Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Bit of Old News

In my effort to collate the recollections of many old school gamers from their blogs, I ran across a 2008 review of a Free RPG on the Free RPG Blog and found that the RPG in question had been developed by GM Dariel!

GM Dariel was, of course, interviewed at the game table some time back. He is, of course, hard at work on a top secret RPG (in between work and other hobbies, of course).

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Piecemeal History of Gaming #2

Well, there's an interesting site that I must recommend: Greg Stafford's Chaosium Page. What's this page about? Here's what he says it's about:
Chaosium, Inc. is one of my proudest accomplishments. 
Chaosium was one of the original companies for the Hobby Game Industry, and was famous for its innovative and professionally produced product. 
I founded it in 1975 and ran it, as president, from then until 1998. 
Here is a collection of articles, reminiscences and other stories about my time there.
It's not complete, but it's got a bunch of interesting articles. Here are the most interesting to me:
  • Founding of Chaosium [link]
  • All about RuneQuest, especially three separate articles by Greg Stafford, Ray Turney and Steve Perrin [link]
  • How Call of Cthulhu came to be [link]
  • The Histories of the Chaosium RPGs [link]

Piecemeal History of Gaming #1

I keep running into great resources on the behind-the-DM's-screen, back-in-my-day, secret history of RPGs, but in short, though not always bite-size pieces.

Here's the first set of links in my attempt to collect them all.

Various Links
  • James Maliszewski's excellent series of 'retrospectives' on his blog [link]
  • Jeff Grubb's "Secret Origin" of TSR's Marvel Super-heroes RPG [link]
  • Jeff Grubb's Secret History of the Forgotten Realms [link]
  • An RPG.net thread with newsclippings showing how the D&D/Satanism hoopla played out back in the 70s and 80s [link]
  • All eighteen (18) articles from Shannon Appelcline's "A Brief History of Game" [link]
From Escapist Magazine
  • An article on D&D and its relatively recent Old School Renaissance [link]
  • A Brief History of Champions and the HERO System [link]
  • An article on non-Tolkien fiction that inspired D&D [link]
  • An article on Larry DiTillo -- the guy who wrote Masks of Nyarlathotep [link]
  • An article on Steve Long -- the man behind the rebirth of HERO games [link]
  • An article on Marc Miller -- the man behind the first successful science fiction RPG: Traveller [link]

Interesting Posts on GMing!

A post on adding themes into the games you're GMing from Trollsmyth.
MobUnited says that "The Story is So Over."
Former WOTC game designer posts his philosophy and views on intro RPGs.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Right Way to Roleplay

Everyone knows that old adage: if your group is having fun, then your way of roleplaying is the right way of roleplaying.

Time after time, however, discussions and opinions emerge about the right way to roleplay. Discussion and arguments tend to gravitate around these issues:

  • Player knowledge vs. character knowledge - some people believe that as a role-playing exercise, the integrity of the experience is compromised if a character acts on knowledge that he/she cannot possibly have. This includes the location of secret doors and traps, the weaknesses of certain monsters, and creating gunpowder in a campaign where the tech level just doesn't support it. Other believe that since it's a game, past meta-gaming experience should inform current gameplay -- otherwise we're just gonna keep getting killed in the same damn area by the same badly-designed killer dungeon.
  • Player skill vs. character skill - if you are naturally charming and cunning, then your skill at bargaining, lying, and seducing people at the gaming does not stem from your character's abilities but from your own. Some styles of play support this, and encourage otherwise not-so outgoing players to stretch themselves a bit. On the other hand, if your character is clearly a stupid oaf in conception, coming up with an uncharacteristically brilliant idea also stretches credulity.
  • Character-is-me vs. character-isn't-me - some people create characters that are slightly better/worse/different versions of themselves, while others create very different characters each time character creation rolls around. The former are sometimes looked down upon for being not very original, while the latter run the risk of being labeled drama-hogs and frustrated thespians. Both tend to incur this type of loss of respect if their role-playing habits or personalities (real of affected) rub other players the wrong way a lot.
  • Roll-playing vs. Role-playing - seemingly the opposite of the first two issues, this centers around a player (and sometimes GM) reliance on the dice to determine everything, regardless of the skill, decisions and gameplay involved.

In my personal opinion, the issues mentioned above aren't a black & white thing (you either are, or you aren't crap). Normally, there are gradations along a continuum along with other mitigating circumstances that complicate them.

Will try to tackle each of these issues one-by-one to see how the possible histories and nuances of these issues may have come about, and how the may be resolved at the game table.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Catholic Girls, I mean, Catalyst Games in trouble

There was a bit of a buzz in the past week about Catalyst Games Labs (publisher but apparently not the intellectual property owner of the current incarnations of Shadowrun, Eclipse Phase, Battletech and CthulhuTech).

The official word from their website is as follows:
"While we wish the review had only uncovered positive news, we also discovered our accounting procedures had not been updated as the company continued to grow. The result was that business funds had been co-mingled with the personal funds of one of the owners. We believe the missing funds were the result of bad habits that began alongside the creation of the company, which was initially a small hobby group. Upon further investigation, in which the owner has willingly participated, the owner in question now owes the company a significant balance and is working to help rectify the situation."

The unofficial word from the interweb is as follows:
"OK, as you may well have been able to surmise from release schedules, Catalyst Game Labs is in a bit of a financial pickle, and it is somewhat unlikely that they will retain the license to make Shadowrun products. This is not because Shadowrun hasn’t been selling enough to cover expenses, but merely because a significant quantity of money is missing outright. Reliable sources put this figure at roughly $850,000. Which sounds like a lot, and it is. It is roughly 40% of Catalyst’s entire sales for last year, missing over a three year period. There will of course be lawsuits, and there are already people drawing up legal documents accusing..."

So what does this mean for all you die-hard Shadowrun fans out there? Well, if you liked all the 4th edition material you've gotten so far, you may see a change in quality as various members of the writing / editing staff depart the company.

And if you want to panic buy -- just in case Catalyst Games Labs does disappear -- go right ahead. They need the money. Just make sure it goes to the right people, chummer.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Game Table Interview: GM Adam

I've gamed with Adam once before, if I recall correctly: a one-shot Pulp Hero game. That aside, I chat with him from time to time and we always fall into a discussion about game settings, game systems, new and old news (often peppered with discussions about DC Heroes/MEGS and Legend of the Five Rings).

Here are his responses to the questionnaire:

What was the first RPG you remember playing?
You mean besides "Play Pretend" as a child? I remember being about 8 or 9 and playing with a kid who lived across the street from my grandmother. He always got the newest toys first and had the Dungeons and Dragons boxed set. Once we played, I was completely hooked. I returned home, I sought out the varying boxed sets and taught all my neighborhood friends how to play. Eventually the hardbacks for "Advanced" Dungeons and Dragons came out and I got each of those.

What was it about the hobby that made you want to continue playing?
One thing that has drawn me to RPGs is the ability to create drama for anyone. I have been involved with theatre most of my life and I really find RPGs to be a form of theatre. Normally, when we watch TV or a movie, we see others having adventures and creating stories. Role-playing games puts all of that in the hands of the player and allows them to be both performer and audience all in one.

What was it about the hobby that made you want to run RPGs?
I've always enjoyed creating stories and casts of unusual characters. When I'm running a game, I don't just create and play one character like players do. I get to create dozens with little personality traits, goals and abilities. When you GM, you get to be the rest of the world the players have to explore and interact with.

I also love watching how players can suddenly take a story in a direction you never conceived it going towards. Scrambling to figure out what will happen when the main character does something totally unique can give a much more rewarding story and experience. Comparing it to online games, you generally are limited to boxed in area that has been created. Deciding what happens when characters take a jack hammer and pulverize one of those walls that weren't supposed to be able to is a lot of fun.

What 3 novels have most inspired the games you run? Why?
Everything I've ever read has had some influence. One series that has had a lot of influence over my fantasy worlds was the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. It's a series about a young orphan who eventually becomes the hero of a kingdom and more. The Disney movie The Black Cauldron is based on one of the books but didn't even come close to the original story. It's based very much from Welsh mythology and the Arthurian tales which have always appealed to me. One thing I drew from here is that NPCs are not always what they seem and every hero needs a good bad guy.

Geoffrey Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain certainly has to be cited as a source of inspiration, directly and indirectly. Written to be a historical work (though many historians question its veracity), it is the first written account of Arthur and Merlin. In his tale, Gawain was the mightiest knight and Arthur single-handedly fought battles with hundreds of giants and won. All of the Arthurian tales we know of started here. So when I read TH White, Mallory, and others, I often think of Monmouth. One thing this has always reminded me in an RPG, is that while the players can have other heroic characters and an intricate world around them, the story (if it's going to be good) must be about them. If it's a classic good vs. evil story, this means that they must be necessary to defeat the evil.

For the third, let me pick the Mistress/Servant/Daughter of the Empire series by Jannie Wurts and Raymond Fiest. This is about Mara of the Acoma Clan and her ascent into power of a feudalistic fantasy Asian Empire. Considering one of my most recent campaigns was a Legend of the Five rings game; this series was invaluable as a source of inspiration and understanding how to run a game of political intrigue in a setting of Bushido based honor.

Overall though, I'd say inspiration can come from any book. Many good science fiction stories are actually fantasy stories or political beliefs wrapped in science fiction trappings and vice versa. Using inspiration from one type of story and seeing how it would work in a completely different type of setting can result in some great tales. I even once ran a super hero campaign based loosely on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.

What 3 TV shows have most inspired the games you run? Why?
Farscape was a wonderful show. It was very character driven and many episodes revolved as much around how the characters interacted with one another as it did with them interacting with any outside threats. This is a great example of how to make and play with a group dynamic within a party.

As a teen, I watched everything to do with GI JOE. One thing that's interesting about this show from a Gming perspective is how they had dozens of "Joes" but they were each powerful in their own way. They each had a niche to fill and each had their occasional moments of character development and time in the spotlight. A lot is made in games about "game balance." While game balance is important, it's really just a tool to drive towards characters getting their time to shine in their own way.

I'll add Kindred: The Embraced as the third since it was probably the first real TV show (not counting the Saturday morning cartoons) actually based on a role-playing game. Certainly you could learn a lot wbout White Wolf's world and the dramatic tensions in that world from the show. But the most important lesson of the show was that RPGs were, in fact, cool and they really could inspire success in a mainstream audience (a lesson that the video game industry has learned from quite well).

What 3 movies have most inspired the games you run? Why?
Star Wars has to be at the top of this list (the original trilogy, of course). It has such wonderful characters and inspired my love of spirit and belief in trying to do what's right. It also echoes what I said about the Prydain Chronicles and the need for a great villain. It also inspired a couple of campaigns in the excellent WEG d6 system. The soundtracks created by John Williams are a must have for any gamer.

The Princess Bride has inspired so many gamers I think it must be mentioned whenever talking about movies. The structure of the plot, and weaving the group together along with the clever situations and dialogue in this movie add to its charm. It provides a blueprint to adventure and comedy that every gamer can use to add to their game.

Finally, I would have mention Superman. This is one of the first comic book movies and could arguably be said to have inspired the rest of the comic book movies that have come after it. One thing this move does demonstrably well is showing our hero beating up on a couple of "average" opponents to get him used to his powers as well as showing us how powerful he really is. The first time we see the "S," he saves Lois (as always), catches a cat-burglar halfway up the side of a sky-scraper, rescues a kitten from a tree, and  catches some other random robbers. This reminds us to give the heroes time to feel badass before we introduce the villains (Luthor and Zod) that will give them a real challenge which builds the dramatic tension. Let your heroes have small battles every now and then to remind them that they are the heroes.

What is your favorite published RPG of all time, and why?
Probably DC Heroes by Mayfair games, sometimes referred to as "Mayfair's Exponential Game System" or MEGS. I used to read comic books a lot during college (I worked part time in a comic shop during college and was paid only in store credit -the guy running the shop was smart). So during this time, I enjoyed running games based on comics. When using this as a tool to introduce people to RPGs, I found similar success to the current glut of comic book movies and TV shows.

At first, I was running Marvel Super Heroes by TSR (which is another really good system). Generally, I could ask people if they could have any super power, what  would it be? Give them a character with that power and let them get a feel for the game. Marvel's system was good, but very random and very simplistic. DC could do most of the things the Marvel system could do, but also gave people detailed control over their own character. It also did "Batman" types much better than Marvel did. DC also implemented a number of techniques that were revolutionary at the time which are carried over in many RPGs today that gave players cinematic abilities to recover at dramatically appropriate moments, subplots, and generally was one of the first systems that significantly encouraged playing the role of the character as opposed to just blasting whatever got in your way.

What is your favorite published game supplement or adventure of all time, and why?
I don't usually use pre-fabricated adventures, preferring to make up my own. That being said, I think one of the greatest series of supplements was the Otosan Uchi set and the Winter Court books by AEG for their Legend of the Five Rings line. They basically introduced the main characters and locations within the place and proposed varying different potential ways to use those settings. Some you might use, others you might ignore.

In these books, they introduced a wonderful series of hooks in a "Challenge, Focus, Strike" format. Sometimes I call this the "Bait, Hook, Strike" format. The Bait or Challenge portion is a scenario that may draw the PCs interest in the situation, for example the PCs could see NPC X wandering the halls at night outside NPC Y's quarters suspiciously. The Focus (Hook) section usually details more of the background that the PCs will only know if they take the bait, NPC X is secretly in love with NPC Y and has been delivering poems to her as a secret admirer. Then the Strike portion has details of how a GM might handle potential fallout if the PCs get involved and details that may impact that fallout. NPC X's uncle betrayed NPC Y's father 20 years ago and he has not trusted anyone of that clan since. He would be much happier if someone else were courting his daughter. Whether the PCs help X win over the father or they woo Y in place of X helps give them enemies and friends for the future. One thing that was especially handy about this is you could realistically drop out the bait to several potential subplots at once and have each of them progress realistically with or without the PC's intervention.

What RPG have you always wanted to play, but never got a chance to?
I've played in Con games and tournaments of Shadowrun but I've never gotten to play in a full campaign. I've always wanted to explore this system more since it seems to have a lot of potential and possibilities. It seems like a very fun game.  Also, one of my friends in college ran a legendary Shadowrun campaign (he even contributed to a couple of modules), but my schedule never seemed to match the times/days he was running.

What upcoming RPG releases are you looking forward to seeing?
Naturally, I'm looking forward to the 4th edition of Legend of the Five Rings with bated breath. I hope that it will include some stuff for the 7th Sea setting since the main rules are supposed to be more "setting generic" and allow for expansions like Burning Sands without re-writing the main rules.

Also, John Wick recently announced he's working on an entirely new samurai based game system. That will be interesting to see. I still think his first edition of L5R is one of the best editions.

One thing I'm looking forward to that isn't necessarily an "RPG Release" but I think will greatly impact the way we (especially I) play table-top RPGs is the iPad and the Microsoft Courier and the rest of the e-reader/web-browser hybrids. The problem with the current e-readers is that they don't do PDF well or color. With this next generation of readers, PDF format will be much more accessible at a gaming table. It will be nice to store my entire gaming library in a digital, portable device.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

You Gotta Have Character!

Useful to me as a player, a GM, and a writer!
Character Creation overall: The Characterization Puzzle
Character Creation Aid #1: Thumbnail Method
Character Creation Aid #2: Inversion Principle

Science Fiction Games I Wanna Play

There's no shortage of interesting games that I want to play at least once for various reasons: the setting, the system, the possible stories, etc. While these things tend to bounce around across various genres, I decided to build a list of RPGs I'd like to try out and limit it to one genre for focus: science fiction.

I've played in and run the following games: Star Frontiers, Traveller, West End Games's Star Wars RPG, Cyberpunk, and Fading Suns.

As for games I'd like to try out the following:

Starblazer Adventures - not so much for the setting, but for the game system. It seems to be a far more narrative-oriented system in terms of game mechanics (essentially the same family of FATE rules as Spirit of the Century), but I can't quite wrap my mind around them by mere reading. As for the setting -- I've never read these comics, but they seem extremely pulpy and sadly not my type of pulp science fiction. If I had to run it, I'd have to tweak any and all of the settings to some thing more to my science fiction tastes.

X-Plorers - partially for the setting, partially for the system, partially for the novelty! X-Plorers is a "what-if" RPG, one that asks "what if the first RPG had not been influenced by fantasy novels of the era, but by science fiction novels of the era?" Not quite imperial science fiction, not totally hard science fiction, and definitely not pulp science fiction, and it's got character classes and levels, but skills as well. Free to download, too.

Eclipse Phase - wanted to try out transhuman science fiction gaming ever since GURPS Transhuman. Eclipse Phase, with its fantastic production values, and its "Revelation Space meets Global Frequency" pitch and percentile-based game system have piqued my interest as well.

Here's hoping I get the chance in the next year or so.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Useful Campaign Links #2

Essential Skills for Running RPGs: Writing and Acting
Techniques for Running RPGs: Prep and Play
Fantastic Source of RPG Monsters: RPG Creatures
References for City Building: City Economics

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Setting Mashup Source #4: Fading Suns

In my current online campaign, I'm having the Thyatian clerics break with Mystaran canon and have them worship the Pancreator, the Great Maker of All, whose will was made known to humanity through the Prophet Zebulon.

This, of course, is taken from the RPG Fading Suns by Holistic Games, currently being kept on the market by redbrick limited. Here's a short setting description:

It is the dawn of the sixth millennium and the skies are darkening, for the suns themselves are fading. Humans reached the stars long ago, building a Republic of high technology and universal emancipation—and then squandered it, fought over it, and finally lost it.

A New Dark Age has descended upon humanity, for the greatest of civilizations has fallen and now even the stars are dying. Feudal lords rule the Known Worlds, vying for power with fanatic priests and scheming guilds.

The reasons I want to nab this aspect of the game are many:
(1) the classic cleric and paladin classes seem to owe much to the monotheistic holy warriors of the crusades, which feeds off this Fading Suns vibe;
(2) I'm fond of revisiting the various sects and dogmas that splintered the Catholic faith, and Fading Suns has a lot of echoes of them;
(3) I want to have saints stand in for the various god portfolios prevalent in fantasy rpgs, which Fading Suns has as well;
(4) Karameikos has a nice Thyatian Church (Byzantine Empire's official religion) vs. Traladaran Church (syncretic and pantheistic belief system that welcomes the new Church's beliefs -- until it became a competition) vibe that can create twists;
(5) I think that the Jumpgate cross and its many incarnations make nice religious symbols;

(6) the entire Blackmoor backstory can be made to dovetail with the Fading Suns Second Republic -- an incredibly advanced Science Fiction republic that uses Theurgy (clerical abilities) and other abilities that seem to be magic and psychic abilities -- and its subsequent fall;
(7) allows me to re-frame the Immortals, and the cosmology of evil in a different light.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

And the Characters Trickle In

As the Labyrinth Lord characters (partially built -- ranging from character concept stage to "I've done everything except the equipment list" stage), trickle in for my Play-by-post game, my thoughts begin to split along two paths: the actual dungeon adventure and the PCs themselves.

Actual dungeon adventure - While I'm really tempted to inflict either Michael Curtis's Stonehell Dungeon or James Edward Raggi IV's Death Frost Doom on the players, I haven't bought either (yet), and I'm on a strict budget for the next couple of months.

Furthermore, my old D&D modules are all boxed up, leaving only stuff from Goodman Game's Dungeon Crawl Classics to experiment with on my players. I've already selected one, and we'll see how it challenges the players.

If they read it, that's okay as long as they don't metagame or kill the fun for the others. I mean, it's kinda cheating yourself, right? And if some of them do use player knowledge sneakily -- I guess that's part of the old school experience right?

The PCs themselves - So far one player wants to be a fighter or a thief, while two players have already rolled up Elves. For purposes of role-playing, I may want to find more material on the elves of Karameikos so that they can get a handle on what elves have to deal with in this setting.

Hope someone gives some thought to a cleric -- PC or NPC. Healing can be real important on these dungeon crawls.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Halflings are hard-core!

I realized early on in my gaming career that not everyone though halflings were a cool race to play in D&D. And indeed, as I began to re-read my Lord of the Rings at the age of 15 I realized that while Merry and Pippin were pretty formidable at the end of the trilogy -- they weren't anywhere near that butch throughout most of the trilogy.

So where'd I get this idea about halflings being a hard core combat fighting race?

Jeff Dee.

Hm. How to make the halflings hard core combat machines that I remember?

Non-First World Gaming?

The post of this guy reminds me of our perception of the gaming situation here in the Philippines.

Things like the shrinking youthful gamer base, the dearth of GMs (or "good" GMs), etc. all sound very familiar.

Useful Campaign Links #1

Bah, no write-up. Need to record somewhere.

Classifying Plot Threads
Region Sizes in a Setting

Friday, March 5, 2010

Gaming Benefits: Vocabulary

Thanks to all these wonderful bloggers out there pointing out links to interesting articles about how gaming (and RPGs specifically) have had an impact on popular culture or in other areas -- I'm becoming link crazy! I keep following links, then lose track of them and get frustrated.

So this post is about an article on the words that D&D introduced into the English dictionaries of the world, and the vocabularies of all its fans. Thanks to Michael Curtis for this link in his archives.

More gaming benefits links as I find 'em (or remember them), dammit.

You're all welcome to contribute -- it's part of the RPG subculture after all.

Setting Mashup Source #3: Kult

Kult was an RPG I played in, but never had the courage to run (and I mean that on multiple levels).

Aside from resonating with the whole 'reality is a prison' vibe that we'd also get from Code: Black, there's something else I'd take from this: our world is an Illusion -- and reality is trying to break through it.

The slow appearance of cities in our world is the effect of the real world -- the city known as Metropolis -- slowly making its way into ours.

One can imagine in D&D how all these city crawls can give us glimpses into the many facets of this primal city archetype, and how the twisted humans and creatures and monsters that infest some of the biggest fantasy cities and somehow urge these cities to grow larger is evidence of Metropolis attempting to escape from the prison. If this twisted city of "heaven" or its many facets is doing this to the cities, what are all these dungeons?

The sewers, the under city, the "hell" of metropolis is also trying to manifest itself on the wild natural landscape of the world.

Another page that can be taken from this: the Archangels and their evil counterparts all have the equivalent of avatars ensconced in various places of power and are taking control of the world for good or for ill -- kind of how pantheons of gods manipulate humans for their own ends. The entire backstory of creation, gods and the missing Demiurge can provide the foundations for the watered down and contradictory version of 'religion' known to low-level dungeon crawlers.

Okay, enough with sources dealing with creation myth, reality and its underpinnings. Time to move on to the world that PCs deal with on a daily basis.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Old School Gaming Experience (Part 2)

Reading through the Labyrinth Lord Core Rules and then re-visiting my old D&D Basic and Expert Set rulebooks not only brought back memories and insights into my eventual preferences in terms of RPG system, setting, storytelling, and gameplay. Here are some of them:

System and setting disconnects
Early on, my approach to D&D gaming was in terms of system. I didn't quite understand the concept of having multiple settings, or changes to the setting that would necessitate house rules. In Sorry! and in chess, there are rules that you follow, and if you don't, you're not playing the game.

When I happened upon the following passage in Labyrinth Lord, I remembered the old D&D and AD&D rules dealing with the same issue:

"Clerics can use any form of armor and weapons except for weapons that have a sharp edge. This eliminates weapons such as swords, axes, and arrows, but not slings, maces, or other blunt items. Strict holy doctrine prevents clerics from using any cutting or impaling weapons."

I didn't bother me that much when I first encountered similar rules back in my youth, but I do remember that it ran counter to my expectations of the milieu. I couldn't remember any equivalent examples in the modest number of fantasy novels or exceedingly bad fantasy movies that I'd encountered at the time. I think I even began wondering if clerics should have been pure spellcasters and less inclined towards battle -- making it a very boring character class to play in my not-quite-teenaged mind.

Now I realize that this system rule is one that provokes thought about the setting: what is it about ALL religions in the D&D game that prevent you from using edged weapons? What is the doctrine, and is it true? And why would evil gods care?

It's possible that my eventual preoccupation with the Hero System was because I wanted to be able to tinker with classes while still retaining a concept that my juvenile mind had the barest grasp of: game balance.

Building character the old-fashioned way: earning it
Many modern games I enjoyed playing (and continue to enjoy), tend to favor a less random, more involved character creation cycle. Above and beyond any complexity in total or partial point-based character creations system, the character tends to be more fully realized from the start (immediate family, parents, childhood trauma, adult trauma, past loves, enemies, etc.) than in older games.

I would caution newer players against doing so for games like B/X D&D, AD&D and Call of Cthulhu, because low-level characters (and in the case of Call of Cthulhu, even high-level ones) have a distressing tendency to die -- somehow invalidating the effort put into the character backstory.

Interestingly enough, both B/X D&D and Call of Cthulhu have very fast character creation cycles for low-level characters, and it's relatively easy to come up with a new character and drop them into the storyline with some narrative handwaving.

The lesson of such games to me -- go with broad-stroke characterization for characters at the start. If your character survives, then you can begin working with the GM to build up backstory and stronger ties to the gaming milieu.

I'm not saying that it's superior to other types of RPG character creation systems. But I do believe that it is a valid one -- very much reminiscent of several sword & sorcery heroes whose pasts and childhoods are shrouded in mystery, but  whose great loves and great foes are all recorded in the narrative now.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

An Attempt at Old School Gaming -- Play By Post

Well, I'm making a go of a Labyrinth Lord game at TableTopWars.com. I've tried to create the listing of sub-boards I've seen work at the OD&D Discussion boards and have gotten a few people who are interested. Now I'm waiting for character sheet submissions and reviewing the adventure I want to run.

One of the things I've been toying with is a small "text footprint" character sheet that's still easy to use. Here's an example of what I've gotten so far:

Boris Dmitrov, Male Fighter 1
S17 (+2) D16 (+2) C13 (+1) I12 W12 Ch11 [HP: 9 AC: 0]
Platemail+shield, sword, short bow with 20 arrows, 2 weeks of standard rations, backpack, waterskin, 6 torches, tinderbox.

Hopefully, this will be a nice way to keep the most essential aspects of a character available to me when I look at the various things the players want their characters to do.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mining Mystara #1 - The Shearing

There have been many reviews of GAZ1 - The Grand Duchy of Karameikos. This isn't one of them.

Instead, this is the first in a series of short articles on the little things that I liked about the Karameikos setting that made it perfect for a first-time GM's D&D campaign.

The Grand Duchy of Karameikos was once considered a useless part of the Thyatian empire, and the native human races -- the Traladarans -- were just fine with that. When Duke Stefan Karameikos entered into a little-known agreement with his friend the Thyatian emperor, he effectively got this entire land as his own kingdom, but being sneaky, named it as a Grand Duchy so he still enjoyed the perception of being part of the Thyatian Empire.

The Traladarans were less than thrilled about the sudden seriousness of the Thyatian invaders, and revolts were sparked. Karameikos is now more or less stable, but unrest still simmers.

The Shearing
This Traladaran custom -- which was adopted enthusiastically by the Grand Duke -- involves "shearing" children when they come of age. They are given a small amount of money and gear (this is the initial money they get from character creation) and are officially detached from their families and their claims of inheritance. They take on new names, go out to find their fortune, and can only return when they have made something of themselves, and are then welcomed once again into their family.

Some apprentice themselves to master craftsmen, others learn new skills and try out new careers, and others become adventurers.

The Grand Duke saw it as a way to get rid of the "dead weight" of younger nobility that had followed him, even going as far as having his children go through it.

Using the Shearing
Not only is this a good rationale for having young folks who would otherwise be farmers or craftsmen suddenly deciding to take on a life of adventuring -- it's also a great justification for the sometimes flippant names that people adopt for their characters (like Vulgar McKickface or Bob).

Adventuring parties could then arguably be a mix of the wealthy Traladaran merchant offspring, rich Thyatian nobility, and other human of more humble origin.

Furthermore, despite the public 'disowning' of the sheared, nobility that is important enough would likely become targets for unscrupulous individuals hoping for a ransom. In fact this was a potential plot element for the Duke's youngest son, who had just reached 'shear-able' age.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Setting Mashup Source #2: JAGS Wonderland

A second source of inspiration for the madness of mega-dungeons comes from Wonderland and the Book of Knots. These two books are a modern-day surreal horror setting based on the works of Lewis Carroll.
When you enter Wonderland there are two kinds of Descent: controlled and uncontrolled: uncontrolled descent is like falling down the rabbit hole, and survival is a matter of luck and chance; controlled descent is like crawling through a mirror, and survival is a matter of skill.
The main idea that I'd take from this setting isn't so much the Wonderland set of existents (rabbits, mad hatters, cards, etc.), though they aren't alien to a D&D setting; it's the conceit of Descent to the 7th level of reality.

Let me explain: there are eight levels of reality (just like the 8 ranks of a chessboard). We live on level 0, making the bottom level level 7. And there are things on level 7 trying to invade our reality.

When a person descends from level 0 to level 1, two things happen: 1) a simulacrum of that person takes his place in our reality and tries to emulate whatever its primary is doing; 2) the primary person is transported to a world that is similar to ours, but weird and twisted in small ways.

If that person descends yet another level of reality, the world gets even more twisted and less similar to the known world (metaphorically illustrated in the Eric Lofgren image to the right).

As you can imagine, a normal person dealing with a world that is weird and twisted in subtle ways would do things out of the ordinary -- some might say crazy. Unfortunately, this prompts the simulacrum to act out these crazy bits in the normal, sane world, often doing wonders for that person's reputation and standing with the law.

Now, I'm not saying that every adventurer that descends a level in a dungeon is actually entering another level of reality, and his/her simulacrum is doing crazy things in the otherwise boring cave above -- that wouldn't be very heroic, now would it? No, what I'm saying is -- this may be what drives the various denizens of dungeons and the Underdark to build traps and puzzles and chess sets and magical archways and mirrors: a reaction to the slow infection/infestation/invasion of the entities from this other reality.

As for the mad wizards that create and maintain mega-dungeons, I AM saying they are simulacra of these powerful wizards. The real wizards (the good ones and the evil ones) are in some other level of reality -- perhaps locked in an endless attempt to return to our reality or valiantly trying to keep whatever is trying to invade our reality on their side of the mirror. And maybe, just maybe, those moments of lucidity that Halaster Blackcloak has are the brief moments he manages to return to level 0 before being dragged back down.

There's a lot more you can mine from these two books; I highly recommend visiting the JAGS website and taking a look. You'll look at Gary Gygax's Dungeonland modules and all those Dragon magazine chess-inspired covers in a different light.