Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fafhrd and Grey Mouser Free Book Contest

In the spirit of the great potlatch give-away of pulp fantasy books at the Huge Ruined Pile forum,  I will be giving away this week four very nice editions of Fritz Leiber's famous Lankhmar series.

All four books are late 70s Ace edition paperbacks featuring my favorite cover artist for those books, Jeff Jones. I will give away each of these free of charge--and postage--to blog readers.

There is a catch though.

As much as I am a fan of free gifts I am also a fan of silly contests--and an even bigger fan of harnessing the collective nutiness of you fine folks to help me co-think.

So here's my little end of the year contest. Help me think of names (bonus points for pithy descriptions) for three places and/or people for my Hill Cantons:
1. A decadent metropolis (even more bonus points if you coin a great moniker for it such as "Lankhmar, City of the Black Toga")

2. A nasty villian-type NPC

3. An ancient object of great importance

Contest Rules:
1. You can answer any or all of the above questions in the comments section. The winner for each category will receive one of the free books (it's possible to win more than one category if you are particularly clever) with the best overall answer receiving a bonus book.

2. Please list in order of preference with your comment your choices from the following four:
  • Swords and Deviltry
  • Swords Against Death
  • Swords in the Mist
  • Swords and Ice Magic
Winners will not only recieve the books, but will receive the dubious honor of getting props when I use them in the Hill Cantons in this coming new year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Solstice Tidings

Sol Invictus, the reigning deity here in the HC, packs it in today for his annual part-time playing hooky from driving his chariot across the dome of the sky.

A few more posts on domain-level and open world play will grace these pages in the next few days, but in honor of said loosening of the work ethic I will be posting on and off again with approaching holiday festivities and travel.

Hope you all survive your various holidays intact and sane. And let's get back to some "serious" gaming in 2011.  

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Taking Domain-Level Play Out to the Edges

Thanks again, dear readers, for thought-provoking comments on yesterday's post on domain-level play.

In particular, I was inspired by Rob Kuntz's comment:
“It's just open-ended play. That portion which extends on and on, and those specifics (like maybe ruling a planet and then fighting other planets, perhaps?) are not covered in the rules, though others may construct these as we did. The greatest aspect of our game in this OE (Open-ended) clime is that someone WILL do just that, some time, some where, and may even write about it for others to do.”
Why wait for Mr. Perfect Rule Set? Like Godot, he ain't coming. But in the here and now we can make our own custom dream projects by pushing ourselves and our imaginations.

In general, I like the idea of more products being geared as starting point components to open-ended play. Less supposedly-complete packages and more the kinds of things that can help launch new areas for GMs and players to shape into their campaigns.

In that spirit, here is my own dream supplement, semi-jokingly styled Secret Project X, that would custom blend “build-your-own” components for domain-level play. It's a thought experiment in progress--bordering on some experimental play and a write-up.

Providing Lower-Level Entry Points. Jeff Rients mentioned in the comments that the domain game can start much earlier in a campaign and didn't have to be limited to players as rulers. Looking back at the lower-level entry points of Empire of the Petal Throne, I am intrigued by this idea.

Ideas abound in another point of inspiration, the obscure En Garde-like roleplaying game Heroes (incidentally written by Dave Millward, a player in Bath's Hyboria). In that game, players with the right bribes and political manuvering were allowed to pick from long lists of low and middle-level positions in the court, city government, clergy, guilds, etc. One could, for instance, connive your way into being the Duke's falconer and work up to being the Master of Horse.

Instead of a locked-in system with all the worked out—and thus likely tedious and imagination-limiting—detail, I'd prefer lists and descriptions of historical and fantasy examples of such positions and how can they played out in a fantasy adventure game. (I like to flesh out this approach with other relevant pieces: types of governments, secret societies, religions, strange fantasy political/cultural formations, etc.)

Suggestions and Examples of Experiments with Multi-Level Domain Play. Besides not limiting this kind of play to name level we don't have to limit it to the standard somewhat-linear play of having one persistent group of player characters in a campaign as the only player actors.

In my conversations with Jeff Berry I thought Barker's original campaign had an interesting multi-level dynamic. On one side you had the Monday Night group, the more-aggressive power gamers who quickly got involved in domain-level play. On the other you had the Thursday Night group (Jeff's) who were more of your standard footless explorers. The actions of each group informed and shaped the shared campaign world, an interesting dynamic I'd like to see explored.

What about similar experiments, such as a player group that alternates between playing high-rolling PCs one session and low-level schlubs the next. Why not experiment integrating this level with the open world play we were talking about earlier this week?

Basic/Advanced Domain Management Rule Suggestions. Simply put I'd love to see a supplement provide ideas for building both simple abstract resource-point sets and the granular hex-based ones. Let people pick where they want to start with and add (or subtract) from there.

Mass NPC Generation System. Easy-to-use rules, modeled on Tony Bath's playing card driven system, to build out huge casts of NPCs complete with quirks. One thing I took away from Hyboria is how vitally important it is to build a world of characters that create their own living dynamic. More custom tools here are needed.

A Range of Ways to Simulate War. Tweakable rules for miniatures, cardboard games, mass combat rules, card games, Engle Matrix games—why not have suggestions for them all. More wide-ranging optional rules for campaign logistics, mobilization, movement, weather, fantastic events, etc. would also be nice.

Honestly with the wish list for this I could go on and on. But I guess that's the point with the endless possibility of open-ended play.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Second is Just First Place Loser

I was a little surprised, nay shocked, to learn that the Hill Cantons had come in second in Cyclopeatron's Hottest Blogs ranking. I mean how did our standards as a community fall so low?

How Can We Build a Better Domain-Level Game?

A number of interesting comments from you fine folks on the Birthright and Hyboria posts got me thinking about this old head-scratcher of mine: how can you extend domain-level play in classic D&D such a way to meet the promise of a satisfying “endgame”? 

Or rather how can we not make it an endgame; not a dullish semi-retirement wind-down but a more vibrant game play area that can draw players in much earlier in the campaign arc—and lock in their interest at the higher levels.

For sure, discussions about enhancing domain-level play have seemed awfully a lot like that old jokey cliché about the weather: we all talk about it, but nobody does anything to change it.

Well Ok, that's not totally true, a few retro-clones have done some nice work streamlining mass combat and stronghold construction rules. But I've yet to see an effort that goes beyond the high water marks of attempts to this in D&D: Birthright and Mentzer's Companion set.

In ruling domains we've seen everything from very abstract domain management (Birthright) with it's somewhat rigid computer game-like domain turn actions to the highly granular world of Tony Bath's Hyboria where the resources of a hex are spelled out in exacting detail (and play paradoxically more free-wheeling).

War has gotten a gamut of campaign treatment: miniature rules, abstract mass combat rules, cardboard wargames, even card games.

Are we doomed to just re-hash these efforts? What features would you like to see that you haven't seen before—or haven't seen implemented in a way that is both workable and fun in your campaign world? How can we make it work better with the standard game play of older editions of D&D?

Is it even possible to out-flank the computer-strategy games that seem to have a lock on this kind of play? What could a table-top game do that these games can't?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Another Free Holiday Gift: Medieval Miniature Battle Rules

Yesterday I released a free download version of my revised D&D/LL rules variants, today in honor of Festivus I'm putting up the second edition of my set of medieval mini rules, Swords & Shields (formerly the Dogs of War), as a free download here.

S&S should accommodate skirmishes or small-scale mass battles up to 100 figures and is intended to provide a quick, simple, and bloody tabletop game. For those familiar with historical medieval mini rules you are getting a rules set where, like, D&D's mom Chainmail got it on with Ral Partha's Rules According to Ral and had a doltish love child. Hey, you get what you pay for.

Currently, I'm also working on an old school D&D-friendly fantasy supplement that adopts and blends some more crazy love-beast influences from David Sutherland's Legions of the Petal Throne  and my old favorite Heritage rules set, Knights and Magick.

The complete, revised rules will be packaged with my quixotic domain-level rules supplement, Secret Project X. Shhh...

If you ever do find yourself letting the blood of little lead men flow with these rules kick me some feedback. Always appreciated.  

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hill Cantons Compendium of Classic D&D/LL Rules Variants

I finally finished this morning the latest, supposedly-greatest compilation of half-baked house rules and variant systems that I've been tinkering with in our current Labyrinth Lord campaign over the last year or so. (Pictured above, courtesy of the public domain, is the cover illustration from the late, great Russian folk artist Ivan Bilibin). 

Things revised or added in this version (beyond copy edits and minor mechanical adjustments):
  1. The revised Mountebank class.
  2. The revised Lankhmarian White Wizard class.
  3. A new appendix that includes the full version of my alternative character generation system including a new variant ability generator and a revised random starting equipment list .
If you are looking for 28 pages worth of tinkering madness you can download the PDF here

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Getting Your Open World Green Card

In a step forward to help making classic shared-world tabletop play a reality again (if on a single campaign stage), Michael Curtis posted a list of "immigration policies"  for those visiting his Kinan-M’Nath campaign. His guidelines seem really rock solid on handling drop-in players, so I will be likely adopting the same or similar for my own open table campaign.

In related news, I will be putting my own money where my mouth is for opening up my own campaign world this coming Sunday. Two players from a Seattle-area old school group in D&D (my old friend Redbeard and his special lady friend) and possibly a third new player from parts closer will be dropping into the Hill Cantons for some rough and tumble dungeoneering.

So here's to the experiment. Who knows, maybe a loose national network of old school D&D campaigns with open world play is somewhere around the corner...

A Caveat on Shared Fantasy

On Sunday I recommended that readers check out Gary Alan Fine's Shared Fantasy. Yesterday I got some of the backstory on how the book came into being from the ever-helpful Jeff Berry, an OG player in M.A.R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne campaign and an active participant in the gaming scene of the Twin Cities at that time.

What he said gave me great pause as Fine's methods sound from his description like possible breaches of ethics (or at the least professional discourtesies ) of the kind that really chap me: namely burning your confidential sources and quoting people in either deliberate or negligent ways that may have not been accurate. It's a shame really since the second edition of the book contains some very perceptive and interesting observations about the hobby of the time.

Taking all these things into consideration, I would recommend that people read the book keeping Jeff's following remarks in mind. (Perhaps checking it out at the library or buying it second-hand will reduce the karmic weight of it haha.)

Here's Jeff's version of the backstory:
“Gary [Fine] got involved with Phil [Barker] through the then-active group of gamers that met Friday nights at the Fifth Precinct station of the Minneapolis Police Department. Several of Phil's original gamers (Craig Smith and Gary Rudolph, as I recall) were gaming there, and Gary was invited out to Phil's through them.
Gary's participation in Phil's Tekumel campaign came just as the original group split into two. This was shortly after I started gaming at Phil's.
Gary specifically excluded our original Thursday Night Group from his study, because we didn't fit the profile he'd established...I had the chance to read his original manuscript, and being at that time working on my sociology minor, I thought that there may be some issues with the methodology being used. Gary also specifically excluded Deborah Naffziger (Lady Anka'a hi Qoyelmu, and one of Phil's 'founding players' in 1974) as she also didn't fit the profile, being a woman.
Phil was extremely upset by Gary's use of himself and the Tekumel campaign in the book. Phil had been quite candid with Gary as a matter of professorial courtesy, but didn't realize that Gary was intending to publish the material. Phil did not want the powers-that-be at the university to think he hung out with a bunch of 'social deviants', as he could very well have lost his job. Gary was effectively 'thrown out' at Phil's, and at the Fifth Precinct.”
Outside of Barker's campaign, Jeff had a few further things to say about Fine's passages covering play in D&D and Chivalry & Sorcery sessions:
“I've talked to most of the people he quoted, and a lot of the dialog was taken out of both the real-world and gaming context. The custom at that time was usually that what was said in the game by an in- game in-character player stayed in the game, and wasn't considered 'fit for publication'. Gary tended to use the worst of the incidents as quotations, and people got very upset by that. He hadn't told anyone that he was recording things for publication, and many of the people quoted felt that a trust or right to privacy had been abused.”
So there you go. Buyer beware.  

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Open World Play and Shared Fantasy

Just started re-reading this morning Gary Fine's Shared Fantasy and one chapter in I have already found three different but related examples of the open world play I posted about yesterday.

(I recommend picking this book up too if you are looking for a serious sociological study of role-playing games at their high water mark circa 1980. Especially interesting is his chapter long description of Empire of the Petal Throne sessions with M.A.R. Barker, then his colleague at the University of Minnesota.)

Fine's first example is in a section describing the Golden Brigade gaming club in the Twin Cities that jives with yesterday's recollections (and the observations of several of you in comments about how common “non-persistent” worlds were back then). Check out his description of what the weekly sessions played in the community room of a local police station where like back then:
“On a typical Friday evening fifteen to forty gamers participated in one to five games. At approximately 7:00 P.M. they begin to arrive, and shortly after several individuals announce (or are pressured into announcing) that they will referee that evening...Once an individual announces that he will referee a particular game, a group players joins him at one of the tables set up in the community room...Players then roll up their character (or use ones created in previous weeks), the referee explains the scenario he has constructed for the evening, and the players organize their characters into a party and begin adventuring. Frequently these games last until 2:00 A.M. Saturday morning. On occasion games last until dawn and are ended by breakfast...If a game is dull, or if other characters are central focus of the adventure, players may temporarily abandon their group and wander around to see how other games progressing.”
As Netherwerks commented yesterday, there must be something in the water up there in Minneapolis indeed!

Several pages later Fine looks at cross-over play between persistent campaign worlds—or at least persistent mega-dungeons--in different real world cities with an apparent re-telling of an attempt by Black Lotus Society players in David Hargrave's campaign to knock over an L.A. campaign dungeon (the anecdote that Fight On! recounted):
“Information about the major dungeons is now sufficiently diffused that players in one dungeon campaign may adventure in another. For example, gamers in San Francisco whose characters belong to an evil society planned to attack and take control of a dungeon in Los Angeles. These plans were thwarted by Bay Area gamers who had played in the L.A. dungeon at a convention.”
I am again amazed about how cool of an idea this is, almost enough that the pragmatic GM in my head will ignore the obvious question of how the hell would you make that work at the table. “Deanna, just calling you up to let you know that my players now control your dungeon. Can you send over all your maps before our next session this Sunday? Thanks, you're a doll.”

The last example is taken from Fine's interview notes with Barker about his facilitating role in the network of EPT campaigns:
“I'm sort of the center of the network and everybody comes to me ... I get lengthy reports from players in other campaigns who will say "I did this and I did that and I have now become Lord Such and Such, is this OK?" ...Usually if it's possible, I'll say "OK, that's fine with me...I'll work you into my campaign in that capacity." Somebody says "OK, I have become high priest of Thumis [Lord of Wisdom] in Paya Gupa [a border city in western Tsolyanu]" or something, and I say "all right." And when my players go to Paya Gupa they meet him.”
In other words there was even space in the supposedly closed-off, top-down environs of Tekumel for co-creation in a shared world. 

How cool is that?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Reviving Open World Play

Michael Curtis of Stonehell and Dungeon Alphabet fame had an interesting post the other day  about how back in the day there was a lot of flow between campaign worlds and gaming groups—and how we should re-experiment with this kind of open world play. (I know, I ranted against secondary commentary less than half a week ago, but all things in moderation blah blah.)

Let's go for it.

That kind of open play certainly jives with some of my better—as opposed to nostalgic--memories of D&D play as a kiddo. I emphasize “not” nostalgic; those sweet, cloying memories are reserved for the chummy living-room games with my brother and friends. The better ones--as in more interesting to the adult of today--were of a more challenging playing experience down at the local D&D club.

The year would be 1981, the place a dingy rec room in an Arlington,TX community center. Once a week in the evening anywhere from 6-10 tables would be set up and at each one of them would be a different DM running...well the one and only acceptable game of that time...AD&D. About 25-40 players would should up. And what a motley crew it was. Long-haired metal kids from high school rubbing shoulders with old wargamers and college students. Kids like us made up a small, but quickly growing minority as the year progressed.

Some of the games were closed, long-standing ones with a stable crew of players, but most were open to drop-in players. If you didn't play in one of the standing campaigns, you'd circle around the tables, mustard-yellow character sheet in hand and the DMs would tell you what levels, characters, alignments, magic items, etc. were appropriate for the adventure they were running. If you had a character with those specs you were in for the night. Sometimes you'd stick with that game or turn around the next week and repeat the process all over again.

Again the club play wasn't all fuzzy nostalgia. I remember vividly being invited into the game of a high-school aged DM. She not only killed my character in our first session by making me roll to see if I drank a flask of oil rather than that healing potion in my backpack (I did and died on the poison saving throw), she proceeded to kill each and every character I rolled up that night—and every night I sat down at that table until I took the hint. Other DMs were challenging for other reasons and the overall group dynamics were never as cozy as our living room group.

But damn it, if I didn't learn a hell of a lot about the game from that club. I had to stretch myself as a player, but best of all I got to see glimpses of all kinds of vistas of play our little group had never experienced. “Wow this guy's campaign world is alive in detail” or “wow she really knows how to narrate combat so it seems alive.” "Whoa those house rules are crazy wonderful." 

Obviously the tabletop rpg game is not at the same mass fad height it was back then--and likely will never be again. Those interested in classic play or old school or whatever you want to call it run in even smaller circles.

So what is to be done?

Opening our own campaign tables sure. Dropping in on other open tables when travel sure too. But what about putting more effort into the community building part of our hobby? Building more North Texas RPG cons, or more realistically mini-cons and game-days like the ones we put on in Austin. Playing in Skype or chat games with folks around the globe. Stretching as a GM or player and getting out of the creative box of your own campaign in general.

If you ever find yourself in San Antonio, look us up. We'll keep your seat warm.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Why did Birthright Fail?

Birthright could have been a contender.

By many measures, the ambitious second edition AD&D setting, should have been.

It was a technically well-done product line for sure. The interior art was tasteful and evocative. The maps were attractively drawn and plentiful. The game accessories such as army cards and battle maps were nicely done. (Well ok, the cover art was horrible and cheesy.)

It didn't lack for product support either. Well-executed supplements detailed nearly every culture on the continent from the bog-standard Anuireans to the lizard-riding dastardly Vos (Russians). They also added new rules, accessory toys, and mini-games like naval combat and trading. It had it's own computer strategy game and six novels as tie-ins.

And most importantly it expanded D&D tabletop gameplay in ways that DMs and players had lusted about since the 1970s. Domain management was not shifted off to a hazy semi-retirement “end game”, it became the central assumed arena of play. Players started not as the rootless and down-on-the-heels schlubs we all know and love, but the genetically-endowed rulers of realms--or the heads of temples or guilds. Whole new rules subsystems were worked out for running your realm and fighting wars (complete with a simple and easy, card-driven wargame.)

Looking back, Birthright had the potential of taking off from where the less-known worldgames of Hyboria, Midgard, and Magira ended. So again what went wrong? Why didn't this game go onwards and upwards? And did anybody really play this for long?

Was it TSR's setting bloat of that period? Was it that the game play was too different from the experience of the standard party-based campaign of that time? Too abstract in its domain management rules? The creepy eugenics-sounding bloodlines business? The evil empire corporate machinations of WOTC? Or what?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tony Bath's Hyboria Part IV: World-Building

We are back finally to the battle-strewn reaches of Hyboria today. I sure love the smell of Greek Fire in the morning.

I mentioned several times in the previous posts about how large-scale and immersive--I ran out of adjectives--Tony Bath's approach to world-building was (btw the map above is one of his actual, draft maps courtesy of Rudi Geudens' treasure trove of images on the subject). A closer look at the methods the Tin God developed back there in the 60s to breathe life into his world is worthwhile--especially if you are hankering for some top-down world design of your own.

World-building for Bath, like the advice of countless other rpg manuals, begins with a map. He argues strenuously to the presumably fantasy-skeptical wargamer reader for adopting a mythical continent.

He then sets out two starting points for your mythic continent: 1. blowing up a map from a fantasy novel (this is where that previous list of pulp fantasy authors I quoted came in) or 2. his friend (and later Hyborian Co-Controller) Neville Dickinson's method of taking tourist brochures of various islands and small countries cutting them up and pasting them back together to make new continents with realistic-seeming coastlines.

Taking note that most fantasy novel maps are pretty sketchy in geographic detail, he counsels using two pillars of old school terrain generation: overlaying a hex grid and random generation. Neither are terribly remarkable other than the simple, nifty way he gives for making “extreme” hexes of various terrain types (forest become thick forest tangles and such not when doubles are rolled).

Dice are thrown again for human habitation and roads or placed at the usual range of logical sites (rivers, strategic points, etc.). Again nothing earth-shattering though I was struck both by how similar his sub-systems are to the ones in rpg successors--parallel evolution is a hell of a thing—and how much more better-designed useful I thought than to be those of others. Did I mention in the last five minutes that you should buy this book?

More interesting world-building suggestions re-appear later in the book in the chapters on logistics. I will quote the following at length to get you a sense of how granular and thorough of an approach Bath took with creating Hyboria (also note again the implications for rpg gameplay and possible use for domain management rules):
“ have created your own continent, world or what have you, you are faced with also creating its supply resources. This was my problem in Hyboria. However, I had of course marked in a great deal of the physical features of the countryside for the purposes of map movement etc; and I now added to this by giving the map basic color codes for plains, steppes, woods (as opposed to forests) and cultivated ground. I then set up a basic system of seven area types, with certain resources for each. These were:
  1. Cultivated Ground. Produces crops of various kinds, mainly basics for food and clothing.
  2. River Banks. Good water supply, so produces crops; also would have resources in fishing and hunting.
  1. Coast Lines. Main resource would be fishing.
  2. Plains. Could produce rich resources in wheat, cattle and horses.
  3. Forests and Woods. According to thickness of trees (i.e. woods or forests) would have resources in hunting, small animals in the forest but larger game such as deer, boar etc. in the more open woods.
  4. Hill Country. Some hunting. Often good sheep country. Poor crops.
  5. Mountains. Some hunting; generally low on food resources. Possible mineral sources.
Having done this, I then set about calculating resources on the level of the smallest territorial units--counties, khanates, etc. I counted up the spaces of each type of country within the boundaries of the area, and, on the basis of this and an arbitrary decision as to soil conditions plus other factors such as population, I worked out the annual resources of each area in crops, animals, general food production, manufacturing potentialities etc. My next step was to consider mineral resources: after all, weapon and armor production had to be considered, also timber for boats, carts, bridges and many other items. I already had the figures for woods and forests, so it was fairly simple to lay down resources of timber; for the minerals I had to do some sort of test in likely areas.
Not being an expert on geology etc. I had to work by some arbitrary method; undoubtedly better and more realistic methods- could be used if one wishes to go deeper into the subject. For my purposes I ignored the possibility of mineral deposits in low-lying areas, and concentrated on the hills, and mountains. For each space which contained any hills or mountains, a dice was thrown...This of course could be varied according to the prevalence of hills and mountains on your map; I had a lot and I didn't want to be swamped with mines. Moreover, this was only to establish known deposits; later I allowed players to fit out special expeditions to try and discover fresh lodes to supplement their resources.
Having discovered a source area, two things had now to be established: the type of ore, and the richness of the lode. I decided on nine types of mine: silver, gold, copper, lead, tin, iron, emerald, diamond and ruby. Obviously others could have been added, but these were enough for my purpose: which was not only to set up resources for weapon production etc. but also a basis for local taxation--hence the precious metals and jewels...
I had thus established a basic idea of the resources of the whole country. This of course could be varied by weather conditions: drought at the wrong time could greatly reduce food production, kindly weather bring bumper crops, floods and other natural disasters could be ruinous...At all events, a player knows the basic resources of his own country; he may know something of those near his borders, either from experience, or traders, or spies, and can thereby plan his operations. knowing that here he can collect supplies, but there he must bring them in from outside.”
The next page goes on to expand any number of head-spinning suggestions for providing a real economic underpinning:
"The other items to be reckoned with from the supply point of view are of course men and money. Men are needed to fill the ranks of your army and replace casualties; money is needed to supply them with arms, equipment and food. We have discussed earlier the question of assessing the population of your country; of this population it is possible that some 20% are of military age...
We now turn to the question of money...I decided that in Hyboria everyone used a single monetary system based on the crown...The system therefore has the gold crown, made up of one hundred silver crowns, which is in turn made up of one hundred bronze crowns.
Having established a money system, it is then of course necessary to... institute a tax system...You first of all put a monetary value on the resources you have allocated to your types of ground, thus: 
Cultivated Ground 1000 gold crowns per annum 
River Banks 1200 gold crowns per annum 
Coast Lines 600 gold crowns per annum 
Plain 800 gold crowns per annum 
Forest 500 gold crowns per annum
Hills 600 gold crowns per annum 
Mountains 400 gold crowns per annum
These are the total resources of the hexagons: you add up your various hexagons and their resources to reach the total annual resources in money of the County, Khanate etc. Of this amount I then levy one quarter in taxes; but not all of this goes to the State Treasury, because this would not allow for the local nobility, who must have their share. What I have done is to, in effect, set up a feudal system or tier system. The peasantry and petty lord-lings are the lowest tier, and they pay over a quarter of their income to the Count or Khan or whatever his title is who occupies the next tier. Above the Count is probably a Duke who controls several Counties, and above him is the King who controls several Duchies. In some states there may be more or less tiers...This has several advantages, in that if a revolution or a civil war breaks out it is easy to assess the monetary resources of all parties.
But the system does not stop here. So far we have dealt with only the direct resources of the land; taxes can also be levied on other items. There are the various mines: these are all the property of the State, not of the noble whose land they are on. The annual income of these therefore goes direct to the State Treasury--or alternatively the State might prefer to lease the mine to a noble or a contractor for an annual fee. By the original dice throw which decided on the productiveness of the mine you can assess its monetary value, based on the comparative worth of diamonds, gold, iron etc. Then we have the various cities and towns in the country; these must also pay taxes, based usually on population, and this tax also goes direct to the State.
Finally we have customs dues, which are levied on all trade routes and entry and exit points such as seaports.”

What's more Bath goes on to provide other subsystems or Hyborian-inspired suggestions for weather, random campaign events, espionage networks, religion, trade routes, infrastructure construction, and the range of campaign costs familiar to D&Ders (on down to an individual soldier equipment list). The real meat of this giant worldgame was putting all this together with his other collection of systems to generate casts of thousands of NPCs at many levels of each state. Take that Oxford dons!

The NPC generation systems are something I can continue to explore later if readers aren't sick to death of hearing about the glory days of British wargaming in the 1960s.  

At the urging of Scott from Huge Ruined Pile and a few other wannabe warmongers I will be taking a look wargaming and it's relationship to role-playing on and off again this next month. The next series will provide some analysis on the various ways rpgs have tried to work military action into campaign play. First stop on that train will be a look at the military campaign mini-games in En Garde, Mark Pettigrew's Empire of the Petal Throne sub-system, and Heroes.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Warning: Rant in Progress

Sadly, this last post on Hyboria will have to be postponed as I am off to the memorial service for a compadre, Carlos Guerra, one of San Antonio's most uppity of citizens.

Guerra was an “old school” advocacy journalist. Before being edged into an early retirement, he wrote the only column that made our local daily worth picking up. Tough and edgy he often spoke truth to power.

But for all that troublemaking, he was also always a rigorous and ethical journalist. He checked and rechecked facts, quotes, and names before filing. If he skewered the corrupt dealing of city politicos with a local hotel chain he had done his homework eleven times over—and he sought out, considered, and printed the views of those he took to task. He took this approach forward with him into his recent alternative media site, NewsTaco.

Tooling around the small niche of the blogosphere dedicated to older edition D&D and other rpgs today I kept thinking there is a lot here in common with what some call the citizen media, grassroots media outlets mostly run by amateurs (gifted or not). It explodes at times with creativity and I truly dig many an informal conversation.

But frankly there is also a lot of crap too: speculation trumping actual research; bandwagon mentality over measured reviews with rigorous standards; secondary commentary over firsthand reporting or interviewing; anonymous “satirical” sniping over actual debate; inflated ego posturing over creative inventing (or even re-inventing); etc.

Truly tiresome dreck for a space in our lives dedicated to the sweet joy of fantasy gaming escape, no?

Frankly, we need a lot more Guerra cowbell over here in the outer reaches. I'm not a Pollyanna. I know “we can't just all get along.” There is a place for passionate disagreement and boundless exploration, but hell let's step up our game as media providers (albeit small and niche ones).

Apologies in advance for the editorializing. I will step off the soapbox and promise to go back tomorrow when the black cloud passes to the more fun work of playing around with all the whirly bits of our hobby. In fact, I look forward to some sweet, sword-swingin' (virtual of course) escape tonight at our Skype game.  Let's get some game on. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Session Reports: Are They Worth a Hoot?

I am of mixed opinions when it comes to session reports of tabletop gameplay. Some accounts—like much other bad gaming fiction—make me shift uncomfortably in my chair or have an instant eye-glazing effect. But session reports by others totally grab me and make for some of my favorite lazy-day gaming reading.

Why this is so I can't rightly put a finger on. Actual game play, in theory, should be the basis of all our navel-gazing on what makes our hobby tick, so why does so much of our reportage on it come up so painfully short? 

My question to you the unwashed masses is: do you read and/or enjoy session reports? If not, why not? If so, what kinds of specific reports to you enjoy? Do you like reports that read more like short stories or ones that break down the so-called “fourth wall” and touch on social interactions, the art of GMing, the success or failures of rules mechanics, etc? A mix of those two? Or some other beast completely?

Inquiring minds want to know.

(For those nudging me behind the scenes, our series finale for Tony Bath's Hyboria is being duly finished today. Look for it tomorrow my ever-so patient brethren.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

You Know You Are Reading too Much M.A.R. Barker When...

...walking through your closest local park (this would be Hemisfair Park in San Antonio) and everything suddenly reminds you of Tekumel. Is that smell of musty cinnamon coming from the convention center? see earth-shattering synchronicity in finding out that one of the blogs you admire published this very day a year ago snippets of one the documents you'd most like to see, the pre-TSR Empire of the Petal Throne rules, make it to print.

Maybe my next read after Lords of Tsamra shouldn't be The Book of Ebon Bindings after all?

Tony Bath's Hyboria, Part III: Conan and Emergent Story

A small detour before diving back into Bath's world-building.

I was reminded by HC player Mack aka Desert Scribe that Phil Barker, the author of Hordes of Things and countless iterations of WRG and Dbxx (not to be confused with my other favorite Phil Barker of Tekumel fame), was also a player in Hyboria—a veritable “Dream Team” of old guard wargamers. Barker mentions in HoTT that the greatest of the Hyborian "cardboard characters", Conan himself, played a recurring role in the game. It's an easy fact to omit as Bath fails to mention this completely in the original campaign book!

But fortunately he does make mention of it in a series of dispatches to Battle For Wargamers magazine in the late 1970s (these may be included in the Hyborian Legends in the new omnibus, but I'm still waiting not-so patiently for the new edition to arrive in my mailbox). Here's a choice section from the early days of the campaign when it was still a two-side affair:
“...Don Featherstone and I launched into the first real Hyborian map campaign. I had begun populating my countries with a few characters taken from Howard's stories, beginning of course with his hero, Conan, the Cimmerian barbarian who had become King of Aquilonia. For this campaign I decided that Conan had formed a coalition of the Western kingdoms with a view to conquering and civilizing the dangerous areas on their northern borders his own old homeland of Cimmeria. I, of course, took the part of Conan (for years I never allowed anyone else to do so) while Don had Cimmeria.”
Compare that to this next section about Conan taken from later in the campaign. What I think is especially interesting is how rich “the story line” has become—and just like the best of D&D campaigns not as a pre-written GM-exercise fixated on acting out Bath's or Howard's plotlines but as a story emerging from the rich experience of game play itself:
“The [combined Vanaheim, Asgard and Cimmeria] Empire's borders were naturally strong, and were now strengthened by a program of fort building to command vital passes through the mountains. Since a lasting peace with Namedides the Fox of Hyperborea seemed unlikely, the Emperor sought to secure his Southern border by a defensive-offensive alliance with King Conan of Aquilonia. This alliance also was bolstered by a political marriage.
Conan's position was already very strong, the more so as he sought no new foreign conquests and was interested only in giving just but firm government to the lands under his control. The biggest problem was that portion of Nemedia held by Aquilonia, and here the King made every effort at conciliation, recognizing a Nemedian noble, Riach Glyndwyr, as its Duke, and giving him virtually independent control of the country, Aquilonian troops being withdrawn.With his northern border secure, he could turn his attention elsewhere, and his first step was a political coup--the marriage of his son and heir Ban Cruach to Queen Taramis of Khauran, thus extending his influence well to the south of his old enemies, Namedides and his ally Valbroso of Corinthia, and establishing a common frontier with Vendhva, of whose alliance he was assured by his close friendship (some said more than friendship!) with the Devi Yasmina. Less certain of the future of Shem, he re-insured by effecting certain other political marriages with both the ruling family and that of Thoth-Mekri, who was second in power only to the Emperor."
As Hyboria became a more robust multi-player affair, Conan would become something of an NPC wild card as Mack mentions. Before each campaign year, Bath would roll to see which side the ever-mercurial Cimmerian would join.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tony Bath's Hyboria, Part II

Today I will be looking at the details of game play in Tony Bath's Hyboria—and how that game by the end of its run walked like a rpg duck, quacked like a rpg duck, and was...well I leave the word-choice game up to you fine readers. (Check out this interesting parallel thread on DF if you want the backstory.)

In most miniature wargames from the hoary, old days of Kriegspiel and Little Wars to today players play a collective side. The player is most often not just the general or hero but the controller of the actions of all or most of the actions of all the figures or forces represented. Discounting morale rules, special events, or team play more often than not he is the omniscient controller of vast array of little metal or plastic surrogates. This often hold trues even for most skirmish games on a man-to-man scale.

Though Hyboria was in many ways a traditional wargames campaign played through the large-scale clashes of armies and political/economic management, it evolved into a radically innovative a game-play scale familiar to most rpg players today.

For sure, it all started fairly conventionally side vs. side basis, albeit with a creative twist:
“...with Neville Dickinson, I devised a new scheme for Hyboria in which we ran the continent together, worked out events and movement on a joint basis and, when a battle was imminent, tossed up to see which side we espoused. Thus I might command a Vendhyan army in one battle, only to the find the next that I was leading Hyrkanians against my former command.”
As the campaign took on new players—and Bath became more and more immersed in the dynamic of ever-granular world-building—the sea change began in game play:
“I later expanded [the previous system] into my present system, under which I asked various other wargamers to take on the parts of various rulers of Hyboria and to make all the decisions and movements, while I as Controller, Umpire, or Tin God ran the whole affair; made the necessary movements on the master map, fought the battles, etc. Each campaign week every player is provided with a situation report giving him all the information to which he is entitled; he then issues his instructions, based on this information, and I put them into practice.”
In other words the players weren't the controllers of their side, but were shrunk down to the role of a player character complete with all the limitations of only knowing as much as the ref thinks you might know. And the ref now goes from being an arbiter between sides to being the master game master empowered with running all the world's mechanics—and interpreting how the players' actions have an impact on it. 

Sound familiar?

With this shift in role, the players (many who were other titans of British wargaming at the time such as Donald Featherstone and Charles Grant) played the game in the increasingly more devious “out of the box” ways that D&D veterans do:
“ running a campaign you have to learn to be as unbiased as possible, and to find methods of solving tricky problems, of setting up scales by which to decide just how successful a certain move by a player will be. An example of this is a situation that cropped up quite a while ago in Hyboria, my own mythical continent. Control of the Sea of Vilayet is vital to the interests of Hyrkania, which naturally maintains a large navy; they heard that Turan, on the other side of the sea, was building warships in the port of Agrapur. Hyrkania and Turan were at peace, so Hyrkania could make no overt move, but Charles Grant, the ruler of Hyrkania, gave orders for some old merchant ships to be scuttled in the harbour mouth to effectually block in the Turanian ships. He was of course prepared to deny having any hand in this fortuitous accident! I then had to sum up the chances of success of such an operation, considering the possibilities of challenge by the harbour defences, the accuracy of the scu ttlings, etc. On this basis I set up a dice scale of from 2 to 12, 2 being complete failure and 12 being complete success, and rolled two dice. The result gave Charles a nearly complete success which prevented the larger Turanian ships getting out of port for many months, and the whole thing was an enjoyable little exercise for me.”
This change in game play to out and out first-person role playing was accentuated by Bath's creation of a vast supporting cast of non-player characters, who he called “cardboard characters”. Further he provided elaborate sub-systems for character generation for all the lineages, personalities, expertise, etc. of this cast. Chapter 6: Characterization of the campaign book is a walk through these great systems (many frankly are crying out to be adapted by “modern” rpg gamemasters wanting to play large-scale “end game”).

Breathing life into these characters created a way to give the game roleplaying motivations that helped sustain the overall illusion of a real world with a dynamic of its own. An observation Bath makes explicitly throughout the book. He quotes the following colorful story as an example:
“The situation had arisen in Hyperborea that a certain noble, Lodivarman by name, had raised a revolt with the aid of a large force of mercenary soldiers left unemployed at the close of a campaign... when Lodivarman's money ran out, [the mercenaries] began to loot and ravage the countryside. Lodivarman therefore attempted to disband them.
We—the Controllers, that is—assumed that the leaders of the mercenaries would not be too keen on this and would hold a council to decide what to do. There were eight of these leaders; and since I had gone to the length of setting up characters for everyone down to regimental commanders, it was perfectly easy to look up each leader's character and see what his feelings would be...As it happened two, being cruel, greedy types voted simply to cut Lodivarman's throat; three others, being just as greedy but with considerable cunning, voted to imprison him but to keep him as a figurehead to take the blame for their crimes; the other three were undecided...As a result the vote went 5-3 in favor of Lodivarman's imprisonment, so this is what happened.”
In the next installment in the series I will go back in and peer under the hood at some of Bath's mechanics on character generation, world building, domain management, and other goodies. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tony Bath's Hyboria, Part I

Today we return to exploring the work of Tony Bath in his ground-breaking Hyborian campaign. As I noted before Bath's book, Setting Up A Wargames Campaign, is a fascinating glimpse into an era where innovative miniature wargamers' campaign play was growing into elaborate, sophisticated affairs—with strikingly deep explorations of some of the robust roleplaying elements we've come to think of as unique to D&D and its successors.

(Which, of course, is not to deny or belittle the uniqueness of what Gygax, Arneson, Kuntz and the other original D&D pioneers created—that powerful witches brew of elements rightfully grabbed hold of the imagination of millions of players in a way that miniature wargames even at their height never did on their own.)

Bath's Hyboria was never a fantasy role-playing game full stop. His Hyboria had no overt magic. There were no dwarves, elves, dragons, and all the rest. The nation's of Hyboria were stand-ins for real world equivalent armies of Celts, Romans,Medieval Europeans, Indians, Numidians, Aztecs, etc.

For all that, it's also hard not to notice that Bath was as into pulp fantasy as some of the D&D founders were. Sprague de Camp's Tritonian Ring and Krishna books; Edgar R. Burroughs Barsoom; Fritz Leiber's Newhon and Andre Norton's Witch World all get tips of the hats as possible locales for people to base their campaigns in the very first chapter. Telling little details pop in the book such as Vance's Dying Earth characters sneaking in the middle of a chart laying out all the many nobles of Hyrkania (Kandive the Golden) or in the section on why you should have nicknames for characters (Liane the Wayfarer and Kandive again).

Perhaps more importantly he brought to his campaign such an immersive fictionalized world-building style that it's hard to deny that his Hyboria had the living, breathing feel of the deeply-imagined fantasy world—and a player-character game-play style that would foster out-of-the-box roleplaying as a central feature. Passages throughout his book read less like the usual straight-laced, geared-down prose of most wargamer advice and more like the kind of breathless, no-holds-to-your imagination words of an excited fantasy gamemaster to another:
“Another advantage of this mythical continent is that, if your original creation was properly done, it will last you for not just one campaign but for as many as you like, and in the course of these the continent will develop a life of its own. Precedents will be created for future actions, traditions of both friendship and enmity arise, and all these will help you later in running the continent. Finally you will probably reach the stage when you wonder just how much control you have or whether you have created a Frankenstein's monster!”
Similarly other accounts by him (this from White Dwarf #4) run over with that flush of fantasy world-building excitement likely familiar to many readers:
“As it happens, I enjoy organizing working out systems of military service, taxation, family lineage and such items came easily to me and in fact gave me many hours of enjoyment. I had the advantage to start with that Howard...had worked into his stories far more background detail than exists in the normal fantasy. He had provided an outline map, superimposed on one of the present day world--for Hyboria is not a different world but a theoretical age of our own world, thousands of years in the past--and while the geographical picture was rather vague, featuring few cities, there was a wealth of ethnological detail available. On this I proceeded to build.
One of the first things I did was to take Howard's map and blow it up to a reasonable size, 4' x 4'. 1 then proceeded to fill in a vast amount of geographical detail tracing in rivers and mountains, founding new cities, and dividing his countries up into smaller provinces. Later, when I founded a tax system, I went even further, coloring the whole map to represent grasslands, hill country, cultivated regions, forests and suchlike.”

Enough for today, in the next part of the series we will explore in greater detail his approach to world building, how the Hyborian game play I mentioned above paralleled later rpg play in its inventiveness; how the campaign distinguished player characters from non-player characters and other yummy bits.

In the good news department, the Society of Ancients (which Bath founded) has released , Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming, a nifty omnibus edition that not only includes the campaign book but a copy of his ancient mini rules and an entire new section titled "Hyborian Legends". A nice deal that you can find here in the US and (much cheaper) in the UK here