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?
  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.

18 February 2012

All Instrumental stereo albums

At the risk of stepping on Grognardia's style, I will be pointing out some of the ads from my collection of ancient Dragon magazines that I feel we all need to know about. Few of these ads will be directly enlightening to players of the game. Most will be a thrilling dark ride into the artifacts that have always surrounded this hobby. Artifacts I both adore and ridicule.

First up come this ad from Dragon #100, published August 1985. Dragon #100 was one of the last issues I received as part of my subscription. Somehow, I missed this ad at time.

It's bad enough that someone wrote, played and record "music for adventure gaming." Then again, I did buy a collection of apocalyptic classical music for Y2K. In any case, this harkens back to the days of Long Playing records (kids, use wikipedia).

Obviously, incidental music was what most of us were missing in our orc slaying.

Perhaps I will uncover an ad for a product that provides "authentic medieval smells of the cities, towns and villages for your next gaming session."

This ad pays the reader in laughs for each additional viewing.

Someone totally needs to write a module called "Empires of Dance."

11 February 2012

We are all members of the Church of the Big Gamble

As an older player of Dungeons and Dragons, there are aspects of the game that are only now glaringly apparent. For player (that is PCs), the challenge of the game is primarily resource management. The resource is their character. Players need to balance their character's remaining hit points against remaining spells and gold. There really aren't enough demands on player gold, but that's a topic for another day.

Players invest their real world time (that most precious and non-replenishable of resources) into building increasingly high level characters. To do this, they must risk the very asset that they wish to improve: their character.

This risk is a lot like that of the traditional gambler, who puts his money at risk to make more. The desire of the gambler is, obviously, to make more money and not lose his original stake.

Of course, PCs aren't quite in the same boat. In D&D, you don't get much reward for killing 8 kobolds. You have to keep killing monsters until your characters levels up. This is like playing tournament Texas Hold 'em. You can't stop; You're totally committed.

Others in the old school blogosphere have lamented exactly this discontinuous reward system that frankly defines D&D and many other RPGs (including Fallout).

It might be a good idea to reward the players for smaller milestones. In particular, award hit points every several hundred experience points instead of a lump sum at the time of leveling. This is most critical at the first few levels. Users of magic can get additional spells normally -- that is less critical to survival. Thieving abilities might similarly progress at a sub-level event threshold.

It feels very cruel to make players invest perhaps dozens of hours of play to have their characters get to level 2. This fails to reward good play, narrow escapes and hard-won skirmishes along the way. If poker worked the same way, few people would play it.

One might reasonably ask what does the Dungeon Master risk and what is his pay off, but that will have to wait for another day.

07 February 2012

A Tale of Two Fighters

Eli was a B/X fighter with the following stats:

S: 18
I: 10
W: 7
D: 13
C: 10
H: 9

HP: 8

He was kitted out with a two-handed sword and chain mail (giving him AC 4)

Eli died when goblins used him for target practice.

Chopper is B/X fighter with the following stats:

S: 18
I: 6
W: 7
D: 16
C: 17
H: 13

HP: 10

He is kitted out with a two-handed sword and splint mail (giving him AC 2).

Both were put in the front rank to be "tanks."

Chopper is going to last a lot longer than Eli because of his low AC and hit points. For low-level characters, low AC is critical. You need to reduce your opponents chance of hitting you as much as you can. Recall that each point on a d20 is a %5 chance.

I am not advocating obsessive min/maxing. I am suggesting you build your tanks correctly.

04 February 2012

Actors versus Generals

A problem has vexed all role playing games since the hobby's inception: what exactly is it? Poker is a card game in which players wager on the strength of their hands. Chess is a wargame in which each opponent attempts to take his opposite's king. Monopoly is a board game in which each player attempts to bankrupt each of his competitors. This pithy exercise fails to yield a satisfying answer for an RPG like Dungeons and Dragons.