Thursday, July 19, 2018

Failed Fables

Just continuing from where I left off...

It was only a few weeks ago (when was Free RPG Day? A couple days after that) that I was in Around the Table Games in Edmonds and found a veritable motherlode of used D&D game product for sale, including a stack of adventure modules in near mint condition. And they were a wide variety: everything from Castle Caldwell to Queen of the Demonweb Pits to a first printing of Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan to the deluxe World of Greyhawk (not in the box). It was a really astounding collection, a mountain of books showing little evidence of actual play...just years of careful storage until the day some gentleman decided to clean out his closet.

[I asked about the person who'd sold the items...some local lawyer, apparently, and one "definitely older" than Yours Truly]

Needless to say, despite an eye-gouging markup, I acquired a fair portion of the collection, though I restrained myself somewhat (tempting as it was to double-up on copies of books I already own, I felt guilty at the thought of depriving others of the chance to acquire such treasures). Still...a good haul and (for me) more useful items than what I might have picked up at Free RPG Day, had I remembered to show up on time this year.

Mostly more useful, I should say. I'll admit that some items were more about nostalgia than anything else, and it's one of these books that I want to talk about: Carl Smith's 1984 adventure module The Forest Oracle. Designated N2 (the second of the "novice" series, after Against the Cult of the Reptile God), The Forest Oracle was one of the last 1E adventure modules I purchased prior to a hiatus from D&D that lasted more than a decade (my hiatus from "Advanced" D&D specifically has continued up through the present day...about 30 years).

[Jesus Christ! I hadn't even realized that till now!]

I ran The Forest Oracle at least once or twice "back in the day," but somewhere in the mists of time it was misplaced or stolen or tossed (not by my...I'm an absolute packrat when it comes to most things), hence the reason I was willing to shell out $15+ for a good copy. It is infamous in gaming circles, being considered one of the worst adventure modules of the TSR era...if not one of the worst of all time. Google its title and you can find several blog posts and and assorted forum rants describing the reasons why. It IS rather bad, on a lot of fronts, and I can specifically remember some issues when it came to actually running the thing, including an outright mutiny by my players over the "wererat robbery" incident.

[for the curious: players stay the night at an inn, where they are subsequently robbed by wererats. Even PCs setting a guard for the night gets put to sleep by a sleep spell (despite wererats not having access to such magic). It's a really heavy handed method of setting up a really stupid encounter for very nonsensical reasons. My players...who were not what one would call particularly sophisticated...railed at both the stupidity and unfairness of the situation, to the point that I believe we simply scratched it out of existence. If they'd actually read the adventure module, they would have seen the encounter was even stupider than it appeared]

Be that as it may, I adore this module. Despite the poor writing, the linear (often railroad) plot, the nonsensical challenges and pointless encounters...even when I was a kid (and didn't care or notice these kinds of things) and the only thing that mattered was the recommended level of PC (and levels 2-4 was far, far too low for my usual players), I still wanted to own and play the thing. Because stylistically I really dig on the promise their selling.

Just look at that cover. Keith Parkinson's color plates have been some of my favorite over the years, and this one is no exception. These aren't mischievous gremlins, subterranean wretches, nor Tolkien orcs of a lesser variety. No, these goblins are the dark fey of a Grimm Brother's forest, girded for war and sporting hell-colored skin that leaves no question of their evil nature or infernal origins.

And the threat implied by the cover goes perfectly with the themes and plot set out in the adventure scenario (a village cursed, a magical quest, benevolent druids, nefarious gypsies). Even the nonsensical encounters (the grieving nymph with her enchanted lover, the attack in the night by shapeshifting rats) go well with the "fairy tale" theme being presented, as does Jeff Easley's rather charming interior artwork. It's not "high fantasy" (what one might call Tolkien or Dragonlance); it's what I call prosaic fantasy, though of course I'm using the term "prosaic" incorrectly (sorry, I wasn't a lit or writing major). Prosaic actually means "common," "unromantic," or "lacking poetic beauty" and sure The Forest Oracle fits that description. But what I really mean is something delightfully quaint or of an older style, whimsical nature. Give me the word that means that in English and I'll endeavor to improve on my poor vocabulary.

See, there's been a lot of ink (and blood) spilled over the last few years on the nature of the style of "Old School" D&D, discussions I've contributed to myself in enthusiastic and half-cocked manner. And while there's no denying both the gonzo design priorities and S&S inspirations, there is a LOT of this "fairy tale" style fantasy on display in D&D. Hell, it was what I brought to D&D when I first started playing.

I didn't get around to reading Moorcock and Leiber and Zelazny until I was well into my high school years. But I read a LOT of fantasy fiction even before I began immersing myself in fantasy role-playing: C.S. Lewis (of course), Frank Baum, Lewis Carol, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Robin McKinley, and Peter S. Beagle. Tolkien, too, though only The Hobbit (I wouldn't finish LOTR till college). The Brothers Grimm. Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales. Bullfinch's Mythology. Etc.

[true, I was also reading MZB, Asprin's Thieves World anthologies, and McCaffery's Get Off the Unicorn...we'll get to those in the next installment of this series]

Point is, my fantasy inspirations...the stuff of my imagination that was driving me towards D&D...was cut neither from the Howardian/Lovecraftian pulp cloth, nor from its imitators. Likewise, I had yet to be exposed to "high concept fantasy" in the Tolkien LOTR, Sam Donaldson, Terry Brooks, etc. sense...where a band of heroes struggle against some supernatural, mega-evil threat with the fate of a completely fictitious fantasy world hanging in the balance (i.e. the most popular form of serial fantasy fiction for the last several decades...see Robert Jordan, George Martin, Dragonlance, even Rowling's Harry Potter series).

And I don't think Dungeons & Dragons did all that much to dissuade me from that style of fantasy. If illustration and artwork is present to conjure and fire the imagination, many of the most prominent images found in my early D&D books fit right along side my prosaic (commonplace), fairy tale fantasy sensibilities. Outside the original Moldvay Basic book itself, I find a surprising lack of dungeon illustrations. There are few images in the original Monster Manual that depict or even suggest a subterranean setting, save for the Gygaxian "underworld cleaning crew" monsters, and aside from the joke illos (and the serial comic in the appendix on random dungeon creation) the DMG is likewise devoid of such artwork.

[while it's hard to argue against the cover of the original Players Handbook, keep in mind this was the last piece of the AD&D "puzzle" we acquired, instead operating with a combo of B/X, the MM, and the DMG, for a couple years...and when we DID finally get ahold of the PHB it was with the 1983 Easley ("Ringlerun") cover. I didn't see the 1978 cover till I acquired a copy in a used bookstore, circa 1987]

Check out the DMG illustrations on pages 48, 59, 154, and 193. Heck, just look at the cover leaf illos from all the original core books (DMG, PHB, MM): all show outdoor scenes...scenes I'd say deserve to be called pastoral (yes, even the bulette fight) in the light of day. Nothing so mean as grubby explorers in a fantasy Underworld. No one hanging from ropes or prodding cave walls with 10' poles or fighting desperate battles with brutish orcs by the light of torches and lanterns.

And yet those things...those scurrilous rogues who go (largely) undepicted...those are the stuff of actual gameplay, as written. It's HARD to use the D&D system to run games in the style of old fairy tale fantasy...the genre simply isn't supported by the system (let me tell you, I've tried!). A fairy tale druid grove like that described in The Forest Oracle isn't likely to be held in respectful awe...it's simply another lair waiting to be scouted and plundered by an enterprising party of adventurers (as soon as they feel they're of a level sufficient to take it on)! Roadside encounters with sad nymphs and dryads-in-distress are as likely to end in disaster as not, depending on what angle to the players see in helping such creatures. It IS possible to inject the fear and wonder of the mysterious and supernatural into one's game, but it seldom lasts...in the end, what matters most is how readily an encountered creature can hit Armor Class 2 (that's AC 18 for you ascending types).

Anyway, some of us were trying to do this type of fantasy. You see it in other modules of the TSR era (the UK series especially), but none quite so clearly as The Forest Oracle. It may seem like banal, overused fantasy tropes (I mean, it is, right?) but that in itself feels unusual to me. Which is probably why I like it.
: )


R.I.P. Keith Parkinson



Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Divergent Paths

Apologies. I think I mentioned my busy summer? Welp, I am currently sitting on a couch in Paraguay (yes, that Paraguay), and so "empty of plate" that perhaps I can finally, finally get around to a blog post. It's been a spell.

[I'm only here for a week, so I'd best get to it]

This post is one I've had on my mind for a few weeks now.

I've written in the past (more than once, I'm sure) that "there's more than one way to play D&D." But folks inferring some sort of non-judgmental, egalitarian declaration should note that I'm NOT saying there exists more than one RIGHT way to play D&D. Truth is, I secretly believe that many of the multiple ways in which folks run the game of D&D are wrong, some of them dead wrong.

However, that's not what I want to discuss/debate at the moment. Rather, I wanted to talk about three products I recently acquired that illustrate distinct styles of campaign a DM can run. Yes, the style can inform the manner in which D&D is played, and it often does. But...well, let me just write about it.

*ahem* But in a bit. More apologies: it appears I do not have the time to blog that I thought I did. Sorry. I'm going to post this as a placeholder, because if I don't it will become yet another half-written draft waiting for that magical day I "get around to finishing it." Sorry for the tease.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cage, Baby

I started writing a very loooong post about superhero media that I've been watching lately: everything from the new Avengers flick (seen Wednesday) to Black Panther (seen a couple months back) to Thor: Ragnarok to Black Lightning. But things were busy today and I haven't got around to finishing or posting the thing. And it's 10 minutes after midnight, the kids are finally asleep (summertime, folks) and the new season of Luke Cage just dropped. And I'm all in.

Bring it on, baby.

I'm sure I'll have a few things to say in the near future, but right now I'm going to bask in the (hopefully) glorious punch-fest that is Luke Cage & Co.

Please, please, PLEASE...let there be appearances from both Iron Fist and the Daughters of the Dragon.

JB out.

[damn...I haven't even bothered to watch the trailer yet and I am sooooo excited]

About to stream on my laptop.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Oh, Boy

Hope everyone had a good (or passable) Father's Day yesterday. Condolences if not. My own was quite nice, and any complaints I might have were overshadowed by the rest of the weekend.

Hell, I even forgot about Free RPG Day on Saturday, being busy with World Cup action, Mariners games, movies, old friends visiting, etc. However, I was kindly reminded about it by the neighborhood bicycle dealer, and managed to make my way down to the Mox in Ballard to grab a handful of swag prior to it all being gone. Some good stuff this year, especially the DCC and T&T quick starts.

Anyway...it is officially summer now, as my kids are out of school, and because I'm the only child care they have, I'm expecting to be pretty busy over the next couple weeks. Lot of soccer going on...not just World Cup, but premier league stuff for my boy and "Lil Kickers" practice for my daughter. Then there's the jamborees and the family travel plans (including a possible trip back to Paraguay). All in all, it's shaping up to be an extremely full schedule.

I will try to keep up with blog, but...well, we'll have to see how it goes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Advantage-Disadvantage

Hey, people...I have a very, very serious question for y'all.

I'd like some feedback on 5E's advantage-disadvantage game mechanic. Do people like it? Do people hate it? It's easily adaptable to earlier editions of D&D (and the usual bunch of retro-clones). How many folks are using it and loving it? And how many people have tried it and kicked it to the curb?

Here's why I ask: I'm putting the finishing touches on a little B/X supplement of mine, and originally I had included a section that added a straight adaptation of advantage-disadvantage to the rules (though I feel my write-up of the mechanic is a bit more succinct...*ahem*). I did this for a couple reasons:

  1. I think it's a neat little system/shortcut.
  2. It allowed me to add a bunch of bits and pieces that rely on the mechanic. Examples include: new maneuvers/options in combat, cleaned up B/X mechanics, and certain treasure items and magical/spell effects.

HOWEVER, as said this is going to be a supplement designed for use with B/X...and I have heard from a person or two that they are not fans of advantage/disadvantage. Right now, I'm looking for some feedback, in order to make a product that's more palatable to my readers (i.e. the folks most likely to buy the thing). SO...assuming the supplement ends up sounding like a product you're interested in:

Do you want to see advantage-disadvantage?

Or would you prefer 5E mechanics were left on the cutting room floor?

I realize that, for many folks, it's not a big deal...that people can modify these books as they see fit and that some are more than happy to edit things out that doesn't work for them. I get that. I'm trying to find out what y'all would LIKE to see in the book, AND what you feel about the mechanic in general. Because the fact is, I haven't had much experience with 5E or advantage/disadvantage and maybe I'm throwing a Big Fat Flaw into an otherwise sharp little product.

So PLEASE: any feedback folks can provide is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Cleaned Out

Well, it appears I just sold my last print copy of my B/X Companion over the weekend (I might have another one squirreled away somewhere, but it's a long shot). Rest assured, I'm in the process of ordering a new print run...a bigger one that should (hopefully) last a couple years.

I'm a little surprised that the book continues to sell as well as it does, both in print and electronic form; I'd have figured I'd already reached the point of saturation in our niche-niche market a while back. Apparently not.

What's even more surprising is sales of Five Ancient Kingdoms has picked up recently...I've sold as many copies of it in the last six months as in the twelve months prior. Weird. No idea who's playing it (perhaps folks are just mining it for ideas?)...one of these days I'll have the "Running Beagle Games" web site up-and-working and maybe I'll get some forum discussion going on the game.

Anyway, still recovering a bit from a weekend-long soccer jamboree and finishing up the last week of school. I hope to keep the blog posting going through the summer...we'll see how that goes.
; )

Saturday, June 9, 2018

JB Holding Forth

Last month I mentioned Alexis (over at Tao of D&D) is doing a series of podcasts called "Authentic Roleplaying" in which he interviews various Dungeon Masters about their experiences and perspectives on the job. Welp,  my interview is up now for anyone interested in hearing what JB sounds like when given the chance to blather on in the (internet) flesh.

Hint: I tend to be as long-winded in person as I am when it comes to writing Ye Old Blog.

Still, figured I'd mention it. The series as a whole is quite good, and I'm sorry it's only going to be eight episodes (originally, Alexis intended it to be a dozen or so). If you haven't checked it out, there's a lot of insight to take a way from ALL the folks that got interviewed...ideas you can add to your game and/or apply to your campaigns. I recommend it.

Anyway, here's me (podcast #7).

Oh...and here's Fuzzy Skinner (#6) writer of the blog Fuzzy's Dicecapades (just in case you missed that one); Fuzzy's episode hadn't yet been released when I wrote my original blog post.

Have a great weekend, people!
: )