Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wilderness Terrain Generation Project

One of my current projects involves rules for generation of wilderness terrain on both a continental and regional level for all game systems.  My idea is in the testing stages, but I've noticed some interesting phenomena in some of my mechanics and assumptions.

Starting Assumptions
  • Some people will want to generate Big Picture aspects of the game world (world size, axial tilt, number of moons, etc.) and others will either pick or assume these aspects, or not care in the first place.
  • The aspects of a terrain we need to know, on a continental basis, are the presence of: salt water, fresh water, elevation, predominant vegetation, and intelligent-life settlement.
  • Terrain comes in bunches -- it's not "choppy," though there are pockets of varying terrain.  I have come up with a simple mechanic to determine "sameness" from hex to hex.
  • Hills are near mountains -- whether due to tectonics, glaciation, or volcanic activity
  • Forests are more likely near fresh water sources -- I'm frankly not sure if this is actually true, but it feels right
What's interesting here, beyond the assumptions themselves, is the effects of combination of these assumptions and the inclusion or removal of the "sameness" mechanic.

Order and Method of Generation

The assumptions dictate a certain order of terrain generation; you have to know whether mountains and/or fresh water are present before you can generate elevation and vegetation.

The question then becomes how to generate these baseline elements (coastline/mountains/fresh water) with a simple mechanic and optional user choice.

Weather and Rainfall

One of the harder elements to simulate is that of weather.  There are deserts, for instance, in every latitude of the Earth (some of which are fairly close to fresh water features), and areas of forest without a lot of water on the ground.  Put another way, the mere presence or absence of lakes and rivers is insufficient to determine the prevailing vegetation.  Simulating this in a simple way is tricky.


On the continental level, a larger scale is necessary so that you can create a map of a sufficiently large area within a manageable mapspace.  The scale also has to be small enough to depict fresh water sources (which determine vegetation) in a meaningful way.  I presently believe about 50 miles to the inch is an appropriate continental/campaign map scale, and 2 miles to the inch on a regional/local level.


Generating a world or campaign map should be a fun experience.  I'm experimenting with many different ideas to inject ease of use, creativity, and fantasy into the process.  I want to make sure this isn't completely antiseptic and scientific for those who want funkiness and ways to generate campaign ideas.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Here's to You (off-topic)

Bud Light presents: Real Men of Genius.

(singer in background: "real men of geeeeniuusss ...")

Today we salulte you, Mr. After-Yard-Sale-Curbside-Junk-Remover.

("Mr. After-Yard-Sale-Curbside-Junk-Remover!")

Only you can take a mildewed shower curtain, broken toilet, and rusted engine block and like a modern-day alchemist, turn it into flea market gold.

("it's leaking oil")

We count on you to stalk our streets, like a Nighttime Trash Angel, scouring them clean of debris that wouldn't sell for a nickel.

("I'm calling 9-1-1!")

So crack open an ice cold Bud Light, oh Sultan of the Scrapheap. You save us our sweat, our toil, and a day-after trip to the charity donation bin.

("Mr. After-Yard-Sale-Curbside-Junk-Remover ...")

Sunday, March 25, 2012

On Hubris, Strengths, and Weaknesses in Gaming

One of my favorite non-gaming subjects is that of personal development; who we are, why we are, what we individually do well, and how we can get better at whatever these things may be to achieve Name Level fulfillment in real life.  For those interested, I recommend checking out Strengthfinders, but self-discovery is not for everyone -- and there are certainly many ways to skin this particular cat.

I bring this subject up after checking out what appears to be the current endeavor of Ravenloft author Tracy Hickman, "XDM: X-treme Dungeon Mastery."  While I am certainly in no position to be calling anyone's baby ugly, I confess to a bit of an eyeroll when I read the name of his book and his game system ("XD20"), and began to understand his overall thrust, which appears to be to inject humor, energy, and magic tricks (I'm not kidding) into one's DM bag of tricks.  Indeed, Hickman appears to have transformed himself, rather vampire-like, from an RPG author to what can best be described as (1) a DM motivational writer and speaker and (2) a consultant for budding RPG writers.  I'm not sure whether his seminars involve a firewalk or sawing an assistant in two, but he does his damndest to make them appear "xtreme," as if he were the offspring of the union of Gary Gygax and Anthony Robbins.

Setting aside my distaste for buzzwords and useless jargon ("xtreme" is really unforgivable), I couldn't help but wonder whether Hickman isn't a bit like the surgeon who has made his millions in the operating room then believes, magically, that he is somehow able to invest that money wisely (I'll give you a hint: doctors are the number one target for stockbrokers, commercial realtors, and scam artists).  Here's a guy who, by all accounts, was the darling of the RPG world for many years writing successful adventures and novels.  I would consider buying original content written by Tracy Hickman.  I would not consider buying an "xtreme" motivational product or attend a paid seminar put out by him, for one simple reason: hubris.  Tracy Hickman's arrogance is the glue that holds his website together; it is visceral.

This sort of "I'm good at X, so I must be good at Y, since X and Y are so much like each other" is pervasive among successful people of all industries and nationalities.  Its relative is the thought of "I'm smarter than Bill, and Bill is good at Y, so I can be better at it than him."  Both of these beliefs are born of an inflated ego and pride.

I'm Good at Game Writing, So I Can Run a Game Company

This is common in the gaming world because, frankly, nearly all of the companies we know today started as one- or two-man operations where the head guy wore all the hats in the company.  Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owens ran Judges Guild for its first few years.  Bledsaw was a great content guy (particularly in map and setting design) and philosopher of the game; Owens appears to have been more of an organizer.  After Owens left around 1980, JG's production quality worsened and the company lost its exclusive license to publish under the D&D logos.  Bledsaw was not free to do what he was best at -- writing, designing, and leading -- and got stuck in the back-end of the business (editing and publishing), things for which he was poorly-suited.

I'm Smarter than the Technical Games Guy, So I Can Run a Game Company with No Technical Expertise

The same could be said, to a lesser extent, in the TSR saga of the early 80s, pitting the Blumes (and then Lorraine Williams) against Gary Gygax for control of the company.  We'll never know what would have become of TSR had Gygax retained control, but we certainly know what happened in his absence.  People with a lack of understanding and appreciation for the technical product could not be expected to appease their core demographic, design appealing new content, and keep up with the changes to the game market.

The conclusion?  Do one thing, and do it well.

Dungeon Engineering, Room Density and the Space Between

Ragnardbard inspired this post, via his beautiful maps for the "storeroom" DIY level of the Vault of the Mad Archmage.  One thing leapt out to me immediately: the tightly-packed nature of sections of the dungeon level.  I liked it, but I realized immediately I would never have drawn it that way because of my own preferences and biases.

For you see, to my dungeon engineer's eye, you've got to have Space Between!

Compare, for instance, these two classic D&D maps:

Quasequeton is packed.  The Tower of Zenopus (as the Homes D&D dungeon has been called) is sparse.  I fall somewhere in the middle here, with an acknowledged preference towards having some space between rooms, usually 10' worth.

I find it amusing that I care about such things in a fantasy world that is home to monstrous levitating meatballs with eye stalks, but I imagine somehow that without such a rock buffer my dungeon would structurally fail.  This would seem to be more true the deeper one goes -- more support needed for all that rock-weight above.  Thus, I look at Quasequeton and see a proverbial house of cards, albeit one with some magic pools on the seven of hearts. 

But then I eye Zenopus' abode and say, "my, that's an awful lot of wasted space.  That seems less functional."  Without a design goal (like, say, to reach the underground river in area M), why tunnel when you don't have to?  Couldn't all of rooms A - J been put closer together and achieved the same functionality?

Here's something more up my alley, though it's certainly more Zenopusian than in my preferred middle ground:

The Moathouse dungeon works for me despite its relative sparseness -- though I think Gygax could have fit several more rooms in here easily without having the Moathouse crater upon itself.  Gygax's own above-ground structures were more packed (needing less support) while his caverns and dungeons had Space Between to one degree or another.

Torn between realism and functionalism, and asking myself WWGD, I have suconsciously decreed that a 10' minimum Space Between has become my default for underground designs.  Armed with this, I can effectively suspend disbelief and maintain functionality and design flow. 

I just have to catch myself to not do this above-ground, though.  10' spaces between everything is not functional in a building, unless we are discussing exterior castle walls.

I think I need to go out and draw a dozen outdoor hedge mazes now to break myself of this. Ah, the little internal boxes we make for ourselves, eh?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Judges Guild Retrospective #4: Tarantis

And so, as promised in my earlier post, a retrospective reivew of Tarantis:

This 1983 publication from Judges Guild was the last of its kind, a city-state guidebook for the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.  Joining the inimitable City State of the Invincible Overlord and the City State of the World Emperor, Tarantis was the third city state to be detailed.  Written by Bob Bledsaw, it bears many marks of his authorship -- namely, attention to detail and a strong sense of setting.  It's also "Bledsawian" in the sense that, like the rest of the Wilderlands, it's a sandbox too.  There are no dungeons detailed here or plotlines to follow.

Overall, I give Tarantis a "C" grade and can only recommend its purchase for collectors and those running a Wilderlands sandbox campaign.

Setting & Flavor

One of the nice things about a Bledsaw work -- you always have a great sense of location.  On the shores of an Eastern subcontinent in the Wilderlands, Tarantis is a port city and home to a people reminiscent of the Turks, the Sumerians, and a dash of distant India.  Bledsaw captures the maritime flavor of the area with a nice historical overview of the area.  Like the other large cities of the Wilderlands, Tarantis is an orderly place with a relatively brutal government with a Lawful Evil / Neutral flavor.  How much of this is a reflection of Bledsaw's politics or worldview is hard to say, but it is a recurring theme in the Wilderlands.

On the edge of an Asiatic wilderness with its own Mongol analogue, Tarantis, while interesting, lacks much of the fantastic whimsy of the City State of the Invincible Overlord.  Rather like the nations of the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting, Tarantis is very much a human-focused nation; the elements of fantasy are few and far between.  With its mercantile/piratical/barbarian-horde-avoiding tone, the area feels more like a low fantasy swords & sandals locale than one where elves and ogres and mind flayers congregate.  That's a minor quibble, but perhaps it's a strength as well -- perhaps Bledsaw deliberately wanted to give "Judges" a low fantasy city option.

Other bits of flavor are sprinkled throughout.  A particular standout is a huge rumor table (provided in a d100 list that is much easier to use than the rumor in the CSIO (which were one rumor per city locale).  The rumors themselves evoke the setting and provide Judges with a huge repository of adventure ideas.

The artwork, all black and white other than the cover, is of fair quality and overall evokes the setting well.  My overall impression is that it is light on art.

Physical Product

You knew this was coming, but here it comes regardless: Tarantis' overall physical presentation is poor, especially by 1983 standards.  Once you get past the single-page glossy color cover sheet, you are dealing with two 96-page newsprint-paper staple-bound books in the traditional JG mold, along with the campaign map (DM/Judge and Player versions).  I find these production values increasingly hard to justify, but JG at this point in their lifespan was trying to keep costs down by having an arrangement with a newspaper printer that did JG stuff "on the side" on the condition that the material be prepped for printing in a precise way, run once on their paper with no do-overs, and be done.  While this low-cost printing strategy kept JG in business in the short-term, it crippled them in the long-term from a competitive standpoint.  It also led to questionable editorial decisions where full-page artwork of dubious quality was slapped into a product to fatten it up so that the manuscript could get to the required number of pages.

Overall then, we are left with a fairly shocking conclusion: that a 1983 JG publication was of lower quality than TSR's original white box OD&D offerings of 1975.  Let that soak in for a moment.

Content & Organization

The maps, as always, are great.  They are as usable now as they were in '83.

My initial beef with Tarantis' content is that a large portion of it is regurgitated, particularly many of the tables and charts.  I estimate that no less than 10-15% of the content (encounter charts, terrain generation, etc.) was previously-published.  More infuriating is that this is content that likely Tarantis buyers already owned by virtue of having a copy of the CSIO, the Campaign Hexagon System, or some of the Wilderlands releases.

On top of that, there is unnecessary content.  Pages and pages are devoted, for instance, to a listing of settlements in the entire 18-map Wilderlands.  How this information was supposed to be useful to a purchaser of one-map Tarantis is beyond me.

Editorially, Bledsaw also fumbled, allowing his military fetish to shine through as he waxes about every significant military unit within Tarantis' military.  Four to five pages are taken up with descriptions of company commanders and their troops with tangential, if any, interest to player-characters adventuring in a typical exploration/dungeon-based sandbox setting.  Those were five pages that reasonable purchasers in 1983 would have wanted back -- pages that could have been used to supply actual adventure-related content.

By way of comparison, the CSIO contained adventure seeds and some blank dungeon maps.  It was screaming for adventure.  Gimme some encounter charts and let's head off to Thunderhold!  Sadly, Tarantis has no adventuring locales even partially described, requiring the DM to do all of the work.  This is not a fatal flaw, but it certainly renders Tarantis less "ready-to-play."

As I have previously explained in other posts, in 1982 JG lost the license to publish gaming materials using  "approved for use with D&D / AD&D."  Thus, Tarantis was printed with the "Universal Fantasy System" imprint, a thinly-veiled attempt to make the game statistics as generic as possible.  Miscellaneous odd statistics were added, rendering characters as a long statblock of sometimes-comprehensible abbreviations.

Which brings me to my final gripe: the organization of the city locales themselves, being laid out as though each were another room in an above ground dungeon.  A rote name-and-description style works for a dungeon because the DM needs to read it a few times to understand the contents so that he can describe it in-game.  Consider, however, how players actually interact with an urban setting.  Unless a given location plays into a particular adventure, all I as DM want to know is the name and personality of the main NPC at the location (so that I can roleplay his part) and what products and services are available at the location.  The game stats of the NPC and remaining fluff (e.g., that the NPC has a chest with 500 gp and a toy doll, etc.) is simply filler that can be placed elsewhere or eliminated entirely.  While town/shopping adventures can be fun for low-level parties, they rarely devolve into wholesale blood lettings involving the shopkeepers.

I am experimenting presently with a facing-page urban layout with the map and key on the left (the key merely identifying the location) and a chart on the right describing the NPCs, products and services, and random encounter chart.

Conclusion: It's a C, and I'm being rather generous.

While it is a useful and evocative product, in retrospect Tarantis is an uneven and rather sad coda to the Wilderlands offerings of Judges Guild.  Not even my nostalgia and love of the Wilderlands and its cartography can get me past the numerous failings of JG's later offerings.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Greyhawk and the Fall of Judges Guild

It's 1983, and Dungeons & Dragons, despite the documented problems within TSR's ownership group, is apparently doing well by all external measures.  Its core gamer base remains in an expansion mode despite the protestations of satan-fearing religious types, and many of the kids and adults who started playing over the prior eight years are clamoring for new and better content and game aids.  While TSR was fighting its own internal battles, a few hundred miles south in Decatur, Illinois, a competitor and sometimes-friendly colleague in the RPG publishing business, Judges Guild, is in deep trouble.

I am not breaking any news here, but my thesis is that JG was at its best in publishing two categories of gaming product: campaign setting content and maps related to the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and game aids (tables, charts, and mapping materials) for use in the Wilderlands or in homebrew settings.  JG was at its weakest, with a few notable exceptions (Tegel Manor and Dark Tower among them), in writing adventures and rules-related offerings.  In this way, JG was a great complimentary publisher to TSR, which had roughly opposite strengths and weaknesses.

To give you an example of why I adore JG campaign materials:

A "Player Map" of Tarantis: Campaign Map Four, printed in 1977
For its time, JG printed wonderful maps.  Not because they were beautiful (though I thought they were), but because they were big, they were on the faux-parchmentish paper, and because you were expected to write on them and actually use them.  The Player Maps were exactly that -- to be filled out as the players explored the unknown, with only a coastline, a few rivers, and some distant mountain ranges to guide them.  Now THAT is how you sandbox, people.

So as you read this post, please don't think I'm dancing on JG's grave.  If anything, I am angry that this company didn't recognize and capitalize on its niche while it had the opportunity.  Bledsaw and Owens, the main operators of JG in the 70s, had a virtual monopoly on officially-licensed campaign settings.  They came up with two fabulous ideas: (1) the Wilderlands itself, a huge sandbox of a game-world (really, about the size of Europe) and (2) an ahead-of-its-time subscription-based publishing strategy to put out setting-related materials, supplemented by the Pegasus magazine, one of the main functions of which was to promote and support the Wilderlands setting.  They had a good plan.  They did not execute the plan.

With respect to the maps of the Wilderlands, 18 campaign maps (with mostly-blank Player versions) were published and distributed on or before 1978.  The often imititated, never duplicated, City State of the Invincible Overlord (launched in 1976) was the centerpiece of the game world.  JG's setting-related offerings (e.g., Modron, Shield Maidens of Sea Rune, Verbosh) often focused on nearby locations within easy reach of the City State.  Thus, in fairness, JG's main intent was in supporting City State-based campaigns, rather than necessarily expanding the Wilderlands.  The Wilderlands' next most substantial content-related expansion arguably was the 1980 release of the City State of the World Emperor, detailing the Overlord's main rival to the West and the surrounding lands.

In prior posts, I have more or less identified the core reasons for Judges Guild's fall (from a product standpoint only; I can't speak to JG's financials or ownership issues), to wit: low-quality and stale production values, poor art, missing-in-action editing, a tendency to regurgitate previously-published material, and a failure to adapt to the rapidly increasing sophistication of TSR's product line (as well as the D&D target market itself) in the early 80s.  The coup de grace, however, was JG's 1982 loss of the license to put the D&D and Advanced D&D logos on its products.  JG already was moving into second-class publisher status; the licensing debacle relegated it to the role of gonzo publisher -- though one with a fairly impressive back catalog.

The Kiss of Death

So in 1983, my guess is that Bob Bledsaw, one of the founders and the remaining owners of JG, decided to stick to what had worked in the past (and frankly, something that capitalized on his best personal skills -- writing and setting design), and published Tarantis, a city-state in the eastern portion of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. 

At first blush, one would think this was a significant upgrade for JG, which in some sense it was.  A glossy color cover certainly was de rigueur in the early 80's.  As with many JG offerings, however, this was lipstick on a production pig, for under the single-page glossy cover, under the shrink wrap, were two 96-page staple-bound cheap paper books. 

To make matters worse, look what else came out in 1983:

As you will recall, this was the fabulous boxed set for which fans of D&D had been clamoring for years.  It had a polished gazetteer and of course the iconic Darlene Pekul map of the Flanaess.  Tarantis (as good as it is -- see below) -- had no shot.  This was the "game over" moment for JG, because TSR had officially gotten into the campaign setting business.  JG's Wilderlands of High Fantasy had a six-year virtual monopoly on this sub-industry -- and the World of Greyhawk smacked it aside like the proverbial redheaded stepchild.

As a side note, 1983 also saw the release of Ravenloft, which was in itself a seminal moment in the development of D&D.  JG had long since fallen behind the curve on adventure publishing, which TSR absolutely dominated since around 1978 (despite a few Paul Jacquays standout offerings for JG).

Now here's the punchline: remember the date on that Tarantis Player map?  1977.  When was Tarantis published?  1983.  Why did it take Judges Guild six years to publish Tarantis?  Or to put a finer point on it -- why couldn't Judges Guild fully flesh out the Wilderlands with a six year head start?

So to recap -- JG had no D&D license, third-class citizen status amongst the game-buying public, stale production and 1970s sensibilities -- and it lost primacy in its best category.  Frankly, they are fortunate TSR didn't get into the setting business sooner, because if Gygax had published the City of Greyhawk and World of Greyhawk early on in D&D's life-cycle, JG wouldn't have made it past 1978.

In the end, though, Tarantis was a largely forgotten product, which is sad.  As a whole, the Wilderlands is in some ways a superior product to the WoG, especially for OSR players.  I'll post my review of Tarantis in in the coming days.

Edit: a day late and a dollar short: Grognardia's retrospective on the Wilderlands makes many of my points for me -- as usual.  Looks like I'm playing catch-up!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

For Your Consideration: Holy Sword

I've submitted my one-page dungeon, Holy Sword, to Alex Schroder, the affable organizer of the event.  With his permission, I'm going to go ahead and post Holy Sword right here, right now.

Click for Expandy Bits

I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

One-Page Dungeon 2012

This year's One-Page Dungeon contest is up and running, and I'm in.  I'll be submitting my freehand entry very shortly.  Best of luck to the other contestants!

I had a great time designing my entry, Holy Sword.  It's something I had kicked around for a bit but hadn't really considered for One-Page treatment until I started working on my freehand more and started to see the beauty of the key-on-map -- at least for my own use.  The next step was to make a key-on-map that was usable by other people that were coming to the product cold and with their own points of view.

One-Page, to me, means the following:
  • Using as much of the page as possible within concept
  • Going stat- and game-mechanics-free as possible -- both to save space as well as to keep it system-neutral
  • Simple illustrations substitute for verbiage
  • Brevity!  Less is more in descriptions!
  • Providing real, usable content that is more than a skeleton or flowchart
Here's hoping my scanner can pick up the details and render them readable; I'd hate to start over!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Incredible color freehand mapping courtesy of the Vaults of the Mad Archmage

Ragnardbard is far too humble.  His work makes my meager sepia offerings downright pathetic.  What an inspiration, though!

VAULTS OF THE MAD ARCHMAGE: Gardens and Graveyard, colour...:

There are some seriously great freehand mappers out there.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Basic DnD Bard Class

Here's what I came up with, using Erin Smales' class construction kit:

Conceptually, this bard has 3.x-style abilities.  He's a face-man, a tale-teller, and repository of knowledge.  Top that off with musical inspiration and fascination abilities; enchantment, auditory illusion, buffing, and healing spells; and fair combat abilities, he's a true jack-of-all-trades that complements the party without stealing anyone else's thunder.  The cleric will always be a better healer, the thief will still have his unique skills, and the magic-user will have a greater spell selection and much more damage capability.  As a support character, he most resembles the cleric.
Bard (Prime Requisite: Charisma)
  • Hit Die: d6
  • Save: as Cleric
  • Combat Progression: as Cleric/Thief
  • Armor Restriction: restricted leather or magic chainmail, no shield
  • Weapon Restriction: restricted to sword, dagger, club, light crossbow, sling, shortbow
  • Spell Ability: Cleric/M-U blend (I priced this at cleric level) 
  • Special Ability Rank II: Bardic Music (1/day, +1/day per 3 levels after 1st): Inspiration (+1 to hit and damage (+2 at 6th level, +3 at 12th level; Fascination (as Hypnotism)
  • Weapon Mastery: non-fighter
  • Skills (priced at 2:1, as per Thief): Music, Singing, Persuasion, Acting, Deception, Read Normal Languages, Knowledge: History,  Knowledge: Legends
  • Level Limit: Unlimited
  • XP Progression: 2000 xp to 2nd level (as Fighter)
Spell List (progression and spells/day similar to cleric, but spell level capped at 6.  Learns spells and has a spell book like a magic-user and can copy any spells on the spell list (even from cleric scrolls) as a magic-user)

1: remove fear, light, detect magic, read languages, charm person, faerie fire, sleep, read magic, ventriloquism, auditory illusion, hypnotism, identify

2: silence 15' radius, speak with animal, hold person, cure light wounds, protection from evil, snake charm, deafness, magic mouth, amnesia, scare

3: locate object, hold animal, striking, fear, invisibility, clairaudience, fumble, suggestion

4: dispel magic, charm monster, confusion, tongues, emotion, heroism, feeblemind

5: cure serious wounds, protection from evil 10' radius, hold monster, geas, lore, charm plant

6: find the path, cure critical wounds, maze, antipathy/sympathy, power word stun, mass charm

*Spell notes: some of the spells are cribbed from 1st edition.  Heroism is taken from 3.x; it's a single-target buff spell; I'm thinking it should be around +2 to hit, 2d8 temporary hit points, and fear immunity, say for a duration of one round/level.

Your feedback would be welcome.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

More scrapbook map goodness

I've managed to transfer, edit, and expand some of my Dunlyle maps to the 12" square scrapbook paper format.  Not bad for amateur freehand, though I've yet to settle on techniques for lettering, shading, and how to draw more or less squared-off dungeons without using graph paper.  I noticed that, if I didn't rotate the paper or adjust my position, my rectangles started looking more like parallelograms.

A low-level complex, with multiple side-caves sprouting from a large central cavern

One dungeon level, along with exterior and overland mini-maps.

What I'm proudest of, though, is the use of my .1 mm sepia ink pen to key the maps on the maps themselves, for ease of use in running the dungeons.  This kind of shorthand is obviously great for DMs running their own material; many DMs coming to such a product cold will likely want a traditional written key.  Since I'm doing this for my own use and pleasure, however, it's more than acceptable for my own purposes.

Thanks to Zak for the idea (and stunning visual execution) of using the map/key combination, though in his case, he uses his own art, flair, and clip-art images to convey a lot of the information to himself, whereas I'm writing supersmall text on the map.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Skill Systems for pre-3.x D&D

As I've posted over on ENWorld (in the Legacy games sub-forum), I am weighing the various options for a skill system for my planned Dunlyle campaign.  As I explained, there are several options:

  1. No skill system at all -- use ability checks with appropriate modifiers
  2. Secondary skills only (as per 1st edition)
  3. Rules Cyclopedia skill slots
  4. 3.x skill points
  5. 4e trained/untrained skills
  6. The Adventures Dark & Deep system, based on a prior OGL creation, which involves the purchase of skill ranks with experience points, the skills themselves use a modified ability check system.
Flexibility vs. Specialization

At first blush, the "no system" has a lot going for it.  There is something liberating, frankly, about not having a skill system and just winging the outcome with your players.  Obviously, this requires a level of DM flexibility and skill, as well as the trust of the players.  It also requires consistent application.  Over the course of a campaign, the flexibility/"winging it" solution ends up with loosely codified houserules using a variety of modifiers to either the target number or the die roll itself.

My main beef with this (as well as the 1st edition solution) is that it does not allow a PC to excel at a particular skill.  How do you simulate arcane knowledge, tracking, or even being a great horseman in Basic D&D?  Clearly, not everyone has this knowledge -- so you end up with a houserule that says some ability checks are only usable by certain classes.  This creates a de facto "class skill" system where some skills are only usable by trained individuals and others (like stealth, say) are usable untrained.

On the other hand, there are other cans of worms opened with a full-blown skill system exported to pre 3.x D&D.  Many of the rules mechanics (surprise, finding secret doors, falling into traps, etc.) are handled on a flat 1 in 6 or 2 in 6 probability, with no distinctions between different races and classes of PCs.  Once you inject perception, athletics, and other combat and non-combat skills into the mix, you are fundamentally altering how the basic game works -- and not just for the PCs.  You then have to account for these attributes for all of the monsters.  Which is probably why Gary went with a simple mechanic in the first place.

What 4e got right

Yes, my fellow grognards, there were some advances in 4th edition, the biggest one in my mind being the rules for passive perception and insight.  The passive mechanic allows PCs to spot secret doors (in elf-like fashion) without looking for them, and also provides a target for opposing stealth rolls to determine if PCs are surprised.  Passive insight functions like 3.x's Sense Motive skill.  Once you decide that you need a skill system, you need a way to keep it manageable, and passive skills fit the bill.  Passive perception, in particular, helps deal with the trap-finding problem in prior editions, where the paranoid thief/rogue character searches every 10' square with a fine-tooth comb.  Of course, that's what wandering monsters are for, too.

I also like the concept of the trained/untrained skill in 4e, though I'm not a fan of the execution.  Trained skills in 4e are essentially ability checks against a set DC, delivering a flat +5 bonus for training, and all skills go up with character level automatically.  I think this could be adapted to basic with tiers of bonuses for each rank of training (which is very similar to the Adventures Dark and Deep implementation).

How Skills are "bought"

If you have a skill system, you then have to decide how they are acquired.  The Rules Cyclopedia uses a weapon proficiency analogue called skill slots, and allows the expenditure of multiple slots to simulate greater expertise.  3.x uses skill points and is by far the most customizable system.  4th edition essentially uses skill slots. 

Adventures Dark and Deep uses an interesting xp purchase option, trading off xp for skills with a maximum number of ranks per level.  I am lukewarm on this last option, simply because it is such a giant tradeoff for a player to learn an interesting "flavor" skill (like a social interaction skill) at the cost of hard-won xp.  This system feels more like a GURPS-like, character-point driven game where character advancement is piecemeal (do you want to increase your skills or other abilities?) rather than level-based.  I like point-buy games, having played Champions for years, but to me this runs counter to the level mechanic in all versions of D&D and I'm hard pressed to see where a player would want to learn any skills until he was of a fairly high level and the xp costs involved were proportionately less painful.

At the moment, I'm leaning heavily towards the Rules Cyclopedia as a way to provide some structure and specialization to skills in pre-3.x without getting overloaded in details or having to create monster skills to oppose PC skills.  I also think having some kind of rules makes it more clear to the players how actions will be adjudicated.  But I would love to hear how you deal with skills in your games.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Adventures Dark & Deep Kickstarter

Joe Bloch, aka the Greyhawk Grognard, has just launched a Kickstarter funding event for Adventures Dark and Deep, a Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore.  This product is a supplement for 1st edition and OSR products, adding new classes, spells, monsters, a streamlined combat system, and other features.

If you haven't seen Joe's material, painstakingly and lovingly coaxed out of dozens of sources on Gary Gygax's intentions for the advancement of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, you are missing a distinctly Gygaxian expansion and clarification of the game.  As Joe puts it, it's his attempt to render the AD&D 2nd edition Gygax would have written.

I support this on Kickstarter and I encourage you to do so as well.

That Old Feelin'

It started when I put my computer game habit to the side and picked up my pen & paper games again.  I'd never let go of PnP gaming, having maintained a place in Brodie's 3e/4e game as a player and 3e DM for the last 12 years, more or less.  But I noticed, frankly, that I wasn't being the kind of husband, father, and man I wanted to be while fully absorbed in computer games.  I started seeing clients whose marriages were falling apart due to computer and video games.  It was time to let it go.

But D&D is a different animal, to me anyway. It's a hobby, theater of the mind, a creative outlet, and a social occasion.  For me, computer games were a suppressant, a tranquilizer.  D&D expands my real life and engages both sides of my aging brain.

So the box(es) of D&D materials beckoned, and the writing started.  Once the writing (blogging, and campaign-building) began, a need for an audience formed with it.  I suspect this is a partial reason why people blog -- the dual need to "get it all down on paper" and express oneself combined with the very basic need to communicate on a brain-to-brain basis with those of a similar bent.

And then the old feeling came -- the need to DM again.  I suppose I knew it all along, but having written up Dunlyle, I needed to experience it, and not just to playtest it either.  I wasn't ready to just file it away or be content to occasionally pull it out and tweak it.  I needed to feel it and let it live.  Cue the Dr. Frankenstein analogies.

It will also give me a chance to playtest Joe Bloch's excellent Adventures Dark & Deep.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Freehand Mapping and My Unmanly Secret

In the course of writing my sandbox mini-setting of Dunlyle, I sketched several outdoor maps (about 5 miles to the inch) using different media and paper.  I tried pencil, pen, crayon (surprisingly effective, actually) and used plain paper, graph paper, and hexgrid.  I can now, of course, sketch out a Dunlyle map in my sleep.  But something was missing.

Over at the Cartographer's Guild I saw what was missing, other than artistic talent.  My maps just weren't cool.  Lacking in both patience and ability to use the computer drawing programs like Hexographer, I decided to go old school and abandon the grid (for now) ... which is where the Unmanliness crept in.

For you see, today I discovered the joy of scrapbooking materials.

My wife had been a scrapbooker for years and had all of the fancy papers, paper-cutters, stamps, stickers, and all of the paraphrenalia that goes along with this most Girly of hobbies.  What I found out, though, while perusing my local art supply store, was that scrapbooking has everything we gamers need for extremely cool maps -- while at the same time providing a built-in storage and protection system.

First, there's the paper.  Scrapbooking paper is wonderful.  I picked up a bunch of parchment-style cardstock paper that happened to be on sale.  So you have this durable, weighty bit of parchment-looking paper just waiting for your fantasy world or dungeon to explode upon it.

The size of scrapbooking paper (12" square) is also handy, providing roughly 50% more surface area upon which to sketch compared to 8 1/2" x 11" or A4 paper.  I find this to be a more naturally pleasing drawing surface; the shape of the paper is no longer an influence on my creative muse.

Here's Dunlyle on scrapbook parchment cardstock, after a few hours of my amateur artistic and calligraphic labors:

But wait, you say!  What about the hexgrid or square grid?

No problem, my budding Marco Polo.  Just run that bad boy through the printer, before or after you've freehanded the map.  Personally, I will be putting the grid on afterwords, if at all -- I don't want the presence of the grid to guide my pencil.

The scrapbooking accessories are also spot-on.  Want to dress up your maps with symbols you will use repeatedly?  Get a stamp and just ink that bad boy.  How about a cool border for your crypt, using skulls or black lace?  You can make it as kitschy or campy as you want.  Throw a Scooby-Doo sticker on there if it floats your boat.  Or, if you're an artiste like Zak, you could throw some web images on there and cut and paste yourself to an impressionistic dungeon masterpiece.

And then there is the scrapbook itself, a perfect place to store, transport, and admire your beautiful map.  It is bound so that the scrapbook paper doesn't have to be holepunched ... the holes are in the sheet protectors.  And those sheet protectors?  You can write on them with a wet-erase pen and never mark up your precious maps!

It gets even better when you realize that you could do entire dungeons on facing-page scrapbook pages ... map on one side, key on the other.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Judge's Guild Retrospective #3 (Grab Bag Edition): Field Guide to Encounters (vol. 1 & 2) or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being a Fly-Man Were-Triceratops Ninja God

Another "cold" review, opening up the shrink wrap for the first time ever.  I'm pretty curious, and really, who wouldn't be with this sitting in front of them:

"I always liked the cover for that book, with the gorilla in the bed and the giant woman’s hand coming through the window. Didn’t like the coloring on that, but it was a fun cover." -- Bob Bledsaw.  Perhaps his taste in art and editorial decision-making here had something to do with the fact that mini-Kong here was drawn by Bob Bledsaw, Jr.  Just a thought.

That's right, friends.  THIS publication (written by Dragon's Byte, 1982) is the launch of a "new role playing system."  Does this staple-bound, newsprint-paper publication just get your inner gamer fire burning for a new game system?  What about the cover says "New Fantasy System" or even "Hey, there's 600 new monsters in here!"?  Nothing.  This is Confusing Aspect 1: the non-sequitur product title/artwork.

Remember, this is 1982.  To the left is a TSR product ca. 1982, Gangbusters.  Production values.  An actual design.  Artwork that sold the product and communicated what the game was about.
The second confusion?  How about the author, "Dragon's Byte"?  Turns out, thanks to this acaeum article (a real treasure trove of information, if you read between the lines), that the author is a collective of sorts, a game group from Detroit that submitted this material to Judges Guild for publication.  So JG decides to publish a two-volume product (a fan submission, essentially) ... with 600 new monsters, a new game system (more on that later) and little to no editorial control at the top.  Per Bledsaw: 

When they told me how many monsters they had I knew I could only have a small description and a single picture each. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication with my art director (I think he was on vacation when it was scheduled for production) and none of the artists realized that the pictures were supposed to fit exact descriptions from Dragon’s Byte, especially the monsters from the novels. I didn’t see it before it left for printing, and when the Dragon’s Byte guys got it they were quite unhappy.

So neither Bledsaw nor the Art Director even looked at this pile of crap before it went to the printer.

Confusing element 3: the "New Roleplaying System" being published here in 1982 is ... wait for it ... NOT the Judges Guild Universal System put out in 1982.  That's right: one publisher putting out two competing game systems in one year.

So to recap: a product with poor labeling, artwork, production values, no editing, and homebrew content wildly conflicting with soon-to-be-published official product.  All in a gorilla-encased, $12.00 package.

I'm going to recover for a moment before I begin to review this turkey.  Deep breathing ensuing.


The New Roleplaying System in the Field Guide has no name.  So I will call it the Field guide ROleplayinG System, or FROGS.

FROGS uses the standard six D&D ability scores, plus Cunning (cleverness, for thieving), Psionics, Magic, Tracking, Poison Resistance, and Lycanthropy.  All of the stats are generated on 3d6 except Psionics, Magic, Poison Resistance and Lycanthropy, which are on d%.  Ability modifiers are generally similar to OD&D, though one needs a high (16+) score to get a modifier, unlike D&D of that era.

FROGS then implements a host of secondary stats, including Willpower, Psionic Strength Points, and Genetic Spell Points.

We then learn that everyone starts at level 1, except "cult-based" characters, who start at a higher level.  This is the first and last time this is ever mentioned.

Hit points are interesting; after level 1, the PC has a chance of getting a new hit die (of a kind based on race, not class) -- fighter types always get new hit die as they level, but the wimpier classes roll a d% to determine whether they get more hit die.  This is done to accomodate the other conceit of FROGS, which is that it allows PCs to play any monster as a PC -- predating the Effective Character Level concept of Third Edition by a good 18 years.  Take that, WotC!

Skipping over some oddly-placed weapon material charts, we arrive to this gem: "Power Points and Manitou Combat."

I know a few gnome tinker-types that could go for this.  Actually, Manitou here refers to soul to soul combat between psionic combatants.

FROGS uses a spell point, rather than Vancian, magic system.  Presaging 3e's metamagic feats, FROGS refers to spell augmentations to change effects in exchange for a greater spell point expenditure.

We then have a wall-o-text for a few pages describing Lycanthropy and its various types, including:
  • Were-Barracuda
  • Were-Pteradactyl
  • Were-Shark (ok, that's somewhat interesting)
  • and my personal favorite, the Were-Triceratops.
How the herbivorous dino in question manages to impart its curse upon its victims is a question for another time.

Occupations (FROGS' version of classes) follow, including such heroic archetypes as the Acupuncturist.  I shudder to think of the impact of a thousand tiny needles jammed into a Beholder's central eye, for instance.

The class system does have a few interesting tidbits, though, presenting base classes that are effectively multilclassed.  Hence, we have the White Wanderer (a magic/psion), a Shifter (a lycanthrope/fighter), Crimson Seeker (psion/fighter), and Shadow Walker (psion/thief). I find this to be the most interesting bit of FROGS, considering that in standard AD&D of 1982, Psionics were an optional feature layered on top of the class system.  Here, psionics is embraced and whole new classes presaging 3e's Psionic Warrior et al are presented as interesting options.

After that glimmer of hope, the Field Guide retreats to its comedic muddle.  Nowhere are spells or psionic powers, a combat system, a movement system, or any other game mechanics described.  Thus, FROGS must be viewed as an Unearthed Arcana style overlay for D&D, C&S, or other FRP of the time, rather than a "new roleplaying system" unto itself.  But why derail this retrospective with serious commentary?

The middle 40% of volume 1 is dedicated to the Intelligent Monster Supplement, essentially adding a template to character creation to modify statistics and impart special racial abilities.  Wanna play a dolphin?  How about a fly-man (yes, it's what you are imagining)?  Why not a lycanthropic flyman ninja that's secretly a were-triceratops?  Oh yes.

The last parts of volume 1 describe how to become a god in FROGS -- kneel before me, my fly-folk were-triceratops minions!!  Further beyond we also learn what happens to characters with a 100 PSI score (they get Gamma World-esque mutations, that's what!), and finally, the cross-breeding allowed between the various intelligent monsters.  You will be happy to know that a troll and a bison have a 7% chance of successfully procreating.  That is all.

Volume 2, all 96 pages of it, is all monsters.  On page 78, I was elated to discover not only an entry for Toast, but one for Burnt Toast as well.  "Class: Construct: Burnt Toast with face/feet/hands."  Illustration: dark piece of toast, upright, with angry face and threatening gestures.


I think this (along with the cover) says it all:

On the plus side, there is a lot of content (there are a few diamonds to be found among the steaming piles of were-triceratops dung), but the art quality is consistent with JG's typical offerings of period, which is to say generally horrid.  A Kevin Siembieda piece on the back of volume 1 is a actually a quite nice gnoll drawing that was unfortunately butchered by a horrific inking job, rendering our hyena-headed humanoid a sickening shade of troll-green.
A bit of color type printing in parts of Volume 1 were a nice touch, given JG's low-budget production, but really just lipstick on this hog. 

Editorially, the Field Guide is a disaster, with a lack of proofreading for both typos and internal consistency.  Again, this was never JG's strong suit -- stronger on game tools than on game content.  Again, it makes one wonder whether this was what led TSR to pass on granting Bledsaw a renewal of the D&D license.

CONCLUSION:  There's little wonder that JG had 1,600 Field Guides left over (to end up shrink-wrapped and sold to grab-bag EBay suckers like me, two decades later).  The few interesting morsels of gaming goodness in these 192 pages of birdcage liner could have been summarized in a Pegasus article back in the day. 

I need a drink.

Jeff Reints review from '07 here.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

How not to launch a new FRP game system

Yes, this 1982 publication of Judges Guild, complete with confusing-yet-humorous Fay Wray - King Kong switcheroo, was the launch of a new Univeral Fantasy System in the wake of JG's loss of licensure to produce D&D product.  Nothing says "ready to square off with AD&D" like a game system spearheaded by the efforts of an undersized, fuzzy purple-slippered primate.  I'll be reviewing this gem tomorrow in another Grab Bag Retrospective, but for now, the shrink wrap stays on.  Wish Kong luck, fellas -- looks like Fay is ready to play.

4th Edition debriefing -- planting the seeds

After my whining, I have to say the 4th edition game was not as horrid as I was expecting.  We managed to get through four encounters or so in a 4-5 hour slot interspersed with a short meal break.  But I managed to have a short conversation with Brodie, the DM, afterwords.

I proffered this pearl of wisdom: we could have played the entire session under any version of D&D rules.  Given the setting (dungeon-like tombs, filled with tricks and traps and magical power nodes), there was nothing 4e-specific.  Brodie admitted this was true and related a tale that he enjoyed 2nd edition the best, simply because he could strip it down and houserule it to let it run the way he wanted.  He also owned up to the fact that he was not able to use all of the 4e critters' powers optimally because of their quantity and his limited preparation time due to his real life schedule.

I then offered that the battlemat was required in 4e (as it was, for the most part, in 3.x).  He agreed and reflected that they didn't even use miniatures in his house game until 3e came out.  In fact, the battlemat actually got in the way of the game -- we became so habituated to looking at it instead of listening to the DM's description that we missed something incredibly obvious that nearly caused a character death. 

Another factor, for me anyway: flipping through pages of "power cards" was not really adding to my gaming experience -- and I've been playing this character for the last six of his 11 levels.  I had played 4e previously, too.  I had that moment where I realized I understood 4e as much as I was going to and I had no desire to learn more.  And that level of knowledge is inadequate for my comfort level.

Looking back, the game mechanics that were actually utilized in this session were essentially combat, spells (combat and rituals, in 4e parlance) and skill usage.  We could have played the same game, the same story, and had a better pace and a lot more FUN with a leaner, stripped down, less wargamey system.

It was a moment of clarity for me and I think a realization for Brodie, too.  Among my epiphanies: anyone publishing content needs to make it as rule-neutral as possible, since everyone houserules, and to not design settings, scenarios, and even monsters and treasures with game mechanics in mind.

My Regular Game and the 4th Edition Rant

My longest-running regular game meets today.  Run by my friend (and best man) Brodie, it's a homebrew 4th edition campaign.  It's story-heavy, which is the only thing that's kept me in the game beyond friendship. The group itself is wonderful. Of the six players, two are women. Everyone is an adult in their 40s with jobs and their own personal living space. I enjoy their company and have socialized with all of them in non-gaming settings.

And yet I have to drag myself to this game -- my loathing for 4th edition is that strong.

The "I hate 4th edition" ship has sailed long ago.  Like many in my demographic, I tried to like it.  I bought the PHB and the Martial Powers warrior builder book.  I have suffered through two campaigns using this ridiculous rule system.  I have a mind to show up today with my Red Box (Erol Otus cover) Basic Set or Pathfinder and dare Brodie to switch rule systems.

My character -- a tiefling wizard I inherited -- has hit 11th level.  So now I must choose a "Paragon Path."  None of the paths in the PHB fit my concept.  My character is an egotistical bastard with an occasional nice streak.  I suppose I'll have to search on Brodie's WotC "insider" program to find an acceptable path from the various supplemental material out there.

The case against 4th edition:
  • "Roles"
  • "Encounters"
  • Everything keyed to challenge ratings
  • Near-impossibility of death
  • Paragon Paths
  • The entire "powers" concept -- I feel like a pro wrestler with my own finishing moves.
  • The game serves the rules, rather than the reverse
  • Tactical wargame feel
  • Combat takes forever
  • Binary Skill system does not allow for customization
  • No saving throws -- DM rolls an attack roll.  "Save" to end an effect.
  • No save or die
  • wholesale changes to established settings to shoehorn Dragonborn and Tiefling into the mix
  • abandonment of Greyhawk
The case for 4th edition:  Higher level play is slightly less bulky than 3.x.  Also, I like the way passive perception and insight are handled in-game.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The "Explorer" Wildlands Campaign and the Campaign Hexagon System

I've long been a fan of the D&D campaign based around exploration, both on a micro (dungeon) and macro (wilderness) level.  No publisher highlighted this aspect of D&D better than Judges Guild, whose Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting was built around the idea that there was a lot of unexplored stuff out there.  Sure, there were cities -- big ones, too -- but there was space.  Bob Bledsaw's crowning achievement (other than the City State of the Invincible Overlord) was the Campaign Hexagon System and its specific implementation in the Wilderlands.

Be assured that the system was more than mere wilderness maps on hex paper.  The first benefit of the system was that it was scalar, taking the DM from large-scale campaign hex maps to individual hex maps of a particular campaign hex to two scales of square-grid map for city plans and small scale dungeon floorplans.  Like a nested Russian doll, the map scales all fit within each other.

The second benefit of the system was that Judges Guild published maps and blank sheets (the Fantasy Cartographer's Guide is simply wonderful) for keying said maps in large, easy-to-use booklets, and provided numerous tables and charts to help DMs populate those maps with terrain, features, monsters, and treasures as needed.

Lastly, Bledsaw ensured that all JG "content" publications actually used the Campaign Hexagon system, and took it to the next level with the inclusion of TWO maps for every wilderness area -- a DM's map and a player's map that was blank, other than coastlines and known features.  Talk about an incentive to explore -- there was a whole map to fill out!  And after that, 15 more in the Wilderlands setting.  For my money, the Wilderlands Setting was the ultimate sandbox for OSR-style gaming.  JG products were at their strongest when providing game aids to enable this style of sandbox play.

I am a huge fan of Greyhawk, but the exploration element and sense of the unknown is largely missing (at least in the aboveground of the Eastern Flanaess).  The Greyhawk setting (and Faerun too, for the most part) is one of nations; the Wilderlands is one of wilderness, and is therefore the first setting that comes to mind when the "points of light" concept is bandied about. 

Sadly, exploration as a player and character motivator seemingly became phased out as the game transformed into one of character customization and battlemat-driven tactical combat.  I honestly can't remember the last time someone actually mapped in a 3.x game.  I wonder if a raised-on-4th-edition player would even understand the point of mapping.

Judges Guild Retrospective #2 (Grab Bag Edition): Caves and Caverns

Back in the aughts, whilst hunting for missing elements of my Wilderlands Campaign map collection on Ebay, I bought a few Judges Guild "grab bag" packs from a particularly creative vendor.  Some of these have remained unopened for 7+ years.

To to add a little spice, I am reviewing this product cold.  Here it is, in all of its shrink-wrapped glory:

Caves and Caverns, by John Mortimer, 1982, cover price: $3.98.  64 pages softback, all black-and-white.  As you will note, unlike earlier products, around '82 JG was no longer a holder of the D&D license and was forced to designate their products as "Judges Guild UNIVERSAL Fantasy Supplement."  This development is worthy of a blog post or two on its own, but it was one of the contributing factors to the eventual demise/comatose state of JG; without the "approved for use with DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS" label (complete with official TSR-style branding), JG created a semi-compatible game system and its new products were left to stand on their own merits without D&D branding.  Compare this offering with TSR's product line circa 1982, and the difference in production values is staggering ...

Here's a fairly typical 1982 TSR product with full color artwork that is actually evocative and relevant.  It has a cardstock cover I believe, or at least better binding than a couple of staples.  The unflattering comparison is unfortunate for several reasons, not the least of which is that JG products got short shrift. With substandard artwork, thick newsprint-quality paper, iffy editing, and a generally dated feel, a lot of JG inventory got left in the shrink wrap -- like my copy of Caves and Caverns.  By '82, the hobby had left JG in the dust -- Bob Bledsaw's "TSR Illinois" in Decatur was making product for 1977 audiences.  Whether that sad development was caused by TSR's non-renewal of JG's license or if JG's production values were the reason the license was yanked is a matter of interpretation and speculation.

Back to our Caves and Caverns.  The subtitle: "Forty-eight caves & caverns with nine pages of charts & guidelines using the City State Campaign Hexagon System."  To reiterate from my prior posts about JG: this is par for the course -- offering a game aid to allow DMs to populate their own sandbox settings or the Wilderlands itself.  JG was less in the adventure writing business than it was in the game aid and DM toolbox business.

A bit of a giggle on the back cover.

All right: let's open up this 30 year time capsule.

The first few pages are dedicated to explaining the Universal Fantasy terminology, and Mortimer takes great pains to stress that this product is designed for all game systems, although back in '82, there was D&D, Runequest, and that's about it as far as major fantasy RPGs.  This "methinks he protesteth too much" vibe continued when, at first glance, most of the stats presented were identical to D&D stats, with some minor changes and additions.  One notable alteration was to armor -- Mortimer describes a piecemeal armor system combining armor types with construction material, to arrive at an 'armor rating' that is a damage reduction system rather than the traditional AC-as-damage avoidance system.
To be clear -- I have no issue with JG designing new content.  It's just one of the earliest examples of a non-copyright holder having to create new game subsystems and otherwise engage in various gyrations and contortions to avoid an infringement lawsuit from TSR.

My favorite parts of JG products are the tables and charts, and Caves and Caverns does not disappoint.  The next few pages describe wilderness terrain effects on combat, and the best part of the whole supplement: "Random Generation of Caves, Caverns, and Burrows."  By cross-referencing the base terrain with a die roll, the "type" of cave (limestone, dungeon, lava tube) is generated; the next tables allows generation of the "type of cave entrance" and the size thereof.  The following table is a random cave and dungeon generator, allowing a DM to fill in a blank map quickly, either on-the-fly or to prepare a lair beforehand.  I have seen several random dungeon generation tables that were superior to this, but the fact that it is broken down by "cave type" lends it some additional merit.  JG was never afraid to get hyper-specific in its tables and charts. 

Several of the following pages are devoted to a random monster tables, about half of which are JG original monsters designed for use in their Universal Fantasy System and described further in the separate two-volume (and really poorly-named and launched) Field Guide to Encounters -- which I also own in its original pristine shrink-wrapped state and will review on a later date. About half of the monsters' stats were Universal Fantasy additions (agility, endurance, etc.). The stat blocks on the monsters are pretty heinous walls-o-numbers and pure gobbledygook for those with a D&D-only background. For this reason, the monster list in Caves and Caverns is only partially usable for a DM using D&D unless he has the aforementioned Field Guide.

The remaining 50 pages of the 64-page booklet are dedicated to pregenerated mega-hex wilderness maps using JG's Campaign Hexagon system (more on that in a future blog).  The outdoor maps are entirely modular, allowing a DM to slap down a cave, small dungeon, or other underground feature in any type of prevailing terrain.  The maps alone stimulate an incredible amount of imagination and are well worth the cover price.  They are as usable today as they were in '82.

The product is free of fluff and bad artwork, thankfully.

Overall grade: C, due to the Universal Fantasy System aspects; otherwise, it would have been a B+ due to the utility of the maps, charts, and tables.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Judges Guild Retrospective #1: Modron (1977, 1980)

(For wonderful retrospectives of early DnD products, check out James M.'s fabulous OSR blog, Grognardia.)

I was a fan of Judges Guild products since my introduction to the hobby in the hamster-urine smelling room of my friend Kenneth and his older brother, Richard. In the City State of the Invincible Overlord, my preteen fantasies came to life in the naughty Park of Obscene Statutes and in the titillating calls of the Houris. Back then, the JG products had a lot of flavor, particularly compared to the relatively conservative offerings of TSR. Full of goofy, slapstick, dangerous, and sexual flavor, Judges Guild products rarely failed to amuse.

Judges Guild had other things going for it, too.  It was, well before the OGL, one of the only officially licensed content providers for D&D.  JG was was fairly prolific, too -- at my game store, Judges Guild products seriously outnumbered TSR offerings, especially adventures and settings.  At the time, I regarded JG product as inferior (Gary didn't write it! Noooo!), which in retrospect was unduly harsh.  JG supported their product like nobody's business -- nearly every D&D product they put out was tied to their Wilderlands setting, and their Pegasus magazine was always adding new City State content.  One can only imagine how great it would have been had TSR provided half as much support for Greyhawk and its other settings.

And so we come to the retrospective of Modron, written by Judges Guild founder Bob Bledsaw (one of the hobby's pioneers) and Gary Adams.  Like many JG products, Modron explored a particular area of the Wilderlands setting without providing fully fleshed-out adventures.  The idea, which is very representative of OD&D and 1st Edition, was simply to provide the proverbial sandbox and tools for the DM to make the area his own. Judged by this design goal, Modron was, and is, a success.

To the East / Northeast of the City State, downstream along the Estuary of Roglaroon, lies the Walled Town of Modron.   As the Kevin Siembieda artwork illustrates, watery adventures were in the offing.  The product (32 pages, counting the covers) is fairly typical of early JG products, devoting a lot of attention to rules, charts, hex maps of the town and underwater adventure area, Seimbieda art of uneven quality, and colorful descriptions of Modron and its inhabitants.  The main difference between the 1977 and 1980 versions, as best I can tell, is that the '77 version maps were on the wonderful parchment paper, whereas the second printing in '80 maps, though in color, were on the interior, low-quality paper and stapled in the middle of the product to be removed by hand.  The "players' maps," mostly blank versions of the main maps to be used by the party and filled out, were unfortunately printed on the inside and outside rear cover of the booklet.  My secondhand 1980 version sadly lacks the parchment "players" maps, but either way, the maps highlight a wonderful aspect of Old School D&D -- when exploration and mapping (including wilderness mapping) were a major part of the game.

Rules and Tables: As befitting a setting with watery adventures, the beginning and ending sections of the book detail rules for swimming and drowning, water current, weather effects underwater (!), terrain descriptions for the undersea maps (with adjustments for visibility, movement, and surprise), tables for the strange misty waters surrounding underwater features, a coral chart (!) featuring types, colors, poison deadliness and values,  pearl-diving charts, random underwater encounter charts, shark charts (you know you're in for it when the sharks have their own damned chart), and, yes ... the Sea Monster table, wherein one might encounter anything from an entire warband of 30d10 Mermen to a Kraken to the Loch Ness monster ...

Background and Fluffy Bits: Some effort was made to give a brief history of the Town of Modron and its namesake, the Goddess Modron, deity of Rivers.  The artwork alternates from interesting to silly to amusingly bad; there are several full-page, full-color works that seem like filler to get the product to 32 pages.  Still, there are some juicy story tidbits throughout, like the sea hag that sells a horrid seafood concoction that bestows water-breathing on landlubbers, allowing them to explore the shipwrecks and sunken temples offshore ...

Town Description:  Like all JG towns, streets each have colorful names ("Struttin' Strech," "Brain-Basher Boulevard") with their own random encounter elements.  It's a bit much by today's standards, but very much in keeping with the "have fun until you die" spirit of early D&D.  This style is present throughout Modron (and indeed, in most of Bledsaw's own work product) and extends to the buildings, NPCs, and products and services available in Modron.

The Maps:  As an unabashed fan of JG's maps, I enjoyed the maps immensely, though I would have enjoyed the parchment versions much more than the on-page versions.  The underwater adventure map was just begging to be keyed and stocked with watery monsters and treasures.

Like all old school products you have to get past the lower production quality and meh art to find the value in Modron, but it is there.  It presents a complete toolkit for numerous town and underwater adventures of the DM's creation.  It's a great example of a "game aid" (as it bills itself) -- a colorful setting for the DM and players to make their own, without ramrodding anyone into an adventure path.

Overall Grade: A-.  A great representative of a Bledsaw-penned sandbox setting and adventure area.

On Creativity

While writing my manuscript for Dunlyle (a fantasy mini-setting), about which I will likely blog more later, I stumbled onto a bit of a metawriting dilemma, to wit: how much creativity is enough?

In Fantasy RPGs, the Greats of fiction (the usual suspects) and those of the hobby itself (EGG et al) cast long shadows.  Layered on top of these genre expectations are our inherent Western cultural biases, myths, and legends.  Toss on top of that a few rulebooks written by fellow members of that culture, and any red-blooded American aspiring to write an adventure is bound to end up with a finished product that looks somewhat familiar, with castles and wizards and hairy-footed small humanoids.  Stranger still, I confess that I still find this familiarity comforting; Northern European flavored roleplaying appears to be my default setting.

This is insecapeable to some degree; we're all products of our culture.  No doubt a native of Japan, say, would have a prediliction to create settings, characters, and situations that are familiar to him.  Most creative people, however, eventually reach a second stage where, rather like the Beatles going to India, they want to inject new elements into their creative output.  Eventually, a fusion of sorts results between the artist's original formative influences and the stimuli to which he is exposed.  M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel is the classic example of a deliberate attempt to exert both artistic and intellectual creativity to break away from Tolkein-based fantasy fiction and gaming.

The question then becomes whether the artist's audience can maintain its interest in the new creative fusion.  How many citar-focused Beatles songs do their fans want to hear?  How much creativity is enough?  The "same only different" motto has to apply to one degree or another if the creative output is going to have any resonance with its intended audience.  While the artist's medium can certainly mold the audience in ways it was not intending to be affected, it must meet that audience's preexisting needs in some respect.

Quality is a factor, too.  We can tolerate something lacking in creativity (Ravenloft comes to mind) when it is well-done; and what is not new -- or even a cliche -- in the big-picture sense can certainly exhibit substantial creativity in the details.

The conclusion I have reached is this: to inject as much creativity and quality in the details as possible, even if the subject matter has been overdone for decades.

5th Edition Hopes and Fears

Like many gamers in my age demographic, I await news of D&D 5th edition with a mix of hope and trepidation.  On the one hand, Monte is at the helm; it won't suck.  On the other hand, its stated goal of unifying the various editions -- and thereby providing something for everybody -- runs the risk of pleasing no one at all.

As of this writing, my favorite editions remain 3.5 and Pathfinder, for one big reason: character creation.  I find that 3.5/PF deliver the most ability for PCs to create the character they want within a fantasy world framework.  While this is sacrelige in many OSR circles, I like feats and skills as presented in 3rd Edition and its progeny.  Is 3.5/PF perfect?  No -- the oft-stated objections (rules bloat, wargaming feel, challenge rating/build-the-adventures-around-the-PCs, the power curve, high-level play wonkiness) are mostly valid in my experience as a player and DM.  But that sweet spot (say, level 3-10 or so) was awesome.

I have gone back and reviewed many of my Basic Set / 1st Edition materials, and downloaded and reviewed several of the carefully-crafted OSR retro-clone products, including Labyrinth Lord and Joe Bloch's Adventures Dark and Deep.  I value the original and OSR products for their relative simplicity, flavor, nostalgia, and sense of real danger to the PCs.  However, I like a product with a little more meat on the bones, particularly regarding skills and adjudicating non-combat actions.  Adventures Dark and Deep has taken the step of adopting a alternative skill system based on xp expenditure that is partially tied to ability scores -- thus, for many of the skills, it is cheaper to train if your best ability score is that skill's prime requisite.

Mixing and matching these elements then, as Monte in fact says he is doing, my fantasy 5th edition would look something like this:
  • Same core design re: six ability scores, hit points, saves, armor class, etc.
  • Feats, or some mechanism to customize characters to provide unique abilities
  • Skills or ability check modifiers to allow resolution of non-combat actions
  • Ability to run 0/1st edition style gameplay (i.e., battlemap/miniatures optional) for quicker play
  • Flattening of the power curve
  • Deadliness -- the game needs to be dangerous
  • Rewards should go back to pre-3e: xp for treasure, to encourage alternate means of "winning" other than monster-slaying, which begets the Challenge Rating/match-the-encounter-to-the-PCs thinking.

Giving Meetup a Spin

I'll be giving Meetup a spin, using our local Fort Worth band of Gamers, The Order of the Funny-Shaped-Dice.  So far so good: I got a very quick response to my inquiry on a Pathfinder game.  It'll be good to get back in the saddle of actually playing regularly, whatever the edition.

I am hopeful.  The group seems to be mature, with real people with real jobs that take showers and whatnot.  So hope springs eternal.  I'm pretty sure that my closet gaming nature is partially informed by my fear of being thought to be an unwashed, unemployed, basement-living member of the gaming subculture.  Don't you just hate it when those little self-observations reveal your shallow-but-unfortunately-true ways of thinking?

Transformation: from Gamer to Game Writer

I'd been following Joe Bloch's blog for awhile when I caught the notice for his self-publishing company, BRW games: "Now Accepting Submissions."

I had been tooling around with some ideas (having come back to pen and paper gaming after a short hiatus) when it occurred to me that writing for a publisher was the key missing piece for me.  Having precious little time to actually game, the idea of adventure writing during my free time grew into a passion.  After a few emails back and forth with the very gracious Joe, I began writing, using his excellent Adventures Dark and Deep beta ruleset as the gaming framework.

Writing about games is, clearly, very different than gaming, though many of us in the blogosphere seem to enjoy musing on gaming as much as the act itself.  What I was not prepared for, however, was the rather gaping chasm between being a DM and being a writer for DMs.  Now, after over a month of going at it, I can confidently say: it's harder than it looks.  As a fairly competent writer, I had no worries about being able to put proverbial pen to paper; my concern quickly became how to best organize my ideas into a coherent whole, and how to best capture those elusive ideas before they slipped away into the mental ether.  Pages and pages of yellow tablet paper quickly filled up.  Everything has to be explained.  One simply cannot expect implications, transitions, or clues to be obvious.  As part of discovering the need for Clarity, I achieved crystallization of a trinity of masters that I was to serve.  The quest of writing thus became a trial to attain three sometimes-conflicting objectives, Clarity, Creativity, and Productivity.

Creativity is, itself a fascinating topic.  My good friend Brodie is an expert on the topic of creativity and the very notion of the genesis of ideas.  What quickly became apparent to me was that in adventure writing (as in painting, sculpture, movie-making, or any other creative endeavor), it has all been done before.  As I drew and populated a low-level dungeon, I kept kicking myself -- oh, great, another lowbie Kobold encounter.  But I trudged onward, trying to make that Kobold encounter as memorable as possible.  Eventually, I gave myself a break, for at a slightly deeper level lurked the thought, "people expect it to be that way."  There was more than one Hollywood western, after all.  In the end, like Hollywood producers, I determined that the end result, creatively, should be the same only different.  By infusing creative organizational elements, interesting locales, new monsters, memorable NPCs, a variety of situations, and unique treasures, I could hopefully deliver something familiar yet interesting -- something worthy of a ten-to-twenty dollar gamer investment, perhaps.

Productivity is ever-present.  The output must be generated.  This requires real time in front of the keyboard and at the graph paper tablet.  To write something for the gaming public -- something that would be entertaining, useful, and worth spending actual money upon -- it needed sufficient bulk.  If all you do is "ideate" and organize, you will never have an end result.  Someone has to do the heavy lifting of hammering out the necessary prose, and it can be a chore.  There have been days when writing up ten dungeon rooms has felt like a major accomplishment.

I have finally submitted the manuscript and have (mostly) resisted the urge to go back and compulsively edit it more, and have moved on to the next project.  But it's hard to move on when the echoes of the last project are still bouncing around ...