Friday, September 17, 2010

[Solo GPC] 512: Three Feasts

This year was one of those years, like 492, in which events vital to the mythical story arc played out before Herringdale's astonished eyes. It wasn't quite as rail-roady as the year of high treason though, and there were even opportunities for Herringdale to directly participate in some of the ongoing events. Certainly, the hall of Du Plain castle will now have a part in the legend...and they're still trying to get the blood stains off the floor of the hall...

A World Without Monster...Books

Monsters have been on my mind lately.

 Art by Yours Truly, Age 4

In reading over the reviews for the new Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG, I was struck by the fact that the game does not contain any monster stats. Now, this is not terribly surprising if one has even a passing familiarity with James Raggi and his philosophies, but it still seemed to me to be an especially bold move. And it definitely got my brain working. Is it really that much of a "bad thing" as some reviewers have said?

One of the things that I've often seen cited as a failing of the Rifts rule books, both old and new, is that they too don't contain monster stats. But I'm now starting to think that this is a feature rather than a bug.

When you think about, even D&D doesn't technically include monsters in its actual core rulebooks. All you really need to play is the Players Handbook and the DM's Guide, after all.

If there must be statted monsters, let there be few. That's one of the attractions of Pendragon for me. The bestiary in the back contains an even dozen "Fabulous Beasts" - and that's really all you'd ever need, even for a full, multi-generational campaign. This is because most of the action in that game centers around interactions between fellow human beings (and stats are provided for several variations therein as well). Why would you ever need more than a dozen monsters?

I'm coming to realize that the more monsters one throws into a campaign, the more emphasis is put on combat meat grinders. Naturally it's boring to fight, say, giants and lions all the damn time. So have most of the combats be with other "PC races" and throw in the occasional beastie for variety.

The old Rifts Main Book had a "random demon generator" in the back. For my future Rifts games, I'm thinking of taking a page from another Raggi product, the Random Esoteric Creature Generator (etc.), and making most of my "monsters" randomly-generated one-off creations. I'll assemble a list of known creatures taken from my canonical sources (the Main Book, Sourcebook I, World Books 1 & 2, and Mercenaries), most of which will be playable races. I might throw in a few selections from D-Bees of North America (again, the emphasis is on intelligent, playable races) and beyond that if I need another monster or "demon" or what have you, it's all randomness!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Keep's a Keeper

A while back I posted about my search for a good RPG database program. I thought I'd update on what I found and how it's working out.

I was a little surprised by the dearth of good RPG database programs currently available, to be honest. Judging from the comments I got to my initial post, it seems that most people turn to wikis for their database management these days. Well, call me an old stick in the mud, but I don't want to have to code - no matter how minor said coding might be - on top of organizing a database. That's just me. Plus, I usually don't have the sort of players who can be bothered to check wikis or contribute or what-have-you. They're more of the "roll the damn dice" school, while I'm more of the "obsessive archivist and tinkerer" breed. Which, I suppose, is why I'm the GM and they're the players. What I'm trying to get at is that the point of having a publicly-shared database is sort of lost with me and my usual players.

At any rate, after searching around and looking at demos and so forth, I settled on two programs that would face off against each other in a winner-take-all Thunderdome-esque showdown.

 Art by Matthew Elliot

In one corner, we have DM Secretary. Pros: it's freeware; it looks purty and has a nice interface; it has a great calendar app - something that was lacking from pretty much every other program I looked at, which really surprised me - plus all the other features I was looking for. Cons: it's for Fourth Edition (and it could also work for d20/Pathfinder). This was a con for me since I was running Castles & Crusades at the time, plus I like to run a bunch of other systems and was looking for something that could handle any campaign I'd choose to throw at it. It's lack of customizability led me to look into shelling out some ducats for...

The Keep from NBOS software.  I've had some experience with NBOS before; I used their generally excellent Screen Monkey program to run the latter half of my online 2006-2008 Pendragon campaign. The biggest con with this company is that they charge way too much for their programs. I mean, 35 bucks for Screen Monkey!? Fantasy Grounds II is only 5 bucks more, and it comes with all these fancy bells and whistles like interactive, 3-D dice and such.

But what can I say? Despite the lack of graphical whiz-bang wow factor, NBOS got me again. With Screen Monkey I shelled out the dough because of the way the program worked; specifically, only the GM needs the program and everyone else simply dials in to the game through their web browser. We'd been having lots of trouble with updates and network crashes with OpenRPG, and Screen Monkey provided a most welcome respite from that.

In the case of The Keep, the money has again proven itself well-spent. This is because the program walks the fine line between the total flexibility of a wiki and the plug-n-play interface of a good database program of something like DM Secretary. With The Keep, I've been able to organize all my notes, NPCs, books, maps, and adventures, all in one location. One thing I really like about the program is that you can embed PDFs into the database tree. This makes flipping back and forth between your notes and your PDFs an absolute breeze. Plus there's an extremely versatile dice roller.

Although I'm not running my C&C game anymore, I've started running my Pendragon games with The Keep open on a laptop off to the side. Previously I was using a three-ring binder to organize all my notes, but I found that I have a tendency to forget what exactly is in the binder, particularly at crucial moments. With The Keep, all your files are listed in tree-form so it's easy to see what you have to work with at a glance.

Two things The Keep lacks that DM Secretary has in spades are a calendar function (which is much less crucial now that I'm not running a D&D-esque game) and an easy to use PC record sheet. The program interacts with NBOS's freeware Character Sheet Designer, but that's just a blank template that still requires you to actually build a character sheet before you can start plugging in data. Not something I've had the time or inclination for doing.

On the other hand, The Keep also interfaces with another extremely handy piece of NBOS freeware called Inspiration Pad Pro. This program allows you to put together your own random tables and the coding is so ridiculously simple even I don't mind doing it.

So overall, I've found The Keep to be the perfect solution to organizing my campaigns (both present and future - more on the latter in a forthcoming post) and I've now officially become one of those GMs that has a laptop at the gaming table. So be it. I tried the analog method, I really did...

(Incidentally, one of the criteria from my original post - the search for a Mac-compatible program - failed utterly across the board. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since I can now also run the stunningly excellent Domesday program alongside The Keep when I'm running Pendragon. Domesday has proven invaluable in coming up with NPCs, names, hunts, and so forth on the fly.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

[Solo GPC] 511: Ghosts of the Past

After the sweeping, epic events (not to mention epic length!) of 510, I wanted to dial things down a bit for 511. Bring events to a more personal level, that sort of thing. Here's how it all played out...

We had left off with Herringdale and a host of other worthies wintering over at Carlion. As the winter wore on, the cold and dark nights were whiled away with long, serious discussions, instigated and led by Arthur, on the nature of knighthood. What made a man a knight as opposed to a simple armored thug riding a horse? How were knights differentiated from the common stock? Did knights share a certain commonality of beliefs that united them?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Treasure Type B-X

A couple weeks ago I received the complimentary copy of JB's B/X Companion that was my reward for contributing art to the book. Due to an obvious conflict of interest, I won't provide a full review, but I'll just say this: the Companion finally induced me to take the plunge and pick up the 1981 Moldvay/Cook iteration of Basic-Expert (B-X) D&D.

I was motivated in part by the latent completest in me, the part of my brain that said, "Well, you've got the third volume in the series, you might as well get volumes 1 and 2 and put them all in the same box." But flipping through the Companion, I was also motivated by a desire to match up that volume's excellent contents to the rulebooks that I've heard and read so much about in the past few years, ever since plugging in to the Old School blogging community. As a professed admirer of the 1983 Mentzer set, I was curious to see how the Moldvay/Cook set stacked up.

After a couple of days trawling eBay, I found a nice deal. While not quite the bargain hunter's paradise it once was, it's nice to know that eBay's still good for a score now and then. In this case I found not only the Basic and Expert rule books, but also the original modules (Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread) plus Palace of the Silver Princess AND a folio of character sheets all contained in the original Basic Set box. All for 15 bucks. Not bad!

(Incidentally, I love the riot of colors presented by all those covers together.)

At any rate, I waited for the package to arrive, figuring it would be fairly anti-climactic when it did. I'm on hiatus from D&D at the moment and really have no immediate or even intermediate plans to run it (although when I do I'll likely be using Basic D&D, having OD'd on the myriad of houserules, options, and world-building details of my C&C Wilderlands campaign). Imagine my surprise, then, when the package finally arrived and I found myself opening not so much a collection of second-hand books but rather a time capsule.

See, I bought the lot from what looked like a second-hand book dealer. Having worked in a used book store myself, I assumed that the books would be relatively "clean." That is, there would probably be some cover or edge wear, but the books themselves would be more-or-less unused. What I found instead was straight out of someone's well-used game closet. To be precise, Brendan Moriarty's closet, if the name carefully scribed in the inside cover of the Basic rulebook is any indication.

Young Brendan (I say "young" based off handwriting alone, so I'll grant that I may be wrong here) was apparently quite the dedicated Dungeon Master. He made full use of his books, from keying the sample dungeon in the Basic rulebook... making full use of the suggested space to "Draw Your Own Floor Plan" in Keep on the Borderlands...

 The heart and soul of the time capsule, however, is the character record sheet folio. Every single sheet in the folio is filled out by Brendan's redoubtable crew, which comprised no fewer than seven players. Including - gasp! - two girls! Unfortunately, there are no dates on the sheets, so it's impossible to tell when this group was active, but I think it's safe to say it was sometime in the early 80s.

As someone with a degree in History, this kind of stuff is my bread and butter. Constructing a narrative based on fragmentary documentary evidence - whoo-boy, I'm in for the evening! So let's see what we've got...

First, some players clearly played more often than others, or at least played certain characters more often. The highest level character is at 9th level, a fighter named Mr. J. There are two level 6 characters, a level 5, and a level 8 (a magic-user, a dwarf, an elf, and a "theif," respectively). The rest are all first level. The higher level character sheets are obviously well-used and have been subject to lots of changes and erasures, so I'm inclined to think the characters leveled up the old-fashioned way, rather than starting at a higher level from the get-go.

The ability scores, on the other hand, betray obvious signs of alternate methods of generating the numbers; 18s abound on every sheet (an average of two per character). Scores under 10 are vanishingly rare. The single exception is the poor sucker who obviously used the "3d6 in order" method to roll up his 1st-level character (maybe he was a stickler for doing it "by the book"?). He came up with a Strength of 4 and his highest ability, Wisdom, is an intimidating 12. Ouch.

Looking over the sheets I can see evidence of previous characters being erased so the sheet can be re-used. Like the scribbling in the Keep on the Borderlands graph paper, it's an interesting reminder of the days before easy access to photocopiers, to say nothing of home printers and scanners. Another cool detail is that some of the sheets have been three-hole punched for keeping in binders.

Like most groups, some people were more inclined to show their character sheets an appropriate amount of love. Here are my personal favorites from the folio:

"Vicki H." and her Chaotic 1st-level thief "Chochomo." That's a pretty tough-looking customer, Vicki!

(Incidentally, of the girls' character sheets, only one had an Elf named Silver Leaf, and even that had been erased and written over, replaced by a nameless "magics-user.")

The infamous Mr. J, 9th-level fighter. According to the back of the character sheet, he had a talking sword that did 2d6 damage as well as a cloak and boots of elvenkind, along with a diamond ring worth 500 gp. But clearly the best part of this sheet is the character sketch. Check out this action:

Pretty boss, dude.

For all I know, this little time capsule represents "that one summer we were really into D&D" and none of the kids who so assiduously kept track of their hit points, rations, and talking swords ever played again. Years later, when Brendan was cleaning his stuff out of his parents' game closet, he ran across the old D&D box. Maybe he took some time to page through it, smiling at the memories. But then he sold it to a Florida second-hand book dealer, who then put it up on eBay for 15 bucks.

And now it's mine. I promise I'll take good care of it, gang. And maybe it'll get some use and the dusty corridors of the Silver Princess's palace and the slime-coated passageways of the Caves of Chaos will again be lit by the torches of brave adventurers, proud successors to the legacy of Chochomo, Mr. J, Silver Leaf, and the rest...

Friday, September 10, 2010

[Solo GPC] 510: ...and Of Boy Kings (Part III)

With this third and final installment, the year 510 officially takes the crown as the most epic-length year so far in our campaign. Three full sessions! About 15 hours of game play! Not that I was surprised; this was obviously going to be an epic year based solely on events laid out in the GPC itself. As it turned out, Herringdale found plenty of moments to personally shine, as well.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

[Solo GPC] 510: ...and Of Boy Kings (Part II)

 Picking up where we left off, then...

Having been crowned King of Logres to widespread jubilation and acclaim, Arthur was swept off in a grand procession bound for Carlion. This just so happened to be Herringdale's destination too. Arthur was going because the Supreme Collegium was reconvening in the ancient city to elect a High King. Herringdale was going because his daughter, Heledd, was due to marry King Alain of Escavalon. Don't you love it when character motivations line up with campaign events so neatly?

Monday, September 6, 2010

A World Map of Gamers

My already-infrequent C&C Wilderlands campaign is now officially on hiatus. I'm just too burned out on running D&D right now. If/when I don the DM's hat again, I'll most likely be keeping things extremely basic, in concept as well as in rules. That leaves my ongoing single-player Pendragon campaign as my only going concern at the moment. This is fine by Des, as Pendragon is her all-time favorite set of rules. In effect, she's become a "single system" gamer, but instead of, say, D&D or whatever, she's over the moon for Pendragon.

This led to a discussion this morning in which she picked my brain for my thoughts on how gamers break down in terms of system allegiance. How many people are like her, she wondered.

"Very few," I replied.

Since we're both visual thinkers, we began a thought exercise. How would the gamer population be represented on a map of the world, going strictly off of land mass. Immediately, I placed D&D 4e in Asia and the rest sort of fell into place from there...

Obligatory Flame-Retardant Internet Disclaimer: This is all purely subjective, of course. I have no market research to back any of this up. It's based more on my perceptions of the gaming community based on reading blogs and message boards and from seeing what's on the shelf at game stores and book stores, plus my own skewed view of the hobby. For all I know, you could switch the Indie Gamers and the White Wolf Gamers. In the end, it's pretty much impossible to get a truly accurate view of how the RPG community is spending its time. This is just how I perceive it.

(Clicken to embiggen...)

Remember, this analogy is based on equating land mass, not population, with popularity.  And by popularity, I mean: "This is what you're gaming four out of five sessions."

The "Old World" as it were is the realm of single-system D&D players (which is also metaphorically very fitting, I think). Fourth Edition occupies the greatest landmass, but d20/3e/Pathfinder also owns a significant chunk of real estate. The Old School Renaissance is a small but significant corner of the realm, and let's not forget the folks who just never stopped playing the old editions, be they 1e, 2e, or whatever.

After some thought, I plunked White Wolfers over in North America. This may be out of date, I'm not sure. But judging from the fact that, in any given Borders or Barnes & Noble, you'll see at least a dozen volumes of White Wolf games along with the many tomes of 4e and Pathfinder material, I'm guessing White Wolf still maintains a fairly hefty chunk of the market, and most people who are into the World of Darkness or Exalted seem to me to be like their D&D cousins - single-system gamers.

Australia gets the indie gamers. These are the folks who, though they may play a wide variety of RPGs, tend to play "indie" games primarily - Burning Wheel, FATE, Dogs in the Vineyard, and whatever flavor-of-the-month is currently generating buzz over at

That leaves South America for everyone else (and for my purposes here I've lumped in the Caribbean isles - I think single-system Pendragon players would represent, say, an island somewhere in the Lesser Antilles). These are the folks who, like Des, are single system gamers devoted to obscure or niche non-indie titles (Pendragon, Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, HERO, Palladium) or else the true "hobby gamers" (like how I was back in high school and college): the folks who compulsively buy and play games from a wide variety of genres, companies, and design philosophies to the point where there's no clear majority held by any one game or system.

Oh, and LARPing is down there in Antarctica. May it remain forever so.

Update: Cyclopeatron presents some hard numbers based on sales figures.
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