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.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Remembering Gary; Thinking of Dave

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I never got a chance to really meet Gary Gygax. I now regret that, if only because he was responsible, along with Dave Arneson, for a significant influence on my life: role-playing gaming. Since Gary died one year ago today, I've taken some time to read the memorials written by other people.

They are heart-felt, touching, and the number of them is astounding.

I was overwhelmed quite quickly by the depth and strength of feeling - and could not help but feel some of it myself. While the memories of interacting with Gary were touching, I also appreciated the reflections that people wrote about regarding role-playing in their own lives. Probably the one I like the most is the advice given by Jeff Rients about how to remember Gary.

So even though I've always known Gary from afar, I've been remembering him today. Which almost automatically led me to think of Dave Arneson, who is still alive and with us yet today. Dave is the other author of D&D; the one who started it all with Blackmoor, and whose association with Gary led to the creation of D&D. As some of you know, Dave and Gary felt out over business matters related to D&D, and that rift never really healed. As time passed, both of them went on to do other things - Gary to write for other systems after having been shut out of TSR, and Dave to teach game design at Full Sail College in Florida. But it must be remembered that it was the both of them that brought us our favorite hobby.

For everyone mourning Gary, let me suggest that you raise a toast to Dave, and let him know that you appreciate him, as well.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Other "Three Little Booklets"

"This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone...
Mayday, Mayday... We are under attack...
Main drive is gone... Turret number one not responding...
Mayday... Losing cabin pressure fast calling anyone...
Please help... This is Free Trader Beowulf ...


I started playing Traveller back in 1977. I had been role-playing for a couple of years at that point, and I remember gamers coming back from Origins with a new game they were all very excited about. Within a couple of months the black box with the above text, containing three digest-sized booklets, had arrived and we all started setting up our Traveller universes.

That last bit is rather important.

The booklet titles and organization were an homage to Original D&D: Characters & Combat, Starships, and Worlds & Adventure. A fairly quick read of the rules showed science fiction influences including Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, E.C. Tubb, Isaac Asimov and H. Beam Piper. Aside from the cover quote, and a bit of detail about the example character, Merchant Captain Alexander Lascelles Jameson, there's little if any background inherent in the original game.

So it was up to the referee to come up with their background and setting for adventure, and it was nearly two years before GDW began providing their own "official setting" for Traveller - the Third Imperium. In that span of time, there were a lot of campaigns developed, and they reflected a wide range of imagination, much like the original D&D campaigns started c. 1974. What makes this all interesting yet today is that - like Original D&D - Classic Traveller represents a much larger range of gaming possibilities than the GDW in-house campaign that eventually became synonymous with these "three little black booklets."

"Traveller Tuesdays": Over the next several Tuesdays, I'm going to critically review Classic Traveller as another exemplar of this thing we call "old school gaming" and how it is still relevant to gamers today. I'm also going to talk about some of the early campaigns I played in, and show just how different early Traveller gaming really was, compared to what has come along since.