Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dwimmermount Maps

As some of you are no doubt aware, I'm in the process of putting together a megadungeon/setting book inspired by my ongoing Dwimmermount campaign. I have no firm release date in mind but it'll likely be in the Fall of this year. Like its predecessor project, The Cursed Chateau, it'll be compatible with any class-and-level fantasy RPG, but this time around I'm probably going to be hewing more closely to Labyrinth Lord, since it's the retro-clone that's actually closest to the way I play OD&D these days.

Anyway, I'm in the midst of getting its maps together, employing the talented Tim Hartin (proprietor of Paratime Design and the blog Gamma Rites) to produce them. The initial release will include six levels of Dwimmermount, although they'll only go four levels "deep," as there are several side levels. One of the principles I hold dear when working on Dwimmermount is that there should be multiple routes between the various levels and sub-levels. Likewise, the levels and sub-levels don't all stack neatly on top of one another but sprawl in a variety of directions. This is, in my opinion, an antidote to monotony and a key to keeping a megadungeon interesting and challenging over the course of long-term play.

Tim very helpfully created the following image, which shows how several of Dwimmermount's upper levels relate to one another.

If the first presentation of this material proves sufficiently popular to warrant it, there will be a follow-up that details the larger and more complex depths of Dwimmermount. I should note, though, that the dungeon presented in this book won't entirely be the "real" Dwimmermount, as that's an ongoing campaign and I prefer to keep its contents secret from my players. That said, the maps and their contents include many elements directly lifted from the actual Dwimmermount, for those who care about such things.

Retrospective: Man, Myth & Magic

I'm a sucker for historical fantasy, especially if it's presented in a "realistic" way, that is, if it attempts to ground the fantasy in the history it's presenting. So, for example, I love fantasies set in the ancient world that make use of the ancient worldview about, say, oracles or divine intervention in order to present a story that nevertheless conforms to history as we know it. I'm willing to extend a wide latitude here, which is why I adore Richard Tierney's "Simon of Gitta" stories, even though they include a lot of Lovecraft-inspired swashbuckling action (those are a few words you probably don't see conjoined very often!) at odds with real history. After all, historical fantasy is fantasy and even someone as stodgy as I must be willing to make allowances for the sake of a good story.

My love for historical fantasy is a deep one, going back to my youth. That's probably why, when Yaquinto Publications released its RPG Man, Myth & Magic back in 1982, I was intrigued. Not intrigued enough to buy it myself, I should note, but intrigued enough that I egged a friend on to buy it and then set out to try and run a campaign using it. Unfortunately, Man, Myth & Magic wasn't quite the game I was hoping it was. Though it can be charitably called a historical fantasy, it's somewhat unclear exactly what history it's meant to represent. As written, it's supposed to cover 5000 years of history, from 4000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. Its geographical scope is similarly broad, covering much of the Old World, from Europe to Asia to Africa, albeit with a strong focus on the classical Mediterranean world. This breadth, while admirable in its ambition, prevented the game from having anything approximating a focus and adventures were inevitably an odd mishmash of times, places, and cultures, like an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, only less credible.

This ambitious breadth was reflected in the character generation rules too, which used random rolls to determine a character's culture and profession. Consequently, a typical party might consist of a Roman legionnaire, an African witchdoctor, an Irish leprechaun, a Siberian shaman, and an Egyptian priest. Certainly one could forgo the random rolls to create a more coherent party of adventurers but there was little benefit to doing so, as the game's adventures were a crazy quilt of elements -- the characters journeying all over the world to face opponents from a wide variety of places and time periods. I won't deny that there's a whimsical sort of fun to be had in suck a motley assortment of characters one week fighting side by side with Julius Caesar in Gaul and the next week foiling a plot by evil mummies to overthrow Akhenaten. However, it's not the sort of fun I was looking for at the time and my friends and I happily ceased trying to play it.

What's intriguing is that the game's author, James Herbert "Herbie" Brennan, is a writer of fantasy fiction and books on New Age and occult topics. This makes me wonder if perhaps the incoherence I saw in the game was a deliberate choice in some way connected to his personal interests in outré philosophies. I don't recall any overt New Age evangelizing in the game, but then I was 12 years-old at the time and not particularly good at noticing such things (assuming they were even there). I did, however, notice that Man, Myth & Magic was a disappointing game, one whose general outlines could have been made into a compelling RPG in the hands of a more capable designer, which is a shame. A well-done historical fantasy game in the ancient world is something I'd love to see; odds are good that, even if it fell short of my expectations, I'd still like it more than I did Man, Myth & Magic.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Two Years and 1319 Posts

Another year has passed, since the last time I noted the anniversary of this blog's first post. Everything I said last year remains as true today, probably moreso, as interest in old school gaming and the readership of this blog continue to increase. I am both overwhelmed and humbled by the amazing responses Grognardia elicits -- yes, even the negative ones -- because it means, more than anything, that my words are affecting other human beings, which is precisely what a writer possessing any passion wishes to achieve.

When I began this blog two years ago today, I had no idea where it would go or how long I'd keep writing it. I certainly never expected that it'd be of interest to so many people. In these last two years, I've had the honor of interacting with a lot of terrific individuals, from the founders of the hobby to other bloggers and writers to fellow gamers, both young and old. These interactions have informed my thoughts and my gaming, improving both in the process.

For that, I thank each and every one of you who's ever taken the time to write a comment to one of my posts or sent me an email directly, including those of you who've had less than complimentary things to say. I've never met a person who enjoyed being criticized, let alone excoriated, but criticism, even when it's ill-meant, can be occasions of grace, curbing vanity and pride and encouraging one to work more diligently at one's chosen craft. Criticism makes me doubly appreciate the praise I receive. I still sometimes find if difficult to believe that anyone cares what I have to say about gaming, let alone that they might be inspired by it, but I am far from ungrateful that my writing engenders responses in so many others.

Indeed, it brings me great joy and I hope I can continue to provide others with some measure of pleasure through my writing (and perhaps a little less reason for obloquy). It's been a great couple of years and I have no reason to doubt that the coming one will be any less so. Thanks once again to everyone who's come along for the ride; I'll do my best to see that, if you're not always entertained, you'll at least never be bored.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Dwimmermount Character Sheet

The talented Lester B. Portly, Esq., a player in Blair's Planet Algol campaign, and creator of the "unofficial" Planet Algol character sheets, recently did me the honor of using his skills to create a record sheet for use in my Dwimmermount campaign.

As you can see, it's very attractive and very compact, containing pretty much everything you'd need to play in my campaign, including a little section on the back for recording the stats of your hirelings and henchmen. Many thanks to Lester for taking the time to make this!

Pulp Fantasy Library: Sword Woman

Fans of Robert E. Howard frequently find themselves having to correct all manner of misapprehensions about him and his literary output. Two such misapprehensions concern Howard's portrayal of women characters and the mistaken belief that the man from Cross Plains had anything to do with the character of Red Sonja. About the latter, very little needs to be said, as it's a fact of history that REH did not create the chainmail bikini-wearing Hyrkanian swordswoman, who made her first appearance in the pages of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian comic book in the early 70s. It's true that Howard did create a female character named Sonya of Rogatino for a single story called "The Shadow of the Vulture" (published in 1934), but this Red Sonya hails from the 16th century, not the Hyborian Age, and her prowess with pistol and blade stems from skill rather than a divine blessing.

The question of Howard's portrayal of women characters is a complex one, but I think it's fair to say that, much like his male characters, his primary agenda was spinning a good yarn. Consequently, his females are what he felt they needed to be in order to tell the kind of story he wished to tell. Many were mere accessories to male protagonists, yes, but there are multiple examples to the contrary. Indeed, I think Howard deserves far more praise than he often gets for his female characters, both in the Conan stories -- Bêlit and Valeria, for example -- and elsewhere. When he wished to do so, he could create female characters every bit as real and multifaceted as his male characters.

Which brings me to Agnes de Chastillon, better known as Dark Agnes. Though created in the 1930s and the protagonist of three short stories (two complete and one not), she never appeared in print until 1975. Later in the same decade, these three two stories, the last of which was completed by Gerald Page based on Howard's synopsis, were collected together in the paperback volume depicted with this post. As depicted in her first story, "Sword Woman," Agnes is a Frenchwoman about to be married off to a man she does not love by her father, a former mercenary, who beats her when she shows signs of wishing to defy his plans.

Unbowed, Agnes kills her husband-to-be on their wedding day and flees her father, hoping to make her own way in the world. She eventually makes the acquaintance of Etienne Villiers, who offers to help her find work so that she might not starve. Of course, the work Villiers has in mind is prostitution and Agnes soon makes him regret his intentions, nearly beating him to death in her anger. Agnes nevertheless forgives Villiers and meets another man, Guiscard de Clisson, who teaches her to use a sword so that she might better defend herself in the future. She takes to the blade with astounding speed and then attempts to join Guiscard's mercenary company as a soldier. What happens next sets the stage for the short stories that follow.

Dark Agnes provides quite a counterpoint to Red Sonja, being an independent, capable swordswoman with a plausible backstory rather than being a mere vehicle for titillation. It's worth noting that Howard thought enough of Agnes that he sent his drafts to C.L. Moore, creator of Jirel of Joiry, to get her opinion. Moore was quite enthusiastic about Agnes, according to a letter she wrote to REH in January 1935. In addition, Howard goes to some lengths in "Sword Woman" to have male characters note that a female mercenary, while not the norm, was nevertheless not without precedent. As written, Agnes is remarkably believable -- not your typical "warrior woman," with all the pathologies that implies but rather simply a woman who wishes to be treated as an equal by men and women alike, a person who wishes to forge her own destiny.

It's a pity that Agnes de Chastillon is not better known among aficionados of pulp fiction, as she's an interesting character who ably demonstrates Robert E. Howard's remarkable skill as a writer. Fortunately, her stories will be included in a new volume of the Del Rey REH library in 2011. Here's hoping Agnes, along with some of Howard's "lesser" characters, will soon become enjoy the readership they deserve.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dwimmermount Game Table

I've received several requests for photographs of my group's game table au naturel -- as it is in the heat of actual play rather than "staged" for public consumption. Here are several I took during this evening's session.

This photo was shot from my perspective. You can see my dice, OD&D books, Ready Ref Sheets, minis (yeah, they're plastic prepainteds -- sue me), and a bunch of unused dungeon blocks, among other things. You can also see where a couple of players sit, along with notepads, character sheets, and other accouterments.

This one was from a little bit later in the evening, shot from beyond one of my players. You can see that the amount of the dungeon represented by the blocks has grown somewhat.

This one was an "overhead shot" during a break in play much later in the night. You can see my printouts of the treasure tables from the Monster & Treasure Assortment, along with the Labyrinth Lord books I often use alongside my OD&D books.

I'll do a recount of the events of the session itself later this week. It was a very good session, one in which Brother Candor came within 1 hit point of death and a long-time hireling met his demise. The characters also inadvertently delved deeper into Dwimmermount than they intended and learned more about the activities of the Argent Twilight within the mountain fortress. All in all, a good night's fun.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

RuneQuest's Appendix N

Herb over at Places to Go, People to Be wrote a post about something I'd actually been meaning to mention for some time: the bibliography at the end of RuneQuest, which is entitled "Appendix N," just like the one in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. So far as I know, RQ is the only game besides AD&D to literally have an Appendix N, but, as I've noted before, bibliographies are a fixture of many an old school game. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that, if a RPG includes an extensive bibliography (rather than mere ludography or "filmography"), you're probably looking at an old school game, or at least one with old school inspirations.

What's interesting about the RQ Appendix N is where it overlaps with Gygax's list and where it doesn't. You can find Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, and Tolkien among the authors it shares with AD&D, but also Smith, who somehow never made the cut in the DMG. The majority of the remaining books in the appendix are historical books, mostly about the ancient world and military matters, which only makes sense given Glorantha's overall feel and the origins of its game system in the Perrin Conventions for OD&D. Interestingly, RQ's version is an annotated bibliography, so you can read why the books were included.

Anyhow, I'm going to make a point of trying to include an Appendix N in any RPG project I write from now on. It's a great homage to not one but two classics of old school gaming and anything that might encourage gamers to read books other than more game books is a good thing.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Realms and Remembrance

Former TSR designer Jeff Grubb has posted a list 31 interesting facts about the early days of the TSR-published version of the Forgotten Realms. As with his previous post on the "secret origins" of the Marvel Super Heroes RPG, there's a lot of interesting stuff here, most notably (for me anyway):
13) I contributed Festhalls to the Realms. Ed’s original city maps had a high population of brothels, which made them inadvisable to publish. Our choices were rename them or rekey all the maps. I came up with the festhall name, which by definition spread out to handle a multitude of sins (feasts of both foods and flesh, and a bit of day spa added as well). I am very aware when someone else uses them in a fantasy novel.
I've always considered "festhalls" to be a perfect example of the kind of sanitization of D&D that frequently drove me away from the game in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. I understand the logic behind it, but it bugs me and, worse yet, it contributes to a false impression of what the Realms are actually like. To be clear, I don't blame Mr Grubb for this either, even though he's the immediate cause of the existence of festhalls. I certainly don't think he should have "made a stand" back in 1987 over something as comparatively trivial as this, even if I think the decision on the part of TSR's management was a poor one.

Thanks to Dan at Sword and Board for the heads-up on Mr Grubb's post.

Fantasy is Frightening

In RuneQuest, there is a race of beings known as Broos or goatkin. In my second edition rulebook, they're described as
Human-bodied and goat-headed, [they] ... are tied irrevocably with the Rune of chaos. They are given to atrocities and foul practices, and carry numerous loathsome diseases.
Broos have the ability to procreate with any species, intelligent or otherwise, with the resulting offspring taking characteristics from both its Broo and non-Broo parent. Most Broos in the Dragon Pass area (the area of Glorantha originally most detailed in RQ's early materials) have the heads of goats and other herd animals, hence their nickname, but Broos come in a variety of types, depending on their parentage.

Anyway, during the RuneQuest Renaissance of the '90s, a product was put out for RQ3 called Dorastor: Land of Doom, which detailed a Chaos-tainted land to the south of the Lunar Empire. As I've stated several times before, I never played much RuneQuest at any time, but I was often interested in it. Just before Avalon Hill was purchased by Hasbro in 1998, the company was selling off its stock of RuneQuest materials in very cheap -- and hefty -- bundles. I bought them out of curiosity and it was then that I first read Dorastor. The supplement included a NPC known as Ralzakark, leader of Dorastor and king of the Broos.

For reasons I can't fully articulate, I found Ralzakark quite frightening. Perhaps it was because he had the head of a unicorn, a creature normally associated with purity and goodness. Perhaps it was because he was an urbane, sophisticated creature unlike his subjects. Whatever it was, Ralzakark frightened me. I don't mean scared in that ooga-booga-monster-in-closet sort of way; I mean in some psychological/emotional way. Ralzakark was a disturbing NPC -- and fascinating too. For all I know, I may be the only person who finds the Unicorn Emperor of the Broos unnerving, but I suspect not. I know of many people who find the Broos more than a little creepy and Ralzakark's inversion of many of the known facts about these creatures probably does unsettle people besides myself.

This got me to thinking about how the best fantasies, the ones that really stick with me, are frightening on some level. Shelob, in The Lord of the Rings, frightens me and so does Gollum, come to think of it. They both touch on things within my psyche that I'd rather not think about and force me to confront them. Most of us, I imagine, need to do this from time to time, which is why I think it's healthy for children's stories to include frightening elements. It's the same reason I think RPGs shouldn't shy away from being frightful. That's not all they should be, of course. Still, I think they're a lesser entertainment than they can be if they neglect to include things to unnerve us from time to time.

Really Old School Dungeon Tiles

While searching through my old issues of Dragon yesterday in a quest to locate something for Mike Monaco, I cam across an ad from a company called Kabal Gaming Systems. The company was selling "Dungeon Floor Modules," like those picture above -- sheets of paper/light cardboard on which were printed rooms, corridors, staircases, etc. to be cut out and used in conjunction with miniatures.

I never owned these or indeed saw them, but I did have a similar product from Heritage USA, called "Dungeon Floors," if I recall. They came in a small box (like most Heritage products) and were made of rather sturdy cardboard. Unfortunately, I only ever owned one set, so, even when I did use them, I had a limited range of shapes and sizes for my dungeon layouts. They certainly don't hold a candle to the Hirst Arts blocks we use nowadays.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

William (the) Flayer

In my search for appropriate miniatures for my Dwimmermount campaign, I came across the following image on the Reaper Miniatures forum:

It's an old Grenadier gnome illusionist from a set called "Specialists." I remember it well because it was used by a player back in my old campaign for his gnome illusionist with the seemingly ridiculous name of Illusium.

Well, truth be told, Illusium is a ridiculous name, but there's a story behind it. You see, my friend, who also played Morgan Just, would often tire of his current character and create new ones. He'd grab some dice, roll them, and see what he got. In this case, he rolled up a character with high Strength, Intelligence, and Dexterity, but low Wisdom and Charisma. So my friend decided that he'd create a burly, cruel human illusionist whom he named William (the) Flayer. He called him this because William, you see, liked to keep trophies of his defeated opponents, chiefly scalps, which he then used to terrify and intimidate NPCs who got uppity.

Scalping wasn't William's only peculiar personality trait. He also had a pathological -- and inexplicable -- hatred of gnomes. I suspect my friend added this trait as a way to emphasize that he was unlike his other characters, some of whom were gnomes. Anyway, Fate did not smile upon William, who was slain during an adventure. The party lacked a cleric but had a druid with them (formerly a magic-user who'd foolishly used a wish to "gain the ability to cast druid spells" -- naturally, I turned him into a druid of equivalent XP). Said druid cast reincarnate on William, bringing him back as, you guessed it, a gnome.

William was so distraught over this abominable turn of events that he immediately tried to kill the druid. He failed, thanks to the other characters' stopping him, and fled into the woods. When he returned, he used the pseudonym Illusium to hide his true identity and mask his shame at becoming a hated gnome. After that, my memory is fuzzy as to what happened to Illusium, but I suspect, like many sociopathic characters, he eventually became evil and a villain in the campaign. Regardless, it's funny how seeing that picture brought back all these memories.

Minis Help

One of the biggest disappointments about my use of miniatures in the Dwimmermount campaign is my reliance on those pre-painted plastic ones WotC put out a few years ago. Most of them don't quite look the way I'd like them too, but they have the advantage of being cheap and convenient, so I use them while I assemble a better collection of Otherworld and similar old school miniatures.

Another disappointment is that, so far, none of the PCs has a unique miniature. That is, none of the players has a special mini that's been chosen and painted to represent their character. We're trying to change that, but, as with everything else, the difficulty is in finding appropriate miniatures for the task. While I trust my other players to be able to find their own minis, my 10 year-old daughter isn't quite as adept at this sort of thing. Moreover, her character, Iriadessa the Magic-User, is a 14 year-old girl. Finding a mini to represent her is tough.

So, here's my question: can anyone point me to a mini -- or, better yet, a selection of minis -- that be up to the task of representing a teenaged magic-user? I'm pretty open to a wide variety of options, although the minis need to be in the 25-28mm range rather than anything smaller or large.

Thanks in advance for any help you can provide.

Dwimmermount, Session 35

The last session resumed where the previous one had ended, as the characters were about to enter a room they suspected contained a medusa and her minions. As it turned out, the room contained no medusa but it did hold several giant snakes and, on a table in the far corner of the room, what appeared to be a crystal ball. The presence of the crystal ball made the character suspicious, particularly Dordagdonar, who was interested in using his ring of invisibility to sneak into the room by means of another door so that he might cover up the ball with his cloak. The players argued that, since covering up the ball wasn't an attack, it wouldn't break the ring's invisibility effect and could thus be done without alerting any opponents to his presence. I thought the reasoning sound and so allowed it.

Unfortunately, Dordagdonar soon realized that, invisible though he was, the other door would not be and his entrance through it might alert the snakes to his presence. He decided to bide his time and deal with the crystal ball later. While the battle raged on, Gaztea felt a strange "tugging" at her mind, as if someone were attempting to take control of it. Thanks to a successful saving throw no one did. Next round, Iriadessa was not to fortunate and, under the unseen mental control of someone, she turned on her allies. Seeing this Brother Candor acted quickly, casting a silence, 15' radius spell on the young mage, preventing her from using any of her own spells. Alas, Iriadessa possessed a wand of fear, recently looted from a treasure trove, and she pointed it at her allies. With the exception of a couple of the hirelings and henchmen, the entire party ran away in terror, as the giant snakes bore down on them.

With the snakes now moving into the other room, Dordagdonar decided that now was the time to act. He rushed into the other room invisibly, covered the crystal ball with his cloak, and placed it inside a bag. Meanwhile, the brave hirelings and henchmen slew one of the snakes, just as Iriadessa, still under mental domination, moved herself out of the radius of the silence spell. Dordagdonar returned to aid his companions by casting sleep on Iriadessa (which, luckily, still worked, since she is only 4th level). With her out of the way, the second snake was soon dispatched and order restored. A search of the room afterward found no sign of a medusa, but the characters did discover a large cache of Thulian gold coin.

At that, the characters decided to return to Adamas. They had items they needed to identify, supplies to purchase, and information to acquire. Brother Candor made a large donation to the temple of Tyche, much to the pleasure of High Priestess Morna. He also made a donation to the temple of Typhon as well, hoping to use it as a chance to see the archivist Saidon. Although the Typhonians gladly accepted the donation, Candor was not granted an audience with Saidon, who, he was told, was now "too busy since his recent elevation" to take visitors. Apparently, the recent visit by an inquisitor resulting in the high priest's fall from grace, with Saidon, as the main Typhonian cleric to have kept his head during the zombie invasion, taking his place.

Somewhat disappointed, Candor turned to other matters, such as finding a reliable alchemist/sage to use as a source of information. He eventually discovered a fellow called Marmaduke, who proved quite knowledgeable. Marmaduke recognized the crystal ball, asking "Where are the others?" As he explained, it's one of a linked set of 4-6 such balls, used by Termaxian adepts to scry and mentally dominate any within the range of the ball's magic. By itself, a single ball is useless, but removing one from the "circuit" to which it belonged has a deleterious effect on the others in the circuit. Brother Candor and Dordagdonar then decided that, upon their return to Dwimmermount, they'd make a point of seeking out the other crystal balls.

Just before the party planned to trek back to Muntburg, High Priest Saidon sent word that he would be able to see them after all. He apologized profusely for their being sent away, explaining that everyone in Adamas wants to see him now, hoping to curry favor with him, that his underlings routinely send away anyone who comes calling without a specific invitation from him beforehand. Grateful for more Thulian spoons, Saidon reported a few small bits of information to the characters. He noted that other adventuring parties were beginning to take note of the success of the Fortune's Fools and following suit. Many of these parties have powerful backers, most notably the Band of the Hawk, which operated under a charter from the Despot of Adamas himself! The Band had not been seen in some time, though, and there was speculation as to whether they were still in the dungeon or if they had met an untimely end. He also intimated that more sinister groups -- Termaxian cultists -- might be doing the same, a fact the PCs already knew. With that, they headed back toward Dwimmermount.

I almost forgot: Dordagdonar has decided to construct a flesh golem.

Happy Maryland Day

Happy 376th birthday to the Old Line State.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Memento Mori

Perhaps as a consequence of my getting older, over the last few years I've become increasingly fascinated by memento mori artwork. Granted, this fascination is deeply rooted in my psyche, going all the way back to childhood, but it's intensified in recent times. The phrase memento mori itself is very old, predating Christianity, which adopted it with great vigor, particularly during the High Middle Ages. Something like this phrase was reputedly whispered by a slave into the ear of a Roman general receiving a triumph and, of course, every Ash Wednesday, I'm reminded that I am dust and unto dust I shall return. There's also the tradition of the danse macabre, which carries off prince and pauper alike.

I bring this up primarily because I've noticed that my Dwimmermount campaign has included lots of little references to mortality and attempts to escape it. The cult of Turms Termax, sees death as an obstacle to be overcome, following the example of its founder. So far as anyone knows, no Termaxian adept has succeeded in achieving what Turms reputedly did, unless one counts the numerous undead beings devoted to the cult. In the campaign, many of D&D's familiar undead creatures are the result of mortal beings attempting to achieve immortality through some despicable means, often at the urging of demons, who tempt Men by reminding them, like those slaves in Roman times, that they are mortal. Ghouls, for example, are human beings who have achieved immortality -- and eternal hunger -- by indulging in cannibalism. It's not a pretty sight.

The player characters have bumped against the issue of mortality in other places too. With the exception of Vladimir the dwarf, no dead character has ever returned to life and he remembers nothing of "the other side." Speak with dead was once used, but I've ruled that the spell doesn't enable conversation with the dead person's soul at all. Rather, it simply grants limited access to the memory of the deceased, which lingers within its corpse. That's why the spell only works if there's a body and only a fairly recently dead one at that (as per Supplement I rather than later versions). The question of mortality and the afterlife came up too during the characters' meeting with Xaranes, who mocked the notion that "the Great Maker's handiwork should be as perishable as your kind seemingly suppose."

Dwimmermount's just a D&D campaign; I don't intend it to be a "deep" meditation upon the human condition. Still, these little elements have added some nice texture to our sessions, making them both enjoyable and memorable. They also add mystery, as the characters now have lots of contradictory evidence to support all kinds of perspectives on the matter of mortality -- just like real life.

Magick and Monsters

Parents who have children of a certain age are almost certainly familiar with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series of books, which are very popular at the moment, probably even moreso now that there's a movie version of the first book in theaters. The books chronicle the thoughts of a sixth-grader named Greg as he deals with all the usual trials and tribulations of growing up, accompanied by often-amusing cartoon drawings. My daughter, who players Iriadessa in my Dwimmermount campaign, was recently reading the second book in the series, Rodrick Rules, which contains a brief sub-plot pertaining to an imaginary RPG called Magick and Monsters.

Rodrick's friend Rowley, despite his age, still gets a babysitter whenever his parents go out. Normally, his babysitter is Heather, "the prettiest girl at Crossland High School" on whom Greg has a crush. Consequently, he loves to go over to Rowley's house when his parents are out, as it means Heather will be there. One time, however, Heather was unavailable and Rowley gets a different babysitter, a high school boy named Leland, who asks if Greg would like to play Magick and Monsters with him. Greg agrees, but only
because I thought it was some kind of video game. But then I found out that you play it with pencils and paper and these special dice, and that you're supposed to use your "imagination" or whatever.

Greg soon becomes enamored of the game, "because in Magick and Monsters you can do all sorts of stuff you could never do in real life." As his obsession with the game grows, so do his mother's suspicions. "I guess she must think Leland is teaching me and Rowley witchcraft or something." he explains. To allay her fears, Greg's Mom decides to come along and go and watch him play Magick and Monsters with his friends.

From there, things take an unexpected turn and the story becomes even more amusing.

I have to admit I was very surprised to see this section of the book, firstly because I don't think pen and paper RPGs are much on the cultural radar anymore. Secondly, it was heartening to see RPGs portrayed so positively and (more or less) accurately. That's rare in almost any outside media, never mind one geared toward children of the same age as I was when I first started gaming. Here's hoping at least a few kids out there find themselves sufficiently intrigued by this imaginary game that they seek out the real stuff.

Retrospectve: Hârn

Like Skyrealms of Jorune, Hârn is a product that any reader of Dragon during the early to mid-1980s should remember well, as it was regularly advertised in those hallowed pages. Also like Jorune, it was a product that was, in my limited experience anyway, more admired than actually used in play. The brainchild of N. Robin Crossby, who died a year and a half ago, Hârn has long been associated with the tagline "A Real Fantasy World," by which one is meant to understand that it is a highly detailed setting whose creator has given much thought to matters of history, culture, and social dynamics in order to produce, in his words, "an environment that is fundamentally rational."

First released in 1983, Hârn describes a single large island about three times the size of Britain. And, like Britain, the island, which gives its name to the product, is located to the northwest of a larger continent, with which it shares history and culture. Hârn is home to nine civilized kingdoms, as well as many barbaric tribes. The setting is reminiscent of Norman England, in terms of society and technology, but it's not a one-for-one correspondence. The real genius of Hârn is the way that it manages to blend real world influences with a wide variety of fantastical ones, including perhaps the strangest "orcs" ever to appear in any fantasy game (the gargûn, as they are called, have a hive-based social structure akin to ants or bees).

At the same time,
Hârn suffers, I think, from being a little too detailed, particularly nowadays, after more than 25 years of development. Like Tékumel and Glorantha, newcomers might rightly fear that it's impossible to get into Hârn without investing untold hours in absorbing its minutiae. That's not true, of course; Hârn is probably no less accessible than most well-developed fantasy settings, but it gives the impression that this isn't the case. The original release and its supplements have a dry, even academic tone to them that can be off-putting to those expecting writing with more zest. Likewise, the smallness of the island of Hârn itself means that, almost literally, every square mile of the place has been fleshed out in some way, often with pages of supplementary material and maps. Little wonder that Hârn has the reputation it does among those who know of it.

I mentioned maps above and no retrospective about
Hârn would be complete without discussing its maps. In its day, the poster map of Hârn was probably the most impressive piece of cartography to come out of the gaming world, being attractive and at a scale to be very useful in play. I'd argue that the map (and the others that followed) remain solid competitors for the best gaming maps ever made. Indeed, the maps alone have tempted me on more than one occasion to try and run a campaign set on Hârn.

But I never have. For some reason, I've never managed to take the plunge and use
Hârn in any way, despite owning several Hârnic products. Part of it, I guess, is that, for all my admiration of Hârn's "realism" and attention to detail, I generally crave more fantastical worlds for my roleplaying. I suspect too that the accumulation of little things I dislike about Hârn, particularly its direct importation of Middle-earth's elves and dwarves, rubs me the wrong way enough that I can't bring myself to use it. That's not a knock against Hârn so much as an acknowledgment of my respect for its imaginative unity. Like many of the best fantasy settings, Hârn benefits from the powerful vision of its creator and I worry that pulling at any of the loose threads I see dangling might unravel the whole beautiful tapestry. Oddly I don't feel that way about many other equally intricate settings that others view as I do Hârn, so perhaps it says something about me that I don't yet fathom.

Hârn is a classic product and one that has regularly inspired me even though I have never actually used it. How many other gaming creations can say that?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Births and Deaths

Although the usual terms are "renaissance," "revolution," or "movement" to describe the resurgence in interest in old school RPGs, I think it's more properly called a "counter-reformation," as it's at least in part an attempt to "push back" against what are seen as uncongenial developments in the hobby. Consequently, some of its more vocal proponents -- myself among them -- are apt, for rhetorical reasons, to exaggerate certain aspects of the Old Ways. A good example of this can be seen in the way that "cheap death" and "expendable characters" are often emphasized as key elements of old school play, often to the detriment of the very points we're trying to make about how RPGs have changed over the years.

In the old days, the death of a player character was not a rare occurrence, but it was far more common at the beginning of a character's career than later on. That is, low-level characters did in fact die quite easily and regularly; their mid to high-level counterparts, however, did not die anymore frequently than most PCs created nowadays. Certainly they might run afoul of a save or die effect of some sort, but it was rare that a character stayed dead unless his player had tired of playing him for some reason.

In remembering our early experiences of gaming, we probably remember the deaths of many ill-fated low-level characters before we finally hit upon the character who, through a combination of luck, skill, and perhaps referee mercy, managed to make it past 3rd level, but do we actually remember those dead characters? With very exceptions, I can't recall the name of almost any of the poor schmucks who were killed by being turned into a pin cushion by kobolds, level drained by wights, dissolved by green slime, or just falling into too deep a pit trap -- not unless their death was particularly memorable in some other way. I don't expect I'm unique in this regard.

Part of the reason we don't remember those dead characters is that because, in old school games, most of them weren't characters, not really anyway. Becoming a "real" character was something one earned through play. Prior to 3rd or 4th level, it was generally unwise to get too attached to a PC, as he was both mechanically fragile and sufficiently lacking in the experiences from which a character is made. Characters are only truly born after they've survived a few adventures. The kind of detachment necessary to undertake this kind of play is made easier with random generation in my opinion. When you sit down at a table without any preconceptions about the kind of character you want to play and see what the dice give you, it's a lot less traumatic when that character suddenly dies in play than if you provide him with an extensive background, personality, and goals due to careful thought beforehand.

That's why I think old schoolers are right to emphasize random character generation as a cornerstone of our preferred style of play. One can distance oneself from such characters sufficiently so that the referee can feel little compunction about letting the dice fall where they may. A closer bond with one's character is something that, in my experience, only grows over time, after the experience of surviving the many things that resulted in the deaths of previous characters. Then one can go ahead and start fleshing out the character further, creating a "living" alter ego, because, despite all the chest thumping and machismo, even mid-level old school D&D characters are very resilient and, when they do die (or get level drained or whatever), it's not that hard to "fix" things if one's willing to make the effort.

In short, I sometimes think we exaggerate the deadliness of old school play, or at least misrepresent the nature of that deadliness. Simultaneously, I think we sell short the importance of random character generation as a necessary corollary to conveying the kind of flavor we prefer. To my mind, the two go hand and hand and I must say, based on Jeff's report, that it sounds as if Goodman Games's DCC RPG gets at least this aspect of old school play. I find that cheering, honestly, and I hope it's something that we collectively might do a better job of explicating.

No Such Thing as Too Many

The growing awareness of Goodman Games' upcoming (in 2011) Dungeon Crawl Classic Roleplaying Game has once again generated the chorus of "there are too many clones," etc. that we hear every time someone decides to produce a new old school fantasy game. My own position on the matter remains the same, namely:

1. The more old school games that are available, from a variety of publishers, the less likely it is for any one of them to become the old school game, either in theory or in practice. Speaking for myself, I prefer diffusion to centralization, as it's a good safeguard against repeating the mistakes of the hobby's past. Likewise, the more games available, the more cross-pollination of ideas we'll see and that too is an unqualified good in my opinion.

2. However, my position is predicated on the assumption that these clones are all roughly compatible with one another, sharing similar mechanical roots, so that cross-pollination is encouraged, if not actually facilitated. I prefer that new clones make their rules available for free, as Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, and James Raggi have done for this very reason, but it's not essential. At the same time, when a publisher introduces a proprietary "old school" RPG, my skepticism is heightened. That's why I tend to view games like HackMaster and Castles & Crusades differently than the aforementioned games, even though I find a lot to like in both of them. I suspect I'll feel similarly about the DCC RPG, but it's too early to tell.

The old school movement is a gloriously chaotic mess of creativity. That chaos fosters creativity and impedes the centralization of authority in any one game or publisher -- both positive outcomes in my view. So, the more, the merrier, I say.

Archie Meets the Punisher

I was never a huge comics fan as a kid and I only ever rarely indulge in reading them nowadays, so I don't talk much about them on this blog. Still, once I found out about the existence of this thing, I could scarcely not make a post about it:

As amusing as the cover is, it's nothing compared to the actual premise of the comic, which involved the Punisher going undercover in Riverdale (as a phys ed teacher at the local high school) to hunt down a drug dealer named "Red", who -- of course! -- looks a lot like Archie. Poking around the Net, I've seen multiple claims that the comic is actually quite fun, simultaneously being a love letter to Archie Comics and a self-aware send-up of "dark" superheroes like Frank Castle. I somehow find that hard to believe, but I suppose anything is possible.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I Have to Admit

This is a pretty cool ad. Thank to Jeff Rients for the original image.

Charles Goren and the Bridge to the Future

Without looking up his name, how many of us have ever heard of Charles H. Goren, the man depicted on the cover of the September 28, 1958 issue of Time accompanying this post? Not many, I'd imagine and, if you're one of the few people who had heard of him before now, it's likely because you play or knew someone who played the card game Bridge.

A professional Bridge player, Goren was also an international celebrity during the 1950s. He wrote several books on Bridge, selling millions of copies. He also wrote a daily column devoted to the game that was syndicated in nearly 200 newspapers across the United States, in addition to columns on the same topic in McCall's and -- if you can believe it -- Sports Illustrated. And from 1959 to 1964, he hosted a TV show devoted to Bridge.

What's even more remarkable is that Goren wasn't unique in deriving his fame from being very good at a very difficult card game; during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, there were many popularly celebrated Bridge players, such as Ely Culbertson and Harold Vanderbilt. Tournaments in which they competed were covered in the newspapers and attracted crowds of spectators. During the years immediately before and after World War II, Bridge was a favored pastime throughout the Western world (and beyond). According to various histories of the game I've read, anywhere between 40 and 50% of American homes hosted Bridge games regularly during the late 1950s. Movie stars like Omar Sharif openly spoke of their passion for the game, as did President Dwight Eisenhower, who often played while at the White House. Fictional characters such as James Bond and Hercule Poirot were both noted Bridge aficionados too, as was Woodstock from Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip.

By the late 1960s, though, the bloom had come off the rose and Bridge ceased to be the broad popular entertainment it had been for several decades prior. No one knows precisely why this happened. There are a lot of theories, ranging from the difficulty in learning (let alone mastering) the game, the growing complexity of the bidding systems used in play, or the eternal claim that people no longer have the patience their ancestors once did. Whatever the reason, Bridge soon became, in the popular imagination, if not in reality, an "old person's game." Nowadays, if discussion of Bridge comes up at all, it's usually in the context of someone's grandparents playing it, despite the best attempts of avid players like billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill Gates to promote the game among young people by noting that
Unlike other games that you master and eventually quit playing because they no longer challenge you, Bridge is a game that offers continuous challenges, new situations to be analyzed every time you play and a complex and intriguing language to be learned and mastered.
There are likewise claims that Bridge playing helps develop better memories and stave off dementia in the elderly.

Millions of people still play Bridge today, but its glory days are long gone and, barring some unforeseen circumstance, it's not likely to ever again be the fad it once was. That doesn't prevent lovers of the game from continuing to enjoy it and to share their love with other players. Neither does it prevent their teaching the game to newcomers who've decided to participate in a hobby whose complexity (there are 635,013,559,600 possible hands in the game, plus a vast number of stratagems for using those hands) and subtlety make it difficult for computers to win against human opponents, as they regularly do in chess.

In short, Bridge is alive and well in 2010, played by millions across the globe and from all walks of life. Sure, it's faded from popular consciousness and is often ridiculed by people who don't understand it, but so what? The point of any hobby is personal satisfaction and enjoyment. So long as people continue to find the game fun, what difference does it make if it's played by just 4 people or 4 million?

What Ho, Jack Vance!

Rather than stretch the term "pulp fantasy" beyond the point of credulity, this week's literary post won't formally be part of my Pulp Fantasy Library series but rather a stand-alone musing. It was occasioned by my reading of several old interviews with Jack Vance in which he talked about the authors who most influenced him. Often, it's been claimed, not without plausibility, that Clark Ashton Smith was one of these influences, but I've never read anywhere in which Vance acknowledges such an influence. Instead, Vance has consistently named three (sometimes four) authors as his literary "mentors:" Jeffery Farnol, L. Frank Baum, and P.G. Wodehouse (with Burroughs being the fourth).

Of these influences, the one that stands out as the odd is P.G. Wodehouse. Baum wrote fantasies (as did Burroughs) and Farnol, though largely forgotten nowadays, was a popular writer of swashbuckling tales in the first half of the 20th century, so there's a clear connection to Vance's own work. But what of Wodehouse, a comic writer best known for having created the character of Reginald Jeeves, a gentleman's gentleman whose very name is now synonymous with knowledgeable and perspicacious manservants? What sort of influence could he have had over Vance?

I'm actually a devotee of Wodehouse, whose Jeeves stories I am now in the midst of re-reading (which is what occasioned this post). In doing so, the connection between the two writers has quickly become apparent. First and foremost, Wodehouse displays a remarkable facility with the English language, one that humorously combines sophisticated banter with the then-contemporary slang of London partygoers. The combination is often dizzying, taking some time to understand, but, once one gets the hang of it, Wodehouse's dialog reveals surprising depths. Reading the words of Cugel the Clever, you can hear echoes of Wodehouse. Wodehouse's characters likewise show many commonalities with those in Vance's works too. Whether they're foolish authority figures, puffed-up aristcrats, or zany eccentrics, many of them would, without too much effort, fit right into Vance's fantasy and science fiction tales.

Of course, Vance's tales have a decidedly "darker" edge to them. Their humor is often of a black sort and Vance's characters generally possess a venal streak beneath their buffoonery. Still, the influence is quite clear once you begin to look for it. I've amused myself while re-reading the Jeeves stories by picking out little bits of dialog that remind of something said in "The Dying Earth" stories. I fear that this practice has carried over into my gaming as well. My NPCs were always of a somewhat whimsical sort to begin with, but my immersion in Wodehouse these last few days has only stoked my whimsy further. The spoon-fancying priest of Typhon, Saidon, is probably one of my more Wodehousian creations and his reappearance in a recent Dwimmermount session gave me the opportunity to indulge myself yet again.

Wodehouse, like Vance, is likely an acquired taste and I can sympathize with anyone who doesn't find his writing as appealing as I do. Still, if you like well crafted dialog and eccentric characters, you could do worse than reading a story or two by the man. If nothing else, you might end up, as I did, naming an alchemist Marmaduke and enjoying the look on your players' faces when you first say the name to them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Late Unpleasantness

It probably speaks poorly of me to say so, but do you have any idea how nice it is that the latest old school Internet drama doesn't involve me or something I wrote in any way? I think I could get used to this, so, gentlemen, please continue to carry on without me; it's a welcome change of pace.

(Just to be clear: This is humor and not an attempt to make fun of anyone except possibly myself, who, despite being a really nice guy, has inexplicably been at the center of one too many tempests in teapots over the last two years. The foregoing statement is also humor.)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Star Wars is a Really Good Movie

This evening I watched Star Wars with my seven year-old son for the first time. He's just a little younger than I was when I first saw the film back in 1977 and, while he "knows" Star Wars through pop inculturation, he'd never watched any actual Star Wars movies until today. He enjoyed himself well enough, but I don't think it had quite the same impact on him that it did on me over three decades ago. For example, R2-D2 was the character he seemed most interested in, so the perils of Luke, Leia, and Han were generally of secondary importance to what happened to everyone's favorite astromech droid. I can't say I'm terribly surprised by this. My son lives in a post-Star Wars world, so many of things that made the original film such a revelation to me and others in 1977 are pretty banal nowadays. Honestly, I'd have been rather amazed if he'd come away from watching it with anything close to the euphoric buzz I had when I first saw it more than three decades ago.

This was also the first time I'd watched the film in a while and I came away from it more convinced than ever that it's a really good movie in its own right. Just about everything in it works and does so without either pretension or self-consciousness. Indeed, it's the utter lack of self-consciousness that most impressed me, as it's the quality that most separates the original film from all of its successors. Star Wars is the only one of the series that simply tells a story rather than telling a story about Star Wars. To varying degrees, all of the sequels and prequels exist, at least in part, to tell us more about the characters, places, and events of the original film.

A friend of mine once said that Star Wars is the only one of the series that didn't take place within the Star Wars universe. By that he meant that, until a second film had been made, there wasn't really such a thing as "the Star Wars universe," at least not in the sense that we use that phrase now. Certainly there were lots of details established in the first film, but most of those details existed primarily to advance the story it was telling rather than to flesh out the setting of the story. It's the only film of the series that's like that, which probably explains why, even after years of interminable "expansions" to the original through movies, TV shows, comic books, novels, and other media, it still retains a freshness and vibrancy that the others lack.

I say this not to denigrate everything that came after, some of which I like a great deal, but only to note that the original Star Wars is a very different animal than the phenomenon that it spawned. It exists in a world before Ouroboros and I'm glad of that.

Small but Beautiful

As is often the case in our little corner of the Web, there's a new topic du jour and this time it's the "marketing of the old school renaissance" -- how is it that so few gamers understand what a retro-clone is or why they exist, etc.? In short, why are there still so many misapprehensions about the old school movement? Two good examples of bloggers cogitating on these and related questions can be found here and here.

Speaking only for myself, such questions don't really concern me. As a player (and occasional producer) of old school games, I'm pretty happy with the way things are at present. As others have amply demonstrated, there's more of the kind of gaming materials I prefer being produced now than there has been in years, so many in fact that I can't keep up with them all. Better still, the variety of these materials is large enough that there are many I simply have no interest in -- and that's actually a good thing, because it suggests that old schoolers' tastes are no more identical today than they were in the old days.

Beyond that, though, I've been pretty consistent in my belief that most attempts to get old school games more widely recognized and played would inevitably repeat the history of TSR, which isn't something I have much interest in seeing. I don't want "old school" treated as a brand or used to attract large numbers of gamers disaffected with the current flavor of the month to our "banner." I'm quite happy living in a nice, quiet, out of the way neighborhood surrounded by folks similarly happy, even those crazy guys down the street who are into woodworking with power tools at odd hours of the night.

I won't speak for anyone else, but a big part of what appeals to me about the old school movement is its kicking "the industry" to the curb and focusing instead on one and two-man operations producing stuff out of a passion for the hobby rather than a laser focus on the bottom line. If outsiders take an interest in any of this stuff, good for us, but that's not what I think this is all about, which is why I won't wring my hands worrying about the fact that the wider gaming world doesn't understand the difference between Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry, assuming they've even heard of either.

That's not to say I wouldn't be very happy if a retro-clone or old school product managed to sell thousands of copies or if the Old Ways were suddenly adopted on a wider basis. But I'd prefer that such an outcome, if it's even possible, occur organically rather than as a result of a concerted business plan on the part of some company or organization. I like the chaotic, confusing, and occasionally off-putting little world we've carved for ourselves. Others are welcome to enter it and I'm always happy to answer sincere questions to help them do so, but I have zero interest in making it more "accessible" or "welcoming" by changing the very things I like most about it.

My feeling is that gamers are savvier than we give them credit for. The ones who have a genuine interest in old school gaming can already pretty easily find the sites and the products they want without the need for marketing. It's not as if we're hiding ourselves from view -- quite the contrary! Are we, by and large, an eccentric, cantankerous bunch? No doubt, but that's a feature rather than a bug and if it discourages some newcomers, such is life. Just about any community passionately devoted to any hobby is going to appear eccentric and cantankerous to others not similarly passionate. This is what the hobby was like when I entered into it 30 years ago and I expect it's the way it will be 30 years hence. That's not going to change no matter how one chooses to market these games we all love.

So, speaking only for myself, I'd be perfectly happy if the old school renaissance didn't attract legions of new players, if doing so means diluting the things I value most about it. History has already shown us what happens when a company makes that particular deal with the Devil. Why would we want to make that same mistake now?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Favorite Obscure AD&D Rule

One of the things I most enjoy about the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide is that it's possible to open it randomly to almost any page and there's a good chance you'll come across a rule you've either never read or don't remember having read. Sometimes those rules help clarify some other aspect of the rules and other times you wonder what the heck Gary was thinking when he included it in the book.

Over the years I've become something of a connoisseur of these kinds of rules, so it'd be hard to pick a favorite. If pressed, though, I'd probably go with the following little gem, which I would have actually used, had I noticed it back in the day:

It is assumed that an appropriate type of head armoring will be added to the suit of armor in order to allow uniform protection of the wearer. Wearing of a "great helm" adds appropriate weight and restricts the vision to the front 60° only, but it gives the head AC 1. If a helmet is not worn, 1 blow in 6 will strike at the AC 10 head, unless the opponent is intelligent, in which case 1 blow in 2 will be aimed at the AC 10 head (d6, 1-3 = head blow).
Interestingly, I have yet to find a comparable rule in OSRIC, but the Advanced Edition Companion does reproduce it.

So what's your favorite obscure rule from AD&D? Bonus points if you actually use it in play.

Interesting Times

One of the things I've always respected about Steve Jackson Games is how forthcoming it is with information about its finances. It's, so far as I know, the only company in this industry that tells us its gross income ($3 million in 2009, up very slightly from 2008, when it earned $2.9 million). I did some work for the company quite some time ago (for GURPS Traveller, primarily) and, while I have no desire to do so again, it's not because the company lacked professionalism or in any way mistreated me. SJ Games is in fact one of the only companies ever to pay me promptly for my work, according to the terms of my contract with them, something of which much larger companies cannot boast. To this day, I still get regular reports from the company on the quarterly earnings of a book I did for royalties, even though it rarely sells any copies anymore. In short, SJ Games is a class act, all around.

So, I found it interesting to note that, in 2009, only one GURPS product was released in print format, the rest all being PDF releases. Given that Munchkin now accounts for 80% of the company's revenues, I guess this all makes sense. Still, it's interesting to consider that there was more new old school product released in 2009 than there were was GURPS, a venerable and well-established game line with lots of fans. Unless I missed it, no one is seriously claiming that GURPS is dead or that its largely-electronic release schedule last year heralds its doom -- food for thought when thinking about the old school renaissance and its impact.

Fight On! Issue 8 Available

Issue #8 of Fight On! is now available in both print and PDF form, marking two years since the first issue appeared, which is a pretty remarkable thing, given that it's almost entirely produced by amateurs. As usual, the latest issue is jam-packed with some excellent material, including a terrific interview with cover artist (and issue dedicatee) Erol Otus by Jeff Rients. The interview contains a lot of great questions and interesting responses, including one of particular interest to our little echo chamber:
JR: Do you play any role-playing games now?

EO: I've been playing in a 1st edition AD&D campaign ongoing now for about 6 years, we only play about 6-8 times a year though. I've got two characters, a Magic-User and Cleric, both 9th level. It appears now that Emoglorgon is really Demogorgon and may well be enslaved by an unknown figure (seen only in visions while dead) who is behind the upheaval, war, and foul corruption of nature spreading across the lands. Last year I started DMing a 4e game when it came out. We've only played it a few times so far. It is kind of strange, everyone healing themselves, so many powers for 1st levelers. Might end up converting this back to 1e, but we will give it a few more tries.
Make of that what you will.

Congratulations to Calithena on another job well done.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

In Defense of Charts

In our righteous defense of "simplicity," some of us in the old school movement, myself chief among them, have given the impression that any kind of mechanical complexity is both unwarranted and unwanted. I know that this is so because I've often seen outsiders to our little echo chamber think, based on a reasonable but mistaken reading of our various discussions, that "old school = rules lite."

Now, it's certainly true that while many old school games, such as LBB-only OD&D, would likely qualify as rules lite under many contemporary definitions, it's not OD&D's relative lack of rules that draws its proponents toward it but rather the kinds of rules it includes and the way those rules are presented. Conversely, many games I'd unhesitatingly call old school, such as Chivalry & Sorcery, aren't rules lite by any means (and even AD&D is fairly complex by most definitions).

In reflecting on my experiences with Rolemaster, I realized that it wasn't really the inclusion of lots of charts that made it so difficult for me to play. Rather, it was my unfamiliarity with those charts. I have known many ardent players of Rolemaster and most of them didn't think much of my claim that the game is "unplayable." Ditto for fans of DragonQuest. In both cases, what I often heard was some variation on "once you get the hang of it, it's really not so bad." I used to think that was self-serving nonsense, intended to brush off my criticisms without actually addressing them. Now, I'm not so sure.

I'm not so sure because many of the games I played regularly as a kid, like AD&D as I mentioned above, are in fact quite chart-heavy and intimidating to people who aren't familiar with their rules. And yet I'd defy the opinion of anyone who claimed, with a straight face, that 1e was "unplayable" because of its charts, matrices, and many lists: "Once you get the hang of it, it's really not so bad." In fact, many of those charts, while assuredly off-putting at first glance, serve double duty as rules references and rules explications. AD&D's combat charts, for example, really helped me as a younger person to conceptualize the levels of "fighting-ness" of the various classes, which probably explains why I never really bought into the "thief-as-combat-god" notion so many gamers seem to have these days.

Now, I can certainly sympathize with gamers who dislike charts or find them impediments to their enjoyment of a game. I have lots of little hang-ups about which I feel the same way, so I know exactly what that's like. But there are gamers for whom charts aren't a problem and indeed for whom they're of genuine assistance. Likewise, for certain kinds of games, charts are even a necessity, helping to make them simpler to play than one might think at first glance. Nowadays, those types of games aren't my cup of tea, broadly speaking, but I have played and enjoyed such games in the past and -- who knows? -- I may do so again in the future.

Charts and matrices are no better or worse than any other rules presentations in absolute terms and, situationally, I've often found them a positive boon. So, I'll be doing my level best to resist my current instinct to recoil upon seeing them. Charts have been with us since the beginning of the hobby and they're a salutary method of presenting information in a compressed fashion. Like everything, they're a tool and they have their place. To suggest otherwise is to demonstrate precisely the kind of close-mindedness for which old schoolers are often criticized. Speaking only for myself, I'm going to try to be more tolerant of charts and tables and remember well that they have as much claim to being old school as the simplicity so many of us laud these days.

REVIEW: 100 Street Vendors of the City State

This is probably one of my more melancholy reviews, given that James Mishler, writer of 100 Street Vendors of the City State and owner of Adventure Games Publishing has announced that this would be his last product for sale and that AGP would be closing. This is unfortunate news on numerous levels but particularly so because 100 Street Vendors is a very good and, above all, useful product, even if one is not using Castles & Crusades or the Wilderlands settings. Indeed, this is one of the most useful -- and meaty -- offerings Mishler has produced to date. That it is the last of its kind contributes greatly to my sense that one only really appreciates what one has after it is gone.

I called 100 Street Vendors "meaty" and so it is. Consisting of 60 pages of the densely packed text for which Mishler's products are well known, it presents, as its title suggests, 100 different NPCs, each one a vendor on the winding streets of the City State of the Invincible Overlord. Now, that probably sounds a lot less interesting than it is, for the real genius of this product is that it's far more than a mere rogues gallery of non-player character names and statistics (though it is that as well). Each entry is a kind of "mini-sourcebook," providing information about the City State and the Wilderlands in general, along with numerous plot hooks and rumors for the referee to use in creating his own adventures. For example, a fishmonger by the name of Ferka is described as being of the
Great Black Bass Clan, the most prominent fisher-folk of the western Roglaroon (though the Great Blue Bass Clan would deny that at the point of a dagger); he is one of several fishmongers of the clan, as he is more capable of interacting with the "land lubbers" than most of the clansfolk, which tend to be ornery, xenophobic, and inbred (after long ago absorbing a bit of Merfolk blood, to be sure.
Later, the same entry notes:
An ancient temple of the Sea God has been discovered in the fens of the Mermist Swamp; it is said to be overrun by trolls and giant toads that guard a gold-plated statue at the heart of the temple.
Between those two small sections of one entry, there are lots of ideas a clever referee can use in creating his own adventures and in fleshing out the Wilderlands setting -- and there are 99 more entries of similar or even greater detail. I don't use the Wilderlands for my OD&D campaign, but I've already found lots of inspiration in the pages of 100 Street Vendors. If one is running any kind of city-based campaign, it's even more inspiring, as it goes a long way toward making a seemingly ordinary trip to hire a locksmith or employ a sage into something memorable. If one is running a campaign that involves the City State, it's even more valuable, as Mishler has helpfully included several excellent indices of the vendors (by street, by market, and by quarter), along with discussions of local coinage.

If 100 Street Vendors of the City State has a flaw, it's that its bare bones, illustration-free presentation might be overwhelming. The information contained within its 60 pages is vast and the text uses a very small point size, which might by off-putting. These would be unfortunate but understandable reactions and I have to admit that, before I started reading the book, I wasn't all that enthusiastic about doing so. But I am glad I did and this book will now enjoy a place of honor in my collection, along with a very small number of other useful referee tools. I consider that very high praise and a fitting conclusion to the Wilderlands of High Fantasy line. Grab a copy while you still can.

Presentation: 5 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a vast collection of idea fodder in the form of NPC descriptions, rumors, and setting details.
Don't Buy This If: You never use prepackaged NPC descriptions.