Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Best Laid Plans....

"Rise, Farashu, and hear the edict of the Ever-Lasting Guardian of the Gods.  Whereas you are said to be the last survivor of the Legion of the Sun-Bright Disk, and whereas that legion was known to all to have died to the last soldier in Katalal in the terrible War of 2020 A.S., and whereas you have but lately become known to the Temple of Thumis on our city of Bey Su, apparently having traversed through both time and space....Here is the Divine Will revealed!

"You are to travel hence without delay to our city of Katalal, presenting yourself within one month's time to the Clan of the Sun-Bright Disk, along with this Writ of Imperial Will that your membership and station within that clan be restored to you, in all ways that are seemly and pleasing to the Petal Throne.  You are to be accompanied by those companions who were with you when you arrived here in our city of Bey Su the Beauteous.  From Katalal, you are to travel to our city of Purdimal and present yourself within one month afterwards to the Kerdukoi of the Legion of Lord Ga'enish of Katalal.  While the Legion of the Sun-Bright Disk has perished, the Legion of Lord Ga'enish proudly maintains its traditions and glories, much as a son dignifies his father.  Therefore it it right and proper that you present the standard of the Legion of the Sun-Bright Disk unto the Legion of Lord Ga'enish, and thus celebrate the virtues of that historical relationship.  In this matter, pay heed to the advisements made unto you by the elders of the Clan of the Sun-Bright Disk.

"Go forth, in the name of the Emperor, Hirkane Tlakotani, and be mighty!"

...or so the adventure began.

Shortly after this, on a caravanserai platform near the Sakbe Road between Bey Su and Hauma, the party of adventurers bedded down for the evening, slightly apart from the caravan with whom they were traveling.  Inside a large pavilion, the humans settled down in various spaces appropriate to their statuses.  As night progressed, black-clad assassins of the Black Y Society made their way past the Shen guard, and into the tent where Farashu and his companions lay asleep.

Yes, there was a fight - no real surprise, right?  The assassins misjudged Farashu's companions, and after they failed in their apparent attempt to kill him, they made their escape.  But that is where things went downhill, quite literally.  Despite a lack of coordinated response, despite knowing that there were several assassins involved, and despite not knowing what the lay of the land was around the caravanserai....Farashu charged out after the assassins, waving his sword, calling out, "To me!"  He jumped off the platform and ran into the surrounding darkness.

The assassins must have felt victory being snatched from the jaws of defeat.  Farashu did not even realize what had hit him when the assassins struck again, leaving only his steel sword for his companions to find later.  Two other assassins fought a rear-guard action against the Shen warrior who had attempted to rescue Farashu, neatly dispatching him with a lucky blow.  The party returned to Bey Su, using Farashu's steel sword to finance the spell of Revivification for the unlucky Shen.  Poor Farashu was missing and presumed dead - his body was never found.

Moral of the story:  You can set up the conditions for a marvelous adventure, but never underestimate the power of player-characters to go off and do something truly stupendously nutbar in character.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When "different" meant "interesting"

James Maliszewski and I were talking the other night about the practice of naming campaigns.  I got my start in gaming back in 1975, and after reading The Strategic Review, it was pretty clear to me that naming your campaign was a way to signify that it was your own interpretation of the game.  This wasn't just a matter of coming up with your own dungeon (or "mega-dungeon" in current parlance), but also - as James and I discussed - an opportunity to come up with your own rules and rules interpretations.  At the time, it meant that each campaign was different, and going from campaign to campaign meant that you needed to check in with the referee about how things worked.  It led to some interesting discussions about how people thought about D&D, as well as a lot of arguments about what was "fair," etc.

Over time, particularly after the emergence of AD&D, there was a shift towards "by-the-book" game-play.  It seems to me that what this led to was the notion that "different" was bad, whereas during the early era of role-playing (roughly 1974-77), "different" meant "interesting" - the value judgment would come after you played in someone else's campaign, as you decided if it was to your own taste or not.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Shrine of the Azure Goddess

From my Tuesday Night Group (playing Tekumel, of course).... 

Tsechelnu Flats swamp,
not far from Jakalla
 ...It was James, Dave, Tristan and myself, so we picked up with Tristan's original character, Shemek. Shemek has found a patron in the Temple of Karakan, Lady Visaya, a member of Prince Rereshqala's court. The noble lady had originally wanted to go on an Underworld expedition, and had hired Shemek for that purpose. However, a new mission arose: protect a recently discovered shrine to Lady Avanthe in the ruined city of Ngala. The lady sent along two bearer-slaves and two native guides, and Dave and James generated two new characters: a merchant-adventurer human from Mmatugual, and a Pygmy Folk sorcerer (Odd! But also the sort you might find at Rereshqala's court hoping for some mission or opportunity). The Temple of Sarku was sending a mission to "investigate" the new shrine, and that simply would not do.

Ngala city wall section
They set off on the 9th of Shapru (about 5-6 weeks behind the party in Bey Sy), taking two boats once they reached the far side of the Mssuma River estuary. Rowing through the hot, steamy mangrove swamps, the guides used a local plant to ward off predators and insects, by burning leaves in a smudgepot fire. They told Shemek that it was "good" to chew, and Shemek accepted some. After chewing it for awhile, he began to experience a deep sense of serenity and peace. Over time, this built into a seeming connection with all surrounding life. The female guide, Onne, sensing a kind of psychic change in Shemek, offered herself to him - but Shemek felt that that would not be appropriate right then. 

Ngala clanhouse courtyard
By the third day, the boats had reached a village centered around an old Engsvanyali watchtower, which was slowly sinking into the swamp. The guides went ashore with some gold to obtain information and safe passage. Shemek sensed there were 63 people in the village, and 2 of them were pregnant. Even though the surrounding jungle and swamp were teeming with life, the Pygmy Folk and Mmatuguali human noticed none of it was attacking their boats.

The misty - almost steamy - morning of the fifth day brought them closer to the ruins of Ngala. By this time, Shemek was sitting in a full lotus position in the boat, wearing little except a string of beads and his new, finely decorated steel sword over his back. As the boats were rowed cautiously through the swamp channels, the edges of old Bednalljan canal banks emerged. The faint sounds of axes thudding into wood reached the ears of the Pygmy Folk, while Shemek became aware of harm being done to the Life of the Swamp. Avoiding the troops clearing away jungle growth, the party reached the southwestern edge of the city, near to where they needed to be. The party chose a nearby half-ruined watchtower as their base of operations, as it afforded a view of the recently revealed entrance to the shrine, next to the original Bednalljan fortress. A large pack of Chnelh nearly 150 strong made it clear that they regarded the fortress and temple as their turf, and the Pygmy Folk used a spell of Calm to have them leave the party alone.

Ngala ruined temple entrance
That evening, during Shemek's watch, an elder of the Chnelh appeared out of the darkness, escorted by another four younger specimens, descending from the half-ruined roof of the tower.  Speaking in accented but clear Tsolyani, the elder communicated with Shemek - they, too, served the Azure Lady, and would follow Shemek's lead (even if he was human). We left it there.

Next week? We shall see how things develop.... 

Engsvanyali bas-relief
 (photos courtesy of Google search; their use here is purely for non-commercial purposes)

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Bag of (Sometimes) Holding

Writing up new magic items is fun; using them is a completely different story.  This one came out of a whimsical conversation with my significant others:

The Bag of (Sometimes) Holding:  This magical item appears identical to the usual Bag of Holding.  However, it's qualities are somewhat different - while it can hold at least as much as a Bag of Holding (it is apparently possible to put in even more), the Bag of (Sometimes) Holding is uncertain in its ability to keep everything inside.  Rather than rupturing, however, the Bag will simply open and the contents will erupt into whatever area the owner of the Bag is currently occupying.  Why this happens is unclear, though some careful research would reveal that items placed willy-nilly into the Bag, or overloading the Bag, tend to exacerbate the problem.  Referees should determine a percentage chance of the Bag letting loose, based on the quantity and variety of what's inside.  Then roll 1d12 to see how many turns before the eruption takes place.  In the meantime, you may wish to provide clue of the upcoming event.

For referees: the Bag may be played as a straight-up magic item of uncertain character, but it is suggested that you allow the bag to demonstrate signs of "indigestion" - occasional loud burps, the exterior of the Bag churning every now and again, minor rumbling sounds from within.  For full effect, you can have the Bag emit a contented belch after disgorging its contents, followed by a slight sigh.  Everything inside should be perfectly fine and unhurt.  Do not let player characters use rope or other means of attempting to keep gear separated within the bag - imagine what it might feel like to the Bag!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fall Gaming Hoopla events

So I'm not able to attend Geek.kon 2011, which is something of a shame, but I am also pleased to report that my colleague Nix will be running some events there.  However, I will be at the Fall Gaming Hoopla in Janesville, on September 23rd-25th, running the following games:

SATURDAY, 10 am - 2 pm
You're on a lifeboat.  The ship you were on was shot up by pirates.  They seemed to come out of nowhere; was it an inside job?  Worse, you've just discovered you are venting atmosphere, there's no sign of rescue, and the nearest planet is across the star system.  Can you survive?  (Classic Traveller rules)

SATURDAY, 2 pm - 6 pm
Traveling with a merchant caravan in a faraway mountain kingdom, you hear rumors of a new discovery in a high mountain fastness, of strange items of the Ancients, gold coins with the faces of long-dead kings, and voices in the darkness.  But there are also legends of terrible guardians who can slay with a single strike; remember the old saying: "Sweet is the harbor - but Death is the ferryman." (Empire of the Petal Throne rules)

SUNDAY, 10 am - 4 pm
Grab that 10 foot pole and 50 feet of rope!  Have you got your weapons and armor?  Do you know where your spellbook is?  It's time to go back into the depths of the dungeon, kill things, and take their stuff.  This is a classic "dungeon crawl" using the Original D&D rules.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Leaving a Sense of Mystery...

One of the aspects of adventure gaming that I really enjoy is the sense of exploration and sometimes revelation you get when you discover something neat about the background setting.  It's probably one of the reasons I have been so deeply immersed in Tekumel, a world so complex and detailed that it is "...a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: but perhaps there is a key."  (Okay, so this might also explain my fascination with Russia, but I maintain that's separate.)

I've been having fun with this as I've been working through a guide to Empire of the Petal Throne, over on the ODD74 Discussion Board.  But in the midst of all of this, I've been struck at how much some gamers want definitive answers to How Things Work.  I know I've shied away from this kind of thinking, as it often seems like a precursor to certain kinds of min-maxing and meta-gaming.  Yet I also understand how much it matters - that sense of discovery.  So there's a tension there.  From a refereeing perspective, how much do you reveal, and when? weighed against how many plot coupons do your players have to turn in to get to the end of the quest, right?

One aspect of Prof. Barker's genius in his creation of Tekumel is just how multi-layered the "truth" actually is, how much an answer to one mystery immediately begets another puzzle.  I know it drives some players nuts, but it's something I actually look for in a game - a world so intriguing that there is always something more, something unknown.  I don't pretend to have an answer (that would subvert the entire point of this post, right?), but I do think that the search for the "truth" is chimerical at best - I mean, what would you do if you discovered it all?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Seal Emperor wants YOU!

I'm getting into the groove of making Tekumel better known.  I'm interested in doing something with ConstantCon 2011 - more details on that as it develops.  There is more room in my text-based game, which I am just re-starting on the ODD74 Discussion Board.  Drop me a note if you might be interested in either of these.

An Appeal to the Internet Fount of Wisdom

Back in the late '70's and into the '80's there was a series of D&D ads that appeared in comic books and elsewhere.  I never paid much attention to them, but I know they were part of what got people into the hobby.  Now, however, I find myself curious about the ads and the characters depicted - for some reason, I associated them with Holmes and possibly Moldvay Basic - but I've been unable to find them on a quick Google-search, which is frustrating.  I know about the ads with Grimblade, Saren, Indel and Valerius, but I clearly remember a different set of characters in a different set of ads.  Can the internet Fount of Wisdom help me out here?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An embarrassment of riches

Between now and the end of the year, I have the following opportunities to introduce Old School Goodness to people - just in Wiscowsin or nearby:

And that's not counting the monthly Madison Traditional Gaming get-togethers on the 3rd Saturday of each month.  I think I ought to take it easy on myself when putting together the one-shot adventures for these cons - it's going to get busy!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

You CAN run Empire of the Petal Throne!

I've started a fairly in-depth analysis of how to approach running Tekumel, using the original Empire of the Petal Throne rules.  It's over on the OD&D Discussion Board.  The idea to do this was originally thought of back at GaryCon in March, and recent discussions about Tekumel have simply added to my desire to write some of this down for people.  I'm also attempting to apply some of the principles in my own game here in Madison.

I'm working on the Tips for Beginning Referees; I'd like to have that as a download to share with people when it is done.  Comments on that or running EPT are always welcome!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Female armor sucks

I wasn't going to post anything today, but when I ran across this, I figured it was good to share.  Personally, there are a lot of artists who have done work for game companies in the past that have a LOT to answer for, as far as I can tell - and this video makes that all very, very plain to see...or something....

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tip of the Day

A quick tip of the day before heading off for some time in the Great Outdoors...

If you need names for NPCs in a modern or science fiction game, look no further than your spam filter.  After some judicious culling, the names you will find are (a) often quite multi-cultural, (b) ones you would never think of, and (c) sometimes suggest interesting quirks based on the original spam.

Just sayin'....

Friday, July 29, 2011

Interesting contrast

On another forum someone recently asked the question: "I'm one of those old schoolers who hasn't played since AD&D was still fairly new. What's the best way to jump back in?" The first recommendation he got was to start playing D&D Encounters, and I chimed in with the recommendation to consider Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry.  All of which got me thinking...

  • The game that is currently produced as "Dungeons & Dragons" doesn't bear that much resemblance to the game I started playing 36 years ago. 
  • The games that actually do bear a significant resemblance have names that aren't "Dungeons & Dragons."
So in the first case we have the label but not the substance, and in the second we have the substance but not the label.  Ah, well....

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tekumel Foundation News


July 27, 2011
Minneapolis, MN


The Tékumel Foundation is proud to announce that on Saturday, June 11th, 2011 Professor Barker's Tékumel materials and wargaming supplies were moved from his home to secure, climate-controlled storage. This project was long and carefully planned and carried out with the blessing and encouragement of Professor Barker and his wife Ambereen and the assistance of dedicated volunteers, some of whom flew in from out of state.

The Tékumel Foundation is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Professor M.A.R. Barker and building an archive of Tékumel memorabilia and documents. Foundation members assisted by Lady Anka’a and various Tékumel fans catalogued, photographed, carefully boxed and transported these materials to a secure climate-controlled storage area in less than 10 hours. Items secured include Professor Barker’s globe of Tékumel, the scale model Temple of Vimúhla first displayed at GenCon IX in 1976, private maps, papers and other interesting and diverse items including unpublished material – exactly how much or what is still to be determined.

There is still much work to be done. Paper items need to be digitally scanned to secure storage; items may need to be repaired and/or restored. Items not directly connected to Tékumel must be organized, including wargaming materials, fanzines of the 1950’s, and games that at various times had been sent to Professor Barker for review.  Fortunately, the Tékumel Foundation has people with the necessary skills to assist with this enormous project.  It is hoped Professor Barker’s papers will yield new material for Tékumel, and we are optimistic that there is “good new stuff” to be published.

For more information, please contact the Tékumel Foundation –


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Gary's Birthday

Victor Raymond took the Hardest Gary Gygax Quiz in the World and got 70%!

You are a Gary Gygax Champion. If knowledge of the minutiae of Gary Gygax's life translated to political power, you would be the satrap of a continent-sized province, owing allegiance to no one (except maybe that Grognardia guy).

Paladin Code: You completed this quiz without using Google.

Hey, I'm in good company!

In addition to the above quiz, which was quick and a lot of fun, I also want to mention the Gygax Memorial Fund, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, which means that it is a public charity and you can make tax-deductible donations to it.  Gary Gygax accomplished a great deal, and we are all in his debt.  Pay it forward, please.

It's really BIG

I just ran my Tekumel campaign last night, using Empire of the Petal Throne with some mods and changes.  My players are getting used to characters and the world and that's all good. But there's this issue of scale...

See, on Tekumel, the "underworlds" are equivalent to dungeons, roughly speaking.  Over the past few years, I've been running Prof. Barker's original Jakallan underworld at UCon and elsewhere, and it is definitely a "mega-dungeon" in modern parlance.  Even so, it's still a very "D&D" oriented depiction of what lies under the City Half As Old As The World.  And if each hex is roughly 50-100 yards across (the measure cited by Prof. Barker in the past has varied a little), then that means that a single sheet of graph paper covers about one to two hexes on the city map....

So I'm left with a design question - if I want to make the Underworld of Jakallan more "real" to Tekumel, then  that's a lot of graph paper.  Another way to deal with this is to map out the "good bits" and make each descent start from someplace not too far away.  A third way is to let the players start above ground and let then explore until they find something "significant."

I'm still thinking about this....

Friday, July 22, 2011

Advice for new referees, Part One

I'm writing a short essay for people who are new to Old School gaming, but who are considering running an Old School campaign.  There's lots of good advice out there about doing that directly, but not as much about how to think about it - Matt Finch's excellent Quick Primer is good, and if there are other examples, I would like to know about it.

What follows is a sample from what I've written so far - constructive comments welcome!

Some Advice for New Referees
By Victor J Raymond PhD
Copyright 2011

This short essay is not about how to set up your campaign but rather some principles and reminders about how to think about what you are doing as a referee.

There are no “Edition Police”, except in your head.  Occasionally, I’ve heard gamers with less experience than myself say things like “why would you want to play an older edition?  That’s so – backward!”   Sometimes, referees new to Old School gaming will have this misconception, as well. It is a fallacy to think that successive editions of the game have been wholly agreed-upon improvements on previous versions – or that paid game designers automatically know better than you what you should be playing. It may come as a surprise, but Wizards or Paizo do not have patrols going around issuing citations for playing older versions of D&D – except possibly in the peer pressure you might experience from other gamers who want to justify their ongoing 3.x or 4e spending habit.  It’s probably more accurate to say that each edition of D&D represents a different style of gameplay, which may be why there are people still playing every edition of D&D ever produced.  At last count, there were retro-clones (a game which reproduces the mechanics of an older role-playing game) for all editions of D&D ever produced.  The important point, though, is that new doesn’t always equal better.  What you’re playing isn’t outdated – it’s different.

Take the game and its rules on their own terms.  This is mostly a matter of unlearning things you’ve picked up from the games you’ve played already.  From an outsider perspective, most versions of Original D&D have fewer defined features, a much more abstract combat system, and a lot of things that “everybody knows” don’t work.  But like so many things of this sort, what “everybody knows” isn’t necessarily true – and this is particularly the case when it comes to roleplaying games.  The relatively “bare bones” approach of many Old School games isn’t a lack of definition or “crunch” (a term I dislike, along with “fluff”); it represents an opportunity for you to add in your own ideas and make the game your own.  For that to happen, you need to play the game figuring it out as you go, setting aside your preconceptions of what works and what doesn’t. Rather than immediately house-ruling everything to make it closer to what you are used to, start off playing the game as it is written, and see where that takes you.

Random dice rolling is not a flaw – it’s a design feature.  Random character generation is often singled out as one of the “bad” things about Original D&D – particularly the idea of “roll 3D6 and write ‘em down in order.”  It supposedly short-circuits the creative process.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Consider: how often have you observed another player generating the same “sneaky assassin Dark Elf” or “aloof, stand-offish mage” or “mighty-thewed barbarian” over and over again?  That’s the “creative process” supposedly being subverted?  I think not.  To be fair, sometimes people do have interesting and worthwhile character conceptions – but not all the time. What random dice rolling does is give your imagination a chance to try something different – to come up with something you might not have thought of in the first place.  Sometimes people object that their rolls were “too low” – which really means that they think they can’t do well with that character, conceding defeat before starting game play.  Sometimes people simply don’t like what they have rolled.  In either case, there’s nothing saying someone cannot roll again – but don’t blame the dice; blame player preconceptions of what they are “supposed to” get.

(more to follow)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

One month

During the past month, I've had the following things happen to me:

  • Coming back from the 2011 North Texas RPG Con, I survived an emergency landing at Milwaukee's Billy Mitchell Field, when the right landing gear did not descend, and we had to crash land with the nose and left landing gear - and the right wingtip.  Good thing we didn't cartwheel or ground loop (the photo is from a couple of minutes after evacuating the plane).
  • Had a good friend, Joel Rosenberg, pass away from an unexpected heart attack.  I was able to attend his wake, immediately after the 4th Street Fantasy Convention.
  • Provided support to my partner, Lynn, when her father passed away after suffering a head injury and subsequent stroke.
I'm hoping to get back on track with that gaming stuff once life stops being so "exciting."

Friday, June 3, 2011

Joel Rosenberg's passing

Joel Rosenberg, author of the Guardians of the Flame series, passed away Wednesday evening in Minneapolis.  Despite what might have been suggested by the series, Joel wasn't a role-player - he would rather write.  I'm at North Texas RPG Con, so I will write a longer remembrance later.  But if you enjoyed Joel's writing, or ever had a chance to talk with him, raise a glass in his memory.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ups and Downs

The positive: have arrived at North Texas RPG Con.
The negative: am fighting off a migraine.

Lots of sleep tonight and I should be able to run some Empire of the Petal Throne tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I'm puzzled - how about you?

Wizards of the Coast recently announced its new "Lair Assault" program:

"D&D Lair Assault is a new Wizards Play Network in-store program that pits tactically-minded players against a super challenge where the difference between victory and defeat is dependent upon your game knowledge, ability to adapt, and a little bit of luck. You’ll pit your wits against some of the most difficult encounters you’ve ever played. Each challenge is a mega-encounter that plays in just a few hours, but many will need to make more than one run at it in pursuit of victory. D&D Lair Assault challenges are available for a few months, and stores can schedule their sessions at any time during that period."
I'm not objecting to what they are proposing.  In fact, it sounds like a savvy way to make sure that game stores are tied into game play, through the publisher of the game.  I am also not objecting to publishers and game stores making an honest gold piece by the sweat of their brows, either.

What just seems so odd to me is how far we've come from the idea that the game was about referees designing their own worlds, encounters, and challenges - that the game fostered imagination, rather than some sort of min-maxed, completely defined and operationally presented "product."  There's a deeper philosophical divide revealed here, and it bears more examination and discussion.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Roll a D6

I know Jamie Mal might say we're just in a Silver Age of renewed interest, but what follows is more proof that in the culture wars gaming has won, so to speak (even if it's 4th Edition that shows up):

Roll a D6 from Connor Anderson on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

22 Adventurers

Twenty-two.  That was the number we had for the last Madison Traditional Gaming meetup, running from 10am to 5pm, on Saturday April 16th.  Generally speaking, we've averaged somewhere between 8-15 people at previous meetups, but this time things seemed to work just right.  One of the players in my Tuesday night D&D campaign, Nix, ran a game of Brave New World, James K. ran Labyrinth Lordwhile I ran a game of Empire of the Petal Throne.

I started Madison Traditional Gaming just over a year-and-a-half ago, meeting once a month primarily at public library branches around Madison.  We met twice at UW's Memorial Union, but the combination of expensive parking on-campus and difficulty securing a regular location resulted in a return to library meeting rooms.  I've been using and Facebook as the primary means of letting people know what's scheduled, and that has worked out quite well.  Once a month is great for one-shot adventures, but not really suited to on-going campaigns.

We were fairly lucky in getting a sizable contingent up from UW-Platteville's Platteville Gaming Association, the good people who put on Plattecon very year.  Erin U., the chair of the most recent Plattecon, was able to persuade a bunch of them to come up for the meetup, which was just amazing.  I am hoping to arrange for a full track of role-playing events for next year's Plattecon, and between now and then recruit some more referees to run Old School RPG campaigns around Madison and Wisconsin.

Many thanks to Mark S. from the Milwaukee Traditional Gaming meetup, Clint P. and everybody else who showed up and played games.  I really think we have something good going on here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

30mm Historicals - but different

From English Russia - what does someone do when they really want historical miniatures?  Well, they make them from plasticine.  Cheap Soviet-era plasticine.  Go check it out.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Garden of Weeping Snows at Gary Con

Adventuring in the Jakallan Underworld at Gary Con
The Metamorphosis: Alpha game ended with Alpha, the AI in charge of the station, doing in the entire party because we had decided that the alien menace was, well, too menacing.  I was able to get Jim Ward to sign my character sheet, which was very gracious on his part.  However, it was too late to start another game, so I retreated to my hotel room and ordered in pizza.

The next morning, I got breakfast in Lake Geneva - there were several cafes and restaurants doing what seemed like a land office business.  I got back to the convention fairly quickly, and went in search of other Tekumel fans.  I was able to talk to Jeff Dee for awhile, showing him the Tekumel materials I had brought with me - he was sufficiently fascinated to take time away from his V&V game to chat.  He encouraged me to go to North Texas Gaming Con in early June; I am hoping to go.

By noon, I had a number of players assembled and we went off in search of an open table.  The Tekumel maps are a quick draw for potential players and kibitzers, so I quickly set up the materials and began the game.  The objective was simple: take a letter from Prince Rereshqala to the Undying Wizard Nyelmu, ensconced deep under the city of Jakalla in the Garden of the Weeping Snows.  This was really an excuse to get into the nitty-gritty of the third level of the Jakallan Underworld, using Empire of the Petal Throne (and some house rules).  Within about 20 minutes, characters were generated and we were off.

Running EPT is not hard; the mechanics are not that different from Original D&D, and much better explained.  But the background for Tekumel is often daunting for players and referees alike.  To make things more complicated, the Jakallan Underworld as originally written by Prof. Barker is very much like a D&D "dungeon" - very "old school" and very much an abbreviated version of the vast depths I've explored only tiny sections of as a player in Prof. Barker's Thursday Night Group.  It's taken me several years to appreciate just how much of the "actual" Jakallan underworld Prof. Barker crammed onto several large sheets of graph paper.  So when I run a game, I work very hard to convey as much Tekumel "flavor" as I can in each gaming session - and I think in this case I succeeded:

"Fascinating!  You can run Empire of the Petal Throne and you don't have to be M.A.R. Barker..." said one of my players, after experiencing some of the game.

You don't have to be Prof. Barker to run Tekumel.  What people get hung up on is making their game as identical as possible to Prof. Barker's game and that's a mistake.  There's more than enough material in the original EPT rules to make a campaign work, and if you add more material from other sources, it becomes even easier.  Don't be afraid of creating another "branch on the Tree of Time," as Prof. Barker would say.

In the end, the characters survived their trip through the Underworld, eventually being granted an audience with Nyelmu - who promptly opened a Nexus Point and sent them through.  (The outcome of that will be determined at the next Gary Con.)  Allan Grohe was kind enough to stop by and take a couple of pictures (see above).  After the game was brought to its exciting close, I packed up my gear and drove home to Madison - happy and tired, all at the same time.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I was caught metagaming by James Ward!

Okay, so I went to Gary Con this past weekend.  My trip there was somewhat eventful: I had a tire go flat on my way there, which meant that I missed the morning round of events on Saturday.  However, I was back by Noon to the Lodge at Geneva Ridge, and decided to take a look around.

  • I saw a number of old Tekumel hands almost immediately, including Mark Eggert and Bill Hoyer.  Since I had brought the Jakallan Underworld with me (as I have for previous UCons), we immediately started talking about running some Empire of the Petal Throne during the weekend.
  • I also spent some time talking to Jon Hershberger of Black Blade Publishing about a modest idea I had for making more Old School games and products available at game conventions here in Wisconsin.  I also picked up a copy of OSRIC for $26 (!!!) - a complete steal at that price in hardcover.
  • I ran into Jeff Rients and showed him some of the dungeon maps my players had drawn of Xylarthen's Tower - he was very pleased to see just how much fun they obviously had had.
I was invited into a game of Moldvay D&D with one of the fine crew from Kenzer and Company, running The Isle of Dread, which I had played a LONG time ago, but could not remember to save my life.  It was a relatively quick adventure, since we never really pulled together as a group and figured out how to cover for one another.  I had a 4th level magic-user, properly done up on notebook filler paper, and the rest of the party was mystified why I spent a great deal of time avoiding combat.

We ended up in a nearly endless combat with zombies, with some of the party trying to attack the ones that our cleric had turned - I tried telling them that was a bad idea, but....  In the end, we lost half the party, went back above ground to the nearby village, and were unable to finish the adventure.  You might think I didn't have much fun, but it was fascinating to see how another referee ran the game, and how other players I had never gamed with actually played.  I had a great time.

Somewhere in there, I got into a grand discussion of maps and mapping with Ramsey Dow of Sickly Purple Death Ray. His maps are totally amazing - and look for an interesting series of adventures he is working on and should be releasing soon.  Ramsey got me into the 6pm game of Metamorphosis: Alpha with James Ward - was I going to miss a chance to game with James Ward?  Heck, no!  The rest of the party was a really good group, including (among others) Jon Pickens.  Our characters were very simple to generate, and aside from weapons and goodies, we had "luck points" that could be used to modify rolls.

We were a bunch of expendable soldiers sent from the Starship Worden to figure out why Outpost Alpha, above one of the planets of Alpha Centauri, wasn't responding.  In our scout ship, we went to the base and discovered that the atmospheric integrity of the dome has been compromised by a weird black alien flying saucer.  The AI in charge of the station had been compromised, since it did not believe there was a flying saucer.  Nevertheless, we went into the station, and immediately got into trouble with the AI (named "Alpha" and don't you dare call her "Computer") for minor damage to the station.  Eventually we discovered the weird alien fungus and strange alien darkness that was taking over the station.  After strangely getting ourselves put in charge of the station, we tried fixing things using lots of alcohol and attempting to get the fungicide in storage.  However, our plans went awry, and before we could set off the self-destruct on the station, Alpha decided to do us in to prevent that from happening.  End of our merry adventure - there was a lot of laughing as we bumbled through it.  (I hesitate to say it, but there was an almost Paranoia-esque quality to our mission.)

As the referee, Jim stayed firmly in control of the flow of the game, and did not hesitate to guide the emerging narrative to suit his whim.  That might sound like he was arbitrary, but in sheer point of fact, he knew exactly what he was doing by keeping player initiative on a very short leash.  This resulted in players having to think on their feet, and having to pay very close attention to what was going on.  For quite awhile, nobody used luck points, and as we slowly got ourselves deeper and deeper in trouble, I ended up blurting out "but you could use a Luck Point to make it work!" just before another player made a crucial roll.


I found myself being sternly rebuked by our referee, who informed me that BAD THINGS would happen if I was caught metagaming again.  I did admit me my fault, and meekly allowed that I would refrain from doing it again.  The rest of the party was highly amused.

The rest of the adventure was very cool, but it did mean that we had to postpone Empire of the Petal Throne until Sunday, which we did.  More on that in another post.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Binding Wounds

"He's almost dead!"  (i.e. a PC is somewhere between 0 and -something hit points)
"Quick, bind his wounds!"  (i.e. what you do when you have no cleric in the party)

One of the things I've done in Aldwyr has been to allow for "binding wounds" - this involves post-combat action to bind up physical wounds so that someone does not bleed to death.  I've done this several different ways in the past, including 1d4 and 1d3 hit points regained.  But for some time now, I've been using 1d4-1, giving a range from 0-3.  Binding wounds prevents a character below zero hit points from getting any worse, but it might not result in them regaining consciousness.  I understand that Swords & Wizardry White Box has a similar "Binding of Wounds" rule.  I used to think there was a rule in either OD&D or AD&D that was the original inspiration.  There apparently isn't such a rule, which only served to underscore my deepening unease about this practice.

D&D is supposed to be deadly.  Yet, rules such as "poisons do damage, rather than just kill" and "you can bind someone's wounds" and "zero hit points isn't dead, -9 or -10 is dead" make for a less deadly game.  Indeed, I wonder to what extent they subtly encourage players to get overly invested in their characters.  One could argue that there ought to be really deadly poisons, and really massive amounts of damage, just to counter-balance this trend.  But the "escalation of power" doesn't always make for a better game.

I'm still thinking about this.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Now It Can Be Told...

For just over a year, I've been running an OD&D game on a weekly basis.  We've moved from one game store to another, gone from just one player to a group of six to nine players, and their characters have advanced to nearly fifth level.  We've had several characters die, some in some very dramatic ways, others in more prosaic fashion, e.g. "oh, so that trap was poisoned?  I roll a 4.  Oops."  Magic items started off with a magic sword - now in a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with the halfling thief in the party.  Now there is another magic sword, a magic spear, a net of underwater something (no, they haven't figured it out), and one or two minor items.

The impetus for the campaign was simple: I wanted to play D&D, and I did not want to spend a lot of time on setting up a huge homebrewed setting, for fear that (a) the players wouldn't like it, and (b) it would become its own thing, rather than a backdrop for adventure.  I also wasn't sure just what I wanted to do with modifying the rules for D&D, since that seemed inevitable for me.  I decided on using Goblinoid Games dependable Labyrinth Lord; it seemed more easily amenable to modification than either Swords & Wizardry or BFRPG.

Taking a page from Ars Ludi's The West Marches campaign concept, I set things at the edge of a great-but-largely-offstage Grand Kingdom, in the modest frontier village of Kingsbridge.  Right nearby could be found the ruins of a wizard's tower, now long abandoned.  With that, I had the basics covered - dungeon and refuge of sorts.

In detailing Kingsbridge, I found myself liberally borrowing from a variety of sources.  The local tavern was Falgrave's - mentioned in The Dragon #8, "The Development of Towns in D&D" and I kept the Aryan-Transpacific pantheon from my earlier Southlands campaign.  The one place where I began adding in my own creativity was in the realm of NPCs:

  • Sieglinde, the lieutenant in the Royal Army and commander of the local militia.  Sieglinde had a positive dislike for adventurers, but despite that ended up with a fondness for Kyle, the aforementioned hobbit thief.  (It was a series of really positive reaction rolls, and I went with it)
  • Father Xylos, the local village priest.  Very elderly and somewhat frail, Father Xylos became something of a confidant of the party - usually as a result of having to patch a wounded player-character up.
  • Evpraksia, the local soothsayer and alchemist.  Clever, secretive, and more than capable of driving a hard bargain.
Relatively shortly after they began delving deeper into Xylarthen's Tower, I realized that there was a need for more variety.  So I added The Ruined Monastery, roughly two days journey to the south from Kingsbridge.  This prompted me to put together a map of the local area; I added several features, including another town and several dungeons from back issues of White Dwarf.

At the end of a year of adventuring, I found that my bricolage approach towards campaign construction had worked fairly well.  What was missing was a "larger view" of the campaign, or so it seemed to me.  There wasn't much I could do to add to the campaign on a larger scale without breaking out of the purely local framework I had started with.  With that in mind, I decided to shift the party from this setting to something intentionally built on a larger scale: my new campaign, named Aldwyr.

More to follow....