Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Vintage Homebrew Adventure

This week’s been a busy one, but fear not: I’ve not abandoned my post and continue to subject myself to post-apocalyptic misery in order to bring about a better Gamma World. The next installment of "Radioactive Theatre" is on the way, as is another edition post-mortem.

Until then, however, I thought I might share with you a little bit of bonus material I recently received in a used boxed set of Mentzer Basic, or as the owner of my FLGS called it, “free art.” There are three or four of these gems, each dating back to an earlier and simpler time, none of which were created by me. They easily could have been though, and looking them over reminds me of the adventures I used to create back when I was less concerned with maintaining things like “realism” or “play balance.” A state which I still strive to return to on some level.

Every time I come across one of these amateur adventures done by an adolescent, I always have the urge to try and take the germ of the idea they (or myself) created and expand and/or improve on it. One of these days, I may actually get around to doing so and thus allow my gentle readers to experience the Mike Curtis version of Module D1—The Dungeon of Dread.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Special Fight On! Offer

Fight On!: You've heard about it on the blogs, the forums, and even spoken of in hushed whispers by grognards at the game store, yet you've never experienced it for yourself. That might be about to change.

In an effort to introduce new readers to possibly the best old school fanzine and all-around resource, the PDF of the Spring issue of Fight On! (#9) is now on sale for the introductory price of $4.00 US. If you've never had the pleasure of perusing the pages of this mag, now is the time to act.

When you're down to your last hit point, your last spell, the last charge on your laser pistol - what now? Fight On! Issue #9 is here, stampeding out of the gate with adventures big and small, a city-state, races, classes, monsters, spells, tricks, traps, tables, rules options, random encounters, NPCs, and a motherlode of mighty miscellaneous mysteries to give your game a boost! Dedicated to Paul Jaquays, this issue features contributions from Jeff Rients, Sang Lee, Tavis Allison, Kelvin Green, Geoffrey McKinney, Patrick Farley, Zak S., Erik Battle, James Quigley, Mark Allen, Jennifer Weigel, Gabor Lux, Peter Schmidt Jensen, Ed Heil, Paul Fini, Raven Daegmorgan, Eric Minton, Allen Varney, Baz Blatt, Geoffrey O. Dale, Jerry Stratton, Chris Robert, Calithena, Jeff Talanian, and many, many more! Don't get caught without the old school's newest resources - order your copy today!

Countdown to Armageddon: 3rd Edition Gamma World

Or “Things that Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time”

Having decided to run 2nd edition Gamma World next year with some additional bits and pieces bolted to the rule framework, it’s now a matter of going back and re-examining the editions that didn’t make the cut to see what there is to steal from them. In that vein, I sat down to reread the various books included in the 3rd edition Gamma World set published in 1986.

Wow. Who thought this was a good idea?

I had forgotten many of the particulars of 3rd edition despite knowing for a fact that I both played and ran 3rd edition games back in the ‘80s. I fondly remember playing a mutant spider named Boris in several of them. What I cannot remember, however, is how we ever managed to use the rules as written. Re-reading them again, I can’t fathom how this was ever sold as the future of role-playing gaming.

Lest you think I’m coming down on the game solely for its use of the Action Table (abbreviated ACT), one of those multi-colored monstrosities that used a d% roll compared to various sized color bars to determine not only if you succeeded in your action but also the level of your success, let me state that I used a similar table back in those dim-remembered days for Marvel Super Heroes. From what I remember (and that could be the root of my problem), the MSH chart wasn’t as convoluted as the ACT table and modifiers from 3rd edition Gamma World.

I suspect my ever-growing fondness for simplified game rules may also color my reaction, but, even with many years role-playing experience under my belt, being subjected rules that could have one making a roll with a +2 CS and a RF of -1, and needing to meet a DF of yellow or better just seems to be sadistic! My eyes began to tear and a slight whimper escaped my lips as I pined sadly for a “+1 to hit” modifier. I suspect that many of the TSR titles from the mid-to-late ‘80s failed to seduce the number of neonate role-players that their earlier and later relatives did.

Despite my personal belief that the ACT table and its modifiers are overly convoluted for my own sensitive palate, I can see the point: Rather than generating a binary succeed/fail result for a character’s actions, the color table accommodated a broader range of possibilities and therefore facilitated more exacting and realistic game play. But that doesn’t answer the question of who the hell thought a game that featured mutated rabbits that can turn metal into rubber with a touch needed realistic game adjudication!

My friends, one will never see a collection of more exacting rules compiled in a TSR title than in 3rd edition Gamma World. The rule book contains five pages of 9-point font in dual columns dedicated to 76 forms of damage, special effects, and attacks. Covering every possible scenario from alcohol poisoning to weakness, the section actually features the advice, “You need not read this entire section.” However, if you choose to, like I foolishly did, you’ll find yourself slipping into a coma around the entry for “Steam” (yes, there is an entire paragraph covering how to apply damage inflicted by steam). Luckily, comas are also covered in the rules.

Alright, I see your point. It was a different time. Regan was in the White House, Gordon Gekko was telling us “Greed is good,” and more was better. I’ll accept that and let’s just play.

What you mean we’re waiting for the Rules Supplement?

It seems that in their eagerness to cover “sunburn,” TSR either forgot to include or edited out but failed to remove references to some rather useful material (They claim the later. I remain unconvinced). Things like how to create a certain type of mutated plant or the descriptions of 42 plant mutations. It also left out information on all the Cryptic Alliances. Imagine that: Gamma World without Cryptic Alliances. Equipment price lists and descriptions also failed to make it into the box, as did some robots.

This missing data was all compiled in a separate booklet called the "Rules Supplement." I think if you were one of the initial buyers of 3rd edition Gamma World, you actually had to send an S.A.S.E. to Lake Geneva and request one of these from Customer Service. It was so long ago that I can’t remember how I got mine, but I know it wasn’t in the box set I bought.

Most disconcerting though is that the 3rd edition was written with a default victory condition, something that had never appeared in Gamma World before (or since as far as I know). From the intro fiction of the rule book: “We have a second chance to rebuild, to restore the old glory, and to prove ourselves worthy of our heritage. For only then will we at last escape the wilderness and be welcomed back into the Cities of Man!” This follows the mentioning of Man’s travel to the stars and the fact that, after the apocalypse, the survivors cried out to the heavens but were unheeded by their star-faring brethren. In another part of the introduction, it is stated that, “For somewhere, out there in the Great Void, await the brothers of this world. If only the intelligent races can mature from their barbarism, and escape the wilderness, then they may at last be welcomed into those lost Worlds of Man.”

If I am correct, the line of modules produced to accompany the 3rd edition documented a long series of quests that was intended to end in the PCs either finding or building a starship, and thereby “winning” the game of Gamma World according to its stated victory condition above. Now, if this was the way you wanted to run your Gamma World game, I’m supportive. Having it as a built-in goal, however, especially one that flies against most every assumption I have about Gamma World, doesn’t sit right with me. It’s almost as if Jim Ward was purposely trying to come full circle and have the journey that started on a spaceship in Metamorphosis Alpha come full circle and end with a return to space from Gamma World. That 3rd edition also purposely and specifically makes the highest level of technology products of an alien race also rubs me the wrong way. No offense, Mr. Ward. I’m a big fan, but this version just wasn’t to my taste. I assume you had to adhere to certain marching orders from the powers that were.

So is there anything you do like, Mike? Yes. Yes, there is and I will be stealing all of it.

Mutant plants as PCs were introduced in 3rd edition and will be appearing in my game, especially the idea that some mutant plants (grasses, fungi, and mosses) can’t get around on their own and are symbiotic parasites that are attached to an animal servant. Imagine having to go talk to the giant mutant eagle to learn something, only to discover that you really need to talk to the mutant fungus that grows under its feathers. There’s also a cool little rule that gives all mutant plants the possibility of re-sprouting from their roots in the case of their death, making them return to play at (effectively) 1st level and down a point in all attributes.

A few new robots are introduced and I’ll be converting them, as I will be doing with a few new mutations. Also, a handy list of barter and trade goods are provided in the above mentioned "Rules Supplement" and that will be useful. I’m also going to use the third form of currency mentioned in 3rd edition (the all-mighty “dahler”) and—possibly—utilize a modified talent system to give starting characters a minor bonus in some area much as I do in Labyrinth Lord with my quirk and dirty quirks and qualities chart. There are a few minor rules tweaks and suggestions as well that bear further study.

Even if I can’t recommend 3rd edition as the version of Gamma World you simply must play, I can still get a little use out of it by picking its bones before I bury it for good. Next up on the examination table: 4th edition. Look for that autopsy in the weeks to come.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Countdown to Armageddon: Teenage Cave Man (1958)

With the most influential post-apocalyptic film covered, it is time to move on to the most Gamma World-esque piece of cinematography. Those of you who have never seen the 1958 version of Teenage Cave Man are undoubtedly scratching your heads in confusion, while those who have witnessed the film are nodding sagely. What’s a caveman movie doing here? There are spoilers ahead in the strictest of senses, but since the Big Reveal is actually the promotional blurb on the back of the video jacket, I’m guessing that it wasn’t intended to be a secret of Rosebud proportions. That being said, if you’re the type of person who can’t stand knowing anything about a movie before you watch it (and you intend to watch this film), stop reading now.

To begin, here is the synopsis of Teenage Cave Man:

Robert Vaughn plays the Symbol Maker’s son, who lives with his Stone Age clan in Bronson Caves and wonders why they’re living in a barren wasteland when, just over the river, is a green land filled with stock footage of dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the Word prohibits the clan from going there (because, despite what you’ve heard, the Word is the Law and not The Bird) for that is where the God that Gives Death with its Touch lives. Vaughn, being a teenager, isn’t satisfied with old man logic and decides to take a trip across the river with his friends. There, they encounter my favorite dinosaur battle (an alligator with a dorsal fins glued to its back takes on a water monitor amidst a scale model landscape) before one of the teenagers dies in an oatmeal quicksand pit. This doesn’t sit too well with the elders once Vaughn gets back and he’s shunned until he finishes the rites of manhood. Once a man of the tribe, he remains determined to get the tribe out of the Bat Cave and into the lush land of stock footage dinosaurs. He figures that if he kills the God that Gives Death with its Touch, the tribe will have nothing to taboo about. So, after inventing the bow and arrow, young Bob heads back across the river to take on the God. Of course, the rest of the tribe figures that’ll piss of the local deity and they head after Vaughn to stop his hot-headed plot. A misunderstanding of "Three’s Company" proportions occurs when Vaughn, the God, and the tribe all meet up on the other side of the river, ending with the God dead on the ground and a whole lot of confused caveman. As it turns out, the God that Gives Death with its Touch is actually a spaceman—the last survivor left from before the world was destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. The radiation prolonged his life and turned the local wildlife into dinosaurs. Man returned to the caves and forgot his ancestry. All that remains of civilization is a book that the spaceman formerly known as the God that Gives Death with its Touch carried around. DUN DUN DUNNNNNN!

Granted, Teenage Cave Man is not a great movie by any stretch. A product of Roger Corman “The Employer,” a man whose autobiography is entitled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood And Never Lost a Dime, Teenage Cave Man was shot on a typical shoestring Corman budget (the bear that attacks the hunters looks suspiciously like a bathroom rug strapped to Beach Dickerson—who plays four roles in the film and dies three times). Originally called Prehistoric World, the film was renamed by the studio, allowing Corman to claim—truthfully—that he never made a movie called Teenage Cave Man. Robert Vaughn was quoted as calling it the worst movie ever made. But that’s when the movie is weighed against concerns like “quality,” “good acting,” and “plot.” If we limited ourselves to those categories, the post-apocalyptic genre would be a slim one.

Luckily, I’m looking at it as a Gamma World referee and I say the movie is the closest a film gets to what I consider to be the standard theme of the game: The grossly uninformed and ill-equipped take on things they don’t understand and hope for the best.

This default reading of the Gamma World setting is due to the sample adventure introduction from the 1st edition of the game. For those of you unlucky enough to have never read it, I’ve reproduced it below:

You are the inhabitants of a small village of about 200 that is situated just inside the border of the great forest. You have grown up listening to the legends of the Ancients and of the Shadow Years, but since those years were long before your time, you consider them just that—legends. You are much more concerned with hunting for meat to supplement the meager living you scratch out of the soil, and with avoiding the dangerous creatures which prowl the area. It is now the time of the year, however, for your coming-of-age and for the “Trials,” in which you will be judged by the village leaders and elders as worthy (or unworthy) of membership in the adult society of the village. Part of the “Trials” involves venturing forth into the wild lands just outside and proving yourself to be proficient hunters and fighters.

The sachem, the chief elder and leader of the village, possesses a device of Ancient technology (incomprehensible to you, other than its effects) that can kill at a great distance. You have seen this device used against a villager who attempted to steal it for his own. The sachem touched the device in some strange manner and a brilliant beam of light was projected, striking the villager and searing a small hole through his chest. He died almost instantly and the sachem warned the villagers about attempting any similar theft in the future.

There is an old tale, however, that the sachem returned from his own “Trials” with that very device. It is by means of the power which this device gives him that he was able to elevate himself to his present position. It is said that the sachem had come back from his “Trials” from the west—a taboo area. It is said that only the gods can walk in the taboo area and live. The only thing the sachem ever said about his “Trials” is that the strange device had come from one of the houses of the Ancient Gods.

This year’s “Trials” are to be different. The sachem has decreed that any who desire to be an elder or to sit on the Council of Leaders must go to the taboo lands in the west. To prove you have done so, you must bring back a stone from one of the houses of the Ancient Goods.

Therefore, at dawn you leave with your allowed weapons, a bow and six arrows, your knife, and food and water for one week. You have little choice; if you desire to rule, you must go west into unknown danger. But the thought occurs to you, it would be nice to have a device like the sachem’s…
I can’t even begin to count how many times I read that intro as a kid. Whatever the count was, its depiction settled down into my bones and became the scenario against which all Gamma World campaigns shall be measured. That Omar (the fictional referee in the chapter) is one hard ass. “Here’s you starting equipment: a bow, six arrows, a knife, and a week’s worth of rations. Now get out there and go kill a Death Machine or something.” That is how every Gamma World game should begin. None of this beginning in higher level Tech centers like later versions allow. You’re a goddamn cave man!

I suspect but cannot prove that Jim Ward and Gary Jaquet might have been familiar with Teenage Cave Man when designing the game or when Ward was writing Metamorphosis Alpha, although the possible connection there pales in comparison to Aldiss’ Non Stop influence (published coincidently in the same year as Teenage Cave Man). Nevertheless, even if it wasn’t an influence, it should be one on any referee setting out to run a classic scenario game of Gamma World.

From the point of view of a referee, there’s not much to directly steal from the movie for use in the campaign. There’s a couple of good names (the Forbidden River, the Burning Plains, and of course the God that Gives Death with its Touch) but the referee should really look at it as a template for starting off a campaign. The Rite of Passage scenario appears in at least two commercially produced modules (Famine at Fargo and "Part VI Rite of Passage" from the 2nd edition Gamma World Adventure Booklet). There’s no reason to not use the same to launch one’s own campaign. It’s just too good of an kick off.

If you feel you can’t survive a straight viewing of Teenage Cave Man, track down a copy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode 315 and watch Joel and ‘bots take it on. Oh, and if anyone can point out to me where the original appearance of the alligator vs. water monitor battle was, I’d appreciate it because my Google Fu has failed me so far.

Next time on Radioactive Theatre: the only post-apocalyptic sports drama ever.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Donning the Traditional Cotton Raiment

To give you all a better idea of exactly how scattershot my head was this summer, I’d like to mention that this blog hit its second anniversary one month ago and I didn’t even notice. August 21st, 2008 saw the first post here on The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope, starting off a process that would have entirely unforeseen results—ones which are still continuing.

Rather than dwell on what has been or anticipate what is coming, I’d just like to humbly thank everyone who has made this endeavor a success and supported my efforts (wittingly or not) to get the voices in my head down on paper and distributed to the masses. According to some reports, this blog is #8 on the Old School Hit Parade, making me a 7th level Pundit, a title that I would never willingly claim for myself.

I’m in awe that so many of you have seen fit to stick around and even willingly part with money to buy the ideas from my head. It is I who has become your biggest fan.

Hopefully, I’ve got another year in me and we’ll repeat this again in 2011.

In sincerity and with best wishes,


Monday, September 20, 2010

“Meanwhile, back in town…”

The last game session saw the PCs beginning to look around at the larger world picture and realizing that there may just be more to the Kinan-M’Nath than that old prison up in the hills. I’m hoping this is the start of a trend.

The adventurers have learned that Stonehell is not a static location that patiently waits for them in between their expeditions. Things are occurring down in its depths all the time, and some of those events have lasting effects on the dungeon as a whole (which reminds me that I need to make the latest batch of changes to the site). Obviously, the town of Blackpool is also a dynamic place that changes over time. I have a randomly determined a few big events that might occur in the future of the overall sandbox, but haven’t dabbled with the idea of local events. Until now, that is.

What follows is a rough draft of random notable events that could occur in and around the PC’s home base. I’m still tweaking, but this is closer to finished than not. I’ve riffed on the results to give them possible adventure seeds or unexpected twists, but I don’t plan on doing more with them until they come up in actual play.

I’ve experimented a bit with probability of these events occurring and decided to go with a 1 in 8 chance of an event occurring each day (rather than my original plan of 1 in 6). That seems to ensure that at least one interesting event occurs each month, but not so many as to turn town into a madhouse. I also considered staggering the results to make some more likely than others, but decided to make it a straight d20 progression just to keep me and the players on our toes. I plan to roll at least two weeks if not more in advance so that I can give the events a proper lead in, making them appear to happen naturally, rather than be spontaneous occurrences (except in cases where the very event is unexpected). Since I often get asked to do this anyway, you can find a PDF of the following table and its explanations here.

What’s Going On? Roll a d20 to find out!
1) Fire
2) Child goes missing
3) Accident
4) Bandit attack
5) Murder
6) Monster on the prowl
7) Theft
8) Destruction of property
9) Illness
10) Birth/death
11) Execution
12) Festival
13) Sign from the Gods
14) Mustering the troops
15) Windfall
16) Visitor
17) Magic!
18) Rumors
19) Quarrel
20) High weirdness

Accident: A worker is crushed by falling stonework at the keep or someone is grievously injured at one of the sawmills. If a PC cleric is nearby when this occurs, he or she may be able to save their life, earning them the undying friendship of the victim and her or her family.

Unexpected twist: If the victim dies, his or her survivors blame the overseers at the job site and want revenge. An unscrupulous PC might be approached to handle that task.

Bandit attack: A merchant caravan is attacked on its way to or from town. Many are slain. There is a 50% chance that the caravan was carrying needed supplies or that word of the attack spreads outside the immediate area, resulting in a slow-down of traffic on the roads. Prices of all important goods (read: anything the PCs are likely to buy) is increased by 10%-20%.

Unexpected twist: The caravan was carrying an important MacGuffin that someone of importance needs recovered immediately. He or she is offering a reward if the item is retrieved before the next sunset.

Birth/death: Someone comes into or goes out of the world. There is a 10% chance that this event occurs to someone the PCs know in town. Otherwise it is simply a popular topic of conversation for the next day or two.

Unexpected twist: The PCs find themselves involved in some manner. If they have recently done great deeds to assist the community, a newborn child might be named after one of them and one PC is named as the baby’s “sword-uncle (or aunt).” This will require attending a special ceremony and the purchase of a gift (the more lavish the better) for the child and/or his family. If it is a death that occurred, the departed might be of the same faith as one of the PC cleric and require him or her to conduct the funeral, or the deceased may have left one or more of the adventurers something on his deathbed. Why they did this remains to be determined.

Child goes missing: One of the local children fails to return home after heading into the forest or down to the river. A search party is forming in the town square. PCs who willingly join in on the search will find that the residents hold them in slightly higher regard afterwards.

Unexpected twist: Rather than find the child, a crudely written ransom note is discovered. What the kidnapper wants in return is highly unusual.

Destruction of property: For some reason, something breaks. It could be a fishing pier swept away by a rain-swollen river, a stretch of road collapsing into a sink hole, a statue shattered, or the local cemetery defiled. Depending on the exact nature of the damage, the townsfolk might pitch in to repair the damage, demand the Lord Warden take action, or sit around grumbling that “things aren’t what they used to be.” PCs who pitch in or pay to help repair the destruction will earn the respect of the residents. Those who were nearby when the damage occurred will be watched carefully and whispered about.

Unexpected twist: The damage unearths a new mystery. A drowned body might be found chained to one of the remaining pier posts, a tunnel found under one of the overturned headstones in the cemetery, or an interesting find is discovered hidden inside the statue’s hollow form.

Execution: If a prisoner is being held in the keep on serious charges, his execution is schedule for today. If no one is being held, a local outlaw has been caught and is bound for the gallows. An aura of macabre anticipation hangs over the town and most residents plan on attending. Business will be closed for an hour before and after the execution. There is a 10% chance the something unusual occurs to the condemned’s corpse in the days following the sentence.

Unexpected twist: A new development occurs just prior to the execution. This could be the unearthing of new evidence that questions the guilt of the condemned or it could be a last minute rescue effort launched by the convict’s companions. The PCs may easily find themselves in the thick of things.

Festival: Today is either a minor holiday or the day that a celebration such as a wedding, coming-of-age, or funeral is to be held. As such, the town is adorned with decorations and business as usual is suspended. If it is a religious holiday, there is a 75% chance it is a day sacred to one of the faiths in town. If it is not that of one of the settlement’s religions, there is a 15% chance it is one sacred to one of the PCs’ religions (provided they follow a faith not represented in town).

Unexpected twist: There is a 20% chance that something eventful occurs during the festival. Roll or choose from the event table above, ignoring any result that seems unlikely.

Fire: One of the buildings in town catches fire. There is a 66% chance that the structure is destroyed by the blaze and a 40% chance that any adjoining buildings catch fire as well (with similar chances of being destroyed).

Unexpected twist: Someone was seen fleeing the area immediately before the fire. It appears to be arson. Who did this and why?

High weirdness: Something so strange or unexpected occurs that nobody could have seen it coming. A gargantuan helmet falls from the sky and lands in the town square. A purple worm erupts from the ground and swallows the butcher’s shop. One of the residents gets a nocturnal visit from the “dwarfs in black.” In any case, things are going to be most unusual in town for the near future.

Unexpected twist: This entire event is an unexpected twist.

Illness: A sickness is making its rounds through the town. On a roll of a 1-3, it is a minor aliment such as the flu or chicken pox. On a 4-5 is a more serious ailment such as cholera or dysentery. On a 6 it is the plague. Roll again on a result of 6. Should the die come up another 6, the disease is magical in nature and could even be a curse such as lycanthropy or vampirism.

Unexpected twist: Some mastermind is behind the illnesses. It could be goblins bathing in the water supply, a mummy sorcerer getting his long-delayed revenge, or even be caused by the innocuous looking doodad the PCs picked up on their last adventure and sold to the local curio shop.

Magic!: A magical event occurs to brighten up the dreary lives of the townsfolk. A wandering wizard comes to town with his pyrotechnics show, a local mage inadvertently transforms himself into a strange form or blows up his lab, or a magic artifact is discovered in the course of daily life. The Lord Warden’s sorcerer is bound to investigate such matters.

Unexpected twist: It is one of the PC magic-users that becomes the focus of this attention—deservedly or not.

Monster on the prowl: Some creature (determine randomly) was detected close to town. Depending on the threat level, the townsfolk might form a posse, called out the guard, or hire adventurers to hunt down and remove the threat.

Unexpected twist: The “monster” is of a neutral or good alignment and may be seeking assistance on some matter. Or it could just appear to have good intentions…

Murder: Someone in town dies by violence. This could be due to a brawl, a duel, or an assassin. There is a 50% chance the murderer is in custody at the keep. If not, the culprit is either on the lamb or unknown. This will be the topic of conversation for the next several days.

Unexpected twist: Someone swears they saw the victim alive and well after they were killed. This could be a case of simple misidentification, the result of disguise magics, or a doppelganger at work.

Mustering the troops: The local military is assembled. This may be a simple case of the twice-yearly mustering of the militia to ensure their readiness and inspect their weaponry or it could be an actual military conflict. In the later case, a portion of the keep’s soldiers are needed to combat a threat. This might be a matter of assisting another nearby settlement to deal with a problem, or it may be that a great threat to the security of the settlement has been detected and must be dealt with immediately. In either case, the PCs could become drawn into the conflict, be hired as mercenaries, or find they need to lie low to avoid being pressed into service.

Unexpected twist: This assembly reveals that the local soldiery is woefully unprepared in some manner. The troops’ arms or armor have become unserviceable or perhaps even stolen, leaving the troops under-equipped. Clever PCs might take it upon themselves to go into business as arms-merchants, collecting the cast-off arms and armor of their foes and selling it to the local quartermaster at an inflated price.

Quarrel: Two parties in town find themselves in conflict. The reason for this could be mundane but scandalous (somebody was caught stepping out on their spouse) or serious and potentially fatal (two merchants are locked in a feud that comes to blows or a pair of soldiers prepare to duel over the affections of a woman). Depending on the conflict, the PCs could become involved if an ally (or enemy) is part of the quarrel or if their personalities make them the mediating-type.

Unexpected twist: This quarrel is the result of a much deeper scheme. The two parties might have been lured into conflict so that a third person can benefit from their feud in some manner. This plot could have severe repercussions on the security and future of the settlement should it come to fruition.

Rumors: One piece of information seems to be on everybody’s lips but nobody can identify where this information came from. To make matters worse, everyone seems to have heard a different variation on the tale. This piece of news could be joyous (“The Grand Price is coming to look for a bride!”) or grim (“The Armies of R’kee are marching east!”). In either case, not only will this be the talk of the town, making it difficult to learn more concrete and useful rumors, but it could affect day-to-day business (there is a run on arrows and bolts as townsfolk stock up for the imminent conflict they believe is coming, for example).

Unexpected twist: The rumors are true.

Sign from the Gods: One of the deities makes his/her/its presence known within the town limits. This could be a simple prophetic dream visited upon a devout worshipper, a minor miracle occurring around the temple, priest, or a layperson, or even an actual manifestation of the god(dess). The more impressive the demonstration of the deity’s presence, the more likely that word will spread and the town will become a destination for pilgrims. This influx of the faithful results in the swelling the town’s population for some time, causing increased difficulty in finding lodgings, fervent street-side sermons, and other mundane but annoying hassles for the residents.

Unexpected twist: The deity who manifests its power is not a good deity, but one of the darker powers. Who knows what sort of riff-raff this would attract and what this manifestation means to the future of the town?

Theft: A crime involving the stealing of wealth or property is committed within the town limits. This could be as simple as a fisherman’s skiff being stolen to the purloining of a merchant’s strongbox to a robbery at the Lord Warden’s keep. Even the PCs’ residence may be subject to robbery if it is not secure. There is a random 10%-60% chance the culprit has been caught. If not, he or she is either wanted or unidentified.

Unexpected Twist: This is just one of a string of strange thefts. The items being stolen are not particularly valuable, but are odd enough to make people wonder what’s going on. Clues could lead outside of town, resulting in the PCs being hired to track down the crime ring, find out their intentions, and bring them to justice.

Visitor: Someone or something interesting comes to town. This might be a nobleman come to visit the Lord Warden at the keep, the arrival of a Zutanni compania, or even a friendly monster taking up residence nearby. Half the town will be delighted; the other half will be suspicious.

Unexpected twist: The arrival is a band of renowned adventurers come to try their fortune in the local dungeon. The PCs now have some serious competition. How far will they go to protect “their dungeon”?

Windfall: Someone (or everyone) in town is getting rich, rich, rich! This could be the result of the sudden popularity and demand for a local product, the discovery of a rich cache of natural wealth, or the unearthing of a lost treasure. Costs could rise as much as 25% in the case of settlement-wide wealth, and such a windfall is bound to attract unsavory types if word gets out. In the case where only certain individuals become wealthy, the PCs might find themselves being sought as bodyguards, arm candy, or even gladiators to appease the money-crazed nouveau riche .

Unexpected twist: The wealth is the property (rightly-so or not) of another party who will come looking for revenge. This could lead to a simple beat-down in the street or escalate into a siege on the town itself.

Friday, September 17, 2010

And the Answer is... the question, "When you think about Dungeons & Dragons, the cover of what product comes first to mind?" Had you asked me this question some years ago, the answer would have been very, very different. It is only because of my experiences over the last two years that I've come to realize how much I love that box. It is simple elegance just waiting for you to make it your own. This goes just the same for its excellent sister daughter, Labyrinth Lord.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Game Store Philosopher’s Stone

Or how to distill crap into quality.

This past summer was pretty scattershot for me. I had a lot on my mind and on my plate, all of which caused me to try and multi-task in order to get things finished. The result: not pretty. I finally have to admit that the older I get, the more I can accomplish by focusing my energy on a single project at a time and following it through to completion. Otherwise I’m left with a slew of half-built bridges in my wake.

The result of my failure to focus was that my brain was firing off in a half-dozen directions at once and that wasn’t a pleasant experience. I’d often find myself lying in bed at night with my mind racing and sleep an elusive goal. I’m thinking of starting a meditation regime in order to learn how to still my mind once in a while. In the meantime, I’m undertaking a much needed clean-up of things and thoughts, starting with that which I can easily accomplish. I’m giving up on trying to read five books at one or rent three movies at a time when a single one will suffice. I’m also going through my storage lock-up and seeing what can be culled from there and rearrange the rest. Some of you may have already benefited from this weeding (and more may still).

That process resulted in me selling off another load of game books to my FLGS. It wasn’t nearly as large a sale as I made a year or so ago, but it did free up some space. The books I parted with were mostly a few stray 3.5 titles, some overlooked White Wolf stuff that missed the first purge, and a couple of board and card games that I knew would never be played. I accrued a little bit of store credit and was happy to be free of the excess.

Then Gen Con came and the owner returned with some new old school swag. This was followed by him buying another collection or two from other gamer looking to clear out space. Since he knows I always have an eye of for the obscure or the true old school book, he pointed out the tubs of books sitting under one of the miniature gaming tables the last time I stopped in. This visit caused the last of my store credit to vanish and me to walk out with more books.

I look at the process as game book alchemy. I’m turning splat book crap into gold at a much reduced exchange rate. A two-foot high pile of books becomes a mere 2” tall stack, but the quality is so much better. For instance, the last exchange turned The Book of Vile Darkness, Miniatures Handbook, Mage: The Ascension, Mage: The Awakening, Dead Magic, the Darkstryder Campaign boxed set, the Quo Vadis board game, and a few assorted other splats and card games into:

That’s a complete 2nd edition of Gamma World (minus the box but in very good if not near-mint condition), Central Casting: Heroes of Legend, and a set of the Traveller little black books (which I have never owned or played, but have been looking for for some time). Not pictured is issue #2 of the gaming magazine Gyphon (a mag I had never heard of) but features an article by M.A.R. Barker on building religions for your campaign, a Traveller “service record” sheet to use when generating a character for that game, and an article on fantasy cartography.

I had already made the decision to choose 2nd edition GW for the forthcoming campaign, but my own copy of the set was getting ragged and a replacement copy was unavailable through Noble Knight or Troll and Toad so I really lucked out on this set. The Traveller books are a little play-worn, but still holding together enough to be used to run a game (which might happen after Gamma World ends circa 2012). I’ve heard good things about Central Casting and most any Paul Jaquays’ title is worth having. I doubt this will see use as intended, but it’s already help jumpstart the imagination (much like a certain other table-filled title does).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Countdown to Armageddon: The Road Warrior

What follows is the first of several evaluations (or in some cases, re-evaluations) of films from the post-apocalyptic genre. These are not movie reviews or scholarly treatises on the art of film-making. They are simply a role-playing referee evaluating movies for ideas to enrich, use, or avoid in a post-apocalyptic campaign of Gamma World. Some of the “factual” information presented here might be completely wrong due to shoddy research or referee misinterpretation, but that’s the price you pay for using unpaid sources on the internet for reference. Caveat emptor and try not to take these things too seriously.

The Road Warrior, as it was released as in the United States, or Mad Max 2 as it was titled everywhere else, is not the first post-apocalyptic film, but it might as well be from the influence it has had on the genre. The costume design alone is responsible for the accepted fact that, after the apocalypse, all fashion sense goes out the window and it becomes perfectly acceptable to wear footballs pads with a ballet tutu. Shot against the wide open spaces of the desolate Australian Outback, The Road Warrior made it a requirement for all post-apocalyptic movies to occur in locales without a speck of greenery present, making them easy to shoot just outside of L.A. Without this requirement, the low-budget post-apocalyptic boom that followed The Road Warrior’s release in 1981 would probably never have happened. Luckily for the film makers’ responsible for such gems as Raiders of the Sun, Hell Comes to Frogtown, Cherry 2000, or Steel Dawn, the apocalypse looks surprisingly like Vasquez Rocks.

I’m assuming that all of my readers know the plot of The Road Warrior, but here’s a brief summary:

Since we last saw “Mad” Max Rockatansky avenging the death of his family and friends at the hands (and wheels) of the Toe Cutter’s gang of motorcycle outlaws, the world has really gone downhill. In the aftermath of a nuclear exchange followed by the breakdown of oil pipelines and refineries, society has collapsed and become a place where “only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive.” Max has become a loner in the world, driving the highways in “the last of the V8 Interceptors” with his unnamed dog on a constant hunt for “gazzahleen” to stay mobile. After he turns the tables on an ambushing Gyro Captain (played by Bruce Spence in a manner that I cannot picture him as anything else to this day), Max discovers that there is one last community still pumping and refining oil. This settlement is under constant siege by that Ayatollah of Rock ‘n Rolla, The Humungous (a disfigured giant with a colander on his face) and his cadre of “Smegma crazies and gayboy berserkers”. Although initially just looking to get some fuel from the refiners and disappear back into the wasteland, events conspire against Max to drag him into the conflict. He ultimately redeems himself by becoming the unwitting patsy in the refiners’ escape from the wasteland.

Like many kids in the ‘80s, this film became the baseline for me against which all post-apocalyptic films would be measured. This is largely due to the fact that it is not only an excellent movie in its own right, but because the film loomed large in our imaginations before we even saw it. Being an adolescent in the ‘80s was to live in the shadow of the Bomb. A dim shadow perhaps when compared to those who experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, but a noticeable one in any regard. Some days it almost seemed as if World War III was inevitable and we were just passing time until the sirens went off.

I remember hearing about The Road Warrior around the lunch table long before I actually saw it. Some of my friends had either seen it on cable or VHS, and those of us who hadn’t due to having parents who actually paid attention to movie ratings listened in amazement to their recitations of the film’s plot and events. By the time I actually saw the movie for myself, I had already built up quite a preconceived notion as to what the film would be. It’s a sign of the movie’s quality that, although it didn’t match what I had envisioned, it still was an impressive film-viewing experience.

The Road Warrior has had a constant albeit subtle influence on me over the years, affecting everything from playing with action figures to fashion choice during my punk rock years to scenarios for role-playing games. I remember my brother and I playing with our Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures in a game we called “Warriors of the Wasteland,” wherein the figures prowled the concrete floor of our basement searching out fuel in the form of Lite-Brite pegs and dealing with a mutated cockroach named “Cookie” who ran the only remaining diner left on the wasted Earth. Later years saw me using the same plot and events from The Road Warrior in a Star Frontiers game when the PC’s ship had to ditch on the charred cinder of a world.

Now that I’m creating a radioactive sandbox, it’s time to see what I can use from the film for that purpose. The most obvious choice would be the idea of fuel as wealth, but there’s a slight problem with that in Gamma World. As you might know, the usual power sources on Gamma Terra are various energy cells left over from the Shadow Years. These aren’t the type of thing a wasteland community is going to be able to produce on their own, although it might be possible for them to be in possession of a stockpile of energy cells somehow. However, the idea of the Red Death encamped outside the walls and demanding the villagers “give up the cells” just doesn’t do it for me. It must be gazzahleen or nothing. (Sorry, but do to the pronunciation of “gasoline” with an Aussie twang in The Road Warrior, the fuel of Gamma World has officially become gazzahleen.)

Further reading of the Gamma World rulebook indicates this isn’t as unthinkable as it would appear. Under the descriptions for the Civilian Ground Car and Military Ground Car, both are alcohol-powered rather than cell-powered. I’ll assume that’s a matter of convenience rather than design, having those vehicles converted over to alcohol power after gazzahleen became extremely rare. I suspect that with a little tinkering I might be able to bolt the rules for gas and alcohol powered vehicles from Twilight 2000 into a Gamma World-friendly format, opening up the possibility of trading gaz for all sorts of supplies and using it as intended to outrace mutants in the badlands.

Less obvious but still cool to steal concepts would include the razor-edged boomerang employed by the Feral Kid, the wrist crossbow used by Wez, and explosive booby traps and knives hidden under particularly choice vehicles. And what would the apocalypse be without an evil leader known by an adjective. Perhaps the PCs will cross vibroblades with The Ferocious?

Of the Mad Max trilogy, The Road Warrior remains my favorite. I readily admit that it lacks the depth of Mad Max, but it does a good job of recasting Max in the role of the Western drifter hero and giving the viewer a films powered by a potent mix of gasoline, nitrous oxide, and testosterone. A much better job than the sequel, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome does, a film that proves the film law which states if you want to screw up a successful film franchise, just add children to the cast (I’m looking at you guys, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Mummy Returns, and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) at any length.

In revisiting the film for inspiration, I admit that the movie has lost some of its impact, but if this is due to familiarity with the film or simply a maturation of taste, I’m not 100% sure. The plot did seem more straightforward than I remembered it to be, for instance, and I’m certain that if it was done nowadays, we’d see an even more emotionally detached Max to begin with so as to make his ultimate re-humanization that more poignant. The film does deliver in one regard by reminding us how much fun it was to have Mel Gibson star in a movie before he began engaging in his recent objectionable antics.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Countdown to Armageddon

The Labyrinth Lord game is gradually reaching the point where it is almost self-perpetuating. With the amount of game prep slowly dwindling each week, I’m finding I have more time to dedicate to a “fall cleaning,” wiping out a laundry list of multi-tasking attempts that have inhibited me making advancements. Many things are still outstanding, but progress has been made and I feel like I’m gradually getting a handle on my life again. Maybe I can get back to writing posts of greater substance again soon.

As I mentioned some time back, it has become my intention to follow up the Labyrinth Lord campaign with a Gamma World game sometime next year. To that end I’ve had to make a decision regarding what edition I’ll be running before I can start the groundwork needed using Rob Conley’s step-by-step sandbox generation scheme. Normally, picking an edition of a game is not too large of a task. After all, even the oldest of rpgs has only four editions to choose from, right? If you follow the party line, that is.

Not so with good old Gamma World, for I own every edition of the game that’s currently available. For those of you ill-versed in Gamma World’s publishing history, that consists of roughly seven versions (with an eighth on the way). There’s the 1978 original by Ward and Jaquet, which was followed by a clarified second edition in 1983. Three years later saw a 3rd edition that made use of one of those universal colored result tables which had infected nearly every game TSR was putting out at that time. In 1992, a version that introduced character classes and 2nd edition D&D-esque rules was released (including what I believe was the first use of ascending armor class—that favorite old school beating horse—in a TSR game). In 2000, a Gamma World source book for the Alternity rules was released—one month after Wizards of the Coast announced it was killing the Alternity line. Gamma World would see two versions released in 2002. One was a d20 mini-game called “Omega World” that appeared in the pages of Dungeon/Polyhedron magazine in September. In November, Sword & Sorcery Studios released a d20 Modern version of the game. Next month, WotC will be releasing a version that looks to be based on the 4th Edition D&D rules with a collectable card element. As you can see, this gives me quite a selection to choose from.

In addition to official Gamma World editions, I also own two versions of Metamorphosis Alpha: the revised 1st edition PDF by WardCo and the 25th anniversary edition produced by Fast Forward Entertainment. And then there’s Mutant Future as well.

Luckily, despite the plethora (“It’s a sweater!”) of choices, for my purposes it actually just boils down to two: 1st or 2nd edition. The 3rd edition’s color chart wasn’t a favorite back in ’86 and Gamma World with classes just feels wrong to me, which removes 4th edition from the running. I’ve never played Alternity and I’m not about to start now, and my avoidance of d20 systems in whatever form easily dismisses Omega World and Sword & Sorcery’s take on the tile. Plus, I never really kindled to SSS’s version of Gamma Terra.

So with two editions in the running, what am I to do? Rather than pit them against one another in Thunderdome (which would be appropriate, but costly to construct and the attempt to get two inanimate books to fight might earn me a trip to the Shady Valley Asylum), I’m currently doing a point-by-point comparison of the rule systems to see where they diverge. This effort has been rather eye-opening and surprising.
I initially thought that I’d run 1st edition with a few elements of 2nd edition thrown it. I figured that by starting with the earliest true edition of Gamma World, I could go down my own path and “imagine the hell out of it” like we in the old school seem fond of doing. In truth, the differences between the two versions aren't all that many and the 2nd edition does do an excellent job of clarifying certain rules without altering them too much. It seems that it would be far easier to adopt the few rules from 1st edition that were cut from the 2nd rather than try things the other way around.

The only change that rankles me was the alteration to the reaction table between the two systems. The original edition uses what became the Moldvay 2d6 chart, which I can adjudicate in my sleep, while the 2nd edition uses a d20-based table. I considered swapping the two, but after breaking down the particulars and various modifiers, it’d be easier just to stick with the table as is in 2nd edition.

Amongst the discoveries I found in carefully re-reading the 2nd edition of Gamma World was the fact that I was incorrectly rolling random mutations back when I played this version in the ‘80s (it turns out you’re supposed to add your CON score to the d% roll when determining your initial Physical mutations and your INT score when rolling for Mental mutations, which is something we never did.) There’s also an extremely simple but effective rule for knocking out opponents, one that can easily be used in D&D if you’re tired of house ruling or using the tables in the DMG to adjudicate such matters. As much as I love the flow charts for figuring out artifacts from 1st edition, I will admit that from my own testing the 2nd edition version is simpler and cleaner (and possibly a bit more lethal).

Despite my decision to use the 2nd edition as the default rule system, you simply must expect that I’ll be bolting on what I consider the missing pieces to it. Combat fatigue, missing from 2nd edition will return, as will experience points. I intend to keep the Rank system of 2nd edition, but that will measure the PCs status and renown in the wasteland. Experience points will affect level and the associated bonuses gained randomly from advancing.

I’ll be cherry-picking from the other versions as well. One of the things that I did enjoy from the 3rd edition was that mutated plants became an official character choice. I intended to reintroduce them, but wasn’t looking forward to trying to convert them from the CSR table to standard rules. They appear in 4th edition which makes them closer to the base line, but there’s still too much extra information for my taste. Thankfully, Mutant Future has a version that works almost perfectly with 2nd edition, as well as providing rules for android PCs that will also be stolen. I prefer 4th edition’s increased number of Tech Levels (from 0-VI over I-III in 2nd edition) so I’ll be using that method of grading technology and settlements’ knowledge and possession of such. The Alternity version has some nice maps of settlements and encounter sites that I’ll be taking, and I’m sure I find something from Sword & Sorcery Studios splat books to steal (maybe that Maliszewski character has got something useful to contribute in Out of the Vaults). I will most certainly be utilizing every random post-apocalyptic “treasure” table from all the editions.

I actually very excited about this prospect. I’ve had a half-baked scheme for years about dismantling Gamma World’s various versions to build my own comprehensive homebrewed mutation and now it seems like it will finally come true. To document both this process and my building of a radioactive sandbox to play in next year, I intend to do occasional posts regarding Gamma World. Not only will I cover my efforts to follow Rob’s step-by-step sandbox creation method, leaving out certain information to avoid spoiling the campaign, but I’ll be looking at various sources of inspiration and may even give a complete cover-to-cover break down of 1st and 2nd edition Gamma World for those of you wishing to know the strength, weaknesses, and differences of both systems. All of these posts will appear under the header of “Countdown to Armageddon” (ain’t I a wit?). Look for more in the near future starting with a re-evaluation of The Godfather of post-apocalyptic movies, The Road Warrior (or Mad Max 2 for you non-Americans).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Gamers Grow in the Dark

From today's Daily Illuminator over at Steve Jackson Games:

Light + Heat - Dark

Like many kids, my early experiences with RPGs took place underground -- in a basement. In Michigan, basements are common, and excellent places to spend the (relatively) hot summer days.

Now I live in Austin, and the heat index has broken 110 degrees far too often recently. (This summer is falling short of last year's "100 days over 100 degrees," but it's still miserably hot.) Why don't I have a basement now?

And does Central Texas' general lack of basements have an impact on the frequency of gaming in the area? Based on the number of gaming conventions (and my own wildly unscientific analysis), areas where basements are common seem to have more gamers than areas where basements are rare. Any opinions on why this is? Tell me your theory on Twitter (@sjgames) or our forums.

-- Paul Chapman

Growing up in the suburbs, many of my early gaming sessions took place down in the basement. This was simply because it was the closest we kids had to our own private creative space. It was a place were our mothers could be certain we were safe beneath their feet without the need to constantly check up on us. That is, until things got quiet down there. That's when they knew we were up to no good.

The advantage to playing down in the basement was that you didn't have to worry about rain leaking through your treehouse roof or the wind carrying off your 24th level magic-user when the breeze got stiff. I'm pretty certain that there's a percentage of gamers who, lacking a basement, made do with the family garage for the same reasons.

The basement (and garage) as a private creative space goes far beyond the realm of gaming. It's not surprising that these same venues served as the spawning ground for countless teenage bands in later years. In my own case, I later kicked out the jams in the same place that I once guided my friends through hours upon hours of dungeon adventure.