Thursday, November 29, 2012

On the Value of Visuals

I'm a visually-oriented guy. Some of my earliest inspirations in the realms of fantasy and fantasy gaming came courtesy of eye candy. The works of Alan Lee, Gary Chalk, and Larry Elmore are every bit as responsible for my love of gaming - if not moreso - than the contributions of any fiction or rules author.

I'm a firm believer that RPGs, particularly those of the fantastic variety that exist only in our collective imaginations, can benefit immeasurably from even minor artistic touches to an extent much greater than the sum of those touches' individual contributions. Likewise, an otherwise fantastic concept can be seriously harmed by poorly- or lazily-executed visuals.

Kelvin Green seems to share my sentiments. He posted today on Google Plus that his contribution to the LotFP IndieGoGo adventure project has been delayed by his insistance on drawing up a visual random loot table. The art is an absolute knockout, and in the comments Kelvin specifically cites the old Lone Wolf books as inspiration for his idea:

Art by Gary Chalk
Stuart Robinson responds with this observation: "The style of the items does a lot to give you the feel for the game world that just 'Sword d8' doesn't." I really couldn't have said it better. I remember that Lone Wolf chart making such a huge impression on my young mind for that very reason - it made the abstract real. Not only are these sorts of pictures worth their usual 1,000 words, but they help create a shared imaginative space for players to dwell in, and convey an almost real sense of place in a way that mere verbal descriptions can't.

I was already thinking about all this recently as, after reading Grognardia's ongoing retrospective of Imagine magazine, I found a PDF collection of that magazine's articles covering their "house setting" of Pelinore. The setting is your typical Silver Age D&D fare with one exception: the floor plans. Every single floor plan includes an elevation. Check out some examples:

Tons more floor plans of this style appeared throughout the Pelinore articles. Basically, any building got an accompanying illustration. Why isn't this standard practice for fantasy RPGs? The little individual details allowed by those elevations turn a run-of-the-mill fantasy world into a living, breathing creation. As a GM, I would gladly pay for a supplement that included this style of mapping, happily trading text for the extra space the illustrations take up. Why? Because with that sort of visual inspiration, I hardly need text. Indeed, the Pelinore articles featuring these floor plans have very sparse additional text, mostly focused around presenting abbreviated stat blocks and descriptions of special items or areas in the buildings. It's an ideal model on how to present a fantasy settlement and, like I said, I really wish it was an industry standard. Along with visual random loot tables.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

[Solo GPC] 535: Heavy Weighs the Crown

Because we started Loholt out as a wet-behind-the-ears squire, I sometimes forget how young he is. I've been waiting to see him come into his own; this was the year, as it turned out. And in true Pendragon fashion, it came about in a way neither one of us saw coming.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

[Solo GPC] 534: Roses and Thorns

This year's session was, for the most part, a "solo" Pendragon game in name only, as we were joined by two guest players! D. and S. are from our regular weekly group, and as that week's regular game was cancelled, we decided to run Pendragon instead. The players both had characters from a campaign Des had run last year that ended, coincidentally enough, right around the same time as the current GPC continuity, so we did our own version of FLAILSNAILS and brought in Sir Blaine and Sir Madog for a guest appearance for the main portion of this year's events.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

System Mastery: The Final Plan

Well, it's been an interesting few months' journey, but for those of you who have been following along at home, I've finally settled on an approach for where I'm going to focus my gaming attention and interest for the foreseeable future. Because, ultimately, that's what this has been about: focus. Not only is Gamer ADD annoying as hell, I just don't have the time for it.

And yet, despite my strong intention, I was having the most difficult time settling on a plan of action. There seemed to be something more than just rules preference at work; after all, each of the systems I was taking a look at offered many attractive features, and none left me totally turned off. In the end, it took some in-person and email discussions with some of my current players to reach two key insights:
  • I was never going to be a single-system gamer.
  • I needed something more than just a good system; I was missing the days of being plugged in to an active, "mainstream" game line.
This second revelation came as something of a surprise to me, but once I saw it clearly it made total sense. Once upon a time, in addition to following and playing more esoteric RPG lines, I was an active participant in what one could relatively call the mainstream of gaming; I played AD&D, I subscribed to Dragon. I was never as heavily into Third Edition as I was into AD&D, but since leaving 3.x and d20 completely behind circa 2005, I had been almost entirely out of that mainstream. The way I've characterized it is that it's been years since I've played an RPG that is likely to have product for sale in the Games section of a large chain bookstore - or likely to be played by the average gamer on the street.

The OSR provided semblance of a community experience, but it's been exclusively an online community (and not one that I've been terribly active in even then). Even in fully-stocked game stores, OSR products are thin on the ground. And online wasn't really scratching the itch, it seemed. Plus, although I'm a great lover of old school game design, the OSR's primary focus is on a style of gameplay I never employed or engaged in; over the last few years, I've experimented with sandbox-style, high character mortality-type games and haven't found much to keep my long-term interest. I've found I'm more comfortable with a sort of hybrid sandbox-linear plot approach, what Savage Worlds calls a "plot point campaign."

I'll return to the second point shortly, but the first point needs addressing too. I realized that although I still wanted to develop a sort of "go-to" system, I will always be a wanderer. As one of my players pointed out, "being able to play many different games is, in itself, a form of mastery." Too true. In the end, though, I only have time for one crunchy system in my life right now; the other systems will have to be fairly light and easy to run. But if I'm going to be investing time into a crunchy system, it may as well be my "go-to" system as well.

With my second revelation also in mind, I realized I had to make my go-to system something D&D-related, a system that was currently and widely supported no less. Right now, that pretty much means either 4e or Pathfinder. Version IV has never held any appeal for me. I've tried, but it's left me cold each time, both as player and GM. And it's effectively a dead system now that Version V is in playtest, making it even less appealing by my current standards. This leaves Pathfinder, and it's Pathfinder that I've decided to make my go-to system. I'll keep an eye on Version V as it develops in playtest. If it turns out to be a system I can get behind, I'll make the jump when it comes out. In the meantime, much as I did with GURPS, I'm going to rehabilitate my relationship with d20.

Pathfinder's making this pretty easy, as it turns out. I picked up the core book about a week ago and have been really digging the changes Paizo made. I have to say, at least, that (perhaps surprisingly) I'm getting that good old D&D vibe from the game, despite all its new school mechanical and aesthetic trappings. It feels good to feel like I'm back in the fold, even if the name of the pasture has changed and the grass tastes just a little different. Plus, it feels good to be supporting a company made up of fellow gamers, like the folks at Paizo.

Speaking of GURPS, Pathfinder offers a similar level of tasty crunch as well as tons of product for me to ogle and covet (although I intend to keep my purchases to a minimum as I become comfortable with the core system, so as not to overwhelm myself)...but Pathfinder also boasts a community whole orders of magnitude greater, both online and in-person. It's perhaps no coincidence that I've suddenly found myself with two Pathfinder campaigns to plan by popular demand, and a handful of other possible side ventures in the works as well. Nothing beats jumping in the deep end!

Pursuant to my first point of keeping a couple other systems up my sleeve, I've decided to retain Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds in active rotation. These both have the benefit of being simple systems that are easy to prep for and run. The former has the advantage of plenty of published scenarios (including the recently Kickstarter'd "Horror on the Orient Express" boxed set, which I'll be receiving in a year or less) and enthusiastic interest among my player base; the latter has the advantage of being a generic system, allowing me to run a wide variety of "other" campaigns that don't fit under the "heroic fantasy" or "cosmic horror" umbrellas.

Once I feel like I've achieved a certain level of comfort with Pathfinder, I'll start folding in other systems. GURPS and BRP remain high on my list for differing shades "realistic" campaign concepts, and I've got lots of other fun systems on my shelf that will need some love and attention before long. Hell, maybe I'll even give Palladium another look (but not before donning my heavy haz-mat suit of house rules). But for now, it'll be mostly heroic fantasy leavened by the occassional foray into mind-bending terror and two-fisted pulp adventure. Sounds a lot like the sort of gaming I used to do back in the good old days, and that's fine with me.

Forward to adventure!
Post-Script: "But what of Pendragon?" I hear you cry. Throughout this whole process, Pendragon has been a sort of given. The Solo GPC will carry on until it's finished, no matter how long it takes. But the conclusion of the GPC will probably herald the semi-retirement of Pendragon for a while, and I certainly have no plans to run anything Pendragon-related for any other groups as long as Des and I have our thing going on. Even if I break this rule, I'm comfortable enough with Pendragon that it constitutes a sort of silent "third choice" among my secondary systems.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Dispatches From a Would-Be Monogameist, Part the Second

In my first part to this post, I touched on doubts creeping in around my quest for system mastery. That it seemed my old enemy, Gamer ADD, was rearing its ugly head again. As for that: even when I first started thinking about mastering a system, it was never my intention to abandon all the other games on my shelf, or try to cludge them into the One System to Rule Them All. I'm a backer for the Kickstarter reprint of "Horror on the Orient Express" for Call of Cthulhu, and when that long-anticipated campaign lands on my doorstep (hopefully) sometime next August, you can bet I'll be running it with the system it's designed for. To do otherwise would feel like doing the adventure a disservice, somehow. Likewise, games like Pendragon or Burning Wheel are very self-consciously constructed systems that would quite simply cease to be what made them themselves if converted to another game (but yes, there is a "Savage Pendragon" conversion out there!).

I guess what I'm wondering now is if my quest for system mastery is already doomed to failure. Because I'm finding it hard to focus long enough to set those other, irreplaceable systems aside for even a short period of time. Because I love the quirks and idiosynracies of different systems, even the ones that could port over without losing their core essence. I read this brilliant post that integrates the Lawful-Chaotic alignment duality of Basic D&D and it makes me want to bust out some B/X dungeon crawl action. Ooh! There's a Lovecraftian horror-fantasy setting out for Pathfinder? Maybe it's time to dip my toe in the waters of that system; I like Paizo as a company, I like the solid thickness of the Pathfinder books and the loss-leader price on the Beginner Box... It's not just the setting or the genre, it's the idea of the system - yes, I could run a Classic D&D dungeon-crawl campaign with GURPS (Dungeon Fantasy) or Savage Worlds, and I could certainly adapt Shadows Over Vathak to any system of my choosing. But there's an undeniable pull to pairing setting/genre with the system it was written for.

At any rate, those distractions are culled just from examples of blog posts I read today. And I've made a point of un-following the blogs that tend to focus exclusively on flogging the latest available products in order to minimize the "ooh shiny" reflex, but even then I just can't get away from the siren call of other systems it seems.

Then again, maybe I'm just falling back into old patterns? Maybe the idea of committing to a single system just feels alien to me, so I go back to what's comfortable. Can I really pull of the monogameist lifestyle, or am I condemned to have a wandering eye the rest of my days?

Dispatches From a Would-Be Monogameist, Part the First

As I indicated in my latest campaign wrap-up post, my quest for a system to master goes on. In this post I'm going to talk a bit more about my impressions of GURPS and another system I'm now taking for a test drive, Savage Worlds. But I'm also finding, as I move forward, that my old gamer ADD is kicking in. One of my long-suffering players, Jen, suggested that I might not be cut out for the life of a "monogameist," my new favorite term. So, if you'll indulge me, I'm going to muse on that point a bit as well in a follow-up post.

But first to system comparisons.

My winter reading list.
Okay, so that's obviously a funny-cuz-its-true joke image, but it also touches on what I like most and least about GURPS. I adore the depth of the system, particularly in its Fourth Edition incarnation. Third Edition suffered from rules bloat, with inconsistent spot rules spread out over multiple sourcebooks and compendia. But nearly a decade after it came out, Fourth Edition continues to do an admirable job of sticking to the rules presented in its two-volume Basic Set; supplements introduce mostly riffs or variations on existing rules rather than totally new concepts. Even so, that still makes for a pretty deep back catalog of a rather dense reading list. Steve Jackson Games' switch to PDF-based publishing has only added to that depth with a host of mini-supplements, all chock full of great ideas crying out to be read.

The strength of GURPS is its flexibility, the ability to toggle options on and off. My last campaign was firmly in the Cinematic camp in part to simplify things for myself and my players. Even then, though, I ran into my main issue with GURPS: I feel that it really helps, as a GM, to know about all available options in order to determine what or what not to include. For example, even in the course of the short, six-session campaign, I found myself on several occasions announcing to the group that I'd be implementing or jettisoning a particular rule.

This is not a bad thing, objectively speaking, and really it's to be expected- it's part of the quest for system mastery, after all. In due time, the master GM inevitably acquaints themself with all (or at least most) of the rules and can toggle things off and on at will. But I'm questioning my ability to get to that point. It's a lot of reading, a lot of memorization, a lot of trial and error over the course of regular play. The lure of other systems (as I'll discuss in a follow-up post), the question of the time involved in mastering a system as dense as GURPS...I'm not sure if I can navigate those treacherous shoals.

And so we come to Savage Worlds.

Interestingly, I seem to not be the only one to look to Savage Worlds in place of GURPS. There are several pros that make Savage Worlds an attractive choice for system mastery. First off, I have to say that Savage Worlds may just boast the most active and helpful fan community of any RPG I've yet seen. There are Savage Worlds conversions for nearly anything you can think of, and if it hasn't been covered already, you can just hop on the Pinnacle Entertainment Group forums and start up a big, friendly brainstorming session. GURPS' own forums are also open to questions and have proven helpful in my moments of confusion over various system arcana, but they also seem a bit...I don't know. Stagnant isn't the word, but it's like that linked article says: Savage Worlds seems like a system on the grow, whereas GURPS seems to have given in to an attitude of retrenchment and service to a small fan base. Put it this way: I poked around online for Rifts conversion materials (always my litmus test for a new, universal system); I found a few leads for GURPS but was left with lots of work to do on my own, whereas with a couple emails I was able to secure a Savage Worlds conversion that encompassed nearly everything I needed, a true first.

The other element that attracts me to Savage Worlds is its simplicity, particularly as it relates to game prep. One of the reasons there are so many SW conversions of other games is that it's so damn easy to throw together a stat block for the game or just monkey around with the rules without fear of causing catastrophic meltdown. I'm taking the rules for a spin with a couple old buddies via a Google+ game of my Rifts:2112 setting, and prepping the first adventure was simplicity itself. I've run a couple SW games in the past, and even as a novice, I found actual play to flow just as smoothly. This is a not inconsiderable point in Savage Worlds' favor.

I also have to admit that I kind of like Savage Worlds' gimmicky (for lack of a better word) elements: the playing cards, the tokens, the miniatures, the Adventure Deck. I'm also always a bit more predisposed to liking a system that uses most or all of the polyhedrals; I appreciate GURPS trying to be accommodating by using only the classic six-sider, but I've been a dice nerd since my first session of D&D.

So am I totally sold on Savage Worlds? No, I'm not. What SW gains in simplicity and ease of prep and play, it obviously loses in flexibility. It will never be the full toolkit that GURPS is, either for character generation or world building. And flexibility is something both I and my players enjoy. Savage Worlds also has its own built-in "prejudices" of game reality. If GURPS tends towards granular and "realistic" (even in Cinematic mode), Savage Worlds tends towards a sort of mid-level cinematic - not terribly over-the-top, but not realistic, either. Sort of an Indiana Jones-level reality. This necessarily dictates the types of campaigns one thinks to run with the system. Whether this is more of a theoretical problem (after all, most gaming genres fall within that "mid-level cinematic" range by default) remains to be seen.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

[Campaign Analysis] GURPS Tales of the Solar Patrol

A week before my unscheduled life interruption, I wrapped up a short six-session campaign, the retro sci-fi Tales of the Solar Patrol, based on the PDF-only setting of the same name. The system was GURPS, handily the same system the setting is written for, and was part of my mission to find a generic system I felt comfortable with devoting the time required for mastery. Here, then, are my thoughts on the campaign in particular and how it ran with GURPS, the red-headed stepchild of my gaming collection.

As I was preparing to run a new campaign for the group, I decided to try something new - I put the issue to a vote. I knew I was going to run something with GURPS, but I was having trouble narrowing down the choices. So I drafted up a list of a half-dozen choices, each with a few sentences of description, and emailed my players, asking them to pick a primary choice (worth two votes) and a secondary choice (worth one vote). I was surprised by the results. My personal favorite (a campaign set in Ken Hite's "Day After Ragnarok" setting) garnered no votes and Solar Patrol, a setting I've been wanting to run since it came out a few years back but had kind of assumed no one wanted to play, emerged a clear winner. This despite the fact that we've never been much for sci-fi gaming and one person who voted for it had even stated on a previous occasion that she was adamantly uninterested in the genre.

I really enjoyed giving my players a hand in choosing the campaign, but one issue did emerge over the ensuing sessions: the player who had not voted for the campaign was not very engaged with the game events. Little wonder, as there was obviously no interest from the get-go. For future voting rounds, I'm going to allow for each player to nominate a candidate for veto along with primary/secondary votes. I'm not sure if this player would have vetoed Solar Patrol (it's not like he hated the concept), but the veto will be there as both a device of empowerment for the players and a sort of moral parachute for me - if a player doesn't vote for the winning campaign but didn't veto it either, they don't have much right to sulk about it, I'd think. Of course, the veto might also ensure a sort of "lowest common denominator" effect, but we'll see if that turns out to be problem and deal with it accordingly.

As for the campaign, I thought it went really well. I'd envisioned it as a short-form game from the beginning - there's only so much you can do with a bunch of cadets before it either gets formulaic or the campaign morphs into something else entirely. This was the first time in a while where I ran entirely home-brewed adventures, and that was a lot of fun. I particularly took advantage of the flexibility offered by running my own stuff by making adjustments and changes on the fly, adapting to player actions and questions as they came up, introducing setting elements and NPCs as appropriate. The most memorable session was probably a free-form unescorted romp through Venusport, the setting's own "wretched hive of scum and villainy", that had me juggling four separate plot threads as each of the four players went off in different directions and got in varying degrees of trouble, ranging from minor (hooking up with a fellow cadet in the back of a seedy bar) to major (getting kidnapped by a local smuggler syndicate). Because it was a short-form campaign, I also felt free to totally let go and make major changes to the setting as the campaign unfolded (wiping out most of the Solar Patrol and launching the Second Solar War, for example). And it all ended with the android PC detonating her atomic core to kill the bad guy and save the world, showing everyone that robots can be heroes too.

It was kind of ironic that I ended up running Solar Patrol with the system intended. The PDF is mostly background and would port very easily to other systems, and I'd considered several over the years. So how did it run with GURPS? My answer would be that it ran well, but with a couple caveats. I ran the campaign with several of the system's Cinematic rules in place, and that made things go very smoothly for the most part. I still would not be ready to run a highly "realistic" GURPS campaign with lots of options switched on. In order to simplify character creation (since the group consisted of players with zero to marginal familiarity with the system), I had everyone write up a description of their characters, then I drafted the actual character sheets and handed them out at the first session. (This was made much easier by the fact that Solar Patrol includes handy templates to speed up character creation.) The players picked things up quickly and did a good job of integrating their Advantages and Disadvantages into play, something I always worry about, since GURPS characters can have quite a laundry list of Ads and Disads. I particularly appreciated the flexibility of the system in translating the players' qualitative descriptions into game stats. (One player, for example, wanted to have a type of ridiculous luck that always came at the expense of major personal injury, something not covered directly by the rules but easily adaptable.)

On the other hand, even with simplified character creation and cinematic rules in effect, GURPS is still GURPS - granular, detailed, and intricate. Forgetting even a single rule can have dramatic effects on how the system plays. For example, during one of the first sessions I ran a "combat crash course" for the group by pitting the PC cadets against each other in non-lethal boffer combat. Thanks to me forgetting a couple rules, what should have been a quick, simple combat turned into a brutal slugfest both in-game and at the table. GURPS doesn't just reward system mastery, it very nearly requires it. Certainly, the more you know the system, the more you can get out of it. This is an admirable quality once you get to a certain point, but that learning curve can be brutal.

So I'm setting GURPS aside for now and moving on to another candidate. This was my plan all along (unless and until I get a home run candidate), but I thought I was going to try another GURPS campaign before I moved on so that I could dig down into the system a bit more. But after my brush with death, I've re-evaluated and have decided to get going with another system and see if it's maybe a bit better fit. More on that in a forthcoming post, I'm sure. In the meantime, I haven't refuted GURPS or sworn off it for a year and a day or anything, and in the end I may well return to it as my choice of system to master - but I've got to shop around a little before I make that decision.

Update: Peter Dell'Orto of the always-excellent Dungeon Fantasy blog has posted some thoughts in response to this post.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Wiped Out

I'm normally not a big believer in "sorry for the lack of posts"-type posts, but I just wanted to let all my readers know that, although I'm still here, things are likely to remain fairly quiet around the ol' RPG Corner for the near-future. Without going into the gruesome details, I suffered life-threatening complications during what was supposed to be a quick and easy surgical procedure. The good news is that I've been making steady progress towards recovery and it looks like I'll get out of this without any long-term side-effects, but right now most of my energy is turned inwards towards healing.

Of course, being the hardcore gamer that I am, this hasn't prevented me from ogling certain products that have become available over the last few weeks:

The Horror on the Orient Express kickstarter!

S. John Ross's "All Systems" edition of Uresia: Grave of Heaven!

The Book of the Entourage for Pendragon!

I'll know I've really turned a corner when I can once again sit down and roll some dice with good friends, and I don't think that day is too far off. But in the mean time...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Any Interest in a Solo GPC Zine?

As my Pendragon actual play posts roll along (I'm currently writing up reports for years 534 and 535 and we're due to play 536 sometime in the next week, meaning we've now officially got less than 30 years to go in the campaign chrnology), I've been mulling over how to collate existing posts.

I've had a couple commenters suggest/request an omnibus PDF of all the posts, and that's certainly an idea, but I feel like a project of this scope deserves something a little more...special, I guess? I've been thinking of putting out the posts as individual PDF and maybe even print zines. I've even been mulling over replacing the pictures I culled off the Internet with original art.

Would there be any interest in such a venture? If the updates were printed on good-quality paper and staple-bound, would there be enough monetary interest to cover the costs?

Any other suggestions on how you'd like to see the Solo GPC collected would be welcome!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

B/X D&D: The Ultimate "Generic Universal Role Playing System"?

If you've been on this blog recently, you might've noticed I updated my "Currently Running" links--and besides the redoubtable Pendragon, GURPS has joined the list as well. As part of my action plan to find a system to master, I'm giving GURPS the first crack. I figured I'd start with the crunchiest system I owned and work my way back until I found something my group and I liked.

We might just end up sticking with GURPS, as it turns out. Jury's still out on whether it's a bit too crunchy for our tastes, but we're also having a good time with the current campaign. I'm digging the system's extreme flexibility and customizability. And as I grow more familiar and comfortable with the system the crunchiness, as anticipated, begins to fade into the background. So who knows?

This hasn't prevented me from thinking of alternatives, of course. In my original post on system mastery, I mentioned Basic Roleplaying and Savage Worlds as other choices. But recently another possibility has occurred to me: Basic/Expert D&D!

This is owed primarily to the OSR and the products that have been produced in the last four years. Labyrinth Lord's Advanced Edition Companion and/or JB's B/X Companion and Complete B/X Adventurer expand the fantasy framework laid down in the original Basic and Expert sets; Stars Without Number covers interplanetary sci-fi and even cyberpunk (with a supplement for the latter); Mutant Future covers post-apocalyptic science-fantasy; Realms of Crawling Chaos allows you to inject a little Mythos action into any of the above. And those are just the "marquis" titles. Pretty much covers the vast majority of popular gaming genres. Certainly, at this point I could see running a B/X hack of Rifts with almost no effort. And even as I type this, JB is talking about putting out other supplements to expand the B/X scope even further.

I realize this is really nothing new. People have been hacking D&D into "universal" systems pretty much from the get-go. Indeed, up through the early 80s pretty much every system out there was essentially someone's D&D house rules. And yet more recently d20 made its bid to become the one D&D-derived system to rule them all. As that proved, it's not always a good thing to take a game beyond its intended limits. And yet I was surprised to realize that such a venerable system as B/X D&D--which turned 30 last year, positively ancient by gaming standards--has suddenly flowered into this de facto "universal" system. In a way it reminds me of the progression of the Palladium system, which started out as a D&D clone and kept getting modded, cludged, bolted, and bashed to fit a nearly universal set of genre conventions. Unlike Palladium, however, I feel that B/X has managed to retain its core simplicity through the various mods.

If nothing else, it certainly makes for an interesting addition to my list of potential systems to master.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

[Solo GPC] 532: To Be a Queen's Knight

At the great mound of Carn Brea in Cornwall, a giant with cascading waterfalls for eyebrows shook itself from its winter slumber and stood. Stretching, it loosed a great rumbling yawn that sent a flock of nesting sparrows flying from its tangled beard. Absent-mindedly scratching its bottom, it ambled off in search of sustenance. Far to the east, a young knight also rose, looking out on the snow-covered streets of Camelot...

Yes, kids, it's time again. Time to delve back into the tale of the Broughton clan, in particular of Sir Loholt of Camelot, son of the High King and Romantic Knight par excellance. What strange and glorious adventures lie in wait for our intrepid young knight this year? Read on and find out...

Friday, June 22, 2012

[Review] The Ultimate GM Screen II

Last year I purchased and downloaded a PDF of Fat Dragon Games' "Ultimate GM Screen II" (from here on out, the UGMS2) but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I got around to building it. Now that I've had the opportunity to field-test it in a few games, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the product.

I am unfamiliar with the presumed predecessor, the "Ultimate GM Screen I", and in fact this is the first product I've purchased from Fat Dragon. I've had some experience in the past with paper modelling, but I'm probably, at best, at an intermediate skill level in that regard (more on that shortly).

The UGMS2 comes in a large PDF download that's greater than the sum of its parts, as several of the pages need to be printed out multiple times. Disconcertingly, while some of the pages are clearly labeled as multiples, others that should be are not. Not a big deal, but make sure that when you sit down to assemble the thing you have access to your computer and printer in case you need more sheets.

In addition to the PDF, you need to supply your own heavy cardstock (the instructions give recommended thickness ranges), scissors, a cutting blade, foamcore, and white glue. If you're an experienced paper modeller, you probably already have all this to hand. For myself, I had to go out and buy a ream of cardstock.

You'll also need plenty of ink and patience, as printing can take up a whole evening unto itself.

Patience is a good watchword across the board when it comes to assembling the UGMS2. It took me four nights of pretty steady work, from printing to final assembly, to put the thing together. The instructions were clearly-written and I never ran into any dead ends or confusing tangles in the course of assembly.

Having assembled the screen, here's how it looked on my table:

(One of the selling points of the screen for me personally is the fact that it's more or less in landscape format. I've found I just can't go back to portrait-oriented screens--they're just too tall!)
As you can see, it fits perfectly across the width of my table, which was a nice little perk. The side walls are separate pieces that attach with little tabs underneath. If you had a narrower table, you could easily forgo the tabs and bring the wings in tighter, although they'd be more vulnerable to the inevitable bumps and jostles of the table. Conversely, as the instructions point out, you can always print out additional side wings to extend the width of the screen even further, for those of you playing at Mr. Burns' desk or similar.
The screen comes with a couple nifty features. Like all nifty features, these are of dubious utility in actual use. Each tower has a dice-rolling chute, one facing the GM, one facing the players. In the sessions I've run using the screen, I've used the chutes about half the time. During tense moments like combat, I often forget to use the chutes, falling back on old-fashioned dice slinging out of habit. But the chutes are a fun feature, particularly for an important roll when you want to heighten the drama even further.

The other nifty feature of the screen is a built-in set of shelves to house your miniatures when they're not in use.

This is obviously of no use if you don't use minis in your games - and usually I do not. These shots, however, were taken during a Savage Worlds game I was running in which I was using minis, and I found the shelves work pretty much as you'd expect. The shelves are sturdy and do a good job of hiding the figures from all but the most prying of eyes. The only downside I can think of is if you have a big batch of minis (like for a kobold dungeon or something), in which case you'd quickly run out of space.

As you can see in the shot above, I got some paper warp in a couple places. Fortunately these are out of view of the players for the most part, but it's still a good reminder: the quality of your own screen will only be as good as your level of expertise in paper modeling.

The only other downside to this screen I can think of is that it doesn't fulfill one of the primary tasks of a GM's screen: providing quick reference tables! It would be theoretically possible to pin your own sheets to the wings, but it's not a built-in feature of the table.

In the end, the Ulitmate GM Screen II is not quite deserving of the title. It makes a couple pretty broad assumptions about the reasons why one would want a screen, neither of which line up with my own needs. My personal "ultimate screen" remains the Savage Worlds Deluxe GM Screen, which is landscape format and features pockets for inserting custom tables or images on all six sides, and it's one I'll continue to use for most of my games.

However, I'm not sorry to have bought and built the UGMS2. It makes for a great prop in certain types of high fantasy games, and it has become my go-to screen for D&D and similarly-flavored games, particularly games featuring miniatures. In the end, it is a novelty, but one not without its uses.

I would unreservedly recommend this screen to anyone who runs 4e or Pathfinder, as long as they were comfortable with paper modelling and were comfortable with having whatever quick reference sheets they'd need close at hand rather than on a GM screen.

Now if only I could track down a copy of that custom Cthulhu screen that was available a few years back...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Drive Towards System Mastery

With our Version 5 playtest wrapped up (and a spate of two months' worth of 60-hour work weeks behind me, freeing up brain power and blogging time--hi everyone!), I'm giving serious thought as to where to go next. Not just in terms of what sort of campaign to run, but where next in terms of how I approach RPGs.

Seems like every 6-8 years I undergo one of these metamorphoses. The last time around involved me reorganizing my gaming shelves into a system ordered by what games I was both familiar with and felt comfortable running (top shelf) down through to those games I had bought and never so much as read (bottom shelf). This in turn led to my renewed interest in (and frequent playing of) Pendragon and Call of Cthulhu, as well as (indirectly) to me starting this very blog and plugging in to the OSR.

The itch I'm feeling these days isn't so much an overhaul as a further refinement of my current approach to gaming. I'm feeling the urge to master a single one of those "top shelf" systems.

I've always been vaguely in awe of those of you who pick an edition of D&D and just stick with that pretty much exclusively. Whether it's Basic, AD&D, Pathfinder, hell, even Version 4, I can't help but admire the folks out there who have managed to, if you will, make D&D their bitch. That level of commitment to a single system, let alone a single genre, is something that's always escaped me. I'm a recovering sufferer of Gamer ADHD, and even in my more recent, less excitable years I've been known to fall victim to the "ooh, shiny!" complex, mostly in regards to cool concepts rather than fancy rules. In other words, I like to genre-hop, something that has kept me from being a "D&D only" type gamer.

However, although I could never devote myself to a single genre, as do the hardcore D&Ders, I've long been fascinated by the idea of mastering a single system. GURPS was the second RPG I ever bought, after all, and a big selling-point at the time was the pitch that with a single set of rules one could run a wide variety of campaigns without having to learn a new system each time. And there's something tremendously appealing to a certain part of me in the idea of essentially becoming of a walking encyclopedia of a particular system.

What's prevented me from doing this is the other part of me that falls in with the indie crowd and, sneering from the shadows of that crowded trendy dive bar of the gaming world, asserts, "System matters." Why play GURPS Horror when you can play Call of Cthulhu, with its mechanics specifically designed to emulate fear and mental deterioration? Why play BRP Fantasy when you can play Burning Wheel or Pendragon, each featuring mechanics precisely tailored to emulate the genre conventions of the specific brands of fantasy they're emulating? Why pay a hooker to put on a French maid outfit when you can play Maid...?

Such has been my rationalization for the past 20 years, the rationalization that's kept the generic systems on the back burner. But after taking a break from GURPS, I've recently come back to it with a fresh perspective - running a couple side campaigns in the process to take the system for a test drive, if you will - and it's got me thinking about system mastery again. Individual systems may matter, but there's also a lot to be said for being comfortable with the rules - so comfortable, in fact, that the rules become almost transparent, allowing one to focus on the campaign and the characters. Big, meaty systems like GURPS or BRP don't lend themselves well to casual play, one of the reasons I was finding myself continually frustrated by GURPS back in the day. So why not jump in all the way?

Such a commitment would not mean a repudiation of all the other games on my shelf by any means. For one thing, they'll be there for idea mining. And for certain games like CoC or Pendragon, I'd never seek to replace the play experiences they generate. (And indeed, the Solo GPC will keep trundling along until such time as it's finished, whatever my other projects may be.) But I'd step away from other games until I felt like I'd mastered the system of my choice. Only then would I allow myself to run some of the other systems on my shelf rather than just steal from them.

At the moment, I have three candidates in mind for system mastery, should I pursue it: GURPS, BRP, and Savage Worlds. Each has its pros and cons. I love GURPS for the richness of its character creation and the challenge it presents should I choose to try and truly master it--there are just so many modular, plug-in rules, the range of campaigns I could run in the course of learning and utilizing them all boggles the mind (which is kind of the point of the system, I suppose). BRP brings with it an elegant simplicity as well as familiarity--most of the gaming I've done over the last six years has been BRP or derived systems. However, it lacks the deep character generation options of GURPS (not always a bad thing, I'll concede) and part of me thinks, "If I'm going to embark on mastering a set of rules that's fairly 'realistic' with a host of modular options, why not go whole hog with GURPS?" Savage Worlds doesn't have the depth of GURPS or even BRP, but I enjoy the system very much and feel like I could do a lot with it. It would certainly dictate that the majority of the games I run for the foreseeable future would be "FAST! FURIOUS! FUN!" affairs. And I could do with a bit of that after a couple years of running mostly cosmic horror. (Although I am tempted to do a Two-Fisted Tales/Realms of Cthulhu mash-up to run the pulpiest Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign ever seen.)

Art by Daniel Irizarri Oquendo
Savage Worlds would also give me an excuse to start using miniatures in my RPG gaming more often--although that's a whole 'nother barrel of ambivalence I haven't really discussed!

"My god, it's full of owlbears!"

Those were the last words uttered before a nuclear warhead detonated and TPK'd the party (along with the rest of the Caves of Chaos) at the conclusion of our Version 5 playtest last night.

Playtest: successful.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

[Campaign Analysis] Bell, Book, and Candle: Freshman Year

Well sir, another campaign has wrapped up. As I did last time, I'm going to post my thoughts here on "[w]hat worked, what didn't. Expectations going in and how those expectations morphed and changed over the course of the campaign."

This was the first campaign of the year for me and my group, as I'd taken the holidays off from running anything greater than a one-shot in scope. After running a Cthulhu campaign the previous year, I had been pretty certain that I'd opt for something different this time around for the first campaign of 2012. But then I started thinking about the fun of running a student-based campaign set at Miskatonic University. Despite having owned and run Call of Cthulhu for nigh on to 20 years, I've never set an extended campaign in Lovecraft Country. I was also excited by the idea of getting a second crack at running CoC. My San Francisco campaign had started up just before my life got considerably more hectic last year; furthermore, there was an unprecedented level of player turnover in that campaign - I was using to arrange the meetings, so every session seemed to feature a new face - and that kept me from establishing a comfortable rhythm with the group.

Unfortunately, my determination to get it "right" this time, combined with the fact I had several weeks to prepare, proved my undoing. There's a sweet spot somewhere in campaign preparation; you don't want to have too little time to prepare, but there's just as much of a danger in overpreparation. I do think I had the right idea in sending out "acceptance letters" in the mail as a way of announcing the campaign concept. But ultimately I was undermined by the sheer volume of detail offered by Lovecraft Country and the Miskatonic University sourcebook. I mean, just look at that list of NPCs! And that's after just one academic year of play.

Originally I had a thought of emulating Pendragon's structure of limiting a single adventure to a single season - in this case, one adventure per semester. In that way, we could get through all eight semesters, from Freshman to Senior, in probably no more than a dozen sessions (my own Golden Mean for campaign duration). But I waffled, wanting to simultaneously take advantage of all the material I had to work with as well as create a more organic, believable world. So I ran a semi-sandbox, presenting my players with a "target rich environment" (to borrow a term from Beedo) which they could interact with at will.

In this sense, the campaign was a terrific success. The players pursued the threads that interested them, and some of our best sessions were ones where I simply riffed off their stated goals, using my copies of the M.U. sourcebook and Arkham Unveiled to fill in the gaps when necessary. Still, it took us nine sessions to cover the Freshman year - nearly the entire time I had allocated for the whole campaign! At that pace, we'd be playing through Christmas, and there are many more and different games I want to run before the snows fall again. Plus, that much supernatural chicanery (even with the periodic red herrings I threw into the mix) crammed into a span of eight in-game months was, I think, wearing for the group; player-contributed adventure summaries went from detailed to non-existant, for example, as enthusiasm waned.

In the end, I decided to mothball the campaign as the Spring semester came to a close. I haven't decided if this will be the final end, or merely a break. I could see returning to the framework, running each academic year in six to nine session bursts. Or else I might do a fast-forward to the 25 year renuinion - Arkham in the late 1940s would be a real trip to game in, I'm sure. Three of the four PCs survived their first year (albeit with some mutilations) and could be present as adults (a bit of a hat-tip to IT).

My first hesitation in returning (and what might drive me to go with the latter option) is that I found adventuring in Lovecraft Country to be strangely anticlimactic. It's actually a lot more fun and interesting to take your own setting and inject the Mythos into it. Lovecraft had his fun with Arkham and its surrounds; it's his "campaign world," so to speak. I've now found that I prefer to introduce NPCs who the players don't immediately recognize, to explore locations that are fresh and new.

My second hesitation is regarding running Call of Cthulhu as a campaign, period. Horror games are so very difficult to pull off properly, because you have to put the PCs in jeopardy; killing off NPCs only gets you so far, plus it can create a certain jadedness if every NPC in the campaign ends up dead and/or re-animated. But in a long-term campaign, you can't kill PCs off willy-nilly; the player needs to feel a connection to their character, and that is lost if they're rolling up someone new every session or two. The best approach is to emphasize CoC's nihilistic mechanics, highlighting degrading Sanity and physical mutilations. But the dice don't always cooperate in that regard, so that too is tough to pull off. In the future, I might limit my Cthulhu gaming to one-shots or mini-campaigns of three to five sessions' duration. That way I can kill of PCs with impunity and damn the consequences. Horror gaming in a campaign context, if I do decide to run more long-term Cthulhu campaigns, might just be limited to concepts that encourage a sort of "fearless monster hunter" mentality and are designed to absorb PC casualties: Delta Green, Golden Dawn, etc. Or else games of moody atmosphere, like World of Darkness or games like Grimm or Ghosts of Albion. I might also try a reboot of a university campaign that focuses on PC adventures in the Dreamlands, so it becomes a conflict between maintaining grades and social reputation in a mundane world by day and having fantastic, grotesque adventures where the group fights for the fate of a world not their own by night.

Although Bell, Book, and Candle left me feeling somewhat ambivalent, I do consider the campaign to have been a solid success. I learned a great deal about what I like and don't like, but more importantly, we all had a great old time. I succeeded in my goal of introducing certain themes (namely: death - ghouls, re-animation, corpses, earthen tunnels, things best left buried, etc.) and laid the seeds for other themes (i.e. magic and sorcery) that could be explored in future installments, should we return. It was not the best campaign I've ever run, but it was very far from the worst, and I'm mostly just happy that I've managed to build a stable group of outstanding and enthusiastic players. Everything else is simply...academic.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

[Solo GPC] 531: Two Weddings and a Tournament

The arms of Sir Loholt
And so the Romance Period begins. This year, 531, used to be the default starting time for a "by the book" Pendragon campaign. Although I didn't start playing Pendragon in earnest until shortly after 5th edition came out (with its default starting year of 485), the majority of my campaigns, both as GM and player, have ended up centering around this time. So Des and I are in familiar waters.

It's easy to see why 531 used to be the default starting year. If you're going to start out during Arthur's reign, it's a good time to start. This is when chivalry enters its full flower, when tournaments replace battles as the venue to demonstrate a knight's courage, when heraldry and pennants and trappers turn those tournament fields into a riot of colors. Fortresses finally start to look like what we think of when we hear the word "castle." The land is at peace, Adventure and Quest rule the day, and things haven't started to go down the toilet yet. Soon enough. In the meantime, it is morning in Britain again and our hero is a young knight out to fill the shoes of his father and win the heart of his true love. To Adventure, then!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

[Solo GPC] Special Recorded Edition

I'm a fan of actual play podcasts and for tonight's Pendragon session, Des and I decided to switch on the recorder and post the results. If you're so inclined, here follows a little over two hours' worth of dice rolling, bad accents, Irish jokes, Simpsons references, Juggalo bashing, sounds of our dog chewing a bone in the background, Des getting up and wandering away from the table several times, commentary about my fancy new GM screen, and much more zany Pendragon action:

Direct download link

A regular write-up for this year will be forthcoming at the usual glacial pace; once that's up, if you're really obsessive you can compare and contrast the differences between the "real thing" and how I write it all up.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

[Solo GPC] 530: Adventures on the Emerald Isle

When we last left off, our hero Loholt - at the tender age of 18 - had been made a knight. More than that, he had been recognized as one of two potential heirs to the throne of the kingdom, bastard though he may be. So did the newly-minted Sir Loholt's first full year as a knight live up to expectations? Read on...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

[Solo GPC] 529: Coming to a Head

Oh dear, another intolerably long gap between updates. Blame my starting up a regular tabletop campaign for my group; that sort of thing does tend to eat up one's spare time...

When we last left off, plans were afoot for Loholt, after several notable adventures around the environs of the Vale of the White Horse, to finally receive his knighthood. Sir Malcolum, Baron of the Vale and recently returned from the Roman War, had decided to take Loholt and Ieuan (Malcolum's other squire) to London to have them knighted by the High King himself at the Pentecostal Tournament.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

[Save vs. Sketchbook] Kickin' It Old School

Last summer I spent a few fevered evenings compiling my personal vision of an old school, sandbox-oriented set of D&D rules. It was sort of an intellectual exercise; if, back in the Golden Age, every DM's version of D&D was different, what would mine look like?

So I took the Word DOC of Swords & Wizardry: White Box and went to town, incorporating some of my favorite bits and pieces produced by the OSR (our modern equivalent of Dragon, zines, and Judges' Guild) over the last 3+ years into a single, holistic document. For a setting I went with the good ol' Wilderlands, but threw out about 90% of it. I then brought some elements back in via Scott's Wilderlands of Darkling Sorcery, Realms of Crawling Chaos, and a couple other supplements.

Having completed this monumental task, the document sat on my computer, patiently awaiting my return. And last month return I did, proofing and editing but not really adding or subtracting a whole lot. I'm pretty happy with what I produced. So happy, in fact, that I'm going to be putting the "Wilderlands of Swords and Wizardy" into play next week, starting up a bi-weekly and extremely casual sandbox campaign with a couple old friends, members of my original high school gaming group, via Google Hangout.

As I went through the editing and proofing, a devious thought occurred to me. Why not get this stuff into publishable condition so that I can have Lulu run off a couple vanity copies for me and my group? A capital idea. Of course, as long as I'm going to the trouble of laying out and publishing the thing I might as well include some art, right? And so a madcap scheme was born. Alex and I are both artistically-inclined. Why not produce a couple dozen illustrations to spruce up the book (which I've since decided to split into the classic three-volume, digest-sized set)? Why not indeed.

Enough talk. Here are the first two pieces Alex has sent me.

For myself, I think I'll be doing borders and marginal silhouettes in the manner of Gary Chalk. I might be able to recruit another friend to submit a few pics as well. I'm pretty excited about producing a fun little vanity project like this. It will make a great gaming artifact for my collection. I'm almost certain that everything I used was either OGL or offered up for free on blogs and online resources. If that's the case, I'll post a PDF of the volumes here on the blog once they're done.

Seriously, What Am I Supposed to Do With This?

I'm not normally one to post about technical issues with Blogger, but this is just too much:

That right there is an example of one of the new kinds of captchas Blogger's deploying in the comments section. I encountered this little beastie over on Monsters & Manuals, but I'm sure it could turn up anywhere. Now, as I'm on a Mac I'm quite confident there's some arcane, finger-breaking keystroke combination I could bust out on my keyboard to produce that...letter. (The name escapes me at the moment; I'm sure a few of my erudite readers know it.) But ye gods! We are not living in Anglo-Saxon England, Blogger programmers!

By purest coincidence, I disabled captchas on this very blog's comment section just last week. Good timing! I'd recommend all you Blogger bloggers out there do the same. Just set comment moderation to posts older than X number of days and you should be fine. (Ninety-nine percent of my spam comes in via old posts anyway.)

Crikey. Time for another pic unrelated since my last one was such a hit. we go:

Pic unrelated

Sunday, February 12, 2012

[Solo GPC] 528: In the Service of Lancelot

At the conclusion of this year's adventure, Des told me she's really been enjoying these short squire adventures. By necessity, they can't be very epic or terribly deadly due to Loholt's below-average stats (although they're quickly catching up to normal levels). I agreed; they've been a nice break. I also mentioned that shit's going to get real soon enough, to which she replied, "Oh, I know!" with a wicked gleam in her eye. But we're definitely enjoying this slight change of pace before we get back into proper full-on knight action. And so once again we join Loholt at Uffington Manor. What will another year in the life bring to our plucky young squire?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

[Solo GPC] 527: White Horse Vales

Here's an adventure I've been looking forward to running not just since the inception of the GPC but basically since I first bought the Pendragon 4th Edition rulebook. Included in that tome (oddly in two versions, one short and one long) is a scenario called the "Adventure of the White Horse". Ever since it became evident that we'd most likely be starting with Loholt as a squire or very young knight, I've been planning on running this adventure for him. Truth be told, it's the whole reason I had him squired at Uffington (the fact it made narrative sense for him to be sent to study under the father of Countess Katherine was only icing on the cake).

So after all those years of anticipation, how did it measure up? Read on...

Monday, January 30, 2012

On the rich variety of Old School play

The important thing to take from this section isn’t the four styles [Power-Gaming, Wargaming, Story-Telling, Role-Playing] or their labels (as there are other systems for describing this with their own labels), but the idea that there were many different styles of “old school” play back in the “old school” days – not just the single style stressed in some “old school” blogs, forums, and web sites. Don’t let those sites make you believe that you aren’t playing old school right if your campaign isn’t strongly in the wargaming camp. Most successful campaigns back in “old school” days were a mixture of all four major styles – and a heaping helping of minor styles.
The above quote was taken from an excellent post on the Retro Roleplaying blog. Taking Matt Finch's justifiably well-known "Old School Primer" as its starting point, the post rightly points out that a variety of play styles appeared in the hobby as soon as it grew beyond its wargaming roots.

If there's one sin the OSR community has been largely guilty of, it's in its emphasis on player skill, high character mortality, and hex-and-dungeon-crawl-driven play - what the Retro Roleplaying article calls the Wargaming approach. I understand that this emphasis rightly grew from (a) an attempt to go back to the earliest roots of the hobby (when the Wargaming style was all there was) and (b) a reaction against the excesses of railroady "adventure paths" that have come to dominate the hobby, but it's still nice to see someone acknowledge that the roots of "story games" and character-driven roleplaying are nearly as old (and just as "legit") as save or die poison traps and character funnels.

Pic unrelated.

Friday, January 27, 2012

[Solo GPC] 526: A Squire's Life

For this first installment in the new phase of the campaign, I decided to cheat a little bit. There's a little introductory scenario that comes in the back of the Pendragon core rulebook; I think everyone who's played Pendragon is familiar with it. I've run it before (although not for Des) and she's run it for me (twice, in fact!). Yet, because the GPC starts out (way back in 485) with a different intro scenario, the adventure had so far not featured in this particular campaign. I felt this was a shame, as it's such an iconic Pendragon experience. I asked Des if she'd mind playing through the adventure since she'd only experienced it from a GM's perspective. She had no problem with this, and so we faded in on the Vale of the White Horse on a breezy early summer morn...

The arms of Baron Uffington

[Solo GPC] Loholt, Squire of the White Horse

We're a couple sessions into the new year of Pendragon gaming with Des's new character, Loholt. As mentioned before, with Meleri's premature retirement we decided to roll with the changes and bring in Arthur's illegitimate son (via Meleri) while he's still a squire. The first two years of Loholt's squireship have been full of fun teenage drama and unexpected twists and he's well on the path to knighthood. Here are his stats (after two years of play) at the beginning of what will hopefully prove an illustrious career befitting the son of a king and queen!

Personal Data
Age: 16
Son Number: 1
Homeland: Carlion
Culture: Roman
Religion: Roman Christian
Liege Lord: Earl Robert of Salisbury
Current Class: Squire
Current Home: Uffington

SIZ 12
DEX 16
STR 10
CON 12
APP 15

Damage 4d6
Healing Rate 3
Move Rate 2
Distinctive Features: Red Hair; Piercing Gaze
Hit Points 24
Unconscious 6

Family Characteristic: Keen on Status

Personality Traits
Chaste/Lustful 17/3; Energetic/Lazy 10/10; Forgiving/Vengeful 14/6; Generous/Selfish 10/10; Honest/Deceitful 8/12; Just/Arbitrary 10/10; Merciful/Cruel 15/5; Modest/Proud 12/8; Pious/Worldly 8/12; Prudent/Reckless 10/10; Temperate/Indulgent 14/6; Trusting/Suspicious 8/12; Valorous/Cowardly 16/4

Chivalry Bonus: NO
Religion Bonus: NO

Loyalty (Lord) 11
Love (Family) 10
Hospitality 5
Honor 18
Hate (Pellinore's Murderer) 8
Amor (Orlande) 36

Skills: Awareness (7); Chirurgery (5); Dancing (2); Faerie Lore (1); Falconry (2); Flirting (3); Gaming (2); Heraldry (7); Hunting (5); Law (14); Orate (8); Play: Harp (1); Read: Latin (4); Recognize (2); Religion: Roman Christian (2); Romance (4); Singing (1); Stewardship (2); Swimming (2); Tourney (2)

Combat Skills: Battle (7); Siege (5); Horsemanship (12); Sword (5); Lance (9); Spear (2); Dagger (5)

Equipment: Chainmail armor (10 points); Shield (6 points); Sword; Spear (5); Charger (White Star); Rouncey (2); Sumpter; Arm Ring of Chastity

Since Loholt spent the majority of his childhood in residence at Carlion with Meleri, Des decided he identified more with the culture of that city (Roman) than of his "homeland" Salisbury (Cymric). Romans are much more court-oriented (their special skill of Law encompasses Courtesy, Intrigue, and Folk Lore), but this is well-timed as we're gearing up to head into the Romance period. And speaking of Romance - check out that Amor passion! The love story will begin to unfold with the first session update (Year 526), so you'll just have to wait for the details. Also of note in Loholt's passions are his abysmally low Hospitality (I guess he's got a lot to learn about being a proper host) and his lack of the family Hate (Saxons) passion - he's trying to move past old prejudices in this new world. Loholt's family gift turned out to be an Arm Ring of Chastity; perhaps it was given him by King Alain so Loholt might avoid some of the pitfalls of lust that tripped up his mother and grandfather?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pardon Me While I Geek the Eff Out

I've written before of my deep and abiding love for the Lone Wolf gamebooks and the game world presented therein, Magnamund. Aside from my natural nostalgic inclinations, the setting itself is a damn fine example of Silver Age fantasy world-building and one my longest-held unrealized gaming goals is to run a campaign set in Magnamund simply because I think it'd be a great place to adventure. All other elements aside, the books are still a good read, even a quarter-century later, and I return to them for linguistic and aesthetic inspiration at least once every couple years.

As a result, I try to stay plugged in with the Lone Wolf fan community online, perusing message boards and so forth. On my latest trawl a couple months ago, I learned of a new project being undertaken by Lone Wolf author Joe Dever in partnership with an Italian fantasy illustrator, Francesco Mattioli: a poster-sized map of the world of Magnamund!

To say I was excited by this news would be an understatement, but when I received the actual map in the mail yesterday I went into full-on geek mode. I'm not normally one to fan-boy out, but this thing had me "squeeing" as if Joss Whedon himself had come down from on high, killed George Lucas, and appointed all 11 Doctors as new rulers of the world.

The map comes folded in a sturdy slip case with an absolutely gorgeous cover illustration.

It's a full-size poster map; the colors are rich and the paper is glossy and of heavy stock.

This is called "the definitive map of Magnamund," and I can well believe it - every island is named, every landmark noted, every settlement shown.

So this is when I absolutely turned into a drooling Fanboy Spawn; a personally-inscribed signature from Joe Dever himself! My inner 10-year-old's head exploded with joy.

The signature aside, what I really love about this map is how it absolutely nails the visual aesthetic of the gamebooks. The last 10 years have seen the world of Lone Wolf getting a lot of support from Mongoose Publishing (the original books being re-released, two RPGs being put out), but my reaction has been decidedly mixed and this has been founded largely on the art direction of the Mongoose books. No matter what artist they used, they seemed completely, almost willfully, incapable of doing anything but make Magnamund look like Generic Fantasy World #815 (and some of those artists were absolutely terrible on a technical level to boot, only adding insult to the injury). What Mattioli has done with this map is demonstrate that there are still people out there who understand part of the appeal (a big part) of Magnamund lies in the visual aesthetic developed by Gary Chalk and Brian Williams. Seeing Magnamund transformed into some kind of WETA Workshop reject was an ongoing source of quiet distress for me, and I'm simply overjoyed to finally see a product that recalls the past glories of the game books. Here's to way more where that came from!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

[Solo GPC] A Winter Interlude

Photo by Antony Spencer

This is an account of what turned out to be Meleri's last session as a full-time PC. I had an adventure prepared for this year as usual, but what turned out happening was an all-roleplaying session that took the form of a conversation between Meleri and Morgan over the winter of 525-26. If you recall, we left off with Meleri journeying to the castle of Morgan le Fay as the rest of the country prepared to go to war with the Roman Empire. Morgan had made an intriguing offer, luring Meleri away from Sarum where she was to spend the duration of the war in the company of her rival, Countess Katherine.

"I can offer you all you desire," said Morgan, a twinkle in her eye. "Lamorak can at last be yours, wholly and unreservedly."

"How?" Meleri asked, uncertain.

"I shall make you Queen of Norgales," said Morgan. "Pellinore is dead. His land has no ruler. As Queen you will rule over Lamorak and he will serve you. You cannot rely on your beauty alone to keep him; it will not hold forever. Even now I see lines gather like crow's feet about your eyes.

"You will never be old in the eyes of those who love you. And if they refuse to love you, I can teach you the subtle arts of persuasion that will make them your slaves. Come with me to my hall; you are better than the provincial dolts who people this court. Spend the winter as my guest and think over the offer."

And so the pros and cons were weighed. Morgan had dangled Lamorak before Meleri (how Morgan knew of their affair, Meleri did not know - but she was not surprised at the knowledge). Regardless, Meleri was skeptical that her being made queen would bring Lamorak to her. In fact, if she knew the chivalrous knight at all, she felt that he would see her differently once she became his liege lord.

On the other hand, there was the promise of power, and that was considerable. The power of a queen. The power of an enchantress. The power to never age, to never lose her looks or her influence.

What of Ontzlake? What of him? He was down in Portchester, preparing to embark for the Continent, not knowing when he'd return - or if. He had been a good husband to her, but she had never felt any particularly strong ties to him...

And so it was decided. Meleri would take up Morgan's offer and become Queen of Norgales and learn the sorcerous arts.

And with that, Meleri entered the realm of NPCs. There are no canonical rules for magic in Fifth Edition, and with good reason. I've run Pendragon with magician characters before, and it really does change the tone, tenor, and focus of the game before. On top of that, once a character achieves a certain level of temporal power (and ruling a country would certainly qualify in this regard), the rules recommend retirement. Again, I've run campaigns with characters at the level of Earls and Duchesses, and I much prefer lower power scales.

So we're going really low for our next chapter in the unfolding saga. The year 526 just happens to be the year that Meleri's eldest son Loholt, who has been serving as a page at the court of the Baron of Uffington, becomes a squire. And so we're shifting back to the world of knights and starting at the earliest possible age. The next full update will be the first installment in the life of Loholt the Squire and his teenage misadventures in a land emptied of knights gone off to war. It should be fun to see how he fares, and as with Meleri's adventures it gives us an opportunity to explore another of the less-ventured corners of the setting.

As for Meleri, she will make cameo appearances from time to time, I'm sure. There might even be occasion for Des to run her once or twice. The price she owes to Morgan for her boon will also become apparent over time. But for now the focus shifts onto a young squire in the Vale of the White Horse...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

How I'm Rolling My Three-Sided Dice From Now On

I'm listening to the Bradford Players' actual play podcast of Tatters of the King right now and I just picked up the coolest little trick for rolling a d3:

Roll your d6. If it comes up a 1, 2, or 3, take the face value. If it comes up a 4, 5, or 6, take the obverse value. So a 6 would read as a 1, a 5 as a 2, and a 4 as a 3.

I don't know why this appeals to me so much, other than the fact that I remember being fascinated as a youngster when I discovered the obverse values of a die always tallied to 7. This is also a great trick for the math impaired who don't enjoy taking a couple seconds to confirm that, yes, 2.5 rounds to 3 or what have you. (I've known a few of these folks in my time at the gaming table.)

This trick may be as old as the hills, but it's the first I've ever heard of it. Of course the system only works if you have standard dice; I have a vintage d6 in my collection, for instance, that does not have the regular obverse values. So be sure to double-check those dice before trying out this system!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Solo GPC: Two Years On

Two years ago today, inspired by ChicagoWiz's late, lamented blog posts about solo D&D sessions with his wife, I outlined my own ambitious plans to tackle the Great Pendragon Campaign with my wife as solo PC. Although 2011 saw a less packed schedule than 2010, the grand old campaign is still rolling along. This year saw the death of Des's first character, Sir Herringdale, after an epic 30-year career span and the arc of Herringdale's daughter, Lady Meleri.

The Meleri adventures were always intended as a bit of an experiment; how would I fare as a GM, presenting adventures that did not center around combat (indeed, that rarely featured combat at all) and focused more on inter-personal relationships, social climbing and status, and other such "out of genre" activities?

Looking back, I'd have to say that I struggled. RPGs tend to take two elements as a given: combat and the supernatural. Running a campaign that featured very little of either was definitely a challenge, all the more so for doing it with a single player. Still, all in all the Meleri arc was a success and we definitely added some memorable moments and stories to the unfolding canon.

It might have been partly due to the challenge inherent in the departure from the normal Pendragon game  structure that slowed me down, but this year's reduced schedule (advancing the timeline a mere 10 years compared to 2010's 30) was also down to several real life interruptions and (more significantly) the happy development of finally getting together a solid, reliable face-to-face gaming group. There's only so much gaming time to go around, and the priority largely went to the group.

Having said that, my main gaming resolution for 2012 is to finish the GPC. We're exactly halfway through, chronologically speaking. With 40 game years to go, this is doable with weekly sessions; we even have 12 weeks worth of wiggle room to account for skipped weeks or multi-session years (of which there are bound to be at least a couple).

As it happens, we'll be starting off the new year with a new character. I'll save the details for the next session report, but here's a teaser in the form of a Christmas gift I gave to Des; like last year, I painted up a miniature of her character, this time in the form of Lady Meleri. Her fate and the reason for the entry of a brand new character at this point can be gleaned from the caption on the base...

Miniature from the excellent Thunderbolt Mountain "Arthurians" range
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