Thursday, March 31, 2011

Revised Hirelings and Domain Rules Downloads

Just a quick note to let folks know that I have a updated and revised (based on recommendations from you fine folks) the long hireling, retainers, and flunky list I put up last month. It is available along with the most recent version of the Domain Games guidelines (compiling several recent posts) as free PDFs here.

As always appreciate any and all feedback.  

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Punditry Achieved

As of today I have officially leveled up to seventh-level blogger (name level: pundit), according to Trey's infamous Old School RPG Blogger Advancement Table

Thank you, Mongo, for being our 160th customer. Balloons drop from the virtual ceiling and a bevy of can-can girls prance across your screen.

Now you will all rue the day that you kicked sand in the face of my Introducing Mystery to the Sandbox post...

Film Inspirations

Sending out the last few Domain Game turn reports is taking up my game window today, so I leave you with some film inspirations from Nowhere. 

While excruciatingly paced at times, Malick's The New World evokes some of the mood--minus the strange and fantastical elements--for me of what this world would look and feel like through the eyes of the player-led expeditions. The selections on You Tube don't do justice to the feel of the movie, but here's a decent collection (best perhaps with the annotations on the bottom right turned off and the full screen on.) Yeah, yeah roll the clip...

And of course, where would we be without the lonely, crazed angst of Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God.

And lest you think I have neglected Swords& Sorcery, there might be a smidgen or two of Fire and Ice in there too...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

To the Garden, the World, Anew Ascending

Learning to appreciate and like even the campaign worlds hammered out of your imagination as a GM is an easy enough trick—truly being immersed enough to “get” them on some visceral, emotional level is something much more elusive.

Yeah sure, I have enjoyed the act of ongoing creation that any half-assed campaign setting can give you, but the moments that I felt the vivid “realness” of them, truth be told, have been rare to none.

Worldbuilding for me as a mostly bottom-up creator has been mostly a process of “yes and...”: filling in a space here and there when the wanderings and machinations of the players create the need to do so--or better when they co-create a detail that I want to riff off. A gleaming, teetering tower made of bones looming over an ancient battlefield suddenly flashes into existence or an long-lost Amazon goddess of Pain and Retribution instantly has an elaborate player-known rite.

I enjoy this in the same way I enjoy watching improv. It gets some much needed exercise out of the brain and sometimes the funny bone.

Yet, something gnaws enviously at me when talk comes around about the tabletop experiences with the great top-down rpg world builders: how it was to play with a M.A.R. Barker in Tekumel or a Greg Stafford in Glorantha. How each not only felt a deep connection to the reality of their worlds, but could impart in others the same feeling of immersion in a fantasy world. Inevitably I alternate between questions like “how do they do that?” with “is that obsession fun and crazy, or just plain crazy?” But always I feel like I am missing something.

This week some of the Domain Game players though made me think that our shared world, Nowhere, may be vectoring toward such an experience. Nowhere on the face of it is a highly unlikely candidate. Nowhere is supposed to be the ultimate blank slate of a campaign experience, a playtest white board where virtually the only visible sentient life was exported by the diverse players—all representing expeditions whose cultures and backgrounds where creations almost completely of their own.

Sure I had a giant hex map with honed down to a fine five-mile hex zoom and a giant mess of half-baked charts, tables, and other exceedingly granular lists for filling them in, but not much else really.

All the poking, prodding, and barraging of literally hundreds of cascading questions by the tentative new explorers of this land changed that dynamic quickly. What kind of animals are found here? Are they herd animals? Is their hide good for tanning? What's the arability of the soil like? Is the wood here soft or hard? How big are the wooded clumps? What's the drainage of this rolling plain like? Can I find clay to make pots? Stone to make ziggurats? Gravel to make roads? Fodder for yaks? Etc. etc.

Each and everyone of those hexes were forced to become something so finely detailed that the realness started to feel unescapable. And right behind this physical vivid mental picture came the inexorable march of Big Mysteries. Who build all the monoliths and their extra-planar gates? Where did they go? What hand launched that golden barge off the coast? Who dug that canal and raised that metal dome? 

Behind the mysteries came the Great Themes. The largest of all a primal myth for us Americans: the eery emptiness and menace of true wilderness. Not the typical D&D wilderness which seems so very “busy” here an orc tribe, there a veritable monster condo of a cave system, but the true subtle danger of a blank slate world—that had the touch of someone somewhere lurking behind the next bush or hill line.

Samwise, master of the yak-loving theocratic Gibliki, nailed this in a recent intra-group email in a way I frankly never put my head around completely myself:
Nowhere is like a fresh undisturbed paradise of sorts, or like a pearl just waiting to be found and plucked (or admired for its beauty as it is)...In some ways it feels like no one else has been here before, or that perhaps people were here a very long time ago and then went extinct for some unknown reason. It makes me think of the show Life After People, in that the natural world continues to go on, and is happy to do so.

The Fog Of War way that you are handling the maps also leaves much of the wider world as an unknown mystery, and enigma, that wants to be found out with more exploration (if only we could make sure we feed everyone, and shelter everyone first). It makes you way what your wants and needs are, and more often the needs take precedent.

The setting makes me think of those explorers that first mapped out an unknown continent (even if those maps were horribly distorted). "Here be dragons." In some ways this feels like my first Hex Crawl (as I've never one a campaign like that). Even though you may know that there are trees in a nearby hex, you don't know what is lurking beneath those leaves and branches until you go and look around a bit.
Reading those words, made me feel like I had finally “got” it myself about Nowhere.

If you made it through this far in this great bit of navel-gazing and thinking out loud, I commend your endurance. And as always I am all ears when it comes to your own experiences as a world builder.

Did you ever feel that you real “got” your own world? Why? What role did your players play in this?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Summer Camp DnD: DM Stuff

Continuing our romp through 1980 from yesterday.

Mechanics of Play
The only die that can be rolled is the aforementioned single six-sided. All other “rolls” must be done with those damned Holmes-set chits--preferably drawn out of Star Wars dixie cups. When players lose enough of the chits—or merely get sick of using your crappy system—then all remaining adjudications will be done diceless in the following manner.

Summer Camp DnD eschews all such mechanical niceties as saving throws and other written rules. Situations are instead adjudicated through “negotiations” (i.e. escalating arguments).

Example One: Real-Life as a Measuring Stick
DM: A 10 foot-wide pit bars your way into Castle Thunderballs.

Player: I jump across it.

DM (with skeptical note in voice): How far can you jump in real life?

Player: 12 feet.
Who needs dice?

DM: No @$&# way, dude.

Player: Uh-hunh.

DM: Show me.

[Kids exit stage right to camp track. Player does running jump.]

DM: That's like six feet, you fall in the pit.

Player: But like I have a 11 strength in real life and my character has an 18.

DM: FINE. You make it across.

Example Two: Things that Happened in a Movie or TV Show

DM: Ok, so you are in the dungeon trash compactor and like the walls are moving in slowly to crush you.

Player: In Star Wars they used a metal pole between the walls and it stopped it for a bit. We do that.

DM: Ok, so you stop for it a bit. In Star Wars there's also a monster in there too. It attacks you.

Player: No way!

DM: Way!

Player: FINE. I attack it with my nun-chucks.

Example Three: What Would Han Solo Do?

Next up, Summer Camp DnD: Dungeon Design.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

How to Play D&D Like It's 1980

The infamous Shippensburg College D&D camp

This is a riff. My friend, Brad of Skull Crushing for Great Justice notoriety, has a funny and insightful post up about his first brush playing D&D as a lad. Like most of us who learned this strange new world from scratch, his game was a total wide-open (and virtually diceless) Wild West.

Reading through his post I started having sudden flashbacks to my own old war stories. What follows is a grown-up rules “emulation” of how we kicked it San Fernando Valley Y-Camp style back in hoary days of 1980. (Oh yes, sorely tempted to play this as the house rules for a mini-campaign, I am.)

Summer Camp DnD

Rules sets:
Holmes blue box Basic D&D (preferably bought at the end of 1979). However there is only a 30 percent chance that any given rule will be remembered. Even if remembered you must flip a coin. Heads the rules is grossly distorted in interpretation, tails only a minor distortion.

Supplementary rule book: Pick at random a book from first edition AD&D (preferably borrowed from an older sibling or bought with money from mowing your neighbor's yard). As above except there is only a 10 percent chance of remembering said rule.

Player Class:
Players roll 3d6 in order with a single die stolen from the camp Parchessi set. A player is encouraged by an unwritten social compact to cheat and say at least one roll was a 17 or 18. Players can continue to try and hide the die rolls with a cupped hand or drop a die with the face upward to a 6 at a short distance—if called on cheating though by the DM the player must start again.

Players are only allowed to start as one of the three “bitchin” or “rad” classes: fighting men, thieves, and elf fighting man/magic-user. Magic Users, Clerks, and others of the “lame” classes (especially halflings) can be only played after a summer worth of fun has been squeezed after the former classes. A dwarf can be played if you are grumpy, hard to ridicule, or one of the older kids.

Elves must wear green pointy hats, but make up for it by being able to cast clerk and magic-user spells. Unfortunately since no one really understands how they level up, it's entirely likely they won't get past first level.

Alignment for reasons possibly derived from half-digested paragraphs in the Keep on the Borderlands, is designated as two separate terms. Fortunately, no one in your play group can make heads or tails between the behavioral difference of say a Lawful and Good Blink Dog and a Chaotic and Evil Chimera as laid out in the Holmes five-fold chart, so it's all the same anyway.

Character Death:
Dead PCs are survived by their younger brother who always, always bears the same name as the deceased character with a Roman numeral to designate their difference. The new PC gets all of the stiff's stuff--unless his asshole friends steals it all. See recreation of a period character sheet to the right,

The only exception is for a character who “sucks” (i.e. he had crappy attributes or starting cash because the player was caught fudging). In this case, the player can pick a name and new class and roll a new character. His friends still get to steal his stuff.

Equipment and Weapons:
Any number of weapons can be carried by a player. In fact your peers will think more highly of you if you can enumerate in great detail exactly where you have your 15 knives attached to your body. Ninja weapons are admissible if you win the argument with the DM.

Dungeoneers are advised to always go with the backpack over the sack. Sacks are easier to define in carrying capacity by a suddenly nitpicky DM, while backpacks are invariably infinite in what they can carry. Also any object you need will be instantly near the mouth of the backpack when needed.

Dogs are an essential component of every dungeon party. Regular dogs cost 20 gp, mean dogs 50. Regular dogs can carry a small treasure strapped to their back; mean dogs can have a spear strapped to their's which can skewer monsters when they charge into battle.

Dogs can be doused with flaming oil and set into a room, instantly killing all monsters (thanks, Dad).

Next up in our trip back to 1980: “Summer Camp DnD: Mechanics of Play, Dungeon Design, and Other DM Stuff”

Friday, March 25, 2011

Gone Fishin'

This afternoon I am off to the lovely brown-gray beaches of the Gulf of Mexico for my first three-day weekend in over a year and a half. The thought of a little mini-vacation certainly beats marching up and down the square and other travails of modern life. Posting is likely to be sporadic to none until my return.

And oh yes, some gaming news before I go. Fight On! magazine (you've probably never heard of it in the echo chamber) is running a fun-looking random table contest. Check it out here.

Don't do things I would do.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Founding a Fantasy Town, Part I

Last night I started getting my head back in the game--the Domain Game that is. (Thanks to all the players and volunteers nudging, cajoling, and encouraging me in the last couple weeks).

I put out some rule guidelines last month for how would-be rulers, warlords and satraps could attract rural settlers to their newly-carved lands, this month we take a look at what it takes to dupe unsuspecting urban types to your hold.

Where does the aspiring city builder begin?

First and foremost is the locating, surveying, and clearing of a proper site. A number of important questions need to be answered:
  1. Does the site have access to a fresh water source? Will it have enough water to sustain larger populations as the settlement grows?
  2. Does the site have enough arable land to support it? If not, how will food be secured to sustain the incoming hordes?
  3. Is the site in an economically feasible area? Will enough trade and commerce pass through the area to make it sustainable or prosper even? Is there enough work available for the new population?
  4. Is the site secure enough? Is the surrounding local area secured and patrolled adequately? Is it properly fortified? Is the new settlement policed sufficiently?
  5. Is the site properly drained? Is it on high, stable enough land to sink foundations and be resistant to floods?
  6. Will the new settlement meet the cultural and religious needs of its new citizens? Will the bread be supplemented by
Recruiting Urban Settlers
Once these questions have been considered and a charter issued, the local lord can begin the all-important task of attracting new denizens to the settlement.

A roll can be made once a year on the following chart for each farmed square mile newly-dedicated to supporting the settlement (roll only once for each). Note that at a minimum each 100 citizens will settle in land equaling roughly .1 square miles. Thus a town of 1,000 citizens will take up a 1 square mile area. (More spacious lots can be given to settlement residents if desired.)

Roll d10
1 None attracted
2 2 laboring-class families
3 4 laboring class, 1 semi-skilled
4-5 8 laboring class, 2 semi-skilled
6 12 laboring class, 3 semi-skilled
7 16 laboring class, 4 semi-skilled, 1 expert
8 20 laboring class, 5 semi-skilled, 1 expert, 1 patrician
9 24 laboring class, 6 semi-skilled, 2 expert, 1 patrician
10 28 laboring class, 7 semi-skilled, 2 expert, 1 patrician

-2 land secured in less than a year
-2 inhospitable environs (inadequate water, uncomfortable terrain like marsh, etc.)
+1 land secured more than five years
+1 settlement has developed cultural/religious amenities
+2 settlement on established trade route
+1 settlement site has wooden palisade
+2 settlement site has stone walls

Types of Urban Colonist Families
Each family is assumed for simplicity sake to be made up of five members (two of working age, one potential for militia service). The varying classes correspond to the categories on my Hirelings charts.

Laboring class families
This colonist class is made up of escaped slaves (or serfs), penniless freemen, drifters, etc. New colonists of this type will settle into available economic niches as urban laborers, apprentices, underworld types, etc. They can also be coerced or enticed into moving into work as cottars, harvest workers, and other agricultural labor in surrounding farmlands.

Semi-skilled and Expert families
Semi-skilled and expert families will take up shop in the settlement, initially (and literally) as small, independent providers. As the settlement grows from hamlet or village to town, these workers will found or import related-guilds, societies, and other mutual associations. The exact occupation of each family is to be determined by the GM.

Patrician families
Wealthy families that represent guildmasters, wealthy merchants, and/or minor nobles. Each household will hire 5-20 local residents to meet their own domestic and economic needs. (If none available they will “import” 1-4 laboring class families of their own.)

Optional: Colonist Cultural Identity Chart
Roll once for each incoming group.

Roll 1d8
1-5 Colonist group made up of same culture, ethnic group, and race
6-7 Colonist group made up of different culture or ethnic group (same race)
8 Colonist group made up of non-humans

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

One Stop Old School Shopping

In the “it's about time” category of things, Jeff Rients has been plugging today the wild notion that we all scoot over to the Links to Wisdom wiki and add our favorite practically useful classic-play blog or forum posts.

One of the things I have found more than a little frustrating is how quickly creative content pieces get buried in the daily deluge of mostly opinion-oriented posts, now here's a way to preserve and use some of the better bits.

The utility of this is readily apparent from a quick gander. I rapidly found myself futzing around with the Welsh Piper's excellent automated demographics program and downloading and printing all kinds of variant rules and other goodies. (I have to admit that I was a little flattered that some of my own Domain Game stuff had made it up there.)

Hats off to the Jovial Priest and Alex Schroeder for getting this exceedingly useful project off and running.  

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Japan Relief Again

Just finished reading this recent, moving post written by Japan-located Shinobicow of The Dump Stat blog (the warlord in charge of the Wolf Clan barbarians in the Domain Game).

If you haven't yet given to a relief effort, now is the time to do so. One way to channel funds through our hobby can be found here at RPGnow.

What Makes for a Good RPG Review?

I enjoy and appreciate many of types of writing that are being pumped out by our nook of this hobby. Reviews of new products tend not to be one of them.

Yes, of course, there are good reviews, but for everyone of them I read four or five that leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed (and to be fair I include my own here). But I come here not to bitch and moan, dear readers, but to think out loud about some ways to improve. 

What are the features of a good review?

My own list is something like this:
Punchline. A good review answers, at the minimum, one simple, yet vital question: should I buy this? Our gaming world suffers from the same embarrassment of riches as we do about real-world information, a bewildering range of choices in our mediums. What makes a product worthy enough to be picked out of the crowd or mediocre enough to stay there?

A Sense of Audience. Related to the above question, a good review tailors that question to a sense of audience. An audience of DIY RPG kitbashers can be different in what it is looking from than simply a group of people who play older edition D&D. Those differences in expectations must be addressed.

Take James at Grognardia as a positive example (at least for how he delivers his ending punchline). He ends each review with a “Buy this is if you...” or a “Don't buy this is if you...” with a specific recommendation of a need/desire of a particular subset of his readers in mind.

Acknowledge Bias. An unfortunate by-product of our chummy inter-connected network of classic play/DIY RPG enthusiasts is that we tend to downplay the fact that we want to help promote our friends. By being upfront and honest we not only give fair warning to our readers but we start to develop the mindset that lead to the next point.

Be Critical. I have to admit I enjoy I love the blood sport of watching the occasional, mean-spirited thrashing of a crap product, but that is a different beast from the kind of constructive criticism that helps us all push forward. If you only hear praise of your virtues, you will never progress as a writer, game designer, artist, or whatever. Similarly, if you only hear what's good about others work you miss an opportunity.

Playtesting. Playing it before reviewing it is not always an option, but something that happens way too infrequently. A common pitfall of RPG products is that they may read beautifully on paper—this is especially true for the new school bias toward heavy plotting—but play terribly at the table. 

Think of the vast difference of quality of the reviews of say James Raggi's Death Frost Doom between those who only read it and those who played it in their game (and had both positive and negative experiences).

Broader theme. Not as essential as many of the points above, but something I always enjoy is the working in of a broader theme. A great review doesn't just discuss the particular product, but contextualizes it in something bigger. 

If it's a review of a campaign setting it compares the presentation to the historical arc of such books in the last few decades. If plays around with a non-linear plotline it contrasts it with the current love of adventure paths. Etc. etc.

Now back to you fine people. What do you look for in a review? What questions do you need answered? What features and themes do you like to see examined?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Humanspace Empires Playtest Recap

There is a special room in Hell cordoned off for us gamemasters. In that room of perdition, the only medium for running a game is Skype. To give it that little added twist of anguish the players are granted crystal clear connections while our own cuts out randomly over and over again in the middle of explaining a long exposition or presenting the tension of rising action.

Or so I became convinced after a good hour and a half on Friday of hair pulling trying to run the Humanspace Empires playtest. It's a testimony to the strength of that game and its first crew of players that I still managed to have a serious amount of fun all the same.

Bellyaching aside, we kicked off the first-ever game of Humanspace with a cast of seven players—one of those groups of raucous, gut-wrenching funny players that you would kill to have come play in your dining room every other week.

The cast almost read like a joke about Tekumel: a Shen Egg Fertilizer, an Ahoggya, a Pe Choi female, and four human vagabonds all get picked up by the planetary authorities. For the full cast you see the rundown here on the blog of the game's creator, The Drune.

To cut a long exposition short (repeating three times the other night rather kills the buzz for me) said cast is threatened by the Governor of the metal-rich colony world of Marb IV with impalement unless they helped perform a little errand (yes, I told the players you hear the sound of a loud train whistle far off in the distance).

The little errand is, of course, a major one carrying a small lead box--a thermonuclear device with a 15-minute timeout it turns out—straight into the command center of a asteroid generation ship hurtling toward MARB IV. Loading onto the small scout ship, the Chirine, with five clones and a shit-talking, bellowing monster of a drill instructor, Sgt. Rokk Clone.

Maneuvering past the burned out hulls of the planetary defense force ships wiped out by the asteroids' defenses, the small ship closed in and was presented with four airlock entry choices into the complex.

Right here is a cautionary tale for others. If you are designing a scenario for a one-shot and/or a playtest don't use your standard old school, non-linear campaign dungeon approach. My 32-room asteroid “dungeon” with it's multiple entries, looping interconnections and vertical sub-layers virtually cried out for the players to not visit a good 75 percent of the complex—which they obliged me by doing.

Of the four airlock entrances three would lead them first through areas stacked with Saturday Night specials--as the good professor would call them--and one, the cargo bay, would lead them through a whole mess of fights. They choose the latter. (Perversely and unwittingly they managed to stay clear of a good chunk of the other rooms even after moving out of their initial quadrant.)

The hilarity of said mess of fights though made the evening in many ways. It's been a while since I have seen a group of players botch so many rolls so consistently. Shot after shot, blow after blow against the robot onslaught went amiss wrecking the hell out of the scenery.

I hate to admit it—since it breaks every principle of how I run a game at the tabletop—but I had to tone down the numbers and frequency of the complex's guardians just enough to let them get through to have a satisfying denouement for the night. They did manage to find the command center fair and square, but likely without a downscale in the opposition they would have either never made it there or never made it off the ship before the sucker blew in 15 minutes. Like any self-respecting old school GM I felt a little dirty later having done so, but it felt right at the time.
I was so close...

So that was the game, how did the rules hold up? Very well in what we managed to do: combat and exploration. Unfortunately due to my design choices they didn't use as much the special powers, skills, and gadgets.

If you have run—and loved—an older edition of D&D than you will be completely comfortable running this system. In fact I rather enjoyed it as it felt--I would imagine--closer in spirit to the simple, pre-TSR OD&D variant Empire of the Petal Throne than the published one.

I loved the fact that many of the interesting EPT variant twists were there in the rules: a simple but rich skill system, exploding-dice critical hits, a success check for psychic powers.

The steepest learning curve is in the crunchy equipment lists and special powers. Much of the gear has special rules to govern what they do, something I like but takes some digesting before using comfortably. Same goes for the special, psychic powers (the stand-in for spells) which likely will take some study and play before getting right.

Punchline is overall a fun game, that at the free price tag is a great gift from the Drune to the rest of us. Definitely one that I will likely try and run again the future at a convention—or a Skype game if I can get over my recently instilled anxiety and tech set-up problems.  

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Jim Roslof, the Kalevala and Inspiration

Before I put up the playtest report for our Humanspace Empires game Friday night, I thought it'd be fitting to do a tribute to Jim Roslof, the renowned TSR artist that just left our ranks.

Most everyone and their proverbial dog will be posting something about his passing today—with the requisite greatest hits selections like the cover piece for the Keep—so I will keep this one short, personal, and focused on something perhaps a little off the beaten track: his work on the Finnish Mythos chapter in the Deities and Demigods book.

Like undoubtedly many of the Generation X “D&D boom”, my first two years spent playing the game were blissfully ignorant spent without any real gods, religions, mythologies, or other cultural/political clap trap. (Remember back when even Greyhawk had no real deities other than some vague mentions of a Northumbrian saint and some funky, quasi-Lovecraftian elder ones?)

The world-building bug hit me hard as I rolled into adolescence and I suddenly found myself hungry for whole constellations of such things in my game.

With eager hands I picked up a copy of the newly minted DDG rolled out by TSR—and was left a little disappointed by the mostly real-world entries (the others launched many ships in my reading world, but that's another story).

Having been immersed in your standard range of children's mythology books with their heavy emphasis on the Big Two (Greco-Roman and Norse) I was especially disappointed that there wasn't much there that I hadn't already known myself—with the big exception of the Finnish chapter.

The chapter itself on it's own I would have likely just skipped right over mentally, but for those exotic-feeling illustrations by Roslof. The best gaming art really should do that, pull you into some someplace else, fire you up with that vision, and make you want to go out and create something of your own. His work did.

By the end of the afternoon I had found a dusty copy of the Finnish epic cycle the Kalevala and starting writing down ideas in a fresh new notebook. One idea after another came and before the end of the week my home campaign had founding myths, ballads of epic heroes, dark boreal forests, and lo and behold gods and religion--many of which were still attached to those black-and-white drawings in my mind's eye. The inkling of that terrible urge for depth had begun.

Thanks a lot Jim.

[Editor's Note: Condolences for Jim Rosolf's family and friends can be sent online here.]

Friday, March 18, 2011

Top Five Classical Fantasy RPG Adventures

Time again for a High Fidelity Top Five list.

On several occasions on this blog I have curmudgeonly stated my general antipathy (a word I learned from AD&D btw) to published adventures, but truth be told I do have some treasured favorites. Hold on a kids, get off my lawn.

Of course, the following list is highly subjective—even more so than I would imagine the Top Five maps thread was—and instead of going only with more-objective markers I went with the ones that felt in my gut like great classics from my own play experience. You know the way you'd re-watch Repo Man and say that's a great movie (ok, ok most of you wouldn't be saying that about that movie in particular, but stand-in your timeless personal favorite and you get my point).

To keep the list manageable and focused I bracketed off a few criteria: 1. it must be from a fantasy-genre roleplaying game; 2. it must have been published before 1984; 3. it had to be commercially published; and 4. it had to be something I played or at least intended to play back in the day.

Again in reverse order...
Caverns of Thracia. Perhaps the single best campaign dungeon ever designed with lots of vertical and non-linear organization. The Greek theme was ho-hum for me at the time (though I'd certainly dig it better now), but the various factions gave it added vibrancy. Bonus points for an undead lord that wasn't human. (Slight demotion on the list as it's the one I never had a chance to play.)

Village of Hommlet. My second encounter (the first you'll find down the list) with a mini-setting coupled with an adventure. The moat house dungeon (an Easter Egg homage to the Siege of Bodenburg) was lacking, but it was the first adventure that challenged me to think about the NPC “whirly bits” of a sandbox. Factional motivations, town intrigue, heists/capers, all these things came into my game because of good old T1.

Snake Pipe Hollow. After years of playing through D&D this Runequest adventure blew me away. The cave system had both a deeper naturalistic feel to and an otherworldy Gloranthan vibe. The “monsters” all had personalities and motivations of their own, the surrounding wilderness area was interesting, and there were several hooks that provided replay value.

Vault of the Drow. Many others have noted that this was the highpoint of Gygax's florid, descriptive prose and I have to agree. It was only years later when reading Clark Ashton Smith that I felt the same vibe.

Keep on the Borderlands. By objective criteria, does this deserve to be number one? Not likely, the Caves of Chaos have been described as an unreal evil critter condo set-up. But there is simply no other published adventure that I both got more play out of and influenced and inspired my own homebrewing.

Honorable Mentions: Expedition to the Barrier PeaksCastle Amber, The Lost City, Dwellers of the Forbidden City

So what's your top five list look like? I wait with bated breath.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

An Olive Branch to the Green-clad Horde

Here have some music. Cake is optional.

Help Wanted, No Irish

We all get by with a little help from our friends (or so I am told). I have been deeply appreciative of how generous readers have been with creative input, constructive feedback, playtesting, and “at-a-boy” morale boosting; now I come back proverbial hat in hand to ask for a little more.

A couple things I could use help with:

Gamemastering the Domain Game playtest. The project has been both great fun and utterly useful for growing the sourcebook—too much to let drift away like so many DIY projects. But getting all the little pieces in line is a task and a half (I wrote a little over 60 pages for the last turn), and have consequently holding up some of the action. Anyone up for becoming co- or assistant Tin God of Nowhere and helping me recover from Ass-Dragging Syndrome?

Join the Domain Game design team. Want to help design portions of this wilderness-clearing, realm-ruling bad boy? Well we have entry-level positions open for you on our happy little cooperative team. 

Japan relief. My own asks seems somewhat pitiful in comparison, the mess in Japan boggles the mind--and heart. Rpg Now is running a donation campaign here.

Drop me a line at kutalik at gmail dot com if you are interested. And please no Irish. I have had it up to here with your leprechaun hats, rosy cheeks, and drunken fist fights.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Last Call for Humanspace Empires Playtest

Readers will recall that I am running a playtest Skype game of The Drune's far future RPG Humanspace Empires this Friday at 20:00 Central U.S. time. 

Players seem to be having some fun creating characters (the game's designer himself, has a fine write-up here of his own redshirt here on blog.) 

 I am getting genuinely excited about the possibilities of slaying...err...fairly adjudicating the antics of players in this brand spanking new addition to our gaming world.

Due to a couple drop-outs we now have two seats open again in our eight-player game. If you are interested in joining in drop me at kutalik at gmail dot com. See here for chargen guidelines. 

Post about “Pendragon D&D” coming up next.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

We Need More Gaming Art Like This

Caught this one today cruising around looking for Glorantha arcana. The artist is the sci-fi novel cover artist Richard Bober for depending on the sources either the never-published supplement Dragonrise or for the also unreleased Runequest IV, Adventures in Glorantha (though more reputable sources seem to point more to the former as the source). 

Epic Time in Runequest and C&S

Time was born in Hell, where the shadows of chaos reigned and held the heart of the universe in greasy paws.” - The Gloranthan Calendar 

Blogging breeds obsessive behavior. I have been so stuck on thinking about epic time in D&D as per yesterday's post that I not only find myself tinkering with some matching sub-systems and mini-games (hey, at least it has some utility for the Domain Game), but also pulling down all my various old school gamebooks to see what they have to say about the march of time.

Most of the rules--unsurprisingly perhaps--fall into line with the D&D paradigm. Curiously however, two games that began life as OD&D spin-offs, Runequest and Chivalry & Sorcery, reject the one-for-one slower pace of D&D campaign time.

Here's what the second edition RQ rulebook says:
A time scale of one real week per game week makes the game drag unless one is running a campaign by mail. The authors recommend a scale of one real day per one game week.
Sadly nothing is given about why one would use such a compressed amount of time (and I admit to being mystified about why slower time would be ok for a postal campaign). You can infer the why from the longer and more frequent training periods and deeper character obligations to such things as cults, but you'd think that multiplying time at seven times the rate would warrant an explanation. (Applied to my own tabletop campaign, for instance, you'd have almost Pendragon-like passages of anywhere from 14-28 weeks between sessions.)

More interestingly first-edition C&S, explicitly contracts campaign downtime in order to capture the larger-stage roleplaying in the ways we were discussing yesterday. Here's the passage from “The Time Frame” section:
...the one day = one game day concept has been dropped in favor of a more telescoped time period...If large-scale actions are going to be fought, anxious War Lords are going to be very frustrated by a real-time winter period in which no campaigning is possible. To permit a few good wars, time has to be compressed. Also, time was compressed to permit characters to live out a reasonable proportion of their lives, and perhaps even descendants to take up the struggle.
One wonders if this was the kernel of an idea that influenced Pendragon's own system.

I rather like how it continues on to lay out a “campaign season” as some of you were suggesting yesterday in comments. Keep in mind it is mostly suggesting a one real week to four game week baseline:
The year is seasonal in nature, and winter is always a quiet period because conditions are simply too bad for anyone to seriously attempt an adventure outside settled areas. Even the monsters get out of the snow storms. The four seasons therefore down as follows.
Spring: April and May: 2-3 real weeks
Summer: June to October: 8-10 real weeks
Fall: November and December: 2-3 real weeks
Winter: January to March: 1 real week
I dig the quirkiness of this system, especially how it lays out game session windows in real weeks. Better get your game on if you want to visit that dungeon in game-time January. (Though I have a strong feeling that I would simplify such matters down more to the Pendragon way of having the adventure be in one stretch and the downtime as punctuation.)

Now I am going back to touching all the door knobs and counting all the pens in my office.  

Beware the Ides of March

...then fall Caesar.

Full page here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Adding Pendragon Epic-Time to D&D

Given the sweep of subjects it has dealt with in its many editions, D&D has had many curious omissions. Time is not one of them.

Indeed one of the more enduring legacies of the game's older editions has been how time inside rpgs is framed. The handling of game time has become so accepted as a bedrock concept that the founders' creativeness in conceptualizing it is almost purely taken for granted.

Most of D&D's wargame predecessors had rigid conceptions of what a turn was. Turns invariably puttered along on a single linear frame of time units (with the obvious exception of miniature campaigns that alternated play with battle-level time and a campaign-level time).

From the little brown books onward, time in D&D has run on multiple levels.

Given the central importance of site-based exploration, “dungeon time” a relatively small-scale timescale subdivided by 10-minute turns, is stressed as the most basic, fundamental game timescale. (I would hazard a guess that the centrality of this portion of play is why we ended up with “turns”, the most traditional of game terms here).

Right below it lay “combat time”: a quick, compressed timescale broken up by minute or 10-second “rounds” (further complicated in AD&D by “segments”). Right above it lay the longer timescale of “wilderness time” with its game days or day portions.

Much hazier was the layer of time right above wilderness time: “town time” or “campaign time” depending on your druthers. In my own experience both as GM and player this almost always meant the exact amount of time it took the party to heal its wounds, stock up, train, consult a sage, recover from hangovers, etc before promptly returning to the at-the-table time of the wilderness or dungeon. Time in this scale was days and weeks—with months on the very longest side.

(Even rarer was the punctuation of “hand-waving time” as the GM needed to move you great distances to a new adventuring site, but it's rarity makes it a decided exception.)

All good and fine, but did D&D--and the games that trailed in its wake--missed an important opportunity by not hard-wiring higher layers of time into the game?

Think of the some of the problems that we have heard here on running the kingdom-ruling part's of Paizo's Kingmaker series or Birthright. On both occasions players and GMs complained about how difficult it was to integrate play between the long sweep of the domain management pieces and the traditional adventuring timescales we are all used to.

It makes me wonder if the problem is in the domain rules of each product or the entrenchment of what D&D game play should be like in our minds. (Likely both, but why spoil a good set-up.)

Now let's take Pendragon. One of the game's core innovations was its handling of campaign time. Each scenario (linked multi-session adventures never lasting more than a season or two) is supposed to be bookended by a year of downtime.

A simple innovation but one that added several layers of depth. Players could realistically play not only a character but a characters' children and grandchildren. The managing of realms—almost inherently a long-term project needing months if not years of “off-stage” time to be interesting—becomes an easier fit. The real sweep of history, more of a thing of years, decades, and centuries even, becomes something tangible in gameplay.

My thinking out loud thread of today is simply this: would this work for classic-play D&D? Is that hard-wiring inherent or merely an ossified piece of how we play the game? Is epic-scale D&D even a fun prospect?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Anyone Playing Kingmaker?

No, no not THAT Kingmaker (that one I play), but the Paizo one.

I have been intrigued by this line of “adventure paths” (two words put together that usually make me throw up in my throat a little) for some time. Intrigued enough even to plop down some bucks for the first two.

While the content never rose to my personal gold-standard for hex-crawl campaigns, Runequest's Griffin Mountain, and some of the glossy "hot elf chick wielding foot-wide sword” like art made me balk; I thought, on paper at least, that it did a good job of combining two old-school meta-themes near and dear to my heart: sandbox wilderness exploration and the carving/ruling of new realms in said sandbox.

So what about practice? Has anyone played through these, either as intended or adapted to older editions?

And tell me about the dominion rules especially. Did they intergrate well into the actual tabletop campaign? Were they dropped or modified or did they rock the house?

Inquiring minds want to know.

(I know, I know this is a query better for a forum, but I am spending my gaming writing energy finishing the Domain Game turn reports before my players skin me alive for all my recent procrastination. )

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Are Hot Elf Chicks Ruining D&D?

This is a bandwagon too fun not to climb on. 

And yes, hot Drow chicks are elves too. Racist.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Who Killed D&D?

Above is the bait. Here's the switch.

In a response to Johnathan Bingham's recent divisive and controversial post, “I Like Pie” , one of the more collegial members of our online community, the Happy Whisk, stated that effective blog headlines are what draws her to a post. A simple point perhaps to some, but one bloggers looking to get up on their game (no pun intended) should pay some mind to.

The power of great headlines was driven home to me at a job interview (of all things). Applying for a news editor position, I was put through the ringer by a hard-nosed interviewer.

After the usual round of questions, he read off three punchy, archly-crafted headers to me and asked me quickly, “what makes these three headlines great?” Just as quickly he rattled off three more awkward-sounding ones and said, “what makes these three lousy?”

Listening and probing, he concluded this little exercise by saying, “in 20 seconds or less, name three great headlines you have written.” I could only name one to which he said: “that's pretty good, but that means you have only written one good headline in your life. The best ones you will never forget.”

I didn't get the job, but boy did I get a crash course in headline writing. 

Let's try this out as an exercise.

Three headlines from my blog that I think are effective:

Three stinkers:

Your turn. Name three of your best in 20 seconds or less (and yes, I'm counting). Bonus points for sharing your clunkers.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Humanspace Playtest Update

In the housekeeping department, we still have a seat or two open in the Humanspace Empires playtest Skype game slated for March 18. Who knows, perhaps the elusive and secretive creator of said game will be lurking inside your ranks...

For character generation this is what we are doing for the one-shot:
  1. Roll 4d6 in order for attributes, drop the lowest.
  2. Any class or race is acceptable (but pay attention to attribute minimums and maximums).
  3. Start at 2nd level, max. hit points on first level.
  4. Starting cash 1,000 credits.
  5. Be prepared to roll a second character--and maybe a third.
Il Male over at his somewhat unpronounceable (yet up and coming) blog has gone to the trouble of creating some great-looking character sheets for Humanspace. Download them here

More Art Inspiration

I have always had a soft spot for the work of the French ancien régime artist Hubert Robert. Any stop at the Art Institute of Chicago or the National Gallery in D.C. invariably has me making a beeline for his large moody canvases.

They positively drip the forgotten glories of dark fantasy and rarely fail to inspire me to take another turn at mapping vast sprawling ruined cities.