Friday, October 30, 2015

Knights of Badassdom

When I'm putting my smallest child back to sleep at three in the morning, I will sometimes pull a show off Netflix to watch on Ye Old Laptop with the headphones.  Not always (usually it's just marching and playing Peter Cetera or Jimmy Buffet or some other random, easy listening music), but it has given me a chance to catch up on the occasional random flick that I wouldn't ordinarily be able to watch (because it's too rough for the the kids and too "not my taste" for the wife).

Last night, that flick was Knights of Badassdom.

I can't remember why I'd heard of this...maybe I'd done a search for Game of Thrones previously and this had been returned (because it has Peter Dinklage). Anyway, I was fairly surprised by the cast that had been thrown together for this fantasy-horror-comedy flick. Steve Zahn and Summer Glau are probably the biggest "names" besides Dinklage, but Ryan Kwanten (of True Blood), Danny Pudi (of Community), Michael Gladis (Mad Men), and Jimmi Simpson (of a bunch of stuff, including House of Cards) are all quality actors, and fairly recognizable (by face if not by name).

The movie itself wasn't great art by any stretch...pretty lightweight even for B-Horror (which is about the closest genre it gets to)...but it did have some pretty damn funny moments, and the quality of acting really helped elevate it. I wouldn't call it "camp" (it takes itself a little too seriously...not with regard to story, but with regard to production/performance), but it certainly borders on the absurd. The actual references to Dungeons & Dragons (something I can't ever recall seeing in film before), were all very amusing, in a way that anyone who's played the game, I think, can appreciate (I suppose I'm saying it's possible to be respectfully irreverent).

"Thou needst an ounce of killer shrooms."
That's pretty much all I want to say, except for one thing: Peter Dinklage is an absolute stud. He's riveting and steals every scene he's in...something he's been doing this for years (Living in Oblivion, The Station Agent, Elf, etc.). It's wonderful that he's had the opportunity to play such a fabulous role in Game of Thrones for years...most working actors would love to have a starring role in a popular, multi-season series. But it's not the role that's so excellent (though Tyrion Lannister gets most of the best dialogue)'s what he brings to it. Dinklage's role in Knights isn't specifically written for a person of small stature; none of the dialogue or action hinges on the character being a "little person." Likewise, he could have been cast as most any of the other (male) characters in the film (with the possible exception of the neanderthal-like "Gunther"). The guy is just a straight-up quality actor with great charisma...a "star" in other words. Unless a role specifically calls for someone who is tall, or non-white, or female, there's really no reason why he can't play anything on the screen.

Anyway. Just wanted to mention that.

No, They're NOT All "Lycanthropes"

I flipped a coin to see whether I was going to write about weresharks or Batgirl and weresharks won.

[I'm still sick by the way...miserably so, though not nearly as bad as yesterday]

Until a few years ago, if you'd asked me to name my favorite "classic movie monster," I probably would have said werewolf, hands down. This despite never having watched a werewolf film approaching anything close to "good" in quality. Really...I've seen plenty of vampire films that I enjoyed over the years, but aside from (maybe) Brotherhood of the Wolf, I've just been "eh" with all the wolf-man films I've seen...and that one didn't even HAVE a werewolf (in itself disappointing).

Hmm, actually An American Werewolf in London is fairly good (memorable for certain). It's just that there's so many other things going on in the movie, it distracts a bit from the wolfish parts. And I remember being less than impressed with the actual "wolf" of the film.

[oh, and I haven't seen Silver Bullet, based on Stephen King's Cycle of the Werewolf. I quite enjoyed King's book, but most of the films based on his work have been a little underwhelming]

I don't know why werewolves...I can't seem to recall any distant childhood memories of my formative years that would have been an influence. I have always liked (and been fascinated with) wolves...have always gotten along well with canines in general.

But who cares. I like werewolves. Like 'em in the horror genre, like 'em in gaming (though, thinking back, I think I've only had one opportunity to play a werewolf...however, I did run an exceptionally hairy gangrel character back in my Vampire days). And it's time for someone to set the record straight about werewolves: despite what D&D has been telling you for decades, ONLY werewolves can be properly called lycanthropes.

That's because "lycanthrope" is Greek for "wolf man."

Shapeshifters, were-creatures, folks who turn into animals...they're all properly called therianthropes. Yes, it's a thing; go look it up. Plenty of animal-human shifters appear in various cultures throughout the world. They all go in the therianthrope category; lycanthropes are a subcategory.

Anyway, all thanks to Cameron DuBeers for hipping me to the appearance of King Shark on the recent Flash episode (which I haven't seen, by the way) as a beautiful example of what a "were shark" might look like in D&D. The thing definitely looks to be about 5 or 6 hit dice, quite in line with James Maliszewski's version, which was based on Holmes's description. For my money, I'd probably reduce the number appearing to D4 and make its attack damage 2D8 as those teeth give it some nasty potential (a low damage roll would just indicate a thumping/knockdown while a high roll indicates a grab-rip-tear style move). Still a bit smaller/weaker than the Gygax version found in the MM2 (his version is HD 10+3, AC 0, with damage of 5-20)...but that version only shows up as an (evil) great white shark, never the man-shark hybrid, and is statted as such.

Probably at least HD 5+5; no more than 6.
BY THE WAY...while I do like the idea of hybrid-forms when it comes to aquatic-style therianthropes  (since otherwise its easy enough for players to stay out of the water), my default preference when it comes to these creatures is to stick with an animal form and a human form without the in-betweens. For the most part, I think its cooler to savage player characters with a giant wolf or rat, rather than have them attacked by the claw/claw/bite of a movie monster (or, worse, a sword-wielding rat-headed humanoid...couldn't you simply adapt skaven to the game?). Limiting were-creatures to animal form provides some nice limits to the creatures (like the lack of opposable thumbs) that creative players can use to their advantage...even more so if the creature's intelligence is also limited to a close-to-bestial level. Always nice to be able to hide behind a bolted door when you've run out of silver arrows.

Batgirl later.

[by the way, if you'd like another person's opinion of the Flash's shark-man...and would like to see video of the character, here's a link]

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Wrecking Things (Like Magic)

I'm sick. I hate being sick. It makes me all kinds of irritable and I'm already prone to irritability.

This afternoon I'm thinking about magic (again)...with regard to gaming, of course, but not with regard to my own current project. More like what I was talking about back here.

I mentioned the other day that I've got no "levels" in the new game. I'm not really interested in debating the wisdom of such a move...suffice is to say it's something I'm trying (I've got divergent systems in place to account for character experience and advancement/reward). I bring it up because it makes it a little tricky to engage in discussion about wrecking magic systems with folks who are using level-based systems. And that's what I'm thinking about today.

So the blog gets my musings. As per usual.

In my own game, I've tied magical knowledge to takes years to learn spells and the process is draining (i.e. spending years studying magic leads to reduction in other areas). This holds true even for elves; though a longer life span would in theory allow them to master everything, such hard work is taxing to the frivolity of elvish life. Or something like that. It's a game balance thing anyway.

Anyhoo, it allows me to get to what I've always wanted: more knowledgeable wizards are OLDER wizards. Which I like and think is cool. But can a similar principle be applied to D&D style games? Like B/X and Holmes Basic? I think so...but first you have to separate the magic system from the standard level mechanic.

In other words, a magic-user advances in level like other characters, gaining HPs, better attacks and saves, etc...but doing so is NOT tied to how much magical knowledge the character has.

Kind of a neat idea now that I think about it.

It would work a bit like this: you'd still have magical "levels" (perhaps renamed something like "orders" or "degrees of initiation;" definitely based in part on old school level titles). For each magical level, the character is aged 7 years. Considering the character's apprenticeship to end somewhere around age 14 or so (maybe with a D4 roll for variation), you'd be looking at a chart like this:

Age 21 - Medium (or Prestidigitator) - 1st level spells only
Age 28 - Seer (or Evoker)
Age 35 - Conjurer - 1st and 2nd level spells
Age 42 - Theurgist
Age 49 - Thaumaturgist - 1st through 3rd level spells
Age 56 - Magician
Age 63 - Enchanter - 1st through 4th level spells
Age 70 - Warlock
Age 77 - Sorcerer - 1st through 5th level spells
Age 84 - Necromancer
Age 91 - Wizard - 1st through 6th level spells

[level titles subject to change]

Off the top of my head I'd say every 5 years of age (starting at age 30) requires the player to subtract 1 from one of the character's ability scores (so a conjurer, age 35, would have to lose 2 points). I like the idea of the reduction coming from any ability score (so lowering CHA as the character gets more crusty and curmudgeonly). Every 10 years (beginning at age 3) would also require an ADDITIONAL, mandatory lowering of the character's STR by 1 point.

Spells known per level (minimum and maximum) would be based on INT as per Holmes Basic (natch). Actual spells that could be cast per day would be based on the character's STR score, modified by level of experience (confidence, power of will). The starting spell number looks like this:

STR 3: 0* spell per day
STR 4-5: 1 spells per day
STR 6-8: 2 spells per day
STR 9-12: 3 spells per day
STR 13-15: 4 spells per day
STR 16-17: 5 spells per day
STR 18: 6 spells per day

*you still get +1 spell for being a 1st level character.

Hmmm...looking over this, it all looks pretty workable. It would even work for my own game...if I were using the same spell lists as standard D&D (I'm not). My own system is a little more complex with regard to different themes of knowledge and spells building off each other...but if it turns out to be too crazy in play-testing, I might just blow it up in favor of something like this.

Now, bring on the geezers!

Demon summoning at 1st level? Why not!

Monday, October 26, 2015

In Other News...

...the World Health Organization has announced bacon, hot dogs, and processed meats cause cancer.

Um, yeah...we already knew that. Here are some other hot tips: red meat causes heart disease, alcohol damages the liver, and the protein in milk leeches more calcium from your bones than what it replaces, unless you're a growing child. Stick to broccoli.

I'm sorry, but if folks were operating under the assumption that bacon and processed meats are some kind of healthy, wholesome food, well, come on people. You believe everything Fox News tells you?

Next news flash will be something about humans and petrochemicals causing global warming or something...

[I swear to God, when my wife emailed me this link I thought it was an article from The Onion]

The secret deliciousness is in the nitrites (my baby saw this picture and said "num-num." I know, sweetie)

Fear and Rage

I read the other day that John Cusack has been training in kickboxing for more than 20 years and is a 6th degree black belt. That's just...weird. I mean, Cusack is not a guy I think of as being a lethal weapon with "feet of fury." On the other hand, I've known several individuals over the year who were master martial artists (people who'd not only been practicing, but teaching others for decades) who were very unimposing figures. Bank clerks and social workers and bookkeepers. People I met from our day jobs (many MA instructors do other stuff to make ends meet). Certainly none of them were aggressive, prone to violence, or giving off a vibe of being "dangerous" in any way. Nor were they Yoda-like, masters of zazen calm and enlightenment...they could still exhibit plenty of stress, were capable of incompetence and insecurity, and in need of mentoring (at least two of these folks were under my supervision, at different gigs).

Thinking about kicking your ass.
If I myself had kept up with my martial arts (tae kwon do and hwa rang do) I'd be going on...(calculating)...27 years of practice. There was a time when I was training three hours a day, five days a week, and cross-training on the weekends. Then I met my wife and decided I had better things to do with my free time.

[she often complains to me (these days) that she lost the "skinny man" she met so many years ago (seventeen), but she's never suggested I get back into it. She prefers me to be at home...just wishes I'd do some sit-ups or something...]

Anyway, even so, I was never a "dangerous man." At least, not what I think of as "dangerous." I could do some neat things, and would certainly hold up better in a fight than people who have never trained in any sort of fighting (this I know from some MINOR experiences). I used to enjoy competition, even. But enjoying a sport, even a "fighting" sport, doesn't make someone dangerous in my book.

Dangerous people are guys (and gals) who are spoiling for a fight. Individuals who are looking to mix it up. For a dangerous person, it's not about competition, or displaying prowess, and it certainly isn't about exercise. It's about wanting to hurt someone, pure and simple.

Fortunately for everyone, there aren't a whole lot of people that fit that description. I'd imagine that even among professional fighters there are those who aren't especially "dangerous" outside the ring. Outside of psychopaths who lack empathy for their fellow humans (these tend to be the people who become murderers), most of us are fairly conditioned NOT to hurt others. And it starts from a young age...I am constantly telling my child not to punch, not to hit, not to push others (especially his sister), explaining how it's not nice to hurt, it's not good to hurt people. And he's fairly good about it (except when he gets excited and punches papa in the crotch)...on the playground he's been very good about not retaliating after altercations, and he's helpful to other children who get knocked down.

I was taught in the same way by my parents. Having a younger brother who enjoyed tormenting me, I would take great pains to beat the hell out of him, and would often suffer the consequences. It was a mantra that I learned (eventually)...that you just don't hurt folks. It's ingrained in my psyche. And I imagine it is for most folks these days. I've heard that the military has to do a lot of re-conditioning to get soldiers trained up to fight, because so much of their lives they've been taught (by parents, schools) that hurting people is a bad thing. Without this training, it's hard to get people to fight to kill.

For those of us who aren't psychopaths and who haven't received the conditioning to kill, there's only two things I can think of that can get folks to enter mortal combat; things that can drive a normal, empathetic person to attempt the slaying of a sentient being: fear and rage. People can be driven to extreme actions by these emotions, even the act of taking another person's life. Fear doesn't have to be for one's own can be for the lives of one's family or loved ones, as well. And rage, likewise, need not be a personal affront (though it usually is, at least in the mind of the enraged) only need be directed, to enable a person to attack to kill.

I've been reading up on the lives of famous Native Americans this morning: Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph (of the Nez Perce), Cochise, Geronimo. For the most part, their fame comes from their fights against soldiers and settlers who were bent on creating a new type of American continent. For the most part, their wars against the "new Americans" were fueled by rage, rage at atrocities committed against their peoples and families. And there was probably fear there as well. Their rage, which led to the killing of many people in raids of murder, is the kind that most people can understand. If you come home one day and find your wife, three children, and mother slain (as happened to Geronimo), wouldn't you be angry enough to go kill some people?

Like The Punisher
[I'm not saying killing is justified or "right," by the way; I'm just saying I can understand the sentiment and emotional reaction. And in such an emotional frame of mind, it would be hard to look at any option with anything resembling rational, detached judgment]

Now consider your average adventuring party in D&D, and just what the hell they're doing.

What is it that drives a group of adventurers into mortal combat, time and again, most often with thinking, feeling sentient beings. A dragon may not be humanoid, but it's certainly has thoughts, can be spoken to, bargained with. It probably has stern objections to being hunted like an elk. "I am not a piñata to be beaten until gold coins fall out!" I'm sure this sentiment could be shared by other sentient creatures of the Underdark: goblins, Drow, giants, troglodytes, aboleths, yuan-ti, etc.

Sure, fighters have probably have the discipline and conditioning to kill in the most expedient fashion possible...they are, after all, "veterans" from level 1. And I suppose that at least some of the player characters (certainly the ones of "evil" alignment) fall in the category of unfeeling psychopath: individuals willing to slay whomever stands in their way of a fat payday. But what about the others? What drives adventurers into mortal combat? What drives them to kill?

Is it fear? They weren't expecting to run into any opposition and now that they have they are forced to defend themselves so they aren't killed? Is it rage? They're invading this dungeon environment with the objective of getting some payback for all the hurt its denizens have visited on their kinfolk?

I am suddenly reminded of a scene from the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy is getting ready to go off on another adventure, and as he packs his weapons (a whip and a handgun) he remarks to his amigo, "You know what a cautious guy I am." Indy is not looking for trouble, but he's grown to expect the unexpected incident of danger, and he's prepared for it. I suppose D&D adventurers might be prepared (with their weapons and armor) in the same fashion.

Except that I don't recall Indy ever initiating a fight. When he gets the drop on the Nazis in Marion's bar, he covers them with a pistol and asks them to let her go. When he does use his gun, it's in self-defense (after the bad guys have started shooting at him). For the most part, D&D characters ain't like that. "We attack!" is usually the first words that come out of their mouths upon happening upon a group of bugbears, preferably bushwhacking 'em (with surprise). When you get right down to it, it's the PCs who are doing the trespassing/home's the monsters who should be filled with rage and fear and justified in defending themselves.

[not that any sane person wouldn't fear a brain-eating mind flayer, and strike to kill it as quickly and viciously as possible...I sure would!]

Maybe, it really comes down to that terrible human trait of dehumanizing the "other" with whom we have conflict. They are not like us, they are different, they are wrong. Killing them is okay, because they don't think and feel and act like us (even though they are thinking, tool-using creatures and therefore must at least have some capability for reasoning). The slaughter of such "others" is justified in the way they don't represent the lawful, civilized society from which the adventurers hail...the typical imperialistic perspective we've seen historically. But does a half-orc feel the same way about orcs encountered that the other party members do? They might be distant relations!

Stone Cold Killer
Anyway, I'm not musing over all this to be contrarian. I'm just trying to get away from the video game-y mentality for a moment. Combat (in games) is fun, it is an exciting part of the game experience and, well, there are fighters, after all...certainly they (fighters) would have no hesitance over spilling blood, and would feel no need to justify their actions. But should all characters be as callous about killing as fighters? Or (and here's the real question): does allowing ALL characters to be unfeeling, death-dealing machines detract from the immersion of the gaming experience? Would players be more engaged in a game world where such issues weren't hand-waved?

I'm just thinking about it, that's all. My base inclination these days is to treat Chaotic-type creatures as "profoundly evil" (like a plague that needs to be stamped out). But then, my games don't feature monster races (like half-orcs or "tieflings" or whatever) as player character races. If they did, I'd think there'd need to be some serious questions asked about the nature of evil and murder.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Doing Things Over

It's been a miserable last few days. The wife got back to town (a good thing) but she was sick when she left and worse when she got back. Both kids have been sick (fevers, sore throats, sniffles), which is tough to deal with when you add in the general heat, mosquitos, and throat-drying AC units. Then the baby's getting her canines in which is...well, let's just say she hasn't slept much and neither have I. Oh, yeah...and my boy was pushed off a two meter high platform by another kid at a birthday party (Friday). Fortunately he didn't land on an arm or leg (or head) but flat on his back, knocking his wind out and giving him some soreness, but no other injury. When I was D's age, I broke bones just rolling out of bed...he's a tough kid. But it was pretty scary, and my wife...well, she was a little beside herself by the whole thing. The kid who pushed D just gloated and laughed over my child's stunned form, and while his parents were apologetic later, they weren't even at the party. In the typical fashion of Paraguayan parenting, they'd simply dropped off their kid with his nanny, who was off eating somewhere at the time rather than watching the action.

[I was recently reading an (American) friend's blog decrying our tendency to micro-manage and "hover" too much about our children these days, but I've seen the opposite end of the spectrum down here, and the end result ain't pretty. Clearly some sort of happy medium is desirable]

I'm not sure how much longer we're going to be down here in Paraguay. There's some stuff going on with my wife's work (the reason we're here), and while they want us here and are willing to pay big bucks (well, by our standards) and seem intent on extending our time here, we're fairly anxious to get back. We're getting two weeks in Seattle in November (we'll be there for the Thanksgiving holiday), and we've been spending a lot of time lately talking about all the things we want to do (and eat!) when we're back in town. It's sad just how much there is to miss in Sea-town...and how little there is to miss here. Cost of living, I suppose. Really big chunks of grilled meat. Chipa (which, by the way, I didn't miss at all when I was home in June). Very tasty malbecs. That deliciously rich cordero dish over a bed of risotto that I order at my favorite restaurant every week.

In the final analysis, it's not enough to keep us here. Hell, nothing they have here (food-wise) measures up to Ivar's fish-n-chips with a pint of fresh pulled Pyramid hefeweizen (slice of lemon mandatory). And I don't even LIKE hefeweizen all that much.

The world's best fish n chips. Sorry, England.
No, we ain't staying. Seattle (and the U.S.) has its share of problems, but the "pros" definitely outweigh the "cons." NOW, one might ask if it was worth it for us to come down here at all? Was it good for us? Did it make our lives better to have this experience? If we had it to do over would we have done things differently?

Much as I miss the mountains, much as I would have liked to be in town for the parade after the Super Bowl win, much as I wish I wasn't going to have to look for a new job (ugh) when we get back...I think we made the right decision to come down here. I think it HAS been good for us, for our family. I think it has been very good for me personally...having to deal with all my personal frustration on so many fronts (most of which I have NOT blogged about), has made me a stronger, hopefully better (and nicer) person. I'm glad we came down here.

But I'm anxious to get home, anxious to get back into my house. Anxious to see the beagles again.

Similarly, I find myself considering the things I've done these last few years with my writing and publications. I find myself of the opinion that the B/X game (of which I've blogged so extensively), may in fact be a game that best balances if it ends at "X." That a game that goes behind 14 levels really isn't needed...not just because of the impracticality involved in advancing PCs into levels 20-something, but because the game itself can suffer when stretched to this scale. Certainly, I'm of the opinion that an 8th level halfling, 10th level elf, and 12th level dwarf are decent matches for any of the 14th level human classes in the B/X game...extending human levels out to 36 makes them far less relevant and the suggested "fixes" (allowing demihumans to advance beyond their maximums or using BECMI-style attack/save bonuses) are poor. While my B/X Companion did the job I intended it to do (providing a rulebook for high level play more in line with the original B/X system), there's a part of me that feels (now) like the thing was unnecessary to satisfying B/X play.

Likewise, there are things I'd have changed in The Complete B/X Adventurer, complexities in some of the new classes that I wish I'd streamlined or reconsidered. It's a neat book, with lots of neat ideas, but much of it feels a bit like a vanity project (despite the work I put into it) adding little value.

However, as with this trip to Paraguay, I'm glad that I did these books. Looking back on them after a few years, there's a lot that leaves me unsatisfied (now), but they were good experiences, growing experiences for me. If I hadn't published them, well, I'm not sure I would have ever published anything. Doing the first book showed me what was possible. Doing the second book showed me it wasn't just a "one time" thing.

The current project...let's just call it "Darkness," for the moment...might look like a small one. And at the physical level it is supposed to be a small one; I'm kind of tired of these games looking more like text books for a college course than like instructions for a game. The challenge is communicating everything I need to within the limited space available, giving the player ENOUGH information to make the game work, and work at a high level. And I'm doing it by breaking a bunch of standard D&D paradigms.

Levels, for example. There aren't any. In fact, in the current (25 page) document, I haven't had the need to use the word "level" even once.

[and no, it doesn't have some percentage based skill system like BRP, either. I told you it's a different paradigm]

The concepts found in the book include things that I've been futzing around with in a variety of (unpublished) projects. I'm just trying to pull it all together to make something that's both interesting and sound, with enough detail to catapult one's imagination, and enough system to see you through. As I said before, given the maximum page count, it's going to be tight trying to meet these goals. The game itself is going to need to be tight.

God, it's going to need some serious play-testing.

In other news, both gaming and Paraguayan, Alexis over at the Tao of D&D has been doing some fantastic maps of Paraguay, as a favor (or rather "a present") for Yours Truly. I can't express how flattered I am by this attention. Remember, this is the same guy who kicked me out of his on-line campaign for being an asshole. And, me, a guy who hasn't even gotten around to buying his latest book. Now that I've shit-canned my South American-based FHB in favor of the "Darkness" project, a guy does me a solid with this beautiful hexagonal rendering? Man, I am a jerk.

So, obviously, I will have to return to the SA-project in a different format...probably as a campaign setting supplement for B/X. Because I just can't let good material go to waste. Waste not, want not, right?

[of course, tell that to my other campaign settings sitting on the shelf: Land of Ash, Land of Ice, Goblin Wars, etc.]

Still, it's Alexis, so I'll try to make more than a half-assed effort.

Oh-oh! The baby's awake again! Got to go comfort! Later, gators!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Hunting Witches

This is Tim Brannan's fault.

I love the concept of the witch hunter, of witch hunting, in general. Not in the "red scare" sense of the phrase, nor even the historical Inquisition-mananged mass murder of people-who-don't-think-and-worship-like-us. No, I'm talking about fantasy witch-hunting: the idea that there are dark and sinister supernatural forces out there and some heroic folks have been chosen for the gig of hunting said forces.

Nostalgia of the Nineties
As a premise for an RPG, this isn't a terribly original idea...more than a couple of Pelgrane Press's GUMSHOE games fall into this category, as does Beyond the Supernatural, InSpectres, and (to a lesser degree) Call of Cthulhu. The Mutant Chronicles certainly had a large dose of SciFi flavored witch hunting to it. Heck, there was even a game called Witch Hunters that was published a few years back, though I'd break out the old White Wolf Hunters Hunted supplement (for 1E VtM) long before I'd ever put down money for such a book/system.

[The Hunters Hunted is a truly under appreciated gem of a supplement/mini-game that I should blog about some time.  I realize it led to its own game line eventually ("Hunters Reckoning," I think?) but I got a lot of mileage off that original, slim volume. Very cool and one of the best Vampire products]

And, for more medieval-style games, there are plenty of witch hunters to be found in the Warhammer universe...I'm not sure if the latest version of WHFRP has them, but the first couple editions (through Hogshead) had witch hunters as an advanced career path, and you could play an entire warband of witch hunters in the Mordheim game.

But for old school D&D...the pre-2E editions...the idea of the witch hunter is a bit of a tough sell. After all, old school D&D isn't about hunting anything. Anything besides treasure, that is.

After reading Tim's post this morning, I (momentarily) considered an idea for a new B/X supplement...a campaign setting featuring a world where most of the "fantasy" elements were all (to some degree) aspects or side effects of supernatural evil. Evil of an inhuman, alien nature, filtered in  from other dimensions, through rifts made wide by human sorcerers who were willing to bargain away their souls...hell, their very world...for a taste of power. In such a setting, player characters would have a chance to be real heroes, not just "scurrilous rogues," as they fight against the dark forces threatening their planet. "Orcs" would simply be bestial, mutated humans. "Goblins" would be hellish imps, the lowest demons serving dark masters. All monsters in the B/X game could be re-skinned as devils and demons and twisted pawns of alien intelligences.

But it's a world closer to WHFRP's Enemy Within campaign than Palladium's Wormwood. This campaign setting hasn't yet been overrun, nor even is it on the verge of Armageddon...but without the aid of witch-hunting PCs, it could move to that DEFCON stage. This is a world that calls for hunters to root out the bad juju.

In such a setting, witch-hunters would take the place of the cleric class, as what type of divinely intervening deity would allow the world of Its worshippers to be so mistreated? Undead would certainly play a lesser role in such a campaign, and alternative forms of healing would be needed (perhaps fighters would be able to apply "field dressings" to wounded companions after combat, healing a certain number of HPs based on level). Such a game could be fun, though in a bleak way featuring corruption and cultists and whatnot; maybe something for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Maybe.

Then I took a long nap.

And when I woke up and got my brain to running again, I realized "hey, wait a sec...this has nut-all to do with finding treasure." And that's when the wheels came off the concept. Because the LAZY way of handling such a thing would be to say, hey, it's just B/X with some different house're still looking to loot the chaotic monsters and evil cultists lairs (in order to earn XP, in order to level up). Because witch hunters need phat loot, too.

Um, no. We are not going to be playing characters interested in making a buck while Rome burns down around their ears.

And since on second (post-nap) pass, I see the concept would need a lot of substantial retooling of the B/X system in order to work to my standards, this is a project that'll have to be shelved for the time being. I'm already in the midst of a retooling/writing project, and I want to get that one knocked out. Too bad, though...I've already got a couple ideas for titles to such a project. And I've got some notes stashed away (somewhere) about retooling Realms of Chaos concepts for B/X that could probably be put to good use on such a project. Yeah, it would be an interesting setting to play/run in...

Shoot, I could probably adapt part of my (reworked) Cry Dark Future advancement system to the thing...

No, no, thing at a time! Maybe if someone wants to collaborate with me on such a project so I don't have to do all the writing myself (ugh, I see why Kevin Siembieda is such a fan o the "cut-and-paste"), I could find some time for it.


Monday, October 19, 2015

Slammin' Reboots

I was really hope it to make it through my time here in Paraguay without getting into a Goddamn car accident.

No such luck.

Broad daylight, perfect weather conditions, exercising usual healthy caution for the idiot drivers, and stone sober, someone still managed to slam their Mercedes into the back of my car while I was waiting to take a left turn. A 30 year old engineer who spoke more English than I speak Spanish, and he still doesn't have car insurance. What a jackass.

Fortunately, neither of the kids were with me (was just getting back from dropping D off at school) and my car is still completely drivable. I'm waiting till tomorrow to see how bad my back will be, but I'm trying to drink a lot of water right now. Other than that, it was just another gigantic waste of my time as my entire morning writing period was blown waiting for translators, doing declarations at the police station, shuttling across town to the insurance company building, and yadda-yadda-yadda. The wife's currently out-o-town on biz (as I believe I mentioned), so this was all shit I had to get done in my broken Espanol. I'm lucky we have friends who could help me with the bureaucracy.

However, the important takeaway here is that, even if you do everything right, you can still get hammered in the ass. All that talk about "hey, you could get hit by a bus" is true stuff. Folks should not be wasting their time when it could all end at any moment. I mean, take care of the business you need to take care of to keep your life running smoothly, but don't take shit for granted. The current life is going to end sometime, and possibly in an unexpected fashion., I'm trying to relax a bit, though I've been doing perhaps a bit too much of that the last couple days (, the last 48 hours). See I found a couple great reboots on the Netflix that I figured I'd mention to folks. Slammin' reboots...if you'll forgive the descriptive.

[there's a gaming point to this part of the post, by the way]

The first one is The Flash live-action television series, which I first encountered back in June when I was in Seattle (mentioned this briefly before). Season One just became available, and so I was able to really start watching the series in earnest, having only previously caught a couple of the early episodes (#2-5). Well, after the last couple nights of binge watching (after the kids are asleep), I'm up to episode 10ish, and am really enjoying the hell out of it. I love it, really, and the Flash was never one of my "faves" in the comic book realm (not even a Top 20). The show is well-paced (both within the episodes and the overall story arc), with great acting, and pretty good least as far as the characters. As usual, its the acting that I appreciate the most, and...well, it just warms my heart to see actors that weren't even born back when I was reading comic books selling this stuff with such sincerity. These, young, pretty people are treating the geekiest material with the utmost respect, and I really dig that.

I mean, you can certainly say that about that Arrow television show and the Daredevil series and (to a lesser extent) some of the recent Marvel films (though certainly not all of them). But whereas both Arrow and DD have a penchant for falling into sappy melodrama, perhaps in a way to make their violent vigilante protagonists more "heroic," The Flash doesn't indulge in the same kind of...hyperbole? Not sure if that's the word I want. Let me see if I can just explain what I mean:

The Flash is a superhero show. It features fictional shit that can't happen in the real world...dude runs faster than the speed of sound, okay? Likewise, its hero is equally fairy tale: an idealistic kid who's got an equal mixture of idealist romanticism (he's not going around beating and killing "bad people") and driven need to help people by being a "hero" (the Spider-Man "oh, I've got powers and responsibility and a guilt complex because of a childhood tragedy" thing). You're mixing the one ridiculous fiction with the other and it works because you have a very tight premise: an "event" that causes a bunch of "metahumans" to show up, but most of them end up going bad and Flash can use his (also event generated) powers to stop them. Maybe there's some kind of metaphor there about power corrupting individuals, but to me it's just comic book tropes well-translated to live action.

Also dig the comic book trope of general color blindness. Lots of diversity on parade as far as people of color, strong/smart female characters, the gay police captain (awesome), and all of it completely in, no now in the show ever remarks on any of it. There's no commentary, but there is inclusion. Which is just so damn refreshing, but also very comic book-y (since some things are generally remarked upon in the real world). Cool to see.

Old stories, new and colorful cast.
Anyway, I've got to give props to any show that can make the Weather Wizard a pretty badass villain. I mean, they just came right out and said (in the first episode) "we are going to use real Flash super villains and make them vicious, scary antagonists." I have to confess I skipped ahead to one of the last episodes just to see how they would do Gorilla Grodd, who is perhaps the most feared/respected villain of my four-year old (Diego has many favorite villains, but Grodd is the one that scares him the most). All I can say is: sheer awesomeness. Definitely the coolest combo of CGI and monkey I've seen since Peter Jackson's King Kong, and I like the new Planet of the Apes films. I stopped myself from watching the entire episode (too many spoilers in the show as it was) perhaps the ape ends up going down like a chump. But still...Grodd. That's just so dope!

The other reboot I've been watching is Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated with my son. I know I've complained before that "they don't make cartoons like they used to," but there are a couple out there that are quite good, better even, and this is one of them. The writers have done an amazing job creating a living, breathing (if ridiculous) world to surround the roving van of mystery-solvers and their talking dog by drawing on the context of the original series that I grew up watching in syndication. And it's so damn funny...there's so much adult humor strewn throughout the series it's like the creators knew exactly whom to target: parents who grew up with the show (like me) watching it with their small children.

Same crew; VERY different attitude.
Compared to the original fare, this is far superior product. We own a DVD of the old Scooby-Doo/Batman team-up cartoons (because, you know...Batman) and, after watching, it a dozen times, it's lost its luster even for the boy (considerably sooner for Yours Truly). This updated Scooby-Doo has great stuff for everyone...I think it is probably more fun for the over-30 crowd (who will recognize many of in-jokes), but there's plenty of slapstick Scooby-Doo humor that has my child guffawing out loud. Even with plots and "spooks" much more scary/menacing than the original shows. Plus the voice-acting includes some top notch talent: Lewis Black? Patrick Warburton? Vivica Fox? Great, great casting pulls. Plus Frank Welker still doing Freddy after 40 years? Pretty impressive...though it's a wonder he can deliver some of this dialogue without cracking up. This Scooby-Doo is the animated equivalent of Batman '66, and I say that with profound respect. Internally consistent, incredibly clever, patently ridiculous, and written in a way that makes you care about the characters in a way you never did before.

Plus a little bit of an edge to offset the mystery and give one a little "real" suspense. It's interesting, which is perhaps the highest praise I can give a show that's (ostensibly) being marketed to children. I find myself looking forward to the next episode, and the only reason we're not binge-watching it during our waking hours is I feel I need to exercise some kind of parental restraint on the amount of television my child watches.


It sometimes feels like Hollywood (and I say this to mean "the film and television making industry" even though I know it ain't all literally "Hollywood") sometimes feels like the big production companies can't and won't do anything more than reinvent the wheel.  And, yes, I've blogged about this more than once. But whether it's a "remake" of an old, previously successful film, or a film hoping to play on people's nostalgia for the past, or some obviously recognizable remake with the names/setting changed and the serial numbers filed off...yes, it seems like it's tough for the industry to do anything "new" and/or "original" and color me fatigued much of the time. I mean, even Flash has been tried before as a live-action series (wasn't that the first use of the "rubber muscle suit?" Or was that after the Michael Keaton Batman?)...and here it is again. At least there'd never been a film or series based on Green Arrow (even if the trope of vigilante crime fighter has been around forever). BUT...

But sometimes a reboot ain't all that bad. Sometimes it actually takes a step in evolving the genre (or at least its predecessor) to a higher level. Not always, of course, but there IS still creativity and quality to be milked from ideas and concepts that have been done before, even ones done to death. Quality entertainment can be had if you squeeze these rocks hard enough...or with the correct and proper application of force. And that's allows me to have my cake and eat it too when it comes to nostalgia. I can explore and indulge in my nostalgia guilt-free, as what I'm watching is bringing something cool to the table. Yes, there are cool, new things to be found...the past isn't always a dead end.

Which is the idea that I feel can be applied to RPG design. Sure, we can take the old concepts of D20 die rolls and XP and levels and dress it up with a couple new-fangled surprises (a few narrative metagame mechanics of indie-persuasion or a card collecting aspect or whatever...pick your tired "innovation"). We can add settings that take advantage of whatever's the new "hotness" of fantasy gaming. But a lot of it can feel like "why bother" when you're more comfortable just dusting off your B/X set and adding a few house rules to taste. Sometimes it's hard to justify a writing project that does little more than "reboot" an existing game.

And yet, and yet...the possibility exists that things can get cranked up to another level even while being inspired by (and indulging in) a known nostalgia. Isn't that what Dungeon World is?

Actually, I have no idea as I've neither played nor owned/read a single "Powered by the Apocalypse" system. However, I'm willing to take other folks' word for it. The point is, there's hope...hope that one can mine some bit of coolness, a vein of fun out of what might otherwise be a tired concept. BUT it ain't easy to do (duh), AND it may involve something I haven't really delved into yet. Not really, not directly, not on this blog.

And that's love. But that's a pretty involved and complex concept that I don't have a bunch of time for at the moment. For now, just consider checking out those shows. Love plays a big part in both of 'em.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Progress Report

This year, I've got more blog posts up (and more substantive ones...well, IMO) since 2012. Which makes me feel a little better about ditching the blog this week, but not much. Always the guilt about letting readers down.

*ahem* Anyway, it's been another busy one for me with a lot of child extracurricular activities to attend to and the spouse getting ready for a five day trip to Mexico. HOWever, mainly I've been putting together the latest-greatest project and I've got 20 decent pages. I've updated and incorporated a lot of updated material from earlier, shit-canned projects, which has made the process easier, but it's still going to be tricky to hold the thing down to 48 pages. Even if I keep the interior art on the same minimal scale as Señor Holmes, by my count I've only got about 24 pages left to complete the thing...and that needs to include the monster section, combat, development, and GM info. Tight...very tight.

It didn't help that I used about double the page count for the magic section. Ooo, but it's so neat! And right now I'm working on "fun stuff" (like magic items and something I call skills but which bear little resemblance to Ye Old D20), and that's looking like it'll eat up three or four more pages than the space allotted for 'em in the original game.

*sigh* But it's a good exercise...stuff has to be cut, and my pruning has actually helped make for a better looking system (why 100 skills when 60 does the job? Hell, I could probably whittle it down to 50, but I'm trying to make the system robust).

Anyhoo. Okay...just wanted to drop a quick note as to why I'm "away" from the blog. I was feeling guilty, okay? But really...this time I am working and not just futzing around.

Now, back to work.
; )

Busy, busy, busy.

Monday, October 12, 2015


When I was a kid, I had a poster of Dave Krieg hanging on my wall. An undrafted quarterback from the now defunct Milton College, no one would argue ol' "Mudbone" to be the greatest passer of his generation...not in an era that featured the likes of Joe Montana and John Elway and Dan Marino. Even so, I'd take him over plenty of the more respected QBs of the 80s...the Phil Simmses and Boomer Esiasons, whose numbers he eclipses. Heck, his passer rating for his 20 year career was better than Elway in 16, and it's Krieg who holds the NFL record for most seasons taking every snap at QB, not ironman Brett Favre. He is, hands down, my favorite Seahawks QB of all time. With all due respect to Russell Wilson, when Krieg was playing I always felt the team had a chance to win...he could make magic happen.

Now, would I take Krieg today over Wilson, our current "magical" quarterback? No way. It is a different era we live in, and Krieg would probably have had a much shorter career if he'd been forced to play behind the haphazard o-lines we've fielded the last few seasons (and Mudbone played behind some pretty terrible ones himself). Wilson is a fantastic player, and has a real shot to win multiple championships, and possibly be the first Seahawks QB to be inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame (we'll see if Hasselbeck squeaks in...maybe, if Andrew Luck stays injured and he can keep leading the Colts to victory on those 40-year old legs). The point is, I have a lot of nostalgia for #17, I miss him at times, but I wouldn't trade the present for the past. The present...with its multiple Super Bowl appearances and general just too good.

[our 80s teams had great defenses, too, by the way]

So, yes..."old school JB" who prefers his books printed on dead trees and his RPGs to be played on a table (preferably with out-of-print books from defunct game companies) acknowledges that the past of our memory ain't always as good as the Real Life Present. And even if the past WAS as good (or better), most of the time that means squat anyway...the world has moved on. You're never going to have (pick your favorite ex-president) in the White House again, and who's to say he'd be any better than the current guy in the current circumstances anyway? Get over it, remember the past (if that floats your boat), but don't live in it.

On the other hand, there's strudel.

Strudel (please do not confuse with streusel) is a delicious apple pastry dish my mother used to (occasionally) bake when I was a child, using a recipe handed down from her grandmother, my great-grandmother. I loved it, and it has given me a lifelong taste for flaky pastries, especially ones of an apple persuasion. It has been years since my mother made strudel (I'm not sure she still has the recipe), and over my teens and 20s I sampled many "strudels" looking for something that tasted like the dish my mom used to make...all without success. I eventually came to the conclusion that there was no such thing as the strudel that existed in my memory...that what I remembered eating, tasting, loving was a figment of nostalgia wrapped in the cloak of childhood fantasy tinged with affection for mother's cooking/baking. I figured the dish only seemed so exquisite in my mind because it was the memory of a child; that the adult me (were I able to travel back in time) would not find the dessert quite so magical. My memory was a pipe dream...perhaps a nice one to be cherished...but nothing to pine over.

"JB," I told myself, "stop ordering 'strudel' every time you see it on a damn menu're in for nothing but disappointment that way!" And I did try to forget about it. Fortunately, you don't find strudel on menus all that often, except at the occasional bakery or German restaurant, so it was fairly easy resolution to stick to.

But then, about seven years back, while traveling through Europe, my wife and I had the pleasure of spending a couple-three days in Salzburg, Austria, childhood home of Mozart, where all the little old ladies attending Mass at the cathedral resembled my great grandmother (who was born in Austria). Guess what? Turns out we were able to get strudel in Salzburg, delicious Austrian strudel that was near perfect to the deliciousness my mother had made for me a quarter-century before. It wasn't a damn pipe dream after all...I just had to travel half a world to find what I'd been craving, to realize I wasn't crazy, that YES the past still exists (if you know where to find it) and it is as just good as you remember. Hell, it's fucking delicious.

No cream needed.
There are some things we miss from our past that we can't get back to...heck, some of those things we shouldn't go back to (smoking, for example). But just because something is of the past, that doesn't mean it doesn't (or can't) have good, positive value for us in the present. And I'll say that especially with regard to gaming, there are elements of the past that are worthy of being brought to the gaming table...just because it's old (whether we're talking system or style of play) doesn't mean it requires an update to be fun.

I'm doing some work on something right now, and I hope to get it completed in the next few days (now that might very well be a pipe dream). System-wise, it IS different, but stylistically I'm hoping for something that resembles my gaming from decades past. I'm not sure if that's even something I can succeed at, let alone if I should, but that's what I'm going for.

I just have a taste for it.
; )

Thursday, October 8, 2015

48 Pages to Glory

There have been many excellent designers who've worked on Dungeons & Dragons over the years, from the initial concepts of Dave Arneson all the way down to...well, to whoever is working on the 5E design now. For the most part, it's taken a village to put together any version of D&D, even in the earliest editions: play testers, artists, editors, layout folks, etc. all had to come together to make a finished product that people could pick up and play. Singling out individuals as being "more valuable" is a little silly because none of 'em did it alone.

Be that as it may, I still hold four names in higher esteem than the others for their work. They are:

Arneson, Gygax, Holmes, and Moldvay

...and if that is terribly unfair of me, I apologize. It is what it is, and I have spent at least a little time criticizing each of them over the years for various design "missteps." Usually gently, but no one's perfect.

I have, at this point in my life, written a few game books...books heavily influenced by the work of these four men. My B/X Companion was done in the style of Moldvay's 64 page rule book, and my Five Ancient Kingdoms was written in the small, three volume fashion of the original D&D books. As I begin my newest project (stupidly, ridiculously...I have so many other irons in the fire), I set my eyes on the work of the one author whose work I've never used at the table, the one man who may have done more singly than any D&D designer in history, with the sole exception of E. Gary Gygax:

That would be John Eric Holmes.

Holmes Basic is a 48 page masterpiece. There, I've said it. Previously, I've referred to it as the "badass edition" of Dungeons & Dragons (that's meant as a compliment); these days, I don't think I've gone far enough in my praise. It is exquisitely concise, and provides near everything needed for a game. Well, a game that goes to 3rd level...but there's certainly enough here to build upon (as many folks have). I've seen many D&D campaigns (my own and others) fail to chart past the 3rd level.

What Holmes did in 48 pages is amazing. Of course, he was a brain surgeon...I think most folks would expect a bit of brilliance. Personally, I'm no rocket scientist...heck, I'm not even employed at the moment...but even so, I want to take a swing at doing this, doing what Holmes did: writing an adult fantasy role-playing game in 48 pages. That doesn't sound terribly hard does it? Even for someone of my hack writing skills?

Of course, it won't be a retroclone of Holmes...the Blueholme Prentice Rules already does a fine job of cloning John Eric. No, this will be using that "different paradigm" I was starting to talk about last month. And it will be a game designed to emulate (if possible) the feeling/style of those "good old days" I was waxing on about a couple days ago...something I want to play, in other words. Though I admit that trying to convey style AND rules in 48 pages is a pretty tall order. Really tall.

Yeah, maybe it's a pipe dream. But I'm going to give it a shot. We'll see what happens.

The plan is to go down swinging.

If any Holmes knowledgeable folks can hip me to the proper font and type size for such a project (assuming an emulation of style), I'd really appreciate the information. Not sure what I'll do about artwork at this point, though Holmes himself only used 14 or 15 small pieces (including maps). Probably more important that I just leave some blank spaces for insertion of illustrations.

More to come (I hope)!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015



Not much time today...just got the baby down to sleep. Usually, I can do it in a four song set (and truth be told she's often out halfway through song #3 "Heavy Metal" by Sammy Hagar), but today had to double down with Free Bird and The Zoo. Consequently, the other baby will be waking up any moment now. In fact, I think I hear the pitter-patter of little feet as I type this.


I want to take a moment to thank all the kindly responses on yesterday's post. Yes, I need to get in a game. Yes, I should just go ahead and work on my "holy grail heartbreaker." Yes, this is probably as much about withdrawal as anything else...steeping oneself in an in-depth review of and D&D edition (even 4th Edition) can cause unexpected side effects. You should all take that as a warning.

No, I don't plan on doing anything like an "abridged 4E" myself. Really. Not even to get me a warlord class. Face facts, folks: the warlord doesn't really work as a low level archetype except in a game like 4E...though if you're interested, Will B. over at A Wizard's Kiss came up with a nice little B/X version. But something else is roiling around my brain, and has been for days now.

More on that later.

Today, I spent a good chunk of time looking up a couple old friends on the internet. Specifically, old writer friends. Well, friends who always (as long as I ever knew them) aspired to be writers. They had word processors as soon as such was available on a personal computer (back in the early 80s), and were plenty fond of typewriters as well, and were always writing short stories or working on adolescent novels. I wanted to see what they'd been up to lately...specifically, had they published anything recently?

Turns out, it doesn't appear they've published anything. Ever. At least not that I could find.

Nothing noted or mentioned on their social media pages (in which both are very active), nothing floating around the internet or available at Lulu or Amazon. Couldn't even find any blogs for either, though it's possible they're going by handles other than their actual names.

Both had links to writing workshop type places/sites. One lists "writer" as a past occupation.

That's kind of depressing. Though both seem to be doing fine, and have other creative outlets (one even has a band thing going on the side), but still...these two really, really wanted to be writers.

I never really thought about being a writer. When we first moved down here (to Paraguay) my wife suggested I list "writer" as my occupation, since I had no other job and I intended to at least try to do more writing. "Game designer" wasn't one of the options on the immigration documents.

But writing is what I do now (well, and try to be a father, usually. Oh, look, here's the other rugrat now. Let's put on the TV for him!). I suppose people who knew me (in college anyway) would probably be a little sad to find I'm not pursuing some sort of acting career...but I've got kids and a mortgage and can't screw around with auditioning on the possibility of landing the equivalent of "temp" work. And nightly rehearsals? No way my wife would stand for that!

[I should note I did actually do some English voiceover work down here for the Paraguayan government...still waiting to be paid, though]

Writing is something I seem to be able to find some time to do, and while I'm not especially proficient at it, at least the regular practice (blogging and whatnot) is making me a little better. I'm still a hack, but I'm a (self-)published hack, at least.

[jeez, it's a weird world, though I suppose I should have seen this coming. I used to think astrology was antiquated superstitions. I used to say that there's no reason I'd ever need or want to learn Spanish. I used to rip on English majors in college]

[heck, once upon a time I was in favor of the death penalty. I was a stupid kid about a lot of things]

Anyway, my friends don't have the same excuses I do for not writing. I'm sure they have their own, different excuses (of course), but...well, these people were so sure of what they wanted to do with their lives, back when I knew them. I was never "sure" about being an actor...I liked acting, I was good at it, and I really couldn't stand any of my other subjects in school. There was no major in "games" back then, or I might have had an easier time. But these cats wanted to write, they did write, they studied writing, they gamed with me (both) as much or more for the stories we were creating in play as for the gameplay itself. And both eventually grew out of gaming because it wasn't writing.

I wonder if I'll still be doing this ten or twenty years from now. I wonder if I'll still be trying to do something with the written word. I wonder if I'll consider myself something other than a hack.

This isn't meant to be a "poor me" post, by the way, nor a judgmental look at my friends. It's more of a my-how-the-world-turns thing. I'm not sure I could have (or would have) imagined my life being like this back in 1995.

Okay. Baby's awake again. Got to go! Boy an hour passes quick around here.
; )

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


How many games does one need?

Being down in Paraguay has given me a lot of time to think, a lot of time to read, a lot of time to scheme up designs for games. The one thing it hasn't given me is a lot of time to play...and I have often suspected that the lack of actual real gameplay can lead to a lack of perspective when it comes to design.

And yet, many games are produced, that are so obviously "labors of love" by their that have been played and designed to their particular tastes...that exhibit such extreme differences in favored rules/systems that one has to wonder if writing a game for anyone but yourself (and your current gaming circle) is even a productive exercise. Maybe it ain't.

I look at the feedback I've received from 4E gamers and I see a couple different things that take me aback. One is that their interests...the things they LIKE and ENJOY about the game are so different from my own, that they see features where I see flaws. The other thing I see is that it appears every one of them has deviated gameplay in some way from the way the game is written, modifying it "to taste." Again, this just reinforces the notion I have.

From an economic standpoint (i.e. writing games for money) this would seem to point to two financially feasible solutions: you can write a game with a really neat setting/theme (that people can run with and plug into their own favorite system), or you can write a really neat system (that people can screw around with to their hearts desire). Anything other than these two options might as well be offered for free, at least if you're talking system (supplements, support, and adventures for existing games with popular support still sell, of course) because anything else really, truly is destined to be a "heartbreaker." Which is still fine, by the long as you plan on playing the game yourself.

So here I sit, pulling out various designs I've been working on, and wondering if they are indeed "enough" to make it worth the effort of finishing them. Hell, are any of them interesting enough that I'D want to play them over something else on the market? That's the real question. And what I find is:

1) An interesting concept that I'm not interested in playing.
2) An interesting setting that I don't really want to explore.
3) An interesting way of doing magic that doesn't inspire me to play a spell-caster.
4) An interesting system that looks kind of a pain in the ass to use.

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

Just what am I doing?! Really. I mean, I have an idea of what I want to see, what I want to play, but it's so dumb I can't even bring myself to writing it down. It's nostalgia that captures the feeling, the energy, the ambience of my youth. Something that appeals to a certain generation of player...a generation that didn't cut its teeth on Mentzer's Basic or Zeb's AD&D or WotC's D20. Hell, a generation for whom even B/X was naught but a stepping stone.

When I was a kid (I know this is a ridiculous subject, by the way) I played AD&D. Oh, I started with B/X...heck, I started with the Dungeon! board game...but while B/X taught us the basics of the game our style of play was informed by AD&D. We were using a copy of the original Monster Manual (with its demons and devils and brain-ripping mind flayers) almost from the get go. We were using the Dungeon Masters Guide with its extensive magic items and astral encounters and wandering harlots and gambling dens and its random demons and its cursed artifacts almost immediately following our acquisition of the Expert set. Our games were dark and smoky affairs in wood paneled basements or played on heavy antique furniture. If we were Monty Haul in our treasure acquisition it was only fitting as we were fighting Demogorgon and characters were getting their limbs rotted off. Twisted fairy tales with talking animals and permanent curses mixed ruined cities and marching armies and troll-infested forests. Our entire world was "the Borderlands;" our characters were born of tragedies and died tragically and individuals both good and powerful were hard to find, being sequestered in secret hermitages like Elrond's Last Homely House.

No one got eaten by bears in those days...though dungeons rank with slimes and puddings and rot grub were likely to claim a few appendages on any given delve. Same with traps designed to sever grasping hands or and clumsy feet. Wishes were plentiful by modern standards, but always in short supply as they were used to recover characters that had been woefully "de-protagonized." Characters were captured, robbed, stripped, beaten, imprisoned, and tortured. Bullywugs were evil bastards. Halflings were comic relief. Humanoids like orcs and kobolds and goblins were almost never encountered, except in the distance among the marching hordes of an evil general. We never saw a paladin in these campaigns. Ever. Rangers were generally ridiculed by their fellow adventurers. Clerics were frontline fighters. Wizards had strange appearances, like eyebrows that grew long enough to braid, or red hair that danced like fire. Barbarians didn't "rage" any more than anyone else.

Half-elves. I miss half-elves.

"Ringmail" was a jacket with metal rings sewn on, "studded leather" was a jacket with metal studs, and "splint mail" was something only worn by githyanki (who were never encountered by the way, because planar travel was dangerous and avoided like the plague); "bulky armor" was, in general, left on the shelf. Fighters wore fanciful helmets with horns or wings. Everyone was dirty. Player characters had strongholds, but they didn't do much "ruling." I imagine they did a lot of brooding in the King Haggard or that pirate king in Game of Thrones. Finding a winged mount was a high priority because walking took a long time and the roads were universally terrible.

A lot of drinking in taverns. A lot of bar fights.

I miss beating someone senseless with a morning star. I miss bargaining with dragons. I miss subterranean causeways spanning rivers of lava. I miss characters being hopelessly lost in ancient, steaming jungles unknown by civilized people. I miss the danger of snowy avalanches. I miss desperate plans to save companions being held by soulless creatures of evil. I miss cacodaemon. I miss magic resistance.

Okay, maybe not magic resistance.

I miss the D&D I knew once upon a time. Maybe I just miss the friends with whom I played. Back then there were no "builds," no min-maxing effectiveness. Players played the characters they wanted because they wanted to try something. No one played magic-users "for the power;" the one guy who routinely played magic-users just liked being "magical" and doing "magical things" (like casting continual light inside a skull and using it for a lamp). Fighters didn't have "feats;" they had swords and armor and a bunch of hit points, and they were plenty effective. Dwarves and elves and whatnot were limited by their class options and were thus seldom seen...a human-centric universe that nonetheless possessed myth and magic. No one played half-orcs because they were ugly and despicable.

All right, I realize I'm starting to rave like a madman. Or a dude suffering through a severe fit of nostalgia. Sometimes I feel like I've got to spew my random thoughts before I can organize them into a coherent whole. We'll see if that's the case this might not be. Maybe a 50-50 chance.

However, right now I've got a car to decorate (don't's a Paraguayan thing). More later.

Monday, October 5, 2015

After the Delve (4E)

Okay, it appears I am done with my sojourn into the realm of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. I reread the DMG2 and didn't find anything really worth mentioning (not in a positive light, anyway)...a lot of it just feels like "filler."

[oh, and I did find a PDF copy of the MM2 and had a chance to read it. Eh]

Here's the complete series for folks who want the links in one place:

Delving 4E (Part 1)

After spending a week or so on 4E, reading it, analyzing it, thinking about it, I feel...I feel...I don't know how I feel about it. Well, not enough to put it succinctly.

First, I think there is some neat ideas in the 4E system...ideas and concepts I think are interesting and even exciting. Things I'd like to use or play with. And that's surprising to me (though it shouldn't be). It isn't a total cesspool when it comes to design elements...and I think that might have been my base assumption prior to actually reading the thing.

I was also surprised that...well, honestly I forgot how long ago 4E hit the shelves. It's first print date was June 2008. I only started this blog in June of entire year after 4E had been distributed, demonstrated, played by D&D fans all over the world. And somehow I got by for years blogging about out-o-print editions and badmouthing 4E with (effectively) zero experience with the system. No wonder I lack credibility in some (many) circles...the readership I've managed to maintain has been incredibly forgiving in this regard.

That being said, 4E is still a train wreck, and most of the things I wrote about it (even without reading it) still seem pretty fair assessments. A lot of time, money, and effort went in to making a game that alienated a large portion of a long-time fan base, lacked staying power, and (in the final analysis) failed in meeting some of the basic objectives of the designers. Whether or not this was the reason many of 4E's designers have parted ways with WotC (as opposed to the simple economic fluctuations of the industry and corporate politics)...who can say? But for all the work put into the game, from publication to the announcement of 5E (in January 2012), the 4th edition lasted all of three-and-a-half years. Which I suppose is the same length of time that 3E lasted before 3.5 was published...but 3E and 3.5 were the same system and mostly compatible with each other, whereas 4E exists in its own bubble.

Sometime back (years ago), I pondered whether or not someone will...20 years from now...pine over their days of playing 4th Edition D&D, the same way OSR folks reminisce about B/X or OD&D or AD&D or BECMI. Will there be people still playing 4E, continuously, for the next two or three decades, in the same way people have been playing older editions of D&D since the 70s and 80s? While I have a hard time saying 'yes,' I recognize there are a lot of folks who've invested a substantial amount of money in books and minis and battle mats. I'm sure someone will enjoy setting up an encounter for a free-wheeling wrecking crew 15-25 years from now.

But will they remember how to play? Will they be able to find people interested in learning (or relearning) such a complex system just for the sake of rolling dice and knocking down miniatures? That's a lot of mental energy for so little (imaginative) return.

And perhaps the most surprising thing of all is I feel a little sorry about this. There's a part of me that wants to like 4E, would like to see it succeed, even though I know it's already when you re-watch a film, knowing the ending, but want the ending to be different because of your sympathy for the characters in the story. There's some interesting stuff in 4E, and it talks a good game, even if it's setup to play poorly.

I'm sure most of the folks who read this blog are familiar with the movie The Princess Bride. When I was a youth, my buddy Rob excitedly explained that the film was based on an abridged novel, "The Good Parts Version," of an older, longer, very boring novel by S. Morgenstern. My friend (an aspiring writer) really wanted to find a copy of the original book, just to see the differences and what had been "cut out," and spent a good long time looking for a copy. Myself, I thought it was interesting anecdotally, but I was satisfied with the movie and never in a great rush to read either book (I had many other books to finish).

It was only a week ago (in reading about the novel family just watched the film) that I discovered the "abridgment" was nothing more than a literary device of the actual author, William Goldman...that there never was an "S. Morgenstern" or any earlier work to be abridged. I wonder if Rob ever discovered this and (if not) how long he continued his search before giving it up.

I bring this up because, after doing this series, I can't help but think the 4th edition could benefit from an abridgment, a "good parts version" of its own. Something easier to run, easier to play, easy to do while boozing it up...a Dungeons & Flagons kind of game. Something less serious, less prone to dramatization. Something easily accessible (even with a buzz). A dungeon crawl, funhouse-type game, without any sort of endgame or world-shaker ambitions. That's what 4E is really calling out to be, in my opinion.

D&D with more grog.

ANYway...that's about all I want to say about 4E. However, I'd very much like to hear the thoughts of people who have played or run 4E...your thoughts, your feelings, your retrospective perception of an edition that's currently on the scrap heap. Please feel free to comment on this post, or any of the other posts in this series (if there's a specific issue you want to address). I'd really be interested in getting the opinion of folks who actually had a chance to experience this particular style of D&D.

: )

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 5)

It's only fitting that this fifth post be the last installment in this series, seeing as how there's only five editions of Dungeons & Dragons. What - there's more than five editions? Well, the most recent one appears to be something called "fifth edition" and Wizards of the Coast (current holders of the brand name) has an official forum for "Fifth Edition" D&D, so I'll defer to them as the experts on the matter.

Point is, I think I can finish up this series on 4E in one more post. Yes, it will include my (positive) thoughts on the DMG and MM. Maybe some of the less than positive ones, too.

First, the combat/adventuring system found in the PHB: meh. Compared to the other sections I've discussed, there's not a lot here that I find all that cool, interesting, or portable (other than things I might have mentioned in earlier posts). I've seen tactical rules like this before...3E had plenty...but while my impression is that 4E is a simpler system, it sure appears to be complex (talking about presentation here).

I'll reiterate again that I'm kind of intrigued by the way 3E "saving throws" have been rolled into "defenses" and how the actual 4th Edition "save" works. It allows for some interesting effects (like catching hold of something when knocked off a cliff...that's neat). The whole defining action thing (standard, move, and minor) and the currency between them is pretty tidy, if only necessary due to the general excessiveness of combat (appropriate, mind you, due to the emphasis of the game). I like the "shift" action as an evolution of the fighting withdrawal (used to move without provoking an attack of opportunity). Opportunity attacks seem a little simpler than 3E, but it's been a while since I read the 3rd edition...

And that's pretty much all I need to say, with the exception of healing (surges) and the art of dying. Man, it is hard to die in this game...or, rather, it should be hard given the system. I'll admit that I'm not a fan of the three-step death process with saves and whatnot...a (for my money) overly complex system for a pretty faulty concept. Just take death off the table, if that's what you want: PCs reduced to 0 hit points or less are simply knocked out or incapacitated, not killed.

OR (if you want to retain the slim chance of death), simply have an incapacitated PC roll a D20: on a result of 1 or 2 the character dies. That is a fair representation of the character's chance of dying using the 4E system. As it is, you need to fail an unmodified "death save" three times (rolling less than 10 on a D20) in order to give up the ghost...45%x45%x45% equals 9%, the equivalent of rolling a 1 or 2 on the D20. Hey, designers: it doesn't have to be so hard.

The healing surges are another matter. Yes, there are probably too many of them, especially considering how they interact with the short rest and long rest systems. BUT the 4E designers have really just run with the whole concept of abstract hit points, an idea I can get behind. Keeping HPs an abstract measurement of PCs' "staying power" (as opposed to actual measurement of health) allows you do do all sorts of neat tricks: like allowing a PC to gain a few bonus HPs from quaffing a vial of holy water (presuming they're not Chaotic), or granting a PC an extra D4 hit points from downing a jug of wine ("Dutch courage"). It allows my warlord character to give flagging companions a boost by righteously pounding the crap out of someone, and it allows fatigued individuals a chance to recover their second wind in the middle of a fight.

For the record, I like the second wind concept (the ability to expend a healing surge once per encounter to recover one-quarter your HPs mid-combat). I think using it in conjunction with an abstract vision of HPs is about the only way to model someone gaining a "second wind" in the midst of strenuous activity (fighting, in this case). However, as executed, it's many times can one really "dig down" for that extra resolve? I'd say once per day with the exception of some fairly unique individuals (modeled with an appropriate feat, perhaps).

No player character in 4E begins with fewer than six healing surges, a number I'm sure is based on the game's paradigm of "two encounters per session." At that rate, even the weakest (in terms of healing) party member can count on two second winds per session (one per encounter), plus as many as four between the encounters to heal HPs back to full for encounter #2 (since each healing surge heals a character one-quarter its HPs). If the final encounter of the day depletes the character of all HPs (and surges), they can still count on ending the session with a long rest to recover all lost resources (HPs, surges, and powers) setting a "fresh slate" for the next get together.

There's not a lot of risk there.

But there's another point to such "safety mechanics" besides simple survivability. Perhaps, they exist to allow longer, deeper delves...bigger adventures without the need for constant retreat and recovery. I mean, that's a positive thing to shoot for, yeah?

Except the 4E DMG belies that presumption with the basic setup of adventures and encounters. Things are built with an eye towards balancing encounters against each other and against the player characters in a manner that provides a steady rate of mechanical challenge at an estimated pace of one hour per encounter. Maybe that's a conservative estimate...especially at low levels when opponents should be fewer, smaller, and possessed of lesser special abilities...but I can also see the possibility of encounters taking longer, especially in situations where PCs have expended their "finishing moves" earlier (or ineffectively) or due to higher numbers of adversaries (on either side) or higher complexity in the numbers of creature roles.

Complexity. Man, that is a key word, here. I've now read the DMG a couple times and I've got to wonder again at the design choices, especially in light of what I know of the designers' objectives. Here's the specific quote I'm thinking about from 4E designer Andy Collins:
People today, the young kids today, are coming into exposure from D&D after having playing games that have very similar themes, often have very similar mechanics ... they understand the concepts of the game. So in some ways they are much more advanced as potential game players. But in other ways, they are also coming from a background that is short attention span, perhaps, less likely interested in reading the rules of the game before playing.   
And I'm not just talking about younger players now, but anybody. I know when I jump into a new console game, for instance, the last thing I want to do is read the book. I want to start playing. And that's a relatively new development in game playing and game learning. And we've been working to adapt to that, the changing expectations of the new gamer.
First of all, I realize there are people like Mr. brother, for instance...who can't be bothered to read the instructions on their video games. I'm not one of them. And because I prefer to read the instructions first, I tend have an easier time and excel faster then the dudes that just "jump right in." But, okay, whatever...say stodgy old me isn't their target demographic. Say their game (4E) was designed for the impatient, energy-drink-swilling, short-attention-span kid. How the holy fuck could they expect such a person to digest and run a game of the complexity that is 4E? How are they going to put together adventures and interesting encounters just "off the cuff" with the careful balancing act required for the gig?

It's taken me quite a bit of brain power to parse out the (adventure) design structure presented in the DMG, to the point that I think I could put something together, and I'm no rank novice when it comes to D&D or DMing in general. And I think the 4E DMG is pretty well-written...some of the stuff in here on running the game, designing campaigns, and advice on being a DM is quite good, perhaps the best I've seen in any edition of D&D. I especially like the section on the D&D world and the "core assumptions" of the goes a long way towards creating a coherent gestalt of the kitchen sink fantasy elements that have crammed the game's pages since the beginning.

Could a complete newbie to tabletop role-playing just sit down, open up the 4E DMG and MM and craft/run an adventure for a few friends? I guess anything's possible, but it's hard for me to see it. In my estimation 4E requires a greater degree of sophistication than earlier editions. I had no problem DMing B/X as a nine-year old, nor AD&D as an 12-13 year old...but 4E is a very different animal. I think it is safe to say it's built to emulate (in many ways) MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. The difference, though, is that WoW has a host of programmers building a world for exploration and adventure for the people that pay to play, while D&D's "world" is supposed to be built and run by the same people that put their money down for the books. With the level of complexity 4E presents, the level of study required to make it accessible, I just can't see how this meets the designers objective of appealing to "the new gamer."

[maybe the idea was to sell a lot of pre-written adventures?]

OKAY. Things, I liked. Much of the writing, non-specific to the mechanics (just advice information on running a D&D game) was "good stuff." I like the core world assumptions. I like how they handle artifacts in 4E, and the idea of concordance, though I initially liked BECMI's universal method of handling artifacts also (as a repository of power points) and in practice found it pretty boring...artifacts should break some rules.

I think that the direction 4E went with monsters and monster scaling is actually more versatile and less complicated than 3rd edition...which, all things considered, is pretty impressive. Even so, the monster roles are pretty bland, even if they're descriptive of the way creatures are used in play. The idea of elites (double power monsters) and solos (quintuple power monsters) is a concept I recognize from MMORPGs, of course, but I wonder if it isn't something that couldn't be adapted to good effect. It's certainly easier (and more sensical, IMO) than "adding levels" to monsters. It reminds me a bit of the rules for gargantuan monsters (Mentzer's Companion set) and paragon monsters (Mentzer's Immortal set).

I do like the D6 die roll for recharging monster powers...makes it easier for DMs to be objective when it comes to hosing players with an adversary's best powers.
; )

If only I could grok his stat block.
Oh, yeah...I quite like the way 4E has taken Orcus and made him a focus, arch-antagonist of the setting. But that's something (along with the 4E cosmology) that I want to talk about in a "non-4E" post.

And that's about it.  I'll check the DMG2 later to see if there's anything else I'd like to note. Expect a follow-up addendum to this series.