Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lord Of The Rings SBG: Gandalf Miniature Poses

How many poses do you need for Gandalf the Gray, for the Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game? Apparently, at least four. I think I have several more poses of Gandalf, but I painted all of these miniatures at the same time, to speed up the painting process.

Gandalf the White, on horseback, is in the back row. A buddy of mine painted that for me as a gift. I think I have at least two other Gandalf the White poses that I have not yet painted.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Weather Outside Is Frightful

We've been remarkably lucky: No snow for over three weeks. However, we got snow yesterday afternoon, between 2 and 6 pm. Combined with a temperature around the freezing mark, this resulted in pandemonium on Calgary streets. It took me 3 hours and 10 minutes to get home from work last night, where it usually takes me only 25 minutes. Along the way, I passed innumerable cars, stuck on ice, or in accidents, plus at least one city bus/school bus crash-up, attended by several ambulances, tow trucks and other emergency vehicles. There were apparently over 100 city buses stuck on hills. Time to hunker down for the weekend, and not go too far from home!

Friday, November 27, 2009

What Happened In Vegas...

Sadly, not as much as you'd think.

Here's a picture of Vegas, looking towards the Mandalay Bay Hotel (at the end of the Las Vegas strip, on the right) where I stayed.

More on my trip to Vegas shortly.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What Happens In Vegas...

I'm currently in Las Vegas (work-related). Anybody know of a good RPG hobby shop in Vegas?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Sentry Box

I have been frequenting The Sentry Box since it first opened, 30 years ago.

I'm sure Gord, the owner, has no memory of me from that time, but I remember my regular visits to The Sentry Box as moments of sheer bliss.

At the time, The Sentry Box was located at the Corner of Crowchild Trail and Kensington Road, in a little hole in the wall on the north side of the building now occupied by Canada Mortgage Direct.

That tiny space was crammed full of role-playing, wargaming, and miniatures goodness. I can recall spending far too much time there (and i'm sure at the time, in Gord's eyes, far too little money) looking at all of the gaming stuff. As it was at the bottom of the hill from where I lived, in Capitol Hill, and the buses sometimes only ran on the hour, I did a lot of walking to and from his store.

The Sentry Box has moved twice since he first opened his shop. The first time, to a larger location just off Crowchild Trail and 33 Avenue SW, in Marda Loop. I think his old space in Marda Loop is now filled with an "Original Joes" Restaurant and Bar. The second move was to the current location, under the Crowchild Bridge near the Bow River. Interesting that his locations have always been close to Crowchild Trail!

Now, as then, it's one of my favorite places to visit, as I still tend to find something that piques my interest, and I leave with my wallet just a little lighter.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dungeon Scenery

I am intensely jealous of those of you who have the pre-painted Dwarven Forge or Thomarillion dungeon and outdoor scenery. As someone who came late to the miniature battles hobby (the last couple of years), I had never felt any need nor desire to buy dungeon scenery: in the 70's and 80's, all of our D&D games were either miniature-less, or we used miniatures simply as placeholders, to show our position in marching order.

It was rare that we actually worried about tactical placement in combat. It was standard operating procedure to inform the DM that we were positioning ourselves in combat in a way to ensure the casters were protected from melee.

After playing my first miniature battle game, I began to appreciate the appeal of this form of gaming, and how it ultimately begat the role-playing form. RPG's will always be my favorite form of gaming, but miniatures battles have their own appeal. While similar to chit and hex boardgames (Squad Leader being among the closest in form) miniature battles give you complete freedom of movement, in 360 degrees. And directing whole hosts of combatants, rather than your character alone, creates tactical options that you might never otherwise consider.

Having come to enjoy miniature battles, I naturally began thinking about creating my own "sandbox", not with actual sand, of course, but a table upon which to play miniature battles. While the sandbox project remains unfinished, I did come across the Hirst Arts website, which has molds from which you can create your own plaster-cast dungeon and outdoor scenery.

I purchased several of the molds. Now, one of my ongoing projects is trying to create my own dungeon tiles, from which I can build dungeons. I have been building several 10'x10' sections, that can be put together in a myriad number of ways (the picture above is nine 10'x10' sections that make a 30x30 room, with two doors). As you can see, I have not yet painted the tiles.

I invested a not-inconsequential sum of cash in the Hirst Arts molds. They were well worth it, but sometimes I wish I had made it easier on myself by going the pre-painted route!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Legends of the Ancient World: Wolves On The Rhine

Several weeks ago, I reviewed Legends of the Ancient World: The Dark Vale. My review can be found here. I had several positive things to say about that adventure.

For those who may have missed my earlier posts, I should explain that Legends of the Ancient World is a retro-clone of The Fantasy Trip, comprising the two old Metagaming microgames, Melee and Wizard, with a little "In The Labyrinth" thrown in for good measure. My fondness for that old "rules-light" game system makes me want to champion Dark City Games, the retro-clone system's publisher, so they will continue releasing more of their pre-programmed micro adventures.

I purchased another Dark City Games adventure, Wolves On The Rhine, at the same time I purchased The Dark Vale. While The Dark Vale is a traditional fantasy adventure, Wolves on the Rhine is billed as historical fiction. Wolves on the Rhine was published in 2007: DCG has published at least four new adventures since then.

Wolves on the Rhine is set in the late Roman Imperial period. For those who are running a campaign based on an imperial setting, this adventure may be of interest: it has an Appendix, providing a system for generating realistic Roman names, and many of the encounters have a strong historical feel to them. The adventure itself is railroady: you are a small band of Roman Legionnaires, assigned the task of uncovering the motivation behind several "barbarian" attacks on remote imperial outposts. The encounters in this adventure lead you to macguffins, death, or clues to the true causes of the recent attacks.

I noted, in my earlier review of The Dark Vale, that most pre-published adventures are railroady. While I have resigned myself to that fact, and it may therefore be a tad unfair to criticize this adventure for that common malady, I found this adventure to be annoyingly railroady. I certainly like the idea of the adventure. Several of the encounters have a very authentic feel. However, many of the encounters in Wolves on the Rhine feature events where the players have no control over the outcome, regardless of their actions, and where the npcs serve only as sources of information to spur the players on to the next pre-determined encounter.

As a convenient Roman name, term, and armament reference, or as a skeleton upon which to build your own imperial adventure, Wolves on the Rhine will ably serve. Running the adventure, as is, will be acceptable with those Players that enjoy being along for the ride, or are more interested in the combat, and see 'story' as merely the bits that link those combats together.

I still intend to purchase more DCG pre-programmed adventures. But I trust that the other adventures will be more like The Dark Vale.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Quests For Legendary Gems and Jewels

I purchased the double-disk set of Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer last week, and we watched "the Barbarian" friday night.

In Conan the Barbarian, Conan, Valeria and Subotai steal the legendary "Eye Of The Serpent" jewel from Thulsa Doom's Snake Cultists, and Valeria keeps it.

That got me to thinking about gems and jewels in Dungeons and Dragons: specifically, the lack of quests or adventures related to the recovery of legendary gems and jewels, and the absence of named jewels and jewelry. In D&D, most jewels and jewelry are immediately fenced and converted into cash, or, used as cash themselves. The jewels and jewelry treasures are usually described fairly generically, with, at most, the type of jewel or jewelry and the gp value disclosed. I can't think of very many ocassions where the jewels and jewelry were kept by the characters, for their own pleasure, or where the players discovered that the items had an interesting backstory.

This is unfortunate, particularly considering the classic image from the cover of the original AD&D players handbook, showing several thieves prying a huge gem from the eye of the temple's idol. Shouldn't those jewels have had some interesting name or backstory?

Magic Realm, one of my favorite games, has several named jewels and pieces of jewelry that the players can discover. Those include the "Eye of the Moon", "Blasted Jewel", "Dragonfang Necklace", "Eye of the Idol", "Glimmering Ring", "Glowing Gem", "Regent of Jewels", and the "Timeless Jewel".

I think it would be interesting to give backstories and names to the larger jewels and more valuable pieces of jewelry, and plant rumours periodically on where they may be found. Players may be more apt to keep those items if they have some interesting history behind them, or at least appreciate them more, prior to selling them off.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Encyclopedia Harnica 8

As I had some rather uncomplimentary things to say of Harn here, I thought it would only be fair to post a little of what I do like about the Harn system.

First, I no longer own the Harn system (burned, lost or tossed), but I do own a couple of Harn supplementary items, so I make these comments mostly from memory, but I recall being impressed with the level of detail that went into the rules. At the time, I liked the Harn skills and combat systems.

What I do like about Harn though is the world-building material, the town, castle and city maps, and other supplementary material. If you are happy to jettison most of the flavour and background of the Harn materials, you will likely get value from these products.

Case in point is the wonderful little map (above), which is a player's map of the Kingdom of Kaldor. Hand-drawn, showing the major roads, rivers, towns, mountains and other terrain features, it is the perfect handout to provide players who purchase a kingdom map from a cartographer. This map appears in Encyclopedia Harnica 8, EH being a periodical published by Columbia Games during the 1980's.

The EH series was a fantastic little resource. EH 8 contained maps of different areas of Kaldor, geneology of the current ruling family of Kaldor, relationships between the various Earls, the Royal household, the Coats of Arms of the various Earls (in full color), and a section on Astrology. The background itself? Jettison. But the templates, the coats of arms, the concept of constellations and superstitions you can add to your campaign. Invaluable.

I understand that much of the materials that appeared in the Encyclopedia Harnica series eventually found its way into newer Harn publications. For example, Trobridge Inn, which appeared in Encyclopedia Harnica 4, was reprinted as its own adventure. I purchased the adventure, and would happily use the Inn setting as an outpost from which the players might foray to a dungeon, something like the Keep in B2. But I don't think i'd use the Trobridge Inn adventure itself, as the background is too "particular" to Harn to fit into any world I would like to adventure in.

Horses, Cavalry and Mounted Combat in OD&D

Several months ago, I shared my dissatisfaction with the D&D hit point mechanic, and compared it to the Lord Of The Rings: Strategy Battle Game approach. LOTR:SBG uses a combination of wound and fate points instead of hit points. Wounds represent physical damage, while Fate represents your ability to avoid a wound, dodge or parry a blow, or otherwise escape injury. While those two types of "damage pools" each operate a little differently in LOTR:SBG, I feel that the similar approach could be used in D&D.

The D&D rules for cavalry, horses, and mounted combat are similarly dissatisfying. They are dissatisfying because there are no rules in D&D for mounted combat! Having spent the last 45 minutes trying to locate something in the way of mounted combat rules, in the AD&D books, I finally turned to Chainmail.

Chainmail provides some guidance in regards combat between mounted and foot units. In the Chainmail rules, 2 light footmen attacking 1 light horseman have a 16% chance of killing the horseman. Conversely, 1 light horseman attacking 1 light footman has a 45% chance of killing the footman. A medium horseman has an even better chance of killing a light footman, somewhere in the 65% range.

I like the way LOTR:SBG handles combat between cavalry and footmen. In LOTR:SBG each rank-and-file figure has one attack. However, any mounted figure gets an additional attack, if charging. If the mounted figure wins the attack, while charging, he gets twice as many chances to wound the footman. Therefore, since the horseman had two attacks while charging, he gets double that (4 chances) to wound the footman. Conversely, if a footman wins a combat against a cavalry figure, there is a 50% chance that the attack will hit the horse instead of the rider.

I think similar rules could be used in D&D. You could give an attacker on horseback an extra to-hit roll. That attacker could roll all of his attacks at the same time. If the attacks hit, you could then double the number of damage dice rolled.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dungeon Crawling In Valkenburg Castle

Task Force Games' Valkenburg Castle and SPI's Deathmaze are both microgame dungeon-crawls.

However, they differ in that while Deathmaze has a completely random dungeon, created as you explore, Valkenburg Castle's dungeon never changes.

Each 1/2" square on the Valkenburg Castle map (above) represents a 10' x 10' section. The chits used in the game are similarly 1/2", and represent anywhere from 1 to 12 individuals. That's right, you could have 12 individuals in a 10x10 section.

Our modern sensibilities might rebel against such a notion, since most fantasy miniatures-games now assume a maximum of 4 miniatures in a notional 10x10 space. However, the old AD&D manuals assumed you could have 3 characters walking abreast down a 10' wide hallway, so perhaps the Valkenburg rules simply fitted with the times.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Avalon Hill's Magic Realm: The Black Knight

Have I already mentioned my fondness for Avalon Hill's Magic Realm?

This game is among my favorites, but forget about trying to find players and organize a game: the rules (particularly the first edition) were so inscrutable, labrynthine, and technical, that most who purchased this game finally abandoned all hope of piercing the veil of understanding, and put this on the uppermost shelf of their gaming bookcase. The only way to learn this game seemed to be to have someone who already played teach you.

Those inscrutable Magic Realm rules have since been cleaned up by Magic Realm fans, but the game is now long out-of-print, and is largely unavailable as it commands high prices on eBay. And even if it were readily available, the world and gamers have moved on from chit-and-hex boardgames, with all of the former giants of wargame publishing, like Avalon Hill and SPI, long dead.

Still, despite the lack of a broad fanbase and simple rules, this game continues to attract an inordinate amount of affection from old-school gamers.

I posted a brief introduction to the Magic Realm characters earlier. My favorite character, the Black Knight, is a good place to start, when explaining the advantages that many see in this game.

Each Magic Realm character begins the game with her or his unique abilities and equipment. This game has a strong "class-based" character system. Each character is unique, and there is no way to augment the character, other than through the spells, equipment, and treasure that is to be found in the Magic Realm.

Each character begins with two special abilities. In the case of the Black Knight, his special abilities are his fearsome reputation, and his skill with bow weapons. His fearsome reputation permits him to negotiate with the inhabitants of the Realm more easily: the inhabitants offer him favorable terms, as he is universally feared. His other skill, prior experience as a mercenary crossbowman, improves his accuracy and deadliness with bows.

Each character also starts with twelve action chits. Those chits represent both the activities that the character can perform, and the number of wounds and fatigue the character can endure before being killed. As each character begins with twelve action chits, characters can theoretically take twelve wounds before dying. And there is no way to increase the number of wounds you can endure.

Finally, each character has certain starting equipment. In the case of the Black Knight, he starts with a set of Armor, a shield, and a mace.

As you can see, the characters are rather simply defined. Compare that to a modern rpg character, where you can spend as much as an hour fine-tuning your build. For old-school gamers, the simplicity of the Magic Realm characters is very attractive. But that simplicity belies a complexity that is revealed as you begin playing the character.

The other attractive aspect of Magic Ream is the deterministic elements of the game. Each character has certain action chits, abilities and equipment. The combination of those three elements permits and prevents certain actions. For example, the Black Knight cannot defeat the Giants, Demons, or Tremendous monsters with his beginning equipment. Ever.

On the other hand, the Black Knight, initially equipped, is deadly against spiders, medium trolls, medium dragons, and the guards and patrolmen who inhabit the Magic Realm. Therefore, the Black Knight's goal at the start of the game is to find the monsters and inhabitants that he can defeat, kill them and take their stuff, and thereby collect the items he needs to take on the more dangerous and valuable monsters.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each character, and what is needed to change their odds against other monsters in the game, is part of the appeal of Magic Realm.

Microgames: Valkenburg Castle by Task Force Games

One of the early features of dungeons and dragons, lost in the transition to the "modern" style of gaming, was the common and judicious use of henchmen and men-at-arms. That earlier encouragement, of players retaining and employing henchmen and men-at-arms, confirmed the roots of dungeons and dragons in miniatures wargaming. However, as character design and game rules became more complicated, henchmen and men-at-arms fell out of favour. It became too complicated to design, track and direct your character, much less your bevy of hangers-on. Now, I would be surprised to hear of any 4e campaigns that bother with the use of henchmen and men-at-arms at all: modern characters tend to be the equivalent of, and can defeat, whole armies of lesser foes.

I provide this preface in featuring another microgame, firmly rooted in the old-school style of play: Valkenburg Castle, by Task Force Games.

Valkenburg Castle was the very first game published by Task Force Games. Published in 1980, and designed by Steven V. Cole, one of the two founders of TFG, Valkenburg Castle is a dungeon crawl, similar, in many ways to a microgame I reviewed earlier, Deathmaze, published by SPI.

But, while Deathmaze is utterly devoid of backstory, Valkenburg Castle is almost fully informed by it. A summary of the backstory is as follows. Valkenburg Castle has been siezed by evil forces. Hobart, grandson of the exiled King, raises an army and returns to reclaim his birthright.

The game is essentially a two player game: one player controls Hobart, his henchmen and men-at-arms, and the other plays the evil forces arrayed against him. Hobart and his forces explore and clear out the dungeons below Valkenburg Castle, collecting treasure as they battle through the corridors and rooms of the lower levels of the castle.

Hobart, his two Lieutenants, Rogier and Thorvold, and some wizards and burglars are represented by individual counters, and have multiple hit points. All of the other henchmen and men-at-arms are grouped into squads, with each squad possessing hit points equal to the number of individuals in the group, and represented by a single counter. The forces of evil are similarly represented by squads of orcs, some individual leaders, and a dozen other monsters, including dragons, Demons, and the like, again, with multiple hit points. While the leaders and the squads can move separately around the board, the squads receive a combat and morale boost when in the company of a leader.

The significant use of henchmen in this game, combined with the dungeon-crawling backdrop and use of individual stats for leaders, places this game in that no-mans-land between wargame and role-playing game, in similar fashion to early interations of original Dungeons and Dragons.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Old School Monsters: Otyugh

On today's morning commute, the radio news channel had their regular feature on food and cooking. Today's topic was "foods we love to hate". Two foods in particular were discussed: brussels sprouts and offal.

Offal (which I thought was pronounced "Oh'ful", but the food columnist insisted was pronounced "Awful") are the parts of an animal that most sane people refuse to eat. Tongue, kidneys, tripe, liver, brains, that sort of thing. The food columnist made a steak and kidney pie, which the radio announcer ate, and reportedly enjoyed.

Listening (in mild disbelief) to a discussion of eating offal, that led me to a reminiscence on the Otyugh, the larger-than-life, and more dangerous dungeon-version of the oyster. The Otyugh is the dungeon's garbage filter. It has a symbiotic relationship with the other dungeon-denizens, subsisting on their dung, offal and carrion, but also happy to opportunistically supplement its diet with fresh adventurer.

The Otyugh manages (just barely) to qualify as an old-school monster, as it does not make its first appearance until the AD&D Monster Manual. Do original monsters in the AD&D monster manual qualify as old-school? I think so, but others may disagree. The insiration for this monster is a mystery to me, but it was used quite regularly in my dungeons, as a justification for the lack of sewage systems or other ways of cleaning the dungeon. It, and the Gelatinous Cube, were the fantasy equivalents of the vacuum cleaner.

The Otyugh, and its' big brother, the Neo-Otyugh, warranted their own entries in the Monster Manual. That is somewhat odd, considering that others, like Nagas and Lycanthropes, got only one entry each, with sub-paragraphs explaining the different sub-types of that monster category.

I wonder, did the Otyugh make the cut of monsters for 4e?

Monday, November 9, 2009

My Christmas List

It's that time of the year again: the time when loved ones ask us "so, what do you want for Christmas?"

Just to clarify, i'm not expecting any of my gentle readers to buy me a Christmas present. This blog entry is intended for me to keep track of, and advise my family members of, what I would like for Christmas, along with what it costs, and where it can be found.

Here is my Christmas list. As additional items occur to me, I will add them to this blog entry.

Ready Ref Sheets - $2 -
DW RPG: Prince of Darkness - $20 - The Sentry Box X
Legends of Steel: Savage Worlds Edition - $22 - Lulu
Thousand Suns - $25 - The Sentry Box
Diaspora - $35 - Lulu
Savage Worlds: Fantasy Toolkit - $20 - The Sentry Box X
Pig-Faced Orc Tribe Boxed Set - $100 - Otherworld Miniatures
Bloodletters of Khorne - $26 - The Sentry Box
Swords & Wizardry - $21 - Black Blade Publishing
Labyrinth Lord - $22 - Lulu
Dungeon Alphabet - $10 - Goodman Games
Gates to the Underworld - $13 - Dark City Games
Faery's Tale RPG - $10 - Green Ronin Publishing
Stonehell Dungeon - $13 - Lulu
More Hirst Arts Molds (201, 202, 205 and 210 in particular) - $29 each

If there is something out there, that is a "must buy" product, feel free to mention it!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Best Of: Judges Guild

I posted an earlier review of the Ultimate Toolbox. In reading Berin Kinsman's review of the Ultimate Toolbox, he favourably compared that product to the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets.

I have no experience with the Ready Ref Sheets, and little experience with Judges Guild products generally. Back in the day, I was rather distainful of the Judges Guild material, as it seemed amateurish and of dubious value. The only Judges Guild products that I owned were Dark Tower, and the Fantasy Cartographer's Field Guide (the later having been given to me by my parents as a christmas present). Recently, I came into possession of the re-imagined Necromancer Games Caverns of Thracia (originally published by Judges Guild) and the Judges Guild Campaign Hexagon System and Village Books I and II.

While Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower are both exemplary products, and have bona-fide "old-school adventure" credentials, the value of the Campaign Hexagon System and Village Books I and II accessories seems less clear. The majority of the 60-page Campaign Hexagon System accessory consists of blank mapping hexagons. The Village Books are similar in size and design, but those two accessories provide a map of a small village on each hexagon map (most villages in the books are very small, perhaps 10-30 unidentified buildings).

Pre-made Village maps, and blank maps upon which you can design your world, have some value. The value is in simply having a hex map with which to build your world, or a pre-generated town for the players to interact with and explore. But as I reflect on the thoughts of other old-school bloggers, I am increasingly convinced that the true value of those three products lies in the supplementary material and random generation tables contained within.

The Campaign Hexagon System accessory contains 6 pages of interesting supplementary material, and several random generation tables related to world-building. Those include hydrographic features (running water, along with unique water features like springs, quicksand, and geysers, river blockages, and river-flora), random prospecting tables, tactical movement rules using the map hexs, a page of eleven movement obstacle tables, two pages of twenty-two flora tables, and a page of sixteen fauna random generation tables.

Village Book I is similarly equipped, with nine pages of supplementary materials and random generation tables. That includes wall and street characteristics, random shop-type generation tables (modified by town size and government type), village-naming tables, and a "building materials" table.

Village Book II consists of nine pages of detailed heraldry tables and illustrations, to allow for the creation of unique and meaningful shield embossing.

I have had a change of mind regarding Judges Guild, and regret not having explored their other products earlier. I am intending to purchase the Ready Ref Sheets as a pdf from RPGnow or another on-line retailer. Are there other Judges Guild products I should be considering, in addition to the Ready Ref Sheets, as accessories that contain random generation tables or other valuable supplementary material? Are there any other "must-have" Judges Guild adventures, in addition to Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia?

Incidentally, The Acaeum has designed a site specifically for Judges Guild products. If you are looking for a trip down memory lane, or would like to learn more about what materials were produced by Judges Guild, that is a good place to start.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Judges Guild Campaign Hexagon System

Worried that I might accused of talking through my hat, regarding the utility of the old Judges Guild random generation tables, I had a quick look for my Fantasy Cartographers Field Guide. Of course, I can't locate it.

I did manage to locate the Judges Guild Campaign Hexagon System accessory however. It has six pages of random generation tables, including this page, which consists of vegetable, herb, mold, and tree tables. I also found a copy of the Judges Guild Village Book I, which includes 9 pages of random tables, all related to the development of backgrounds for villages.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Random Generation Tables: Ultimate Toolbox

I visited my local FLGS, The Sentry Box, today, to see if my order of Otherworld Miniatures Orcs had arrived. Sadly, they had not.

In chatting with one of the long-term employees, I mentioned my desire to purchase the Dungeon Alphabet, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Dragon Warriors' The Prince Of Darkness adventure, and Diaspora.

It's frustrating when you want to give your FLGS your money, but they don't have the items you want to buy. It's not that The Sentry Box lacks product: but most of the stuff I am looking for is either just recently published or might be available only through Lulu.

The Sentry Box employee lamented the fact that he can't keep "Ultimate Toolbox" on the shelves. Everytime they get a couple of copies, they are quickly snapped up. I am one of the guilty parties in that regard. A buddy and I both purchased the last two copies of Ultimate Toolbox a couple of weeks ago.

I purchased Ultimate Toolbox based on Berin Kinsman's positive review. In this case, he didn't steer me wrong. I was particularly interesting in purchasing Ultimate Toolbox, as "Uncle Bear" claims in his review that this book is system neutral, as there is no assumed game system for this product.

The Ultimate Toolbox consists of random generation tables. Lots of random generation tables. 400 pages of random generation tables. That's a lot of tables, folks. And while some pages have at least two tables, many have four.

There are seven broad categories of tables within this book, plus an appendix. The chapters are Characters, World Building, Civilization, Maritime, Dungeon, Magic, and Plot. The Chapter on Characters consists of 25 pages of tables on such things as character backgrounds, motivations, hobbies, pets, and battle cries. The World Building chapter is roughly 40 pages, with constellation names, map features, mountain names, river names, weather, calamities, roads, plants, bugs, churches and so on. The Civilization chapter has city names, gatehouse designs, government types, population sizes, legends, flags, achitectural styles, foods, coin names, adventurer's packs, bribes, sewer encounters, and on it goes, for roughly 90 pages. The Maritime chapter is 30 pages, the Dungeon chapter is roughly 50 pages, the chapter on magic is another 50 pages, and the Chapter on Plot is another 60 pages. The last 40 pages is an Appendix consisting of a plethora of character name tables, and other tables that they couldn't shoehorn into any other chapter.

While the random generation tables are really useful, and I do mean really useful, the true utility of this product is as a spark to the imagination. You could use this product as-is, but the best use of Ultimate Toolbox is to come up with your own interesting sewer encounter, unique plant-life or character motivation. Of course, this book can be used, in a pinch, if you have a game that night and need to come up with some colorful information to spur the creativity of the players, or provide some local color that will make the game session that much more exciting for them.

Uncle Bear compares Ultimate Toolbox to the old Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets. I have no experience with the Ready Ref Sheets, but I do recall the amazing range of tables that appeared in another Judges Guild product, I believe it was the Fantasy Cartographers Field Book. Any particular table in the FCFB puts an Ultimate Toolbox table to shame, however, the sheer volume of tables in Ultimate Toolbox eclipses FCFB's by a wide margin.

Considering that the Ultimate Toolbox is 400 pages, and has a wealth of creative ideas for the old-school (and modern) gamer, this book is more than worth the $50 sticker price. And it will satisfy your hunger for random generation tables, while you await the arrival of the Dungeon Alphabet.

The only issue I have with Ultimate Toolbox being characterized as 'system neutral' is that the chapter on Plot is very much of the new-school bent. The authors even provide you with a "Plot Outline Form", so you can pre-plan the plot of your game. I still think you can use this chapter on Plot, in the old-school style, but be cognizant that this does include such tables as story goal, patrons, villain triggers, plot complications, and campaign hooks.

Happy Guy Fawkes Day

I'm not sure if wishing someone a 'Happy Guy Fawkes Day', and encouraging the celebration of same, is entirely appropriate. It makes me wonder how one "celebrates" September 11th, and whether Guy Fawkes Day is used as a day of remembrance in Britain, to reflect on the causes of modern terrorism.

Remember, remember the 5th of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot;
I can think of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
should ever be forgot.

The Hobbit Movie: Script Given To Ian McKellan

I have tried hard to keep my Lord of the Rings geekiness from bleeding over into my blog. After all, I started blogging to comment on the rules-light games that I enjoy playing. While that includes The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game, I intended to limit my comments to the game itself, not on Lord of the Rings generally.

I'm sure you can see where this post is going...

I am excited to hear the news that Ian McKellan has been given an advance copy of "The Hobbit" movie screen-play. This strongly suggests (confirms?) that Ian will, in fact, be playing Gandalf in The Hobbit Movies.

I couldn't be more pleased.

Nice Crisp Morning on the Heath

This is the thing I love about Calgary. You never know what kind of weather you're going to enjoy, from week to week.

We've seen a foot of snow fall in August, followed by 90F weather a day later. And we get blizzards in February, with chinooks the following day that result in people changing their attire from parkas and toques to t-shirts and shorts.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

SPI's Deathmaze: Random Generation Tables

The Deathmaze rules consist of a 24-page booklet. Of those 24 pages, 8 pages provide random generation tables, treasure type tables and a monster characteristics table. On closer inspection, some of the random generation table pages, in my copy of the rules, appear to be duplicates, so the actual rulebook consists of fewer pages.

Above is a sampling of two pages of tables from the Deathmaze booklet. As you can see from the sampled pages, there were random tables for negotiation, fountains, trap doors, statues, wandering and room monsters and combat results, to name just a few.

Not pictured here, but an innovative feature (at the time) was the magic weapon and armor tables. Those tables were simple, but allowed for the generation of weapons and armor with high bonuses, as the tables were constructed thusly:

1-3 +1
4-5 +2
6 roll twice

You could theoretically have magic weapons and armor with infinite bonuses, as long as you continued to roll at least one six.

Deathmaze also had a rather controversial feature, being the "Spices" treasure table. That table had the following spices that could be found as treasure, which had similar effects to potions.

Red Pepper

I believe there was some controversy at the time, regarding the inclusion on the last item on the list (it acted as a 'haste' potion, although I cannot comment on the accuracy of that in-game effect, having no experience in that regard, officer).

Dungeoneer: Tomb of the Lich Lord Cards

To give you an idea of what I am talking about, regarding the cards used in Dungeoneer, here is a sample of the dungeon cards that are in the Tomb of the Lich Lord set.

I have not put them together properly (I think there are a couple of doorways that are illegally configured) but it gives you an idea of how nice these cards really are.

The cards themselves are your standard playing card size, so you need some room on a table to set up the dungeon. You also need room for the various decks that you draw from, and for the cards that you place in front of you, while you play the game. But it requires no more room that you would need for any other boardgame you might play.

Unlike Deathmaze, Dungeoneer is a competitive game. You are competing with the other players to complete your quests before they do, and you play monsters and other cards against them, to stop them from achieving their goals.

Dungeoneer: Tomb of the Lich Lord

I've been pestering Thomas Denmark, the designer of Dungeoneer, regarding the re-print of his original Dungeoneer: Tomb of the Lich Lord game. Back in August 2009, Atlas Games announced their re-print of this card-game set (originally released in 2003) and I have been visiting my FLGS every week since September to see whether it has been delivered.

Tomb of the Lich Lord finally arrived last week. Staff at my FLGS had already stocked it on the top shelf of the card-game section of the store, but I had little difficulty locating it and hurrying to the front-counter to buy my copy, and afterwards frantically tearing the wrapping off to enjoy my lastest acquisition.

The cards are terrific, and I love the rules-light gaming that this card-set and related rules provide. As I was reminiscing about Deathmaze, it occurred to me that my appreciation for that old microgame may be part of the reason I like Dungeoneer so much: it has the same rules-light dungeon-crawling feel that appealed to me all those years ago.

Dungeoneer only has six pages of rules, so it doesn't take long to set up and give this game a spin. The background is interesting, but light enough that you don't get bogged down in the backstory. And while SPI's Deathmaze 'room and corridor chits' provided little color or visual interest, Dungeoneer room and corridor cards that have both, in spades. Dungeoneer features room cards that are beautifully illustrated, and even the corridor cards are nice.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dungeoncrawling in SPI's Deathmaze

Deathmaze is THE quintessential dungeon crawl microgame.

There are no town adventuring rules. There are no lists of dungeoneering equipment to purchase. In fact, there are no rules, other than the ones that govern your activities within the Deathmaze.

Your goal: explore the Deathmaze, kill or parlay with the monsters, gather 75 experience and 100 gold pieces each, and exit the Deathmaze with at least three of your original party members still alive. If you do that, you win the game.

Deathmaze is not an RPG, at least in the sense that most of us view RPG's. You can certainly imbue your character with personality, if you like. But the game neither requires it, nor is there any mechanism to reward you for doing so.

After creating your party of dungeon-crawlers, you explore the Deathmaze by drawing cardboard chits, one at a time, and moving your party from chit to chit, as you explore a random dungeon.

A plethora of old-school random generation tables govern what monsters and dungeon features you encounter, how much treasure is discovered, and how the monsters react to you. There are a limited number dungeon features, principally corridors, rooms, statues, fountains, traps and trap doors. Playing the game does not require a game-master, although it speeds up play if there is one, or if one of the players also acts as the game-master.

Combat is also based on a table, with each player rolling a d6, adding any bonuses for special abilities or magic weapon bonuses, and consulting a combat table to determine the resulting wounds inflicted.

There is little in the way of strategic combat. You typically have a front-rank of three Heroes, backed up by Thieves and Wizards. The monsters are arrayed against you, up to three abreast, with additional monsters in a second and third row, ready to fill the ranks as the monsters in the front row fall. The only strategic decision for the players is to replace one of your heavily wounded characters with a healthy character from the second row.

Deathmaze is not a game for those that want an immersive role-playing experience. I can't imagine that this game was designed for that kind of play. It was designed as an old-fashioned dungeon crawl, an amusing diversion when you only have an hour to "get a game in", which is specifically what microgames were designed for.

The Deathmaze rules anticipated that you may want to play the same characters, multiple times. We did just that, all those years ago, and had loads of fun.

Microgames: Deathmaze by SPI

If my estimation of a microgame is measured by the number of copies I possess, then Deathmaze sits atop my microgames list.

I own two copies of Melee, Wizard and Death Tests 1 and 2. I also own two copies of Starfire. But I own three copies of Deathmaze.

Deathmaze was designed by Greg Costikyan, and was published by SPI in 1980. Deathmaze truly is rules-light, eclipsing even Melee and Wizard in that regard.

The character record sheet for Deathmaze can fit on a playing card, and consists of the following information:

Class (Hero, Thief or Wizard)
Magic Resistance
Weapon Skill
Magic Items

That's right. No character stats whatsoever. Part of the beauty of the game is that you can create your character and be ready to play in 5 minutes. And the game is designed for solo play, meaning their is no prep time necessary for a game-master, assuming there is one.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Microgames: Transylvania by Mayfair Games

In preparing for Halloween, I wanted to take one of our horror microgames for a spin. Of course, there are only a handful of "horror" microgames from the early 1980's. TSR published Vampyre. Task Force Games published Intruder, an "Aliens" knock-off. Steve Jackson Games published Undead. And Mayfair Games published Transylvania.

Transylvania simulates the conflict between a vampire, holed up in his Transylvanian castle, and the terrorized village below. The background to the game is that the villagers have gathered enough courage, and a sufficently large force, to confront the Vampire, and have decided they must either defeat the Vampire or die in the attempt. The villagers have knights, men-at-arms, clerics and angry peasants at their disposal (the blue units). Arrayed against them is the Vampire and his minions: skeletons, wolves, bats and rats (the red and black units).

My children and I took the opportunity to play this game the day prior to Halloween. They played the Vampire and his minions while I played the villagers. My clock was cleaned each time we played.

Though on the surface the game appears to be a rather straight-forward "attrition of forces" game, the Vampire has the special ability of bypassing the villager's forces and flying directly to the village each night. If the Vampire eliminates the forces defending the village, he wins the game, notwithstanding that the villagers still have units "in the field." I lost every game, due to the Vampire's successful attack on my village. The difficulty for the villagers is that the only way (for them) to win the game is to occupy the castle, and it takes many turns travelling by foot to reach it, while the Vampire can attack the village each night without passing through the intervening territories. For the villager player, there is tension between fully defending the village, and sending a sufficiently large force to fight its way through the Vampire's minions.

Transylvania was a lot of fun to play, despite (or perhaps because of?) my repeated losses. The rules fit on two pages, so this game is easy to learn and teach -- in my mind, a requirement for any successful microgame. Each game took about 15 minutes, although the games would have been longer, had I done a better job of balancing my forces between the defence of the village and the attack on the castle.

The children had great fun beating their dad. We'll be retrieving this game from storage again next Halloween.