Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dungeons and Dragons: Colors Of Magic

Some time ago, Akrasia posted his swords & sorcery house rules for Dungeons and Dragons. One of the things I like about those house rules is the classification of spells into three different magic colors (white, gray and black) to simulate a swords & sorcery magic system.

Have I previously mentioned my fondness for Avalon Hill’s Magic Realm? In that game, all magic is separated into five colors: White (boons granted from on high), Gray (manipulation of natural laws), Gold (elvish magic), Purple (command of raw elemental energies) and Black (powers bestowed by infernal agents). I have been giving some thought to applying those “Magic Realm” colors to the D&D spell lists. Here is my take on how the first level D&D spell-lists might look, using the Magic Realm color classification system.

White Magic

Protection From Evil
Create Water
Cure Light Wounds
Purify Food & Drink
Remove Fear
Resist Cold

Gray Magic

Comprehend Languages
Feather Fall
Hold Portal
Wall of Fog

Gold Magic

Charm Person
Dancing Lights
Magic Aura
Animal Friendship
Fairie Fire
Pass Without Trace
Predict Weather
Purify Water
Speak With Animals

Purple Magic

Affect Normal Fires
Burning Hands
Color Spray
Shocking Grasp
Audible Glamer

Black Magic

Find Familiar
Magic Missile
Cause Wounds
Cause Fear
Change Self

In Magic Realm, there are 10 magic-using characters: Druid, Elf, Magician, Pilgrim, Sorcerer, White Knight, Witch, Warlock, Wizard and Woodsgirl. None of the characters has access to all five colors of magic (some have access to two or three colors, and the Magician has access to four, but his control over any of those colors is tenuous). I like the idea of restricting characters to certain colors of magic, as the choice of magic-user class then affects what spells they can access. That is the reason I liked the 2E Specialist Mages approach.

The above re-classification of spells (into colors) puts the typical first level “combat spells” into the following categories:

White – Command
Grey – Friends
Gold – Charm Person, Sleep
Purple – Burning Hands, Shocking Grasp
Black – Cause Fear, Cause Wounds, Magic Missile

Playing with Magic Realm colors (and characters) would certainly change the way first level combat spells were selected.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Barbarians Of Lemuria RPG: Old-School Swords & Sorcery

There was a definite old-school theme to the Christmas presents I received this year. Along with copies of Car Wars (the boxed set), Labyrinth Lord, and Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader, Santa gave me a copy of the Barbarians of Lemuria RPG.

Having finally read the Barbarians of Lemuria RPG, I have to agree with the other old-school fans of BoL: this is both a well-executed Swords & Sorcery RPG, and fits very nicely within the old-school movement.

The BoL RPG itself is roughly 100 pages. BoL is loosely based on Lin Carter’s Thongor of Lemuria series (hence BoL’s title), although the author of the BoL, Simon Washbourne, also credits Howard, Leiber, Jakes, Moorcock and C.A. Smith as strong influences.

The color cover and much of the interior B&W artwork is by John Grumph. John Grumph has a bold artistic style, which is in fitting with the swords & sorcery theme of this game.

As is to be expected, the assumed setting for BoL is derivative of the swords & sorcery genre, with references to sorcerer-kings, the release of dark gods, earth-shattering calamities, mysterious and fickle gods, trackless deserts, steamy jungles, legendary swords, black sorcery, decaying remnants of ancient civilizations, and so on. All very appropriate, for a swords & sorcery rpg. But while the game-mechanics are not fatally dependent on the assumed setting, a handful of those mechanics (boons and flaws) are tied to some specific setting-locales. Therefore, minor tweaking will be required to re-flavour those locale-based boons and flaws to your own campaign.

The character creation system is unique: instead of character classes or skill-lists, players pick four careers (from a list of 26) that their characters followed prior to the beginning of the game. Even more unusual, there are no skill-lists for any of those careers: while the rules make certain skill-suggestions, the game-master and the players will negotiate, during play, as to whether their characters can perform certain actions, based on what careers (and the related level) those characters possess. There is, of course, an action-resolution mechanic (getting a 9+ on 2d6, after the application of any bonuses), for those actions that have some uncertainty attached to them.

In addition to the career paths, characters can also obtain boons and flaws, prior to, and during play. The boons are such things as tracking, sea-legs, and immunity to disease, while the flaws include all-thumbs, country bumpkin and fear of fire. That boons and flaws system is similar to the edges and hindrances system of Savage Worlds, which may explain why the Legends of Steel RPG has been implemented for both Savage Worlds and Barbarians of Lemuria.

Combat in BoL uses the same mechanic as action-resolution: a 9+ on 2d6, after modifiers, results in a hit. Instead of Hit Points, BoL uses Life Blood. All but a few weapons do d6 damage, with minor adjustments. There are four combat skills (unarmed, melee, ranged, and defence), and those combat skills can be used to modify the combat roll.

I really like the magic system of BoL. Any character that has Sorcerer as one of their careers begins with 10 spell-points, plus their sorcerer career level. Instead of a list of spells, sorcerers can create any magical effect they want, as long as they can afford the spell-points, and possess the related casting requirements. For most cantrips and easy spells, sorcerers must spend anywhere from 1 to 5 spell-points. For more difficult spells, up to 15 spell-points are required. For example, conjuring up a simple item, like a rope, might cost one or two spell points, as might casting a spell to allow the sorcerer to walk past a guard unnoticed. Again, no spell-lists: the game-master and the player negotiate how difficult the proposed spell-effect is, and then the player would need to have enough spell-points to create the effect.

Priestly magic works a little differently. Rather than casting spells, priests can use fate points (which they earn by performing in-game religious rites and activities) to cast temporary blessings or curses, mimicking the effects of boons and flaws. Of course, priests can also be sorcerers, so they could have both fate points and spell-points.

In addition to all of the above, BoL implements a Hero Points system. Again, this is similar to the “Bennies” system in Savage Worlds. Every character starts with 5 hero points, and can use the hero points to modify a roll, re-attempt a failed action or combat roll, add an additional element to the story in their favor, or otherwise avoid some unpleasant fate. Hero points can also be used to kill multiple opponents, when the opponents are your basic mooks or rabble.

Overall, I am very impressed with Barbarians of Lemuria RPG. It feels like a solid implementation of the swords & sorcery genre in an RPG. There are certain things about the assumed-setting that I would toss if I were game-mastering BoL (flying ships, blue-skinned ceruleans, druids as demon-worshippers), and the employment of only 4 attributes (Strength, Agility, Mind and Appeal) instead of the standard six takes some getting used to, but there is otherwise so much to appreciate with this game that those complaints are minor, and those less-appealing game elements are easily jettisoned.

I am curious to hear other reactions to Barbarians of Lemuria, along with recommendations on any other good sword & sorcery RPGs that are worth taking a look at.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What Qualifies As An Old School Product?

I was visiting The Sentry Box on Saturday. In the new releases section of the store I found two copies of Barbarians Of Lemuria RPG. While the RPG sounded vaguely familiar, and has a front cover reminiscent of your typical Conan-esque action scene, I put it down after briefly glancing through it. It had the 'feel' of an old-school game, but I didn't recognize the author as any of the bloggers I am currently following.

The game continued to stay with me over the last couple of days, so I did a quick search on the internet and found Barbarians of Lemuria has a loyal following among many old-school bloggers. Indeed, Steffan O'Sullivan, one of the bright lights of the rules-light approach to game design (his fingerprints are all over such games as FUDGE and GURPS Bunnies & Burrows) posted a rather glowing review of Barbarians of Lemuria on the Geekdo website. I intend to make a trip down to the Sentry Box today, to pick up a copy (for my wife to wrap for me and put under the tree). This RPG got me thinking about two things.

1. Since I had not suggested the Barbarians of Lemuria RPG to The Sentry Box staff, either they have started paying attention to the alternatives to 'commercial' products, or someone else suggested that they carry this. In either case, the appearance of this RPG on their shelves is a positive development. That is -- in part -- why I intend to purchase this RPG. I'm voting with my dollars, at it were.

2. Does this RPG "qualify" as an old-school product? I know the question itself is a minefield, since it re-opens the debate as to whether there is -- or should be -- some sort of litmus-test for inclusion in the old-school movement. My gut reaction to that would be to say that there should be no litmus test. If someone wants to self-identify with the old-school movement, or wants to brand their product in that way, they should be free to do so. Of course, one of the risks with an 'open' approach to the old-school movement is that it could encourage fuzzy-thinking, which may ultimately be detrimental to the promotion of an old-school style of design, and play. But the rewards of a more fullsome, vibrant community outweigh any dilution of the central principles of the old-school movement (if it, and they, even exist).

Still, for my own RPG-filtering process, I am wondering how others differentiate between old-school and modern RPG products? Undoubtedly someone in the blogosphere has already posted their thoughts on the matter. Here are a couple of points upon which I might build some sort of comparison model.

hobbyist vs. professional

class-based vs. skill-based

minimalist rules vs completist rules

random abilities vs. character-building

role-playing vs. roll-playing

homage setting vs. speculative setting

player skill vs. character skill

abstraction vs. realism

sandbox vs. adventure path

I know there is a Primer To Old-School Gaming, that discusses the differences in gaming. Is there a similar document that discusses the differences in game-design?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Warriors In Magic Realm

I was mentioning earlier that I am working on a master list of fantasy character archetypes for use in my upcoming 0D&D campaign. Part of the inspiration for that archetype project comes from my on-going love-affair with Avalon Hill's Magic Realm. As far as fantasy board-games go, I know of no others that have a richer game-play (although you pay for it through its apparent complexity).

Magic Realm provides players with 16 archetypal characters from which to choose. Six of those characters are pure warriors: they have no inherent spell-casting abilities. Two other characters (the White Knight and Woodsgirl) have minor spell-casting abilities, but can, for most intents and purposes, be considered warriors. The six (well, eight) warriors are as follows.

Amazon: she is a skilled warrior and soldier, with excellent speed and fair strength. Her special advantages include skill with a bow and and extra move phase each day.

Berserker: a powerful fighting man with the strength and speed necessary to dispatch the largest monsters. His special abilities include his robust health and his ability to go berserk.

Black Knight: a deadly and feared veteran of many battlefields. His special advantages include skill with a crossbow and his dangerous reputation.

Captain: a renowned hero of many wars. His special advantages include familiarity with missile weapons and his popularity with the inhabitants of the Realm.

Dwarf: a slow but powerful fighter who is at his best when underground, where he is respected as a master of searching, hiding and fighting the monsters who dwell there. His special advantages include his ability to avoid attacks by ducking, his robust health, and his knowledge of caves.

Swordsman: also known as the wanderer, thief or adventurer, he is a wily and nimble rascal, quick to react to any opportunity or threat. His special advantages include his fencing abilities (both kinds, in combat and when buying and selling) and his ability to pre-empt the turns of other players.

White Knight: he is famous for his virtue and his prowess in battle, but moves slowly and tires easily. His advantages include his ability to heal himself and his honorable reputation.

Woodsgirl: an elusive mistress of the wooded lands, she is an expert tracker who is deadly with a bow. Her special advantages include her woodland tracking skills and her deadliness with a light bow.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

How I Saw It From My Front Porch

My side of the street got away pretty easy this time. All of the snow collected on the left side of the street, while most of the houses on the right side received very little snow. Having said that, we have at least a foot of snow on the back deck.

The snow is piled up to the top of the roof of the van on the left-hand side of the photo, while at the end of the culdesac, another neighbor have a mountain of snow as high as their truck.

Wintry Weather Wallops Calgary

This picture and story from The Calgary Herald website:

The blustery weather that pummelled Calgary on Friday, December 4, turning the streets into a sloppy, slippery mess and shutting down several major highways throughout the day, is just the first salvo in a forecasted weeklong wintry walloping.

Blizzard-like conditions created havoc on Calgary streets for much of Friday, with authorities urging motorists to make only essential journeys.

Calgary police responded to at least 172 crashes, including 26 injury collisions by 4:30 p.m., and closed a number of roads throughout the day amid numerous fender-benders as driving conditions deteriorated.

Several highways, including Highway 2 north and south of the city, and the Trans-Canada Highway at Highway 22, were closed for several hours due to collisions or treacherous driving conditions.

A crash on a stretch of southbound Deerfoot Trail near Highway 22X involved about 50 cars, many strewn in the ditch.

I was glad to make it home in only an hour and five minutes on Friday night.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Spells in Magic Realm

Magic Realm provides a limited number of spells to the magic-using characters. This is perhaps unsurprising, since Magic Realm is a board game, with a limited number of turns, activities, monsters, and goals. Thus, the spells are tailored for use specifically within the confines of the game-system: all of the spells have specific in-game uses. This approach differs markedly from the D&D spell system, since D&D and other role-playing games must provide a large range of spells, only some of which have narrow or single-purpose uses.

Here is a list of the types of spells available in the Magic Realm game, by color, along with a very brief description of each.


Exorcize: every Demon and Imp in the same clearing as the caster is instantly killed, and all active spells and curses are instantly cancelled.

Make Whole: the target of this spell is brought back to full health, healing all fatigue and wounds, and all of the target's possessions are repaired.

Peace: if the target of the spell is a monster, it retires from combat. If the target is another player, that player cannot attack during this combat. The spell is broken if that monster or player is attacked.

Small Blessing: the target of this spell rolls on the "wishes" table, and is the beneficiary of that wish.


Blend Into Background: the target of this spell can perform an extra hide phase that turn.

Fog: cast on a hexagon, this spell prevents certain search activities from being performed in that target hex.

Guide Spider Or Octopus: the caster takes control of an directs the spiders or octopus in her clearing.

Poison: the target's weapon does additional damage due to poison.

Premonition: rather than being randomly determined, the target of the spell decides when to take her turn during the day.

Prophecy: the target of this spell does not have to plan and perform her written activities for the day, but chooses to do any activities she wishes as she takes her turn.

Remedy: cancels one spell or curse.

Stones Fly: the caster may use magic to animate and hurl stones at up to four opponents.

Talk to Wise Bird: the caster can use the peer activity to search any clearing on the map.

Witch's Brew: the caster can access gold or purple magic by casting this spell.


Elven Grace: increases the move speed of the spell's target.

Faerie Lights: gives the caster access to grey magic.

Illusion: makes searches by the target, or in a particular location, more difficult.

Lost: the target of this spell moves randomly, rather than to the location they specified in the list of their activities for that day.

Peace With Nature: this spell prevents new monsters from activating in the hexagon occupied by the caster.

Protection From Magic: the target of the spell is protected from spells and curses.

Pursuade: this spell pacifies any Ogres and Giants in the caster's clearing. The caster can then attempt to hire the Ogres or Giants.

See Hidden Signs: the caster can do an extra search activity that day.


Blazing Light: allows all players in the caster's underground clearing to perform an extra activity that day.

Dissolve Spell: cancels one active spell.

Elemental Spirit: give the caster access to black magic.

Enchant Artifact: permits the caster to place a spell into an artifact, and cast that spell using the artifact so enchanted.

Fiery Blast: the caster attacks all opponents in her clearing with a fireball.

Hurricane Winds: if cast in a mountain clearing, the target of this spell is swept away to safety, to a clearing of the caster's choosing.

Lightning Bolt: if cast in a mountain clearing, the caster can attack one target with a lightning bolt.

Melt Into Mist: turns the target into mist, preventing the target from attacking or blocking, or being attacked or blocked.

Phantasm: creates a phantasm, controlled by the caster, that can move and search independently from the caster.

Roof collapses: if cast in a cave clearing, the caster and all others in the same clearing have the cave-roof collapse upon them, inflicting damage.

Sense Danger: the target of this spell can ready her weapon or otherwise avoid being surprised.

Transform: transforms the target of the spell into an animal or monster, based on the roll on the transform table.

Unleash Power: allows the caster to substantially enhance her fight and move abilities.

Violent Storm: all players in the target hexagon are the subject to a violent storm, resulting in the loss of a number of activities.

Whistle For Monsters: summons monsters to the hexagon specified by the caster.


Absorb Essence: the caster takes over the target monster, becoming the monster.

Ask Demon: the caster can ask any one question, the answer to which must be revealed.

Bad Luck: the target of this spell must add or subtract one to the result of any roll on a table (depending on which is more disadvantageous).

Broomstick: the target is able to fly.

Control Bats: the caster takes control of an directs the giant bats in her clearing.

Curse: the target of the spell consults the curses table, and is inflicted with the rolled curse.

Deal With Goblins: this spell pacifies any Goblins in the caster's clearing. The caster can then attempt to hire the Goblins.

Pentacle: the target of this spell is protected from attacks by the Demons and the Imp.

Power Of The Pit: the target rolls on the power of the pit table, and is inflicted with the result (including immediate death).

World Fades: the target of this spell can immediately attempt to hide.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Colours Of Magic In Magic Realm

Over at Akratic Wizardry, Akrasia has published his Swords & Wizardry House Rules. Those house rules contain rules to modify the way magic works. Akrasia has re-categorized all the magical spells into three categories: white magic (in tune with the natural order), grey magic (manipulating the natural order) and black magic (contrary to the natural order).

I think Akrasia's approach is a sound one, considering his house rules are designed for a swords & sorcery style of game.

I also like the approach used in Avalon Hill's Magic Realm. In that game, all magic is divided into five colors.

White Magic - represents power from on high, working beneficial magic.

Grey Magic - represents natural laws, controlling nature.

Gold Magic - represents wood sprites, working elvish magic.

Purple Magic - represents elemental energies, twisting and reshaping reality.

Black Magic - represents demonic power, working infernal magic.

There are ten different magic-using classes in Magic Realm, and each has certain colors of magic available to them. For example, the White Knight and the Pilgrim both have access to White magic. The Elf has access to Gold magic. The Druid has access to Grey magic. The Wizard has access to Grey, Gold and Purple magic. The Witch has access to Grey and Black magic, and so on.

I will post a list of the spells in Magic Realm, by color, shortly.

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.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mongoose Traveller

In an earlier post, I reported my good fortune at discovering I still owned some classic Traveller books, and wondered whether the Mongoose version of Traveller was a worthwhile update to the classic rules.

Last weekend, I visited my FLGS and bought the "Pocket Rulebook" version of Mongoose Traveller. This version is 5.5 x 8.5, the same size as the old classic Traveller little black books.

Having given it a quick read, i'm actually rather pleased with Mongoose Traveller, as it retains the classic Traveller rules and materials almost completely intact. And the price was right, at $20.

My only quibbles -- from my admitedly cursory read -- are that Mongoose Publishing chose to ape the classic Traveller look, rather than putting their own stamp on it ( an understandable decision, considering that they want the product noticed, and purchased, by those waxing nostalgic for classic Traveller ) and they watered down the risk of death in the character generation process. However, they do provide you with an "Iron Man" character generation option in the book, allowing you to risk it all on your survival roll, so the old-school character generation approach is not entirely jettisoned.

Mongoose Traveller greatly expands the available career options to 12, from the original six. That expansion of the career options may have been a feature of MegaTraveller or Traveller: The New Era, but it has been so many years since I last possessed any of those materials that I cannot be certain.

You still have the options of the Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts and Merchants careers. The sixth career, "Other", has been expanded, to include Agent, Citizen, Drifter, Entertainer, Nobility, Rogue, and Scholar. I have no complaints about the expansion of careers, as I don't recall even rolling up a character using the "Other" career path. Providing some definition to that "Other" career path may make that more appealing to players.

Since it's been several years since I last looked at Traveller, I am hard pressed to see any significant differences in the game mechanics between this version and classic Traveller. Thus, considering the modest price, and the handy booklet format, I don't see much downside to using Mongoose Traveller pocket version as your basic Traveller ruleset.

Now, if only I could find time to boilerplate Mongoose Traveller to the 2320 universe near-star map...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sage Advice from Jean Wells, or, My Eyes Just Melted

More questioning goodness from the "Sage Advice from Jean Wells" column, appearing in The Dragon magazine, Issue #32, December 1979.

Question: I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons for several months, to the point where I have challenged Asmodeus and won! Is Asmodeus in lemure state now, until he can regain his former status, or is Baalzebul in charge? Answer: Several months? What took you so long? No, you're in charge now. Good luck with that.

Question: I have a female character who has gotten herself pregnant. How should I handle this? Answer: "Time passes. You give the child up for adoption and continue adventuring." Any questions?

Question: I am having a romance with a god, but he won't have anything to do with me until I divorce my present husband. How do I go about divorcing my husband? Answer: I presume your question relates to your D&D game, and are referring to your in-game husband ...

Reality check, reality check. Testing, testing, 1-2-3.

I have to go lay down now.

The Beholder In D&D Adventures: The Fell Pass

The Beholder makes its first appearance in the pages of Supplement I: Greyhawk, in 1975.

We would have to wait until 1979 to see a Beholder appear in a published adventure. That adventure was "The Fell Pass", which was published in The Dragon magazine, Issue #32, in December 1979.

The Fell Pass is a dungeon crawl. It reminds me (a little) of the episode from The Hobbit, where the Dwarves are captured by the Goblins, and Bilbo first encounters Gollum. Since it is a mountain "pass", the party may enter the dungeon from either side, and make (or fight) their way through to the other side.

The Fell Pass is interesting, as it can be played simply as an attempt to make it from one side of the pass to the other, without dying. Alternately, you can also treat it as your standard dungeon crawl, or have a patron assign the cleansing of the pass to the party. In any event, there are no over-arching themes, no BBEG to kill, just some good old-fashioned tricks and puzzles, and mindless hack-n-slashery.

That is not to say there are no challenging adversaries or mind-blowing dangers in The Fell Pass. It is a dangerous module, and was probably informed by the other early modules of the day, including that most infamous of killer-dungeons, The Tomb of Horrors.

As for the Beholder, well, let's just say that Xorddanx is a wily and crafty opponent, and the Players will have a difficult time defeating him, as he uses the terrain and his followers to great advantage.

While The Fell Pass is not an "official" D&D module (you will not find The Fell Pass on any list of officially published adventures) it certainly could have been, it has that early D&D module quality and feel to it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Starfire Novel: Insurrection

I was mentioning earlier that Starfire's assumed universe became so popular that it was eventually captured in novel form. Here is the first Starfire novel, Insurrection, published in 1990, based on that game's assumed universe.

In total, five Starfire novels were published.

Eventually, Starfire was also turned into a computer game, although that computer game bore little resemblance to that initial 1979 Starfire game.

Other than Starfire, Warhammer and WH40k, and Dungeons and Dragons, what other game systems got the novelization treatment? Star Trek and Star Wars don't count ... they were movies before they were novelizations before they were game systems.

Metagaming: Dragon Magazine Ads

I presumed everyone knew about the Metagaming Ads in Dragon Magazine. Seems I was a mite presumptuous.

Here is an example of a Metagaming ad that appeared in the Dragon Magazine. The first thing you will notice is that it isn't a very good ad, from a design perspective. Not that any of the ads that appeared in Dragon were much better.

This particular ad appeared on the back page of the December 1979 Dragon magazine (#32). That was the same issue of Dragon magazine that featured "The Fell Pass", a fan-written adventure, winning the first annual(?) International Dungeon Design Contest.

This particular advertisement is promoting Metagaming's micro-game subscription service. You could become a micro-game subscriber, and have each new micro-game delivered to your door, as it was released. No more running down to the FLGS to see if the latest micro-game was available.

The images around the outside edge of the advertisement are pieces of artwork from several of the micro-games that had already been released, including Ogre, Chitin I, WarpWar, Wizard, GEV, Olympica, and Death Test.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Microgames: Starfire

I have been a microgame player nearly as long as I have been a role-player.

The microgame concept and design philosophy was quite simple. Design and publish a fun, inexpensive game, that can be played in a few hours, that can fit in your pocket. Microgames were popularized by Metagaming, and anyone who remembers, or has seen, Dragon Magazines from the late 70's or early 80's will remember the Metagaming ads that appeared on its pages. Metagaming was very successful at producing interesting, fun little games.

But Metagaming's "apparent" microgame success spurred other game companies to dive into the market. TSR produced at least eight minigames. Task Force Games also joined the market, producing many excellent pocket games. SPI created its own line of capsule games. Steve Jackson left Metagaming and created his own company, and produced several excellent microgames. OSG, Mayfair Games and Heritage Games also joined the fray. The Classic Microgames Museum is a great place to check out the microgames that were produced by those disparate companies.

During those few short years, some excellent microgames were produced. Eventually the microgame market collapsed, but during that time, some classic games were created.

One of those classics was Starfire.

Starfire was first published by Task Force Games in Amarillo, Texas, in 1979 (interestingly, Metagaming was also sitused in Texas). It was the second microgame to be published by TFG, after Valkenburg Castle (another chit-based dungeon crawl, similar to SPI's Death Maze). The picture above is the "boxed" Starfire set, which was published in 1984.

Starfire is arguably the simplest, most elegant starship combat game system ever devised. I have to think that Starfire emerged from a computer programmer's mind. Back in the early days of programming, computer memory conservation was critical, because computer memory was so valuable. Starfire was designed the way a computer programmer might think: every "starship feature" was replaced by a single alphanumeric code, and each starship was represented by a alphanumeric string, called a "control record".

For example, here was a control record for the Destroyer McClellan:

McClellan - DD2 - (2) SSSAAAIHFIWDIII (6)

With (S)hields, (A)rmor, (I)on Drives, a (H)old, and three weapon systems, a (F)orce Beam, (D)efence system, and (W)eapon [missile].

The (2) at the front of the control record represented how many hexes the ship had to move before it could turn, and the (6) at the end was the maximum velocity of the ship.

Ships took damage, from left to right, which is why the shields and armor appeared first in the control record.

The game was designed as a dog-fight in space: you wanted to avoid having an opponent get behind you, as you took more damage if you were attacked from behind.

Sadly, this game suffered from the same malady that inflicted other great gaming systems. It's popularity encouraged rules and supplement bloat. The game, and it's assumed universe became so popular that it was novelized, and eventually turned into a computer game. If you can find a copy of the original game, or someone that owns a copy and wants to take it for a whirl, you will not be disappointed with the game-play.