Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Um, it's about fun?

There's a lot of OSR-related fan blogs out there, and I subscribe to several of them, but perhaps one of the most prolific in terms of pure "if it ain't OSR it ain't anything" screed is Hack and Slash.  I sometimes think the whole OSR thing reminds me a bit of the question of a vegetarian diet.  There are those who occasionally go meat-free or at least appreciate what vegetarians are trying to do, those that are "I'll eat fish but that's it," those that are strict vegetarians, and then there's vegans.

Me?  I'm in the first category. I can respect the whole "player agency is good, rules light can be fun and encourage creativitiy," etc.  But I'll still play another game if I feel like it because just like I think meat is a good thing, I think skill rolls are a good thing sometimes too.  The "fish only" people are like individuals who like Castles and Crusades--I'm basically on board, but I'll still indulge in an increasing Armor Class and a stat-check system.  Vegetarians are your OSR-clone users, and vegans are the one who think that Gygax and Metzer hung the moon and that 1st Edition AD&D was the beginning of the end.

Back to C-, the author of Hack and Slash.  In his latest post, he goes off on game realism, laying down the hopefully hyperbolic statement:
Making things more realistic ruins games. Changing things to have them "make sense" destroys fun.
But he even doubles down by saying this is "the most important thing" about game design.  In the comments section, "Beedo" responds:
Nice, righteous, pre-holiday rant. It feels like we ought to be able to boil this down to a pithy statement ("realism is the enemy of fun"), or some kind of equation that demonstrates that as detail, rules, and realism increases, fun decreases.
Now it is not often that I wade into the frothy pool of nerdrage that is OSR-related game theory discussion, but I will this time, mostly because I get frustrated when people ascribe the capacity of fun to a particular quality of a game, particularly when they do so in a monolithic manner.  Here are my questions:

  1. Why doesn't C- like 4E in that case?  It is so unrealistic that I've considered it to be more in the superhero genre than the fantasy one, as every PC in the party is able to summon thorns to sprout up to attack enemies, fire clouds of arrows at once, or transform into a frost giant.  
  2. For that matter, it also eliminated the minutiae of keeping track of food, rations, even torches which, by the way, is simultaneously lauded by the OSR community as an asset of early editions of D&D, because it forces good tactics.  So is logistical detail good or bad?
  3. Where's the recognition that the primary factor of RPG isn't in complexity or agency but in the people with whom you are playing?  The best damn game system in all of Christendom can still get pounded into the ground by gaming with a jerk, especially if that person is the judge.  By the same token, a lousy system can be enjoyable if you're gaming with friends.
See, I think the whole "let's talk game theory so we can find the best RPG experience" is the blogosphere's way of chasing the will o' the wisp.  Tabletop gaming became marginalized because it became the provenance of people who were marginalized in the social ethos of young adulthood (and I'm speaking as one of them).  And all those uncomfortable jokes we kick around about gamer hygiene and social ineptitude are there because they exist.  Knights of the Dinner Table is funny because we know those guys  and we've gamed with them.

And you can criticize whether or not you have a skill roll for Climbing all you want, but we all know that if you were gaming with people whose company you enjoy you probably wouldn't give a tinker's damn about a skill named Use Rope.  The best game campaign I ever played in was Robotech of all things, because I was good friends with all the other players and the judge loved the genre.  I will freely admit it was a sandbox game (although we didn't call it that at the time) and he allowed us a lot of leeway, but that's not a question of rules, that's a question of design.  And frankly you can do more with design when you have a group you like.

And frankly I've played some solid game systems with people I didn't like and was miserable.  It's worth noting that most of these sessions were ones that came out of joining the hive collective of the gaming community, like Meetup or the ol' bulletin board at the gaming store.  In short, they were fully inculcated gamers who like gaming, so there's no question about intent.  I think the rise of online gaming at the expense of tabletop RPG's is ultimately because we realized it was easier to game with people when we don't have to have them in our homes.

I'll finish by saying this: it's great if you love simplistic games or crunchy games or "realistic" games (whatever that means when you're playing in a fantasy genre), and I think that you can be gratified or frustrated in play by the ruleset, but "the most important thing" in roleplaying games is the people.  If I were to adopt a real mission in terms of educating the gaming community via this blog it would be on the ability to recruit the friends you don't mind playing Apples to Apples with into your D&D campaign.

Comments welcome.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Onto Plan B

Well, after touching base with the GM of the game in the Big City, things have kind of died off.  Or rather, I haven't heard anything for the better part of a week.  I'm not exactly sure what to make of that, but at the moment I am figuring that the game is still in the clone vat, and not ready for play just yet.  Either that or they just decided that they didn't want me in the game.

So, tonight I was talking with a friend of mine from my old campaign in my previous home town, and he told me that the EOW group was experimenting with iTabletop, which is a virtual, well, tabletop for doing RPG's together online.  I'm intrigued.  I'm still enough of an old-school guy to like the idea of sitting around eating nachos while people game together, but if I can't get more than two to the table, then I may have to go this route.  At a minimum, I'll probably try out the EOW group's campaign once to see how it flies.

I'm also re-thinking the choice of RPG genre for whatever my new game might be.  Superheroes are fun, but they tend to be very combat-oriented, and I'm thinking that a more role-playing oriented game might hold my interest longer.  With a lot of fantasy under my belt, I am thinking science fiction.

But what game to run?  Traveller is an obvious, very popular choice.  There's two retro-clones out there, X-Plorers and Stars Without Number, both of which have free download options for players, which is attractive.  X-Plorers is really stripped down at 39 pages.  I also have a curiosity about Stellar Wind, available as a pdf for $9.95, clocks in at 250+ pages, and touts itself as a game for math nerds.

What I am wondering though, is, do you go rules-light in science fiction, especially when it comes to forgoing skills?  I get doing it in fantasy, where the questions tend to be things like "can I ride this horse or not?"  "Can I climb this wall or not?"  But a lot of science fiction tends to track around the drama of being able to manage technology, which seems like a skill roll to me.

Monday, November 7, 2011

On to Plan A

I mentioned in my last post that I was making some inquiries into a game going on in the Big City.  Well, I've heard back from the GM, who games with his wife and some friends in their home.  They are basically between games but will be launching a new campaign soon.  We're going to get together and just see how the vibe is.  It looks like they might be playing D&D Third Edition (not even Pathfinder), which is interesting.  It's the edition I have the least experience with, and I always thought that it was pretty front-end heavy when it comes to planning adventures.  But hey, I'm good to play for it.

I'll let you know how it works out.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Another Nail in the Coffin

Well, of the two remaining players in my game, one texted (not called) me today to say that he had some "family stuff" to do.  When I asked if everything in his family was okay, he admitted that basically he had gotten a better offer than hanging out playing a board game with the other two gamers.
Here is where I think things are.  I think the game's done.  Or rather, unless I can conjure up two or three more players, we're done.  And right now, I'm not seeing too many possibilities, no one coming forward.
So, here's my plan.  Or rather, my plans.  First, I made some inquiries about a game in the Big City.  It would be a long drive, and maybe a little too often for my schedule, but perhaps I could hop in and out.  Second, I think I'll put together my own game, and after years of fantasy games I think I'll do something different: a superhero RPG.  The genre lends itself to episodic adventures, and if I make the backstory a sort of "Justice League Unlimited" set-up, I could cycle in both players and PC's easily.
Superhero RPG's, especially Champions, were always a favorite of mine.  I've been reading more comics lately, mostly graphic novels from the library (they have whole shelves of them).  I think I'll throw together a story or two, pick a date, and see what I can scare up.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Two sci-fi RPG campaign premises

I've been thinking about what to do in the very likely case that my D&D campaign is over (and I'll know in about a week).  I had two ideas that percolated up, not that either may be the one, but I thought I'd share them here.  As a bit of a notice, neither are particularly original.

The first was cribbed from an old issue of Shadis Magazine (#45) called "Timeship--Titanic" in which the famous cruise ship has actually been hurled through a time/space vortex, cursed to wander the continuum for all time (or the end of the campaign).  Along the way it picks up people from various places and eras to make up a motley crew.

So basically the Titanic is a gigantic TARDIS without a Time Lord.  There's a couple of issues with this, the first is the word "gigantic."  The Doctor's TARDIS is small, a phone booth, which can easily fit into the utility room of any spaceship or wherever the current adventure is locating.  That means the characters can just show up without a lot of immediate impact.  Parking a giant ship somewhere is a bit more noteworthy.

Also time travel, even uncontrolled, can be problematic.  Players are clever and often unrestrained, which can cause some headaches down the road.  But I love the idea of the PC's as essentially Lost in Space aboard a creepy death ship.

The other option is a Star Wars RPG I'm calling "The Darkness Between the Stars."  Basically the set-up is that Bail Organa and Mon Mothma need to very quietly lay the foundation for reclaiming the Republic from the Emperor and his new henchman Darth Vader.  In order to do this, they commission several small teams  with the task of establishing contacts in the underworld, raising money outside of the visible economy, and outfitting rebel cells.

So you've got the basic SWRPG characters all with a reason to get together, so can trot out Darth Vader and a young up-and-coming Boba Fett as villains, but why stop there?  You know Vader has Jedi Hunters out there looking for the stragglers or those not at the temple when he killed everyone.  Moreover, you don't have to invent a new villain for the Star Wars universe--you can use TIE fighters, storm troopers, etc...  Although you ought to, because one of the big pitfalls of the campaign is that you can't definitively win.  You'll never defeat Darth Vader, you'll never kill the Emperor, at best you're just going to be setting the stage so that some farmboy from Tattooine can come along and save the day.

Although, if you really want to have some fun, run the campaign straight for a while and then have the PC's get a news report about some family on a backwater desert planet getting killed by sand raiders or Obi Wan Kenobi being arrested by the Empire.  Or go ahead and have Bail Organa get caught and suddenly Organa's daughter is Vader's creepy emo Sith apprentice.  Then the gloves are off and the PC's can save the galaxy.

And you can call the ret-conning "do a Lucas."

And do yourself a favor and use the old West End Games rules.  It'll help you also dial down the superhuman abilities the Jedi have been given in later rules.  What's interesting is that most of that dial-up of ability doesn't come from the movies (look again and you'll see) but from the Cartoon Network Clone Wars series, particularly the original non-CGI mini-series, where Anakin Skywalker can shove away waves of robots and crushes tanks with a gesture of his hand.

Plus, when the Jedi PC pops out a lightsaber in public, just drop the hammer of the full power of the Empire on him.  That'll teach 'em quick.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Back to First Level, it seems

I wrote this all out as a long, sordid tale, but the short version is this: the D&D campaign in which I'm playing just hemorrhaged four players.  It's not a "we're unhappy with the game" but a "work schedule changed" kind of thing where rescheduling the game doesn't seem to be an option.

So,  we are back down to a gaming group of three: a GM and two players.  Our options?

  1. Pick a game that doesn't require the critical mass of four that 4E does
  2. Try to start scrounging players again
  3. all of the above
I'll let you know how it goes, gentle readers...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

End of the World 2011, Day Three

This entry is written by Scott, the judge in the first day's session.

This is a review of the third day of EOW 2011. Since this is Rob's blog, and it would be a little difficult perhaps for Rob to review his own scenario I will give my own review and send it to Rob. My name is Scott. I have been gaming with Rob for a number of years. This is I believe the second EOW we have attended together.

Robs scenario was ostensibly a Morrow Project scenario. This would be Rob's idea of Morrow Project. Gone are the bolt holes, the vehicles, the weapons and equipment. We played a team of seven science personnel who were dug up and moved to a "Morrow” facility before being awakened from cryogenic sleep. In previous blogs, Rob explained the basics of the Morrow Project background. So I will not waste your time or try your patience re-explaining that. Suffice to say the project intended to cryogenically freeze people who would emerge after a world shattering nuclear war for the purpose of assisting the population in regaining our technology and civilization. An attempt to stave off a dark age.

When my team awakened we found ourselves in an isolation ward. We could speak to people only through a two-way viewscreen, or we could go physically meet them only if we were wearing sealed, armored, suits provided by our hosts. The people running the facility explained that a war had occurred but it did not involve vast numbers of nuclear weapons. It did involve biological weapons and the atmosphere was contaminated with things that would kill us as we have no immunities to them. So when ever we left our sealed room we had to wear the armored bio suit. The suit incidentally looked like the armor worn in the videogame "Halo". Which is exactly where Rob got the picture. There were a number of images including a picture of an aircraft used in another wargame which saved time in description and hand drawing of these items, and in my opinion added to the flavor of the scenario.

Our keepers explained that they are Morrow Project personnel who have awakened before us and our operating the base. They have had no contact with prime base (as usual). They say we have awakened 300 years after the war. In that time an alien spacecraft came to earth and someone shot it down with a nuclear ICBM (yah, go team!). The aliens in the flying saucer survived. They were low tech aliens armed with crude firearms. They were the usual bug eyed monsters of the 1950s. Spiky skin that could puncture our bio suits. Unpleasant demeanor, demonstrated by their tendency to kill humans, rape humans, and eat humans. Not the sort of fellows one would be likely to invite to Thanksgiving dinner.

After our briefing we are equipped with armored bio suits, weapons (which only fire if one is wearing a bio suit glove) and sent via troop carrying aircraft to hunt the evil aliens. The aircraft is capable of vertical takeoff and landing. So it is an armored, high tech helicopter with a big rear ramp door for the troops to enter and exit. It also has a prodigious armament of machine gun and missiles, none of which are operated by the troops inside, but are controlled by the pilots and copilot from their sealed and separate flight deck up front. This becomes important later.

We hit the ground and went on our first bug hunt. The visor of the bio suit is a fancy electronic head up display that is heat sensing, light intensifying, shows your ammunition status, and probably with a knowledgeable user will automatically pick your nose for you in combat. We were warned that any breach of our bio suit will be detected by our support transport and by the base. We moved through a world that looked barren. The visor made everything Brown. We moved toward ruined buildings and took fire from primitive black powder muskets. The aliens weapons appeared to be a large bore led bullet firing long gun. We shot back with assault rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers. One of our number even had a flamethrower. Not a fair fight. But then I approve of not fighting fair when my ass is getting shot at. Eventually, we killed all the evil aliens in the buildings assigned to us. During the cleanup, our flamethrower guy went into a building where three aliens were dead and found out that one of the "dead" aliens was alive enough to shoot him in the back of the helmet with a pistol. An alarm went off that we all heard indicating that that player's character had suffered a suit breach. Shortly after the alarm the character fell unconscious. We brought the character back to the transport and flew away congratulating ourselves on a job well done despite one man being injured.

It should be understood that the Morrow Project persons in charge divided our group into two fire teams with four people per team. I was in team “A” and the man who was injured was in team “1”. Yes I know it is an odd way to number the teams, but one must consider that this was the third day of gaming and we were all a little tired and punchy. The players appeared happy to go with any idea who's only merit was "damn, that would be funny". The fact that we were to separate fire teams becomes important because the player decided he did not trust anyone outside of his fire team and therefore did not impart to those of us in team "A" any information about what happened to him when his helmet was shot.

So, unbeknownst to my player character, the guy that got shot in the helmet saw that the three aliens in the building were not actually aliens but were humans. The helmet visor was apparently editing what was seen. It was a virtual reality visor. It edited out humans and replaced them with images of spiky evil rapist murdering flesh eating aliens. Unfortunately, the player that was in the building tends to make things very complicated and does not communicate simply. So, instead of telling those few people he did trust "gosh them aliens that we shot actually are human. I saw them as human when my helmet got shot", he whispered something to his fellow players about “VR helmets” and said little else. As stated earlier, he also did not share this information with anyone from the other team including my character. So, I as a player and I is a character did not know anything was amiss at this point.

On our way to the second mission, this player (let's call him “head shot”, which indeed we did since our keepers required us to come up with combat Nick names) got up in the transport halfway to the target and pulled out two hand grenades. He did not pull the pins, but he did have the grenades one in each hand. He walked toward the front of the aircraft. He told the judge that he was going to lunge forward and hold the grenades in front of both pilots. My character saw him walking forward with the grenades and realized that the pins were still in. I readied my machine gun and told him to stop, or I would fire. He looked at me and said "they're not human, they are the aliens". At this point, the judge stopped play and clarified that the aircraft had a sealed compartment in back where the troops ride, and a separate flight deck for the pilot and his assistant. This was an unfortunate oversight on the part of the judge. He fixed it by backing up play so that the character with the grenades never pulled them out in the first place because he could not have threatened the pilot as there was a bulkhead in the way. However, I is a player now had information that my character did not.

It is always the challenge in role-playing to play only with information that your character possesses. I have been role-playing for 35 years. I am capable of separating player information from character information but it is not and easy thing to do. My attention for the rest of the scenario was divided as I constantly did mental gymnastics trying to keep straight what my character knew and how that would affect his perception of what was going on. Alas, until we get Star Trek holo decks we will be stuck with this kind of problem.

So we hit the deck on the second mission. Team one (the team with headshot in it) went left toward the buildings. Team “A” (my team) went right. My character did not see the leader of team one take his helmet off and then immediately go unconscious.  All of the radio traffic regarding the team leaders suit breach was on team ones frequency. We in team “A” ran toward our objective building using covering fire and only knew something had gone wrong the other team when we heard headshot announce that the mission was aborted. Headshot was not the leader of team one. Pandemonium broke out over the airwaves. During this confusion our team leader of team “A” got shot and went unconscious (which seemed to be the most common reaction to any problem with the bio suit. Something that would have appeared odd to my character, but I did not know that team ones leader took his helmet off and immediately passed out. So, I the player said "hmm”. While my character was oblivious). Then I got shot and went unconscious. 

Eventually the transport came to pick up team one. Headshot repaid them for this kindness by again trying to crawl into the pilot section of the aircraft with a hand grenade. The pilot pushed a button and headshot went unconscious, falling out of the door he had just entered. In the meantime the assistant pilot/medic was in the rear of the aircraft trying to tend to the team leader when another member of team one grappled with her and then shot her with a rocket propelled grenade. The grenade was fired so close that it did not arm. But, it made one hell of a bruise and knocked medic out. It also came to rest on the ground under one of the engines. 

Fortunately, it did not go off when the transport finally lifted to pick up team A. During this part of the scenario another player who had a laptop computer handy brought up the theme music from "Benny Hill". It was deliciously appropriate.

Eventually I woke up in the hospital at the base. I recovered and returned to the isolation room with my team. While I was away, the team members examined their injuries and the bio suits. They discovered a needle at the back of the collar on the suit and surmised correctly that this was an automatic drug system to disable them by remote control. They did not tell anyone this information either. But, it is plain to everyone that we were being watched and listened to while in the isolation room.

Given the odd behavior of the team our unit was relieved of combat duties for a while. The keepers specifically asked my character watch the behavior of other team members and report any anomalies. This put my character on alert as it seemed to be a tactic that would be used at a POW camp. I was being asked to snitch to the guards on my fellow inmates, not very Morrow Project behavior. I decided that my character could now come suspicious of the motives of our keepers. We asked for and were given permission to go outside the base to practice with our firearms. My character had higher skill than most of the other characters in our team in handling a rifle. So I told the judge that my character was assisting in the training of each team member by drawing in the dirt their target and showing them where each shot went. At the point the guards lost interest I wrote messages to each team member. They wrote messages back and thus we were able to communicate all of our concerns and form a plan.

The third mission found us delivered to a small village full of "evil aliens". As soon as we were away from the transport we took cover and the best electrician in our group disabled the visor of each of our team mates except one. We went forward to the village quickly found that the aliens were indeed human. We got into the village and the same electrician disabled the alarms on our helmets allowing us to remove them. We made a deal with the villagers. They lay down and pretended to be dead while we walked through the village shooting over their heads. Then we called for the transport to take us back to the base.
The scenario ended with a battle in the base in which we to the armory and expanded from there killing every alien we could find. The end battle was quick run and rightly so.

Overall, the scenario was run well. The pacing was reasonable. The plot was clever. In retrospect it reminded me of the movie "they live" in which the hero sees the aliens living among people only when he is wearing special sunglasses. Even more clever than plot was the judging.  Rob did a good job of distracting the players so that they would not think to closely, too soon, about the possibility that the helmets were not showing reality and that they were indeed working for the bad guys.

All in all a good strong ending to the three day game Fest.

Movie for the night: Dylan Dog (horrible, just horrible)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

End of the World 2011, Day Two

The second day of EOW featured a post-apocalyptic western.  The locale was an island off some mainland where people lived essentially late 1800's American lives, complete with saloons and undertakers.  The only real government was a local law enforcement official, apparently elected by popular consent, and a quasi-feudal force known as the "coasties" who protected the area from pirates in return for a portion of the goods produced on the island and the local mainland.

The set-up was pitch-perfect. One of the PC's played a local sheriff, in this case Scott who had collaborated a bit with the story.  The others were all brothers whose father had recently been killed in a "farming accident."  Upon arriving back to the family homestead, they discover that their father had been a lawman in his day and had been killed my members of a gang he had put away to prison years ago.  The brothers, armed with the father's secret stash of modern-day era weapons, rode out with the sheriff to get revenge.
The brothers discover (after some overly-long investigating because of dropping into tactical movement) that their neighbors have been likewise slaughtered by members of the gang.  But at this point the plot went sideways.  While making their way to a suspected hangout of the gang, an underground bunker pops up and a Morrow Project team appears.

Now, I think that the judge in question does a great job of creating "scenes," and by that I think he can create an evocative, unique moment in gameplay, and this was one of them.  Usually the PC's are Morrow Project, but this time we're the natives.  That having been said, I think the whole thing was a bit of a mistake.  For one thing, the Morrow Project team are now the most influential force on the board, if you will, with their APC's, tanks, and machine guns.  Even though they ended up being allies of the PC's, the judge now has a great deal more control over the actions that the PC's make, because he can alter or negate any of those things using the Morrow Project team.

And frankly he did just that.  The judge played the Morrow Project as a comedy element, making them naive-but-earnest morons toodling around the countryside blowing things up.  Whenever we went to another farm, he had the Morrow Project team crash in, rather than let us sneak in the way we wanted.  But the biggest factor was he had the Morrow Project team attack the coasties, and then we had to at the end of the session deal with an invasion of pirates, a group that also enjoyed a substantial advantage in terms of guns, men, etc.

So here's the plotline:
Scene one: PC's go to the funeral, form posse
Scene two: PC's investigate neighbor, find corpses
Scene three: Morrow Project appears
Scene four: PC's head for another farm, Morrow Project intervenes
Scene five: PC's head for main town, see Morrow Project attacking coasties.  PC's engage gang in shootout, one PC dies.
Scene six: PC's hear that pirates are attacking another town, head there to engage pirates.  Another PC (mine) dies, pirates decide to head back to main town, steal Morrow Project equipment.  Finis.

It's worth noting that one of the complicating factors was that the judge had to leave at 5 PM.  Most of the time we play from 10 AM to 6 PM, with one hour for lunch.  If we have to go long, we take a vote of the group to continue.  So the last scene was incredibly time-compressed, and frankly given how it was set up, with our posse of rifle-toting farmers having to drive off an armored vessel with rockets, I don't quite see how it was supposed to go.  I had offered to switch with this judge and run my scenario on the second day and his the third, but he refused, citing that I would lose two players before the end.  I'm not sure about that logic; I have a suspicion there were other factors at work.

I don't want to sound overly critical--the judge is a good friend, but my question is this: how does what the players do impact the story at all?  At best, we made tactical decisions in firefights that may or may not have led to our deaths.  But deciding what to do in combat is not the same as deciding what to do in response to the story. The story was pretty much pre-ordained.  We'd obviously head off in the direction the gang went, a path that led to us to Morrow Project, who in turn made the pirates attack.  There's no way, at least as far as I could see, barring attacking Morrow Project themselves that we could have altered the course of the events at all.  So there's no agency, no real collaborative storytelling.

And I get that this sort of "adventure thread" game design is common if not downright normative.  But at the time it also felt heavy-handed, especially when the final scene was very compressed for time.

So like I said, the game had a great hook, a great look, and some great moments.  I just wish that we had more to do with the story, and frankly had a chance to overcome at the end.

Movie of the night: Outpost and Priest

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

End of the World 2011, Day One

I thought I might give my review of my three-day gaming fest in Columbus called "End of the World" or EOW for short.  This is an annual event for myself and about ten other people, with most of us participating in three one-shot day-long events Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  We use one system, a homegrown ruleset appropriately called the EOW System.  I'll take each day as its own post, just because of length (and to milk it for the week).

After arriving in Thursday and checking in, Friday we had our first session, which was judged by my friend Scott.  This was a little bit of an unusual game because it was not a one-shot, but a session for the quarterly Traveller campaign that Scott is running for the group.  Normally you get three sessions a year, then EOW to cleanse the palate, but this year they decided to have one session be the "home game."  I saw "Traveller" but in fact it only takes place in the Traveller universe.  The rules are the EOW System, making characters a bit more diverse in their skill selections but combat lethal as all get out.

The story set up was that we (the almost inevitable free trader ship crew) were hired to transport an archaeologist, his staff, and a media crew to the secret location of a lost military base from a conflict some time ago.  I should point out the coolest dimension of this session--it was all done as a large flashback.  It actually began with the ship's pilot being accused of murdering one of the staff members of the archaeological expedition (something the player had no idea would happen), and the session became the content of the "mind scan" being done on the pilot.  This meant the pilot would have to witness, either in person or via remote camera, most of the action in the adventure.  When the judge reverted back to the trial, he dimmed the lights and used a green spotlight on the group, the only "special effect" of the weekend.  It felt a lot like the Star Trek episode "The Cage."

The military base, which had never played a role in the war because of its secret location, turned out to be on some distant planet.  When the PC's arrive, they discover that the former occupants appear to have been either torn apart by some strange creature or have starved to death holed up inside buildings.  Moreover, some of the PC's begin to manifest small medical maladies after arriving.  After some time was spent exploring pirates jump into the system demanding that we surrender the base's treasure.  We held off the pirates using the base's defenses and getting to a very tight aerial battle over the base using the free trader.  In addition, there's a dark swarm of creatures that surround the base, but leave after we turn off the power.

By the end, the free trader, the pirate ship, and their longboat have been battered into near-oblivion.  A member of the media crew is revealed to be a pirate spy, and she frames the pilot for murdering the archaeological assistant, herself some sort of government agent.  We negotiate a truce with the pirate, collect a portion of the treasure from the base, and get back home where the mind scan clears the pilot of murder.

I know from the post-mortem that the judge thought that the ending of the session was weak.  He had planned to have the creatures, drawn to the base by a device that nullified psionic powers, be a real threat, but the players didn't power up the base until fairly late in the session, instead exploring it by flashlight, etc.  Our reasoning was that the base had obvious defensive capabilities, and might have some sort of automatic defense system that would pose a threat to us.  While the judge had some heavy-handed in places to the plot, he decided to play the whole alien menace thing straight.  Good thing too, because they looked like serious trouble.  We did twig to the nature of the threat (hordes of beetles, right out of The Mummy) pretty quick, although I also suspected mechanical menaces like the ones from Screamers.
No one died, a bit of a rarity in an EOW session given the rules, and strong start to the weekend.  Scott's judging tends to feature a pretty rich backstory and a lot of exploration and discovery, and this session definitely came through.

Movie for the first night: Resident Evil: Afterlife

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ripping off books

I had lunch with the DM of my D&D game recently and spent some time describing to him the various one-shot games that show up at EOW (my mini-con coming up next week).  One reoccurring theme is judges ripping off the plot of books for their adventures.  It is an enticing prospect: you have the plot, NPC's, key events, etc. all laid out for you.  Moreover if you liked the book, you'll probably have a good game.  Or so you think.

In reality it never works out.  Either you end railroading the players through the plot of the book, or the PC's go off the rails so badly you don't know what to do, because you didn't build anything beyond the plot of the book. Case in point: last year a judge did a scenario based off a piece of military science-fiction where a stranded leader of an armored company in Iraq travels all the way back to Europe, following the path of some famous classical-era general.  So, we the PC's, are these military personnel who get informed that the United States is hung up in a civil war and no relief is in sight.  So what do we do?  We hunker down.  We fortified the base and decided to set up our own little fiefdom.  After all, leaving the area likely meant getting shot at.  So, all the scenarios predicated our leaving, and we didn't.  The judge spent most of the time flailing about and the players got frustrated because it was clear we were doing something wrong and the adventure seemed pointless and boring.  It wouldn't have taken much of a nudge from the beginning to get us on the right track, but even then you're just setting up the "journey" storyline where we will just go point-to-point, encounter-to-encounter.

The other part is, players just aren't as interesting as characters in a story.  We tend to be mercenarial, a little short-sighted, and prone to silliness.  It happens.  So you imagine the interplay and the personalities of the literary characters, and your players fall short.  Basically, you don't get a second iteration of the book.

Where I think ripping off books can work is when you lift out things like interesting NPC's and settings, certain descriptors, and maybe even a general plot, realizing that it won't be like the book.  There's ways to do it, and I think in my next post I'll take some of the books I've been reading, and show you how to mine them for gold.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hanging out here for a while

If you frequent my other blog (and Analytics tells me that a whole lot more of you do that than come here) then you know I'm a bit soured on the wargaming side of my hobby universe.

Ergo, I've been packing up my paints and busting out more three-ring binders down on the hobby table as I contemplate my RPG stuff.  I've got one iron in the fire right now, my one-shot for End of the World 2011 (EOW).  That's the annual five-day gamefest that I play with a few of my friends back home.  There's three full days of gaming with one of us running an all-day session Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  This year I'm running one of the sessions, and for the first time I'm running a scenario set in the group's primary setting, Morrow Project.

For those who are unfamiliar with Morrow Project, the game was written initially in the mid-70's but wasn't published until 1984, smack in the middle of the heightened anxiety of a nuclear war.  Drawing from the same creative muses that produced Mad Max and Red Dawn, the PC's are part of a cell of cryogenically frozen Americans who were to survive the impending nuclear exchange and rebuild America.  However in the RPG the main computer, Prime Base, is sabotaged and the PC's end up sleeping for 150 years, during which time the post-apocalyptic landscape of America changes radically, including such lovelies as giant spiders and radiation-themed vampires.

The game was a also a military-enthusiast's dream.  There were pages of 1980's-era military vehicles and guns out the wazoo that could be introduced into the game.  The rules were clunky and unsophisticated, but the game still enjoys a bit of a cult following (including us).

Instead of using the rules as written, this particular gaming group, which has been around for over 20 years, modified the rules using two other systems at hand: Traveller, and the Star Trek RPG produced by FASA, taking the life path creation system from former, and the stat and skill system from the latter.  This homebrewed gumbo looks a lot like someone put thousand island dressing on vanilla ice cream, but it works (sort of) for a lot of different genres, primarily ones that feature guns, which most of the EOW games do.  See, you have to use the system at EOW, regardless of genre.  So everyone take a whack at running whatever they want using the same rules.  It's an interesting exercise in some ways, and illustrates how important story is in comparison to what system you run.

Example, two years ago I ran a session at EOW in which the game took place in a four-color, pulp fantasy world where all the PC's played versions of various pulp-era heroes, e.g. Doc Samson, the Shadow, Tarzan, etc.  I introduced some alterations to the hand-to-hand combat rules, because they were pretty weak and pulp-heroes do a lot more talking with their fists.

But this year, I'm doing Morrow Project.  And I've been planning this for a year.  I'm going for a "shoot the moon" kind of scenario that'll either fall flat or be epic.  I've mostly been wrestling with how to make it work, but I think I've got it down.  One of the things I've always wondered about is what kind of person would voluntarily have themselves hurled a hundred years into a post-apoc future, and what that first few days are like.  That'll be what my game is about, and hopefully it'll do well.  We'll find out in October.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Dungeoncasting made easy

Even if I didn’t just love the name, Super Galactic Dreadnought is a fun blog that shows off a wide variety of hobby interests, much like my own past-times.  Recently its author, Desert Scribe, decided as a sort of solo venture to come up with nine dungeon levels, using the old original B/X D&D rules for random dungeon encounters.  Or rather, he just decided to populate them, leaving the trivialities of a graph paper map to a later date.

It’s a fascinating bit of reverse engineering, and I thought I’d copy the process here.  Basically, every level has roughly sixty rooms, with one-third being occupied.  So using the random generator charts for dungeons, you come up with twenty encounters.  You then look at the encounters to see if there are patterns or obvious alliances between the creatures, and then sub-divide the entire lot into factions, plus the odd roaming monster or vermin.  Once you understand the “big picture” you can build the dungeon around them.

I love the idea, mostly because the focus isn’t totally random, and suggests the possibility of allies that can help you navigate the dungeon.  This is critical, because in “Old School D&D” dying was very easy, especially if you see every encounter as a “kill it and take its stuff” moment.
Unlike Desert Scribe, I’ll be using OSRIC, which I purchased earlier this year at KantCon.  It’ll make for a slightly more random assortment of creatures, and I’ll need to modify the way he used the tables (which use first a d12, then a d100, not another d12).  The first d12 tells me which sub-table to roll on, the second which monster I will encounter.  Once I have the monster, I roll to see how many there are, modifying the number based on the level of the dungeon.

So, using the helpful website, I come up with the following set of numbers (d12/d100):
3/98 Gnome (14)
9/72 Bugbear (3)
11/17 Grimlock (5)
10/16 Grimlock (3)
12/84 Wight (2)
5/80 Wild Dog (4)
12/81 Wight (2)
4/1 Devil, Asaggim (3)
4/67 Beetle, Giant Fire (4)
9/68 Spider, Large (4)
3/64 Beetle, Giant Fire (2)
8/75 Kobold (28)
4/59 Frog, Giant (7)
7/97 Gnome (10)
3/93 Rot Grub (12)
5/25 Bat (23)
12/16 Ghoul (3)
8/53 Frog, Giant (1)
4/90 Rot Grub (14)
9/28 Dakon (1)

Four wights!  Gygax’s beard, that’s a terrible turn of events for a first-level dungeon.  We’ll keep them off in their own area.  Wights turn people into other wights, so the ghoul isn’t an obvious ally--I could see him as a roaming stalker of the rest of the level.  I’ll put the gnomes in one faction, a small group of fellows just looking to survive, maybe even with the assistance of the ape-like dakon and the wild dogs.  The hobgoblins can boss around the kobolds, who are trying to take out the gnomes while avoiding the wights.  There’s a few giant frogs around, maybe even a small lair.  The fire beetles, bats, and rot grubs are all vermin, feeding off the carcasses of the first level.  The assagim is a bit of a wild card, perhaps a clue to something that lies beneath.  Could these wretched devils have wandered their way up from a lower level?

At this point, you can start to see a bit of the story develop.  If the PC’s don’t befriend the gnomes, they way inadvertently wander into the area with the wights, and almost certain death.  But to gain the gnome’s trust, they may have to prove themselves against the kobolds and the bugbears, all the wild avoiding the roaming vermin and the ghoul that prowls the area.

A somewhat compelling story, and all done in under an hour.  In fact it may have taken me longer to write the post than to come up with the encounters.  They’ll need to be fleshed out, not to mention the other forty encounter-free rooms in the dungeon.
So, what do you think of this style of adventure design? It's a change from my usual course, which would be to use Central Casting: Dungeons to build the map first and then add in the encounters. I'll add more to this series as the mood strikes (or with encouragement).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Draft pic of Doctor Tyranno

Yeah, that's right, I'm a dino scientist with a raygun...
So I thought I'd take a stab at a rough sketch of what I thought Doctor Tyranno would look like.  Sure, he's campy, but he's campy in the Jack Kirby kind of way.

Anyone want to do a little artwork for me?

With all the superhero movies out there, and my son and daughter getting into comic books, I've been thinking about running a superhero RPG for them. If it goes well, maybe I'll take it to a larger audience.

In any case, I've been working up an introductory scenario, "The Danger of Doctor Tyranno."  Anyone interested in helping me with a little character illustration?  Doctor Tyranno is a millenia-old super-intelligent dinosaur cum mad-scientist whose goal it is to overthrow humanity and re-establish saurians as the master species of earth.

If it works out well, I'll publish the adventure here on this blog.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Jared, Shifter Druid

"Tolan, Male Druid" by Reaper Miniatures
I painted this fellow to represent Jared, a Shifter Druid in my D&D 4E Campaign.  Back when we were short players, one of the players played two characters: Jared and a minotaur barbarian.  Since our group has grown, the player settled on the barbarian, and Jared has faded way into the woodwork, no pun intended.

Monday, July 25, 2011

MegaDungeon Gallery added

For almost a year I've been slowly adding pieces to a modular dungeon.  This is actually the third or fourth modular dungeon I have built in the past decade or so using Hirst Arts blocks, but none of my previous creations made it with me when I moved to my new home almost a year ago.  Thus, I started another, using a technique I had been considering for a while, namely using the mini-walls from the "Stone Arch Mold" (#88) and the "Cracked Floor Tiles Mold" (#203).  These two molds work together to made a fairly simple but effective layout.  The walls of the dungeon are represented without blocking view on the table.  The downside comes with flexibility--when you have a "dungeon tile" layout you can put the door anywhere in the room you like.  But that's the sacrifice you have to make with a layout like this.

Anyways, the terrain-building bug as struck again, and after cranking out a quick wargaming piece I thought I'd start adding to the MegaDungeon again.  To celebrate this, I've added a gallery of existing MegaDungeon pieces to the blog as a separate page.  You can access it from the bar at the top of the blog.

As always, thanks for looking!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Mystery RPG Box of Mystery: Round 5

The fifth round of books from the Mystery RPG Box of Mystery is:

  • Queen of the Demonweb Pits, Module Q1 (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons)
  • Signs and Portents: Babylon 5 Roleplaying Game and Fact Book (Mongoose Publishing)
  • Missions (Shadowrun, FASA)
All right, now we're talking.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits was the final episode is series of modules running though the "Against the Giants" (G1-3) and "Drow" (D1-3) modules.  The PC's have made their way through some standard monster lairs, an underground wilderness, a mega-dungeon/lair, and finally an entire city-nation of evil elves.  Where to go from there?  Apparently even Gary Gygax didn't know, so he gave the job to in-house artist David Sutherland, who had some ideas about an extra-planar realm that would serve as the home of the drow goddess Lolth, Queen of Spiders.  Q1 is probably best known for the map of the Demonweb, an elaborate maze involving some non-Euclidean geometry.  In addition to various rooms on the web (oddly not a reference to the internet) that feature some very un-demonic monsters like werewolves, the module also features several pocket dimensions, each only taking up a page or two of text.  The final encounter is fairly notorious, because Lolth's home is a giant mechanical spider, which people tend to love or hate depending on how "pure fantasy" their taste in D&D is.
The module, for all its iconic history, is a mixed bag of shells.  It was hard for Gygax himself to come up with a way to create a climax after Vault of the Drow.  Sutherland broke ground in creating an extra-planar adventure, but this is definitely one that could be retread into something else.

I'll admit up front that I have watched all of one episode of Babylon 5.  Its heyday was during a time when I was in graduate school and having my first child and the last thing I wanted to try to shoehorn in was another serial television series, especially one that seemed to me to be "Star Trek for people who didn't want to be another Trekkie like everyone else."  I'm not being insulting, I just know a lot of people who were passionate about the show and resented the hell out of anyone comparing it unfavorably to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Anyways, this is licensed RPG for the series, done by Mongoose Publishing.  For some odd reason, they decided to go with an OGL product, even stating on the back cover that you needed a copy of the D&D Player's Guide.  My question is, why?  You could cobble together a workable skill-based system without shackling yourselves to the D&D formula.  They even implement a different ruleset for hitting people not based on armor, but use the obvious "armor removes points of damage, not make you hard to hit" that would be essential for any game involving firearms, much less a sci-fi one.  But for those who are a fan of the series, there's lot of information about the series setting, the races, psychic powers, et al.  There's rules for surviving (or not) in the vacuum of space, starship combat, and all the other things you'd need for a sci-fi RPG.
What I found most interesting, especially as an outsider to the series, was how weak the characters from the series are made.  The highest level character shown is only fifth level.  I thought to myself, in D&D under fifth level is all kobolds and copper pieces, and these guys were the main characters in a TV series?  Maybe it does deserve a look.

Finally, Missions is a sourcebook for Shadowrun, Second Edition.  For those who don't know, Shadowrun was and is a pastiche of traditional fantasy elements in a Cyberpunk setting (William Gibson said that they had spliced his literary DNA with an elf).   Specifically Missions provides scenarios for the Shadowrun Companion.  The Companion was an attempt to take Shadowrun into some alternative campaigns, such as having the PC's not be corporate spies/thieves/terrorists but instead personae like Lone Star operatives.  Missions provides four scenarios, each for a different kind of campaign.  The scenarios are laid out in what could best be described as a flowchart format (there actually are flowcharts in the book) in which the PC's start out at Encounter A, then can go to B or C, then maybe back to the one they didn't go to first (so PC's that went to C could then go to B), then finally end up at the closing scene D.  How they handled the previous encounters affects how the closing scene goes down.  It is all laid out pretty clearly and cleanly in a way that would probably appall some GM's who prefer things to be a bit looser, but be appealing to people who don't want to put a lot of prep time into a gaming session.
Since the scenarios are all genre-specific, there's not a sense that you could use all four in a single campaign, but could either use the missions as one-shot diversions from a typical campaign or use them to kick off a longer-running alternative campaign.  Shadowrun is a a tough genre to port stuff into other campaigns, although you could just scrub out the magic in some of the scenarios and run them as straight cyberpunk stories without a lot of effort.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I actually did an earlier draft of this post but realized that most people were not interested in a play-by-play description of all my comings and goings, my struggles and victories, and everything else involving my weekend at KantCon.  So here's the brief recap:

The Good

  • Great location 
  • Good food
  • Friendly people
The Not So Good
  • On Friday there were not games available for people who had not pre-registered (like me)
What I bought
  • Ingenium by Silver Gryphon Games.  This is a great lightweight fantasy RPG that clocked in at $20 for 98 pages.  I literally crammed the rulebook in thirty minutes and was playing with my kids half an hour after that.  I'll do a review later, but both running and playing in this game was a breeze.
  • OSRIC this is the new giant black book from Black Blade Publishing.  Yes, it's 1st Ed. AD&D with a new slipcover, but at $26 for essentially the three core rulebooks in a beautiful binding its a deal for those who want the rules, and I think there's something to be said for supporting ambitious efforts like this, especially when they show up at small conventions.
What I played
  • Mousetrap 
  • Order of the Stick 
  • Ingenium
  • Car Wars
  • Black Friday 
  • Lab Monkeys
Most of these games I ended up playing with the kids.  Because of schedule issues and some other things I ended up not getting in as much gaming as I hoped.  I think in the future I will leave the kids behind and probably not carpool with someone else.  Being tethered to another person, who often was doing different things than me, sometimes kept me hanging around doing nothing while he finished up his stuff.  Lessons learned.

P.S. Go buy Ingenium.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Mystery RPG Box of Mystery: Round 4

The fourth round of the Mystery RPG Box of Mystery contains

  • Wild Dragon Den, an adventure for D&D
  • Denizens of Earthdawn Part One, a sourcebook for Earthdawn
  • Ravenloft II: the House on Gryphon Hill (module I10, for AD&D)
Still a little heavy on the D&D stuff, but that's no mind.

Wild Dragon Den is the first adventure from the same boxed set that Wyrmhaven came from, built for four 1st-to-3rd level adventurers.  The format is simple to the point of being trite: a wealthy patron seeks adventurers to exterminate the lair of a black dragon and her lizardmen henchlings (is henchling a word?)  Like Wyrmhaven, the PC's are equipped by the patron with flashlights, healing potions, and equipment designed to neuter the main villain, namely the aforementioned black dragon.  In this case the equipment is several potions for curing poison, and two shields who remove most, but not all, of the damage from the dragon's acid breath.
I actually like Wild Dragon Den better than Wyrmhaven for the location, a limestone cavern whose walls and ceiling can be knocked down by enough damage.  There are flooded rooms and mudpits and lots of little touches that given the place more character than a simple stone complex.  Nonetheless, the adventure is pretty colorless and indistinct from every other generic monster lair out there.

If Wild Dragon Den lacked color, Denizens of Earthdawn Part One is overdone with it.  This sourcebook for Earthdawn (aka FASA's fantasy RPG and in many ways the prototype for D&D Fourth Edition even before Third Edition came out) features an encyclopedic background for Elves, Humans, T'skrang (the lizardmen PC race), and Wildlings (the pixies).  You get history, religion, arts, architecture, philosophy, etc. for the various races.  At the end are some additional disciplines (classes) and talents (skills) for the game, the only real "crunch" in a book composed mostly of "fluff."  Earthdawn is very world-specific as an RPG, and this book is even more world-specific, so its value lies either in fleshing out the game designer's vision of their world, or pinching cultures for your own campaign.  But there is so much and it gets into so much minutiae (the etiquette of T'skrangs' tails, for example) that you really, really have to like Earthdawn to get into this book.

Once again I seem to be getting into sequels before the first installments, since Ravenloft II: the House on Gryphon Hill is theoretically a sequel to the breakthrough module Ravenloft. Except it isn't.  As James over at Grognardia caught, Tracy and Laura Hickman are listed as authors on the cover but the inside shows them as only providing the story outline.  Moreover the central NPC of Ravenloft, the vampire Strahd, has been bolted onto an entirely different plot, with the module's authors suggesting that either the plot featuring Strahd of Ravenloft or Strahd of Ravenloft II is a dream the PC's are having.  In Ravenloft III, Strahd is shot by another NPC only to appear in the shower at the end of the adventure.
Anyways, the module isn't really an adventure per se, it's a story, with the PC's playing only a facilitating role. The PC's stumble across a community being besieged by your typical undead-related underlings.  The town's primary inhabitants are the local nobleman, his lovely daughter, and her fiance', a charming and fair alchemist.  The alchemist is the Dr. Jekyll to Strahd, who serves as the Hyde in this completely hackneyed plot.  The PC's basically wander about the town fighting minions until the DM nudges them forcibly to get one of the NPC's to a local mesmerist, where they finally get the clues to the true identity of Strahd (he isn't necessarily his good counterpart), his goals (also flexible), and the location of a few crucial pieces of machinery to a device that can stop him (the locations of which are also up for grabs).  This mirrors the plot device of the gypsy in the first Ravenloft mystery, where there's some "random" elements to the plot.  What isn't random though is that all of these things move the story to its climax, the showdown between the Alchemist and the Vampire, while the PC's are relegated to mere witnesses.  The use of Strahd by TSR in this story is pure exploitation, and the story tries to capture much of the gimmickry of the first module but lacks anything of redeeming value.  I'm not sure, but I think this module didn't even make it into the "canon" of the Ravenloft backstory when it became a whole campaign universe, not just a single module.

Some Gold Stolen from Somewhere Else

Over at Dragonsfoot, Evereaux once said the following about his Megadungeon campaign:

The Dungeon is a weird, unfathomable, and deadly place, and as such it should sound an irresistible call to those with the doughty hearts of adventurers. It is the paragon of Chaos, a limitless manifestation of danger, chaos, and alien strangeness, just as the Town is the paragon of Law, a physical embodiment of safety, uprightness, and predictability. Within the dungeon, you will find ferocious monsters, lethal traps, cunning tricks and buried secrets, tortuous layouts and forgotten ways, baffling riddles, and best of all, fabulous treasure beyond imagining. You the player will be challenged as much, if not more, than your PC, and it will take the combined skills of both to succeed. This place is not merely a workaday, subterranean lair, with logically arranged sleeping and eating areas for a species simply somewhat different from (or even antagonistic toward) humans and demi-humans. The door you open is a portal, the stairs you descend a path, into the mythic and fantastical Underworld, luring you farther from the rational and sane daylight lands above, where a man may plot his way with confidence in the laws of nature, and into a nightmarish world of magic, evil, and fantastic elements that can devour your PC's very soul. You must be constantly on guard for peril from any quarter; you must manage your resources carefully, retreating when it is wise yet advancing when the time is right; you must demonstrate bravery, intelligence, and prowess as well, if your efforts are to be repaid with wealth and power. Not everything within the crumbling walls, forsaken chambers, and winding ways is hostile, and you may find allies in strange places or negotiate safe passage from others--but be wary of treachery and ill will. Those who think and fight their way back out may bear the riches that will spread their names throughout the realms of Man; those who do not will die a lonely death far from the places they know and cherish.
I'm just putting here so I can easily come back to it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Mystery RPG Box of Mystery: Round 3

The third round of books from the Mystery RPG Box of Mystery contains:

  • Wyrmhaven, an adventure for Dungeons & Dragons (1992)
  • Smuggler's Run, a sourcebook for the Dragonstar game (Fantasy Flight Games)
  • Oasis of the While Palm, a module for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1983)
All right, I'm moving out of the generic rulebook part and into some adventures and sourcebooks.

Wyrmhaven is actually out of the Dragon's Den box set that came out in the struggling years of TSR.  The hope was to induce new players by creating a sort of hybrid game reminiscent of boardgames with which young people could transition into RPG's.  With that in mind, TSR created the "Easy to Master" Dungeons & Dragons, essentially a re-tooling of the Basic D&D into a box set that looked like a board game in size.  To supplement the game they created several box set adventures, including Dragon's Den, which featured three adventures, all featuring dragons.
The problems for me with this are manifold.  Clearly I'm not the intended audience.  Second, in order to have introductory level characters (Wyrmhaven is intended for PC's level 2-4) face dragons, the dragons are greatly weakened and the PC's are tooled up.  In addition, the story is so forced it would make a 4E game designer blush.  Wyrmhaven is the second of the series, and I don't know if the box holds the first, so the adventure presumes the DM and the players know the NPC mentor, who once again calls the PC's together to fight a dragon that has made its home in a local cave.  The dragon is a very young green one, and the mentor knows through eyewitnesses that it appears to be "skilled in illusion."  This deduction is apparently because the dragon is hard to spot and disappears easily.  With that in mind, the PC's are given the fantasy equivalent of gas masks, continual light stones, three healing potions, and several scrolls that allow them to dispel illusion.  So essentially you've knocked out the dragon's breath weapon and spell-casting abilities (not to mention given you a leg up on the troglodytes that serve the young dragon as protectors.
Included with the booklet is a pull out map with 1" grids marked on it, making me think I had another 3.X or 4E adventure, but the scale (which appears nowhere in the booklet) is 1"=10', not 5' as later conventions would hold.
What's fascinating is that, despite it being almost eight years before third edition, all the early signs of later iterations are there: a simplified plot; greatly lessened threats to allow lower-level PC's to face off against impressive, iconic foes; and a grid-based map with figures to create tactical gameplay.  What's funny is the idea was to bring board game enthusiasts into RPG's.  What happened was RPG's becoming board games.

In my experience, almost every starship-oriented sci-fi campaign I am aware of, the genre of the campaign could be described as a "merchant marine" campaign.  By that I mean that the game usually revolves around a ship and its crew engaged in high-risk commercial enterprises.  Not only does this connect with the iconic figure of Han Solo, it also allows for militaristic, technical, and personality-driven PC's to all have a role in the game.  It also, as Firefly points out, makes for a good story.  Smuggler's Run tries to help DM's (do they call them that in Dragonstar games?) run a good "merchant marine" campaign in the Dragonstar setting.  From what I can ascertain from the sourcebook and the interwebs, Dragonstar is basically D&D in Space, complete with elves, druids, spells, etc.  It reminds me of Shadowrun in that kind of "mash-up D&D fantasy with something else and see what happens" sort of vibe.  Which, frankly, doesn't mean it will fail.
Smuggler's Run has a lot of helpful information, however.  The first chapter covers the ins and outs of how a DM adjudicates commercial transactions, including gauging the needs of the market and the effects of competition.  The second chapter covers the PC's and how every class fits (or doesn't fit, in the case of the monk) into the campaign.  It also features some  prestige classes and some NPC's.  Chapter three is equipment and chapter four is vehicles, all applicable to the genre.  Chapter five outlines an example of a typical region of space for the PC's to ply their trade, named eponymously the Smuggler's Run.
Like I said earlier, most sci-fi RPG's tend to tack in this direction, and the information within is easily adaptable to any similar game, so this sourcebook is a solid hit out of the Mystery Box.  So much so, that I will probably be giving it to a friend who is launching a Traveller campaign in July.

Like Wyrmhaven, Oasis of the White Palm (module I4) is actually a sequel to an earlier Hickman module, Pharoah, and without that introduction the DM has to do some wrangling to get the PC's into the adventure.  What Hickman does well in modules is tell a story, and Oasis basically follows a plot line: the PC's have been set out into the Desert of Desolation to discover the source of the evil afflicting the area.  The module begins with what could be construed as a wilderness adventure sandbox, except the area is shaped to guide the PC's along a certain path that will take them through various encounters that will get them along the narrative, in this case the discovery of the Oasis and its sheik, the plot of the missing princess, and her eventual recovery and destruction of the villain.  For all its appearance as a location adventure, the module actually moves in ways subtle and unsubtle the PC's through the story to the ultimate end, which in modern parlance would be called a "cutscene."  There's some opportunity for wandering about and getting into trouble, and the designers realistically understand that the PC's just might try to kill everything and take their stuff, but this really does exemplify the "story" model of adventure modules for D&D.  How you feel about that will have a lot to do with how you would like Oasis of the White Palm.

Sometime I will have to give my own take on the subject.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Mystery RPG Box of Mystery: Round 2

The next three books out of the Mystery RPG Box of Mystery are:
  • Dungeon Master's Guide, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition
  • Player's Handbook, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition
  • The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
It's like I'm in a D&D Time Machine, hurtling backwards!

If you don't know AD&D 2nd Edition, it was probably the D&D that most of Generation X grew up on.  We were a little late to the Basic/Expert D&D game or even AD&D First Edition (which came out in the late 70's when I was still in grade school).  AD&D 2nd Edition with its multi- and dual-classing tomfoolery and the eventual rise of both Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms really marks my generation's Dungeons & Dragons experience.  In fact, I'm pretty sure I own both of the rulebooks already, somewhere.

In my own experience, AD&D was pretty much the staple until point-based systems like GURPS and Champions (later HERO System) came along and made AD&D look like a clunky, unrealistic, rigid dinosaur.  Nowadays the old system looks pretty good in the way that it plays fast and encourages group participation, creative thinking and no small amount of luck.  As one person put it, the difference between the Old School D&D ethos and the later RPG philosophy can be summed up as such: when you're looking for something in a room, do you tell the Judge where you are looking, or do you just roll a die and let the Judge tell you what you did (or did not) find?  Whichever one floats your boat, that's where you fall on the spectrum.

The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (1982) is a revisioning of a tournament module written by Gary Gygax.  The plot involves the PC's undertaking a quest to locate the lost treasure of a power arch-wizard named Iggwilv [Side note: any clue where the names came from?  I know Gygax liked to be cute with his naming conventions sometimes, and the bizarre spelling makes me wonder if it is a code of some kind].  Unlike some tournament modules (like the "Slave" series) this one isn't quite so much a railroad as others for several reasons.  First, Gygax added to the original adventure an outdoor adventure component where the PC's have to find the dungeon where the treasure is located.  These outdoor adventures are fairly random, with the DM given the power to assign what encounter happens where.  There are at least two "save or die" encounters which should, in my opinion, be avoided in this section.  The Lesser and Greater Caverns that make up the core of the adventure are probably more familiar in the monster hacking genre.  The ending is a bit of a surprise, making this at least one step better than the "let's go kill the Big Evil Guy" plot.  There are also multiple opportunities for roleplaying, especially in the form of making allies, of which the PC's should definitely take advantage.

I've read the review of The Lost Caverns over at Grognardia and can appreciate James' perspective on the shifts in philosophy that are already becoming evident in the game, for example the use of pre-written texts that were to be read aloud to players, a feature now commonplace in D&D.  But James also rightly reveals its biggest strength, namely the replayability of the module.  I was thinking that in this trio of books I could probably get the better part of a year's worth of gaming, especially if I used the 20 outdoor encounters, minus the two "save or die" ones.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Mystery RPG Box of Mystery: Round 1

So, I open the box and pull out the first three books...


Okay, the first three books out of the Mystery Box of Mystery are:
  • Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Player's Handbook (Wizards of the Coast)
  • Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Dungeonmaster's Guide (Wizards of the Coast)
  • Tournaments, Fairs, and Taverns (Natural 20 Press)
So, the first two books are two of the three core books for the third edition of D&D, which came out in 2000.  Their release marked a huge tectonic shift in the RPG market, both by having the biggest RPG in history radically change their rules, and second by allowing third party publishers create sourcebooks for the game.  Suddenly everyone and their brother were getting into the publishing business.

One example of that process is the third book, Tournaments, Fairs, and Taverns which is full of, not surprisingly, tournaments, fairs, and taverns.  Most of the book has rules for all different kinds of games (29 in all): card games, ball games, martial games, etc.  There is also a section on alcoholic beverages and rules for the impact of consuming them.  Oddly enough, the rules don't include the slight Charisma bonus for light intoxication and the plummeting Charisma negative modifier for heavy intoxication.  I'm reminded of an episode of WKRP where Venus Flytrap, participating in a PSA about drinking, actually becomes more agile the more hammered he becomes...

There's also suggestions for creating your own taverns and fairs, and some examples of both.  The usability of the sourcebook is quite high.  You could adapt the games, et al to almost any other fantasy RPG, and with a little tweaking to sci-fi RPG's as well.  It is distinctly crunch-heavy, however, and emblematic of the whole 3.X/OGL movement.

While the third book is distinctly  a win, the other two are not.  Third Edition D&D came out in 2000, causing outrage among some hard-core D&D enthusiasts who decried the loss of the leaner, more streamlined rules of the earlier editions (many of these enthusiasts continue to play some iteration of the earlier rules to this day).  But Wizards of the Coast tested the loyalty of those who supported the new rules by releasing a modified ruleset, called 3.5, a mere three years later.  The 3.5 rules cleaned up a lot of problems that the intensive playing of the third edition had revealed, enough of a change to make using material from 3.0 not entirely seamless.  I know people still play 3.5, but I don't know anyone who plays 3.0.

You can buy a pdf of Tournaments, Fairs, and Taverns now for $9.95 from RPGNow, so I feel like I'm off to a good start in terms of getting my money's worth.

The Mystery RPG Box of Mystery!

I will admit, it was pure psychology.  I am visiting the Half Price Books near my house and as always am checking out the RPG section.  Interesting enough, they have multiple copies of the books from the Dark Heresy RPG, but even at half price are still prohibitively expensive.  On the floor by the RPG shelves, however, is this box:

I did not purchase the box at that point.  I went back to the store that evening and bought it, because it took me a few hours to succumb to the pure temptation of what might or might not be in a box that is roughly 24" wide, 14" long and 12" deep.  But I finally did, telling myself that at for thirty dollars I could almost not go wrong.  By the way, the box weighed at least forty pounds and was completely full, so we are talking two stacks, what could be almost two feet of gaming material.

So, here's the game.  I am going to open the box and slowly remove the contents, three books at a time.  I will show what three books I have removed from the box, including detailed reviews of the contents as strike my fancy.  I know that there's a good chance that most of it will be pretty undesirable, but if the people at HPB are smart they will throw a few gold nuggets in there.  I am also a pretty easy to please guy when it comes to RPG material, being able to adapt a lot of stuff to my own purposes.  That having been said, there are two types of materials for which I will be greatly disappointed should they appear in large numbers:
  1. OGL tripe.  The Open Game License, combined with inexpensive printing technology gave rise to a lot of material by third party sources for Dungeons & Dragons, 3.X edition.  Some was good, some was not so good, but at this point a lot of it is circulating in the unloved RPG market.
  2. World of Darkness material.  With the number of games White Wolf put out, the relaunches of existing worlds, and the ample source material, this is another staple of Half Price Book RPG shelves, and frankly I'm not all that interested.
Will my fears be realized?  Will I, at the end of twenty or thirty blog posts, felt like I wasted my money or was this the opportunity of a lifetime (or at least this week).  Stay tuned!

Over at Strange Vistas