Monday, May 30, 2011

Summer Sabbatical

After much thought and soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Society is no longer high on my list of “Things to Be Done Now!” So, rather than painfully pretend it is, I’m effectively shuttering the place for the summer months so that I can concentrate on the projects that require the most attention. Posts may occur from time to time, but I’d rather them be unexpected surprises than disappointed my readership by having them awaiting posts that never arrive. While I’d rather be able to do everything I have planned for the summer months, it’s obvious to me that something has to go to prevent anxiety and creative log-jams, and unfortunately the Society is that thing.

Be well, have a safe and happy summer, and I see you when I see you, hopefully with a Stonehell sequel almost completed in hand.


Friday, May 27, 2011

25% Off Stonehell Dungeon (and other fine OSR tomes)

I should mention that Lulu is having a 25% off sale through May 31st. Use the code CYBERMAY305 at checkout to save on all your Lulu purchases to help kick off the summer. Or as I like to think of it, "Buy 4 Stonehell Dungeons, Get the Fifth Free!" Use those pretty pictures over there on the right to speed up your shopping day.

School’s Out Week: 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons

We’re a day late and a dollar short on this post. Please excuse us; it’s been that sort of week.

I can think of no better way to close out the School’s Out Week than by turning our attentions towards what many consider the poster boy for “what went wrong”: 4th Edition D&D. I’ve had time to weigh the pros and cons of the latest incarnation of the venerable roleplaying title due to my recent (and highly unforeseen) involvement with the title.

A few weeks ago, one of my Labyrinth Lord players announced that he’d be orchestrating the D&D Encounters program at our FLGS and he kindly invited me to attend. He was well aware of the fact that I’m firmly in the school of “less is more” and that 4E is really not my “go to” edition for D&D (he said, understating the subject), but left the offer open. When the next Wednesday rolled around, I stopped by to make sure he had enough players to go through with the matter. Having experienced what it takes to get a group of gamers going, I wanted him to succeed and if that meant having to sit in so he’d have enough guys to run, I was willing to do so. And that’s exactly what happened due to some miscommunication with the store about scheduled start times and dates. Thus, Mike took up the role of Brandis the human paladin and set forth to defeat the darkness (literally).

My previous experience with 4th edition was the singular playtest my group ran of D&D Gamma World some months ago. This time, I’d be on the other side of the DM’s screen. Out of respect, I kept my mouth shut and my mind open and did my best to treat it as a roleplaying game and not a miniatures battle game. The results were mixed.

First off, let me say I’m not here today to tear down 4E. I realize that I have no axe to grind anymore, if ever, with WotC. I’ve developed a lot of sympathy for the guys down in the design trenches and have the sneaking suspicion that they’re not really happy with the direction things have taken and would much rather be paid to take the game in another direction. Since a steady RPG design gig is a rare bird, I don’t blame them and might do the same thing in their position.

Also, any criticism that follows is not directed to Dave, who has taken up the challenge of running the Encounters sessions (which is a really bad choice for a name because it sounds too much like the swingers’ group that meets weekly at the A-Frame). He’s running the program they sent him and is inhibited by the material. I also respect anyone who is out there running a game rather than sitting at home bitching about the fact they’re not.

After sitting through two Encounters sessions, I’m ready to speak openly about my experience with 4E. It isn’t much different from the impression I got when running D&D Gamma World and is one I’ve seen repeated in several places. Ultimately, when the books are put away and the chip bowl has been emptied, 4th Edition D&D is a decent skirmish miniatures game. When paired with the weekly, two-hour long Encounters program, it becomes even more engaging. The players have a set goal and know that they’ll be headed home once it’s finished, not unlike putting aside two hours to watch a movie. I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed the past two weeks.

The Encounters program is obviously geared toward a specific type of gamer, one with limited time and perhaps lacking the means or social skills to cultivate a group on their own. Each session starts with a little light roleplaying that is essentially a guise to determine what this week’s goal is. Are we to defend the orphanage? Kill the bandit chief? Maybe pursue the sinister gnome who ran down the alley into the obvious ambush? Once that’s out of the way, the tactical map is put down, the counters are placed, and the dice start rolling. When the last body hits the ground, you pack up and head on home.

This isn’t a bad way to approach 4E and it is much more enjoyable to me than I suspect participating in an ongoing 4E campaign would be. There is no investment needed other than a small block of time each week. My character is pre-generated and all his powers are neatly written on the back of the laminated character card, so I don’t have to drop a dime on confusing rulebooks (which one is official this week?) or power cards (I’m not spending another $10 because I want to play a warlock this time). I sit down, chuck some dice, and go home. Of course, the downfall to this is that I’m not invested in my character any more than I’d be with my race car piece in a game of Monopoly. This takes me to my real difficulty with 4E.

I cannot lose myself in the game the way I can with older editions. This is not the fault of the DM or the adventure, but the rules themselves. The rules in 4E, especially their dependency on creating unambiguous rulings, never disappear into the background for me. I can occasionally erect a thin veneer of roleplaying, but this comes crumbling down the first time I’ve got to start counting adjacent adversaries to see how big of a bonus I get to attack. The most recent WTF moment that threw me completely out of the moment came when I suggested that, rather than expend some out our limited healing surges to recoup after a fight, we return to the chapel we had just come from and ask the priests there if they could drop some of their heavenly mojo on us. That was when I was told that magical healing in 4E is tied to your character’s healing surges and even potions deduct from them. Huh?

For me, 4E simply misses the boat when it comes divorcing oneself from reality and reveling in the shared delusion of roleplaying. I’ve always been a fan of “fluff” over “crunch,” so 4E is like eating a cotton candy cone filled with nails, screws, and broken glass for me; just when I’m trying to enjoy the sweetness, I bite into something that ruins the experience. But also like cotton candy, it’s best when sampled infrequently and in small portions.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

School’s Out Week: Star Was (D6)

In the world of old school D&D, popular sentiment is that the game is intended to be an open “sandbox” affair, a place where the players are free to choose their own destinies. The dice fall as they may, the death count can grow impressive, and the characters are working-class stiffs who possess the possibility of becoming heroes—so long as the dice and good fortune go their way.

West End Games’ Star Wars is about as antipodal to that school of thought as you can get. The players are heroes with a capital “H”, the adventures are laid out long before the group gathers, and the game master is instructed to regularly fudge the dice to make sure the players stay on that track so as to ensure the story reaches its intended climax. That makes the school of thought behind Star Wars “far, far away” from that which is prevalent in the OSR.

But is this necessarily a bad thing? When it comes to D&D, my mind set is similar to that of my old school mon frères. D&D is meant to be played as a wide-open game of exploration, with story coming from the events as they occur. The nascent possibility of heroic exploits and the renown that accompanies such trumps that of built-in heroism and nigh-superhuman accomplishments. But this outlook doesn’t work with all roleplaying games and can be in fact detrimental to some of them.

Star Wars is one such case. It is a game that was designed not to ape a particular genre, such as D&D was intended to do, but to recreate a very specific series of stories and the world(s) in which they occur. With an intent like that, a narrower focus is naturally needed. This is not to say that you can’t run an open sandbox campaign set in the Star Wars universe, but why pound round pegs into square holes when a more generic sci-fi rules system would work better?

Players approach the Star Wars universe with certain preconceived notions. After all, in many cases, Star Wars is as close as one gets to a lingua franca or common religion amongst gamers. No matter what our backgrounds or ages, the 20th Century Fox fanfare and those scrolling words hits a shared nerve, carrying us immediately to a specific time and place even if we couldn’t necessarily pinpoint that location on a star map or timeline. They’re going to expect to encounter Wookiees and Jawas, to shoot bounty hunters and race speeder bikes, and to swing across chasms and duel with lightsabers. Any game master who doesn’t meet those expectations is shortchanging his players (and probably shouldn't be playing Star Wars to start). And thus, there is a need for at least a narrow-gauge railroad to the campaign.

This has been on my mind a lot lately because I’m now running a Star Wars game. Some weeks ago, I realized that the Stonehell sequel will likely occupy my summer and I was not looking forward to working on the book AND running my Labyrinth Lord game at the same time. I’ve been getting close to the fantasy saturation point and I needed something to cleanse my palette. Since summer is traditionally the time for sprawling, no-brainer movie blockbusters, I figured why not spend this summer with the biggest blockbuster of them all? My players happily agreed to put Watchfires & Thrones on the backburner and to tread the myriad worlds of George Lucas’ universe. But, as an old saw goes, you can take the boy out of the old school, but you can’t take the old school out of the boy.

One of the nagging problems with Star Wars or any other licensed roleplaying game is that the players are aware that no matter what they do or accomplish, they are never really the big damn heroes of the setting. Somewhere out there are NPCs more renowned and respected than they’ll ever be, because only one person can ever blow up the Death Star (OK, maybe two people) or defeat Voldemort or be the chosen vampire slayer. The players are forever second banana to that person’s exploits. I simply couldn’t have that. I can make concessions, but not if there’s a way around them and I luckily had an idea to do so. Enter “A New New Hope.”

The premise of my summer Star Wars campaign is that the events of the first movie (and you know what I mean by “first”) didn’t happen. Rather than take up the campaign after the Battle of Yavin, which is the usual default time for most D6 Star Wars games, this story begins just prior to that first title crawl. The PCs have just stolen the Death Star plans from a secret Imperial R&D facility and must now get them safely into Alliance hands. How’s that for an opener? In just the first session I managed to squeeze in a speeder chase, a planet consisting of both icy glaciers and rivers of lava, exploding starships, Darth Vader, salvaged droids, and, as a nod to the fact that this isn’t a sandbox setting, a speeding mag-rail train (I’m so meta sometimes). But I run a loose railroad and although the players are all bound for Pittsburg (figuratively speaking); at least they get to choose what route they're going to take to get there.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Topographical Mapping Help Wanted

At the risk of biting off more than I can chew, I’ve had an idea for a project in my head now for several months. This would not be a for-profit piece, but rather a submission for one of our beloved fanzines. I’ve already talked with Iggy of Fight On! and got the go ahead to submit it, but I got sidetracked and had to put the piece on the backburner. Now, to give me an outlet from Stonehell 2 when one is needed, I’d like to continue to tinker with it for eventual submittal.

Without going to much into it, the piece really needs a map to accompany it and I have the perfect topological map for it. I’ve taken a stab at it, but I’m not satisfied with my efforts. The map I’m working from is an old U.S. Geological survey map so it is quite detailed. What I’m now looking for is a gifted mapmaker who could render such a map into one more suitable for a roleplaying aid, but retain the character and sense of realism found in the original. It would end up being a large map, roughly 11” x 17”, suitable for a two-page spread and lots of room for adventuring locales. This is not necessarily for a fantasy world, so an eye for the realistic is a plus on this. If you could give it a 1920’s feel too, that’d be even cooler. In return, I’d gladly share the byline on the eventual article with you.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, please drop me an email at poleandrope AT gmail DOT com. If you’ve got a sample of your work or a link to some, feel free to include that as well.

School’s Out Week: Dungeon Crawl Classics

I’m going to start off S.O.W. by talking about Goodman Games’ upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. That’s a bit of cheat because, while DCC is based on the d20 mechanic, its design DNA falls much closer to that of “old school” games than it does to later versions of D&D. Nevertheless, the elements of 3.5 are obvious to all with even the slightest familiarity with them.

In the interest of complete disclosure, I obviously have some connection with Goodman Games through the Dungeon Alphabet and I maintain a good relationship with Joseph Goodman. And while I’ve not been asked to sign any NDAs, I’ll avoid getting into specifics regarding the DCC system as I’m not sure what Joseph wants revealed at this stage and the rules continue to be improved and modified while playtesting continues. I’ve been involved with the later stages of DCC’s development in a tertiary fashion, helping to playtest the system and contributing suggestions as to how to improve it.

Let's get down to it in plain terms: I predict that DCC is going to turn heads when it becomes available for open playtesting and after being commercially released. You heard it here first. Joseph and Harley Stroh had a luxury in developing DCC that Gygax and Arneson did not have: a preexisting rules base to work with. “Big deal,” you might say. “So did Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams.” The difference here is that Cook, Tweet, and Williams were looking to redesign D&D. Goodman and Stroh aren’t.

DCC’s strongest selling point for old school gamers is that Joseph and Harley went to the same source material that inspired Gygax and Arneson and sought ways to use the existing game system to recreate the feel, look, and expectations of the classic pulp sword & sorcery tales. Everything from cover design to the way magic works in DCC draws from those stories—and it does so very, very successfully. This is not “You’re Conan and I’m Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula.”[1] This is “You’re Kane and I’m the Gray Mouser. We team up to storm the Tower of the Elephant, steal the jewels of the Overlord of Lankhmar, fight the priests of Cthulhu, and engage in pacts with the Lords of Chaos to do so.”

Now this is great for us old-timers, but what about those players that came along in the post 2nd edition epoch? How are they going to react? I won’t lie: There is going to be some acclimation required. The lack of skills and feats in DCC and the lower abilities scores on average means that you can’t grab a Pathfinder adventure and expect to run it "as is" with DCC. But the good news is that those players who are used to the “kewl powerz” bells and whistles from later editions aren’t going to be disappointed. They’ll still be able to play a mighty warrior capable of doing outlandish actions in battle. Players with a penchant for wizards and clerics are undoubtedly going to go ape over a magic system that allows spellcasters to employ magic more often and with more spectacular effects than even 4th edition provides for. DCC just may very well hit the elusive sweet spot the appeals to both old and new gamers alike. That’s no bullshit, people.

Are there tradeoffs to this melding of styles, preferences, and expectations? Of course there are. As Rob Conley mentioned in the comments of a recent Grognardia post regarding DCC, spellcasting is table-intensive, which might not be to everyone’s liking, but neither is it insurmountable. There are also various charts to add color to battles and help adjudicate some of the crazier events that occur in combat. These are again subject to game master preference, but if the final layout of the book is well done, accessibility and placement should help speed their implementation. And no matter what, there are going to be those who bitch about having to buy special dice just to play.

Like any roleplaying game, Dungeon Crawl Classics’ success at the gaming table is going to rely on the referee running it and the players participating in it. The rules place a lot of emphasis on becoming familiar with the "old ways" and the inspirational sources that birthed the game. Hopefully this will encourage players and judges to either dust off their copies of the pulp classics or to pick them up and read them for the first time. Even if they don’t, Goodman Games is currently working on several adventure scenarios (two of which will be available in the Free RPG Day release) that almost literally drip with pulpy goodness. The ones that I’ve had the pleasure of playtesting with my group featured supernaturally mutated beast-men, hideous subterranean gods, cursed tombs, chaotic towers, lumbering brass constructs, treacherous double-dealings, and sorcerers bound by infernal pacts with the hoary hosts of Chaos. And that, my friends, is heady stuff when using rules especially designed to foster that kind of atmosphere and gaming mindset. Even if you have no interest in any fantasy roleplaying game published after 1981 or so, I suspect that you'll find things to lift from DCC for your own games. It's just that good.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

All Next Week: School's Out for Summer

What with the edition kerfluffles and the coming End Times, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to turn the Society's attentions on games that do not fall comfortably inside the OSR's tent. Watch in horror as Mike turns in his old school membership card with posts on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday of next week! The Old School's out for summer. Maybe even forever...

And Miss All This?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

NEA: Video Games are Art

The National Endowment for the Arts has expanded their list of art forms deemed acceptable for the awarding of grants to include "interactive technologies and media delivered by satellite or internet" meaning that interactive games are now recognized as an art form. Developers looking to create works that enhance the public good are eligible for grants up to $200,000 so long as they intend to release their work for free.

As tabletop roleplaying and technology continue to merge, one can only wonder if this means that traditional RPGs will eventually be granted the same "interactive game" status as video games and what this might mean to the future of the industry. Could we one day see the rise of "roleplaying artistes" who survive on their avant garde gaming contributions to society?

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Stonehell Dungeon Two First Look

As mentioned last week, I’ve made the first glimpse of the lower levels of Stonehell Dungeon available to members of the Stonehell Facebook fan group. It is now time to let everyone in on the first of several looks at the sequel to the wildly successful Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls. That sneak peak is available here for download.

Stonehell, like many of its megadungeon predecessors, is a locale that gets stranger and stranger the deeper one gets. This first glimpse is that of an antediluvian sepulture, the tomb of a seemingly extinct race that lies forgotten in the dungeon’s lower depths. It introduces several new monsters and magic, and provides the first inklings that the sequel may prove to be more expansive than its precursor. Like any draft, the information presented here is likely to change as the project continues to grow, so simply enjoy this first look for what it is: a glimpse at what might be to come in Stonehell Dungeon Two: Something Something.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Internet is Useless in Certain Endeavours

Such as determining what a certain flower smells like, for instance. In perhaps my strangest search yet, I've been attempting to pinpoint and identify a specific floral scent that I always associate with my time in Los Angeles, and I'm finding that near impossible without "scratch and sniff" computer technology. Just when you think we've made great strides with technology, we discover new limits.

Any L.A. natives (or as close as one gets to being native in a city composed of transients) know the scent I'm thinking of? A light, floral smell that seems most potent in the winter months? I may have to start haunting florists to nail it down

Stonehell Two Preview Now Available to Facebook Fans

As I’ve long threatened, work on the Stonehell sequel has finally begun and I’m working my way through Level Six. It’s taking me a bit to reengage the Stonehell gear in my head, but the process is coming along nicely. I expect it will be a few months before the draft is completed, however, so please have patience.

I mentioned a little while ago that Stonehell Dungeon has a Facebook fan group. As a reward for those who regularly sacrifice their anonymity to participate, I’ve made the first glimpse at the sequel available to those members. I’ll be providing my regular readers with a link here on the blog in a few days (although it’s not really that hard to find the file if you want to expend the effort). Those of you who want to see it now can head on over to the Stonehell Dungeon Facebook Group and apply for membership and we’ll try to get you in as soon as possible.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Flying Casual

I am so in the mood to play D6 Star Wars right at this moment. Ah, to relive those last pleasant memories before I completely fell out of love with Star Wars...

OK, back to work.

Monday, May 9, 2011

In Order to Discover New Places, You Must First Throw Out the Old Maps

My Labyrinth Lord campaign recently experienced a complete party wipe, which can happen if you decide to let events unfurl naturally rather than guided by a firm yet biased hand. I look upon it with mixed emotions. It puts a damper on campaign momentum, but also allows me to introduce a few changes, ones I was lamenting over in my yearly review not so long ago.

In retrospect, I realize that I made an error in introducing material from the Advanced Edition Companion. Not because the supplement is flawed, but because it essentially undermined my whole purpose for going back to the roots of the hobby for this campaign. The campaign began to resemble AD&D in rules and style, and if that was the case, why wasn’t I just playing AD&D? It was time to chuck all the extraneous material and go back to basics and cultivate anew.

One of my primary goals in keeping to the basics and building from there was that I was hoping to create a game that was uniquely my own and not just another standard D&D world. This has been a mental hobgoblin of mine for quite awhile now, one which gets aggravated every time someone decides to expand the types of playable classes and wanders into the same old paladin, ranger, bard, druid, etc. territory. Having seen some of that appear in my own world, I had had enough and was seriously looking to break out of these same old variations on a theme.

It was a route I had taken before with both my Mule and Octopus class—solid, yet unorthodox player classes that explored what you can do with a class-based fantasy RPG—and one I plan to continue following. So, instead of adhering to the classic fantasy archetypes, I’ve become more inspired by other driving forces: “Is it something I’d like to play?” and “Is it something different?” The answers to these questions so far are indeed inspired.

As an example of where my mind had been wandering, an instance I’m most proud of, I’d like to present you with my latest class: the ghost. That is not a metaphorical name; it is a dead adventurer who continues to practice his former profession, unwilling to let a little thing like kicking the breathing habit slow him down.

I’m continuing to tinker with a trader class, one that relies more on role-playing than combat and avoids the granting of magical powers, which is a route I’ve seen before, but never quite understood. There are a few other classes (or races, rather) in the stew pot and I’ll either debut them here or submit them for publication as they come to completion.

The ghost may not be for everyone, and it is certainly not for all campaign worlds. My vision of what D&D continues to change, even more so after a year-plus of old school playing. It is unlikely that I’ll ever return to what I once considered its default settings, and I’m looking forward to what this new territory contains.

Download the ghost class here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Robert E. Howard Days

REH Bedroom
I’m going to break ranks a little with the old guard and admit that, although I respect his work and creations, Robert E. Howard is not my “go to” literary figure for swords & sorcery and high adventure (Leiber likely holds that title for me). Nevertheless, when I come across something such as this, I cannot help but wish that I was not roughly two thousand miles away from Cross Plains, Texas.

Robert E. Howard Days is a wonderful yearly get-together of fans, scholars and friends, all gathered to celebrate the life and work of Ol’ Two-Gun Bob Howard, a true Texas and American original. It’s an open-air-under-the-Texas-sun informal meeting of folks from all over honoring the Legacy of Robert E. Howard with fellowship and friendly conversation, and you can do so on the very ground where he walked and wrote his wonderful works.

[from the website]

Between the North Texas RPG Convention on June 2nd-5th and then Robert E. Howard Days on June 10th and 11th, Texas is the state (of both geography and mind) to be in for June. Anyone care to subsidize a Yankee blogger looking to head for the wide-open plains this summer?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cauldron Spirits

Some magic-users eschew the traditional familiars and homunculi for another form of servant: the cauldron spirit. These beings are traditionally recruited from the ranks of the recently-deceased and bound within the mage’s primary cauldron, crucible, forge, or alembic. A cauldron spirit is part-magical item, part-living creature, and can only be created by magic-users or elves of name level or higher.

The creation of a cauldron spirit begins with the mage making contact with a dead soul. Usually this is accomplished with the assistance of the clerical spell, speak with dead, but negotiations with cognitive ghosts is another possibility. The soul to be used in the creation of a cauldron spirit must be willing to serve the mage, and will likely barter for a limited duration of service or some reward that might be of use to the spirit (assistance to living relatives, providing resurrection for the spirit after service, destruction of a hated enemy, etc.). Truly desperate or evil magic-users have employed trap the soul to gain the spirit they need.

Once an arrangement with the spirit has been made, the magic-user performs a ceremony to bind the spirit with its focus object. This rite takes 1d4 hours to complete and costs 5,000 gp in materials. Any interruption before the ceremony’s completion negates both the rite and the components involved, requiring the magic-user to start from scratch.

Each cauldron spirit has a loyalty score as determined by the spell-caster’s Charisma. This score can rise or fall depending on how the magic-user treats his spirit or abides by the agreement struck with the ghost prior to its employment. Any command the magic-user gives the spirit which goes against its nature requires a successful loyalty check for the spirit to comply and assist its master. A cauldron spirit who refuses to comply with its master’s command may be forced to follow directions. In order to compel the spirit to abide by its master’s orders, the magic-user must spend two complete rounds forcing its will upon the spirit. The cauldron spirit must then make a save vs. spells or concede to the spell-caster’s wishes. Each time a magic-user successfully compels the spirit to obey reduces the ghost’s loyalty score by one point.

The physical destruction of a cauldron spirit’s focus item or a successful dispel magic cast against the same releases the spirit from its bonds and negates the item’s ability to house another such ghost. For this reason, most magic-users keep their cauldron spirits safe at home. The creator of a cauldron spirit can free its ghost at any time by conducting an hour-long rite that employs 500 gp worth of materials.

The benefits of having a cauldron spirit are threefold. Firstly, all spell-casting times (if used) are reduced by half. Secondly, the cost of creating magic items and researching spells are reduced by 25% as is the time required to create them. Thirdly, a cauldron spirit can “store” spells as if it were a magic-user equal to half its master’s level rounded down. These spells are typically utilitarian (detect magic, read magic, dispel magic, etc.), but some spellcasters trust their cauldron spirits enough to allow them to hold offensive magics in case their laboratories should come under attack. These spells are cast as if by the magic-user, himself. There are no innate restrictions keeping a cauldron spirit from turning its stored magic upon its master, however, and magic-users are advised to keep this in mind before gifting their magical servants with powerful, destructive spells.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

“You awaken in a cold sweat…”

The dream your PC had last night was:

1-Your comrades were sitting around the campfire, gnawing on cooked human limbs. Their meal interrupted, they looked up at you with eyes that shone like a cat’s. Putting down their gruesome meal, they began crawling towards you as you struggled to free yourself from your bedroll. Wound as tight as a shroud, your arms were pinned as your friends stalked ever closer…

2-You were lost in the fetid halls of an ancient dungeon, one you’ve never encountered before. A thunderous rhythm, like a demonic heart, filled your ears as the shadows gathered about you. Turning a corner, you found yourself confronting the leering skull-face of the first companion you ever lost. With a rictus grin, he beckoned you to join him down into the dark…

3-You were enjoying a lavish banquet meal in the hall of a strange king. The provender was good, the wine excellent, and the companionship superb. A tickle in your throat interrupted your dining, stubbornly resisting all attempts to clear it. Then, the first of many small, hairy spiders began to climb from between your lips and onto your plate. This trickle quickly became a torrent, followed by your skin splitting as a horde of skittering arachnids broke free from their nest inside you…

4-You stood alone on a rocky strand, the waves breaking against the unnaturally sharp rocks that lined the water’s edge. A clump of pallid kelp rocked on the tide, coming closer with each breaking wave. As you watched, the kelp rolled over, revealing it to be the water-logged and crab-picked visage of your mother. Her dead eyes stared at you accusingly and her sodden lips worked silently, mouthing accusations of your past faults and failures. Soaking arms grappled you from behind, spinning you about to face the barnacle-spotted face of your father, his beard strung with dead anemones and jellyfish. He leaned in to kiss his favorite child…

5-You stood atop a craggy promontory, perched hundreds of feet in the air. Before you lay a wasteland of fire and ash; in the air above it, great black birds with yellow eyes and tattered feather rode sinister thermals and their hoarse cries croaked loudly in your ears. The sun glared hotly, revealing the picked bones of a thousand nations in the sand and soot below. You had the power to stop this, but your fear would not let you do what needed to be done. A shadow, like that of a titan rising from his restless slumber, blots out the landscape, shrouding you in night. SOMETHING approaches from behind. You feel its talons reaching for you, but you cannot—will not—turn to face what can only be the agent of your deserved punishment…

6-The ground gives way as you walk down a narrow forest path. A sound like ice breaking in the spring thaw hits you ears immediately before the pain explodes from your legs. With legs broken by the fall, your arms flail, struggling to keep yourself from sliding deeper into the earth as you grasped for plants that ripped free from the ground as gravity continued to claim you. Then, the first pair of fangs stabbed into your legs. You disturbed a nest of vipers in your fall. Your legs and waist became targets for their knife-like fangs as they struck again and again, pumping searing venom into your calves, thighs, and groin…

Pleasant dreams.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dragontales: “Sir George”

The Dragontales anthology (and yes, I’m still working my way through it) does its best to appeal to everyone, no matter what their preferred flavor of fantasy might be. So far we’ve seen game fiction, pulp sword & sorcery, and second-wave feminist faerie tales; it must therefore be time to delve into the comedic to lighten things up. We get it in the form of Carl Parlagreco’s “Sir George.”

Like most of the authors whose work resides in Dragontales, Parlagreco seems to have been an unknown writer who caught the eye of Kim Mohan & company when assembling the anthology. It is possible that this Carl Parlagreco is the same one associated with The Spartacus File (the dates seem to fit in any case), but again a cursory web search reveals little about the author’s post-Dragontales writing endeavors.

What is evident is that Parlagreco has a fondness for puns, play on words, and is undoubtedly familiar with the works of Douglas Adams: “Sir George” is that kind of tale. In it, we are introduced to the eponymous protagonist, a dragon who awakens one morning to deal with both a sore throat and a bold (if inept) knight named Byron Elpus, Lord of the Pristine Lands. Yes, that makes him “Lord Elpus,” who is just the first of several outlandishly-named characters.

Lord Elpus needs George’s head so that he can marry his beloved, the glorious Maiden Form. George, being rather attached to it, manages to convince the knight errant that a solution exists that would allow him to keep his cranium while still meeting the conditions placed upon Elpus. And thus an unlikely buddy tale in the vein of Dragonheart is born.

The illustrations that accompany the story are the work of an artist who signs his or her work as “Yeehan,” “Seehan,” or “Geehan” depending on how one interprets the first letter in their signature. The pieces are all competently rendered and their style fits a lighter, funny story.

Sir George is a one of the shorter tales in the anthology and being a comedy piece (especially on that relies on a lot of puns to deliver its comedic punch), there’s not a whole lot of depth or subtext to read into. That doesn’t mean it’s a poor tale, however, although one’s enjoyment will largely depend on your own attitudes towards word play in humor. Some of the puns are more dated than others, while still others are likely to sail over the heads of younger readers. It also ends on a slightly ominous note depending on how one chooses to read it.

Wong & Boris, Culinary Masters and Chefs of Renown

When the jaded palettes of nobility grow tired of stag, peacock tongue, and turkey-stuffed-with-chicken-stuffed-with-duck, they summon the legendary chefs, Wong & Boris. Once word arrives in their Kitchen Stronghold that their talents are required, the two masters of the culinary arts sally forth with the caravan of prep cooks, mobile larders, and chest of endless herbs & spices to wherever their skills are wanted. They charge a fortune for their efforts (one banquet they prepared for the Sultan of Yugglestan resulted in the economic collapse of the county’s infrastructure), but the results are well worth it.

It should be noted that Wong & Boris provide only the means to prepare and serve a meal, and the necessary garnishes and seasonings that accompany it, not the dish itself. For that, they typically rely on their employer or any number of wayward adventurers with empty pouches, loose morals, and questionable common sense. More than one out-of-work adventuring band met their end on a quest that bean with the appearance of an apron-clad, funny hat-wearing, mysterious stranger with an outrageous accent who sidled up to their tavern table with an offer of work.

These adventurers are tasked with the job of locating, killing (or sometimes capturing), and returning with the carcass of creatures running the gamut from anhkhegs to dragons to purple worms to tarrasques—all of which Wong & Boris have a dozen recipes for. Those adventurers who succeed with aplomb may even be granted a seat and plate at the meal (although usually seated at a small folding table near the kitchen).

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Society will now come to order.

Yes, it’s May and the month-long A-Z meme has come to an end. At last, I feel free to emerge from my cave, blink the bright spring sunshine out of my eyes, and eat a hiker. For those of you who participated, I’m glad you all had fun. It wasn’t to my liking because I thought it was too forced and too long a meme (I thought the same about “Hot Elf Chicks” but that was only a single day so I grinned and endured it). Happily, I get to have my own opinions without caring what everyone else thinks or needing to justify them just like you do. I nevertheless hope this turns out to be a one-time experiment.

While everyone was alphabetizing themselves, I decided that it was a perfect excuse to dodge out of the blogosphere and attend to other business—and I got a hell of a lot done. I didn’t miss composing posts at all, leaving me even more certain that my decision to draw things to a close here on the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope is the right one. It’s definitely getting to be time to move on to the next thing for me. What that is, I’m uncertain, but this is the final year of the Society for sure.

April saw the near completion of the two projects that stand between me and committing myself full time to the Stonehell sequel. There likely remains a little cleanup work to be done on those, but I anticipate that in the next few weeks, Stonehell 2 will be my main concern. It’s time to finish that once and for all. More details on the mystery projects will be forthcoming when I’m allowed to speak openly about them.

Somehow I managed to fit in a sci-fi and fantasy convention during the 90k words I was writing, and I spent three days annoying the hell out of Frank Mentzer and the rest of the gaming guests at ICON 30. Having first attended ICON 7 or 8 and sporadically returning throughout the years, this was the first time I felt that I was on the other side of the wall. I was not attending as a fan, but as someone with a vested interest in the state of gaming. In the past, I’d be doing the celebrity Q & A thing. This time, I was attending workshops on the future of RPGs or how to sustain your interest and finish a freelance writing project in order to keep yourself and your publishers happy. The last one was responsible for one of those “Holy shit, I’m actually a writer” moments. Ending the convention by playing OD&D with Frank Mentzer was a nice way to bring the weekend to a close, although it didn’t really end then. I left the con to run my Labyrinth Lord game and promptly killed the entire party when negotiations with a young red dragon broke down.

Between the TPK and breaking for Easter, I think the year-long campaign has started to lose momentum, something which can be terminal for a game if not corrected. Today’s game had to end early because I was in too much pain from an old back injury to keep things going until our normal stop time. Plus, we lost 3 of the 6 replacement PCs on the first level of Stonehell (exploding flame toad & two potions of poison) so it was time to call it a night. With Mother’s Day next weekend and a playtest of something else the week afterwards, it won’t be back to Labyrinth Lord until May 22nd. That’s a long break and I hope we can recover.

A lot of my uncertainty about the future of the campaign can be blamed on the fact that it’s now spring. My long-time friends know that as soon as the weather changes, I get spring fever and go a little flaky. The last thing I want to do is sit inside and pretend to be outdoors when there are woods to be walked, beaches to be visited, and friends to see. But I can’t pretend this is the sole reason. I’ve been running hot and cold on vanilla fantasy for a while now and it might be time to do something very different. I’ll have to see how things play out in the next couple of weeks.

On the “News of the Highly Implausible” front, due to some strong suggestions by unnamed individuals, I finally broke down and got on Facebook. Some of you have already discovered this and sought me out. I’m pretty open about befriending fans and contemporaries, but don’t expect exciting insights into the mind of Mike and whatever I’m working on. I did join the Stonehell fan group though, and I might release advance looks at the dungeon through that page a week before I post them here. We’ll see.

The blog roll will be returning slowly starting tonight. I’ll undoubtedly overlook some folks, so please don’t take it as a slight if I do. There’s just so much more out there now and I can’t (and don’t) follow everyone’s work. There are more comprehensive lists than my own.

And there we go. I hope we have some fun again together before I turn off the lights and lock the door.