Saturday, July 31, 2021

"Everyone Has A Gimmick"

This is a bit of a "throwaway post," but I feel like I've got to get something down on Ye Old Blog, and I've just had a hard time writing anything lately. Oh, I've started a couple-three things...I've got a post titled "Time Warp," one called "Down Rabbit Holes," and a third called something like "World Without End." Oh yeah...something-something about encumbrance. But I really don't have the mental brain sweat at the moment to address all these potentially O-So-Profound subjects with the requisite gravitas they so richly deserve. 

So F it.

Instead, I'm going to hearken back to someone else's blog post of yesteryear, specifically this little doozie from Necropraxis called Only Ten from back in 2012. For some reason I've had this old post open on some random tab of my laptop for I-don't-know-how-long and I don't even remember why I was looking at it (let alone what I was thinking saving it). Maybe it came up when I was doing some search for Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play? I don't know...really I don't.

Anyway, for the disinterested, the gist of Necro's subject was the following question: if you could only keep 10 printed RPG books, which would make the cut?  Now I'm not sure about my lovely readers, but I happen to be a middle-aged dude who's been playing (and collecting) RPG material for close to 40 years, and while much of it has been sold, lost, or stolen over the years, I still hang on to a substantial amount of printed material. Enough to fill a bookshelf and a half plus a cupboard, and (perhaps) a large plastic crate or two.  And that's just the printed material. That's a LOT of books to pare down to just 10...and a particularly tall order for a packrat like myself.

Still, while I'm glad I don't actually have to burn the bulk of my library, it's an interesting thought exercise. And it's one I went through in my head earlier today: just what would I keep? Strangely enough, B/X didn't make the cut (due partly to me having memorized most of it, and partly having purchased PDFs from DriveThru...when I absolutely have to look something up these days, B/X is quite searchable on the ol' laptop). Mainly I was thinking of games that would allow me to play (or recreate) multiple genres of fantasy, interesting systems, or thoughtful design. Here's  my list at the moment (in no particular order of priority):
  1. AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide
  2. AD&D Players Handbook
  3. AD&D Monster Manual
  4. Heroes Unlimited
  5. Maelstrom
  6. Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader
  7. Sorcerer
  8. Vampire the Masquerade (1st edition)
  9. Hollow Earth Expedition
I can't really bring myself to choose a 10th book...there are a few that could make the cut. The Fiend Folio, of course (and almost certainly would be). Deities & Demigods (the original) makes a strong case if only for its official ability score tables up to 25 and discussions on clerics, worship, and divine ascension. Beyond the Supernatural, Rifts, Gamma World, Deadlands could all go in there...even Ars Magica (1e), Orkworld, ElfQuest, or Over the Edge. And I hardly need not be mentioned how much I love both Ken St. Andre's Stormbringer (1e) and Marc Miller's Classic Traveller (I have the core book compilation from GDW)...that last one (Traveller) might even be able to edge out HEX in the #9 spot. 

Ugh...I completely forgot Twilight 2000. But it's box set technically consists of multiple books. If the original system had a single hardcover, it would leapfrog several of the "possibles" for the #10 slot. It just has a wonderful system for near-future post-apocalyptic games. 

The thing is, MANY of the games I own would be simple enough to recreate, and many could stand a rewrite using a different, more convenient system. Such was definitely the case with Shadowrun (my B/X style knockoff Cry Dark Future is a testament to that). Beyond the Supernatural or Gamma World could both be remade quite easily using B/X (see Mutant Future for an example of the latter). I've run great Top Secret games using the Story Engine system (first published with the Maelstrom RPG) can easily be used for other genres asking for "rules-light-story-heavy" mechanics. Of course, OD&D is easy enough to make out of AD&D...if one wanted...

Some may find it curious that 40K makes the list when it's not really an RPG. What can I say other than it provides exactly the kind of science fiction I day, far in the future, I'll completely rewrite both it and HEX (Hollow Earth Expedition) using a different system from what they've been given. But I find their books to be incredibly imaginative and inspirational, as is. Nice art, too.

Folks might note there are no "supplements" making my list. I generally can write my own supplemental material (that's kind of what I do). That being said, I love Ron Edwards's Sorcerer supplements, especially Sorcerer & Sword. Unfortunately, Sorcerer makes the list because of its elegant design principles (and diabolic themes) more than because it's a game I play a lot (I don't). It's an inspirational reference, especially for its narrative sensibilities, and I like it better than other story driven games like Fiasco, Polaris, and Capes.

The real odd duck on the list though is (duh) Palladium's Heroes Unlimited, an RPG I've written enough of in the past. You'll note the cop out above where I don't pick any single particular edition of the game...there are a plethora of differences between 1e, "revised," and 2e HU, enough so as to really alter game play for the participants. 1e was the best written, but "revised's" tweaks to certain classes are really welcome (including the addition of the magical power set) and I would probably go with that. 2e is just a tad over-the-top...although if you want to include uber-powerful characters (equivalent to Thor or the Hulk) you really need to check out the "mega-hero" option in 2e. It's rather beastly, though nothing one couldn't work out for their own campaign (my buddies' long-running HU campaign in high school created their own "mega-powers" list using only the revised rules...long before the advent of a 2nd edition).

And, yeah, for those who hadn't already guessed, this is all just a rambling preamble to talk about superhero stuff.

As I wrote in my last post, my in-laws have been in town, and were supposed to fly back to Mexico on...mmm, Tuesday? Yeah, Tuesday last. But after our last road trip with them, the kids discovered that abuelo (their grandpa) hadn't watched any of the Marvel movies (The Avengers, etc.) and so decided to embark on an epic marathon of film watching...basically one movie per night for 2+ weeks (in chronological order), culminating in Avengers Endgame the night before they were supposed to leave town. And since it's summer time, and we still have things going on during the days and evenings (and we don't watch movies during dinner) this has meant starting 2-3 hour films around 10pm every night and not getting to bed till near 1am.  Um...yeah. And I still get up around 6:30 to take care of the one beagle I have left.

Consequently, I've been in something of a fugue state with a mind inundated by cinematic superheroics for much of the last month. Makes it a little hard to focus.

[hmm...wonder if that's had anything to do with my lack of a "will to write" lately. Certainly can't help]

Anyway: I am NOT about to start dipping back into designing superhero RPGs (again) as happened last April (wow! A month long tangent that started with this post!)...I've just got too many D&D irons in the fire at the moment (and little enough time for juggling those). But that Necropraxis article made me consider long and hard which hero game I'd bring with me to a desert island and I was, well, a little surprised at my own answer. Despite having written on or about the subject a thousand times in the past.

But in consideration for having the MCU force-shoved into my brain lately...well, sometimes I have to do something to spew the excess waste material from my cranium. Here are my current (as in, today, this morning) thoughts on the subject of superhero role-playing games (SRPGs):
  • an SRPG should be run in real time, as much as possible. Day 1 of the campaign should start on a real world date (even if heroes/villains have been "training" or whatever for years). 
  • an SRPG should be grounded in as much "reality" as possible (no picking up buildings by the corner, or flying faster than the speed of light). Super-technology can make impossible things possible, within reason, but shouldn't be readily accessible/understood by Earth humans (so as not to disrupt what passes for "daily life" in the real world) least when starting the campaign. Magic falls under the category of a "super-technology" (with the same stipulations).
  • the campaign world should be set in the real world. Imaginary cities/countries (Metropolis, Atlantis, Wakanda) should be avoided. Extraterrestrial and extradimensional entities are okay, which can explain mythological-type beings (Thor or whatever).
  • the campaign world should be allowed to spin out of control based on the occurrences of the game.
  • all heroes/villains should start as "unknowns" to the general public, i.e. they have no reputation for being "super-anythings" before the start of play. Actions taken by characters will determine public perception.
  • Day 1 marks the first appearance of super individuals in the campaign world
  • an SRPG should be generally "free-wheeling" with logical consequences to follow
  • no weapon fetishes: make and model of firearms and caliber of ammunition should have near zero impact on game play.
  • experience increases effectiveness of characters. Active superpowers (things that turn on-and-off) either increase in scope/impact, or ability of character to use. Experience is gained through play. Time spent not playing will not result in experience.
  • an SRPG is not a comic book. There is no plot immunity for characters.
  • an SRPG is not a film. There are no guaranteed happy endings.
  • an SRPG is a game about super (i.e. "greater than human") individuals in a human scale world and those individuals impact on the world. The PCs may become champions of the people or conquerors of the world. 
  • The referee's job is to establish challenges for the PCs. For villainous PCs, these challenges can take the forms of law enforcement, task forces, and heroic super teams. Challenges should be commensurate with the scale of the PCs' abilities. Scale is determined by sphere of operation as mutually decided by the referee and the players.
  • All PCs have a drive that allows them to push beyond the boundaries of ordinary humans.
  • All PCs have a flaw that can be exploited by adversaries.
  • All PCs have enough humanity to allow players (including the referee) to relate to the character. Thus, no artificial beings or alien creatures lacking human emotions, feelings, etc. The game is not about how well a player can portray a plant thing, inhuman monster, or celestial/infernal being. Likewise all PCs must be sentients of at least minimal intelligence for operating on planet Earth (the campaign setting); the game is not a comedy of errors based on an ignorance of cultural norms.
  • There should be at least some randomness in determining a PCs particular "power set;" players are neither allowed, nor expected to come to the table with a fully formed character concept.
*Whew!*  Aaand...that's about it. I've decided that I'm no longer all that interested in forcing players to act cooperatively or assign them to super-powered task forces...I'm not even (particularly) interested in them acting as "heroes." Instead, I'd rather just offer them opportunities...multiple...just as one might with, say, an AD&D campaign setting. Being a planet such as we have, it's not like the PCs couldn't hop a plane and be most anywhere in less than 24 hours, so lot of possibilities for adventures are possible...and "story arcs" have nothing to do with any of it.

It's a little different from how I've thought about SRPGs in the past. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Plans Change

Turns out my in-laws (who have been staying with us since June 17th) will be staying longer...till August, in fact. Which is fine (we all get along well) and generally fun (especially for the kids), though it means the diet, etc. will all be put on hold for another ten days (pretty hard to quit drinking the beer when they want to tour the local breweries...of which there are many 'round these parts). 

The reason they're staying isn't quite as fine or fun, however: my wife's brother and his family and in-laws have all contracted the COVID. Which is, frankly, horrific and tragically, tragically stupid (most of them, including his wife's aged parents had the chance to get vaccinated, and passed for...reasons). But there's a lot of stupid in Mexico (just as there is up here)...difference is, our government, provides a lot more infrastructure and support for folks (not enough but, hey, people hate paying taxes, right? Plus we have to fund this freedom-saving war machine of ours...) that Mexico simply can't...or won't...provide.

So, we'll see what happens. In the meantime, we're keeping my wife's parents here while my brother-in-law disinfects their house (that he and his wife were watching). *sigh* 

Now, if y'all will excuse me, I'm going to work on my submission for Prince's "No ArtPunk" adventure contest. The thing is due by the end of August and I've still got a lot of writing to do (not to mention drawing the map). I was just thinking about it this morning while brewing coffee and have decided I probably need more half-orcs than originally least two more. Can half-orc assassins be disguised as elven captives? Does that really make sense (i.e. would it fool anyone?)? I guess, by the PHB rules it should...even if they were disguised as elf maiden clerics individual PCs would only have an 8% chance to see through the deception. And if they're female half-orcs, why, that chance drops to 6%. Mm. Who needs dopplegangers in a world of Faceless Men?

Later, gators.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Into The Borderlands

Digging through old podcasts, blog posts, and reviews is (for me) a bit like prospecting for precious metals: most of what I find is frustrating (either empty or excruciating tantalization), but on some rare occasions I strike a vein of especially pure gold.

As I type, I'm looking at two products, recently purchased. Both came from "prospecting;" both deal with similar themes, both were "recommended," both were of interest to me. Only one, however, is true gold. The products are Mike's World: The Forsaken Wilderness Beyond and Renegade Crowns: Adventures Among the Border Princes.

I'll spare my readers the suspense: Renegade Crowns is the golden goose.

Mike's World is a cool product/ expansion and development of the Borderlands' wilderness from B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. You can read good (positive) reviews of it here and here. It does have some interesting ideas in it, but even so I find Yeah, kind of boring. 

And the scale is far too small. The area that its 14 maps cover amount to about 100 square miles (11.35 by 8.85). A single adult, male grizzly needs a home range of 200 to 500 square miles...and this thing is stuffed full of dragons and monsters and humanoid tribes and whatnot? And you can walk from the Keep to the farthest reach of the wilderness in half a day? No, sorry...doesn't compute for me.

[just as a comparison of scale, the distance from Richland, WA to Kennewick, WA is 11.2 miles by means of the Riverfront Trail, a distance which can be easily hiked in three and a half hours. Imagine that trail supporting a tribes of kobolds, troglodytes, gnomes, half a dozen displacer beasts, a pair of land-bound green dragons, and a couple storm giants with their score of pet giant crabs. Even in a world where weirdness can be explained as "magic," things still need to eat]

But Mike's World is cheap and its readily available. Renegade Crowns is not. Written for 2nd Edition Warhammer Fantasy in 2006, it's been out-of-print for a while, and print copies on-line are selling for more than $150+ (I saw one copy priced at $405). I was fortunate enough to stumble across a shrinkwrapped copy in my local game shop for $70 last week...the day after hearing about the thing on an old Wandering DMs video. I had them hold it behind the counter for me a couple days before pulling the trigger, and I've spent the last week reading it. It doesn't disappoint.

[Renegade Crowns IS available in PDF form from DriveThru for $15, but I prefer hard copy for reading and reference. The thing also has tiny, eye-straining type, which I can't imagine is especially easy on the oculars when backlit. Maybe I'm wrong]

Now: a few words about Warhammer, before I begin my gushing.

Very Nice
I've owned Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay since it was still published by Games Workshop. I have never "upgraded" to the later editions (Hogshead was originally the same anyway). I find it an enjoyable, entertaining, and inspiring read...I've run a scenario or two (I own the first three tomes of The Enemy Within), but I've never really cared to do a full-blown WFRP campaign. Its combo of grim darkness and humor isn't really the style of game I run (which, surprise-surprise, is more "heroic" and "all-too-serious"). I favor bold adventuring with the possibility of gold and glory, not grim skulking and squalor-survival. 

Also, while I really like many of the system mechanics one finds in WFRP (different schools of magic! critical hit tables! a neat skill system!) the systems in D&D just work better for me. Or for my style of play. Or for the style in which I run my games. Something...I don't know. 

[yes, I've seen Chris Hogan's Small But Vicious Dog. I love it; it's wonderful. But I want PCs to have more potential in my games than what they have in SBVD. D&D is already plenty deadly...let them have the possibility of rising above their God-given station in life!]

The main thing, though, that prevents me from running WFRP is its setting. The Old World...decidedly pseudo-European modeled over maps of Middle too densely populated for my campaigns. It's Europe of the Hundred Years' War (plus orcs and chaos mutants) whereas I prefer a wilderness that is far more wilderness. Where PCs are worried about encountering bullywugs and lizard men at river crossings, not money-grubbing ferrymen and toll bridges. I don't want a 15th century version of Tolkien.

Of course, that's a fairly superficial view of the Warhammer's setting (in my defense, having a bunch of adventures and scenarios set in the heart of the Empire doesn't help). If you dig beyond Bretonnia and Kislev and the Reik you'll find it does have its wilderness full of adventure and monsters. Enter the Border Princes.

From WFRP (p. 271):
Unlike the Empire, Bretonnia, or even the Wasteland, the area known as the Border Princes does not form a nation or state, but is rather a loose confederacy of various petty Princedoms. Most Old Worlders think of and refer to the Border Princes in much the same way as they would the Badlands - an amorphous and largely lawless area, cut off from civilization by the Black-Vaults-Apuccini mountain chain. The fight that certain eastern Princes are waging against the Goblin hordes who pour across the Blood River and out from Mad Dog Pass goes virtually unnoticed. 
The Border Princes region covers roughly 750 miles by 300 miles (at its widest point). That's damn near twice as big as my campaign map (a slightly enlarged Washington State) other words, nearly an ideal setting size for a campaign. Full of petty kingdoms, small settlements, ancient ruins, and hostile monsters it is an area ripe for adventure. The various "princes" are generally adventurers and bandit chiefs...outlaws, exiles, and opportunists...and their reigns are (usually) short-lived. PCs will find ample opportunity to carve out their own niche realms in such a place...provided they can survive the monsters, politics, and strife. It is the Borderlands...a real "Borderlands" of a kind that might easily find B2's Keep. 

Renegade Crowns is a true tool kit for creating a setting. It offers no maps, no NPCs, no monster lairs. Instead, it offers you a step-by-step process for generating all of these things, including population centers, relationships, and histories. It is extremely well-done and (perhaps because it was written for 2nd edition WFRP) treats its subject rather seriously with a minimal amount of snark. Despite being written for Warhammer, it is easily adaptable to D&D because most of it is "system agnostic." It is just about perfect for creating a Borderlands wilderness from scratch and it can help fill in the blank details of an existing wilderness map as well.

The book can be divided into two sections. The first part is the six-step system for creating your particular section of the region. Using random tables (coupled with common sense) you generate the landscape/geography, the various ruins, the princes of that particular region, the princes relationships with each other, the settlements in the area (including their resources), and the monsters/threats that exist. With nice details and ideas, its elegant system of tables fits into 64 pages(!) followed by a detailed example of generating such a region from the ground up using its system.

While some may scoff at the idea of a randomly generated campaign setting, I find the system as laid out to be eminently sensible. The systematic approach helps organize your world building, and nothing prevents you from stepping in and superseding the roll of the dice with your own the contrary, the instructions tell you to do just that. But the book provides you with a systemic approach and appropriate steps with plenty of good ideas. It's the most refreshing resource I've ever seen in this regard.

The second section of the book deals with actually running a campaign in the Border Princes territory, paying specific example to ways and means by which PCs may become princes themselves and what particular problems (internal and external) they'll face if and when running their own principality. This part does not possess various random tables but, rather, scenario ideas, along with the steps and events that have to occur for one to seize (and retain) power. 

Again, it is refreshing stuff: here is a version of the famous D&D "end game" scenario that has players being awarded a barony upon reaching 9th level with some off-the-cuff text about "clearing a wilderness hex." Just what type of wilderness do you intend to "clear?" A swamp? A barren desert? The good land for settlement is almost certainly claimed already...if not by some warlord, then by a semi-organized group of individuals uninterested in being "ruled." Are you going to "clear" them off the land, too? Not exactly an inviting kingdom you're setting up for potential settlers that way!

Raids (from neighbors and monsters), diplomacy, open warfare, and resource development is all discussed in the book, as well as an easy system mechanic for generating "trouble" via adventures. It's provides a simple foundation to build upon (for folks who'd like a bit more complexity), but it's definitely more advanced play than what one usually finds in a fantasy RPG supplement. Extremely thought-provoking, if not outright useful, I'd call it.

The sample Border Princes region given in the book covers an area 132 miles by 100 miles...about the same amount of area as the region the PCs in my campaign are currently exploring (from Banks Lake, i.e. Xak Tsaroth, in the northeast down to Yakima in the southwest). Working with the "real world" as I am, I already have a map sketching out much of the geography (as well as the major settlements)...but that doesn't mean Renegade Crowns is useless to me. Quite the opposite: I can use it to generate areas of control and rulers of these various "city-states" (Wenatchee, Ellensburg, Moses Lake), their relationships to each other, and the available resources and features that make them places of interest to adventurers. My world has an "empire," too (the Red Empire, about 80-100 miles east of the PCs' current location) and the wild west of this region east of the Cascades certainly counts as "Borderlands" in my world. Knowing where the mutant hordes winter and what ancient ruins exist for delving (as well as some of the local "fantasy" history) is incredibly useful stuff. Renegade Crowns makes a nice little content/idea generator in this regard. case anyone was wondering the reason for my lack of blogging this week, I've been rather engrossed with my new toy. Cheers, folks!
; )

Friday, July 16, 2021

Modular Art

So I did make it down to my favorite local game shop yesterday, where I sipped a delicious IPA in the middle of the day while paging through copies of the 5E PHB and DMG. My time was rather limited, so it's possible in my haste that I missed an image or three. However, with regard to illustrations depicting actual peril, I found the count in both books combined to be zero.

Sure, there's a picture of a dwarf comforting a fallen companion (page 256 of the 5E the "siege equipment" section?) who one might interpret as mortally wounded or something (and the dwarf doesn't look like a cleric)...but her eyes are open and she doesn't have any visible injury. Maybe she's supposed to have a disease (the next section) but there's no indication it's a fatal one...she could just have really bad stomach cramps or fever.

And, yes, there's a picture in the 5E PHB of a character facing a medusa and seeing his arm is turning to stone, but I have a hard time interpreting what this image is supposed to represent. Partial petrifaction? Is the character succeeding at their saving throw (and thus withstanding a "full body stoning")? Or have they failed their saving throw and the magical curse is taking its sweet time creeping up from his fingers? Or is it just his arm that met the medusa's gaze? Or does medusa petrifaction work differently in 5E?  I don't know...but he looks more startled (perhaps by a "near miss") than actually "zapped" and incapacitated.

Whatever. 5E is its own animal. I see the book still has the spell regenerate; is there a 5E condition called "maimed?" I kind of want to write 5E adventures that feature limb-chopping traps and monsters. Wonder how that'd fly.

*AHEM* Which is a fine segue to my last post on this subject of art (I hope). 

I often get the urge to write adventure in, write them for publication. Part of this comes from reading other bloggers' (often negative) reviews of recently published adventures and thinking, hey, even I could write something that doesn't suck. I mean, it might be mediocre, but at least it wouldn't be a terrible travesty...and it might put a buck or two in my pocket.  But, as with all my gaming ambitions, the main thing that holds me back from my enterprise (aside from a lack of time) is the need for artwork in a published gaming product. And that, my friends, was before I started doing this research/analysis of the last few days.

Because the truth is, before this work (yes, it's "work"...I've spent hours on this thing!) I didn't see much value in adventure art other than 'well, it's kind of expected from the consumer.'  I mean, who is the art for? A cover entices a buyer, sure. But the interior of an adventure module is supposed to be For The DM's Eyes Only...are we just putting illustrations in the book to entertain the DM? I will say I even considered writing and publishing a new line of publication called "Artless Adventures," describing both their lack of illustration and my own ham-handedness in a single phrase.

Now I'm thinking differently.

I've long held that adventure modules...especially the old TSR ones I grew up with...provided a very distinct value to the game. Specifically: they provided a model for how to design adventures AND (in some cases) provided additional advice on how to run the game and handle certain aspects of it. Without adventures like B2, X1, the S-series, etc. what would my dungeons have ended up looking like? How would I have structured my adventures and campaigns? These old adventure modules provide examples and context for the instructions found in the rule books...instructions which, to be fair, are pretty "bare-bones" especially if you consider the reader to have been someone with NO experience creating fantasy adventure scenarios (as I was, once upon a time).

But more than that, I now see the importance of these early adventure modules from the standpoint of the artwork they provide. These images of giants and Drow and robots and volcanoes aren't only providing seeds for the imagination...they are helping to describe difficult concepts and illustrate aspects of game play that might be unclear. Sure, they offer excellent pictures of "peril" (see Delta's post for some great examples), but they also offer images that might be tough to conceptualize from a reading of text alone. The inverted ziggurat or suspended disk cavern of White Plume Mountain; the open-floor pit chamber of Slave Pits of the Undercity; the shadow of the vampire tomb in Shrine of Tamoachan; Lolth's spidership (and the demonweb itself) in Queen of the Demonweb Pits. The artwork does more than entertain: it helps elucidate and cement ideas so that the participants (DM and players) have a firm understanding of the play occurring at the table.

Limited by imagination, remember? Feed the imagination.

I have an extensive collection of old TSR adventure modules, but relatively few from the post-Gygax days. The few I do have are extremely hit-or-miss (and generally more "miss" than hit). The 2E Return to White Plume Mountain has some good pieces that help illustrate the certain unusual monsters that might otherwise be hard to conceptualize. But 2E's Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is extremely poor in this regard, providing almost nothing (save a good external view of the Keep) and even screwing up the illo of the minotaur lair (showing a chamber of three doors where no such place exists on the map). But the earlier 1E stuff, whether American or done in the UK, all do a good job of communicating concepts pertinent to the adventure scenario they present. Some of the UK stuff (UK1-3 and B10) is especially good at depicting tricky locations, events, and NPC characters with their art, illustrating fortresses and half-orcs and medieval towns in a way that really helps strengthen the imagination. 

There just my be a lot LESS of this in current adventure publications. And that is, I think, to be expected when so many of the adventures being published these days are being put together by poor independent shmucks (like me) scrambling to find any clipart to fill white space, rather than big companies with staff artists (like TSR, back in the day). 

Perhaps the big 5E campaign books WotC regularly publishes are better in this regard (I haven't purchased/read any of them, so I can't say), as they clearly have the resources to staff or outsource artwork of a higher quality and have actual real art direction. Then again, I do have a copy of Dragon of Icespire Peak (for 5E) and there are no images that spring to mind when I try to recollect. 

[hold on a moment...]

Okay, With the exception of an illo of a couple adventurers looking over a hill at Phandelvin, there's really no art portraying adventurers doing adventuring stuff in the book. There are full color illustrations of the monsters and major NPCs that will be encountered (good stuff that)...but I'm not sure DoIP expects much more than "PCs go to location/PCs kill monsters/PCs return to town." Yay? Is that a "win" for WotC's art department?

I mean, even the Dragonlance art showed PCs getting killed sometimes.

Yes, the "boobplate" is terrible. But
look! Dead adventurer!
It's like D&D or something!

The point of all this being: this stuff, this artwork (high quality or not) matters for how we conceptualize the game...and being a fantasy game, the ability to conceptualize is a key component to playing the thing. Just what that artwork illustrates serves to build our imaginations and inform our expectations of play.

Yes...we all have lots and lots of media to help give us an idea of what "fantasy adventure" means. We've seen Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and tons of other media: comics and cartoons and instagram extravaganzas. But those images alone don't inform what the (D&D) game is. The D&D game is its own thing. Its rules provide for a certain type of play. And while I may be snarky about what 5E does or does not do, the fact is I have no interest or concern for "5E game play." I play AD&D (and, before that, B/X). And, hey, there are other people who are still playing these old editions.  And people writing adventure modules for these old editions. And people buying and reading and running these adventure modules for old editions.

And so it matters whether or not the artwork ("a picture being worth a thousand words") helps describe the game play of these old editions. Because they're not really "old" if they're currently being played. Hell, they're not even out-of-print anymore (pick up your POD copies of AD&D core from DriveThru right now!). So the discussion is actually pertinent to games currently being played.

And THAT, I suppose, is my final takeaway from this week's "adventure" down beautifully rendered byways of art and illustration. Art is something that I need to attend to (in my own design and publication)...something helpful and important for showing players how the game is meant to unfold, not simply an expected bit of decoration. 

Man, am I glad I commissioned a lot of mutating PC illos for my Comes Chaos book!
: )

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Addendum To "The Art Of Peril"

Something I completely failed to mention in yesterday's post on the subject of D&D artwork:

Despite what one might assume from the generally "down" tone of my last post, I quite like A LOT of the artwork in both 2E and 3E (or, as I call it, DND3). This may well come as a surprise to some. However, much of the art quality from both 2nd and 3rd edition D&D towers over the stuff in the 1st edition AD&D books. While many of the original 1E pieces are (rightly) considered iconic, the skill and artistry with which later illustrators execute their craft is, more often than not, simply better.

Everyone got that? I like many of the pieces in these later editions. Some are extraordinarily good. The color plates in the 2E PHB and DMG are some of my favorites in any fantasy RPG I own (check p.7, p.72, and p.110 of the 2E PHB and p.8 and p.116 of the 2E DMG). And many of the less manga-y, MtG-type art in 3rd edition is stuff I find incredibly evocative...and inspirational (as in: it fires up my juices and makes me want to play the game). 

I don't get that from classic pix like "A Paladin in Hell" or the single-panel cartoon jokes in the original DMG. Sorry, no.

But as far as communicating what the game is far as providing building blocks for the imagination (not just vignettes for one's daydreams), the first edition of AD&D does the best job of any of these three editions of the game. Yes, there are excellent, evocative pieces of art in the 1E books (I said later works were better "more often than not," not always) but MORE than just "good art" or "bad art" or "mediocre art" there is EFFECTIVE art. Art that is effective at communicating what game play is about. Game play is NOT about a lone monk taking out an umberhulk with a spear single-handedly (much as I like John Foster's illo on p.168 of the 3E DMG). just isn't.

[apologies...couldn't find an image]

And ALSO, just by the way: before 3rd edition I don't think much of this art had any real intentionality of "communicating game play" (or its perils) aside from 'let's put a party fighting orcs in this space, and let's have an illo of a cleric turning undead over here.' 3E's art seems to be placed in appropriate locations (in relation to text) and...outside the generally captioned to show its pertinence to the instruction at hand.  1E and 2E just throws "cool fantasy stuff" willy-nilly all over the place. I think the main difference, though, is that many of the artists in 1E doing pictures of peril in the core books were long-time D&D players themselves and...consciously or not...brought a lot of insight for the game to their works. I believe this is a large part of why there are so many humorous illos in the first edition books.

I have one more post to write in this series, but I just wanted to add this quick note. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Art Of Peril

 Continuing from the prior post...

As several astute commenters deduced, this discussion on art in D&D was "goosed" into action by Delta's blog post on "old school" art from Monday. Delta's main point was that:
" of the biggest sensibility differences between old-school D&D art and and newer-school art is the amount of violence depicted against ostensibly player-character-types..."
I have some quibbles with Delta's conclusion ("flipping through the earliest 1st Edition materials, you're going to get the idea that in D&D, player-character life is cheap") but not with his declarative that the images presented are going to create particular ideas in the minds of the reader. Again, returning to my prior post, our imagination constructs ideas and images from memories, and memories at their base are generated from external (sensory) stimuli.

Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy game that absolutely requires imagination (in all participants) to play effectively. I would go so far as to say imagination is probably the defining characteristic of role-playing games, as opposed to computer (video) games, board games, or card games, ALL of which are playable without imaginative input from the participants involved. As such the importance of exercising one's imagination (both through use and through assimilation of pertinent memories for use) cannot be understated. The ability to play the game is limited by one's imagination (or lack thereof), and as we wish to pay attention to how that imagination is cultivated, we should take a hard look at the purpose and objective of the game.

Dungeons & Dragons is a game of facing peril and overcoming its challenges.

This is clearly evident from the rules of the game. No, D&D is not a game about "telling stories;" as I have written (often) before, there are MANY role-playing games that are designed to create/tell stories (in many genres!) and that serve that purpose better than D&D. Folks using D&D as a vehicle to tell stories are pretty lazy (or else suckers for the marketing). Systems are not included to be ignored; dice are not rolled because players "like rolling dice." The fantasy world of role-playing IS designed to amuse, entertain, fascinate, astound, and escape reality. Yes, absolutely. But the game is designed with the mechanics it's given in order to face peril and overcome challenge. This is the reason for combat rules. And armor class. And hit points. And saving throws. Etc.

SO...given the above raison d'etre of D&D, let's take a look at the artwork that is Oh So Necessary for implanting those building blocks of imagination (integral to the game) and the job they do at conveying the perilous nature of the game.

I spent roughly three hours this morning combing through the core books (PHB, DMG, and MM) of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions of D&D making notes on the artwork and just how much "peril" was communicated. Things I looked for were instances of evident fear (either on terrified faces or actual flight), instances of helplessness or restraint/capture, killing blows (i.e. an attack from which the individual was most definitely NOT going to walk away from without clerical assistance), "zaps" (from traps or magical monster attacks that may or or may not be lethal), and the presence of Already Dead Bodies. At first, I attempted to do a simple count for each book, giving more weight to some illustration over other (half a point for a scared face, two points for a killing blow that shows entrails/viscera, etc.), but the results were somewhat confused and, for my purposes, not nearly descriptive enough. So I went back through all the illos (again) and simply made tallies for each particular instance of each category for each book.

For an illo to be counted, the recipient of the "peril" had to be a PC type (the dragon on p.21 of the 1E DMG doesn't count, for example, as all the creatures being killed are kobolds). Overwhelming odds (the purple worm on p.166 of the 1E DMG) or potential surprise (p.91 of the MM, p.99 of the DMG3) were NOT counted for purposes of "peril" as such illustrations could simple be viewed as "precursors to heroism," or some such. Neither were the cover illustrations of ANY edition counted in any way (as covers are prone to change, even within editions)...only interior artwork was reviewed. Artwork taken from earlier products (2E illos include a LOT of previously published artwork from 1st edition) still count towards peril, as the illos were used in the core books and thus help teach the game to prospective players.

Here then are the results, as I calculated them:

1st Edition (AD&D)
Fear: 18
Held/Helpless: 12
Kill Shot: 8
Dead Body: 6
Zapped!: 7
Total: 51

Fear: 4
Held/Helpless: 1
Kill Shot: 2
Dead Body: 4*
Zapped!: 1
Total: 12

DND3 (3rd Edition)
Fear: 6
Held/Helpless: 10
Kill Shot: 1
Dead Body: 2*
Zapped!: 3
Total: 23

*Dead bodies! Okay...let's talk about these for a moment. Three of these four instances in 2E feature "bodies in repose" that may or may not simply be sleeping, they looked so peaceful (and no evidence of violence...see p.125 of the PHB2 and p.24 of the DMG2). The final one seems obvious; equally obvious, however, is the party's intention to raise their companion (p.116, DMG2). The "dead bodies" in 3E are even more "iffy" in nature: the caption on p.153 of the PHB3 tells me the individual is dead, but he looks more like someone having his leg regenerated. The other image (from the MM3) appears to be a mermaid helping a drowned man (p.135)...hardly "peril."

Oh, and speaking of iffy...the thing that's really absent from 3E, compared to the first two editions is any sensations of fear...hell, there's hardly any trepidation illustrated. The six instances of "fear" counted for DND3 all come from the MM3. Four counts come from the illustration of the tarrasque (where four small figures are seen running from one of the most tremendous threats of the D&D universe, p.174). Yes, I count each character as one "instance"...more fear, more death makes more impression from a single illo. The other two instances of fear in the MM3 are also instances of small figures running from gigantic foes: the remorhaz (p.155) and the red dragon (p.67). There are plenty of other illos where small figures stand toe-to-toe with impunity against huge and colossal monsters.
And that's what really causes me to shake my head in looking at these late editions. Just what do the art directors think D&D is about? What are they conveying to the reader? Because, I'll tell you that any adventurer who thinks he's going to stare down a purple worm in ANY edition is probably asking to be eaten. 

The illustrations of post-1st AD&D simply fail in communicating the perils inherent in the game. Keep in mind that 1E has plenty of illustrations that do NOT contain peril: images showing heroic confrontation, or fantasy and wonder abound in the pages of the PHB and DMG (whose share of "peril images" I count as 9 and 12, respectively). Yet, 1E still manages to communicate the danger of the game world to the reader. Not (as Delta concluded) that "life is cheap," but that fear and death are a part of the game.  This is preparation for the imagination. 

Failing to prepare the mind with art showing only heroic confrontation, victorious parties, and happy tavern scenes (a lot of these in 2E for some reason...) is going to lead to false expectations and, I can only imagine, DM fudging and protectionism to stave off player disappointment. At least in 2nd edition, which is close enough to 1E that players should be gaffled just as readily for stupid shit as in the original Advanced game.  In 3E, I suppose disappointed expectations can be avoided with careful use of that edition's complex challenge system and obsessive attention to optimal "character builds."

Anyway... some folks asked me about B/X and how its art helps illustrate the perils of that particular edition. By my method of calculation there are only two instances of character peril illustrated in the contents (both in the Basic book; both of the "zapped!" variety). My own B/X Companion (which was illustrated to my specifications and in like vein to the original books) contains only two instances of peril, one each of the "kill shot" and "dead body" variety (actually, just a severed arm being gnawed by a Baba Yaga-like hag). That ain't much peril. However, Moldvay's basic book supplements this by providing detailed play examples (in both the Encounter/Combat section and the Dungeon Mastering section) featuring player character death. Gygax does likewise in the 1st edition DMG (p.71 and then p.97-100...the latter describes a particularly gruesome PC demise). While such textual examples are helpful in making explicit the perilous nature of the D&D game, I don't think there's any debating the old saw "a picture is worth a thousand words." More images of peril would go a loooong way.

Fortunately, we also have adventure modules to help us out:


By the way, I also calc'd out the first edition Fiend Folio art because I consider it part of my personal "core" AD&D volumes, even if the numbers weren't added above. Here's how that most grim and perilous tome stats out in terms of communicating "peril" through its artwork:

Fiend Folio (1E)
Fear: 12
Held/Helpless: 22
Kill Shot: 8
Dead Body: 2
Zapped!: 2
Total: 46

I think the fact that the total instances of character peril in the FF alone is more than the combined core books of 2E and 3E says quite a bit about the game's art direction post-1988.

[I don't own copies of 4E or 5E so I can't comment on those particular volumes. However, as game play for those two editions are fairly distinct from earlier editions...even 3E...perhaps those editions' artwork conveys exactly what they're supposed to communicate]

Comments, as always, are welcome.
: )

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Imagination & Art

"[the rules] provide the framework around which you build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity -- your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination..."

Thus wrote Gary Gygax in the first paragraph of his introduction to Men & Magic (OD&D, volume 1), and every Dungeons & Dragons rule set since have included some similar words regarding the importance of imagination to the playing of the game.

Just what is imagination? The dictionary definition ranges from "the formation of a mental image or concept of that which is not real or present" (AHD) to "the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality" (MWD) to simply "the ability to create pictures in your mind; the part of the mind that does that" (OED). Conceptualizing ideas...especially visual ideas (images, pictures)...would seem to be the main purpose/use of one's imagination, and we can thus infer that it is this ability (to mentally conceptualize images) that is so important to the D&D hobby.

It's important to a LOT of things (duh) but it is of utmost importance to a tabletop game that utilizes no board, and that requires participants to create mental images in their heads of the action occurring with little more than a handful of dice, textual notes, and narrated description to help. Players that fail to possess exceptional imagination will have a damnably hard time playing D&D, especially if the Dungeon Master, too, lacks the faculty to visualize and/or effectively describe their vision. Fortunately, imagination as a mental faculty can be exercised, becoming stronger with training and effort.

What might not be readily apparent, however, is the importance of external stimulus to imagination. Imagination, as a process, involves arranging the relationship of ideas and images to form a mental construct, but these ideas/images/relationships are not generated from nothing, nor is their significance/meaning. Instead these things come from our memories, both long- and short-term, and while memories can be created from our own imagination, their original impetus must necessarily derive from outside ourselves, from something learned.

FOR EXAMPLE: to a person unfamiliar with the term "minotaur," no mental image can be constructed with the simple utterance of the word. However, if I explained that a minotaur has the body of a man and the head of a bull, the person could use imagination to construct an image in their mind...provided they have learned (i.e. have memories) of both "a man" and "the head of a bull." Lacking one or both of these terms, the imagination will fail to produce a concept of a minotaur, unless more elementary descriptions are used.

For your memory.
All of which is (hopefully) really basic stuff to grasp. But fantasy role-playing games are not so basic (not even the basic ones!) and require substantially more mental gymnastics to play effectively...and even more so when one considers not only the need to use the mind for imagination (in play) but also the need to formulate strategies and tactics based on both situations/scenarios presented AND the rule set being used. That's a lot of computing power for the poor brain to handle (and, perhaps, part of the reason that some folks find the playing of D&D to be beyond their abilities).

All of which is preamble to declare the immense importance of artwork to the role-playing game. We've all heard the old saw "a picture is worth a thousand words" but in the sphere of fantasy RPGs, a picture's value may be even more valuable. Those visual illustrations found in the rule books work to imprint memories in the minds of the reader...memories that will be used in the process of imagination to form and arrange concepts and mental images, providing meaning and significance that will become the foundational building blocks needed in a game that often times emulates situations not found in our "normal reality." What is our mental image of an orc or goblin or dragon? How about a lucerne hammer or studded leather armor? From where do we draw our memory of a magic-user? Is it a man in cape pulling a rabbit out of a top hat?

Consider for a moment how important it is for an RPG like Dungeons & Dragons to provide visual images as "seeds" for the imagination; consider what you, dear reader, would be left with for your imagination withOUT the illustrations provided in countless fantasy gaming products. For me, I know that as a child I was exposed to many fantasy images prior to my first encounter with D& was my love of all things fairy tale and fantastical that first drew me to a game involving the same.

[I would guess that the bulk of my gaming is informed by primordial memories of Ray Harryhausen "Sinbad" films, with a huge helping of Rankin-Bass Hobbit on the side]

[younger gamers would probably draw their mental images of fantasy from Jackson's Lord of the Rings films (can you believe those things are 20 years old?!) ...or perhaps Harry Potter.  *sigh*]

Anyway, once you've considered how important artwork is for a fantasy role-playing game, and how integral such artwork is to the formulation of a foundation for imagining the actual (in-game) action that occurs during play, I'd invite you to reflect on just what that artwork illustrates in the instructional, core texts of "the world's most popular role-playing game," and how said artwork differs across editions of the games. And then consider how those differences in artwork might influence differences in play.

I'll be writing about that in my next post.
; )

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Orcas Island

East end of Buoy Bay; 10:01am. There are far, far worse places to be hungover.

Orcas is so lovely, but far more so when one has wealth and leisure. Our friends, who own the guest cottage in which I currently sit typing and enjoying an unobstructed view of the Sound, have been here for years...many more years than I've known them (and I met them in '98), and over the decades they've continued to acquire and improve their expansive property here.  The "cottage" in which my family is staying, rests on the site of the original cottage that they first had built when they came to the island...but it is now anything but "rustic," sporting solar panels, high-speed internet, beautiful furnishings, tasteful design and decoration, and enough bed and bathrooms to easily contain my family and in-laws (who are still traveling with us). 

The "big house" where the owners stay (at the top of the hill, rising behind me) also has a beautiful, unobstructed view, but I prefer to be closer to the water. A short trail leads down the cliffside to the beach (also owned by these folks) where my son has spent much of the last two days perfecting his rock-skipping talents. Yesterday afternoon, we saw three orca whales (transients...the kind that hunt seals) off the coast. Early in the morning, I saw a beautiful horned deer, dancing on its hind legs as it pulled down apples off the tree outside the window. I should have taken video, but I was trying very hard to forget the chain of my cell phone.

The coffee I'm drinking is from Seattle.

There is no need for the escapist fantasy afforded by Dungeons & Dragons here. Orcas Island IS an "escapist fantasy." Today, we will probably hike Mount Constitution and maybe kayak along the shoreline. Soak up the good energy, recover from drinking too much wine, perhaps relax in the hot tub, before our return journey tomorrow (via ferry) to the mainland. 

Mmm. And now my family is up. As a man possessing very small amounts of leisure (and no real wealth to speak of), I am once again called into action. Blissful musings of (fantasy) island living must now be set aside. I hope you are all having a peaceful and restful weekend.


Tuesday, July 6, 2021


My dog died on July 1st. Now I'm down to just one running beagle.

Not that he was much of a runner anymore. He was a bit more than 13 years old, and he blew out his ACLs (or the dog equivalent) last June. While the injury healed, he limped along ever after, struggling with what was probably arthritis (which the vet told us was prone to afflict dogs recovering from ACL tears).

That's not what did him in, however. I did. Which is to say, I had the dog hospital euthanize him. He had been taken there by the kennel, suffering from a pneumonia and laboring, unable to breathe, without assistance. Blood work and diagnostics showed issues with both his kidneys and liver, possibly due to some undetected cancer. I'm certain it didn't help that, of my two dogs, he was always the one that was high strung, a bundle of nerves, prone to fear and not especially comfortable around strange people. When I got to him, it looked like he hadn't slept in a day or more. For an old dog that slept close to 18 hours a day. Which is to say: he looked terrible...and miserable.

The kennel called me Sunday night, to tell me what was going on. Monday morning I was on a flight out of Bozeman. I was able to get to the hospital shortly after 2pm. He was happy to see me. He couldn't get up (too weak), but his breathing became regular even without the oxygen, and he almost immediately went to sleep, finally relaxed. Finally, somewhat, comforted.

He died at 3pm. The next morning I was down at SeaTac by 7am catching a flight back to Bozeman and the rest of my family. We drove to Missoula, where we held an impromptu wake for him at Big Sky Brewery. I limited myself to a couple pints since I was doing the driving.

I'm not writing all this to eulogize my dog: I'm not going to talk about his life, his foibles, or the things that made him special to my family. I'm writing this because I feel its a story I need to recount in order to move forward and write non-dog-related content on this blog. 

I'm sure it sounds strange to some that I'd spent so much effort or expense on a dog (hey, what are credit cards for?). He was just a dog, after all...not a spouse or child or parent dying in some hospital bed. But he was someone who'd been more a part of my life, and for whom I'd been responsible, for longer than most human beings I know (hell, my oldest child is only ten)...I couldn't just flush away a life over a phone call. I couldn't just let him die in a box, surrounded by strangers.

My uncle (who is eight years older than me) just lost his wife of 25 years last December to cancer. Because of Covid, he wasn't even able to be with her till the very end. He's only just starting to recover from the experience. I think about how many people lost human loved ones over the last 18-19 months, and who were unable to be with their family and friends because of the pandemic, and it just makes The immensity of it. One of my wife's friends in Mexico...younger than myself...died of Covid a few months back, leaving behind a wife and a couple kids. He was unable to see them. That. Sucks.

My dog was...well, just a dog. But we loved him. And he was the lesser of our two beagles. If it had been my older dog who'd been in the hospital, our whole family would have driven back to Seattle to be with her. Buddy always had been the low man on the totem pole.

Anyway. Just needed to get that all off my chest. 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

July 4th

8:41am, Leavenworth, WA.

As usual, I am in a darkened hotel room, the rest of my family sleeping. It has been a long, long road trip…much longer for me than it was supposed to be, as I had to make a plane-assisted detour halfway through. More on that later (when I’m not typing on a phone).

I have a feeling that this year’s holiday celebrations will be somewhat subdued and/or melancholic…at least for me. True: many, many folks are happy and excited about things opening up, about life feeling “more normal.” But as we celebrate the country’s birthday, it’s clear that this has been a rough year for her, and for the things she’s supposed to stand for: truth, justice, and all that jazz.

Since my politics bore the majority of my readers, I’ll leave off talking about them (for now). To be honest, I’m a little bored talking about them myself, and especially bored trying to find new ways to express my contempt and disgust in a way that is “less offensive.” 


All right, time to get my family up. We have a complimentary breakfast to hit before getting back on the road.

Enjoy your Star-Spangled Holiday, my fellow Americans. Try to remember those truths that our founders declared to be “self-evident” on this date, waaay back in 1776. The next time I blog will not be from a cell phone, I promise!