Sunday, January 31, 2010

"New" OD&D campaign

Over the past three months, I've been running a weekly Original D&D game at my FLGS, Misty Mountain Games.  Like my previous attempt in Ames, I started with just one player, Gene.  Gene had showed up to one of the Madison Traditional Gaming meetups, and had a sufficiently good time that he was interested in a regular game.  I was initially worried about having only one player, but Gene seemed to be ready to take on the challenge, so off we went.

Rather than the Southlands setting I had used before, I went with a very simple set-up: "Here's the dungeon - the Tower of Xylarthen - and nearby is the village of Kingsbridge.  It's tiny and on the edge of everything.  Go kill some monsters and get their loot."  Gene rolled up two characters: Kyle, a halfling thief, and Grollan, a dwarven fighter.  I rounded out the party with Garric, an apparently fearless (or foolhardy) human magic-user with 1HP.

Some of my inspiration for this came from a series of posts on Ars Ludi about the West Marches campaign.  I figured that my weekly open game would lend itself to that kind of set-up, and I hoped that having a relatively simple game would be less work for me as a referee (which turned out to be true).  I also made a point of shamelessly swiping stuff from my collection of gaming magazines and materials, and then filing off the serial numbers to fit them into the campaign.  A lot of this was done simply to re-familiarize myself with the rules of Our Favorite Game, and to avoid me making a big creative investment in the world (an old mistake of mine).

Adventuring with just one player has been fascinating.  I've ended up re-sizing encounters to make it possible for an adventuring party of 3-4 characters to survive, though I haven't completely fudged everything.  I've also encountered real questions dealing with all sorts of stuff:
  • Combat: should initiative be just a d6 roll, including or not including a Dexterity bonus?  What about weapon length?
  • Base mechanics: who gets to roll for what?  Do I roll for opening doors?  How many chances do characters get?
  • Experience points: awarded for killing monsters, check.  What about monsters defeated or thwarted?  What about experience points for gold?  What about taking character level and dungeon level into account?
We've now gamed about a dozen times, and have added a player, Dave.  Now that we've doubled the size of the player group, we'll see how things evolve

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Wilderness Architect

One of the first things I encountered when I ventured into the online world of the Old School Renaissance was something of an obsession with dungeon design.  What made it worse was the assertion that wilderness adventuring was "broken" and there was no real rhyme or reason to how to design a wilderness campaign.

This got me into a lot of arguments.

Remembering a series of articles from White Dwarf entitled the Dungeon Architect, I decided to go back to Vol. 3 of OD&D, and really "get under the hood."  This gave rise to a series of posts on the ODD74 forum entitled, "The Wilderness Architect."  This was expanded upon and published as a series of articles in Fight On!.

I'm now planning on releasing this as a relatively inexpensive POD book and PDF file, with some rather cool additional material.  I could go with Lulu, and do it as a 6x9 perfect bound book, or do it as a digest-sized comic (5 x 7.5) from Ka-Blam, which might be cheaper.  What I would like to do is produce it as a 5.5 x 8.5 digest sized booklet, saddle-stitched.  If anyone has suggestions on this, either on the format or on where to get it done, please let me know.  Thanks!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Raised by wild wargamers

One of the distinct differences I've noticed between gamers who started gaming after D&D became really popular (c. 1983 or 1984) is that they aren't as curious as those who started before that, in my experience.  Particularly those who started gaming before D&D actually appeared, playing board wargames and/or historical miniatures.  I got my start with games such as Avalon/Hill's Afrika Korps (see map up above), a fun introductory boardgame.  I think I still have my copies of Panzerblitz and Panzer Leader buried deep in the collection.

Playing these games - or playing miniatures - often involved fairly extensive supplemental research about the battles and wars being played out on the table.  Did Rommel make a mistake in laying siege to Tobruk?  Probably.  How effective were pikes in stopping cavalry charges?  Most of the time - especially when used by the Swiss.  Was Charles the Bold's Burgundian Army something different than what had been done before?  Yes.  And so on and so forth.  Looking up obscure references in university libraries was seen as part of the fun.  The lasting effect of this has been that I carry this research curiosity into role-playing games.  What did Tolkien have to say about the origin of orcs?  What was Star Fleet's General Order 7?  Was there a specific location for Miskatonic University, according to Lovecraft?

I might have encountered a skewed sample of newer gamers, but I think this habit isn't one being taught to newer gamers.  And I think that's unfortunate.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Combat

While technology will certainly progress in the centuries to come, it will also remain a fact that one of the surest ways to injure or kill an adversary will be to subject him to a large dose of kinetic energy, and a simple easy way to administer that energy is by bullet impacts...Some weapons, such as the laser rifle and carbine are not currently available weapons.  Referees may feel free to create other weapons to suit the needs and desires of traveller society [note the lower-case "t"].  For example, laser pistols (very expensive, and perhaps unreliable), pneumatic guns functioning on compressed gas, and relatively silent, or light machineguns (heavier and of greater effectiveness than the automatic rifle).
- Characters and Combat, page 40
Traveller, 1977 edition

The above quote is worthwhile for understanding the perspective of the designers of Traveller, all of whom had considerable experience in historical wargaming, as well as being well-read in science fiction.  Thus the choice of weaponry available for a science fiction role-playing game did not include "blasters" or "ray guns" or "phasers" - such weapons were clearly "Buck Rogers" in character, and Traveller was clearly intended to have a "hard SF" feel to it.  This somewhat conservative approach has been mistyped as being backward and anachronistic, but I believe that criticism misses how Traveller paid homage to its literary roots.  If anything, Traveller was true to those roots in science fiction of the day, particularly that of H. Beam Piper (as I wrote about before):

"Something I found while raiding on Tetragrammaton," he said. "I thought you might like to have it.  It was made on Gram."  It was an automatic pistol, with a belt and holster.  The leather was bisonoid-hide; the buckle of the belt was an oval enameled with a crescent, pale blue on black.  The pistol was a plain 10-mm military model with grooved plastic grips; on the receiver it bore the stamp of the House of Hoylbar, the firearms manufacturers of Glaspyth.  Evidently it was one of the arms Duke Omfray had provided for Andray Dunnan's original mercenary company.  (Space Viking, 1963)
While only a very brief selection, this quote reveals many of the elements that were incorporated into Traveller from the beginning: an emphasis on known and predictable weapons technology, raiding other planets, feudal technocracy, and mercenary companies.  (I'll get back to these later.)

The combat system itself is relatively abstract and in retrospect fairly elegant, using a straightforward determination of surprise, initial range between parties, determination of escape or avoidance, and then resolution of combat, including movement and attack.  Initial range, in particular, was dealt with abstractly, using a system of "range bands"  (short, close, medium, long and very long range) which I'm sure now was designed as an alternative to a more precise (and therefore complicated and fiddly) miniatures-related system.  However, I don't recall many of us at the time using the combat system as written. The advantages of the abstract character of combat were something that I think many of us missed at the time, unfortunately.

As in the first half of Book One, there are very few references to background setting in the combat system.  Rather, I suspect that the designers at GDW assumed that people interested in a game like Traveller would recognize the sources of their inspiration, and either adopt them or make their own modifications to fit their own campaigns. Some hints of background included the following:

  • The cutlass: "The cutlass is the standard ship-board blade weapon and is usually kept in brackets on the bulkhead near important locations" - this triggered almost endless debates about the relative utility of blade weapons in spaceships, Valerian space-axes notwithstanding.
  • The body pistol: "a small, non-metallic semi-automatic pistol designed to evade detection by most weapon detectors." We made much of the exotic technology of being non-metallic in nature, Glocks being a decade at least in the future.
  • The rifle: " the standard military arm" - oh? we all thought.  Why not laser rifles?
  • Battle Dress - "the ultimate in battle armor, military battle dress consists of a complete vacuum-suit-like array of metal, synthetic and electronic armor....Battle dress is strictly military, and not available to civilians in most circumstances...Vacc suit skill is required before an individual can even think of using battle dress.  In the powered mode, battle dress doubles personal strength, and eliminates any endurance requirements or restrictions."  Starship Troopers Mobile Infantry were the obvious reference here, and most of us caught that.

Some of the first things to be added to the weapons locker included laser pistols and light sabers, Star Wars having appeared at just about the same time.  One of the interesting moments of cognitive dissonance was that George Lucas had insisted on using real guns as the basis for the weaponry in Star Wars - Sterling SMGs as "Imperial blasters" and a Lewis LMG with water jacket as some heavier blaster, all of it capped by Han Solo having a tricked-out Mauser with muzzle flash hider as his personal sidearm.  Was it any wonder that people wanted both machine guns and blasters?

Previous: The other "three little booklets" 
Previous: The influence of OD&D 
Previous: Our original inspiration 
Previous: 1977 Edition Characters
Next Tuesday: Starships

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Madison Games Day 3

No pictures this time; I wasn't able to go for the whole thing, due to other commitments.  However, I did have the chance to run my Classic Traveller intro adventure, "Losing Air," for a couple of gamers at Madison Games Day 3.  "Losing Air" I wrote as an opportunity to introduce various aspects of the game system, as they start off as a bunch of survivors on a lifeboat, with a disabled pirate ship nearby.  Do they attempt to storm the pirate ship?  Do they try for one of the moons of a "nearby" gas giant?  In this case, they tried the former, and almost got killed by the security 'bot left in the Captain's cabin.  It was a reasonably good time, and I had a chance to pass out fliers for Madison Traditional Gaming.  I didn't get a chance to go to the recently-started Milwaukee Traditional Gaming meetup, so I'm waiting with baited breath to find out how that turned out.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

TARGA Announces ITGW 2010 and GaryCon Auction!

TARGA Announces International Traditional Gaming Week 2010

TARGA is pleased to announce that the International Traditional Gaming Week 2010 will occur on the week of March 21st through March 27th. The week will be kicked off by the fantastic games happening at GaryCon 2 in Lake Geneva and will conclude with a series of games on March 27th, including a Dave Arneson tribute game to be held in New York City. More information on the ITGW 2010 page.

TARGA Announces Pledge-An-Auction Drive

TARGA is organizing the 2010 Pledge-An-Auction drive in support of GaryCon 2 and the Gygax Family Fund for use in funding a memorial statue in honor of Gary. Come join our virtual auction and help us to present a great donation to Luke Gygax at GaryCon 2 this year! Starts on January 25th!


That's the official announcement.  I'm now thinking about what I want to put up for auction.  Man, I think I have a third copy of Chainmail, or my extra of the Rules Cyclopedia, or maybe something even more obscure.  I'm going to ponder this for a bit....

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Characters

Classic Traveller is iconic.  It was the first really successful science fiction role-playing game, preceded by Metamorphosis: Alpha and Space Quest and a number of other largely forgotten games.  What made Traveller different was that there was actually a minimum of background provided in the rules - most of the other games has assumed a great deal about the background setting for a game.  In providing little background, the designers clearly followed the path of Original D&D, which did not attempt to model any one fantasy setting, but instead drew from many different authors and backgrounds.  (Whether or not this was completely intentional isn't clear - we might ask Marc Miller or Loren Wiseman.)  But the advantages of this are difficult for people to see today, after 30+ years of accretion in the GDW house campaign of the Third Imperium.  My intention in this series of blog posts is to go back to the original 1977 rules set, looking at it from a fresh perspective as informed by the recent Old School Renaissance, over a series of Tuesdays.

Traveller came out in the summer of 1977.  If I recall correctly, it made its debut at Origins that year, and by August, copies were beginning to arrive at The Little Tin Soldier Shop in Minneapolis.  Almost overnight, people began to try the game out - generating characters, building spaceships, designing settings.  One of the secrets of Traveller's success was that each of these elements was itself a kind of mini-game within the framework of the rules.  (More on that later.)

Looking at the game, it appeared in a 6x9 box, with a black cover wrap.  Inside were three digest-sized booklets, clearly modeled on the Original D&D set: Characters and Combat (Men & Magic), Starships (Monsters & Treasure), and Worlds and Adventures (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventure).  So any referee picking up the game would already have a notion of what was in each book.  I read all three avidly from cover to cover.

Book 1, Characters and Combat, starts off with a basic assumption about the game: "Traveller covers a unique facet of future society: the concept that expanding technology will enable man to reach the stars, and to populate the worlds which orbit them.  Nevertheless, communication will be reduced to the level of the 18th Century, reduced to the speed of transportation.  The result will be a large (bordering ultimately on the infinite) universe, ripe for the bold adventurer's travels."  This is a fairly important point: while the specific background was left to the referee, the rules made certain general assumptions about how things worked - many of which were immediately altered by gamers buying the game.

Traveller also exclusively relied upon six-sided dice.  Most of the gamers I knew already had handfuls of Gamescience polyhedral dice, but in places where such things were rare, this reliance on d6's may have given the game a boost in accessibility.  In fact, the game was completely playable out of the box, albeit without any adventures.  Then again, the concept of prepackaged adventures was relatively new in role-playing at the time.

Possibly the first hint of embedded background comes on page 4: "Should a player consider his character to be so poor as to be beyond help, he should consider joining the accident-prone Scout Corps, with a subconscious view to suicide."  That's it - no "Imperial Scout Service" but the "Scout Corps" - whatever that might be.

The above quote is also important for showing that generating characters was seen as being a game within the game: even if you have a "bad" character, see what you can do with it - and if he dies, roll up a new one. Since 1977, Traveller has acquired an unfortunate "bum rap" from the notion that characters could die during character generation.  I believe this misses this mindset of treating character generation as a kind of mini-game with an uncertain outcome - such a notion is almost antithetical to today's emphasis on "character builds" and extensive player design.

The choices of careers were themselves interesting: Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants, and Other.  None of these were explained in any way, except by reference to actual character generation.  Thus "Navy" represented the "space navy" while "Marines" might be anything from "Mobile Infantry" a la Heinlein's Starship Troopers to the Marines in Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye.  "Army" could be Andre Norton's Star Guard to Pournelle's Falkenberg Legion.  "Scouts" were less clear, but "Merchants" had several science fiction inspirations, ranging from Andre Norton to Robert Heinlein to Poul Anderson (see below).  Lastly, the "Other" occupation was conspicuously opaque in inspiration: were such characters criminals?  (Mike Ford thought so)  Or possibly spies?  (My reading at the time.)  In any case, each career provided a range of possibility, and thus invited a player to spend hours generating characters - which everyone I knew at the time sat down and did, almost immediately.

The emphasis on the human race is marked: the first mention of aliens comes on page 15, as an aside about the Streetwise skill: "(This is not to be considered the same as alien contact, although the referee may so allow)."  Other hints about background assumptions come with the "air/raft": "The air/raft is the major transportation vehicle of most worlds, and most persons are aware of its basic operation."  Mentioned in passing earlier, the mustering out benefit of "Travellers'" is revealed on page 22 as "Travellers' Aid: The Travellers' Aid Society is a private organization which maintains hostels and facilities at all class A and B starports in human space.  Such facilities are available (at reasonable cost) to members and their guests."  There are also details regarding the benefit of starships: "Free Traders" for merchants, and "scout ship[s] in reserve status" for scouts.

To assist in all of this, GDW wisely included an example of character creation.  But the later example of "Alexander Lascelles Jamison" is not to be found here, at all.  Who do we have?  "Jamison" - a merchant captain, who ends up the owner of a "Type A merchant ship (30 years old) and he owes 10 years (120 months) of payments before he will have clear title."  It's telling that the picture provided bears a clear resemblance to Nicholas van Rijn, from Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League stories:  "...His several chins quivered under the stiff goatee....He sighed like a minor tornado and scratched the pelt on his chest.  In the near tropic temperature which he insisted on maintaining his quarters, he need wrap only a sarong about his huge body." (Trader to the Stars, pp. 8-9)

What is important to note about all of this is how GDW deftly drew on gamers' previous familiarity with both Original D&D and with popular science fiction to provide a sense of comfort with their new game.  Not too surprisingly, Traveller players and referees made good use of "space opera" to shape their campaigns, long before the Third Imperium was introduced to them.

Next Tuesday: 1977 Edition Combat

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Birthday Stuff

So - as some of you know - about a week ago, I celebrated another turn of our planet around its primary as measured by my date of birth.  I had a grand time - went dancing with the Celtic Dance Society at ISU, out for cake and coffee and soy chai lattes afterwards, and then a really cool time with some friends, getting to bed quite late.

However, after I returned to Madison and made sure that TARGA was properly set up, I found a delivery from Lulu waiting for me when I got home.  It included:

For a guy who has been a hardcore Classic Traveller and Bushido (in the 2 booklet edition) fan, Ruins and Ronin and X-plorers both look mighty interesting.  Damn - where am I gonna find the time to play all the OSR games I wanna play??

Not a bad birthday, at all. ;)

Friday, January 1, 2010

That's me, Mr. Organizer

I haven't been posting as much, partly because I've been engaging in bad behavior for a good cause.  As some of your know, I spent about 12 years as a community organizer before realizing that I missed school.  So after getting my doctorate, what did I do?  I went back to community organizing - with a twist.

See, when I moved to Madison last August, I discovered that the fabled UW Dungeon Masters Association had disappeared as a student group, leaving me without a venue for finding other old school-minded gamers.  I was a bit disconcerted; I had spent a lot of my youth in university gaming clubs, so the fact that the legendary DMA had up and vanished was a blow to my plans for world domination having fun gaming.  I looked around at local game stores, but found that they weren't always welcoming to old school gaming, if only because a lot of the games were out of print.

So what's a community organizer to do?  Set up a Meetup group, that's what.

I started things off with a get-together "just to talk" back in September.  This was only partly successful, but it was a decent jog to my memory about how to do this sort of thing.  So I printed up posters, and put them up around town at different game stores, libraries, and coffeehouses.  I also chatted up the staff at the game stores, and asked for some help in steering gamers towards the group.  By the end of September, there were about ten members.

I had a stroke of luck with Madison Games Day 2, which turned out to be a real success in building more awareness for Old School Goodness.  In November and December, the group met twice at a local branch library - Madison Public Library meeting rooms were (and are) free, and this fitted in with my plans to take advantage of the growing connection between libraries and gaming.
  • In November, I ran an Empire of the Petal Throne adventure - going into the Jakallan Underworld, while another referee then ran a Chill game.
  • In December, there was a Harnmaster game, followed by "Losing Air" - an introductory adventure I designed for Classic Traveller.
It's early days yet, but at the end of the year, Madison Traditional Gaming could muster 30 members, and three successful meetups.  There's clearly room for growth, as evidenced by the Milwaukee D&D Meetup, which has over 200 members and 51 meetups to its credit.  We'll see what 2010 has to bring, but I'm pretty sure it's going to involve more gaming.