Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Short Rest in Peace

This time, last year, saw me head down and pushing the final draft of Stonehell Dungeon towards the door. This year, I’ve been busy with keeping things flowing with my Labyrinth Lord campaign, working on other people’s projects, and juggling three blogs at once. That’s a whole bunch of stuff to be doing during my favorite time of the year.

Since the Watchfires & Thrones game is taking off for Halloween, I’ve got a brief tretch of time ahead of me where I don’t have any specific deadlines looming. Therefore, I’m taking some well deserved “me time” starting now and extending into the first week of November. The Society will be on hiatus during this period, as will the Archive of the Rotted Moon. I’ll be finishing up my “31 posts in 31 days” marathon over at Secret Antiquities, but I’ll be taking a breather from that project after the 31st.

Once I return, I’ll be diving back into the post-apocalyptic pool again as I’ve still got some ground to cover there. However, if all goes according to plan, I’ll have something new for you folks as well. Stay tuned and have a Happy Halloween. I’ll see you soon.

My Sole Contribution to the 4th Edition Rules

As I mentioned earlier, despite having never played or adjudicated 4th edition until last Sunday, I felt compelled to add my own house rule to the system. It was intended to both underline the Wahoo! atmosphere of Gamma World and to address an issue with 4th edition that I have often heard others complain about. I have seen some people bemoan the fact that the encounter powers and other wackiness of limited use turn into little more than a player stating, “I use Incredible Bitch Slap on [X],” intoned with all the excitement of “A-3” in a game of Battleship. Not in my game dammit!

This has probably been addressed by others in similar manner, so forgive my ignorance if that’s the case. In any event, here’s my house rule suitable for use in any D&D Gamma World game (and a few straight D&D ones as well):

“Whenever a character invokes a power or object whose use is limited to once per encounter, they must describe how incredibly cool that effect makes their character look and how awesome a power it is. Failure to do so will result in a -2 penalty to the attack/resolution roll. Thus, don’t tell me “I use fiery flare on this guy,” and point at the counter. Tell me, ‘I roll up my sleeves and ignite my hands. Staring down at the cringing badder, I say “How about a little fire, fuzzy britches?” before hurling a skull-shaped ball of napalm at him.’ Doing so negates the -2 penalty and may even earn you a small bonus.

“This rule may also affect the use of skills at the game master’s discretion (And probably should).”

D&D Gamma World: The Final Analysis

After Sunday’s Watchfires & Thrones game, a few of the guys hung around to give D&D Gamma World a test drive. After character creation was completed, we only had time to run through one of the eight encounters in the introductory scenario. This final analysis of the latest version of Gamma World is based on that single play session, so take that as you may. But first: an anecdote.

Back in college, some friends and I would take the occasional trip to the Poughkeepsie Galleria mall to visit whichever big toy store was located there. We’d peruse the discount board games’ bin and come home with a cheap game, usually one with a sci-fi or fantasy vibe, to play on those nights when” beer & pretzels” fun was desired. One of the titles we brought home was Dragonstrike.

Some of my readers might recall that game as one of TSR’s many attempts to introduce people to the concept of roleplaying games and thus increase their potential customer base. It’s mostly memorable for the 30-minute introductory video that featured cutting edge CGI and green screen footage. Well, cutting edge for 1993 anyway. The game used an extremely simplified version of the basic D&D rules and included plastic miniature pieces to be moved around one of the two double-sided playing boards. The game came with several prewritten scenarios that required one player to become the “Dragon Master” and run the other players through them. If you’ve ever played HeroQuest, you’ve got the idea of what Dragonstrike was.

Since all of us in that group of friends had at least some roleplaying experience, we bought Dragonstrike with the intention of mocking it fiercely and approached the game as if we had never seen an RPG before. After watching the instructional video (and opening a few beers), we set up the game as instructed, even quoting a few of the choice lines from the video, and sat down to play. And even though we intended to be purely ironical in our playing of the game, we discovered it was a lot of fun.

Dragonstrike wasn’t a roleplaying game, mind you, but it did help scratch that RPG itch without the need to setup a campaign, build a dungeon, and generate characters. We even managed to get a little roleplaying in, but that was more a result of who was playing rather than what we were playing. In time, we came up with a few house rules that allowed the playing pieces to advance in power and retain items from previous scenarios. In the end, we played the hell out of Dragonstrike for a few weeks before moving on to other things. I still have the game in storage somewhere and wouldn’t be adverse to using it as an introduction to roleplaying (although I’d more likely just start with the actual beast).

Looking back on our experience with Dragonstrike, several things become clear. Was it a roleplaying game? No, but some of the mechanics were the same. Would I ever try and use the game to run an ongoing campaign? Not on your life. I suppose I could, but I’d have to make a slew of house rules that went beyond the intent of the game because it simply isn’t designed for that purpose. Was it fun? Oh most certainly, although we didn’t expect it to be when we first sat down to play. As the most keen-witted of you has undoubtedly guessed by now, the reason I mention this anecdote is because, for me, D&D Gamma World was the same experience as Dragonstrike—which might have been exactly what WotC was intending.

Although I went into D&D Gamma World as open-minded as possible, I nevertheless expected to be disappointed if not outright angry with the game. Gamma World was the second RPG I ever owned and is a dearly loved favorite. After what I construed as them pissing in my favorite fantasy swimming hole, I expected WotC to do the same with Gamma World. But an unexpected mixture of elements would prove me wrong and I’m not adverse to admitting when I’ve made a mistake.

As I read the rulebook to D&D Gamma World, I found the game growing on me a little. This was largely due to the previously mentioned old school sensibilities that this version has: the random character generation, the lethality, and the gonzo “anything’s possible” default setting did a lot to soften me up. The 4th edition rules engine, however, did its best to erode this burgeoning good will towards the game and it wasn’t until I stopped looking at D&D Gamma World as a RPG but as a board game with RPG elements that I stopped worrying and started loving the bomb again. Because, as far as I’m concerned, that is what D&D Gamma World is.

The whole “4th edition is nothing but a skirmish miniatures game” has been argued back and forth in many places and mediums, and after finally being exposed to it in detail, I’m apt to agree. Yet you have to admit that by the modern definition of a roleplaying game, neither D&D or D&D Gamma World can be accused of false advertising. RPGs, thanks to computer gaming, are games where a player creates an avatar that he maneuvers through an imaginary world in order to complete quests, collecting treasure and items, and advance in power. WotC’s “pen-and-paper” (and increasingly “and-computer”) versions meet this definition on all counts. So we can indeed consider it a roleplaying game even if most of my readers wouldn’t call it that. Having that mindset in place allowed me to look past my initial distaste for the 4th edition engine and evaluate the game as to whether it accomplished what it set out to do—and I think it does.

I speculate that WotC is trying to grow its customer base in two ways: 1) by attracting lapsed gamers back into the fold (the D&D Starter Set and Essentials line seems geared specifically towards that end), and 2) produce products that appeal to casual gamers, the kind who might be interested in playing short sessions that were heavy on immediate fun with minimal investment of time and energy. D&D Gamma World and the D&D Encounters program appear to be targeting those types of players. You can show up at your local game store with character in hand, play for an hour or three, get some loot and go home. If you want, you can come back next week and do it again.

D&D Gamma World is clearly intended to be played this way, and since it is successful in this endeavor, I can’t fault it for it. The rules all but ensure that the emphasis of the game is on the encounter happening right now and not the long-term. Despite brief attempts to reassure the player and game master that it’s important to think about the character’s personality and to build adventures that include lots of skill checks, role-playing, and problem solving, it’s obvious that these are tertiary concerns at best. Why worry about such ephemeral matters when there are mutants to burn with your laser beam eyes?!

Despite being intended for that style of play, it is not impossible to use the game in a more traditional manner. Unfortunately, it was my impression that to do so would require the judicious use of house rules. From the comments left on my previous posts and on other venues, I see that some people are already planning on implementing wide-reaching changes in the way that mutations, tech, and other aspects of the game are handled. This leads me to conclude that I’m not alone in this impression. But again, one can’t blame the game because this was not what it was designed for.

The game successfully serves as an introduction to 4th edition game mechanics, one that’s both brief and clear. Having never played 4th edition before, after reading the rulebook I was able to run Sunday’s session in a confident manner. I did have to have two of my more experienced 4th edition players clarify a rule or two, but these clarifications matched what I expected the rules’ intentions to be. If need be, I could sit down and play in a 4th edition game without concern…and that’s something that I never expected I’d be able to say. I even made my own house rule for 4th edition, which confirms my suspicion that I just can’t leave well enough alone when it comes to rules.

The result of all this is that I did indeed have a good time playing D&D Gamma World. That enjoyment was the same kind I experienced with Dragonstrike. It was an entertaining, low-investment of time and energy way to scratch the post-apocalyptic roleplaying itch. Would I play it again? Yes, I would, but again with the goal of having a good time without the need to look beyond the fight of the moment. Would I use it to run a campaign? No, not at all. The need to house rule, the overlong combats, and the built-in reliance on additional material for expansion makes it unsuitable for my needs.

In the end, D&D Gamma World is a complete success for what it intends to do. Whether its intentions and your own are compatible will ultimately determine what your own impression of the game is.

That’s it for the D&D Gamma World here at the SoTPR. We will soon be returning you to your regular blog programming. But first, a few last minute bullet points that came up during the game session on Sunday:

* WotC made a huge mistake when designing the Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards: they have the same backing, making it impossible to tell at a glance which pile is which. It’s also very easy for one type of card to get mixed in with the others. A seemingly minor quibble, but this was an issue at least twice during the hour-long session of play.

* Lest anyone think I’m fully in the 4th edition camp now, to paraphrase Spider Robinson, “If you can’t have fun with D&D Gamma World, it’s your own damn fault.” The entertainment value of Sunday’s game came just as much from the PCs as it did the rules as written. If the idea of a giant mutated saguaro cactus in a cowboy outfit, a mutant Joan Crawford, a swarm of flaming kittens, and a giant gravity controller swinging a dead midget on a chain as a weapon doesn’t make you grin, I can’t help you.

* Although the mechanics of 4th edition lays out everything you need to know in order to run an encounter, they also don’t lend themselves to making “legal” encounters of your own without the more detailed rulebooks. I tried to reverse engineer some of the mutants in D&D Gamma World to find out why the stats were what they were without success. I suspect things are much clearer in the D&D rule hardbacks.

* Speaking of mechanics, my players were able to confirm that the rules are a bit lighter than normal and some changes have been made to the core rules. The one that caused the biggest reaction was that second-wind now recovers half your total hit points and costs a minor action to perform.

* Although I don’t think it’s on the agenda, I wouldn’t mind seeing a line of pre-painted plastic miniatures for D&D Gamma World. Having a low cost and ready-to-use selection of 28mm minis would be a boon both to my own planned Gamma World campaign and for gonzo referees looking to add weird new critters to their D&D or retroclone campaigns.

* In retrospect, I think I’m growing more tolerant of other editions of my favorite games. I’ve found my preferred versions and am happily playing them with likeminded people. As such, I’m more willing to try new things because I know that, should I not find them to my liking, they’re not the (literally) only game in town.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Initial Reading of D&D Gamma World Part II

I’ve had the time to finish the D&D Gamma World rulebook and give the included cards a once-over now, so here are the final bullets points about the boxed set that I think traditional gamers would want to know. As the second half of the book is devoted to only three chapters, this entry will be shorter than yesterday’s.

Much of the information contained in these chapters involves 4th edition game mechanics and I don’t have the experience to go into particulars about such things. You’ve undoubtedly either read more on that subject or experienced it first hand—whatever I would add to the discussion would be well-trod ground. I do need to clarify a statement I made yesterday, however. I mentioned that it is my belief that the rules included in D&D Gamma World are a “lite” version. Some folks may have misconstrued that this meant it was a pared down version that would be simpler to run. It’s not. All the mechanics and condition modifiers you expect from 4th edition (move action, slide, push, encounter power, burst, blast, prone, bloodied, melee 1, etc.) are there. If you’re looking for a streamlined set of rules similar to older versions of D&D, you’ll be disappointed. My suspicion that they are a “lite” version was based on the fact that at least one movement condition (charging) is mentioned twice in the rules but no definition of what it means in game terms is provided, something I assume was left out as they were trimming the 4E rules down enough to fit on 13 pages of single column text. With that clarified, let’s move on to the rest of the rulebook’s contents.

* A chapter intended for the Game Master covers the basics of running and creating adventures. A few locations are presented (no more than a few sentences for each); rules about terrain and hazards encountered in Gamma Terra are provided; the concept of experience point budgets for use in creating encounters is explained; conditions such as Blinded, Slowed, Restrained, Stunned, etc. are described; and some general but brief advice to the GM is touched upon. Most of this is probably familiar ground if you’ve read or played 4th edition D&D.

* One chapter is dedicated to monsters, providing instructions on how to read their stats and use them in encounters. The abridged monster catalogue which follows features some of the classic Gamma World mutants in 4th edition format. Most monsters, as is typical in 4th edition, have two variants of different toughness for use against the PCs. The conversions of these monsters to 4th edition is more in spirit than actuality, but this is likely due to the difficulty in making straight adaptations of some of their powers to 4th edition mechanics. The hoop’s ability to turn metal into rubber is a notable case of this: its transmutation power now prevents the target from making a weapon attack until it makes a saving throw. Failed saving throws have a change of destroying Omega tech.

* For the record, the following mutants appear in the rulebook: Arn, Android, Blight, Badder, Blaash, Blood Bird, Dabber, Fen, Gren, Hoop, Horl Choo, Kai Lin, Menarl, Obb, Orlen, Parn, Porker^, Robot (Guardbot)^, Robot, Eradicator MK 3^, Sep, Serf, Sleeth, Soul Besh, Terl, and Yexil. ^ denotes a new monster. I suspect that the two expansion sets will include more classic mutants updated to 4th edition.

* The book concludes with an introductory adventure for five 1st level characters. Entitled “Steading of the Iron King,” the adventure takes the party to a badder fortress to find out why robots are emerging from it and blowing up just outside of town on a regular basis. The adventure features 8 encounters, all of which are combat encounters that take place at one of the locations provided on the two double-sided battle mats provided with the game.

* The Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards contain a mix of classic powers or items and new creations. Most but not all are combat-related. Each contains all the information needed to adjudicate the power or item in play, as well as serving as an indicator as to whether or not you’ve used that card (a la M:tG, cards to “tapped” or turned sideways upon use). It is effectively a part of your character sheet.

* In the comments to yesterday’s post, it was asked whether or not the cards could be replaced by a random table. The answer is yes, but it would be too much work with minimal pay-off. Making that change would mean that you would have to consult a master reference sheet (which you would have to make yourself, as all the mutations’/items’ powers are listed solely on the cards themselves and not in the rulebook) and copy the information down onto your character sheet. But if you’re playing by the rules as written, this information would be constantly changing, meaning you’d be doing a lot of erasing. The game is designed to utilize the card system and encourage deck building by the players and game master. The option is given that, instead of each player having his or her own deck, everyone draws from the game master’s deck. This is why I stated that a creative, home-brewing game master could get along fine without ever buying more cards: a stack of index cards, a pen, and some good ideas would save him money and consistently surprise the players.

That concludes my impressions of D&D Gamma World based entirely upon the read-through alone. I’ve already developed an overall opinion of the game but I’ll wait until I play a bit before putting it down in writing. I will state that I was more impressed with the game itself than I expected I’d be and that there are several neat ideas here. I’m a sucker for unusual or innovative game features and their presence here softened my attitude towards this edition of Gamma World. Look for a final round up in the weeks to come depending on when my home group gets a chance to take this out for a post-apocalyptic romp.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Initial Reading of D&D Gamma World Part I

As I stated yesterday, I’m not going to do an official review of the new Gamma World until I’ve had a chance to put the rubber to the road and see how she handles under actual play conditions. What follows are bullet points of the game that I expect the grognard coalition would like to know, regardless of whether or not we’re planning on picking this up for ourselves. I’ve reached the middle of the 160 pp. rule book and have not yet opened the cards and other peripherals. The following is based on the first half of the rules.

* The official name of the game according to the rules is D&D Gamma World.

* Gamma Terra is not the result of a nuclear holocaust, which will no doubt enrage some people. Instead, it is the result of Swiss scientists mucking about at the Large Hadron Collider. Something when wrong and hundreds of possible realities coalesced into a single one—Gamma Terra. Because of this, the game master had carte blanche to throw anything he or she wants into the campaign, no questions asked. The players could be exploring a radioactive desert one week, fighting off dinosaur Nazis the next, and finish things up by pillaging the pyramid of Pharaoh Abraham Lincoln IV.

* The rules engine is 4th edition D&D, which is no surprise. I can’t be sure as this is my first real experience with it, but I suspect it might be a “lite” version of those rules. It could be that I simply remember the unwieldy mess 3.5 was and that has colored my impressions.

* Character generation is completely random. The character creation section features the following quote: “Now that you have your ideal character fixed firmly in your mind, pick up some dice and start rolling to see what sort of bizarre freak you’re ACTUALLY going to play. Sorry, that’s life in Gamma World.”

* Life is hard and then you WILL die. Players are warned that their characters are likely to perish in Gamma Terra and the best way to deal with that is to “raise a glass of Mountain Dew in his or her memory, and then get to work rolling up your next character.”

* There are no classes. At character generation, you roll d20 twice to determine your origin. This leaves you with two templates that you need to reconcile. You might start as a Radioactive Felinoid or an Android Empath. To the game’s credit, it expects you to come up with an explanation justifying some of the really outré combinations. Some suggestions are given, but ultimately it’s left in your hands to figure things out. Template names are more indicative of the powers they possess rather than accurate descriptions of the origin. For example, if your origins were Hawkoid (flight-based powers) and Rat Swarm (swarm-based powers), you could decide that your character is a sentient flock of seagulls or a hyper-intelligent colony of bats. Your Android Yeti could just a well be a cybernetic Bigfoot (all the better to fight Steve Austin) as it could a gorilla with a space helmet. I recommend that WotC hire Jeff Rients to immediately write a supplement that lists every possible rationalization for all the off-the-wall combinations available at character creation.

* Abilities are the standard six and every character begins with (usually) one ability of 18 and another at 16, based upon their origins. The rest of your abilities are determined by rolling 3d6 in order. I’ll repeat that so you know it’s not a typo: 3d6 in order.

* There are ten skills in the game, each covering a broad area such as Science or Mechanics. Every character can attempt any skill, but starts with a +4 bonus to three of them (again, usually).

* Weapons and armor are abstract. You might start the game with Light Armor and a Heavy Two-Handed Melee weapon. Again, it’s left up to you to decide if that means you’re wearing a Kevlar-lined duster or a chainmail shirt made out of pop tops tabs. Your weapon could be a parking meter, a claymore, or a sledgehammer: it doesn’t matter. The mechanics remain the same.

* Starting gear is determined randomly. There is no buying equipment. You start with 1d4+1 things and a basic clothing/equipment package.

* Everyone has mutations, but, unlike previous editions of Gamma World, these mutations are constantly changing. This is where the customizable card element comes in. At the start of every game, you draw a number of mutations based on your level from either your own or the game master’s deck. At the end of an encounter (and sometimes during), you discard that mutation and draw another. You have that power available until after the next encounter. Characters can try to supercharge their mutations by making a die roll and, depending on your origins, you may get a bonus to that roll. The rational for this constant change is that your character isn’t mutated per se, but is really drawing upon alternate realities in which you naturally possessed these ability. This manifestation is a temporary one. Since you can customize your own card deck, you can stack it with mutations that you want to have (within limits) but you can’t control when you have access to them with any certainty. I suspect that this element of the game is going to be the most loathed by traditional roleplaying gamers.

* Like mutations, each character has an artifact deck (called Omega Tech). When you character searches a room or gains a reward, the game master informs you to pull a card from your Omega deck and your character finds the item depicted on the drawn card. When you use this item, there is a chance that it breaks, runs out of power, etc. in which case you discard the card. Some cards can be salvaged, becoming permanent inventory items, but these usually work at reduced efficiency.

* It took me exactly 20 minutes to create a character, and this was because I was unfamiliar with 4th edition mechanics and the index of the rulebook is a poor one. After a few attempts, I could see character generation being a 10-15 minute process. At the end of the character creation process, I had a character with a STR of 6, a CON of 8, a DEX of 11, an INT of 20, a WIS of 10, and a CHA of 5. Being both Telekinetic and an Engineered Human, I decided that, with scores like those, he was Mini-Hitler: a “Boys from Brazil”-type experiment that went horribly askew. This 3’ tall, wizened refugee from the ODESSA Project dreams of finding technology and power so that someday people will take him seriously.

* The game is self-contained. With everything needed to play except for dice, and advancement rules up to Level 10, you could theoretically run a campaign for years using nothing more than the initial purchase. WotC is going to market the hell out of the expansions and the booster card packs but they aren’t actually needed—especially if you’re the creative, home-brewing type.

* The art design leaves something to be desired. The rule book looks like someone melted a roll of Lifesavers candies between the pages.

That’s it for first impressions presented in as neutral a manner as I could.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that D&D Gamma World, as ill-named is it is, actually has a lot of old school sensibilities to it and, while it’s not going to bring peace to the D&D edition arguments, it may serve as a barometer of sorts. Someone who was reared on 3.5 and 4th edition, but yet embraces the random character generation and lethality of Gamma World might get a better idea of what it is we like about our older versions of these games. At the same time, we grognards need to give Richard Baker and Bruce R. Cordell some respect for being aware of the roots of both the hobby and Gamma World and incorporating them into this new version. Perhaps there’s some common ground out there after all.

It’s still too early to form a definite opinion on the game, but I suspect that the 4th edition rules engine and the customizable card element is going to be the deal-breaker for most old gamers. If you’ve tried 4th edition and didn’t find it to your liking, D&D Gamma World isn’t going to change your opinion. If you hate game elements that jar you out of immersion, are too “board gamey,” or despise M:tG with a vengeance, the Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech decks will send you screaming for the radioactive hills.

As for myself, so far D&D Gamma World has made me rethink, but not necessarily revise, my stance and I look forward to reading more and seeing how it all comes together in play. I’ll have more on that in the days to come.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Latest Gamma Go-Around

If you’ve been reading this blog over the past few weeks, you undoubtedly know that I a) intend to run a Gamma World campaign next year once my current Labyrinth Lord game needs some rest, and b) own every edition of Gamma World ever produced. And, as of today, I mean EVERY version. I picked up the latest attempt to bring post-apocalyptic mayhem to the gaming mainstream, which is a struggle for reasons I fail to understand.

This marks the first time that I’ve added any of my filthy lucre to WotC’s coffers since they decided to pull the older edition PDFs from the commercial market. I hemmed and hawed about whether or not to make the exception for this version of Gamma World, but ultimately came to the conclusion that they’d get my money for this sooner or later. I didn’t drop a single dollar on 4E D&D, so this will also serve as my first “in my hand” exposure to the 4th edition rules, which Gamma World utilizes in some manner. I couldn’t tell you how true they are to their fantasy sister for obvious reasons.

I’m going to try and be open-minded about this version of GW. I’ll admit that I might not be successful, but I’m going to try. I’m also not going to review it based on how it reads. If and when I do talk about this version of Gamma World (I’m not even sure what to call it. Some have called it 4th edition Gamma World or D&D Gamma World, but neither quite work for me. I’ll just stick with New Gamma World for now.), it will only be after I’ve had a chance to play it. I think that’s only fair. Maybe I can convince some of the Labyrinth Lord guys to stay late one Sunday and give it a shot.

I will address one thing because it seems to be the direction WotC’s packaging is headed since the D&D Starter Set came out: There is a heck of a lot more box than stuff here, and dice aren’t amongst that stuff. Here’s what you’re getting:

I understand there will be two Gamma World Expansions released (Famine at Far-Go and The Legion of Gold) and this packaging choice might be meant to accommodate that material. However, if you’re expecting a Fantasy Flight Games-level of stuff inside that boxed set (which really does look like it’s a board game box), you’ll be disappointed. That’s all I’m saying for now.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Alternate Links to Free Stonehell PDFs

I was alerted today that there are some issues downloading free PDF files from Lulu and that my own Stonehell Dungeon preview and supplement one are amongst those affected. So, until Lulu fixes the problem, I'm hosting both of those files on my Mediafire site. You can find them each at the links provided below:

UPDATE: Lulu has since corrected the issue and the below products can be downloaded again at my storefront. However, I will continue to host the PDFs on my Mediafire site as well, so the below links should remain good barring any unforeseen changes. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls Preview

Stonehell Dungeon Supplement One: The Bandit Caves

Thursday, October 14, 2010

That Word You Can Only Say In German

It's been a quiet week here, I know. Things have been very busy on my side of the screen, but they've been a productive sort of busy so I don't mind. I finished another project and managed to chew a very large chunk out of another. I suspect that that second project will see the light of day very, very soon, so keep an eye on this blog for further details.

This Sunday is the 25th session of Watchfires & Thrones, something I'm extremely happy about. When we started the campaign back in March, my intent was to just play and let the details take care of themselves. There's no metaplot marching things along and I'll keep guiding the players through my world for as long as they keep showing up. I've got a little something special planned for this coming game and it should be fun.

The real surprise of the week is how much fun I've been having writing material for Secret Antiquities. While I'm still flailing about somewhat trying to determine where I'm going with that project, the lack of any firm guidelines has produced some cool ideas and I'm looking forward to figuring out how it all gets stitched together.

With that in mind, I was turning over a concept this evening and I lack the necessary linguistics to treat it properly. I dare say the majority of people reading this are familiar with the "doppelgänger" in game terms if not in its origins. Five seconds of research tells me that doppelgänger means "double walker" in the original German. Now my question for those who speak German is what would you call the doppelgänger of a place, location, or country? A locale that looks exactly the same as the one you call home, but isn't. I hope that makes a vague sort of sense. I'm poking at an idea and, should the German term for this concept work just as well as doppelgänger does, I might go that route. Suggestions are most appreciated.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Discover a Great Deal on Stonehell Dungeon

Lulu is having another one of their cutesy discount offers in honor of Columbus Day here in the U.S. Until the end of October 11th, they’re offering a 14.92% discount on any order. Enter the code EXPLORE305 at check out to save on your order. If you’re feeling really generous and feel like ordering $350.00 or more of Stonehell (or any shipping pallet of combined OSR books) you can save 20% by entering CARGO305.

If you read Grognardia’s Open Friday question yesterday and are wondering why so many people very kindly believe that Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls deserves an award, this is your chance to check it out for yourself and save a little scratch in the process.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Engaging the Weird Gear

I’ve been very neglectful of my tertiary web project, Secret Antiquities, as of late. I’ve been more concerned with getting projects finished, running Watchfires & Thrones, and playing in the radiation for next year’s Gamma World campaign. It is October, however, a month that has historically been one of great creativity for me and an all-around enjoyable time of year.

To celebrate October and to train myself to be more attentive to my weird history project, I’ve challenged myself to make thirty-one posts over on Secret Antiquities between now and Halloween. I’m trying to formulate some parameters for my planed GORE project in 2011 and I need to flail about wildly for a bit to find where my creative boundaries lie. Therefore, what will be appearing over on that blog is a potpourri of strange ideas, intellectual artifacts, and dream relics come to light. I can’t promise everyone’s going to be a Maserati of creativity, but hopefully the signal-to-noise ration won’t suck too badly.

Stop on by if this sort of thing sounds like your cup of ichor.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Radioactive Theatre: The Blood of Heroes

To occasionally prove that the entertainment industry isn’t completely creatively bankrupt, someone proposes that the mixing of two or more genres into a never before seen mashup is precisely what today’s jaded audience is clamoring for. This can lead into strange territory. Some of these mixes look bizarre on paper—“science fiction plus haunted house” or” buddy comedy meets zombie movie”—yet the results (Alien, Shaun of the Dead) speak for themselves. Other mashups aren’t quite so successful—"Cop Rock", for instance—but at least somebody gave it a go.

Amongst the weird bedfellows these genre mashups have produced, none is quite as weird as our next installment of Radioactive Theatre, The Blood of Heroes. This film is the only entry in the genre of “post-apocalyptic sports drama,” although I suspect its inspirational pedigree can be traced to such fare as Rollerball or Knightriders. Whatever its creative font, it does seem to have more in common with something you hallucinated during a particularly nasty case of the flu than actual cinema. Luckily for us, this is not the case. It does exist and even features genre film favorite, “Root beer” Hauer.

Here is the obligatory spoiler warning, but I bet you can guess how it ends simply by knowing it’s a sport drama film. Continue to read at your own risk.

The thumbnail synopsis: In the years after Armageddon, mankind sorely misses football (of either variety) and decides to make do with what’s on hand. Being that this is after the apocalypse, what's on hand is an endless supply of dog skulls, spikes, and surplus sports padding. Thus "The Game" is born. Consisting of two teams trying to stick said dog skull on the other side’s spike, "The Game" is the only diversion available in a world so backward that full grown armoires are considered to be reasonable replacements for backpacks. "The Game" is popular from the Nine Cities—underground metropolises where the rich dine of Komodo dragon—to the outlying “dog towns” that apparently meet the apocalypse’s need for dead bamboo.

Against this evocative canvas we meet Sallow (Hauer), a disgraced professional “jugger” (or player of The Game--hate the Game, not the player, baby) that’s been banished to the dog towns for his youthful indiscretions with one of the nobles of the Nine Cities’ wife. He travels from town to town taking on the local teams with his assortment of bush league juggers (which include Vincent Philip D’Onofrio fresh off his success in Full Metal Jacket). In one of these towns lives Kidda (a young Joan Chen, seen here just before her move to the quiet town of Twin Peaks). Kidda dreams of being a professional jugger, living the high life as a “qwik” (the speedy bastard whose job it is to put the skull on spike) in the Nine Cities. When Sallow and his band come to Kidda’s town, she plays for the home team and brutally decimates Sallow’s qwik, ensuring a place on his team when they split town.

What follows is the usual sports montage of Kidda earning her place on Sallow’s team and watching them take on all comers in the dog towns of the post-apocalyptic future (which looks unsurprisingly like Australia—go figure). Eventually, Kidda and Young Gar (D’Onofrio) grow tired of playing in the bush league and convince Sallow to take the team to the Nine Cities so that they can prove their competitive worth and live the luxurious life of pro juggers. After some hemming and hawing, the team does just that—with predictable results (it is a sports drama after all).

The Blood of Heroes is not high cinema by any means. In fact, when you break it down into its component parts, it’s not even good cinema. The sports drama plot is a by-the-numbers story, one you’ve seen a hundred times before. The post-apocalyptic elements are limited to sandy backdrops, ragged clothing, and the usual rusty and battered props all such films are required to have. Nevertheless, the film somehow manages to become more than a sum of its parts, combining two so-so examples of genres to become an entertaining and somewhat guilty diversion. Hauer, D’Onofrio, and Chen bring workman-like performances to the material, which is better than most apocalyptic fare from this era can claim credit for having, but one can see nobody was mistaking this for capital-A “Art.”

The movie’s most mysterious legacy is that it has an odd effect on certain personalities. Some people, after watching this movie for the first, fifth, or five hundredth time, get the overwhelming urge to actually play “The Game” for real. What’s even more mysterious (and somewhat disturbing) is that these individuals find one another and form actual leagues. But it takes all types to make the world go ‘round, neh?

But since we’re not here to perform film criticism or pass judgment on people’s pastimes, let’s see what there is to steal from The Blood of Heroes for use in my inevitable Gamma World game, shall we?

The short answer is, unfortunately, “Not a lot.” The thrust of the movie concerns “The Game” and its associated rules, regulations, and emotional baggage—which is to be expected from a sports drama. I am a referee who likes games within my games, but “The Game” just doesn’t do it for me. If I’m going to cram a post-apocalyptic sport diversion into my game, I’m either going to Thunderdome/maze from Spacehunter route or bring back Aztec handball. Hyped-up football just isn’t my bag.

The subterranean Nine Cities has some charm, especially the fact that they seem to be located so deep under the earth that it’s considered de rigueur to catch a nap while waiting for the elevator to reach bottom. The strict class system of the cities is predictable, but always makes for good role-playing opportunities. The movie’s take on hotels after Armageddon is entertaining and good for campaign color, making it an interesting if not required tidbit to steal.

The Blood of Heroes simply doesn’t lend much of itself to my vision of Gamma World, but that’s largely due to the fact that it’s an example of sports drama at heart and not a post-apocalyptic one. The trappings all scream post-Armageddon, but the real meat of the tale has more in common with The Bad News Bears than Bartertown, making it less than ideal for my purposes. That doesn’t mean it can’t continue to serve as a guilty pleasure on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Next time on Radioactive Theatre: We’ll either get Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome out of the way or take a quick trip over to New Zealand to listen in on The Quiet Earth. Until then, here’s hoping your rad count stays low.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Can Anyone Identify This Brand of Graph Paper?

I'm in the middle of my first cold of the season and it's keeping me from the work I'd like to be doing. Instead, I'm nursing a strange obsession that I can't seem to satisfy. I'm hoping somebody out there might be able to help. It's a long shot, but here goes:

I have had a pad of a certain brand of graph paper for more than twenty years. Many of my earliest maps were drawn out on this type of paper (my version of Ashabenford being one of them) and it has served me well. The problem is that I'm just about out. For pure nostalgia's sake, I would love to get my hands on another tablet of the stuff. Unfortunately, the few pieces I have remaining have no brand identification marks and I have no idea where I bought the stuff back in '80-something. My search online has turned up nothing as I have little to work with.

I've attached a few photos below of the paper. It is double-sided with 10 squares to the inch on one side and 20 squares to the inch on the other. It features a .75 inch margin around its long edges and a .5 inch one at top and bottom. I have only seen one other person with this stuff in my life, and they too bought it a long time ago. The manufacturer might be long gone, but if it's not, I'm hoping that someone out there can either recognize it by sight or has their own stock of the stuff with a brand name still on it.

Does this look familiar to anybody?

UPDATE: The paper has been identified as Armory 1/10" x 1/20" Graph Paper. A very special thanks to Allan Grohe for confirming the identity of the stuff and thereby explaining why most people who have if bought it twenty years ago. Looks like I've got some auction trolling to do if I want another pad of the stuff.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Little Rituals

More years ago than I like to admit, I took an anthropology course that covered the role of religion in primitive societies. The thrust of one lesson was that in those societies (and in our own to a lesser extent) rituals were enacted as a means of “winding the world clock.” Unless those rites were performed at the proper times in the correct manner, the world would come to an end. Needless to say, in these societies, the role of rituals is an important one.

In yesterday’s post, I briefly mentioned that I enjoy a cup of tea and a cookie after I come home from running my Sunday afternoon game sessions. It’s not a superstition or a nervous habit, just a tiny reward to myself for having a good game. It certainly isn’t done to keep the world from crashing to a halt.

Nevertheless, one has to admit that this hobby has its fair share of superstitions and rituals, whether we truly believe in them or not. Just look at the way some of us regard our dice: if that’s not a talismanic believe system in action, I don’t know what is. With that in mind, I thought it might be both enlightening and entertaining to open up the comments section to you all in order to learn what sort of strange game-related habits, superstitions, quirks, and rituals you have accumulated around the gaming table over the years. Since this is my proverbial house, I’ll fess up first.

I really have no hardcore quirks or habits anymore. My post-game tea and cookie ritual is the weirdest one I still have. I’ll sometimes listen to the local radio station’s Sunday chamber music program on the way to the game, especially if I was rushing my way out the door and need to calm my head a bit before I reach where ever it is we’re playing that week, but that’s it for pre-game bugaboos. I’m also mostly free of dice phobias nowadays. The closest I come to strange dice habits is that I own two sets of Gamescience precision dice and I alternate between the sets each week to ensure maximum Zocchi-brand randomness.

Back in college, when I was still a smokin’ and drinkin’ man, I did have a little ritual I’d enact each week before my regular Vampire: The Masquerade game. Luckily, it wasn’t anything too geeky. There was no wearing of a velour cape and drinking a draught of absinthe from a skull goblet or anything like that. Instead, I’d drink one of the few remaining beers left over from Saturday night’s bacchanalia and light up a Camel Filter while listening to a Bauhaus track or two (OK, the Bauhaus thing is a little geeky). That was a fun little practice because even the players got into it. They knew that when that beer was cracked open and the lighter sparked, the role-playing magic was getting ready to begin. Just witnessing that got everybody into “Let’s play pretend mode” and some of those sessions were so much the better for it.

I don’t know if it’s age or simple lack of time, but most of my ritual baggage has long been discarded. That doesn’t necessarily mean I miss it from time to time.That’s my hang-up, baby.

What’s yours?

EDIT: I forgot one other game-related quirk my group has. That mini, the one on the left. It's cursed, you see. So far, every character that has used that miniature as a marker has died. I think the current tally is three or four slain characters. Right now, Rob is using it for Kaldar and seems determined to break the curse. I'm sure I'll get blamed for drawing the gaming gods' attention his way should Kaldar die after this post. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for him. It be good to break the curse.

Monday, October 4, 2010

When Humor Passes its Freshness Date

I found this comic in the back pages of issue #2 of Gryphon, a game magazine that I never heard of until I picked up this copy during my distillation of gaming material last month. They say that true humor is timeless, and if that is the case, this comic is most certainly low on the "Ha Ha Funny List of All Time." Lacking a suitable test audience of the appropriate age, I can only imagine the confusion this comic would instill in the mind of anyone who wasn't around to witness a Wisk commerical during the '70s.

Even more unsettling is that, should George Lucas have his continued way with our cutural heritage, even Darth Vader as depicted in the original trilogy may one day be excised from the minds of young Star Wars fans, replaced by Animated Ankin Skywalker.

A Cup of Tea, a Cookie, and Some Graph Paper

I'm feeling both exhasuted and elated as I write this, so excuse me if we take the long way 'round.

The past several weeks have seen me hard at work at on my campaign sandbox. There has been a growing interest in the world outside the boundaries of the PCs’ home base of Blackpool and beyond the night-haunted halls of Stonehell Dungeon. This is a good thing, in my opinion, for there is a lot to be found just over the next hill or past the deep, dark forest. These are all very Interesting things that I want to explore along with the characters. As such, my focus has been on the world at large and away from the dungeon.

And then we had a session like yesterday’s, one that saw the party return to the depths of Stonehell in search of money ASAP. The raising of one of their number has left them very, very poor and they knew that beasties with treasure were just waiting to be slain in the ancient prison.

We had a tremendous amount of fun prowling the halls of Stonehell and accomplished so much in that session that I very much fell back in love with my megadungeon. Normally, when I get home after a Sunday session, my main goals are to eat dinner, decompress, and enjoy a nice cup of tea and a cookie in my jammies, for I tend to be mentally and physically wiped out after playing judge, jester, and sometimes executioner all afternoon. Not yesterday, no sir. Instead I cracked open my big tablet of graph paper and got back to work expanding, changing, and breathing more life into my dungeon.

Other projects have kept me away from Stonehell for the summer and I am forced to look at what I have accomplished with a realistic gaze. It is with a heavy heart that I must admit to both myself and to you patient souls that it is extremely unlikely that I’m going to meet my self-imposed deadline of year’s end for the Stonehell sequel. Not unless I suddenly hit the lottery and can devote all my time to single-mindedly writing the manuscript and creating the maps in Photoshop. That’s the bad news, and you have my sincere apologies. Hopefully, once the things I have been working on see daylight—if they see daylight—you’ll forgive me for my neglect because they are some pretty cool projects in my own humble opinion.

The good news is that my players’ adventures in the old prison serve as constant inspiration for new and unusual ideas. Their weekly dungeon crawls, both in and out of Stonehell provide me with more than just ideas—they also give me the energy I need to turn those vague concepts into actual words on paper. That’s energy that I simply didn’t have the first time ‘round on Stonehell and I am greatly indebted to Dave, Jack, Jud, Matt, Pete, Rob, and Tom (and possibly Joe too, but he’s just joining the fun so we’ll have to see) for putting up with my nonsense week after week with grins on their faces.

It’s after a session like yesterday’s that I sit back with my cup of tea, replay the game’s events, and realize that I’d be perfectly happy running a whole campaign set entirely within the confines of my megadungeon, no matter how much I want to explore other vistas within the game world. I must simply be a contradictory referee at heart. I can go off and paint every little corner of the campaign world in delicate details, but part of me—the beer & pretzels, “let's talk in funny voices,” and chuck some dice while moving little guys around the table part of me—is perfectly at home with the simple pleasures of the dungeon crawl. And if that’s wrong, I don’t care about being right.

When things go as they did yesterday and the vibe around the table is pitch perfect, I remember what drew me to this pastime in the first place. And, as I work away joyfully on my very own megadungeon, I imagine that I feel what Dave and Gary must have felt all those years ago as they created this pastime to give to us. That’s a magic that can't be scribed into a spellbook and memorized no matter how hard one tries.

That I have been lucky enough to not only create a giant dungeon playground of my own but to have other people take it up and make it their own continues to astound me. I dreamed, as I imagine most referees have at one point or another, that one day people outside my own players would be able to take part in my creations and gain some pleasure from doing so. I consider myself very fortunate that I’ve been able to do exactly that, and I am grateful to all of you for embracing my creation for yourselves or for simply expressing an interest in reading what I have written. When I finished Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, I had what I believed was a realistic goal of selling fifty copies of the book in either hard copy or PDF. As of last night, almost 375 copies have been purchased. The book also played a very minor part in a seminar on megadungeons at this year’s North Texas RPG Convention—something I would have loved to have witnessed.

I’m a very happy referee right now and I owe that happiness to you folks, my players, my fellow creative members of this thing of ours, and my own long-avoided acceptance of the simple philosophy which had led me here: “Stop worrying and love the dungeon.”

Let’s roll for some wandering monsters…