Friday, January 30, 2009

Dawn Treader to Sail After All

AICN reports that Fox is picking up where Disney left off in the Narnia series. However, it's not all sunshine and roses:

I’m sure many will share my level of excitement as the studio behind “Eragon” is now helping to steer the adventures of the plucky Pevensie clan.

The first Fox entry in the saga will be “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” Fox and Walden are aiming for a $140 million budget, considerably less money than was employed by the two Disney chapters.

I'm cautiously optomistic, considering how much fun the first two were.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

John Carter of Mars News from AICN

"Quint" of AICN has posted some "John Carter of Mars" news from the Santa Barbara Film Festival:

I was able to attend a luncheon before the panel and sat with Tom McCarthy and Andrew Stanton. Of course John Carter of Mars had to come up. He also elaborated on the panel, but here’s what’s going on with JOHN CARTER OF MARS:

- It is live action.

- “It is huge, it is exciting, it scares the crap out of me. It’s either going to make me or break me.”

- It is NOT a Pixar movie, rather a Disney film. However Stanton’s creative team from Pixar are all still involved.

- The style is going to be very real, not highly stylized. He said that 20 some years ago that version could have been made, but since Star Wars and a whole glut of science fiction and fantasy films have ripped off giant portions of JCOM over the years the only option he sees is doing a straight up, realistic version of the story. He described it as if it was a National Geographic crew that stumbled across a preserved civilization while exploring a cave. Very real, but awe-inspiring.

- He is not planning nor wanting to shoot it 3-D (thank God… I love James Cameron, and I think AVATAR is going to be amazing, but I’m getting tired of every big event movie being 3-D), but thinks Disney might want to push him towards it.

- Stanton has been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs since he was a kid, so while he won’t have the same kind of development time on this one as he had on his animated movie he looks at it as him living with the story in his brain for 40 plus years instead of the 6-8 of his animated films.

- He has his second draft done and will be casting soon.

- John Carter WILL be a Civil War soldier.

He's got more on general screenwriting and like topics from the festival.

I Wanna Story...

This started as a reply to Aaron Nuttall's latest post on his blog “Like Being Read to From a Dictionary”. Like Mr. Nuttall, I'm always sticking in story where it doesn't belong. I'm the guy who loses a game of Settlers of Catan because I start thinking about how the farmboy in my second village, named Chatterins, is pining for a wealthy burgher's daughter in my first village, now a city called Umberlin, while she secretly plots her revenge against the Black Baron who killed her favorite uncle... And suddenly Kimm has the longest road and wins the game.

I love board game night, but I'm not sure why the others let me play with them. Maybe because I don't win?

Anyway, Aaron is running into similar trouble with his Old School Swords & Wizardry game:

The problem with this in old-school play--or any play, I suppose, where the characters haven't got "plot immunity"--is that the characters are going to die. A lot. If they're no longer around to carry your plot threads what happens to your game?

It fizzles, stumbles, stops. Or, that's what happened last night. So what I have to figure out now is how we can think about the PCs and their roles in the game so that their deaths don't hollow out the whole affair--so that there is something left behind when a character's motivation is lost.

I don't think you need to toss story overboard when you're playing an Old School game. What I do as DM is adopt a more reactive role. To do this, you have to let go of the reins, stop trying to craft the story, and instead be the little kid in your footie pajamas saying, “I wanna story with a witch and a troll and a gerbil princess!”

Or you can think of yourself as Drew Carey in the American version of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” You throw a bunch of props and situations on the stage, then sit back and laugh as the players entertain you. ;)

The key is to give up any semblance of “directorial control”. You're not the author, you're the instigator. You set things up, but the players create the story from the bits and pieces you've left laying around for them.

The old adventure B2 – Keep on the Borderlands is a classic example of how to do this. The area described by the module includes the Keep, a mad hermit, some bandits, and the Caves of Chaos. The Caves themselves are a sprawling mish-mash of different humanoid and human threats, most inimical to one another. The entire module describes a terrain rife with conflicting interests and goals, with various groups on the verge of violence against one another. It's like a giant pile of fireworks doused in petrol. And into this volatile environment, you unleash the PCs to wreak havoc and chaos.

Your job as DM in this sort of thing isn't to make sense of the PCs actions, or to plot out arcs of rising and falling action. You instead focus on your characters, the NPCs, and how they react to what the players do to mangle the NPCs' carefully cultivated status quo or clever plans. Some may try to recruit the PCs. Others may try to kill them. Maybe they'll try to send the PCs to savage their foes, either by bribery or trickery. Maybe they'll turtle, hoping the storm raised by the PCs will pass, or maybe they'll try to run away. What the NPCs will do should probably depend rather heavily on what the players do. Usually, a disaster for one faction is a boon for another. Since you don't know what the PCs are going to do yet, you have to pretty flexible, ready to think on your feet and shift direction at a moment's notice.

And yes, the results might be a nasty mish-mash that doesn't look anything like a traditional story. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The goal, as always, is to have fun. You and the players work together to find out what happens. They are not passive recipients of story and neither, really, are you. Chaos and uncertainty will be rampant, but because the story is greater than any one character, you don't need to worry about granting anyone plot immunity. As in the real world, the cemeteries of your fantasy realms will be full of “indispensable” folks. The loss of one is just another random bit of chaos, certain to change the plans of everyone involved.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Playing with Hit Points

As an introduction to his tinkerings with armour class, Matthew Stanham of Silver Blade Adventures has quite a bit to say about the vagueness of hit points:

In fact, the truly abstract nature of hit points allows the game master the freedom to determine the extent to which realism will be a concern. When a character loses twenty of thirty hit points to a single attack, it is up to the game master to describe the event, and also to decide if there are any effects beyond their loss. To put it simply, the value of the abstraction is in its ambiguity.

I've tried to embrace this vagueness in my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack game, starting with my own riff on Robert Fisher's Classic D&D Injury Table. But a lot of these little details depend on how you play the game, especially in a text-chat game.

One source for the assumption that every roll of the d20 represents a swing of your character's weapon comes from what we call that roll: a to-hit roll. Right there, I think, is the source of most of our assumptions about "swings" and how hit points are a measure of physical trauma and the like. I can't do much about the decades of labeling TSR and WotC have used, but when I gaming I try to remember to call it an attack roll, and not a to-hit roll. It's a little thing, but I hope it helps to set the right tone and expectations.

I take this same attitude to describing what happens in a fight. Here's an example from Thursday night, when our heroes faced off against a pair of massive, turtle-like humanoids:

The second, smaller creature hisses angrily as it charges at the human. It stabs at him with its spear, again with surprising speed and dismaying strength, and it's all Maythur can do to ward off that sharp flint point with his shortsword. (Maythur loses 2 hit points.)

Again, I don't talk about gashed wounds or near misses. This is ten seconds of combat, a series of dodges and ripostes, feints and slashes. And my models, as much as is possible, are the pulp greats of yesteryear, such as REH:

Her sword darted past a blade that sought to parry, and sheathed six inches of its point in a leather-guarded midriff. The man gasped agonizedly and went to his knees, but his tall mate lunged in, in ferocious silence, raining blow on blow so furiously that Valeria had no opportunity to counter. She stepped back coolly, parrying the strokes and watching for her chance to thrust home. He could not long keep up that flailing whirlwind. His arm would tire, his wind would fail; he would weaken, falter, and then her blade would slide smoothly into his heart. ("Red Nails" - 1936)

The danger with this sort of thing is being too vague. Does the following passage convey that the turtle-man has lost more than three-quarters of his hit points?

Rukmini's attack blindsides the enraged turtle-man, and her first strike bites deep. Within moments, it is now on the defensive, fending off attacks from both of you. The creature, however, seems to go into a berserk rage, slamming its bulk into the dwarf in retaliation and slashing at her with it spear. (Rukmini loses 5 hit points.)

The nice thing about numbers is their lack of ambiguity. Everyone can tell the dwarf is hurting, and just how badly. But I don't think it's very clear that her foe is on his last legs, but one more strike away from death. This is one of those things that constantly challenges the DM in a game like this, and you have to always be honing your technique and varying your style, both to keep things fresh and find new ways to convey what's actually going on, without allowing things to devolve into "You miss, it hits for 5, you hit, roll damage..."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Was Drowned, I Was Washed-up and Left for Dead...

Huzzah! Bang the drum and sound the trumpet! My Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack game finally got started on Thursday night. I'll leave it to the players to decide how much of a success it was. I certainly had fun playing with them. (And yes, there are still spaces available. Email me at trollsmyth-at-yahoo-dot-com if you can play between 7 PM and 11 PM Central time on Thursday nights.)

Starting a sandbox game is always a challenge. It's too easy for the group to be paralyzed by the limitless potential of wide-open spaces. So sometimes it's best to narrow their focus a bit. For this group, I started with a classic ploy from the pulps: a shipwreck.

Nothing too original there, and I'll be the first to admit it. All the great pulp heroes were shipwrecked at least once in their careers, from Conan to Elric to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. A shipwreck, though, gives the group a certain amount of direction, without limiting their choices. There are things they must do: find food and water, secure shelter, and find out where the heck they are. Then they need to get back to civilization, if possible, and if they can't, then they need to prepare to live without it.

That all said, their options for tackling these challenges are nearly limitless. They have all the ocean's bounty, plus whatever can be found on the land they've washed up on. Do they fish? Try to build a new boat? Strike inland? Hug the shoreline? Do they build a sturdy shelter, or just scavenge enough bits to make minimal but portable shelters? Do they light a signal fire and hope help finds them, or do they try to remain unnoticed? It's the best of both worlds: survival demands they focus and work together, but doesn't dictate their actions. There are choices to be made, and most of them are of the common-sense or creative-thinking sort that don't require dice rolls, which is perfect for Old School play.

Still, mere survival is not the stuff adventures are made of, so you need to be sure you've got a little something fantastical nearby, to remind them that this is a world of mystery and magic and danger. The shipwrecked heroes of the pulps didn't have to wander far before they found a new adventure to challenge them, and your players shouldn't, either.

So there we are, shipwrecked, with their first foes defeated and their first treasures looted, though not without some hit points lost. And, oh dear, the cleric didn't survive the shipwreck. We can only wonder what fate (aka their sadistic DM) has in store for them next week...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Bit of Old School Awesome

So after my last downer post on the Old School, how a bit of Old School cool? Keeping in mind Jeff's recent post on destroying artifacts, check out this post at from Sac2:

And can you believe it? The paladin is already asking if there is a holy sword there. My response?

"Don't get ahead of yourself. An item like a holy sword is a quest all unto itself, and ye won't be finding one in the temple. And ye certainly won't be able to handle such a quest until you are level 10 or so, and that's with lots of allies."

In my mind I'm already thinking I'll make his quest for a holy sword go something like this:

Go to White Plume Mountain and acquire Blackrazor. Manage to escape the efreets with it, the whole time not touching it. Then travel to the frozen mountain lair of Frostbyte, an ancient white dragon. Get Frostbyte to breathe on the sword and shatter it with a hammer blessed by Foresetti. Take the pieces to the high temple of Hephaestus where a new sword will be forged. Out of pure evil a new sword of holiness will be created.

All in all, the one thing that I forgot about the most about my old skool D&D days? Often one of the members of the party or the party itself will do something that sparks a whole new side adventure and I'll be quick to modify or outright ignore large portions of the module itself. Ah, the way Gary intended....

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bad DMing the Old School Way

Badelaire over at Tandards & Broadswords has a few things to say about the dice-are-evil style of gaming:

However, one argument that I will make for this older approach is the old adage that you only take a gamble when the stakes are worth it. In other words, leave to chance only that which you must leave to chance, and find ways of making sure everything else is a "sure thing'. If you can figure out how to find the hidden widget or talk your way past the palace guards without leaving it up to a potentially disastrous roll of the dice, so much the better. It'll require more engagement from both the Players and the GM, but in the end, isn't "engagement" in the game part of the fun?

I certainly agree, but there are hazards to this sort of play, and they're not always obvious. For instance, Darkwing (of Arcadia Prime fame) comments:

If I tell the DM I want to do X, Y, and Z, and he says "doesn't work, doesn't work, doesn't work" it gets frustrating. Even if he intends to railroad me, the act of making me roll to see if I succeed at least provides the illusion that there's a nonzero chance of success.

Yeah, that would be frustrating, but it's hardly the biggest risk you face with that sort of gaming. There was another sort of DM we all learned to recognize and avoid back in those days who were even worse than the “doesn't work” sort. When playing with this sort of unpleasant DM, you'd lay out your idea and the DM would just nod, letting you know that your plan was in action. And then, at the worst possible time, you would find out that something that should have been blatantly obvious to your characters rendered your plan inoperable. Maybe the soft sand of the seaside caves was too weak to hold your tripwire, or the door you needed to keep the minotaur out was flimsy and rotted through. Sometimes this was our fault. We just hadn't been paying enough attention when the DM described the room. More often than not, the DM would simply shrug at our protests and say, “You never asked what sort of shape that door was in.”

There's a fine line between being thorough and pixel-bitching. Itemizing every object in a room and going over it with a fine-toothed comb might be a smart move for the CSI team, but fun adventuring it is not. There's a reason the TV show reduces such scenes to a montage. Sometimes, yeah, it makes sense to pay a bit more attention to the evil baron's desk, or the floor leading up to the ancient altar upon which sits the golden idol. But not every room or door deserves such scrutiny. If there's something that ought to be blatantly obvious to the most casual observer, then the DM should mention it. And if the players seem to have forgotten that fact as they put their plan into action, the good DM will point it out again, making sure they understand the implications for their cleverness.

Note that this is not the same as saying “doesn't work”. Instead, the DM is saying, “so long as this condition exists, your plan won't work.” Sometimes, the players can change things so the plan does work. Sometimes, they'll have to come up with a new plan. But the DM doesn't just say no. And the good DM doesn't smirk behind the screen while something that should be blatantly obvious unravels all the clever thinking of the players.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Trollsmyth Plays 4e

Surely this is one of the signs of an an impending apocalypse, no?

Seriously, I had fun. The occasion was the monthly meet of The Austin Dungeon & Dragons Meetup Group. Nobody else volunteered to run anything, so a friendly gent named Christian volunteered to run a short game using 2nd level characters. Many of us didn't come with characters in hand, and a few of us had no practical experience playing 4e, so the pregens he had were a great help.

Now, I can't call this an adventure. We played for roughly five hours and that was enough time to almost finish two combats. Keep in mind, however, that some of us were very new to the game, and there were nine (!!!) players that poor Christian had to run a game for. So it's certainly not his fault things moved so slowly. I can understand why they say 4e is optimized for parties of five to six. Luckily, I got to sit next to a very knowledgeable and friendly gent who was glad to share with me the tricks of getting the most from my eladrin ranger.

And I'm extremely thankful for his help, because otherwise, I was utterly lost. This was not D&D as I've known it. Keep in mind, this was just a bit of combat versus kobolds and then dragons. We really didn't have time for an adventure per se. Just some fights. So I'm certain that colored my experience.

That said, let me give you an example. At one point, my ranger was claw-claw-gored by a very young blue dragon. This took me to -12 hit points, but that's not enough to kill you in 4e. Thanks to the quick help of a cleric, I was back up to +13 hit points next round. If I'd grabbed my bow and jumped to my feet, I couldn't shoot arrows because I was face-to-face still with the monster. However, I could use one of my At-Will powers, Nimble Strike, to shift a square away from the dragon before attacking with my bow. Shifting was important, because if I'd just moved, I would have incurred an attack-of-opportunity. However, the guy helping me figured out that if, instead of standing up and moving, I just used my eladrin teleport power to bampf myself upright and five squares away, I would be able to invoke my Twin Strike power, allowing me to attack twice instead of just once that round.

I've had conversations about stuff like this all the time when playing a wargame. My brief flirtation with Warhammer 40k was chock full of this sort of thing. But I can't remember ever discussing things like this when playing D&D before. The emphasis in 4e is clearly on the G of RPG. I'm not sure that getting to play through a skill challenge would have changed this impression, because those seem to be a lot of the same thing: looking to the rules of the game, rather than the setting and situation, as both a source for challenges as well as the means for overcoming them.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying this is bad or wrong or even badwrong fun. It's just not what I'm thinking about when I'm looking to play D&D. A lot of this stems, I'm sure, from starting the game with Moldvay's Basic. The dice were evil in that game. Every time you rolled for initiative, chances were very, very good that a PC was going to die. That's just the way the game was built back then. And we, knowing that, did everything we could to avoid rolling the dice. The mechanics were what we turned to in those odd moments when they were needed. They were not the bulk of play, even when we were in a dungeon. And when we did get into combat, it was only after lengthy preparations to make sure all the advantages were with us. We didn't roll dice or use the rules to set up our trip-wires, dig our pits, or block doorways with chairs or tables or various dungeon detritus. So this straight-up, charge in with swords swinging and arrows flying was bizarre enough for me without wondering how many standard or move actions my attack would use.

Would I play again? Yep, I had fun. The group was great too, lots of friendly folks, ready to lend a hand or answer a question. (And I understand that not everyone in the group is all about 4e, and that older versions are also played from time-to-time.) But 4e isn't likely to become my go-to game for fantasy RPGs. It's just doesn't mesh with my preferences. I'm not surprised, either.

I also ran into a very old friend who had almost as much influence on how I game today as Ed Greenwood. He's running 3.5e and just had an opening appear in his group. I'm very curious to see how that game compares to 4e, since I gave up on 3e back before 3.5 was released.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Catspaw is Back!

Catspaw, Storn Cook's swords-and-sorcery comic strip is back on the intrawebs! Things fell apart at its old home, so he's moved it over to WebComics Nation. He's doing a page a week, and he's started over from the beginning, so he hasn't quite caught up with where we left off last time. But it's still a good place to either refresh your memory or start reading it for the first time.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Playing with Languages

I just sent the following info to my players in my hacked Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord game.

The primary language spoken throughout the world is Common, a trader language based heavily on he languages of the Lizardfolk empires. This was started by merchants, but has acquired the aggressive support of the gods who hope to use it as a way to forge closer ties between all the peoples and nations of the world. All PCs start off speaking Common.

Human characters probably also speak their native tongue. There are dozens of human languages scattered across globe. Finding someone else who speaks the same language, however, is pretty rare once you travel beyond a few hundred miles from your home town.

Common Fey, or just Fey, is spoken by all the races of Fairy. These include elves, gnomes, pixies, nixies, centaurs, satyrs, dryads and the like, plus trolls. If your character is an elf or gnome, they also speak this language. Many human magic-users learn Fey, since a lot of work was done on the arcane sciences during the age of the Empire of the Elves.

High Fey was the courtly tongue of the Empire of the Elves. It is an extremely complex and nuanced language. It was primarily used for legislative communications and decrees. However, it also is useful to magic-users wishing to learn more of the secret magics of the elven emperors.

The lizardfolk have their own language, unified at the time of their first great empire. There are many dialects and local slang, but generally, if you speak Lizardfolk, you can talk to anyone else who speaks it. This is the second most popular language, after Common.

Nagpa is a dead language, mostly because all the Nagpa are supposed to be dead. These vulture-headed humanoids were spawned by Tiamat to organize her children before the Third War of the Monsters. The Nagpa were obsessed with magic and plundered all the peoples of the world for their magical secrets. It's thus a very popular language among magic-users, especially those who live on the shores of the Turquoise Sea.

Beyond her experiment with the Nagpa, however, Tiamat was never really big on unity or organization. So her other children almost all speak their own languages. The most common of these are Orc (spoken by orcs and ogres and most giants), Goblin (spoken by kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears), Gnoll (spoken by gnolls, ghouls, and ghasts), and Dragon (spoken by dragons, wyverns, and the more intelligent hydras). Most of the rest of the monsters who can speak have their own language. On the island of Dreng Bdan, goblins and orcs are the most common creatures seen. Tribes of gnolls are known to live on the mainland of Idumma.

Addendum: Two things I forgot to mention. First, High Fey is spoken only in royal courts or other rarefied social strata. No character gets High Fey for free.

Second, yes, there is a Dwarven tongue and script. While the dwarves do use a more archaic form of their language for formal occasions, it's not so different from their vernacular as to comprise its own language.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Playing with Equipment

I just sent this as part of an email to the players in my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord game. I'm not posting the entire equipment list, because it would be at least as long as my post about magic.

The equipment list is mostly compiled from 2nd edition AD&D sources, because 2e had the most extensive equipment lists. When running a game with one foot in the traditions of Old School gaming, you can expect the players to ask about buying the most outlandish stuff, from nets and block-and-tackle to bags of fine soot and ornate jade jars of khol. It's just easier if we've got a large list of prices right out of the gate, because no list will, in the end, be extensive enough.

And so the list sent to them has the usual metal mirrors and backpacks, as well as cosmetics, triremes, and eunuchs. Because you just don't know...


Finally, here's the list of generic equipment your characters can expect to buy whenever they're in a relatively large city or port. Obviously, many of these things won't be available in small villagers or the wilderness.

A few things bear mentioning. First, you'll notice a lack of horses. No horses in this world. Instead, there are a handful of beasts that are ridden or used for transport. Camels, mammoths, and elephants probably don't require much discussion. The kimimutsch is a large, flightless predatory bird. Think giant carnivorous ostriches with bad attitudes. If you saw the movie "10,000 BC", you know what we're talking about here. If not, Google phorusrhacids. The tschal is a large, plodding, four-footed herbivorous lizard that generally stands 4' at the shoulder. They're not very fast, but they are incredibly strong and are used primarily for pulling carts and working the fields. Warcats are saber-toothed tigers that have been trained to accept riders. They are not generally known for their loyalty; if a warcat and its rider starve, the warcat generally starves last.

Use the weapon and armour costs from the Labyrinth Lord book. You can reduce the cost of any of these items by 10% if you purchase bronze rather than steel versions. Bronze weapons and armour, however, have a tendency to break or fall apart. This generally happens when the DM is feeling malicious. ;)

There are slots still open in this game, and I just lost a player whose schedule was not as open as he thought it was going to be. If you're interested in jumping in, either this week or next, drop me an email at trollsmyth-at-yahoo-dot-com.

Some Things Old are Cool Again

Tuesday seemed to be a day for old heroes to rise again. In addition to Mr. Maliszewski's promising news about the Barsoom movie, we also get the promise of a new Buck Rogers series.

I find the whole webisodes phenomenon very promising. It's long been my opinion that sci-fi and fantasy fans hungering for visual entertainment wwould be best served by doing it themselves rather than waiting for TV networks and movie studios to "get it". Sure, we're teased with a spot of occasional brilliance, like Babylon 5 or Star Wars, but for the most part, we get painful abortions like the Dresden Files or foot-shooting shenanigans of the sort that surrounded Firefly.

We've always said we could do better. Now we've got some folks actually putting their money where their mouths are. Movies and TV shows are complex productions, but that complexity is not insurmountable. I hope this is only the beginning of a new wave of entertainment, divorced from the restraints of the past.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Faster than a Speeding Arrow

Darn it, I keep finding stuff I didn't finish before starting my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack.

Last night, we rolled up our first two characters. One of them has throwing daggers in his equipment list. And I never said what I was doing about ranged weapons.

In raw Moldvay/Cook, you get one shot per round. With 10 second rounds, that means you get to shoot one arrow every ten seconds.

I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that's a bit ridiculous. Even AD&D's two arrows per round is too slow.

On the other hand, I don't want to let people roll handfuls of dice every time they fire their bow. So here's what I'm doing:

Every ranged weapon has a rate-of-fire which basically says how many you can toss or shoot in a 10 second round. For every additional weapon launched at the enemy in a round, you add +1 to your to-hit roll. If you hit, you roll damage once, no matter how many missiles were used.

Here are the rates-of-fire for standard ranged weapons:

bows: 4 (damage is 2d4)
daggers: 5
hand-axes: 3
spears and javelins: 2
slings: 3 (damage is 1d6)

I'm not listing crossbows because I'm not sure if I'm allowing crossbows in the game in order to reinforce the early Iron Age feel I'm aiming for.

If this means Theophage needs to carry more throwing daggers in his bandoleer, that's just fine. Just don't go crazy (link so NSFW it's a thing of beauty).

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Visiting the Tribe


I finally got around to visiting Tribe Comics & Games today. I'd first heard about the store in mid November, but at the time Life was raining great gobbets of flaming poo on my head, and I didn't have time to visit. Today, I took a small wad of Christmas money by the store and burned through it rather quickly.

It's a great little store, and we certainly need one down here, since gaming and comics stores have become rather rare in south Austin (motto: We're all here because were not all there!). It's only two months old so they don't have a big stock of older stuff, but if you really want that sort of thing, there's a great Half Price Books just across the street. The gaming selection at the Half Price is hidden beneath their music, but it's got a nice variety, including a number of 1st edition AD&D books.

Right now, Tribe has the major standbys: D&D 4e, White Wolf's World of Darkness and Exalted, and SJ Games' GURPS. The very friendly gent behind the counter said the turnaround on ordering games they don't have can be as short as 24 to 48 hours. They've also got a lot boardgames, miniatures games, and all the other sorts of things you'd expect in a store like that. And they've got a nice selection of mainstream and indie comics. It's one of the few places where I've asked for Finder and they've known exactly what I was talking about.

I forgot to ask if they did any gaming on the premises. The store seems a touch small for that, but I could see them moving a few of the displays around and opening up the middle area for tables. It's certainly not crowded, and as we've come to expect in the Austin area, the store is well-lit, clean and inviting. They were doing a steady trickle of business the entire time I was there, which bodes well for its future.

If you're on the south side of town, maybe eating at Kerby Lane South Lamar or shopping at Sun Harvest, be sure to stop by Tribe and check them out.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Playing with Character Creation

Things are moving along nicely for my new Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack game. There are still a few spots open if anyone wants to join in. If you did email me already about joining the game and I haven't replied to you, that may mean I missed your email. At least one reply got dumped into my spam folder. Please email me again (trollsmyth at yahoo dot com) or post a reply to this blog entry.

I just sent my players the following message:


Thanks again to each of you for your interest in this game. Here follows an outline for character creation. You don't need to follow these steps in order, of course, but I do need each of these steps completed by Wednesday the 14th if at all possible.

Rolling Dice
I've got three options available. Option 1 is meeting with me in OpenRPG to roll the dice using the software's built-in dice roller. This is my preferred option as it gives us all a dry-run on the software, so we can work out any difficulties with the system before we actually start to play. I'm thinking right now we might try to get together this Sunday the 11th at 8 PM central (9 PM eastern). If you'd prefer or need to meet me some other time, let me know and I'm sure we can work something out. We'll be rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest die rolled for each stat, and then you may arrange them to taste. If you want to do 3d6 in order, I certainly won't stop you, but I'm not requiring it at this point in the game.

The second option, if you don't have time to fuss with OpenRPG, is to let me roll the dice for you. I'll roll with 4d6 and let you know what the scores are.

Finally, if rolling dice is just too much risk for your blood, you can apportion 63 points between the six stats as you see fit, with no stat below 3 and no stat above 18.

Be warned, once you make your choice, you're stuck with it for this character. Future characters, however, can utilize any of the three methods. And yeah, I fully expect that we'll be creating at least a few new characters down the road. More on that later.

Picking a Class

This works pretty much as it's described in the book. There are a few hacks I've made that you need to be aware of, however:

- no thieves or halfings

- dwarves use Constitution, not Strength, as their primary stat

- you may also pick my rogue or gnome as your character's class

- if you do play a magic user, elf, or gnome, keep in mind my hack to spells

- if you decide to play a cleric, you'll need to pick a god. If none of these gods appeal, let me know and we'll work something out.

Give your character the maximum hit points for their class and Constitution bonus. In spite of this and the somewhat forgiving Injury Table I'll be using, I fully expect characters will die in this campaign. So be warned. (Also, in the example, I think I added the character's Constitution bonus to the roll. I won't be doing that in the game.) I do not consider a TPK to be a failure on anyone's part, mine or yours. Heroic last stands have been epic moments in my gaming history. So have been terribly painful and humiliating Oops-es. In either case, we roll up new characters and begin our adventures anew.

Pick an Alignment
This is very different from what's in Moldvay/Cook/LL. More than abstract terms, alignment is a matter of personal alliance. The gods who walk the world are the champions of Law. They wish to impose order upon the world in order to create a golden age of prosperity and peace. Those who feel the gods are a bunch of self-serving tyrants (or, if well-meaning, still not clearly up to the job) rally to the cause of Chaos. Yes, those who follow the gods tend to be more law-abiding, honest, and forthright than those who oppose them, but this is hardly something to be relied on in every case. Those who don't have a strong opinion one way or the other are considered Neutral. There are no alignment languages.

If you don't want to be a Lawful cleric, let me know, and we should be able to work something out. Unless you want to be a Neutral cleric, and then things get very tricky indeed.

Pick a Name

Fairly self-explanatory, I hope.

Give Me a Physical Description

Don't need to go crazy here. Height, weight, sex, hair and eye color, and any distinguishing features, scars or tattoos will do.

Give Me a Background
Again, no need to go crazy. If you really, really want to let your inner Charles Dickens run rampant across the page, feel free, but I make no promises about what I will and won't use.

What I absolutely need are the names and current whereabouts of your character's family, and what your character did before hopping on the boat to Pitsh. Again, you don't need to go into exacting detail, but feel free to elaborate if you want. Here are some quick guidelines.

Humans – Humans are scattered across the world and practice a variety of different cultures and traditions. However, this world is young, and there have not yet been any large human kingdoms or empires. Most humans live in small villages or the city-states that the gods are trying to forge into a unified empire of Law. Some, however, might be refugees from the collapsing Second Empire of the Lizardfolk, where most humans lived as second-class citizens and slaves. Beyond those strictures, however, feel free to let your imagination go wild with this one.

Dwarves – They're not as widespread as the humans, but wherever you'll find mountains or hills rich with ores, you'll probably find a community of dwarves. While the gods seem to favor humans at this time, the dwarves are the most loyal supporters of Law.

Elves – Some elves might be old enough to remember their own great empire. It was destroyed when Tiamat shattered their cities during the Third War Against the Monsters. As punishment for her wanton viciousness, Tiamat was imprisoned within the Red Moon. However, the elves never recovered. Most live in the wilderness, in the places where the Earth and the world of the Fey overlap, and consider the loss of their empire as a caution against hubris. Thus, most elves stand for Chaos.

Gnomes – The gnomes came to the world after the Third War Against the Monsters. Not as long-lived as the elves, none still live who remember their journey from the realms of Fey. They maintain that they came to heal the Earth from the wounds Tiamat inflicted upon him. Even so, there are sometimes surprising tensions between the elves and gnomes. Most gnomes are Neutral, but some are strongly Lawful, and believe Tiamat's children, the monsters, must be eradicated before the Earth can fully heal.

Don't Pick Equipment
I'm not sure yet what equipment list I want to use, but the one in the LL book seems too short to me. I'll let you know about this ASAP. I'm also fiddling with the languages list.

And that should do it, I think. As always, feel free to email if you have any questions.

- Brian

Monday, January 05, 2009

Silver Age Goodness

James Maliszewski has dubbed the period just after what he considers the apex of D&D to be the “Silver Age”, as opposed to the Golden Age that came just before it. Among the hallmarks of this Silver Age is an emphasis on realism:

This is very evident in the pages of Dragon from the period, which, if looked at today, would no doubt seem unduly obsessed with minutiae, such as a "realistic" method of calculating a character's height and weight based on his ability scores or determining how far a character could jump up or across based on the same. "Realism" was a watchword of the Silver Age.

I won't argue with this, and I'm certain it had a strong impact on how I play the game, even today. My first issue of Dragon did have a Holloway painting on the cover, and with articles on how to part heroes from their horded wealth, it's likely the Silver Age was already in full swing by the time I started reading that magazine.

Much of the derision aimed at the Silver Age now appears to focus on the mechanical excesses of the age: using computer software to generate the minutiae of local weather patterns or “not one but two different articles on the physics of falling damage”. There can be no denying that such things filled the pages of Dragon back in those days. But the quest for realism took may different forms.

Among my favorites are the various articles by Katherine Kerr on actual, real-world history. “Who Lives in that Castle?” (#80, December '83, with a cover by Caldwell) described how castles were run, the various roles of their inhabitants, and what you might expect to see them doing on an average day. It was, in short, what happened in the castle after a PC had built it. If the 12th level Lord decided to muster an army and make war upon his neighbors, you could turn to Ms. Kerr's “An Army Travels on its Stomach” (#94, February '85, cover again by Caldwell, but so different from his usual work that you wouldn't guess that from a casual glance) for a primer on muscle-powered logistics. And if you want this army to clash with barbarians from beyond the borders of the civilized world, you might want to peruse her “The Real Barbarians” (#72, April '83, cover again by Caldwell in his more traditional style) for some ideas on how historic barbarians, in this case primarily Goths and Celts, did things.

All of these articles were extremely light in terms of game mechanics. In those days, Dragon was still the magazine of the RPG hobby and not yet a full-time house organ for TSR. Ms. Kerr's articles were clearly written to be used with any game system, and most fell more heavily on the RP side of RPG. There were no stats falconers nor were there random tables for food spoilage. There was, however, a wealth of useful information a DM could use right at the table. Who might have been near the east tower when Lady Maggion was assassinated? Do the PCs have enough time to take the long way around Gritterwood and still arrive before the legions of the Iron Duke? Will a chieftain of the Mammoth Clans better appreciate a gift of iron spearheads or gold jewelry? Sure, you could always make it up if you really needed to, but it was nice to have something to start with, some key to spark the imagination. And for those of us who love verisimilitude, it was handy to know that Charlemagne's ox-drawn wagons rarely bettered an average of twelve miles per day, while the blazingly fast Roman legions could manage closer to twenty.

UPDATE: Similar thoughts from Sir Larkins, with illustrations.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

D&D the Trollsmyth Way

Time to get this ball rolling!

I'm going to run my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack online. I want to do this in real-time text chat. I haven't decided which software I want to use. I'm leaning towards OpenRPG, but I'm also open to suggestions. The best day for me at this point is Thursday nights central time, maybe 7:00 PM till 11:00 PM or so. I'd like to make this a weekly game, or fortnightly at the very least.

I'll of course be using most of the hacks I've discussed here, including dropping thieves for my rogue class, replacing halflings with my gnomes, using my weapon and shield rules, and my hack to magic-user spells. I think I'm going to run cleric magic just as it is in the book for now.

I discovered D&D during that period that Mr. Maliszewski has dubbed the Silver Age. That being the case, while I enjoy hanging out and chatting with the Old School crowd, this won't be a pure Old School game. Orcs and goblins have children and cultures and all of that. Funhouse dungeons will be very, very rare, and will have reasons for being as they are.

That said, this won't be Dragonlance, either. This will be a sandbox campaign in a living world. If the players don't get involved in something, events will run their course. If the PCs do get involved, then anything can happen. I'm aiming towards exploration and dungeon-delving right now, but if the PCs decide they'd rather spend their time in cities or playing politics, I'm game for that as well.

As for tone, I love verisimilitude, but if you've read this blog much, you already know that. If this were an American movie, it would probably get an R rating. I like to challenge my players by tossing moral dilemmas at their characters. The world, especially the monsters in it, know nothing of modern, suburban morality, and care about it even less. No, it won't be Carcosa, but it won't be the A-Team, where hundreds of bullets are fired but no one ever gets hit, either.

The setting is a young world, shared between the gods and titans, though friction between them is always on the rise. Humanity's fortunes are also on the rise, and mankind spreads across the world with the sanction and active aid of the gods, building their cities with, and atop, the ruined masonry of the still-collapsing second empire of the lizard folk.

Across the shallow Turquoise Sea, standing like a sentinel before the hellish continent known as Idumma, rises the jungle-shrouded island Dreng Bdan. The fortress-palace of the short-lived Empire of the Monsters, it was later colonized at the height of the lizard folks' power, when they used it as a base to launch their raids on the wealth of Idumma. Today, it is covered with the ruins of three empires, sheltering all manner of Tiamat's spawn who still seek to free her from the reddish moon that imprisons her. Pirates lurk in Dreng Bdan's coves, plundering the wealth of all peoples who seek to use the Turquoise Sea for trade. Fabulous treasures and the wisdom of fallen empires are horded by pirate lords and twisted monstrosities alike. Adventurers, thieves, and mercenaries now sail for the port of Pitsh on Dreng Bdan's northern coast, eager to claim their share. And that's where our adventures will begin...

If you're interested in playing, drop me an email at trollsmyth-at-yahoo-dot-com, letting me know why this game interests you and what sorts of characters you'd be most interested in playing. I'd like to hold the first game on January 15th.

Steampunk Surprise!

If you look at the artist's links on the right side of this page, you'll see one labeled The Overlord Project. It contains some of the works of a very talented friend of mine named Michael Van Slyke. There hasn't been much action over there until recently, when he published these neat pics of steampunk pistols he crafted (scroll to the bottom). If you haven't taken the time to peruse his page, it's definitely worth a few minutes.