Tuesday, November 29, 2011

G+ Ephemera

From time to time readers will note some inexplicable content here: strange chicken-scratch drawings or long laundry-list rosters.

There's a simple reason. This blog began life as a campaign hub for players, and while it's taken on it's own life as a vehicle for other things, from time-to-time I use it simply as a place to drop a link to.

Be forewarned as I seem to take on more and more G+ sessions, I think you'll see more of it. We make heavy use of Twiddla, an online whiteboard program with some limited functionality. Among one of the handier features is the ability to import images with the paste of a link. That's what's going on here and with such things as the Rough Guide to Nowhere.

Campaign Intro for Domain Game II
The epics make out entering The Gate Between the Worlds to be as simple and as glorious as stepping through the Jewelled Door of Imyr. For you the Exiled it was something entirely less grand—more like a forced march than the easy, pomp-filled entry of heroes.

The rough, low-hanging tunnel beyond the verdigris-encrusted bronze doors of the the portal seemed virtually endless. No amount of light seemed to penetrate the haze hanging like a funeral shroud from the walls. Innumerable hours were passed putting one weary foot in front of the other until finally caravan members were hanging their hands in exhaustion out on the shoulders of their comrades in front of them.

Finally, one merciful moment many hours later, you stumbled into the sudden sharp shock of daylight. Catching your breath, a few minutes slipped by before you could really take in the full effect of being in this brave new world of Nowhere.

The scene in front of you seems jarringly both familiar and not.

The sun shining above you for one is not as yellow as you remember your own being. Larger, redder and filled with a sense of melancholy and ancient memory, it casts longer shadows much like late afternoon though it sits just a little bit past its zenith in the sky. The few trees around you seem almost familiar as those at home to be a comfort, though the darker, blacker hue of the trunk and the grayer cast of the leaves give the impression of something just a bit off. Their limbs sway a little too lazily in the stiff, cool spring breeze.

Stranger still is the basalt obelisk standing directly in front of you. Five man-heights high the monolith stands in silent testimony to some forgotten eldritch race's hand.

Taking stock, you notice the wave of nervousness spread through your caravan—disturbingly even among the trusted, solid faces of your long-time companions and followers. Each face silently asks, “what now?” as you are approached by the silver-masked, tight-lipped officials of the Colony.

Player's Map to the Southlands Satrapy

Player's Sketch for “King of the Mountain”, the Conan One-Shot 

Fort Va'rok

Fort Va'Rok, Week Three

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Down and Dirty on the Conan Pick-up Games

A few details on how the Conan/ZeFRS G+ pickup games are going to work now that I have heard back from people (mostly on G+):

1. The games will be run “whenever”. If I have a window of time and there is critical mass (2-3 players), we play. They will tend to be later at night, past 8 pm Central US (-6 GMT). Insomnia should push that to some late runs at time. There could be a few day windows on the weekend and on some of the days in December and January when I am not working the real job.

I will post a heads up on G+ from anywhere up to a day in advance or at the drop of a hat. So it's all about the spontaneity.

2. The games will be first come, first serve on who answers--with preference to those who have raised their hands all nice and polite like today. I will probably run the same scenario 2-3 times before moving to a second one, so obviously those who played before are bumped off the list for that scenario.

In theory, the scenario—which will be original with some heavy borrowings from REH--will be a self-contained episode that can be “won” in one session.

3. Players can either custom make their own characters beforehand or pick a pre-gen when the game is announced.

All characters are built straight by the book (go here to find the chargen rules and here to pick a fitting nation from Hyboria to be from) . Pre-gens may have a few quirks that give them some unusual features. (That one's for you, Eric.)

4. There will be winners and they will be those who grab the glory. The player that earns the most fame points in a session is the “victor” and may be awarded a small gift (likely a book). Players will receive extra fame points for loot (I will announce what at the end of the game) and for upholding your own personal code.  

Google+ Pickup Games (And Getting Some Conan On)

Back in my days behind a coffee-stained editor's desk in the smoking post-industrial hole that is Detroit, I would frequently pack six solid days of jagged stress around the high-tide parts of the editorial cycle.

As soon as that unremittingly bleak long winter would break even a bit on a morning off I would jump in the car cleats in hand and drive over to the freakishly great soccer fields erected for the city's brief World Cup moment in the sun. Without fail there was always enough critical mass of other stir-crazed players to get a full-teamed game on. Those games went a long way in keeping me sane those eight years.

Plugging away this morning at a balance-sheet analysis of the Google+ gaming boom, one of the greatest strengths (for me) just jumped right off the page: the ability to drop in or run a game at just about anytime of the day or night with less than a couple hours notice.

I don't think I need to spell out the advantage of that to this audience over much, I would hazard a guess that the single biggest X-factor holding many of us back from playing tabletop rpgs as much as we is that ugly beast called Adult Life Scheduling interfering at each and every turn. Having the ability to waltz into a pick-up game, not surprisingly is just an amazing boon, another perhaps unintended, but welcome outcome of the energy around Constantcon.

The only wrinkle I have encountered is that we are still fumbling around with how to actually run these games. To date, the sessions I have played in have been campaign-like games where the GM is clearly trying to spin out something less fleeting and ephemeral. I have had a blast playing them, but with my own standing commitments to running the Domain Game II and EPT Jakalla sessions really make me a kiss-and-dash-on-the-first-date kinda guy.

Punchline: it would be really sweet to have actual one-shots hand-tailored to be played at a moments notice.

Here's my part, I am going to put together 1-2 one-shots specifically designed around the TSR Conan rpg. A game that seems pitch perfect in supporting episodic, action-packed, lite sessions with a small cast (say like 1-3 players).

Here's your part, tell me what you want if you were going to play in said pick-up (better would be design some pick-up games of your own, but I am fresh out of pithy exhortations for the morning.)

1. Show of hands of people who want to play. Good also to say your rough windows of opportunity if you know them. Encircle me on Google+ if you haven't already, or set up a dummy account and do so if you are all shy like.

2. What would you prefer playing: pre-gens (based on actual REH or imaginary characters) or swaggering S&S ne'er do wells of your own?

3. Would you prefer playing a session based on actual REH stories or something completely original? (The question really is whether you think you'd know them to well for them to work with a few twists.)

Game on?

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Nostalgia began life in the Baroque era as an entirely different animal than how many think of it today. 

Apparently desertions, suicides, and sudden deaths were so common among the many homesick Swiss mercenaries who fought their way across Europe that it was called the “Swiss Illness”, a disease that supposedly came on with a preoccupation with strong feelings for the mountains of home. Nostalgia, a Greek compound formed by adding  algos (pain, grief, distress) to nostos (homecoming) was coined in 1688 by a physician to describe the malady. 

Later it would get mixed up with Romanticism in particular with it's connections to natural landscapes and spiritual senses of homeland.

As a rpg blogger who steers toward the moldy oldies, I bristle at the charges of nostalgia that get bandied from time to time. Bristle, not because it's not true, but because it is. I bristle because it's confused with shoddy old sentimentality, the sugary sap we have all been trained to by our maudlin, self-obsessed culture. We fetish youth and the new, to the point that we are encouraged to piss away later years basking in an afterglow labeled at your local Walmart as “nostalgia”.

But when I look at my own return to the hobby the welter of things I brought back with me are just more complicated than that. Truth be told there were indeed hefty doses of golden-edged memories, and the joy of reconnecting with the physical artifacts of the game. That sudden charge when flipping to that first page of the Holmes book, undeniable.

But if you have followed this blog—and have winded through all the wool gathering and yarn spinning of my more personal entries (self-indulgently the ones that made the blog experiment truly worthwhile to me) and some others—you'll note a preoccupation of mine to try and pick at the all deeper feelings and thoughts that swim around these games of fantasy.

On some days the game really is just a game, a folded up board and some dice that I pull out to have a good time. On others, the quiet moments when I am designing some new piece of the setting or just day dreaming it goes over to that thought train. How do our thoughts and feelings about religion color our fantasy pantheons? When is D&D

Much of it is tinged with that older nostalgia, a longing for some other place both real and imagined that was close once and now feels far. Isn't that one of the essences of fantasy as much as the Weird? That bittersweet holdover of Romanticism? Cyclopean crumbling ruins, the seeking of long-lost treasures, the vanquishing of ancient evils?

It's my birthday and as I walk into the first years of so-called middle age, these trains come naturally. The hell with it, let's game.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Search for the Emperor's Treasure

Desert Scribe's wrap-up today of our Search for the Emperor's Treasure game session reminds me that I have been remiss on my own post.

Back in the hoary day, I was a complete sucker for any game Tom Wham signed his name to. I played the crap out of every single game of his I could get a hand on. Admittedly some of those game were profoundly silly--and dare I say crudely simple--such as Snit Smashing or that one whose name eludes me where you play gods literally dropping sentient critters onto a planet to see if they go splat or stay alive to sing your praises.

But others were all around great games—rollicking beer-and-pretzels game fun, always touched by the whimsy of Wham's illustrations and quirky design. For me Search for the Emperor's Treasure, tucked into the center spread of Dragon magazine issue 51, was the best of 'em, a slam dunk.

Basically it was either OD&D or B/X-flavored D&D (depends who you ask) on a board. Each player takes the role (and in a great Whamsian touch the most experienced player picks first) of a fighter, cleric, magic-user or elf, complete with goofy backstory.

Each player is ostensibly questing wilderness and dungeon crawl style to find the treasures of the Emperor scattered and hidden around the handsome Darlene-drawn map by Evil Sorcerers (tm), but in suitably D&D grubbing form that's only a fig leaf for the real object of the game: Treasure full stop. The player who ends with the most swag wins.

There are options for making the game cooperative and party based or even more competitive with player vs. player killing. The former ruins the point, the latter--while Wham explicitly warns against using--actually adds some game balance by helping curb players from exploiting the game's biggest design flaw, the tendency to just march over to one of the sites that give higher odds for treasure finds and just camping there turn after turn.

(I would also recommend mucking around with some kind of house rule that limits either the amount of turns or total treasure that can be mined out of a particular site).

Making Your Own Copy
Thumbing through a super cheap Ebay win of that issue—affordable because hair-tearingly it was missing the game section—made me hungry to play it again.

Fortunately, I found that putting together my own copy was surprisingly easy. Here's how I did it.

I started from a PDF copy of that issue of the Dragon (drop me an email if you want to know how to get a copy, legal of course) and then explored some print-on-demand options. Office Despot has a service (Kinko's offers a similar process)  in which you can upload a PDF or other file here and they will print to specs at your local store.

After you upload the files, only select the three full-color pages for the maps and counters. Blow these up to 11 x 17 inches (this will make a larger play surface, though you will lose some resolution) and choose full-color copies.

Now I didn't do this but in retrospect would have made the game much more attractive, select a durable card stock paper to print on. Send it off to your local store and definitely, definitely make sure to call that location to make sure they don't muck it up—I assure the copy-monkeys will do so 6 out of 10 times if you don't. Typical turn around time is a few hours.

When you get the copy, cut out the margin on the maps first aligning them to fit over the overlapping half inch of duplicated images, tape them together. Cut the counters, play cards, and other bits sorting them by type. Throw the encounters, arms, and treasure counters into separate coffee mugs, dixie cups, or whatever you have handy for drawing of chits.

Et voila, you are ready to play.
They look surprisingly sedate for people in the process of
repeatedly siccing a dragon on my poor Elf. 
Expanding the Game
If you want to expand the game with a few more options, mosey over to Wham's site and find a reproduction of the play cards for the dwarf and “hairfoot” characters added in the Best of Dragon Games version. Boardgame geek has a few rules variants and other freebies worth downloading here.

If you prefer the alternative map in that second edition--a non-Darlene hex map that could be cut up and moved around a la Settlers of Catan--an enterprising sort could use the jpg image here and print up a copy. (While it looks fun, I couldn't forgo the aesthetic and nostalgic appeal of the original.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Brief Interruption of Business as Usual

Under a rock? Look here then.

Editor's Note: the wonders of the Internet, there is already an entire blog dedicated to this meme

Friday, November 18, 2011

Conan: TSR's Lost Game

Two days journey, north of Kulalo, off the Black Coast....Up the river Zikamba...through the Valley of Darkness you'll find a Ruin, ancient and nameless. Whatever cult of man lived there, they are long vanished and only dead men guard it's treasure. In my youth when I still had eyes to see, I worked as a sailor on a ship that went into the Black Kingdoms bringing back hoards of Ivory.

A jade crocodile with emerald eyes as big as a man's hand. The natives talked of in whispers after their tongues were loosened on our skins of fortified wine. The ruins are thought to be cursed by the locals and are forbidden entrance. A village lies just to the south of the ruins along the River.

So went the lead up up for the one of the more rocking—and rare—chances to actually play a rpg, in this case an obscure “Silver Age” entry, the Conan rpg designed by Dave “Zeb” Cook. Between that evocative opening set up by my buddy and GM Scott in Seattle (aka Scalydemon), the chance to play the brooding REH Pictish hero Bran Mak Morn (pictured above in that Jeffrey Jones cover), and the fast and furious fury of the session, I was impressed by the game.

It was a grudging respect admittedly. I had quite simply never heard of it and when Scott floated some barebones description at first I had a fair share of skeptical internal groaning. A color-coded Marvel Superheroes-like unified resolution system? Groan. Skill-based system with point buy? Groan, groan.

It felt also strange to think that TSR could have put an entirely new fantasy rpg game in 1985 without me ever noticing. My first thought was it must have been as big as a steaming pile of offal as that other TSR turkey of the time, the Indiana Jones rpg.

Back then, even with the drift that would lead me out of the hobby picking starting up, I tended to still be highly focused on things revolving around that ill-fated company. Dragon magazine was the first periodical I ever had a subscription to and receiving that rag in it's porn-like plain paper wrapper was a cherished monthly ritual.

But that's exactly what happened. Sure I remember the release of the much disdained (even by my friends at the time) modules featuring the muscle-bound Governator of California, but the game itself until last year I had heard nary a hide nor hair about. This morning I (virtually) flipped through all the issues of Dragon from that time, outside of a short blurb in upcoming products in a single issue not once did it grace an article—let alone a promotional ad. Strange.

Perhaps TSR decided that it didn't need to create a competitor to its own monolithic entry into fantasy roleplaying game; ran afoul of IP restrictions; or simply got lost in the mismanagement and excess of post-Gygax TSR. There is a backstory there that I have yet to hear. (And would be worthy the telling, shot-in-the-dark plea to the Internet cough cough).
Cover art from Boris Vallejo
The tragedy of its obscurity is that it's a fast-paced, mechanically-elegant, mercifully-lite Swords and Sorcery game. It quite simply played very well--and had any number of elements that jived with my prissy sensibilities.

Although it has skills, called “talents”, they are thankfully short, immediately sensible, and completely lacking the subjective mental skills that I tend to grognardly despise as cheap substitutions for player skill. (You know the kind, the “Persuades” and “Sees” and others that were replete even in my favorite Chaosium games of that time).

The sorcery system is dangerous to its user (magical talents increasingly raise an “obsession” score), open-ended and mysterious in a satisfying way. To gain spells you must not only design your own but must quest through Hyboria for scraps of time-forgotten eldritch books and arcane objects to make it happen.

And best of all is that it supported a wider range of crazy Howardian action antics. The system quite naturally lends itself to kicking over tables, grappling/tossing ape-beasts down yawning pits, jumping over the backs of opponents to stab them from behind, etc.

In other words, some good shit.

You will note the frequent use of the present tense back there, it so happens thanks to the beauty of this free-wheeling age that this game is not only kept alive, it's kept alive as a virtually untouched freebie. Called Zeb's Fantasy Roleplaying System (ZeFRS) it's pretty much the most faithful retro-clone around as it's virtually the same system verbatim only lacking the explicit Conan IP property (still owned by anyone but the Howard family, Gigantacorp...err Conan Properties).

If you haven't acquainted yourself with the system a quick mosey over here to the ZeFRS website can set you up at the right price.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Woodgrain Box

With heavy heart I note that my erstwhile friend and co-designer, Brad of Crushing Skulls, has released pages from his “perfect” retro-clone game, Bludgeons & Flagons aka the Woodgrain Box, a project we have been working on diligently for upwards of half a week.

Why the sadness?

While my nom de guerre and artwork grace the pages of that "game", a wholesale and ruthless attempt by that jackass has usurped that great and open-ended enterprise developed in my mother's basement.

Do not be fooled, Gentile Reader.

You will note the heavy hand of his soul-crushing, anti-OD&D agenda—and the fact that he has released this game without my permission and explicitly stated that he will drop my credit and all royalties in future editions, merely adds to the scurrilous nature of this so-called “game.”

Please stay tuned for the release of Adventures in Firetrucks--a true roleplaying experience not to be missed, one that reflects the fun and creative energy of the original Ebonheath campaign.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

News from the Petal Throne

I have been sitting on several juicy bits of news about projects coming down the Tekumel Foundation pipeline for a few months now. Seeing confirmation bubbling out of the Tekumel fandom circuits I am guessing it's kosher to start gushing enthusiastically about them.

First the biggie, a digital edition (PDF I assume) of M.A.R. Barker's pre-publication, playtest Empire of the Petal Throne is now “forthcoming”. Yep, that's right the original green-covered mimeographed, pre-TSR tinkered manuscript passed out on a hot, humid Minnesota night in 1974 to the first players. Rules nerds and rpg archeologists rejoice.

Remember back in June when talked with Jeff Dee about his Tekumel related projects? Well looks like he and others in the Austin crew are deep into a playtest of Bethorm (the Tsolyani word for “pocket universe”, a clever wordplay as it's intended for the rules-lite Pocket Universe system) and a contract/licensing deal being worked out with the Foundation.

In related news it looks like fellow Austinite artist Talzheimer is getting the Imperial seal of approval for some commercial strength versions of her wonderful paper miniatures for the setting. (Which I made use of in our New Braunfels mini-con.)

There is more news still out there that I won't comment on until we here more confirmation. But that trifecta of thumbs up should at least get your enthusiasm up.

Speaking of Petal Throne gaming, I have been a bit in the weeds going forward with the Jakalla G+ games as I have been running two groups through the epic swords & sorcery-inflected shenanigans of the Domain Game II this last month. But we will begin again running a fortnightly game again--likely after Thanksgiving. If you are interested drop me a line.  

Will the True Grognard Please Stand Up?

Preparing a series of posts on Heritage and Ral Partha minis--and my pre-D&D childhood lust for all things lead and 25mm from foot to head--I stumbled on these vids.

Note that all the figures are individually based still, not even on stands or movement trays, meaning that for all the hours (days?) spent setting up there really is no way to even conveniently move them around, let alone use them in a tabletop.

There really are times when I truly miss the bat-shit obsessiveness of historical miniatures.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Hydra Cooperative is Abornin'

The rpg publishing coop is a breath away from lifting off—no, no that's not right it fired up engines and left a stream of mist days ago as it roared away.

Co-op membership is now a little over 40 and covers a wide-range of some of the most creative people I know in the hobby. Game designers, artists, editors, writers, programmers, bloggers and many wearing several of those hats are now all pitching in on over 15 projects.

And what a mind-bendingly cool assortment of projects are lined up including such things as a Stormbringer first edition automated generator (to be fitted to my hack project), an Oriental Adventures retro-clone, boardgames, miniatures rules (By This Axe I Rule), hexcrawls, megadungeons, automated gaming tools, and even a number of full-fledged games. We even have one or two possible large-scale projects in the hopper.

Formal organization is scrambling behind all that activity trying to keep up and make sure we are on the path to become a coop that is more than the sum of its parts. We do officially have a name, the Hydra Cooperative, and now several very nifty logo variations to be voted on.

Over the weekend the first formal proposal of our organizational structure and timeline was floated. Which is all to mean that in the next few weeks you are likely to see it cohere as a bona fide cooperative.

We still have room inside our big tent. If you missed the first push, but are still interested in such a project, drop me a line at kutalik at the gmail dot the com and tell us why you'd like to be a member and what you think you can bring to the table. Onwards and upwards.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fear of a Black Hobbit

There's very short list of things that will make me drag my ass out of bed at 4:30 am—a chance to play in Jeff Rient's Caves of Myrddin just so happens to be one of them. That said as I booted up the computer and fumbled for my coffee mug in the wee hours this morning, I kept repeating to myself “what madness is this?”

It was a sentiment that only grew as the game when on.

We had one of Zak's infamous dogs gaining intelligence through magical thrones and going on about the delights of stinky cheese and defecation (really this entire post may exist just to lead you to click here). We had us rattling chains and making hooting ghost noises to scare off the rival NPC party. We had a disintegration bow blasting a hole through the dungeon only to reveal the outer wall of a thatched cottage in a secret valley—in the dungeon—in a green-lightening filled other dimension. (A 500 exp. bonus under the exploration wonders house rules.)

We weren't in Wessex anymore, Dorothy.

And of course what would be a Google+ game with me if I didn't have random, hyper-disruptive technical problems. The connection completely pooped out for a spell and then my mike made me sound like I was speaking through cardboard according to Jeremy the Younger.

Ten minutes later  it cut out altogether for half an hour and forced me to recast my oily, Chaos-lining Provencal--all halflings are Francophones by executive writ of Jeff—hobbit as a mime. (And yes I did the rope pulling thing, the hands on the invisible window routine and more on my webcam). Though he may wear the maligned white face, a badge of ceremonial honor in the hobbit kivas of the Côte d'Azur, the Black Ratter weathered it all.

In short, it was one of best sessions I have had the chance to play in since jumping back in this hobby. If you are still sitting on the fence about joining any number of the rollicking Google+ games being run, think about unsitting--you may be missing a heap of great gaming.  

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Sense of Place in Fantasy

The deepest and most satisfying fantasy worlds are often rooted in a profound sense of place. While many, many layers of pure imagination may be piled on top, at the bottom is usually a vivid, inner terrain. That mind's eye view is often a real world place dear to that creator.

It's not a particularly original insight—you can't throw a rock at a Tolkien biography without someone yammering on about rural Oxfordshire or talk about M.A.R. Barker without mentioning his time in South Asia—but always one I am interested in exploring. I have walked around the edges of this several times here on this blog.

Recently, in the Google+ pocket universe, our resident Hawaiian, Mike Fernandez, kicked off my thought train when he wrote about a D&D setting that was taking on a divergent evolution:
“this setting...has slowly been drifting away from its medieval/fantasy roots and towards something more inspired my Polynesian culture being that it is what surrounds me...Spent most the weekend sleeping off sickness and reading all those Hawaiiana books my wife and I have collected over the last few years. I get a much more vivid picture from reading those books than I have gotten from reading books with knights and castles. Probably since Hawaiian history literally took place in the places that I grew up in.”
That recognition of a more uniquely personal touchstone for his campaign is what got me thinking the the other day about Robert E. Howard and his sense of place with Texas—and my sharing with him of that. It was interesting to watch Evan riff on it too talking about the eerie swamplands of his Southern Mississippi home and how they have influenced his campaign worlds. There must be something there there. 

The Hill Cantons is an unlikely place to be situtated in this kind of discussion. I have written many times before that it's a fairly radical bottom-up world, so much so that outside of a couple hundred miles there is only grey space (perhaps stretching out to the edge of the WorldTurtle's shell). The layers and layers piled on top have only come out of play at the table and post-facto creation on my part.

Still underneath that is that vivid mental picture—a composite one of two motherland regions of the soul that have left their mark on me. Drawing on that picture helps me immensely when faced with the inevitable wandering off the reservation that comes with sandbox play. It's not just some hokey inner fantasy world, or some hoary leftover from 19th century Volkstum, it has some hella useful practical utility.

I never really feel at a loss because I can “see” that land so clearly. Wander into a village and a town in the area and I am seeing the white-washed tight villages of the Spis region in Slovakia that I lived in for a time. This place...

Here again...

and this...

When the players wander the hills, I see those wooded Carpathian foothills again--or more likely I see another motherland, the rolling white limestone and mountain cedar-clad Texas Hill Country, aka REH's Cimmeria of the heart.


and here...
I can't post enough pictures to keep up with the inner snapshots, but I think you get the jist.

Where's your sense of place? Where do you go back to for that wellspring? 

Or is it someplace completely else, a world of your mind freed wholly from where you have been? A nowhere and no when?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dirty Apes, Chaos Spires, Religious Coups, and the Rumor Mill of Nowhere

The Domain Game II is rolling along, with the third session going off early Sunday morning. Playing in my pajamas with a steaming cup of java in hand was a decided—yet fun—change of pace from our night games.

As some readers will remember we are playing with my Stormbringer first edition hack, which seems to get “hackier” as I tack on mods to fit with the domain rules. (If you care about such matters Mike D. of Sword+1 will be joining me as a co-writer/designer exploring ways to move the hack into something of possible use and interest to the larger gaming public).

Since it's a slow news day here in the HC, here's the recent tidings from Nowhere.

Two weeks ago, Duke Mraz and crew conducted a reconnaissance in force of the White Ape groves in the Forest of Whispers near the river crater. They wiped out one tree-platform and noted the presence of about six other ape lairs in the two hexes before withdrawing to the holdfort. No counter-raids or other activity has come from the White Apes since that time.

Jathur with his two new recruits, Zibran and Erlend (see roster below) undertook a mission from a black lotus-addled, high-ranking officer of the Satrapy to discover what happened to his missing nephew, an officer in charge of the small mudbrick watchfort to the south of the Duke's hold (hex 69.66). The three found the fort mostly abandoned except for a strange tentacled creature in the fort's cistern, bloated bodies, and a crazed survivor.

They investigated a strange humming, bulbous glass spire back in the woods and found the missing tunic and armor (gleaming and polished) hanging in a blackwood grove next to the spire. Attempting to chop the spire down they were psychically assaulted by the ethereal ghostly form of the missing officer. Hightailing it with the armor they made their way back to the holdfort.

Meanwhile back at the village, Zibran attempted a religious coup against Ehroon and the Elder Elemental Temple of the Ever-Unfulfillable Flame.

In Zibran's belligerent words:

“[My] plan with the priest, stage a religious spectacle in the centre of the village, use Ignite to create a 'sacred flame', assert the primacy of Thakan over this weak 'flickering embers' shite, grab any scriptures he has and stick them in the flame, along with my hand, using control of self to avoid pain. Heal said hand using healing spell. Challenge the priest to do the same, mock him when he can't do so, imply his faith is weak. Debate theology with him by shouting slogans then downing shots of spirits, smashing the glasses against my forehead (control of self!), invite him to make prayers to his feeble deity and do the same, last one standing gets the temple (and hopefully the acolytes). 

When I win I declare his god dead, and sanctify the new temple of Thakan by setting fire to him, offering him the chance to cut his own throat when the suffering gets too great and painting the sign of Thakan on the back wall in a mixture of his ashes and blood. Greet the following dawn with rattling sistrums, firey libations and drunken screaming, declare to all and sundry that the sun looks brighter. They call him 'the Calm' only in comparison with the other priest of his religion.”

Though he escaped near-immolation, a visibly shaken Ehroon has since holed up in the longhouse he inhabits with his acolytes—even missing the weekly Bonfire of the Febrile and Resplendent Flame ceremony--to the scandal of his small, demoralized flock. All queries by village busy bodies have been turned away by his lovely assistants with the vague excuse that the elderly priest is “ill”. A village teen was seen leaving his longhouse with a small satchel early yesterday, before galloping off to Lyk Kutah.

Three families—all shockingly bald and of a primitive and warlike countenance—have taken up residence in the village since the incident.

The Rumor Mill
In other news from the Colony's capital: the House of the Middle Path, a local brewing guild producing the Colony's hu'uz,(a strong spirits that allegedly produce visions and madness) is offering substantial rewards for securing a source for vol, a yellow-orange shelf fungus that grows under forest canopy.

A less-than-discreet source in the sequestered Jade Quarter is saying that the eunuchs will be issuing a recall order for the Westlands Satrap. Other loose tongues hint at a possible elevation in fortune of a certain nomad in the employ of Duke Mraz.

Meanwhile on the northern border Colony patrols have made contact with a strange beetle-riding race of diminutive nomads calling themselves the Khalik Vhar, compounding fears that the Colony was in for yet another round of bush wars.
Placating the waning Sun. 

Roster Additions
Zibran the Calm (Barry B.). A priest of Thakan the Bloody Sun of Nuk-Mir, a warlike deity who requires blood to fuel the sun, preferably that of might warriors defeated in battle, but any schmuck will do in a pinch. Zibran's first task in this new land is to make converts and/or capture slaves and get himself a sacrificial altar built as fast as possible before the sun goes out.

Erlend (Patrick W.): Erlend is from the Howling Moors. He carries with him a selection of axe handles, axe heads of varying sizes, sharpening stones, and a few other accoutrements customers might want.  While Erlend can make a living this way, he is always looking for a way to make a faster profit where being large, strong, and blunt in manner are useful traits.  Adventuring seems like it might be the thing.

Elrend purchased an indentured servant, Rheged, six months prior to traveling. It is unclear if he considers the young man to be his apprentice or servant or possibly both. It is also unclear what trade, exactly, Erlend is teaching.

PCs Waiting in the Wings
Kol (Jason K). Born into a family of wealthy merchants he was sent out, as all third born sons on the island of Koz-Ath are, to seek riches in a foreign land. A tall overweight man Kol would be considered by some to be deceitful and untrustworthy, features on his native island that are considered of high value. Respect is given among his class and faith to those who can use people and situations to their advantage. Rom’Zhe, the God of the Koz-Ath merchant class, is said to give favor to those who ruthlessly extract coin and treasure by any means possible. It is not of Rom'Zhe concern if others are exploited.

Ochar of the Endless Hills (Sean N). Ochar hails from the Endless Hills, A land of constantly feuding merchant clans. Ochar himself belonged to the Deiru family, a fairly low caste clan of butchers and leatherworkers. He fell hopelessly in love with the beautiful Yani of the Xotheo family. Normally Yani would be far above Ochar, as her family works in metal. However, as fate would have it, she was enslaved by the evil Count Kamyr that villain retreated from his foes into exile. Ochar's path seems clear. All he has to do is travel to Nowhere, kill Count Kamyr, rescue the beauteous Yani, and make his fortune. Not necessarily in that order.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Conan Country

If you corner me and tell me about the “really weird dream” you had last night, chances are you will  see me smile and nod a lot doing your recounting. Every once and a while you might notice that the nod is at an off time, the smile a little too quick.

I'm not listening.

Last night I had this really weird dream. No, no wait stopping nodding and hear me out. Last night I dreamt that I was running this convocation in the sleepy little West Texas town of Cross Plains, home of “Two-Gun Bob” Howard.

In part it was a gaming convention, in another seemingly inexplicable part it was some manly man contest. I'd finish running a gaming session (who knows what, maybe that TSR Conan rpg from the 80s I like so much) and then run off to ref a Fight Club-like bare-fisted slugfest. I think your grandfather was in it too and then he turned into an artichoke.

It's not the first time Cross Plains has crept into my dreams. It's not because I am a raving REH fan—I have an on and off again love/hate thing over the years with the writer—but because I had a personal connection there for a time in my life.

Back up to the early 90s, my gaming—nay my entire geeky—past was buried and covered over with six solid feet of Austin slackery (seriously my friends and I were straight out of central casting of a Richard Linklater movie). For about five years solid I played on a city league team with a group of guys I mostly knew from alternative journalist rags and other DIY projects.

About two weekends a month, late on a Friday night we'd jam pack a couple cars, crank up the maudlin AM country stations and head out to one of our friend's family ranch right off the road between Cross Plains and Brownwood.

The ranch's guest house was a rough limestone and timber business, charming even in its rustic simplicity and 50's cowboy kitsch. By day we'd spend our time walking the ranch, shooting at old bottles, swimming in the lake, and sleeping off hangovers. Nights were spent slow grilling steaks, drinking, dancing (if we brought the girls), making bonfires, and more drinking.

There were a lot of quiet moments too. Quiet moments spent reading and feeling something primal and Texan out there. Many of those moments, when they weren't spent just watching the heavens free of light pollution slowly mosey by, were spent reading through a dusty stack of books at the house.

Those books were almost to a copy, cheap vanity press affairs. The kinds of local histories where the town amateur historian weaves half a book of deadly dull genealogical type material in with half a book of pure lurid mythology. And when you are in a place like Cross Plains, where the sheer violence of frontier life stuck around later than many places, that kind of local history is amped up really loud.

There were countless tales of Comanche abductions, scalpings, and small-scale massacres. The more honest (and less obviously racist) books also recounted the massacres and raids from Anglos that egged those incursions. 

Those tales didn't just stop with the point after the Civil War when the Comanches were finally defeated as people in the area, it kept marching forward with the account of a gunfighter here, a massacre there over the barb wiring off of common grazing lands. Later you'd hear about the brawls and murders of passion of the oil men.

Reading all that it was impossible not to think of Howard's life and writing. Not to think of the frontier, not that far distant from the time of his writing, that so many others have talked about as his greatest influence. The haunting influence of the ghosts of the land around you—and the titillation of those stories.

From those moments on for me, Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and the others became characters that had one foot in the wildest flights of fantasy and another in a very real and earthly place that I seen, touched, and ruminated on. It has made those books a bit rawer and more uncomfortable in my mind, but something closer and more visceral.

And isn't that what the best and deepest of fantasy should do?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Hydra Rises

The publishing co-op is off to an exuberant start. With 29 members (curiously a quarter of whom are in the UK) we had a tidal wave of introductions and discussion on the list serve—so much indeed that we had to move to a new private forum board just to keep up with the topic tangle.

Although I had to fight a moment of “what monster have I unleashed”, I am more excited than a cathouse on a Saturday night. (With my grand dad off to the Elysian Field, I feel like I am going to have to step it up with my bombastic Texan colloquialisms.)

Nothing is really set in stone yet as far as vision and structure—like any new voluntary project there is always some hashing out to do about what “it” is exactly. The fact that we DIYers tend to be more like a herd of cats than a bee hive only underscores that need.

Still it looks like we heading to some rough consensus already on a few things. Courtesy to -C we may have a mascot—and a logo shortly from some of the more artistically inclined—the dreaded and entirely appropriate hydra.

Again if you are interested in participating in this brave new world of cooperative DIY hanky panky, drop me a line at kutalik dot gmail dot the com and I will set you up with an introduction to the list and forum.  

Artistic rendition of our actual founding meeting.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Next Steps for the Publishing Cooperative

Before I start answering the lengthy and thought-provoking comments, questions, and concerns from yesterday's discussion—thank you, one and all--I wanted to give a quick update on what we are doing to move the project forward.

Currently I have 22 people who have asked to be included in the new dedicated list serve for the project. I will be setting the list up on Yahoo groups before this afternoon. Again if you want to be included in these founding discussions don't assume I know you are interested and have your email—please send me an email at kutalik at the gmail dot the com with a subject header with “co-op” in the title.

After answering comments today here, I am going to move the lion share of the discussion over there with a kick-off email that frames some leading questions.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Why Build a Publishing Coop?

In yesterday's round of out-loud-thinking and discussion around the possible launch of a rpg publishing coop, DH Boggs raised the kind of tough and honest question that helps clarify what we are on about.

He asked:
“The idea, as I read it, was to pool together the talents of several persons of related interests to publish OSR material--the bulk of any profits going to the author. So far, that is no different than a number of the small hobby publishers out there (Brave Halfling, or Autarch, for ex).

But, it will be a non profit and a coop--meaning participants will have to pay a membership fee in either cash or service or a combo of each. Now that is different, and interesting, but what precisely do you see as the advantages over the traditional "for profit" route? Membership (i.e. commitment) would seem to be one. What else?”

Indeed, what else? Why bother?

For starters, I don't want to over-sell it, in the main because we are still in the process of trying to figure out "it" is. And none of this is not to knock all the good people toiling away in small companies or solo operations. I won't support those that I currently support any less for trying something like this.

But off the bat I do see a few differences from the small company model:

Larger Pool. A coop has the potential to build up a larger pool of talent. Forgive (and correct) me if I am talking out of my ass, but many of those operations have very few people doing the hands on work. While I would think we'd want to keep it relatively small and tight in the beginning, I still think we are looking at something like 20-30 designers, writers, editors, artists, programmers, etc.

Entry-level Access. Most of the businesses are primarily focused on promoting the systems and products of their owner/designers--or a very small collection of people close to them--which is great, but other than starting yet another operation of your own it's difficult for a newcomer to break in. Not only can we have the luxury of a wider door (while still trying to maintain quality standards I should add), but we can assist in being as much or more about the development of coop members as we are about the products.

Greater incubation and collaboration. Lee raised this excellent point: “ One way a Co-op could differ is members could ‘pitch’ projects at the idea stage. If accepted the Co-op works on it from the start rather than at the end of the creative process.” In other words by building stronger working relationships we are highly likely to not only be helping people finish or improve their existing projects—we could be launching new “staffed-out” collaborations.

Removes the For-Profit Barrier. Many small rpg companies have strong hobbyist roots--and we all know no one is really making money more than a glorified beer fund—so I don't want to build up a 99 percenter argument here (we have a movement for that elsewhere), but I do think there is a psychological barrier to fuller participation by folks who aren't fully comfortable with the commercial-hobbyist hybrid we often see. 

That's four off the top of my head. Undoubtedly others can provide some more—and tough questions to clarify the discussion more.
So what's next?

First of all we need more discussion with an eye to answering tough questions and moving closer to a consensus about what “it” is. Unless someone has a brighter idea, I am going to set-up a Yahoo or Google list serve to channel the discussion better and hopefully get me out of the center a little.

If you are seriously interested in participating in launching this co-op--I don't have everyone's email who chimed in yesterday (and likely today)--please email me at kutalik at gmail dot the com—so I can at the least put everyone together on an informal CC.

Day of the Dead

We do Dia De Los Muertos up big here in San Anto. Not Mexico big, but plenty big with a month of lead up down here in the Southtown art district and then the day of festivities and remembrances of ancestors past. Everywhere are the grinning skulls, the calaveras.

It is said that Dia came about as the product of old-fashioned Catholic-pagan syncretism. The death festival of Mictecacihuatl, the queen of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, blending with the conqueror's All-Saints Day. The Lady of the Dead kept watch over the bones of those who passed thus the iconography. 

The Hill Cantons has been having its own Dia tribute...well at least the husband and wife team that play the long-time campaign pillars of Mandamus and Uma. Check out their altar complete with some Warhammer skeletons on loan from Desert Scribe's army.

It's a day later than the mopey remembrance holiday of my neurotic Czech ancestors, but I readily embrace the Dia's magical realism—and the chance to remember and celebrate those close who went off to trip through the Elysian Fields or ask Crom the riddle of steel (or something or other).

More on the RPG publishing coop a little later today.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Time for a DIY Game Publishing Coop?

Good conversations stick with me for long spells. Slowly over months they seem to percolate and build until they find some kind of public expression on my part. 

About a year back I had a marathon conversation with a fairly well-established (albeit close to the bottom-rung) crime fiction author at a union convention. One of the most interesting topics we hit on in that wide-ranging talk was the evolution of writers' circles.

He floated the notion that the increasing sophistication of print-on-demand and distribution services was causing a veritable revolution, transforming a few of these circles from simple self-help (and commiseration) groups into something closer to a full-fledged DIY publishing coop. Members were going from being sympathetic shoulders and sounding boards to providing rigorous editing, layout help, publishing advice, etc.

I could tell from his increasingly glowing, animated tenor that the idea of such a transformation driving a stake into the heart of the traditional publishing industry—or at the least chipping away at it's outer edges—clearly was an idea near and dear. Having worked on both sides of book and publication publishing I could only nod my head vigorously and mutter things to the effect of “right on, preacher man.”

Months later with my own feet starting to dip into the slackeriffic world of hobbyist game designing/publishing I find myself longing for some stake-driving. Let's face it about the mainstream of the rpg industry: it deserves to have a vorpal blade go snicker-snack on it.

The problem is, what's the alternative? In some ways we are already seeing it, a bewildering constellation of single-person outfits and micro-companies. All well and good, let a hundred flowers bloom and all that.

But what about something like those transformed writers' circles to also help chip away at the edges? What about something that combines the best of that rugged independence with a larger pool of skill sets and co-equal work?

What about a DIY game publishing coop?

It's not an entirely new idea. Indeed my favorite hex-and-counter wargame company of the late-90s was the Canadian-based cooperative outfit called the Microgame Design Group, which produced a stunningly creative array of highly affordable microgames relying on then revolutionary technology of desktop publishing. 

What I am thinking of—and this is thinking out loud more of a baseline for discussion than a concrete proposal--is something like this:

1. The coop would need to be a reasonably cohesive group with a healthy amount of trust and expectation—at least as much as we can get out of the herd of cats that I know and love out there. It would need to be fairly self-selective about who can be a member: people with drive and/or talent who have a lot of heart for putting out creative DIY rpg products.

2. A member would give something like this to the coop:
Annual donation. Should be modest and affordable, but something to help build a psychological sense of ownership and to have a small base of funds. Can be waived in favor of more work as below.
Work. X amount of work hours per month helping do distribution, layout, line editing, copy editing, technical work, illustration, or what ever their core competency takes them.

And the member would receive something like this from a coop:
Work. X amount of work on a project. Type of work as enumerated above.
Quality Control. Critique/feedback/editing from a pool of like-minded souls on your manuscript or other project work.
Distribution Channel. The coop would run a group distribution and printing channel. Perhaps through a Lulu storefront or other print on demand at first and then traditional printing and distribution later if it takes off.
Income. Member keeps the lion share of the profit of sales after modest cut for coop (10-20%?). At any rate it would have to be something much higher than the industry standard for royalties.
Product. Members will be able to obtain copies of coop works at the production cost of the product.

Lay off the crack pipe, Chris, or something worth thinking about?