Monday, January 31, 2011

Yellow Journalism and Runequest's S&M “Scandal”

Since my related post earlier, I have been a little obsessed with reading about the sad details of Runequest IV project leader Oliver Jovanovic's sex abuse case. What's clear from the successful appeal that overturned his conviction is that there was a troubling misuse of New York State's rape shield laws to ban email and phone evidence that would have cleared Jovanovic.

I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so I can't make much further informed commentary on this. But I have been a real-world print journalist on and off again for two decades now and I am floored by how sensational and irresponsible coverage of the case was at that time.

More relevantly to this blog, is how some of the more lurid accounts repeatedly point to his involvement with Runequest and role-playing games in general as a sideways proof of his creepy deviance. The hysterical framing would be funny if it hadn't had such a tragic outcome.

Take this 1996 excerpt from that shining bastion of journalistic integrity, the New York Daily News:
"Apparently this guy has a very warped video collection," including titles devoted to sexual deviation, said one law enforcement source.
There were also books of photography that include explicit images of gay sex that Jovanovic said he considers art, the source added.
As part of the probe, police are sifting through the E-mail Jovanovic sent and received through America Online.
His E-mail address is an apparent reference to a complex fantasy game he loved to play called RuneQuest. In the game, which is played on paper, GRAY is an acronym for the "Glorious ReAscent of Yelm."
In the game, Yelm is an evil emperor.

Evidence of deviant sexual activity?

Worse though is this oh-so soberly-titled one from the same paper:
The Columbia University doctoral student accused of torturing a woman he met online helped create a computer role-playing game in which characters gain points by maiming opponents.
Oliver Jovanovic developed a point system for "RuneQuest: Adventures in Glorantha," a copyrighted fantasy game like "Dungeons and Dragons," in which players assume roles ranging from mighty gladiators to elderly farmers and create adventures in a magical kingdom.
In 1994, two years before meeting his alleged victim through an America Online chat room, Jovanovic posted a summary of the game's major rule changes on the Internet to introduce prospective players to "the cosmology, history, lands and peoples of Glorantha, focusing on the regions around Dragon Pass."
Explaining a change in the point calculation, Jovanovic wrote: "Thus, a normal dagger blow can easily sever an arm, and a normal kick will cripple an unarmed target. We would prefer a more reasonable range of damage, and to not force characters to wear armor.
You know, it takes some serious spin to make RQ's cumbersome combat rules seem this titillating.

How Jack Vance Almost Kicked Glorantha Off Its Runequest Pedestal

The history of our hobby is littered with any number of “could haves”, “would haves”, and “should haves”. Much digital ink has been spilled lamenting the never-coming of such and such promised Great Product from the shadowy reaches of the “real” Castle Greyhawk to...well a number of things that had a Gygax label pinned to them.

Yesterday I came upon one of the stranger coulda shouldas when tracking down what ever had become of my old acquaintance Runequest.

I had always wondered what ever had become of Runequest since my first brush with its second edition circa 1982. I had loved that glimpse into the deeper-seeming world of Glorantha enough to get excited about my favorite hex-and-counter wargame company Avalon Hill putting out its third edition (but not enough apparently to ever actually play either edition).

The AH edition was a disappointment. There were some interesting tweaks to the rules mechanics like a wider array of background choices, but gone was Glorantha as the default background setting. A bland mythical real world Earth had usurped it; leaving behind what was essentially a clunky D&D spin-off game—a dime a dozen in the 80s as everyone and their dog tried “to fix” the flagship game.

Third edition RQ was apparently an even bigger dud with its hardcore fan base. Like Tekumel, much of its appeal to them was not as a rules fix for D&D, but rather as a rigorous top-down setting game that had color and depth. While the game had some resurgence due to both the distribution might of a bigger company and the fact that it subsequently began re-issuing a stream of Glorantha-related products—it ultimately began to tank and fade into obscurity in the 90s.

Interestingly, while AH owned the rights to RQ, it did not own the rights to Glorantha. The setting's original owners, Chaosium, had retained them (thus the appearance of the vanilla fantasy Earth) and upset over the direction of the game they canceled their license and ordered AH to stop producing all the Glorantha-related materials in 1994.

So far interesting, but for us laymen “so what” really. Well, this is where I find myself wanting to find myself in an alternate gaming earth.

AH was undeterred and decided to push ahead with a fourth edition under the direction of Oliver Jovanovic, the guiding force behind RuneQuest: Adventures in Glorantha. Likely knowing that they needed something big, splashy, and interesting enough in it's setting detail to replace Glorantha, they approached Jack Vance and acquired the rights to reproduce Lyonesse as the new edition's setting.


As a rabid fan of all things Vancian I did a double take and went into a flurry of trying to find out more about this. For you see on several occasions I have publicly scratched my head on why this setting never had an English-language rpg treatment.

Many old schoolers are well-acquainted with Vance's Dying Earth books either directly or in passing due to the import of it's fire-and-forget magic system into the DNA structure of D&D. A smaller set are familiar with his three Lyonesse books. While Dying Earth fascination stuck around long enough in gaming circles to spawn a game (and slew of slick supplements) by Pelgrane Press, Lyonesse never did until it was picked up in a French-only edition by the now-defunct, oddly-named Men in Cheese company.

This genuinely puzzled me as Lyonesse blends many of the strongest elements of the Dying Earth books—picaresque tales, vivid fantasy locales, bizarre cultural tropes—with a presumably more-palatable, dark fairy-tale medieval fantasy setting. A great love of those books have spurned me to shovel large, healthy doses directly into the stew of my Hill Cantons campaign (where a mysterious green pearl played a prominent, cursed foil for nearly two years). Despite my own pro-homebrew leanings, I would have bent over backwards to have gotten my hands on anything related to this as a game setting. 

Unfortunately, here's were strange and wondrous got trumped with stranger and just plain tragic.

Just as Jovanovic was moving on RQ IV he was arrested, tried, and convicted on a sado-masochistic torture and sexual assault case. (I kid ye not.) Since the story involved a then-novel Internet angle to it, it made national headlines—briefly dragging RQ's name even in as the media frenzy whipped up.

Ultimately Jovanic's conviction was overturned in 1999, but the damage was long since done both to his life and to that of RQ IV and Lyonesse.

Avalon Hill itself collapsed too and was bought out by Hasbro (no less) in the late 90s. The rights to Lyonesse may have reverted to Vance at this point (crazy to think that the company that eventually owned D&D may have this in its back pocket too) who sold them back to Men in Cheese last decade.

Coulda, shoulda, back to that Domain Game.

[Editor's Note: The tip-off about Lyonesse and RQ's history in general can be found on Pete's Runequest site, an excellent source in general for that game.]

Friday, January 28, 2011

Realms of Crawling Chaos: a Review Part II

After introducing the mix of new “monster” race classes, Realms of Crawling Chaos then turns to an assortment of other supplemental goodies. Again the dark fantasy flavoring and rigor in holding true to the source material continued hitting a sweet spot for me.

Take the five pages of well-described, setting-appropriate magic. While noting that LL spells hand-wave away material components, the entries make explicit use of them—especially appropriate since some of the new magic is not just the usual fire-and-forget Vanican spells but reflect the dark-magic-like effects of such things as alchemical formulae.

Admittedly, like many raised on the high crunch of AD&D, I tended more often that not to gloss right over components at the table,  but still I loved having that particular, arcane bit of flavoring. Knowing that whipping up a batch of the Fluid of Reanimation requires extract of eels and snake venom, salt pewter, and powdered iron adds something for sure. (It also feels like it provides some interesting motivation to create the basis for an interesting Alchemist class homebrew.)

Cthulhiod beasties are next, a big-ticket item in many old school games. Between a number of entries that recalled reading through the verboten section of the first printing of Deities and Demigods Guide (famously dropped in the later printings due to supposed trademark infringements), there are great statted-out, well-researched renditions of the Beings of Ib, the Colour out of Space, the Hound of Tindalos, Jellyfish from Beyond, etc. There also some interesting spins on old stand-bys like the Ghoul, Ghast, and Lamia.

The section on the Old Ones is again top-notch, much better and more expansive than the above-mentioned chapter in the DDG. Perhaps my one complaint is that a few of the ostensibly heavyweight entries look a little on the wimpy side combat-stat wise. Tsathoggua has a mere 80 hitpoints, for instance,  putting him in the potential ass-whoop range of a high-level party. But then again, I tend to be of the school of thought that is incredulous that any character of any level should be allowed a smack-down of celestial personages.

The artifacts section is a great mix of eldritch items like Cthulhu idols and strange alien technology, a nice addition to those looking to introduce more weird science into their games.

I was surprised to see a chapter on psionics—and appreciative of the honest note stating that these powers do not appear in Lovecraft's writing. Still it's a great, streamlined little system that I can see being a great boon for those who want to have this option for their campaign but are (justifiably) turned off about its presentations in D&D to date.

The last 20-odd pages are devoted to four appendices. The first two, “Reading Eldritch Tomes” and “Random Artifacts”, are both some of the strongest in the booklet and sure to be lifted in many campaigns. The third is a somewhat odd-placed list of psionic effects for Mutant Future and the final a nice, extensive list of suggested readings.

Your cosmic significance pictured here. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Realms of Crawling Chaos: Review Part I

Realms of Crawling Chaos by Daniel Proctor and Michael Curtis. Goblinoid Games, 66 pages, PDF $4.95, Print $17.95 

No use mincing about trying to think of a clever lede, the new Labyrinth Lord supplement, Realms of Crawling Chaos, is simply quite good.

Perhaps I don't pay enough attention to the industry/product side of our side of the hobby—I will admit to a general glazing of the eyes when it comes to product announcements and other OSR boosteria—but this one seemed to rocket out of left field. With little fanfare less than a month ago, Dan Proctor of Goblinoid Games, announced what sounded like a trifecta for me: a dark Lovecraftian fantasy supplement for LL co-written by one of the better (if not best) current workhorses of classic-play D&D, Michael Curtis.

With a release date scheduled for a hazy late winter I filed away my enthusiasm to the back-end of my brain. But lo and behold last Saturday, Goblinoid announces that Chaos was not only imminent but had arrived.

Why so good?

The booklet certainly had the real potential for being a dog (and a rushed out to boot). For sure, it's not untrodden ground; the last two years have seen a tremendous amount of interest and working of Lovecraftian themes into old school campaigns—and a virtual one-man cottage industry has been marked out for horror-inflected fantasy by Lamentations of the Flame Princess last year.

Fortunately though Chaos starts off quite strong and holds the course throughout. The first section of the booklet presents a good thorough understanding of Lovecraft's writings—not the usual warmed-over Cthulhu mythos version courtesy of August Derleth and the many other imitators and revisers in his wake.

(I'm glad that the design theory here explicitly reflects more of the supplemental “pick-and-choose” attitude of many DIYers than the constant repackaging of whole systems: “This book is a book of ideas. It does not present a detailed and specific dark fantasy world. Instead, elements are presented that suggest a kind of world that the referee can create himself.”)

The laying out of the essential points of H.P. Lovecraft's writings is a valuable kick-off in helping GMs try to weave in the difficult-to-do-well color and tone. Devoting several pages to detailing the significance of each of these core themes—The Insignificance of Man, The Vastness of the Universe , An Uncaring Natural World, The Reality of Man as an Animal, Superior Otherworldly Beings, Science as a Double Edged Sword—is an excellent introduction to the cosmic horror of Lovecraft unfiltered.

Especially helpful is a further two pages discussing how to blend these themes in at varying comfort levels with the usual fantasy rpg tropes we all know and love (even if we pretend to be bored by them).

While the cover and interior art by Sean Aaberg and Mark Allen is a little uneven at points—on the whole it's more well-done, dark, and evocative than not. Layout is the crisp, two-column standard we have come to expect from Goblinoid—as is the usual competent, no-frills editing.

Turning into the supplemental rules proper, Chaos gets even more interesting. A variety of new PC races is presented in both the racial-class form of Classic D&D (err...LL core) and the uncoupled race and class way of first edition AD&D (LL/AEC). Racial class seems particularly appropriate here IMO given the peculiar tainted-blood, eugenics-lining--and at times, sadly, racist--perspective of HPL.

Curiously all the new races are “monster” ones—creatures typically more likely on the receiving end of a PCs sword rather than swinging one alongside them.

If you ever wanted to play a creepy neck-waddled, slack-jawed character with the “Innsmouth look” here's your chance: Fish Blood, half-human/half-Deep One, headline the list. The racial class is an appropriate fighter-cleric mix (Esoteric Order of Dagon, yes please). Best of all is the write-up of the creeping taint of the Deep Ones as you progress in levels:
“At 4th level (or middle age, whichever comes first), sea bloods begin to dream about the cities under the sea, and horrid rituals performed in the name of Cthulhu and Dagon. A compulsion is seeded to go to the sea, and to bask in the cool water among the great cities under the waves. When sea bloods reach the maximum level attainable in their race/class (or become elderly, whichever comes first), the referee will roll 1d6; the result is the number of months before the character’s transformation is sufficiently complete and the compulsion is too strong to resist the call to go and live in the sea as an immortal deep one.”

Next you have the option of playing a Subhuman--not the UK hardcore band--but a mix of the human and Voormis, the furry ape-like critters that once peopled frigid Hyperborea. This one comes off just a bit duller than it sounds, especially for the racial class which is essentially just another demi-human fighter in drag. 

Same goes for the White Ape that comes next (though bonus points for being a straight-up man-eating beastie sans the human blood). The White Ape-Hybrid, however, who combines the abilities of both fighter and thief swings back into the fun-class-to-try category.

At any rate, limitations aside they are a welcome fresh addition to the bog standard races of yore.

Part two of our review will duly appear tomorrow. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Whither the Pulp Fantasy Society?

I haven't written much recently about the Pulp Fantasy Society I was pushing for last year. I just wanted to reassure folks that the project hasn't stalled out and vanished. In fact we even some progress to report on:
  • An interim four-person board has been drafted. Further we have a list of 12 other volunteers who have stepped forward to help move work in phase one.

  • The Texas non-profit incorporation papers were filed a week ago here in Bexar County. Barring some lunacy at the state government level—we are talking Texas here—we should get the official green light by February.

  • Target date for work to begin on the first two books mid-June, the small delay giving us time to get our structure up and running—and for me to finish the Domain Game project (which I aim to have in print by May).

  • The kick-off books are likely collections or omnibus public-domain editions of A. Merritt, Edgar R. Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, or other pulp giant.

  • The online domain has been registered.

That's all I have for now. If folks are still interested in participating in any capacity with the project, drop me a line at my email address: kutalik at gmail dot com.  

Monday, January 24, 2011

Works in Progress

[Editor's Note: the seventh point was inadvertently omitted in my original post. Added now post-facto.]
Today an update on the status of the Domain Game supplement itself. The PBEM experiment game seems to eat up way more time than I expected (though I complain not—still hella fun), yet somehow I do manage to make some headway.

Through the end of this month and the beginning of the next you can expect to see me release several of the play-test rules selections that I have fleshed out so far. I believe that even in their draft, non-integrated state that some of the sub-system pieces will have utility for GMs in their regular campaigns.

These are the most likely candidates for so far:

1. One Equipment List to Rule Them All
  • Large-scale expansion of civilian goods
  • Geared to different tech levels and rural/urban market availability
  • Bulk item purchase guidelines
2. Personnel Price List
  • Wage costs of unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled professions
  • Costs for slaves, serfs, convicts, and indentured servants (nasty business that it is)
  • Geared to different tech levels and rural/urban market availability
3. Natural Resources
  • Mundane, special, and magical resource allocation by hex
  • Rating system for the quality/quantity of resources
  • Exhaustive lists of each resource indexed to market worth and special usage
4. Sub-system for trading and trade goods
  • Integrated with the above-mentioned Equipment List
  • Rules for both micro and macro trade
5. Construction Rules

6. Swords & Shields Fantasy Supplement

7. Domain-level Ritual Magic

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Judges Guild Universal: the Full Monty

Today I wanted to go ahead and post the remainder of the JG Universal System so the readers can take a gander and form their own opinions of its potential as the skeleton of a variant D&D.

Emphasis on skeleton as it's clear that while a number of mechanics are hinted at none are actually presented--which, of course, is the perfect opportunity for all us kit-bashers and homebrewers.

(That's a nudge to the rest of you, I am plenty busy with the Domain Game.)

Fortunately for lazy old me it looks like the gnomes over at the Acaeum saved me the bother of typing and formatting. You can download the standard boilerplate presentation here

Interestingly, a second d20 version was put out in recent years by JG that can be found here

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Did a Game Lurk in Judges Guild Universal System?

When you have insomnia you become accustomed to having strange ideas pop into your addled brain in the wee hours. Rereading one of Judges Guild's lesser products, Shield Maidens of Sea Rune, last night at 3 a.m. in a (failing) attempt to bore myself back into slumber, I had an odd thought--only reinforced by a thought-provoking conversation earlier yesterday.

Shield Maidens, like many of JG's products in its middle period, is statted out with the peculiar notations of the company's Universal System. As many readers (who devote entirely too much of their brain cells to such arcane trivia) these numbers were a thinly-veiled code for playing with the alpha dog of that period, first edition AD&D. Remember JG had lost its D&D license in 1982, but not its need to tailor many of its products to that big trough of a market.

The Universal System projected the dress of an in-house fantasy rpg, but we all knew it just to be a slightly-annoying, stand-in set of numbers to be reconverted back to the one proper game. The three-letter alignment system, for instance, would typically show something like “LGN” or “NEX” and your mind would just file off that last offending bit. As such, every time I looked at such numbers in their products I paid about zero-percent attention to the supposed system itself.

Last night like a made-over Ally Sheedy in “Breakfast Club”, I saw something in that ugly duckling born of necessity: the skeletal outline of an interesting D&D variant. (Or more likely, some interesting house rules to be played around with.)

Let's take a look there and see what we can find.

The system “rules” start with a list of what can be found in a stat block with a few sentences explaining each. The six-attribute usual suspects are there, but are given a three-digit number, the first two numbers being the ones you would readily decode as the familiar 3-18 range.

But lo and behold that third number actually meant something: “the third is the number of times per day that the characteristic can be tested without checking for stress damage.” Interesting, a nice and simple mechanism to model fatigue—and add another resource management question to the game. I'll take it.

But wait there are six more attributes listed here that my eyes used to just wander right over: Personal Social Level, Endurance, Agility, Leadership, Luck, and Psionic Ability. OK truthfully three of these are completely useless repetitions of the others, so chuck them out.

Now let's consider the other three.

Personal Social Level: “ index of the social standing. The first two digits indicate the level in the area in which the character resides and the third number indicates the level of notoriety within a twenty mile radius.” I like the idea of modeling both social standing and geographic reputation. The dude you iced might be a pissant third-level fighter, but looks like he was well-regarded due to his well-connected family throughout the Satrapy. Time to put on my Evil DM hat. This one is in.

Psionic Ability, self-explanatory, if I had an easy, old-school way to model this, it would be in--otherwise out. Luck is out; sweet Crom, this is what you do with the dice.

Done with the attributes, now what about the rest of this durn stat block.

How about back to alignment? Again a surprise: that third letter actually meant something. “The third letter indicates only a suppressed desire.” Only? Actually, that's a very interesting nuance to explore. The High Priest-Poobah is “LGN”? A cleric who outwardly trumpets the 319 tenets of the “lawful” and “good” doctrine of the Ever-Illuminous Path of Kom Wha Mai, while inside he's a self-serving hypocrite that sure loves his silk plushies, pomade, and powdered ivory balm. Check. (By the way, the “X” notation indicated “none” under-the-surface alignment.)

What about the three-digits noting character class?

Again all the usual AD&D classes are there, but a closer look teases about a veritable Arduin of yummy new classes. Ok admittedly, some are immediately chuckable--Child class, oh come on. Others would take some serious conceptual work to work: the Beggar, Buffoon, Demon, and Valkyrie can please stand up. Some of them would take some work not to be non-adventuring NPC types (and thus useless in my book): the Armorer, Alchemist, Animal Trainer, and Sage. But the Amazon, Berserker, Samurai, Viking, and Witch; now there are some straight shots. At any rate, a fun, quirky list to work with.

Enough for today, I think you get the drift behind my indulgent Saturday morning musings. Now back to writing reportbacks for the Domain Game.

Any thoughts from the peanut gallery?

Friday, January 21, 2011

News from Nowhere

I sat on the William Morris allusion in the header for too long, today it has a good fit and thus it finds gainful employment.

A veritable din of Domain Game activity this week, a few news briefs:

Round One Closed. I have been getting numerous inquiries about joining the game--five in the last two days alone. While I am encouraged by the level of interest, I simply can't accommodate anymore players in this round. But weep not, there will be spaces in the rounds two and three of the play-test.

Looking Forward. Round one is mostly concerned with the growing the rules of the domain game's second layer (exploration, wilderness clearing/adaption, and domain founding). Officially it will come to a close around the end of February at which time we will open up the second round to grow and play-test layer three (the more settled phase of domain-level play).

Basically what will we do with round two is keep 5-7 of the most interested players from round one and “fast forward” their realms three years based on their final positions at the end of turn four. Borders will be extended, rough-and-tumble frontier villages and market founded, larger sections of the map revealed etc. We will then add in 5-8 new players who will play trusty (and not-so trusty) lieutenants and advisors in the existing realms.

The Co-creation of Nowhere. Sharing corners of the creative process with the players has continued to be a satisfying part of the experiment. Samwise, ruler of the yak-loving Gibliki theocracy, blogged this morning about the “realm-wide” ritual magic we have been kicking back and forth as an addition to the game.

Meanwhile at the ever-stimulating Ix blog, The Drune muses on the nature of chaos and the cruel caprice of the godhead that rules Nowhere.

Finally that wolfish barbarian Shinobicow writes about his own experimental city-building game. Hopefully both experiments will find some synergy together.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming: a Review

One silver-lining advantage of sick-day lollygagging in bed is catching up on the small mountain of reading material teetering precariously on my nightstand. I finally got a chance to read through the new omnibus edition of Tony Bath's work put out by the admirable History of Wargaming Project  (in collaboration with the Society of Ancients).

Since I mercilessly beat the best and meatiest section of this book, Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, dead, dead, dead in a past series of posts I feel relieved of the burden of doing an even-more exhaustive review than appears here.

Like Gaul, the book is divided into three parts: Bath's Peltast and Pila miniatures rules, the above-mentioned campaign book, and a collection of his reports on the Hyborian campaign.

The book starts off with a nice, lengthy homage by Phil Barker that gives a few more insights into the character and work of Tony Bath. Almost every account of the man seems to confirm the impression created by the distinct authorial voice in his writings; that of a quirky, thoughtful, gifted-amateur brimming with an experimental, open-ended approach to his play. For all his top-of-the-heap status in ancient-era wargaming in that period, none of his projects were commercial, thus apparently freeing him up for more ambitious, creative leaps.

Peltast and Pila

The rules of part one are likely of limited, direct utility to many modern readers, though as a historical product they are interesting.

Like many of the systems of that era, the rules have many layers of fiddly detail and highly-complicated resolution mechanics. The guidelines, for instance, handling elephants alone number 20 points spread over two pages of text. (It's a testimony to the quirkiness of the man that John Curry, the book's editor, felt it necessary to add the following footnote to the section: “Donald Featherstone and Phil Barker commented that Tony Bath was very keen on elephants in his armies”.)

But for all the difficulty in actual use to those more wed to the simpler, more abstract of new school mini rules, there are all kinds of insights into how battle worked in that period—and fun, workable sub-systems for modeling them. While my own quirky head appreciates the elegant, abstractions of say DBA or HoTT that model tactical doctrines more than the nitty, gritty; my quirkier heart loves having such fine distinctions as rolling three different colored dice to find out if the driver, passenger, or horse is killed in a hit on a chariot.

Tony Bath's long, chatty asides about design questions like simultaneous movement vs. alternating IGO/UGO movement only further his cause in my book.

Before moving on, one thing of interest to the historically-minded role-player, is that Peltast and Pila contain one of the first (perhaps the first?) appearances of the saving throw as a concept. For each hit made on a particular figure, a player can make a d6 saving throw based on “armor class” (indexed against weapon type). Besides the obvious conceptual import into D&D this specific mechanism has survived many decades now perhaps most famously in the various Warhammer iterations (you can also find it in my own rules, Swords & Shields).

The Legend of Hyboria

The last section,“The Legend of Hyboria”, was the most anticipated by this humble author. I have to admit that I was a little let down by this section (so sad). The bulk of the section is made up of the annual reportbacks Bath made in Slingshot, the newsletter of the Society of Ancients. Unfortunately these dispatches contain much of weaknesses that many readers of this blog have complained about in rpg session reports: too much in-character narrative with too little commentary on the game back-end.

Which is doubly unfortunate for in few cases when he does focus on that you get wonderful glimpses again of Bath's genius in this particular game. One section deals with rules for determining varying abilities and loyalty levels of sub-ordinate NPCs--and the many devious ways that treachery of the less-loyal can play out.

Even better is the account of the Aquilonian siege of Nippur, Turanian town occupied by the Hyrkanians. What really shines in this account is how free-form and experimental Bath was in his approach to unique situations in his game.
Instead of merely using a rolls on a set of siege resolutions charts, he decides to make a mini-boardgame affair out of it with role-playing inputs from Richard Nelson who played the Aquilonian general Valannus. You can hear the series of matrix-game argument-making in the back and forth between Nelson and Bath in preparing for the battle. Very satisfying to me as I hear the same echoes in our modest Domain Game.

Back in the frustrating category of things, Curry alludes to the ultra-rare two-volume The History in Hyboria and the Wargame's Guide to Hyboria (both penned by Bath), but selections from neither work appear. Apparently the 50-page guide contained the full biographies, lineages, and personalities of the main characters; a terrible tease for Hyboria aficionados . (Still not convinced that this was a role-playing game?)

Since we are on frustrating bits I should mention the biggest annoyance I had with this edition: the sub-par formatting and layout of the book. The cramped trade-paperback format of the book coupled with clumsy Word-looking layout is distracting at many points--especially when it comes to the many charts and graphs of the first two sections.

The absence of the many maps from the larger-format second edition of the campaign book (presumably due to the smaller, cramped format) only compounded my dislike of this edition's presentation.

Still at the end of the day, the HC review punchline remains: buy this book. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Brainstorming Natural Resources of the Weird

Coughing fits have silenced me—literally—for going on three straight days (I know, come join me at my pity party). With no outlet to run my mouth in the real world I am back at filling out the back-end rules bits of the Domain Game.

One of the key areas being developed right now is the area of natural resources. With the notable exception of the Mentzer Companion D&D set—and a too-short table in EPT—it's been a world-building area given the shaft in domain-level play.

Which come to think of it is a big hole really since it's exactly the kind of granular detail that can breathe life into bland wilderness hexes on a campaign map. Knowing that those grasslands are roamed by a vast herd of three-horned bison or that the gnarled hulking trees of that old growth forest drop enormous, fibrous seed pods gives real pop to exploration of an outdoor environ—and extra dimensions to the would-be warlord looking to harness them.

That in mind I have been drawing up longish charts that already provide hundreds of natural resources (I may post the top-level charts that I use to fill out the five-mile hexes of Nowhere with them sometime soon).

They mostly work on three levels so far in my game. On one level, you have “mundane” resources—the run-of-the-mill things you can typically expect to gather from the land with a minimum of imagination—soil for crops, trees for lumber, clay for pots, etc. These I have indexed to terrain, given some numbers for quality/quantity, and mostly been done with it.

On the second level, you have the rarer “special” resources. Most of these are still somewhat commonplace, or rather less fantastical, such as gems, rare metals, spice plants, etc.

But the third level I have reserved for the real fun: “magical” resources. Here are the strange and wonderful: ley lines, magic “fertile” areas, other-worldly energies, strange beasts, and so on.

If you are still with me seven paragraphs in, here's the Ask for the collective internet brain trust: what kinds of weird and wonderful resources can you think of? Are there mundane resources that can still drip outrageous fantasy? What strange marvels can you throw at the aspiring world-tamers?

Note that any and all smoking-hot suggestions that make it into the final print publication of this mess will be attributed—and possibly even named after it's creator in an oblique, fun way.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Goblinoid Releases Free Text Downloads of Labyrinth Lord Editions

In a coup for inveterate rules home-brewers, Dan Proctor has released free downloadable text versions of all three editions of Goblinoid Games' LL editions: Labyrinth Lord (the core Classic D&D clone), Advanced Edition Companion (the AD&D 1st-ed. clone), and Original Edition Characters (0-ed. clone).

The downloads can be found here.

One of the reasons I continue to support LL (besides inertia) is the line's relative modesty and openness to customizers. For one, I plan on using these text versions to their utmost limits--cutting and pasting the various bits I have accumulated as house rules over the past two years directly in and using the laid-out charts and tables as template for my own changes.

I hope others do the same in the mad charge of DIY creativity that I predict for this year.  

Meet the Matrix (Game)

For going on about a decade now I have a had an on-again, off-again love/hate affair with an argument-based, free-form wargaming mechanic called the Engle Matrix game. Every few years it seems to pop back into my mind as something I wanted to introduce into a miniatures or cardboard wargame I was mulling over--only to just as quickly to be chucked.

As the manic lift-off of the Domain Game experiment in Nowhere rumbled on last week—and I scampered behind it trying to write seemingly numberless rules to match—the itch for a simple fallback mechanic to provide rulings for the thousand-plus “gray area” occasions invariably turned my head back.

Just to give you an idea of scale: 14 players are leading expeditions of over 100 with highly-detailed rosters down to the last chicken are carving out their domains in a blank-slate continent with 10,000 five-mile hexes, 400-plus different types of resources, tons of strange ruins/sites, and boatloads of exotic fauna/flora. With only about 11 pages of rules written up at this point, lots and lots of gray there in other words.

Let me step back some to give you a little background on what a matrix game actually is. Coined in 1988 by Chris Engle, owner of Hamster Press, matrix games were designed to create an open-ended way to resolve military campaigns and battles by use of a referee-adjudicated system of argument and counter-argument. While not an utterly new new concept in wargaming—that tradition of games reaches all the way back to how Kreigspiel was played at the end of the 19th century—it did create a more simple and elegant way to do so.

While such games can have varying levels of complexity or focus covering specific campaigns like the Norman Conquest or even role-playing games, at the heart of each is a simple conflict resolution system. In it's basic form, one side gives an “argument” about what they want to do based on what they know about their forces, the campaign environment, the opposing forces, etc. In some games an opponent is allowed to build a “counter argument”.

Each argument has an action, a result, and up to three reasons (supporting arguments). So thus in a turn you could say: “my vast horde of hedgehog-men can force march to the capital city five hours earlier than the Mauve Knights expect. They can do this because: (1) they are well rested after being in their burrow barracks all week; (2) hedgehog-men are tough cookies; and (3) the roads are well-maintained in this part of the Hedge Kingdom.”

The referee listens to the argument and decides on its relative soundness; comparing the argument to what he knows about the game world situation. He then throws a dice on a simple chart like the following for its success.

Strength Of Argument
Dice Score To Be Successful
Very Strong Argument
6, 5, 4, 3, 2
Strong Argument
6, 5, 4, 3
Average Argument
6, 5, 4
Weak Argument
6, 5
Very Weak Argument
Stupid Argument
No Roll

This system has many obvious advantages and it fits solidly with the wide-open, “rulings over rules” philosophy that I feel is the bedrock of classic play/old school rpgs. 

Yet, I hesitate to embrace it as a core mechanic. In practice, I have seen tabletop play that relies too heavily on this for player options to ironically stagnate too quickly with players bouncing from a curious repetition (the paradox of choice?) to manic overdoses of increasingly absurd arguments as they get bored. In that way it mirrors many of the narrativist/story-telling rpgs that followed it in the next two decades.

Hand-wringing aside, as a fallback mechanic it's a wonderful last-ditch one. The emphasis on player skill/thought and the small amount of chance (that can add an element of beautiful chaos to the process) has a great appeal and I find myself quite often falling back on it my standing LL tabletop campaign.

With a great and rigorous set of players pumping out arguments by the page load, I see a glorious future ahead for it in the Domain Game. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cimmeria by Way of the Hill Cantons

It may be the fever of the chest cold talking...

But driving through the clinging, chilly mist of the Texas Hill Country today I was reminded of that long past master of the pulp who brought the world Conan's Cimmeria through a vision of these same hills.

Written in Mission, Texas, February, 1932; suggested by the memory of the hill-country above Fredericksburg seen in a mist of winter rain.”

I remember

The dark woods, masking slopes of sombre hills;

The grey clouds' leaden everlasting arch;

The dusky streams that flowed without a sound,

And the lone winds that whispered down the passes.

Vista on vista marching, hills on hills,

Slope beyond slope, each dark with sullen trees,

Our gaunt land lay. So when a man climbed up

A rugged peak and gazed, his shaded eye

Saw but the endless vista - hill on hill,

Slope beyond slope, each hooded like its brothers.

It was a gloomy land that seemed to hold

All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,

With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,

And the dark woodlands brooding over all,

Not even lightened by the rare dim sun

Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it

Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.

It was so long ago and far away

I have forgot the very name men called me.

The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,

And hunts and wars are shadows. I recall

Only the stillness of that sombre land;

The clouds that piled forever on the hills,

The dimness of the everlasting woods.

Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Oh, soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,

To clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun,

How many deaths shall serve to break at last

This heritage which wraps me in the grey

Apparel of ghosts? I search my heart and find

Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

EPT Minus Tékumel?

Gauging by chatter in the rarefied pockets of the gaming ether I tend to visit, there has been a noticeable surge in the past few months of interest in one of my own pet obsessions, Empire of the Petal Throne

Curiously, that uptick seems less a creature of the traditional hardcore fan-base of M.A.R. Barker's work—the big-tent Tekumel yahoo group remains relatively low volume and seemingly unconcerned with the activity percolating outside it—but by a number of people involved in trying to get back to the “sword-and-planets”, classic-play fun of the original game.

This “radical” exploration (as in the literal meaning of the word: getting back to the roots) of EPT has come on a few fronts. On one-hand you have the somewhat conventional, yet utterly impressive tabletop play evident in our Minnesota friends who recently sponsored an exciting-sounding two-day mini-con of their own.

On the other, you have people exploring whole new dimensions of the setting and rules such as Ix's march toward a Tékumel pre-history space opera mentioned the other day. (Speaking of said blog there is a highly-amusing account of The Drune's own foray into our domain game experiment up today worth checking out.)

Even more radically, you have a number of people posing the question: can I run EPT as a game system minus Barker's planet completely? Some discussion has focused on providing an interesting and appropriate set of rules for a planetary romance homebrew setting that catches many of the same highlights of massive ancient ruins, elaborate exotic cultures, weird alien creatures etc. Indeed one enterprising soul, Mike D. over at Sword+1 blog has already gone as far as to edit down the original rules set into a Tekumel-less system.

While personally I think EPT play would miss a vital spark without that metal-poor, tradition-heavy hothouse of a planet—if running it I would prefer some gonzo tweaks of my own as opposed to canning it altogether—I think they are valuable explorations.

Why? Because as a variant OD&D system that old dinosaur of a game has some simply great rules to futz with as house rules in their own right:
  • A magnificent, old-school skill system (that we are using in the worldgame) for both run-of-the-mill vocations and strangely quirky magical, psychic ones for the adventuring classes. (Who doesn't want to play a magic-user that can at first level use a super-yogi skill to hold their breath for hours on end or contort their body in weird ways?)
  • An attribute system that replaces some of the character-over-player skill attributes: Wisdom and Charisma.
  • Interesting--and deadly--combat mechanics such as the option to choose to have a critical hit simply do double damage or go for broke with some exploding dice action. The damage-by-hit dice system and to-hit modifiers based for high scores in non-traditional, but logical attributes such as Intelligence.
  • Domain rules for running fiefs in a non-medieval feudal campaign setting (a weakness of virtually every set of such rules D&D and it's imitators has produced).
  • Wonderful guidelines for creating vast Underworlds with “Saturday Night Specials”.
And that is just my annotated list...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Two More for the Hopper

Two more of our Domain Game players have write-ups of the cultures they are using on their own respective blogs. (Man, we are a blog-heavy crowd, I think we have at least two others with stakes up on their own little piece of the Internet.)

You can find the drunken goblin horde of one of my favorite dungeon geomorph-makers here and the rowdy roughneck barbarians of the Wolf Clan here.

I, for the record, continue to be amazed by the collective imagination of the assembled crew.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Open World Play and Nowhere

Nowhere is the tongue-in-cheek working name for the planet that the Domain Game play-testers have landed on. In less than a week's time though, Nowhere has become a land filled with a lot of “Somewhere Elses”, the various co-creations of peoples from the players themselves.

Unwitting to me, but a welcome development, is the realization that the worldgame is providing another avenue for the open-world play I was writing about last month.

Never one for self-discipline in the face of an easy blog post, I can simply no longer resist the impulse to write about it.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Minor Spoiler Alert ahead for play-testers.

In the best example, one husband-and-wife team are not only using existing characters in the Tekumel campaign of Jeff Berry (our “resident” expert on all things Petal Throne-like), but are linking their actions in Nowhere with the limitations and consequences of their home campaign. Read Jim from Netherwerks write-up—complete with nifty illustration of the mysterious obelisk that brought them to the middle of Nowhere--on his blog to get some of the flavor of it .

Similarly, I am digging other spin-off writings from the experiment. Porky has written some ruminations about the nature of inter-dimensional portals and Wicked Murph,a player, shares his utterly unique beetle-riding dwarf nomad culture, the Khalik Vahr here in his own blog (where you can also see Shinobicow, another player, threatening to write up his own Wolf Clan barbarians on his own blog.)

The awesomeness of this open world play and co-creation boggles my poor little brain. I look forward to seeing just how far it can all go in this new year.  

Monday, January 10, 2011

Peeking Under the Hood of the Domain Game Experiment

[Editor's Note: I inadvertently failed to cut and paste the fourth layer in my original post. Corrected in the text below.]

I continue to be amazed by the creative dimensions of the Domain Game experiment so far. The cultural background and detailed (and quirky) action write-ups are simply blowing me away, the 80-plus pages (!) of material produced by players is richly imaginative and providing a great launch for this project.

As I noted before I will be leaking from time to time more sneak peeks into how the game is evolving. 

Today's reveal is of two things of possible interest to readers. The first is the working guidelines and outline that I am using to help shape the play test game. As it gets updated--and some serious flesh to the skeleton will be coming later this week as the list at the end gets completed--readers will be able to get some glimpses into the trajectory of the project. Read them here if you are interested .

The second you will find below and pertains more to the overall goals of the experiment—and the game aid supplement that will hopefully follow in its wake.

The Four Layers of the Domain Game
The supplement will be divided into four layers. Instead of lumping this kind of play into one uniform mechanic it will try and dig into how this area of the game can be played in very different ways according to the power scale and technological/political/cultural context of each campaign. Each layer will basically be posing different sets of questions and have suggestions for the kinds of mechanics and play that may help answer each.

Again the overall goal is to provide elements to spur and expand open-ended play as it “feels right”. Each layer of the supplement will also have two tracks GMs decide on how and what to adopt/change/modify for the particular conditions of their campaign: 1. a “rigorous” path with detailed sub-systems; and 2. a “lazy” path that provide suggestions on how to introduce play in a domain game as more of a back drop (suggestions to include how and what works best to hand wave).

The layers can be either custom-fitted to fill out one area in a campaign using one or more layers or if desired more in a linear fashion with characters moving up the layers and ranks as they gain power.

Layer One: Non-Ruler Domain Play
This layer is aimed at low-to-mid level characters. The given assumption for this layer is that players will not be rulers, but playing roles inside institutions that introduce them to this type of play. Here will go suggestions for exhaustive lists of hierarchies of various fantasy institutions and guidelines for how players can advance in them as part of the campaign.

Mechanically, emphasis will be on subsystems and mini-games that happen when primary domain decision making is “off stage”. En Garde and Heroes are inspirational sources here.

Layer Two: Entry-Level Domain Play
This layer will allow mid-to-name level characters a chance to be low-level decision makers or rulers. Emphasis here will be on large-scale exploration, wilderness clearing (or adaption), and laying the foundation for a new domain. (Our current play test is laser-beam focused on exploring the dimensions of this layer.)

Here we have an emphasis on a highly granular, direct (or command) decision making. Depending on which elements from this layer the GM and players feel comfortable with they will have hands-on decisions to make as they face the harsh conditions of founding an outpost.

Layer Three: Domain Play
This level focuses on play for small to mid-sized settled states typically for name-level players. If evolving out of the previous layer it's a wilderland becoming a borderlands area.

The micro-focus of the previous layer is shifted to new guidelines. Direct decision making questions like how to get your followers fed/clothed/housed or shifted to more indirect considerations where the domain residents are acting more as autonomous economic actors. Players will be less micro-managing their followers activity and more thinking of ways to tax, govern, and harness their productivity.

Similarly combat is becoming more large-scale with emphasis on mass battle rules over skirmish ones. Diplomacy, espionage, macro-trade and other considerations become more central arenas.

Layer Four: Worldgame Play
Here we get to the ruling of large-scale countries, planets, or planes of existences even. Domain management will become increasingly abstract and far-reaching as play extends out to this layer.