Saturday, June 27, 2009

I can resist anything but temptation

Yes, even though I've got as many arms as Vishnu and they are all very busy with gaming-related goodness, I can't switch off sufficiently to immediately want to drop everything and take advantage of two supplements which have come into the light of day in the last couple weeks. Let's see if I can express it in the form of a chemical reaction:

BRP Rome + GURPS Gladiators --> Me on the floor twitching and drooling with pure gamer-lust

I'm particularly intrigued by this tidbit from GURPS Gladiators: "Rules for tournament campaigns: the crowd's reaction, the referee's decision, victory-based character advancement, and gladiator ranks and prices."

I know that if I were to go and put on my as-yet-unwatched Season 2 DVDs of HBO's Rome, it would be all over. So for the sake of the stuff I'm working on now, Rome will remain unwatched...for the time being.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

In which I switch gears from High Adventure to Story Teller

Well, hello there. It's been a while, I know. Thing is, I've been busy. Real life busy, yes, but also busy with game-related stuff. That's the kind of busy I like, very much so. And as a bit of a bonus, it's been game-related stuff of rather unexpected nature, to the point where I feel myself sliding (on the Mischler scale) from High Adventure over to Story Teller and dipping perilously close to Rein·Hagenism. I blame my 90s roots for this (more on that in a future post, I'm sure). But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

So what's been going on, you ask? Let's take a look:
  • First off, my grand plans for a world-building project have had to go on the back burner. Couple reasons for this. First, I'm just too busy with other projects, gaming or otherwise, to take on what's essentially a vanity project right now. Perhaps more importantly, I discovered the copy of The World Builder's Guidebook that I got off eBay a couple years ago to replace my lost copy is missing about 30-40 pages! It seems to be a genuine factory defect where one of the book's sections didn't get stapled in, but unfortunately it excises some rather crucial parts of the book. Gee, if only I could still purchase the WBD as a PDF, Wizards would have my money for sure. Ah well.
  • With the Ruins and Ronin project on the back burner, I find myself thinking of taking up my Dragon Warriors/Lone Wolf project. It's a bit more low-impact than a full-blown world creation project, and it's certainly much more of a long time coming (considering I first took a crack at adapting Magnamund to an RPG setting back when I were a lad with cheek of tan). We'll see. Top priority now has to go to...
  • The two campaigns I've suddenly found myself running:
  • First up, Des and I have finally, at long last, sat down to play some Castle Falkenstein. This campaign's been a long time coming. Initially I was going to run it with GURPS, and Des created her character with that system, but after my disenchantment I decided to run things with the original system. I bought CF back when it came out in 1994 and loved it, but the ur-indie game mechanics kind of intimidated me at the time and I never got around to doing anything with it. So here we are, 15(!) years later. (Incidentally, it's been kind of a bummer, looking for CF resources online. Most websites dedicated to the game haven't been updated in the last decade, and even their links to non-gaming websites are dead. The Internet really is an ephemeral thing, isn't it?) We're doing it pretty much "by the book"--Des is keeping a character diary, I'm doing a campaign diary (or Novel, if you will); I'm using the alternate task resolution system from Comme Il Faut (Des laughed when I told her this--"Of course you are!" she said) to streamline the mechanics even more. It's all very free-form, narrative-driven, role-play focused. A nice change, although my brain felt like it was on fire after a couple hours from all the NPCs and scene descriptions. Maybe I shouldn't have kicked things off with a gala ball at the White House? (That said, I'm finding it really easy to interface with the setting. I guess I'm way more familiar with 1870s America than I might have even suspected. And yes, the campaign is set in America, not Europa. I'll probably write a bit more about the setting and Des's character in my next post.)
  • I know this is going to make noisms cop a plotz, but the other campaign I'm working on is a Blue Rose game. This is going to be a group game with Des, an old work friend, and her partner. I went with Blue Rose because one of the players expressed an interest in playing an animal, and I remembered that psychic animals were part of the Blue Rose setting. I picked up the core rulebook during our trip, and I've been rather liking it. There are some setting elements that I'll definitely be changing, and I didn't care for the "baseline" campaign set-up (we're going to do a pirate campaign instead; and you better believe that means I'm bringing firearms into the setting too), but as the old sage said, "You take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both and there you have..." Uh, I forget how the rest goes, but the point is that there's a lot to like about the setting. I like the fairie-tale feel of it--I'll definitely be dipping into my copy of The Book of Weird for additional setting inspiration--and the Art Nouveau feel of the art and lots of other stuff too. Plus the True 20 system seems rather intriguing, so I'll be interested to see how it plays at the table. First game session is set for a week from today. From there, who knows?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Play with Me, She Breathed

During the years I had a subscription to Dragon magazine (approximately 1991 to 2000), one of my favorite regular features was the First Quest column. The idea behind First Quest (other than rather cheesily referencing a game line TSR had put out at the time) was to invite game industry professionals to write about how they got into gaming way back when.

Some stories were duds, but most were at the very least informative and/or illuminating. I've already written a bit regarding the First Quest article that perhaps exerted the most influence on my gaming style--Roger E. Moore's entry, entitled "Verix Dwarfstompter Made Me Do It"--but that is not, ultimately, my favorite entry in the series. That honor belongs to Ed Greenwood, creator (for better or worse) of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting/media machine.

Say what you will about what the Realms became, you can't argue with the fact that Ed had perhaps the most cinematic, romantic introduction to RPGs that one could possibly have. In a hobby where most people are grandfathered in by a Harris Trinsky, Greenwood pretty much hit the jackpot. See for yourself (from Dragon #218, June 1995):

The lamps were low as Elminster put me into the armor. "Ouch," I remarked intelligently.

"Belt up," he ordered gruffly. "If ye weren't crazed enough to spend entire days writing fancies about my world for those TSR folk, 'keyboard spread' wouldn't afflict ye quite so prominently and ye just might still fit into this."

Recalling what befell the last time I last got into a suit of armor, took sword in hand, and sallied forth to battle in the SCA, an inability to get into armor might not be a bad thing.

Whenever I think of getting into armor, my mind always leaps to that moment in a sun-dappled ravine in Don Mills, Ontario, on a fern-strewn, sandy bank of Wilket Creek. My friends and I were wont to take our original, big-board DIPLOMACY and KINGMAKER games, and our model soldiers and Donald Featherstone rules to while away glorious weekend afternoons. We discussed Middle-earth and the works of Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, William Morris, and Fritz Leiber. We argued “what if this happened,” and what hadn'’t we been told about what lay there, and longed to know more about things in Tolkien's Middle-earth, Lovecraft's Kadath, and many other fantasy worlds--longings that led, eventually, to the Realms. Later we discussed Roger Zelazny as one Amber novel after another came out and each was devoured. We dreamed of seeing his hard-to-find Dilvish stories published in a collection--—and of all the other classics of fantasy, and, well, of girls. (More about that in a moment.)

Lin Carter at Ballantine was bringing all the great English-language fantasies back into print, culminating in the splendid guide called Imaginary Worlds (Ballantine, 1973), still required reading for anyone who wants to know what's what in fantasy. These, plus a steady diet of Conan and FANTASTIC magazine (later amalgamated with its sister publication, AMAZING Stories) kept us wallowing in worlds full of swords, spells, dragons, beautiful princesses, crumbling castles, and fell wizards--and also kept us (despite re-reading everything several score times) always hungry for more.

I'd been a reader and writer from my earliest days, growing up on A. Merritt's tales, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the like, and had even tried my hand (in 1967) at writing jaunty Three Musketeers/Fafhrd & Grey Mouser-style yarns wherein swordsmen exchange witty repartee as they carve up endless bad guys in the proto-Realms. The first sentence in which the Realms came to life? "Now in all the lands ‘twixt bustling Waterdeep and the sparkling waves of The Sea of Fallen Stars, no men were more loved--and feared--than the stoic swordsman Durnan, the blustering old rogue Mirt, and the all-wise, ancient wizard Elminster." A pretty good summation of the heart of the Realms even today, and not bad for an eight-year-old, eh? Once Carter published New Worlds For Old, I was hooked.

Things might have gone along just fine if it hadn't been for Gary Gygax--and for September.

Oh, I bought Chainmail, adding monsters to our knights-and-castles wargames— already, thanks to Featherstone, linked into an ongoing battle-by-battle history of several imaginary kingdoms. And I bought the original D&D books, and played a game or two (in 1975, for those keeping score), but although we thought the rules were a great, nay, fascinating idea, they were still just sitting around together telling a fantasy story, which is what we'd already been doing, without rules.

Then the original Monster Manual came out...and September came to us. On reflection, the quality of this book (quantifying one mythological monster after another, and adding a lot of neat new ones to boot) and the brilliant Vanceian magic of the Player's Handbook (explaining precisely what spells do) were what made me change the Realms from a nebulous place of pretty maps into an AD&D game world. But what really got me hooked on the game was September.

She came to town to attend university, and she was quite the most beautiful being I'd ever laid eyes on. She loved fantasy and laughed heartily at the ungainly nerds she found fencing clumsily with homemade swords around the SF bookstores, quoting more fantasy writers than she'd ever read. September also saw in them someone to play her latest passion with: games of AD&D. And one of those nerds was me.

Three of us promised her a "great place to play" and loaded up a romantic cargo of pop, potato chips, and homemade dip (a tradition that continues to this day) before meeting her at the bus and taking her to (of course) our special spot in the woods. She loved it at first glance.

And we loved her. She stepped off the bus dragging a huge dunny bag and wearing swashbuckling boots and a cloak, and the moment we were in the woods, she announced that the trip had been long and that she had to go off by herself for a moment. Gallantly, we showed her the densest bushes, and a few minutes later we learned what had been in that bag.

September reappeared in splendid half-armor, cloak thrown back, leather gauntlets on her wrists. A real longsword gleamed in her hand.

"Come, play with me," she breathed huskily, reaching out her hand. All three of us stout lads fell over each other (and our steamed-up glasses) trying to kneel and kiss it.

Needless to say, she was the greatest Dungeon Master we've ever known, before or since. September believed in acting out all the NPCs, complete with funny voices, mannerisms, the works. Tears ran down her face when things grew sad, and she leaped around the clearing in glee when we tried witty repartee and clever battle-tricks--and ended up with slapstick accidents, just like the tales. Best of all, she believed in ending play sessions when we were still hungry for more, and she let us excitedly discuss plans and what might lie ahead (and thereby learned what we hoped for, so she could give it to us next time). She also allowed me to blossom slowly into our “idea man,” shaping the worlds we played in by probing and asking.

None of us knew that September would be dead little more than a year later, the cancer that killed her already eating away at her, inside. Like all first loves, she'll live forever, laughing, in memory.

I still try to DM the way she did, all these years later, though I've accepted the fact that I'll never have September's looks. I've tried to hold on to what we had, though: love, honor, and friendship.

Love is what the Realms has always been about; not just grand romantic passion, but simple, decent folk doing kind and noble things for others, up to and including laying down their lives for their friends.

As for honor, I still feel--project after project--that it's an honor to share “my world and dreams with gamers everywhere. I am, and will always be, grateful to TSR for doing so, from the pages of DRAGON Magazine #30 onward.

And that leaves us with friendship. The most precious thing the Realms have given me are good and true friends, from Dave, Ken, and Tim to Victor, Andrew, John (the splendid roleplayer), Ian (the first Lore Lord of the Realms), Jim, Anita, and Cathy of my stalwart players; to creative folks who've shaped the Realms with me: Jeff Grubb, Steve Schend, Rob King, Karen Boomgraden, and Julia Martin (among many, many folks at TSR), and fellow scribes Bob Salvatore and Elaine Cunningham; to the gaming friends I've met and made all over the world, from “Uncle” Wes, Grant, Leslie, Craig, and Nicole in Australia (and hello to all at Mack Campbell's Bookshop in Toowoomba!), to Chris and Leo in Sweden, to Chris and Lisa in Dallas, to Steve and Jenny in Peterborough, to Mike and Roxy in Pennsylvania, to Erica in Cobourg, to Terry, Steve, Helen, Lori and Doug in Houston, to Alex, Cheryl, and Merle in Toronto. The list can go on for pages. You have all made my life brighter, and you are why I keep on writing instead of being the (richer) doctor or lawyer my folks wanted me to be.

Besides, for me, it's become a duty: someone has to be Elminster...and I've mastered the bawdy banter. And if I sometimes get tears in my eyes when I'm running yet another Realmsplay session, it's because something has sent me back to that sun-dappled fern bower under the trees, and September's clear voice calling, "Swords bright!" in farewell, as she started her walk back to the bus. I'll never see her again, but in the Realms, I can meet her every day. Farewell, September--and well met!
Sheesh. What a story! If that doesn't deserve to be made into a movie or at least an After-School Special, I don't know what does. It reads like a gaming version of Stand By Me.

I was reminded of this column recently when yet another former co-worker of mine expressed an interest in playing D&D. She's told me that she'd tried to get into it in high school but was turned away by the all-male gaming group at her school on the grounds that they didn't play with girls. I'd find that hard to believe save for the fact that I've sadly seen the same attitude expressed by others over the years--even by adults! All I know is that if someone like September had come into my adolescent gaming life, my own all-male group would have reacted exactly like Greenwood and his buddies. Some people, you know?

At any rate, I hope to do my part in redeeming my unkown sexist co-hobbyists when I treat my old co-worker to what will hopefully be some first-rate D&D action in the very near future.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Short Vacation

Des and I are off to celebrate our five year anniversary in high style, so I'll be off the ol' blogosphere til next week. In the mean time, I'll be mulling over my world creation project and also preparing for a new Wilderlands campaign I'll be starting up soon. Hope y'all have a nice weekend!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"I can't decide if this is an all-time high or an all-time low."

The quote in the subject was spoken by yours truly, halfway through a skill challenge during tonight's 4e game that moved the campaign into full-blown Stupid-Pretentious territory:



And just for the record, the Scornubel Spelunkers mopped the court with Irontooth's Kobold City Warchiefs. Six successes to one failure later and Irontooth and his gang were packing up and hitting the road in shame.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Firing Up a New Project: World Creation

If ever I had tried to pursue a musical career, I think I would have done best as a jazz musician. I like to riff. It's always been this way for me, creatively. For some reason, I'm just not one of those people of seemingly boundless originality like Jeff Rients or taichara. The folks who can pull random tables out of nowhere, or produce reams of new, creatively interesting monsters, spells, and treasures.

No, for me, it's all about improvising off an established melody line. Give me a strong line and I can go nuts. Just look at my Rifts:2112 project, or my Carcossa hacks. I think this is probably a component of why I was attracted to RPGs as a creative conduit rather than, say, creative writing.

I say all this to say that the foundations of my next project, a fun little exercise that's been bubbling away in the back of my head for a few months now, are all gleefully swiped from inspired by other people's good works here on the gaming blogosphere.

It all started with noism's post about his Top 10 favorite D&D monsters. I made a comment to that post in which I said I could easily see creating a homebrew world in which these were the only sentient monsters. And so a seed was planted.

The seed began to sprout when I was reminded of the World Builder's Guidebook over on Outsyder Gaming. I picked up this worthy tome shortly after it came out and it has held a place of honor on my bookshelf ever since...although more out of respect than actual use.

Oh, I took a stab or two at using the book for its intended purpose back in the day--despite all my years of gaming, creating a start-to-finish D&D homebrew has remained a great unrealized goal of mine. But those efforts ultimately failed when I found myself simply recreating a knockoff of the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk. I was a bit too pedantic when it came to D&D back then, unwilling to really stretch limits.

I'm ready to stretch some limits now. Noism's list is a fine starting point, and the final ingredient fell into place when, looking over the list, I was struck by the decidedly "Asian" feel of many of the monsters and I suddenly realized I'd found my ruleset: Ruins & Ronin (the White Box Edition, since I like the simplicity of it). This decision came as a bit of surprise to me, actually. Although I've read a bit on Japanese history and culture and enjoy Miyazaki movies as much as the next person, I'm not a Japan-o-phile by any means. Furthermore, I had read along with the development of R&R but had felt a distinct lack of motivation to run anything with it. But now I do. Can I drag another blogger into this mess and blame Jeff Rients's series of posts on Oriental Adventures for tipping the weight? Don't mind if I do!

So this is the project's goal, formally stated: to use the World Builder's Guidebook to create a homebrew setting for Ruins & Ronin, limiting myself to ten sentient races of "monsters".

That's about all I've got right now, except for a couple tidbits. First of all, I modified noism's list somewhat. The results:

1. Yuan-Ti
2. Svirfneblin
3. Yak-folk
4. Neogi
5. Ogres
6. Mind-flayers
7. Dragons
8. Kuo-Toa
9. Aboleths
10. Humans!
Second, I'm not interested in making a "Japan with the serial numbers filed off" setting. It's been done to death as much as "Tolkien with the serial numbers filed off". I'm looking into something a little more off the wall, if the presence of "yak folk" on that list of ten sapients didn't tip you off to that already. I have a couple fuzzy ideas on what to do. Maybe an elemental world that references the five Chinese elements (yeah, that's been done at least a couple times, right?) Or taking Marco Polo's description of Cathay as a starting point? We'll see.

Lastly, I've been looking at some classic modules I might be able to adapt to my purposes. Once the setting work's been done, I'm envisioning the starting area as a classic sandbox campaign focused on a small village with a variety of keyed module locations in the vicinity (such as a "Shrine of the Kuo-Toa" for example) for the PCs to explore, along with a nearby ruined castle as a "tentpole" megadungeon. And as for the starting village, what's Japanese for Saltmarsh? ;P

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Tortured Analogy Time

I'm loathe to add more to the tiresome old school/new school dialogue (and with a tortured analogy no less!) but I just wanted to chime in with an observation that really resonated with me. Plus this lets me pimp a band I really like.

A thread over on the RPGsite brought up the question of whether old school gaming's primary appeal was that it dealt with a mythical "golden age" of gaming, when all was right with the world and stuff.

Captain Rufus made an excellent comparison that I felt applies perfectly to my own view of old school gaming. To whit:

Heck, I discovered classic rock in the early 90s as the pop radio I was
mostly listening to just became nothing but shit. R&B, lame love songs, and
Rap sucked ass to me for the most part. And this station I had heard on the bus
to school was playing some really good music. Zeppelin, the Doors, Pink Floyd.
It wasn't nostalgia. I hadn't heard most of these songs. My mom only had country
on at home, and I didn't hear much music at friend's houses either. I discovered
greatness LATER. It was awesome stuff I was deprived of, much of which came out
before I was even born.


I couldn't agree with anaology more, since I had the exact same exprience, both with classic rock and classic gaming. I started with the Mentzer Red Box, but never actually ran any games with it; just made up characters and dungeons. It wasn't until I "bought into" AD&D that I started gaming with actual people, and by that point 2nd edition had come out. So I missed the old school boat pretty much entirely. But there was something about those articles I'd read in the back issues of Dragon from the 80s that really appealed to me...

Similarly, although I'd had a bit of exposure to classic rock by dint of my Dad's career, I still listened primarily to contemporary music until I discovered classic rock radio in the early 90s (back when such stations still played a somewhat varied playlist...) and, later, classic punk rock.

Today, the only contemporary acts I tend to listen to are bands that preserve somewhat the sound, flavor, and spirit of classic rock bands. I was listening to one such band, Danava, on the way to work this morning when it struck me that this whole "new hard rock" movement is really pretty much the equivalent of the old school retro-clones! So the analogy has come full-circle. Although some might accuse bands like Danava, Witchcraft, or Wolfmother of living in the past, I think most people who listen to and appreciate these sorts of bands would agree that they're simply revisiting a sound that was needlessly sacrificed at the altar of "creative progress," discovering old sounds and making them fresh and new again. So too do I view retro-clones and the Old School Renaissance.

And because this post needs more Danava, we leave off with a video whose rock is inversely proportionate to the level of shirts, as one commenter on YouTube astutely observed:

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