Friday, October 28, 2011

Say What You Will About RPG Blogs, But...

They seldom make me contemplate gouging my eyes out with a spoon or make me feel as if my I.Q. dropped thirty points from stupidity contamination. That's something that I can't say about most of the RPG-related forums out there on the ether. Ey-yugg.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Visit Stonehell for Halloween and Save 20%

Between now and October 28th, Lulu is offering 20% off on all orders, allowing those of you who've yet to purchase Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, its second supplement, Buried Secrets, or  Realms of Crawling Chaos a chance to save some money. And that's no trick! So why not treat yourself by entering the code BURIED305 at checkout. OK, enough with cutsey shilling. Go buy a book and help keep the bill-collecting trolls from my door this season. There's enough scary monsters out there as it is.

Friday, October 21, 2011

New Horizons

I am without a doubt undergoing a sea change in my gaming preferences. I’ve lost all enthusiasm for level-based fantasy games in the last few months and I now realize that I’ve hit my saturation point. This doesn’t mean I’m done with them for good, but it will be some time before I’m running D&D in any of its myriad forms again. Playing the game is fine; running it is another story.

This also doesn’t mean that I’m finished with writing for them either. In fact, I just finished up my work for another level-based fantasy game and have another contribution in that vein on my schedule. However, when it comes to my personal life, it’s time to change things up.

The downside of this realization is that Stonehell is effectively in stasis for the foreseeable future. I hate to do it, but my lack of interest in writing dungeon adventures is blatantly obvious when I look over what I’ve written so far. I have high expectations for the sequel and I’m not meeting them. I’ll come back and write the second book once I can get excited about the dungeon again. My apologies to those of you who’ve been looking forward to the sequel, but I’m not going to take the sleazy route of writing a piece of shit and asking you for your money for it.

“OK, Mike, if that’s how you feel, what’s next?” I’m glad you ask.

Unless something gets changed (which is entirely possible), the next issue of Fight On! will feature the first of a series of articles I’ve written aimed at “modern” horror and fantasy. I use quotation marks because the default period is the 1920s (all the better to fit classic Call of Cthulhu) rather than the 21st century. I’m extremely proud of this series, more proud of it than anything I’ve done for my own enjoyment in some time. The article features a map (a glimpse of which is below)done by cartographer Ravi Shankar who I met over at the Cartographer’s Guild. Ravi does some excellent work and I encourage you to check out his portfolio—especially if you’re looking for a good cartographer.
The series details a quaint little portion of upstate New York located in the Hudson Valley region. In real life, the Hudson Valley has a great deal of folklore attached to it. One finds stories of everything from headless horsemen to Bigfoot to UFOs. After I’m done with it, there will be even more weird goings-on reported. The purpose of the series is to present a sandbox setting in which referees can place their own historical horror games. Tired of Arkham? Come visit Wildwyck County. If I do my job correctly though, the place can be used for more than just Call of Cthulhu. It’d make an excellent Colonial Gothic campaign if you roll the clock back or a World of Darkness setting if you advance the timeline ahead. One could even remove all the serial numbers and turn it into a fantasy-based campaign using Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Realms of Crawling Chaos.

The series has personal connections for me, which is one of the reasons it has me so excited. Wildwyck County is based on real life portions of New York State where I had many happy experiences. The chance to return to that place (even in a fictionalized and highly spookified form) is a great pleasure. In fact, it’s even inspired me to return there in real life for a few days to engage in some R&R&R (rest and relaxation and research). I plan on taking some photos to use in future articles to support the artwork I’ve already contributed (chosen, but not created by me, thankfully) for the initial article. 

Connected to the ‘Wyck (as the locals call their home)are the eternal autumnal lands of the October Country. I’ve been rambling about and designing for the October Country for over two years now on the blog Secret Antiquities and it represents my second big project. I’ve got enough material to begin playtesting the setting and I hope to assemble the finished material into a book once I’ve worked the kinks out. If I had to pick a work that I’d consider my magnum opus, the October Country would be it. I call it my Rosetta Stone setting because any story I want to tell—fantasy, horror, intrigue, pulp, or weirdness—can find a home in the October Country. It’s a personal place, but one I hope has enough common touchstones to be universal.

I’m not sure how I’ll handle that setting in the future. I’d like to see it in print, but I’m not certain I want to go down the road of self-publishing again. I’ve gotten lazy and like it when all I have to do is string the words together and let somebody else worry about the art, the editing, the layout, etc. Unfortunately, I’m hesitant to relinquish ownership of the material, so self-publishing may be the only course. But that’s all carts far, far in front of horses for now.

This brings me to my last concern: the future of this blog. My original plan was to keep it up until I released the Stonehell sequel and then quietly retire it. Now, with the sequel on hold for the foreseeable future, I’m at a loss at what to do. I have no interest in writing more about fantasy games like D&D here for now, but this blog draws a lot of traffic and has a robust following. Do I mothball the blog until I come back around to level-based fantasy games again or do I repurpose it to reflect my new interests? And if I do that, what happens to Secret Antiquities? Frankly, I don’t know.

That’s my future, folks. One which may or may not be of interest to you, but I thought you deserved a heads up as to where I’m headed. Things have been very, very quiet here as of late and this is the reason why. I hope this glimpse at where I’m going and my future plans sparks some interest and you hang around here or follow me where I’m going, but I understand if you’re more comfortable remaining where I’ve been. It’s all good either way.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Question Authority—Especially if that Authority is Me

I’ve noticed something about my own players and several others that I’ve shared a table with over the last two years, a phenomenon that I’ve not been able to deduce the whys and wherefores of. It might be a strictly local trend, one that doesn’t occur elsewhere, but it could also be indicative of the way the game has changed after the release of the 3rd edition. Maybe you’ve seen this happen too.

My players don’t ask a lot of questions in-game. This is completely alien to me because that’s all I ever do when I’m playing. Maybe it’s because I’m a referee or a designer or simply because I play these games to temporarily lose myself in the fantasy we create and becoming invested in the shared world makes it easier to do so. Most of my players, however, and others that I’ve gamed with are seemingly content to lay back and assume a completely submissive role in the play experience. Unfortunately, this can be fatal to their characters.

Here’s a recent example: I was running a quick filler game using the material I created for my Out of the Box campaign. It got off to a good start with the players going to the tavern and one making an inquiry about any recent goings on in the area. The barkeep revealed that some settlers had been attacked on the road recently, and had been kidnapped by forces unknown. I was happy. The guys were interacting with the campaign world at large, which was a big step forward for some of them. But then old habits kicked in.

They learned that the local temple couldn’t provide any healing potions, but heard a rumor that a witch in the woods might be able to. Rather than ask any more questions, they figured they’d just stumble around in the woods for a while and run into her. Things got worse after they decided to leave the safety of the keep and go dungeon-crawling. There were three options on a map that a local had, all of which were merely names on a paper. The party picked one at random and headed for it, not even pausing to see if anyone knew anything about the site they had chosen. As it turned out, the dungeon they picked was scaled for 3rd level characters and the expedition resulted in a massacre.

The same tendency occurs during the actual adventure. In my Stonehell game, the PCs occasionally encountered phenomenon or items that they didn’t recognize. Occasionally a player might ask something like, “Does my magic-user know anything about this?” or “As a dwarf do I recognize that?” When I answer “No,” they seem to take that as “No and you never will.” The thought of seeking out an NPC expert doesn’t even occur to them.

Compare this to my approach in the Labyrinth Lord game I’m participating it. We were running through the Village of Hommlet and the party, after learning of the Moathouse, decided to head out there and loot it. Immediately. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I cried. “Let’s see if we can’t learn a thing or two before we go out there.” My magic-user asked around town and learned of the backstory behind the Battle of the Moathouse and talked to a few soldiers who had been there that day. In doing so, he got a rough sketch of the exterior and learned that there was a single known dungeon level underneath the fort. He also got Rufus to kick in some troops and offer up a bounty for exploring the place. Sometimes knowing these little facts and whether you’re bound to run into goblins instead of orcs can save lives, especially fragile, 1st level lives.

After a bad run in with the frogs, my magic-user consulted with the local druid, thinking that if anyone could offer some advice about giant frogs, he’d be the guy. This lead to us getting a magic orb that created a cloud of monstrous flies and helped draw off some of the big batrachians in our path.

Maybe I’m just an exemplary player or perhaps reading all those “advice to the players” articles in Dragon back in the day stuck in my brain. Whatever the case, I’m just not seeing this trend in the gamers I’ve been playing with and I’m wondering why. Is it merely because they are “poor” players or is this symptomatic of a larger cause? Have video games that feed the players tidbits of information at predetermined points made gamers more passive? Did including a “Gather Information” skill make players think that the only way to get important information was to make a skill check and when that skill is missing from their plate of options they believe that information is unavailable? Am I a sucky referee who runs a game that provides no impetus for the players to peer beyond the surface? I really don’t know.

This had been on my mind a lot lately, mostly because I’m re-examining what types of games I enjoy running and because of some changes in my regular group. I look at Jeff Rient’s Twenty Questions and part of me wonders if it’s even worth answering them if nobody’s going to make those inquiries in the first place. This also explains my request that folks interested in play testing not “lay back and think of England” but get excited and get involved. A great deal of my lack of enthusiasm for continuing to run Labyrinth Lord comes from this absence of investment in the shared world we’re supposed to be creating around the table.

I’m not trying to be harsh or rude to my players, but it’s something that I have noticed in the year and a half we’ve been together. Not from all of them, but enough that it affects me and my own interest in running a game. And with my plan to introduce a new setting/game that I consider to be my most personal and immersive campaign ever, these concerns make me think that this is not the right time or group to do so.

Am I alone in noticing this trend in gamers, especially younger ones? Is this a singular phenomenon or has this affected your own games as well? I’d really like to diagnose this affliction and see what might be done to address it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


I the Emperor proclaim
Us the masters we rule the game

Those of you located in the Long Island area may be interested to know that I’m in the process of putting together a play testing group in order to stress test a few projects that are fast approaching the end of their writing phase. One is my own construction, another is a new game for another publisher, and a third will be an adventure written for a soon-to-be released game system.

I’m specifically looking for people with the natural inclination to take a setting or rule system and run with it rather than lay back and think of England while I have my way with them. I’m never going to figure out if the project is going to hold together unless you help kick the tires with ideas or situations I’d never think of. If you’re interested and on the Island, please drop me an email at poleandrope (AT) gmail (dot) com.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dave’s Day

I’d make a lousy reporter. I simply lack the ability to observe events as they occur, preferring to participate whenever possible. This means that any attempt I make to provide a comprehensive picture of what occurred at a function or event is doomed to failure. The 3rd Annual NYC Dave Arneson Memorial Game Day is no exception, so please forgive any oversights I might commit in the following paragraphs or names I might accidently misattribute or misspell. I’ll leave the task of providing a wider, more accurate account of the day’s events to another.
After waking at the crack of dawn to make the drive into Brooklyn, I finally managed to find a parking spot a few blocks away from the Brooklyn Strategist. Entering the space, I immediately met John, the mind behind the Brooklyn Strategist and its operator. The Brooklyn Strategist is not so much a game store as it is a neighborhood resource. It shares time in a community space and serves as “a unique, community-based, interactive board and card-game center, cafĂ© and social club.” Open Tuesday through Thursday every week and on first and third weekends of the month, it provides a place for game enthusiasts of all ages to get together and share a common love for games of all types. In addition, they run “Game Modules,” weekly series of games with common themes (Ancient Strategy, Sports, Empire Building and Civilizations, etc) that run several weeks and introduce players to games of increasing complexity as they grow familiar with the Game Module’s theme.
For those who can’t commit to a regular Game Module, the Brooklyn Strategist provides a four hour block of play time for $10 dollars. Slap your money down and choose from any one of the many game available for play. If you don’t know the rules, the staff is more than willing to get you familiar with the game so you can play. That’s an excellent way to give a new game a shot before plunking down the $50 a high end board game goes for these days.
The space is clean and open, although the lighting could be a little brighter. Tables are sawhorse affairs surrounded by folding chairs. The entry way serves as business counter, game display, and game sales, and the place is wheelchair accessible. As we gamers know, gaming and the munchies go hand-in-grease-covered-hand, and the Brooklyn Strategist has you covered there. They operate an on-site concession stand, Strategic Snacks, which is stocked with comfort foods made from scratch. The mint lemonade and chocolate chip cookies were both excellent. I really can’t recommend the Brooklyn Strategist enough. If you’re in the area and looking to play a game that doesn’t involve renting shoes or paying a table fee in a snooker hall, the Brooklyn Strategist is worth a visit.

 After getting acquainted with the Strategist, I got down to the game floor to see a few familiar faces. Tavis Allison was already up and running a Blackmoor hex crawl for a group of children and adults. This was the second time I’ve met Tavis and I was again amazed at how effortlessly he keeps young children engaged and focused on a game with complex rules. He had a “hex map” laid out on the table constructed from Heroscape Terrain, which struck me as a brilliant idea. If somebody out there could produce a series of hex-shaped markers illustrated with classic fantasy cartographic symbols that attached to one another quickly and easily (maybe magnetically), they’d probably make a mint from gamers. Just a suggestion to would-be entrepreneurs...
Also sighted was James Carpio of Chapter 13 Press. I met James earlier this year at ICON 30 and got the opportunity to chat with him and Frank Mentzer after the con had ended. James was at the Strategist to run Death Race Z, a new game from Chapter 13 and had artist Ben Morgan with him. Together, James and Ben are the creators of Spookybeans, the gothic comics RPG. Imagine roleplaying in the world of Charles Addams and you’re halfway to understanding Spookybeans. James and Ben have been playtesting the game for five years now and are finally getting ready to publish it. I had a gander at the game in a rough form and it looks interesting. Ben’s art really sets the mood for the game and with adventures with names like “Dave of the Dead” it seems to have a built in audience with anyone who enjoys Chez Goth, the quirky worlds of Tim Burton, Shaun of the Dead, or just likes poking fun at heavily eye-shadowed folks with too much spider-themed jewelry.
I grabbed a table after greeting everyone and catching up with what was going on for the day. Unpacking and unwinding after the drive in, I talked with John from the Strategist who gave me the information I reported above about the place. I promised I’d snap some more pictures once the place got busier, but unfortunately I only got the few I posted in this article. Before I knew it, things were happening all around me and I forgot to try and document the day in photographs.
With more people trickling it, some of whom were children, Tavis gathered the kids together to introduce them to Blackmoor and Adventurer, Conqueror, King. The two adult players from Blackmoor drifted over to my table to make room for the kids. These were Mike R., who turned out to have a strange synchronicity with myself besides just a name, and Tim H., the mind behind the Play Generated Map and Document Archive (

Since a few more faces were needed before I could break out the special Dave Arneson Stonehell adventure I’d written for the day, the three of use sat down to play InSpectres, refereed by Tim. It was my first experience with the game and it was a tremendous amount of fun (I’ll have more to say about it in another post). In short, you play the employees of a Ghostbusters-type paranormal extermination service. Game play is fast, simple, and very much in the new school of game design. Players have almost as much say in the game narrative as the game master and a session can be wrapped up in an hour or so.

Halfway through InSpectres, we got a new player, John, who turned out is a regular reader of this blog (Hi, John!). John took up the mantle of Sally the Intern and saved Mike and I when we got imprisoned in our own mystical glyph like a pair of mimes stuck in an invisible box—an invisible box surrounded by goats that had tasted human blood!

When the game finished (triumphantly for the players, I might add), I asked James and Ben to join us and we sat down to play Labyrinth Lord run by myself (Do I need to submit a detailed report for my Labyrinth Lord Society XP, David?). The tournament/demo style scenario involved the plundering of the Hidden Vault of Evaders Noan. The five players chose from a stack of pre-generated PCs and, after getting the background, entered the vault in search of three extremely valuable gems. Not long after they entered, two more players came over and asked to sit in. That’s how Andrew (a newcomer to Labyrinth Lord and old school RPGs) and Dave (another reader of the SoTPR) joined the party. I’ll have more to say about the scenario in another post, but the party was largely successful (one of the gems was recovered) and I’m pretty happy with the debut of the adventure. It needs a few tweaks, but it might become my convention/on-the-road Stonehell adventure of choice.

It was 3:30 when the Labyrinth Lord game finished up, and after enjoying some compliments on my refereeing, I took a look around the room to see that it was filling up nicely. Tavis had finished ACK, many of the panellists had arrived and were chatting with acquaintances new and old, families were playing board and card games at the tables around the Strategist, and someone (I think it was Paul Hughes from Blog of Holding) was running 4E D&D with a bunch of kids in one corner of the space.

I had some time to kill before the panel started at 5 PM and I largely spent the next hour and a half chatting with people and sampling a snack from the concession stand. These conversations included:
  • Talking with Tavis and Darren Watts, President of Hero Games, about Dave Arneson, Braunstein, and the simple, but radical idea Dave had about playing games where your “piece” got better at them thanks to the experiences had in previous games.
  • Having Luke Crane of Burning Wheel and the Mouse Guard RPG remind me of the Milton Bradley board game Conspiracy, a game that I had completely forgotten about and must now acquire at all costs.
  • Comparing notes with Tim H. on Dwarf Fortress, its complexity and usefulness, and the fact that it lacks any sort of intuitive introduction to game play for people like me.
  • Chatting with Darren Watts out on the sidewalk about Kenneth Hite and how the mark of a good designer is the ability to compartmentalize your own creations, especially when creating for different systems owned by different publishers.
After grabbing a quick bite of Mexican at the Fast Burrito Deli, it was time to grab a seat, for the panel was about to begin. A film crew was on hand to record the discussion, but due to audio issues with the microphone, it’s uncertain if any of the footage will appear online as intended.

The panel consisted of Darren Watts, Luke Crane, Brian Driotcour, David Ewalt, Ethan Gilsdorf, and Nicholas Fortugno, whose credits can be found in this post rather than reproduce them here. The discussion was interesting and very respectful of Dave Arneson’s contributions to the game industry (even in light of the occasional turkey like DNA/DOA). The entire industry of gaming –be it tabletop or digital—would be in a completely different state if it hadn’t be for Dave’s simple yet radical idea. Listening to the panel reminded me exactly how much we gamers owe to Dave and reinforces the sadness that he’s not better recognized for his contributions. As many people there admitted, they came into the hobby through D&D, but had no clue about who Dave was or what role he had in the game that Gygax’s name dominated. It’s a shame that Arneson is only now beginning to gain the accolades he richly deserves at a time when he’s not around to enjoy them. Tavis (and the rest of the organizers) are doing a great service to the hobby, the next generation, and Dave’s memory with these annual Game Days and I hope they endure for many, many years.

The panel ended, leaving me with not only a renewed respect for Dave, but a few laughs (I thought I was the only one who considered the mathematical formulae for explosion damage in Twilight 2000 to be a point of high mockery), and the realization that role-players vary much more than I imagined (apparently the Danes have attitudes about roleplaying that Americans would find almost alien, but that’s one of the beauties of the hobby and the mindsets of those who play it).

It was 6:30 PM by this time and the day was winding down for me. Between only a few hours of sleep in the previous 48 leading up the event and a full session of gaming under my belt, I was feeling pretty beat and facing an hour and a half drive home. There was also uneven ratio between game masters and players, and since I had already run a session, I thought it best if I let someone else run something instead. I had one person, Eric, another reader of this blog and owner of The Dungeon Alphabet, come down looking to play Labyrinth Lord with me at the helm, but I was pretty wiped out and I had to disappoint him (sorry about that again, Eric). I gave him my copy of the Hidden Vault of Evaders Noan as a small consolation prize because I always hate to let somebody down.

A little after 7 PM, I collected my things, said my goodbyes and walked back to my car. To my delight, it was exactly where I left it, free from parking tickets, and I made my way back into the quiet suburbs of Long Island, tired, happy, and proud to have been a part of the 3rd Annual NYC Dave Arneson Memorial Game Day. I hope to be there again in 2012. Maybe you’ll be there too.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

New Realms of Crawling Chaos Review

It has fallen out of public view in the past several months, which is only natural given the sheer amount of good stuff that's been coming out of various OSR publishers (professional and amateur), but I've seen signs that people are beginning to give Dan Proctor's excellent Lovecraftian supplement for Labyrinth Lord another look-see. People still seem to enjoy my paltry contributions to the book as well.

A new review of Realms of Crawling Chaos is up over at Reviews from R'lyeh. Swing on by and give it a read if you've been wondering if this might be the book to spice up your old school D&D game.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Thanks, Dave

I just got home from the 3rd Annual NYC Dave Arneson Memorial Game Day. It's been a very long, but very entertaining and sometimes enlightening day. I'll have a little more to say about it during the week ahead, but I did not get nearly as many pictures as I had hoped and things were still going on when I left.

Suffice to say, none of that fun would have been possible without the contributions of Dave Arneson. Thanks so much, Dave. You changed the world with a simple idea. Thanks also to Tavis Allison for organizing the event and to all the game masters and panelists who came down to help out. It was well worth braving the wilds of Brooklyn and getting up before dawn to do so.