Wednesday, August 31, 2011

New Google+ Hub for Petal Throne Gaming

A short PSA before the next “meaty” post—and yes, I am rolling up shirt sleeves and getting back to work post-kerfuffles.

Peter Robbins, the fellow who just put up the Tekumel clearinghouse Skein of Destiny, has a new site up for coordinating and scheduling Google-Plus EPT (and other Tekumel-related role-playing): G+ Tekumel. If you are interested in running or playing in sessions hop on over there post-haste.

Note to all on the now-longish alternate and waiting lists for our EPT G+ games, Peter has four open seats for the first session of his own EPT underworld game on September 10 at 10pm EST.  

Monday, August 29, 2011

Mission Accomplished

Standing on the deck of the Melnibonean battle barge, Arisaema Dracontium, Deep Thought announced to the slow clap of born creatives today that “major combat operations in the War against the GM Challenge are over.”

“In the Battle of the Essence of Role-Playing Games, Higher Calling has prevailed,” he added before leaping into a flying flaming chariot. “Because of you, gaming is more secure. Because of you, the tyrant, Cheap Community-Based Balderdash, has fallen, and D&D is free.”

A modest comment on the use of hyperbole.

Field Notes from the Google+ Nexus Point Under Jakalla

As we roll toward September, online Empire of the Petal Throne gaming seems to be still rocking the clan-house.

Potential players still outstrip game-master capacity, but new fronts are opening with new games. Victor Raymond has worked some revivification magic on his play-by-post game and his ever-useful thread on running Tekumel-by-careful degrees is still trucking along with new entries too. There's even a brand spanking new blog, Skein of Destiny, vying to become a Tekumel news clearinghouse.

The deep well entrance into my section of the Underworld
 being around that first "a".
Getting back to the expanding capacity, thanks to Jeremy Duncan of Dandy in the Underworld, who some of you may remember as one of the winners of the maritime contest here, I finally got a chance to kick my feet up and actually play the game.

Despite nagging technical difficulties, the game didn't disappoint. (I will be doing a post on some of my on-the-job observations about how to run both smoother, more effective Google+ sessions and “entry-level” EPT later this week, but interested readers should familiarize themselves with Constancon--under which Kaing standard we march--organizer Zak's weekly-updated list of tips and suggestions here. )

I will spare you most of the blow-by-blow, but one of the interesting development is that our Google EPT parties are now officially in an open, shared world where the uncouth barbarian PCs wander in out and of adventures in our mutual pieces of Jakalla (in this case Jeremy has taken up shop with a creepy manse-fortress on a nearby island).

As I have written before  this a style of playing I have been really hungry to keep experimenting with.

It's not without its headaches though. Zak S's all-thumbs, official-party-speaker-to-the-dead sorcerer and Matthew Miller's one-climb-too-many priest of Thumis both had managed to mosey their way out of the underworld campsite back to that vermin-teeming flophouse, the Tower of the Red Dome, and into our party with a wave of the hand.

Some serious congruity questions were posed and then realized in the course of the game, such as what happens when a character who should be uneasily asleep outside a mysterious incinerator in my game (and thus “on pause”) gets killed in the other session? Are the characters from the last adventure carrying the swag they found in the depths? Are they in an alternate Tree of Life timeline?

Part of me, the KISS part, just shrugs. A little incongruity and handwaving has never particularly upset me--my home campaign's games have been drop-in/out to accommodate busy lives for going on three years now. But with Matt's character living up to that adjective above and plummeting post-death-ray to his death from the manse wall, that's a hole too many not to address. Did he just go poof from that cold underworld floor or did he travel on to the Isles of Paradise during his “breaktime”?

If we add more refs running linked EPT games—and I hope we do—then we will have to develop at least a few hard and fast rules governing this.

Any suggestions from you fine folks about what you would do if you? Mostly I am inclined to simple fixes such as “it happens in sequential real-life order and between each session the party travels back to 'town' kinds of solutions”, but perhaps there is a better way that I am not seeing.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Let the Games Begin

A scant few miles north of the house where I spent my grade school years stood the butt-ugly, blue- white, concrete-and-steel pile called Arlington Stadium, birthplace of crappy sports-arena nachos and then home of the Rangers. (And not to be confused with its foo-foo replacement the Ballpark in Arlington).

Though it was a major league operation, there was always a decidedly minor league field to how the park was run—perhaps in keeping with the performance of the team in the 70s. Around the fifth inning the ticket-keepers near the bleachers section would just up and leave, leaving the turnstiles wide open.

Upshot was between mid-game sneak-ins and later my step-dad's season tickets, I spent an ungodly amount of time in that ballpark. I loved everything about the experience: the spandex-strutting of my heroes on the diamond; the yankee-baiting frothing of the bleacher fans; the sour smell of spilled beer; the sudden visceral feel of a foul ball or homer that I just knew was coming straight for my glove...straight for my...nah.

Not surprisingly I loved any excuse to introduce sports back into my gaming. My earliest proto-rpg experience was perhaps the crude d6 rolling games we played with baseball and football cards. I  played the gamut of sports games from those plastic figure, vibrating football field games to the clunky, over-complicated paper-and-pencil monsters.

Of course, that other great time-killer of those years, D&D, didn't escape this twin-obsession either. I used every opportunity to work in spectator sports inside a session, whether it was a hippogriff race, zombie arena, Goblinball, or what. My first miniatures rules, the incredible five-volume set that was Heritage's Knights & Magick, fueled this hunger further with its long sections detailing rules for tournaments, jousts, grand melees and the like.

I was thus pleased as the proverbial punch when the Companion set of Mentzer-flavor D&D introduced a number of mini-game-like rules for running grand tournaments in a player-owned dominion. Though we were 12-year old AD&D snobs at the time, I leapt at the chance to kit-bash all those domain-level rules into our campaign.

I loved mucking around with what we now call mini-games, all the subsystems that hung around each of these ludic events.

Of course one of the very first things we did—the line was intensely blurry between players and DM at that time--in a little barony carved out out of the Suss Forest in Greyhawk's Wild Coast was host a massive array of games literally everything in the book and more. When Oriental Adventures came along at the end of my first tenure in gaming, I would even add the bizarre-seeming such as calligraphy contests.

Nowdays I don't watch much baseball anymore, my football urges are safely channeled into my fantasy-football league (now in its ninth season, go Fightin' Mensheviks), and I play soccer instead of watching it. But every once in a while that mood strikes me.

That itch will probably be expressed in a few reports here on a Roman gladiator mini-campaign I am running solo using Red Sand Blue Sky. Stay tuned for the exploits of that wily lanista Kutalikus Cacophonus as he runs a gladiator school on the edge of civilization, Britannia. [Editor's Note: Ed Teixeira, the co-writer of RSBS, ran a session of that and the linked Charioteer at our Mini-Con this last weekend, thus the sudden, abrupt inspiration.]

Also on the cutting room floor of the Hill Cantons: Borderlands sourcebook (now thick in beta-test and rewrite) is a unfinished heap of similarly-themed work. Keeping my eyes on the appropriately-metaphoric ball, you ain't going to see them in the first effort.

But you just might see in a follow-up supplement a wide range of appropriate mini-games: jousting, tournament melees, wrestling/boxing contests, gladiator spectacles, wizard duels, bardic face-offs, and up to the massive and fantastic like the naumachia pictured all the way above--and stranger.

As always, there are no limits, no borders to what can be done...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

GM Challenge Compilation: Kindle Editon

A big thank you to Matt, one of the poor schlubs suffering through my demented version of the Jakallan Underworld, for whipping out a Kindle-compatible edition of the GM Challenge Compilation pdf. How sweet is that?

This version is available for the “right” price, free, here.

Now Playing at a Free Download Near You: The GM Challenge Compilation

The GM Challenge Compilation is now available for your reading pleasure. There are two versions: the “no-frills” (but printer-friendly) 50-page version and the “deluxe” one illustrated by the dark and weird work of Harry Clarke.

Both versions can be downloaded here.

I am little amazed now that I have put it together in one place by how large the number of selections are—and how quickly it came together. Kudos to all the good sports who participated. I have a list of 11 new techniques that I will be experimenting with at my own home table, so selfishly I leave this as a happy man.

You will note that I didn't include the cap-stone introduction and analysis I talked about yesterday. There is an interesting diversity of approaches you will see cropping up in the posts, some even directly contradicting others. This is a fine and healthy thing that underscores the basic truth that GM styles and player group cultures vary. You will find that some tips may work wonders for you and others will bomb.

I will let readers draw their own conclusions, the selections stand on their own—warts and all.

It is also important to draw readers and contributors attention to the edits I did on pieces to make them punchier and keep the repetition down. Not a single properly-spelled word was changed, but in many pieces I cut introductory and concluding paragraphs to highlight the laundry lists proper.

If you have a strong opinion about a particular piece I strongly recommend that you follow the link to the original piece—there may be nuance and useful information in cut paragraphs, cross-links, and comments that you will glean there.

If  motivated, I may release a second version by the end of the week that includes any useful suggestions from the peanut gallery (drop them below if you think you have one) and any last-minute contributions.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Last Call on the GM Challenge PDF

I am still seeing entries chugging along in the GM Challenge—along with some holier-than-thou criticism. Fortunately the co-sharing and creating seems to be trumping the tongue-clucking.

Grouchy jabs aside, a few things on the pdf document that I am reformatting and compiling from the range of entries:

1.  I am going to be putting the final package together tomorrow morning. If you haven't made an entry yet and want to, or you have and you haven't flagged it here (it's a matter of scattered me being able to keep up with it all), please drop a link in the comments below.

2.  If you DO NOT want your blog entry included in the pdf please also drop me a line in the comments below.

3.  Your entry will be, of course, fully attributed to you and a link will be made in the file to your blog.

I will be slapping on some observations and analysis about the whole process in the introduction as there are several interesting broader threads I see gelling.

I have been really interested in some of the apparent contradictions, a reminder that one size never fits all and that there is a beautiful creative unity in that diversity. But more about that later...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Portrait of a Total Party Killer

Our little Saturday soiree, the South Texas Mini-Con, was good fun—at least for me. (Next year though, we'll make sure to not have to turn away so many people from the doors because of the Fire Dept. capacity issue.)

In the morning I jumped in on Desert Scribe's four-way Starfleet Wars game. I have to admit though having read and dug his fine paean to the old school starship mini game at Super Galactic Dreadnaught, I was a bit intimidated when I saw that player handout come with a calculator for computing our ship's power supply each turn. 

Ok, ok that's a bit of an understatement, rather I felt like cowering in the corner, batting my hands in the air, and wimpering like a little girl at the thought.

Seriously though, turn calculations aside it was an easy game to get into. Each turn your ships are faced with an interesting resource management question: how do I split up my power supply into movement, defense, or offensive capabilities? Most damage detracts only from said power supply and with no facing or vector rules it makes for a nice quick game with good tactical choices at every turn. 

My brave Avarian fleet (i.e. the People of Bird-like Stature) weathered well at first. I conducted a first-turn "preemptive attack" on my neighbors the People of Feline Stature and took out one of their wee destroyers pretty quickly. But then things went South, I then proceeded to commit that classic error of multi-player wargame—getting into a clobbering match with the Cats instead of paying attention to the scenario objective, an alien relic from the lost Mag'Uph'Un Empire (nice one, Mack).
Bravely running away, I am
The Space Roaches and Fishies did pay attention however. With the Roach ships making contact and landing boarding parties while the Fishies pounded them from afar. Toward the end the Birdies and the Cats stopped their genocidal war almost, almost in time to stop the roaches from winning. But just not quite.

The second session saw me sitting in at Brad's AD&D game which I thought was supposed to be us playing monsters defending our dungeon from erstwhile heroes, but instead I was given this pre-gen:
Albert aka Presto
Groan. We were playing the roles of the spunky cartoon characters from the D&D cartoon series. Likely this could have succeeded with a more mature, less bent-on-total-chaos-and-destruction group than ours, but...well...we were that group.

“And the Bullywugs won't not be able to help themselves 
but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, 
and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives.”
Later, Brad would ruefully say that he expected us to self-destruct the scenario, but was surprised that it would come first from me--apparently the flood-dam was opened when I had Presto turn psycho-tunes in the first five minutes. And here I was thinking that carving a swastika Inglorious Basterds-style on a living bullywug's head was a perfectly acceptable interpretation of the character!
"@#%^& you, Chris. Payback's gonna be a bitch."
Session three was my own Empire of the Petal Throne game, a run through the same Sarku-infested section of the Jakallan underworld that my Google Plus groups have been worming (pun so intended) their way through in the last few weeks. In the interest of keeping suspense up there I won't spill too many of those beans.

Suffice it to say that they found the mysterious steel chimes MacGuffin in less than four hours time—the Google groups having spent two sessions going everywhere but the tomb that holds them—and then managed to die one by one until I had a TPK mere minutes after doing so.
Jason Braun's warrior falls into the spiked pit. One down.
The Priest of Thumis misses his Dex check on the way back.
Hating it. Scratch Two.
Bad time to lose initiative in the first round.
Chop, chop, chop...
My first TPK in 25 years, where's my flippin' medal?

Overall a positive experience, my main regret was not being able to play in every session: Ed from Two-Hour Wargames' gladiator and chariot-racing games looked awesome as did Don's When the Navy Walked scenario involving a steampunk German “ogre”. (And both fine people to boot, makes me want to jump back into minis again, it does.)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

GM Challenge Update

I am done tuckered out from helping run the South Texas Mini-Con yesterday (more about that later), but the entries keep rolling in for the “Build Better A GM” Challenge so another quick update.

If people are interested—and none of the challenged object—I was thinking of compiling and reformatting all the entries into a single PDF. Unwashed masses, what do you think?

Latest, greatest updates:

If you've made an entry and don't see your link here, grab me by my virtual ear in the comments.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Time for Your Gold Stars

The gauntlet has been thrown and we have entries for the “Build a Better GM” challenge

A quick run-down of who has posted on this so far (look here for future updates):

Dreams in the Lich House, Building a Better GM 

A Dungeon Master's Tale, Gauntlet Thrown I accept your challenge

Dungeon Fantastic, Table Rules 

Lamely, I haven't finished my own, having squandered my writing time this afternoon--and now have a rush of things this evening on the plate. Soon, soon my pretties.

Building a Better GM: A Challenge

Beedo of Dreams in the Lich House posted a survey piece yesterday that ended with the punchline that the ultimate X-factor in tabletop rpgs is the creativity of the GM. Tearing down or building up that assertion itself could fill up several posts, but I was taken more by a gauntlet he dropped in the resulting comments: “something I'd like to see more bloggers discuss is their successful table techniques that translate into good games.”

Active GM worth their salt are constantly honing up, mulling over, tearing apart, and obsessing around what makes or breaks their home games. Why is the topic so under-represented in our writings? Why the strange disconnect?

No wait, don't answer that.

Instead, let's try and make good on poor Beedo's deathbed wish with the following challenge (to be replicated on your own blog):
  1. Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at?
  2. What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?
  3. How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?
Truth be told after typing this out last night, this morning I found it to be harder than it looked. Your temptation will be to cheat; to name more than three or collapse them into a very generalized theme.

Don't give in. Focusing on three very specific techniques makes the whole exercise more concrete, more potentially portable to another GM.

My own entry coming this way by the afternoon. Until then, happy mulling.  

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Champion of Zed

The interview series keeps chugging along this summer and I am happy with its overall direction. I was proud to have hosted the recent exchange with Rob Kuntz--even with some of the axe-grinding conniption fits over in nooks like Knights-n-Knaves. The interview, at the least, got people discussing and debating, one of its primary aims.

But really friends, the series is also an extended excuse for me to have focused talks with people that interest me in our hobby.

I started noticing over the past year that I've really enjoyed reading or hearing from a small set of classical gamer folks I dub--for lack of a better pigeon hole--“the historians”. These are bloggers and others with some internet presence who really dig into a tight range of subjects from the early days of our hobby with a certain focused rigor. Folks like Allen Grohe/Grodog, Scottsz, Grendelwulf, Harami/Dave, and others who deliver things that I sometimes feel is lacking in the “editorializers” (of which I am probably one.)

Dan Boggs, aka D.H. Boggs, is a fella I think of being in that category. His Dragons at Dawn, an homage to Arneson's pre-D&D unpublished rules, and his upcoming Champions of Zed situate him in that “historian” orbit and I was glad to track him down a couple weeks ago for an interview.

Hill Cantons: How would you best identify yourself to readers?

Dan Bogg: I’ve dug up a fair few graves. Kids graves are the worst. I’ve pulled charred stones out of 4,000 year old hearths and read love poem scrawled on a cowrie shell discarded in the privy of a 19th century whore house. I’ve stared at a delicate thumbprint in a 1000 year old native American pottery and spent day after day walking through fields, and forest digging holes and looking for stuff.

Kinda puts life in perspective. I think about time and the big picture a lot. Things that enrich my life, gaming being one of them, matter much more to me than hype and sophomoric posturing buzzing about the world.

I grew up in the “Laurel Highlands” of SW Pennsylvania, basically like West Virginia light (yeah, country boy), but I’ve lived a in a lot of different places and various cities. My father was from the hills of east KY and my mother was from Pittsburgh, both from old families. Now, I got a house in a nice small town not too far from the Adirondacks and here my wife and I are raising two girls.

HC: You seem to take a lot of care in your gaming work to ground it in Dave Arneson's legacy. What got you down that road and why the care in trying to keep it as close to the original material as you do in Dragons at Dawn?

DB: Gravity, I suppose, and the preservationist instincts that comes of being an archaeologist. My first set of D&D rules was B/X and I glommed on to the AD&D stuff pretty much like everybody else, although I thought a lot of the rules were stupidly complex and mostly just used the good stuff. 

When 2E came out I bought the line that it fixed all the nonsense and I liked the greater emphasis on flexibility.

By the time 3e came out I was traveling around a lot, living in hotels and apartment working as an archaeologists so there wasn’t much time for gaming, let alone buying a whole new system. Anyway, I had long had an interest in knowing more about “the other guy”. 

Gygax was a very big presence in the game but all I knew of Arneson was the little I heard from Gygax’s comments in Dragon mag (this is all pre-internet, keep in mind). I specifically bought DA 2 Temple of the Frog when it came out to see what a module from “the other guy” was like.

Fast forward to about 2007, my new wife and I buy our first house. For the first time in my life I’m “settled” and I thought it a great time to get back into gaming. Long story short and for various reasons – one of them being an interest in understanding the original purpose of the ability scores – I started to find out more about this Arneson fellow and was fascinated by the history there and by both what a great guy he was and great ideas he had. My timing was terrible, as it turned out, for just as I was really getting into his gaming products, he passed away.

HC: Champions of Zed is taking a bit of a different tack, but still seeks to situate itself pretty close to the roots of the hobby. Can you tell us about that project and your goals there?

DB: Yeah, after writing Dragons at Dawn, the last thing I wanted to do was tackle another set of rules. It is soooooo time consuming, particularly when it is a research project involving lots of sources. But, in a sense, I felt like I didn’t have a choice.

I had the great fortune to be trusted with a copy of what turned out to be a draft of the D&D rules prepared by Arneson, and I’m fairly confident in my assessment of them being the “final” draft he mentioned in Different Worlds mag. I was sent the rules because the owner hoped I would be able to shed some light on them. Indeed I can!

But that story will have to wait till all parties concerned are agreeable to more being said. Having this draft in my hands though, and having had my head buried in the FFC and the rest of Arneson’s work and having a keen interest in OD&D in general, well I felt like I had to bring it all together, all these disparate threads. I wanted these rules first and foremost for myself, but I also knew that there would be lots of people who would find them as liberating and fun as me.

At the time I started writing CoZ, there was a real need being expressed on various forums for an OD&D “clone” that brought in its quirks and uniqueness–like the exploratory hex-crawl, and the options for different Chainmail style combat. The OD&D based “clones” or supplements for other games really just add some OD&D stylings to what is otherwise a B/X game.

My goal wasn’t to clone the 3LBBs or the obscure Arneson manuscript, but to use them both, along with a careful selection of Gygax/Arneson OD&D house rules and the FFC, to edit together the game that might have been had Gygax and Arneson brought in an editor to harmonize the material.

In some sense CoZ, may be the “truist” version of OD&D out there, in that it brings a balance between the OD&D of Gygax and Arneson that exists no where else.

HC: I know that you mentioned that the First Fantasy Campaign is one of your primary sources, one of my major inspiration points for Borderlands,in that project. How do you see that fitting in?

DB: I treat the FFC as an equal to the 3LBBs [OD&D books], Chainmail, and Arnesons OD&D draft. It’s not a comic bastard stepchild. Of course, I’m talking about the relevant, rules driven parts of the FFC that have analogs in the 3LBB’s, so, for example, The magic swords section, or the monster section are taken as seriously as a source as the same sections in the 3LBB’s – provided no weird contradictions arise.

Of course, the part of CoZ already published in Fight On is a blend of the wilderness and map rules found in the FFC and the rules and tables of 3LBBs, and that’s the way it should be – these things were literally made to work together, but piecing it together can be challenging. Not to worry, CoZ does that work for you.

There’s also value in the anecdotal information in the FFC. We’re told, for instance about two of the original characters being an orc and a balrog. While balrog may be a bit much, there’s no good reason orc shouldn’t be one of the standard PC races, so I give rules for that.

[In a recent email, Dan revealed that he went ahead and added the balrog player class. Que awesome, in the opinion, of this humble reporter.]

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

South Texas Mini-Con this Saturday

A quick reminder about our free event this coming Saturday, the South Texas Mini-Con.

We are proud to add Norm of Troll and Flame fame to the roster of volunteer refs. He will be our "pinch hitter" and will be bringing along a one-shot Labyrinth Lord/Classic D&D adventure for play if we have critical mass in either the second or third session.

(I highly recommend Norm as a GM having played in his riotous Caves of Chaos game at the Austin Mini-Con last year.)

Morning: 9-12:15
Starfleet Wars (Mack H.)
open gaming

Afternoon: 12:45-4
When the Navy Walked  (Don M) 
Red Sand Blue Sky (Ed/Two Hour Wargames)
open gaming

Evening: 4:30-7:45
open gaming

Site details can be found here. If you are coming from I-35, exit 187 at Seguin Road, and go seven blocks north. 

We are in breakout room 105 which is on the right-hand side of the convention center.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Q&A Time with Rob Kuntz

The interview I posted earlier today with Rob Kuntz covered a lot of mileage. Rob encouraged me to tell readers that he is interested in answering direct questions you might have (there was some questions I noticed earlier--some in good faith and some likely not--in forum spaces discussing it).

Here's your chance to step up to the mike. Questions for the Lord of Green Dragons?

No Borders: A Conversation With Rob Kuntz

To call the following piece an “interview” is a bit inadequate.

What follows below is more of a “cease-fire agreement”: a stopping point in a long zig-zagging conversation with Rob Kuntz that stretched over many months. A conversation that was never “easy” in the conventional sense—though my interviewee acted as a class act throughout—for there wasn’t a moment in the rapid fire of each faltering, scratchy Skype phone call that I didn’t feel challenged to re-think assumptions about the evolution of our hobby.

Simply writing out the standard dry intro also seems to fall short; to only say spit out the list of professional credits, terse wiki-like biographical lines and perhaps a few fawning superlatives just doesn’t seem right. Rob is not an easy person to pin down or pigeon hole in convenient terms both professionally and personally.

For sure Rob was one of the pathbreakers in the creative gaming ferment of the late 60s and 70s that culminated with D&D and the birth of the modern role-playing game. As a virtual member of the Gygax family in Lake Geneva, he almost literally grew up with the game. He went from being an early play-tester as a teen in the early 70s to a co-DM with Gary Gygax to a writer/editor with TSR—and then off to the rough and tumble of decades of freelance game design and writing. Fight On! magazine will be dedicating issue 14 to that career.

But better to hear it all from the man himself, so with no further ado…

Hill Cantons: Who is Rob Kuntz?

Rob Kuntz: Just like that? Poof?!

When I quit TSR for philosophical and personal reasons, both related to a changed atmosphere at the company, I closed myself out for the most part. But I kept a watchful eye on things as they changed; and I was always in contact with my peers.

The rest of my life is as a free-lance writer. Except for a handful of articles done for Dragon Magazine BitD, all that I’ve written has been free-lance. You could say that I did justice to old ‘Blue Eye’s’ song since, “I did it my way.” When you go that route there’s always a price to pay. On the positive side this reinforced my ultimate purpose and I strove harder to master the craft of writing in various forms. I realized through all the highs and lows that you succeed in something that you value only through sacrifice. There’s been a good measure of that in my adventuresome career, for which I am grateful, of course.

For the curious, or for those easily amused, here are some other “highlights” from my life…

…At 8 years of age I was reading the Harvard Classics and a set of Collier encyclopedias my far-sighted mother had purchased for my brother and I; and I was seeking access to the reserved books at the Lake Geneva Public Library, with many raised eyebrows from the librarians forthcoming in exchange…

…My father died in a head-on car crash when I was age 2; never knew him…

…Gary Gygax once referred to my memory as “phenomenal.” I still maintain a single memory from being in my highchair, age 1 or less, this based upon my brother’s size in the images…

Rob playing Little Wars
at the 1968 IFW Convention.
…At age 13 my mother suffered a nervous breakdown and that left me alone while being watched over by the neighbors. While flipping through a Playboy of theirs I discovered an advertisement for the Dog Fight board game by MB in the X-mas gift section. I petitioned my aunt who was checking in on me weekly to buy it. The hunt for it introduced me to AH games, as Larry Zirk, an assistant store-manager at Shultz Bro.’s 5&10 that stocked some AH titles, informed me of these and that some locals played them at Gary Gygax’s house. 

 A week later I accepted his invite to play at EGG’s house on Center Street. This started my association with the Gygax family and was also my introduction to miniature- and board-wargaming in 1968…

…I have been the ward of the State of Wisconsin due to my mother’s mental health issues and was in two foster homes; and at age 16 the Gygax family suggested adopting me (as we were that close) since they were bound for Maine (Guidon Games was going to hire Gary full time), but the deal with Guidon fell through at the last moment and we remained in LG…

…I have worked jobs to keep me going so I could write. I have owned and operated two small businesses, have been a business manager, a marketing director and a top salesman for a national company whereat I landed the Saturn (GM) account. I have also flipped burgers, washed dishes and dug holes…

…I was married once, but the empty vodka bottles thrown at me (pre-emptied by my ex) speedily guided me to a divorce…

...I have hitchhiked over 1,000 miles, my longest trek being from northern Minnesota to southern Wisconsin…

…I have traveled extensively in Mexico, Guatemala and Western Africa, the last whereat I contracted malaria and where I had what I can only term as a “riveting” spiritual experience which I cannot “rationally” explain to this day…

…I miss nothing in my observations of life, even noting the cracks in sidewalks and their varying widths, depths and forms… The small, or what might be considered by others, insignificant, things of life have always maintained my attention in the grand sweep of things…

…I seem to instantly attract eccentric, mad or nearly insane people. My stories are endless involving these and would make for a full book in their own right. Some of my friends have joked about these circumstances, noting that you could put me in a coliseum of 60,000 souls, for instance, blindfold me, spin me about and then have me point at a random person in the crowd, and yep, It’d be the loony…

...I have lived in Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona (Tucson and the Grand Canyon, the latter whereat I was employed for 1½ years), Virginia and North Carolina… While employed at the Grand Canyon my “office” where I wrote my novella, “Black Festival,” was located in a very small, walk-in closet…

…Those close to me who have either heard of or experienced firsthand my crazy life stories have said that I’ve lived two lives and are convinced that some luck or greater charm was in force to get me through my many episodes relatively unscathed...

…I spent many years mastering different writing forms while working dead-end jobs to do so. I have a novel, 12 shorts, a novella and a screenplay plus tons of partials from that time, mostly from my four years spent in Arizona. Close friends have read them and think that they are great examples of different styles. I wrote to see if I could do it. It was practice and if they are published before I die, well, OK. Publishing what I write is not high on my list in every case, anyway, even if such matter twinkles with supposed gold. People might be perplexed by this attitude, though some artists might grasp the notion…

…I once held a shotgun to a person’s head and almost pulled the trigger over one-grand he’d stolen from me; getting the best of my rage I instead dropped the matter and went to a secluded country area and blew apart a fallen tree branch to unleash my angst. Yep, crazy days, I’ve lived them…

…Oh. I never get bored…

…I believe that nihilists should just commit suicide and be done with it… That is if they could find no worth in doing so…

…I don’t follow crowds…

…Several years ago I asked myself this question: “Am I living in the future tense of a past present?” Don’t worry, I’m getting to the answer, I’m getting to the answer, I’m…

…I love plants, animals and seclusion… And children, the flowers of the Earth, constantly challenged by a seemingly oblivious society…

…I hate loud noises; all of my senses have been remarkably acute since childhood…

…I (secretly) dislike giving autographs since I’ve reasoned (perhaps erringly) that the petition-to-act contains something akin to “worship,” which I despise. I give them anyway, and with a smile while siding on the 100% appreciated level at those times…

…I believe without question that creativity in the U.S. has been on the decline since the late 1970’s. I‘ve been gathering material on this subject for many years and am outlining a book on it. I hope to out race the collective now forming in uncreative publishing so that it might have some chance in the future of actually being “understood” by first readers…

…An interviewer once titled me the “Maverick of Dungeons & Dragons”…

… And… I have immensely enjoyed throwing myself into my life experiences no matter how “good,” bad,” “crazy,” or “sad” they turned out.

Next Question…

HC: You are of the opinion that D&D went astray from its initial goals. What went wrong?

RJK: The original game as envisioned saw the province of personalized creation on all levels as the only dominant purpose of the game as first play-tested, written, and promoted in commercial form. 

True historians of the game—there are many pseudo-historians promoting their version, primarily as guess work—note very clearly that the products published in the immediate wake of D&D were supportive of this view as embodied in the authors’ philosophy, such as Dungeon Geomorphs, Outdoor Geomorphs, Monster & Treasure Assortments, Player- and Non-Player character record sheets, graph paper and hex paper assortments, and the promotion of a unifying periodical, The Strategic Review, wherein continued additions and refinements, such as optional/variant rules for the game, could see purchase just as they had done in the original Supplements to D&D.

The philosophy/intent is clear as a clear sky at this point.

The actual philosophical change occurs when someone, I forget whom, sent Gary Gygax a copy of a pre-made adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen. Many of us looked at it—I even picked up a copy for myself-- in a mode of perplexed inquiry. The majority of us were vocal about why anyone would want someone else creating things for them and their campaign worlds whereas all of the resources in primary and supportive categories were available to them to create their own material.

I’ll add a little context.

TSR was not given over to the idea of Dungeons & Dragons as other than another game then, which indeed supports their stated philosophy, and this is noted specifically in the many and varied types of games that their catalogs previewed for sale, which included those titles as I’ve noted and a wide variety of board games and miniature rules. TSR’s intent had been from the onset to be a game publisher, and D&D was but one of its many titles, then.

With the advent and adoption of the concept of pre-made adventures the whole back-end “support” mechanism took upon a new meaning and form and one, by comparison, that flew in the face of TSR’s original vision for its role-playing game. Whereas there was at that point a solid corps of DMs creating their games from the ground up and doing so with great gusto, TSR succumbed to an opposite path of doing the “creating” for them with such adventures.

This had two immediate effects: It created two polarized camps of consumers for the existing, and soon to be changed, product line (I now refer to these as the “dissenting creatives” and the “eager dependents”); and as the move to AD&D with its codification of rules took shape (in part for legal reasons due to its lawsuit with Arneson, in part for IP reasons real or imagined, and in large part due to a changed philosophy which would require absolute/immutable mechanics to be adhered to in order to sell consistently packaged and designed adventures and to promote these via conventions and the RPGA), the split reached its head with the promotion and marketing of the remade philosophy.

The emphasis on supporting the game in its titular and original form vanished. This move to a mass-market consumer model perforce "dumbed down" the game as TSR attempted to get onto retail shelves worldwide. This happened in the face of all original veterans of the philosophy one-by-one leaving the company (other than EGG) and being replaced by a second wave of designers (1978 forward) to accomplish its market goals as then outlined and re-envisioned.

From this point forward we see the promotion of a flagship line of AD&D products “For Your Imagination,” a consistent promotion of Basic D&D specifically aimed at the mass market and the abandonment, wholesale, of the original RP-Creative vision, and by such marketing dynamics, an equal abandonment of the idea of TSR as a diverse game publisher. This transition happened so fast and during a time when most customers were still mesmerized by the game’s potential that it went smoothly and was only seen and sensed in afterthought; and the newest body of consumers that this groomed were certainly not, at first, among the list of those screaming “counterfeit.’

This 2nd retconned marketing model continued to this very day and as a template for every major version of the game and, by comparison, has been emulated by many other companies then and now, including those fan-driven publishers currently publishing under the OGL. Take a close look. The majority of companies release their RPG rules and then what? Adventures. Scads of them. 

Thus the ongoing perception of D&D-RPG (past, present and future) is rooted in this predominant formula; but this is the antithesis of the original RP philosophy as honestly promoted before money, marketing and a formulaic approach won out and regulated D&D’s 100% creative form to a dismissed and diminishing minority who had been eager adherents in creating their own material and in supporting TSR’s original vision.

HC: How has this change influenced your own perceptions of design?

RJK: At the time it had no effect, as I was not inclined to publish an adventure. I have always thought that the DM’s route to any fantastic achievement in such literature was through a very personal course, most certainly inspired by reading and study or other such related matter, but not actually “implanted” or done for them. I see it as would an engineer who designs, tests and then builds a car. 

There is great worth in all of its many stages and definitely in the end result and it is all yours. Any alternate course offers no equal worth. By comparison, one might buy the car, as they do the adventure, and make it theirs with a little tinkering here or there (as with a car, by adding dual exhausts, chrome, etc.), but that’s not pure creation and the value added experience in this case is negated.

My first opportunity to design something specifically outside of dungeon adventures crafted for our gamers is when EGG needed assistance designing Expedition to the Barrier Peaks for Origins II; and I contrived the majority of the new encounters, monsters, tech and such for it.

The next was, again at his encouragement, to produce what he and I referred to as the “Iron Golem Adventure,” that is, WG5. I thought some time about this and agreed, though I had been on a different design path with several board games. I liked its non-linear beginning, as I had noted that many adventures were being designed A+ B + C, an ancient and unfortunately overused structure that I unlearned by reading a lot of fiction (and not always fantasy/sf genre fiction). 

The other thing I noted is that many of these adventures were just using old tropes and monsters, some in good ways, such as by placement or in concert with other encounters (thus tactical), but still many of these were rather dull. So, as with the Greyhawk and Kalibruhn adventures, my main point was to convey newness and that to me meant strange.

This mode is best exemplified in my previous works Garden of the Plantmaster, City of Brass, and in the majority of the Maze of Zayene series, Dark Druids, etc. So, I bought into the adventure crafting model if it broke and continued to break my established past creations. It’s a chore; and it seems that it takes longer and longer to conceptualize such elusive matter let alone pen it, but I do so. 

The Machine Level, now being crafted, is 100% all new material as realized from what I had in notation form and as built upon from there. That includes inhabitants, environments, all of what the adventurers will experience. In my estimation if designers are not aiming at this sort of creative level then they are either lazy or just want to publish to see their name on a book, none of which will survive for long as such matter will certainly not be thought of over-fondly in any case.

In summary, I am of the Hitchcockian School of fiction. Story to him was basically life with all the dull moments stripped out; and in my estimation that is best accomplished in adventure design by maintaining suspense, and one of the best ways to accomplish that is by maintaining a very high degree of player unfamiliarity with introduced RPG environments and their elements.

Thus my philosophical quandary was resolved by adhering to a design-path that will ultimately end when I see no more creative expansion within it. While adhering to this notion I have always hoped to inspire others to emulate a truly creative and mixed path that will in turn expose new possibilities in design for both DMs and aspiring designers. Unfortunately, and on the main over the years, I have instead seen raw regurgitation sold as “New” designs; and forget the improved.

Critical? Quite so.

Not all RPG adventure designs can be categorized as such; but it is also interesting in my experience that much of the new and improved material is more often overlooked, marginalized, ill understood or just outright ignored—and here I mean by “informed” reviewers or critics, or by folks with ill-conceived or biased opinions. The latter cases relate directly to the divisions that have existed in this industry for years. By comparison, and indirectly yet more importantly, this also points to what individual companies and their employed or free-lance designers vest in with each other by relation. By extension this also relates to my theory on “Hot Dogs” as you have inquired about, below.

HC: Why do you feel that the phrase ‘Golden Age’ is misleading when applied to the D&D game at any given time in its history?

RJK: It’s quite a silly affirmation, isn’t it?

How can we assume that in a creative medium of any sort that we’ve reached a pinnacle within it? It’s like an artist confirming that they’ve done their best work and that there are no more hurdles and challenges for them. Ask a true artist if that is the case with them and they will answer more often in the negative.

Secondly, and perhaps of equal import, is the fact that OD&D as a creative medium for its participants implied no such limits; it is only when, as I noted above, TSR’s philosophy changed to a mass market consumer model and drew in an ever expanding costumer base (however short-lived as a model, and I refer to it as the “Three Year In and Out”) which vested in their pre-made adventures did we get a dose of this, and this later on as those folks from that marketing era (the “eager dependants”) returned to the game for nostalgia reasons. But ask the “dissenting creatives” when that heyday was and the majority would emphatically state that it existed when the creativity was all theirs, that is, when TSR sold them on the idea of the OD&D game with its openly creative license to “do” and to “be”.

HC: What's so vital and important about Gary Gygax's afterword in Volume 3 of the original game?

RJK: I have no doubt as written that it was the unadulterated truth. His partial, “why have us do any more of your imagining for you?” should strike a deep chord or two in anyone so inclined to understand the import of that statement. This could have been alternately expressed as, “why have us do ALL of your imagining for you?” with no loss or change of meaning. The very soul of the game is embodied in that statement; and it’s right there for all to observe and to ponder over.

But believe my next words: it was to be hidden away and ignored, and therein resides a great pity. What is so vital now, in retrospect, are the “whats” that were effected by this curtailment, with the largest ”what” being what might have been for countless would be creators had that ideal found its greatest expression and continued to date?

HC: What effect did mass marketing have on the game?

RJK: On the main it castrated D&D’s greater glory, regulating it to just another entertainment vehicle. Today it’s just another choice among hundreds of such diversions.

HC: How does this relate to pre-published adventures and why did they become such a pillar of TSR's business plan?

RJK: The game in all forms begs content; at first the prescription was for creators to manage that need on their own; then that changed, as I’ve noted, to pre-made adventures which “coincidentally” occurred with a push into new and expanding markets and the marked codification of the rules to a set-in-stone understood. 

In truth this was a deliberate path taken to grow company markets and revenues. The mainstay of that plan—adventures—was adopted as a model for both TSR and the RPGA. “This is the way to do it,” could have easily been their slogan, then; and the majority of TSR’s customers followed, not wanting to be excluded. But this also had immediate negative results, as it dismissed the holistic aspects of the game and the creative (and vocal) minority who had supported it from the onset.

HC: What role did the three-year “in and out” marketing strategy of TSR and now WOTC play in undermining the game?

RJK: It has to do with fluctuating markets and when to position new market pushes within these to offset declining consumer purchases. Usually this amounts to starting a new market/sales push just as the last one is beginning to level off. The idea behind this is totally short term and runs the risk of negative bottom lines if there is lack of interest in an under-performing product line, if such products are being successfully challenged from serious competitors, and if there have been real consumer shifts in interest as measured by many factors, the main one being purchases.

All of these negative market factors existed with TSR, late 1980’s onward. Speaking with several ex-TSR employees, EGG included, confirmed my thoughts on this. The base age range for the majority of consumers had been on the decline by the late 80’s, and though I cannot state the range exactly, my best guess based upon the inputs is 13-16 years of age. 

The idea was to replace those lost through shifting interests and spending habits (a very volatile age range for that) with new waves gliding in behind the departures, thus maintaining a status quo. As noted, this is a short term and iffy way to maintain markets; and even with flagship sales leaders like FR and DL, TSR bit the bullet with this.

In 1988 TSR doubled their production and slashed retail prices 20% to pump up the tired market they had created. Saturation is always the last (and often, desperate) recourse to plug the bleeding hole of declining sales. In reality what TSR lacked was quality product (though Dark Sun was one of the exceptions, too little or too late, unfortunately). What WotC does today is unknown to me, though they have in the past maintained quite a long list of products; and I do not know their consumer median age range, though I suspect it is on the younger side as it was with TSR.

HC: What's the hot dog vendor approach?

RJK: This also has to do with saturation. It happened during the d20 phase of D&D; prior to that, with TSR’s 2E splat-book phase, and can happen anywhere where the idea is to drive competitors out of a market that is dominated by a big publisher or by one that produces tons of products. As the award-winning author, Robert McKee, has stated, “90 % of what is written isn’t published” (i.e., because it’s crap; and he also makes the same assertion for all other artistic mediums). But his words don’t really apply to the RPG industry that is controlled for the most part by one company AND, that across the board, has no concrete standards of professional product review.

In an industry primarily dominated by one company that has no real competition, there is a high probability to get (as was the case with the latter-day TSR) mediocre, templated, slap-a-pretty-cover-on-it-and-get-it-out-the-door type of products. I call them “hot dogs”: easily made, served at mass functions. This leaves those designers with really good designs waiting in the wings with thumbs up their collective asses.


As the main courses being served again and again are hot dogs a publisher vested in that route doesn’t want to change the menu that is working for them until it stops working, which directly relates to a-nickel-up-your-ass-at-a-time planned obsolescence. So a really good designer (offering steak, let’s say) is really up against it. Most everyone is used to seeing, smelling and eating hot dogs and thus cannot sense the steak vendor, and even if they did, they can’t “get” what it is they’re offering.

Because? IT AIN’T A HOT DOG… There’s a lot more that dovetails into this, of course, and here I only expose the most evident component of “grooming a market.”

HC: Tell me a little about Kalibruhn. What was this imagined as?

RJK: It’s my World. It went through two design phases and I settled on the second. Both are top-down creations, but the first was, in my latter estimation, less realized than the second; but that’s not to say that the first had no detail, quite the contrary. It just worked out that it was a proving ground for designing the even more immersive second. I had a distant intention at first to see parts of it published, but I abandoned that route and have no desire at all to see it in published form. There’s not much more to tell unless I go into the details and that isn’t happening in this interview (smiles).

HC: How do we have a more honest and provocative discussion about the older editions of D&D (and our gaming history)?

RJK: A very broad question with many avenues left open for answer, so I’ll choose one. Finding what is common in all of the editions would be a starting point. Let’s see: editions, worlds, products. These are all passing ideas. The immutable survives these as the intrinsic core of the game. And the immutable part of this game in all its forms is the ability to create on all levels. By honestly seeking its core principle that remains unchanged even as the landscape it functions therein changes time and time again, this where we find its truth, its essence, if you will. The rest of it is just dressing it out as each one of us prefers.

HC: What do you find confounding with the current level of discussion on the Internet?

RJK: I do not participate in confounding discussions, so I don’t have an inside on this. I do get irritated by the pseudo-history of D&D being promulgated as fact. Then there are the many erroneous Wiki articles on various related subjects. There’s misinformation strewn over all types of fora, but recanting these fallacies would necessitate having ample time to do so. I just don’t have the time or the inclination to do that.

Some folks from the Acaeum, such as David Witts and Allan Grohe, are better positioned to keep an eye on such things and they do what they can to eradicate such failures in scholarship; and I lend time to answer their questions to further enhance their already mature knowledge base so they can do so without complication.

HC: Let's talk about your blog post “Taking D&D Back...”? What were you getting at with that? What were the pieces that went into the D&D stew? Why have those pieces been obscured over time? How do we get them back and how do we blend in new ones?

RJK: Is that all you wish to know (winks)?? Heh.

You ask me to describe the beginning, middle and future of the game. Indeed the post was explicit, deriving from my experiences and thoughts since the early 70’s onward. What more can I add? It was explicit: D&D derives from all imaginative literature and sources, not just S&S. Swords and Sorcery is a latter day addition to the whole field of speculative literature, anyway. I’m not taking anything away from Fritz Leiber who introduced the phrase, nor from those more modern day authors who have mined its terrain for the many fine stories we’ve seen. Our play tests certainly had many elements from this genre attached to them; but our imaginations were not exclusionary.

Taking back a thing presumes that it was lost to begin with. If there is obfuscation going on, it probably starts with the idea that this is a S&S game. “This game is strictly Fantasy,” is one of EGG’s most telling quotes from OD&D. So, I am not convinced that people are lost to these imaginative threads so much as siding with where their imaginations lead. Ours, BitD, led everywhere, there were no limits, no borders, for how could there be? It was Fantasy.

The game as published actually made mention of going to Mars as part of the world-building suggestions; and as I have noted, that indeed transpired in our campaign. Also, ERB’s books were the very first ones EGG recommended I read from his shelves. Not Conan, not Elric, not Kyrik. Greyhawk, and my own Kalibruhn, actually contain more Swords & Planet than the average “fantasy” campaign that you’d experience today. 

My first iteration of Kalibruhn, for instance, contains a stranded alien race known as the Whools (see picture right) which makes for some interesting drama, myth and story-adventure avenues as they seek exit from the planet while at the same time, being a very war-like race, attempting to control parts of it.

So I strongly believe that this relates less to regaining something that has been lost but in using what you have, which is imagination. And if people prefer to channel that along paths filled with S&S, then that’s their choice. But anything is possible in “Fantasy” D&D.

HC: What are you working on these days?

RJK: Immediately? Very little.

I’m just coming back up to speed and health from a very challenging 2010. My SO’s mother unexpectedly passed away, we moved right after that, I suffered a minor heart attack while moving, I came back from NTRPGCON 2 (2010) and suffered what we figured to be the swine flu and after recovering from that then proceeded to tear the rotator in my left arm (which has finally healed after many months).

All of this wore me down to a point where I actually feel older. I had a fine discussion with Allan Grohe at NTRPGCON 3 about future projects, including the Machine Level, and he has been aware of my health trials and recovery. NTX wore me out, though, and it wasn’t until now that I had energy enough to finish this interview. I’m starting to feel progressively more energetic, but my health comes first, of course, so projects will proceed as I rise to the occasion of confronting them again.

HC: Why is dissembling the ultimate art of the GM? Why is tone and presentation so important? Why do you lose such a vital level to RPGs when they aren't face-to-face? How do you build tension, uncertainty, and mystery? What are the tricks?

RJK: Let’s add some starch to the first question to “straighten it out”. I did not state in our phone conversation that dissembling is the ultimate art of the GM. That would be suggestive of a structure for every one of them; and GMs find their strengths in different ways. I will say that mastering story-telling with all of its nuances can only strengthen the route a GM takes in his or her adventure-crafting; and here I refer to the art of mastering the elements of story, including those you have named and others, and knowing intuitively when to use these particles to promote the ongoing adventure. Dissembling is but one element at the disposal of a crafty GM.

If you want to gauge the extent to which you have mastered story try winging an entire adventure as EGG and I did countless times (and as I instructed the participants to do in my workshop at this past NTRPGCON). Scripting an adventure and running it thereafter is not as telling in promoting such improvisational story matter; it’s only when you’re at the crossroads of doubt and choice, this is where you’ll find whether you are a true “story-crafter” or a mere “story-repeater”.

So there are no tricks, no shortcuts. You either master story--and thereafter know how, when and why to insert its elements into the forming adventure--or you don’t.

RJK Text Copyright 2011, Robert J. Kuntz. Permission to quote its parts must be secured from the author. Parts of this interview have been contextualized from two forthcoming works of non-fiction, including RJK’s Memoirs.