29 December 2012

Review: G1-2-3 Against the Giants

Let's get this out of the way first: Against the Giants (ATG) is the archetypical AD&D adventure. The three adventures comprised in this collected work were written during the period when Gary Gygax was putting together the Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide. Reading through the module now is like reading the UR-manuascript which informs all future TSR adventures. Niether the composing adventures nor the compilation are flawless. However, the criticism presented below benefits from 30 years of hindsight and exposure to many products born from this work.

ATG is a high-level adventure for around 9 characters of 9th level. Given the monstrous challenges found in the halls of the giants, players can expect some attrition in their numbers. The setup is simple: giants have been raiding nearby human settlements. The rulers of these settlements wish this to stop. The mission presented to the players is straight-forward: hunt down the giants and, if possible, discover the reason for their incursions.

This setup is clean, without a cluttered backstory and provides sufficient motivation for the players. However, I am an unfrozen caveman dice chucker. More modern players may find the lack of backstory off-putting and the absence of a personal connection to the lives of the player characters to be a fatal defect. A crafty DM should be able to manufacture custom story hooks for those players who need a more personal stake in the giant raids.

There are three giant rulers responsible for these raids: the hill giant Nosnra, the frost giant Grugnur and the fire giant Snorre Iron Belly. Each has his own fastness which the characters must assault (in the order given above). Again, modern RPG sensibilities might be put off by the abrupt way in which the PCs are dumped more or less in front of each fortress. There is no wilderness component provided for in the text. There is no nearby town for supplies. The PCs are own their own.

As each chief is conquered, clues to the identity of a third party pushing the giants appears. If you do not know who this is, STOP READING NOW.

SPOILERS AHOY

A crafty (and according to Gygax's own fiction, busty) drow elf named Eclavdra has pushed the giants to war with the humans. Perhaps my reading comprehension skills are failing, but I cannot understand her motivations for warring (other than she is eee-vil!). Perhaps the follow-on modules, D1-2 and Q1 explain this a bit more. In any case, that mystery is not explored in ATG.

I believe that ATG is the module series that introduced the drow elves, which is Gygax's take on the traditional "svartalf" of Norse mythology. Throughout ATG, Gygax leans heavy on traditional Norse folktales. He goes as far as to say that the fire giants lair is "in effect" Muspelheim. This isn't to suggest that the PCs are hopping around the Outer Planes -- that's a concept that had not yet been developed, I suspect. That the fire giant king is named Snorre must be a knowing wink to the author of the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturlurson.

As a creature, the drow elves would go on to feature prominently other modules through out many editions of D&D and associated fiction. While I have yet to play ATG, I did play Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits and so was introduced to the drow very early in my RPG career.

The monster challenges that appear in ATG could not be more iconic of D&D, starting right with the giants themselves. I believe the only type of giant that does not appear in the series is the very power storm giant. Dragons also make strong appearances, including the a Smaug-like red dragon sitting on the largest treasure trove I can recall seeing detailed in any TSR module.

I also enjoy that the kinds of monsters that plagued low-level PCs, like orcs, trolls and hell hounds, appear as almost slaves of the giants. That's a wonderful display of power differential that adds verisimilitude to the monsters.

The treasure, strewn about the various fortresses, is remarkable too. There are several intelligent magic swords, which ordinarily are rare finds. Could it be that Gygax wanted to make all magic swords unique creations? Possibly. This idea that all magic items should have a unique character is a popular meme in the current Old School Renaissance.

So much of the content of the adventure. There are some troubling production qualities to ATG that require some airing.

Firstly, the maps are not labeled. That is to say, at first glance, you do not know which of the three sets of maps is that of the hill giant's fortress. When these modules were separately published, this confusion did not appear. However, when the maps were collected into one unit, this user interface issue was overlooked. Each section retains the original introduction, which adds distracting redundancies. Finally, there is a short-hand used in the monster stats (just giving the HP for each) that requires that the DM have the Monster Manual on hand. I suppose most of us have all the rulebooks on hand anyway, but this requires additional lookups that are unwelcome.

Despite some production issues, ATG is a strong product and likely to provide hours of entertainment even to modern players.

27 December 2012

Binders full of bad ideas

This full page, glossy ad appeared on the inside cover of Dragon #55 in 1981. Apparently, someone at TSR (probably not E. Gary Gygax) decided on a new product line to synergize with the raft of rules books already produced by the company.

And that product was: Three ring binders.

This is around the time that the Moldvay/Cook basic rulebooks appear which were produced with holes for binders. I have noted that I did not meet many people who tore apart their rulebooks to put them in binders, but obviously some marketing genius at TSR had a vision.

I know, you are probably kicking yourself for not thinking of this product sooner. Note that this issue is from November, so you can rule out April foolery.

I can't be sure if any of these actually were sold. I did not see any on eBay, nor does a google image search return anything like the binder pictured here.

Could that picture of the product be any smaller? Couldn't the shirtless guy be holding it? What do you suppose is in that chest anyway? He sure has a dumb grin on his face. He looks like a surfer.

What was I talking about? Oh, right: binders.

$5 (plus $1.25 S&H) will get you one binder with 28 sheets of graph paper. Using google's shop function, I can find binders for a little more than $1 today (with crazy S&H fees).

What test marketing did they do for this? Was salmon really the color to lead with?

The moral of this story, kids, is no product idea is too stupid not be tried by someone in a successful company (which TSR most certainly was in 1981).

Maybe I need to revamp this RPG-themed binder idea as a kickstarter.

06 December 2012

Have you played a module from TaskboyGames?

If you have played or even read through Manse on Murder Hill or Under Fogbreath Peak, I would love to get an email from you.

In these modules, what worked for you. What didn't. What would you like to see more of? Less?

Be as eloquent or brief as you'd like. I won't spam you. Promise.

Together, there have been over 900 downloads of these modules this year. Is there anybody out there?

Update: You can email me directly at jjohn@tasbkoy.com.

02 November 2012

Nota Bene on Under Fogbreath Peak

Obviously, there is little room for background material in one page adventures. And I didn't want to be too direct about this point in the module. However, the full background of the Ironbones is the following.

This is your personal SPOILER ALERT.

Ironbones is a Stone Giant who lived with a clan of 11 or so other giants in the natural cave complex inside Fogbreath Peak. Ironbones was one of the weaker males in the clan and was often ridiculed for it. Perhaps this is what drew him to seek out the company of bears, with whom he found mutual rapport.

One day, while sulkily foraging in a remote place, Ironbones came across the suppressed and evil tome The Triumph of Worms, which is part magical instruction and part inculcation into the worship of darker powers.

Over the course of many months, Ironbones read and re-read the book, becoming more reclusive from his clan. He showed a talent for dweomercraft, which is rare aptitude in any giant.

Setting his trap carefully, Ironbones caused many of the male members of his clan to be away from the caverns. He then viciously slaughtered all the females and few giantlings who remained behind. After the deed was accomplished, Ironbones quickly fortified the cavern with magic, ramparts and traps that severely weakened the returning males. With the help of his hireling, Joey the Orge, Ironbones slew all but the chieftain of his clan, who affected a reluctant escape.

All that was left was to build a new alchemical laboratory in the unused parts of the cavern, instruct his ogre to improve the security of the lair and unfold the remaining secrets of The Triumph of Worms in peace.

Until you meddling humans and demihumans showed up...

28 October 2012

Indie+ starts tomorrow

An online convention of independent game makers. Good stuff!

From the page:

Being an independent is all about taking the initiative and doing it yourself. Indie+ is no different, except we are all doing it together for mutually beneficial publicity. If you want to publicize your own product, podcast or blog as part of Indie+ you need to get involved and do things. Join in as a participant of a panel, host your own panel or game, or come aboard as a sponsor and help organize the whole event.

24 October 2012

Review of X1: The Isle of Dread

TSR's blue-covered adventure module X1, the Isle of Dread, came with every box of the 1981's D&D Expert Set. Later, a reformatted orange-covered edition would be packaged with the Mentzer Expert Rules. Both editions are credited to David Cook (author of the 1981 Expert Rules) and Tom Moldvay (author of the 1981 Basic rules). This powerful authorial team should have produced a drop-dead awesome module, but somehow this module feels a little flat to me, even all these years later.

In its defense, X1 has a lot to do. It is meant to help novice DMs manage wilderness adventures (which is a mode of play that I have not yet engaged with as much as I would like). X1 also introduces some more details to the known world in the form of a short atlas of the classic Mystaran continental principalities. There is also a small "fiend folio" of new monsters introduced for the first time in this module. Finally, there is the small matter of detailing three adventure areas on the island.

I am sure I could not do as good a job as Cook and Moldvay with so long a task list and so short a page count (30-32 pages, depending on the edition).

If X1 comes across as a bit scattered, it can be forgiven. In just two years, TSR would introduce the Gazetteer format that focused more on settings than detailed adventures. Even now, X1 can be very easily thought of as a sort of proto-gazetteer of Thanegioth Archipelago.

X1 does lean a bit too heavily on some racial tropes as a kind of shorthand for the various native people the PCs encounter. Modern DMs will, I trust, do the good people of Tanaroa and Mantru right.

Let's have a brief word about the Kopru and the Phanatons. The Kopru are scheming, alien amphibians looking to remove the human riff-raff from their ancestral home. The phanatons are discount ewoks, but not as lovable [n.b. no one loves ewoks]. Seriously. Look at the graphic at the top of this entry. Makes you want to find a racoon to punch, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, I cannot talk very directly about the core adventure of X1, because I am not sure there is one. There are lots of interesting locations to explore, should the PCs wish to. There are sharks, dinosaurs, pirates, treants...

OK, we need to talk about Treants being on a tropical island.

If your Treants are informed by Tolkien as mine are, then Treants on Dread don't match up very well. But then neither do the hippogriffs, gargoles, or the green dragon. Oh well, this is a fantasy romp after all.

What isn't a fantasy romp are the layout changes between the two editions. Everyone loves tables. Let's have a table!

Blue versus Orange: BIG BATTEL!
Issue Blue Orange Winner
Font Souvenir Garamond BLUE!
Columns per page 2 3 BLUE!
Illustrators Dee, Otis, DSL Truman BLUE!
Cartograph Monochromatic 4 color ORANGE!
Section Iconography None Six ORANGE!

It looks like both editions are pretty evenly matched, but I am going to declare BLUE the winner because the 3 column layout is unreadable.

Whatever its faults, X1 is an important module. It introduces a much larger world to both DMs and players than B2: The Keep on the Borderland. It is certainly the prototype of wilderness adventures in general and seafaring hyjinx in particular for many aging D&D players.

To get the most bang out of this module, watch the 1930s version of King Kong followed by a reading of The Call of Cthulhu. That should nicely set the mood.

Under Fogbreath Peak

I am happy to announce the immediate availability of my first one page adventure called Under Fogbreath Peak. This one-page adventure is for 4-6 characters of levels 3-5 using Labrynth Lord core rules. Further, it features art, including hand-drawn cartography, entirely by me.

Here's the marketing blurb:

A Stone Giant needs your help. His clan was slaughtered by a mad wizard who now lairs among its bones. He wants revenge. Can you survive the warrens beneath the Fogbreath Peak?

It was great to get a new product out the door in less than a year. However, I need to refocus on the next full adventure of Red Talons series.

Your feedback is always appreciated.

30 September 2012

More Toys from the 80s

M.U.S.C.L.E. dolls, er, ACTION FIGURES were sold in the 80s from, I think, gumball machines. At least that's how my unreliable memory recalls getting these two little guys. The 80s were a simpler time for kids. There was no weird card game associated with these things. You just bought them. Who bought the most, won. It was a good game.

Someone on G+ mentioned these little dudes recently and I happened to have them close by. I keep them around in the same way that one might have shrunken heads in your office.

From eBay, I bought another D&D PVC doll, er, ACTION FIGURE to complement my existing collection. This is a terrible scan of the back of the box. Yes, I bought an unopened box and destroyed it. Why? Because the entertainment value of the dolls far FAR exceeds their collector resale value.

I have to tell you, the bugbear figure is pretty poor. All the PVC D&D figures are a bit impressionist, but I think they gave up on this guy. Here's a close up:

12 September 2012

Thank you

THANK YOU!

In generally, we probably don't get all the thanks we deserve. In particular, I want to make an extended "thank you" to the people who made my first published module, Manse on Murder Hill, possible. The good parts of the module are all theirs. The bad parts are pretty much all me (and a little bit Libre Office).

Stuart Robertson

You've seen his work. It's evocative, powerful and engaging. Stuart's work represents my vision better than I can. I was lucky to work with him. A prince among men!

Bryce Lynch, Paul Go, Peter Spahn

These guys volunteered their time to go through 20 pages of boring manuscript and each gave detailed and insightful feedback. Each pointed out different (critical) design problems. Manse would be a lot weaker without them. They answered a plea from a unknown author on the Internet and delivered tons of value. I owe them all.

Aaron Beck (Gryphon Editorial)

Readers of this blog will note my perchant for typos, failed conjugation and mauled sentences (I call it "charm"). However, even I know the value of solid editorial clean-up. Aaron not only pruned the most awkward and tangled of sentences, but provided the kind of high-level leadership on the content that I would have effected from a traditional content editor, like those I worked with at O'Reilly Media.

Aaron's service is worth every penny I spent.

RPGNow

Without an easy-to-use, self-publishing site, I could not reach the size audience I have. I am produce printed copies of future modules, just because it is so easy to work with these guys. You rock.

YOU

That's right: you. The person staring at the screen. Writers need an audience. Without one, one is a "diarist," which sounds just awful.

I will be spending some time prompting Manse and then thinking about what I want to do next (hint: I am looking at a Kickstarter).

UPDATE:In just over a week, this module has been downloaded over 450 times! This has been a wonderful experience. I hope to do more in the future.

11 September 2012

Manse on Murder Hill available now!

The year-long process has finally ended and the winner is YOU!

Hustle over to the fine folks at RPGNow to get a free copy of my old-school role playing game module, The Manse on Murder Hill.

Manse is a low-level module designed to be completed 2-4 sessions using the Labyrinth Lord rules, which themselves are free.

I welcome any and all comments about module. If there is enough positive feedback, I have 2 follow-on modules that extend the story presented in Manse.

LET THE NIT-PICKING BEGIN!

UPDATE: Read the press release.

09 September 2012

New Monster: Plague Zombie

Plague Zombie

No. Enc:2-20
Alignment:Chaotic
Movement:60'
Armor Class:8
Hit Dice:3 + 1
Attack:1 (weapon)
Damage:1d8 or weapon type
Save:F2
Hoard Class:None
XP:100

A proscribed area of necromantic research, the formula for the creation of the dreaded plague zombie has no claimants among sane wizards and alchemists. That small hordes of these shambling horrors continue to be reported in isolated villages and besieged towns suggests that someone continues to produce them, either for profit or some unknown misanthropic purpose.

The plague zombie is much the same as the commonly encountered zombie: a corpse animated by unwholesome magic and imbued with murderous intent. However, the plague zombie was designed to infect entire regions with the threat of virulent disease. In this way, the forces controlling the plague zombies can move into an area with ease.

A player character must roll save vs. poison each round that he is engaged with a plague zombie in melee combat. A failed save means that the PC has contracted a plague, the effects of which are determined in the table below.

Roll Disease effects Remedies
1-3 Nausea: -4 on "to hit" rolls for 6 turns 1 day of bed rest or magic
4-6 High fever: -6 on "to hit" rolls, -3 to Strength (will not lower below 3) Cured by magic or 3 days of bed rest
7-8 Paralysis of the legs inhibits walking and melee combat Cured by magic or 1 week of bed rest
9-10 Livid boils prohibits all action but sleep, moaning and bedrest. %5 (1 in 20) chance of death per day. Cured by magic or 2 weeks of bed rest
12 Liquefaction of soft tissues leading to death in 2-5 rounds Cured by prompt application of magic

Not that one character can contract more than one aliment per combat session!

The types of magic that cures the plagues above include cure disease, heal and wish. Others spells may be added at the game master's discretion.

Unfortunately, the danger posed by these monsters does not end at their second death. After a plague zombie has been killed, the 10'x10' area in which it died will carry a residual effect for 3 days afterward. Any character walking through an infected area must save vs. poison at a special advantage described shortly. Those who fail the save will contract an illness which will be determined by the table above.

This residual effect of plague zombies can be eliminated with proper disposal procedures. The exact methods are left up to the individual game master, but burning the remains has always been shown to be effective. An area cleansed by fire will be free from the after-effects of the zombie. Perhaps high-level magic or local rituals will be effective too?

Because the effectiveness of the plague born by the zombies diminishes with time, characters gain a bonus to their saves when rolling for incidental contact with it. For each day that the zombie as been slain, the PC gains +2, as this table illustrates:

Days after zombie's death Save bonus
00
1+2
2+4
3+6

Plague zombies may be distinguished from normal zombies by their bloated and pusilanimous torsos and weeping sores. So bloated are these monsters that they move even slower than other zombies. However, they will not stop until either they or you are dead.

23 August 2012

Request for comments: Manse PDF

OK. We are nearly there.

I would like to get some feedback on the layout of Manse on Murder Hill, which can be found, for the time being, here.

I cannot say that LibreOffice is the most flexible of layout tools, but I hope that I can produce some not entirely off-putting.

Please leave your commons here or, if you wish for more privacy, email to joe.johnston@gmail.com

I will live the file on dropbox for a little while and then it is on to RPGNow.

Thank you.

22 August 2012

Inspirational inspirations

I have read much about "Appendix N," which refers to bibliographic section of the 70s DMG that lists inspirational works and authors. Appendix N has become a short-hand in the OSR community for inspirational material.

My dirty secret: I glossed over this section and forgot it actually existed until I checked the index in the DMG tonight. As I re-read it, I see no great surprises other than its brevity. But more importantly, I noticed its placement: toward the back sandwiched in between two rather boring, table-heavy sections. The appendix is a rather mechanical listing of random works with a desultory, if enthusiastic preamble which contains no less than five instances of "I".

You would need to make a successful secret doors check to have noticed it.

Compare this to the Moldvay edition of the B/X rules. On page B62, a large header set in bold Souvenir font stands athwart the top of the page reading "INSPIRATIONAL SOURCE MATERIAL." As this is the penultimate page, it is often seen. At least that has been the case in my experience.

But a good location and a fancy header aren't the only draws to Moldvay's picks. The works cited are bolded and categorized in helpful sections: Fiction: Young Adult Fantasy; Non-Fiction: Young Adult; Short Story Collections; Non-fiction. There are 30-40 works selected from dozens of wonderful authors. Moldvay's preamble is shorter than EGG's and frankly more helpful about how one would use the list he is about to present.

It is to this bibliography of Moldvay's that I most frequently return.

I have always found the DMG and Gygax's writing to be at times remote and inaccessible. The anachronistic phrases that litter the DMG were, perhaps, a little too pleasing to the author himself. That is not to say that DMG isn't EGG's opus magnum, nor am I implying that the copious material found in that volume is not worth of repeated readings. However Moldvay's work, in contrast, has aged better for me. It is more approachable, more fun and less arrogant that EGG's AD&D hardcovers. It has been that Erol Otus illumed work that has kept me in the orbit of D&D for 30 years.

09 August 2012

Manse cover

It may not seem like much, but a lot of hand-wringing went into this design. I opted for a minimalist look. It helps that I do not need a lot of legalese on the cover, unlike TSR.

Again, thank you to Stuart Robertson for artwork. I had to crop the full cover he gave me, which is a little death in itself. I may put together a t-shirt with the full graphic.

Sadly, just having a decent cover helps propel me to get the rest of the layout done.

You comments are appreciated.

05 August 2012

The Next Step in Pencil and Paper RPGs

Executive summary: D&D needs a real digital platform.

As I work on the last stages of publishing my own module Manse on Murder Hill, I have been thinking a lot about layout details. How should I format the PDF of the module to be the most useful to readers? I have the examples of TSR's own modules from the 70s and 80s which can easily be translated into a digital layout. I have also looked at contemporary OSR efforts at layout, which offer some innovations too.

Then I had one of those "monolith moments."

You will remember that in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a mysterious black monolith appears at key moments in history to prod the evolution of man. That happened to me and now I understand what the OSR community and Hasbro/WotC have been doing wrong with the hobby. It is as obvious as the title of this blog.

Move the tabletop to the cloud.

Commit to this vision and a whole bunch of obvious consequences manifest. To an extent, the community and Hasbro is moving in these directions already, but not fast enough.

Leverage the cloud for communication.

Video conferencing technologies like Google Hangouts and Skype bring low-cost video conferencing to everyone with a high-speed Internet connection. These technologies are already being leverage to create "virtual tabletops" where players can get their RPG on. What is needed is additional software to make these platforms customized for the RPG experience. Some projects have already been started, but I think there is room for much larger investment in this area and, yes, larger returns.

How large am I talking? Think of a massively multiplayer online realm like World of Warcraft, but for PnP players. Do I think that D&D can be that popular again? With the right implementation, I think this is possible. We see human on human interactions now on that scale with platforms like twitter, facebook and WoW. The hobby still appeals to creative young (and young at heart) people, but getting facetime with each other is harder now for some reason. Computers can fix that.

Leverage the digital devices for content.

The problem I have been facing with layout is really about thinking in analog terms. Why am I thinking about conventions and restrictions that applied to paper? Sure, PDF is meant to be printed and I will produce a layout amenable to that. But most RPG players these days have computers and use them during play. Rulebooks and modules need to take advantage of 20 year old web technology and move to well-designed hypertextual layouts.

To this end, I will be producing a prototype of this for Manse that will be free available. It will look best on iPad, but should be usable on any device.

What I am talking about is not merely using the existing ePub or mobibook format. I mean is that we need use web technologies to radically change the way module content is presented. Modules need to be more like mobile apps, not PDF documents. And WotC if you are reading this and see dollar signs in your head, call me.

Leverage social media to enable the hobby.

D&D has always had a problem: bring players together. I have pointed to early Dragon magazines in which Dungeon Masters were listed with their addresses. The hobby still has this issue. One attempt to solve this is ConstantCon, which is a good first step. Blogger has also become a sort of standard for OSR blogs.

What if Facebook were RPGbook?

A social network of players has the potential to re-ignite this hobby like it was 1979. Google+ is a proto-version of this. Whether the solution to the social networking aspect comes in the form of building apps for existing platforms or building a new platform, I can't tell. However, it is an obvious area of expansion.

So rather than futzing with rule changes or inventing new monsters or even figuring out new polyhedron dice, I want to the community to think BIG. Any hobby that inspires 40 years of creativity and community is special. There is something profoundly different about the experience of traditional PnP RPG to CRPGs and MMORPGs.

What has been holding the hobby back is not message but the medium. Luckily, the hobby is perfectly adaptable to the new medium of the Internet. That work simply has not yet been done.

I may be crazy, but someone is going print money executing on this idea.

31 July 2012

Review: B1-9 In Search of Adventure

There has been a lot of talk about "megadungeons" in the OSR community this past year. From Stonehell, Barrowmaze and Dwimmermount to those many creations that the public never will see, dungeon crawling is often the primary setting for D&D. So it isn't surprising that players want to continuing delving into the deepening mysteries of chthonic chaos. TSR understood this urge and tried to address this desire with, as has been noted before me, modules like B4: The Lost City. But I think that an overlooked gem in this vein is In Search of Adventure(ISOA), which is part clip show and part mega-adventure.

For those that missed it, ISOA was published in what Grognardia would call the Silver Age of role playing (1987). I certainly was not playing much at all by that time, being drawn into the fantasy world of rock and roll (which is like LARPing, but with no dice). However, this publication caught my eye since it seemed to package all of the B-series modules into one cheap package.

And cheap is the operative word. The paper is extremely light weight and easily torn. It is perfect bound, so that it does not lie up particularly well. The maps appear at the end of the manuscript on perforated paper for easy tear up, I mean, out. So the production value is pretty low, at least by my lights. Sure, the manuscript was typeset according to the "modern" standards of TSR in late 80s (i.e. boxed texts, gray background sections, garamond-ish font). I favored the crazier layouts of the late seventies, which used font faces like Souvenir and Futura to great effect.

Note that all nine modules (B1-B9) are not presented in their entirety. Key encounters were extracted from each and presented as isolated nuggets of adventure woven together with a broad adventure flow chart that suggests a few ways a DM can seamlessly move his party from one venue to the next.

Again, the analog of this product to a TV clip show is a close one.

I want to give the talented Jeff Grubb props for making a solid attempt to make the reader forget that all this material is a rehash. His prefatory remarks introduce the land of Karameikos and the major location of Threshold in a way that is more brief that Gazetteer 1 and more detailed than the Expert rulebook. For this alone, I would recommend this product to those who want to run an adventure in Karameikos over the gazetteer.

After the introduction, each module is presented in its own section with enough setup information for the DM to run it. At the end of each module section is a few paragraph that details the fallout of the previous adventure and sets up a connector to the next adventure.

There are a few new illustrations. The manuscript is densely committed to text. Illustrations cost money and cause page bloat. They also really help to set the atmosphere for the players. The cover does present a trio of fierce, warpainted hobgoblins, which is very welcome. That picture alone piques my interest in creating a hobgoblin-centric adventure!

I have never run a party through an entire adventure flow, but I would like to. The adventures in this product (it's not module, is it?) really do help bring Threshold to life and will help to springboard the party into further adventures in Mystara.

Get this module if you really want to explore Threshold and bring it to life.

However, if you are interested in running the individual adventures in a standalone fashion, B1-9 is likely to disappoint.

28 July 2012

Review of N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. The module is thirty years old, so I imagine the word has already gotten out about most of what I am about to write about.

Sometime between 1982 and 1984, I bought this fine module written by Douglas Niles. From notes in my copy, I can see that I used the NPCs listed in the back for other adventures. However, I never ran my party through it.

N1 is explicitly designed to be used for a game involving 4-7 novice adventures and a DM. The is a lot of great pulp action and tropes in this stuffed module: a troubled town fearful of strangers, an evil cult with deranged clerics, a mad hermit and a showdown in the moors.

The play consists of these bits: exploration of the Orlane village and the interrogation of its inhabitants, followed by a fairly contained wilderness exploration that concludes in an assault on the fortified lair of a very powerful, spell-wielding naga.

An interesting mechanism found in this module is that the players may be kidnapped at some point. Frankly, I don't think I could pull this off with my players. There isn't much chance of escape or rescue, so this seems like a total party kill. Perhaps readers will chime in with different experiences. However, the mechanism of kidnapping NPCs is will established and serves as a great plot mover.

In contrast to T1, the town of Orlane has many "feint" encounters that should be straight forward to DM and which are fun for the players. Hey, who doesn't like to bash troglodytes?

The final showdown with the Naga Explicatica Defilus (a faux latin name that perhaps might mean "the cause of filth") seems crazy hard for even 7 well-armed first level PCs. She is a 9 HD creature with serious fire power. Of course, the module hopes that the PCs befriend the mad hermit Ramne, a level seven mage who should provide enough cover for the PCs to contribute something to the demise of this Big Bad. Niles uses the old saw of rumors to set up player expectations in Orlane, which may be hokey, but it works.

The NPCs are particularly well drawn and engaging. I enjoy the bad crazy of Ambramo who scrawls on his bed room walls "snake mother" and "a crocodile has many teeth." Now that's what I call "pulp atmosphere."

This module has a fine selection of monsters from both the Monster Manual and Fiend Folio. The monsters are well integrated for me, but others might find the collection of beasties in the Naga's lair a little forced.

All told, I really like this module. It balances "community theatre" RPG stuff with solid combat situations. The final assault should prove challenging even for parties with some third level PCs. The motivations of the villagers is clear and easy for a DM to extrapolate.

Is it a little "railroady"? Perhaps. The party is mostly dumped on Orlane and expected to lend a hand. I am OK with this, but I know others want a more compelling backstory. The final showdown with the Naga is the most problematic for me. If the PCs do not have Ramne with them, this fight is going to be really short. However, if they win, they win big. The treasure is a small fortune and includes the excellent bag of holding, a boat load of spells and a few rings.

26 July 2012

Flailsnails Realms: Where PCs go to die

You and your party of PCs fight have fought through countless dank dungeons, mysterious mazes and creepy castles. Every time, you fought against NPCs controlled by the DM. Perhaps you had some inter-party dust-ups, but generally, your DM enforced a peace for the sake of gameplay.

But two inventions present an opportunity to marry the hard work of building a PC with the fun of killing another PC in a SAFE environment.

Flailsnails, that anything-goes style of RPG adventuring in which players from different RPG system co-exist is a great way to spice up your tabletop and get more play time in with different groups of people.

Google Hangouts and the web in-general, allow instant and free teleconferencing and information sharing.

Combine this two with a bit of custom glue I'll describe in a bit and you get Flailsnails Realms, in which guilds of PCs battle each for ranking and in-world booty.

It's a kind of megadungeon where YOU are the monster.

Imagine conducting raids on rival guilds, battling *real* PCs under the watchful eye of a human DM. The prize? Rankings, gold and other in-world booty that can help fortify your own guild keep. And XP that travels with you to your other games.

The trick to making the work is to crack a few technical problems:

  • a fair and distributed mechanism of ranking DMs
  • a fair policy for handling combat for players who aren't available
  • thinking through both the in-world rewards and allowable PC takeaways

The first problem is perhaps the most interesting to me. Online communities often have trouble with this. Tracking player victories and defeats is straight-forward as these can be recorded by the DM (who is then rated by the players).

The key mechanic is that PCs don't actually die in the realm. That would be too cruel. But being defeated does have consequences (i.e. PC can't raid for awhile, guild ranking is dropped, etc.).

I am only getting started with this idea.

Does this sound interesting to you? Have you already seen this done?

02 July 2012

Review: T1 The Village of Hommlet

This venerable Gygax adventure comes from his famous Greyhawk setting. It is meant to introduce new players to the setting. It is a short book (16 pages of meat, followed by many maps) and features but one dungeon with two levels. Pretty thin gruel.

Or is it?

Most of this module is devoted to details about the village and its inhabitants. So much so, that I cannot find an explicit mandate from an NPC for the party to explore the moathouse at all!

Instead, Gygax presents a module thick with role playing. The players, it seems, are expected to interact with a good deal of the locals, getting hints of their intrigues and, if there's time, go have a Scooby-Doo adventure in the creepy old moathouse.

In the hands of a DM that enjoys community theatre roleplaying, the village is the adventure. With wonderfully evocative place names like the Church of St. "Square corners can be pounded smooth" Cuthbert and Inn of the Welcome Wench (good luck publishing an adventure with that kind of name now), it is hard not to want to explore this town.

But again, my complaint is that as a combat-oriented adventure, it is a bit lacking. The moathouse is far from a megadungeon. I would guess that a party would clear it out in 2-3 sessions. Some of the encounters seem a little overmatched for a first level group. It needs to noted that Gygax suggests mixing in a few second and third level PCs into the group. You may need to tweak the encounters in the moathouse for absolute beginners.

Of course, there is a 6th level fighter named Rufus and an 8th level magic-user named Burne that will adventure with your party for a crazy cut of the treasure. That seems nuts to me.

T1 was meant to be the first act of two act drama concluding in the The Temple of Elemental Evil, which promised to be mind blowing in its unfettered awesomeness. However, as a standalone adventure for those without inclinations toward acting, T1 has perhaps too much detail on the town and too little in the way of monster bashing.

One of the great things about OSR today is crowdsourced enhancements. Just look at this color rendered map of Hommlet or this 3D version of the moathouse. Great visual aids and you get it for free.

I know this module is much beloved, but frankly, it doesn't fit my temperament at all. I am old enough to drink real beer with real ladies. I don't need to pretend to that in a fantasy town to make imaginary friends.

13 June 2012

Module editing

Why no posts lately? I am concentrating my free time on getting Manse on Murder Hill ready to ship. I have gotten a lot of valuable feedback from my reviewers, but the changes required need careful consideration.

I still hope to publish Manse before the summer is out (probably August).

Luckily, there is no shortage of OSR-related blogging going on right now.

26 May 2012

Tech reviewers wanted

Fellow, OSRers! Let me your ears! Or eyes, rather.

My adventure, Manse on Murder Hill, is ready for a technical review. By that, I mean that I am looking for feedback on the quality of the adventure based on the following:

  • Does the adventure hang together in a logic way?
  • Are the motivations of the villains plausible?
  • Are the mission objectives for the party clear?
  • Is it interesting? Would you want to play as a PC? Would you DM it?
  • Does the adventure seem well-balanced? Too much treasure? Not enough?
  • Are the traps too difficult for beginning level characters?
  • Do the maps make sense?
  • What is missing that you expected to see?
  • Are the any rules mistakes? I am targeting the core Labyrinth Lord rule set.

While I am happy to get reports about grammar mistakes and layout issues, I plan to focus on that aspect of production after this phase. I have additional art from Stuart Robertson to add plus coming up with a layout I can live with.

I plan to release the PDF of this adventure for free through RPGNow.com. If there is interest, I may print up some hardcopies to sale. I would like to this adventure to be judge against all the other TSR entry-level modules. I would consider this project a success if some people consider Manse a missing B-level module.

If you are interested in helping in this project (and getting a nod in the module credits), please email (joe.johnston@gmail.com) me. I will share the draft with you.

Thank you for reading.

28 April 2012

just for the information design alone....

Roles, Rules, and Rolls: Final OPD Entry: Well, here is my final entry to this year's One Page Dungeon contest. I really want to thank all the commenters on the previous post ...

Where be dragons?

In both Labyrinth Lord and basic D&D, dragons appear in the monster section of each rulebook. Dragons are an extremely nasty monster, even for experienced players. Can you even use them against a low level (1-3) party?

The weakest dragon type is a white dragon. Here is a quick refresher on its stats:

AC: 3
HD: 6
D:  1-4/1-4/2-16

Let's start with hit points. If the expected value of a 1d8 is 4.5, the average white dragon will have 27 hp. That hp amount is not out of bounds for a party of 6-8 well-armed 1 level players (q.v. the orge or minatuar in the Keep on the Borderlands). Three attacks per round isn't, by itself, a show stopper for beginning characters. Carrion crawlers/Carcass Scavengers get 8 attacks per round. However, the bite of a white dragon is pretty vicious with an expected value of 9hp. That's a death sentence for all classes by very harty dwarves and fighters.

But we haven't gotten to the really terror of dragons: their breath weapons.

If you have forgotten (and readers of this blog almost certainly have not), dragon breath weapons cause as much damage as the creature's remaining hit points. Even those that make their saving throws will take half that damage. If this weren't enough, note that breath weapon attacks are area attacks, that is, one attack affects everyone with a certain area. Yikes!

The Moldvay rules explicitly state that all dragons will use their breath weapon as their first attack! So, our average white dragon will spew a 80'x30' cone of frosty death for 27 hp of damage on the first round it attacks. Against our first level party, none of the affected PCs will survive. No first level character can have more than 11 hp. Assuming every PC saves, the breath weapon charitably does 13 points of damage.

Total party kill, indeed.

But there is an out: dragon age.

The Moldvay rules state that the dragon stats given are merely average values. Young dragons will have 3 fewer HD, while older ones have 3 more HD.

So the young white dragon will have 3 HD and, on average, 12-15 hp.

Now the breath weapon is slightly more survivalable. The 12 hp version of the draon will still kill all players who fail their save and most of the non-fighters who make theirs. That's pretty grim! But what is perhaps worse is that the drgaon still have vicious claw/claw/bite attacks. These attacks are not affected by age.

Our young dragon's bite IS worse than its bark/breath.

So should low adventures include dragons? I wouldn't rule them out. The Lake Geneva boys knew that dragons would be a challenge for new players. However, I can't think of a better "end boss" for a campaign. I suggest dragons would make a poor choice for wandering monsters though.

20 April 2012

Weird West Miniatures

The Talented Mr. Stuart Robertson has a launched a project to create miniatures for his Weird West RPG. It needs to be funded. The amount isn't all that much if enough people kick in some dough.

I have done my part. There are great perks for contributing, not the least of which is a set of lead figures.

16 April 2012

Anticipation is making me wait

«IT TAKES TOO LONG TO LEVEL!!!»

Who hasn't heard this refrain from their players or even themselves.

In B/X and AD&D, experience points from adventuring must be divided equally among the surviving members of the party. But to survive, especially at the lower levels, you need a fairly large party (6-10). Even if you weight retainers and NPCs less than PCs (as I do), that's still A LOT of kobolds, goblins and orcs to smite before even the humble fighter can see level two.

Let's make the math simple. An orc is worth 10XP. Fighters need 2035XP to get to level 2. A solo PC fighter will need to slay or banish 204 orcs to level. TWO HUNDRED AND FOUR ORCS mano-a-mano.

But since the survival rate of one fighter against this many orcs is vanishingly small, let's group 10 fighters into a party. That means to that the party must face 2040 orcs for each member of the party to become veterans.

That's nuckin' futs.

While I tip my hat to those players with copious spare time to do it the right way, I propose GRADING ON A CURVE.

Perhaps we could cut the XP requirements by a quarter or a half? Said another way, perhaps we could double the XP value of monsters? Would that really wreck the game?

I don't think so.

Let's evince some Vancian detachment from our PCs. Let 'em level quicker, play high level modules sooner and retire quicker so that we can play other PCs. That's not such a bad plan, is it?

Share your thoughts in the comments below or mouth off on your own blog. XP: slow and steady or petal to the metal?

15 April 2012

Dwarf and Retainer

Too many interruptions from life have impeded my OSR blogging of late. However, a few notes.

I am pleased that Grognardia's Dwimmermount kickerstater raised %300 of their original goal. $50K is a lot of money to be throwing around. I wonder if this is on the radar of WotC. I suppose it doesn't matter.

I see that Jeff Dee has a series of kickstarters too. I wish to bring more attention to these, as I like to see the original art work restored.

While I love to look at AD&D modules for ideas, I really do not like the ruleset. There is way too much to track in an AD&D game for my tastes. I realize I am not in the majority here. I continue to marvel at the simplicity of the Moldvay '81 rules, which Labyrinth Lords mostly copied (and improved upon: Plate Armor really should be expensive!)

I am late to the party, but I recall seeing a round of discussion on OSR blogs about initiative. In my world, initiative happens at the start of combat only. Then, each side alternates. Is this realistic? Nope, but it is simple. So far, I have had no complaints.

I hope to find more goodies in my Dragon expedition, but I still have tax stuff to deal with. Where is my +4 Battleaxe vs. Bureaucracy when I need it?

02 April 2012

The Gods must be crazy

You will pardon my hiatus. A perfect storm of illness, work crises and lethargy keep me from my RPG rounds. Also, I have been playing the rather nifty Realm of the Mad God, a Flash-based MMO with NES style graphics.

While I am not generally a fan of MMOs, this one is about my speed. There is no back story worth discussing. You spend almost no time rolling characters. And, most importantly, PC death is permanent! Sound familiar?

As I have previously posited, D&D is a kind of wagering game. Players attempt to achieve goals by betting their PCs life. Like RotMG, PC death is very hard and expensive to overcome which is what makes their pretend lives meaningful.

Jason McIntosh has written about the trend in modern games to lessen the sting of the death of the player's avatar. In many ways, the death of video game avatars is a legacy of the co-op arcade origin of modern games. I certainly enjoyed CRPGs more when characters could be raised from a premature death (like in the Might & Magic series).

With real PC death, even World of Warcraft starts to look interesting. PvP anyone?

01 April 2012

Legends of the Fall: A Golden Age Revisited

I am a big fan of the work James Maliszewski does over at Grognardia. After his Dwimmermount campaign, I suspect his next biggest legacy will be is classification of the history of the D&D hobby into various "ages."

For me, the interesting bit is where to draw the line between the Golden Age and the Silver Age. Which is another way of saying, when did TSR turn up the suck knob on this hobby? And who is to blame?

One obvious fracture in the history of TSR is the ouster of E. Gary Gygax at the end of 1985. TSR products took on a very different sheen after that; a sheen I did not ken to.

A lot of blame of the suckage gets dumped on Dragonlance, the work of Tracy and Laura Hickman. Certainly, I thought that series was unctuous and boring. However, I enjoyed the heck out of the Desert of Desolation series, which apparently is not universally loved. Heck, I think the original Ravenloft module is entertaining (if not exactly what I would want from a Vampire module).

Dungeon hacking is fun, but it does get old. Give the Hickmans some credit for trying some new.

Being older and having seen real companies grow and change. Leadership really does matter, as Apple is about to find out (and Microsoft has already learned after a decade of failure from Balmer).

So if the Hickmans rose in ascendance at TSR, might Gygax be to blame? After all, that dude was busy in the early eighties. He was spinning up various media deals and spending a lot of time in California. There is little question that Gygax was a real content producer and visionary in the 70s, but perhaps he was grooming others to take on that mantle.

Certainly, later Gygax products for TSR were mediocre. Unearthed Arcana should have been called The Best of Dragon, IV. Oriental Adventures was unfinished as a system and felt more like fan-fiction. And he pretty much farmed out the completion of the Temple of Elemental Evil to poor Mentzer (you might not like the product but at least he got something published). Any wonder why the Blume brothers might have been looking for a replacement for Gygax and a content visionary?

One last point I would make is terms like "golden age" are always misleading, tinged with nostalgia, and willfully forget the terrible bits of the time. 1975-1983 was a crazy time for a hobby trying to define itself. Great things certainly were produced during that time (a time when frankly adults seemed to have read a lot more pulp fiction than they do now). When I look back at that time, I can't but see the Zeitgeist of the times. Despite the paranoia and disillusionment engendered by Watergate, there was still a lot of optimism in this country that is absent today. That's why radically dystopian games like Gamma World and Paranoia could still have a light sense of humor.

Mostly, what was good about the Golden Age was that no one knew what D&D should be. This allowed for a lot of influences on the game that would later be filtered out.

I realize that as hobbists, we owe a lot to Gygax, Arneson, and company. But as adults, we can be more critical and honest with ourselves. Luckily, D&D has been "open sourced." We can make of the hobby what we will.

31 March 2012

More content this week

I have two blog posts scheduled for later this week. Perhaps a third will materialize later. On of the posts is a pointed opinion piece about Saint Gygax, which will no doubt ruffle some feathers.

I am not a fan of creating rules just to have more rules, especial in the context of this hobby. I hope to present settings or content or inspiration for your own house games. That seems the real value of these OSR blogs.

09 March 2012

Little Flanders in High Relief

Stuart Robertson has posted the illustrations that I commissioned from him for a Labyrinth Lord adventure I call The Manse on Murder Hill. The adventure happens in a small village called Little Flanders, which I will talk about in another post.

I am very pleased that Stuart was available to work on this project. I am a first-time module publisher, although not a first time writer. Many, many things can go wrong in this process. However, Stuart showed a lot of enthusiasm for this project when I shared with him the very rough draft I had at the time.

You can't buy enthusiasm.

Stuart's illustrations are excellent. I am a huge Mike Mignola fan (and by extension, a Jack Kirby one too). The artwork captures that high contrast, low detail style that I love without being derivative. It also has got an old school feel without aping the original TSR illustrators.

Role playing uses the best graphic processors in the world: our minds. However, the occasional illustration seems to fire off our imaginations far more than words alone.

As I work on tightening up the manuscript and layout, I am confident that the product is now in my hands to screw up. Stuart has more than delivered on his part.

08 March 2012

Every gamer's dream

From Dragon #82, published February, 1984 comes this ad for the seventh annual winter fantasy convention from TSR.

That kid creeps me out. The kid's fantasy creeps me out. Frosty the Snowman vs. sad knight Pinocchio? The whole ad could easily be for NAMBLA.

I need a shower and some whiskey.

07 March 2012

A complete line of components

From Dragon #50, June 1981, comes this wonderful glimpse into the gaming industry.

It is an ad for a game manufacturer, which is to say, they offer publishing services specifically for RPGs and board games.

What do they provide? Dice? Check. Spinners? Of course! Die cut counters? All day, everyday. Maps? Dude, they have game technicians ready to review your needs.

For such a company to exist and advertise, it implies a demand. This was a time just before "TV games" invaded every home. Even then, people had time and money for leisure. The game market was on fire, like some sort of analog dotcom boom. A lot of little startups, like Patch Press, were trying to get a piece of that sweet, sweet hobby pie.

Everyone want to have a cash hoard, to have "Gygax money."

Actually, I see something like this happening now with the OSR community. Just look at the success of recent projects like Adventurer Conquerer King, The B/X Companion and the Dwimmermount kickstarter. The "Patch Press" of today are companies like Lulu, DriveThru RPG and Dragonsfoot.

I don't expect the hobby to generate a lot of wealth this time around, but the cost of production is so much lower than ever before. Some one or two people will make a tidy sum.

Life (and hobbies) will find a way.

05 March 2012

Silk screened in brilliant gold

A momentous issue, Dragon #50 appeared in June 1981. Because of the weird publishing schedule of the first several issues, this was Dragon's fifth anniversary. As you can imagine, there are many editorials reflecting on the success of the magazine and the state of the hobby. The future was so bright then, they probably needed to wear to some of protective eye gear.

What's interesting about this ad, which appears toward the back of the issue, is it again reminds me powerfully of the pre-Internet era. This is an ad for a t-shirt. There is one design, some tricked out dragon. You get two choices: shirt size and color (blue or black). That's it! The vendor also probably bought a bunch of t-shirts already to meet the anticipated demand.

Do you kids even recognize the abbreviation in the corner, s.a.s.e? That's Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. These days, we just expect to see the catalogs of vendors instantly online for free.

Heck, if a site takes longer than 15 seconds to load, I am gone, baby.

However, customers were a lot more patient then. In those days, vendors would have to send you printed colateral. And that costs money! I think that by asking customers to send their own stamped and addressed envelope, vendors were connecting with people who are really interested in their product.

Dare I say that this was a primative spam prevention mechanism in the postal days?

I would love to know the success rate of these early advertisers.

03 March 2012

TaskboyGames web site

As a housekeeping note, I will be using TaskboyGames as the central place to advertise the modules I hope to publish on RPGNow.com. I will still blog here using the magic of hyperlinks.

It's a branding thing.

02 March 2012

Help fund the Dwimmermount Kickerstarter

James Maliszewski of Grognardia is attempting to publish his Dwimmermount megadungeon as a real flesh and paper product. This would be an excellent OSR artifact.

I have kicked in a few rupees. I encourage you to do so as well at any amount you can.

Your ad here

From The Dragon, #35, March 1980, is this form for the short-lived Dragon want ads.

In the Before Times, people with common interests would advertise for all kinds of goods and services in printed publications, like Dragon. That Dragon's circulation was big enough to sustain this service goes aways to showing how big the hobby was at that time.

In an article from the same issue, Gygax mentions that TSR was pulling in between $2-4 million that year and that Dungeons and Dragons was the most popular game that year including monopoly and scrabble. Also the circulation of Dragon was around 50,000.

Is your mind blown yet?

So what kinds of things were being advertised in The Dragon?

  • A service to paint your miniatures realistically
  • An inexpensive electronic 1-100 "randomizer"
  • Fly Flight, the fly swatting simulation (think paper and pencil not computer)

I suppose BBS, eBay and social media take the place of want ads these days, but still these are great to read.

01 March 2012

Welcome new readers

I suspect that the onslaught of new readers comes mostly from Stuart's fine art work I commissioned from him. It pays to advertise.

Although this is a fairly new blog, I have been punching out blogs for over a decade now. Wow. I need to absorb that.

In any case, I hope you find a few posts of interest here.

Tell them you saw it in The Dragon

This ad comes from The Dragon, issue #35, published March 1980.

It's an ad for fantasy bookplates.

Let me back up. In the 80s, there were these things called "books," which were like e-books, but more papery. And each book contained only one manuscript. And this wasn't because of some harsh DRM scheme; the technology allowed for only one story per book. I think it was a RAM issue or something.

Anyway when you had a particularly nice hardcover book like the Player's Handbook, you might want to mark it to discourage other people from stealing it from you. I did this with crayons, but fancier people might employ a "bookplate," which was a nazzy label affixed to the inside cover of a book. Often you would see bookplates used by libraries to identify their property.

Oh, so there were these places full of books called "libraries" that you could enter FOR FREE and read any book there FOR FREE, just like a Borders or Barnes and Nobles but without the coffee. And unlike Borders or B&N, you could borrow the book FOR FREE. Can you imagine how primitive that was? Where was the free market in this scheme?

So this dude or lady made some bookplates and took an ad out in The Dragon, whose readers were likely to have hardcover books. You see the business opportunity already, don't you? It's call market research.

Now, there wouldn't be web sites for another 15 years or so. That means you couldn't just download the PDF version of the bookplate, printed it on your Star Trek lazer printer and tape it to your DMG. No, you had to write for the catalog. Write a letter! Like a damn monkey! And then, you'd have to wait days, maybe WEEKS for the thing to show up in the mail. Only then could you make your selection of bookplate and write ANOTHER letter BY HAND to get the actual thing you wanted in 4 to 6 WEEKS.

Can you see why there was recession after recession in the eighties?

You kids have no idea how good you have it now.

29 February 2012

Tired of travelling all the time but getting nowhere?

This is the last thing I am ripping off from Dragon #58 (Feb. 1982).

The Travellers RPG, although popular, was not nearly as popular as DnD. So it is really fun to see this upstart company called Archive go right after this tiny fraction of a niche market. And do so with such venom.

Archive put out a few other game systems, none of which I played. That says more about my brand-loyalty than the quality of their games.

It's like a hate letter written to Grognardia from the past.

28 February 2012

Can you elude the Sandmen?

This ad comes from fabulous Dragon #58, published Februrary 1982.

Do you remember when movies sought after role playing game ties to help advertise? No? It was a long, long time ago.

Although it has gained a cult following now, Logan's Run was not well received when it debuted. A Michael York vehicle, the movie attempted to be some commentary on dwindling resources, excessive government, sexual liberation and free will. Or something. All the sci-fi films of time were about this.

I think the main appeal of this film over Zardoz is that at no time during the narrative does Sean Conner appear in a shiny red diaper.

27 February 2012

Untimately's 20 questions

Untimately posted some questions and I, like a zombie, must answer the siren call to blab.

  1. Ability scores generation method?
    Throw 4d6 seven times. For each 4d6, drop the lowest number. Then drop the lowest sum of the seven. Arrange to taste. Players should play the character that they want. It's not poker.
    Also, I grant max HP to all first level characters. This seems to have blunted the mortality rate of PCs only slightly. I recommend this to all DMs.
  2. How are death and dying handled?
    Expeditiously. But to echo Jeff Reints: hp 0 requires fast medical attention, hp -1 requires raise dead.
  3. What about raising the dead?
    I generally do not encourage resurrecting low-level characters. I make it expensive for high level characters.
  4. How are replacement PCs handled?
    Party meets replacement back at the tavern/keep/city hall/guild
  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
    Group initiative: party and monsters. d6. High roll wins. Tie goes to the party (in my current campaign).
  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
    I don't think I have these rules as you probably mean them. 1 always, always misses. 20 always, always hits. Your L1 MU with a dagger can still hit Lolth with her -10AC (that's right, -10). Your L20 fighter with his +5 Sword of Awesome can still miss a wounded kobold.
  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? They make you look rather dashing, I think. Those with face masks will disguise your identity.
  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
    Nope.
  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
    That's not really up to me, is it? Every encounter has its tactical options. Sometimes, you can't run.
  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no?
    Yes, but I try to make it fair for the players. I don't think wights should have level-drain, for example. I am fine with vampires having this ability (and it fits with their backstory better).
  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
    Of course. Isn't that the point of saving throws? What the heck are you kids playing? Save vs. ennui? Save vs. crippling doubt?
  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
    Loosely, but there are limits. One dude isn't carrying 100,000 coins without a bag of holding or a floating disk or something.
  13. What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
    I used to be a "levels immediately" guy, but I have backed off that. Now, you need time, materials and gold to level at a guild or its moral equivalent. It is a good way to keep the PCs attached to a home base and drain excess coinage from them. It solves the problem of where and what spells magic-users can have too.
  14. What do I get experience for?
    To level, silly! Oh, you mean how do PCs earn XP? Killing beasts, gaining treasure (in gold pieces), achieving quests, making moral choices. That's right, moral choices. If you don't genocide a goblin village right down to non-combatant women and children, I'll give you some XP for that. I don't allow chaotic PCs. If you want that, go thrill kill in an MMORPG.
  15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
    I generally want PC thieves to find them. However, obvious mechanical traps (e.g. the covered pit, pressure plates, etc.) should be discoverable through careful role playing.
  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
    Retainers are white listed. Morale works as per Labyrinth Lord rules when I need to them to work that way. It is a game, so when elements do not produce fun, I ignore them.
  17. How do I identify magic items?
    Local guilds, pawn merchants and other professionals will offer this service for 100 gp or more.
  18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
    If a merchant sells them and you have the gold, you can buy them. Supply and demand is at work here. I allow and encourage the sale of healing potions. Heck, I give the party healing potions to keep them in the dungeon longer (see the 15 minute workday).
  19. Can I create magic items? When and how?
    This hasn't come up yet. This is in the rules, so I'll have to concoct some mechanic for it, but I don't really want to encourage it. I'd rather have the PCs fighting or adventuring than screwing around in a lab (which is essentially what I do every day in real life). Might be interesting to have an adventure in which a potent magic item or ritual is needed to save some McGuffin. I need to write that down...
  20. What about splitting the party?
    This has yet to come up, but it could. I would allow it, but the players whose PCs aren't present would have to leave the table/chatroom/etc.

26 February 2012

Seduction of the Innocent

At the bottom of this post is an editorial written by publisher Jake Jaquet that appeared in Dragon Magazine, issue #58 from February 1982. It concerns a contemporaneous incident of a college student who was shot by campus police while playing a live-action game called assassin. which still alive and well today. I never played the game, but I would have been ALL OVER IT when I was 18 had I known about it. Let me crowdsource the explanation of the game (wikipedia):

Players try to eliminate each other from the game using mock weapons in an effort to become the last surviving player.

Modern technology has kept up with this game. There is now a mobile app to help you track your targets. Jeez, I would play this now. Can I use Google hangouts for it?

25 February 2012

Almost human

Because I am in many ways an unfrozen caveman dice-chucker myself, I have missed most of the tropes surrounding elves, dwarves and hobbits, er, halflings that seemed to have developed and ossified over the last thirty years.

Despite the protestations of E. G. G., all of these demihumans are informed by Lord of the Rings. Tolkien created halflings, period. Getting them out of the shadow of LotR may be impossible or even against copyrights.

24 February 2012

Go figure

I will return to byting Grognardia's style later this weekend, but tonight I post this fearsome skeletal pikeman. In case I have not made is clear, I am not into painting let alone painting miniatures.

In the early eighties, Dragon magazine regularly published pictures of painted figurines in diorama settings. I am sad to report that these were all poor quality. I am sure these were great examples of painted figurines at the time, but I have seen what the 'Eavy Metal shop pumps out. Wow.

I understand the utility of figurines in resolving combat, but I take a more schematic approach. The DM rules on line of sight issues, how many combatants can be in melee, etc. So, I have had no complaints, but there is a certain arbitrariness to the whole process.

Still, it's just a game about repeatedly bonking beasties on the head.

21 February 2012

The International DM Search is ON!

These understated affairs come from The Dragon #16, from July 1978. Why yes, I did just buy this on eBay! Thanks for asking!

In the previous ad for a TSR employee, TSR busted out an illustrator. But I suppose things were a lot leaner in 1978. Didn't Carter tell the country to put on a sweater or something that year? In any case, those Americans not wallowing in a malaise and for whom this recent offshoot of war gaming was of interest might have found this ad on page 21 (the zine had but 35 pages then) intriguing.

What were these "fringe benefits" alluded to in the ad? What sort of design and editorial experience were they looking for? And if one had a solid grounding in Monopoly, was that sufficient "general knowledge" of games? I suppose we'll never know the answers to these questions. But I'm sure some now legend of D&D answered the call.

Perhaps having been badly burned before, this ad requests a resume AND a photo. I believe that this practice is totally illegal now, at least when the request comes from outside of the entertainment business.

I swear, this makes me what to initiate a kickstarter project to re-create TSR.

The second ad puts all DMs on high alert as TSR takes on the quest of finding all Dungeon Masters. That's right, if you've ever read through a module and told a group of your friends "your elf has been killed by the kobold Under-Lord," you could appear in The Dragon.

I guess this was a kind of "dating" site to match players and DMs? Seems weird, but times were desperate before (and after) the Internet. You kids don't know how lucky you are.

I have the later issue where the completed list of DMs appears. It's sort of like a blog roll, but with 3 parts crazy and one part sad.

And look, no pictures are requested for the DMs. Coincidence?

Finally a useful adventure program

Both of these ads appear in Dragon magazine #91, published November 1984. By this time, Dragon was a very polished affair and most of the truly goof ads were banished to the back of the magazine and shrunk to an 1/8 of the page.

Ads like the ones here.

In the fall of 1984, I had a T. I. 99/4a. The keyboard had great action. Too bad I didn't have a tape or disk drive for it. I might have started programming 10 years earlier. Without the Internet (or a modem), without a disk drive, the T.I. in my home was limited to a few expensive game cartridges which I played the heck out of.

Firstly, I am impressed that this ad appears to have been "typeset" on the T.I. That sure looks like a dot-matrix printout with a hand-drawn circle-Register symbol. Next, the feature list of this "software" is pretty laughable even now. Desktop publishing was just starting, particularly with the new Macintosh computers from Apple. Even though this ad looks cheesy and terrible now, at the time it looked modern and sci-fi -- like digital watches, Devo and Ronald Reagan's hair.

So what does this software do? Create "randome" (you know, like randomy, randomish, etc) names? Do you kids even know what computers were like before spell check? All of these features are essentially the same program: create a table of data and pick a random element from it. This is the sort of exercise I give to students when I teach programming. In modern computer languages, this is fairly trivial to execute.

The prelude to picking a random element out of a table is generating a random element. Dice rollers are trivial, just look at the one I wrote in javascript. However, creating a truly random number generator is difficult because computers are pretty deterministic things.

Enough with the comp sci.

Character generation is slightly more complicated (I've written at least two versions of this program in the last 3 years). There are specific "business rules" that apply to each kind of character in each kind of RPG system. It gets more complicated if you are going to select spells and equipment for them. More complexity is added when you allow random levels. You don't want to allow 9th level halflings, right?

So, to recap: this "Medival [sic] Creator" isn't Zork. It's not even a game. And it costs $15? In 1984? You could get dinner at McDonald's and see a movie for $15 in those days.

The next ad is for the Dragonbone, which surely must also be the name of an adult film by now. This device generates random numbers for you, which is just one of the features of the "Medival [sic] Creator." But it is "hardware" and so costs $15. The hardcover AD&D books were selling for $12 at the time (modules for $6). However, I seem to recall "nice" dice being sort of expensive in the day, so maybe this wasn't out of line.

Grognardia covered his thoughts on this dopey device, but unlike him, I always thought it was useless. Rolling dice is fun! It is the primary physical activity of RPGs. Why do you want to get rid of that?

What would have been nice is a program to track time and events during an adventure. Eventually, I would discover that this program is called a "spreadsheet" and, although available in 1984 in the form of Visicalc, was far beyond my price range at the time. And now, thanks to Google, spreadsheets are free.

I can't find it now, but I am sure I have seen an even earlier version of the Dragonbone ad than either this one or the one on Grognardia. When I dig it up, I'll post it.

I just realized another advantage of blogging about ads: no C&D orders.

20 February 2012

Erol Otus's arrival at the Keep

7MB file

This piece of Erol Otus will always be magical to me. It comes, of course, from the back of B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.

The lurid colors set against the magenta cover send me as much today as they did 30 years ago when I first saw it.

I post this because Grognardia posted a broken link to it.

19 February 2012

Friendly working atmosphere, a reasonable hourly wage

This ad appeared on page 56 of Dragon #47, from March 1981.

How awesome is this ad? Well, EROL OTUS DID THE ILLUSTRATION. That's pretty much all I need to see. But even better, it's an ad for a position at TSR. From the looks of it, it looks like an editorial assistant gig. This is back in the day when being an editor was a job humans had and not just the name of a program.

However, you can perhaps see a bit of the corporate culture taking over at TSR. This ad is like some many of those I see for tech startups these days who have just gotten funding.

Tech startups could easily re-used Otus's graphic to represent software development.

Notice that Doug Blume is referenced. Where is he now?

Also note that Steve Winter saw this exact ad in this issue and applied to TSR. If I were in my 20s and saw this, I would have jumped on it too.