Monday, December 21, 2009

Today Was a Good Day

Lots of nice things happened today--not the least of which was coming home to find an unexpected chicken roasting in the oven--but the icing on the cake was getting my copies of the Pendragon Book of Battle and Book of Armies in the mail.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

Anyone who's played Pendragon down through its various editions probably knows that the battle rules are the part of the game that leaves much to be desired. These supplements aim to change that.

I've only had a chance to flip through them cursorily (huh, spell check informs me that's a real word), but it looks like that goal might just have been achieved.

At the very least, the Book of Armies adds page after page of awesome foes to fight. My favorite so far is probably the Bandit Gang, which includes entries such as "Those guys with funny moustaches" and "That guy who flips the coin & his pals". There's also an alternative list called The Brute Squad, which simply consists of a guy named Brute Squad ("You are the Brute Squad!") and another guy named Dashing Fencing Avenger.

There are also battles that get their own special foes tables. Badon Hill has some particularly epic entries, as befits the epic stature of the engagement. The "Day 3" tables, for example, could have you facing a Blind Warlord being led into battle his Wounded, Battered Men, a Swooping Giant Hawk (if it hits, you get picked up and dropped in the next round for 3d6 damage!), or Old Saxon Witches riding Giant Dogs (watch out for their Deadly Eyes attack!).

Oh how I love this game.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pardon the Dust...

Fun fact: Did you know I have a miniatures blog as well? Don't worry, sometimes I forget I do too.

If you popped over and looked at the paucity of posts, its should be obvious that it's not exactly a hotbed of updating frenzy even by my somewhat relaxed standards. Much to my chagrin, miniatures gaming and painting no longer occupy quite the central place in my hobby activities as they once did. And frankly that blog was just sitting there as a reminder of that fact.

So I've decided to migrate all my old Miniatures Corner posts to this blog for easy reference (feel free to peruse the suddenly expanded archive to your left); expect to see occasional posts of my ever-percolating miniatures projects.

Of course, this raises another issue now that this place isn't technically just an RPG Corner anymore. I wonder if I should rename it as long as I'm doing some renovating? Yea? Nay? Suggestions?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ships of the Wilderlands

For a time last summer I thought I was going to run a Freeport campaign. Naturally, I decided to set Freeport in the Wilderlands--I ended up placing it in Hex 0420 on Map 12 (Isles of the Dawn)--and this got me thinking about nautical technology in my campaign world.

Now, I'm as much a fan of the great galleons of the Age of Sail as the next person, but as I thought things over, I developed a sense that the Wilderlands needed something a bit pulpier, a bit more Bronze-Iron-Dark Ages, if you will. The only canonical nautical technology I was aware of was the longships of the Vikings Skandiks, and those would be staying for sure, no questions asked. I mean, what's cooler than Viking longships?

© Angus McBride/Osprey Publishing

And right now you are muttering, "Nothing's cooler than Viking longships." And you would, of course, be right.

This decision only strengthened my resolve to avoid galleons, or even medieval caravels. No, the longships of the Skandiks would represent cutting-edge tech, not some Dark Ages throwback. Plus, I have a thing for oared galleys and lateen-rigged sails, what can I say? So it was that I decided on having most ships at sea be some variation on galleys and other ancient sailing vessels.

As it turned out, the Freeport campaign didn't materialize, but I've been inspired of late to revisit my old ideas by a couple sources: first, Beyond the Black Gate recently put up a couple excellent posts on matters medieval and nautical, and second, I recently reacquired a favorite book from my childhood, The Golden Book of Buccaneers by John Gilbert, which is chock-fulla great Howard Pyle-style illos by Edward Mortelmans. Although the book focuses on the Golden Age of Piracy, there are also chapters on piracy through the ages. One particular line drawing accompanied the section on ancient piracy and it was there in the four ships depicted that I saw my ideas for ships in the Wilderlands made manifest: the galley, the corbita (Roman merchant ship), the longship, and the xebec. Following are some basic stats and information on these ships and their uses (stats are amalgamated from the d20 supplement Broadsides! and the old 2e supplement Of Ships and the Sea).

First, some definitions:
  • Draft is the measurement of the distance from the waterline to the ship's bottom; in effect, it is the minimum depth of water required to float the boat.
  • Length is the distance of the ship measured from stem to stern.
  • Beam is the vessel's measurement at its widest point.
  • Cost is the market value of the ship.
  • Crew is given in three values: Optimum, Adequate, and Skeleton. Optimum crews should get a bonus to any dice rolls involving maneauver or seamanship; skeleton crews should suffer an equivalent penalty. The crew sizes given are sufficient for 12 hours of sailing a day; increase crew sizes by 50% to allow for extra shifts and 24 hours of continuous sailing.
  • Speed is given in two values: knots (nautical miles per hour) and a Move value representing yards per melee round (given in parenthesis). In both cases, if the vessel is capable of oared and sail-powered movement, two values will be given separated by a slash; the first value is oared movement speed.
  • Maneuverability is rated on a scale analogous to 1e/2e flying maneuverability, rated from A to E. Class A vessels can turn in place up to 180 degrees in a minute (no movement is possible during this turn), Class B can turn 90 degrees per minute of movement, Class C can turn 60 degrees/minute, Class D can turn 30 degrees/minute, and Class E vessels can only manage a 30 degree turn with two minutes of movement.
  • Seaworthiness is the percentage chance of a vessel to weather adverse conditions such as gales and hurricanes.
  • Cargo/Transport is a split value; the first number refers to space available for stowage rated in tons, while the second figure refers to the number of medium-sized creatures that can be taken on board in total (crew, passengers, soldiers, etc.). Cargo space can be converted to transport passengers instead at the rate of 1 extra passenger per 5 tons of cargo sacrificed; likewise, transport space can be used for cargo stowage at the rate of 8 passengers to 1 ton of cargo.

Galley: The galley is primarily designed as a warship. Its territory is calm coastal waters and even--thanks to its narrow beam and shallow draft--rivers, estuaries, and lakes. However, it's these very characteristics that make the galley extremely susceptible to capsizing in rough seas and generally keep it well within reach of safe harbors for fear of sudden storms.

Fitted with both sails and oars, the galley is designed for speed and maneuver in the thick of battle. Rowers and crew are usually to be found below-decks; the deck is essentially a staging area for marines ready to act as boarding parties in ship-to-ship combat. Galleys are generally fitted with a giant ram on the prow, and either a catapult or ballista at the stem and stern. Many galleys are also fitted with some kind of boarding gangway.

Draft: 3 feet
Length: 135 feet
Beam: 15 feet
Cost: 20,000 gp
Crew: 20/15/10 (plus 150/100/70 oarsmen)
Speed: 3/5 (6/15)
Maneuverability: A (oars); C (sails)
Seaworthiness: 45%
Cargo/Transport: 30/320

Corbita: These ships are not built for speed or maneuverability but for cargo space. They have simple rigging: a single mast with a square main sail and two smaller triangular top sails provide the primary form of propulsion, while another square sail hanging off the bow provides some measure of maneuverability against the wind. The ships are generally steered by two aft rudders linked together and operated by a pair of helmsmen. Traditionally, the stern is decorated with some kind of animal feature, most commonly a swan's head or fish tail. The example given here is an intermediate freighter capable of sailing up large rivers. Even bigger ocean-going merchant ships would be half again as large in all dimensions, have cargo capacities up to ten times those listed here, and a Maneuverability rating of E.

Merchant ships are generally unarmed, but in particularly hazardous waters may mount small ballista or swivel guns on the railings.

Draft: 4 feet
Length: 70 feet
Beam: 25 feet
Cost: 12,000 gp
Crew: 28/21/15
Speed: 5 (6)
Maneuverability: D
Seaworthiness: 50%
Cargo/Transport: 110/50

Longship: Deceptively simple in their construction, longships are characterized by a shallow-draft hull made up of overlapping planks, an open deck, and a single mast. Movement is augmented by a bank of oars, most often deployed in combat or when navigating rivers and inlets. Crew and cargo are both exposed to the elements, with only a tarp or tent to provide shelter from extreme weather conditions.

Despite its simple design, the longship is a fairly seaworthy vessel capable of traversing the ocean as much as navigating rivers and lakes. It is also a versatile vessel that can be used as a merchant trader or warship, often on the same voyage!

Longships are never equipped with their own armament, relying instead on the battle-prowess of its hardened crew to win the day in ship-to-ship combat.

Draft: 2 feet
Length: 75 feet
Beam: 15 feet
Cost: 15,000 gp
Crew: 8/5/3 (30/24/10 oarsmen)
Speed: 3/7 (3/12)
Maneuverability: A (oars), C (sails)
Seaworthiness: 60%
Cargo/Transport: 20/75

Xebec: A versatile and speedy sailing vessel, the xebec is a favorite of coastal merchants and pirates alike. Designed with sleek, narrow lines and a shallow draft for speed, the xebec nonetheless mounts three lateen-rigged sails, giving it excellent maneuverability against the wind (perfect for pursuit or escape, thus its popularity among pirates).

The xebec also sees use as a warship by those navies that favor speed and ranged combat over the close-in ship-to-ship engagements of galleys and longships; xebec warships are most commonly found in the southern oceans, where gunpowder technology is more widespread, and will typically mount ten small cannons along each side. Those xebecs used by pirates often trade off armament for a small bank of oars to allow the ship to maneuver in becalmed waters.

Draft: 4 feet
Length: 90 feet
Beam: 25 feet
Cost: 17,000 gp
Crew: 50/35/20
Speed: 10 (15)
Maneuverability: C
Seaworthiness: 65%
Cargo/Transport: 60/200

Other Ships and Boats
Those four ship types constitute what I envision as the most commonly encountered vessels, but certainly there's room for others. In addition to the coracles, dugouts, and skiffs that would be piloted by simple fishermen, there are undoubtedly other more exotic vessels at sea. Elven catamarans, dwarven submarines, gnomish paddlewheels, and orc war rafts are just a few of the possibilities that spring to mind.

And keep in mind that perhaps one reason oar-powered ships have proven to have greater staying power in the Wilderlands than in our own history is due to the fact that in a world where you can literally have a skeleton crew at the banks, you can travel non-stop day and night without worrying about wearing out your rowers...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Shameless Self-Promotion Dept.

(We will return to our regularly scheduled gaming-related posts shortly; for the moment, please indulge me in shilling for something I think many of my readers would find to their interest.)

I think I've made passing reference once or twice to the fact my father, Dennis Larkins, is an artist. It's no doubt where I get much of my own eye for aesthetics and visual composition. And although he isn't a gamer, I think a lot of his imagery is very "gamer friendly"--for the past ten years or so he's been working solidly in a genre dubbed by those who like to sort things into categories as Pop Surrealism, which is sort of the "Kitchen Sink Coalition" of the art world.

Recently he's started producing limited-edition giclee prints of some of his more recent works. (Giclee is a relatively new technology that produces the effect and appearance of a painting as a print; having seen these prints in person, I can attest to their vast superiority over regular art prints.) I'm helping him experiment with selling some of these prints on eBay. There are currently ten images being offered, each in two sizes (16x20 and 11x14).

If you're looking for some pretty cool art for a holiday gift or just to decorate your own walls, feel free to click over to my eBay page and take a look!

And you can read more about my Dad's art career and see a gallery of his paintings at his website, StartlingArt.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Crossbows and Hockey Pads Are In Demand

Last night I went and saw The Aquabats put on an as-always awesome show. Back when I lived in SoCal, I caught them in concert as much as I could, but they rarely make it up this far north. It had been about five or six years since I'd seen an Aquabats show--far too long!

At any rate, with various of their songs now swirling around in my noggin, I was reminded of a little vow I've been meaning to post: One sweet day I will get the chance to run a Mutant Future campaign, and when that time comes this will be the themesong:

Lyrics for the sonically-challenged:

The radiation in the ground
Makes a lovely bubbly sound
The men in suits
Who don't eat fruit
Can't comprehend
The one-legged newt
That was caused from disaster
At reactor's core
A meltdown expected
To start a war
Now I bought myself
A lead ascot
It looks good but
I'm startin' to rot

Hey you,
With that green glow in your hair
I swear I see a tear
In your radiation wear
Somehow it's there

Razorblade boomerangs
And iron hands
Crossbows and hockey pads
Are in demand
Toxic waste
In synthetic place
Can add an eyeball
To your face

Hey you,
With that green glow in your hair
I swear I see a tear
In your radiation wear
Somehow it's there

Hey me
You know your gums
Are starting to bleed
I've got some shrink-to-fit
Mutated genes
And some bleak posterity
If they end up like me

I am the Humongous..
Everybody knows I own the wasteland
And now may I introduce to you
Benji The Tap-dancing Mutant boy
(Go Benji, Go)

"Hi I'm Benji
I'm a tap-dancing mutant
I wasn't always like this
I was born a normal boy
But now I live in this world of joy!"

It's Benji from Peoria
Don't drink the water
I implore ya
But his mom and dad
They were exposed
And that's how the neutrons grow

Hey you
With that green glow in your hair
Well I swear I see a tear
In your radiation wear
Somehow it's there

Hey me
You know your gums
Are starting to bleed
I've got some shrink-to-fit
Mutated genes
And some bleak posterity
If they end up like me

Just walk away...
Just walk away...
There's been too much violence...
Just walk away...

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cryptic Goings-On in the Shadow of the Cryptic Citadel

Our last installment of my C&C Wilderlands campaign saw the party move from the wilderness into the City State of the Invincible Overlord. I approached the session with some level of trepidation; as I wrote about after first GMing a venture into the City State, I'm well aware that things can take a rather dramatic turn rather quickly once through the city gates. As the party are all still 1st level, I was doubly-concerned--the City State struck me as a place for "big fish" and a group of 1st level newbs, no matter how determined, were the proverbial tadpoles.

I wrote an email to Alex, the player of the hapless gnome in my post from last year, telling him that things would soon be returning to the city that still haunts his nightmares. He wrote back:
So naturally I extend my deepest condolences to your campaign, I'm sorry to hear that it will soon be ending. I hope the scouting my gnome did will give your players a slight advantage, allowing them to squeeze out a few extra painful days of existence before their inevitable gruesome deaths.

Pass along these City State tips for me:

1) Don't go out at night, under any circumstances.
2) If you must travel in the city at all, stick to covered walkways
3) If someone catches you doing something illegal, shank them and run (paying attention to tip #2)
4) If you get caught, do not represent yourself at court

I wish you guys luck!

Turns out, we needn't have worried. The dice behaved themselves this time around, at least insofar as screwing people over.

The party had made for the City State to spend some ill-gotten loot. Their first adventure consisted of a d20 module I lifted from a latter-day issue of Dungeon, in which they explored a trapped pirate treasure trove (ala Goonies) while simultaneously unraveling a mystery surrounding the pirate crew's descendents and shapeshifting spider-people called aranea. That's the theory at least. Like a good group of D&D characters, the group displayed only the barest level of interest in the plight of the secret forest village and pretty much high-tailed it out of there as soon as they'd figured out a way past the traps and into the treasure room.

(Oh, and taken on a hydra. Only the fact that it was still drugged from spider venom and more interested in escaping back to the forest prevented a TPK. Nonethelss, Rumple Wumpkin was knocked down to 1 hit point. This is how we learn, I suppose. And now there's a hydra loose in that part of the forest. Ex-cellent.)

Laden down with gold, in the middle of the orc-haunted Dearthwood, the group decided to bury about a third of it in case they found themselves in need of fleeing for their lives at some point in the near future. But the dice were kind to them even in the wilderness, and the worst they had to endure was a three-day downpour and a near brush with a giant crocodile.

I can't write too much specifically about the many seeds that were to be planted once the group arrived in the City State, since at least a couple of my players have access to this blog and are known to read it. So you, gentle reader, will have to wait as long as my players to discover the fallout from Rumple Wumpkin joining a cult in a drunken haze (the only clue in the morning being a pendant of a gauntleted hand squeezing out a drop of blood), or of the elven wizard-assassin Beezlebub's romantic liaison with the dancer at the Cup and Dragon, a certain "Allura" (hint: not her real name).

(Both these incidents, by the by, arose because of Jeff Rients' awesomely fantastic "Carousing Mishaps" table; the PCs had made for the City State specifically because it offered the best odds for cashing in their gold pieces for experience points. Unfortunately, both R-W and Beezle rolled an "11" on their d12x250 roll and way overindulged.)

We ended the session with the group bravely crossing the City State diagonally from the southeast to the northwest--they were making for the Sages Guild to get some questions answered. Of course, part of the fun of the place is the fact that just stepping out for a spell can be an adventure in and of itself, and sure enough, our intrepid group found themselves subjected to an ambush courtesy of a band of goblin miscreants sniping from some eaves at the top of a ramshackle building on the aptly-named Street of Maelstroms. The group made it out with a nicely-placed sleep spell, but not before Des's character, a halfling cleric of the moon goddess, took two criticals. Ouch! The City State would not be happy until it received its blood sacrifice.

As for the next session, the group is thinking of looking into taking up a ransom being offered to clear out a basilisk problem at the Naughty Nannies bordello. The role-playing opportunities in that boggle the mind. Then there are my own secret devious schemes that will hopefully be set into motion as well...

Ah, I love the City State!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Abulafia Rifts Oracle

JB over at B/X Blackrazor raised an interesting point last month with his series of posts on his love-hate relationship with Rifts: that the core book contains essentially zero info on what a "Rifts adventure" looks like!

Part of this, of course, is due to Rifts being a victim of its own expansiveness--in a kitchen sink setting such as this, there's about a million and one different ways to set up a campaign. But the point still stands, and I have to admit that upon reflection I realized that my idea of what a "typical" Rifts adventure looks like came from the supplements, particularly Sourcebook I's adventure. There are other publications that also offer excellent adventure seeds, but there's one free resource available that I'd forgotten about until earlier this week: the Rifts Oracle over on Abulafia. Like all the Oracles at that wonderful site, this one will, every time the page is loaded, spit out a short list of one-sentence adventure seeds. Here's some sample output from the first time I went to the link:
A City Rat who just stole the passwords to a military Cyborg control center
A small town dominated by a being from another dimension
A cyber knight with wounds that will not heal and a quest that never ends
A powerful magical ritual, requiring a pound of orichalcum, the semen of a righteous man, and a pre-Rifts computer chip in perfect condition

Fantastic stuff! I particularly like the last one; very Unknown Armies-ish. I think I know who the righteous man would be modeled on too...

Friday, November 27, 2009

[Save vs. Sketchbook] Otter Guard

Occasionally I feel the urge to get off my duff and crank out a character sketch. Strangely, this urge usually strikes strongest when it comes to drawing other people's characters in campaigns I'm running. I guess when I'm on the player side of the table I've got my own character pretty well pictured in my mind. Or maybe drawing someone else's character is a way for me to butt in share in the creative process?

At any rate, I'm currently working on some such sketches for my bi-weekly Wilderlands D&D game. First up is what is turning out to be the group's de facto leader, an Otterkin ranger named Rumple Wumpkin (no, I am not joking).

Modeled on Mouse Guard, the redoubtable Rumple was tweaked from the original C&C ranger class with a couple choice additions from the AD&D 2e Beastmaster kit (at my suggestion). As such, she has already amassed a small gang of animal followers, most notably a badger named Conan. Standard combat operating procedure has mostly revolved around Rumple charging into combat, flinging Conan at her target to throw them off balance as she brings her morning star crashing down on their skulls. Last session, Conan even managed to lay the final death blow on one opponent!

More sketches to follow as I get them finished...

(Oh, and a note on the broken pole--as I mentioned in a previous post, Rumple's 10-foot pole became a 5-foot pole when she tried to use it trigger a revolving door trap.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Praise of the Troll Lords

I just wanted to put a word out in praise of Troll Lord Games and their customer service.

About three weeks ago I decided to put in an order for the latest printings of the Castles & Crusades core books (the "Fourth Crusade" as it were). My copy of the Players Handbook and Monsters & Treasure both date from the decidedly lackluster 1st printings, and I rather like the new covers, to say nothing of the improved layout and interesting rules tweaks featured in the latest printings. While I was at it, I decided to plump for the new Deities & Demigods Of Gods & Monsters book too. All in all, it was a big order, but since C&C has officially become my go-to system for D&D fantasy, I felt it was time to take the plunge.

You can imagine my disappointment when the order failed to materialize after one week...then two weeks. I had ordered from TLG before with no problems, so I dropped them an email looking for an update on the order status. No reply.

A week went by, and then I read that TLG had been at a convention the previous week, so I decided to drop them a follow-up. This was last Friday afternoon. I got an immediate response promising to check things out and get back to me ASAP.

This morning I received an email from Steven Chenault, saying they sent the order out two days after it was placed. D'oh! This wouldn't be the first time my local post office bungled a package delivery. In fact, I think the only thing they're actually good at is redefining the incompetent mail carrier stereotype.

(And I say this as someone who enjoyed years of competent, at times very satisfactory mail service at other locations I've lived at.)

But here's the thing: Mr. Chenault went on to tell me that, as the order will probably wend its way back to TLG in time, they went ahead and sent me the order again today so I don't have to wait around any longer! I really, really hope they get that first order back. I'd hate to think that my lovely letter carriers have not only cost me needless weeks of waiting for my goodies, but TLG the cost of a shipment!

At any rate, here's to Troll Lord Games and their outstanding customer service!

::rubs hands together in anticipation of new books arriving::

(As a postscript, I'd just offer one critique of TLG's mail order system: they use USPS Priority Mail, so they don't have tracking numbers. If they used tracking info, this whole mess could have resolved itself much earlier, and perhaps at no extra cost to the Trolls!)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Late Roman Awesomeness

The image above is of a late Roman standard bearer carrying a "draco"-style windsock standard.

I'm always on the lookout for inspirational imagery of warriors/armor/architecture from history to steal and integrate into my fantasy games. The late Roman period is a goldmine for these sorts of things (and nicely fits into my historical fetish for transitional periods that I wrote about in my Riverworld post, but that's just me). It's got a somewhat medieval feel to it, yet it's still rooted in the ancient world. Plus, since all the attention tends to get focused on the glory days of Imperial Rome, most people aren't the least bit familiar with later Roman imagery.

Back to the standard bearer, I especially like the literal "facemask" look of his helmet. So creepy! Great stuff. I could easily imagine knights of the Invincible Overlord sporting masks like that.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Thoughts on Riverworld, Mad Max, and Other Such Things

So as I indicated in an earlier post, my recent revisiting of the Mad Max trilogy gave me some interesting food for thought.

Primarily, I hadn't realized what a profound effect those films (well, the last two really--I didn't see the original Mad Max until years later) had on my young psyche. I definitely robbed several set-piece scenes more-or-less wholesale in my later GMing, and without even realizing I was doing so!

One of the reasons the films struck such a chord with me is that they spoke to my love of anachronistic technology. As a student of history, I find myself most fascinated by those "transition periods," when new ways or technology are beginning to displace the old but haven't done so completely. The early Renaissance. Sengoku-era Japan. The First World War (my original obsession; I used to take a book on WWI out of my school library on a weekly basis and pore over the photos of lumbering tanks and biplanes and horses with gas masks on...and I was probably about six years old!).

So naturally, I love all things in a post-apocalyptic vein. Witness my retooling of Rifts to make it more overtly post-apocalyptic, getting it into that "sweet spot" of old, familiar tech existing alongside newer, devolved tech (for lack of a better term).

All of this got me thinking about GURPS Riverworld, one of the first GURPS setting books I ever bought (50% off at the Gamekeeper at the mall!) and still one of my favorites.

I was unfamiliar with the book property it was based on at the time (and indeed didn't read any of the Riverworld books until a few years ago), but the image of a steamboat being escorted by biplanes down a massive river valley was enough to hook me in right away.

The setting is like ambrosia for me, touching on my anachro-tech fetish while scratching my history nerd itch at the same time--you can cross flint swords with anyone who's ever lived!

Having said that, Riverworld was one of those campaign settings that I think I get more enjoyment out of thinking about than actually playing. One of my stumbling blocks was that I wanted to spring it on my unsuspecting players in the event of an inadvertent TPK in a historically-based campaign. Trouble was, we tended to not play those sorts of games at the time (hardly do now, come to think of it--even games set in the "real world" tend to have some level of urban fantasy vibe going to them.)

I tried running a pure Riverworld campaign back in high school, but it quickly devolved into silly adolescent hi-jinks. Another attempt shortly after fourth edition GURPS came out got off to a promising start (link to an actual play summation), but was unfortunately cut short when one of the two players moved away.

So it goes. After watching the Mad Max films, I dove back into my copy of GURPS Riverworld and had some quality hours with an old friend. At the very least it's a fun thought exercise to imagine how I'd want to run a campaign were I given another chance. (Of course, nowadays I'd run it using BRP.) At the very least, it's always there as a fall-back in case of inadvertent TPKs in a historically-based campaign....

Something else I was reminded of during my re-read was how much I like Larry MacDougall's art. According to the Pen & Paper Database, this was one of his first jobs as an RPG illustrator; presuming he was fresh out of art school, and the size of the project, I think the variable quality of the art can be forgiven. The rough, almost doodle-like quality, whether intentional or not, actually evokes in me a feeling that these are sketches executed in charcoal on treebark by a resident of the Riverworld working from life. And anyway, by the standards of GURPS illustrations at the time, the guy's practically Larry Elmore! I've called out my appreciation of his work in the original Rifts book in one of my art posts, and I thought I'd share some more of the love here with some selections of personal favorites from Riverworld.

Unfortunately, I read that GURPS Riverworld will not be seeing a release in PDF form thanks to the license lapsing. But if you're a fan of anachronistic post-apocalypse and you have the means of picking up an old copy, by all means do so!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Street D&D: Guerrilla Activism

This is one of the most hilarious things I've seen in a while. Jason Thompson, author of the forthcoming King of RPGs manga series (which I blogged about back in August) recently took D&D to the streets. Here's how it went:

I am a method Dungeon Master. As reported by Laughing Squid, I recently took the next step in delivering role-playing games to a greater audience: running a live D&D game in downtown San Francisco on Saturday afternoon! Players were found (some of whom had never played RPGs before), we were out there for close to 5 hours, and the game was a smashing success despite a few incidents.

Incidents indeed, I'm sure. I know that area pretty well, and it's not unusual to have an, uh, eccentric person accost you even under the best of circumstances. Kudos to Jason and his group for having the guts to engage in some activist gaming!

(More photos of the action can be found here.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I was horrified recently when I discovered, in the course of chatting up standard Cyberpunk tropes--and making the analogy that for rural America and nomads, just think the first Mad Max movie--that Des had never seen any of the installments in the Mad Max trilogy! How does this sort of thing happen?

I felt a bit remiss myself, as this discovery served only to make the trilogy's absence from my DVD collection even more glaring. I rectified that as soon as possible, and a couple weekends ago we spent a couple evenings happily screening Mad Max, Road Warrior, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. This was the first time I'd watched any of these movies since my childhood/early adolescence, and there was much food for thought generated by returning to these movies 20 years later. But that's the subject for another post.

In the meantime, I just wanted to share a movie poster I ran across today that, I think, perhaps sums up classic "retro-Cyberpunk" nomads even better than the first Mad Max. (For my campaign, especially, since I'm explicitly setting it in an alternate history 1980s.) Observe:

If I ever have to explain nomads to a Cyberpunk newbie again, I'll just produce a print-out of this poster and silently hand it to the questioner.

Friday, October 30, 2009

My Campaign's Old School Street Cred Just Leveled Up

Appy-polly-loggies for the dearth of posts this month. November should see some more substantive content, including a return to the world of Rifts:2112. In the meantime...

Last night's Wilderlands D&D game saw--for the first time in my long and storied gaming career, mind--the successful implementation of a ten foot pole. Being used in the way the gods intended, as a method to trip a suspected trapped number puzzle lock. Even better? The player who was using the pole retrieved the poisoned darts that were shot out by the trap so she could smear the resinous poison on her crossbow bolts.

Unfortunately, the ten foot pole shortly after became a five foot pole when it was again employed to trip another trap, this one a revolving wall that took half the pole with it on a failed Dexterity save. So it goes.

As one of the other players commented, "God bless the ten foot pole." Amen, brother.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Faces of the Wilderlands

I've been meaning to do this for a while now.

What can I say, I'm a visually-oriented person. I like a good picture; it's worth a thousand words after all. In last week's Wilderlands D&D game, I made the analogy that the setting is like the "Star Wars" of fantasy worlds as it relates to diversity of races/species. I think the Wilderlands boxed set says there's something like 252 sentient races. Minimum.

This sort of diversity can be found even among basic races, with various sub-types and Lesser Races and so forth. Add in the fact that Wilderlands is a proper old school fantasy world, meaning there's more than the standard gamut of earth tones to be found among the major races' skin colors.

In an effort to improve my world building and in-game descriptions, I've been trying to get a handle on this diversity, fixing in my mind who looks like what. I realized at some point that the best way to do this was to create some sort of visual reference. I found my tool for doing this in the form of a nifty little Flash program called FaceMaker over on Deviant Art. The faces thus rendered are in anime style, but that suited my purposes well, as I was looking for something iconic and easily memorable, both sterling qualities of the anime form. Plus the "big eyes" make eye color differences easily distinguishable.

And so, without further ado, I present the "Faces of the Wilderlands" PDF, a tour through the Major Races and selected Lesser Races of the classic fantasy setting.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Building Trust Between Players and GMs

Alexis over at the Tao of D&D has some excellent points to make about player-GM trust in his recent post:

I rarely find players in my world are willing to gamble on NPCs. I admit, one should be hesitant to trust, but making an arrangement with someone that doesn’t threaten my life is a perfectly sound chance to take. Yet players won’t take ANY chance ... to their detriment, I say.

Why not offer a considerable tithe to the church? Yes, you might not be able to buy that plate mail you so desperately want, or the four white stallions, but aren’t friends worth something? Can’t you think of any good reason why you shouldn’t take a thousand gold and offer yourself as a silent partner to some well-established businessman? You don’t think you’ll get your investment back? Silly player ... who would be a better source for rumours, gossip or warnings than a well-situated member of the town – all the better situated on account of your well-invested plunder?

But no, players don’t think like that. And no wonder. As I remember, the DMs used to be largely untrusting themselves. Give a thousand to a merchant and he is sure to blow town the next day, immediately, with your money. As if that makes any sense at all. Give it to a church and somehow you’ll find yourself on trial as a thief – as though churches have scruples about taking money from thieves. Sure as the sun will rise, if I gave 60 g.p. to a stranger I’d rescued from orcs to buy me men and weapons from town, the stranger would be high-tailing it in the other direction.

It isn’t that players aren’t willing to trust, I think ... it is that they’ve learned that never, ever, under no circumstances will a DM reward them for thinking out of the box. DMs are far too avaricious about depleting a player’s resources, as though that were the purpose of the game. Give them the money and take it back. It isn’t just hack, slash and haul away the loot. You can add ‘and watch the DM screw you’ to the old mantra.

As I said in my comment to the post, there's a temptation with certain GMs to constantly screw players over for trusting an NPC or trying something unusual. The feeling is that this creates "drama" through "conflict." In fact, it just nets you neurotic players who don't feel safe trying fresh ideas, and lack of a feeling of depth in the campaign ("Oh, here's another NPC--they're either a plot hook or here to screw us over.") If there's one thing I can't stand, it's neurotic players. And if there's one more thing I can't stand, it's lack of depth in a game world. If I can avoid both situations while simultaneously building up player-GM trust, then everyone wins!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Thoughts on Cyberpunk (and Single-Player Games)

I've taken a little break from my other projects to whip up a little Cyberpunk campaign to run solo-a-mano with Des. Now that she's a big bad PhD student, we figure some form of regular distraction would do her brain and sanity some good. Our ongoing D&D campaign we play with two other players is all well and good, but that unfortunate entity known as "real life" keeps conspiring to limit us to an average of about one session every 4-6 weeks.

So after an evening of talking about games we were interested in playing (oh, how I do love those sorts of brainstorming sessions!), we settled on Cyberpunk. Des has never played, but loves the idea of the genre. To be honest, I've never really "played" either, at least not in any serious, committed sense. Just a few one shots here and there. This despite having owned the Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook for the better part of 17 years now. It's one of the oldest books in my collection, and is lovingly dog-eared and beat up, as much from repeated re-reading and passing around to friends as from actual use.

So this has been an exciting process for me, thinking about how I want to approach my first "proper" Cyberpunk campaign. The first thing to decide was whether to update the setting. That decision did not take long.

I think one of the attractions of the cyberpunk genre when it was fresh and new was a feeling of a sort of futuristic verisimilitude. That is, we could all sit around and imagine technology and geo-politics playing out the way the genre forecast. I mean, it was just a matter of time until the Japanese owned all of America, right? Sure. Reading through those future histories was always a kick, a sort of nihilistic thrill. (I chalk this up to being 14, but the implications of having to actually live through the hellish dystopia spelled out in the games and novels never really sunk in at the time. It was mostly, "Coooooool.")

Now that much of what Cyberpunk said would happen didn't (and many more things it ignored have in fact come to pass) there's a tendency to want to update cyberpunk settings so that they still have that plausible verisimilitude. That means abandoning chromed cyber-arms and AV-7 hovercars for things like "transhumanism" and "biotech". Bah, I say! Stuff and nonsense!

In thinking about the genre, I realized it has indeed lost that plausible futurism, but in return it has become a retro-future genre unto itself. No one's going around trying update Buck Rogers, are they? Hell no! So why do the same to 1991's vision of the future? Embrace it, say I!

What I've done with my own retro-vision of the dark future is take several of my favorite dystopian RPG settings and meld them together, like shuffling three or four decks of cards all into one big pile. The two biggest "decks," if you will, come from CP2020 (natch) and Ray Winninger's Underground, a great satirical vision of the near-future crippled by too narrow a focus in gameplay and awful mechanics. I picked out all the great satirical elements (Constitutional amendments sponsored by cola companies, "Tastee Ghoul" cannibal cuisine fast food restaurants, and so forth). I also took the computer/Net tech level from GURPS' Cyberworld setting (since I'm not a huge fan of Netrunning and VR internet browsing and some elements from the cyberpunk setting in All Tomorrow's Zombies. Specifically the zombies--products of a chemical experiment, of course.

Oh, and my world is set in 1985. I mean, why not go whole hog, right?

It's still a typical cyberpunk world. Taking a page from Watchmen, I just fiddled with history a bit. Make the Roswell UFO crash real, and the spacecraft an honest-to-god saucer (similar to the backstory in Underground, which has an alien pod crash-landing in Flordia in 1997 and giving a major technological boost). Since most cyberpunk settings are placed about four decades in the future, the time difference between 1947 Roswell and a 1985 dystopia is perfect. The zombie uprising occurs in 1968 (any guesses as to why?), which drives people into "fortress" cities for their own protection, creating the mega-sprawls and depopulating the countryside save for intrepid packs of Nomad survivors. President Nixon becomes a savior figure with his draconian laws that help speed recovery. Corporations gain autonomy during the post-Rising chaos out of the simple need to protect their assets and not having a reliable government to call upon. And the rest writes itself.

This should be lots of fun.

One other interesting thing I discovered in the course of my background research: there is a metric tonne of CP2020 websites out there! For a game that's been defunct for over a decade (and granting the fact that several of said sites haven't been updated in that long either), that's pretty impressive. Even ignoring all the new gear, weapons, and cyberware, a preliminary pass through several websites yielded a Word document of 79 pages! That's at 10-point font, two-column layout, choomba. Lots of stuff to comb through. Ooh, weapon conversions from the Street Samurai Catalog! (The first cyberpunk-related game book I ever bought, before buying either CP2020 or even the Shadowrun core book. I liked the gun drawings...) Oooh! Corporate fashions and more weapon conversions from Mutant Chronicles! (Another great setting crippled by an awful system.) One thing I'll be using for sure is Gary Astleford's alternate character generation rules. It's obvious that the CP2020 rules system, for all its faults, is robust enough to take lots of tinkering, always a huge plus in my book.

One last thought: now that I've got my setting figured out, and I'm nearing final decisions on what online material to include, I've been thinking a lot about campaign tone and theme and all that high falutin' stuff. Now, this campaign is expressly intended to be a nice bit of high action escapism for Des, so I'll try not to get too high brow about it. On the other hand, it seems that most published cyberpunk adventures pretty much devolve to "your group gets hired to go kill/steal/spy on something; then you get sold out". Kind of boring and kind of a betrayal of the genre, really. Anyone have any suggestions for really good cyberpunk adventures out there?

Of course, another advantage of single-player gaming, other than being able to play whenever we want (living together helps with that, I'll admit), is that we can get way more focused on Des's character, motivations, history, and so forth. I don't know what kind of character she's going to do yet--she was thinking about a sort of punk rock-style Rocker, but hasn't settled on it yet--but I do know that the campaign will at least initially be very street level. Grungy and dirty and desperate. I like that.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Some Nifty House Rules for Palladium Fantasy

I never played a lot of the Palladium Fantasy RPG, but like most Palladium products the times I did were always a blast and the character creation options always seemed so much more interesting than D&D and other FRPGs.

I ran across a nice set of house rules for the PFRPG today and thought I'd share. The author has stripped out the core dice rolling mechanics while leaving all the fun little bits of flair intact; an admirable accomplishment!

Reading over the rules definitely got me itching to do some PFRPG gaming. Doubt it'll happen, what with so much else on my gaming platter, but at least the option's there now.

The author also mentions the possibility of adapting his ideas to other Palladium games, which is a very intriguing idea indeed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Flyer Art I Can Really Get Behind

In the course of checking out Jesse Michaels' (Operation Ivy, Common Rider) new band, Classics of Love, I couldn't help but notice some mind-blowingly awesome pieces of promotional art. Bask with me!

Incidentally, the band rocks. Shhh, no words, just listen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

[Cthulhu Berlin]: Appendix N

Taking a page from Ken Hite, my first step in working up a Cthulhu Berlin campaign setting is historical research. Fortunately, that's something I'm very, very good at.

I've availed myself of a few online sources, but most of my reading will be the old-fashioned variety. I've got a fair pile of books on their way to me via various library channels. Whenever I can, I like to supplement my reading with immersion in period films (either, if possible, contemporary or of the "historical drama" variety) and music. Here, then, is my own Appendix N of Cthulhoid Berlin.

Pandora's Box
ETA: The Blue Angel (1930)
M (1931)
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
ETA: Invincible (2001)
Vampyr (1932)
Cabaret (1972)
The Threepenny Opera (1928) by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
Voluptuous Panic by Mel Gordon
The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber by Mel Gordon
Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant by Mel Gordon
Berlin: The Twenties by Rainer Metzger
Bertolt Brecht's Berlin: A Scrapbook of the Twenties by Wolf Von Eckardt and Sander L. Gilman
The Hot Girls of Weimar Berlin by Barbara Ulrich
What I Saw: Reports From Berlin 1920-1933 by Joseph Roth
The Secret King: The Myth and Reality of Nazi Occultism by Michael Moynihan and Stephen E. Flowers
Cabaret Berlin: Revue, Kabarett And Film Music Between The Wars (this one's a book AND four musical CDs!)
"Oh! You Pretty Things" by David Bowie
"Venus in Furs" by The Velvet Underground

Yes, those last two are not period pieces at all, but they nicely capture the tone and themes I want to go for. "Venus in Furs" is, I think, a great bit of musical shorthand for the sexually depraved, morally bankrupt atmosphere of the setting, and Bowie's song, with its Lovecraftian undertones and cabaret-style piano, seems an apt thematic intersection. Plus you just can't beat this lyric with a tentacle:

Wake up you sleepy head
Put on some clothes, shake up your bed
Put another log on the fire for me
I've made some breakfast and coffee
I look out my window what do I see
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me
All the nightmares came today
And it looks as though they're here to stay

I might add to this list in the future; I haven't really begun to delve into books specifically on the German occult community at this time, which I know was absolutely huge. Voluptuous Panic has a great chapter on the subject, and a couple books on the list deal with the Nazi side of things, but I'm curious about other angles as well.

I'm quite excited about the possibilities already. I wrote in the comments to my last post on the subject that "already I'm getting a sense of a 'Big Three' of Elder Gods/Old Ones with an especial presence in Berlin: Nyarlathotep Hastur, Shub-Niggurath, and Y'Golonac."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Deciding On A New Campaign

Last week the Blue Rose campaign officially wilted.

I just couldn't carry on. True 20 was a nicely slimmed-down version of d20, but was still a little too close to "pure" d20 for my taste. I probably would have been able to put up with that except for the fact that the Blue Rose setting, despite my best efforts, proved just too damn dull.

I'm a recovering GADD (Gamer Attention Deficit Disorder) sufferer, and nowadays I'm very cautious of abandoning a campaign for the wrong reasons. So I'd been wrestling with this decision for a while. A couple fortuitous cancellations bought me some extra time (we only meet twice a month under normal circumstances as it is), but on the eve of our scheduled get-together, as I sat down to go over my adventure notes for the next day, I snapped.

I sent out an email to my group and was rather relieved to receive kudos from the players, who were pretty much in the same boat I was. Seems everyone kind of felt the same way I did regarding both system and setting, but we were all sort of waiting to see if things got better. They never did, and my email put everyone out of their misery.

That, of course, left us all contemplating what to do next.

This got me thinking about how groups choose a new campaign. My old high school/college group was a model of Athenian democracy. Every member had a say in the process, and everyone was entitled to put out campaign ideas, even if it was for a game they didn't plan on running. If even a single person disliked the campaign concept, it usually died then and there. The few times we managed to cajole a recalcitrant member into going along with the group, things usually died within the first couple sessions thanks to said member's apathy sort of killing the buzz.

At the time, however, I was aware, thanks to Dragon Magazine and (later) the Internet, of other groups that had a much more, shall we say, authoritarian approach. Sort of along the lines of, "I'm the GM, I have final say in what we're playing since I'm going to do the most work here. And we're playing Game X. Deal with it."

I admit that at the time I felt a definite pang of jealousy towards those sorts of groups; our "democratic" approach tended to result in a sort of least-common-denominator style of gaming that ensured everyone was equally unsatisfied most of the time.

Fortunately things aren't quite as dire these days. My most common approach when it comes time to run something new is to make a short list of campaigns I'd like to run, then go through it with the players. It's a nice balance between the two extremes mentioned above.

This time around, it was a very short list. It was a choice of either a classic D&D sandbox (using my houseruled Castles & Crusades and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy) or Call of Cthulhu (set in 1928 Berlin--a fantastically underused setting for interwar horror!). D&D won out, but barely. So it looks like classic D&D for now, but Cthulhu goodness is next in the queue. Doesn't get much better than that!

I suspect most groups follow a similar integrated approach, but I'd be interested to hear of other methods of deciding on a new campaign that I haven't touched on.

As a side note, both the Wilderlands and Berlin Cthulhu campaigns give me plenty of grist to dump in my proverbial mill, so I expect I'll be posting content of interest as I generate it in the coming weeks...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Another Million-Dollar Idea--Stolen!

Like pretty much every gaming group ever, my groups have had a share of inside jokes develop over the years, especially with my old gaming group from high school and college. One of our most persistently-recurring jokes was the "War Lich", the symbol of ultimate GM dickishness. The "war lich", as we envisioned it, was simply a lich riding a beholder. The joke was that the "war lich" would be the monster that a GM would bust out to use against a party of hapless adventurers; "You better watch yourselves, or the next room's gonna have a war lich in it!"

Like I said, the war lich was never more than a conceptual in-joke, but I did do a doodle of one, on the margins of a dungeon map, during a game a few years back:

So imagine my surprise a couple weeks ago when, in the course of browsing around Monte Cook's site, I come across this little gem:

A war mind-flayer?

The similarities are...striking. Obviously this war lich idea had stronger legs than we ever gave it credit for.

Out of curiosity, is there anyone else out there who has ever envisioned (or even introduced) one monster riding another?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Arkham Sound

In the late 60's Arkham, Massachusetts produced a variety of interesting groups, and evolved what eventually became known as the "Arkham Sound". Though overshadowed by the much-hyped "Bosstown Sound" from relatively nearby Boston, fans and scholars of the era believe the Arkham Sound to be far more organic and unique, noted for its dark overtones and rich lyricism. Though bands such as The Conqueror Wyrms and The Plasma Miasma even charted regionally, oddly few of these tracks have appeared on previous reissues or comps, with the exception of course of "Come to Arkham (Wear the Wind in Your Hair)" which is ubiquitous on budget oldies compilations. To the best of my knowledge, other than cuts on later volumes of the "Psychotic Moose and the Soul Searchers" series, which are beyond rare, none of these tracks have appeared elsewhere.

Now Dark Lord Rob, formerly of late 80's garage/psych band The Not Quite, has done the world an enormous favor by assembling a complilation of some of these forgotten tracks in conjunction with the imminent release of The Miskatonic Acid Test, a documentary film he has assembled from recently rediscovered vintage footage. Combining album tracks, rare singles, and choice live tracks from the movie's soundtrack, this collection gives a fine overview of the era and makes one wonder why more of this material hasn't surfaced. It almost makes you wonder whether there was something to those old record collector tales of the music being "cursed".

Just when you thought Darkest of the Hillside Thickets was the only punk-inflected Mythos-rock group going. I stumbled across this today. Great Lovecraftian garage rock. There's a three-CD soundtrack; the first disc is available for free download here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


I had a funny realization the other day.

When it comes to RPGs, I can't think of a single instance of any of the games I'm interested in being run with the original system.

For D&D-style fantasy, I use either Castles & Crusades or Fantasycraft (jury's still out on the latter--I broke down and bought the PDF and it looks awesome on preliminary skim-through, but I have yet to sit down and sink my teeth into it). But either way, I'm looking at some pretty serious modding involved any time I want to run D&D.

For Call of Cthulhu, I've recently decided on running games with Trail of Cthulhu, meaning my extensive collection of CoC material will have to be converted as I use it.

For Rifts, I'm using BRP of course. And, ironically, this includes Call of Cthulhu! Meaning the copy of CoC 6th Edition on my shelf is there for Rifts games...

It's kind of funny, especially when I think about the fact that for years I was a fairly pedantic gamer. I never really understood when people talked about "house rules" or making sweeping changes to published campaign settings. I think at any given time, I probably had one, maybe two, house rules in effect at most, and used settings pretty much as written.

I was never a rules lawyer or the type to say "you can't do that because it says so right here" and I flirted with talking about rules being "broken" but never really bought into that line of thinking. And now here I am, bashing rules and campaigns together like it's going out of style. I'm not entirely sure how that happened.

Partly it's having gotten plugged in to gaming blogs, for sure. There's such a fecund creative pool, it couldn't help but inspire me. I think another key element was my retrenchment into simpler systems, away from games like D&D 3.5 and GURPS and towards stuff like C&C and BRP. When you have a simpler foundation, it makes for a much easier jumping-off point.

(Oh, and I remembered there is one game that I play regularly that I use more or less as intended--Pendragon. It's just a perfect example of system facilitating game play. Of course, I still have a couple houserules for that as well...)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fantasy Craft, eh?

Since I've got classic D&D on the brain again, that naturally means the floodgates of my gamer ADHD have once again opened, which of course means I now find myself looking at new and shiny rules.

I paged through Pathfinder at one of my local gamestores yesterday. Really, really not my speed, but you know what? I wish 'em the best. It's a gorgeous book and if was a 3.5-head (or prone to liking illustrations of fighters with daiklaves ::shudder::) I'd be on it like white on rice.

Being on the DriveThruRPG mailing list, I was clued in to another d20-derived rulebook that actually has piqued my interest: Fantasy Craft. From the folks who brought you Spy Craft. I see a theme in their naming conventions unfolding here.

At any rate, it's only available in PDF right now, I believe, but I'm seriously considering downloading the beast and taking a looksee. If it bridges the gap between rules-light retro-clones, Castles & Crusades, and True20, then I may have found my system du jour.

The reviews on DTRPG look promising:

My favorite part of the book is chapter 6: Foes. It allows you to build any type of npc that you can dream up. The OGL conversion section makes me glad that I never threw out my 3.x monster manuals.

I like this quite a bit as it would let me adapt material from the various and sundry d20 products that I use (Blue Rose, the 3.5 Wilderlands supplements, C&C stuff) under one umbrella.

The Skill System: FantasyCraft's skill system, while still very familiar to the D20 formula, is a staple within the engine. Not a small sidenote to accent your character's Damage-per-round like in other systems, but an actual fleshed out system to handle everything (and probably thensome) of what a character would want to do....RPG friendly. That may venture the question, "How can an RPG book be RPG unfriendly?" Well... just look at other systems. It treats RPGing as second nature, and merely a small diversion to hacking and slashing. In FantasyCraft, your skills and your imagination can lead the way. Not everything is about Damage....

This addresses one of my main disappointments with the True20 system: it streamlines d20, but doesn't really take the emphasis off the combat mechanics.

The NPC creation system. Remember spending hours upon hours trying to drudge up and balance NPCs in other systems? The mind-numbing death spiral of time spent that went into creating 'bosses' for your group to fight? Not any more! FantasyCraft's NPC system is, perhaps, the most fluid, easy to use system I've ever seen. The NPC design scales (almost effortlessly) to fit the party. ..and it's actually FUN (again..) to create NPCs!

Oh man, if this is true then it is HUGE by my lights.

The NPC creation system allows an adventure to be scaled quickly and easily to any character Level. And the Reputation system helps GMs control the 'magic item lottery' that focuses too many fantasy games on all the magic 'bling' the characters can accumulate, and not on their innate skills.

Finally, the system actively encourages tweaking, through the use of campaign qualities. Want a historical game and no magic? Easily do-able. Want characters to have more/less feats, skill points, critical hits? All easily done.

I love the scaling idea too. It would allow me to use a bunch of higher-level adventure material at lower levels, since my campaigns rarely reach high levels.

Despite all these promising qualities, I'm still not totally sold. I'd love to see an in-depth review or two. More cogitation is required.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

What Is It About Classic D&D?

Way back when, around the time my friends and I graduated high school, we experienced our first "D&D burnout". We swore off that hoary old system, repudiated its genre conventions, and looked towards the brighter lights of other systems. The less like D&D they were, the better. Alex, our group's other regular GM aside from myself, even went so far as to vow to not run so much as a single session of D&D for a year and a day.

That vow lasted something closer to a week and a day.

Despite our genuine frustrations with the state of the game at the time (this being during the dark years of post-Players Option, "2.5e" AD&D) and the various trappings of classic Dungeons & Dragons, we couldn't stay away from it for long.

I'm finding that that holds true to this day. Gaming-wise, I'm immensely enjoying the two campaigns I'm currently involved in--playing in a solo Pendragon campaign, running a Blue Rose group game--and on the thought-exercise level of things, my mind is occupied by non-D&D matters: planning a future Call of Cthulhu campaign, mulling over my Dragon Warriors/Magnamund conversion and Rifts:2112 project. Yet I find myself irresistibly drawn back to thoughts of pure-strain D&D.

Yesterday is when I realized that this has developed into a real problem; I made my computer desktop wallpaper Larry Elmore's "Waiting for Shademehr". I'm not a huge fan of the chainmail bikini, but what can I say? It works in this picture. When Des saw what I'd done, she sort of chuckled and sighed at the same time.

I like this picture for two reasons (well, three, but I already addressed the first). First, like most of Elmore's classic pictures, he really captured an arresting characterization in the faces of his subjects and the little details of their ensembles. Secondly, and specific to this picture, is that my eye is drawn (after the side-cleavage) to the grand vista sweeping out beyond the characters. It's like they're standing there, beckoning into the picture to join them in their adventures in the great, unmapped Wilderlands beyond.

I suppose the whole picture just sums up D&D's appeal for me; my question is, why this particular genre stew and not others? Perhaps that is an answer we are not meant to know. Just roll the damn dice, as they say.

If you came across this post by chance and would like to learn more about Classic D&D, check out Dragonsfoot and its forums or head over to this link for a whole passel of awesome articles and ideas cranked out by the Old School Rules community!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

King of RPGs

About 10 years ago I bought the first issue of a comic book series adaptation of Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Being a rather sporadic purchaser of comics under the best of circumstances, I failed to follow up with further purchases of the series as new issues came out.

Yesterday, in thinking about the Dreamlands (as one does), I decided to Google around and see if the series was still available or anthologized or whatever. In the course of my e-snooping, I discovered that the guy behind the Kadath comics, Jason Thompson, has a new project under way.

In a sign of the sea change that has occurred in the world of comics in the last decade, Thompson's new project is a manga series. So it goes. What especially caught my eye, however, was the title: King of RPGs.

Naturally, I immediately assumed the "RPGs" in the title referred to what oldsters like me would call CRPGs, but no! Check out Ye Olde Promotionalle Blurbe:

The stirring shonen manga drama of one man's quest to become the Greatest Game Master in the World. A graphic novel series by Jason Thompson and Victor Hao, coming January 19, 2010 from Del Rey Manga.

The preview art features polyhedrals, gaming manuals, and graph paper galore.

Now, I'm not exactly a manga expert, but years of working in book stores and libraries has familiarized me with various titles, genres, and sub-genres, and what's especially interesting is that this would seem to belong to a particular sub-genre of manga traditionally aimed at teenage audiences. Titles in this sub-genre include series like Prince of Tennis and Kitchen Princess, and are distinguished by plot arcs following a central character trying to become "the best around."

There's been a lot of talk on gaming blogs lately about the best way to get younger people into traditional RPGs. This would certainly seem to be one potentially productive avenue. Anyone who's been in a Borders or other major bookstore in the last few years has no doubt seen the Manga section crammed full of young adults silently absorbed in one of the dozens of different titles available. For one of these kids who have maybe heard about RPGs but are not too sure about how they work, I can't think of a better way of reaching them.

Now we just need that long-elusive, affordable gateway product that so many of us came into the hobby with back in the day...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Great Dragon Warriors Resource

After a long time in development by a dedicated fan community, the Dragon Warriors Wiki is now live and publicly-accessible. I've found it already to be a useful resource, especially in light of the fact that most DW websites predate the release of the Mongoose edition.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dispatches from the Dork Side

Today Des and I went over to a friend's house for a Hawk the Slayer screening. At his house I spotted this poster:

He says he found it in a Mormon gift shop, of all places. I must possess one of my own. Is it just me, or could that be THE poster for the Old School Renaissance?

We also played a few games of Chez Geek, a first for me. I'm proud to say that I won my very first game in about three turns with a cagey combination of Playing RPGs and RPG Nookie.

As for the movie, having only seen the "best clips in three minutes" video on YouTube, I was surprised by how much I legitimately enjoyed it. I mean, don't get me wrong--the movie is firmly in the "so bad its good" category, with wooden acting (especially from the hilariously robotic Elf), bizarre dialogue ("I am no messenger, but I will give you a message...a message...of death!) and truly atrocious special effects (super bouncy balls and silly string feature prominently). But the set dressing and costuming was actually fairly decent in a Ren Faire sort of way, and the whole movie evoked the sort of Dragon Warriors-ish fantastic realism that I find so appealing in 80s fantasy. Definitely a recommended viewing experience.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Couldn't Have Said It Better

There's been a pretty productive comment thread going on over at Monsters and Manuals regarding "kids these days" and how to bring them into the hobby. Oddysey, I thought, made an excellent point about the changing demographics of young potential gamers:

The big issue with RPGs and teenagers right now (besides the fact that the industry isn't paying any attention to them) is that they're still coded "boy stuff," but a lot of the things that boys traditionally get into RPGs for (killing stuff, fiddling with numbers, imaginary hot chicks) are done better by computer games. Girls are a much more natural target for post-CRPG tabletop games, but since RPGs are something that "boys do," the only girls who pick it up are the ones are sort of intentionally oblivious to gender roles. That's far from a majority, particularly in the prime RPG introduction age of 10-13.
I find this to be a fascinating Catch-22 while simultaneously offering a kernel of hope for the future of RPGs, should they survive.

Robert Fisher pretty much summed up my thoughts on how to re-create the sort of "gateway" product that used to exist, the kind that brought me and millions of others into the hobby:

Licensing (i.e. a Harry Potter RPG) isn’t the way to do it. Firstly, those handcuffs aren’t worth the price. Secondly, I think history proved that RPGs didn’t need to license anything to get off the ground and be successful. Better to play on the same tropes—as D&D and Traveller and many others did—rather than bother with licensing Harry Potter.

Price is not a problem. Kids and the people who buy things for them regularly spend more than I’ve ever seen any RPG product priced. (Ignoring a couple of ridiculous outliers.) Although, I do think that pricing as low as you can is a good idea.

Too often, introductory RPG products have tried to be a gimmick. Tried use board-game elements or videos or other things in the name of being accessible. That seems so clearly the wrong way to go. You sell something by selling it.

And, yeah, I see RPG marketing, but not when I’m doing things with my kids.

And don’t tell me we have to turn the hobby into something different to compete with all the newfangled stuff. My kids see the value in traditional games and activities that haven’t needed to be updated to appeal to them. They’ll turn off the TV, PS2, Wii, computer, iPod, etc. all on their own for activities that have stood the test of time. They even beg me to do it with them.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Coat of Arms

I 'Shopped together a coat of arms for the character I'm running in Des's Pendragon game, Sir Addonwy.

It's his second coat of arms, and is a variation on his first, which featured the oak tree and key--symbols of his parentage. He was born and raised at the Castle of the Maidens in the savage North; his mother was the high druidess, his father the seneschal of the Castle. He's added the symbol of the Virgin (despite being a Pagan knight) holding a shield with a red rose to represent his devotion to the Goddess and to the cult of womanhood and his Amor for the fair Lady Ahvielle, the Red Rose of Wuerensis. His "shield of peace" (or targe) is simply the image of the Virgin and rose shield.

Ah, I love this game.

EDIT: After our latest session, I modified the heraldry for, I believe, one last time. I'm quite satisfied with this version:

I replaced the rose shield with the Queen's coat of arms to represent my status as one of the Queen's Knights. The lower-right quadrant now bears red and gold stripes, the colors of the lady I've devoted my Amor passion to. The shield of peace will remain the same as stated above.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Call of Cthulhu: Actual Play

When we sat down to play a little one-on-one Call of Cthulhu last Thursday, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to do a campaign or a one-shot. For now, it stands as being the latter, but things were certainly left open-ended enough at the end of the scenario that things could get picked up again, either with a new group or with more solo gaming.

Either way, here be SPOILERS. Fairly warned be ye, says I.

Des and I had sat down for character creation a couple evenings before we played. Being the proud owner of Secrets of San Francisco, I knew I wanted to set the game there, but outside of that it was anything goes. I did something I don't normally do when I run Cthulhu: I let Des re-roll her attributes. Normally, I don't see much point in allowing this--it's Cthulhu after all!--but her first set of rolls were truly atrocious. I don't think there was anything above a 10. And particularly with a single player, you want at least a decent Sanity going in to things. It's a shame, too, because Des had a rather inspired idea to do a wheelchair-bound character based on her attribute rolls. What a great idea that was! The more I think about it, the more I wished we'd stuck with that first set of rolls. Ah well, lesson learned.

The second set of rolls had a much nicer spread, with a few highs and a few lows. Perfect. Des decided to do a young artist, a sculptor. Her roll on the Income Table came up a "9"--obviously he had struck it rich in the art world!

For the start of the game, I ran a sort of "prelude" adventure, set one year before the main events, in which we explored where Des's character, Vincent, got his jolt of artistic inspiration that turned him from a struggling artist living on Portrero Hill to a local celebrity. Essentially, I ran the introductory adventure out of Dreamlands, in which a friend, having discovered the Dreamlands, decides to commit suicide so he can live there forever. Before he dies, he gave Vincent a box of chocolates as a gift; the chocolates were coated with a magical powder that granted access to the Dreamlands. Vincent visited his friend in Ulthar and walked around the countryside a bit, taking in the otherworldly sights and imagery.

(This little intro was meant to set up further adventures in the Dreamlands if things had moved in a campaigny direction. As it is, I'm now more taken with the idea of doing an all-Dreamlands campaign featuring the wheelchair-bound character Des almost made. Oh my, the potential!)

At any rate, this also established in my campaign world a new art movement, the Fantasists. Forerunners of the Surrealists who take their inspiration from the Mythos, Vincent would be one of them; others would include Richard Upton Pickman, his students, and others (like a certain London-based artist who pops up in Masks of Nyarlathotep).

With that little interlude out of the way, we flashed forward to "present day"--summer, 1924. Vincent had moved out of his Portrero Hill rat's nest and bought a cozy cottage in the sleepy little rail town of Sausalito. Or perhaps it should be called "Sauce-a-lotto" since, as I found out in the course of preparing for the adventure, it was basically the rum-running capital of the West Coast! Great stuff, and lots more campaign potential there, of course.

The adventure I was running was "Mr. Corbitt" from Mansions of Madness. It's a story of a kindly old neighbor and his rather, um, unspeakable hobbies. I was very much put in mind of The 'Burbs, and was half-tempted to give Des an oafish neighbor and addled WWI vet (and a punk-ass kid) to interact with in the course of her investigations of the mysterious Corbitt residence across the street from her cottage.

Things kicked off when, in the course of bidding farewell to some party guests on a Sunday evening, Vincent spotted Mr. Corbitt pulling up to his house. He took two cloth-wrapped bundles from his trunk and made his way to the front door. Fumbling for his keys, he dropped one of the bundles; the cloth fell open, and Vincent stared in disbelief at what looked like the hand and fingers of the severed arm of a small child! Mr. Corbitt hurriedly picked up his package and headed inside. A light came on in his basement, but this was quickly obscured by a drawn curtain.

Vincent tried to put the event out of his mind--surely he hadn't seen what he thought he'd seen. Perhaps it was a bit of an old marble sculpture (then why did it make an audible slapping noise when it hit the concrete?). Still curious, Vincent in time headed down to the local newspaper morgue to see if he could find out a bit about Corbitt's past.

He turned up a couple articles describing the death of Corbitt's father during a hiking trip in the Himalayas and the death of Corbitt's wife during childbirth a few years later. Tragic events, certainly, but no overt signs of weirdness. There was an item in the latter article about the midwife attending the birth going into a coma from a stroke she suffered during the labor. Vincent took the ferry to San Francisco and visited Saint Mary's Hospital, only to find out that the midwife had expired shortly after being admitted. (Unfortunately, he didn't make a good impression with the doctor who handled the case, or he would have found a clue in the midwife's last words as she briefly came out of her coma before expiring.)

Heading back to Sausalito, Vincent decided to follow Corbitt during his weekly Sunday afternoon drives. This proved difficult, however. Vincent was fairly certain Corbitt had spotted him, but nothing came of it--Corbitt went for a scenic drive along the Marin County back roads, then returned home. (Another clue missed! Two successful driving rolls would have tracked Corbitt to the public dump where he procured amputated children's limbs from a mentally disturbed hospital worker.)

Returning home, Vincent decided to trouble himself with Corbitt no longer, but the next evening the old man came over with a basket of tomatoes fresh from his vegetable garden. He was known around the neighborhood for his gardening hobby, and often gave his neighbors fresh veggies. On this occassion, he was also dropping by to ask Vincent to watch his house while he was out of town for a few days--pick up his mail, water his garden, that sort of thing.

Vincent agreed and thanked Corbitt for the tomatoes as well. Taking them back into the kitchen, he gave them a careful looking over. Good thing, too: he spotted little puncture marks, as if from a syringe, on the underside of each tomato. (Corbitt, suspicious that Vincent was on to him, had given him tomatoes laced with a powerful hallucinogen.)

Not partaking of the poisoned food, Vincent headed over to the Corbitt house the next day after his neighbor had departed for the train station. He walked around the grounds and found a vegetable patch and greenhouse around back. He checked out the greenhouse and found it filled with all manner of exotic flora. Good thing he didn't stick around long--a couple of the plants in there were very exotic indeed, and had a bit of a taste for human flesh...

Heading back towards the house, Vincent heard a crash from down in the basement. Looking through the basement window, he saw a darting form running from the shadows! A burgler, perhaps? Sausalito boasted a two-man police force; sometimes it was better to take matters into one's own hands than to rely on the law. Vincent decided to investigate.

Forcing the window, he slipped into the room. The form suddenly dashed from the shadows and through a door. It moved with a peculiar hopping gate, as if it was injured, Vincent noted. He followed, curious. Pushing open the door, he found himself in what looked like a combination of a science lab and gardener's toolshed. He also caught sight of motion heading up a flight of stairs, and quickly after that heard the sound of fists banging on a door. Vincent grabbed a three-pronged gardening trowel to use as a weapon in case things came to that.

Rounding the corner, Vincent was ready to shout to the prowler to give himself up when he stopped dead in his tracks. Standing at the top of the stairs, hammering on the door, was a monstrosity: a woman's head with a single leg sewn to its neck and arms emerging where the ears should be. From it emanated the sound of terrified meepings and grunts as it banged furiously on the door.

Vincent dashed up the stairs, determined to catch the abomination, but at that point it knocked the door open and dashed into the upper house. Like any good house sitter, Vincent pursued, determined to minimize any damage the thing might cause to Corbitt's furniture. The thing tore around the ground floor of the house, knocking over chairs and a china hutch, before Vincent cornered it. The thing turned, fear blazing in its eyes, and lept at Vincent, trying to bowl him over. Vincet struck out reflexively with the trowel, and the next second the thing was lying on the ground, twitching, a trowel embedded in its forehead. (Des rolled a "01" on Vincent's to-hit roll: double damage!)

Looking around, Vincent spotted a bookshelf with a set of journals, one for each year since Corbitt's fateful trip to the Himalayas when his father met his untimely end. There were also a couple tomes of an occult nature, but Des is a savvy Cthulhu player who tends to stay away from such things when she can help it. What is it with these players and trying to preserve their precious sanity? Sheesh.

At any rate, Vincent did pick up the latest volume of the diary and flicked through it. Detailed entries regarding some kind of "child" in the basement and the procurement of children's body parts convinced him to call up Bert and Ernie, the town's cops. Little did Vincent know that the "child" described in the journals was not the thing he had just killed but something far, far worse.

The two cops showed up presently and told Vincent to wait in the squad car while they secured the rest of the house. A few minutes later, screams could be heard coming from the basement. Ernie (or was it Bert?) came flying out the front door seconds later, sweating and rambling incoherently. Seemingly forgetting about Vincent in the backseat, he fired up the car and took off, somehow managing to drive back to the downtown police station without rolling the vehicle on a sharp turn.

The events of the next 24 hours quickly took on a surreal tone. San Francisco police were called in first, then the Feds. Then some guys who might have been the Feds, but might not. Then some guys in lab coats. Then the entire Corbitt house was burned down. A statement was distributed to the neighborhood to the effect that a virulent disease had been isolated in the house and that fire was the most efficacious way of eradicating the threat. A newspaper article appeared a few days later announcing Mr. Corbitt's arrest in Vancouver on federal bootlegging charges.

(Those of you who have read "Mr. Corbitt" know what was down in the basement, and why it was probably best for Vincent's sanity that he didn't go poking about down there. In the end, it was a great session filled with creepy chills and much nail-biting anxiety. Des lucked out with her Sanity checks, and rolled hot when she needed to. All in all, a great reminder of why I enjoy Call of Cthulhu so much.)

(Oh, and one other thing: I used this session to experiment with utilizing RPGDeck, software for managing background music and sound effects. It worked out great; highly recommended!)
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