Wednesday, November 30, 2011

At Last (or Nearly So)

Just in time for the end of the month, it looks like the revised Thousand Suns rulebook is finished and ready to go to the printers. I'm doing a last minute eyeballing of the PDF proof, but, barring the discovery of any errors or typos I can detect in the next little while, I can finally scratch this project off my to-do list and get back to work on my many other delayed ones. I fully expect to find some huge and obvious error after the book is actually printed up, but such is life. In the meantime, I'll bask in the conclusion of a year-long obsession that's been brought to a very happy conclusion, thanks in no small part to my indefatigable layout guru, Adam Jury.

Anyway, onwards and upwards -- or pluen kaj supren, as they say in Lingua Terra. More on this once the book is available for sale, which I'm hoping should be sometime within the next few weeks.

Charisma as Divine Favor

Charisma is probably the most misunderstood and abused of D&D's six ability scores. When I was a younger man, Charima was widely misunderstood to be a synonym for "physical attractiveness," a claim belied by Unearthed Arcana's later introduction of a seventh ability score, Comeliness. To be fair, this misunderstanding was widespread and abetted to varying degrees by various D&D products, such Deities & Demigods, where very high or very low Charisma scores inspired worship and fear respectively, not to mention untold numbers of beautiful or handsome NPCs who possessed concomitantly high Charisma scores. Later, as the importance of henchmen and hirelings was downplayed, Charisma came increasingly to be viewed as a "dump stat" without much mechanical utility in the game.

Charisma is, of course, a transliteration of the Greek word χαρισμα, which means something like "gift of grace." It's an old word sometimes used in pagan contexts but that gained new life and depth of meaning when it was used by the Greek translators of the Hebrew scriptures known to history as the Septuagint. In that context, charisma came to mean "divine favor" and is usually applied to someone whom God has blessed in a unique and powerful way. This meaning was one shared by the writers of the New Testament, who, of course, were familiar with the Septuagint.

This prolog is intended to lay the groundwork for an odd thought I had today. In Greyhawk, paladins have only two requirements: they must be of Lawful alignment and they must have 17 Charisma. There are no other expectations about an OD&D paladin, in contrast to AD&D's much more strenuous ones (five out of the six ability scores have minimums). I'll admit that that sometimes seems odd to me, even though I adopted it in my Dwimmermount campaign. Of all the ability scores to have as an entry requirement, why Charisma? Why not, say, Wisdom? What exactly does Charisma represent that makes it a particularly good determinant of what character qualifies as a paladin?

That's when the notion of Charisma as divine favor struck me as a possible explanation. Now, it's not a perfect explanation by any means. There are lots of problems with it, chief being how divine favor ties into being a good leader of mercenary hirelings. On the other hand, high Charisma does make monsters less likely to attack you on sight, too, and that I can buy as a sign of godly influence. Of course, part of me then starts to wonder about how this divine favor might manifest more generally (or not). What about a character with only 15 Charisma who's not a Lawful fighter? Does he get some benefit, too, and, if so, what is it?

And that's where my train of thought derails and I decide not to think any more about this topic -- even though I know I will.

Absurdity and Wonder

Nick Bogan kindly reminded me of a post I intended to make yesterday, about an article by Paul Mason in issue 32 of his Imazine online 'zine. In that article, "No Limits," which is an irreverent but nonetheless insightful piece about the history of our hobby, Mason spends some time discussing the growing importance of "ecology" (or "the living dungeon") in the construction of dungeons, starting around 1979 or 1980. I intended to make a post about it, because it touches on yesterday's post about "The Ecology of the Piercer." Here's what Mason has to say on the subject:
In Dungeons & Dragons, you see, there was (is, for all I know) a monster called the Piercer. It would hang from the ceiling of a tunnel, pretending to be a stalactite, preparing to drop on unwary travellers. It was ridiculous. What happens if you apply the principles of the living dungeon to this monster? The answer was a hilarious article by Chris Elliot and Dick Edwards, ‘The Ecology of the Piercer’. Chris and Dick followed it up with other Ecology articles on such monsters as the Catoblepas, and the Land Shark. All were funny, but the biggest joke was yet to come. A copy of DragonLords found its way into the possession of Gary Gygax, and he, enjoying the original article, had it reprinted in The Dragon. But, and this is a big but, everyone took it seriously! It spawned a series that ran in The Dragon for years.

Now many conclusions can be drawn from this. One is about the remarkable absence of a sense of irony to be observed in many role-playing gamers, especially Americans. But that’s neither here nor there. The one I’m interested in is the fact that a series of articles exploring the ecology of monsters (a trait also to be observed in Glorantha, especially with reference to trolls) inevitably removes the sense of the marvellous, the sense of ‘magic’ from the game’s monsters. You end up playing a game about a conflict between species on a planet exhibiting an extreme variety in its biology. Finally it dawns on you that your game is more David Attenborough’s World of Nature than Beowulf, and you wonder why you’re playing these games.

It is ironic that Empire of the Petal Throne, a game which is set on a planet with conflict between a wide variety of strange species, nevertheless has far more sense of mystery and strangeness about its ‘monsters’ and its ‘underworlds’. In fact, I’d say that, although it is by no means limited to this, EPT represents both one of the very earliest games to lend themselves naturally to the living dungeon, and one of the very finest expressions of that approach.

So the living dungeon, which was brought in to reduce the Sense of Absurdity, ended up undermining the Sense of Wonder.
There's a reason why I say that the Silver Age sprang in part from a decadent interpretation of Gygaxian naturalism, one so concerned with building "realistic" fantasy worlds that it inadvertently leeched away much of fantasy's power and appeal. This is a tendency in the hobby of long pedigree and is, in some sense, a logical consequence of the very first time an orc was given game stats or a magic item quantified in terms of its benefits to a player character. It's not, I think, an inevitable consequence, but the excesses of the Silver Age grew organically from roots put down at the very start of the hobby. They were responses to genuine concerns on the part of devoted gamers and, while I decry them in hindsight, my own acceptance of them at the time cannot be denied. As old men sometimes say of outlandish fads from their youths: it was the style at the time.

Retrospective: Murder on Arcturus Station

Many people attribute Traveller's lasting success to the fact that it was one of the first science fiction roleplaying games published and there may be some truth to that. However, I think it had more to do with the fact that it was supported by many excellent adventures, starting with its first. With very few exceptions, Traveller had a larger selection of excellent adventures than almost any other RPG of which I can think, a terrific example of which is 1983's Murder on Arcturus Station by J. Andrew Keith.

As its title suggests, Murder on Arcturus Station is a murder mystery set on Station Three within the asteroid belt orbiting the star Arcturus. The murder victim is Ringiil Urshukaan, president of Lamarck Minerals, whom the adventure assumes has recently hired the PCs in order to discover the location of a missing ore carrier. The adventure takes as granted that the PCs succeeded in this prior mission, learning that the theft of the ore carrier was part of a plot by disgruntled employees of Urshukaan. As it turns out, there are quite a lot of disgruntled employees at Lamarck Minerals, thus laying the groundwork for the main adventure.

What sets Murder on Arcturus Station apart from other adventures of its kind is that it's actually a toolbox. Beyond the information noted in the previous paragraph, little else is set in the adventure. Instead, each referee is expected to decide for himself who killed Urshukaan, why they did it, and how they accomplished the murder. Consequently, the adventure is a little longer than most those published for Traveller -- 52 pages -- but those extra pages are put to good use, providing the referee with everything he needs to create his own unique murder mystery. Thus, there's a map of the station itself, along with details on 57th century forensic science, background on the victim and all nine suspects. Each of those nine suspects is given background of their own, as well as a possible motive, means, and alibi. This makes it possible for the referee to reuse this adventure many times, each with a different murderer, motive, and means.

Most intriguing of all is the fact that Murder on Arcturus Station allows for a tenth possible murderer, namely one of the player characters. It's an unusual possibility that I never had the opportunity to use back in the day and I regret that now. Naturally, such a possibility depends on planning beforehand between the referee and the player, but that's easily accomplished. The only real issue I have with this possibility is that, if the PCs are all pregenerated ones, the revelation that one of them is in fact a killer won't have very much impact, or at least it'll have far less impact than if it were a long-established PC who's revealed to be the perpetrator. On the other hand, I'll admit that the use of an established PC isn't very likely in my experience, not unless his player has either decided to retire the character in style or the referee intends to make another Traveller adventure, Prison Planet, the new centerpiece of his campaign.

Murder on Arcturus Station is a lot of fun for the referee. It does a lot of the heavy lifting in the creation of a murder mystery adventure while still providing enough options that the referee feels as if he's co-creating the situation he's presenting to his players. In addition, adventures like this are, I think, a big part of why Traveller succeeded so well. I don't mean the toolbox aspect of it, though that is indeed attractive. Rather, I mean that Traveller was never just about dogfights and shoot 'em ups with bug-eyed aliens. There was a depth and variety to its adventures, some of which offered up surprisingly complex issues as fodder for roleplaying. It's something I continue to admire about Traveller and that has continued to influence me as I write my own science fiction adventures.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Amusing Space Opera Quote

One of the first products released to support FGU's Space Opera was an adventure module entitled Martigan Belt. It was published in 1981 and written by Stephen Kingsley, who, judging by his "Dedication & Thanks" must have lived on Long Island, as he talks about Waterloo Hobbies in Stony Brook (no surprise, since I believe this was Scott Bizar's original game store). In any event, Kingsley's introduction includes a couple of sentences I found amusing:
Welcome to the universe of Space Opera. Space Opera presents a more complex set of rules than average, but also more complete. That's not an apology since life is also complex.
That's probably about as succinct a description of both Space Opera and the philosophy behind its design as any I could find. It's also why, despite my unhealthy fascination about the game, I have zero interest in actually playing it.

Old TSR Ad

Tim Hutchings recently sent along a scan of an old TSR advertisement from the pages of Asimov's Science Fiction. Some of you have no doubt seen it before, but, even if you have, it's worth looking at again.
What's fascinating to me is that TSR advertised Dungeon! side by side with Dungeons & Dragons, as if they considered the former game to be a lead-in to the latter. That's not an unreasonable idea, especially since that's how I entered the hobby, but I don't know how common my experience was. Back in 1979, the idea of a roleplaying game was a pretty alien one and I doubt my friends and I would have understood it without the intermediary of Dungeon! Seeing this ad again makes me wonder if perhaps TSR was aware of just how unlike previous games D&D was and published Dungeon! in part to be a quasi-intro product to Dungeons & Dragons.

The Articles of Dragon: "The Ecology of the Piercer"

When issue #72 of Dragon (April 1983) was released, it contained, in addition to the usual assortment of not particularly funny April Fool's articles, a very short article -- one page of text plus a one-page illustration -- called "The Ecology of the Piercer." Written by Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards, it had originally appeared in the pages of the UK fanzine Dragonlords. That in itself is pretty remarkable, as I cannot recall another Dragon article that was in fact a reprint of something that had appeared elsewhere (though I'm sure my readers will quickly point out many examples that falsify my memories). More remarkable, I think, is how modest an article "The Ecology of the Piercer" is and, yet, it was the acorn from which a mighty oak would eventually grow.

The idea of monster ecology articles is now so well entrenched in the minds of long-time D&D players that it's almost unnecessary to discuss the actual contents of this seminal article. More to the point, "The Ecology of the Piercer" is, as I just noted, a very short article, written in the form of an address given by the wizard Pyrex to the Wizards Guild of Kabring, where he discusses the physiology and habits of the piercer. There are no game stats included with the article; instead it focuses on trying to make sense of one of the game's more bizarre creations. This the authors do by postulating that the piercer is a mollusk using a stalactite as protective covering/weapon in much the same way that a hermit crab does with seashells. It's a pretty simple idea but a clever one that goes a long way to lending plausibility to what would otherwise be just a goofy monster.

The response to "The Ecology of the Piercer" was very positive, so much so that nearly every issue of Dragon  that followed it for many years included an "Ecology of ..." article in its pages. These articles were foundational to the Silver Age, being sophisticated (or decadent, depending on one's point of view) outgrowths of Gygaxian naturalism. I think it worth noting, too, that the origin of this series was in the UK, where RuneQuest rivaled and may have even exceeded Dungeons & Dragons in popularity. Among RQ's many virtues was its dedication to creating and presenting fantastically plausible monsters, with 1982's Trollpak probably being the epitome of the genre. I suspect that Trollpak had an influence on "The Ecology of the Piercer," as evidenced by the illustration that accompanied the article. It showed a dissected piercer that reminded me, even then, of the famous illustration of a troll's innards I've discussed previously.

I liked the early "The Ecology of ..." articles more than the later ones, mostly because they were short and focused more on explaining away goofiness in a reasonable manner than in providing the definitive portrait of a particular monster's nature. They were thus much more easily "plug and play" than what came later, which increasingly seemed to rely on very specific presentations of iconic monsters, often to the point where those portrayals became canonical at the expense of earlier alternatives. But then that was one of the characteristics of the Silver Age and, judging from the popularity of these articles, it fed a real hunger many gamers -- or at least Dragon readers -- had.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Jandar of Callisto

It's been the tedious refrain of this blog over the last nearly four years that originality is overrated. Given that, it's probably no surprise that, despite his complicity in L. Sprague de Camp's crimes against the Hyborian Age, I still have a fondness for Lin Carter's fiction. Some might surmise that this fondness is in fact a carryover from my appreciation of Carter's editorship of the influential Ballantine Adult Fantasy series launched in May 1969. There may be some truth to that surmise, but the simple fact is I do enjoy Carter's fiction. I make no claim that it's timeless or insightful, never mind original, but it is fun -- fun in the way that only shameless pastiche can be.

And Jandar of Callisto is pretty shameless. Published in 1972, this novel tells the story of Jonathan Dark, who, while exploring the ruined city of Arangkhôr in Cambodia, is transported to Callisto, the moon of Jupiter, known to its inhabitants as Thanator. If this sounds familiar, it should and not just because it mimics Edgar Rice Burroughs's stories of Barsoom. Also in 1972, Carter wrote another novel, Under the Green Star, which tells the story of a different Westerner who travels to the Far East and uncovers the means to travel to another world. Like both Burroughs and Under the Green Star, Jandar of Callisto is told in the first person by its protagonist, supposedly by means of a manuscript that came into Carter's hands and that he has dutifully transcribed and published so that the world may learn of Dark's remarkable adventures beyond the Earth:
That the most far-reaching and momentous historical events often spring from minute and seemingly inconsequential accidents is a fact which I can attest from my own experience.

For the past four months now-insofar as I have been able to measure the passage of time-I have dwelt on an alien world, surrounded by a thousand foes, struggling and battling my way through innumerable perils to win a place beside the most beautiful woman in two worlds.


As I sit, painfully and slowly setting down these words with a quill pen and homemade ink on a sheet of rough parchment, I cannot help but wonder at the obscure vanity which prompts me to record the tale of my incredible adventures-a tale which began in a lost city deep in the impenetrable jungles of southeast Asia and which ventures from there across the incredible distance of three hundred and ninety million miles of infinite space to the surface of a weird and alien planet. A tale, furthermore, which I deem it most unlikely any other human eye will ever read.

Yet I write on, driven by some inexplicable urge to set down an account of the marvels and mysteries which I alone of all men ever born on earth have experienced. And when at last this narrative is completed, I will set it within the Gate in the hopes that, being composed entirely of organic matter, paper and ink as well, it may somehow be transported across the immeasurable gulf of interplanetary space to the distant world of my birth, to which I shall never return.

In the night sky, at certain seasons when the Inner Moons are on the other side of our primary and the starry skies are clear, I can (I fancy) see the earth. A remote and insignificant spark of blue fire it seems from this distance; a tiny point of light lost amid the blackness of the infinite void. Can it truly be that I was born and lived my first twenty-four years on that blue spark-or was that life but a dream, and have I spent all of my days upon this weird world of Thanator? It is a question for the philosophers to settle, and I am but a simple warrior.
As I'll readily admit, there's scarcely an original idea in Jandar of Callisto. Yet, as you read the above passage, I hope you got some sense of the gusto with which Carter spins his tale. There's an adolescent seriousness to it that creeps up to but never quite crosses the line into parody that I find charming. Others might reasonably disagree and I won't attempt to argue the point, since, at earlier times in my own life, I too might have felt Jandar of Callisto risible rather than delightful. But if you're looking for some light reading (the book is just a little over 200 pages long) that recalls Burroughs and his better imitators, you could do far worse than this novel. If nothing else, Carter ably demonstrates how to do pastiche well and, as such, Jandar of Callisto makes a great study for referees everywhere.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Apropos of our recent discussions about the terms "hobbyist" and "professional," Zak has some excellent advice over at his blog. Do take the time to read what he has to say.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Open Friday: Hobbyist vs. Professional?

To say that there are differences of opinion in the old school community is to state a truism. Yet, sometimes, it's worth looking at some of those differences to see what insight might be gleaned from them. A good case in point is what I've come to see as the "hobbyist vs. professional" debate. You see, a lot of us -- correctly, I think -- believe that, somewhere along the line, the industry part of the roleplaying world went off the rails, to the detriment of the hobby part. There are naturally many divergent points of view on precisely when this derailing occurred, but, regardless, I don't think this perspective is controversial among the vast majority of us promoting old school gaming these days.

Where the controversy often appears concerns the question of professionalism and indeed the very idea of "the industry" itself. Understandably, there are some gamers who feel that the industry that grew out of the hobby lost its way when it "went professional." They equate the amateurish look of those great early games and adventures with the term "hobbyist" and see the move away from that look toward a more "professional" one as the source of the derailing they decry. I think there's some truth in this, but I'm not sure the derailing had anything to do with production values or "professionalism."

For me, "hobbyist" refers not esthetics so much as origin. That is, whence did game X or module Y come? Was it created to fill a slot in a production schedule or did it arise out of play? That's the big difference between, say, Gygax's Giants-Drow series and the Dragonlance modules. The former were professional write-ups of adventures based in actual play, whereas Dragonlance was conceived from start to finish as an effort to sell modules. Certainly Dragonlance borrowed elements from adventures and campaigns that were actually played (like Jeff Grubb's deities), but there was no such thing as a Dragonlance campaign prior to its being written up for sale, unlike nearly adventure Gary Gygax wrote during his time at TSR.

I won't go so far as to say production values or esthetics are irrelevant to this question. However, I will say they're of secondary importance to me the origin of the content being sold. If someone is selling a rules set or an adventure or a campaign setting, I always think it better if it has some connection to actually having been played rather than merely being an ivory tower brainchild of a writer or designer looking for something to sell. So, I don't see hobbyist and professional as necessarily opposite qualities. I can imagine lots of very slick, professionally-made hobbyist products. That doesn't bother me and, given the tools technology have given us over the last few years, it's easier than ever to make hobbyist products that look every bit as good as something made by "professionals." What I don't want, though, are products made solely as consumer goods. When that started happening in the RPG industry, that's where things started to go off the rails.

This is a more rambling and open-ended question than usual, but I'm curious to hear people's thoughts on this. What does "hobbyist" mean to you and do you see it as antithetical to "professional?" Do you care if a RPG product is just someone's thought experiment and has little or no connection to actual play or is that not an issue for you? As ever, try to remain polite and respectful in the comments. This could be a potentially contentious topic, but there's no need for it to be acrimonious.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "Who Gets the First Swing?"

There's that word again -- "realism." As I've noted before, it (and variations on it) were a commonplace of Dragon articles after 1983 or thereabouts. This instance of it appears as part of the subtitle to the article "Who Gets the First Swing?" which appeared in issue #71 (March 1983). The article, by Ronald Hall, is an attempt to produce a "simple yet realistic" alternative to the convoluted and much misunderstood initiative system presented in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. I think almost anyone who ever attempted to run combat in AD&D by the book would have been sympathetic to Hall's intention.

Initiative in AD&D, particularly when combined with the equally obscure rules regarding surprise, was one of those areas where, in my experience, most players back in the day simply ignored the official rules and adopted a variety of house rules. I know I did. My system was a variation on rolling 1d6 per side with modifiers and a dash of common sense. D&D's combat has always been pretty abstract, so it never made much sense to me to fixate on making one of its aspects more "realistic." Unfortunately, in this period of D&D's history, that opinion wasn't held by all, least of all those who wrote articles for Dragon. "Realism" was all the rage.

Hall introduces an attack priority system that makes good use of weapon speed factors -- another aspect of AD&D many gamers dropped -- in order to model advantage such "faster" weapons have in combat. His system is an individual initiative system rather than a group initiative one, which, right there, means it's going to be much more complex than the commonest house rules used at the time. Add to this that there many, many modifiers to a character's attack priority, such as weapon length, dexterity, size, hit dice, among others, and you have a recipe for a system that, despite its claims does require "more work." The other issue is that, like many such systems, Hall distinguishes between manufactured and natural weapons, which necessitates that there be seven pages of supplementary stats to cover the modifiers for all the creatures in the Monster Manual. What one is to do with the Fiend Folio monsters is never addressed.

Articles like this were no doubt extremely well-intentioned, but, even at my most obsessive, I never felt the desire to use them. I understood the logic that leads to creating an individualized initiative system with lots of modifiers and special cases, but, at the end of the day, the result always seems like more work than is necessary for a combat system as abstract as D&D's. I'll readily grant that AD&D is a mess when it comes to initiative and the other complexities it bolted on to OD&D's "alternative combat system." However, articles like this strike me as cures worse than the disease.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


The new issue of Entertainment Weekly includes an article about the upcoming Alien prequel (or whatever the heck it is) Prometheus. I have to admit that, despite my better judgment, I'm actually very interested in this film. Ridley Scott is a very hit or miss director in my opinion, which is why I was wary when I started hearing rumors a few years ago that he was, in one way or another, returning to the universe of his 1979 sci-fi class, Alien, about which I've gushed on innumerable occasions on this blog.

I'm still wary. I have come to loathe prequels, reboots, and re-imaginings, especially when they are made decades after the originals. But I'd dearly love to see something good done with or in the style of the original Alien. This still, along with others, gives me hope that it'll at least be esthetically pleasing, if nothing else. There's definitely a '70s sci-fi vibe to this image and I like that. (The actors are still too obviously attractive, though, but that's Hollywood for you). Even if the movie stinks, it might have some nice visuals I can use as inspiration for Thousand Suns.

Pathfinder Online

I've gotten quite a large number of emails from folks asking me my opinion about the recent announcement that Paizo had licensed its Pathfinder Roleplaying Game setting, Golarion, to a new company, Goblin Works, for the creation of a massive, multiplayer, online game. Truth be told, I don't know what to think. Aside from the fact that I don't play Pathfinder, I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the world of video games, let alone MMOs, I've played a few MMOs over the years -- I was once quite an avid World of Warcraft player -- but so are a lot of gamers out there. So, take anything I say here with a huge grain of salt.

Firstly and most obviously, there's the current state of the MMO genre. Everywhere I look, MMOs are going free-to-play, which suggests that it's getting harder and harder to convince gamers to shell out $15 a month for a subscription. World of Warcraft seems to be the only major MMO that hasn't gone completely free-to-play and even it has a rather open-ended free trial (to level 20). Now, it may well be that many of these free-to-play MMOs are still profitable. Indeed, I suppose they'd have to be on some level or else they'd have shut down by now. Even so, could a new MMO based on Pathfinder's setting turn enough profit in a crowded marketplace to be viable?

This brings me to my second thought: Pathfinder and Golarion. From what little that has been said so far, it would appear that, despite its name, one of the big selling points of this MMO will be its setting. In part that's probably because the OGL does not cover video games, meaning that Paizo can't use many (most?) aspects of its D20-derive ruleset in a video game. Or at least that's my understanding. I suppose it's possible that there's some way around this or that I've misunderstood the OGL all these years, but I don't think so. That means that Pathfinder Online won't be using the Pathfinder RPG system but something else, whatever that may be. Now I like Golarion as well as the next guy. It's a very well-done "generic but flavorful" fantasy setting that includes tons of terrific nods both to the hobby's past and to its pulp forebears. But is it interesting enough in itself to drive interest in this game?

So what is special about this MMO? According to Lisa Stevens:
It's going to focus around the characters you create, in a world that will grow out of your interactions, developing the way you choose to develop it. It takes place in the River Kingdoms of Golarion, with our own Kingmaker Adventure Path providing some of the inspiration. There will be an overarching storyline, and dungeons aplenty to explore, but where Pathfinder Online is going to thrive is in the ability of each of you to leave your mark on the world. Do you want to build a castle that you own and control? Go for it. Want to start a town and rally folks to your banner? Do that. Do you want to ally with the neighboring villages to form a new nation—or perhaps wage war on them instead? The choice is yours. Want to become the most feared bandit in the River Kingdoms? The path is available. Want to become the greatest armorer that Golarion has ever seen? All it takes is hard work. If you can imagine doing something in the world of Golarion, we want you to be able to do that in Pathfinder Online.
That makes it sound to be me as if Pathfinder Online is going to be somewhat sandbox-y but with a big dash of EVE Online's "fun with economics" model thrown in. No one should be surprised by this possibility, since Ryan Dancey is attached to Pathfinder Online and he worked for EVE's publisher, CCP, for the last few years. Could it be that Dancey thinks he's found a way to translate EVE's inexplicable popularity into a fantasy setting?

Finally, the fact that Pathfinder Online is being produced by a new company, Goblinworks, ought to give anyone pause. Creating a new MMO (or indeed any video game) isn't easy, so there's always a worry when you see a startup company taking on a big project like this. It's true that Dancey has experience at CCP, as does Mark Kalmes, who's also involved. But you need a talented and experienced team of people to launch an MMO and I wonder if Goblinworks will be able to assemble one.

Those are my initial thoughts based on very little information. As ever, I wish the Paizo crew all the best and hope this proves a worthwhile avenue for them, but I have my doubts.

RIP Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011)

Distracted though I may be with the final tweaks to Thousand Suns, but I am not so distracted to have failed to notice news of the death of science fiction writer Anne McCaffrey, who died on Monday at the age of 85. McCaffrey began writing in the early 1950s, but almost everyone who knows her name knows it because of her long-running "Dragonriders of Pern" series. That series got its start in the October 1967 issue of Analog with the novella "Weyr Search." Over the course of the next 40 years, she would write 22 novels and numerous short stories set in the world of Pern, along with many more written singly or as parts of other series. McCaffrey was widely recognized for her talents, winning both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1968, the first woman to win the first and the first to win both in the same year.

I can't count myself among McCaffrey's legions of fans, but I know and respect enough people who can that I thought it worth taking a moment to remark on her death. Entering the hobby in the late '70s as I did, it was nigh impossible to go to a bookstore and not see Pern novels on display, both in the science fiction section but also toward the front of the store. Along with Terry Brooks, McCaffrey's name was ubiquitous in those bygone days when I regularly visited bookstores looking for the latest issue of Dragon or new products from my favorite RPG publishers. In a weird way, even though I wasn't a reader of her books, she was still an inspiration to me, because it showed me that it was possible not only to be a successful writer of "genre" books but that it was possible to make it onto the New York Times bestseller list to boot (they used to post those lists in the stores in those days, too). I am sure I'm not the only one who was similarly inspired.

Rest in peace, Ms McCaffrey.

Retrospective: The Volturnus Trilogy

This week, I'm going to deviate from my usual practice of writing posts on each adventure module in a series, in part because I'm impatient and in part because I don't think it's fair to evaluate the 1982 Volturnus modules for TSR's Star Frontiers individually. Moreso than most modules in a series, Crash on Volturnus (by Mark Acres and Tom Moldvay, with Doug Niles), Volturnus, Planet of Mystery (Acres and Moldvay) and Starspawn of Volturnus (also Acres and Moldvay) don't stand up very well on their own. Taken together, they represent a single epic adventure that draws great inspiration from classic tales of pulp science fiction. To anyone familiar with Tom Moldvay's prior works, this should come as no surprise, as he clearly drank deeply from the well of pulp literature. It's precisely for this reason that I think the Volturnus trilogy has often been judge so harshly in some quarters. Acres and Moldvay weren't trying to present a plausible, hard SF scenario but rather a rollicking pulp romp -- and they succeeded brilliantly in my opinion.

The first module in the series, Crash on Volturnus, was included with the boxed set of Star Frontiers itself. I didn't post a cover image of it here, since it consisted of a two-sided map -- one a hex map of the titular planet and another the bridge of the Serena Dawn, a starliner on which the PCs are traveling to the newly-discovered world of Volturnus. The PCs are in the employ of a nearby planetary government to determine what happened to a prior expedition sent to the unexplored planet. Shortly after arriving in the Volturnus system, the starliner carrying the PCs is attacked by space pirates, forcing them to escape in a lifeboat and crash land on the planet below. They find the planet largely inhospitable, full of deadly creatures and hazardous terrain. Eventually, they make contact with intelligent beings -- the octopoid Ul-Mor -- who will aid them only if they complete a dangerous manhood ritual that will initiate them into their tribe.

The second module, Volturnus, Planet of Mystery, picks up where the previous one left off, with the PCs now members of the Ul-Mor tribe. The PCs learn from their hosts that others like themselves have been seen in the company of another intelligent race, a tree-dwelling one called the Kurabanda. The Ul-Mor guide the PCs to the Kurabanda lands and wish them luck in their quest. As they get closer, they discover a raging battle between the monkey-like Kurabanda and space pirates, perhaps the same space pirates who marooned them on this planet. If the PCs gain the Kurabandas trust, they learn that the prior expedition had been captured by the "demons from the sky" (i.e. space pirates) two weeks previously and were taken back to their base. A raid on the base reveals the existence of yet another intelligent race, the weird Edestekai, many of whom have been enslaved by the pirates as workers in their mines. In the process of rescuing the Edestekai, the PCs find the commander of the lost expedition, who was apparently saved by a "servant of the gods," according to the superstitious Edestekai. These servants live in an underground complex far away. Should the PCs investigate -- and why wouldn't they? -- they find a place with highly advanced technology, including robots. If successful, they learn that the place was built by one more intelligent species, the Eorna, who were the original inhabitants of Volturnus and are now nearly extinct. Unfortunately, their actions causes a signal to be transmitted that alerts the vilainous Sathar (who, it seems, warred with the Eorna in the past) of events on Volturnus, thereby setting up a final showdown in the next module.

That next module, Starspawn of Volturnus, concerns efforts by the PCs to unite the Ul-Mor, Kurabanda, and the Edestekai into an alliance to fight against the Sathar invasion fleet, which is determined to wipe out all intelligent life on Volturnus (Why? That's just what bad guys do). The PCs learn from some of the surviving Eorna that they raised these three races to sentience as a possible counter against the return of the Sathar. Unfortunately, the races proved mutually hostile to one another and slow to adopt the technology of their benefactors. Now that the Sathar are on their way -- far sooner than the Eorna expected -- Volturnus' doomsday is upon it. Each race has a test the PCs must undertake to win their assistance. Failure makes the final confrontation all the harder. Along the way, they also discover that some of the Eorna's robot servitors have attained sentience, too, and this fourth faction might also be swayed to fight against the Sathar.

What follows is a massive, multi-front melee brawl involving up to a dozen individuals and vehicles per side per combat. As you may recall, the Star Frontiers boxed set came with lots of cardboard counters and maps. Starspawn of Volturnus finally gives you the chance to not only use them (that was possible in prior modules, too), but to use a lot of them at once. It's hard to describe what joy this brought me as a younger person. Sure, "realists" can kvetch about the fact that there are so few units in each engagement and thus hardly reflective of a true planetary invasion, but I could have cared less. The battles were fun and they felt appropriately like snapshots in a much larger conflict.

Is the Volturnus trilogy silly? Perhaps -- but only if you're expecting something other than pulp sci-fi from these modules, which you shouldn't be. Star Frontiers was never a "serious" SF RPG, "serious" in this case meaning a deep and insightful exploration of, well, anything. It was, however, a very enjoyable game of space opera adventure that took a lot of cues from Saturday matinee serials of the '40s and '50s. That's not to say you couldn't do more with Star Frontiers than that, but I think it more than a little unfair to expect 2001: A Space Odyssey (insert obvious joke here) when the game wasn't written with "cerebral" SF in mind. Star Frontiers was inspired by the same books and movies as was Star Wars and ought to be judged on that basis rather than any other. To my mind, when Star Frontiers was good, it could be very good and the Volturnus trilogy is very good indeed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nearly There

Over the last few weeks, my attention has often been elsewhere, as I worked to get the revised Thousand Suns rulebook ready for the printer. My layout guy sent me this photo to show me where things stand right now:
With luck, it'll all be done very soon and I can get back to work on my long-overdue Dwimmermount and Petty Gods projects. But Thousand Suns has priority, since I've been working on it for over a year now and seeing it finally released with the clarity and presentation I've always wanted will be a dream come true.

The Articles of Dragon: "Falling Damage"

And so it begins.

Issue #70 of Dragon (February 1983) saw the appearance of "Falling Damage" by Frank Mentzer, the first of what would turn into several articles discussing this strangely contentious subject. I say strangely contentious because, until this article appeared, I don't think the "right" way to adjudicate falling damage was ever a topic of serious conversation, at least not among the gamers I knew. The LBBs provide rules for falling damage hidden away in the section on aerial combat in Volume 3, where it's stated simply that
for every 1" of height a rider must throw one six-sided die for damage occurring from the crash, i.e. a crash from 12" means twelve dice must be rolled and their total scored as points of damage
That passage is the basis for what was the standard interpretation of falling damage in every form of D&D -- 1d6 damage per 10' fallen. That is, until this article, where Mentzer claims that the rules in AD&D were hastily written by Gary Gygax and were, as such, unclear as to his actual intent. Instead of 1d6 damage per 10' fallen, the claim is advanced that Gary actually meant 1d6 damage per 10', with the dice being cumulative in effect. That is,
1d6 for the first 10' feet, 2d6 for the second 10' (total 3d6 for a 20' fall), 3d6 for the third 10', and so on, cumulative. The falling body reaches that 20d6 maximum shortly before passing the 60' mark.
According to Mentzer, this new system -- which in fact Gygax had "always used" -- is "definitely more realistic." (emphasis mine) There's that dreaded word, the hallmark of the Silver Age. It's something that, at the time, meant a lot to me, but that, as the years have worn on, I find myself caring less and less about. In a game where people can throw balls of fire from their hands and adventurers become tougher to kill as the result of slaying monsters and looting treasure, fretting over whether a 60' fall or a 200' fall deals 20d6 damage seems bizarre. More to the point, after nearly a decade of "doing it wrong" (Mentzer's words), did the difference matter enough to make the change?

Regardless, the claim that Gygax had "always used a geometrically increasing system for damage in AD&D games" strikes me as somewhat suspect. I suppose it's possible that, sometime after the LBBs were published, Gary changed the way he dealt with falling damage in his home campaign. But, if so, I find it surprising that he never noticed that in every other D&D product published after 1974, the 1d6 per 10' rule is the norm. Indeed, I'd hazard a guess that, if one were to look through the various modules and articles Gygax penned between 1974 and 1983, we'd find instances where the 1d6 damage per 10' rule was in fact used. There's a fun project for an enterprising soul out there!

Monday, November 21, 2011

REVIEW: Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest

If there's a recent old school game that I feel hasn't gotten the attention it deserves, it's Mutant Future from Goblinoid Games. I personally think that's a shame, because, while it is a very good retro-clone for playing Gamma World, it's actually much more expansive than that. The combination of its compatibility with Labyrinth Lord and its lack of a specific setting makes Mutant Future a good foundation on which to build a variety of gonzo science fantasy campaigns. Ironically, those two qualities may also partly explain why the game hasn't received the love I think it ought to have received, which is why I've thought for a while now that what Mutant Future needed was a solid campaign supplement to show off its possibilities.

Apparently, Charles Rice had similar thoughts and decided to do something about it by producing Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest, the first installment in a gonzo post-apocalyptic setting that takes its esthetic cues from Westerns, but whose content shows a mix of influences, including UFOlogy. I'll admit that I was quite prepared to dislike Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest. Being a big fan of Westerns, I tend to be more than a little snobby about the way the genre is so often misused and caricatured, especially in crossovers with other genres. And while a post-apocalyptic setting is a very good fit for Western themes and esthetics, I was nevertheless apprehensive. I've seen too many poorly executed Western-influenced creations not to assume the worst.

For the most part, my apprehension was baseless. Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest is a well done little setting, described in a 24-page PDF and selling for $1.99. One of its best qualities is that it takes itself seriously without being self-serious. That is, this isn't a silly setting, with mutant horses acting as lawmen or anything like that, but it's also not a setting that's so straitlaced that a funky mutant animal or plant character is an impossibility. Silliness is a big danger in post-apocalyptic settings, especially those that adopt a 50s B-movie approach to mutation as Mutant Future (and Gamma World) does. On the other hand, a big part of the fun of games like Mutant Future are the wildly improbable mutants. There's thus a fine line between inadvertently straying into parody and bleeding all the fun out a post-apocalyptic RPG setting -- a line that I think Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest walks pretty well.

This supplement details an area of indeterminate size situated in the southwest of the former United States. I say "indeterminate" because its single map doesn't include a scale, though any familiar with the region should quickly recognize its major locales: Rhino (Reno), Salt Lick (Salt Lake City), Tusk (Tucson), Vega (Las Vegas), etc. The lack of a scale isn't a deal-breaker by any means, especially when one can easily consult a real world map to determine how far Reno is from Salt Lake City, but it is an annoyance. Fortunately, there's a lot of clever and inspiring ideas in Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest to make up for this oversight, chief among them being the implication that extraterrestrials from Groom Lake/Area 51 are present in the post-apocalyptic world, now freed from the oversight of the defunct US government and engaged in mysterious activities throughout the Southwest.

Of course, the aliens present only one possible source of conflict in the setting. In addition to the struggles between various settlements, there's the rising power of New Aztekia, led by the Lord of the Sun, not to mention several power groups independent of any settlement. There's Hell's Heart, a coalition of criminal gangs; the Nightgliders, who seek the power of man-made flight; the 88th, a collection of human and android soldiers seeking to rebuild America; the Marshals, itinerant self-appointed keepers of law and order; and Uforia, which seeks contact with the aforementioned aliens. Throughout Rice peppers the supplement with adventure hooks and off-handed references to people, places, and events intended to serve as inspiration to the referee in making the Southwest his own setting.

Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest is written in clear, occasionally evocative language, though not without typos and editorial errors. It includes both black and white and color art throughout. I could have done without the colored backgrounds on each page, since they sometimes made the text harder to read. Much like Blackmarsh, Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest is more of a sketch of a setting than something more complete. Whether one views that as is a virtue or a flaw depends on what one expects out of a setting supplement. I myself was largely happy with its level of detail, though I will admit that I was disappointed that some aspects of the implied setting -- New Aztekia, for example -- get very little detail. Likewise, this product is almost entirely stat-less, which no doubt broadens its utility to players of other post-apocalyptic games, but it does somewhat call into question its being touted as a Mutant Future supplement.

In the end, I like Nuclear Sunset: The Southwest; there's the germ of a fun setting in here. I just wanted more, even if, at $1.99, it's actually quite a bargain. Perhaps Charles Rice will return to the Nuclear Sunset setting and produce additional products that offer some of the details I wished had been included in this one.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a sketch of a setting to use as the basis for your own post-apocalyptic roleplaying game campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest either in post-apocalyptic settings or using someone else's setting for your own campaign.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Flame Winds

If you've never heard the name Norvell W. Page before, that's perfectly understandable. Most of Page's prodigious pulp output was published under the pseudonym of Grant Stockbridge. That name, too, may not be well known outside of pulp aficionados, but I hope that the name of the character Page wrote about under that nom de plume isn't wholly unfamiliar: Richard Wentworth AKA The Spider. Like the Shadow, the Spider was a masked crime fighter with an Asian sidekick, in his case a knife-throwing Sikh named Ram Singh. Also like the Shadow, the Spider used two .45 automatics and, like the comic hero the Phantom, he left a brand on the foreheads of criminals he defeated. Page wrote dozens of stories about the Spider during the 1930s and 1940s.

This post is not about the Spider, however. Rather it's about Page's one and only sword-and-sorcery character: a red-haired and bearded Scythian gladiator whose birth name is (improbably) Amlairic, but who is known in the arenas of 1st-century Rome as "Hurricane John," because of his deadly skill with arms. By means of a somewhat dubious etymology, Page claims that the "hurricane" in John's sobriquet was passed down into history from Greek into Latin and thence into other European languages as the word "prester." Yes, that's right: this Scythian gladiator is in fact the basis for the medieval legends of the Asiatic Christian priest-king, Prester John.

John appears in two stories by Page, the first of which "Flame Winds" was published in the June 1939 issue of Unknown. "Flame Winds" tells the story of John's abandonment of his former occupation and his travels eastward in search of a kingdom to rule. If that sounds a bit like Conan and his imitators, I suspect that that's not a coincidence, though I also imagine that Harold Lamb's historical tales were also a source of inspiration. It's worth mentioning that John is a Christian, who wears a fragment of the True Cross around his neck as a magic charm. That said, John's Christianity is a bit ... odd. He serves the "new God called 'Christos'" in part because Christos sought only more followers and not wealth, making him a fine deity for a would-be conqueror such as he. John boldly boasts that his eventual subjects "shall believe, as I believe, no matter what throats must be slit.”

After wandering through a number of Asian lands, including China, where he steals the emperor's favored concubine -- a fine model of Christian virtue this Prester John is! -- the ex-gladiator comes to walled city named Turgohl. Turgohl proves to be a dangerous place for a freebooter such, because it is ruled by a cabal of seven wizards, who command deadly flame winds from the surrounding desert to slay their foes. Undeterred by this, John teams up with a band of thieves and a dethroned princess to lead a revolt against the wizards and attempt to claim Turgohl in the name of Christos and his own ambition.

If "Flame Winds" sounds a little strange, it is. Page clearly intended his work to be historical fantasy, as he provides some thin rationalizations for many of its supernatural occurrences (like the wizards' flame winds), but, unlike Lamb's books, the grounding in real world history is also thin, which makes it hard to take the story seriously. "Flame Winds" reads more like a Conan pastiche than anything, which probably explains why Roy Thomas chose to adapt the tale in issues 32-34 (November 1973-January 1974) of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian comic. I actually think the story works better set in the Hyborian Age, though I'll admit that there's nonetheless a certain charm to Page's hamfisted attempt to "explain" the legend of Prester John by means of a historically-based sword-and-sorcery tale.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Boardgame Night (or Afternoon, at Any Rate)

Yesterday, one of the players of the Dwimmermount campaign and I headed downtown to a room above a restaurant to meet up with people we'd never met before to play some boardgames. Before I talk more about this, I should preface my comments here with the admission that, while I enjoy boardgames a great deal, my experience with those published over the last decade or so is quite minimal. I think the most recent games I've played are variations on Risk -- I love Risk -- and Blokus, along with games geared more toward children that I've played with my kids. So, in general, when I think "boardgame," I'm thinking of stuff like Monopoly or even Axis & Allies.

The meetup was organized by people I had prior experience with but with whom my friend got to know online. In the end, there were eight of us, counting myself, and we broke up into two groups of four. My group began the afternoon by playing Summoner Wars, which I'd (of course) never played before. It's a head-to-head fantasy combat game, consisting of teams of players who move cards on a tactical map to fight each other. Since only one of us had ever played before, we decided not to play it as a 2-versus-2 game but instead and 1-versus-1, with each side consisting of two players. My friend and I were on opposite sides; he played elves and I played orcs.

Because each faction in the game -- there are four in the basic game and many more available in expansions -- has certain advantages and disadvantages, one of the keys to winning is playing according to the style that most complements your faction's advantages. My partner and I didn't realize until too late that the orcs are all about getting up close and personal and smashing faces, so we, sadly, lost to the elves, but, despite our incompetence, we still held our own long enough to have some fun. I liked Summoner Wars a lot. My only beef with it is that it seems optimized for 1-versus-1 play. The more players added to each side, the longer the game would likely drag on, especially since players on the same side can share resources and resource exhaustion is what ultimately ends the end.

After that, we played 7 Wonders, which I'd also never played before. This game is, unsurprisingly, playable with up to seven players, but we had just four. Each player is given one of the wonders of the ancient world and his goal, over the course of three rounds (called "ages") is to accumulate enough resources and structures to not only build his wonder but also to achieve other goals that accrue him victory points. 7 Wonders isn't really a boardgame at all, since it has no board, only cards. At the beginning of each age, seven cards are distributed to each player, who selects one from his hand that he thinks will most aid him and then passes the remaining cards to a player on either his left or his right, depending on what age it is. This continues until all but one card is left in each hand and then various events, such as combat between players is resolved, the outcome of which determines victory point bonuses or penalties.

Though I found 7 Wonders fascinating in a way, it was also a very bloodless game. For the most part, the players are playing in parallel to one another rather than against one another. There's minimal actual interaction between players, with the passing of cards being the main way that players have any impact on how well or poorly their fellow players do. Even the combat is resolved passively, simply by comparing combat values against players seated on either side of you. Victory is ultimately decided by how many victory points a player accumulates over the course of the three ages of play. As a new player, this made it a lot harder to get a sense of what I was supposed to be doing in the game compared to Summoner Wars. I'd probably be willing to give 7 Wonders a shot again, but, even so, I think it's fair to say its design didn't really grab me.

Next, we broke up into slightly different groups to play another game. We attempted to play Race for the Galaxy, but soon discovered that the set we had was missing some vital cards, so we attempted a different game, 51st State, instead. 51st State is post-apocalyptic in its setting, with each of the players taking control of a faction attempting to rebuild a fallen USA in its own image. Like 7 Wonders, 51st State isn't a boardgame at all, but rather a card game, with limited interactivity between the players, who spend much of their time accumulating resources, manpower, and locales to use their bid for control. Of all the games I played, this was the one that most disappointed me, in part because I sort of expect a fair bit of bloody combat between players in anything that uses a post-apocalyptic setting. Instead, the game was mostly spent playing in parallel, working toward one's own goals.

Though the game playing continued after that point, my friend and I took our leave. Being old men with wives and families to return to, we had to make our back homeward. I had a good time and would gladly do it again, though, if I were to attend again, I'd be sure to bring along a game that had an actual board and where the players interacted with one another a lot more than most of the games I played yesterday. I don't know if this low-interactivity, parallel play stuff is standard in recent "boardgames" or not, but, if it is, I can't same I'm all that keen on it. Likewise, I missed rolling dice. Only Summoner Wars used dice for its play and dice -- or some other randomizer -- are an integral part of what makes playing a game fun for me. All the games I played yesterday involved plenty of strategy, but I craved a lot more conflict and chance.

"Adventure Games"

Over at Mesmerized by Sirens, the Catacomb Librarian reminds us that significant portions of The Compleat Arduin is available as free PDFs from the Emperor's Choice Games website. The Compleat Arduin (sometimes called "Arduin II") was a compilation, expansion, and -- dare I say it? -- rationalization of the original Arduin books, begun by Dave Hargrave and completed by Mark Schynert after Hargrave's death. The finished product was published in 1992 and is still available from Emperor's Choice. I must confess I've never read it myself, though I'm starting to think I ought to grab a copy sometime and make up for this gap in my gaming publication. I encourage others to do the same.

Until I get the full book itself, I've been perusing the PDF excerpts that Emperor's Choice has placed online. One of the things I found most interesting is a section at the beginning of Chapter One, in which Hargrave says the following:
This game, Arduin, is part of the genre known as Adventure Games. Role-playing is at the heart of all adventure games, though other elements such as conflict, chance and strategy are also important.
Now, let me start upfront that I think it's too late to call the object of our shared hobby anything but "roleplaying games." However inadequate a term that may be, it's the term that we're stuck with and every attempt to alter it that's been attempted thus far has been alternately quixotic and pretentious. That said, the term "roleplaying games" is inadequate, or perhaps more accurately, it's too narrow.

As Hargrave rightly points out, roleplaying is definitely at the heart of our hobby, but there are other important facets to it as well. By adopting the term "roleplaying game" for the kinds of games we enjoy, I think we've unintentionally emphasized one of their facets to the point that it overshadows the others. That's a mistake in my opinion, which is why the description above pleases me. Conflict, chance, and strategy are essential elements of the games I enjoy (more on this in a future post) and their absence -- or at least diminution -- dissatisfies me.

I make no claim that this passage from The Compleat Arduin says anything that others have not said elsewhere, but it says what it does in a way that spoke to me today and I thought it worth sharing with others.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Open Friday: Adventure Use

Today's question is just for people who have actually bought and used adventures for use with tabletop roleplaying games: what is the single adventure you got the most use out of and why? In my own case, there's not a clear-cut answer, though I'd probably guess that one of the classic low-level D&D modules like In Search of the Unknown, The Keep on the Borderlands, or The Village of Hommlet probably gets the prize, because they're very easy to just drop into a new campaign as a starting point and flexible enough that I can change their details to suit whatever kind of campaign I want to run.

I'm interested in this question, since adventure modules were once a staple of the hobby. The product lines of games like D&D and Traveller back in the day consisted of a lot of adventures. Today, that seems less common (Pathfinder being a notable exception) and I'm curious as to why that might be. My hope is that, by finding out which adventures people have used repeatedly, I might get an inkling of why adventure modules ceased to be as common as they once were.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

OD&D and Science Fantasy

Among the many remarkable things about the revival of interest in old school gaming over the last few years is the revival of interest in the 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons. To my mind, that's an amazing thing, given that, when I entered the hobby -- a mere five years after the publication of OD&D -- hardly anyone played it anymore. The older guys talked about, of course, but they didn't play it, at least not that I ever saw. Most of them had "moved on" to AD&D or other games. That's why it'd be many years before I had the chance to peruse those little brown books for myself and see the seeds from which this hobby grew.

If, as lots of gamers have been doing recently, you take a look at OD&D, there are lots of little oddities -- no pun intended -- that you'll notice. One of the most intriguing is the influence science fantasy had over the early game. Gary Gygax's "forward" [sic] to the game specifically puts the Martian stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs on the same footing as Howard's Conan and Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I think only Tolkien rivals Burroughs in terms of the number of references in the text to his specific creations (and, of course, those references to Tolkien were eventually eliminated in later printings). Heck, there's a several optional encounter sub-tables that are intended to replicate Barsoom.

I'm not alone in noticing this. In fact, I'd say that one of the biggest fruits of the recent study of OD&D has been a wide embrace of science fantasy as being every bit as influential over the early hobby as fantasy. You need only look around the blogs, forums, and even OSR publishers to see the truth of this. From my own perspective, I'm deeply grateful for this myself, since, as a younger player, I had a very narrow definition of "fantasy" and would have been appalled by OD&D's mention of robots and androids as potential "monsters," never mind Supplement II's full-throated acceptance of alien visitors from another world.

I won't go so far as to say that science fantasy is alien -- there I go inadvertently punning again -- to AD&D, but I do think it's fair to say that OD&D is so loose and open-ended that it's much more amenable to it. AD&D had Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, of course, but I'm not sure that module defines AD&D in the same way that The Temple of the Frog defined OD&D, for good and for bad. One might reasonably argue that AD&D is simply a particular implementation/interpretation of OD&D and, if so, I'd agree. But, being such, it carries with it a lot of assumptions, one of which being that science fantasy elements, if present at all, are deviations from the norm. OD&D has no such assumptions, because it barely has any assumptions at all, leaving it to each referee to decide what "works" or does not for his campaign.

Regardless of whether you agree with that last paragraph or not, I'm very happy to see the return of science fantasy to the fold of "correct" influences on one's D&D campaign. My own campaign has been improved by my own embrace of science fantasy; I know I am not the only one.

Think of the Children

When I was walking my kids to school this morning, my 11 year-old daughter and I were having a rambling conversation about a variety of topics as we so often do and we somehow came to the subject of superheroes. After a short while, she turned to me and asked, "Why don't they make superhero movies that kids can go see in the theaters? All the ones they make are for teenagers and adults." It's a good question and one that's vexed me for a while. A few years ago, my son was a huge Spider-Man fan, but there was no way I could show him any of the live action Spider-Man movies, which were simply too violent and intense for a boy his age in my opinion. The same goes double for the latest Batman movies. I think maybe last summer's Captain America could qualify as appropriate for kids, but, if so, it's a rare exception to a longstanding trend.

It's funny, because, as I remember it, back in the 70s and early 80s, comic books and superhero movies were routinely dismissed by the teenagers I knew as "kid stuff." When I was in high school, I hung out with a lot of nerdy guys -- shocking, I know -- and I don't think any of them was still into comic books at that age. They'd all moved on to computers and wargames and jazz music, leaving their childhood superheroes far behind. I myself was never much of a comic reader anyway, though I always liked the idea of superheroes, which is why I enjoyed my fair share of superhero RPGs over the years. But, as geeky interests go, superheroes were always way, way down the list for me after I reached adolescence.

Nowadays, superheroes are everywhere. They're a staple of our movie theaters and the release of video games based on them is big news. Unlike my own youth, superheroes nowadays seem to be aimed at an older audience. Broadly speaking, I don't have a problem with making superhero comics or movies or games something teenagers and adults can enjoy unironically. How could I? I'm a guy who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing about, never mind playing, games where I pretend to be an elf. Reflecting on my daughter's question, though, I have to wonder why things are so strongly skewed toward the more "mature" -- and I use that word loosely -- end of things these days. Why must every superhero movie be dark and gritty?

Mind you, I could ask the same thing about roleplaying games ...

The Articles of Dragon: "Charting the Classes"

One of the characteristics of what I call the Silver Age of D&D is an obsession with mathematics, using it for a wide variety of purposes, from determining the best way to model falling damage to proving if one's dice "be ill-wrought." In issue #69 (January 1983) of Dragon, Roger E. Moore offered up yet another new field for mathematical analysis: class "balance." Many old school gamers think worrying about such matters is a peculiarly modern notion, but it's not. For almost as long as I've played the game, I've known players who fretted over whether this class or that class was "overpowered" or "underpowered" compared to the others. It's a concern I've never really worried about myself, partially because I think all but the most egregious mechanical differences take a backseat to what actually happens at the table. Nitpicker and hair splitter I may be about many topics relating to D&D but this isn't one of them.

However, I'm hardly representative of anyone but myself and I expect that, when Moore wrote this article he was speaking on behalf a sizable number of gamers who had a sneaking suspicion that some AD&D character classes were better (or worse) than others -- and he was going to prove it. Moore's analysis hinges on comparing the classes according to accumulated experience points, not level. His thesis is that, by examining the relative strengths and weaknesses of each class at certain XP benchmarks, he might get a sense of which classes are more (or less) potent than others. In doing this, Moore discovers that, for the most part, AD&D's classes are reasonably balanced against one another, with two significant exceptions, along with a third point of discussion.

The first anomaly concerns druids, which Moore says are unusually tough compared to other classes. Compared to clerics, they advance very quickly and, more importantly, they continue to gain full hit dice all the way to 14th level, which also nets them more Constitution bonuses as well. Druids thus wind up being comparable to fighters at mid-levels and even surpassing them at higher levels. Consequently, he recommends increasing the druid's XP requirements to compensate. The second anomaly concerns monks, which Moore says are too weak in terms of hit points for a class that is supposed to fight hand-to-hand. He recommends that they have D6 hit points. Finally, Moore says -- along with nearly every AD&D player I knew back in the day -- that bard, as presented in the Players Handbook, needs to go. He recommends Jeff Goelz's bard as a replacement.

In the end, "Charting the Classes" is actually a very modest and limited analysis of AD&D's character classes and Moore's suggestions are all quite reasonable. I believe I even adopted his recommendation regarding druids, as I know from experience that they were more potent than they had any right to be. Still, I largely find the idea of "balance" between the classes a Quixotic obsession that's played a lot of mischief with D&D in its later incarnations. But it is, unfortunately, a long and deeply held concern of many gamers and I don't expect it to ever go away.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Beautiful Map

Like most gamers, I'm a sucker for maps of almost any kind, but I'm especially fond of attractively-drawn maps of fantasy settings, like this one from the upcoming boxed set for the old school Spanish language RPG, Aventuras en la Marca del Este:
The map really is eye catching and, best of all, suggestive. I'm not fluent in Spanish by any means, but I can read enough to be intrigued by the names of places like The Tundra of the Ancients and the Coast of Bones.

A Poll

One of the many great things about this blog is its large readership, which makes it useful to me when I'm asking for outside opinions on some matter about which I've not yet made up my mind. As the publication of Thousand Suns draws near (at last!), I've been spending some time thinking about a couple of the follow-up books I want to write for it over the next year or so. One of them is a compendium of aliens, both intelligent and otherwise. I want a simple one-word title to follow the line name -- like Thousand Suns: Starships or Thousand Suns: Technology -- but I'm torn, because of the plethora of words used in sci-fi to describe the study of alien lifeforms.

So, I've set up a little poll to the left. If you have any opinion on the matter, take the time to vote for your preferred term. If you have a better term than those I put forward in the poll, feel free to make a comment about it below and let me know what term you prefer and why. Likewise, while I recognize that the three terms in the poll all have slightly different technical meanings, I'm treating them more or less interchangeably for present purposes. On the other hand, if you feel strongly that one or more of those terms is somehow inappropriate, feel free to comment about that, too.

Thanks in advance.

Retrospective: The Traveller Adventure

When I think about the great RPGs of the past, one of the things that immediately comes to my mind are the great adventures released for use with them. If you think carefully about the top rung of old school roleplaying games, in terms of popularity and influence, you'll see that they almost all have an adventure (or several) that stands out as a kind of exemplar of that game and how its designers expected it to be played. D&D has many such iconic adventures, but I think most of us would agree that The Keep on the Borderlands (or perhaps The Village of Hommlet) exemplifies low-level play, while the Giants-Drow modules exemplify high-level play. Likewise, Call of Cthulhu has Masks of Nyarlathotep and RuneQuest has Griffin Mountain.

While GDW's Traveller was blessed with many great adventures over the course of its existence, for me 1983's simply-titled The Traveller Adventure will always stand taller than any of the others. Written by Marc Miller, with assistance from many other GDW staffers and freelancers, The Traveller Adventure isn't a single adventure so much as the skeleton of an entire campaign, with lots of ligaments and musculature provided for the referee as he fleshes it out for use at his own table. Consequently, it's an open-ended, providing a sandbox-like environment in the form of the Aramis subsector of the Spinward Marches. Because of the nature of interstellar travel in Traveller, there are limits to where and how quickly the characters can travel and this provides Miller and his co-writers with the perfect means to drop rumors and hints and that might encourage the PCs to head in certain directions without resorting to more heavy-handed approaches. It's a good compromise between aimless wandering and railroading in my view and one I've often emulated in my own campaigns.

The Traveller Adventure does make a few assumptions at its start. In addition to its location within a backwater subsector, the adventure expects the PCs to be the crew of a subsidized merchant vessel assigned to a particular cluster of worlds all easily reachable by a jump-1 drive. For those unfamiliar with Traveller's conventions, jump-1 drives can travel a single parsec over a week-long journey through jumpspace. At the start of The Traveller Adventure, the PCs are "trapped" within a cluster of worlds all reachable by jump-1 but worlds located farther away (2 parsecs or more) require a ship with a better jump drive. Initially, there's no pressing need to acquire a better drive, but, as the adventure unfolds, that situation changes and the PCs must somehow acquire the funds needed to get a better drive, thereby providing them with a reason to take advantage of certain opportunities that come their way.

The central conflict of The Traveller Adventure concerns the efforts of a high-level megacorporate officer to get rich by illegal means. The PCs inadvertently become thorns in his side when they make the acquaintance of a Vargr (a wolf-like alien species) who himself has run afoul of agents of the same megacorporation. Should the characters help the Vargr -- if they don't, the campaign ends before it begins -- they'll slowly become enmeshed in a conspiracy that spans many worlds of the subsector and involves them in both megacorporate and political maneuverings they never suspected. Along the way, they'll visit many unique planets, interact with dozens of NPCs, and generally explore a small corner of the Third Imperium in great detail.

The Traveller Adventure is not flawless. Often the main thread of the adventure requires that the PCs go in a certain direction to continue and, while Miller and company are to be commended for not forcing particular actions through railroad-y situations, there is a danger that, in the hands of an inexperienced referee, the whole structure could collapse in on itself. On the other hand, The Traveller Adventure is a very fun adventure that rather nicely illustrates what Traveller is all about. The antagonist of the adventure is no black-hatted villain, but rather a venal executive chasing absurd profit and damn the consequences. Certainly innocents will die if his plan succeeds, but that's mere collateral damage rather than his actual goal. Likewise, failure by the PCs doesn't mean the end of the Imperium or anything so grandiose. In short, it's an adventure about people acting like, well, people, even if they live in the 57th century. I like that a lot, which is probably why The Traveller Adventure will always be the quintessential Traveller adventure for me.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "Weather in the World of Greyhawk"

Issue #68 (December 1982) of Dragon was the first issue I ever received as part of my subscription to the magazine, though I'd read it nigh-religiously for some time beforehand. Due to an error on the TSR periodicals department, I received two copies of every issue for the next twelve months, one addressed to me at my actual address in Baltimore, Maryland and the other addressed to me in Baltimore, Mississippi, though the zip codes were the same for each (which is why they both arrived in my mailbox). Having two copies was quite useful to me, since it gave me the freedom to chop up and otherwise disassemble one copy while keeping the other pristine for my collection.

In any event, issue #68 included an article by a writer called David Axler entitled "Weather in the World of Greyhawk." Though presented as an unofficial supplement to The World of Greyhawk, the article was eventually canonized by being included in the 1983 boxed set version of the setting. Axler's article was a well-done early example of what would become a staple of Silver Age Dragon articles: a system for introducing "realism" into one's campaign. In this case, it was weather that got the "realistic" treatment, with tables for determining temperature, precipitation, and cloudiness, in addition to discussions of lunar phases, high winds, and "special weather phenomena," such as wind storms and tsunamis.

In truth, Axler's rules are pretty simple to use and presented intelligibly so that even my 13 year-old self could use them with relative ease. And use them I did. Back in 1982, I was all about adding doses of "realism" into my AD&D campaign where I could and, since this article had done all the hard work for me, why wouldn't I use it? Eventually, though, I stopped doing so, because, easy though it might have been to use, I rarely found that knowing just how much rain had fallen or the effects of high humidity added much to my adventures. The extra "realism" serve no purpose other than satisfying my adolescent sense that a good DM should know these sorts of things about his campaign setting. I abandoned that way of thinking a long time ago and I don't think my campaigns have suffered for it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Traveller Crew

©1979 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.
For reasons that will become obvious fairly soon, my attention over the last few days has temporarily shifted away from fantasy to science fiction. As I've no doubt stated on this blog ad nauseam, science fiction is actually my preferred genre of literature, cinema, and roleplaying. I write so much about fantasy because I've played so much more of it. Fantasy is the lingua franca of our hobby and always has been. Plus, as a genre, fantasy is so much more expansive than sci-fi, so it can scratch a lot of different itches simultaneously, whereas SF has splintered into dozens of hermetically sealed sub-genres that make it a more difficult sell in the abstract than fantasy.

Whenever I think of science fiction, I inevitably think of Alien, which, despite being a Lovecraftian thriller, is, for me, one of the quintessential science fiction movies of the last quarter of the 20th century. One of the more prosaic reasons I believe this is because I associate the film so strongly with Marc Miller's Traveller RPG. Take a look at that publicity still at the top of this post. I defy anyone to find a group of cinematic characters who look more like they could have been generated using the rules in the 1977 little black books. The bulk of the cast are in their late 30s or older and they all have the looks of people who've been around the block a few times -- and not on heroic adventures in pursuit of a noble cause. Whenever I think of a crew of Traveller PCs, I think of these guys.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Nifft the Lean

Michael Shea first came to the attention of the world of fantasy literature in 1974, when he wrote A Quest for Simbilis, a novel that began its existence as a pastiche of The Eyes of the Overworld but was actually granted status as an authorized sequel by Jack Vance himself. Though eventually displaced and de-canonized by the appearance of Cugel's Saga, A Quest for Simbilis was nevertheless well received, establishing Shea as a master of description and mood. Despite this early success, aside from a few short stories, Shea didn't produce another novel for nearly a decade, until Nifft the Lean appeared in 1982.

Nifft the Lean is not set in the Dying Earth, but there's no denying that there are more than a few connections between it and Vance's famous setting. For one, it's setting seems to be a world that may or may not be a future version of the Earth, eons after the fall of our current civilization, after magic, gods, and demons -- or at least seemingly magical, god-like, and demon-like things -- have returned. For another, the book's eponymous protagonist is a ne'er-do-well on the make. Also like The Dying Earth, Nifft the Lean isn't really a novel so much as a collection of four short stories. Granted, each of these short stories features Nifft in another adventure, but each can be read independently of the others and there is no overarching story connecting them.

I suppose one could make the argument that the book is really a picaresque novel, especially since Shea presents these short stories as a series of reminiscences by a friend of Nifft, a scholar by the name of Shag Margold. Margold speaks in a pedantic, persnickety fashion as befits his role and reports to the reader that Nifft is dead and thus the stories that follow are his recollections of his friend's adventures, as told to him by Nifft himself and others, which is why they are told in the first person. This admission allows Shea to spin what might very well be tall tales rather than the unalloyed truth, which, given the nature of a couple of the book's integral stories, would explain a lot. Furthermore, Margold stresses that he was not present during any of these adventures and has had to rely solely on others for accounts of what occurred.

The first story in the collection concerns Nifft's attempt to bring a living man into the underworld at the behest of the spirit of the lover whom the man has betrayed. In return, Nifft has been promised the key to a wizard's mansion, where untold wealth is said to lie. To win his reward is no easy task. The second story involves a journey into a dangerous swamp in order to harvest black swamp pearls that grow on the bodies of deadly polyps native to the morass. Naturally, Nifft has a plan designed to make acquiring the pearls easier for him. The third story sees Nifft and his companion being falsely arrested and, in order to escape the penalties imposed on them for their "crimes," must rescue son of a rich man, who has been abducted by an inhabitant of the Demon Sea. This story is by far the longest in the book and it shows, dragging on to the point of tedium in places. The fourth and final story involves Nifft in an attempt to save a city from the collapse of a nearby mountain whose foundations have been weakened due to over-mining.

Nifft the Lean is an uneven book, but it's still a fairly engaging one. As I noted above, Michael Shea possesses a superb command of description and mood. His characters and, to a lesser extent, his plots are a bit shallow, or at least more straightforward than one might expect of an author whose debut novel was a sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld. Shea is no Vance but I think he can favorably be compared to Clark Ashton Smith, whose best tales achieve their brilliance more by the evocation of a mood than by tight plotting or deep characterization. That's not to say that Nifft the Lean is purely an exercise in mood creation, because all of its integral stories are fairly satisfying pulp tales, despite their flaws. Moreover, Shea has a very vivid imagination: his inhuman monsters and otherworlds are memorably weird, which makes this book well worth a read by any fan of fantasy literature. Shea may be no Vance but he nevertheless offers more of interest than many more well known fantasy authors, particularly if your tastes tend toward the dark and outré.