Wednesday, March 30, 2011

WAR! (What Is It Good For)

Another in the "Frankie Say" series of posts. Back to our regularly scheduled broadcasts later this week.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Freezy Freezy

As Pat predicted, more snow arrived, annihilating my enthusiasm and optimism.

Ah, well, tomorrow's another day.

Who Says Academics Have No Sense Of Humor?

I've long since left the world of academia for the grasping world of private enterprise. However, there are a few things that I still miss from those days ... mostly, the good-natured eye-poking of cherished philosophies and self-important thinkers.

A post by Brad over at Skull-Crushing For Great Justice reminded me of an old chestnut. See the attached cartoon. I have no idea who the artist is, but I had a good chuckle back in the day.
I guess its an academia thing, but I loved the last one: Foucault Flakes.
"A literary tour-de-force:" the cartoon proclaims, "Breakfast as Text!"
"But it's empty."
"But of course."
"It's French, it must be good."
Sorry, probably lost in translation.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Melty Melty!

It's been a while since my last weather post, so here is what it looks like on the culdesac today.

Still cold outside, but all the snow on the sidewalks has melted, along with most of the ice on the street. The neighbours across the street have their usual lake forming in front of their driveway, but one or two days of above average temperatures should break the ice-dam and allow the water to drain away.

Spring can't be too far away now!

Roleplaying About Anything

One of the great things about roleplaying games is that just about anything can be used as inspiration for a campaign, setting or encounter. Homebrew Dungeons and Dragons campaigns truly are "Products of Your Imagination(TM)."

For me, music is a powerful source of gaming inspiration. Some two decades ago, I used "King Of Pain," by The Police, as the basis for an encounter. The setting: five seated statues, not specifically identified, but representing the Gods of War, Pain, Plenty, Peace, and Death.

Behind the statues, were various paintings; clues to the encounter, and all images from the Police song. Moving the Statue of the God of Pain would unlock a secret door: moving any of the other statues would jam the secret door mechanism.

Obviously, this tested player skill, not character skill. But I had two huge Police fans at the table, so the test was entirely fair.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Welcome To The Pleasuredome

Featuring the "sound on sound" of Trevor Horn. This song still blows my mind, and sends shivers down my spine, almost three decades later. Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford had the perfectly complementary voices.

Xanadu - Kubla Khan
a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

I much prefer the (above) Holly Johnson version of Welcome To The Pleasuredome. However, the live, Ryan Mulloy version, below, captures the totality of the song.

In particular, listen for the dulcimer sound at about 7:15:

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Supercharging Chainmail Combat

I'm a notorious critic of the d20 combat system, hit points, power creep and variable damage. Between the four of them, they are to blame for the ascension of granularity, and the endless combats that now pass for role-playing.

As i've mentioned before, you'd be hard-pressed to recognize any game as Dungeons and Dragons that fails to include hit points. Hit points are so deeply hard-wired into the D&D culture that most gamers would recoil from anything calling itself D&D that failed to include hit points.

But if I had my druthers, hit points would be tossed out the window of the D&D automobile, replaced by a simplified system of combat and wounds.

The original "Chainmail miniatures rules" was the default combat system for OD&D. Those Chainmail rules included three combat systems: mass combat, man-to-man combat, and fantasy combat, each of which were employed based on the particular circumstances of the encounter.

For the purposes of large-scale combats, with multiple opponents on either side, Chainmail's mass combat system is applied. The method for applying that system is that each combatant rolls a number of six-sided dice, which is based on her class and level. She counts the number of successful hits she achieves, and that is the number of hit dice of damage that she inflicts upon her opponent.

For example, a 4th level gladiatrix had the fighting capability of 4 women, so she rolls 4, six-sided dice to determine how many wounds she inflicts. She might need to roll a five or six to inflict a wound, so any fives and sixes she rolled will count as a wound upon her opponent.

If I understand my D&D history correctly, the addition of variable hit points was an Arnesian invention, adopted by Gygax, necessitated by the fragility of low-level characters. But if players are being honest about their hit points, it is nearly as likely as not that a single wound to a first-level character will result in death, regardless, if six-sided dice are used for both hit points and damage. Why not be honest about it and simply give starting characters an extra wound point or two, rather than perpetuate a fraud by introducing variable hit points as a solution to fragile low-level characters.

The Chainmail system works well, for fast, abstract combat, if there is a simple one-to-one relationship between the level of the character and the number of hit dice rolled to determine damage. But neither Chainmail nor OD&D make combat that simple. No class, not even the fighter, has a simple one-to-one relationship between level and hit dice rolled for wounding purposes in OD&D. The lack of a one-to-one relationship is the case because the OD&D rules assume that non-fighters will be less puissant at armed combat, and because only six-sided dice are employed.

In addition, in the Chainmail combat system, one needs to consult one of a half-dozen charts to determine what your odds of wounding are, based on the arms and armor of your opponent.

It is surprisingly easy to solve this problem, and Gygax himself promulgated the necessary polyhedral tools to do so. In the basic Chainmail mass-combat system, every character rolls a certain number of six-sided dice to determine whether, and how many times, they have wounded their opponent. In addition, in OD&D, Fighters are the most proficient in combat, followed by Clerics, Thieves and Magic-users.

Rather than using six-sided dice for all classes, then, why not use different dice for each class, with Fighters using the d6, Clerics the d8, Thieves the d10, and Magic-users the d12. Assuming that a roll of "1" is needed by each character in order to achieve a wound upon her opponent, first level Fighters would have a 17% chance, Clerics a 13% chance, Thieves 10% and Magic-users 8%. That would satisfy the OD&D assumption that different classes have different combat abilities.

Additionally, armor classes could be rationalized into four categories: 4 (no armor), 3 (light armor), 2 (medium armor), and 1 (heavy armor). That would be the same number, or less, that any character would need to roll, in order to achieve a wound upon their opponent.

Shields would act as a second-level defence, to block otherwise successful attacks, with some probability attached to deflecting blow(s), based on the size of the shield and perhaps the number of opponents the character is facing.

That, then is my crudely developed solution to the complexities of Chainmail combat, and desire to simplify and speed up battles, so there is more time for exploration and role-playing at the gaming table.

Two Tribes

Above everything else,
The American people want leaders who will keep the peace.
Henry Cabot Lodge and I keep the peace.
No, Mr. Kruschev.
No firm diplomacy.
No peace for America and the World.

And this is the day to proclaim our faith!
I believe that limited nuclear war can work.
The air attack warning sounds like:
This is the sound.
When you hear the air attack warning,
You and your family must take cover immediately.

Let's go! Oh,
When two tribes go to war,
A point is all that you can score.
(Score no more)
When two tribes go to war,
A point is all that you can score.
(Working for the black gas)
Cowboy Number One: A born-again poor man's son.
On the air, America, I modeled shirts by Van Heusen.
(Working for the black gas)

Hit 'em more!
When two tribes go to war,
A point is all that you can score.
(Score no more)
When two tribes go to war
A point is all that you can score.
(Working for the black gas)
Switch off your shield; switch off and feel!
I'm working on lovin', yea; givin' you back the good times.
Ship it out!
(I`m working for the black gas)

(Tell the world that your winning, love and life)

Listen to the voice sing "follow me";
Listen to the voice sing "follow me".

Oh no!
When two tribes go to war,
A point is all that you can score.
We`ve got two tribes!
(We've got the bomb! We've got the bomb!)
Yea, sock it to me biscuits now.

Are we living in a land,
Where sex,
And horror,
Are the New Gods?

When two tribes go to war,
A point is all that you can score.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

My Friendly Local Gaming Store

I've been playing with the video features of my new iPod touch, and decided i'd do several video blogs about my friendly local gaming store, The Sentry Box.

I apologize in advance for how boring these first two videos are, but it was a bit of a test of my video and editing abilities (this is the first time I have shot and edited video).

Hopefully the next few videos, that follow, will have a little more substance. These first two are of me driving to The Sentry Box and walking around the immediate vicinity of the building.

If there are any topics you would like me to cover in video blogging about my FLGS, please let me know.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ballad For An Oppressed America

This next song is for the working man...

It seems to me that the powers that be
Keep themselves in splendour and security
Armoured cars for the megastars
No streets, no bars, your wealth is ours!
They make the masses kiss their asses
Lower class jackass (pay your tax take out the trash)
Working for the world go round,
Your job is gold so do as you're told
They'll pay you less
Then run for congress!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wizards' Wizards And More Wizards

Earlier, I mentioned that the quality of The Fantasy Trip (TFT) micro-art reaches its zenith with Death Test.

Two TFT products precede Death Test: Melee and Wizard. I like the micro-art from both sets of counters. The art is minimalist but for the most part highly effective at communicating the essential character of the depicted Wizard.

Melee has its' bell-bottom wearing warriors and giants. Wizards, by way of contrast, introduces vaguely oriental-style 4- and 7-hex dragons, and trippy-tropey Wizards. Here are several of those Wizards, gracing, well, the Wizards' counters.

The first Wizard, above (or is that Sorceress?), you've seen in one of my earlier posts. It is Mistress J, with her blond hair a-fluttering, her cape a-flowing, and her armored bikini glinting in the torchlight. I posted this counter earlier, as it is one of my favorites from the Wizards set of counters. Simple, evocative micro-art. I wonder if she gets an armor bonus.

The next counter (below) is somewhat of a mystery. The figure suggests a female form, with the face in profile -- a Sorceress sporting a gossamer gown or dress. The upper, casting hand is oddly distorted, and the midriff, thighs and posterior have a strange, bloated quality (consider in particular the placement of the belly-button). I never used this counter during a game. I find it vaguely disturbing rather than entrancing. It's too bad, because there is something compelling about this piece of micro-art, particularly the hair, lower legs and feet, and the hand by the figures' side. The hair almost says Medusa. I'm not sure if the artist (Pat Hidy?) was going for a gossamer effect with a dress, or if that is a spell-effect enveloping the Sorceress.

Is this next counter Fu Man Chu or Dracula? Only the TFT player using this counter knows for sure. Consider the odd placement of the fingers. You don't notice these things when you are looking at the original 3/4" counter, but at this resolution, you can see the compromises the artist has to make to give these drawings some character, without mucking it up by adding too much detail. I love the fog or mist he is conjuring, you want to pick a spell like that for him, don't you, just to go with the over-all theme?

Who hasn't always wanted to play a speedo-sporting, wand-waving, pointy-shoe shod Elf, with droopy digits and weak wrists, like the one below? You even get to start his name with an "E". Ebberbobble? Elfy the Elf? Well, you get the idea, something silly or insipid. The ear and shoes give away his elfin heritage.

If you don't name the next Wizard Gandalf, when you use this counter to represent your character, there's something seriously wrong with you.

The next counter, the mysterious Wizard Q, inspired the "tween" me to write my own supplement for TFT, focused on clerics. Thankfully, that document is buried deep in the Spy Hill landfill. He's bald. He's knelling. And he's got a crystal ball. Which is odd, since scrying is not high on my list of activities when facing a death-duel against another Wizard. He should get a movement penalty for being on his knees. Having said that, there's no doubt about what fantasy trope he represents.

Here's the counter I often used to represent my character. Goatee-Wizard R. The illustration on this counter was sufficiently active that you felt like he was all wound-up, ready to spring into action at any moment.

This last counter is another female, who looks rather uncomfortable leaning as she does at a precarious angle. Her spell-casting efforts has caused her face to burst into flame. Perhaps she is part of the coven that is conjuring the dragon appearing on the front cover of the Wizards microgame.

Well, there's a meandering tour of some of the micro-art on the Wizards microgame counters. What I like about these counters, and TFT micro-art more generally, is that the art is sufficiently universal that you can put that counter down on the table, and anyone picking it can create their own backstory to fill in the character details.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Swashbuckling Octopii (And Other Horrors)

Following the success of Death Test, Metagaming published Death Test 2. Included in Death Test 2 are swashbuckling octopii, like the ones pictured here.

In addition to their handweapons -- either 3 swords or a sword and battleaxe -- the Octopii encountered in Death Test 2 also sport crossbows, which they can manipulate and fire with their tentacles.

I'm pretty sure that skeletons make their first appearance in The Fantasy Trip line of game products in Death Test 2. Prior to Death Test 2, the monsters and beasts encountered in The Fantasy Trip were giants, dragons, wolves, bears, goblins and such.
The illustrator for Death Test 2 is Roger Beasley, although the cover art for Death Test 2 is by Pat Hidy. The interior art for Death Test 2 is by Beasley, but it's hard to know whether he also produced the micro-art appearing on the game counters.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Google Blog Reader Problems

I lean on Google's "Blog Reader" function quite heavily to manage the blogs I follow. According to Blog Reader, I am following 354 blogs. I use the Blog Reader to catch up on what people are talking about in the OSR blogosphere. Since I can sometimes go for several days without checking up on my own blog, blog reader is invaluable for allowing me to see what was posted on other blogs, while I was away.

Lately, i've been having some problems with Blog Reader. It only allows me to see the last 2-12 hours worth of blog posts. Thus, it has been a real challenge keeping up with what's going on out there. As a result, I am missing some excellent posts. Am I the only one who is experiencing this? Last time I checked, there was a 47-entry thread on the Google-problems site where others are complaining of this same problem. If you don't use Blog Reader, what do you use to keep up with your OSR fellow-travellers?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Fantasy Trip: Death Test Art

I've already posted a number of pieces of artwork from The Fantasy Trip. Here are some illustrations by Pat Hidy, whose artwork appears in several Metagaming microgame titles.

I always preferred the black and white Pat Hidy pieces. The color cover (above) of the Death Test microquest is by Pat Hidy, as is the black and white illustration (below) that appears on the inside front cover. I much prefer the illustration below. Thought I have little use for much of what comes out of The Forge, I do like this article entitled "Naked Went The Gamer" by Ron Edwards, about the sanitizing of Dungeons and Dragons art.

Edwards makes a good observation about this, and much of the other "controversial" D&D artwork from the late 70's. That artwork was naturalistic, while the recent artwork appearing in fringe fantasy games seem purposely risque or shocking. The above illustration is my favorite one from the TFT line.

I promised one of my commentors that I would post the "Oops, I crapped my pants" giant from Death Test. Here he is. This giant appears pretty formidable, but I have a difficult time taking his oversized diaper seriously.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Fantasy Trip: Death Test Micro-Art

Following the huge success of Melee and Wizard, Metagaming released a long line of Microquest adventures, starting with Death Test. The Microquests were pre-programmed adventures, somewhat akin to the choose-your-own-adventure line of products. Thus, they were perfect for those who wanted to play a solo game of Melee or Wizard.

The original Death Test adventure hook was rather lame. The local overlord stocks a obstacle-course dungeon and sends potential hired goons through the labyrinth to test their mettle. You are one of those potential bands of hired goons.

The obstacle-course was a mixture of straight-up combat encounters, and gotcha traps. If you survived the Death Test (and the back cover warning was not hyperbole: this adventure was a KILLER) you arrived at the end of the obstacle-course and were either offered a job as a hired goon or were executed for running away from combats too many times. Harsh.

While the adventure hook was pretty lame, the gameplay was fun, and Metagaming's micro-art reached its zenith with Death Test. Pat Hidy was the illustrator for Death Test, and the most memorable adversary micro-art comes from the counter set that was included with this Microquest adventure.

Pictured, at the top, is a malevolent-looking dude that we used as an evil wizard, if that's what was called for in a particular combat. Looking at the figure now, i'm not sure why we thought he was a wizard, as he clearly possesses a battleaxe and shield, and has a sword strapped to his back.

Also included among the 35 Death Test counters, were seven goblins, six of which I have reproduced here. The most memorable goblins, for many of you, will be the first two: they appeared either in the Metagaming ads in Dragon Magazine, or on the back covers of the later Melee "boxed-set" back covers.

For those of you keeping score, you will note that five of the seven figures above are topless. I think its safe to conclude that Cidri, the assumed setting for The Fantasy Trip, is a jungle-world, where the climate is too hot for the employment of upper garments.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Melee Microgame Counters: Bell-Bottoms Spectacular

Melee has a copyright date of 1977. Coincidentally, that is also the year that the movie, Saturday Night Fever, is released. Quite a few of the characters depicted on the Melee microgame counters seem to be sporting bell-bottoms, but I will let you be the ultimate judge.

Here's a counter for the two-headed giant. Giants in Melee take up three hexes, which allows you to surround him with a greater number of figures. That's a good thing, because a single hit from a Melee giant is enough to kill most single-hex characters. He may be a brute, but this giant has excellent 70's fashion sense. Not only is he wearing some snazzy bell-bottoms, but his belt-buckle is the envy of the disco-hall. My only fear is that he will trip on those bell-bottoms and crush one of my characters.

And here we have four figures, representing an archer, a crossbowman, a pikeman with shield, and a greatswordswoman. For most guys in the Melee universe, going topless seems to be very chic. The ladies are generally wearing pants, but weren't pant-suits cutting edge in the 1970's? I'll have to do a little Mary Tyler Moore research to confirm that for myself.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wizard Microgame: Micro-art

One of the really interesting things about the microgame phenomenon, which, while true for the wargames that proceeded it, was significantly amplified by the explosion of games in the compact game segment, was the development of what I sometimes refer to as micro-art.

By micro-art, I mean artwork that is placed on 3/8" to 7/8" cardboard playing pieces, accompanying the wargames and microgames themselves. I want to share a few examples of micro-art with you, as they appear on the Wizards and Melee playing pieces.

Before the introduction of micro-art into the wargame and microgame segments, most cardboard playing pieces employed military designations and numerical factors to differentiate the game units. Tank units might have been a rectangle with an oval inside. Infantry was a rectangle with an X through it. Combat Engineers were represented by a Capital E facing downwards. And so on.

The numbers on the wargame counters often represented the strength, defense, speed and other abilities of the military unit, and some counters also included the size or name of the unit, if the game was a historical recreation.

That system of unit representation worked fine for wargames. However, with the broadening of the boxed game segment, to include non-wargames, and introduction of the compact game, game designers needed playing pieces that were equally representative of the types of units that their games utilized. Military symbols were not going to be nearly as appropriate for Chitin:I, a game based on rival bug hives harvesting each other for food.

The other consideration for those game designers was that the new cardboard counter symbols had to be both representative of the kinds of units used in the game, and needed to fit on a cardboard counter roughly the size of your thumbnail. Therefore the image had to be iconic and immediately recognizable as representing the unit being activated.

The accompanying images are some of the unit counters for Wizard and Melee. The actual size of those counters is roughly 3/4", but I have scanned them at a higher resolution so you can see the fine detail. While some microgame counters -- like those for Ogre, for example -- included printed attack, defense and move numbers, the Wizard and Melee counters used a single letter to allow differentiation between various units.

The first counter is from Wizard, and represents a female mage. Note that the artwork itself is quite minimalist, with no shading or detail. The face and hair are represented by a few short strokes, the inside of the cape is block-filled, the legs and arms have minimal definition. At the original size, you know immediately what or who this counter represents.

The next counter from Melee, sporting the capital L, is a two-blade-wielding swashbuckler, lightly armored and with a flowing mane of hair. Some of the Melee counters were screened to give them a shaded effect. At the normal resolution of these counters, you don't notice the screen, but at this higher resolution it becomes more obvious.

The next two counters are two male fighters. The first appears to be heavily armored and wearing a helmet, with a greatsword held aloft. The second is a sword-and-board fighter, sporting some funky pointy-shouldered tunic or vest. The micro-art for the Wizard and Melee counters have a certain disco vibe, particularly obvious with the sword-and-board fighter and even more so with the bell-bottom-wearing Giant that is included in the Melee counter set.

Another unusual feature of Melee and Wizard was the inclusion of weapon and shield counters. A weapon or shield might be dropped by an opponent, or the encounter might include several spare weapons already on the battlefield, and those counters were intended to be used to represent them. Those weapon and shield counters were nearly impossible to pick up, being as small as 1/4" by 1/2", and were easily lost. Here are three example of those counters: a greatsword, a mace and a handaxe.

Melee included about 40 character and opponent counters and 25 weapon and shield counters. Wizard included about 60 characters and opponents, but those were provided via two identical sheets, one printed in blue ink and the other printed in red.

I don't recall seeing the illustrators of those microgame counters being credited for their efforts, though it may be that I simply did not appreciate their work when I was younger. Looking at the breadth of micro-art now, I can only imagine the unique kind of illustrator who can reduce a image to its essence and place that on a 3/4" square counter.