Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Heirs of the Hood

Not entirely certain why, but as I was trying to fall asleep last night I began to think about Robin Hood. I had been thinking about Sean Connery, because one of the characters in my NaNoWriMo novel is "played" by him in my imagination. Sean Connery, of course, played King Richard Coeur de Leon as a cameo in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," but he also played Robin himself in "Robin and Marian."

The movie looks at an older Robin (in real history, it would only be about five years after Richard's return to England), a trusted captain of King Richard, reluctantly fighting on behalf of his liege in France. Robin doesn't like it and, after Richard gets killed, returns to England with Little John. He finds out that Marian is a nun, and goes to see her. Somehow the Sheriff of Nottingham becomes his enemy again; I don't really remember how it all happens. I have only vague memories of the movie, and while I recall it being fairly dull, depressing, and at times, a little disturbing (why isn't Robin wearing any pants?), the concept behind the film - whatever happened to Robin Hood? - always interested me.

I started to think about how "Prince of Thieves" ended, with Robin and Marian's wedding. Robin's noble status is presumably restored by King Richard, so he's got to have a manor and all that attends a feudal lord. Presumably - given not only the social obligations, but also their passionate love for each other and the lack of contraceptives - they'd start making some babies.

So how about a medieval campaign in which all of the PCs are Robin and Marian's children? Their parentage signifies them as "special" (in that glowy Player Character way), and they'd likely have no end of interesting patrons who would have influenced the development of their abilities and political ideals along the way. How many of the Merry Men are still around? How many of them have gone straight and are honest peasants now, and how many are still outlaws? As a landed lord, was Robin forced to issue justice and hunt them down? Or does he turn a blind eye to them out of gratitude for their past deeds?

(Wikipedia tells me that in the earliest tales, Robin is a yeoman - a commoner. The trend of later tales turning him into a nobleman suggests to my modern American mind a strain of elitist thought - "only a nobleman could or would choose to lead commoners in a just cause" - but for the moment I'm ignoring all of that and focusing on the image of Robin Hood that's currently most recognized.)

At first I was looking at it as a sort of investigation of what happens when the rebel outcast becomes The Establishment. But as I started reading up on the events following Robin's royal pardon, another story began to present itself.

- King Henry II dies; Richard I becomes King of England and goes on Crusade. He doesn't take Jerusalem, but negotiates a truce that allows access for pilgrims.

1190-1191 - John attempts to overthrow William Longchamp, the Bishop of Ely and Richard's justiciar. John promises the city of London (who likes John more) the right to govern itself as a commune in return for recognition as Richard's heir presumptive. Robin of Loxley, Earl of Huntingdon, begins his opposition of John.

1192 - Richard is taken prisoner by the Duke of Austria as he returns from Crusade. Robin urges his fellow nobles to collect his ransom, but is made into an outlaw by John's machinations. Robin becomes the leader of the Merry Men of Sherwood, stealing from the nobility to pay for Richard's ransom (going with the Good Guy model, this is what he does with his share of the loot, the rest going to aid the poor and oppressed).

1194 - Richard's ransom paid, the king returns to England in February. He restores Robin's status as Earl of Huntingdon, puts down John's rebellion and pardons him for trying to steal his authority. He is crowned again in March - in case there's any doubt about his claim to the throne - and names John his heir. Robin and Marian wed. Richard leaves England for France in May.

1199 - Richard dies in Chaluz, slain by an arrow fired by the boy Peter Basile. He pardons the boy, then dies. Mercadier, his faithful freebooter companion, has the boy flayed alive and hung. John Lackland becomes King of England, but faces revolt in the name of Arthur of Brittany, son of his dead brother Geoffrey. [5 years after Robin + Marian]

1200 - Mercadier dies, assassinated by another freebooter in John's service. Philip II recognizes John over Arthur of Brittany (who, by modern standards, has a better claim than John). [6 years after Robin + Marian]

1203 - Arthur attempts to kidnap his own grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Mirebeau, but is defeated and captured by John's forces. Arthur is imprisoned first at Falaise and then at Rouen. No one is certain what ultimately happens to him. In addition to capturing Arthur, John also captures his sister, his niece Eleanor, Fair Maid of Brittany. She will remain a prisoner until her death in 1241. Through deeds such as these, John acquires a reputation for ruthlessness. [9 years after Robin + Marian]

1205 - In hope of avoiding trouble in England and Wales while he's away fighting for his French lands, John forms an alliance by marrying off his illegitimate daughter, Joan, to the Welsh prince Llywelyn the Great. John begins a dispute with Pope Innocent III over who would become Archbishop of Canterbury. This conflict will last until 1213. [11 years after Robin + Marian]

- Franciscan order is founded.

1208 - Albigensian Crusade against Cathar heretics in southern France begins, continuing until 1229. Philip Augustus is strengthened by ruining southern nobles. [14 years after Robin + Marian]

1209 - John is excommunicated, and England is placed under Papal interdict. No religious services, including baptisms and burials, are allowed. Some of his barons rebel against John. Cambridge University is founded. [15 years after Robin + Marian]

1211 - John puts down the Welsh Uprising. [17 years after Robin + Marian]

1213 - Innocent threatens England with a Crusade led by Philip Augustus of France. Philip wants to place his son Louis, the future Louis IX on the English throne. John, suspicious of the military support his barons would offer, submits to the Pope, making England a papal fief. Innocent III quickly calls off the Crusade that he never really had any intention of carrying out. [19 years after Robin + Marian]

1214 - John turns his attention back to his overseas interests. The European wars culminate in defeat at the Battle of Bouvines, which forces the king to accept an unfavorable peace with France. The defeat finally turns the largest part of his barons against him, joining those who rebelled at his excommunication. The nobles join together and demand concessions. [20 years after Robin + Marian]

1215 - John meets the rebel nobles' leaders at Runnymede, near London on 15 June to seal the Great Charter (Magna Carta). Because he signs under duress, however, John receives approval from his overlord the Pope to break his word as soon as hostilities cease, provoking the First Barons' War and an invited French invasion by Prince Louis of France (whom the majority of the English barons have invited to replace John on the throne). John travels around the country to oppose the rebel forces, including a personal two month siege of the rebel-held Rochester Castle. [21 years after Robin + Marian]

1216 - Retreating from the French invasion, John takes a safe route around the marshy area of the Wash to avoid the rebel-held area of East Anglia. His slow baggage train (including the Crown Jewels), however, take a direct route across it and is lost to the unexpected incoming tide. This loss deals John a terrible blow, which affects his health and state of mind. Succumbing to dysentery and moving from place to place, he stays one night at Sleaford Castle before dying on 18 (or 19) October, at Newark Castle (then in Lincolnshire, now on Nottingham's border with that county). Numerous, possibly fictitious, accounts soon circulate after his death that he had been killed by poisoned ale, poisoned plums, or a "surfeit of peaches." John's nine year-old son succeeds him and becomes King Henry III of England. [22 years after Robin + Marian]

1217 - Although Louis continues to claim the English throne, the barons switch their allegiance to the new king, forcing Louis to give up his claim and sign the Treaty of Lambeth. [23 years after Robin + Marian]

So, the way I read it, the PCs take after their parents and oppose King John as he makes England's situation worse by the year. They might rally and/or champion the barons who fight against John, and could play a role in the stirring the ideals of the Magna Carta*.

John himself makes for an interesting villain. His reign is characterized as one of the most disastrous in English history. He functions as an efficient ruler, good at administrative detail, and is sought out as a judge in the Royal Courts for his fair-mindedness. However, he is suspicious, unscrupulous, lecherous (he had many illegitimate offspring and was accused of being envious of many of his barons and kinfolk, seducing their more attractive daughters and sisters), and mistrusted. His crisis-prone career is sabotaged repeatedly by the halfheartedness with which his vassals support him, and the energy with which some of them oppose him. He lost approval of the English barons by taxing them in ways that were outside those traditionally allowed by feudal overlords. He allowed for the tax called scutage, where payment is made instead of providing knights (as required by feudal law); this became particularly unpopular.

There's also the question of whatever happened to Arthur of Brittany. A new Merry Man, anybody?

Add these large-scale political events to that all of the other fun stuff that could happen in Medieval England, and I think it has the makings of a great campaign.

Heck, I might do something comics-related with this idea...

*It bears pointing out that John was pretty good with legal wrangling, and there is speculation that John made it so the document undermined the barons' power by extending rights to commoners, in order to get back at them. This being a primarily cinematic campaign, however, I don't know to what degree this would be a triumph on John's part as it is a chance for egalitarian-minded PCs to play a part in the creation of modern democracy.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Horror

I think of Halloween as the holiday when I traditionally run a horror game.

This is wishful thinking, though. I don't know if I actually ever managed to do this as any kind of tradition in the past; I know I always wanted to, and I have run a horror game once or twice on Halloween for friends in the past, but it was a long time ago, and certainly never often enough to qualify as a "tradition".

When I was younger, I avoided the horror genre. I had a lot of nightmares growing up, and had no desire to be scared further by frightening images or unpleasant thoughts. I scorned horror movies and ignored horror novels. But this all changed the first time I played a horror RPG.

I can't recall, exactly, what the first horror RPG I played was, but the first one I can remember GMing was Call of Cthulhu. Beyond the Supernatural was another early one. Something about the use of atmospheric elements like the flickering light of candles, spooky music on a stereo, and the occasional assistance of nature herself, with howling wind or chilling fog setting in, made the horror game different. I found the ability to scare others while remaining in control of the situation - I knew the adventure plot, I knew what was coming and had some idea of how to deliver it in order to cause tension and apprehension in my player(s). And yet, I was not immune from that sense of fear, either, as I was to discover after walking back to my car alone in the pitch dark after a late horror game session... Through that experience, I came to understand that the horror genre is an art, requiring a certain skill to pull off well; I suddenly found that I could watch horror movies and scrutinize them. I could judge whether they were actually creating horror, or just relying upon gore or "startles" to creep out their audiences. I bought Ken Hite's must-have book Nightmares of Mine (and, later, his edition of GURPS Horror) and began to really take a close look at horror.

Now, here I am years later, with a desire to continue playing my copy of Silent Hill 3, but being a little apprehensive about turning the lights off and immersing myself in that world again.

I haven't been able to run or play a horror adventure in many years. In fact, I think it was just before the Slussers had children - or was it when Slusser got married? - that I ran a horror game. Since horror is so dependent upon building atmosphere, having any kind of distraction is a big problem, much moreso than with any other genre of RPG I can think of.

I miss it quite a bit. There's something that horror games give you that no other game can. And it's one of the very few RPG genres where it's okay if your character dies. In fact, it's almost expected.

Here's a quick look at the horror games I own (and would love to run tonight, if I could):

Call of Cthulhu - The granddaddy of cosmic horror, this game still appeals to me. I think it's more to do with its default historical setting of 1920s New England than its nihilistic cosmology, but I can't claim to be completely immune to its charms. I have long desired to run an entire campaign, beginning with the World War I scenario No Man's Land, and following those PCs (those that survive, anyway) through their subsequent brushes with the Cthulhu Mythos across the 1920s (I've got a few). I would love to do this someday. Maybe when I'm in the nursing home.

D20 Call of Cthulhu - I don't know how well this handles running CoC adventures; the D20 system can get cumbersome at times, and if you have to stop the game to look up rules, you may as well kiss that precious creepy atmosphere goodbye. Few systems seem to lend themselves to rules lawyers (and their pet arguments) as well as Dungeons & Dragons, and D20 carries on that tradition. Having said that, this book is amazingly well-written, offering not only a decent conversion of the game to D20, but also providing some priceless advice on running horror games - indeed, running games of any genre. This one is oriented on playing in the modern day, rather than CoC's other traditional settings of the Roaring 20s or the Victorian 1890s. Speaking of modern day Cthulhu...

Delta Green - Call of Cthulhu meets The X-Files. After the Innsmouth Raid of 1927, the American government begins to pick up on the fact that there's Something Going On... In DG, you play a government employee who becomes a member of an illegal government conspiracy group, the aforementioned Delta Green. Emphasis on the illegal: this involves not only horror, but also heavy doses of paranoia. This is notable for being one of the most well-written and researched campaign settings I've ever seen, and I'd love to run some of the scenarios presented in these books.

The (New) World of Darkness - White Wolf's game of generic horror. While you can use it as the basis for a world that includes Vampires, Werewolves, Mages, and all of the other White Wolf traditional game lines, nWoD is nice in that you don't have to. With this edition, you can run any kind of modern horror game. I think it's a perfect fit for Silent Hill, myself, and I have at least two adventures I'd like to run that take place in that quiet mountain town...

GURPS Horror - Duh. The third edition is written by Ken Hite, and is much different than the previous editions of the book. This one unfortunately cuts out the description of Victorian London, but in its place gives you one of the best in-depth examinations of horror tropes and themes to be found outside Nightmares of Mine. This book is gold for its explanations of where the tropes came from, and thus, how to best capitalize on them.

Chill - This was the classic go-to for horror with the Campaign folks, and after reading the gamebooks I can see what the draw is. The secret horror-fighting society SAVE is a simple and brilliant excuse to bring "average Joe" PCs together to face the supernatural on a semi-regular basis. I, however, prefer the notion of the Society as a beleaguered, scattered, cryptic and more-or-less impoverished organization than the centralized, well-funded group that the game book seems to describe. More Rosicrucians than CIA, thanks. If you're looking for this game, make sure to look up the Mayfair edition, as the original Pacesetter edition was more humor-oriented.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel RPGs - These are more recent purchases, and they utilize the excellent Cinematic Unisystem roleplaying game...uh...system. Written in a chatty, humorous, but not annoying (unless you don't like Joss Whedon-style dialog) style, these games not only capture the feel of the television shows perfectly, they also provide a rules framework for a wide variety of games. One could just as easily run a Hellboy campaign, a superhero game, or a straight-up modern action game with these rules. Check out what people are doing with it on Eden Studios' forums... I have eight seasons (no joke) of an Angel RPG campaign completely outlined. It's called Spooks (no, not this one); it begins in Buffy/Angelverse Los Angeles circa 1938 and follows the formation and early years of The Initiative, the shadowy organization that would show up as a semi-antagonist in "Buffy" Season Four. I'd love to run this, but I question whether I've got the chops to run such a long campaign set in the World War II era. I can handle fantasy games and Shadowrun for that long, perhaps, but would I be able to stay in the mood for film noir and pulp-horror adventure with a sense of humor but unexpected depth, darkness, and character development for such an extended period? Well, it's worth a try... C'mon, it's got Nazis! Who doesn't like beating up Nazis?

Hellboy - While GURPS Lite 3rd Edition is an okay fit for this one, I think that Angel's Cinematic Unisystem would do a better job. Nonetheless, this is the sourcebook on Hellboy, chock full of awesome Mignola illustrations. If you haven't read the comic... Well, here. Read it. The gist of this is that you work for a government agency that deals with the paranormal (and often part of someone's mythology, like Baba Yaga). Hellboy is one of their primary agents. He usually deals with said paranormal by beating it senseless while issuing longsuffering one-liners. Notable in that your agent could be a normal person, but it's also quite likely that your agent is something supernatural. Characters in Hellboy have included a fishman, a pyrokinetic, a homonculus, and an ectoplasmic spirit. One of Hellboy's primary villains is Rasputin. THE Rasputin. And, you know, Nazis. Dang, this would make for a fun campaign.

Dark*Matter - Going deeper into X-Files territory than the television show ever did, this is one of the best modern conspiracy-horror books I've ever seen. It presents data on a wide range of popular and obscure conspiracies, monsters, and paranormal topics that we hear about in the real world, and presents multiple options on how to run them in a campaign. It also presents a loose cosmological explanation for what's going on, and offers an organization for PCs to work for, the Hoffmann Institute. It's a little more potent an organization than I would normally like for such a game, but it can still work; in fact, watching "Fringe" gives me a pretty solid idea of how it could be an intriguing, mysterious, and paranoia-inducing employer for characters (imagine being an employee of Massive Dynamic...). All this in a nicely-illustrated hardbound book!

Ghostories - A generic engine for running horror adventures. I love simple rules systems. I love cheap, easily-affordable games. PIG's Ghostories gives me both of those things. When you're running a horror game, you really want to have a game system that doesn't interfere with the narrative or slow things down as people start looking up rules - that's an atmosphere-killer, and building atmosphere is absolutely crucial to running a horror game. It's also compatible with their other genre Diversion i games, meaning I can use it in conjunction with their western game Coyote Trail as my system conversion for Deadlands. Speaking of...

Deadlands: The Weird West - This Old West Horror game has a lot of potential, and I own most of the books published for this game, which is quite a few. Deadlands is all over the map - it incorporates not only horror, but also pulp action and steampunk; it describes itself as "Spaghetti Western with Meat". The result is a game that can be played in a variety of styles...but personally, I'd like to run it dark and atmospheric.

Over the Edge - Not exclusively a horror game, but certainly heavy on those elements. This is a rules-light, surrealism-heavy game reminiscent of "Twin Peaks", "Lost", Cat's Cradle, and Burroughs novels. It comes with a thoroughly detailed modern-day setting, the Mediterranean island of al-Amarja, and a catalog of all the weird stuff going on there. I have a campaign-starter in mind already - that of CIA agents investigating possible al-Qaeda cell activity - but this manages to be such a wide-open game that any type of character and any type of background could conceivably work. All you need is a reason to come to the obscure island. All the rest is done for you, really. This is an excellent example of the "sandbox" setting presented for a modern day game.

Ghostbusters - Old and out of print but still pretty brilliant, from a game rules standpoint (Fear not, though - click on that link and be reconnected with that spirit from the past). West End Games made this, arguably one of the best entry-level RPGs on the market. While the adventures I've seen for it are pretty goofy (a little more than I would like for what is admittedly a comedy game), this game is wonderful in that it parodies the structure and feel of Call of Cthulhu scenarios so well. Made by many of the same people who brought you Paranoia... As fun as the original system is, were I to run it today, I'd use the even easier-to-learn-and-run Risus system by S. John Ross...who admits that the Ghostbusters RPG was a major influence. Oh, and that's free, too.

Well, that's all I can think of at the moment, though I've got the nagging suspicion that I've forgotten something. Anyway, I look forward to the day when I can run a spooky game once more.

Happy Halloween!

EDIT: I did remember something. I don't actually own the Palladium game, and I wouldn't use the system, but I liked the idea, with some modification: Nightbane. The premise is that while you think you're a normal person, you are in actuality a monstrous, extra-dimensional being who just happens to be walking around in a human body most of the time. Or are you just its vessel? Are you going crazy, or is this what you really are?

I also just remembered Hunter: The Reckoning. You become endowed by the mysterious Messengers with mystic powers with which to fight the supernatural. I have rather a lot of adventure ideas for this one, too.

Okay, enough for now - I'm starving!

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Ancient Rome is one of my perennial favorites in terms of settings. I'm not entirely certain why I find it so fascinating, except perhaps because we seem to know so much about it. There are so many similarities between we postmodern Americans and the ancient Romans, and yet at the same time, there are differences that really make them seem quite alien at times.

Take, for example, the Roman virtues, which are nicely illustrated in the RPG FVLMINATA: Armed With Lightning. As an example of Duty and Respect, the book proposes a situation based on historical precedent: You find yourself in a civil war. Both sides suffer heavy losses. Your sister's fiancee fought for the other side and was slain. Your sister does not show up for your victory celebration, choosing instead to attend the funeral of her betrothed. As a good Roman, what do you do? Run her through with your gladius for being unpatriotic. One must remember that Christian virtues such as Love, Hope, and Forgiveness were unusual, and often ran counter to typical Roman thinking.

Anyway, I've accumulated a number of books on ancient Rome and find myself coming back to it constantly. I have a couple of maps of Rome (and one of Ostia, Rome's primary port), lots of illustrations, and at least three RPGs devoted to the setting. For quite some time, I've been wanting to convert the Green Ronin Freeport adventure trilogy to a Roman setting. I've also worked to some degree on a comic project in which the protagonist is a vigile, a night watchman. I often describe the project as "Law and Order" set in Ancient Rome. My research on that led me to do some general research on the topic of crime, the forms it takes, the kinds of organizations that profit from it, and so on.

Then an idea was sparked after I participated in a discussion thread on RPGnet. While talking about the notion of "sandbox settings", in which there is no metaplot to speak of, but the setting is created to enable Player Characters as much freedom over their activities as possible. There is sufficient detail in these settings (or the means are present to create sufficient detail off the cuff, on demand) that the Players can choose what they want their characters to do, where they want them to go, and basically follow their own personal goals without the GM trying to railroad them to following a preconceived plot. A good example of this is the "Grand Theft Auto" series of video games. There is an overarching plot, but players are not bound to follow it. Instead, you can spend as much time as you want driving through the city, committing various crimes (because, let's face it, if a game allows you to crash into things, drive like a maniac, and beat people senseless, most of us will do it at least once) as you like. MMORPGs sometimes have an element of this, too. But no video game (thus far, anyway) can really capture the freedom a Player can enjoy in a tabletop RPG designed with this purpose.

Cutting to the chase, someone starting talking about "Grand Theft Auto" in various settings, and someone mentioned Ancient Rome (referring to the idea with the groan-inducing term 'Tiberpunk'). That started my gears turning. FVLMINATA does a nice job of breaking down Rome into its various neighborhoods, giving a fair description of the feel and typical content of each neighborhood in the city. This made it easier to figure out what kinds of crimes might occur where, and where ethnic and economic tensions might make things more interesting.

I thought of the various ethnic groups in Rome which would likely band together for protection, possibly forming gangs to that end. There might be something akin to terrorists, fighting to bring down the Roman government and re-establish their freedom (like the Egyptians or the Celts, perhaps). There would certainly be a black market of some sort, and cartels dealing in proscribed goods. Senators would likely have agents working on the streets toward various ends (especially since Senators were forbidden by law to make profits from business, which I'm certain they would try to skirt around), adding potential extra danger to interfering with any given criminal activity - you never know if you're disrupting a powerful Senator's income! There are the sports teams and their fans, which were such a potent political force in later Byzantium that they caused such riots as to threaten the Emperor's rule. You've also got the regular run of muggers and other petty crooks - Nero himself was supposed to have snuck out to roam the city at night, mugging people... And, of course, there would likely be vigilante groups dealing with all of the above chaos, trying to restore order to the viae in their own way.

Thus, the basis for CAPVT MVNDI. Caput Mundi was a nickname for the city of Rome, meaning "the head of the entire world." This game would be a sandbox setting, in which the PCs are free to roam and explore as they will. Player Characters could work for law enforcement, being police/detectives or lawyers, rooting out and fighting crime while dealing with a sometimes corrupt government; or they could be up-and-coming criminals trying to make a place for themselves in a wicked old city.

On a tangentially related note, I watched the pilot episode of the short-lived television show "Roar" on YouTube yesterday. Notable now, perhaps, for starring Heath Ledger as the show's protagonist, it was set in a Celtic Britain that is held (or being invaded by, as the episode's conclusion suggests) the Romans. I don't know exactly when it's supposed to take place, but given that Longinus shows up and mentions that he's 400 years old, I'm guessing it must be sometime around 365 AD (assuming he was about 35 when Jesus was crucified). This would mean that the Roman hold on Britain would only last about another 45 years before the Romans there declare their independence and are told by the Emperor to "look to their own safety." I just looked up some data on Rome at that time and it seems to jive with one or two other things I noticed in the show (for example, one of the Roman noble characters present seems to insist on a monotheistic faith; 365 would be post-Constantine). The show has a little bit of cheese - things that probably looked good on paper but came across as a little hokey in live action - and the Hero's Journey structure was pretty apparent to me, but it wasn't bad. The pilot episode is pretty self-contained, like a miniature movie, so while I think there could have been more open ends to entice the viewer to continue watching the series, I am kind of interested in seeing where next they went with it.

Watching the episode made me think, not for the first time, that a game in which players play Celts fighting Roman domination of their lands could make for an interesting campaign.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

D&D: Monster Hunters

When one thinks of Dungeons & Dragons, one of the primary concepts that comes to mind is that of slaying monsters and taking their treasure. The entire experience/level progression system has traditionally been based on this idea (though later editions of the game have expanded to include more non-violent means of progression, which I appreciate). One of the things that breaks up the monotony of this concept is the wide variety of monsters that one's character may face.

So why not base an entire campaign around this idea? You know it's going to happen anyway, so why not acknowledge it from the beginning?

The concept of the Monster Hunters campaign is simple: the PCs are a band of monster hunters. See? Simple. Now, while the idea of traveling around being more or less philanthropic, aiding villages with their monster problems, is certainly a worthwhile concept for a campaign, I'm thinking of something a little more focused.

I have a number of supplements and magazine articles - many of which date back to first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - that examine D&D's concept of material components. Material components (known in some games as reagents) are physical items that are necessary for the casting of a spell, and often are consumed by magic in the casting. Many of these components are rather exotic - the eyelash of a cyclops, the blood of a wyvern, that sort of thing. So wizards - especially high-level ones, with all of their powerful spells - have a fairly constant need for the acquisition of these items. But frankly, when you become such a high-level wizard that you're in need of such items, you've got far more important things to do than grub around for components. World-saving things, plane-hopping things. That's where the PCs come in.

The PCs work for a powerful wizard or alchemist. In Middle Earth, this might be someone like Radagast or Saruman; in the Forgotten Realms, it could be Elminster or Blackstaff. Their job is simple: the wizard tells them that he needs an item. He may or may not provide the PCs with information about where they can find it, descriptions of the beast or item in question, etc., depending upon the tastes of the DM and the needs of the adventure. The PCs may just be simple muscle, but frankly, I'd find it more interesting if part of the reason they were hired over garden-variety mercenaries was because of their supposed expertise in the area of monster lore.

Part of the adventures would likely involve doing research. This could mean anything from journeying to a large metropolis to find a scholar who catalogues beasts, to venturing into the trackless wastelands to find a hermit-sage who knows more of these creatures than anyone alive (or may be the only one who knows anything certain about them). It may mean going to settlements where the beast in question was spotted and asking around for witnesses to its appearance and behavior, or just plain trying to find the elusive creature and observing for themselves.

What gives this campaign variety, of course, is the monsters themselves. It might be helpful to bear in mind a model something like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", which operated mostly on a "Monster of the Week" structure for its episodes. Of course, in that case the monsters were the ones who came to town, whereas I'm imagining something where the PCs range out from a central location (the wizard's tower) to various locales in the countryside. In any case, the wide variety of exotic beasts in the many Monster Manuals and their ilk should provide ample fodder for adventures. The DM chooses a monster to focus on for this adventure, taking into account what makes it unique. Then the DM figures out what it is that the wizard needs from this particular monster. Sometimes it's going to be something really esoteric (such as the creature's dreams, or its laughter, or something), but most of the time it'll probably be a bit of its anatomy. Then it's up to the PCs to learn as much as they can about the monster - through research, interviews with witnesses, and/or trial and error - and slay it. Or capture it. Or do whatever is necessary to get that bit from the monster and survive the encounter.

Now, while it stands to reason that the PCs are working for a powerful wizard and thus they can rely upon his powers to save their bacon if things get too bad - after all, they're working in his interest - I wouldn't use this safety net. As I said before, this wizard has big, important things to do that take up his attentions. To him, the PCs are NPC Hirelings, not allies. If they get slain, that sucks for Elminster only because it means he has to take the time out of his busy day of drinking with Mordenkainen and seducing goddesses to ask Lhaeo to hire more monster hunters. Don't expect him to show up at the funeral, is what I'm saying. The PCs are largely on their own. Yet, for those DMs who worry about such things, it's at least conceivable that the wizard can pop in to save them if a deus ex machina is all that stands between the continuation of this campaign and a Total Party Kill.

To keep this campaign from getting stale, the DM can introduce subplots into the adventures. Perhaps a local villager feels protective of the monster. Maybe the monster is a shapeshifter and has replaced someone influential in the region. What if the monster has the ability to possess people, or to make them do its bidding? Perhaps a cult has arisen around the monster, providing it with tribute and sacrifices, informing it of local activities, making offerings in exchange for its protection? Maybe there's a local feud between families that makes any business in the village near the monster's lair difficult? You can have subplots that are completely unconnected to the monster hunt, but which nonetheless might draw the PCs into them...

Given how many monster compendiums are floating around out there, this seems like a campaign that you could run for years and years.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

One of Us, One of Them

One of the latest ideas I've had for a roleplaying campaign was inspired by the television show "Heroes." If you've been living under a rock (or are a Slusser), "Heroes" is essentially Marvel's X-Men in plainclothes (no, not that one). In it, there is a mysterious organization called simply "The Company", which appears to have the purpose of studying, tagging, and - when necessary - eliminating super-powered individuals. While they appeared in an antagonistic capacity in the show's first season, subsequent seasons have shown things to be a little more complicated than that.

The Company's standard operating procedure is summed up with a simple phrase: "One of us, one of them." This means that when the Company's agents are sent out to perform a mission, a "normal" agent is partnered with a super-powered individual. Recent episodes of the show have begun to illustrate why this may be a good philosophy.

Aside from the fact that a non-powered Agent can benefit from having an edge against his (often empowered) opponents in the form of a Super, recent episodes have shown that super-powers tend to place certain psychological stresses on a person. Remember that all of the empowered (with the possible exception of Matt Parkman, an L.A. cop) are "normal people", not secret agents or soldiers or people who have specialized training. When normal folks develop powers, it can mess up their relationships. Accidents happen. People get hurt or killed. Sometimes, people start to think that they're superior to other human beings (the old Magneto/Brotherhood of Mutants/Teragen/etc. philosophy). Sometimes (like Gabriel/Sylar and Niki/Jessica), the power itself twists their minds, turning them into killers. Thus, the un-powered human Agent keeps them grounded and in touch with their humanity...and, if necessary, puts them down.

This simple concept (combined with the events of the last few episodes) made me think that this was an excellent basis for a Supers campaign. I'd probably choose to set the game in a different world than that of "Heroes", but I'd make it very similar. The world of "Project Phoenix", as presented in GURPS Psionics (for 3rd Edition), is a good choice (and, as it happens, I was just tinkering with that setting in my mind the other day). One player would play the Agent, and the other would play the Super. Together, they would have adventures that would be like a mix of "The X-Files" and "X-Men", hunting down dangerous mutants - er, supers. As they did so, there might be tension between them - will the Super get out of control? Can the Agent (and the Company they work for) be trusted? What happens if one of them decides to jump ship, or thinks that the work they're doing crosses too many moral lines?

But what system to use?

GURPS was the obvious answer, with its point-allocation character creation process (the Super puts character points into his power, while the Agent puts his points into attributes, skills, contacts, legal authority, etc.). Still, I'm still adjusting (very slowly) to 4th Edition, and I was curious as to what else would work. I looked at my go-to for superhero roleplaying, the old FASERIP system Marvel Super Heroes, but it's pretty skimpy on the skills side of things. I think it could still work, but I wanted a second opinion.

So I posted the question on RPGnet. One of the Old Jokes on RPGnet is that every week, a different person will ask the question, "What system should I use for a superhero game?" So I had to preface my question a little more specifically. To my delight, I immediately received a slew of thoughtful responses. Here are the results of my informal poll:

Wild Talents / NEMESIS 7
Primetime Adventures 6
Mutants & Masterminds (ideally with the Paragons supplement) 4
Cinematic Unisystem / Angel 3
GURPS 4e 3
Truth & Justice / PDQ 2
World of Darkness 1
Hero System 4e or 5e 1
Dogs in the Vineyard 1
Mutant City Blues 1
Over the Edge / WaRP 1

Discussion of how trust between the Agent and the Super were also discussed, and a few games were referred to as being notable for their trust mechanic: Panty Explosion (which sounds far smuttier a game than it actually is), Wraith, Cold City (which sounds like an awesome game anyway), and The Mountain Witch. Another person suggested that if you simply replace Fanmail in Primetime Adventures with "Trust", and rule that it couldn't be spent on the player character's own conflict, it would work well.

In any case, I own about a third of the games suggested, including Primetime Adventures. So, if I ever manage to get my group to sit down and play it, I guess that's the show I'll pitch to them. But PTA really requires the other players to not only agree to it, but be pretty interested and mentally invested in it. So maybe I'll catch them after watching a good superhero movie...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Freakin' Awesome

Watch this.

I won't be able to afford it for years, and I won't get into it until after all the cool kids have gotten tired of it, but I wouldn't mind playing.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Here's another concept for a fantasy setting. Illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi is the one to blame for this, with his consideration of such a setting and his Mouse Thief character sheet, which was so cool-looking that it made me start thinking about it. Go read that blog post before going on to this, because he states the concept better than I would.

The idea is a fantasy world inhabited by intelligent animals. Yeah, it's basically Ironclaw - furry fantasy - though I imagine it with the animals having more anatomically-correct physiques (digitigrade legs and so on) than just being humans with animal heads. I still picture them being on the same relative scale, though - elephants will be larger than mice, but on the order of Halflings v. Half-Orcs. D20 Modern has stat modifiers for "Moreaus", which are basically animals genetically modified to be human-like, so I've already got a simple go-to source for D&D game stats.

Nations are mostly divided up by species, though there are some more progressive lands (trade capitals, I imagine) where they mingle more freely. Some might include a large mix of species, somewhat like how Britain contained a mixture of peoples after being invaded by so many of them (Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, etc.), while others are more homogeneous and perhaps xenophobic. With the exception of those isolationist or hostile nations who think they should be Top Dog, I wouldn't want to be too harsh on this segregation, as my experience with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG series informed me that players like having the opportunity to choose from a wide range of species.

I also want some big racial enemies, to provide a Doom that looms on the distant horizon. My first thought - influenced by one of my current real-life conflicts - was that of Cockroach Barbarians. An evil, ravenous, implacable horde of scavengers who sweep across the countryside with lightning speed, destroying all in their path, producing little of any worth. If you see one, there's probably ten you don't see. They multiply incredibly quickly, and once they get into a region, they're nearly impossible to displace. I guess Locusts would work just as well, but I think Cockroaches are more evocative of "icky" feelings and thus make more viscerally interesting foes (I guess they could always ride giant locusts...yeah, that's the ticket!). The fact that they're a different Class (Insecta) from the other races makes them more alien to those who must defend against them. In other words, they're Orcs.

Another enemy came to mind as I considered these guys, inspired by my relatively recent sale purchase of Vigil Watch: Warrens of the Ratmen from the Scarred Lands D&D setting. I've liked Rat-men ever since Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay introduced the Skaven; the Ratmen (or Slitheren) of the Scarred Lands are Skaven with the serial numbers filed off. So this world definitely needs to have a Vast Underground (literally!) Conspiracy of Domination-Driven Chaos Rats to threaten our bright-eyed, fluffy protagonists.

As I began to consider this world, thoughts of their religions, genesis, and overall cosmology began to suggest themselves. Going with the basic conceit of the animal RPG eco, the peoples of Fauna believe that they were once of a lesser form (dumb animals, that is) until they were endowed with intelligence and more capable bodies by a divine being. They're uplifted, but with a mystic rather than sci-fi basis. Given their humble origins, I began to consider the possibility that perhaps this is a world that once was inhabited by humans, but they experienced something akin to a rapture/judgment End Times deal, and are thought by the bestial natives of this world to have either Ascended to a higher state of being, or were Damned to a lesser state. In either case, they're long gone, leaving behind only ancient taboo-shrouded ruins to be explored by the bold and the irreverent. This, of course, suggests a body of eschatology in their religion warning that they're in for the same fate someday, an ultimate judgment of their character by the God(s).

While the pre-existence of humans in this world allows for the possibility of human-like or human-based creatures (like Centaurs, Lammasu, Lamia, etc.) to exist, I think it gives the world more of a unique flavor if one strikes all creatures from the Monster Manuals that have these distinctly human parts. I don't mean to get rid of anything anthropomorphic (though, now that I think of it, that's not a bad idea), but I just don't want any creatures running around with a human face.

The concept of animals-as-people always introduces an uncomfortable question: what do they eat? What fills the role of animals in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals? I didn't want to have the strange co-existence of Goofy and Pluto. Fortunately, other people have tackled this problem. I took Stan Sakai's idea from Usagi Yojimbo and filled some of this niche with lizard-type creatures. In fact, I thought, why not fill the niche with dinosaurs? They could range in all sizes, most of them miniature, but some of them large enough to serve as beasts of burden, war mounts, and so on. As for their diets, it might retain a sort of cultural/racial flavor for species to remain herbivorous, carnivorous, or omnivorous. Rabbits still eat only vegetables, while Cats eat meat.

This setting is by no means unique, of course; as this bounced around in my brain I began to mentally list other settings that influenced the idea: eco, the surprisingly engaging (to me, anyway) RPG by Morrigan Press where you play normal animals who have been endowed with heightened intelligence a la "The Secret of Nimh"; Skyrealms of Jorune, which includes the genetically uplifted Children of Iscin; Mutants in Avalon for the After the Bomb setting supplement for the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Weirdness RPG, the Justifiers RPG and the comic and RPG Albedo Anthropomorphics. Also influencing this were, obviously, Brian Jacques's Redwall series of novels and David Petersen's Mouse Guard graphic novels, although the latter casts the protagonists as being "actual scale", the size and anatomical build of real mice rather than human-sized anthropomorphizations. Also influential was the "Dimension X" story arc of Ninja High School (which featured Napoleonic Rats fighting Cockroach Barbarians).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Elminster's Law, or, The Law of DMPCs

Jeff Rients may have just given a name to a well-known roleplaying phenomenon. I don't know if he actually invented it or heard it from someone else, but I only care that I can now refer to it by name:

Elminster's Law:

The PCs' desire to kill an NPC is directly proportional to the DM's love of the character.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Forge of Fury

This is the teaser I wrote for my new game on Rondak's. Hopefully it should be approved and posted in a day or two:

Here's some mood music to set the scene (right-click to open in a new window; make sure to check your volume before you click! EDIT: For some reason, the link includes this website address in front of the actual address, and I can't get it to quit doing that. So you'll just have to edit the address in your own browser, I'm afraid).

Durgeddin the Black, desirous of arms,
Smith of great skill, renown'd among Dwarves,
All spattered and bloody, with hands steep'd in red,
His apron for smithing smear'd with the blood
Of goodwife and mate of hundreds of years
Heldardris Nor Erzak, daughter of Heldal,
Granddaughter of Firumvor Keeper of Steel.
Down at his feet lay bones of his children
Their broken young bodies bone-pale by forge-light -
His beloved kindred, slain by the Blackbloods;
They took from him treasures too dear to be priced.
Now takes he hammer from that ancient anvil
And holds it aloft, the fight to be joined;
He calls on his people to rise up to battle,
Bloodthirsty cries and steel upon steel;
Sparks from the craft of TharmekhĂ»l’s anvil.
The Dwarves of Durgeddin claim many an Orc
Ere dawn's Sun arising upon that foul day,
But only a handful of clans are left breathing
The winds of the mountain - so few, so few.
He led them, the Hero-Smith, his orphanéd sons
And daughters, descendants of ruin and pain,
To find a new home down deep in the good earth,
A hearth that would warm them and guard them with stone.
Yet grief would not let him find slumber in darkness
And Durgeddin raised up his fists in his rage
And swore on the names of his ancestors long-past
An oath of dire vengeance, of hatred, of wrath.
The blood of his family still staining his beard,
Old Durgeddin promised to raise up a foundry,
A pit where the forge-fires were fueled by his rage,
Where armor was shaped by the beats of his anguish,
Where weapons were cooled in his own boiling blood;
This forge of fury, by powers unholy,
Would he, by his own hands, raise up from the earth,
And hammer out weapons made black by his dark hate
With which to annihilate the psychotic hordes,
The hellspawn that stole all worth from his life!

So is told the saga, as the Dwarves themselves chant it.

Yet who could have known that, after so many centuries, this Forge of Fury would be found?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Now I'm A Tiny Adventurer

I'm going to run a dungeon crawl for Mr. Slusser on Rondak's. We've been playing Tiny Adventures on Facebook a bit lately, and while it doesn't whet my appetite for 4e, it does make me want to play the editions of D&D that I do own. So we discussed it; he wants to play a Paladin, and I want to use my kit-bashed D&D gameworld, Anhur.

As much as I enjoy putting together an adventure on Rondak's, one of the big reasons I secretly look forward to beginning a game there is having an excuse to create a title placard for the game. I mentioned this to Slusser, and he commented that it must be an artist thing. He may be right, but for whatever reason, I love looking for interesting and evocative images on Google Image Search, throwing them into Photoshop to tweak, and then matching them up with just the right font. I couldn't tell you why; I wouldn't describe myself as a graphic designer, per se.

Anyway, here's what I came up with:

This time, I thought a minimalist approach would work.

Friday, June 20, 2008

If RPGs Were Cookbooks

This link comes from Jeff's Gameblog: Killjoy Cooking With the Dungeons & Dragons Crowd.

If you don't know much about the roleplaying game community (at least, as it manifests on the internet), this is a pretty accurate translation of what we're all too often like into "normal person" language.

If you have any familiarity with the roleplaying game community, you will recognize your own.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Maybe I'll Just Get Into It When It's Old and Cheap?

I'm pretty sure I've already said so on this blog, but I'm giving 4th Edition D&D a pass. I'm skipping this edition, and perhaps may be ending my investment in any "current" edition of D&D with 3.5. I've got enough invested in 3rd Edition / 3.5 that I'll probably never need another version of D&D; besides, I've got enough variations on that system - including the version I'm currently using for our Xaria campaign, the super-stripped-down Microlite20 - and previous editions of D&D that I am satisfied. I could easily and happily game with what rules systems I have for the rest of my life.

Having said that, I've got the latest Alpha copy of the Pathfinder RPG from Paizo, which promises to be a sort of "D&D 3.75". I could be persuaded to purchase that after they've finished it, since the quality of their publications is quite high, both visually and content-wise.

Anyway, I just got an email today from one of the online games shops I frequent, announcing that the long-awaited 4th Edition D&D books are now available. It could be that I'm just an old fuddy-duddy with long out-of-date perceptions of how much games cost, or that I'm a cheapskate with very little disposable income any more, or that gaming is simply not as much of a priority in my life any more (, it's not that), but I'm a little appalled at how much money Wizards of the Coast expects their customers to spend to get one single RPG.

In order to play 4th Edition D&D, you'll have to pay:

$34.95 for the Player's Handbook
$34.95 for the Dungeon Master's Guide
$34.95 for the Monster Manual

= roughly $105.00, not including tax.

...Oh, and if you want the introductory adventure, that'll run you another $29.95. That's thirty dollars for a freakin' module!

Maybe I've completely forgotten what it was like in the old days of gaming - perhaps the old 1st Editions of these books were comparable in price relative to 1970s/80s prices - but I cannot conceive of spending $100 for a single RPG. When there are SO MANY game systems available on the market for a heck of a lot less (if not free), paying this much just seems like insanity to me. On the other hand, Monte Cook's 672-page hardcover setting book Ptolus: City By The Spire sells for $120 - if you can find it - and it remains a consistent best-seller. So that theory about being an out-of-touch old grognard may be true.

But I can live with that.

In other news, I'm becoming a World of Warcraft addict, and it's all Slusser's fault. I got a $30 gift card for Target as a graduation gift, and Slusser - who recently bought the game - sent me a ten-day trial version of WoW to play. After getting duly hooked, I used my card to get the Battle Chest version of the game, which includes the first expansion set, The Burning Crusade. My first impressions are as follows:

If you're interested in roleplaying a character, there are far better ways to do it. WoW isn't necessarily opposed to roleplaying - they have servers that are designated as specifically for roleplayers - but it suffers from the same problems that all MMORPGs suffer from, in my opinion: the players.

There is nothing to stop you from roleplaying a character and getting into it; in fact, there are several emote commands which allow you to express yourself pretty fully. The NPCs speak in-character, even though the conversations are completely scripted (unlike in Neverwinter Nights, where you usually have your choice of responses that may affect the outcome differently from one another). You could have a real roleplaying experience, even if it's the experience of playing under a very evocative but heavily railroading GM.

But no one does. Almost no one on WoW roleplays their character, even on the RP servers. Most of the time, they'll speak out-of-character, in games/rulespeak. They're too busy running around killing things and completing quests given to them by automated NPCs to bother with any sort of character depth. In fact, last night there was even a guy who was complaining about our roleplaying that was going on around him: "I have got to get off of an RP server!" His decision to be there in the first place makes me scratch my head, especially since he was a 70th level character, so it's not like he hadn't been there for a while...

While the setting itself is beautiful and immersive, the players in it will yank you right out of that immersion and make you feel like you're in some sort of elaborate amusement park populated by snotty teenagers. It seems to be the exception rather than the rule when you encounter a player character who has a name that would actually fit in a fantasy setting. Most everyone is Frankthatank, or ihategnomes, or Ninjhahz... It says something when you meet a Dwarf character named "Dawarff" and think to yourself, "Okay, that could work..." But I think Blizzard shares a little blame for this: the game manual specifically says not to give your character inappropriate or joke names, but then, on the very next page, there's a screen shot which includes characters named "RobM" and "IcyShiva". And though they threaten to change characters' names that are like this, I don't really believe them. Many of these guys are 70th Level, which is like the highest level or close to it, so either they've been playing straight for the past week, or Blizzard prefers cash over atmosphere - which is perfectly fine. It seems to be working out amicably for them.

But for every snotty flamewar that goes on in the general and trade chat channels (the open chat dialogue that runs at the bottom of your screen no matter where you are, but are especially noisy in the big cities), foaming at the mouth with ridiculous one-upsmanship or political talk (highly verboten according to the Terms of Service and manual, but again, nothing I've witnessed any sort of moderation reacting to), I've run into players who are quite generous, casting beneficial spells on your character, offering to help out, etc. I was playing one of my characters when someone rode up to me and gave me a gold piece - which, in WoW, is quite a lot of money for a character not even past 20th level - and said, "Twink to your heart's content" ('twinking' being a term for equipping your character beyond their normal means using stuff from higher-level characters). And we've even run into one or two people who were actually roleplaying their character. So while I was anticipating a lot of nastiness, for the most part I've been pleasantly surprised.

Someone referred to WoW as "a treadmill that makes you fatter." I get that. I agree. But at this point, the scenery is new to me, and the progression in power and ability is quite entertaining. At first I was concerned about buying a game that I'll have to keep paying for in order to play. However, I have a group of like-minded friends that I play with, and this also gives me an opportunity to connect with my brother-in-law and nephew, who are both really into WoW. So it's worth it. It'll never replace my tabletop RPG sessions, but I don't think it's really meant to, either. There are things that MMORPGs simply can't do.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Do Gamers Make Better Movies?

Steve Jackson seems to think so, and he points toward Jon Favreau, the director of "Iron Man", as his proof.

I haven't seen it yet, but I really want to, and everyone I know who has seen it said it was good. Every commercial and trailer I saw for it made me want to see it even more. Soon, I'll get my chance.

In the meantime, "Prince Caspian" opens on Friday, and I will be seeing that.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Gaming Again!

The last few weeks have been great for gaming. I've gotten to play in two games in the last two weeks.

Last weekend, my wife and I went up to the mountains to visit the Slusser household with the intention of doing some gaming. Our friend Miner - veteran LARP GM - wanted to start up one of his oldest campaigns, called "Flight 42", and suggested the same weekend to play. We told him that we were already committed to gaming with the Slussers (planning on continuing the Earthdawn campaign I'm currently GMing), but we were still interested in playing his game.

A bit of advice: If you've never gamed with Miner, and he invites you to play in a game he's GMing, you say 'yes!'

Fortunately for us, Miner convinced the Slussers to host his game, so we played that instead. We were joined by Gaughen and Antos, which was great because we haven't gamed with them in ages, and we hadn't yet seen Antos since returning to California. So a grand time was had by all.

And as I alluded to in my above suggestion, Dave is one of the best GMs I've ever played with. He had music, he had pictures and illustrations, he had handouts, he knew his system inside and out (a system of his own creation, if I'm not mistaken), and I think he used just the right amount of description. He didn't get too hung up on details, as I tend to do. His pacing was really ideal - I never felt rushed or as though I didn't have enough time to express my character's personality, and yet at the same time, we managed to get through something like four mini-scenarios before the evening was complete. And he did all of this with Slusser tykes around his ankles. I suspect that GMing LARPS for over 10 years probably gives one some measure of skill at improvisation and dealing with distractions.

The game itself was really fun. The campaign concept is specifically designed so that anyone can join and play in any session. If you miss a session, no problem. It's a really neat idea. I don't want to give anything away for those of you who read this blog and may have the opportunity to play in "Flight 42", because it's really better if you go in not knowing anything about it. What I can tell you is that we all played modern day, "average Joe" type characters who were, for reasons of our own individual devising, were taking a commercial flight from LAX to the Bahamas (or was it Barbados? I don't recall at the moment, and Miner has my character sheet). I played a comics artist who had been working in the industry since the Silver Age (the 1960s), and who had created a character called 'Fantoma' - bascially a female Doc Strange - that had recently been made into a blockbuster movie. He won a lawsuit with DC Comics over rights, and won a considerable settlement, which he was using in part to take the first vacation he ever had. Marilyn played a college student with a major in physics. It was her first time playing a game set in modern day, and she said that she really enjoyed it - it was the first character she'd ever played that she could really get into roleplaying, since she understood her mindset.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun.

The other game I got to play in was Ernie's Star Wars game. We continued our story, as our Jedi used an old star chart to locate the Esper system. At least, we thought it was a system. When we arrived, we found only a black hole surrounded by a considerable amount of debris. In fact, coming out of hyperspace, our Togarian pilot, Tolas (a catlike alien played by Budzik) had to take evasive maneuvers to avoid slamming into some of this debris. The rest of us had to hold onto something, and quick; unfortunately, the eldest member of our party, Jedi Master Zandis Mirr (played by Rob, who couldn't make it to the game) was taken by surprise and flew across the cabin, slamming headfirst into a bulkhead. The Cerean Jedi, Foster (played by Aaron), managed to heal his wounds with the Force, but Master Mirr was still unconscious.

So that's one way of dealing with PCs whose players can't make it to the game.

Once we got our bearings, we spotted a small Naboo fighter drifting amongst the debris. Upon investigating, we discovered that its pilot was still alive inside, semi-conscious but with life support systems almost depleted. We brought him aboard and bolted his ship to ours, and began the inevitable introduction/interrogation procedure that usually follows such encounters on the trail of possible Sith. He looked like a bit of a scoundrel - my character, Jedi Knight Nura Nuada, recognized that he had been a slave gladiator at some point, and carried a lightsaber on him - and called himself Stormbringer, an obvious stage name. Turns out he was looking for a hooded man with a cybernetic claw for a hand, which Foster had experienced visions of.

Stormbringer was a PC; Kevin was able to join us, and this was how Ernie introduced him into the game.

Oh, by the way - I just learned about an interesting way of making character sheets, so that the GM and other players can see what your character looks like while you simultaneously are able to read your stats. I've seen it called a "tent"-style character sheet. It requires that you fold a page in half and set it up on the playing surface like a tent; one side has your character's picture and name, and the side facing you has stats and so on. It's really handy for other players to remember what your character looks like, especially if you're playing an alien, or in my case, someone of the opposite sex. I'd like to think that my roleplaying skills aren't so bad that no one could tell my character was supposed to be female, but I think it may be unavoidable for people to say "him" instead of "her" when the player is male.

It's like this, see:

Anyway, I'm sure this kind of character sheet is easier to create for some game systems than others, but since characters in Ernie's homebrew system consist of five stats total, I was able to fit my portrait, stats, race, age, and brief character history on one side of the "tent".

Here's the picture I'm using. Phear my leet Photoshop skilxxorz!

Nura Nuada, Jedi Knight

It probably goes without saying that Stormbringer suggested Nura bunk with him.

I put my character "tent"-sheet together in PowerPoint, but you could easily do it in Paint, if you wanted. The hard part was flipping the picture and text on the GM/Front side upside down. I printed it out on parchmenty cardstock (I would have used plain white, but I don't have any that firm) and now I'm looking forward to showing it off at the next game session...whenever that will be.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A New Life Awaits You In The Offworld Colonies

So, a few weeks ago, I was idly paging through my copy of the Aliens Colonial Marine Technical Manual, when I began reading the chapter dealing with Synthetics. Synthetics, in "Alien" terminology, are biological androids. Ash (from the original film) and Bishop (from the second) are both synthetics.

As I read, I said to myself, "Huh - organic androids. Kinda like Replicants in 'Blade Runner'."


What if one were to ignore the opening placard in "Blade Runner," and assume that, instead of Los Angeles of 2019, it was actually Los Angeles, 2219 or so? What if a Blade Runner was called in to deal with a group of Replicants/Synthetics who had broken with their corporate employers - Weyland-Yutani - and were now loose on Earth? What if, in the course of tracking down the Replicants, said Blade Runner discovered that they were trying to stop a Weyland-Yutani cargo from making earthfall, or were trying to destroy one of their biotech research and development facilities that was dealing with off-world organic materials?

If you know what I mean.

I probably don't have to go into what it might be like if said Blade Runner were to learn that Something Else was also looking around for the same xenoform...

My D&D Stats

Okay, I usually skew as Lawful Good in these things, but checking the results I see that I was only one point away, so I guess I'm okay with that. My Dexterity is higher than my Wisdom? My Prime Requisite? I must not be a very good Cleric... I think that the only reason my Dex got rated so high was because I have pretty good aim. See, this is why 2nd Edition AD&D Player Options allowed you to split attributes...

I Am A: Neutral Good Human Cleric (4th Level)

Ability Scores:







Neutral Good A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do. He is devoted to helping others. He works with kings and magistrates but does not feel beholden to them. Neutral good is the best alignment you can be because it means doing what is good without bias for or against order. However, neutral good can be a dangerous alignment because because it advances mediocrity by limiting the actions of the truly capable.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron's vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity's domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric's Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Dungeon Crawl

Ever since learning about Gary Gygax's death on Tuesday, I had been in the mood to play some D&D. The more old school, the better. Fortunately, Budzik, Aaron, Haleanna and my wife were all available and interested in playing. Budzik and I decided that we should play a good, old-fashioned dungeon crawl, and figured this would also be a good opportunity to test out some variant D&D rules I had in my possession. His D&D campaign had been getting bogged down in combat and excessive feats usage, and he was looking for a simpler way to run the game.

Marilyn bought a whole lot of snacks and treats, some healthier than others and all of them great. Budzik brought left-over snack-bags of food from his work, and Haleanna brought some mocha frozen yogurt from her job. Aaron, true to form, arrived late, but at least he came.

After considering a couple of different rules adaptations and variants, we ultimately decided to go with Microlite20, probably the simplest version of the d20 engine I've yet seen. All of the rules fit on one double-sided page (and the flip side of the rules are really only of use for the DM, anyway).

My wife used a half-Orc Fighter we had made for a D&D3e Birthright game that I ran a few Christmases ago, though when questioned about her character later, she said she was a full-fledged Orc. Budzik rolled up a Human Mage who was eager to earn some gold. Aaron made a Gnome Thief, amusingly portrayed with a German accent, and we rolled up an Elven Cleric for Haleanna, since she was arriving late.*

I had decided that the game should be set in Xaria, our LARP setting, since that would be most familiar to everyone. After considering some free maps on Wizards of the Coast's website and a couple of PDF adventures I had on my computer, I eventually settled on Looking Glass Deep by Malhavoc Press. It narrowly won out over Gary Gygax's Keep on the Borderlands, because it seemed like we'd have a better chance of actually finishing it in one night**, and I was intrigued by its promises of monsters that used tactics. I set the adventure, as per Budzik's request, in northern Quivera, the Orange Duchy, which is ruled by Duke Kagrug the Orc. Lots of concerns about monsters invading from Uragoth to the north, especially what with King Onk's latest forays.

Now, given my intended goals for the evening, and given that we'd spent a considerable amount of time talking and catching up on things (nothing I regret, certainly), and that the players spent more time creating their characters than I really thought they would, I probably should have started them at the mouth of the dungeon. I was going to do so, but they immediately started asking me about whether they'd met at an inn, and Budzik explained to Haleanna how that was a hoary old cliche about D&D. Since it was such a cliche, and we were doing Old School style, I embraced the cliche and even had them met there by a Mysterious Cloaked Old Man, the full nine yards.

After a few minutes of listening to the players bantering in-character (which was marvelous - these folks are very good roleplayers), the Mysterious Cloaked Old Man came in out of the rain, spoke a few hushed words to the innkeep, and came over to the PCs with a proposition. He needed someone to go to an old, ruined fortress and map it out for him - he would provide them with parchment and mapping tools, and he hinted at the fact that while the ruins had been deserted for over a century, it was not unknown for bandits or foolish treasure seekers to go there and pick over the cold, dead stones. In exchange for a rough map of the place, he would pay them a gold piece per day, which he thought was quite reasonable, since scribes only get paid about three silvers a day.

Haleanna surprised me by immediately and coldly haggling with the Old Man, and before you know it, she had negotiated the Old Man up to twenty GP up front and fifty upon delivery of the map, with the provision that they would disarm any traps that might still be in the old place (since the old Baron who once had the run of the place was rumored to have dabbled in magik).

Then came more discussions as to how they would proceed, what lodgings they would require, whether the Old Man should be followed (he was), etc. By the time the characters finally reached the mouth of the box canyon where the fortress was, and the Gnome had scouted the first wall, Budzik had to go home to feed the baby and my wife was beginning to fall asleep. As is typical, we never got as far as the "dungeon" part of our dungeon crawl. *sigh*

Nonetheless, they all thoroughly enjoyed the simpler new ruleset and the gaming experience, and all wanted to continue at some point, though a round of questioning revealed that no one will be available again for a few weekends. Oh, well. Even though I hadn't even looked at the adventure an hour before the game began (I was trying to read it while they were making characters, and of course there would be no concentrating going on while that was happening, so I read and re-read the first page about six times before I finally got anywhere with it) and completely improvised my cheesy cliche opening, we all still had fun. I got to have at least a little bit of an old school gaming experience again, which is what I really wanted after all.

*We cut Haleanna slack because a) we didn't know if she was going to be able to make it in the first place, b) she brought mocha frozen yogurt, if I hadn't already mentioned, and c) she's cuter than Aaron.

**Foolish me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Ending of An Age

E. Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, father of this quirky roleplaying hobby and author of a style so idiosyncratic that the word "Gygaxian" had to be added to the geek vocabulary, has died at the age of 69. Without him, this hobby may still have come into being, but it would have had a completely different flavor. This blog would have a different name, for one - I think that the lich Vecna was his creation; it was a part of the gameworld he created (and the first gameworld I ever roleplayed in, the one I grew up with), the World of Greyhawk.

Though the man's gaming style was not to my taste, his work certainly made its impression on me. He improved my vocabulary, teaching me words like "milieu" and "dwoemer" through his rulebooks; through his bibliography and recommended reading lists he introduced me to some of my favorite fantasy authors, Fritz Lieber and Robert E. Howard. It wouldn't be going too far to say that the man's work was a significant inspiration to me, and had a considerable impact on my life. In fact, without the work that he created, I think it's fair to imagine that many things which have shaped the geek subculture came into existence because of his influence, such as World of Warcraft (born out of Warcraft, which was born out of Warhammer, which was born out of D&D). He suffered through a lot of legal battles and unfair treatment over the property he created with Dave Arneson, and ended up being unjustly kicked out of his own company. Yet from what I've seen of him, he was open and kind toward his fans and colleagues. He came to The Source in St. Paul once while I was there, and I watched him run a D&D game for a little while. I think it would have struck me as odd to see a white-bearded old man playing a roleplaying game had I not already been prepared for it by seeing our elder friend Vern play Campaign, or met renowned fantasy artist and southern gentleman Larry Elmore, whose artwork will forever in my mind be associated with Dungeons & Dragons.

Sadly, the lives of gamers tend not to be so long. A few other industry creators and professionals of note are in poor health, from what I read on RPGnet. Gamers in general are not known for the good shape of their bodies. So Gary's passing comes as another warning to me - I've been eighty pounds overweight for a while now, and with a father who was diabetic, I'm really pushing my luck.

I don't know what Gary's personal beliefs were, so I can't comment on his ultimate destination. If you'll forgive me for being a bit cheesy and maudlin, all I can do is raise a tankard, say a fond farewell, and thank Uncle Gary for all the fun.

EDIT, Again: I went to the TrollLords website, publishers of Castles & Crusades, and one of the forum posters quoted the last e-mail he received from Gary, on January 16:

Thank You, Michael,

All I am is another fellow human that has at last, after many wrong paths and failed attenpts, found Jesus Christ.

Via con dios,

"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Matthew 5:16

Moreover, here is one Christian gamer's story about Gary, both his regrets and his triumphs.

Praise God. We'll see you on that far shore in the House of the Lord.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"He Say You Brade Runnah."

I was idly paging through my old copy of the Aliens Technical Manual, which I had originally bought as reference material for my 2300 AD RPG, when I started reading about how the Colonial Marines are organized. If you remember the movie "Aliens," you'll recall that an android is assigned to each group of Marines (I'm too drowsy to go look up the specific organizational title).

I started thinking about the possibilities of the setting of "Aliens" - the book really fleshes that universe out - and thinking about how "Predator" got a crossover, putting them in the same universe in about as official a way as one can (and thus providing Dark Horse with a nice cash cow). And there's a lot of talk in the Manual about the colonies that humanity had settled...

And then it occurred to me: Lifelike, organic Androids. Off-world colonies. Megacorporations. Where have I heard these things before? Ding!

Sure, it says in the beginning of the movie that it's Los Angeles, 2019, but seriously, do you think L.A. will look anything that large by then? That's only 11 years from now. Ignore that title placard and pretend that "Blade Runner" takes place about two hundred years from now, and it may as well be the same universe as "Aliens" and "Predator."

So, naturally, I started thinking about adventures that could be set in Deckard's corner of the Earth...

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Cunning Plan...

Aaron Williams has a brilliant idea that may just save American culture, presented in his comic strip Full Frontal Nerdity.

I'll invest in that plan.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

My Ultimate D&D Game

I was trawling around the forums on RPGnet and happened across the following question: "What would be your "ultimate" D&D style? Forget the rules system... what elements of plot, character & style do you hold as your ultimate D&D experience?"

Because I was eating breakfast and putting off my homework, I came up with the following answer:

Epic, in the sense of LotR and Dragonlance. A big, sweeping campaign with the fate of the world in the balance. Good versus Evil, with those thinking themselves in the middle eventually having to choose a side. Triumphs and betrayals, victories and tragic deaths. Flawed heroes, not anti-heroes. Melodrama, not angst. Romance and romanticism. Friendship, honor, compassion and bravery, pitted against treachery, selfishness, and fear.

Formidable and frightening monsters, ancient titanic ruins whose histories are lost in time (but of which fragments of lore survive), heroic battles against uncertain odds. Magic items and artifacts with stories to them - it's not a +3 Broadsword, it's The Flame of the West; it's not a Potion of Healing, it's the Waters of Ilumina, springs blessed by the goddess of the forests.

Hobbit-style halflings. Tinker-merchant Gnomes. Beautiful, arrogant, tragic Elves. Stubborn, honor-bound, tragic Dwarves. Monster races that aren't just Evil for Evil's sake - some of them are honorable, and some of them are twisted. But not all monster races are misunderstood foreigners - some of them were birthed by Evil to usher in the End of the World. Desperate appeals for alliance in the face of extinction. Religious orders. Sorcerous orders. Knightly orders. Angels and Demons, and their pacts with mortals.

The artwork of Larry Elmore and Wayne Reynolds. Tony di Terlizzi and Russ Nicholson.

Levels 1-6. A mixture of wilderness and urban adventures.

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up for me.