Thursday, December 31, 2009

White Box News

John Adams of Brave Halfling Publishing announced that he is now taking pre-orders for the boxed edition of White Box Swords & Wizardry. The official release/shipping date for the set is February 1, but BHP will ship all pre-orders as soon as the dice and boxes arrive.

The boxed set includes:

* 6" x 9" Game Box (This is an actual game box manufactured for just this purpose)
* Four Rule Booklets (Characters, Spells, Monsters, & Treasures)
* A digest-sized copy of Matt Finch's, "Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming"
* Ten of Marv Breig's 3" x 5" Index Card Character Sheets
* Set of Polyhedral Dice
* Pad of digest-sized Graph Paper
* Pencil

Pre-orders are discounted by $4, so they sell for $25.95, plus shipping, which is frankly a great deal. I'm sorely tempted to order multiple copies of the thing and give them as gifts, since that's a good price for a complete RPG in this day and age and White Box is increasingly my preferred version of S&W (and BHP is a company well worth supporting).

Looking Ahead

As 2009 comes to a close, it's time once again to look to the coming year and make some foolish and likely mistaken predictions. Last year, I was fairly modest in my predictions, but, unless one is willing to be very charitable, I don't think either of them came to pass. There was no breakout old school product that attracted significant attention from outside our little community and neither did any "big name" company seriously jump on the bandwagon. I probably let my enthusiasm get the better of me last year, but now, with another year of seeing how things played out, I think I have a better sense of how things could unfold in 2010.

So, without further ado, here are my prognostications for next year:

1. The Renaissance Continues: This is a no-brainer. Back in 2008, when I started this blog, there was some doubt in many quarters whether the old school renaissance was just a momentary fad, spurred by anger over D&D IV or sadness over Gary's death or even nostalgia by aging gamers. I think those assessments were mistaken and shortsighted. It seems pretty clear to me that the old school community is here to stay. It's not going to take over the hobby, let alone the industry, by storm. It'll still be a niche within a niche, as it has been for some time. What's different now is that that niche is more accessible, using a distributed network of blogs and forums to discuss and exchange ideas rather than being headquartered in a single place. Even more important, the people involved in this niche are playing rather than merely talking and publishing what they're playing. I suspect there's now more old school gaming going on now than there has been in some time and there's certainly more old school products available than we've seen since the days of TSR. These trends will continue in 2010.

2. "Old School" as Nostalgia: Last year, I said I thought a big name company would make an entry into the old school market. That didn't really happen and the reason it didn't happen is because a lot of gamers' interest in the Old Ways is very superficial. They're interested in being reminded of the stuff they played as kids, but they're not all that interested in actually playing it. Consequently, if the term "old school" gets used outside our community, it'll mostly be a marketing term rather than a prescriptive one, an attempt to draw in older gamers with fond memories of "the red box" or White Plume Mountain or whatever. I don't think the Old Ways have any real traction among mainstream publishers, which is why you won't see any simple, 64-page RPGs produced by WotC or Steve Jackson Games or whoever in 2010. What you will see, though, is ever more mining of the old stuff for names and concepts to be ruthlessly "re-imagined," feeding the serpent that long plagued the industry.

3. Science Fantasy: This is an easy one. The big old school trend of 2010 will be science fantasy. We've begun to see the early fruits of this interest in a lot of places, but next year will see it reach full blossom. I expect at least a couple of campaign settings/adventures, along with at least one full ruleset for playing in worlds like those of Burroughs and Brackett. I also expect more "straight" fantasy to dabble in science fantasy concepts -- not outright adoption of all its elements, but rather the introduction of a few elements borrowed from science fantasy. This was inevitable, in retrospect. Any serious examination of the sources of the hobby would quickly see that, in the early days, fantasy and sci-fi were not contradictory but complementary genres. It was only a matter of time before "John Carter ... groping through black pits" would become a focus of old school love and attention.

4. Other Worlds: Running parallel to science fantasy will be a more general interest in other worlds for old school play, whether it be interplanetary, as in the case of science fantasy, or other planes/dimensions in the case of "standard" fantasy. I think it also possible we might see some interest in "the man out of time" as an important pillar of the pulp fantasies on which D&D was built. If I'm right about a renewed interest in other planes/dimensions, this does open up the possibility of presenting fantasy campaigns as places to which "ordinary" people from our world can journey and take up a life of adventure. This type of approach hasn't ever really been explored in the hobby, which makes it an attractive subject for old schoolers looking to break new ground.

And that's as far as I'll stick my neck out for now. Let's see if I prove a better predictor of the coming year than I was of the last.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Retrospective: Oriental Adventures

1985 marked the end of the era of Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons and few products show this more clearly than Oriental Adventures, which, despite Gary's byline on its cover, was largely the product of others whose visions of the game would carry it into the Silver Age and beyond. I first recall having read about OA a couple of years before its release, when Gygax commented that he felt classes like the ninja and samurai -- and even the venerable monk -- didn't really belong in "standard" D&D, being best reserved for a book that better placed such classes in their "proper" cultural context. At the time, that seemed like an appropriate point of view, very much in keeping with the tenor of the Silver Age, which concerned itself with "realism" of all sorts, including the cultural.

Being an unrepentant TSR fan boy in those days, I eagerly awaited the release of Oriental Adventures and snagged it before it was widely released in my area, thanks to a comic store that got its sole copy of the book before it was on bookstore shelves. And I'm not ashamed to say that, at the time, I loved every bit of it, including its martial arts creation system and its non-weapon proficiencies. Just about everything about OA matched up well with my own burgeoning Silver Age sensibilities. I wanted my D&D campaigns to be as realistic as possible and OA seemed to deliver that, for its fantasy was (generally) more well-grounded in Asian history, legend, and folklore than was Western D&D, whose source material was an eclectic mish-mash assembled haphazardly by accretion than through any rational plan. Judging by the success of Oriental Adventures -- it was TSR's biggest seller in 1985, surpassing even Unearthed Arcana -- I wasn't the only one who appreciated the book's approach.

Oriental Adventures is a very clearly a product of late 1e. It replaces very few rules from the earlier volumes of the line, opting instead to expand and embellish existing rules. Likewise, everything within its pages are presented within the context of the larger AD&D rules set: Samurai are a sub-class of Cavalier and Wu Jen are largely Magic-Users with a unique list of spells, little different than Illusionists on the mechanical level. And the Ninja is a complicated mess, a kinda-sorta dual class every bit as complex -- and over-powered -- as the Bard. There are rules for generating a character's family (randomly, of course), as well as calculating the acquisition and loss of personal Honor. The monetary system is flavorful but convoluted and the choice of weapons and armor is even more exhaustive than in standard AD&D. Throw in the aforementioned non-weapon proficiencies and you have nearly the Platonic ideal of a Silver Age rules supplement, marrying cultural depth (though not as much as in Bushido) to the full baroque splendor of late 1e.

I still have a lot of nostalgia about Oriental Adventures -- and nostalgia it is. The mid-80s were suffused with an obsession about Japan and Japanese culture and I got caught up in it like everyone else. Compared to Ninjas and Samurai, boring old Thieves and Cavaliers didn't stand a chance and I was keen to find new ways to play D&D, ways that paid greater heed to history and culture. Or so I thought. In retrospect, I find OA, like most of the products of the Silver Age, well meaning but ultimately wrong-headed and I doubt I will ever again muster much enthusiasm for the kind of earnest, almost evangelical, approach the game took to its real world source material.

I much prefer my fantasy these days to be an unholy goulash of elements borrowed from dozens of sources, Western or otherwise, than fret about "realism" or properly portraying this or that culture in the game. Nowadays, the game takes precedence over any other considerations and source material exists only to inspire me, not to push me toward do anything the "right" way. Granted, this isn't a fault with Oriental Adventures itself, but it's very much a product of a gaming culture that conflated immersion with roleplaying and thus promoted the accumulation of reams of social and cultural details as necessities for "properly" roleplaying. It's not an approach I've favored in some time and I don't miss it at all. These days, if I wanted to include anything deriving from Asia in my fantasy campaigns, I'd present it a lot less reverently than Oriental Adventures did, preferring something more in line with a pulpy "mysterious East" than anything in the real world -- just as I do with anything I borrow from Western history or folklore.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Under the Green Star

Lin Carter is a figure about whom I have a great deal of ambivalence. On the one hand, his working shepherding the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, beginning in 1969, is in my opinion a key factor in the appearance of the hobby of roleplaying as we know it today. On the other hand, his Conan pastiches, which he wrote primarily with L. Sprague de Camp, did an immense disservice to the legacy of Robert E. Howard, contributing to the popular misunderstanding of both the writer and his greatest creation. And then there are Carter's own literary contributions. About these I am probably most ambivalent of all, for they simultaneously reveal both sides of his character -- at once hopelessly derivative and uproariously fun.

A good case in point is 1972's Under the Green Star, the first in what would become an entire series of sword-and-planet novels after the tradition of Burroughs. Like many of its antecedents, this novel presents itself as a real document, written in the first person, by an individual who has, by means of astral projection, transported his soul to another world. This individual, who is never identified by his Earth name, is wealthy but crippled. His ability to send his spirit to a place -- learned at a Tibetan monastery, naturally -- is a great boon to him, as his physical impediments on this planet need not limit him on another. This is a common conceit in sword-and-planet tales: the protagonist's "second chance" to overcome some handicap, whether it be physical, social, or economic, that prevents him from achieving his full potential as a hero. It's a conceit younger people might first have encountered in Stephen Donaldson's various Thomas Covenant novels, but it has deep roots in this sub-genre of pulp fantasy.

The narrator's soul finds itself inhabiting the body of an unfortunately named warrior, Chong the Mighty. Chong had been cursed by a sorcerer a century before the novel begins, his soul torn from his body, which was carefully preserved in expectation of his eventual return. After the obligatory time he must spend acquainting himself with his new world, its culture, and language -- another staple of sword-and-planet yarns -- the narrator become embroiled in its conflicts. He also, as is typical, falls in love with a beautiful young princess. His devotion to her precipitates many of his adventures in the novel and is also instrumental in his eventual forced return to Earth at its end.

I find it difficult to form an objective judgment about this novel and its sequels. On a fundamental level, it's a wretched pastiche, a piece of Burroughsian fan fiction hardly deserving of anyone's attention. But it's fun, or at least I found it so. Carter is not, by any means, a great writer. His prose is often infelicitous and his dialog wooden. His characters are a mixed bag, but tend more toward cut-outs than fully fleshed out human beings. Yet, I can't deny that I enjoyed this book in spite of it all. Or perhaps it was because of all of its failings that I liked it. There's something very primal about this book. There's a reckless spirit of childish fun that I found infectious, even as my adult mind frequently reeled at its lack of originality.

Of course, I sometimes feel that originality is overrated, at least when it comes to pulp fantasy, where tapping into pre-existing archetypes is at least as important as coming up with something genuinely new. Under the Green Star certainly does that in my opinion, which is why I am willing to overlook its many, many flaws. It's not great literature by any definition of the term, but it is a quick, fun read and, from a gaming perspective, provides a good model for creating pastiche settings of one's own.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

More Wisdom from Ken St. Andre

In a comment to my retrospective on Tunnels & Trolls, author Ken St. Andre noted something that's worth repeating. I'd intended to draw everyone's attention to it when he first made the post, but, in all the hustle and bustle of the last few weeks, I neglected to do so. With a moment to spare, here it is:
If the monster is too tough for you in a straight up fight, then you do something sneaky and underhanded using magic, or saving rolls, and beat it by role-playing. Alternatively, sometimes the best solution is to simply run away. Or, you might try talking to that troll. Some of the best game situations start with a character saying, "hey, you're just the guy I've been looking for." to that big baddie that just appeared.
That's good advice when playing any old school RPG, not just T&T, and it's something I've tried very hard to take to heart when refereeing.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Outer Space Redux

Earlier in the month, I was thinking about "outer space" in the context of my Dwimmermount campaign and OD&D's treatment of the planes. Since then, I've given it some more thought and have decided that I'd be conflating the Astral Plane and interplanetary space. This is pretty easy to do, since there aren't many Astral-related effects in OD&D until very high levels. Since I'm sticking to the LBB's spell levels, this is even easier. Now, outer space -- which I'll probably call "astral space" or something similar -- will, unlike the traditional Astral Plane, be a place characters can enter physically rather than spiritually. There are no silver cords or bodies left behind on earth or anything of that sort. Instead, it'll be a vast void between the worlds, inhabited by numerous creatures malevolent and benign and requiring the use of certain protective spells and/or items to survive if one is not native to this environment. Interestingly, I like the idea of the Ethereal Plane as presented in OD&D, but, alas, the name has to go, since astral space, as I'm now conceiving it, is suffused with ether. That necessitates a new name for the Ethereal Plane, but that's a small point.

Astral space is getting any consideration at all, because the campaign -- and I'm now two session recaps behind, I know -- is getting to the point where the days when the Thulians rose up in rebellion against the Red Elves of Areon will prove important. From the beginning of the campaign, I wanted to make it possible for the PCs to travel to the Red Planet and interact with its inhabitants. As I've noted numerous times, I'm a big fan of Burroughs and Areon is definitely an homage/pastiche of the Barsoom, albeit a somewhat more sinister/Lovecraftian one. The Eld once traveled across astral space, seeking out new sources of azoth, after having spent millennia depleting Areon's own supply of it. This magical catastrophe has brought the planet low, reducing it to a dust-blown desert where Chaos now has free rein and Eldritch dominions war with one another -- and their former slaves -- for the last remaining sources of azoth, which guarantees not only their survival on a dying world but also promises the chance of reclaiming their lost empire.

I'm not in any hurry to get the PCs to the Red Planet -- or the Green Planet of Kythirea, for that matter -- but I would like to see them get there some day. There are several portals within Dwimmermount that lead to Areon and there are a couple of sections within the megadungeon where Eldritch influences are still apparent. I know I'll enjoy injecting dashes of Burroughs and Kline into the campaign. It's something I've wanted to do since I started poring over the LBBs and saw all those references to banths, tharks, and white apes. With luck, 2010 will be the year when I finally get to do it.

Coming Soon -- Planet Algol

If you haven't been following Planet Algol -- and, if not, what's wrong with you? -- you might have missed the news that Blair will be publishing a sandbox setting and rules supplement based on his remarkable science fantasy campaign next year. As Jeff Rients noted in the comments to the post, science fantasy-style D&D really seems to be coming into its own and that's probably one of the most remarkable and unexpected fruits of the old school renaissance.

As I hope I've emphasized here, the early days of the hobby were filled with examples of science fiction and fantasy existing side by side, cross-pollinating with reckless abandon. Settings like Dave Arneson's Blackmoor, Bob Bledsaw's Wilderlands, Barker's Tékumel, and Dave Hargrave's Arduin, to cite just four prominent examples, weren't afraid to include robots, spaceships, and blaster pistols alongside orcs, wagons, and crossbows. Back in those days, most gamers hadn't yet internalized the wholly artificial distinction between genres of fantastic fiction, a distinction the great pulp writers who influenced D&D didn't recognize either.

Rob Conley has stated numerous times that he believes the old school renaissance is at its best when it travels down roads untraveled in the early days of the hobby, owing either to commercial considerations or the particular interests of the designers who were influential back then. The return of science fantasy as a major genre for gaming is a great instance of this principle in action. Old school fans nowadays seem very willing to reject the dogma that science fiction and fantasy just don't mix and I'm very glad to see that. I keep coming across new sites and blogs devoted to campaigns that freely borrow from both genres; it's a definite trend and a very welcome one indeed.

Perhaps 2010 will be the Year of Science Fantasy ...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Brave Halfling White Box *In a Box*

John Adams of Brave Halfling Publishing announced that the company has become the publisher of the White Box version of Swords & Wizardry, under license from Matt Finch's Mythmere Games. Better yet, BHP will be producing a new edition of the game, available in four digest-sized booklets in a box. The new edition will include additional material not in the original release, such as, I believe, wilderness adventuring rules. BHP also plans to support the game fully with a line of supplements and adventures.

I think this is great news. White Box is a great ruleset and my own preferred version of Swords & Wizardry, as it's closer to the LBBs than the Core Rules. I find its clean and simple presentation very easy to build upon and I've adopted parts of the game for my Dwimmermount campaign. I'm really looking forward to what Brave Halfling has in store, especially given that the press release notes that White Box will retain its "unique and distinct feel" rather than following the lead of the S&W Core Rules. I think that's a good approach; I definitely plan on paying close attention to this line of products.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Going Lightly Armored

Supplement I introduces the idea of giving Fighting Men a bonus to their Armor Class based on their Dexterity. While I appreciate Gygax's feeling that he needed to "beef up" Fighters, I have been considering ways to make going lightly armored more attractive to all classes in OD&D. One option I am considering is allowing a Dexterity bonus to Armor Class only to characters wearing leather or cloth armor. Another option is allowing Fighting Men so armored -- and only Fighting Men -- the chance to deal double damage from behind if they surprise their opponent. This would give a tangible benefit to a "sneaky" Fighter but at the cost of heavier armor. I have discovered that, in OD&D, being able to wear chain and, especially, plate armor is a huge boon to survivability, so foregoing that in exchange for the chance to deal more damage under the right circumstances seems a fair trade.

Retrospective: The Fantasy Trip

I never saw the original books, Melee and Wizard, that made up Metagaming's foray into the field of fantasy RPGs. They were released in 1977 and 1978, respectively, a couple of years before I entered the hobby, and they were no longer on store shelves by the time I took notice of games other than D&D. But their successors, Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard (along with In the Labyrinth, the GM's book), were and it's through them that I encountered The Fantasy Trip.

Written by Steve Jackson and published in 1980, it's probably no surprise to note that TFT is a proto-GURPS, for good and for ill. Characters possess the same for stats (Strength, Dexterity, Health, and IQ), for example, with both DX and IQ being inordinately useful. There were differences, of course. Although not strictly a class-based game, characters were either "wizards" or "warriors," with spells being the specialty of the former and skills (called "talents") being the specialty of the latter. A character could learn the abilities of the other type but at increased cost, something GURPS doesn't do. Consequently, TFT retains a more strongly archetypal feel to it, in line with most of the game designs of its era. Unlike GURPS, there are no advantages or disadvantages, which also means that the mechanical differentiation between characters is much more limited than its descendant.

Combat received the most detail, as one would expect. Movement was hex-based and had a very strong miniatures wargame feel to it. Indeed, the original releases of Melee and Wizard feel more like simple wargames than RPGs, which is understandable, given Metagaming's focus on wargames. Still, it was no less possible to roleplay with them than it was with OD&D, although Melee and Wizard did include a lot less "supporting" material to enable this, leaving the referee to make up a lot for himself. This changed in the 1980 releases, which greatly expanded the scope -- and rules -- of the game. There was even a very sketchy setting included that bears some resemblance to Yrth from GURPS Fantasy, right down to the inclusion of real world religions into otherwise imaginary setting. Clearly, Steve Jackson is not a man to let go of an idea.

I never extensively played TFT back in the day. I already had D&D and wasn't really ever in the market for another fantasy RPG. Like DragonQuest, TFT was, at best, a momentary flirtation and a very momentary one at that. It wasn't until fairly recently that I even thought about the game again, having encountered a small but thriving community of support for it. Steve Jackson, as I understand it, tried for years -- unsuccessfully -- to regain the rights to TFT from Howard Thompson. GURPS, which began its life as a one-to-one combat simulation called Man to Man, is clearly Jackson's attempt to recreate The Fantasy Trip and build upon its initial concept. Despite at least two attempts, I've never been able to get into GURPS. I find its tendency toward comprehensiveness off-putting, even if the underlying mechanics of the game are quite sound.

On the other hand, The Fantasy Trip does hold some appeal for me, if only as a matter of historical curiosity. In both its original and 1980 incarnations, it's a fairly simple and straightforward game, without all the additional wrinkles and complexities of GURPS that drive me to distraction. There are, I am told, a couple of retro-clones of TFT, although I haven't had the chance to look at them. There's definitely a niche for a simple, skill-based fantasy RPG ruleset that's easy to house rule and, at its best, that's what The Fantasy Trip was.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Best Lovecraftian Movie Ever

I was a few months shy of 10 years old when Alien was released -- too young to see an R-rated film, even if I had actually expressed any interest in seeing it, which I didn't. I was also a few months shy of discovering D&D, Lovecraft, and all the other creative influences that would have such a profound effect on my imagination in the years to come. Consequently, I didn't have much love for horror of any kind, let alone cosmic horror, and so 1979 came and went without my ever getting the chance to see Alien.

Indeed, it would be several years before I would see the film and, when I did, it was on video tape at a friend's house, along with a number of other teenage boys. As I recall, my friends and acquaintances spent most of the time talking with one another, paying only the most cursory attention to events in the movie. When did pay attention, it was only to the gory bits, the ones that made me wince and not quite look away, simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the violence being visited upon the Nostromo's unsuspecting crew.

For myself, it wasn't the blood and guts that drew me in; it was watching the characters grapple with what was happening to them. Much as many people tend to think that fantasy and science fiction don't belong anywhere near one another, there are probably an equal number of people who think science fiction and horror have nothing in common. Horror, for many, depends on supernatural bogeymen, inexplicable and irrational things that were all banished with the coming of the Enlightenment and adoption of Science! as the predominant paradigm of Western thought. Even back then, I never saw things that way, which is probably why Lovecraft's rationalist, materialist worldview has always struck me as the most horrific I could possibly imagine. Lovecraft's stories are, in my view, more science fiction than horror, borrowing the surface elements of Gothic literature to tell what are tales firmly rooted in 20th century science and scientific speculation.

Alien is thus a Lovecraftian film, a piece of "pure" science fiction that horrifies precisely because there's nothing supernatural in the whole movie. The alien isn't a ghost or a goblin or even a demon but a wholly natural, if rather unusual, lifeform, one that kills not out of malice or villainy but from some instinct that pays no heed to human concerns. As Ian Holm's character Ash states, the alien is "unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." It is, in his words, "a perfect organism" whose "structural perfection is matched only by its hostility." But it is not evil in any traditional sense. Its actions aren't specifically intended to inflict pain or suffering or to corrupt others. Rather, like all of Lovecraft's creations, the alien simply has no regard for human beings, which are, at best a means to its own unfathomable ends. That was deeply chilling to me as a young person and it remains so to this day.

Having watched and re-watched the film several times in the past two weeks, I've grown more convinced that Alien is, without intending so, the best Lovecraftian movie ever made. The first part of the film, culminating in horrific death of John Hurt's character, Kane, reminds me very much of HPL's At the Mountains of Madness, which effectively builds tension as a scientific expedition to Antarctica slowly comes to realize that nearly everything they thought was true is not. Because Lovecraft's tales were set in the then-present day, they don't appear, on the surface, to be science fiction and thus too many people get hung up on the tentacles and unpronounceable names and misunderstand the point of it all. Alien, on the other hand, is set in the future and that makes it harder -- though obviously not impossible -- to misunderstand it, at least in the same way.

As a young man, I found Alien a distressingly bleak film. As an older man, I still find it bleak, but it doesn't distress me nearly as much, perhaps because I no longer have the same naivety about the likelihood of unambiguously happy endings. Neither do I possess the same faith in Science! that I had way back when, something I should have picked up from the Lovecraft I'd read but somehow didn't, so overawed was I by all the surface details of his writings. Alien lays bare the philosophical core of Lovecraft's writings and wraps it up in a visually stunning -- and disturbing -- package that's leavened ever so slightly with a humanistic edge that's generally lacking in Lovecraft himself. In that respect, Alien does run counter to HPL's thought, but I'm willing to overlook such a "flaw," perhaps because, like my younger self, I still pine for the reassurance of a happy ending, even if I better recognize that such endings often come at a great cost.

Merritt at Dial P for Pulp

Deuce Richardson, Managing Editor at The Cimmerian and a moderator at the Official Robert E. Howard Forum, participated in a multi-part podcast about Abraham Merritt, one of Gary Gygax's favorite fantasy writers and a huge influence on REH, HPL, and CAS. If any writer of the early 20th century deserves greater recognition, it's Merritt, who, by my lights, really laid the groundwork for the weird fantasies I so enjoy these days. The podcasts are excellent and provide a lot of information about Merritt and insights into The Ship of Ishtar, which is probably the author's masterpiece. If you haven't listened to them yet, you ought to do so.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The City-State Map

As I mentioned in a previous post, Bill Owen and Bob Bledsaw Jr are offering reproductions of the original map of the City-State of the Invincible Overlord (when it was still called "No Name City") for sale. Copies are available here and Mr Owen has stated that the sale of this map will cease after Christmas (or sooner, if all 144 copies made are purchased before December 25). If you're interested in obtaining a copy, there's only a few more days to do so.

My own copy arrived just this morning and it's really a thing to behold. First, it's huge. I mean, really big. It looks like a set of blueprints (although it's white, not blue). Those familiar with the City-State will immediately recognize its layout, although there are a few differences from the published version. The map is also less complete, in the sense that not every location in the city is named or otherwise keyed. Consequently, it's more of a historical artifact than a gaming product, although one could certainly use it in-game if one wished. I'm certainly glad I have a copy and wish more materials like this were made available by other pioneers of the hobby. Kudos to Mr Owen and Judges Guild.

RIP: Dan O'Bannon

Jim Raggi noted the death of screenwriter Dan O'Bannon the other day and, had I not been so busy lately -- a trend that's continuing, sadly -- I'd have made a post on the topic sooner. O'Bannon actually died on the 17th, losing a 30-year battle with Crohn's Disease. This is a great loss; O'Bannon had a very long and successful career in Hollywood, including having written the story treatment and screenplay to Alien.

It's his connection to Alien that is probably the basis for my appreciation of the man's talents. I have in recent weeks re-watched the 1979 film several times, having been overcome with a strange desire to view it again. I continue to believe that it's the most perfect distillation of the Lovecraftian worldview ever put to film -- no surprise given that O'Bannon frequently expressed admiration for the Old Gent, calling him "the greatest horror writer who ever lived."

I'll likely have more to say about Alien in the next few days. I'd actually been intending to make a post or two about it since last week, having watched the film for the third time in about a week. The death of Mr O'Bannon only highlighted my need to get round to this sooner rather than later.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Vathek

"Orientalist" literature, which is to say, highly fictionalized and romanticized depictions of Asian -- typically Middle Eastern -- cultures represent an important and often-unacknowledged influence on the development of the fantasy genre. Beginning in the 18th century, tales of "the East" became an increasingly common and accepted means by which Western writers could spin stories of exotic lands and strange customs. In many cases, the cultures depicted have minimal resemblance to genuine non-Western cultures, being effectively imaginary. While that may be a disappointment to readers looking to be schooled in these cultures through literature, Orientalist tales nevertheless gave writers the means by which to present stories whose cultural backgrounds weren't the standard European (generally medieval) stuff that was commonplace in the other precursors of fantasy.

William Beckford's 1786 novel, Vathek, is a good representative of Orientalist novels. Interestingly, the author, though an Englishman, wrote the novel in French, the English translation of which appeared first -- and anonymously -- while the French original appeared in 1787, with Beckford's name attached to it. Unlike earlier Oriental novels, Vathek includes a number explicitly supernatural elements, making it similar to Gothic novels, which were also fashionable at the time. The inclusion of these elements made Vathek both unique in its time and of lasting influence, with writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith both expressing admiration for it.

The novel tells the story of the caliph Vathek, who attempts to acquire supernatural powers for himself by means of various occult practices. Aiding Vathek in this quest is his mother, Carathis, who is in many ways an even more interesting character than her son. Like many novels of its time, Vathek is somewhat rambling, being in many ways a picaresque, in which the title characters wanders about, encountering many bizarre characters, undertaking similarly strange activities, and generally being buffeted about by circumstance as he attempts to achieve his goals of supernatural power. Of course, Vathek isn't a true Picaro; he's a rogue, certainly, but not with a heart of gold. Indeed, he's the kind of corrupt and self-aggrandizing authority figure whom Picaro would show up. Neither is he a bold rebel, flouting antiquated social conventions in the name of freedom of thought and action. He's closer to an anti-hero and is definitely a prototype for many of the doomed libertines you see in pulp fantasies of the early 20th century.

Vathek is filled with many references to Arabian and Islamic myth and legend, from genies to Eblis, ruler of the demons. As I said, the book's not a scholarly work; all of its elements exist to further the story that Beckford wants to tell. In that respect, I think it's actually a pretty good model for referees looking to add some exotic flavor to their campaigns without becoming overly obsessed with real-world details. And, despite its somewhat meandering storyline, Beckford manages to hold the reader's attention by making all the individual episodes of the larger tale interesting, from the caliph's attempts to decipher the writing on some glowing swords he purchased from a merchant to his encounter with some pious Muslim dwarves who attempt to show him the error of his occult ways.

is an enjoyable book, one that's of lasting interest to anyone looking into the origins of modern fantasy. It's in the public domain, of course, and available in many translations and degrees of completeness.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Speaking of Planet Algol

Not does the blog describe a campaign I'd love to play in, but it has its own character sheets to go with it! It's times like this when I regret no longer having an artist or graphic designer in my gaming group, because I'd love to have "official" Dwimmermount character record sheets that look as snazzy as the ones Planet Algol got. I admit that's probably asking too much, given that I already have not one but two expert miniatures painters in my group, but a guy can dream, can't he?

Which reminds me: I got a bunch of new Otherworld Miniatures in the mail the other day, including a couple of gelatinous cubes, a troll, giant frogs, shriekers, stirges, and some goblin warriors. As usual, they're awesome pieces of work and I'm constantly amazed at how perfectly they capture the look and feel of the old days in metal. Once I get a little more money, I'll probably send off another order; that kobold tribal pack looks awfully nice.

Casino Dice

A friend of mine came back from a business trip in Las Vegas and brought me some red casino dice. I'd asked him to get them, because I'm a dice fetishist and casino dice are among the most precisely and finely made dice in the world. Much as I admire Lou Zocchi's Gamescience dice, they don't hold a candle to the six-siders used in casinos, whose manufacturing process is actually regulated by law and whose randomness is, in my experience, much better than the dice that are typically marketed for use with RPGs. Playing OD&D as I do, having good D6s is important and my casino dice are probably the best I've ever seen. A pity they don't make D20s ...

The Unknowable

Planet Algol -- a blog everyone should be reading -- had a nice post on Wednesday about "grand unified theories in fantasy" and I pretty much agree with every word of it. In brief: too many fantasy games and settings try to do The Silmarillion and present a complete universe, from the moment of its creation all the way down to the present day, with every event, every person, and every detail following logically from that beginning; this is generally a Bad Thing. The reason it's a Bad Thing is twofold. First, most of us aren't Tolkien, so we're just not up to the demands of such a monumental task. Second, and probably more importantly from a gaming perspective, grand unified theories often rob a setting of its mysteries and its contacts with the Unknown (and Unknowable), the stuff from which adventures are made.

When creating the Dwimmermount campaign, I specifically avoided even asking, let alone answering, many of the questions that my younger self would undoubtedly have considered of prime importance when designing a new fantasy setting. To take just one mundane example, there is no name for the world of Dwimmermount. In game, when needed, I have NPCs talk about "the world" or even "the earth," but there's no name for the planet on which the campaign takes place. Heck, there's no name even for the continent on which the campaign takes place. In some contexts, it'd be perfectly reasonable to have names for such things, but there's no need for them in my game and, moreover, the people of the setting generally don't think about things on such a macro-level scale. Some sages and scholars do, of course, but their influence is limited and they themselves don't agree on the names of such things.

The same goes for the gods, their existence, and their relationship to the universe and the creatures that inhabit it. Are the gods real? Is there an afterlife? Where did humanity come from? How does magic work? There are no answers to such things and I make a great effort to muddy the waters on these questions when they do come up in the course of play. The gods don't walk the earth, but their servants do have access to unique magical gifts. Meanwhile, demons (and some former devotees of Turms Termax, such as the necrolyte Pharaxes) claim that the gods are a myth invented by Men. The characters have spoken with the dead, so there may be some kind of afterlife, but it's uncertain, both because the types of questions the dead may answer is limited and because some scholars surmise that "the dead" with whom one may speak are merely lingering memories somehow given temporary life apart from the body, a kind of byproduct of the very act of dying.

Speaking for myself, I find it much easier to run a campaign where I don't have to think too much about the universal implications of adding this monster or that magic spell. It's all wide open and, while I suppose one could consider me lazy for this approach, I've noticed that it actually makes the campaign setting far richer. Rigorously imagined settings may have an internal logic to them, but (Tolkien excepted) I rarely find them very engaging. There's a "clean," almost antiseptic quality to them that rubs me the wrong way. I like "rough" settings, with lots of sharp edges that "cut" me from time to time. I don't want my fantasy polished smooth, where everything ties up into a pretty bow.

In short, I like including the Unkowable in my campaigns and I think the Dwimmermount campaign, despite being very megadungeon-centric, has survived and prospered for as long as it has because it's so amenable to my throwing whatever strikes my fancy into it. It's a "stew pot" setting -- a familiar but tasty gravy in which there are lots of chunky bits suspended, some more assimilated into the gravy than others. The only rationale that matters is what "tastes good." In practice, I expect most gaming settings are stew pot settings, so I'm not suggesting there's anything unique about my approach, only that I've self-consciously embraced it and used it in order to make Dwimmermount weird and mysterious, just how I like my fantasy these days.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Founding Fathers

My latest column is up at The Escapist. It focuses on the "prehistory" of RPGs, going all the way back to 1811 and the invention of what would come to be known as wargames.

REVIEW: The Majestic Wilderlands

(In the interests of full disclosure, I've worked with Rob Conley on a couple of old school projects, including The Cursed Chateau, so bear this in mind when reading this review. I make no claims to any absolute objectivity in my reviews, including this one, but it's not unreasonable to expect me to admit when I'm reviewing a product by someone with whom I've had a past business relationship.)

Supplement VI: The Majestic Wilderlands
is cartographer extraordinaire Rob Conley's first foray into self-publishing and he doesn't fail to impress. Conley had already penned (along with collaborator Dwayne Gillingham) two superb installments of the Points of Light series, published by Goodman Games, along with articles in Fight On! and a D20 revisions to classic Judges Guild adventures, so I expected good things from The Majestic Wilderlands and I was not disappointed. It's a 140-page digest-sized supplement to Swords & Wizardry, although it's easily usable with "all editions based on the original 1974 roleplaying game." The book is available in three formats, two print (one with the cover pictured to the right and another with an "original style" cover), and one in PDF. Both print editions sell for $12, while the PDF carries a $7 price tag. Given the density of the text and small font size, there's quite a lot of material packed in its pages, so the prices are more than reasonable for what you get, especially when compared with many other old school products these days.

As its title implies, The Majestic Wilderlands is a licensed product, presenting Conley's vision of the venerable Judges Guild Wilderlands setting. This vision is based on his having used the setting over the course of three decades, adding to it and expanding it as the demands of his players and campaign demanded. The result is a setting that's at once familiar and new, a version of the Wilderlands that's a bit more "realistic" than the standard one, which is to say, one that's more concerned with sociological and political concerns than you'd expect. That's not to say The Majestic Wilderlands is a dry read -- it's not -- but it definitely has a different feel than the original Judges Guild material on which it's based. That said, fans whose visions of the Wilderlands are more "traditional" will still find a lot to like here, as Conley's included lots of little details that could be imported into campaigns based there (or indeed most fantasy campaign settings). Conley's vision of the Wilderlands doesn't completely mesh with my own, but it's difficult not to admire his craftsmanship in world building. The Majestic Wilderlands, as presented here, is clearly a work of love and imagination in the best old school tradition.

The Majestic Wilderlands bills itself as "Supplement VI," a nomenclature that might strike some as odd. It's obviously a reference both to the original OD&D supplements and to Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa, which claimed the title of "Supplement V." I don't want to rehash the controversies surrounding Carcosa here; I think everyone who has an opinion on the subject has already expressed them. That said, I was critical of McKinney's decision in my own review of Carcosa and I haven't changed my mind on this score. Much as I admire OD&D and its supplement -- indeed, because I admire them -- I don't think it appropriate to add one's own work to the canon, so to speak. That's a judgment for others to make. Doing otherwise could be misconstrued as arrogance, or at least cheek, and might turn off people who would otherwise enjoy the content of one's book.

Fortunately, with only a couple of exceptions, the content of The Majestic Wilderlands is top-notch. Conley boldly divided the book into three sections modeled on the three volumes of OD&D. The first, "Men & Magic," provides new character options. Among these are several new sub-classes, such as Berserkers, Knights, Soldiers, Paladins of Mitra, Myrmidons of Set for Fighting Men, and Mages, Artificers, Wizards, Rune-Casters, and Theurgists for Magic-Users. The classes are all well-done, both mechanically and stylistically. I have some issues with a few of them (the Soldier seems unnecessary, for example), but I like many a great deal, particularly the Myrmidons of Set, which would work nicely in my Dwimmermount campaign as elite warriors of Typhon. Conley provides new options for Clerics too by describing each faith of the Majestic Wilderlands, often imposing new restrictions on the class while at the same time opening up new possibilities. It's a nice approach, one that takes the kernel of a good idea in 2e's specialty priests while avoiding its pitfalls.

Section I also introduced a new class and its attendant sub-classes: the Rogue. Rogues are characters who are neither good at fighting or magic but instead excel at certain abilities, which is to say, skills. All Rogues (Burglars, Thugs, Mountebanks, Claws of Kalis, and Merchant Adventurers) depend heavily on the skill system introduced in The Majestic Wilderlands. As you'd expect, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I like the idea behind several of these classes, particularly the Mountebank, but skills make me very uneasy in a class-based game. The skill system Conley presents is simple enough: roll 1D20, modified by appropriate class and ability bonuses (if any), and score 15 or higher to achieve a success. As such systems go, it's pretty inoffensive. I'm simply not convinced that it's needed, but I realize I may be eccentric about this point. I'm probably also eccentric in disliking the idea of NPC classes, particularly for "non-adventurers." The Majestic Wilderlands gives us several of these: Craftsman, Hedge Mage, Priest, and Scholars. All remind me of the "cut-down" NPC classes we saw in D&D III and, again, I don't really see the necessity for them, particularly in an old school game.

The section continues with an overview of playable races, with a few new options, including some specific to the Wilderlands. There are also some nice new rules for combat that are simple yet flavorful and should do a lot to making OD&D-style combat more tactically rich. Following that is a section of magic that, among other details, introduces "rituals," which enable a spellcaster to cast a spell straight out of his spellbook without having to memorize it beforehand, but the spell is slower than normal and carries a material component cost dependent on its level. As Conley admits outright, "The intent of this system is that most utility spells are cast via rituals in
the Majestic Wilderlands." As you'd expect, I don't much care for the concept of rituals, precisely because it changes the complexion of spellcasting character classes in a profound way. Without the so-called "utility spells" taking up spell slots, spellcasters no longer have to weigh combat effectiveness against the unpredictable needs of adventuring. Should I memorize find traps or hold person is a significant decision for the player of a 4th-level Cleric, who only gets a single 2nd-level spell. Rituals obviate the need for such a decision, thereby changing the way the class -- and the game -- is played. Again, I'm sure many will find rituals a welcome addition to the game, but, for my part, I think it does serious violence to the class structure of D&D and would never allow the rules to be used in my campaign.

Section II is "Monsters & Treasure" and introduces several new monsters and magic items. It's the shortest section in the book (only 10 pages), but nevertheless manages to inject some new approaches to some staples of the game. Section III, "Underworld & Wilderness Adventures," takes up close to half the book and presents Conley's vision of the Wilderlands setting, complete with maps and a gazetteer of it all. Nearly the entirety of this vast setting gets at least some discussion, with the area around the famed City-State getting the most. Conley shows a remarkable ability to say a lot in a few words and, while no region gets dozens of paragraphs devoted to it, each one provides enough detail to inspire a referee -- proof positive that campaign setting books need not be huge technical manuals consisting of hundreds of pages to be satisfactory. The various cultures that inhabit the Majestic Wilderlands gets more detail and it's here where Conley's vision comes through most clearly. He cares a great deal about society, culture, and (especially) religion and it's these forces, moreso even than monsters and magic, that drive the Wilderlands in his estimation. This helps give the whole a "serious" quality to it that, while not wholly to my taste, is nevertheless extremely attractive. Conley's love for the setting is palpable and infectious.

In the final analysis, The Majestic Wilderlands is a terrific book and another great example of old school game design. Both in terms of its game mechanics and its setting material, this product proves the old adage that "less is more." It likewise counters the notion that, without reams of precise rules and setting detail, you don't have enough material to run a RPG campaign adequately. The Majestic Wilderlands is a model of compendiousness, providing all that's needed to play without being cryptic. And while I dislike some of the rules included, for both philosophical and practical reasons, they're easily omitted. Moreover, Conley provides so much in these pages that, even eliminating those sections I dislike, there is still plenty to admire and, most importantly, use in one's own campaign. The Majestic Wilderlands is a triumph and a nice capstone to a year that has seen the old school movement prosper and diversify. Here's hoping we see more products of this sort, from Robert Conley and others, in the years to come.

7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 9 out of 10

Buy This If: You're either a Wilderlands fan (or looking to become one) or interested in some excellent supplemental rules to Swords & Wizardry (or any OD&D-derived game).
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in the Wilderlands or prefer to keep your OD&D-derived game free from supplemental rules.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Retrospective: Star Frontiers

I've probably gotten more requests for a retrospective on TSR's 1982 SF RPG, Star Frontiers, than any other game. Whenever I post a retrospective on another science fiction game, I usually get a couple or three emails from people asking me to do one devoted to David Cook and Lawrence Schick's rules set. That says a lot, I think, about the impression this game made upon a lot of kids in the early 80s.

I've always been more of a Traveller man myself -- I got my start with the Little Black Books, thanks to my friend's older brother, from whom we also learned D&D -- but we did play Star Frontiers. It was pretty much inevitable, as we were unabashed TSR fanboys and picked up just about every game the company cranked out, including this one.

In the gaming circles in which I moved, Star Frontiers was always compared unfavorably to Traveller, an opinion echoed even in the pages of Dragon, where reviewer Tony Watson noted:
The STAR FRONTIERS game certainly has a different feel from that evoked by TRAVELLER. Some of the weaker aspects of the TSR game, such as background and starships, are strengths of the TRAVELLER system. GDW’'s game seems a bit more solid and serious in its approach. Comparing the two is like comparing the movies Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey: both very good, but very different, facets of science fiction
That's pretty much how I viewed the game too: bubblegum space opera rather than "solid and serious." Make no mistake: I loved Star Wars as a kid, but I'd been exposed to enough sci-fi to know that its style and content weren't the only ones for the genre. And given that Traveller was largely conceived and written before Star Wars, the game retained its own distinctive feel, more reminiscent of classic SF writers like Anderson, Asimov, and Piper rather than Lucas.

But, as I said, we still played and enjoyed Star Frontiers for when we were interested in some over-the-top science fictional derring-do. With its simple, fast-moving rules, broad-brush setting, and well-made components, Star Frontiers was almost always fun. Unlike Traveller, about which I agonized a great deal more to get it "right," I could whip up Star Frontiers adventures on the fly -- and usually did. Plus, the modules produced for the game were, with a few exceptions, a blast. The three-part Volturnus series, in which Tom Moldvay played a large role, were a loving homage to pulp science fiction from the 30s and 40s, while UK-produced modules were a nice change of pace, approaching Traveller-esque levels of depth and sophistication.

If the original release of the game had a flaw, it was the lack of starship rules, as noted in the quote above. This was eventually rectified by the release of a second boxed set, called Knight Hawks, which contained an excellent -- and scalable -- set of rules for adjudicating everything from one-on-one dogfights to massive fleet engagements. Like the RPG rules, the starship rules were easy to use and quick; they also integrated characters into the action quite well. Coupled with all the counters and maps the boxed set included, I actually preferred Knight Hawks to Traveller's various starship rules for many years. I still consider that set to be one of the best things TSR produced in that time period.

Star Frontiers eventually suffered an ignominious end, another victim of TSR's schizophrenia about any game that wasn't Dungeons & Dragons. Color-coded chart mania overtook the company's design department and, in 1985, the game was halfheartedly overhauled to an entirely new game system, at the same time expanding its setting in intriguing ways. Not long thereafter, the game was dropped, while Traveller, even in its dotage, continued to chug along as king of the science fiction RPG castle.

Looking back, Star Frontiers definitely had a lot going for it. The game wasn't a good vehicle for detailed explorations among the stars or meditations on what it means to be human, but it nicely scratched a pulp SF itch that, to my mind, has never really been attempted since. Every now and again, I am reminded of the fun I had playing Star Frontiers and considering digging out my old boxed sets and giving it a whirl again. It's no Traveller, but that's hardly a crime and sometimes you just want to strap on your blaster and fight space pirates, something at which Star Frontiers excels.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

64-Page Limit

One of the old school projects I'm most looking forward to seeing completed is JB's B/X Companion, an attempt to create the mythical third volume to the Moldvay-Cook-Marsh D&D rules, based on hints in the books we do have and healthy doses of imagination. As a younger person, I remember anxiously waiting for the release of that volume and was greatly disappointed we never saw it. Granted, we did, eventually, get a Companion set -- I even liked it -- but it wasn't quite the fulfillment of my earlier dreams and so I still long for a Companion that's more in the spirit of the B/X rules rather than the later ones.

What especially impresses me about JB's project is that he's keeping a 64-page limit on his work. To me, a relatively low pagecount is essential if your goal is to imitate the style of the early 80s. Indeed, I'm slowly coming round to the notion that one of the oft-overlooked aspects of old school design is page length. With the noteworthy exception of AD&D, whose position is problematic on a number of levels, most rules sets from the Golden Age are quite compact and concise. Not all of them are under 64 pages, it's true -- and in any case I don't want to be misconstrued as saying "anything over 64 pages in length isn't old school" -- but I do think that short and sweet is a defining characteristic of the Old Ways. It's why I continue to insist that there are "structural" aspects to old school design, contrary to the "old school is a feeling" crowd.

In any case, I very much look forward to seeing the B/X Companion finished and released. JB's decisions will undoubtedly be different than my own would have been, but I do think he's on the right track in trying to keep the rules short enough to fit within 64 pages. That's a design principle I'd love to see more RPGs of all sorts emulate.

Various Updates

My apologies for the slow-down in posting of late. I had hoped December would be a less busy month than the previous ones, but, alas, that was not to be. With the holidays approaching, I will either find myself with more free time to devote to the blog or less; it's too early to tell which. At any rate, I'll do my best to provide a few more entries this week, since there are several percolating in the back of my fevered brain, along with some reviews and the next installment of the Dwimmermount session recaps.

In the meantime, here are a couple of news bits you may or may not have heard through other sources:
  • The Dungeon Alphabet, by Michael Curtis, is now available for pre-order through Goodman Games. Those who pre-order will be entered into a drawing to receive a collector's copy autographed by cover artist, Erol Otus.
  • Issue #7 of Fight On! (dedicated to M.A.R. Barker) is now available through Lulu. You can get a 20% discount on it and other books available through Lulu by using the code "HOHOHO" at checkout through the end of December.
  • The Cursed Chateau is now available for pre-order. I think it turned out pretty well, although I am a terrible judge of my own work.
More soon.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Well at the World's End

Had he not written any fantasy novels -- or "prose romances," as they are sometimes called -- William Morris would nevertheless have been a remarkable figure. He was a renowned architect artist, poet, and designer of furniture and textiles. A member of both the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement (not to mention the Socialist League), he founded the Kelmscott Press with the aim of producing modern books by traditional methods. Morris was a perfect example of an eccentric, even Quixotic, Victorian renaissance man, who achieved not only fame during his lifetime but great influence after his death. J.R.R. Tolkien is but one significant person in the history of fantasy literature who admitted to admiring Morris and, reading The Lord of the Rings with a knowledge of the older author's writings, there can be no doubt the debt Tolkien owed him.

The Well at the World's End was first published in 1896. It tells the story of Ralph of the Upmeads, a younger son of a king, who becomes bored with his cosseted lifestyle and decides to set off in search of adventure, despite his parents' warnings against doing so. In particular, Ralph seeks the mythical Well at the World's End, drinking from which grants long life and good luck. Ralph's journey across the world to find the Well forms the bulk of the book, as he meets a variety of characters and sees a number of sights along the way. Most notable among these characters are the Lady, who found the Well and drank from it years before, and Ursula the Maiden, who accompanies Ralph to the conclusion of his quest.

The novel is long and, at times, slow-going. I hesitate to call it "tedious," because it's finely crafted and there's scarcely anything within its text that is mere indulgence on the part of Morris. Nevertheless, it's written in an older style -- archaic even in the late 19th century -- and borrows heavily from the circuitous, rambling pace of traditional fairy stories. Anyone who finds Tolkien dull would certainly find Morris equally slow-moving. Nevertheless, there's definitely a power in Morris's prose and it repays sticking with it. In my opinion, starting the book is the hardest part. Once you've weathered the first few chapters, you become acclimated to its style and the rest of the book moves much more quickly.

As to its content, I don't want to say too much here, for fear of spoiling it. Suffice it to say that The Well at the World's End is a classic tale of a youth forever changed by his adventures away from home, so much so that, upon his return, he sees things far differently than he had before. Morris conjures up a number of powerful, moving scenes in the novel; it's easy to see why Tolkien was so taken with it. The book's meditations on the nature and advisability of immortality have influenced me as I work on the Dwimmermount campaign and I suspect most gamers who read the book will find something within its many pages to make them stop and think, if only for a moment. The Well at the World's End is probably an acquired taste, like a lot of older fantasies. Still, it'll repay the effort you put into reading it, something I encourage everyone who has the time to do.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Cursed Chateau Podcast

I was recently a guest on the Atomic Array podcast, where I had a chance to talk about my soon-to-be-published adventure, The Cursed Chateau. Like most people, I hate listening to the sound of my own voice, but it was still great to chat a little about the adventure, its origins, and its contents. I hope you'll enjoy it.

REVIEW: X-plorers

I've seen some grousing in various quarters that the old school movement hasn't yet produced an original game, preferring instead to rehash Dungeons & Dragons over and over again. While I think there's some basis for this complaint, I nevertheless think it's largely founded in ignorance both of what the old school movement is actually about and what it's actually produced. The reality is that old schoolers have produced a number of original games, unless one's definition of "original" means "having nothing whatsoever to do with D&D mechanically," in which case you're claiming that a significant portion of all RPGs, not just old school ones, aren't in fact original. Moreover, it overlooks games, such as David Bezio's X-plorers.

X-plorers is a RPG focusing on the "adventures of Galactic Troubleshooters," according to its cover. Like many modern old school games, it's also an attempt at an alternate history: "What if the first roleplaying game was based on science fiction rather than fantasy?" Consequently, X-plorers uses not only old school mechanics but also "outdated" notions of science and technology. The game is intended by its author to be an evocation not just of the early days of the hobby but also earlier notions of science fiction, before Star Wars and its imitators forever changed the complexion of the genre.

As someone who wrote his own SF RPG with similar intentions, I was naturally predisposed to like X-plorers, but it's Bezio's excellent -- and brief -- rules that really won me over. At 60 pages in its retail form, the game is shorter even than Swords & Wizardry: White Box and that's a wondrous thing to see. Even more wondrous is that the game feels complete, covering everything from character generation to starships to alien creature creation and more. It's a testament to just how little rules are actually needed for a RPG, provided one is willing to leave many things to the imagination of the players and the judgment of the referee. Perhaps because it's a sci-fi game, X-plorers really hit home to me how much space in modern RPGs are wasted on esoteric details and rules for marginal cases, the kind of stuff that many gamers, when pressed, will sheepishly admit they never use in their own games anyway.

characters possess four attributes: Agility, Intelligence, Physique, and Presence, generated by rolling 3D6 in order. Each attribute has a modifier associated with it, ranging from -2 to +2, with those at each end being rather rare. Each attribute modifier affects certain game statistics -- Agility governs ranged combat, for example -- including saving throws. There are thus no "dump stats," although Presence comes closest, since there are minimal social interaction rules. Neither are morale or employing hirelings covered, both of which might have helped to make Presence more generally useful.

X-plorers is a class-based game, with four classes available: scientist, soldier, scout, and technician. The classes are interesting, in that, with the exception of the soldier, which grants slightly better combat bonuses, all grant exactly the same hit dice, combat bonuses, and saving throws. Consequently, there's a unified experience point table, which disappointed me, mostly because the presence of such a thing generally implies that "balance" was considered in designing classes, a notion I find flawed in conception and execution most of the time, although it didn't seem to rear its head in this case. I had expected that, given that there are four attributes and four classes, that there might have been some correlation between them, with the soldier, for example, being the "Physique class," but that doesn't appear to be the case. Too rigorous a connection between them would likely have been a bad idea anyway. Still, the lack of a class with even a small connection to Presence might have helped me overcome my sense that it's a pointless attribute.

Each class (again, with the soldier being a slight exception) grants a character a number of skills. Scientists, for example, are skilled in Computers, Medicine, Science, and Sociology, while Scouts are skilled in Pilot, Security, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth. At each level -- yes, X-plorers is a level-based game -- a character has a skill throw score, which is a number equal or above which a player must roll on 1D20. Each skill has an associated attributed (almost always Agility or Intelligence) and its modifier may be added to the skill throw. The score decreases as a character gains levels, representing an increasing level of proficiency. It's a pretty elegant system overall, although it will ensure that characters are very archetypal. However, a "multi-class" option enables characters to learn the skills of other classes at an XP cost to their original class, so there is some scope for variation within the rules.

Equipment covers the most obvious bases, particularly weaponry and defenses. Because characters only gain 1D6 hit points (plus Physique modifiers) per level, combat will likely prove deadly at low-levels (and perhaps even at high ones, if laser weapons are involved). Mechanically, combat should be familiar to players of D&D: roll high against an Armor Class to hit and then roll for damage. A clever wrinkle is that, whenever a character loses all his hit points, he suffers a critical hit, resulting in a 1D6 roll on a table. Results range from immediate death to unconsciousness to an adrenaline surge that restores 1D6 temporary hit points. All subsequent hits against a 0 hp character cause a further roll on the critical hit table at a cumulative -1. Consequently, it's theoretically possible for such a character to remain alive and active for a couple of rounds even after depleting all his hit points.

Saving throws cover almost any kind of action the rules don't explicitly cover. They're intended to be a catch-all the referee can employ whenever he's unsure of a character's success. I was reminded of the saving rolls from Tunnels & Trolls, a mechanic whose virtues are slowly starting to warm my cold heart. Experience gain is similarly free-form, with a few specific awards for certain actions (defeating opponents, for example), but the bulk of XP coming from successfully completing a mission, with the amount determined by the referee. I have to admit I find free-form XP to something of a cop-out, but I also understand the difficulty in establishing precisely what should and should not grant XP, so I'm willing to give X-plorers a pass here.

Starship combat is simple but cleverly designed. Characters or NPCs must assume the roles of navigator, pilot, engineer, and gunner, with each having several choices that determine the success or failure of combat. Otherwise, starship combat is very similar to personal combat, right down to the critical hit table. I genuinely believe that this table is one of the most intriguing ideas in a game full of intriguing ideas. It gives even the defeated a chance to make a difference and adds tension, as players hope their character or starship either is not hit again or that they roll well enough to last just one more round.

X-plorers concludes with a referee's guide that includes advice and details on creating adventures, planets, NPCs, and alien creatures. Also included is a short adventure, called "Cleopatra Station," about which I cannot comment, as it was not included in the free version of the game I downloaded from the Gray Area Games website. The free version is also lacking in art and its layout is thus slightly different than the retail version, which can be purchased for $12.00 in print or $6.00 in PDF. There's also a single supplement, the first in a series of quarterly releases for the game.

There's much to admire in X-plorers and chief among them is the way it cuts to the heart of what's needed to play even a science fiction RPG. The game wastes no space on unnecessary details or chrome, focusing instead on the basic mechanics needed to govern an enjoyable SF adventure. Even if one feels that something is "missing," it's a solid foundation on which to build a science fiction RPG of one's own, something that's explicitly encouraged by its author. In that respect, it's very much like OD&D -- a toolkit for constructing one's own game. Unsurprisingly, I like this approach a great deal and am glad to see it catching on outside of the confines of fantasy gaming. Here's hoping X-plorers encourages many others to follow its lead.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a SF RPG similar in complexity and approach to OD&D.
Don't Buy This If: You think SF RPGs need to be hyper-detailed and mechanically exhaustive.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

REVIEW: The Grinding Gear

Gary Gygax's Tomb of Horrors is a module that, more than 30 years after its initial release, still manages to inspire heated debates about "fairness" and the role player, as opposed to character, skill ought to play in dungeon design. I think it's safe to say that, in the wider gaming world today, most gamers would probably consider Tomb of Horrors a "screw job" rather than a challenge to their playing ability. Indeed, the notion of "good play" outside the confines of "playing in-character" isn't well regarded anymore, which is why the fabled "deathtrap dungeon" is a term of opprobrium rather than approbation nowadays.

Never one to care much for fashionability, James Raggi offers up The Grinding Gear, a dungeon adventure that could well be called "Tomb of Horrors Jr." I mean this positively, for what Raggi has done in this adventure is to take the broad premise of Tomb -- a difficult trap-heavy locale mostly devoid of monsters -- and bring it down a few notches, both in terms of lethality and concept, so as to make it more accessible and less off-putting to gamers for whom Gygax's masterpiece is Exhibit A for all that's wrong with old school dungeon design.

Physically, this is by far and away the most impressive of Raggi's releases to date. Like all previous releases, it comes in a digest-sized format, its 16-pages of densely packed text clearly written and without any glaring editorial errors. Artwork by Laura Jalo is sparse -- only one interior black and white illustration, plus a color and B&W piece on the covers -- but nevertheless succeeds in enhancing the look of the module. The Grinding Gear includes three, double-sided, removable cardstock covers featuring maps by Ramsey Dow, including one for use by players. Having just sent The Cursed Chateau off to be printed, I have to admit I'm more than a little jealous at what Raggi has achieved here in terms of physical quality. It's an amazing piece of work, purely as an artifact, and represents a good example of how to produce a modern old school product that doesn't ape TSR's house style circa 1978.

Because of the importance placed on player skill in old school adventures, many have a kind of "funhouse" feel to them, which is to say, they often lack a good rationale for the existence of their puzzles, tricks, and traps, instead relying simply on how much fun it is to think your way through a room with a giant chessboard on its floor to make up for its implausibility. This feel isn't helped by the fact that most of the earliest published D&D modules were designed for tournament play, where concerns about building an immersive, naturalistic setting were a distant second to creating an environment that adequately tested the skill of its participants.

The Grinding Gear provides an explanation for its dungeon's tricks and traps, but I have to admit it felt a little weak, if not outright meta-game-y (is that a word?). For those who don't like spoilers, even of a minor sort, please stop reading now. The dungeon is a tomb constructed by a vengeful engineer-turned-innkeeper with a cruel sense of humor, who hoped that it might lure foolish adventurers to their doom within its walls. He both loathed and respected adventurers, whom he saw regularly in his place of business -- loathed for their venality and foolishness and respected for their daring and cleverness. It didn't help matters that his daughter ran off with an adventurer and died while on a dungeon-delving expedition with him. So, the engineer poured all his inventiveness and hatred into a dungeon of his own, designed to kill as many adventurers as possible and to reward those few who proved themselves up to the challenge.

Premise aside, the actual dungeon itself is quite well done, a low-level homage to Tomb of Horrors that, while definitely deadly, is not nearly as arbitrary as its "big brother." Most -- though not all -- of the dungeon's challenges kill only the unwary rather than the merely unlucky. To my mind, that's one of Raggi's best design decisions. The Grinding Gear rewards perspicacious and intelligent players, who don't act rashly and take their time to puzzle things out. Consequently, this is a module which, despite its comparative shortness, might take some time to finish, as players would be wise to take their time and carefully consider all options before proceeding deeper into its chambers. Rewards are commensurate with the dangers and characters who survive will find themselves more than adequately enriched for their efforts.

The Grinding Gear has a very different feel than previous adventures by Raggi. Gone is the brooding, weird tale vibe of Death Frost Doom or the lurking fears of No Dignity in Death. Replacing them is a strangely whimsical, almost light feel, which is admittedly odd in an adventure that features a "killer dungeon." This is clearly Raggi's most traditional module to date and that might come as a surprise to those expecting more of the same moody style we've seen previously. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing -- variety is very important when it comes to adventure design -- but it's a departure from the familiar and that can often lead to mixed feelings among fans of the originals.

I like The Grinding Gear and think it solidifies James Raggi's position as one of the most interesting and daring writers of old school material around today. At the same time, I'm not sure I have any immediate interest in running the module. I will likely loot it for ideas to use in my campaign -- there are many good ideas herein -- but I don't see it as a "must-play" as I did with Death Frost Doom. This is purely an idiosyncrasy on my part rather than a criticism of the module itself. I bring it up only because I want to be clear that The Grinding Gear is quite different from its predecessors. It is, however, very well-done and ought to be read, if not played, by all referees with an interest in applying the Old Ways to their current campaigns.

Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a low-level trap-filled dungeon.
Don't Buy This If: You don't like puzzles, tricks, and traps to be the major challenges of a dungeon.