Thursday, November 12, 2009

In praise of the 3x5 card

On the OD&D Forum someone once asked, "What should be on a character sheet?" to which I replied, "Lines to write on :)"

Seriously, the only thing that has grown more in size over time than the typical RPG character sheet is the software used to create it.  I used to think that extensive multi-page character sheets were the cat's pajamas, but over time they increasingly appeared as cluttered and distracting.  I tried introducing a simple, relative spare D&D 3.5 character sheet to my grad school gaming group, but they preferred the "official" ones from WOTC.

When I first started role-playing, the character sheet was a 3x5 index card.  The entire time I've played in Prof. Barker's Tekumel campaign all we ever used for character sheets were 3x5 cards.  It's possible to scoff at them as being too small, but I think that's their secret: they keep character creation and conception relatively simple.  There's only so much that can go onto a 3x5 card, and therefore only so much time to be spent on generating a character to fit on said card.  From an "old school" perspective, it's definitely the way to go - and it seems like other people have figured this out already, as seen here, here (okay, it's Savage Worlds), and here (5th post down, if someone gets the link unbroken, please let me know).

I've got my own 3x5 character sheet for D&D, which can be found here; print on cardstock and then cut to size.

Monday, November 9, 2009

What Players Want

I got together with some friends of mine - both of them experienced gamers - as they wanted to talk to me about possibly playing in my new campaign.  We had gotten to a discussion of different styles of play, and what people want to do in a game and what makes a game good.  It was one of those conversations where everybody has a lot to say, and were falling over each other saying them.  But I was brought up short when one of my friends said, with an air of complete certitude, "Well, yes.  Campaigns are supposed to be all about what the players want." (or words close to that)

My eyes apparently narrowed, and I said something close to "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."  Well, what I said was a bit more pungent than that, and brought both of my friends up short.  I quickly apologized, as I realized that one of my buttons had been inadvertently pushed by what my friend said.

Some background: I had mentioned to my friends that I was open to running several different things: a Classic Traveller game; Original D&D using Labyrinth Lord; a Chivalry & Sorcery game; possibly Tekumel.  My partner, L., has always been interested in history, so I found myself putting together the C&S game, using Columbia Games' excellent Lionheart campaign setting.  I figured I would set up things with a little mystery, a little magic, and maybe some minor changes in history.  This sounded good to L., so I set out to recruit some other players, which is how I found myself in a diner in suburban Madison, somewhat embarrassed for swearing like a sailor.

It's a particular philosophical point: is the game all about the players?  Where do the needs of the referee come in?  It's been my impression based on conversations like this one and others, that there is a strong current in the hobby today that sees the referee as essentially a reactive (and somewhat passive) facilitator for the players and their ego trips.  In particular, I've found myself bemused at the suggestion that a referee doesn't really have any rights to shaping the game setting or rules, unless the players agree - as if they are supposed to start the clockwork on the setting and retreat behind the curtain.  (I blame this mostly on the emergence of computer games and MMORPGs, actually.)

There's two ways in which this philosophy is problematic: it is actually less of a challenge for players to allow them to determine things completely, and it pushes the interests of the referee out of the picture, unless that interest does not conflict with that of the players.  I'll take as stipulated that a game can only work if the players and referee are in collective agreement about the game and the setting, but I think that a referee has a legitimate and real interest in setting the boundaries of the game she wants to run.  To be sure, somebody could run a game nobody is interested in, but that's always possible.  I'm not suggesting that a referee be unresponsive to his or her players, simply that the players' interests should not determine everything.

Which brings me back to my conversation with my friends.  What I determined was a better statement of my belief was: the extent to which a player is interested in my needs as a referee is the extent to which I will be interested in their needs as a player.  Put another way, a game is enjoyable if it facilitates a dynamic between the players and referee such that everybody gets their creative needs met, and this definitely includes the referee.  Does that make sense?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Madison Games Day 2

Madison Games Day 2 was a success for TARGA events.

Some logistics to churn: The total turn-out for this one-day free game-a-thon was somewhere around 40-50 people, with no pre-registration and a request from the event organizers asking for referees to submit events. Event listings were just one-line announcements (see blog), so it was a free-for-all to attract players.

Chad Thorson and myself showed up at Noon, and right away appropriated a table. We began generating characters for an OD&D session using Labyrinth Lord, with a quick dive into Under Xylarthen's Tower. At first it was just Chad and one other player, but we soon acquired several more players.  I had initially generated a couple of henchmen - 1st level fighters named Fred and Charley - but with the addition of two more players to round out the party to six, they were ready to go into the dungeon.  Coming down the narrow stairs, they moved straight ahead and were about to enter a room when a couple of fire beetles came on them from behind.  But they were satisfactorily dispatched, and their gooey glowing bits used for lighting, rather than the oil lantern wielded by Alvin the Magnificent.  The next two encounters were with a giant snake and then two giant weasels.  In both cases, magic-users stated they were going to cast spells (Sleep and Web, respectively), but the rest of the party went charging in, resulting in some sleepy comrades, and then some glued to the floor party members.  The party then avoided a nasty undead, and found a shaft leading to the 4th level and a bunch of white apes.  The cleric in the party attempted a Speak With Animals, and the conversation with the two apes went something like this:

The cleric: "Hellooo!"

Ape: "Ah!  Lunch!"

Cleric:  "What do you mean?"

Ape:  "You are here!  Come down!  We will have lunch!"

(Cleric to his compatriots: "well, that sounds sorta friendly..."  Compatriots:  "What sort of 'lunch' do they mean?")

Cleric:  "What will we have for lunch?"

Ape: "You!  Come down!  You look tasty!"

And it went downhill from there....well, it descended into a melee, with the apes knocking down two party members.  I had to invoke the -10 HP rule, though I probably ought to have been more hard-hearted and simply let the apes kill the two characters.  However, about it was about three hours in, so we ended the session after dispatching the white apes, and the acquisition of a magic sword.

After a break for pizza, we resumed with the same group of players for a session of Empire of the Petal Throne. The Band of Heroes was sent off to discover more about ancient devices under Fort Pu'er and ended up on a Tubeway Car jaunt across Tekumel. Ice temples, Ssu, and King Griggatsetsa were all encountered, before ending up in Avanthar.

Things broke up around 9pm, as the organizers shut things down about then.

Some lessons learned:

1) Having a referee and at least one player makes recruiting more players easier. Having Chad ready to play broke the ice for the rest of the players, so I was really happy we had coordinated things.

2) Running several different games is more work than it might seem. I had originally planned on running Classic Traveller in addition to OD&D and EPT, and I ended up with four book bags of gaming material - all of which were heavy. It would've been much easier to run the same game three times and leave the other stuff at home.

3) Having flyers and swag to hand out is a Good Thing. I had a table display and a bunch of flyers, several copies of Microlite 74 v.1.1 in booklet form as swag, and One Page Old School Primers. They ate it up.  The next Madison Games Day 2 will be sometime in January; we might have two sets of events to run there.

Here's hoping you roll a "20" on your next saving throw!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Half Year Mark

It was Dave Arneson's birthday about a week ago.  Unfortunately, Dave wasn't here to celebrate it; he passed away earlier this year.  In the midst of everything else, I took a moment to think about Dave and what he brought into the world with his marvelous creation of fantasy role-playing.  It reminded me that I had done the right thing six months ago.

Man, I miss him.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Mistakes were made, Senator...."

One of the more difficult things to admit as a referee is when you make a mistake.  We like to think that mistakes are mostly of the "oops, didn't quite mean it that way" variety, but sometimes mistakes can be much bigger than that.

Probably my earliest big mistake came when I was running a Chivalry & Sorcery adventure for a bunch of players at my local game club.  They had encountered a barrow wight, and I ran through the entire encounter without taking into account the serious "fear" ability that the undead creature had.  The party went away with a bunch of loot, and I felt bad about it.  So when I went back to read up for the next adventure, I came across the rule about inflicting fear - and decided to re-run the entire encounter at the next club meeting.  There were howls of protest, but some of them actually went along with it.  Looking back on it 30 years later, I still recall this as a moment that I'm not at all proud of.  Re-running an encounter?  My older self says, "suck it up and learn from it for next time."

Somewhat more recently, I ran a D&D 3rd Edition campaign, with players who were...casual, shall we say, about in-game consequences of their actions.  It all came to a head when the paladin in the party started to bargain with the rogue in the party about how to quietly steal from (and possibly murder) a third player-character.  The player of the paladin seemed shocked that her deity just might have ideas about such dishonorable and ignoble behavior - and the rest of the party seemed as shocked as she was.  That group fell apart for that reason, amongst others.  It made me think carefully before starting a long-term campaign with people whose gaming style I was unfamiliar with.

Not that long ago, I ended up running an espionage game that was supposed to transition into an Infinite Worlds campaign.  We had all gone to see The Bourne Identity, and my players were really pumped up about running spies and doing covert operations.  What I hadn't counted on was the complete disinterest on the part of the players to do any real world research about the organizations their characters worked for (CIA, MI5, the Mossad, etc.).  The mistake I made was then in providing them with NPCs who would feed them information.  Then practically every adventure session started with, "I call home; what do I find out?"

I'd love to be able to say that I've learned enough from all of these experiences (and many others) to have a coherent idea of What It All Means, and How To Improve Your Game in Three Easy Lessons, but it would not be true.  The reality is that I find myself having learned from some of these mistakes and doing a bit better - but that's about it.  Since I just moved, I don't have a regular gaming group right now, so I know I'm a little rusty....

...which means I'm likely to make a mistake or two in the future.  Here's to not rolling a 1 on my next saving throw!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Proof of a Conspiracy

Yes, this photo - taken at a Starbucks in south Minneapolis - reveals the sinister dark underside of the Old School Renaissance.  Gathered for nefarious purposes are (from left to right): Aaron Kesher, of Sandbox Empire (AKA Kesher on the Original D&D Discussion Board), then myself, and then Tom Juntunen, one of the contributors to the furtherance of all things Tekumel.

This was the first time I met Aaron, and it was a blast to meet someone else from the discussion boards and blogs.  Turns out that Tom is a nearby neighbor of his, and since Tom and I go way back, it seemed appropriate to get together and catch up with one another.  We had a grand time talking about everything from Warriors of Mars to Microlite 74 to The Source Comics & Games - and got Tom to consider running Classic Traveller again.  As Elizabeth Bear would say, "WIKTORY!"

The staff at the Starbucks were courteous enough, and put up with our raucous reminiscing until quite some time after closing.  Then, not unlike some taverns in games I've played in, they unceremoniously tossed us out onto the street.  And then we stood out under the streetlamps, talking some more, until Aaron had to head home, ditto Tom and myself.  It was a very fine evening.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

It's not Dr. Pepper, but it looks tasty

Jones Soda has developed a new limited edition of soda pop geared for D&D players.  And while this news has probably bounced off the far boundaries of the internet a couple of times already, I've just heard about it.  It reminds me of the very early days of gaming, when a potions of healing were found in six-packs, if you were lucky....

Monday, September 14, 2009

Campaigns and Living OD&D

Rob Conley has some interesting ideas about a kind of Living OD&D that might be something TARGA might eventually run.  (Is that enough "might"s?  It's very exploratory in nature, or so it would seem to me.)

What I find fascinating about this is that in matches what people did oh-so-long-ago, where characters and campaigns were not necessarily tied to one another so tightly.  Jeff Rients talked about this awhile ago, and his discussion is still spot on.  What's a little disheartening is how quickly people want to add some sort of tracking mechanism, when one of the beauties of the OSR is that it recognizes the primacy of the referee in their own game.  Even so, it's an interesting discussion.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Table Fees

"Five dollars an hour."

"For a table?"


"...And that's if the game is out of print or unavailable from your distributor?"


I stood, slightly dumbfounded.  The gaming tables were in a next-door store front, at that moment completely empty of gamers.  The Not-So-FLGS manager smiled that "I'm with a customer but I don't really mean it" smile.  I must've let on that I was taken a little aback, when he continued, "Hey, if you game for four or five hours with a few friends, that's just a five from each of you.  Cheap!"

"But it's free if you can get the game from your distributor."


I can understand that game stores need to sell games to stay open, but this kind of table fee is clearly aimed at moving current product, rather than the long tail of gaming.  It also has encouraged me to look at other game stores in the area to run games at - simply because they don't have such fees.  Economics can cut both ways.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dan Proctor interview

Dan Proctor, author of Labyrinth Lord, gets interviewed over on RPG Blog II.  It's an interesting interview, since I chose Labyrinth Lord over Swords & Wizardry for OD&D simulation.

I found myself curious about it and the Advanced Edition Companion - since much of what I wanted to add to my game was somewhere in-between OD&D and AD&D 1st Edition.  (OSRIC is too close to AD&D for me to really find it workable, largely because of slavish attitudes towards the rules rather than the rules themselves)

One of the reasons why I didn't go with Swords & Wizardry was frankly the lack of art in the original release.  Now I find myself interested in putting the new versions of it and Labyrinth Lord side-by-side and seeing which one I like better.  (I suspect I will stick with Labyrinth Lord, however.)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Need some help

I'm working on a project that might be rather interesting when it's done.  What I need is this:  a global project of the Earth with the poles in different locations - the South Pole somewhere around the Black Sea, and the North Pole somewhere in the South Pacific.  Some more glaciation would be cool, too.  In particular, I'm interested in the actual geography and terrain of Antarctica underneath all of that ice.  I have no idea what's actually there, aside from a mountain range that cuts across the continent.

If there is somebody out there with the requisite chops to help me out with this, or even some directions in how to do it for myself, that would be neat.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Player-characters are....

"I'm a loafer with a dead-end job in real life; why can't I play a hero in a fantasy game?" I've heard comments like this fairly frequently from gamers with whom I've played, over the years. Aside from the self-esteem issues implicit in the comparison, there's a fairly good reason why not every player-character is going to be a hero.

Heroes have to beat something. Overcome some sort of challenge. You know, win.

But for that win to have any meaning, there's gotta be uncertainty. The chance of losing. Which is why I've always said that player-characters in D&D (and frankly, any RPG) are not heroes when they are created. They have the chance of becoming heroes.

I was reminded of this when I read Dan of Earth's Simple Comparison. Nicely put, Dan!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

What are these "modules" of which you speak?

When I first started roleplaying, back in 1975, there were no modules. Instead, people spoke of "dungeons" - as in, "Say, we're going to play in Steve's dungeon on Saturday - want to join us?" The idea of going on an adventure was firmly inside the frame of a larger campaign. Some people had elaborate set-ups, with kingdoms, history, background - even different races to play. Others were focused on the site of adventure; everything else was superfluous. If players came and went, so did their characters.

So when I picked up a copy of Keep on the Borderlands just the other day at Frugal Muse Books, I found myself remembering some of the reaction of "old-timers" to the idea of stand-alone adventures: "why would you want that? I mean, it's not even written for your campaign." Up until 1977 or so, almost all of the material produced for D&D had been published in The Strategic Review, The Dragon, or Judges Guild material (the latter being more recent). Which resulted in lots of interesting monsters, magic items, elaborations on the rules, and all of it got picked apart and then kitbashed by referees for their own games. What this meant for the players was that the narrative of adventure emerged from play, and wasn't predetermined by a series of modular pre-fabricated interactions.

So it seems to me that the period of 1974 to 1977 could be marked as being fundamentally different from roleplaying after 1977. It's that kind of gameplay I want to see explored further in the Old School Renaissance. Put another way, think about this - how would you design an adventure to share with others that didn't have a "greased rail" approach, like so many adventures written at the time?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Open-Ended Campaigns

One of the more interesting aspects of the early days of role-playing games was the assumption that campaigns were something that lasted some time. Certainly Greyhawk and Blackmoor lasted a very long time - but in the first decade of gaming, there did not seem to be any sort of assumption that a campaign would end. Reading articles from early issues of The Dragon, it's quite clear that campaigns did not die (but they might fade away).

I know this era of long-lasting campaigns didn't last. In fact, one good reason for them not lasting for regular play was simply the appearance of new role-playing games. If you wanted to play a different game, and your group met once a week, well, something would have to give. "D&D or Bushido? It's your call!" "How about Boot Hill?"

Now, it seems that campaigns are envisioned as something to start and then end. Case in point: a friend of mine ran a 3rd Edition D&D game set in the Forgotten Realms, and while I enjoyed it, I found that he had plotted a specific "story arc" to end at a particular point in the campaign, and then it was done. I had mentally prepared my Tiefling paladin (not angsty, just different) for a longer period of play, so the end of the adventure was something of an abrupt stop for me.

But in the present Old School Renaissance, we've got the chance to figure some of this out in advance. I think there is something qualitatively different to an open-ended campaign, in comparison with those with pre-set ending points. I'm not saying that a campaign must be played constantly and forever, but more a difference in viewpoint about beginnings and endings. Put somewhat more philosophically, I think that the duration of a campaign is just as much a part of the "sandbox," so to speak, as the geography of a campaign.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Moving and various issues

I'm moving to Madison, Wiscowsin at the end of the month. Not too surprisingly, I've decided to invest in a lot of standard-size boxes to make the move go more easily. A quick check of Uline revealed that they had 12x10x10 boxes (that's 30.5cm by 25.4cm by 25.4cm for metric folks), for 51 cents in any quantity. They've been working quite well, though I am still searching for the best all around size of cardboard box, i.e. one that will handle games, magazines and books with decent fit for all categories. I think I've moved too many times in my past.

But there are a LOT of games to move. This has led me to rediscover some old chestnuts as I've been packing: Rivets, Lords & Wizards, and Daredevils. Quite a walk down Memory Lane! Rivets was great - I converted the designs for "boppers" into stats for a set of science fiction miniatures rules, and there's a Morrow Project adventure lurking around there someplace, too. Lords & Wizards I must have bought but never played; the counters were unpunched. And Daredevils - man, crazy busy set of rules, but fun and we had several referees who really were into pulp adventure. Good times.

But - for now - into the boxes and onto the truck. If anybody knows of other members of the Old School Movement in Madison, keep me posted!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Aaron Allston needs your help

As it turns out, Aaron Allston has had an emergency bypass operation. Aaron's a science fiction writer, and in the past contributed significantly to The Space Gamer and other SJG projects. Details on how to contribute money for Aaron's recovery can be found here.

This isn't the first time someone in our community has needed help. For several years, John M. Ford went from being on dialysis to getting a new kidney, and the astronomical costs were defrayed (somewhat) by donations made by his friends. So give some money. It will make a difference.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

De gustibus non est disputandem...and all that

I ended up recently having an online conversation with Jonathan Tweet about his recent experience with Old School gaming. He seemed to mildly enjoy it, but had this to say about the rules:

The problem with such games is that there's a lot of bad stuff that people are nostalgic for. For every bad rule that you might want to strip out, there are people who won't think your OD&D is original enough if you don't have it. Swords & Wizardry even has two AC systems that it uses side-by-side: the old-fashioned 9-down system that they have to include for tradition's sake and the 10+ system that they have to include because it's just clearly better....The 'bad stuff' I'm referring to is stuff like: too much arithmetic (5% XP bonus, copper pieces, etc.), wonky XP progression per class, too-random character creation, and poor class balance. It also has the problem that didn't get fixed until 4e: all spells are daily, which makes spellcasters play too differently from the fighters.

I suggested he might like Microlite 74, and he thought it looked "pretty cute" - a compliment I would say. :)

But what I find interesting here is how he jumps to the conclusion that it is nostalgia that drives interest in the Old School movement. Oh, sure - there is some element of fond remembrance for some of us - but not all of us, and it certainly isn't the main or even significant driving factor. I was also rather surprised, actually, to discover how quick he was to label some rules as "bad" and various "problems" with the game that were "fixed" in 4th Edition. In truth, I am still curious about how he came to these conclusions, but I think it is telling that someone of Jonathan's creativity has reached such definite conclusions.

Beyond that, I also noticed that he implied that "bad rules" were retained by Old School gamers as a kind of authenticity test. I noted in my comments to him that such an attitude was not considered appropriate by Old School gamers; "doing it right" means doing it the way you want to. I'm still bothered by his implied criticism, though. Who are these "people" he's referring to? It can't be only Old School gamers - lots of games have fans who want to play "by the book." My suspicion is that he's half-remembering gamers who wanted everything to be settled by the "Sage Advice" column in The Dragon more so than gamers who were playing between 1974 and roughly 1978. (I could be wrong about this, but I do wonder....)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Three *really* little books

Sometime in the past decade - probably about seven or eight years ago - WOTC decided to bring out miniature versions of various AD&D and D&D books. I picked up the three core books for AD&D 1st Edition. I kept them in my desk in grad school, apparently hoping for the spontaneous lunch session game with my fellow grad students (didn't happen).

They languished as I stopped gaming altogether during my dissertation writing period, and eventually sat in a box, altogether forgotten. Then, just the other day, I ran across them again as I was searching for something else. Despite the micro-miniature font size (a magnifying plastic ruler took care of that), I found myself thinking "hey, if you needed gaming supplies for a bug-out bag, these would be great!" Sanity slowly returned, and I got to thinking about them, and an internet search revealed this (scroll down to see the entire set).

Monday, June 1, 2009

I'm Back

Something of an unintended vacation took place over the past month. Between end-of-semester grading and then going to WisCon, I found myself for little time for the Old School Movement. It didn't help matters that my weekly game on Monday afternoons had to shut down due to schedule changes for my players. But it's June, and I am picking things back up.

Monday, May 4, 2009

I hate gaming at home

"Hate" might be too strong a word here, but I have a difficult time seeing the appeal of gaming in someone's - anyone's - home. Before everybody goes bonkers over this, lemme explain.

In an earlier post, I reminisced about different gaming clubs of my youth. One important fact about all of them was that they were in public places - a student union at university, and a police station community room. Since that time, I've spent a lot of time gaming in people's homes, and with one notable exception, they've all struck me as distinct second choices, compared with public spaces as gaming locales. I am pretty sure this is because I see as disadvantages the very things that might appeal to others.

"But we can get together in the comfort of our own home and game as long as we like." While it is true that time and space are nominally more under your control in your own home, the fact of the matter is that this doesn't always work in practice. Homes have to be maintained and kept clean, and while gaming all night long might seem attractive, I rarely see decisions made at 4am that stand the test of next-day thinking (don't get me started on jobs and getting up in the morning). What other people see as freedom I see as heaping responsibility on the person living there.

"We can really focus on the game when we're at home." Really? Most gamers' households are one big distraction when it comes to gaming. Game, book and media collections, just to start with - and then there are other distractions that only arise in your own home: telemarketers, non-gaming roommates or family members, you name it.

There are other reasons, but you get the idea. I think the framework of public spaces used for gaming actually makes gaming better:
  • Conference and meeting rooms have tables and chairs - and that's pretty much it. That's all anybody needs. Anything more than that - couches to snooze on, etc. - will probably get in the way of gaming.
  • Clubs have set times for meetings: for example Tuesdays, start at 7pm, out by midnight - everybody knows when the game is going to start and end, and what day is set for the game. Saves lots of time trying to mesh schedules, starting and ending times, etc. Which results in more time gaming.
  • Public spaces are also neutral territory. If Homeowner Harry has a falling out with the gaming group, you need to find another place to game, post haste. But with a public locale, you don't have these kinds of conflicts - you might get different conflicts, but not these.
  • Clean-up is a shared responsibility. Rather than assuming that Fred and his roomies will throw out the pizza boxes, everybody gets to pitch in for clean-up at the end of the session. That also usually makes it go faster (see above comment about scheduling, i.e. more time gaming).
In the end, public spaces such as gaming clubs do something else that gaming at home can never do: it makes our hobby more visible. Seeing how much people complain about "the death of gaming" it seems to me that the benefits of having a bright, friendly atmosphere of a game club outweigh the (supposed) advantages of gaming at home. To be sure, game clubs can fall victim to their own organizational faults and foibles, but in the end, I still think they come out on top.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Missing Out - Grr!

It's a safe assumption that most gamers have heard of Wil Wheaton - you know, Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation? And you might have heard that he's been running a D&D game, yes?

In the crush of end-of-semester grading, combined with the passing of Dave Arneson, I managed to miss this (see right): Wil's design for a t-shirt, available through shirt.woot. Now I'm not much for t-shirts anymore, ever since I stopped running science fiction conventions, but this one grabbed my attention.

Imagine my disappointment when Wil found out that it was no longer available. I know the internet has an attention span of a gerbil hopped up on caffeine (or cocaine), but this is just plain silly. I'd be overjoyed if the shirt became available again - if you agree with me, let Wil know!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Gaming Clubs

When I was much younger (like in my teens), I was an avid wargamer and role-player. One of the things that made this much easier for me was the existence of three different gaming clubs: the Conflict Simulation Association (CSA), the Fantasy Role-Playing Game Association (FRPGA - pronounced "ferp-gah"), and the 6th Precinct Wargaming Club.
  • CSA met on Tuesday nights at Coffman Memorial Union, since it was a student organization at the University of Minnesota. Oddly enough, we wouldn't game all the time. Sometimes we would just sit around and talk about gaming - or Monty Python, or comic books, or Star Trek, or medieval history. But throughout the school year, Tuesdays from 7pm until 11pm were spent on the third floor of Coffman, now thoroughly remodelled and completely unrecognizable.
  • FRPGA met on Saturdays, also at Coffman Memorial Union. It, too, was a student organization. From roughly noon until midnight, gaming would go on - or not, as different groups and campaigns took over different meeting rooms on the third floor.
  • The 6th Precinct club met on Friday nights, in the community room of the Police Department's 6th Precinct. Located at 26th and Nicollet in south Minneapolis, the 6th Precinct was a forerunner of what would later be known as "community policing." We never saw the cops; the community room had it's own entrance, and from 7pm until late into the evening (and morning), gaming would go on in this one long, narrow room. Complete with lots of folding tables and chairs, shag carpeting and woodgrain paneling, it was busy with gamers rolling dice, no matter the weather outside.
So now I've come to discover that both the CSA and FRPGA are no longer to be found at the University of Minnesota. The 6th Precinct was eliminated long ago in city budget cuts. While it is the case that the Guild of Wargamers and Roleplayers is alive and well at my new alma mater, Iowa State University, I began wondering if gaming clubs are still viable as places to find like-minded gamers. It paralleled the dismal news frequently heard about the disappearance of the Friendly Local Game Shop (FLGS). It's not that hard to form a student group or a club - it seems to me that there ought to be opportunities to do this - is it just that people don't think this way anymore about gaming as a social activity?

Fortunately, a review of the list of student organizations at the University of Minnesota revealed several successors to my old favorites. The Campus Crusade for Cthulhu, the Campus Wargamers, and the Society for the History of Naval Warfare all seem to be carrying the flag for gaming on campus. Even so, there doesn't seem to be a club for tabletop role-playing games (as we now refer to them) - room for growth, methinks!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Remembering dead PCs

Having just gotten back from Dave Arneson's visitation and funeral, I hope you will forgive me if my mind wanders just a little. It was a decent funeral, and I was glad for having Michael and Jean Mornard there, as well as connecting with all sorts of old friends and making a few new ones.

I started to think about how we honor our fallen, and then that got me thinking about dead PCs in role-playing games (I warned you my mind was wandering). I mean, in Boot Hill, fallen gunslingers have a place and even a little ritual to go along with the exchange of lead in the middle of the street. But what about in D&D? Did or does your party have ways to deal with their dead? Maybe it is just me, but I have a hard time remembering any sort of ritual or practice of giving the dead a decent burial ("Out of the boat/And into the dark/Goodbye, Jenkins/Hello, shark"), except perhaps after they had achieved some sort of rank or recognition - and maybe this lacunae says something about the games I have played in.

How do you honor your slain party-members? ("Looting the body" is not quite what I was thinking of, okay?)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Castle by David Macaulay

Castleby David Macaulay is supposedly for kids - but pretty much every gamer of any age I have ever known has a copy on their shelves. It's a grand book full of marvelous illustrations, and what it does best is explain how and why castles were built the way they were. From the perspective of gamers and gaming, this book is a treasure trove of little design details that can be added to castles and dungeons and fortifications, to add background detail and a few little mysteries, e.g. why are there holes tracing a shallow angle along the castle wall? To provide anchor points for posts for a ramp to transport rocks.

There's a larger question of why would castles in a fantasy setting with flying monsters and destructive magic be built in any way similar to that of our ordinary Middle Ages. It's up to the referee to determine the answer to that question. If you want a decent base to work from in castle design, however, this is a good book. You can get it here.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Beginnings and Endings

I'm currently in Madison, Wisconsin for the weekend, and am getting ready to go to Minneapolis-St. Paul for Dave Arneson's memorial on Monday. It's pretty obvious to me now that Dave's passing had a much bigger effect on me than I was initially willing to admit. That having been said, there have been a few gaming-related ideas chasing through my mind. In no particular order:
  • Alchemy and alchemists: there's been some interest lately in the idea of alchemists in D&D. Combined with the idea of spell components, one person pointed out that this means magic-users get lots more "screen-time" if this is done. Not necessarily - I can see magic-users hiring druids, rangers and the like to gather spell and alchemy components. Moreover, groups of adventurers would be likely choices to get the more-difficult-to-find stuff.
  • Traveller Tuesday: one of the more interesting things I did recently was to find my old Traveller set from 1977 - and you know what? It reads quite differently from the 1981 revision. (Surprise, surprise). And there is also the different mapping scheme, and other recollections from the past. Now that I have a decent all-in-one printer, I can scan in some old stuff to share with all of you.
  • Old fanzines: a side-effect of digging out the old Traveller stuff was finding a bunch of old fanzines, including a fairly complete run of Ryth Chronicle, edited by John Van De Graaf (John, you out there?). Ryth Chronicle got a mention in an early Strategic Review, so it is notable for being one of the earlier non-APA RPG gaming 'zines. One of the more interesting finds in Ryth Chronicle was a chart showing characters in the campaign, both dead and alive, along with XP, number of sessions, etc. I plan on doing something with that and the other fanzines I found.
  • Magic-User - completely new interpretation. This one is a bit more of a project; I wanted to come up with a magic system more like that of Chivalry & Sorcery, but clearly still rooted in D&D. Some time ago I updated my notes for this to 3rd Edition; now I get to strip a lot of that out and go back to my original thoughts on the subject.
...and then there's more besides all of that.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter, Ostara, and Holidays

There's a side of world-building that comes up whenever you have clerics - so what sorts of holidays does their religion actually have? If you go about it fairly blithely, you end up with something that looks like a mix between the medieval Catholic list of Saints' days and the solstice/equinox set-up from modern paganism. And as far as it goes, that's not bad - familiar without being too familiar. But it also has a "been there, done that" feel to it for me.

What holidays represent in game terms are a tension between referee and player creativity, or so it seems to me. Because holidays represent significant moments in time, it is very easy for referees to engage in some deep world-building regarding them - but that's not necessarily a good thing. If you build a deeply detailed religion with holidays, tenets and doctrine, you have to work to provide players with a means of adding to them or in some way creatively engaging with what you've presented. By contrast, one of the things that I actually like about OD&D's Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes is how unfinished it is - you get stats on the deities, some information on the pantheon of which they are a member, and sometimes a little about their followers and worship. There's a lot of room for a referee and players to work in developing something for their own game. Each version of this that has followed - Deities and Demi-Gods, Legends and Lore, etc., have gotten more and more detailed about the religions. Unfortunately, that means that - like with stat blocks for monsters - it's easy to get buried under "doctrine" and "structure of belief." It's a lot of "rich background detail" - but how much do you or your players really want?

I used to want a LOT of background detail; even today, what I consider a bare-bones outline is more than some referees are probably willing to do. But now I find myself wanting to leave the background a little more mysterious - open to being left undefined or created out of game-play. So when it comes to holidays (and in-game religion), I'm come full-circle from when I was much younger - I'm willing to do some work, but I think I'd rather let a player playing a cleric help me figure out when they are. It'll be more fun that way.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dave Arneson and Tekumel

I was asked on another forum to provide some thoughts about Dave Arneson and his participation in Prof. M.A.R. Barker's world of Tekumel. I've decided to share those here, as well:

Dave played irregularly with the Thursday Night Group, sometimes for a longer stretch when he lived in the Twin Cities, then for the occasional visit when he was in the Bay Area or Florida. Dave's primary character, Captain Harchar, was clearly one of those "original EPT" characters in Tekumel. Harchar was a weird mix of "D&D character" and "upstanding member of the Blazoned Sail clan." I suspect some of this was due to Prof. Barker always keeping in mind that it was Dave at the gaming table, but Dave managed to always act in a "proper Tekumelani" fashion while making it very clear that ol' Harchar was in it for himself and the gold and nobody else, in about that order. Harchar always had two assistants/bodyguards/helpers with him, Swordslinger and Staffswinger - those were nicknames, but the NPCs were tough and made sure Harchar was unmolested. You might think that Prof. Barker was providing a kind of special assistance to Dave, but such was not the case.

Harchar repeatedly got himself into and out of rather sticky and/or tough situations - up to and including getting his ship transported from the Chanayaga Deeps to Lake Parunal, where the locals had never seen anything larger than their fishing boats and small single-rower galleys before. He set himself up as the incoming governor of Mihallu, and had everybody convinced of this fact, and the actual ruling clique in Ninue ended up working feverishly to discredit him (they eventually succeeded before he reached Mihallu - read some of the related story in Prof. Barker's novel Flamesong). Eventually Harchar and his ship were returned to the waters off the city of Jakalla.

Dave was also responsible for some of the development of the concept known as the "Tree of Time" in Tekumel, wherein all of the different strands of possibility were represented in a kind of metaphysical conceptualization as a ever-branching (and reconnecting) set of tree branches. He was playing a different character, but I recall quite distinctly how we ended up traversing
the Many Planes looking for things, and Dave's character (not Harchar this time) finding evidence that signified to him how the Tree was manifest, operated, etc. - it became a kind of religious revelation that Dave's character shared with others - usually to Dave's advantage.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dave Arneson

As has been reported by many sources, Dave Arneson has passed away. It's been just over a month since the anniversary of Gary's death, and now both of them are no longer with us. I hope people will take the time to appreciate these two men, who changed the world with their modest creation. Whether that is through gaming, or raising a toast, or a simple prayer, they deserve to be honored in our memories.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Being thankful

For those of you who do not know, Dave Arneson is in hospice, dealing with late-stage cancer. I've known Dave now for many years - not as close as some, but we're friends. I also happen to know Michael Mornard ("Old Geezer" on many forums), and a couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to get the two of them together for the first time in many years. We sat in the dining room of the home of Malia, Dave's daughter, and talked and reminisced for a couple of hours - rather, I listened as the two of them went over fond memories of days past, and compared notes about the present day. They both were very happy to have the chance to see one another, and what with the current news about Dave's condition, I am glad I did it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Wyrm Biting Its Tail

Over the past week, I've been migrating from my laptop, a Dell Inspiron 700m, to a new desktop machine. I had been using my laptop as a substitute for my old desktop machine, which had a significant "blue screen of death" system failure two days after I turned in my dissertation. But the laptop was clearly a second choice for all around use, despite the fact that it has served me well through a bunch of grad school. So I've been somewhat delayed in catching up with blogs and all of you.

If that were the only reason for my delay, I wouldn't feel so conflicted. As a reward for finishing grad school, I've been delving into playing Oblivion. And I've been enjoying it a fair bit, especially since my friend Andrew had tweaked the game significantly with various mods - mostly to get it to feel more like Morrowind.* I had gotten turned on to playing the latter game by my friend Mike, who once invited me over to his place to watch over his shoulder while playing because "you really have to see how they rendered the water." He was right - the visual impact of the game was amazing. Morrowind was the first game where I watched a sunset, just because it was so spectacular (for those of you who might be curious, it was looking across the small bay to the west of Seyda Neen).

That's what made Morrowind a really interesting game for me and for Mike (we shared similar attitudes towards game play - he originally got me turned on to playing Darklands from Microprose oh so long ago). Morrowind was about the closest you could get to a "sandbox" campaign in a CRPG, or so it seemed to us. The actual main quest was interesting for the first half or so; once you figured out your character's True Mission in Life, it was go-here-do-that, lather, rinse, repeat. Okay, that's a bit harsh - but the sheer variety of other things you could do was fascinating. I guess I should not have been surprised by how much I liked Morrowind; turns out that the lead designer on the game was Ken Rolston.** Ken's been in gaming forever; he taught the first seminar I went to at Origins 82, and he helped design Paranoia and material for Runequest.

So I ended up putting off Oblivion until I was done with grad school. (Don't touch that line.) Getting a new desktop machine meant I had to wait a little longer. Was it worth the wait? Mostly. The biggest surprise for me personally has been an even stronger dislike of embedded plotlines - even though that's what makes a computer role-playing game what it is. I haven't gotten a long way into the game - though I know a lot about it already from having watched Mike and Andrew play. Even so, some of the most fun I've had so far has been beachcombing for Nirnroot, and fighting the occasional bunch of goblins or highwaymen. Fortunately, the main quest doesn't require lots of on-going immediate attention, which is a good thing - I'm just not a fan of greased rails for the plotline, and I figure I can deal with "closing shut the gates of Oblivion" in my own good time.

How does this relate back to tabletop roleplaying games and the "Old School?" Easy - despite the impressive graphics, the tremendous amount of background development and scripting, computer RPGs and tabletop gaming are still two different things. What Oblivion has done has been to increase the pressure on referees to have appealing and complex worlds; the fact that Oblivion itself is a descendent of earlier tabletop games makes its a dragon biting its own tail.

In the end, though, I kept thinking of all of the labor that clearly went into creating Oblivion, and wondered what might have happened if it was applied to tabletop campaigns. But that's what distinguishes the computer game industry from our own corner of a much smaller hobby. Bethesda is clearly making money - and that's good. But even better is the exercise of our own imaginations in our own games. To be sure, Oblivion and its ilk scratch a sufficiently similar niche to make them very appealing to tabletop gamers, but the unpredictability of a plot when a bunch of people are gaming together still far exceeds what can be done within a computer game.

* One of the major objections we all had to how Oblivion was originally designed was that the monster encounters "leveled" with you, i.e. you kept running into things about as tough as your character. This meant that as you get higher level, you might start running into bandits with extraordinary enchanted armor - how's that again?
** Trivia time: when your character arrives at Morrowind at the beginning of the game, the first person to interact with is Socucius Ergalla, the Customs and Excise Agent - and who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ken. Don't believe me? See for yourself. Past that, the dialogue your character might have with the Telvanni wizard, Divayth Fyr, sounds entirely too much like Ken running a table-top adventure. But that's another story.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fight On! #4 released

Just a note to let people know that Fight On! #4 has been released. Fight On! has been the flagship 'zine of the Old School movement, and has moved to quarterly publishing via Lulu. While I don't have anything in #4, I am expecting to submit some material for #5.

Here's the info on it from Lulu:

"The Fight On! fanzine returns for another fantastic foray! Dedicated to Dave Hargrave and his legendary Arduin campaign, this issue features no fewer than 8 adventures, plus spells, magic items, new classes, races, and rules to take your FRP passion to the next level! Our contributors include Steve Zieser, Kevin Mayle, Steve Marsh, James Maliszewski, Monty & Josephine St. John, Gabor Lux, Jeff Rients, Geoffrey O. Dale, Baz Blatt, David Bowman, Calithena, Kesher, Douglas Cox, James Raggi, Matthew Riedel, Geoffrey McKinney, Alex Schroeder, Lee Barber, Vincent Baker, Patrick Farley, Kelvin Green, Fu Fu Frauenwahl, and many more! Let your imagination know no limit – Fight On!"

So I'll be buying a copy shortly, along with a copy of Knockspell #1. I encourage everyone to do the same.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

OD&D + Supplements != AD&D 1st Edition

I'm currently in Durham, NC visiting a friend from school, and so out of necessity, this might be a bit short. This is something of a follow-up to a comment I made over on Grognardia. Put simply, if you don't buy the "evolution" argument about role-playing games, i.e. that games "evolve" somewhat naturally from previous editions, and that the successive editions are somehow "better", then it isn't much more of a stretch to realize that Advanced D&D 1st Edition isn't the only way in which Original D&D could've evolved. You could take this further, and note that the very existence of Holmes/Moldvay/Mentzer D&D pretty much proves this point.

"So? They are still all 'D&D', right?" Well, yes - but that misses an interesting implication. There are a lot of different ways Original D&D could've evolved; Arduin Grimoire is one direction, and Tunnels and Trolls and Chivalry & Sorcery are others. At some point, we cross the line into "new game" territory. Both T&T and C&S are good examples of games straddling the line, or so it seems to me - clearly inspired by D&D, but different emphases than the original three little tan booklets.

I'm one of those guys who likes Original D&D a lot, but I also like some of the crunchy goodness found in the later supplements, particularly Greyhawk and Eldritch Wizardry. Blackmoor is also interesting - so if you go on to look at Dave Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign you get a very different vibe than AD&D. What I am excited by is the prospect of lots of different re-imagining of D&D, without the judgmental label of "fantasy heartbreaker" - the current round of "Original Edition" products is proof that there is a lot of creativity out there; just look at the latest issue of Fight On! for proof if you don't believe me.

Besides all that, though, is the very real note that if you add up Original D&D and its four supplements, you still don't have "AD&D" - you 've got something that resembles AD&D, but is not the same thing. Probably the most important difference, rather than between this or that mechanic or character class, is a difference of tone. AD&D is clearly the "tournament standard" with Gary Gygax's Foreward in the DMG, whilst Original D&D is much looser and open to creativity, even with all of the supplements. And that's a good thing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Traveller Tuesday: Our Original Inspiration

If you go through the list of books and authors that influenced Traveller, it's a pretty long list. Poul Anderson was always one of my favorites, especially his Nicholas van Rijn and Dominic Flandry series of books and stories. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle also had their effect, particularly their CoDominium series - A Spaceship for the King was a great basis for an interesting low-tech Traveller mini-campaign, or so it seemed to me.

But back in 1977, there was one particular author who seemed to have a much greater influence on SF campaigns using Traveller, at least the ones I was aware of in the Twin Cities. That was H. Beam Piper. Piper was primarily known for both his Terro-Human Future History and for his Paratime stories (Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen being one of my favorites of the latter series). Looking back on Piper's work today, it was the kind of solid storytelling that you would expect from the early Sixties in American science fiction. Not great literature, but definitely good yarns - and Piper made you think without Heinlein's tendentiousness.

Out of all of Piper's books, the one that had the most influence on early Traveller campaigns in the Twin Cities from 1977 to roughly 1979 had to have been Space Viking, published originally in 1962, and republished sometime in the mid to late '70's (and certainly by 1977). The hero of the story, Lucas Trask, is a nobleman of the planet Gram - clearly a feudal technocracy. After his wife was murdered by a madman, Trask sets forth to find the killer. To do so, he establishes a colony from which he can raid the various worlds of the collapsed Terrohuman Federation - and gather information about the whereabouts of his enemy.

Space Viking has everything you could possibly find in early Traveller: jump drive, albeit with a much greater range; contra-gravity, with everything from grav-cycles to ideas about what a contra-gravity civilization would look like; and an emphasis on guns and missiles - lasers having only been recently invented in 1962, and Piper was an avid gun collector. And the story itself was worth noting - the idea that civilization goes in cycles, borrowed from Toynbee, and it was up to worthy heroes to ensure that their world and galaxy were safe. Traveller seemed to be a pretty decent framework of rules for building campaigns like this, and so that's what we did.

One of the interesting rules modifications that was adopted by several referees around the Sixth Precinct Gaming Club (aka the Golden Lion Gaming Club of Gary Fine's book, Shared Fantasy) and the Little Tin Soldier Shop, was to cut fuel consumption during FTL "jumps" in half - so instead of 10% of the ship's mass per parsec traveled, it was 5%. That made it possible for ships to travel farther, and for empires to be larger. My own attempts in this regard - like many others - were fairly small by later standards, "pocket empires" in later parlance - somewhere around 10-20 star systems, surrounded by various lower-tech star systems. But some of the referees had put together maps that were much much larger - if I recall correctly, several sheets of paper with small hexes (each sheet would easily hold an entire Traveller sector, and possibly four of them), so these would be empires on a scale not much smaller than the Third Imperium of later fame.

Within a fairly short time - easily by the spring of 1978 - there were easily a bunch of different campaigns running, some of them sharing the same universe, some of them dividing up the galaxy like earlier efforts to have different dungeons all in the same (or connected) universe(s). What I regret now is that so much of this has been largely lost in the mists of time; it would be great if there was some effort to gather the history of these campaigns and others that existed before the coming of the Third Imperium.

Next Tuesday: Different Maps, Different Mapping

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thinking You're On The Same Page (But Not)

Noisms' comments about games he's wanted to run, and Jeff Rients' Shatnerday collided in my brain to remind me about my own love affair with Star Trek. I also reminded me of the last time I had tried doing something with Star Trek as a role-playing campaign.

This was about six or seven years ago. I had run some D&D 3.0 and found it overly-engineered and my players were something of a mixed bag. So I decided I needed something different - something that would bring the group together. And then I decided that Star Trek would be a good way to do this. I had always wanted to run a Star Trek campaign. It would be fun – everybody knows the background, the language, and it would provide a sturdy frame for a kind of dramatic role-playing that could be really engaging for the players and for me as the referee. Or so I thought.

What – or more precisely, who I forgot about were Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. Berman and Braga were largely responsible for the evolution of the Star Trek franchise, and having been brought up on the original series (TOS), I hadn’t really paid much attention to what they were doing with Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. To be sure, Gene Roddenberry had made changes right from the beginning of Next Generation, but Berman and Braga had carried that much further after Roddenberry’s death. By the time Deep Space Nine came along, I had lost interest in watching the various shows in the franchise.

Frankly, I really didn’t like some of the changes they had made in the Star Trek universe – the Ferengi were painfully close to negative stereotypes of Jews (right down to the exaggerated facial features), the Klingons were changed from an implacable but honorable foe to a band of “Vikings in space”, the Romulans took the place of the Klingons, and I never found the Cardassians to be all that interesting. But if those things were the only major problem, I wouldn’t have had much difficulty. Telling my players that Voyager was in a different timeline so they ought not to expect to encounter the Dominion, the Jem’Hadar or the Kazon (or anything from "fluidic space") would likely have been met with cheerful relief on their part.

What I hadn’t expected was that we would have radically different ideas of what, exactly, the “Star Trek universe” was. To me, the Star Trek universe was the wild frontier of TOS, in all its four color simplicity. James T. Kirk was a Jack Aubrey in space, with Spock and McCoy as his Stephen Maturin stand-ins. Star Bases were not unlike Gibraltar or Ascension Island – occasional oases in a vast ocean of stars. And even if there was a Starfleet Command, they wouldn’t be questioning every single command decision made by the Captain of the USS Brilliant (a Surya-class frigate, not an Enterprise-class heavy cruiser).

My players, however, had different ideas.

My first clue we might be operating asynchronously came when one of my players said to me rather emphatically, “yeah, I don’t like the later shows, either. I prefer the classics – you know, like Next Generation. I knew that was a danger sign, but I figured that since I was busily retooling various minor details of the universe, such a perspective could be easily bridged back to my own. But the second clue came about when I mentioned wanting to set the campaign in the period after Star Trek: Wrath of Khan and just before The Search for Spock. I had intended to play with the Star Trek movie “continuity”[1] just a little – I liked David Marcus as a character, and thought that his immediate elimination in Search for Spock was more expedient than warranted. And I definitely wanted to preserve the Klingons as antagonists, so I wanted to bypass Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country altogether. (The Undiscovered Country, with its dubious premise of a moon explosion somehow crippling an interstellar empire, was profoundly unsatisfactory structurally and dramatically.) One or two of my players became visibly uncomfortable with an “alternate universe” cast to the campaign. “So what happens afterwards?” one of them asked. “You’ll have a chance to figure that out” was my answer, which was accepted with deep hesitation.

But when it came to considering the start of the campaign, there were more problems. Which rules set to use? I had thought about GURPS, as a system I knew and liked – but the Star Fleet Universe offerings were geared more towards Star Fleet Battles and a decidedly militaristic cant to any campaign. I looked at, and invested in, the Last Unicorn RPG – lavishly produced, but lamentably out of print, and focused more on Next Generation than TOS. I had then settled on the Decipher line, as it was fairly balanced and not (quite) out of print. The straw that broke the camel’s back and sent the campaign back into the editing room was the discussion I had with my players.

They simply did not like the original Star Trek series. What I saw nostalgically as a brightly colored background just aching for the interesting fine detail work of an unfolding campaign story arc written by the players themselves, they saw the TOS setting as cartoon-ish and corny. While they thought Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were fascinating and full of background detail, I found them to be largely complicated without being really interesting (particularly DS9), and suffering from attempts to over-use the “double-talk generator” as a substitute for maintaining dramatic continuity.

Past that, my players (or at least, the group of people I was gaming with back then) were dubious about a different rules set than the D20 system they knew from D&D 3.0. And the idea of a home-brew rules set struck them as tinkering with the very fabric of the universe (okay, in a sense that's true - but they weren't happy with the idea).

When these differences in perspective surfaced, I realized I needed to rethink the entire basis for wanting to run a Star Trek campaign. I'm still thinking about that. I love my Star Trek, but oh, you kid.

[1] I am almost embarrassed to use that term in relation to Star Trek – a show infamous for the cavalier attitude shown to continuity by the production teams of the various series. Even so, while there might not be a precisely-definable continuity and “history” there is certainly a commonly-held (and defined) sense of what that might be. I knew I would have to wrestle with that in whatever game I ran.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rob Kuntz Speaks Truth

Rob Kuntz points out the clay feet of the current batch of products:

I am afraid these days that such appelations as "Fantasy Role Playing Games," and as compared to D&D here and present, are losing ground as by-products of their two most important words: Fantasy & Games. Fantasy is the enchantment that led us to play to begin with; and the game is what keeps us there.

More insight to be found here: Lord of the Green Dragons

Would you care for a bowl of cream to go with that?

The awfully snarky people at have posted the first review of D&D 5th Edition. Here's an excerpt:

"And yes, you heard me right: that's at least a guaranteed level every night. Entitlement is the new word in role-playing, and Dungeons & Dragons delivers. Begone unfairness, imbalance and asymmetry! Everyone is rewarded at the same pace regardless of ability or effort. The reward is playing the game."

I like the review. I like it a lot.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Traveller Tuesday: The Influence of D&D

"Traveller is necessarily a framework describing the barest of essentials for an infinite universe; obviously rules which could cover every aspect of every possible action would be far larger than these three booklets. A group involved in playing a scenario or campaign can make their adventures more elaborate, more detailed, more interesting, with the input of a great deal of imagination."
As soon as Traveller appeared on the local gaming scene, its literary roots were fairly evident. Growing up in Minneapolis, I was relatively lucky in having not one, but two science fiction specialty bookstores in town: Uncle Hugo's SF Bookstore, and Dreamhaven Books (back then known as the Complete Enchanter). So even a cursory examination of the rules provided some clues about the background influences on the game. But the biggest influence on the structure of the game was Original D&D. The quote provided above is a direct parallel to the Afterward of The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures:

"There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rules interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!"
There are differences in writing style, to be sure. However, this ought not disguise the very clear connection between Original D&D and Traveller. If the "three little brown booklets" defined fantasy role-playing, then the three little black booklets of Traveller defined science fiction role-playing. This parallelism between the two games shows in the break-out of the rules of Traveller:

  • Book One: Characters and Combat (D&D: Men & Magic)
  • Book Two: Starships (D&D: Monsters & Treasure)
  • Book Three: Worlds and Adventures (D&D: The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures)

To be sure, the match was not exact - but even in the most obvious case, Book Two, starships were very much a "prize" to be sought by player-characters either as a part of the character creation process or through acquisition during play. Starships could also be "monsters" in the form of hostile encounters in star systems.

But the deeper point here is that the perceptive crew at GDW did not see very much value in messing with success. Besides the parallel in structure (which I mentioned earlier), what Traveller and Original D&D had in common was a design that expected referees and players to add their own elements to the game. Put another way, the lack of background was seen as a design feature, not a "bug" or "missing part."

What did this all mean, back in 1977? Mostly that it felt perfectly natural to sit down and randomly generate characters, build starships, and come up with worlds and adventures - just like we had been doing with D&D for several years up until that point. There wasn't any "Third Imperium" - at this stage of creation, rather than designing sandbox fantasy realms to explore, we set forth creating sandbox star systems to explore. If that's not "old school" I'm not sure what is.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Book of Weird

"Trudge: the slow, weary, yet determined walk of someone who has no alternative but to continue."

This whimsical definition is from Barbara Byfield's The Book of Weird - "being a most desirable lexicon of the fantastical" and therefore of interest to gamers. I ran across a copy when I was a teenager, and found myself taken with the gently satirical and slightly otherworldly tone of this book. Published just over 40 years ago as The Glass Harmonica, it has been in and out of print several times since then.

It's hard to describe the utility of this book. Coming at it four decades later, it would be relatively easy but incorrect to call it a precursor to Diane Wynne Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Pulling definitions out - particularly the short ones such as the one given above - are tantalizing tastes of the gestalt found within the pages of the book. For myself, the subject of the book hearkens back to another favorite of mine, Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist, but only somewhat. It provides a strong sense of how familiar and yet how strange various elements of fantasy really are, especially in this kind of iconic imagining through the act of definition. You can find out about the differences between churls, oafs, and fools; what an arras is useful for; beaux and their sartorial elegance; and what to do when you have been imprisoned and walled up with a cask of amontillado - and that's just a start.

For old school D&D players, the light and deft touch of this book can be overwhelmed by the usual round of boisterous play, so a referee should be cautious about using The Book of Weird directly in their campaign; it is much better as a background reference (of the sort that should have players waking up in the middle of the night wondering, "now what did he mean by that?"). Over time, I found its best use as one of several touchstone sources of whimsical imagination - so did Garth Nix, interestingly enough - and I suspect you might, too, if you were to get a copy.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Microlite 74 2.0 released

Taking a page from Chgowiz, I am happy to report that Microlite 74 2.0 has been released. This is a derivative of Microlite 20, an elegantly reduced-to-its-essentials version of the D20 system. Microlite 74 is a version that happily recreates much of the "flavor" of older games, such as Original D&D and B/X D&D, using mechanics familiar to anyone who has played a D20 game.

I have to admit to being mightily intrigued by Microlite 74; I almost chose it over Labyrinth Lord for my once-a-week-at-my-FLGS drop-in campaign. A great deal of my interest is centered on just how minimal a system Microlite 74 really is, creating a lot of room for referee adjudication while still keeping a set of simple core mechanics. Matthew Finch has noted that "old school" gaming is less about rules than rulings - I agree with that, and I think that Microlite 74 gets at that issue quite successfully by being as brief and spare as it is.

It is worth noting that Microlite 74 is not "just another retro-clone" game; it, along with Microlite 20, are part of a somewhat different movement about minimalist rules and settings for games. Some of the other examples of this that impress me include Spylite 20, Scions of a Primordial Planet, and Microlite 20 itself. I think there are some interesting implications of such a design philosophy above and beyond "quick and free" - not the least of which is a structural aversion to "railroading" through a minimalist scale and maintaining a focus on material being necessary only as needed. I also think it could allow for truly different campaigns - Scions being a good example - precisely because the focus of creation is away from rules and more on setting. (There's a project I have in mind related to all of this, but I'll be writing about that in a different post.)

Now I can't say I was totally pleased with the release of Microlite 74. The only quibble I have is that I was just getting ready to put together my minimalist campaign using the Microlite 74 1.1 rules, and I just wish the designers could have read my mind and either waited to release 2.0 or done it sooner. :)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Running across old notes: Dungeons & Sorcery

Ever run across old notes for a game or campaign? Ever find yourself wondering, "Where did this come from? What the heck was I thinking?"

That's what happened to me recently. I found some notes on 3x5 cards for something I dimly recall having named Dungeons & Sorcery. Here's an example:

D&S: Weapon Proficiency
Warriors 1 every three levels, starting number: 4
Rogues 1 every four levels, starting number: 3
Clerics 1 every five levels, starting number: 2
1 every five levels, starting number: 1
Everyman 1 every four levels, starting number: 2
1 per group, 1 per weapon (must precede group), 1 per expertise (must take group)

I think what I was doing here was trying to come up with a system for weapon proficiency, similar to that of the first campaign in which I was really active, and related to AD&D's weapon proficiencies. It was part of a system I was working on by fits and starts, which I had decided to call Dungeons & Sorcery.

As far as I can remember, Dungeons & Sorcery was going to be a kind of proto-retro-clone game, based loosely on AD&D. I remember trying to run a few sessions of it back in 2001 or so, right as 3rd Edition was getting very popular. It went over like a lead balloon at the time. People wanted all that detail found in the glossy new hardcovers, and the unnecessary complexity of the new system hadn't yet made itself apparent.

I think a major reason why D&S did not get off the ground was that I was daunted by the sheer weight of trying to redo all of the old rules, modify them, and then present them in a coherent fashion. Coming across my old notes again leads me to have more respect for Matthew Finch, Dan Proctor, and others who have actually put together various versions of our old game. While I doubt I would actually try to cobble together D&S - but I might try to put together some of my notes into a supplement for Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Review - CITYBOOK I: Butcher Baker, Candlestick Maker

If dungeons are the beginning point of adventure, towns and cities are at the end. After all, adventurers needs someplace to go to rest and recuperate, get magic items identified, and spend all that loot they've accumulated from their perilous journeys into the unknown, right? Recognizing this, the earliest D&D campaigns - Blackmoor and Greyhawk - were not only named for their dungeons but also for their nearby towns and cities.

However, there is little guidance in Original D&D for how to put together a town or a city; I suspect Dave and Gary assumed that was the easy part of running a campaign. I certainly like coming up with stuff for cities and towns, but that's not necessarily true for everybody. Recognizing this, Flying Buffalo, Inc. produced Citybook I as part of their Catalyst series of all-system supplements, and published in 1982.

Citybook I: Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker " not a complete city....while the establishments are described in detail, the choice of business included are those a group of adventurers is most likely to have an immediate interest in." Basically, a referee can use the 25 establishments and their various NPCs in whatever way they want. While you could use the book as the framework for an entire city (which would be up to you as the referee to detail completely), it's more likely you would pick and choose what you wanted to include in your campaign. That's certainly what I did for my Southlands campaign, placing two Citybook businesses in Westguard town:

  • Skywhite's House of Lavation: Adventuring can be a dirty business, and to wash away the grime of the quest there is no finer establishment in the City than Skywhite's House of Lavation. This includes the plans for a quiet, almost Oriental style bathhouse, the four NPCs associated with it - the brother and sister who own and run it, and the two young musicians who work there, and three scenario ideas. "Those who refuse to take tea have their fees politely refunded, and are shown out with the admonition to return when in a better mood for a proper bathing experience...."
  • Larkspur the Leach: For the treatment of wounds, broken bones, disease, and other unpleasant legacies of the adventuring trade, the man to see is Larkspur. It might seem odd to include a chirurgeon in a fantasy world where clerics can heal, but it is also the case that someone like Larkspur might know things that a cleric would not. In addition to Larkspur, there's Dame Gerda who cleans his house, and again, three scenario ideas. "He is especially eager to operate on non-human kindred such as elves and dwarves, since he knows very little concerning the physiology of these races." (!)
It was actually tempting to add more.

Each one of the establishments in Citybook I is well-detailed but not so much so that a referee can't add their own material. The lack of specific system information makes it easy for a referee to take the relatively abstract descriptions of fighting and magical ability and specify them using the rules of their choice. The book itself is divided into an introductory section, with guidelines for the referee, an article on "City Mastering and Citybuilding," an explanation and key for all maps, and more ideas for referees. Following this, there are:

  • Lodging and Entertainment: an inn and a tavern
  • Personal Services: eight businesses ranging from Skywhite's House of Lavation to Sleaz's Tattoo Parlor
  • Hardware: Five businesses including a swordsmith, a bowyer, and a stable.
  • Food Services: three unique eateries
  • Community Services: a clocktower and a bellman's service (so who distributes the news in your campaign? Think about it.)
  • Spiritual Services: a temple, a mortuary and a cemetery (all those player-characters lost in battle need a decent burial, right?)
  • Security Services: a barracks and a jail
...and the storylines and characters included for each of these have suggestions for connecting them to other establishments detailed in the book. The artwork and maps including with all of this are excellent - the maps are nicely detailed, and the artwork is evocative inkwork in black and white. Many of the character portraits are by Liz Danforth, whose distinctive and attractive style can be found in everything from Tunnels & Trolls to Challenge magazine articles for Twilight: 2000 to, well, here.

As you can probably tell, I really like Citybook I. Each establishment is detailed enough to be used "as is" but written to allow for individual modification and further creativity, and presented in an attractive format. If I had a criticism of Citybook I it would be that the backgrounds for each establishment are sufficiently interesting to become a distraction from a dungeon as the focus for player-character attention. But if that's what's wrong with this book...well, that's hardly a criticism.

Rating: five dragons out of five.