle of the last decade. I haven't seen a copy myself, so I can't provide any details about its length, contents, or quality, but I'm glad for C&C players that it's finally finished and available.

Mind you, this news doesn't mean a lot to me personally. My brief flirtation with Castles & Crusades was back in 2006, when I abandoned D&D III and started looking for an alternative. I still have fond feelings for C&C, since it was what helped me realize that what I really wanted was not a simplified 3e with some old school chrome but the real McCoy. That's why, in 2007, I turned to OD&D and wound up where I am today and I owe that to Castles & Crusades.

That probably doesn't sound like a compliment, but I sincerely mean it as such. C&C, even moreso than Third Edition, made me realize what I actually like about and want out of Dungeons & Dragons. Without it, I probably would have given up on D&D altogether.

The Next Generation

I've written recently about my daughter and her attitudes toward tabletop roleplaying, but I don't think I've said much about this topic in relation to my son here. The only reason I even thought of mentioning him today is because I spent part of last night putting away a "dungeon" he'd made, using Hirst Arts blocks and populated with some of my miniatures collection. This is something he does every now and again, even going so far as giving his creations names (the one I just put away was known as "the Dungeon of Doom" -- not exactly original, but it sounds the right notes nonetheless). And his creations are getting better and more well-imagined, so much so that I regret not having taken pictures of his latest effort.

So does this mean my son's ripe to start roleplaying at the table? Nope, at least not so far. He's well aware of what roleplaying is. Like his big sister, he's watched us play at the dining room table and he sometimes takes great interest in what's happening in Dwimmermount. To date, though, he's never asked to create a character and join in. Granted, he's only eight years-old, which, to my mind anyway, is too young to be a good candidate for gaming, but I must confess that I'm still a bit surprised that he's never tried to find a way to play with my friends and I.

It's not as if the concept of roleplaying is alien to him; he's a little boy, after all, and many of the games he plays with his sister or his friends involves his taking on a different persona. Likewise, when he was much younger, he played and thoroughly enjoyed the Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game that Wizards of the Coast produced in the early part of the decade. He enjoyed it so much that he sometimes still asks to play it, which says a lot. That WotC didn't produce more games of this sort (I realize they couldn't follow-up with more Pokemon games after they lost the license) is, to my mind, a far greater crime against the hobby than anything they've done to D&D. And, finally, my son plays a number of computer games with roleplaying elements and, while they're far the Real Thing®, they share enough basic elements that I do wonder why he's not been expressed any interest in Dwimmermount.

In the end, it's not something that bugs me. I increasingly tend to view tabletop roleplaying as an adult hobby that some children and teenagers might enjoy. I'm not evangelical about my preferred way of spending time with my friends and I've never felt it important that my children share my hobbies. If they demonstrate a willingness to give gaming a try, as my daughter did, I'm more than happy to accommodate them. However, we already do lots of other fun stuff together, so I don't feel any necessity in initiating them into tabletop roleplaying. My daughter, I discovered, finds D&D, even in the mild and non-threatening way I run my campaign, too frightening for her tastes, but she's said she'd gladly join a superhero game if I were to start one.

My son might well just be disinterested in the kind of fantasy my D&D campaign draws upon and that's understandable, since he's too young to have read any of the books and short stories I look to for inspiration. After all, my current tastes in fantasy didn't develop until I was in my teens (or older), so he might well develop a stronger interest as he gets older. Or not -- and I'm fine with that. As I say, I don't expect my children to share my interests and hobbies any more than I did those of my own parents. There'll inevitably be some overlap, of course, but, ultimately, I view roleplaying as my hobby in this household. If others also come to share it, well and good. I simply don't expect it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Look What Arrived in the Mail

A late Christmas package appeared on my doorstep today:

I'm going to be very busy these next few weeks, I think -- not that I'm complaining.

C&S Quote

Thanks to one of my readers, Richard Guy, I now have a copy of the Chivalry and Sorcery second edition boxed set to place on my shelf next to Space Opera. It's a game that's elicited mixed feelings in me since time immemorial, but it's also a game that I've long been interested in from afar. I am sure that the game's emphasis on a "realistic" medieval social structure has a lot to do with my ambivalent feelings toward it. This is a topic about which I'm likely to talk more in the coming weeks, as I delve back into the game (alongside Space Opera -- I am nothing if not a glutton for punishment).

Anyway, while skimming the game over the holidays, I came across a section I'd read before and thought to comment upon previously. It pertains to evil religions and their place in a roleplaying game campaign.
One thing should be noted, however. Depraved religions should not be offered up to Player-Characters as their faiths. This introduces a negative factor into the gaming and has profoundly bad psychological effects on some people. Players who get into demon religion in an FRP campaign sometimes go snake, as the saying goes. The GameMaster bears full responsibility and should be alert for signs of strangeness and then do something about it. The best course is to offer a positive experience, not the weird, bizarre and outright sick.
Never having seen the first edition of C&S, I can't say whether that section was included in it. I'd be surprised if it had been, as the 1983 text reads like it was designed to insulate the game from attracting the ire of Patricia Pulling, who began her one-woman crusade against D&D just the year before. If so, it's an intriguing historical snapshot from the days when tabletop RPGs were faddish enough to elicit public notoriety rather than shrugs of indifference.

Petty Gods News

I can now formally announce that Paul Jaquays has graciously agreed to write the foreword to Petty Gods. I'd alluded to this earlier, but I didn't want to say anything specific until it was confirmed. Now that it has been, I'm quite happy to pass the news along to everyone.

The deadline for submissions is 11:59 PM EST on Friday, December 31, 2010. I'd originally intended to be flexible with the deadline, but, since I've now got way more than 100 submissions -- honestly, I'm not even sure how many I have -- I'm going to be firm with the cut-off and not accept anything more after Friday evening, regardless of the quality or who it's from. I have a large pile of new submissions to work my way through, so please be patient while I do so.

Likewise, there are still illustrations available, if you'd like to donate a piece of art or two to this project. I'll be sending out more art descriptions to artists later today and tomorrow, so if you've not heard from me recently, hang tight a little longer. Christmas festivities have kept me away from my computer, so I'm even slower than usual to respond to these (and other) emails.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Tower of the Elephant

As any fan of Robert E. Howard will likely tell you, having to choose one's favorite Conan story is like having to choose a favorite among one's own children -- it can't be done. Moreover, any answer one gives to that question is inevitably the wrong one in some way, leaving aside a couple of real stinkers, like "Shadows in the Moonlight" and "Man-Eaters of Zamboula," a stated preference for which calls into question one's esthetic judgment. Consequently, I try not to use phrases like "my favorite Conan tale," even when, as in the case of March 1933's "The Tower of the Elephant," I really do enjoy it a great deal.

There's a lot to appreciate in this story, which describes one of Conan's early adventures in an unnamed city in Zamora. That Conan is still relatively young and inexperienced is, in my opinion, among them. Conan's at his most interesting to me when he's young and impulsive, making mistakes in an effort to prove himself (and prove others wrong). That's exactly what happens at the beginning of "The Tower of the Elephant," when the Cimmerian suggests to a group of experienced thieves that "desire ... coupled with courage" is enough to penetrate the Elephant Tower where "Yara the priest dwells ... with the great jewel men call the Elephant's Heart, that is the secret of his magic." Conan slays a Kothian who mocks him for his youthful bravado and then rushes headlong into the night to attempt the very thing his betters claim is impossible.

The eponymous Tower is located in the temple district of the city, which gives Howard an opportunity to briefly reflect on Conan's early attitudes toward religion and the gods:
He had entered the part of the city reserved for the temples. On all sides of him they glittered white in the starlight--snowy marble pillars and golden domes and silver arches, shrines of Zamora's myriad strange gods. He did not trouble his head about them; he knew that Zamora's religion, like all things of a civilized, long-settled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals. He had squatted for hours in the courtyard of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers, and come away in a haze of bewilderment, sure of only one thing, and that, that they were all touched in the head.

His gods were simple and understandable; Crom was their chief, and he lived on a great mountain, whence he sent forth dooms and death. It was useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies, which, in the Cimmerian's mind, was all any god should be expected to do.

I love the image of the young Conan, listening at the feet of philosophers and theologians as they dispute with one another about the mysteries of the cosmos and finding them all crazy in his view. And yet Conan spent hours with these men he felt were "all touched in the head," suggesting that perhaps he didn't entirely accepted his own avowed judgment. Regardless, this short passage goes a long way toward dispelling the notion that even the young Conan was all brawn and no brains and gave no thought to what might lie beyond this world we inhabit.

Another aspect of this tale I appreciate is Conan's adventuring companion, Taurus of Nemedia, "a prince of thieves," who's described as being as
tall as the Cimmerian, and heavier; he was big-bellied and fat, but his every movement betokened a subtle dynamic magnetism, which was reflected in the keen eyes that glinted vitally, even in the starlight. He was barefooted and carried a coil of what looked like a thin, strong rope, knotted at regular intervals.
I can't quite explain why but I've always liked that description -- again, perhaps because it runs counter to the notion that all of Conan's comrades are prehistoric bodybuilders and supermodels. Taurus is a big man, a fat one even and yet he is one of the greatest thieves of the Hyborian Age, one of whose fame even a novice thief like Conan has heard. Howard said that he based many of his characters on people he knew; I can't shake the feeling that Taurus was one of them.

It's enjoyable too to watch the younger and older thief discuss their chosen profession. There's a section where Conan rebukes Taurus for having made a mistake in his eyes that's especially well done.
"You made one mistake," said Conan.

Taurus's eyes flashed angrily.

"I? I, a mistake? Impossible!"

"You should have dragged the body into the bushes."

"Said the novice to the master of the art. They will not change the guard until past midnight. Should any come searching for him now, and find his body, they would flee at once to Yara, bellowing the news, and give us time to escape. Were they not to find it, they'd go on beating up the bushes and catch us like rats in a trap."

"You are right," agreed Conan.

That passage speaks volumes about both men and the stories of Conan's early days are filled with them -- when the impetuous Cimmerian errs and then learns from his misstep. Despite Conan's having "acted on a sudden impulse," Taurus tells him he likes "his grit" and suggests the two of them join forces to steal the Elephant's Heart, even though he has "never shared an adventure with anyone."

I'd love to speak more about what Conan and Taurus find within the Tower, but I'll refrain from doing so out of concern for those who might never have read this story. Suffice it to say that the Tower and its inhabitants are also among the many things I appreciate about "The Tower of the Elephant." When I first read the story years ago, I was genuinely surprised by what I read, both because it seemed so wrong and yet so right. Howard very effectively blends into his story elements that, taken out of context, shouldn't work and yet they do. More than that, he does so in such an effortless way that one is left wondering why more fantasy authors haven't followed his lead (or why those who have done so did it so poorly).

Harkening back to my opening comments, I won't say that "The Tower of the Elephant" is my favorite Conan story, let alone the best Conan story REH ever wrote. Neither is true, of course, but re-reading it for this post, I did find myself briefly thinking both thoughts. There's no question in my mind that it's a very good tale well told, filled with memorable situations and characters and situations. The young Conan and the experienced Taurus alone are worthy of remembrance and "The Tower of the Elephant" contains much more to recommend it than this pair of thieves. If you've never read it before, I highly recommend doing so. If you have, pick it up and read it again sometime. You might be surprised at how easily you can still enjoy it even when you already know how it ends.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Best Wife Ever

Husbands are prone, I suspect, to boast of their own wives as far surpassing those of others. I'm no different in that regard, the only difference being that, in my case, it happens to be true, as evidenced by the photo above. That's my wife's Christmas gift to me -- a complete set of all five printed star sector atlases for Space Opera, along with the three volumes of Seldon's Compendium of Starships, the Ground & Air Equipment guide, and the adventure Martigan Belt. Thanks to her I now own, with the exception of a few adventures, a complete set of Space Opera books, which only feeds my weird desire to inflict this old gem on my players sometime soon. (Don't worry, guys, I won't. Probably)

Christmas was very good at the Maliszewski household this year. I've of course gotten nothing done, a situation that's not likely to change much before next week, but I'll do my best to overcome my natural desire just to kick back and let things slide till the new year. In the meantime, continue to enjoy the holidays and I'll see if I can't get more posts up this week than I did the last one.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Christe Redemptor omnium,
Ex Patre Patris Unice,
Solus ante principium
Natus ineffabiliter:

Tu lumen, Tu splendor Patris,
Tu spes perennis omnium;
Intende quas fundunt preces
Tui per orbem famuli.

Salutis auctor, recole
Quod nostri quondam corporis,
Ex illibatâ Virgine
Nascendo, formam sumpseris.

Hoc præsens testatur dies,
Currens per anni circulum;
Quod solus a sede Patris,
Mundi salus adveneris;

Hunc cœlum, terra, Hunc mare,
Hunc omne quod in eis est,
Auctorem adventus Tui
Laudat, exultans cantico.

Nos quoque qui sancto Tuo
Redempti sumus sanguine;
Ob diem Natalis Tui
Hymnum novum concinimus.

Iesu, tibi sit gloria
Qui natus es de Virgine,
Cum Patre et Sancto Spiritu,
In sempiterna sæcula. Amen.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Open Friday: Remembering Fritz Leiber

You've probably noticed that I've been giving a lot of attention to Fritz Leiber recently in this blog and there's a reason for that. Today marks the 100th anniversary of his birth and I thought it important to highlight some of Leiber's best works as a way to remind us all of the debt we owe this man. As gamers, we're all very quick to acknowledge Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, and H.P. Lovecraft as our inspirations, but how often does Leiber's name get mentioned?

Not as often as it ought in my opinion, which is all the more inexplicable when you consider the fact that there are probably no two characters in all of fantasy literature that more closely map on to the notion of the generic Dungeons & Dragons "adventurer" than Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Perpetually on the make and on the run, the Twain are far better examples of "what characters do in D&D" than almost any other alternatives. Their closest (only?) real competitor is Conan and, fond though I am of Howard's great creation, I won't hesitate to say that I'd much rather spend time with Fafhrd and the Mouser than I would with the Cimmerian.

Part of the reason for that is Leiber's writing, which is equal parts exciting, witty, and sensuous -- in short, everything that swords-and-sorcery ought to be. Leiber's stories are frequently lighthearted but they are never lightweight. Amidst all the magic and mayhem are very human characters, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser chief among them, and I think this is what sets Leiber apart from most other writers of fantasy. That's not to deny his imagination in creating the world of Nehwon, only to point out that, in my opinion, his strength lay not in creating a setting so much as in creating believable characters who thought, felt, and act like real people, even, perhaps especially, when that means they behave in stupid, immoral, and self-destructive ways.

Best of all, Leiber never seems to have lost sight of the fact that he was telling adventure stories. Leiber had no grand philosophy to elucidate, no axes to grind, except the ones Fafhrd's northern brethren might employ against their foes. There's no bombast or grandiosity in his works and it's this, more than anything, that impresses me ever more as I read and re-read them. Leiber presents a great model, both for other writers and for fantasy roleplayers, each of whom has a natural tendency to take themselves too seriously. A little less blood and thunder after the fashion of Howard and a little less self-involved sub-creation after the fashion of Tolkien might do both fantasy literature and fantasy gaming a bit of good and, in that, Leiber lights the path.

Since this is Open Friday post, albeit a longer than usual one, feel free to share your experiences with Leiber in the comments below. I'm particularly interested in others who found Fritz Leiber a welcome antidote to the excesses to which we, as gamers, are prone.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Japanese Old School RPGs

Over at Compromise and Conceit, there's a really fascinating post about some old school English-language RPGs translated into Japanese, including Traveller, whose cover art you can see on the left here. For years I've been hearing about the Japanese editions of Traveller, but I've never actually seen any copies of them. Back in 1991, I attended Origins in Baltimore, my first and old time at that convention. I was heavily involved in Traveller fandom at that point and my first forays into professional writing were for the venerable SF RPG.

Thanks to my contacts, I managed to get invited to dinner with Marc Miller, Chuck Gannon, and the Japanese translators of Traveller. The translators were really fascinating to talk to and they talked a bit about how Western sci-fi was viewed in Japan. What I also learned was that the Japanese translators were free to draw on any Traveller materials they wishes for their translations, including those of GDW licensees, like Judges Guild, FASA, and Digest Group. So, the Japanese products weren't all word-for-word reproductions of the English originals. Sometimes, they consisted of material cobbled together from several sources.

I've long hoped to grab a copy of Traveller in Japanese, if only for the art, which I understand is quite different than its American counterpart. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be an easy means to do this. Ah well.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wanted: Chivalry and Sorcery, Second Edition

In keeping with my recent fascination with all things FGU, I've found myself wanting to acquire a copy of the second edition boxed set of Chivalry and Sorcery. For some reason, it's quite difficult to get a hold of a copy of the game through the usual avenues for old and out of print RPGs.

The thing is that, unlike many of the old RPGs I've been seeking out over the last couple of years, the odds of my ever actually playing C&S are slim to none, so I'm not desperate for a copy of this. Plus, I have a copy of the set on more or less permanent loan from a reader of the blog who kindly sent it to me over a year ago. Still, I'd like my own copy of the thing to add to my games library, as it's a very fascinating design and there are bits and pieces of it I can see myself swiping for use in other games.

So, if anyone out there comes across a copy at a reasonable price, I'd be grateful if you'd let me know. Thanks!

Retrospective: The Legend of the Sky Raiders

When I think about Traveller, I almost always think of J. Andrew Keith and William H. Keith, known fondly among fans of the game as "the Keith Brothers" (which is only apt, since they were in fact brothers). The reason I think of them is that much of the best material written for Traveller during its Golden Age was the work of the Keith Brothers, often writing under pseudonyms. The reason for this is that they were so prolific that their publishers were concerned about the appearance of using these two authors again and again, but their material was so good that the publishers could hardly turn down their submissions. In addition, William H. Keith is an illustrator of some talent, so not only could the Keith Brothers produce high quality rules and adventures, they could provide the art for them as well!

I'd be hard pressed to choose a single Keith-penned adventure as my absolute favorite, but, if pressed, I'd probably pick 1981's The Legend of the Sky Raiders, published under license from GDW by FASA in their pre-Star Trek, pre-Battletech, pre-Shadowrun days. The first part of a trilogy of adventures, The Legend of the Sky Raiders has a terrifically pulpy feel to it. The characters are hired by a young archeologist looking to continue her father's research into the origins of the mysterious interstellar warriors known as the Sky Raiders. According to the archeologist, the Sky Raiders originated on the backwater world of Mirayn, where the adventure takes place, and she needs assistants and guards to aid her in proving her father's theories, thereby solving a great historical riddle. Of course, many dangers await the characters: from the harsh environment of Mirayn's Outback to the native sophont species to other humans who don't want the archeologist to proceed with her investigations.

The Legend of the Sky Raiders pretty much encapsulates everything I like in my Traveller adventures. There are equal parts action and problem-solving, set against a backdrop in which human greed and rivalries are every bit as dangerous as any alien obstacles the PCs encounter. The adventure also nicely mixes the low-key with the epic. The archeological expedition is a surprisingly modest affair, but the implications of what the characters discover are far from modest -- implications that are explored more fully in the next two adventures in the series. Keith Brothers adventures were what I'd call "slow burn" scenarios: it took a while for them to get going, but, once they did, you were in for a bang.

That's still my preferred approach to SF adventures. Much as I love wild, over-the-top craziness, it's hard to maintain for very long, which is why I prefer adventures that are willing to move slowly and save the big bangs until lots of details have been firmly -- and carefully -- established. Even back in the day, there were some who found the Keith Brothers adventures a little too sedate for their tastes, but I wasn't one of them. In a very real way, the look and feel they established through their many adventures, supplements, and articles was Traveller and I'll admit that I've often found it hard to accept other interpretations of the game in the years since. That's why I particularly treasure my large collection of Keith Brothers products. Even three decades on, they still inspire me in ways that few others do.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Tale of Two Covers

When I think of Space Opera, I think of this cover by Bob Charrette, because it's the cover I remember seeing back in the early 80s when I first encountered the game:

There's a lot to be said about this cover, not the least being that I tend to forget that Bob Charrette, much like Paul Jaquays, frequently did illustrations as well as writing and design. There's also the fact that this cover likely represents the first and only time anyone has ever ripped off Battle Beyond the Stars in SF RPG art, as you can see if you compare the alien next to "Chewbacca" with the ones in this image from that Roger Corman film:

Despite that -- or maybe because of it -- I have a great fondness for this cover. It's an unashamedly gleeful cover that amply demonstrates Space Opera's "kitchen sink" approach to sci-fi gaming. It's the polar opposite of the way Traveller portrayed itself and the way many of its most vocal proponents (including myself) presented it to others.

Anyway, looking more carefully at the cover, I noticed something that had somehow eluded me all these years. Charrette's signature on the illustration reads "©82 Charrette after Gene Day." Now, Space Opera was first published in 1980 and lots of the interior artwork of its two rulebooks, not to mention those of its early supplements is by Gene Day (and Jeff Dee). But the only cover I'd ever seen was Bob Charrette's.

Or was it? As it turns out, I probably had seen Gene Day's original 1980 cover before, but hadn't been paying close enough attention to notice. Here's what it looks like:

As is obvious -- except to me, apparently -- the two covers are not identical and quite obviously so. The space girl in Day's original is much less conservatively dressed than Charrette's and her hair color is different (as is her pose). Day's bug alien is replaced with a T-Rex with a blaster and his robot companion and the Boris Karloff lookalike in the bottom left is replaced with a Kzinti wearing more or less the same getup. There are lots of other differences too, if you look carefully, which, as I said, I didn't.

I did some quick digging to find out just why the cover image was changed and I found a link to an interview with Charrette, where he explains the change:
It was a technical issue as I recall. There needed to be a new printing and the original artwork was unavailable, so a new painting needed to be made. Scott liked Gene's piece and I wanted to follow it closely as an homage.
Though Charrette doesn't say so, it's possible that the unavailability of Day's original had to do with the artist's unexpected death in 1982 from a heart attack.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Lean Times in Lankhmar

First published in the November 1959 issue of Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, Fritz Leiber's "Lean Times in Lankhmar" relates how
Once upon a time in Lankhmar, City of the Black Toga, in the world of Nehwon, two years after the Year of the Feathered Death, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser parted their ways.
The precise cause of their parting is never explained with certainty, though it may have involved "the proper spelling of Fafhrd's name" (though Leiber also suggests that "Bored and insecure men will often loose arrows at dust motes.") Thus separated, Mouser
entered the service of one Pulg, a rising racketeer of small religions, a lord of Lankhmar's dark underworld who levied tribute from the priests of all godlets seeking to become gods -- on pain of unpleasant, disturbing, and revolting things happening at future services of the defaulting godlet. If a priest didn't pay Pulg, his miracles were sure to misfire, his congregation and collection fall off sharply, and it was quite possible that a bruised skin and broken bones would be his lot.
Meanwhile, Fafhrd
broke his longsword across his knee (cutting himself badly in the act), tore from his garments the few remaining ornaments (dull and worthless scraps of metal) and bits of ratty fur, forswore strong drink and all allied pleasures (he had been on small beer and womanless for some time), and became an acolyte of Bwadres, the sole priest of Issek of the Jug. Fafhrd let his beard grow until it was as long as his shoulder-brushing hair, he became lean and hollow-cheeked and cavern-eyed, and his voice changed from bass to tenor, though not as a result of the distressing mutilation which some whispered he had inflicted upon himself -- these last knew he had cut himself but lied wildly as to where.
The short story, having established that the northern barbarian had become a devotee of a petty god and that the wiry thief had become involved in a protection racket that preyed on such devotees, proceeds much as one might expect, with the former boon companions becoming adversaries in a battle to which neither of them is truly dedicated -- certainly not dedicated enough to bring rain permanent harm upon the head of the other, at any rate.

Therein lies the brilliance of "Lean Times in Lankhmar." Although the general outline of the plot is one almost any reader of the Twain's adventures could guess in advance, the twists and turns it takes are delightfully surprising and, as usual, offered up with great wit. The story ranks among the best tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and, indeed, one of Leiber's best, in my opinion. It's breezily written yet strangely substantial, providing insight into not only the world of Nehwon and its characters but also into human nature, or at least Leiber's own perspective on it. Stories like this make a great change of pace from the often grimness and gloominess of much swords-and-sorcery fiction and, as I get older, I find myself preferring Leiber's prose above that of just about every other writer of fantasy.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


So much for my plan to get on top of everything I need to do.

I'm still busy with my revision work, which, with luck, will finish up today. Great though that is, it also means that I've fallen behind (again) in my posts and correspondence. I'll do my best to correct this before the day is through, but I make no promises. In the meantime, enjoy this piece of art for Petty Gods by Eugene Jaworski, depicting Qurgan Quagnar, the petty god of three-legged toads (submitted by Paul and Emmett Brinkmann).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Open Friday: Standard Characters

Do you have a standard character you play? That is, unless inspiration strikes you, is there a class/race/personality you turn to as your default? In D&D, I have a penchant for good (usually Lawful or Neutral Good) fighters and paladins, when stat rolls allow for it. In Traveller, I have a strange fixation on Naval medical officers (who may or may not also be intelligence operatives).

What about you?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Various Updates

I've been distracted over the last week and a bit as I plow through the final edits on the revision of the Thousand Suns rulebook. Consequently, my posting has dropped off (especially reviews, of which I have a backlog) and my correspondence has been much less quick than usual. If you've sent me something recently and I've not responded, give me a day or two more and I should get caught up.

The Petty Gods project is in fine shape, with close to 100 accepted submissions now. Speaking of which: if you've received an email from me confirming acceptance and the RPGNow codes I sent to you for the complimentary Labyrinth Lord PDFs do not work, please drop me a note so that I can fix the problem.

I'd like to thank all the artists who've been helping to ensure that this book looks absolutely awesome. Of course, with nearly 100 petty gods to illustrate, I can always use more assistance, so, if you've got some artistic ability and don't mind working pro bono on a community-based project, let me know.

In the meantime, to inspire you, here's a picture of Chulg, petty god of heptagons and funerary malachite, created and illustrated by Tom Fitzgerald of the Middenmurk blog.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Gygax Collection Up For Auction

A post over at Beyond the Black Gate alerted me to the fact that, according to another site:
Gail Gygax, Gary’s widow, and The Collector’s Trove are auctioning off Gary Gygax’s personal game collection. Bids for the first batch of 204 items close Wednesday afternoon (ET). The selection includes games he authored, games he played, and still shrink-wrapped comp copies of various games provided to him as TSR’s founder. Just a few of the highlights:
I didn't spend much time scouring all 200+ items up for auction, but my initial pass through them suggests there aren't too many "treasures" amongst them, at least in the historical sense. I mean, yes, it'd be cool to snag a shrinkwrapped first edition of Gamma World, but not at the price it's likely to go for given that it's from Gary's collection. So here's a chance for all you with more money than I to get hold of a gaming product once owned by a founder of our hobby.

Conan Article in Ares #2

While combing through my collection of Ares magazines, I discovered that, in issue 2 from May 1980, there's an article in it entitled, "Conan: Illusion and Reality." It's a four-page overview of the writings and characters of Robert E. Howard, with particular attention paid, naturally, to his famous Cimmerian. It was also written by L. Sprague de Camp. Compared to many of his other pieces about REH I've read, though, De Camp seems almost effusive in this one. I genuinely got the sense that De Camp enjoyed Howard's writings, even if he was utterly baffled by the man who produced them.

Consequently, the article is filled with De Camp's signature amateur psychoanalysis of Howard, suggesting, for example, that
Around 1933, Howard's characters began to show a more normal interest in sex. It may not be a coincidence that in the next year he began regularly dating a young lady.
or that
Many stories end with the entire cast, save one or two, dead. In one of his last stories he kills off absolutely everybody, leaving none to tell the tale. A psychologist could plausibly argue that such plots foreshadow Howard's own end.
And of course he couldn't resist concluding that Howard "never grew up."

We can be grateful that the long shadow De Camp cast across Howard's legacy is at last being chased away by some sunlight. Over the last few decades, a fuller picture of REH has emerged, a more complex one than the Peter Pan-cum-Oedipus that De Camp peddled for so long. That's why it was so weird reading this article; it's a blast from a past that's increasingly been discredited and forgotten -- and thank Crom for that.

Retrospective: Universe

I hesitate to call any roleplaying game that includes faster-than-light travel and psionics "realistic" and yet that's almost always the word that immediately comes to mind when I think of SPI's Universe. The other word is "unplayable," but, as we've hashed out on this blog many times before, I don't mean that seriously. I know very well that Universe is perfectly playable, but its rules, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the use of SPI's "case system" of organization (12.0, 12.1, etc.) always struck me as incomprehensible. And yet I kept returning to this game, again and again, trying to find some way to make it all cohere in my mind. I so wanted to understand and play Universe that I regularly inflicted it on my friends, even though I could never quite make it work.

Universe first appeared in 1981 in boxed form, although I never got the chance to see it till sometime after the release of the 1982 one-volume softcover edition, which I first saw at my local public library. The game was designed by John H. Butterfield, someone about whom I know nothing other than the fact that he maintains a website here. I have a vague recollection that Butterfield was associated with Victory Games, but I can't for the life of me recall a single game he designed other than Universe. Also listed in the credits for design are Edward J. Woods (again, unknown to me) and Gerard C. Klug, who'd go on to create James Bond 007, one of the best genre emulative RPGs ever written.

Universe presents itself as a "serious" science fiction RPG. Yes, it does include the aforementioned FTL travel and limited psionic abilities, but otherwise, it tries very hard to stick to known scientific principles -- firm, if not hard, science. This feeling is supported by the fact that the game uses a real star map depicting a 30-light year sphere centered on Earth. For my money, the world generation system is one of the best parts of the game. Starting from the stellar data depicted on the star map, the GM then creates an entire solar system with a series of dice rolls. Though extensive, the system is strangely easy to use, resulting in a very complete picture of what conditions are like on every world in a system. There's a similarly strangely easy to use system for mapping each world through the use of templates that even an esthetically challenged dolt like myself can employ. It's a fun little sub-system, perhaps my favorite world generation system in any RPG.

Alas, the rest of the game is not so surprisingly easy to use. Character generation is a complex process, in which factors such as a character's homeworld play a big part in determining his ability scores (called "potentials" in Universe). Characters then acquire skills in a couple of ways: through education and study and through professions. The professions are an odd bunch, covering such obvious careers as "colonist" and "merchant," but also including bizarrities like "handyman." Combat is quite complex, if only for its surprise and initiative rules alone, never mind the other factors that prevented my ever being able to run a single combat that bore any resemblance to the rules as written. On the other hand, I found the social interaction rules both interesting and intelligible, so I tended to focus my abortive attempts to play the game on diplomacy and intrigue.

Ultimately, though, Universe's biggest flaw was that it simply wasn't clear what characters did in the game setting. There was only one interstellar state, centered on Earth, and there were no intelligent alien species. Exploration and intra-human disputes would seem to be the primary source of adventures, but, if so, it would have been nice if the rulebooks had been more explicit about this. The sample adventure, "Lost on Laidley," involves the search for explorers lost on a world in the Orionis system, but how many times can that sort of scenario be played in a single campaign? As a younger person, I was looking for some guidance about sources of conflict and tension, the kind of stuff that would inspire adventures. Alas, there was little of that, which made Universe an even harder sell to my circle of friends than even its complex and convoluted rules already had.

Yet, I still have a great fondness for Universe. I think there's the core of a terrific SF RPG within it and I regularly think about trying to prune away all the complexity and flesh out its setting in order to get to that core. But that's a lot of work for a game I've never successfully played, especially when there are so many other alternatives that I can use more easily without that degree of kit bashing. So, for me, Universe will always be an also-ran science fiction roleplaying game, one that held (and continues to hold) my fascination, but that I don't think I'll ever attempt to play again. As inspiration for other games, though, I think it still has value and that ought to count for something.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Another Petty God

As the artwork for Petty Gods keeps rolling in, I can't help but share it. Here's another amazing piece by Mark Allen -- hire him if you have any projects that need art! This is Jhillenneth, the Mother of Horrors, a petty god submitted by Matt Fischer.

Mathematical Question

A question to my knowledgeable readers: what's the correct way to represent a range of negative numbers? That is, if I have a table in which getting -1 through -2 yields one result and -3 through -5 yields another, how do I represent the ranges? I ask because it doesn't seem right that I should use "-1 - -2" and "-3 - -5." Do I use parentheses or brackets or some other way to separate the negative numbers from the dash between them?

Any help here would be appreciated. Thanks!

Where's This From?

Has anyone ever seen this photograph of H.P. Lovecraft before?

I found it on this blog entry and was immediately struck by the fact that it looked completely new to me. Given that the image is entitled "lovecraft-newphoto.jpg," I can only assume that it is, in fact, a new photograph of the Old Gent, recently discovered somewhere.

If so, I think that's rather cool. I simply love the notion that, nearly three-quarters of a century after his death, people are still unearthing new records and information about this man. I also think it's one of the more flattering photos of Lovecraft I've seen.


As quite a few people correctly pointed out in response to yesterday's post on the focus of the old school renaissance, a goodly number of the RPGs published since the dawn of the hobby are still in print in some fashion or another. Just as importantly, most of these RPGs haven't changed all that much since their initial appearances, which is markedly different than D&D. For example:
  • Tunnels & Trolls: I never played much T&T and what little I did play was back during the days of the 5th Edition, which is still in print and available from its original publisher. For that matter, the game's original designer is still actively involved with his creation. About how many other RPGs can you say that? (There are other editions of T&T after 5th, which diverge a bit from the game I knew as a young person, but, even so, the divergence is much less than between the TSR and WotC versions of D&D).
  • Call of Cthulhu: The biggest change this game underwent was between 1st and 2nd edition, I believe, and that happened way back in 1983 -- more than a quarter-century ago. Since then, the game has remained continuously in print from its original publisher. Each new "edition" is really just a new printing, sometimes with a new layout and art, along with errata and other minuscule changes. CoC remains my ideal RPG in terms of the way it's been sold and developed over the years. I wish more companies employed Chaosium's model.
  • Traveller: The classic SF RPG is a weird case. Except for short periods of time, there's always been some game calling itself Traveller in print, but they're not all wholly compatible with one another, either mechanically or thematically, though the differences are small in some cases. Some have noted that, despite the welter of editions and rules sets, Traveller fandom isn't as prone to the "divisive silliness" that D&D generates. Sadly, I think the reason for that is that, by and large, Traveller is a game people talk about but don't play, so the rules are secondary to its setting (and setting assumptions).
  • RuneQuest: There was a period between the end of RQ III and the publication of Mongoose's version when no BRP-driven version of the game existed. Now we have both MRQ II and OpenQuest (both of which I own and both of which I ought to review), so the situation is much improved. I have very mixed feelings about MRQ II overall, but they're the same kind of irrational grognardly complaints that impel me to turn my nose up at ascending AC and a single saving throw in Swords & Wizardry, not anything that ought to be taken seriously.
  • FGU: With the noteworthy exception of Chivalry & Sorcery (which is in a weird publishing limbo at the moment), almost the entirety of FGU's catalog is still available for purchase through the original publisher and at very reasonable prices. In a few cases, such as Aftermath, there are even some new materials being published for these games!
  • Villains & Vigilantes: V&V is alive and well and in the hands of its creators, Jeff Dee and Jack Herman. It's inexpensive and there's new material being created for it.
What other major old school games are still available these days, in one form or another? I'm sure I've missed some important ones.

Monday, December 13, 2010

One More

The artwork I'm getting for Petty Gods is so good that I can't help but show it off. Here's an illustration of St. Vineria of the Eyes by Fr. Dave of the Blood of Prokopius blog. I absolutely adore the style used here.

Petty Gods Update

There's still a little over two weeks till the deadline I set for Petty Gods submissions, so there's time left if you'd like to be involved. I've gone through most of the submissions and accepted about 90 of the I-don't-know-how-many submissions I've gotten. Thanks to everyone who's submitted so far.

I've also gone through nearly all the offers of help with illustrations. Thanks to all the artists who've stepped up to the plate to ensure that this project looks as good as it'll read. Here's another sample to whet your appetites, this time from Thomas Denmark, who illustrated Garrett Weinstein's submission, Azwa, the petty god of giant stone heads:


A common complaint about the old school renaissance is that it's too "D&D-centric," the unsaid implication being in many cases that either a) there's not an interest in old school gaming broadly conceived and therefore no one should pay the OSR any heed or b) there's an active effort to restrict discussion of old school gaming just to D&D, because "old school" only makes sense in that context (and we're a bunch of meanies who hate everything that isn't D&D).

To this complaint I can only offer two related observations. First, I regularly post about games other than D&D and, with very few exceptions, those posts garner significantly fewer comments and views than D&D-related ones. Second, I don't think this is at all odd, given that, now as then, Dungeons & Dragons remains the proverbial 800-lb. gorilla of the hobby. It's the game most people play (or have played) and so naturally generates far more interest than, say, Stormbringer or Space Opera or whatever other old school RPG I'm keen to talk about on any given day. There's neither a conspiracy nor blinders at work here, only reality.

I'll add here that I think that many, though not all, of the complaints come from folks who aren't actually paying much attention to the current state of the old school renaissance. There are quite a few new old school games in the works right now, as well as a couple that are already available, like Kevin Crawford's awesome Stars Without Number, that reveal an interest in both old school themes and, more importantly, design principles beyond the creation of yet another D&D retro-clone. Likewise, blogs and forums devoted primarily to non-D&D old school RPGs, such as Tunnels & Trolls, RuneQuest, and Villains & Vigilantes, to cite just three obvious ones, are starting to pop up all over the place. That's a good thing in my opinion and, while the expansion of the OSR beyond D&D might be slower and less impressive than some might wish, it is occurring and I fully expect it to continue to do so in the years to come.

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Sadness of the Executioner

When I was in college, I had a music teacher who told the class about about another music teacher who felt that the strangest question anyone could be asked was whether he liked Beethoven's symphonies, because "everyone likes Beethoven's symphonies." For that reason, he suggested that, should anyone ever be asked that question, he should respond with mock sophistication by saying, "Yes, I like them, but only the odd numbered ones."

I feel increasingly like that music teacher when it comes to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, a feeling that's only grown since I took up reading those later stories that I somehow never read as a younger person. Taste being what it is, I suppose it's possible that someone, somewhere could read one of the Nehwon tales and not enjoy doing so, but I've never met one in real life. These adventures are near-perfect in achieving what Leiber set out to do and, while it's true that I do like some of them more than others, they're all impressively good.

A case in point is 1973's "The Sadness of the Executioner," which first appeared in Flashing Swords #1, an anthology edited by Lin Carter. A short story in every sense of the word -- it's only eight pages long in its original appearance -- "The Sadness of the Executioner" focuses on the character of Death and, like so many Leiber stories, opens in a fashion that makes it difficult to put down once begun:

There was a sky that was always gray.

There was a place that was always far away.

There was a being who was always sad.

Sitting on his dark-cushioned, modest throne in his low, rambling castle in the heart of the Shadowland, Death shook his pale head and pommeled a little his opalescent temples and slightly pursed his lips, which were the color of violet grapes with the silver bloom still on, above his slender figure armored in chain mail and his black belt, studded with silver skulls tarnished almost as black, from which hung his naked, irresistible sword.

He was a relatively minor death, only the Death of the World of Nehwon, but he had his problems. Tenscore flickering or flaring human lives to have their wicks pinched in the next twenty heartbeats. And although the heartbeats of Death resound like a leaden bell far underground and each has a little of eternity in it, yet they do finally pass. Only nineteen left now. And the Lords of Necessity, who outrank Death, still to be satisfied.

Let's see, thought Death with a vast coolness that yet had a tiny seething in it, one hundred sixty peasants and savages, twenty nomads, ten warriors, two beggars, a whore, a merchant, a priest, an aristocrat, a craftsman, a king, and two heroes. That would keep his books straight.

Much as I would love to say more about the specifics of the story after this point, I cannot. To do so would be to spoil what is, in my opinion, one of Leiber's finest and most subtle tales. What I can say is that the story's strength is not so much in its actual plot, though there's little question that there's great pleasure to be had in watching Death's scheming to meet his quota for the Lords of Necessity. For me, though, the appeal of "The Sadness of the Executioner" lies in the surprisingly affecting sketches of some of the individuals whom Death uses to fill out his cosmic balance sheet and the depiction of the lives they lead.

Leiber is generally thought of as a master portraitist and storyteller rather than a world-builder. This story suggests that perhaps that assessment is unfair, for, in the span of but a few pages, he reveals the breadth and depth of the world of Nehwon through some of its inhabitants as they face Death. I'm glad, in a way, that I only just read this story for the first time as an older person, because I doubt I'd have cared much for it as a young man. Death isn't something about which young people think much and, when they do, their thinking is rarely the stuff from which literature is made. But Leiber was over 60 years old when he wrote this story and it shows in the tale's combination of melancholy and gallows humor -- simultaneously mourning and laughing at man's response to his own mortality.

I highly recommend this story, which was later included in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser collection, Swords and Ice Magic, first published in 1977.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Small but Telling Thing

Here's a bit from the Space Opera adventure Martigan Belt, published in 1981 and written by Stephen Kingsley that really struck me:
TRANSHUMANS: May have an empathy as low as 2. Transhumans do have a higher average Psionics score, add 3 to PC score*. Note: it is sometimes useful to keep Psionics scores hidden from the players until such time as they might become 'awakened'.

*These are ways that the designer runs Transhumans in contradiction to the formal Space Opera rules.
I don't know why but reading that asterisked section just floored me.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Experience and Advancement

I was reading Space Opera yesterday, starting from the beginning rather than skipping around to read topics of immediate interest to me, when I came to section 1.9, entitled "Winning in Space Opera." After starting off with boilerplate blather about there being "no winners or losers in a roleplaying game," we get to something a little more interesting:
Each player will have his own idea of what it means for his PC to 'win' or 'lose.' The player must decide for himself. If he aims at making Admiral in the StarForce, that is the chief priority in his PC's life, and the PC will conduct himself accordingly. If it is to have his own StarShip and to set out on the life of a Free Trader, well and fine. But there will be no 'easy' measures of superficial 'success' like experience points and experience levels. Success is something that satisfies a person at the moment. There are always new horizons, new worlds to see and win, new adversaries to best in combat or hard trading, new adventures to excite one and make life worth living. He will likely get there too, if he is competent.

We suggest that players try to get rid of the hyper-competitive spirit that marks some kinds of role gaming. The measure of a character is whether or not the player gets him to the goal that the player/character sets for himself. Then, having attained that goal, the way is opened to 'retire' from the game and start a new character as a replacement or to seek still greater goals.

One wins in role-play in the manner that one 'wins' in life -- you get to where you are going. And that can include a lot of living a lot of countryside!
The italics above are mine to emphasize the most immediately interesting thing the cited paragraphs, namely that Space Opera has no mechanical system of character advancement, aside from in-game training, which is both time-consuming and potentially expensive. Traveller employs similar assumptions, as did many Basic Roleplaying-derived RPGs to some extent, but there's no philosophizing to justify the design decision. Having played a lot of Traveller, I've never had any problems with the idea characters who didn't improve mechanically much over the course of play or who did so at a glacial pace. In fact, as I get older, I find I like the idea more and more, although, like all such things, I don't think it's appropriate for all game systems. I think a more generalized XP system works well in D&D for the most part, given its literary inspirations.

I am amazed, though, how commonly used D&D's approach is. Most RPGs I've played use experience points that can be applied broadly without regard for how the XP was gained. It's a conceit of gaming I'm more than willing to accept, but, when you think about it, how much sense does it make that a character should be able to use XP gained from an adventure where he spent most of his time fighting evil wizards to raise his skill in, say, diplomacy? Or better yet to suddenly manifest the ability to pilot a boat? It becomes even more bizarre when you factor in things like "story awards" or "roleplaying awards." Again, I understand the logic behind such things, but, if the bonus XP you get from skillfully portraying your character as a conflict-averse nebbish can be used to gain fighting skills, then, really, what's being rewarded here?

I'm starting to ramble already, which just goes to show I'm not entirely sure what makes for a good experience and advancement system in a RPG. I can only say that, from a "realism" perspective, limited and slow advancement based on actually practicing the skill in question (or studying) makes the most sense to me. Most other approaches strike me as game artifacts, none of which inherently make more sense than any other. I often see D&D's XP system lambasted as "illogical" and, in truth, there's some weight to that criticism. But it's a criticism that rings pretty hollow if one's own preferred system gives XP for "good roleplaying" or "number of hours played per session," to mention just two types of alternate XP awards I've encountered.

All this makes me wonder why more games haven't adopted something like the systems in Space Opera or Traveller. Why do we need XP and advancement at all?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Open Friday: Games Not Played

Here's a nice simple one question: what one game that you have never played would you really like to play in the near future. Bonus points if it was published before 1990.

I continue to be busy with the final stages of a manuscript revision, so I'll be scarce. However, I'm nearly done and that means regular posting, as well as updates on Petty Gods, should be soon be returning.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Speaking of Ares Magazine ...

I was looking through the handful of issues of Ares, including the inaugural issue. Issue 1 isn't all that interesting in most respects (at least to me), but I did find great amusement in some of the snarkily negative reviews it includes within its 40 pages. Of particular interest are the occasional bits of gaming history and philosophizing included in the reviews, many of which lend support to notions currently being discussed in old school circles.

From Scott Bukatman's review of Star Trek: The Motion Picture:
With Star Trek, Roddenberry's trick has been to wear the mask of the humanist as he plays with his Erector set. The scale of the television series arrested his at comfortable and still interesting level, but the new film has finally removed the mask.
Here's David Ritchie's review of Atlantis: 12,500 B.C.:
This goober was designed for the aesthetically retarded. The components include a map, of sorts, showing the world of 12,500 B.C., replete with a few extra continents, perforated counters reminiscent of the worst of Zap Comix, and the aforementioned single rules page. If you are into the turgid nonsense churned out by Erik von Daniken and company, this should please you to no end. The premise is that Mu and Greece are locked in a death struggle with Atlantis in which such exotic weapons as hovercraft, rocket bombers, and flying saucers vie with (presumably spear-armed) infantry, giants, and mythological monsters. Double uggh! The rules are so sketchy as to be non-existent, and if it weren't for the fact that this regurgitation of low-grade pulpdom's worst sins is so unintentionally funny, the game would long ago have been confiscated by the Surgeon-General as hazardous to our mental health. By all means, do throw your money away on this.
From Eric Goldberg's review of Metamorphosis Alpha:
Perhaps Roger Corman (king of science fiction B-movies) will bid for the film rights to the game.
From David Ritchie's review of Rivets:
This one is simple, and should be played by players with the average intelligence of an electric can opener.
From Eric Goldberg's review of Dungeons & Dragons:
The actual game, however, qualifies for federal relief as a disaster area. If anyone can discern organization in the rules, he is eminently qualified to make a living as a cryptologist. The design shows a (hopefully unintentional) contempt for the English language and classical mythology. Matters become completely confused when combinations of typographical errors and game phraseology conspire to make phrases such as "% liar" ... Many of the people who play the game regularly have spent much time at redesigning the game to fit their particular needs, so that it is rare to find two groups playing the same version of the game. TSR has attempted to mend matters by issuing a more complex version of the original, but the revision creates as many problems as it solves. Though D&D is a mediocre game supported by a great idea, it will become the all-time wargame best seller in the not too distant future.
Here's Eric Goldberg's review of Lankhmar:
An accomplished author does not necessarily make a good game designer, even when he is designing a game based on a world of his own creation. Fritz Leiber has kindly provided the proof of this statement in this simple, lifeless game. Players become characters from one of Mr. Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and gallivant across an area map of the land of Lankhmar. The characters must fulfill geases (i.e. quests), gaining much wealth for doing so. While a game cannot be expected to capture fully the mood of a story which it simulates, Lankhmar manages to strip the Leiber stories of interest. Many wargame companies now understand how to simulate history properly, but few know how to recreate a story. The basic mistake committed in Lankhmar is the design approach: the stories depend on a great of uncertainty (or mystery) which is absent in the game.

Tékumel Miniatures News

Over at the Eurkea Miniatures site, there's a piece of news that might be of interest to fans of the excellent line of 28 mm Tékumel miniatures sculpted by the good folks over at The Tékumel Project:
Enthusiasts of M.A.R. Barker’s fantasy setting, Tékumel and the Empire of the Petal Throne, will know Eureka Miniatures have been producing and supporting this range of 28mm miniatures for a while now. However after a certain amount of amicable soul searching with Howard Fielding, the range’s principal backer and owner, we have agreed to surrender production of the figures back to Howard. From the end of this year production of the Tékumel figures will re-locate to Canada, which will ensure that fans of the genre (who are mostly North America based) will be given the fullest attention in the future.
More information can be found at the first link above.

Thanks to Peter Byrne for the pointer.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Retrospective: Other Suns

First, a little history, both personal and about the hobby.

Long ago, there was a game company called Simulations Publications, Inc., or SPI for short. Though primarily a wargames company, SPI also produced several roleplaying games, such as DragonQuest and Universe. It also published, starting in March 1980, a bimonthly periodical called Ares, "the magazine of science fiction and fantasy simulation." Like its "big brother," Strategy & Tactics, Ares included a new game with every issue, complete with maps and counters. SPI ran into financial difficulties and went bankrupt in 1982, at that time being acquired by TSR. That's a sad moment in the history of the hobby, one with wide-ranging consequences better described elsewhere. For a brief time after TSR's acquisition Ares survived as an independent periodical, but it was eventually folded into Dragon as "The Ares Section," which many gamers remember fondly for Jeff Grubb's "Marvel-Phile" column for Marvel Super Heroes.

Me, I remember it mostly for its SF gaming articles, including a neat multi-issue series devoted to describing the Moon in a variety of science fiction RPGs. One of these, entitled "Luna, the Empire, and the Stars" was written by Niall C. Shapero and concerned itself with a game I'd seen ads for in previous issues of Dragon, Other Suns. Since it was a SF RPG published by FGU, I'd always assumed that Other Suns was basically Space Opera 2.0. I'd never actually seen a copy of the game, let alone read one, so all I had to go on were those ads and this article written by the game's designer. The article presented a sci-fi setting in which humanity's first forays into the stars were under the direction of an empire descended from a US/Soviet military dictatorship straight out of Jerry Pournelle's "CoDominium" stories. Just as interesting was that the article used H. Beam Piper's "Atomic Era" dating system, which took 1945 as the starting point of a new calendar. Based on what I'd read, I had every reason to believe that my initial assumption was correct and that this 1983 RPG was simply a different iteration of Space Opera -- hopefully with better organization!

It wouldn't be until a decade later that I finally got my hands on a copy of Other Suns and discovered that it wasn't quite like I had imagined. In terms of its game system, there were some vague similarities with Space Opera, mostly in terms of its complexity. Characters had twelve randomly determined characteristics (including Length, Build, and Size), in addition to twelve more derived characteristics. There are no character classes, as in Space Opera, only a wide selection of skills, including psionics. Personal combat -- though not starship combat, strangely -- and world creation are both lengthy affairs, with many tables, one of which I reproduce below just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about:

Even more bizarre was a table of military ranks, with 263 grades! That's a level of detail that even Space Opera never felt necessary. Still, like Space Opera, Other Suns was a very complete game, covering just about everything you'd want in a SF RPG of that era. It was written in a very dry, almost academic tone and employed the wargames-descended case system (i.e. 1.1, 1.1.1, 1.1.2, etc.) for organization, making the book somewhat off-putting to readers familiar with other styles. Had that been the full story of Other Suns, I doubt I'd have even bothered writing this retrospective, since, truth be told, its rules are pretty unremarkable examples of their time and the default setting, which had so intrigued me in that Ares Section article, is only lightly described in the two volumes of the boxed set.

But that's not the full story of Other Suns. To fully appreciate the shock and surprise I experienced when, a decade after its release I first got hold of a copy of this half-remembered game from my youth, you need to see this:

Those are the alien species found in Other Suns. That's right: it's a furries game. Now, you have to remember that Other Suns came out in 1983, years before I'd (thankfully) ever heard the term. As I understand it, the game predates most of the major milestones in the development of this peculiar fandom, though someone better versed in such things could probably provide more details (better yet: don't). I have no idea what, if any, relationship Niall Shapero has to furry fandom. I can only assume that he was an "old school" fan rather than someone who jumped on the bandwagon after it had become more mainstream.

Regardless, I had not expected to see illustrations like the one above. Those ads in Dragon gave no evidence that Other Suns included anthropomorphic animals as its alien species. The article I read made no mention of them. For all I knew, Other Suns was yet another undistinguished military SF RPG that liberally borrowed from classic science fiction, as Space Opera had done before it. I expected a game that drew on Piper and Pournelle, not a game where you could play a telepathic fox-man. What makes Other Suns unique, though, is that it's both. It's a military SF game in the classic mold that just happens to include furries for its aliens.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.