Monday, March 22, 2010

Antidote

If you're feeling as bummed out about the latest gamer holy wars and the fallout therefrom as I was, go read Doc Rotwang!'s latest post. It'll restore your faith in gaming and humanity, guaranteed.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

[Solo GPC] 497: The Battle of Du Plain Castle

If you're familiar with the geography of Salisbury, the title of this year's update should clue you in right away to the events that would unfold during our latest Pendragon session. The Anarchy Phase arrived on Sir Herringdale's front doorstep this year...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Retro-Stupid Defined

In the past, I've enjoyed posting some of my favorite essays from my days of reading Dragon magazine. Lately, I'd been thinking about posting my all-time favorite Roger E. Moore editorial, a piece entitled "Legend"...but since Amityville Mike beat me to it, I figured I'd post my other all-time favorite Roger E. Moore essay instead, his contribution to the "First Quest" series that used to run in Dragon Magazine.

I've referenced this essay in past posts, but here it is in its entirety. To me, it is the ne plus ultra of Retro-Stupid while simultaneously serving as a perfect document of everything that makes RPGs great.

(Then again, the essay's legacy is decidedly mixed in my old gaming group, since on the one hand it opened up my perceptions of what one could do with D&D, but on the other hand it directly influenced my friend Alex to take his gaming into major Retro-Stupid territory, much to everyone else's dismay... On the third hand, it did inspire me to start a file of old character sheets and adventures that I maintain to this day in a beat-up old shoebox, so I guess it wasn't all bad.)

At any rate, here it is: "Verix Dwarfstomper Made Me Do It" (Dragon #204):

I was cleaning out the basement when I came across a thick manila folder full of old papers. I didn't recognize the folder at first, but the moment I flipped it open everything came back to me. The folder contained all my old player-character (PC) sheets for the AD&D® and other roleplaying games (RPGs), stretching back to the time when I first began to play. I hadn't seen the folder in several years. I sat down later with the folder and went through it. In moments I was back at Fort Bragg, NC., in Lannie's house with a living room full of laughing gamers. It was the summer of 1977, and my PC's name was Sk't-tsu.

My very first RPG character was an Oriental fighter named for a psychosis, schizophrenia (I was a mental-health counselor at the time). Sk't-tsu was rolled up from the original tan-cover D&D® game booklets that I still have. He had a Strength of 17 and an Intelligence of 5, and he carried two long swords in case he lost one. I was filled with excitement and wonder right to the very moment the orcs got him.

My next character lasted long enough to reach 2nd level before the berserkers got him. Verix Dwarfstomper was a chaotic half-orc cleric, rolled up using an article in DRAGON® issue #3, and he set the personality trend that most of my future PCs would follow: He was completely irreverent and relentlessly obnoxious. Aside from his name, which provoked howls of indignation from the dwarves in the party, Verix ate anything he could find. He ate other people's iron rations. He ate spoiled food. He ate dead monsters. He became famous for smelling at doors to detect the creatures behind them (he was accurate, too). I painted up a miniature of him, piggy snout and all, with a shield that had the Coca-Cola emblem on it (very out of character for the campaign). He worshiped the Lovecraftian god Azathoth, lord of insanity, which I assumed explained everything. The group was relieved when the berserkers finished him off, but I was just getting started.

After Verix came a procession of characters that would look fairly bizarre by purist D&D and AD&D game standards. I had a half-elf paladin/magic-user, a goblin fighter, a winged half-fairy fighter/magic-user/thief, a centaur, and a werebear berserker who was reincarnated into a silver dragon (and a reasonably successful one at that). My characters were killed by phase spiders, goblin arrows, assassins, lizard men, evil high priests, giant rats, giant snakes, something called a "mind exchanger," something else called a "laser lance," and a large group of flaming, 10-foot tall balrogs who played Catch-the-Character with one of my many half-orcs.

My characters also had really strange names. After Verix, there came Orjetax Elfgrabber, Alfred E. Beethoven (a favorite), and Porky Elric-Friend, all half-orcs. Harley Quinn was a gnome warrior, Barfonix was a goblin, Sir Aqualung was a centaur, and Fairy Fawcett Majors was (of course) the half-fairy. Cyragnome de Bergerac, Obi-Gnome Kenobi, Luke Gnomewalker, and the Gnome Alasca were also racially self-evident; they were part of my "gnome period" when I was transferred from Fort Bragg to West Germany (when there was such a place) and started gaming there.

In Germany, my cast of characters became even stranger. I had Ryn the Mighty (a minotaur with gills); Dauntless the Giant Eagle (reincarnated from Gnome Alasca); Conan the Hobbit (we weren't calling them halflings then); a gold dragon whose henchdragons were named Farrah, Kate, and Jacqueline (can anyone guess why?); and a winged kobold thief who grabbed a cursed magical item and was reluctantly blown up by his own party. I even had a halfling thief who was reincarnated into a black pudding, a hippogriff, and an assassin before the rest of the party got bored with the process and blew him up for good.

Cyragnome de Bergerac, mentioned earlier, was a contender for being my most obnoxious character ever. He spoke with an outrageous French accent, insulted and stole from the rest of the party and pronounced booby-trapped chests "pairfectlee zafe". He was once told to watch the group's horses instead of going adventuring, so he took the horses to town and sold them. (The paladin's war horse fetched several hundred in gold, though it bit him.)

Perhaps as obnoxious as Cyragnome was Krud 2305, a futuristic character from GDW's TRAVELLER* game I made up who was basically a pipe-smoking dwarf in chain mail with a battle axe. He also carried a .38 revolver and a backpack with 600 bullets in it. He was fond of spontaneously reciting bad poetry while spilling bullets all over the place trying to reload during firefights.

In Germany I also went through a "half-ogre period," rolling up an assortment that included the semi-famous John Grond and the not-so-famous but much bigger Snowy Humber, who had a gorilla for a henchman. (Most of the characters created in Germany did much better than those at Fort Bragg, as I was used to the game by then and was making fewer mistakes.) There were a few token dwarves, elves, and humans, and a halfling named Paladin Brandybuck, a lawful good fighter/thief who collected short henchmen like leprechauns and brownies. One human Norse cleric, Hrothgar Redbeard, took over a dungeon that the group had cleared out and began converting it into his fortress and temple to Thor. I made up another Norse cleric (a barbarian) to playtest a science-fiction campaign, and he destroyed a starship's cafeteria in the process of building his own sanctuary. I think the crew had him thrown out into space.

I returned to the U.S. in 1981 and began gaming with groups around Louisville, Ky. I was deep into a pattern of creating weird characters who could not behave themselves or take anything seriously. I played to be entertaining. I tried Metagaming's THE FANTASY TRIP*, Chaosium's CALL OF CTHULHU* and RUNEQUEST*, and superhero games, creating barbarian halflings, hill-giant warriors, and a mutant android who used city buses as clubs. One very gross and disgusting RUNEQUEST* character of mine, a fat dwarf named Gumbo Burgher, kept a pet giant rat. When his ship was attacked by pirates, he picked up a rowboat and threw it overboard on the pirates' heads, injuring many. I think I once role-played a duck, too, and I wanted to play a two-headed giant but no one would let me.

When I came to work for TSR, my characters were in full bloom, every one of them a direct descendant of my most obnoxious Fort Bragg personas. If everyone else in a TRAVELLER* game had a fierce human Marine, I had a lazy wolflike Vargr with revolting personal habits who also gave terrible tactical advice in combat.("I'm gonna kill you, Lassie!" screamed one Marine at a particularly sensitive and touching moment.)

My Vargr, however, didn't hold a candle to Dave Blutarsky, private occult investigator. Dave was my first CALL OF CTHULHU* game character, played after I'd run the game for years. I knew that no matter what we did, the characters were doomed to go insane and die. I decided my PC would be crazy before he even started play. Dave Blutarsky, a burned-out war veteran who had a B.A. in military science, also had a business card that carried his name and profession with the reassuring note: "I have a degree in killing from Northwestern University, and I saw things in France in 1917."

Dave knew, absolutely knew, that there were unearthly things out there trying to conquer the world, and he knew they would definitely try to kill him first. He spent every last penny he had on firearms and ammo, then borrowed more money from the other characters and bought even more. The group came to fear his eager look more than the alien monstrosities they searched for. Dave never saw combat with any alien monstrosities, however. After an unfortunate incident involving a stray cat hiding in a bush, the rest of the group had Dave arrested and sent to prison for 5-10 years on weapons-related charges. He was later kidnapped by space aliens, frozen for several decades, then thawed out in time to join a campaign of West End Games' GHOSTBUSTERS* game. He was given an unlicensed nuclear reactor as a weapon, with which he burned down a grocery store while checking a report involving demon-possessed cereal boxes. ("All in a day's work!" said Dave.).

The CALL OF CTHULHU* game also produced Mortimer Methuselah Northrop III, a hunchbacked laboratory assistant who once worked for a mad scientist until the latter blew himself up. "Nort" was fond of dressing in World War I aviator goggles and leather helmet, a colorful flying scarf, and a black undertaker's suit. A proud graduate of Warren G. Harding High School in Akron, Ohio, Nort carried around the brain of his third cousin "for research purposes." I can't remember his fate, but I don't think it was particularly good.

The character folder was full of other little memorabilia: a sketch I made of Cyragnome on his axebeak mount (he had two, one for riding and one for cargo); a unit logo from the "Bad Boys" 151st Dungeon Buster's Army ("We steal from the rich to make ourselves rich!"); a note passed to a CALL OF CTHULHU* game master stating that Dave Blutarsky was "taking a sabbatical to get first-hand experience in military science across America"; a list of monsters one character met, including a red dragon whose napalm-like breath was a quarter of a mile long; a personal history of a Norse cleric PC from "Belushia"; and a detailed account of the "Rumble on Luna," in which Snowy Humber, his ape-friend Joe, and a few other luminaries killed the second-to-last avatar of the villainous Sarth the Bastard (those avatars were the pits, each one worse than the one before).

I closed the folder reluctantly. The threads of role-playing have been woven into my life for over 15 years, but that first moment in Lannie's living room, rolling six-sided dice while helpful gamers pointed out all the rules I needed to know, seems like it happened just last weekend. I wonder sometimes where everyone is who ever gamed with me. Wherever you are, my characters and I wish you well--and thank you for not beating me up. It was great.

Monday, March 15, 2010

[Red Box Memories] A Tale of Two Red Boxes

I'm not trying to split hairs here. I'm really not. The gaming hobby is beset by edition wars and "my game's better than yours" arguments enough. But...well, this is an issue that's been sticking in my craw for a while now, and very much so since plugging into the D&D blogosphere a couple years ago.

What is the deal with the uneven reputations of the Moldvay/Mentzer Basic Sets?

What I mean by that is simply the fact that of the myriad introductory boxed sets D&D has come packaged in, there are two that are most consistently cited: the 1981 Basic Set edited by Tom Moldvay and the 1983 edition edited by Frank Mentzer. Of the two, despite being almost identical from a rules standpoint, by far the edition that wins the most accolades and elicits the fondest memories is Moldvay, or so it would seem from the collected Internet wisdom. Hell, it even spawned its own retro-clone! Worse, the Mentzer set often comes off as the red (box)-headed stepchild of the two, either disparaged outright or simply omitted from discussion. This despite the fact that it was in print for approximately four times as long as its predecessor. From the volume of virtual ink spilled on the Moldvay set, you'd think that was the edition that sat on store shelves for eight years, instead of the other way around.

Of course, it's telling that according to the Acaeum's site on D&D Basic sets, Moldvay went through four printings in its two-year run, whereas Mentzer went through three in eight years. Assuming the print runs were approximately the same size (and that is a big assumption, I know), that really speaks to the explosion of interest D&D (and all RPGs by association) were enjoying during the early 80s (and the subsequent drop-off as the fad ran its course over the mid- to late-80s).

This is, of course, one possible explanation for why Moldvay gets so much press--simple numbers. Perhaps more people were introduced to classic D&D through Moldvay than Mentzer. Another possible explanation is that more people of a certain age bracket are blogging about classic D&D, and that age bracket corresponds to folks who were around 10-13 years old in the early 80s, thereby establishing a disproportionately strong presence of people with fond memories of Moldvay.

At any rate, clearly I'm not the only one wondering about the vastly disparate reputations these boxed sets enjoy. In doing a bit of Googling before writing this post, I came across a thread on EN World started just a couple months ago on this very topic. Looking through the thread, it seems that the following are the most common reasons cited for preferring Moldvay over Mentzer:
  • Moldvay has a more concise, straightforward presentation that makes it easier to reference in play.
  • Moldvay comes with a full-sized module.
  • With Moldvay, everything's contained in a single book--again, the concise nature of the presentation wins out.
  • ART. This seems to be one of the biggest divides. Either you like the amateurishly surreal art of Moldvay, or the clinical, fantasy-realist fare in Mentzer--and most seem to prefer the former.
  • Most lamely, several posters seemed to prefer Moldvay simply because it was "first."
Despite having made my own "Kill Bargle" shirt (see photo at left), I'm not such a Mentzer fanboy that I can't acknowledge its defects. Out of the preceding list, I'd cite the lack of a module as perhaps the biggest drawback to Mentzer. Granted, there was a small dungeon included in the text of the "DM's Guide", but you really can't substitute for the real thing. Of course, I actually got the Expert set first (long story), and that came with Isle of Dread, so I'd had a chance to pore over a proper D&D module before even laying my hands on the Red Box. As for my feelings on the Mentzer set in general, a poster by the name of Keldryn summed my feelings up pretty succinctly on the above-linked thread:

One of my friends who started playing at the same time picked up a 1981 basic set, and my first reactions were "why on earth did somebody wreck their book with a 3-hole punch?" and "wow, this has crappy art." I have since grown out of the reverence for Elmore, Easley, and Caldwell art, but their artwork defined my early D&D experiences, and I was very disappointed with the artwork in the early AD&D books and modules that I eventually obtained at a later date. The Mentzer set was, I think, a better instruction manual on how to play the game and wasn't spectacular as a reference guide, but that never seemed to bother us at the time. I also liked having the DM's guide as a distinct book, so that I could keep it away from my nosy players (hey, I was 12).

I was going to bold certain parts of that passage that I particularly agreed with, but then I would've bolded about 95% of it (for the record, the three-hole punch thing wouldn't bother me).

At any rate, I'd particularly like to put in my two cents about the art divide. I know it's damn heresy in some quarters of the blogosphere, but the quality of Elmore and Easley's art in the Mentzer set is head and shoulders above the stuff in Moldvay (or, for that matter, the AD&D hardbacks, as Keldryn pointed out). Although I'm not a fan of either Elmore or Easley from approximately the early 90s onward, their work as TSR staff artists in the 80s was pitch-perfect as far as I'm concerned. Elmore's gotten more stilted and mannered over time, and I think that affects people's perception of his overall portfolio. But to my eyes then and now, his work in Mentzer instantly put me in another world, one that was believable and accessible while still being fantastic. As much as I respect Erol Otus now, I think back in my youth I would have found his stuff laughably cartoonish (and even now, his Froghemoth looks like a bit of Terry Gilliam animation--high praise under the right circumstances, but not exactly the sort of inspiration I look for with my D&D imaginings). Much is made of Otus's cover painting on the Moldvay set ("To me it is everything that makes D&D awesome," as one poster put it in the EN World thread), but it is not one of my favorites of his. To this day, on the other hand, the Mentzer set's Elmore cover gives me thrills and reinvigorates my interest in D&D. I'd say it seems that nostalgia is a big factor in these "art battles" moreso than any other facet of the dichotomy.

Another point made in the EN World thread is that Mentzer is far-superior as a teaching tool, whereas Moldvay is the ultimate D&D rules manual, designed for use and utility in play. This, apart from my aesthetic snobbery, goes a long way towards explaining my enduring love for the Mentzer set. As I've written about before, I was a self-taught gamer. No older mentors for me, no sir. It was just me and that boxed set, so it did a great job of introducing me to the core concepts of the game, particularly with its justifiably famous "Choose Your Own Adventure" solo scenario in the player's manual. As someone who came into gaming in part via pick-a-path gamebooks like the Lone Wolf series, it was a format tailor-made for me. Also, by the time I started gaming in earnest, I had picked up AD&D, so my direct gaming experience with Mentzer was somewhat limited.

Then again, getting used to having to pick information out from among several booklets was good training for AD&D, so I can't really fault Mentzer's more scattered layout in that sense either.

One last item of note: 20 years ago, after picking up and digesting the Mentzer Red Box, I was perfectly satisfied with remaining a Basic D&D gamer. I only switched to AD&D not because I perceived it as more "mature" but because that's what everyone else I knew who was into gaming seemed to play. Plus all the articles in Dragon Magazine were geared towards AD&D; I can remember maybe one or two articles written from a Basic D&D perspective that appeared in the back issues I was picking up at the time. So in the end I put my treasured Red Box in the closet and went with the crowd. My reasons for doing so were, ironically, owed in large part to the Red Box itself--it was its own worst enemy, for it convinced me, with a single passage at the back of the player's manual that:

The AD&D game system is different from the D&D system, which you have now. It is also a fantasy role playing game, but is much harder and more detailed.

There are currently six hardback books of rules for the AD&D system. Since it is so much more complex than the D&D system, with established rules for almost everything, it is often used in large tournaments, where accurate rules are needed.

Remember: you are not playing the more complex AD&D games with these rules. You are playing the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game!

Yikes. What's up with that passage, anyway? It's as if the book's trying to convince the reader to stay the hell away from AD&D unless all proper precautions are taken. Be sure to handle those six hardbacks with flame-retardant gloves lest the heat of their complexity burn you! It certainly created a divide in my mind, one that I carried for years after--clearly these were not two sides of the same coin, but two completely different games altogether. And never the twain shall meet, etc. Only relatively recently did it start to occur to me that I could mix my different editions of D&D (thank you Old School Renaissance!).

At any rate, in the end, it did convince me to eventually plunk down for AD&D, so...nice bit of reverse psychology there, TSR.

Interestingly, there's been a much-renewed interest in introductory boxed sets lately. I know James Raggi has cited the Mentzer set a couple times in his discussions of his ongoing boxed FRPG project. And the upcoming 4e "Basic Set" has even used the Mentzer cover in its pre-publication mockup art (or so I seem to recall seeing somewhere). Could it be that Mentzer is finally getting some level of recognition?

Finally, I'd love to hear any and all comments my dear readers may have to put forth, either pro-Moldvay (in the words of RPG.net, "Sell me on Moldvay") or pro-Mentzer (aka "The '83 Red Box Appreciation Society").

[Solo GPC] 496: Anarchy in the U.K.

And so we enter the Anarchy Phase.

Unlike most other phase transitions in the GPC, the Anarchy Phase doesn't mark any major shift in technology, social mores, fashion, or much of anything, really. A note is made at the beginning of the chapter that we've moved into the equivalent of 11th-century history, and that the power of the Myth is starting to increasingly displace the reality of 6th-century History, but all in all it's a pretty subtle transition.

Not so subtle, however, when looked at from the perspective of our hero, Sir Herringdale, who now finds himself Marshall of a county adrift without a leader in a troubled sea of enemies. This isn't called the Anarchy Period for nothing folks.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bidding Farewell to the City-State...and the Silver-Age Wilderlands? (Or, "Classic D&D, What Am I Going to Do With You?")

The dust is finally settling after the Big Move and I have a chance now to blog about my Wilderlands campaign. I know it's been a little while, and there have been some interesting developments, culminating in a discussion I had today with Des that set my gamer wheels turning (never a good thing, I can assure you).

Let's go back a little bit. About two weeks before moving day we had our last face-to-face session our Wilderlands campaign. It was fitting, I think, that as Des and I were preparing to bid farewell to our own real-life City-State, the PC group decided they were fed up with the City-State of the Invincible Overlord and bid it a not-so-fond adieu. In so doing, they threw down one of those challenges that really tests the mettle of a hybrid sandbox-module GM like myself--they pretty much ignored the adventure hook dangling before them and said, "Let's go do this instead!"

Fortunately, that point came relatively late in the session and I was able to BS my way through the remaining time, leaving off with many mental notes on stuff to read up on for next time, when we'll "meet in the aether" as one player put it. (With cross-platform Mac/PC compatibility and low buy-in cost as my top priorities, right now I'm looking to use a combination of Skype and d20 Pro.)

The irony, of course, was that the adventure hook I was dangling happened to be the very module I had intended to run for the group as soon as they arrived in the City-State. And I would have too, except I ran out of prep time before that particular session, so I just threw a bunch of rumors at them from the CSIO "Rumor Table"--which in turn sparked about 3-4 sessions' worth of bopping around, some of which I've written about. I don't think I mentioned running them through the "Tower of Mouths" scenario from Knockspell (a fun little dungeon crawl), a venture which resulted in Rumple Wumpkin nearly dying a third time (poison gas this time around) and the group barely escaping from the tower as it collapsed in on itself after Pilar the Halfling Cleric jammed the tower's massive hydraulic pumping mechanism.

So after a week of game time spent whoring, boozing, getting cursed and chased and ambushed, the group finally met with a sage they'd hired at the Sage's Guild, one Gigex the Erudite, to answer some questions; namely, Rumple Wumpkin wanted to know about the history of the Beastmasters, since she was apparently the only known living example. After finding out what happened to the other Beastmasters and the possibility that there may still be one lurking in the heart of the Dearthwood, the group seemed suddenly interested in moving on.

Realizing what I'd done, I tried in vain to dangle the adventure hook before them, and they sort of took the bait. Unfortunately, the first clue in the new adventure took them down to the houseboat shantytown on the banks of the Conqueror's River. After nullifying the exciting chase scene that the module had spelled out by simply shooting the guy they were after, they hopped a boat and booked it for Modron.

And that's where we left off. I've had some opportunity to think about the campaign since then, and I've come to a couple, well, disturbing conclusions.

First off, I've been thinking about the way I've been running the setting. The Wilderlands are, of course, one of the all-time classic "old school" campaign settings out there. Running the setting "as intended" (if such a term can be applied to a Judge's Guild product) pretty much requires lots of 70s flash mixed with a healthy dose of Frazetta. And god knows that's how I wanted to run it. Really! But I've come to the realization that my love of fantastic realism and my "Silver Age" roots are much stronger than I gave them credit for. As much as I've tried to stay faithful to the sword and sorcery baseline of the setting, I'm afraid things have been much more vanilla in execution. I posted a bong-rattling Wilderlands mix last year, but since then I have failed to bring the proper vibe to match the music in that playlist. Instead, it's been something much less like this, and much more like this.

Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. It's just that I was hoping to do something a little different with the Wilderlands. And don't get me wrong--it's not like I've turned the Wilderlands into the Forgotten Realms or anything. It's just that my roots are showing. It's sort of the opposite process of what Amityville Mike has been writing about lately. In the end, I decided, "To hell with it--I'll run my version of the Wilderlands as a pastiche of S&S and Silver Age fantasy." Then I had an interesting conversation with Des today.

See, Des doesn't like D&D. No sir, not one bit.

She's a Chaosium/BRP fangirl through and through: give her Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon, and she's perfectly happy. (This, of course, is why she has won my heart.) She plays D&D for the social aspect; the other two players in the group are good friends, and D&D is how we get together. Over the past week or so, as I've been preparing to start up the Wilderlands campaign again, I've been thinking about ways I could inspire Des to be a little more enthusiastic about the game itself. Maybe creating a new character? Or giving her halfling cleric a developed background with my copy of Central Casting: Heroes of Legend? These suggestions were met with a sort of shoulder-shrugging reticence that told me there was some pretty deep stuff going on.

So we had a conversation today. "What don't you like about D&D?" I asked.

She thought about it quietly for several minutes. Not even joking. She was committed to giving a comprehensive answer, and I got one.

In essence, it boils down to a dislike of the system and a dislike of the genre conventions. In other words, pretty much everything that makes classic D&D, well, classic D&D.

She dislikes all the pluses and minuses and "to hit" calculations and so forth involved with most D&D iterations. She dislikes the steep learning curve for most classes ("Okay, I'm playing a cleric and I've never played a spellcaster, so now I have to familiarize myself with all these spells and then remember to cast them at appropriate times."). She dislikes the classic power progression of starting out as miserable weaklings, hitting a sweet spot for a half-dozen levels, then topping out, preferring instead to start out with some level of competency and then progress in a steady, linear fashion. She dislikes having to keep track of multiple powers, equipment tracking and resource management, and so forth. She dislikes classic D&D's implicitness, is how I'd put it. As I listened, I made the conjecture that it sounds like 4e is the perfect system for her! Too bad I won't be going down that road...

She hates dungeon crawls with a passion. She hates sandbox play. (Interestingly--and I asked her this directly to make sure there was no misunderstanding--she prefers story path-style adventures, even if that means a bit of railroading from time to time.) I told her that the heart of D&D is exploration, and dungeons are a perfect encapsulation of that aesthetic. She countered that she loves exploring in Call of Cthulhu. I was surprised by this.

"In Cthulhu," I said, "exploration only leads to madness and death. At least in D&D there's a balance between peril and reward."

"I like the Cthulhu approach," she said. "It feels more authentic. I like that whether I do good or bad, I'm still doomed in the end."

This is what being a Catholic-raised gamer is like, I suppose.

From a genre convention standpoint, she really dislikes vanilla D&D. She likes settings that have fewer playable races but deeper opportunities for background. What's the point of having a half-dozen character races if they're all cardboard stereotypes, she asked. From a genre convention standpoint, it sounds like she'd love a setting like Magnamund or Legend, a more human-centric world that's a sort of D&D-by-way-of-Pendragon setting. Or something totally off the wall. I told her about Dark Sun and her eyes lit up. "Coooool!" she intoned. At the very least, I told her she was certainly not alone in feeling left cold by vanilla D&D.

The irony, in fact, is that for years--years--I was one of those very people. I've run a lot of vanilla, Silver Age-style D&D in my day, mainly because that's what my old group demanded. But I longed to run the more offbeat, unusual settings, or come up with something of my own that was somehow different from the norm. I still want to run campaigns like that. When I eventually get my copy of the Swords & Wizardry White Box, I want to run a total science-fantasy swords-and-blasters extravaganza set in Gabor Lux's Formalhaut world. Considering that Dark Sun was the first campaign boxed set I ever owned, I'd love to finally run an extended campaign in that world. I've even toyed with taking the current Wilderlands campaign up into the crystal spheres when the current story cycles finally play out around mid-level range or so.

And that's the crux of the problem: the campaign must go on. I'm always battling that curse peculiar to many gamers, the "Ooh, shiny!" phenomenon. Time and again I've questioned by choice of system (Castles & Crusades) and setting. Particularly in light of my conversation with Des today, I can now toss into the box labeled "other systems I might like to use instead" D&D 4e, FantasyCraft, or even BRP, along with earlier candidates like Swords & Wizardry or modded-out Labyrinth Lord.

I still might consider switching systems (although I'd feel a little bad about that, since I left my 1st-printing copies of C&C with our other players for the express purpose of giving them a chance to read through the rules), but one thing I can't do right now is dump the campaign entirely. Rumple Wumpkin's player, you'll recall, is going through some really rough times right now, and I know that this campaign and this character are very special to her. I'm not about to yank that rug out from under her, not as long as we can all still have fun with the campaign.

And there's not doubt in my mind that I can. I just need to reset a few expectations. In the end I guess that leaves me with the following action items:

  • Embrace my fantasy-realist, Silver Age inclinations and run the Wilderlands the way my heart wants to, rather than as some left-brain exercise in proper old school sandbox blah-blah.
  • Be not afraid to venture forth into domains of the weird and non-vanilla when the campaign merits it.
  • Resolve to make my next D&D campaign as bizarrely off-the-wall as my long-held dreams will allow.
Should be fun.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Life Imitates Unknown Armies

For me Unknown Armies is one of those RPGs that has lingered in the "would love to play it but probably never will" category ever since I picked it up years ago. Perhaps one day I'll get a chance to change that unhappy categorization, but in the meantime I do enjoy a good tidbit of high creepy weirdness that I can file away in a little Word doc I keep on my hard drive entitled (appropriately) highcreepyweirdness.doc.

A former coworker of mine, a librarian, recently posted this story on her blog. I read it and immediately thought, "Now there is an Unknown Armies story seed if I've ever seen one!" I reproduce it here for other lovers of high creepy weirdness and/or those lucky enough to be running their own UA campaigns at the moment:

A gentleman came up to the reference desk this afternoon. He wanted some information about a specific incident during World War II, relating to the Holocaust. I looked up some information for him and we were just generally speaking about it.
Another man approached the desk and said how amazing it us to hear us talk about the Holocaust. He said his grandfather had been a survivor. He'd taken the place of a rabbi who the grandfather looked like and gone into the concentration camps. He then told us that his grandfather was "kept with others who had information that the nazis wanted." He asked if we'd ever heard of Mengele. Then proceeded to tell us about how his grandfather was a genetic specialist, who assisted Mengele with his experiments. Apparently his grandfather knew how to work with genes and was able to help Mengele create super babies. The girls were lovely and smart, etc, etc. But the boys were all sociopaths. The man then said his mother was one of those girls. Then said both his brothers were bad. One in jail, the other, he didn't elaborate. But he, on the other hand, wasn't. And what was so different about him? Well, he'd been electrocuted 16 times throughout the course of his life. Supposedly, every few months, he goes in and is studied by doctors to find out why he isn't aging.
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