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The Battle of the Backyard; or, The Education of a Young Gamer

Yesterday afternoon, my son and I went out to play in the yard with the Alamo toy soldiers his grandparents bought him when we visited that monument.  We were setting up the figures, and a quarter in my pocket prompted me to turn our play into an impromptu wargame.  After setting up the armies, we took turns declaring which soldier would fire at which target, and then a coin flip determined whether the shot hit or missed.  A “hit” soldier was considered out of the action and tipped over.
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Surveying the territory, the Texians determined that the low plateau would be the most defensible location against the approaching Mexican infantry regiment.  The outnumbered Texians then took up positions behind the rude rock wall, hastily constructed at the plateau’s edge.
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The Texian Commander deploys his forces

Soon, the mass of uniformed regulars came marching carefully across the rocky plain, bayonets already fixed to their muskets in anticipation of closing with the rebels.  The Texians grimly gripped their weapons, awaiting the order to fire.
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Anxiously surveying the field!

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The Mexican troops attempted a charge on the Texians’ right flank, but the superior position and cover of the Texians gave them a considerable advantage.

Bird’s-eye view of the casualties, just prior to the Mexican retreat

After suffering almost 50% casualties, the Mexican regiment retreated, yielding the field to the Texians.   Victory for Texas, hurrah!
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I was never much into wargames as a kid.  I liked playing with toy soldiers, making fortifications and trenches in the sandbox, and conducting free-form battles, but never thought to make Rules for hits and misses, movement, etc.   It was a ton of fun to get down in the dirt and play again, albeit with a little more structure for resolving actions. I think the next skirmish will involve fewer units, maybe with some similarly-simple, improvised rules for movement.   Since the Texian army includes figures for Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, I may also incorporate a multiple-hit rule for Heroes.
Interestingly enough, even with a simple binary resolution mechanic and no rules for cover, etc., I found that the Texians seemed to have a considerably higher success rate than the poor Mexican troops.  Somehow, that quarter was doing just fine compensating for my lack of rules…
My son was very into the game, and is gung-ho to play again this afternoon.  Since before he was born, I’ve daydreamed about playing games together, so naturally, I’m thrilled by his enthusiasm.  Time to go buy some more plastic toy soldiers!
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BOLISH HACK; or “Dungeons & Barbarians”

This is really the tale of two tabletop RPGs — the venerable DUNGEONS & DRAGONS and the relatively-recent, “old-school-ish” BARBARIANS OF LEMURIA — and my attempt to combine elements of the two.  I am certainly not the first to imagine such a glorious union.  Two attempts come readily to mind:

  1. Barbarians and Explorers of Lemuria (BXoL) by Martin “Yora” Kallies was an (sadly) incomplete set of houserules that added encumbrance, treasure, demihuman races, and other D&D-isms to the basic BoL rules.
  2. Simon Washbourne’s BoL Hack converted BoL mechanics from 2d6 to 1d20 and bolted the BoL career system onto a very basic class/level system.

My own work on a BoL/D&D hybrid began when players in my Carpathia game expressed their preference for D&D’s class/level structure and, to a lesser extent, d20-based mechanics.  (Players love rolling funny-shaped dice, right?)  Washbourne’s BoL Hack met these requirements and became the basis for my “BoL-ish Hack.”  (Ha ha, get it?!)  This worked well in play and, the class/level aspect was especially well-received by the players.  After a while, I shifted back to the 2d6-based mechanics to take greater advantage of the D&D Reaction Table for task rolls.

Development of BOLISH HACK for use in a mythic-fantastic-medieval campaign is driven by the following assumptions and questions:

  • D&D-style class/archetype and level advancement systems are familiar to many casual gamers (thanks to video games, etc.) and make it easier for the referee (me) to adapt OSR D&D materials on the fly and gauge difficulty of encounters
  • BoL Careers and Traits (Boons/Flaws) provide flexible, flavorful means to add mechanical “uniqueness” to individual characters without overburdening players/referees with long lists (and fiddly mechanics) of skills, feats, etc.  That said, can the existing lists be trimmed or condensed to speed up character creation without sacrificing flavor?
  • BOLISH HACK should be close enough to both OD&D and BoL as to be able to take advantage of existing subsystems (I.e. BoL ship combat, etc.) with a minimum of conversion.
  • OSR D&D has wealth of material to be mined — monsters, adventures, etc.  How can these be adapted to BOLISH HACK with a minimum of conversion?
  • Subsystems that reinforce the resource management aspect of play (for encumbrance, etc.) should be sufficiently abstract and light as to be in keeping with the “spirit” of the parent rulesets
  • How to best implement a magic system that allows for specific spell lists and free-form casting?  Concrete spell lists for magic-users are helpful for players unused to free-form magic and referees adapting material from D&D.  Spell point system gives flexibility to players, and can power free-form magic.

I’d say that I’m about 70% there.  Still sorting out the flavors of magic — clerical prayers, magician spells, faerie Glamour, and the plant-and-root lore of the cunning-folk.

 

the fortuitous arrival of Echoes From Fomalhaut #2

Pondering the upcoming next session of my Wilderlands sandbox campaign (playing online with the HMB group), I found myself populating the northwestern section of the Isle of the Blest with adventure seeds and locales.  With some dungeons more-or-less ready, my attention turned to figuring out more details about the nameless port where the action left off.   Big enough to support a temple (two PCs had to be un-petrified last time after a nasty encounter on Melan’s Isle of the Water Sprites) but not so big as to be a new regional power, I found my initial brainstorms to be less than inspired.

Amidst this, a slender brown envelope arrived in the mail from Hungary.  Inside was issue #2 of Echoes from Fomalhaut, the zine published by Gabor Lux (Melan) and E.M.D.T.  Melan is an OSR writer whose output has never disappointed me (Echoes #1, Zothay, Garden of al-Astorion, House of Rogat Demazien, Fight On! adventures, etc.), and Echoes #2 is no different.  This issue, subtitled Gont, Nest of Spies, is 44 pages of meat for AD&D1e and other OSR games, and comes with a two-sided map (side one shows a hex map the Isle of Erillion and side two an unlabelled map of the town of Gont.)  In this issue are two stand-alone adventures (one of which is set in the Dreamlands), random tables for alchemical substances and miscibility, short guidelines for energy drain, an overview of the Isle of Erillion, and an 18-page feature on the port town of Gont, which is divided into two sections: first, the town itself is described, including its major persons, factions, and places; second, “Down the Smugglers’ Walk” details the network of tunnels, cellars, crypts, and such beneath the town.  The writing is imaginative and flavorful without being overly verbose or tied too closely to the broader setting (the Isle of Erillion.)

Before I even finished the Gont section, I could tell that it would work perfectly in my Isle of the Blest campaign.  All that really needs to be done is flip the unlabelled town map upside down (I need a western port, Gont is eastern), re-draw the (labeled) Smugglers Walk map to match, and assign some of the adventure hooks to locations/hexes on the Isle.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of trouble the PCs will get into here.

Thanks, Melan!

 

The most awesome birthday party ever

Today is the birthday of my grade-school friend Grant.  He lived across town, so growing up, we only attended the same school for 2 or 3 years.  Our paths crossed at different times in different ways — swimming lessons, Indian Guides, Boy Scouts.  After high school, our paths diverged and I haven’t really seen him since.

Grant introduced me to some interesting new things — Renaissance Faires, the Eastman & Laird Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, National Lampoon’s Animal House, Led Zeppelin, Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  He also holds the distinction of having the most awesome birthday party I’ve ever attended.

We were in 5th grade, September 1985.  I received an invitation to Grant’s birthday party, which had a Dungeons & Dragons theme.  Naturally, I was very excited and enthusiastic about this; however, I also knew that my parents would not share my feelings.  Unfortunately, they had bought into the “Satanic Panic” accusations and were very concerned about the sinister, demonic influence D&D might exert on their impressionable son.  After I tearfully begged and pleaded with them to let me attend the party of one of my best friends, they relented, with one caveat: “You can go to the party, but don’t tell your little brother or sister what you did there.”

The day of the party finally arrived.  In addition to the dozen boys in attendance (mostly from our class), there were two older boys who would serve as the Dungeon Masters for the evening’s games.  The attendees split into two groups and went to the tables.  At our table, my friend Rich and I both rolled up 1st level Magic-Users (we were playing B/X.)  Our group then went down into a dungeon to explore and find some treasure.  At one point early on we found a sarcophagus in a crypt.  When the lid was removed and we saw a golden dagger inside, the argument broke out about who would grab it.  (Neither Rich nor I were particularly assertive kids, so we weren’t contenders.)  Eventually, someone won the argument, but when their character reached in and picked up the dagger, it animated itself and started flying around, slicing people up.  I think I had already used my one Magic Missile in an earlier encounter, so I was basically a useless meatshield at that point.  The dagger killed at least 2 or 3 characters (including mine) before someone finally caught it and laid it to rest back in the sarcophagus.

With my character dead, I was done for the rest of the session.  I have no idea what happened to the rest of the party, as I soon left the table with the players of the other slain characters to read comic books, of which Grant had an extensive collection. After the D&D sessions, the older kids left and it was food/cake/presents time followed by general horseplay/movies/sleepover time.  The next morning, as we were preparing to leave, we each received our party favor, a Fighting Fantasy gamebook.

It was a great time with friends.  Even the initial disappointment of my character’s death didn’t dampen my spirits for the evening.  There was much discussion at school the following Monday — both of the game and party, but also of these new gamebooks Grant gave us.  We were all avid Choose Your Own Adventure readers, but none were familiar with Fighting Fantasy.  We swapped books, bought more, and swapped them around too.

What a great party.  Happy birthday, Grant!

earliest inspirational sources of your D&D experience (Appendix N, etc.)

A forum discussion of the venerable Appendix N got me thinking about inspirations and influences on one’s approach to gaming.  As enlightening as discussions of Appendix N and other designers’ inspirational reading lists may be, in some ways it’s more interesting to see what influences and inspirations regular gamers brought with them when they first started playing D&D.  I’m particularly interested to know the experiences of other folks like me, who came into the hobby at young ages.

When I first started playing in late 1983, I was 8 years old and completely unaware of at least 95% of the authors in Appendix N.  I wish I could recall more specifics of the actual adventures I played or refereed, but alas — such details are lost in the haze of memory.  However, it’s fairly easy to remember/reconstruct the fantasy and science fiction I would have been exposed to by that age:

  • The Hobbit, both Tolkien’s novel and the 1977 Rankin-Bass animated film;
  • Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.  Not fantasy, but the SW movies loomed so huge in my mind and certainly affected the way I thought about any kind of adventure;
  • Greek mythology, primarily through Kathleen Elgin’s First Book of Greek Mythology (which was a hand-me-down from my dad) and Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans film;
  • Various fairy tales and stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur, as filtered through kiddie storybooks, Disney movies, etc.;
  • The Chronicles of Narnia;
  • Saturday morning cartoons such as The Smurfs and (maybe) Thundarr the Barbarian;
  • “Grown-up” movies — possibly The Beastmaster (on TBS, natch!) or Conan the Barbarian, it may have been before fall ’83; and
  • Choose Your Own Adventure books.  The importance of CYOA cannot be emphasized enough, as they provided my friends and I with an immediate frame of reference for the idea of role-playing (I.e., “here’s what’s happening, you’re the hero of the story, what are you going to do?”)  The diceless nature of our early games was also directly influenced by that kind of gamebook storytelling. I can’t recall if I had read any of the D&D-branded Endless Quest books before I actually played or if I persuaded my parents to let me get some soon afterwards; regardless, I vaguely recall Mountain of Mirrors as being the inspiration for one of the first (if not the first) adventures I DM’ed.

I would be very curious to hear anecdotes of other peoples’ experiences in this regard — how old they were when they started playing D&D, and what inspirational sources most informed their early adventuring — ESPECIALLY if they had little to no exposure to Appendix N.

Old Barrowmaze session report from June 2016

I found this in the virtual draft pile and thought I’d just throw it out there for the record.  This was the first session I ran for the HMB group, whose further adventures are chronicled here.

A group of adventurers, recently arrived in Greenwax and looking for adventure and profit, decided to try their luck exploring the Barrowmaze north of the Old City.  The party consisted of:

  • KASIA, human fighting-woman
  • CYRIANA, elf magic-user
  • GNOMEE, downy-furred halfling thief [Ready Ref Sheets‘ skin/hair color table strikes again!]
  • EARTHANGEL, earthling fighting-woman

As part of their exploration of the Barrowmaze, the group accepted two commissions:

  • To find the wayward son of a Viridian nobleman, Baron Varlokh, who was last seen heading towards the Barrowmaze with a ragtag adventuring company.  Varlokh’s son is wearing a gold ring with a hematite stone inscribed with the family sigil.
  • To help the Temple of Seker (Lawful god of light) investigate rumors regarding the Cult of Set (Chaotic god of death.)  Sister Lorgi specifically asked for help verifying the cult’s presence in the vicinity of the Barrowmaze and, if, possible, determining the scope and purpose of their activities.

With their meager equipment, the group headed out the north town gate and set out on the west road, running parallel to the dilapidated stone wall of the Old City of Satur.  After a few miles, they took the north-forking path that, after an hour or so of additional hiking, led them to the great barrow field… Recap of the first session:

  • Rather than heading down the path to the largest mound, the party decided to investigate two smaller barrows first, both of which required smashing through the doors with a sledgehammer. The first yielded a small amount of treasure.  While examining a stone sarcophagus in the second, EARTHANGEL used her stethoscope and heard faint scratching sounds coming from inside.  They prudently decided not to disturb the occupant, and left the barrow empty-handed.
  • In the entry chamber to the Maze, they found an annotated, partial map of the complex on the corpse of an unlucky adventurer, along with a still-serviceable suit of chain armor.
  • A stone door unexpectedly slammed down while probing the floor for traps, but fortunately the only casualty was one foot of GNOMEE’S 10′ pole (now 9′ pole.)
  • In one room, they found a helmet sitting on the floor with a head still inside, along with a wooden holy symbol of Seker.
  • At a dead end, GNOMEE uncovered a Runic Tablet hidden beneath a loose stone in the floor.  The party had previously heard a rumor that runic tablets curse those who read them, but CYRIANA decided to read it anyway.  Lo and behold, the rumor did not hold to be true in this case: reading the runes granted her an automatic success on her next saving throw.
  • The group had several run-ins with skeletons, once above ground as wandering monsters and again in the Maze itself.  In the latter encounter, EARTHANGEL was felled in the melee but was fortunately only rendered unconscious. [Her player invoked the “d30 Rule” — which allows for substituting a d30 in lieu of the normal die for a single single in-game roll — and narrowly made her Save vs. Death… A very tense and exciting moment!]
  • With one of their fighters temporarily laid low, the party wisely decided to retreat back to town to rest and plan their next expedition…

 

Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy

I first read Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy in the early 2000s.  I had recently discovered Vance, and was eagerly devouring every work of his I could find.  Because Lyonesse was but one course of many in a sumptuous, extended feast, the special qualities of these particular books weren’t as noticeable at the time.  I’ve since re-read the trilogy a few times, and with each visit to the Elder Isles it climbs higher on my list of “favorite fantasy works ever.”

As evidence of the books’ greatness, I could point to the complex and engaging characters, the blending of myth and (pseudo-)history and fantasy, of tragedy and comedy and action and romance, and the exquisite language for which Vance is known.  Beyond those fine qualities, I’m struck by a pervasive undercurrent of delicious melancholy and bittersweetness. The only other fantasy work that has struck such chords in me is Lord of the Rings, specifically the closing chapters of Return of the King, where we read of the Elves leaving to cross the Sea and the passing of the Third Age of Middle-Earth.  In Lyonesse (far more so than LotR), so much of the characters’ strivings remind me of Qoheleth’s wise words in Ecclesiastes about vanity, “chasing after the wind,” and the fleeting, transitory nature of human life.  Perhaps it’s strange that this would contribute so strongly to my enjoyment of the work, but there you have it.

Lyonesse has only had one official RPG release, by a French company some years back (1999?)  Fortunately, The Design Mechanism recently announced their plans to publish an officially-licensed game, due in 2019.  I have little interest in Mythras/RQ, but I’ll certainly be grabbing this as soon as it’s available.  The Elder Isles would be a really fun RPG setting, one could run an OD&D campaign there with just a little bit of conversion effort.

The Lyonesse novels — Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc — were republished by Spatterlight Press (Signature Series v.52-54.) in 2016.  If you’re a fantasy reader and haven’t checked these out, you’re in for a real treat.

 

 

THE BLACK SARCOPHAGUS

I read yesterday about the mysterious sarcophagus recently unearthed in Alexandria, Egypt.  No one knows who (or what) is inside, but it’s at least 2000 years old and massive: the sarcophagus is approximately nine feet long by six feet high by five feet wide.  The whole thing weighs 30 tons, the lid itself is 15 tons — so heavy they can’t extract the sarcophagus and transport it to a museum before opening it.

To make things even weirder, the alabaster head buried nearby has had all the facial features removed.  Now this could just be a result of being buried for a long time…OR it could be that the head’s blasphemous, alien visage was defaced by the priests before being cast into the pit!

One of the lessons I’ve learned from decades of playing D&D, reading pulp fantasy stories, and watching movies is this: when you find a giant black sarcophagus that has lain hidden for millennia, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD, DON’T OPEN IT!!!

My brain is all a-whirl with the weird fantasy/pulp-horror possibilities.  At this point I’m envisioning a James Rollins/Matthew Reilly-style mix of globetrotting pulp adventure and conspiracy investigation that involves ancient Atlantean sorcerers, Antarctic Space Nazis, and the Hollow Earth.

Fading Suns: Jumpweb map

[Previously posted elsewhere…]

Jumpweb

I would love to see an update of the Jumpweb map for the new edition of FS.  By this I don’t necessarily mean adding more worlds or routes, although that could be nice.  No, I would love to see it rendered in a more quasi-medieval style, maybe with some esoteric symbols, “here be dragons” warnings, and such — basically, so it looks like the kind of map one would pull from a locker of a Charioteer ship or an Eskatonic library.

When looking for examples that fit the vision in my mind, this cosmological diagram from the Phenomena of Aratus is getting warmer:

phenomena of aratus diagram

But the one that takes the cake?  This replica of the “Map of All Creation” from Time Bandits:

time bandits map

I remember being so fascinated by the map in the movie as a kid, pausing the VHS tape and squinting with my face right up to the TV screen trying to make out the details.  I don’t recall a poster map ever being created for it back in the day (I would have loved to have had it on my wall), one of these days I’ll splurge and buy a replica to put on the wall of my office.

BoL-ish Star Wars?

My 3.5-year-old son has discovered the joy of Star Wars.  He isn’t particularly interested in the films or cartoons yet.  He’s sat through the original 1977 film and a few episodes of Clone Wars, Rebels, and the LEGO Freemaker Adventures, but each time he’s told me after a while that “these are big kid shows” and asked for something else like Little Einsteins or PJ Masks.  However, he recognizes many of the Original Trilogy characters, has some t-shirts, plays with my old action figures, and thoroughly enjoys stories and books such as Where’s the Wookiee?  His enthusiasm has prodded my gaming brain in that direction and prompted my own selective re-exploration of the setting, with an eye towards running a Star Wars RPG sometime soon (hopefully this summer.)

As a RPG setting, Star Wars has always been one I’ve enjoyed as a player (particularly in Barrataria’s games) but for many years avoided as a GM.  I never kept up with Canon as it developed across dozens of novels, video games, comic books, and other tie-ins, and the last thing I wanted was to have some over-serious SW geek go all canon-police on me.  (Disney has done me a favor by jettisoning all that like so much garbage from the Imperial Fleet, but that doesn’t mean I want the new canon either… )  The Star Wars Universe is familiar to many people, but for most of us, our knowledge of the setting is is limited to eras/events (Clone Wars, Rebellion, etc.), characters, and worlds, and so that’s all Star Wars can be.  This fantastic opinion piece by Witney Seibold sums up so perfectly my disillusionment with Star Wars:

We all must begrudgingly admit that Star Wars, for however popular and acclaimed the films may be, has long ago reached a point of story stagnation. Ever since, gosh, Return of the Jedi, the Star Wars series has slipped into a comfortable circular track where it can only surround the same story points and characters time and time again, looking ever inward. The Star Wars universe has always tantalized audiences with weird aliens, vast, distant planets, mythic realms, magical powers, and endless, endless potential. But for years, it’s only been exploring the smaller and smaller details of a well-known set of established scenarios that are becoming far too familiar.

YES. YES. YES.  The conclusion:

There is so much in Star Wars that can be explored, so many creative stories that can be told, so many weird critters to live with. We’ve been too focused on a small series of events to look outward at how big that universe truly might be.

YES, YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES!!!

What I really want is to channel the wide-open feel of the SWU as it was shown in the late 70s-early 80s SW novels and comics (Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, Daley’s Han Solo trilogy, etc.): pulpy, exotic locations, swashbuckling scoundrels, weird Force mysticism (and artifacts!), and plenty of strange aliens and monsters.  Less “saving the galaxy” and more (dare I say it) Traveller-style adventures, where the players “must boldly plan and execute daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power.”*  Or, as stated in the crawl text for Doctor Aphra Book I, Part I: “In a galaxy oppressed by the cruelty of Imperial forces, there is little hope for the future. But for those used to operating on the fringes, there is much potential for profit.”

I’d be glad to set it in the familiar-to-fans early Rebellion era (albeit with no Jedi PCs), but completely disconnected from the Skywalker family melodrama, but I wonder…  How far can one push Star Wars before it doesn’t feel like Star Wars anymore?  Are Jedi essential to the setting? (I’d argue they aren’t, but others would vehemently disagree.)  Does John Williams’ music have to be the soundtrack?

There are a few official Star Wars RPGs to choose from, but none of them really interest me.  I enjoy the classic WEG D6 game, but don’t own any of the books in print.  The new Fantasy Flight Games version, spread out as it is over 3 giant rulebooks, is both prohibitively expensive and mind-numbing to contemplate.  The D20 versions, well…’nuff said.  The Mongoose Traveller Star Wars hack is beautiful and tempting, but no — there was never any doubt in my mind that I would do this with my trusty BoL-ish rules, which have already served me so well in Fading Suns and Carpathia.  With additional elements cribbed from Everywhen, the phenomenal Barbarians of the Void, and the anonymously-penned Star Wars: Lemuria Edition, we should be in good shape.  Onward to adventure plotting!

*Marc Miller, et al. Traveller Book 3: Worlds and Adventures, p.48