Friday, January 30, 2009

Perfect

I've never seen a more perfect real world image that just totally sums up classic D&D than this one:


The wild, untamed wilderness in the background, the crumbling (obviously haunted) fortress/monastery in the foreground. I love the walls built into the side of the cliff too.

A couple more thoughts on Carcosa

In the course of thinking about rules mods and hacks and whatnot for Carcosa, I came up with a couple setting nuggets as well.

First of all were the Space Aliens--a bit of a sticking point for me when I first read through the book, I'm afraid. No, it's not because I didn't like sci-fi mixing with my fantasy. Not at all. It's just that, as described in the book, the Space Aliens resemble the typical modern image of a "Grey", with long spindly arms and bulbous black, almond-shaped eyes. It just seemed kind of...out of place with everything else.

Then, while listening to my iPod on shuffle the other day, the Devo song "Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA" came on and suddenly I had a revelation. My version of the Space Aliens would be of the clinical, detached super-genius mode, with huge brains and even bigger egos:



Problem solved!

The other little setting inspiration came from paging through Fight On! #3 and realizing that grafting Gabor Lux's "Formalhaut" setting onto an edge of the Carcosa map is pretty much a no-brainer. And so it shall be done.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

'09 Project Checklist: Carcosa

One of my goals for this year is to create a few projects that can maybe in their own small way give back to Ye Olde Online Gaming Communitie.

The first project along this line are a couple PDFs I've thrown together for use with Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa. I picked up Supplement V last October and ever since I've been thinking about how I'd like to implement it in game form. A couple weeks ago I got to thinking, and suddenly it struck me that Jason Vey's Spellcraft & Swordplay, with its super old school, Chainmail-derived game engine, would be a perfect fit for the arcane, pulpy vibe of the world. The discovery that S&S is now available in three separate volumes was just icing on the cake. I ordered Book II; Carcosa itself would serve as my "Book III" and setting material. So that just left me to think about how I wanted to do a "Book I" of character generation rules.

I didn't particularly care for S&S's character classes (in contrast to the basic game system, the chargen was a bit too "modern" for these purposes), so I figured on going with OD&D, or rather the Swords & Wizardry White Box classes. Furthermore, I felt I simply had to include spells from Mythmere's Eldritch Weirdness, so how could I not re-introduce magic-users? It creates a nice, pulpy trifecta: the Hero (Fighters), the Wizard (Magic-users), and the Hero-Wizard (Sorcerers) of character classes.

So my first PDF is an 18-page distillation of the S&W chargen rules (featuring fighters and magic-users only--no clerics!) and a modified spell list for magic-users.

Now that I had my nice, shiny new Book I (which I promptly printed out in booklet form), I needed a nice, shiny new character sheet to go with it. The design came to me one evening as I was falling asleep; I sketched it out the next day and finalized things over the next few days. Although I designed it with my specific mod in mind, it should work just fine for any O/BD&D-derived system.

Anyhoo, I'm pretty pleased with how things turned out and I'm happy to share them!

(N.B. I tried to cover my legal bases with the chargen PDF, but if I'm missing a thing or two feel free to let me know. Also, I used a piece of art I found online--if you know of a source attribution, let me know and I'll put it in.)

ETA: I created an OD&D-friendly version of the character sheet that features a single attack matrix and increased room for rituals and/or psionics.

Endings, Beginnings

I've been meaning to post a bit about the BRP Banestorm game I've been running with Des, but rather suddenly it's been put on hold. And for once it's not due to player issues but rather GM (i.e. me) issues.

Seems I'm still a bit burned out on running games after wrapping up my two year Pendragon campaign last year. Oh, I'm all for having a bit of fun around the ol' City State (more on that shortly), but the Banestorm campaign, thanks to its GURPS roots, was very role-play/NPC intensive, and I found I was having trouble running scenes with anything more than a single NPC. Sounds like it's time to get some playing time in, dunnit?

(Incidentally, I'm very much looking forward to returning to the campaign in due time--so far we've had murder mysteries, "Goonies"-style romps through trap-laden catacombs and wererat warrens, the introduction of a smart-ass talking sword, and promises of plenty more action to come.)

Ah well, we'll always have the memories...



(That there is gaming life in the Big City--all you suburban gamers with your fancy "dining room tables" look upon our card table and despair!)

As for our "West Marches"-style City State game, that too is coming to a sort of ending point. I mean, by design it's a pick-up campaign and I'm sure we'll revisit it many times in the future, however infrequently, but the prospect of any sort of semi-regular play (at least outside of me running something for Des or vice versa) has now evaporated with the news that Alex will be moving far away at the end of February. So that brings my local "gaming group" down to...well, me and Des! Not a problem, really. Back in high school it was just me and Alex for the first couple years, and one-on-one play has a charm all its own. I'd look into getting a group together, but we ourselves might be moving this summer; we'll know more by March or so.

The last City State session was hilariously emblematic of why I'm going to miss not being able to more frequently dip my toes into the setting: it was just me and Alex, and it was over in about 20 minutes. See, his gnome thief--who you may recall has a history of being struck by falling objects--wanted to pay a visit to an illusionist so he could have change self cast on him in order to lay low while the authorities were still looking for him. All that was required was a simple little stroll through an alley, then a couple blocks along a main street. Well, as anyone familiar with the City State knows, there's no such thing as a simple stroll. As our intrepid gnome scurried through the tumbledown, slime-caked alleyway, I made the requisite rolls: 20% chance of the alley being blocked by wagons or detritus (I rolled well above that), 10% chance of being struck by a falling object (I rolled...a 09). So once again Alex's gnome was the victim of circumstance. I rolled to hit--it hit. I rolled damage and it came out huge (my houserules make use of Hackmaster's hit point kicker but also the "exploding damage dice" rules). There was nothing else to do but describe how our hero had been laid low by a stone gargoyle (the non-magical type) that had become dislodged from an overhanging roof.

Knocked down into the negatives, Alex's gnome was conveyed back to his room at the Scholar's Inn by his NPC companion (Des's character, who I was "ghosting"), where he lay in a coma for five days, then took three weeks to heal up. That put him well out of the time frame of the mission he was trying to complete, so we left things off there. Next time Alex is over, he intends to put out notices and hire some henchmen, preferably a half-ogre manservant who can hold an iron bumbershoot over his head at all times!

Despite the in-character disaster, we both had a great time laughing our asses off at the luckless saga of Alex's gnome, and had a stimulating post-game discussion. In part, we realized the the City State is, in fact, very much a "tentpole" megadungeon and that our illustrious mayor, Gavin Newsom, would make a great real-life model for what the Invincible Overlord looks like. Check it out:


All kidding aside, I'm very much looking forward to my GMing semi-hiatus. Des has gamely volunteered to run a Pendragon mini-campaign for me (in between writing her thesis--she says it'll be a good break from all the serious writing and research), and I'll have more time to focus on some of my "projects" that I've been neglecting or pursuing half-heartedly.

I've already been able to finish up the first such project, and I'll be posting about that later today or tomorrow. Til then, gentle reader...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Well There's a Loose End Tied Up

So I've written about my fatal attraction to Dragon Warriors before, as well as my love of the world of Magnamund.

And presto, thanks to the great god Internet, those two great tastes now taste great together. I'd been thinking that Dragon Warriors, with its combination of simple rules and Silver Age sensibilities (not to mention its original incarnation as a series of quasi-gamebooks), might make a good rules port for the Lone Wolf setting, and guess what? So did a few other people over on the Mongoose Forums.

Unlike other mods I've looked at in the past (including the official d20 port) this one looks to be both simple and versatile, my two favorite elements for any rules hack. So I guess Dragon Warriors is now officially on my "to buy" list. Or rather, I think I know what gaming-related item I'll be asking for on my birthday in a couple months...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

State of My Gaming in 2009

This is as much a post to help me organize my ongoing projects as it is to present anything really coherent, so consider yourself duly warned...

So how are things shaping up for the new year in terms of my gaming hobby? Pretty well, I'd say. In fact, I do believe that I've got more projects simmering away than at any other time in the past. A regular old period of unbridled creativity!

On the "I play" side of things, my first BRP campaign that I'm running with Des is going along swimmingly. I'll write more in-depth about it in a later post, but suffice to say that the system is everything I'd hoped it would be and I can well and truly say that I've found the universal system of my choice.

My City State "AD&D" game looks to be going on indefinite hiatus owing to the simple fact that I found out this weekend that Alex, the main player in said game, is moving away in a little over a month! This is actually no big deal, as I from the start envisioned the campaign as a sort of "West Marches" type venture that could be played whenever and by whomever. It's just that I made the mistake of introducing a story arc in the last session, and then left things off on a cliffhanger (what can I say--old habits die hard), so I have to make sure we wrap things up before Alex moves.

Moving over to the "project" side of things, I've got two big ones that are progressing in fits and starts: my old Uresia/Labyrinth Lord mod, and my BRP Rifts conversion/overhaul. Again, I anticipate posting about both in separate posts in the near future.

So right now it's just me and Des for the tabletop "group". I'd consider sniffing around for a new player or two, but we ourselves may be moving this year--we'll know for sure around late March. So things are sort of in a holding pattern for now, which is fine by me.

Looking down the road, there are a few projects and games I hope to get to this year. There's a long-delayed Castle Falkenstein game that I'd like to run with Des, and this summer might just see me getting back in the ol' Pendragon GMing throne and attempting the Great Pendragon Campaign from start to finish. I'd also like to run some Burning Wheel, either using my venerable I.C.E. Robin Hood sourcebook or going whole-hog with a Lone Wolf/Magnamund conversion. Or both. :) And as of yesterday, another idea wormed its way into my brain: Spellcraft & Swordplay is the perfect ruleset for a Carcosa campaign! Brilliant! In my version, there would be only one class, and I'd use the Fighting-Man from OD&D rather than the Warrior from S&S. And I might retool the AC values to be descending rather than ascending, if only to make conversion work easier. But otherwise, I think the Chainmail-inspired mechanics of S&S make for a perfect fit with the gonzo-grim atmosphere of Carcosa.

It's sort of funny to have so many D&D-inspired games ongoing and in the works, since I've always considered myself more of a generalist. I guess that's just how things are working out this year. No doubt it's in large part due to the passing of so many Old Masters of the hobby last year. But that now reminds me of the Ninjas & Superspies game I've been wanting to run ever since Eric Wujcik passed...which I'm sure I'll be even hotter to do once I go see Never Too Young to Die at a midnight screening in a couple weeks.

My one big resolution for this year is to cut back on gaming-related spending, unfortunately. In these uncertain times, there's much to be said for hoarding as much of a nest egg as possible, and gaming has long been a siphon on my wallet. By this point I've got more material and potential projects to keep me occupied well into the next decade. The economy might be in the toilet, but things have never looked more exciting from a gaming perspective!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Down Memory Lane

In an effort to sharpen some of my atrophied GMing skills, I've taken as a goal to get out of the habit of using pre-published adventures for the current BRP Banestorm game I'm running for Des.

That, of course, doesn't mean that, in the name of creative inspiration, I'm above shamelessly ripping off material from any and all sources I can lay my hands on. For the adventure I'm currently running there was due to be some overland travel, both by river barge and horseback. I've yet to find more inspirational material for "random stuff to happen on the road in a fantasy game" than in my old Lone Wolf books. So earlier this week I pulled a couple volumes down to crib some encounters...er, refresh my memory.

Incidentally, it's come to my attention since getting online that the Lone Wolf books were comparatively obscure entries in the 80s "game book" phenomenon, being overshadowed by a considerable margin by the Fighting Fantasy line. This doesn't surprise me, as it fits in perfectly with the script of my childhood--while all my friends were playing Legend of Zelda on the NES, I was playing Miracle Warriors on my trusty Sega Master System, for instance.

But I wasn't aware of this divide back in the day, and I happily devoured each Lone Wolf paperback as I acquired them. I look back on my time reading about the world of Magnamund as my true introduction to gaming--I'd played a single session of D&D prior to this, but it mostly went over my head--and not just because the Lone Wolf books introduced me to many of the tropes of Silver Age D&D fantasy. See, I didn't just read the books myself, but I'd also, during lunch recess, read aloud from the books for a friend and let them make the choices at the end of each entry. So I guess I've been GMing from the very beginning.

At any rate, I still have my original Lone Wolf paperbacks, treasured relics of both my gaming past and my childhood. One of the books I pulled off the shelf this week was Cauldron of Fear, Book 9 in the series but the first volume I purchased. One of the great things about the Lone Wolf books is that they were designed to work both as standalone volumes and as a campaign-style installment. So you could sit down with Book 1 and play through the whole series with the same "character", or you could cherry-pick individual volumes, which is obviously how I had to approach Book 9 initially.

Flipping through Book 9 on the bus ride to work, I was struck by the realization that, thanks to the character sheet section in the front, I had an actual written relic of a time of my childhood staring me in the face, a visceral connection to myself at the age of 9 or 10. And I hereby foist said relics upon you, unsuspecting reader. Bask in the brilliance!

Here's the care-worn cover of my copy. Considering it's an over-20-year-old mass-market paperback that's been subjected to multiple re-reading, it's held up pretty well.


The inside cover had this "certificate of ownership", which I dutifully filled out using my best 9 year-old calligraphy skills.

Incidentally, looking at that illustration (by the inimitable Gary Chalk) now, it's a prime example of the fantastic realism I hold so dear--the quasi-medieval illumination, the knight wearing historical-style armor, and so forth.

OK, now we get into the meat of the thing--the character sheet. The second page was a "combat matrix", which I dutifully used even unto the paper having holes worn in it from constant writing and erasing. It's interesting to see my tortured adherence to cursive writing, or how spelling "psychic ring" on the third page was apparently completely beyond my abilities at the time.




The last page in the book was an order form for the Magnamund Companion, perhaps my all-time favorite "world guide". I never did order the thing--the "sales tax" box bested my 4th grade math skills--but I did manage to pick up a copy at a B. Dalton's eventually.


Ever since getting into RPGs proper, I've always wanted to run a campaign set in Magnamund. Being the only person in my gaming group who had been into the Lone Wolf series kept that agenda firmly on the back-burner, but I was bursting with excitement when Mongoose put out their d20-ization of Lone Wolf back in 2004, but was quickly turned off by the product for a variety of reasons both mechanical and aesthetic. I did end up running a brief mini-campaign for Des, but in retrospect I think the Mongoose edition was a rather large brick in the wall of me ultimately rejecting d20--even though they'd streamlined the system somewhat (dropping feats and consolidating the skill list), I still found it too baroque and cumbersome.

My current candidate for running a campaign in Magnamund is Burning Wheel, which seems to have the proper sort of gritty quasi-medieval feel of the world. And now that the Magic Burner is out, it should be pretty easy to do the necessary write-ups for the variety of magical-psionic powers that are the setting's hallmark. At this point it's more a matter of having too many other projects on my plate to justify taking on more work, but it will happen someday. It's on the "long list" as they say. Until then, I've got the memories in my old game books, and the digital versions on Project Aon for when I feel like playing through them again (which I end up doing once every year or two).

ETA: Speaking of "long lists", one of the items on my long list of things to buy if I suddenly found myself with more money than I knew what to do with is the French version of the Lone Wolf RPG, which featured all new illustrations from Gary Chalk. Fantastic realism indeed!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Eviction Proceedings at Tegel Manor

This post about Tegel Manor got me thinking about my (so-far) only experience of it, vicariously through one of my favorite Roger E. Moore editorials. Turns out I'm not alone in my fond memories of this particular gamer war story, so I thought I'd dip into my collection of Dragon PDFs and pull the editorial out to share with y'all.

It's wonderfully goofy and D&Dish in the best sense. Kind of reminds me of the time Tim and I managed to each land a stone golem of our very own (after disposing of their creator) and proceeded to paint tuxedos on said golems and use them as butlers (storing them in a portable hole when they weren't otherwise needed).

At any rate, on with the tale...which also, incidentally, is primarily in regards to stat inflation, a topic much on the mind of many gamers these days, I know...

(From Dragon #195, July 1993):

I hope Michael Brown won't mind if I talk about Thora in this editorial, since she was his AD&D® game character, but Thora's sometimes on my mind and her story is worth telling.

Once upon a time, there was a fighter named Thora. Thora was a perfectly ordinary character. Her highest statistic was a 12, I think. She wasn't particularly strong, smart, good looking, or quick, but she was dependable, fair, and stuck up for her friends. We couldn't ask for much more than that. I thought of her as what an accountant would be like as an adventurer: pleasant and neat, but not very exciting.

Thora had an average amount of magical equipment and had reached a middle level of experience in our campaign when a very unusual thing happened. The Dungeon Master (me) got hold of a copy of Tegel Manor, an old D&D® module published by a now-extinct company called Judges' Guild. Tegel Manor itself was a huge, rambling mansion on a windswept coast, abandoned and deserted by the living for many years. It had once belonged to a powerful, cursed family that had produced adventurers, criminals, and tyrants for centuries. When Thora got into a card game with the last survivor of that family, he put the deed to the estate in the pot and she won it. Thora now owned Tegel Manor and was free to move in any time--once she managed to clear out the undead.

See, the problem with Tegel Manor was that every one of the dead members of that cursed family now lived on in the mansion in undead form. They came in every size, shape, and flavor, from lowly skeletons to ultrapowerful vampires and liches. There were scores of dead things in that manor, and they were killers. One room had over a dozen ghosts, and one of the liches was an archmage. They most definitely did not want to give up their home to a living person, and especially not to someone who wasn't even in their family tree. The cowardly survivor of the family had tried for years to get rid of his responsibility for the manor (he was good at losing card games), but everyone he'd given the deed to had later sought him out and forced him to take it back. "You didn't say anything about the vampires or liches," they'd say in a peeved tone of voice, with most of their armor and clothes burnt off.

Everyone gave the manor back but Thora, that is. The first thing Thora did after the card game was paste a copy of the deed to the front of her +2 shield. The second thing she did was round up all her old adventuring friends and promise them low-cost housing in her manor if they’'d help her clean it out a little bit first. The third thing she did was march into the manor and begin eviction proceedings against the current inhabitants.

Thora was always the first one into a room. The door would smash open as she threw her plate-mailed weight into it, then she'd hold up her shield and deed to the skull-like faces of the startled undead within and yell, "I'm the new landlord! Get out, or you're history!" The undead would disagree with her assessment of the situation, so Thora and a battalion of lords, wizards, master thieves, and high priests would pour into the room. After some of the most savage property negotiations we'd ever had, there'd be another room cleared out.

Thora would take a moment afterwards to make notes on her maps about redecorating, water pipes, where she would put the cafeteria, and so forth, then she'd lead the group to the next room. Tegel Manor was huge, but she managed to clean out about two-thirds of it before the campaign wandered on to another adventure. Everyone who survived the eviction action was filthy rich. Thora moved in with a few other semi-retired adventurers, and soon she became famous as the landlord of the most dangerous condominiums in the land (they hadn't yet gotten rid of all the vampires in the basement, and the bloodrose outside sometimes ate visitors but she couldn't bear to part with it). She was a good landlord, too, very reliable.

Thora didn't have 18/00 strength or +6 battle armor, but she kicked butt and we admired her. I thought about her in an AD&D game I played a few years ago, and I made up a character that had no high statistics at all, just like her, but the group wouldn't let me use it. I was given a revised character with an 18/00 strength and 18 constitution. It just wasn't the same.

Thora, you were an average sort of character, but you were the most extraordinary ordinary hero I ever saw. Thanks for the memories. And good luck with the tenants in the basement.

Friday, January 2, 2009

"Fantastic Realism"

I think it's been cold enough this winter to finally freeze Hell over, because Jamie Mal over at Grognardia just posted in praise of Larry Elmore. OK, I kid, and it's a very well-written post too, but there was a little phrase contained therein that really lept out at me: "fantastic realism". The hallmark of the Silver Age of D&D (another phrase I rather like) and of fantasy imagery in the 1980s in general. He defines it thusly:

His figures looked real, as did the clothing they wore, the weapons they carried, and the environments they inhabited. He evoked an impression of "groundedness" that contrasted powerfully with the fever dream phantasmagoria of Otus and the dark density of Trampier, both of whom were examplars of an age that was passing, while Elmore was the spirit of the transition between Gold and Silver.




Considering that this is the time that I got into D&D and fantasy, it's no wonder that it's my preferred type of fantasy imagery. I like my fantasy to be grounded in reality, thank you very much. My interest in fantasy stoked an interest in medieval history, or maybe it was vice versa. When your fantasy fighters look like historical knights, it can be hard to tell sometimes what influenced what.



It's funny, because right now I'm running a game with my SO that's set in the world of Yrth, the setting developed for GURPS Fantasy. It's as grounded in fantasy realism as you could hope to get--in fact, I suspect the whole setting came about as a thought exercise of taking the tropes of Silver Age D&D and extrapolating them as realistically as possible. And I love every bit of it.



Oh sure, I've got my love of gonzo pulp fantasy as well, but that developed much later on. Fantasy realism is something I've always held dear to my heart, and I'm happy to now have a term to apply to my bizarre tastes. So here's to Fantasy Realism! May it live on in the hearts and minds of all those who would hold it dear.

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