Thursday, October 3, 2013

My Perception vs. Player Perception

In our last session the party climbed into a hole in a cloud. At the bottom - deep inside the cloud - they found a small river leading to a dark lake, the extent of which they could not make out in the dim light. Gemma the dwarf and Dvin the gnome eased out to the end of a rickety boardwalk extending out over the water. Just below the surface of the water, at the edge of the light, bones were emerging from the water. They clicked and they clacked and the water bubbled, and the bones self-assembled into a bridge extending from the darkness towards the party. Fingerous phalanges eventually wiggled out of the water near the adventurers, as the terminus of the bridge pulled itself up onto the boardwalk. At the edge of the light, ghouls with scabbed, cracked faces shambled across the bridge towards the party, and animated skeletons emerged, self-assembling, from the body of the bridge itself. A tough fight! The party won! The adventurers then walked across the skeletal bridge to a small island, where they found a prize in the ghoul refuse: a small golden orb bearing microscopic engravings - a map of an unknown world. the whole session was basically a single encounter. I thought it was a good, fun encounter and I had a blast as the DM. I felt a little disappointed afterwards, however, because there wasn't much in the way of exploration, narrative advancement, or NPC interaction in the game. I try to have every session present a good splash of each of these elements because it's the kind of stuff I like when I play. Also, there was a lot more chit-chat than usual that night (which is cool, the players are friends, some of whom I haven't seen in a while), music was playing the background, and there were plenty of miniatures and gratuitous Dwarven Forge settings - all in violation of immersion dogma! I had fun, but I wasn't sure how "well" I did as a DM...

Within the fews days after the session, however, three of the players separately mentioned to me how much they liked the session - especially the skeleton bridge. Ok, cool!

Dear Princess Celestia: Although this truth should always be self evident, it's important for me to always remember that sometimes it's okay to have a simple night of beer, metal, monster killing, and treasure fondling. As a Dungeon Master I shouldn't fret too much about packing every single session with mapping, dialogue, and weird characters. The simple, perennial pleasures of death dealing and leveling-up will never disappoint anyone who plays the game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Session 7 ghoul smashing music:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

ACKS Minimal Edition for OD&D Fans

If I were going to start a new campaign I would almost certainly go with the Adventurer Conqueror King System for a ruleset. For me this game hits closer to the sweet spot between crunch, flexibility, and user friendliness than perhaps any of the other retro D&D-inspired systems out there. I was aware of ACKS when I started my current campaign, but decided not to adopt it because the core rulebook is still a bit too long and fluffy for my tastes. It contains a lot of material that is of extremely high quality, but is largely extraneous for my own campaign.

Damn. If I had only known about THIS:

The ACKS Character Codex. This book is a beautiful thing. It is the core of ACKS system condensed into a small digest-sized booklet. It's essentially a Men & Magic or Player's Handbook for ACKS. And it's only $4.45 on Lulu! (This isn't an advertisement, by the way - I have no connection to the creators of this item.) This means if a referee wants to adopt the system, they could afford to buy a stack of copies to hand out to players. The referee could then use the more voluminous core book as a reference.

This book looks great. Here you can see it compared to the Grey Co. Spellbook supplement and the original Men & Magic:

Here's the title page:

Tavis Allison tipped me off on this thing. Apparently the Codex is not considered an official Autarch publication, however Tavis tells me that an official version of the Codex is on Autarch's lengthy to-do list. Let Autarch know if you want more stuff like this. I do!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Best Superhero Flick?

Mr. Gorgonmilk was wondering about trends in the quality of superhero movies. I'm not a big movie guy - actually I hate almost all movies - so I admit that I couldn't think of many superhero movies that transcended being merely watchable. I did, however, recall this scene from 1978...

Cinema doesn't get much better than this... At least in the opinion of Cyclopeatron...

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Brief Log of Catheign Sessions

Friday night was Session 7 of our Cloud Mines of Catheign OD&D game. Below is a brief log of sessions, localities, and loot for the campaign, primarily for the benefit of those involved in the game. Hopefully I'll get to post some better descriptions and illustrations related to the game, but unfortunately it's been hard for me to find much time for blogging these days...

Primary PCs:
Bas – human thief (played by Reese of Kingdom's in Trevail)
Dvinsfeldfar – gnome MU
Broom - human cleric (played by Nathan of Secrets of the Shadowend)
Gemma - fighting dwarf
Kale - fighting man

Occasional PCs (currently residing at Inn in Tilman’s Grove):
Skuldge - human MU (played by Greg of Gorgonmilk)
Rufus – Fighting ½ giant

PCs gone or dead:
Sillus – fighting lizard man of Peis
Nix – cleric, left Catheign
Flurd – MU, left Catheign
Hu – fighting man, RIP

Session 1
            Arrival at Tilman’s Grove, Catheign
            Triangulation of cloud mine, initial foray up to first level
            Janis and Filby hired to join party
            RIP Hu and Filby
            Items recovered:
                        Goggles of Seeing Through Dense Mist
                        Some minimal goblin coinage

Session 2
Meia and Janis join party
            Thorough exploration of first level of cloud mine
            Goblin fights
            Ghoul falls from sky onto roof of first level
            Items recovered:
                        6 gold ingots
                        Scroll: ESP
                        Mic. Jewelry worn my vain goblins
                        Silver dagger with ancient script

Session 3
            Discovery and initial exploration of High Star Garden
            Zymos moondial, Gadeaxe stardial, Orchid of the cloud fountain
            Confrontation with ghouls seeking Dvin’s snuffbox
            Borgus the goblin, and his basket of black mushrooms
            Items recovered:
                        4 gold bracelets

Session 4
            Initial exploration of Low Pyramid of High Star Garden
            Room of animated mosaics
            Gol stonecutter Frammus
            Battle with Mielle’s Guard
            Death of Meia
            Items recovered:
                        Unidentified fungus
                        2 ancient, inscribed short swords
                        gold bracelet
                        90 gp
                        ring of feather fall
                        MU scroll: magic missle, invisibility
                        Dagger (unremarkable)
                        Meia’s Gem
Session 5
            Exploration of low pyramid
Note from Mielle and encounter with Mielle’s projection
            (stopped session in burnt library)
            Items recovered:
                        Small silver effigy of fine workmanship
                        124 platinum pieces

Session 6
            Continued exploration of low pyramid         
Chased Mielle to shanties as base of observatory tower
            Crash of wasp-covered wooden orb into the star garden
            Discovery of excavation at base of observatory tower and undercloud river
Session 7
            Spiked down excavation wall to undercloud river
            Encounter with self assembling skeletal bridge
Ghoul encounter
            Broom paralyzed by ghoul, almost drowns
            Small island with old statue
            Items recovered:
Finely engraved orb map of unknown planet

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Alternate XP Systems

I've always used the original method of calculating XP by counting up gold pieces and kills. Over the last few years I've also started awarding XP for magic items using the charts in the AD&D DM's Guide. A lot has been written about the pros and cons of this traditional approach, so I won't go into it here.

I have to admit, though, that I am certainly not alone in finding it frustrating when mid-level characters have to acquire swimming pools of gold pieces, impossibly huge gemstones, or Satan's Pitchfork itself to advance at a reasonable rate (at least given my gaming frequency, which is only two or three sessions per month). I don't have a specific objection to massive wealth accumulation - it worked for Conan, right? - but sometimes it doesn't jibe well with the flavor I want to go for in my games. I mean, goblins wearing jewelry is pretty weird and cool and I'm definitely down for that, but it gets progressively more difficult to keep monster stashes fresh and in line with a gygaxian naturalist universe. Also, the arnesonian approach of squandering gold for experience doesn't work in my games since characters are almost always traveling through some manner of proverbial Night Land, not hanging out in taverns.

There are a huge number of XP tweaks and alternate systems out there. My head starts spinning when I think of trying out new house rulings. There's a tricky trade off spanning multiple parameters including complexity and ease-of use, transparency, rigor and consistency, and meta-gaming effects (i.e. players change their character's actions in order to game the XP system). I see three common approaches to houseruling advancement:

XP-free leveling systems:

Here leveling is based on the accumulation of game sessions or encounters.

This probably works fine, but I have never tried it. This approach would completely nullify traditional class-specific advancement. Advancement tables are such a fundamental aspect of Dungeons & Dragons, I find it difficult to walk away from them. I don't give a crap about game balance, but class-specific advancement rate is an important stylistic component of D&D that underlies much of the flavor of the game.

Ad hoc XP systems:

ad hoc or abstract XP systems assign experience on a purely subjective basis at the end of each session. This approach is nicely described thus at the Paper & Pencils blog:
"Almost every game I’ve run as a GM has used a kind of ad hoc experience distribution system. I look up how many experience points are needed for the characters to reach the next level, and I give them whatever percentage of that number which I feel like they’ve earned. Most of the time I base that percentage on what speed of progression is optimal to keep the players in-step with events in my game world, rather than basing it off of challenges they have overcome."
In my opinion this opaque system is not very fair to the players. If a player chooses to be driven by character advancement, they should have some objective handle on what will work for them. I think effective refereeing requires some degree of objectivity, even if it's partially an illusion.

Category tweaks:

Going back to the very beginning of the hobby individual referees have tweaked the specific categories of experiences that can result in XP awards. Gygax's personal choice was to keep it simple - treasure and kills - but David Hargarve's Arduin, for instance, had a different, expanded set of categories that included interestingly sensible things like XP for being cursed, resurrected, or serving rear guard. Tweaking XP categories to fit one's campaign is time honored, old school tradition. It forces some important considerations, though:

Individual vs. Party XP: Moldvay was very specific that XP should be given to the party, and then divided equally among characters. This is what I have always done. It's so fast and simple. I also think it discourages tedious treasure grubbing conversations among players during or after a session. Individual XP is attractive because you can reward specific characters for noteworthy experiences or achievements, however routine implementation can result in serious bookkeeping overhead and arguments about referee fairness.

Slippery slope of categories: The obvious danger that Gygax worked to avoid by sticking to the original XP system is the increased complexity associated with adding categories. It's easy to write down dozens of things characters should get XP for, but what's the tradeoff in terms of bookkeeping, "realism", and enjoyment? I don't know...

Motivation: Your selection of XP categories could drastically influence your player's decisions. XP for gold encourages tomb raiding. XP for completed quests encourages railroading. XP for being cursed encourages self destruction (kind of cool, actually). None of this is necessarily good or bad, but it's real.

So... IF I decide to start houseruling XP to some degree, here's what I would probably do:

- Keep treasure and kill XP categories in place
- Add a few more categories to reward exploration, NPC interaction, and discovery
- Stick with party XP
- Possibly have a very small list of individual hargravian rewards, like for resurrection and curse
- Make a simple checklist to track party XP for each session

Hopefully I'll get a chance to think and post more on this topic. It's something I want to resolve in my mind. I'd be interested to hear about other ideas or approaches, especially if they've been playtested.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Relative Popularities of OSR Games

If G+ community size is any indicator...

634 - Swords & Wizardry
551 - Original D&D
549 - Dungeon Crawl Classics
512 - Advanced D&D
329 - Lamentations of the Flame Princes
236 - Adventurer Conqueror King
222 - Labyrinth Lord
209 - Castles and Crusades
208 - Basic Fantasy
143 - Talislanta
124 - Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea
119 - Adventures Dark and Deep
115 - Holmes Basic
110 - Basic / Expert D&D
97   - AD&D 2e
70   - Delving Deeper

For Reference:

2142 - Pathfinder
1465 - OSR Group
1430 - Dungeon World
1195 - Savage Worlds
733   - D&D Next
653   - D&D (4e)
437   - GURPS
365   - Shadowrun 

An Incredible Map by Luka Rejec

A petrified purple worm makes for an excellent tower, as shown in this fine map by Luka Rejec. Take a look at his other maps HERE, his game blog HERE, and his art blog HERE.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Session Reports? Do You Like Obsidian Portal? Should I Move to OP?

I am looking pretty hard at using Obsidian Portal for managing and presenting campaign notes and session reports. If I did this I would probably stop posting session reports on this blog. I guess the basic purpose of this post is to ask if anyone cares if this happens...?

I was surprised that my last few session reports got quite a lot of hits, even though they didn't generate any comments. The lack of comments makes it difficult to gauge if readers like these posts, or if they were just clicking through and yawning. I've traditionally shied away from writing many lengthy session reports on my blog because I figured they were mostly boring to people outside my game. When I've posted them in the past I've usually tried to attach some more general theme, observation, or anecdote. That being said, I have gotten numerous requests over the years to post more background and creative material on my blog - mostly from people that have played in my games at conventions.

So, my specific questions here are:

1. Have you used OP and do you like it? Is there something better?

2. Do you follow or browse others' campaigns on OP?

3. Do you have even the slightest interest in reading my campaign details and session reports?

4. If you are interested in my campaign material, would you ever bother linking over to OP to see what's going on?


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

H. Bogniks and Girl Sips Black Blood

Catheign - Session 2

On their march back from the Cloud Mine of Catheign the party chatted with Meia, the Gol fighting woman rescued from the first level of the cloud mine. Some relevant notes emerged from the conversation…

On the dusk island of Gol Roc there once was a man called Henryk Bogniks. This man made his fortune offering healings and resurrections. He was not well loved though, as he left an artistic legacy on the bodies of his clients in the form of signature scars, minor disfigurements, and discolored and warted lesions. Bogniks was known as a decadent, a man who consorted with personalities not recognized by high merchants, scholars, or royalty. A decade past now, Bogniks took to making extended forays out of Gol from which he would return with curious and valuable items including flowers that could sing on command, pale gems that could pass through flesh as birds through clouds, and black pebbles that would weep in the sunlight. These, and mundane but rich goods – ingots, bejeweled baubles, and so forth. It was known to a few that Bogniks was making his journeys to Catheign.

700 days previous Bogniks left on one of his trips and did not return. Gie, Meia’s companion, learned from a dying slave precisely where Bogniks was traveling – the Cloud Mine of Catheign. Thus Meia, Gie, and two others had just sailed to Catheign under the presumption that Bogniks had met his demise and left some unexploited riches to be enjoyed. Their party found the mine and had traveled up and up. They had seen two platforms of the mine before they were hassled, and three of the party lost, to dusky monsters. The first station, now explored by the party, has three chains extending into the mist. One directly up, and two extending out and up at steep angles. Meia’s group had taken the chain up to a large floating circular enclosure filled with many rooms of alchemical glasswork, ghouls, and purple goblins. And, indeed, as hoped for, old treasures. No mark of Bogniks, also as hoped for. The challenges posed by the dusky residents of the Cloud Mine destroyed Meia’s companions, and Meia’s only hope was to barricade herself in a room in the lowest enclosure. This is how the party found her in the last session.

The day after returning from their first journey to the Cloud Mine of Catheign, the party rested and restocked a bit in the Feanean frontier town of Tillman’s Grove. Kale the Archer made acquaintance with Janis, a hobbit would-be adventuress. Janis agreed to join the party for half of Kale’s take. The next day the group decided to journey along the rocky coast to find Meia’s boat, which they did successfully and without encounter. They spent the night on the Gol seacraft, and the next morning took Bogniks’ old path up the southern escarpment of Catheign to the mine. On the way the group was beset by stirges and nearly lost their gnome, however they decided to press on. Ultimately the group fully explored the first, small level of the mine and located the three chains leading up to further areas of the mine. Wandering monster rolls were unkind, however - a ghoul a fell from the mist and landed on the top of the platform to accost the party, and the group ran into a good deal of trouble from goblins descending from higher levels. Janis the hobbit finished the last goblin of the session by running after it, leaping onto its back, and biting its jugular. Janis gets the MVP award for Session 2, for biting a goblin's neck and also for finding the most secrets.

The party has not yet journeyed up any of the chains.

See you at the table May 3. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

My Six Useful Posts

Most of my blog consists of useless chit chat, commentary, session reports, and pop junk dumps. I like to hope, though, that maybe I've posted a few novel creations that could be materially useful to someone, somewhere. Digging through the sad wreckage of Cyclopeatron, I assembled a list of six old posts that I continue to get positive feedback from and that I use frequently in my own games:

Friday, April 12, 2013

Catheign - Personalities and Locales From Session 1

Here's a brief review of some material from Catheign Session 1. This is primarily for my own benefit, and for the benefit of the players.

Important Names:

King Lally - The boy king, ruler of the island of Fean Roc. As is tradition of all Feanean kings, young Lally wears a long flowing moustache whose growth and character is nourished by polypore jellies unique to the royal diet.

Nemeah - A magician and scholar of Fean Roc. Advisor to Lally. Commissioned the young magician Sculdge to search for evidence of an ancient script on Catheign.

Bogniks - An apparent authority figure somewhere in the cloud mines. He appears to have some influence over the goblins. His name was mentioned by the goblin Edd, but otherwise nothing is known of him.

Key NPCs encountered:

Edd - A dark goblin who spoke Common, unlike the others. Carried away by...

Lord Bussy - A seven foot long wasp with a human head. Had an eloquent command of Common. Bussy was patrolling outside the cloud mine, and seemed to be greatly amused by the adventure party. The wasps of Catheign apparently dislike goblins.

Meia - A Gol fighting woman. The party rescued her from goblins infesting the first level of the cloud mine. She professed to be a treasure hunter whose party was waylaid two days prior.

The Gol, Meia.
Important Locales:

Myceaxe - Home planet. Has a day side and night side due to pole of rotation being only a few degrees off of the star (more later, hopefully). Myceaxe has a tidally locked moon, eyeglass inspection of which reveals possible signs of habitation.

The Myceaxe terminator - a transition from night to day, from chaos to law.
Gaedeaxe - The violet star.

Fean Roc - Forested home island of adventure party. The culture largely thrives on woodcraft, especially through trade and utilization of products crafted from iron woods imported from the southern island of Peis. Fean Roc lies slightly on the dusk side of the equator and is home to several races, including men and gnomes.

Gol Roc - An island fairly well into the dusk. The pale Gols tend to be isolationists. They are known for knowledge of magic, and fine crafting of metals and minerals.

Midday on Gol Roc.
Dorsiriog - The great equatorial island kingdom. Home to the large cities of this hemisphere.

Peis - A large southern landmass that extends from the morning into the day side. Tropical and desert regions. The origin of iron woods highly values by Feanen craftspeople.

Catheign - A wild northern island in the dusk, with unexplored regions extending into the night. Catheign is heavily forested by great cedars. 150 years ago the southern portion of Catheign had several Feanean settlements whose economies were based on harvesting cedar. These were overrun by goblins from the dusk, and largely abandoned until a few years ago when one of the settlements was reestablished after a hunting expeditions suggested there was no longer a threat of goblins in the area. The known southern shore of Catheign has two main regions - a low land of large cedars and a highland plateau of solid rock. The cloud mine visited by the party is tethered to the southwestern corner of the plateau, two days from the Feanean settlement. The plateau is shrouded in a dense fog that severely limits visibility.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

New Campaign: Cloud Mine of Catheign

Last Friday hopefully saw the start of a new campaign.

Six players joined in, including Greg Gorgonmilk, which was a treat. Greg's a super cool, fun guy, and his MU Sculdge was a real take-control no-nonsense kind of fellow, which was good to have in a group that included some newbs. The players said they want to return for the next session, which is a good sign, especially since the game climaxed with a graphic fiery suicide/fatality and a near TPK. Everyone liked the venue: a room overlooking the old arts quad at Cornell. The room has big oak tables and a chalkboard. The chalkboard turned out to be very handy. So it worked out nicely, although it will be a pain to bring in much Dwarven Forge or Hirst Arts on a regular basis. We'll be aiming to play first and third Fridays.

We played the original edition of D&D, straight out of the white box. I passed around a sheet with a few minimal house rules. Mostly stuff to help make the first level bumpkins a little tougher, all in the spirit of Gygax's OD&D house rules. I'm working on a campaign-specific player's reference booklet. The writing is mostly done, now I just need to take the time to add some art and figure out how to format and print booklets.

For this session the party visited a cloud mine similar to the one the PCs explored in my old Penelion campaign. This is another mine, at a different location, with a different history, however. I like the idea of an inverse dungeon extending into the sky, with levels tethered to the ground by great chains. I like swaying, creaking, rusted iron, splintered wood, smell of rain, vertigo, roots dangling from clouds, flying contraptions. I like things flying in the mist, just out of view. I like the possibility of the party finding a gate to the cloudlands. I hope this campaign will let us explore these notions better. The sun Gaedeaxe is large and distant and of a slight violet hue. Imagine how its light reflects on the clouds of an unnaturally extended dusk, and how its radiation nourishes the rare floating orchids that lay roots in the mist itself.

This cloud mine is chained to a high rocky plateau on the southern coast of a heavily cedared island called Catheign. More later...

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Crit: Roll Double or Double Roll

I tried this out last night, and players seemed to like it a lot:

On a natural 20 a player must make a quick decision before rolling damage:
1. Double the result of the roll, or
2. Roll double damage dice

The player is choosing between a flat distribution and a bell curve. This has very real strategic implications, and there are definitely situations where one would be preferred over the other. This is a nice little way to introduce some abstract strategy without bogging things down.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

What I Want in a D&D / Clone Rule Set

Tomorrow night I'll be running my first session of D&D since moving to NY. Six players have RSVPed - a mix of friends, internet acquaintances, and listserv respondees. It will be an interesting mix of newbs and experienced players.

I've been struggling for some time with what ruleset to use. Hands down, my personal favorite flavor is original D&D. It's easy to learn, play, run, and customize. It also has an undeniably attractive weird mojo. Materially, the game itself is like an artifact from another world. OD&D is part utility, part enigma, part oral tradition. AD&D has similar characteristics, but it's impractically heavy for me. Right now I'm facing the prospect of refereeing mainstream gamers who may come to the table with certain expectations and may want to peruse rulebooks between sessions. So I'm thinking OD&D may be pretty much out, because the books themselves may be too confusing for normal players, and, most importantly, they're difficult to get copies of.

So maybe it's retro-clone time. Here are some of the features I would want, and why:

Separate race and class
This makes homebrewing easier because you don't have to reinvent both race and class to do something new. I also like the bizarre non-canonical combinations some players pick, but that I probably wouldn't consider myself.

Ascending AC
In my experience, this is simply easier to play at the table. After much thought and experimentation, I can't think of any compelling reason to stick with descending AC once the decision is made to stray from primary gygaxoarnesonian sources.

Concise and separate player's handbook
Separating player and referee material into separate books is ideal. I want monsters, spells, and magic items to all be new and mysterious - I don't want to encourage players to meta-game off of this type of referee material. Physically, a simple digest-sized player's reference < 24 pages is just plain practical. Character generation, advancement tables, and the basic rules of play. That's all. This is one of the things I love abut OD&D and AD&D - self contained player's handbooks.

Streamlined encumbrance system Delta's stones. This is simply better and more playable, and doesn't detract from OD&D mojo in my opinion.

Free or cheap
Obvious... I can point prospective players to a website so they can download the rules.

Parsimonius ability modifiers
Over time I've developed a severe, and probably irrational, allergy to extreme ability modifiers. Anything more than +1 annoys me. Conversely, negative modifiers annoy players. I love OD&D because it really holds back on modifiers, and makes any + something special. After experimenting with various approaches, I've found this stingy approach to modifiers makes for a more intense and fun game. Players quickly get jaded to piling up + modifiers. And for players it just sucks to have to always take -1 or -2 off your rolls if you have a low Str or Dex score. OD&D is king of modifier parsimony.

Digest size books
Just an aesthetic preference, I guess. It can't be denied, however, that small books are more practical.

No specific setting, but definite flavor
Another aesthetic preference. Early TSR editions are a perfect model.

Lacking any one or two of these wouldn't necessarily be a deal breaker, but it would be nice to have all these features in one place. The best option, in my opinion, would be to make customized player handbooks for each campaign world. LIKE THIS. I'm working on this for my Myceaxe setting, but it's not quite ready yet.

So what to do for tomorrow night? I emailed the players to recommend downloading S&W Whitebox, but this still lacks many of the above features. Additionally, I have been extremely frustrated with S&W in general because of the constant rule changes between printings. I bought some of the physical books a while back, but the most recent printings have lots of little rule changes (in the wrong direction) that make them incompatible with my physical books. It's driving me crazy, and has lessened my interested in S&W, even though I think it's basically a great game.

Instead of blogging right now I should be working on my Myceaxe PHB.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Dave Arneson on RateMyProfessor

As many of you know, Dave Arneson was a faculty member at Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida. He taught game design courses there between 1999-2008. Well, it turns out that he has a fair number of reviews on that are pretty entertaining to read: CHECK THEM OUT. A lot of them are pretty harsh, so idolators beware... No chili pepper for Dave. I always wanted one of those myself.

A few quotes:

"Dave spends all class talking about how Lara Croft is hot and how The Sims was the greatest game ever invented. If you come in late, he will give you chores to do (like do inventory on his D&D board game)."

"A living legend. Imagine Santa having had a bitter divorce. "

"Great class if you want to hear about Lara Croft and The Sims. News flash, Dave, D&D sucks!"

"Dave Arneson was one of the most unique teachers I've ever had. He was the most egotistical, grouchy, and senile old man I've met. "

"The class is useless, it's just there to make the D&D nerds happy."

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Is WotC Afraid of B/X?

Amazing. All of the major editions of Dungeons & Dragons are now back in print, or will be shortly. Actual, real, material print. Yes, books:

Except one... Notice anything missing? How about the best selling (by far), and many would argue the best, version of D&D ever printed: The 1981 Basic / Expert sets. B/X - only the most popular RPG of all time. A game that sold millions of copies and changed the entire culture of gaming by bringing to a massive popular audience concepts like hit points, levels, character classes, etc. B/X is far and away the most played RPG ever.

It is true that B/X is now available for purchase as a PDF download. And the interesting thing is that it has been the hottest seller at RPG Now for weeks. Obviously there continues to be a hunger for this game.

So why doesn't WotC do a "Premium" print run of B/X for the types of nostalgic geezers that snapped up the AD&D reprints? If WotC wants to move books, surely a B/X reprint would be a no brainer, right? I mean, why in the world would they reprint OD&D before B/X? It doesn't make sense.

Well, there are two possible explanations that immediately come to mind. The more benign one is that WotC wants to do a B/X re-release right, and they are simply taking their time to design a great product.

The second explanation is that WotC is afraid B/X is too good and it will take market share from the 5e Basic Set (and, by extension, 5e Advanced). There are millions of us with B/X backgrounds that could easily jump right into this beautiful game. The two little books - B and X - are all you need for years of gaming. This game is so easy to understand. So well written. For the same reason that Labyrinth Lord is the most popular retroclone, I suspect that new and returning players would be much more attracted to B/X versus OD&D, AD&D, or 2e. And for 3.5 they would just go with Pathfinder.

WotC probably should be afraid of B/X and probably should not print it. And, despite the fact that I desperately love the old 1981 boxed sets, I actually would not be upset if WotC left B/X sitting simply as PDFs. Assuming 5e Basic will essentially be like B/X, but with a few updates like ascending AC and revised encumbrance, I would want it to succeed and to serve as a bridge between younger and older players. B/X is such a powerfully great game, a reprint might only contribute to the edition-driven fracturing between generations.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

5e: Returning to a Basic / Advanced Model? Awesome!

A few days ago Mike Mearls made a fairly exciting post on the D&D Next website. In it he expands on some earlier discussions outlining plans to craft a two-tier system for D&D Next, where there would be a completely stand-alone basic core set that could then be expanded to make a crunchier 3.5/Pathfinder like game if players so desired.

Mearls description of the core set makes it sound like it would be squarely aimed at OSR-types, new gamers, and returning gamers. His vision essentially describes as a virtual re-release of the 1981 Basic/Expert set combo. I am stoked! This model would be something that would differentiate 5e from Pathfinder while also leveraging D&D's pop cultural visibility to attract new players into roleplaying. I like it and I hope it happens.

Mearls' post is also kind of amazing because it reads like he is making a point-by-point response to my previous musings on the last D&D Next playtest packet, right down to paring down combat options and citing Settlers of Catan as a model for maximum rules complexity. Hmmm....

I just want to express how excited I am by what is being expressed. I am hoping to see a playtest packet of the new Basic Set soon!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Draft of my Appendix N, With Notes

Every game blogger has to give up their own Appendix N. Right. Here's a first stab at my N. This is a short shortlist of the books that have most directly influenced my referee style. It's all stuff worth multiple readings to me. For each entry I also provide a brief description of its import and/or influence. You can probably tell that I value style and atmosphere more than world building or narrative arc. Much of this list probably isn't very surprising, but perhaps my notes will add some interest to this exercise.

David Lindsay - Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
Deliciously weird atmosphere. Episodic format. Radical plasticity of character. Characters emerge from the environment and merge into each other. Imaginative.

Italo Calvino - Invisible Cities (1972)
Relentless imagination. Language and visual aesthetics. A model for the intersection of weirdness and meaning. Institutions and materials emerge from the dreams and psychoses of groups.

William Hope Hodgson - The Night Land (1912)
Style can be substance. How far can you push the limits of weird? Every world must have at least some pocket like the Night Land, and inscrutably old threat with boundaries beyond observation. Someone has a better imagination than you - you need to work harder. Among the best atmospheres.

Clark Ashton Smith - Zothique, Hyperborea, and planetary stories. (1926-1935)
Firehose of imagination. Style, space wizards, novelty, quality. One of the best prototypes of what 20th century fantasy could have been like. There's a lot to say about C.A. Smith - you probably already know the appeal.

Stanislew Lem - Solaris (1961)
A finest vintage for connoisseurs of weird planets and alien interactions. Sinking feeling of lovely horror. Look here for the limits of your species, human.

H.P. Lovecraft - all weird fiction (1919-1937)
At his best, a model for peeking at the elephant of otherworld threat. Wilbur Whateley, the hillbilly wizard in Dunwich Horror, is a fabulous example of how we have yet to exhaust the magician concept. Placing the cosmic in a familiar setting.

R.E. Howard - Conan stories (1932-1936)
A perfect blend of weird imagination, momentum, and mode of adventure. Violence and lust with alien gods and grimacing wizards.

M. John Harrison - The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings (1971, 1980)
Maybe not an outstanding literary achievement, but overall this is a great model of how a successful Vance-inspired gaming campaign would look. An ideal blend of imagination, pacing, characters, accessibility, and mode of adventure. Digging through the scraps of mankind's spectacular failures. Fast, fun reading.

Jack Vance - Durdane, Dying Earth, Demon Princes, Tschai, Dragonmasters (1950-1984)
Where to start? Perfect characters. Style. Language. Imagination. The Dying Earth series provides one of the first and best templates for an old planet, and it is one of my favorite models for the culture of magicians. Durdane and Tschai are just incredible settings. The alien colonization and evolutionary themes in Tschai and Dragonmasters in particular have been very inspirational to me. The Demon Princes series is the greatest guide for the construction of villainy.

George Macdonald - The Princess and the Goblin (1872)
I love goblins, and they are at their best here. Goblins are all over my games so I have to credit this source. This book also has a nice early imagining of a dungeon adventure. Tasty, dreamy quality.

Lord Dunsany - all fantasy work, especially Book of Wonder (1905-1926)
Style and language. Where fairy tales and dreams intersect. I want stars, moss, and woodsmoke at my table. Dunsany is peerless when it comes to fantasy imagery.

A.E. van Vogt - World of Null-A (1948)
Nice, compact model for weird psychological interplanetary intrigue. The best elements of P.K. Dick long before P.K. Dick. I like the mix of ingredients in this weird, fast-moving bit of sci-fi.

Stefan Grabinski - Dark Domain, Motion Demon (1918-1930)
Atmosphere. Darkness and snow. Haunted machines. Demons. Witches. You probably haven't read Grabinski, but you should.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Whatever Happened to Yesmar and Calific?

Does anyone know what's happening with Ramsey Dow (a.k.a. Yesmar of the excellent, but now-on-hiatus Sickly Purple Death Ray blog) and his Calific company? 

They've promised some wonderful-sounding Swords & Wizardry supplements, the Calific website is full of awesome full-color Russ Nicholson art and exciting promises. It's been a few years since the endeavor was announced, however... I'm just curious to know if something is still happening... Anyone know?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fantastic 70s Interiors of Verner Panton

Verner Panton was an Danish interior designer who did absolutely incredible work in the late 60s and early 70s. Take a look:

Learn and see more here:

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

D&D Next and the Ultimate Criterion of a Good Game

For me to adopt a roleplaying ruleset it must meet my ultimate criterion: non-gamers can jump into a game quickly and not have to spend time between games reading rulebooks.

Why? Practical experience. Many of the most enjoyable, creative, and engaging players I've had in sessions are not gamers per se. They are people who would likely never think of buying or reading a roleplaying rulebook, even in the depths of a regular campaign. I've found that a player's previous experience playing RPGs is a fairly weak predictor of how fun he or she will be at the table. Behaviors that are much better predictors of player quality might better include... say... daydreaming, frequent laughing, weeping in the cinema, doodling in margins, appreciation of telescopes, the ability to identify mushroom genera, playing fiddle, or staring at clouds.

Thus, the rub is that rulesy games risk precluding great players.

I'm a gamer and I have no problem with rules. In fact I pride myself for my ability to absorb and teach rulesy boardgames very quickly. But take my friend the biogeochemist, take my friend the puppet maker, take my friend the insect taxonomist, or take my friend the thirty-something lapsed gamer. There's no way these people are going to sit down with me to play the current flavor of Dungeons and Dragons, even though it's an amazingly cool game for what it is. But, hell, I want them to come over to my place, enjoy a stout, and pretend to be elves.

One of the wonderful things about the original D&D boxed sets and their retroclones is that they meet my ultimate criterion perfectly. In 15 minutes I can have a non-gamer cheering, talking in a funny voice, or trying to communicate with a goblin in sign language. This is remarkable if you think about it.

After the original announcement my hope was that D&D Next would fit my criterion. It would be a simple, intuitive set of core rules with the complexity level of Monopoly or Settlers of Catan, yet, because it's called "Dungeons & Dragons", it would still sport name recognition and commercial reach such that there would be significant interest in mainstream gaming circles and no dearth of would-be adopters.

My reading of the first D&D Next playtest packet made it seem like this could quite possibly happen. With sadness, however, I just browsed the newest playtest packet released Dec. 17. It's now crystal clear this isn't going to happen.

D&D Next is becoming too too too complex. Like the edition(s) before it, it's a game targeted at gamers. There are too many pages presenting lists of formalized special powers with capitalized names. There are too many categories of these abilities, specializations, and so on. There are too many formal actions a character is permitted to make in combat. Simply, if a session were to go smoothly a player would have to know a lot of rules before coming to the table. Players couldn't simply describe in plain English what they would want to do - they would have to present a list of capitalized code words that would permit reference to highly specific formulas in the text. There is just no way I could have a quick session of this game with my non-hardcore gamer friends or family. For a session to work, all players would have to have read the rules in some detail beforehand and would constantly be consulting books during play. This is antithetical to the fast-moving, intuitive style of roleplaying I prefer.

Having just moved to a new town I was toying with the idea that eventually I could get a group together where we could start by playtesting D&D Next, then ease into the final published version. Not now. Too bad, really.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Gamers in Central New York

Okey-dokey. I am in Ithaca now. I have a very satisfying new job here, I enjoy this fair town, and my second son was born just about a month ago. I am still swimming in chaos and care, and I don't expect to do much gaming or blogging in the near future, but nonetheless I have started google snooping about for others in the region with similar gaming and reading habits. I've been in touch with a few, but not with all. Here's a working list of local personalities with web presences, including link to blogs and websites. Because these folks have public websites and blogs I am assuming there's nothing creepy about my web surfing. If any of you don't like being on this list let me know and I'll take you off.

Of course I'd appreciate any more leads!