Wednesday, July 27, 2011

[Solo GPC] 519: Enter Meleri

After far too long of a hiatus, Pendragon is kicking back up into high gear around these parts. This past Sunday Des ran the first session of her Pendragon campaign for the Meetup group. Including myself, we had five players. We've got two others who have expressed interest but couldn't make it that day due to scheduling conflicts and even an eighth(!) player on a waiting list. For a supposedly obscure RPG, Pendragon sure is bringing all the gamers to the yard, as it were.

(And yes, it was awesome to be on the player's side of the Pendragon experience again.)

During the preceding week prior to the Sunday session, we managed to get the Solo GPC campaign up and running as well. Following the death of Sir Herringdale, this session was to be the beginning of a new chapter tracing the exploits of Des's next character, Lady Meleri, Herringdale's black sheep daughter and heir to Broughton Manor. I took the opportunity to reassess and re-calibrate some of the rules I'd been using since we started the campaign in January of 2010. As I wrote way back then, we started with all core and optional rules in effect and more than a few house rules culled from Pendragon websites and message boards. I've since learned that in a solo game, simpler rules are often better. We'd already abandoned the excellent system presented in The Book of Battle for a more streamlined system. Now, as I prepared for the next adventure, I also made the decision to switch to the simpler Narrative economic system presented in The Book of the Manor; trying to balance the books in-game wasn't adding any fun to this particular campaign experience - we get enough of that in our real lives! I also adopted these excellent Yearly Event and Kin Event tables to flesh out the Winter Phase a bit more. Finally, I made lots of notes on the direction of the campaign in years to come, including themes I'd like to explore and ideas for allies and foes to toss at Meleri.

With all that prep done, I somewhat paradoxically prepared a simple adventure for this year. This was both because it had been a while since we'd played and because a lady-centered campaign was going to be such a dramatic switch I wanted to allow both of us to get a feel for it through a simple, rather straightforward adventure. Sort of like the introductory scenario in the core book taking nascent knights through the basics of jousting and opposed combat rolls, this would take us through the basics of how Meleri's adventures would play out in court and in the wild.

Monday, July 18, 2011

[Rifts:2112] Europe Again

Apart from the occasional playtest one-shot, I've yet had a chance to really take my alternate version of Rifts for a spin. That's going to change this week as I fire up a casual pick-up game with a couple friends who have voted on a Rifts Europe campaign.

Although sessions will be sporadic, this still represents a real shot at putting some of my BRP conversions (yes, after a brief flirtation with Savage Worlds, I'm back on the BRP bandwagon for the time being) to the test and further develop my version of Rifts Europe, which long-time readers will recall differs markedly from the canonical setting. Expect a couple more posts on this topic as I make hay for the new campaign: some fleshed-out details on the British Archipelago and (finally) filling in some details on the long-neglected Mediterranean with much material courtesy of a couple readers hailing from that region.

I spent some time today assembling a document of vehicles commonly found in the Neue Deutsche Republik (NDR) and other inhabited regions. It's sort of the steampunk answer to the original Triax and the NGR sourcebook: lots of nifty tech. My inspiration came in the form of a treasure trove of Lego steampunk vehicles on the net. There's a whole subculture of Lego steam engineers sharing their creations online, it would seem. Who knew, right? I have yet to stat anything out, but selecting the various creations got my brain working in terms of how transportation in post-apocalyptic Europe works. Here's what I came up with:
As nearly all of Europe's roads lie in impassible ruin, the NDR has sunk a considerable amount of time and effort into building a network of rails across its interior, linking all the Member Cities as well as important mining, farming, and commercial centers. The tracks are always built in pairs, allowing two trains to move along any given stretch of rail simultaneously (usually in opposite directions). This configuration has also led to the development of the NDR's justifiably famous "Railships" - massive rolling fortresses, the largest of which run on both sets of tracks. The Railships are used to protect and patrol the rail network, serve as convoy escorts, or transport important parties in maximum security.

All other vehicles in the NDR, civilian or military, tend to be built with rugged off-road travel in mind. Accordingly, non-tracked vehicles as a general rule run either on tracks or on articulated legs capable of clambering on and over even the most untamed wilderness land.

However, given the choice, when rail travel isn't available many travelers both within and outside the NDR prefer to fly. Gargoyles and other flying monstrosities still pose a threat, of course, so most airships are well-armed for defense, but by and large air travel is much safer, faster, and more comfortable than roughing it overland.

Due to the limitations of steam power, flying machines in Europe are almost always built as dirigibles. The NDR's military airships are rigid in construction, sporting thin armored casings over their gasbags. Civilian ships are non-rigid as a general rule. Rigid or not, most airships sport sails for use when winds are favorable. This helps extend the range of the ship and its fuel.

There is a type of airship increasingly found around the British Archipelago that does not fall under the category of dirigible: sky riders. These ships gain their lift through magic and rely on propeller engines to provide thrust. Because they do not need large gasbags, sky riders are generally sleeker and faster and are much prized by air pirates when they can get their hands on them.
Gotta have air pirates, you know?

Here are some of the inspirational creations in question, the first five courtesy of the amazingly talented Raillery:

All this steam-tech stuff has got me going in an even steamier direction (although not in the carnally interesting sense, sorry) for my European tech. Today reader Reese F. sent me some modified digital mock-ups of steam-tech guns.

Reese explains:
The weapons fire solid projectiles propelled from a reservoir of compressed steam. A recent thought that I had was that you could easily make these weapons inflict the necessary damage by giving them the same types of rounds as with the TX-5 Pump Pistol.
I love this idea. For those of you unfamiliar with the weapon in question, it's sort of like a hybrid grenade-launcher/shotgun; it fires small cartridges that explode on impact with a blast radius of about a yard. It only stands to reason the NDR would have developed this sort of technology to combat the "gargoyles" and boosted Brodkil that press at their borders. It also introduces a uniquely European gun technology to contrast with North America's more advanced chemical slug throwers and laser weapons (not that those won't be present in Europe as well, just in much smaller numbers methinks).

I'll leave things off here with some more inspirational pics in the vein of my first Europe post. These pics have been culled from around the Web, often from secondary sources. If you spy your art here and would like credit, please don't hesitate to drop me a line and let me know and I'll make the appropriate changes. On with the show then:

Sea Gypsy settlement in the British Archipelago.
New Camelot
Further details will be forthcoming in my post on the British Archipelago, but I'm turning The Eternal City into a trans-dimensional trading port run by Dickensian Goblins in the vein of those presented in the criminally underrated GURPS Goblins sourcebook.

A Millennium Tree
The City of Ys 

A manufactory in the NDR.
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All art is copyright its respective artist.

Monday, July 11, 2011

[Campaign Analysis] Secrets of Yog-Francisco

Something I'd love to see more of on Ye Olde Blogs are analyses of campaigns, both those that wrap up successfully and those that fall apart. What worked, what didn't. Expectations going in and how those expectations morphed and changed over the course of the campaign. To that end, I'll be posting the very thing whenever a campaign wraps up.

Oh, look - I had a campaign just wrap up yesterday. Talk about good timing!

I've just now dubbed the campaign Secrets of Yog-Francisco. It didn't have that name going in. I know some folks like to name their campaigns right away (and most folks don't name them at all); for the duration it was being run, it was simply "the Cthulhu campaign." It was set in San Francisco from 1923-24 and made extensive use of Secrets of San Francisco and a couple adventures from White Dwarf set in SF.

This campaign marked my first stab at putting a group together over the Internet since 2002. The '02 experiment was, for me, completely unsuccessful, even resulting in my own personal brush with Creepiest Gamer territory. Ironically the group I convened carried on without me for at least a couple years (after they kicked out the Creepy Gamer, of course). Just call me the Gamer Matchmaker, I guess. In all seriousness, they were perfectly okay with playing "tabletop Everquest" - grinding through dungeons and wilderness encounters, killing things and taking their stuff. Not my style, but to each their own. It definitely put me off the idea of gaming with strangers, though.

With the brief exception of 2002 my preference has always been to game with people with whom I am friends or at least good acquaintances with. It tends to cultivate a sense of shared goals for what we all want out of gaming, since we're all by definition sort of "swimming in the same waters" to begin with. I've also almost without exception been the guy who introduces RPGs to others. Whenever I'd put a group together or find a new person joining an existing group it was inevitably an RPG newbie or newbies sitting at the table.

So this campaign represented quite a departure from my usual M.O. on several levels. Not only were these strangers, but about half the group were not just familiar with RPGs, they were actually hobbyists like myself. Another major change of pace for me was the group size: it started with two players but added a new player each session until it topped out at five (and even six on one or two occasions). My high school/college group took years to get up to four players; five was undreamed of and six was just completely ridiculous.

As a result, my preference does tend to run towards smaller groups - I consider three players the ideal balance - but I had a great time running this campaign nonetheless. It's hard to turn people away who want to play, especially if it's a game like Call of Cthulhu; non-D&D campaigns aren't exactly a dime a dozen, especially in a smaller city such as mine.

I really think the secret of success was primarily the fact that I was running a non-D&D campaign. I've alluded to this in recent posts, but it bears repeating: if you're looking to put together a gaming group, it pays to run something a little quirky and off the beaten path. Casting a wide net by running a vanilla D&D campaign (as I did in 2002) pretty much guarantees that you'll get a wide mix of people, which is good for filling seats but also significantly raises the odds of ending up with incompatible aims and goals.

Speaking of aims and goals, the main adjustment I had to make with running a campaign for a larger group was not in the actual running of the game but rather the planning. I suspect there's an inverse relationship between group size and the influence a GM has over the campaign. That is to say, with smaller groups (or solo games), as a GM I have a greater voice in punching up certain themes or recurring NPCs. The larger the group gets, the more autonomy the players can exert. Themes emerge more organically. NPCs, both beloved and despised, tend to emerge organically.

This is not to say these processes don't occur with smaller groups. But I've found, looking back on the just-wrapped campaign, that almost everything emerged organically. At the outset of the campaign, I sat down and made a list of themes, adventures, and NPCs that I wanted to see featured in the campaign. I'd say over 95% of that list went untapped.

Instead of my intention to feature Nyarlathotep, we saw Yog-Sothoth emerge as the central dark force behind many of the campaign events. Recurring themes grew up on their own: ingenues in peril, Pinkerton detectives, sorcerers, and trans-dimensional travel. Although I still prefer smaller groups, I have to say I really enjoyed the organic development that came with the larger group.

What Worked Well
* I have to give myself a pat on the back for pacing. I kept adventures cooking along while seeing each one increase the deadliness bit by bit. The first PC death didn't occur until the penultimate session. Yesterday's grand finale allowed me to pull out all the stops, and we ended with two deaths, one permanent insanity, one PC reduced to a single Sanity point(!) and indefinitely insane, and the only intact PC stranded 85 years in the future in present-day San Francisco (and ready to be dusted off if/when I run a modern-day Cthulhu campaign).
* I think I did a good job with creating a sense of place. There's not much point to setting a campaign in a specific locale if it's indistinguishable from Anytown, USA. Having lived in San Francisco for five years (and the fact that so much of that city has essentially remained unchanged since the Twenties) allowed me to draw upon visceral memories to paint pictures of the city's geography, architecture, public transit, weather, and more. I even have a poster map reproduction of San Francisco in the Twenties that I'd haul out to provide a visual aide at times. If you're running a campaign in the modern era, there's a definite advantage to running a campaign in an area you've lived in and are familiar with.

What Needs Improvement
* About halfway through the campaign I realized that although I was doing a great job with creating a real sense of place, I was seriously lagging on creating a sense of the times. That is, there was little to demonstrate the fact I was running the game in the Twenties other than occasional references to Prohibition. Once I realized this, I started paying more attention to how I was describing NPCs' outfits and other physical props, but I'd be curious to hear others' feedback on how they create a sense of the times with historical games.
* I started the campaign with an omnibus list of "creepy encounters" to throw at the players periodically, intended to keep them off-balance and ratchet up the weirdness factor. I forgot the timeless lesson of The Gazebo: the more something seems like a non-sequitir, the more meaning the players will assign to it. I'll have to work on integrating creepy events into the main narrative or else presenting them in a way that the players can't really follow up or act on them.

All in all, I was tremendously satisfied with how the campaign turned out and the great group that gelled around it. So what's up next? After some discussion over a post-campaign feast, we settled on...Pendragon! Muahaha! This group likes the off-beat games, and for that I am eternally grateful. Even better? I get to be a player this time; Des has volunteered to fill the GM's chair. It'll likely be a brief campaign by Pendragon standards - probably "only" 20 to 40 years of game time...

Friday, July 8, 2011

Weekend Fulla Gaming

This weekend should be lots of fun.

Tomorrow Des and I will finally be sitting down once again for Pendragon and we're hoping this will get us back on our semi-regular track. I'm particularly excited since this'll be a fresh start with a new character (and a lady no less!), so it's sort of a blank slate situation with many wide-open possibilities. Look for a session summary some time next week.

Then on Sunday my Cthulhu group will be convening for the final adventure in our campaign arc. I've been running a campaign set in San Francisco in the Twenties centering around the machinations of Yog-Sothoth and its worshippers and it's been tremendous fun. Last session ended with the group being sucked into an alternate dimension that exists inside Yog-Sothoth (if you've read the "Beyond the Edges" scenario in Secrets of San Francisco you'll know where this is going...). Win or lose, this will be the end of the campaign as it currently stands. (And I've got a couple "Superlative Death" awards printed out and ready for those moments of heroic sacrifice or batshit insanity.) We've even got one of the founding members of the group who moved away last spring joining us for the last hurrah.

We'll be celebrating with a big dinner bash after the scenario wraps up. Des is making Cthulhu-themed cupcakes from the Arkham Bakery cookbook and there'll be lots of other tasty dishes: quiches, homemade guac and onion dip, pasta, "Necronomicookies" and a few more things besides. Someone's even bringing along their homebrew beer for that authentic Prohibition-era "bathtub gin" effect.

This campaign, started back in February, was my first experiment in nearly a decade with putting together a group from scratch comprising strangers. Unlike my 2002 experience (which I should really write about one of these days for the lulz) this has been a roaring success. I suspect it's because this time I was running Cthulhu whereas in '02 I was running vanilla 3.0 D&D. Running a marginal game that demands very specific tastes is both a boon and a curse: you're dealing with a much narrower pool of potential players, but you're almost certainly going to attract like-minded individuals, which is definitely the case with my current group.

We'll be discussing where to go from here over dinner. If the group pulls off a miracle and survives this last session more or less intact, I'd be happy to carry on with the campaign. I'm also mulling running Cthulhu Invictus or Mythos-inflected D&D (using some combination of LotFP and Realms of Crawling Chaos). I also have a couple non-Cthulhu ideas in mind that I think the group might still dig on, like Day After Ragnarok or even Castle Falkenstein. We shall see. All that I know for sure is that this weekend's going to be packed to gills with gaming.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Aieee! (Character Sheets, Part II)

This is what you call a case of interesting timing.

Having just posted about my fetish for custom character sheets (complete with doffing of cap to Tony DiTerlizzi as king of same), the Man Himself goes ahead and posts a bunch more.

Follow this link and scroll down to the end of the post to unlock the magic.

Thanks to Superhero Necromancer for the link!

[Gray Box Project] Cyclpedia of the Realms: Time In The Realms

With the introductory material out of the way, we finally get into the meat of the product. It's always interesting to me to read the old 80s-era world guides, because the way information was organized sometimes strikes me as a bit random. I mean, I guess there's nothing wrong, per se, with starting your authoritative tour of the setting with a discussion of the calendar. It seems to be a popular choice - the 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set started out in a similar vein (before segueing in uniquely Gygaxian fashion into an in-depth look at the setting's various varieties of trees...). Most world guides today would start out discussing matters of a grander scale: cosmology, the role of the gods, and so forth. Or else they'd just launch straight into the cyclopedic entries, leaving the calendar as an entry somewhere in the "C" section between "Calaunt" and "Cavaliers and Paladins".

Anyway, organizational grousing aside, this one-page section is a meaty one with some great little flavorful bits scattered throughout. Straight off the bat, we are informed that the calendar presented is the one utilized in the kingdom of Cormyr, which to my mind indicates the assumed starting region to be that kingdom or a neighboring region. Fair enough.

We're then told the year is exactly 365 days long divided up into 12 months of exactly 30 days with five special holidays sprinkled through the course of the year. Each month is divided up into three periods of exactly ten days each.

"How convenient..."
Honestly, I'm of two minds when it comes to creating calendars for fantasy worlds. I understand the desire to: (a) make years and months map closely to our own; while (b) rationalizing said time periods into logical, neat little base 10 systems. On the other hand, there's a certain verisimilitude in presenting a wonky calendar. Time and again throughout human history we have demonstrated a chronic inability to actually conform to calendrical systems that actually make a lick of sense or even track the seasons with any degree of accuracy. Read up on the Roman calendar before Julius Caesar's reforms to get an idea of how screwed up early time-keeping systems were, and then remember that even Caesar's solution produced a calendar that was nearly two weeks off by the time anyone got around to fixing it (and even then it took another three centuries before everyone got on board with said reforms...). The French tried to implement their own logical base 10 system of months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds in the wake of the Revolution, but the effort went over like a lead balloon. Given the choice, people actually preferred to continue on with a system that divided months up into unequally varying periods, weeks into seven days, and time into base 6 multiples. People - go figure.

The calendrical system presented in the Gray Box is actually remarkably similar to the French Republican Calendar linked above, and I wouldn't be surprised if Greenwood based his calendar directly on that example. Although division of hours and minutes isn't discussed, one could assume that water clocks in Cormyr are calibrated to a decimal system as well.

Some conceit is made to confusing variation, however. "Although the months themselves are standardized, the system of dating varies from place to place," the text informs us, noting that years tend to be numbered from events of local significance (in Cormyr, it's 1332 while in the neighboring Dalelands it's 1357, for example). Months go by two names: the official names laid down by "the long-dead wizard Harptos of Kaalinth" and the colloquial names, which tend to reflect seasonal shifts (and would therefore also vary by region, although this is not explicitly stated - it's hard to imagine someone in Chult referring to the equivalent of May as The Melting, as they do in Cormyr).

Half the section is given over to a discussion of the five special calendar days, which occur approximately every two to three months. Sections like this are the heart and soul of any game setting worth its salt, as it's in these sorts of details that the author can communicate reams of implicit information about the setting with just a few explicit statements. Midwinter is important to nobles, as it is a time to make and renew alliances; for the common folk, it is Deadwinter Day, the apex of their frigid suffering. Wars are usually fought after Highharvestide but before The Feast of the Moon. I particularly liked this facet of the Midsummer festival:
In a ceremony performed in some lands, unwed maidens are set free in the woods and "hunted" by their would-be suitors throughout the night.

Another detail from The Feast of the Moon (the final special day of the year, falling between "November" and "December") struck me as weighty with implications for kicking off a campaign:
Graves are blessed, the Ritual of Remembrance performed, and tales of the doing of those now gone are told far into the night. Much is said of heroes and treasure and lost cities underground.
It never occurred to me before to launch a bog-standard D&D campaign as winter closed in, but I quite like the image now I think of it. The PCs are all locals and are filled with tales of the nearby haunted tower or what-have-you by the local storyteller/retired adventurer. The next day, gold pieces dancing in their eyes, they hit up the local hostelry to equip themselves for a venture...

This perception is reinforced by the final section of the entry, which lays out the Roll of Years. The current year is noted as the "year just ending". Hmm.

Speaking of the Roll of Years, this is another nifty feature of the setting. Although, as noted, precise year numbers can vary, each year is also given a qualitative label taken off a list first laid down by a Nostradamus-style figure known as "the famous Lost Sage, Augartha the Mad...". These labels are supposedly prophetic references to events that will occur that year: The Year of the Worm, The Year of Shadows, the Year of the Banner... Great stuff and grist for campaign inspiration if a GM was so inclined to design a themed, epic year-long story arc. Appropriately, the year we're heading into with the Gray Box is one of the more intriguing names on the list, the aforementioned Year of Shadows. I know that this became The Time of Troubles in the official Realms metaplot, but I'd be inclined to do a campaign based around the Demi-Plane of Shadow encroaching on reality (but then again I've always been partial to Shadows as monstrous foes).

The Realms of Bronze

I am definitely inclined to tinker with the calendar system presented here for my Bronze Age adaptation of the Realms. The Roll of Years would definitely stay, as would the "special calendar days" - if anything, that Midsummer "maiden hunt" is even more appropriate in a Bronze Age context; I'm reminded of Dionysian rites. As for the divvying up of months and weeks, I'll have to give some thought to how I want to do that. Most early calendar systems were lunar-based, and we get our base 6 timekeeping from the Babylonians, so those are two clues to go off of.

Whatever I end up doing, I'm going to resist the urge to make anything even remotely universal or logical. There's a tendency in the Realms, as in most D&D worlds, to homogenize things (I'll save that particular rant for the section on languages), but to me it's both more immersive and more fun (since complications drive drama) to mix things up as much as possible. But since I don't want to spend an inordinate amount of time on this, I'll probably end up lifting several ancient calendar systems (Greek, Babylonian, Roman, Chinese, Mayan...), cutting them up, gluing them back together, and assigning them to different regions and cultures/races. I'll make a special post on this when I get something finalized.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Goddammit Baxa: An Appraisal of Dark Sun Art

In addition to my character sheet mania, my other unreasonable gaming-related fetish would have to do with game art. I know I've harped on this point here before, but it really does baffle me when I read some gamer claiming that art matters not a whit to them. How can it not? There's little to compare against the power and inspiration of well-rendered game art.

Of course, it's a double-edged sword. Bad art can completely put me off an otherwise deserving product. This has actually been my biggest beef with self-published OSR products - many feature a hodge-podge grab bag of public domain clip art that, to me, cheapens the product and makes it look even more amateurish than if it had simply been put out without art at all. It's possible to use clip art well, but it's very difficult (I know I wouldn't attempt it); I've yet to see an OSR publication that attempted it and succeeded.

But at least those otherwise (largely) outstanding efforts can claim amateur, small-press origins. There's really no excuse for the travesty of art direction that befell the original Dark Sun line.

Despite my nostalgic trip down memory lane with the Forgotten Realms Gray Box, my true AD&D game world loyalties will always lie with Dark Sun. This is because the original Dark Sun boxed set was the first game world I ever owned (Christmas '91, baby!). The setting rocked my world and remains, in my mind, the premiere 2e-era game world (barely nudging out Planescape and Al-Qadim, for those of you keeping score at home).

Around the same time I picked up a copy of the Gray Box on eBay last winter I also ordered a copy of the original Dark Sun set (that came complete with three supplements - gotta love those eBay bargains!). Unlike the Realms, I'd happily run a Dark Sun campaign right out of the box. I've even spent a lazy Sunday or two poring over Athasian material strictly for the joy of doing it.

Last night I pulled out the three supplements (Slave Tribes, The Veiled Alliance, and Dune Trader) that came with my boxed set to page through and graze from. Unfortunately, I didn't read word one because I just couldn't get past the goddamn artwork.

Dark Sun's initial run was plagued by perhaps the most schitzophrenic art direction I've ever seen in a game line. You had nearly every product sporting a jaw-droppingly amazing full-color Brom masterpiece...and every other piece the work of Tom Baxa. Now, I try not to take artists to task in a public forum if I can help it, but Jesus Christ his shit was awful. The irony is that I've seen bits of Baxa's later work and liked it. I have a feeling he was being asked to do too much for the Dark Sun line and his quality slipped.

But I also dislike Baxa's Dark Sun work based on his aesthetic choices. His costume design is reminiscent of bad 70s Marvel comics. His weapons look simultaneously cartoonishly innefectual and ludicrously unrealistic. Rather than catching that "Mad Max meets D&D" vibe that Brom so effortlessly encapsulates in his art, I actually get de-inspired looking at Baxa's work.

I mean, seriously? The head gear...oh god, the head gear... Stuff like this seriously sucks the life out of my enjoyment of an otherwise kick-ass setting. (I seriously wonder if Planescape often gets the nod over Dark Sun in the conventional wisdom for "most inventive setting" due in part to DiTerlizzi's work versus Baxa's?)

The original boxed set at least had the mitigating factor of Brom B&W pieces balancing out the Baxa.

I think one of the reasons I never bought many of the later avalanche of Dark Sun supplements was the fact that Brom stopped doing interior illustrations. Nothing but wall-to-wall Baxa in the later stuff. So I'd see a steaming cup of fried gold like this:

Only to flip through the book and see a bunch of illustrations of the same turd drawn from different angles. I'm seriously contemplating using post-it notes or slips of paper to cover the Baxa illustrations in my Dark Sun books because otherwise I don't know how I can manage to read through them.

On a related note, I'm only vaguely aware of the 4e reboot of Dark Sun, but I have to say I really like Wayne Reynolds' work for this line. Normally I'm not a huge fan of Reynolds and his dungeonpunk aesthetics, but they fit perfectly in the world of Athas, coming across like some kind of bizarre Mad Max-D&D-Lady Gaga mashup.

I especially like his inclusion of the eponymous "dark sun" of the setting. I may have to print out some Reynolds stuff and slip them in my boxed set to use as visual inspiration. Although I have to say, as much as I worship at the feet of Brom's and Reynolds' Dark Sun work, they must think that Athasian chemists have developed some damn powerful sunblock. I can't really otherwise explain how the subjects of the above pieces manage to keep their skin so white and silky smooth!

At any rate, I'd just like re-iterate that I quite admire Baxa's latter-day output. It's just a shame that he was obviously overworked and (in my opinion) not keyed in to the soul of the setting, because the awfulness of the Dark Sun line's art direction continues to reverberate lo these twenty years later. And I'd really like to read the books sitting on my shelf.

Now where are my post-it notes...

Sunday, July 3, 2011

[Gray Box Project] Cyclpedia of the Realms: About This Product

Ahem. Well. Where were we? Ah yes...

After the one-page Introduction, the Cyclopedia continues on to outline what all we're looking at in terms of box content and organization. This section, although short, provides some interesting tidbits. Place names, for example: Thay; the Spine of the World Mountains; the Jungles of Chult. Good, pulpy stuff there.

Another interesting feature of the box contents discussed here are the two clear plastic hexagon overlays. Basically, the poster maps that come with the set are drawn without a grid themselves. The idea is you use the plastic overlay to lay down a hex grid as needed. It's an interesting idea, albeit one that views hexes as good simply for measuring distance and travel time as opposed to creating keyed hexes for hex-crawl-type sandboxes. I like the gimmick, but I can see why it never caught on.

(Hmm, now that I'm thinking about it, it might be fun to play around with Hexographer to create a hexcrawl map of a portion of the Realms...)

Speaking of maps, a couple of the Gray Box's more annoying caveats are introduced in this section:
These maps have been drawn with that information available to our representative in the Realms, Elminster the Sage, and represents what is known of those lands from the mindset of the Dalelands and Cormyr....As more of the world is fully explored, more maps of this and [sic] scale will be made available for use in Realms-related products.
The books are full of talk about the coming line of "Realms-related products" - at least TSR was upfront about its marketing plans, eh? In a time when game lines with never-ending supplement grinders are largely spit upon, it's funny to be reminded of a time when the idea of promising to release an avalanche of supplementary product was seen as a good marketing move!

At any rate, the really annoying bit about that quote is the "durr, our maps are based on scattered, unreliable reports, so they're subject to change, durr" bullshit. I mean, what's the point? My cynical side says it's TSR covering their butts so they can feel free to radically alter parts of the setting at a later date (as they in fact did). On the other hand, it also opens up individual DMs to feel free to customize their own distant corners of the Realms, free from the worry of a know-it-all player trying to pull the "actually, it's really supposed to be like this" line. "Nah, turns out Elminster was misinformed," replies our wily DM.

At any rate, we are then informed that the Cyclopedia functions as the "fluff" part of the boxed set, the other book (The DM's Sourcebook of the Realms) providing the rules-specific crunch. This is a very cool approach, actually. It means I could use just the Cyclopedia as a systemless reference to run the Realms using pretty much any system I'd like (as I'm sure more than a few folks have done).

Another nifty feature of the Cyclopedia is explained here: each of the alphabetical entries is split up into three sections. The "At A Glance" section is basically what a group of PCs would immediately note about the location or subject under consideration. "Elminster's Notes" presents in-character "insider information" relating to the subject: "all manner of details, notes, gossip, legends, tales, and other general information...". Finally, "Game Information" presents "further explanation for the AD&D game player" - stuff like a ruler's level or the number of guards in a typical City Watch patrol, and so forth. Some entries, the text notes, will also feature accompanying maps or diagrams as necessary.

I like this format very much. The "At A Glance" section is easily referenced in play or during adventure design to provide a thumbnail sketch of the subject. I could easily see "Elminster's Notes" being cribbed liberally, divvied up and placed into the mouths of various NPC expository sources. And I like all the game info (such as is contained in this book) collected into one spot. Easy, elegant, accessible.

The Realms of Bronze

Not a whole lot in this section that needs changing to fit my re-working of the Realms. The place names cited at the outset of this post, in particular, seem to fit a Bronze Age vibe more closely than quasi-medieval, in my opinion.

Of course, as I work out my maps and cultures I will make damn sure that they're authoritative - none of this mamby-pamby nonsense about inaccurate maps in my Realms, thank you very much!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

My Secret Shame

While reading the latest post over at Destination Unknown my eye was immediately drawn to the character sheets in the photo. "Where did you get those?" I asked in the comments, trying to conceal my feverish excitement.

Most gamers have some sort of game-related fetish. By far the most common fetish is dice. Outside of the fact that I use Gamescience brand dice, I'm not that much of a dice fetishist. But character sheets? That's where I totally lose all self-control.

I have been sold on entire systems based solely on the character sheet.

I completely reversed my stance on the Paladin class in AD&D because I fell in love with the custom, four-page character sheet in the back of The Complete Paladin's Handbook.

I collect character sheets for games I'll probably never even run.

It's even sadder when I actually do run the game; I recently discovered a custom Pendragon character sheet meant to be printed on an 11x17 piece of paper and laid on the table like a placemat. I was actually surprised when Des said she'd prefer sticking to her old sheet.

"But this one is new and shiny and it puts all the information right in front of you in this cool, visually ergonomic way!" I chided, dancing around the PDF on my screen like an excited toddler.

The players in my Cthulhu campaign all have different sheets; some are "official" (albeit from different editions), others are made from Word DOCs. The twitching in my face while I run my Cthulhu sessions is from the effort involved in repressing the urge to start distributing the same style sheet for everyone to copy their info onto. I'm not OCD by nature, but when it comes to character sheets this little demon of conformity rears its ugly head.

For a long time my obsession with character sheets translated into "the more pages, the better." If I'd known about this sheet (complete with a Table of Contents!) back in my AD&D days, I almost certainly would have made use of it. My high school/college group shared my enthusiasm for long sheets, and for years it was common practice for each player to sport not a mere sheet but a FOLDER. When they started selling actual "character journals," we thought we'd attained some level of gamer nirvana. Strangely, we never took the bait on those old Player's Pack briefcases TSR tried to shill in the mid-90s; even our mania knew its bounds, apparently.

Eventually (thanks to 3.x, really) I learned that multi-page character sheets generally denoted complicated systems, the sort of systems I'm not terribly interested in these days. (This is not always the case, of course; I've got a four-page BRP sheet that's printed in 8-point font in three columns and BRP is hardly Pathfinder). There's a great beauty in economy, but I'm still a sucker for a well-designed sheet. I mean, the whole "put your character on a 3x5 index card" thing? I could never do it. That's why I got so excited when I saw those Labyrinth Lord sheets. Works of art, those are.

Of course, my secret shame is not my fetish for character sheets, but rather the fact that I feel completely inadequate when it comes to making my own. I'm always on the lookout for the "perfect" sheet for whatever system I happen to be flogging at the moment, but I never stop to think that maybe I could just make my own. I mean, I'm reasonably competent with page layout and Photoshop and what-have-you. I've been pretty happy with the couple times I have ventured down that road. But then I see something like how DiTerlizzi makes his character sheets and I just say, "Fuck it."

Suitable for framing.

B/X WFRP: A Delicious Alphabet Soup

Chris over at the far-too-infrequently-updated Vaults of Nagoh today revealed what he's been slavishly tinkering with of late. And it's a thing of beauty, one of those great "only in the blogs" contributions to the collective braintrust that is the OSR: a Red Box D&D-Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay hack.

A quick perusal of the (almost) complete rules and it looks like Chris has a winner on his hands. Plus, in the process of explaining why he felt the need to blend these particular chocolates and peanut butters, he provides one of the best summations of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay I've ever read:
Whisper it (that fanboys may not hear and descend a-squealing), but for all the charm of its skewed-familiar 16th century milieu and the lurking horror of Chaos, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play was little more than a modcop of classic Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, our beloved WFRP was yet another ‘fix D&D’ fantasy heartbreaker, albeit one which had the clout of the biggest name in British gaming behind it. Whole chunks of the system were lightly disguised D&D mechanics adapted to a roll-under d% system, and many setting elements not gleefully ripped off from Tolkien, Leiber or Moorcock were already established D&D tropes by the time WFRP was published.
But that's ok. Indeed, that's part of why all right-thinking people – Brits, Italians and Poles especially – love WFRP. To paraphrase a better man than I: we took an American invention, soaked it in a witches' brew of Bosch, Durer and DorĂ©, Mervyn Peake and Tom Sharpe, Blackadder, The Young Ones, pints of bitter, cheap weed, Iron Maiden and The Damned, and then played the hell out of it.
Brilliant. After years of intensive therapy I've largely cured myself of that Gamer ADD-driven urge to play this now, but I'm having a hard time fending this one off. Kudos, Chris!
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