Thursday, April 28, 2011

TFT: The Land Beyond The Mountains

All this talk of sandboxes has me thinking of Metagaming's still-born foray into the mega-campaign sandbox marketplace, a product that was designed for use with its The Fantasy Trip role-playing game.

Entitled The Land Beyond The Mountains, and published in 1982, shortly before the demise of Metagaming, that mega-campaign sandbox setting is comprised of two published adventure supplements, The Warrior-Lords of Darok and The Forest-Lords Of Dihad. Two additional adventure supplements were announced, for the provinces of Muipoco and Soukor, but never saw the light of day.

In this sandbox setting, all four provinces (Darok, Muipoco, Dihad and Soukor) are bounded by impassable hills, mountains and wastelands to the west, north and east. To the south is the sea. Each of the provinces are at odds with each other, and the overall setting is post-apocalyptic, with scattered ruins, mysteries, monsters and artifacts left behind by a vanished and technologically and magically advanced culture.

The adventure supplements for Darok and Dihad are slim: 32 pages each. An interesting innovation of this series is a fold-out 11x17 hex-map of the featured province, attached to the supplement cover. Other than the roads, rivers, settlements, mountains and sea hexes, the map is open for the gamemaster to add her own hex-crawl elements.

The first three pages of each supplement are identical. They briefly cover the history and legends of the overall mega-campaign region, and explain some of the shorthand and symbols employed throughout the supplements. The bulk of each supplement is filled with significant personalities, treatises on the culture of that province, along with sample towns, encounters and scenarios, and supported by several random tables.

The Land Beyond The Mountains is billed as a perfect vehicle for sandbox play: "Here lie rich deposits of gems and ore, and the buried relics of a forgotten golden age. Here are wizards and warriors aplenty, scheming to seize new territories for their liege lords or striving to keep the major trade roads safe and free for all. On these pages you will meet spies and scholars, raiders and traders, and many wondrous and dangerous beasts. In short, a myriad of opportunities for players to make and lose their fortunes, or attain positions of great political influence within a fast-changing, often unpredictable environment."

Even considering the thin-ness of the adventure supplements, I don't think the above statement is entirely over-reaching. After all, the benefit of supplement slimness is that it gives the gamemaster greater latitude and opportunities for sandbox play, beyond the adventure-as-written.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter And Maximum Joy

I'm not sure that this song is related to Easter, in any way, but it certainly has a good news, celebration theme to it. It doesn't hurt that it is from Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Frankie say, Happy Easter!

On glory day we'll get the gifts of heaven
All around you hope and joy
Can you feel that maximum joy
Rolling around like a brand new boy
Rain and sunshine from heaven
Feel the wonder of sun rain and thunder
Unravelling life's mysteries
Free at last
Let dreamers dream and lovers leap
I pray for you our souls to keep
Free at last
I will catch and keep you like a rainbow in my room
And tie you to a star that's rising, dancing on the moon

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Little Help Here

I could use a little help here. While trying to add a blogger to my list, I blew up my Canadian Bloggers blog-roll. [Face palm]

If you were previously on my Canadian blog-roll, please reply to this post, with your weblog address, so I can restore my list.

Also, if you were not previously on my list, and meet the following criteria:

(1) you are blogging about Dungeons and Dragons or other old-school rpgs; and

(2) you are Canadian, or, are not Canadian but are living in Canada, or, are a Canadian but living abroad;

then i'd like to add you to my Canadian blog-roll.

Finally, I have not updated my international blog-roll for some time. If I am missing your old-school D&D or rpg blog, i'd like to know, so I can add it to my list. Thanks.

Rage Against The Dying Of The Light

Inspired by Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

Laugh like the head of Apollo
Young and strong on the wings of tomorrow
Rise up in millions get off your knees
Dispelling the demons

In the valley of danger we all work together
Sculptures in sorrow with love light to follow
Sweet head of Apollo

Rage hard into the light, doing it right
Rage hard against the dark, make your mark
Let the tournament begin, don't give up and don't give in
Strength to rise up, strength to win
Stength the save the world from losing

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Wizards' Duels And Countering Spells

One of the great voids in Dungeons and Dragons is the absence of a spell-countering or wizard-dueling mechanic.

The current magical combat system is rolled in with the martial combat system, which is derived from the wargames antecedent to D&D.

Using that mechanic, spells are cast during that player's combat turn, and the effects are applied shortly thereafter (unless a saving throw negates the spell effect).

Saving throws, as a way of countering spells, is a free (to the defender) and adequate mechanic, for those spells that affect a character, but what of those spells for which no saving throw is permitted, or for spells that do not affect a member directly? Currently, there is no way to counter those spells within moments of their casting. One must wait until the next round to attempt some kind of response to the previously-cast spell. Unfortunately, at that point, it is often too late to actually counter the effects of the first spell.

Here's an alternative. Any time a spell-caster invokes a spell, any other spell-caster can use their turn (assuming they have not already taken their action) to counter the invoked spell.

In order to do so, the second spell-caster must either have memorized the same spell, or have a memorized spell sufficiently similar (or opposite) in effect that it can be used to counter the effect of the first spell cast by the attacker.

Since the second caster is reacting, in real time, to the initial spell, there is a chance that her spell-countering will fail. Rolling 2d6, the second caster must roll an 8+ to successfully counter the first spell, but that is modified (to the defender's benefit) by the number of levels the defender is above the attacker's level, and by the level of the spell being expended in that defence. I say to her benefit, because if the defender is a lower level, or uses an inferior spell, she still gets the minimum 8+ chance to counter. Call it the Harry Potter effect.

For example, the attacker, a 3rd level MU, casts darkness, a 1st level spell. The defender, a 6th level MU, uses her turn to cast a 2nd level spell, continual light, to counter. Since the defender is 3 levels higher than the attacker, and is casting a spell 1 level higher, the defender gets to add 4 (3+1) to her roll to successfully counter.

Whether or not the defender is successful, that memorized spell used for countering is gone from her memory, and she has used her turn for that round.

But what of situations where the defending MU have already taken her turn or wishes to counter multiple spells? In those cases, some alternative spell-casting cost could be imposed (for example, the MU takes d6 of fatigue damage for each additional spell she wishes to counter, should she have already taken her turn).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Canadian Election Debate: Highlights

I missed the Canadian Federal Election Leaders' Debates, as I had other family commitments, but was kind enough to post this four-minute clip of the highlights on youTube. Watch at your peril. That is all.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The - No Corporate Tax Cuts, Old Man - Rap

I'm sorry, but this was too funny, so I just had to share it. This is from the 2011 Canadian Election debates (didn't know we were in the midst of an election, did you!). Corporate tax rates have recently dropped from 18% to 16.5%, under the Conservatives, and are scheduled to drop to 15% shortly. Anyways, enjoy!

Old School DnD Video: Dungeon Majesty

Others have posted this Dungeon Majesty video before, but I was thinking about it the other day, in relation to the "Old School Rocks!" booth planned for the 2011 Gencon Indy. I recognize quite a few Russ Nicholson illustrations, as well as some from Tomb of Horrors.

For all of you who want to support a good cause (namely, promoting the "Old School Rocks!" philosophy) you should check out this OSR t-shirt site. They are selling cool T-shirts with Shawn's Schoolhouse Rock / d20 mashup.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gods And Monsters

While Dungeons and Dragons was never explicitly about becoming a God, Lords Of Creation ("LOC") is.

Written by Tom Moldvay, and published in 1983 by Avalon Hill, LOC is characterized as "a role-playing game of science fantasy, fantasy, science fiction and high adventure that explores the farthest reaches of the imagination."

Like Dungeons and Dragons, LOC characters progress through a series of levels. However, achieving higher levels in LOC allows the character to unlock God-like abilities, ultimately culminating in the ability to create pocket universes.

Dungeons and Dragons was never so transparent, was it? I imagine the Immortals ruleset and high-level modules may have pitted the Characters against the Gods, or even provided rules on how one became a God in Dungeons and Dragons, but few serious players ever achieved those heights.

For those players with evil wizard and cleric characters, there was an alternate path to immortality: lichdom. Arguably the easier road, though harder on the eyes -- in more ways than one.

In the day, I heard reports, around the game-store cash register, of characters in this or that D&D group making the transition to Lich, with the campaigns continuing on after that metamorphosis.

The idea of characters as monsters -- not in the humorous vein of Monsters! Monsters! or Reverse Dungeon, but as bona fide malevolent beings spreading murder, mayhem and misery -- is foreign to me. Not that characters as Gods is any more palatable: I expect being able to do anything you liked, within the game, would get old, and fast.

I simply prefer playing in games where the characters are flawed heroes, lusting for treasure but often doing the right thing (like Conan in the Howard tale, Jewels of Gwahlur) rather than the bloodthirsty D&D players acting out the murder of an entire village because they are 9th level and completely outgun the townsfolk.

Goodness knows we already have enough real evil in the world.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Toolboxing Dungeons And Dragons

For some time now, I've been attempting to put my finger on why I find the Old School Community so compelling.

Yes, with over 375 active old-school bloggers (at least that's how many blogs I'm currently following) producing consistently thought-provoking and useful content, we are in the midst of an, at times, frustrating embarrassment of riches. But its not just that incredible wealth of output that makes the OSC so compelling. Its the capacity of those of us participating in this community to see value in every product produced by one of our fellow bloggers.

One of the criticisms leveled against the OSC is that we are endlessly rehashing versions of ye aulde game. Too many retro-clones, not enough original content, the critics say. Not true, though there are a plethora of alternate rules systems for us to choose from. There are also supplements, maps, adventures, megadungeons, artwork, random-table encyclopedias, and world settings, to name just a fraction of the content being produced in our tiny corner of the interwebs.

But what critics of the old-school community fail to understand is that it is the OSC, not AEC, that has created the Ultimate Toolbox.

Every post, every table, every game-session report, every free download, every one-page dungeon, every print product, from 375 incredibly creative people (and growing), becomes another tool in our toolbox; another arrow in our quiver.

For we old-school gamers don't need canon to be our guide. Despite protestations to the contrary, it is not the old-schoolers that are one-true-wayers. We march to the beats of our own drums.

What we are looking for are tools to keep our games moving. Why? Because old-school gamers are craftspeople and artisans, not bureaucrats. The bureaucrats write their rulebooks telling us how things should be done, but as craftspeople we know that every job is unique, one size does not fit all, you can't use the same tool for every job. Not every situation can be resolved by a d20 roll. And not every question needs to be addressed in the rulebook.

Old-schoolers don't need a policy-manual, nor a tax code sitting next to us during our gaming sessions; just our Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets, the Miscellaneum of Cinder, a few random tables from one of several excellent old-school rule sets and supplements, and the imagination of a half-dozen friends.

The original D&D rules, and those restated in a multitude of retro-clones and OGL rules implementations, give us the necessary minimum to run our games. What enhances our game play are the unique perspectives, alternate approaches, and speciality tools to be derived from the output of our fellow OS bloggers.

That's why i'm enthusiastic when I hear of another blog, rule set, adventure or setting being produced for old-school gaming. Because my toolbox, and my perspective, is enriched.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Trouble With Billionaires

One of my readers pointed me to a recently-published book on the great income inequality debate. Entitled The Trouble With Billionaires, that book explores the economic, social and political ramifications of the growing disparity between incomes of average Americans, and those of the super-wealthy. There are several reviews on the internet, that may be of interest. In addition to the ones cited in the comments to my earlier post, here is another one which may sufficiently pique your interest that you pick up and read that book.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Genius And Mediocrity

If you have never seen Amadeus you owe it to yourself to see this film. I recall seeing it in the theatres (dragged against my will) and was thankful for it.

This is the penultimate scene, in which Salieri, dying Mozart's mediocre rival, acts as copyist, as Mozart completes what amounts to his own Requiem.

While many will frame this movie simply as the conflict between genius and envious mediocrity, I believe Amadeus is really about the sin of pride, the most serious of the seven deadly sins. Salieri, even at the end of his life, cannot admit his sin to the priest attending to him.

Go rent Amadeus this weekend, or watch it on Netflix if it is available there.

Take The Money And Run

In a stunning rebuke of trickle-down economic theory, the following news-item was the headline story in the April 7, 2011 Business pages of the Metro National newspaper, as reported by The Canadian Press news service. In a landmark study, "Companies that reaped the most benefit from massive tax reductions over the past decade underperformed on job creation, the Canadian Centre For Policy Alternatives says. That finding appears to undermine the Conservatives' rationale for corporate tax cuts. The Ottawa think-tank tracked the job-creation record of almost 200 of Canada's leading companies, from 2000 to 2009. During that period, those companies reported a 50% increase in profits, while paying 20% less in taxes. But from 2005 to 2010, employment creation at those companies was 16% lower than the national average. Conservatives and right-wing economists have long argued that reducing corporate taxes will make Canadian firms more competitive and create more jobs. But based on the evidence, the CCPA study concluded that the firms benefitting most from corporate tax reductions created fewer jobs, not more, pocketing the tax reductions instead."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Spell Levels Are Broken

Why is no-one willing to admit this?

Everything else using the term "level" in Dungeons and Dragons makes sense. A third level character has three hit dice. A third level monster is typically found on the third level of a Dungeon. The third level of the dungeon is found beneath levels one and two.

So why does a third level wizard get one second level spell?

This really should not be that hard to fix. Simply take the first level spells, separate them, fairly evenly, between weaker and stronger spells (perhaps putting the combat spells in the stronger spell category) and re-label the stronger first level spells "level two spells". A first level magic user selects a spell from the weaker 1st level spell list. When the magic user reaches 2nd level, she can take a spell from either the first or second level spell lists.

Same with former second level spells. Separate them, and re-label the weaker as third level and stronger as fourth level spells. The 3rd level magic user takes a spell from the 3rd level spell list, and when she makes it to fourth level, takes one from the 1/2 list, and one from the 3/4 list.

The same applies to third level spells, which become fifth and sixth level spells, and so on, until we reach the ninth level spells, which are separated and become levels 17 and 18, respectively.

Monday, April 4, 2011

If I Were Creating An OSR DnD Product...

I would definitely be using someone like crazyred to draw my maps. Check out this wonderful underworld illustration. How about this outdoor map, evocative and DM-friendly, what with the imposed hexmap. And how about this interior illustration? It conveys infinitely more information about the environment, making it easy for the DM to describe what the players are seeing (or share the illustration with the players ... as they say, a picture is worth 1000 words).

The Endless Stair And Player Choice

Keep On The Borderlands is one of the better TSR modules. Not because it has well-developed NPCs (it doesn't). Nor because of its' exceptional artwork (serviceable, but not mind-blowing). Not even because of it has a sophisticated plot (at best, the DM may tease something out about the Temple of Chaos organizing the scattered humanoids into a raiding force).

What is great about Keep On The Borderlands is that it allows players to select the level of challenge they are willing to face.

Among the rumors provided in Keep On The Borderlands is that the deeper you go within the Caves of Chaos box canyon, the more dangerous the denizens. A cave mouth closer to the canyon entrance is less dangerous, while those at the end of the box canyon are likely filled with fearsome opponents, and fabulous treasures. The players can play-it-safe, and explore the nearer cave-mouths, or take a chance at the deeper ones. The DM can adjudicate the results of that player choice, free of any hint of bias, since it is the players themselves that pick the easier or harder road.

It is well-understood by all experienced D&D players, that the deeper within a dungeon you delve, the more dangerous the traps and monsters. Yet one of the design principles, regularly applied to dungeon creation, is that the stairs to the next-deeper level are difficult to discover. Call that what you like: I call it railroading.

Rather than hiding stairs to the deeper levels, i'm of a mind to have one staircase -- The Endless Stair -- that traverses the entire depth of the dungeon. Not a staircase that goes directly down mind you, but one that meanders, splits, crosses chasms, follows underground rivers, backtracks on itself, and reveals varying architectural styles at different points in its' descent.

As the stairs decend, there are dungeon levels hiving off in different directions, sometimes blocked by hastily-completed walls, or locked and barred doors, offering danger, mystery and treasure. There may be collapsed stair sections along the way, requiring magical or mechanic means of bypass, and portcullises on the staircase preventing immediate entry to lower levels for those lacking creativity, but there will be no question where those stairs are.

The only question ... for the players ... is whether they are feeling lucky today, and want to take a chance exploring lower dungeon levels in exchange for potentially higher rewards.

Um, I was promised Witches?

Witches are one of the few archetypes that never appeared (as far as I know) as an official sub-class in either basic or advanced Dungeons and Dragons. That, despite the fact that we were promised (promised, I say!) a Witch class in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

The 1978 Holmes edition of Dungeons and Dragons had this to say about additional character classes.

"There are a number of other character classes which are detailed in ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. They are sub-classes of the four basic classes. They are: paladins and rangers (fighting men), illusionists and witches (magic-users), monks and druids (clerics), and assassins (thieves)." [page 7]

Now, i'm not some big-city lawyer ... (gasp!) ... but it seems to me that when we are promised a sub-class in an official D&D game-book, that TSR is obligated to deliver same . I propose, therefore, the immediate activation and use of the wayback machine, in which we will travel back to 1978 and demand, from EGG, the inclusion of Witches in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook.

Perhaps the exclusion of a Witch class was not such a bad thing, what with the D&D hysteria that arose in the early 80's. The existence of a Witch class would certainly have added fodder to the claims that D&D was promoting devil-worship. And if you really wanted a Witch sub-class, there was an un-official version published in the pages of The Dragon, sometime in 1980 or 1981 (i'll have to check the exact issue later today). You could also have houseruled a sub-class, for use in your own campaign.

Still, there was something magical and powerful about having an "official" version of a sub-class. It gives the player some assurance that her character will not be disallowed at the table of the next DM. And it says that the archetype is sufficiently recognizable to permit its inclusion in the official rules.

I'm sure there is a story behind the Witches' exclusion from the Players Handbook. It may be as simple as "there wasn't enough room for another set of specialist spell-lists". Or it may be that Witches were considered as easily represented by the magic-user class, so we didn't need a sub-class for it. Alternatively, it may have been seen as too gender-specific, or even needlessly pandering to an almost non-existent female audience (role-playing and war-gaming being an overwhelmingly male past-time in the 70's).

One of the communication methods I have employed in my writing is to use both male and female pronouns when describing situations. I could use gender-neutral ones instead, but that seems even more complicated.

Going back and looking at the old D&D materials now, I wish there had been more talk of Gladiatrix's, Huntresses, Swordswomen, Sorceresses, Amazons, Witches, and Cutpurses, not as NPC's to be wooed, but as characters to be played.

Not because i'm into gender-bending, but because it would have sent the message that D&D was a game open to all, not just to those who were born with a Y chromosome.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ground Effect Vehicle -- GEV

GEV was the second game in the Ogre microgame series. Short for "ground effect vehicle", those units were essentially armed and armored hovercraft, at a time when hovercraft were imagined to be the transportation of the future.

Don't hear much about hovercrafts these days. Main battle tanks still command top spot for ground-based military units, but in the 1980's it was neat to imagine wars of the future being fought by hovercraft and other unconventional units.

GEV takes up the baton from Ogre, venturing into territory every Ogre player wanted to explore: battles between the regular combine and paneuropean combat units. Ogre gave us the supertanks. GEV introduced some new units that Ogre players were clamouring for.

Units like the light tank. That unit was half as powerful as the heavy tank, but that meant you could purchase twice as many. The profile of the light tank was interesting, as it looked similar to the Ogre, what with its forward communications and sensor suite tower.

The mobile howitzer was a welcome addition, as the fixed howitzer always felt too vulnerable. As the defender, I was loathe to use the fixed howitzer in my regular Ogre games, despite the effectiveness of the four howitzer strategy.

GEV also gave us an additional infantry unit option -- the one strength unit infantry counter -- and gave all infantry units additional firepower in overrun situations. Prior to that, infantry was incredibly fragile. Infantry was one of the few units that used the old box-and-cross symbol, rather than giving us unit silhouettes.

As I recall, we had to wait for the Battlesuit microgame before infantry silhouettes were finally provided.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Ogre. Original Ogre.

I can't help but feel a bit torn, here.

While i'm pleased by the news that Steve Jackson Games is re-releasing Ogre, the scope of the release and scale of the final package is more than a little bewildering, for someone who loves this game and wants to see others discover its' value as well.

Ogre is the first microgame I ever owned. At $2.95, it is a lot of game in a little package.

The premise is simple. On one side, an array of future-tech combat units: heavy tanks, ground effect vehicles, missile tanks, and nuke-firing infantry.

On the other, one huge tank, dubbed the Ogre.

The Ogre's mission: to destroy the defending army's command post.

Ogre had lots of replay value, as the defender can select different combinations of units, each time she plays, to see which combination of units and strategy is most effective at stopping the Ogre's advance.

I'm not surprised that SJG has decided to re-print this classic game. On eBay, used copies of Ogre command high auction and buy-it-now prices. Nor am I surprised by the price they are asking, for this reprinted game. The bits for SJG's new Ultimate Ogre look gorgeous. No doubt the game will be well-worth the money.

But the $100 pricetag, and limited quantities, means very few will have the opportunity to own and play Ultimate Ogre, and that's a shame, since this is one of those games that everyone aught to have the chance to play.

At $2.95 in 1978, Ogre was accessible to just about anyone. At $100 in 2011, who, but the high-end collector or Ogre fanatic, is likely to purchase Ultimate Ogre?

Microgames in general, and Ogre in particular, embody the essence of what good games are all about. Simple rules. Quick play. High replay value.

It's too bad so few modern games espouse those design goals. And too bad SJG isn't releasing a more affordable version of Ogre for those who would love to own this, but can't afford the $100 touch they are proposing.

More Chainmail Resources

With thanks to Matthew of The Wheel Of Samsara... He points me to some interesting Chainmail resources.

Entitled 27th Edition Plate-mail, this ruleset uses Chainmail as the basis for a role-playing adventure game. You'll find the rulebook here, and the spell and magic items book here.

From my brief perusal, I found some of 27th Edition Plate-mail rather novel and interesting. Not sure I agree with a couple of things about these resources, though (the least of which is borrowing some classic art from other gamebooks).