Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Premium Boxed Set of My Very Own

I can't believe I've neglected to post about this until now.

Last autumn, as I was recuperating from my brush with death, I stumbled across (or, perhaps, was narcotically guided to) a remarkable listing on eBay. I honestly don't remember what I was searching for, but this listing almost certainly had none of what I'd originally intended to find. What it had instead was a beat-up copy of a later printing of the 1e Players Handbook and three BECMI modules from the "CMI" end of the line (I think one was an actual Immortals adventure!) - I held onto the PHB, since I didn't own one, but the modules have since been traded away. What really caught my eye, however, was that all these books came contained in a handmade wooden box, a box that could only have been constructed for that purpose. For reasons that will soon become obvious, I pounced on the listing and, a couple weeks later, it arrived.

What I found, dear readers, was the new crown jewel in my slowly-expanding collection of gamer folk art. As I said, this box was clearly custom-built to hold gaming books - the dimensions fit a TSR hardback perfectly. Nicely, I found that the depth of the box is precisely enough to contain my collection of B/X material: the original Basic and Expert rulebooks, the B/X Companion and Complete B/X Adventurer supplements from Running Beagle, modules B2, B3, and X1, and Stonehell.

But what really knocks this out of the park is the box top. Burned into the wood (perhaps with an official woodburning kit?) is a homemade "Dungeons & Dragons" logo, complete with a sword, lightning bolts, and malevolent eyes staring out:

Open the lid and it gets better, for the unnamed artist (we have only their initials, "J.H.") has inscribed a scene of epic conflict between...uh, I'm guessing a barbarian or perhaps a dwarf berserker and a wyvern? Rock!

Like I said, all my B/X materials fit into the box snugly, probably with room for one or two more books (Stonehell Volume 2?) to spare. So when WotC put out their premium reissue of the OD&D boxed set, I hardly batted an eyelash. Thanks to the efforts of J.H. and a kindly eBayer, I had a premium boxed set of my very own (and for far less money!).

Monday, June 17, 2013

We Are Living in a Golden Age

"Look, you." (Art by genocyber.)
I have a very clear memory of my first encounter with Masks of Nyarlathotep, the granddaddy of all Call of Cthulhu adventures and one of the all-time classic RPG campaigns, period.

I had, of course, heard about it, knew of its reputation, wanted to play it. So, on a jaunt to one of my city's game stores, I pointed it out on the shelf to my buddy Alex, an avid Keeper. The store manager saw us eyeballing it and came over.

"Great, great campaign. Highly recommended," he said. "There are a few pitfalls and things you should be aware of if you're going to run it, though. Which one of you is thinking of running it?" he asked. Alex raised his hand. The manager looked at me and my other friend who was with us. It was a small store. "Step outside with me," he told Alex.

He then proceded to have a 15-minute discussion out on the sidewalk, going over the campaign point by point, sharing all his collected wisdom so that Alex might avoid the mistakes the manager had made when he ran it.

I bring up this hoary gaming memory because, as of yesterday, the folks over at have released the long-awaited Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. For free. This is basically like a dozen veteran Keepers taking you outside for a 15-minute discussion of how best to run Masks, but you also get handed a dossier full of deluxe handouts, maps, new side-adventures, expanded historical and background information, etc. Totaling over 500 pages. Again: all for free.

I've been waiting for the Companion to see the light of day ever since I first heard about it some five years ago. This year also sees the rerelease of Horror on the Orient Express and a deluxe 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu, both thanks to the auspices of Kickstarter. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I'm gaming more than ever thanks to the maturation of web chat and social networking technology. I am spoiled for choice in what to run.

It's been said by others before, but it's worth reiterating. The tabletop RPG industry might be facing an uncertain future (along with the rest of the publishing world), but the hobby, I believe, is truly experiencing a new golden age.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Portrait Commissions: An Endorsement

Being an enthusiastic amateur artist, I have in the past been known to throw together a character sketch for one of my own characters or the whole party. These days, with my gaming schedule as packed as it is, I don't really have the time or inclination to do that. Yet nothing really beats the power of a good character sketch, I've found.

And so, for my ongoing Deadlands campaign, I decided to surprise the group with a set of commissioned portraits. I've recently started using Tumblr, and it's a great resource for finding art and artists of all stripes. At some point I began following the work of Arthur Asa, aka regourso on Tumblr, and quite liked his stuff. Then I saw that he offered commissions for character portraits.

Commissioning character portraits is something I've known about for years (anyone else remember those ads in the back of Dragon magazine?), so I decided to go ahead and take the plunge and see how it turned out. Contacting Arthur, I was quoted a very reasonable price and off we went. I sent him a bunch of photos for reference and short descriptions of each character, and tonight (after anxiously awaiting all four portraits being sent my way) I was able to present the finished pieces to my unsuspecting players. To say they were surprised and delighted would be an understatement.

The pieces are presented below, but I just want to reiterate that Arthur does great work at a great rate - if you're looking to commission someone for portrait work, definitely give him a look! If anything, the only point against him is that, like any good artist, he's quite busy and so you might have to wait a couple weeks or more for the finished product...but it's definitely worth the wait!

Cuad Hoyter Pertullus, Miner and Inventor

Kangee Taken-Alive, Lakota Gunslinger

Tobias Alvin "Doc" Funk, Veterinarian

"Jersey" Lilly, Songbird and Shitkicker

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Improvising Through a Railroad

This was a surprise to me. It just goes to show that having a plotted adventure doesn't have to mean taking away player agency, as long as the GM can improvise good, in-character incentives to stay on track.

The above quote is taken from this post. I'm honestly surprised this point doesn't come up more often. Sandbox is not the only answer to the player agency dillemma; I think the poor reputation so-called "railroad" adventures suffer from is due mostly to, simply, poor GMing.

I'm currently running a Savage Worlds plot point campaign ("The Flood" for Deadlands: Reloaded) and have had three incidents in nine sessions where the players partially or completely derailed the plot. (Granted, this seems to be particularly endemic to Savage Worlds, which gives the PCs a fair amount of narrative control.) So what happens then? Improvisation. Creative problem-solving. The stuff that makes running games fun. Those "Crap! Now what?" moments are both totally scary and totally invigorating. And after the session, thinking about what can be done to bring the plot thread back into an intersection with the PCs, not by pallete-shifting, but by playing to their motivations and goals. Of course it also helps to write in extra sources of plot hooks or other information if the material you're working off of bottlenecks anywhere (something The Flood does a little too often, I'm afraid).

At any rate, as I said at the top: it was refreshing to encounter this attitude, that a plot-driven adventure need not be an agency-robbing railroad. Just trust the players to give you everything you need and the rest is gravy.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Player Agency in the GM's Narrative

I don't normally talk about high-falutin' concepts like player agency and sandboxing (leaving that to others with a lot more to say on the subject), but today's post on Jeff's Gameblog gave me pause.

In short, Jeff points out that the infamous example of play in the Moldvay Basic D&D handbook, in which Black Dougal dies of a poisoned trap, is a pretty egregious example of the game master robbing player agency, with the DM going so far as to describe the PC's last words!

This got me thinking about the way I describe things in my games. As an adolescent, back in my early days of gaming, we maintained an extremely hard-line stance against the GM describing any kind of PC action. I remember getting reprimanded once for describing how a PC opened a door after the player stated he was going to go through it.

Things aren't nearly as stringent these days. I still game with a couple of my old players via Google+, and in our last session I described a character feeling a chill go up his spine during a moment of deja vu and there was nary a peep of protest at me contributing to the eerie atmosphere.

Those old narrative habits still largely hold true, however, and I think that's a good thing. It's all on a continuum, of course, and, certainly, describing a PC's last words is taking things more than a bit too far. (It also strikes me of indicative of the wargaming roots of D&D; in a miniatures game, an umpire describing and interpreting the effects of, say, a failed morale check on another player's unit, for example, is perfectly acceptable.) On the other hand, I like to have a little leeway in terms of interpolating involuntary responses or other "sixth sense" sorts of feelings or even small facets of behavior based on stated PC actions. I remember feeling frustrated in those early days of gaming by the outright ban on GM descriptions of PC narrative. A little wiggle room is nice sometimes.

As a post-script, the latest episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff discusses, in part, advantage-disadvantage systems. In the course of the discussion, Ken and Robin make the point that many gamers (and I've met one or two in my own day) will happily take all sorts of crippling disadvantages of their own accord but balk at a system that takes any sort of control out of their hands through game mechanics, be it Call of Cthulhu's Sanity system, the Traits and Passions of Pendragon, or the Humanity of Vampire: the Masquerade. Oddly, my "agency-uber-alles" adolescent group loved all those games. Go figure.
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