Monday, December 20, 2010

Holiday Hiatus

Yesterday was the last session of the Watchfires & Thrones campaign for 2010. It ended on a triumphant note, and although unplanned, was the perfect session to end the year with. According to my belief that most successful campaigns enjoy an 18-month lifespan before the itch to explore new genres/settings or referee burnout takes its toll, this month also marked the halfway point of that lifespan. Although I’m anticipating that Watchfires & Thrones will end when the first few characters reach name level and construct bastions of civilization in the Uncertain Lands, I don’t have anything in particular planned for the campaign’s end, so it may not terminate exactly at the 18th month point. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see that the PCs advancement is roughly on track to this end.

As might be imagined with reaching the middle of the campaign, I did suffer through a few weeks of scraping the bottom of the creative bucket and a little referee brain fry, but I’m on the rebound and feeling better. Rather than take chances though, I’m going be (mostly) stepping away from the world of roleplaying games for the holiday season to spend time with the family, relax, and recoup. I’ll be toying with the campaign world some, reading a few old books, and working on some projects and posts for 2011, but these are all secondary, even tertiary, concerns. I just want to enjoy a peaceful break and be thankful for what the past year has given me, miser that it’s been at times.

To that end, this will be the last post for 2010, barring any unforeseen emergency announcements. I’d like to thank all of you who’ve put up with these often mad rambling for the past two years and counting. Your continued patience and unflagging interest is greatly appreciated. I’d also like to thank everyone who has willingly parted with their own money in these tight economic times to procure the products of my fevered brow, be it The Dungeon Alphabet, Stonehell Dungeon, or the second Stonehell Supplement. Like for so many other people, money has been tight around these parts and your generosity is occasionally the only thing keeping Knuckles and Bruno from knocking on my door and breaking my kneecaps. I am both deeply grateful and humbled.

I’d also like to thank everyone who has taken the time to personally write me an email to say how much this blog or my books fire their imaginations and how they’ve incorporated my ideas into their own campaign worlds. Writing is a lonely business; writing for the Internet even more so and your letters remind me that I’m not howling into the void in despair.

I’d especially like to thank my regular players, both past and present, who’ve allowed me to turn the theoretical ramblings here into actual play, allowing me to see where I was on to something and when I was just full of shit. Your constant presence at the gaming table is the greatest reward any referee can ask for.

So to all of you, no matter what creed you ascribe to or celebration you enjoy, I wish a happy holiday season and a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2011. I’ll see you on the far side of tomorrow.

- Mike

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ten Things I Wish I Bought Back Then So I Could Have Them Now

Since it’s the time for holiday wish lists and general greed, I’ve been thinking about what I really wish I could have as gifts this year. These presents are not realistic by any means, but since I’m a simple man and all I really want is the new Social Distortion album and for somebody to destroy Mumford & Sons so I never have to hear “Little Lion Man” ever again, it’ll take a theoretical flight of fancy to finish stuffing my stocking.

Limiting myself to 10 items for 2010, they are, in no specific order, the gifts that I wish I had bought for myself back before they went out of print or became incredibly expensive to procure. Almost all of them are pure nostalgia fodder. I’ve specifically left role-playing game books and other supplements off the list as they represent an entire category of their own, one considerably longer than ten items.

10) A set of official Wraith: The Oblivion Dice. When it comes to role-playing games, I’m not a completionist except for two titles: Gamma World and Wraith: The Oblivion. I’ve mentioned that I own every Gamma World edition since its debut. I also have the majority of W:tO stuff. Nevertheless, the dice set never made its way into my possession. I think most of the run of these ended up in a landfill somewhere because they‘re impossible to find, even in the dark alleys of the internet.

9) A Dragonbone: We used to mock this thing mercilessly back in the day, not only because of the adolescent hilarity found in anything called a “Dragonbone,” but because we figured how lame were you if you couldn’t be bothered to actually throw some dice? (An opinion I still have.) Now I want one for simple nostalgia sake and to be able to “whip out my Dragonbone” the next time I’m at a convention and the guy next to me is using a friggin’ iPhone app instead of real dice. I’d show him some hard-core, old school boneage!

8) A Gryphon Games Miniature Case: Another cool product from the back pages of Dragon. I couldn’t paint worth a damn back then, but the idea of having what I imagined to be a massive treasure chest to keep them in was too cool to not want. These things didn’t leave so much as an electronic ripple on the Web, making me think that their plywood construction and brown leatherette covering failed to hold up to the passage of time.

7) A few pads of Armory 1/10” x 1/20” Graph Paper: I posted about this stuff back in October. I haven’t got much of it left, but if I had known then how much this stuff still instills me with a sense of pleasant nostalgia and memories of happy afternoons drawing dungeon maps, I would have bought a pallet of the stuff back in the mid-1980s.

6) Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game: I remember playing this as a kid and I wasn’t all that impressed with it after a few rounds with it, but I never had one of my own: a fact my friend Greg used to lord over me. Alas, that hole in my psyche can never be healed and this is just a vain attempt to fill that emptiness.

6) Kenner’s Alien board game: I actually owned this as a kid and it probably contributed to the irrational fear of xenomorphs that still plagues me to this day. The fact that there was a children’s board game published that was based on an R-rated move with a rape subtext still boggles my mind. Blame the Star Wars merchandising machine for this one. I’d love to have this in my closet again—even though the idea of an actual Alien in my closet makes me lose bladder control.

5) A carton of assorted Presto Magix transfers: Only tentatively gaming-related as some were historical or science-fiction in nature. I can’t even guess as to how many of these I bought at the corner variety store in my youth. Each came with a fold-out background the depicted some exotic vista and a sheet of color transfers that you rubbed over with a pencil to affix to the background. It allowed any kid, even the ones like me who couldn’t draw worth a damn, to create cool action scenes, provided you didn’t mind them not actually performing any actions.

4) A complete set of the Gregg Press Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books: I mentioned in a previous post that this edition was my introduction to Leiber’s famous twain. I own scattered editions of more recent vintage, but to have the orange cover books from the 1970s on my shelf would make me a happy man.

3) All of the Grenadier AD&D miniatures boxed sets: Grenadier’s D&D minis and this game will forever be entwined together in my brain. I owned only a few single pieces in my youth, but each time I saw an advert for them in Dragon or encountered someone who owed these pieces, usually exquisitely painted, made me think I wasn’t getting the full D&D experience. I started refurbishing some of my old miniatures just before the “Out of the Box” game and was reminded that, as clunky and chunky as Grenadier’s early work was, those pieces remain the epitome of game miniatures to me.

2) A vintage set of Crossbows and Catapults: True story—In 1983, my brother and I were playing a game of “Crossbows and Catapults” on our bedroom floor. At the precise moment one of our walls (I forget whose) went crumbling down under a fired disc, a tremendous explosion rocked the neighborhood. Although we initially believed we had somehow unleashed Armageddon by means of a siege warfare game, our father quickly (and somewhat disappointingly) informed us that the Grucci Fireworks Co., located in the next town over, had exploded. That remains one of weirdest moments of synchronicity I've ever experienced in my life and I’d like to have a set again so that my brother and I could possibly destroy other local landmarks.

1) My true #1 is something I’d rather keep to myself. Suffice to say it would require a little bit of time-travel and whole lot of “I wish I knew then what I know now.” The best things in life aren’t things, you know. Barring that, however, how about a complete run of original ROM the Space Knight comic book series? I'm sure it wouldn't stand up to my memories of it, but I remember the Dire Wraiths as being pretty bad ass, largely due to the fact that they regularly killed folks, which was pretty radical for a comic book at that time. I never owned the ROM action figure, but the books had a big impact on my development...which probably isn't a good thing to reveal.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Visiting the Kinan-M’Nath

Into the whirlpool
Where matter vanishes
Degenerate star
Arm of Orion

An iron sun
The forbidden circle
Anti-matter is the
Black horizon

Blue Oyster Cult, “Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver

Now that visitors know what to expect once they arrive in the Uncertain Lands, how exactly do they get there? For this, we must turn to the sages of the ages, who, in their ink-spattered wisdom, have determined that there are four known methods of transportation between the Kinan-M’Nath and other worlds.

Method #1Spell Craft: Perhaps the easiest method of world travel, this method is restricted to those who have achieved mastery in magic, have discovered a magic item capable of cross-world travel, or can pay someone to provide these means of travel for them. In general, spell craft travel covers cross-world travel achieved by use of astral projection, gate, limited wish, plane shift, and/or wish, or through magic items such as an amulet of the planes, a cubic gate, or a well of many worlds. The benefit of this method is that the caster or item user has some control over where they arrive—provided they have some familiarity with the lands of the Kinan-M’Nath.

Method #2Realm Storms: Highly unpredictable, those arriving in the Kinan-M’Nath by way of a realm storm seldom do so willingly. These planar tempests tear the boundaries between worlds, although they appear to be nothing more than extremely strong thunderstorms to those caught in them. More than one party of adventurers has sought shelter in a cave during a realm storm only to emerge after it ended and find themselves in a completely different world. Some powerful mages and learned sages can predict where and when a realm storm may next appear, but finding such an individual and meeting their price is an adventure in its own right.

Method #3Etheric Mists: Like realm storms, etheric mists are a supernatural event. They are even more unpredictable than the storms, however, and some sages believe that etheric mists are examples of Fate in action. Appearing as a smoky gray fog, etheric mists are cold, thick, and damp, restricting sight to a mere 5’. Alien noises and weird echoes sound from the depths of the mist, and an occasional phantasmagorical shape can be barely discerned. Etheric mists appear without warning, even on the sunniest of days. They envelop travelers completely, last anywhere from several minutes to several hours, and, once they dissipate, leave the wanderers in a new land.

Image by Stefan Poag. Please visit for more of Stefan's wonderful work.

Method #4 – Hangways: These permanent gates were created in the dim past by unknown hands for indeterminable purposes. Appearing as 12’ diameter stone hoops, hangways are typically found suspended horizontally between four massive supports and dangling 10’-12’ above the ground. Usually a set of free-standing stairs or a ramp leads up to the edge of the hoop, allowing travelers easy access to the 8’ diameter opening in the hoop’s center. The air inside this aperture shimmers as if hot, although the temperature is the same as the surrounding atmosphere. Although hangways share the same general appearance of horizontal hoop hanging from supports, details vary from place to place and world to world.

Image by Talysman. Please visit Talysman's blog, The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, for more.

Hangways, sometimes called “hopgates” due to their method of egress, allow free travel between worlds to specific locations. Unlike the less predictable methods listed above, hangways remain in fixed locations and provide access to a matched site on one or more alien worlds. Use of the hangway is a simple matter of hopping through the horizontal aperture and falling between worlds. The traveler lands unharmed on the floor underneath the other hangway’s matched hoop on a new world. Travel between world can only occur by stepping through the topside of the hangway’s hoop. Attempts to reenter a hangway from below are always unsuccessful.

Image by Talysman

While the majority of hangways are keyed to a single location, some allow access to multiple planes. Hangways with multiple connections are usually time-based, meaning that a single hopgate will connect to one place during a certain time of the day, week, month, or year, and connect to another at an alternate time. Sometimes manuals, instructions, carvings, etc. are found near these types of hangways, but this is not guaranteed. Adventurers intending to travel via hangways should research their chosen hopgate carefully before embarking on their journey.

Hangways are the most common planar gate found in the Kinan-M’Nath. At least two are known to exist within the boundaries of Stonehell Dungeon; others can be found in forgotten places (both indoors and out) across the Uncertain Lands. The most recent wayfarers to arrive through a functioning hopgate are the members of The Society of Planewalkers, currently operating out of Blackpool. These outsiders purportedly originated in the Lands of the Rotted Moon and have displayed talents and traits unusual to the Kinan-M’Nath. Whether they will become a force for the Weal or the Woe remains to be seen.

A Note About the Duration of Stay: Visitors to the Kinan-M’Nath should be aware that their method of travel to the Uncertain Lands may have an impact on how long they remain in that world. Etheric mists and realm storms are notorious for carrying a person or persons between worlds only to return them to their place of origin days, even hours, later. And while spell craft and hangways almost always allow for unlimited visitation, even these methods have been known to abruptly fail, resulting in the traveler’s sudden departure from this realm. In other words, the referee has full control over the length anyone visits his campaign, making it much easier for a guest PC to suddenly fade away and return to his own campaign world if needed at the end of a session.

A very, very heartfelt thanks to Stefan Poag and Talysman for taking the time to contribute their talents to an unconventional idea dreamed up by me on a whim. Your contributions are greatly appreciated!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Dragonlance Chronicles: Twenty Years Later

And I went down my old neighborhood
The faces have all changed there's no one left to talk to
And the pool hall I loved as a kid
Is now a 7-11

- Social Distortion, “Story of My Life”
Over the weekend, I completed reading The Annotated Chronicles, the omnibus that compiles the original Dragonlance trilogy of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning, along with commentary by Tracy Hickman, Margret Weis, Jeff Grubb, Michael Williams, and others, into a single, massive tome. I haven’t been hobbled by such a bulky book since I read Stephen King’s It. It took several weeks to navigate my way from cover to cover, but that Herculean task is now complete, leaving me free to reflect upon a trilogy that I last read some twenty years ago.

It would be easy to dismiss the trilogy with a wave of the hand and say, “It doesn’t hold up well.” I certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so. But after finishing the book(s) and weighing my opinions, I came to the conclusion that the text itself was not the source of my disappointment. After all, the book itself hasn’t changed. I have.

As Peter Graham once observed, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” One can surmise that the Golden Age of Fantasy is also located around that age. Although, like many of my age group, my initial exposure to modern fantasy (as opposed to fairy tales and Arthurian legends) was with Tolkien by way of The Hobbit and the Rankin/Bass TV movie, the Dragonlance trilogy was my first exposure to mass market fantasy.

My acquaintance with the series came in a round-about manner. I first played through the module DL2 – Dragons of Flame with a childhood friend’s older brother as DM. I later picked up that module on my own and became aware of the novels that went along with the adventures. A lucky find at my neighborhood bookstore (one of those lost kinds that existed in an actual storefront and had a cat lazily basking in the sun from atop the counter) put the third book of the trilogy in my hands. I’m not quite sure that I eventually worked my way through the series in reverse order, but it is entirely possible. This would have been in 1985, the year I was thirteen.

Given the tumultuous time that adolescence is, it’s no surprise that the original trilogy spoke to me on a primordial level. The books had that superb young adult fiction mix of violence, humor, nobility, sex, tragedy, and troubled heroes that tells every boy or girl on the cusp of adulthood that these books were written especially for them. The titles and heroes of these potent brews might change from generation to generation, but the language this type of fiction speaks in the ear of the adolescent is a powerful one.

Alas, I’m no longer thirteen.

Rereading those tales, I was still able to see the parts that stirred my imagination, my emotions, and some new, unfamiliar urges as a youth, but the magic of the books has faded greatly. Perhaps familiarity with the books is partially to blame, but I suspect that the real culprit is simply time, experience, and the grind of adulthood. One can never go home again, no matter how hard we wish we could. We might catch brief glimpses of our golden years of youth, but these are always seen as a laughing shade that soon darts around a dingy street corner. I expect that the books still contain the words of power in the eyes of an adolescent, but it is up to each generation to choose their fantasy heroes, and I am not certain that the Dragonlance series will ever assume a place amongst those timeless fantasy series that are constantly rediscovered by young adults.

So despite a bittersweet reunion with my youth, what else did The Annotated Chronicles have to offer? Unfortunately, not nearly as much as I had hoped for.

I suspect that the powers that produce annotated books and arrange commentary on movies have very different expectations about what the audience if looking for than I do. I have yet to find one that satiates me. When annotations and commentary are being assembled, I believe the common school of thought must be to allow the original material room to shine through and be enjoyed on its own merits. That’s a lousy school of thought in my opinion. I already know the original material. The reason I’m listening to the commentary or reading the annotated version is because I want to know everything that led to the original material. Give me every bit of trivia, anecdote, backstage drama, allusion, homage, etc. et al that you can think of. Drown out the original material and feed my hunger!

The Annotated Chronicles starts out well. The first book is heavily annotated with recollections from Hickman and Weis (Hickman gets primary credit here since he contributes the most to the annotated omnibus) about the design of the Dragonlance project, the writing of the novels, bits and pieces about D&D for the unacquainted, and other entertaining trivia. Some of it I’ve heard before (Terry Phillips’ rendition of Raistlin during playtesting basically created the character we now know); others are completely new (TSR’s lawyers, worried about diluting the strength of the trademark “Dragonlance”, originally insisted that the eponymous weapon be referred to as the “a dragonlance lance”). As the omnibus progresses, however, we get less annotation and the ones that appear are less entertaining and/or enlightening and more of the “Estwilde is the flat area south of Kalaman” variety. A shame, really, as I had high hopes that the series my finally meet my expectations for behind the scenes information.

Most telling about my return to the land of Krynn was how much my own definition of fantasy has changed over the years. The world of Dragonlance is so far removed from what I consider to be my default concept of a fantasy world, especially one for D&D, that it’s almost as if we are speaking different languages. Even in my youth, Krynn seemed to be composed of small detailed areas separated by vast gulfs of nebulous land. If there wasn’t a story or module that took place there, it was difficult to gauge what Krynn was like. I suspect that its “design by committee” origin has something to do with Krynn’s vagueness.

I know what was being attempted with kender, gully dwarves, tinker gnomes, draconians, etc. And while I applaud the efforts to turn what had become staid aspects of the game into something fresh and exciting, the designs chosen in no way reflect what I might have done with similar material and intent. My tastes run in contrary directions. The same goes for dragonback aerial combat: neat, but not for me.

Lest you think I came here today to completely tear my childhood to shreds, I can still look upon parts of the trilogy with fondness. Raistlin Majere, the original TSR anti-hero, retains much of his power to affect the disaffected youth, and although I find the relationship between he and his twin to be a little more ham-handedly written than I did twenty years ago, black-robed Raistlin and his Tower of High Sorcery will remain one of the better “oohhhh, eeevviiillll…” characters to come out of TSR’s book lines.

In a related vein, can you believe I also forgot about death knights somewhere down the line? Not just Lord Soth, but all death knights? They completely dropped off my creative radar at one point and I wasn’t reminded of their existence in the D&D multiverse until I reread the Chronicles. I think my players are about to rue the day I decided to revisit my youth.

On the side of good, I found myself warming much more to the character of Sturm than I did during my youth. Having reached adulthood and gained a greater sense of how rare nobility and self-sacrifice is in our day and age, Sturm comes across as being a much more faceted character than I remembered.

The doomed relationships in the trilogy, those of Sturm and Alhana Starbreeze and Gilthanas and Silvara, had more resonance this time around as well. Again, this is perhaps due to a more experienced worldview on my part. Whatever the reason, the two relationships mentioned above, although they are minor ones compared to much more prominent love triangle of Laurana-Tanis-Kitiara, possessed a greater gravitas for me. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a tragic ending…

Looking back, I’m torn on whether I should have revisited the original trilogy. There’s a reason we have a past: it’s the place we keep all the things we either no longer want in our lives or store the glories we don’t want tarnished by age. But an unexamined life is not worth living, so mayhap brushing the dust off of the treasures of our youth is necessary to move forward with our lives. We each aspire to be the Master of Past and Present, after all.

I possess, but have yet to read, a copy of The Annotated Legends. I feel as if I should revisit that series as well, for I remember it being superior to the original Chronicles, largely because of the reduced cast size and an emphasis on the more complex characters. I remain hopeful that its annotations may finally meet my criteria as well. More time must pass, however, before I return to the wondrous lands of adolescence and again tread those sunlit paths. Too much nostalgia is no good for us aging dreamers.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Immigration Policies of the Kinan-M’Nath

B. Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving moral turpitude or a violation related to a controlled substance; or ever been arrested or convicted for two or more offenses for which the aggregate sentence to confinement was five years or more?

Answer Yes or No. (Yes! Yes, sir! Yes! No! No! No!)

As stated last week, I’m planning on opening up my campaign world to visitation by residents of other worlds. Since such a plan has the possibility of going pear-shaped quickly, some guidelines are necessary. Below is the rough draft of the Kinan-M’Nath’s immigration, visitation, and customs policies.

Item 1: All visitors arriving in the Kinan-M’Nath must be from a campaign world whose ruleset is compatible with that of my own. Since Labyrinth Lord with portions of the Advanced Edition Companion is the native rules that means that visitors from the following systems are welcome: Original D&D, B/X D&D, Mentzer D&D, 1st edition Advanced D&D, 2nd edition Advanced D&D (without non-weapon proficiencies), Swords & Wizardry (Core, Complete or White Box), and LotFP. I’m probably forgetting one or two here. Other systems will be taken on a case-by-case basis, but if conversion can’t be done in ten minutes or less, it’s probably not compatible.

Item 2: Visitors must be within one level plus or minus of the resident characters’ highest/ lowest level. Exceptions will be made on a case-by-case basis.

Item 3: All ability modifiers will be brought into line with Labyrinth Lord’s. Armor class will likewise be recalculated to adhere to Labyrinth Lord. Hit points will be rerolled in the case of different-sized class hit dice if the referee decides there is a sizable discrepancy between the visiting character’s base ruleset and that of the campaign.

Item 4: Due to the laws of the conservation of magic, visitors are allowed to bring with them a total of three magical items plus one potion when visiting the Uncertain Lands. If this policy was good enough for Dave Arneson, it’s good enough for me.

Item 5: Native house rules trump visiting house rules. Native house rules also trump the rules as written, but that's to be expected.

Item 6: With the exception of magically linked companions such as familiars, visiting characters arrive in the Kinan-M’Nath alone.

Item 7: Visitor must arrive by way of one of the three authorized entrance methods into the Kinan-M’Nath (More on this to come).

Item 8: Not so much a rule as good advice: You’re a guest here. Please behave in a manner that would make people want to invite you back. This includes letting me know you plan to attend and arriving on time.

Item 9: I may have been born at night, but I wasn’t born last night. I’ve been playing long enough to know a kosher character when I see one. Please leave your über-PC with all 18s, the wand of Orcus, and the vorpal luckblade lightsaber at home.

Item 10: If the visiting character is active in another campaign and you wish to have your triumphs and failures accounted for in your home game, please provide me with the email address of your regular referee. I will gladly provide him or her with an account of treasures won, magic gained or lost, and any earned experience points acquired during your trip abroad. I have no say on whether they will accept your foreign-won gains, but I’ll provide impartial conformation that you earned it legally.

Monday, December 13, 2010

“Out of the Box” Game Summary

Despite a much smaller turnout than I’ve become used to for one of my gaming sessions at the FLGS, the “Out of the Box” experimental session did indeed take place yesterday. I’d rate it in the 65% successful category whereas a usual Labyrinth Lord session is 85-90% successful (for me at any rate). Only three people attended and it was not the ideal mix for a game, but I forged ahead nonetheless.

Most of the afternoon’s exploits occurred around the Keep (of Borderland’s fame) and the Haunted Keep (from the sample dungeon at the back of the Moldvay rulebook). The session ended with three-quarters of the party dying and the last member escaping with all the loot—about average for an 1st level party right out of the box.

While the adventuring portion of the day was only average, the point of the “Out of the Box” experiment—to see if it was possible to revisit the game without succumbing to the preconceived notions that come with thirty years of involvement in the hobby—was by far more successful, surprisingly so, in fact. Having re-read Moldvay Basic with what I hoped was a pair of novice’s eyes, I came away with fresh notions and a few house rules that I would never have considered otherwise.

The biggest joy of the process, however, was reacquainting myself with the Keep. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve bothered to look back on that stony edifice, but, once I did, what I found surprised me. The Keep gets a lot of flak from folks who’ve never actually experienced it firsthand or did so only in their youth. The lack of names for its inhabitants is often cited as one of the flaws of the place. Having returned to the Keep with more mature eyes, I can only say that it is one of the finer examples of “home base” design I’ve encountered. Gary certainly knew what the hell he was doing when he put that place together.

In my youth, I remember looking at the Keep and wondering why all this “useless” information was provided: details about guild fees, storage of trade goods, the habits of residents after-hours, and the like. Now I found all this to be an immense springboard for not only future possibilities of conflict and adventure, but as a means to bring the location to life.

In yesterday’s session, the thief decided to see if it would be possible to rob the chapel, perhaps acquiring some of its overly-priced holy water as well as cash. That heist, as unsuccessful as it was, was a joy to run as a referee because I had all the pertinent information at my fingertips: the layout of the church, the probable positions of guardsmen, the surrounding buildings and their heights, and information as to whether or not there would be any cash in the donation box in the event that the thief got inside.

When it comes to refereeing style and advance preparation, I’m definitely more in the “free-wheeling, it’ll come to me when it’s needed” school, but the Keep showed me that there is something to be said for sparse, yet precise, game notes. It got me to reconsider, if not revamp, my style of game prep and I’ll be making some adjustments to my notes over the holidays before the Watchfires & Thrones game recommences next year. Even with thirty-years of gaming experience under my belt, Gary can still run rings around me when it comes to game design. Here’s one student who will undoubtedly never surpass his master.

The “Out of the Box” experiment allowed me to walk away with two nifty house rules. One was a complete surprise. With me reacquired novice’s eyes, I came up with a system that determines a PC’s social class, previous profession, connections to other characters, and, optionally, reason for adventuring in a single action. I was impressed with my own creativity and I’ll be fine-tuning that method and submitting a piece on it to Fight On!

The second house rule was a simple method for determining and tracking wear and tear on a character’s arms and equipment. That’s not something I usually pay much (read “any”) attention to, but when the Keep’s description mentioned that there was a smithy that repaired such items, my novice brain told me I had to come up with a way to keep that poor guy employed. And frankly, in a world where a suit of plate mail runs you 60 gold pieces, anything that causes the characters to continue to spend money on arms and armor is a good thing from the referee’s point of view.

The method I developed was this: Whenever a PC rolled a “1” on an attack, his weapon became worn and I had him put a mark next to the item on this character sheet. After three such marks, the weapon broke and became useless. It would have been possible to have some of the damage repaired (have all but a single check removed since you can’t get a weapon back to “new” status) for a fee at the smithy. For armor, I used a similar method. Any time an opponent scored a “20” on its attack against the PC, the player made a mark next to their armor and the rules above applied. It was a simple yet elegant solution to the problem—provided you’re not already using ones and twenties for fumbles and critical hits. I’m on record as being against those things anyway, so it works fine for me.

Nevertheless, I realize that some people expect that there will be critical hits in D&D—nearly forty years of house rulings tend to do that. But I wanted to do something different with the way I adjudicated such blows in the “Out of the Box” game. In a response to this, I came up with a “floating critical hit” idea.

In my Labyrinth Lord game, I’ll tell the players what an enemy’s AC is so that they know what they need to hit the beast. In theory, they have their attack matrix written down at the bottom of their character sheet so it’s a simple matter of looking down to see that they need “X” to hit AC “Y”. I say “in theory” because I have a player or two who still rolls their attack die and then looks at me like a deer in headlights while they wait for me to tell them if they succeeded or not. That drives me up a wall.

So to avoid that, I decided that critical hits would be a result of a d20 roll that resulted in exactly the number they needed to hit their opponent’s AC. It would be the same 5% chance as rolling a natural twenty, but that “20” would change from AC to AC. So, if as a 1st level character, you need a 13 to hit AC 6, a roll of “13” (not counting modifiers) meant that the attack bypassed the opponent’s armor completely and did maximum damage. As one little wrinkle to this, only fighters and demi-humans could score a critical hit. That was my little way of rewarding the otherwise overlooked fighter.

As of now, I doubt that “Out of the Box” will become a recurring campaign. I may return to it as a one-shot from time-to-time, but I think I have too much already invested in my Labyrinth Lord campaign setting to branch off into a second fantasy campaign. It’s much more likely that I’ll take the lessons I learned and some of the neater ideas I came up with for that setting and import them over to the Kinan-M’Nath. Despite this reluctance to return, however, the concept of an “Out of the Box” game is a good one and I’d recommend it to anyone who digs crazy thought experiments of this sort. Revisiting old ground with fresh eyes is a fascinating experience, even an instructive one, for jaded old referees like myself.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Random Character Color

I found the following scribbled on the back of a fighter's character sheet--a sheet of notebook paper to be precise. I have no memory of actually running this character, but I apparently had some idea that he came from the grim Scandinavian skald school of combat.

Warrior’s Prayer

Though I may be about to die,
I shall not fear.
For combat is the Great Purifier
Where the worth of all creatures is decided
By the skill of their arms
And the strength of their minds.
War is the Great Predator
That culls the weak and the sick from our ranks
So that only the strong shall remain.
To live is to show one’s worth;
To dies is to show one’s faults;
To retreat is to suffer the foulest of failures
And to burn in the pits of Orona’s darkest Hells.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Background for Tomorrow's "Out of the Box" Game

I just got finished assembling everything I'll need tomorrow for my experimental "Out of the Box" game--which is a sure indicator that I won't have enough players to actually run the damned thing. We shall see what happens tomorrow between 11 AM and noon. Worse comes to worse, I've got a Fight On! piece out of the prep work.

Here's the one-page background sheet. Everything above the "***" is me; the rest is minutely changed Gary.

Eons ago, the world was a place of wonder, a dreamland unimaginable to those who now toil beneath the uncaring skies. It was said that Man knew magics then that rivaled the gods, and that hunger, suffering, and war were unknown.

Then came the Dragons.

Screaming from out of the void beyond the stars, they came to the world without warning, burning all they encountered and poisoning the land with their caustic breath. Cities were incinerated, the seas became choked with ashes, and the skies blackened with smoke. Mankind took up their arms—weapons of unimaginable power—and struck back at these unworldly foes, bringing their awesome might to bear against a near-indestructible enemy. The legends call this time The Burning, an era which almost brought about an end to all life.

The destruction was catastrophic. Both the dragons’ breath and Man’s weaponry shattered the world in a desperate attempt to destroy one another. Mankind fled back to the caves that birthed them as the dragons reveled in the ruins they had created. The world plunged into an endless winter and small bands of desperate survivors huddled around fires as ice reclaimed the world.

The dragons, with nothing left to burn and little to devour, turned on one another, wreaking further destruction as they battled. Finally, when only the strongest of wyrms remained, they laid clutches of eggs in the ashes and returned to the void from whence they came.

That was three millennia ago. Man and his cousins—the elves, dwarves, and halflings—struggle to reclaim their shattered world. Much has been lost and many wonders will never again be seen, but civilization is again rising from the ruins. Through hard work, constant struggle, and endless vigilance, Man has again left the caves behind to reclaim the world it once owned. And although the Great Dragons have fled, there are other threats to Man’s future.

When Man emerged from the safety of the mountains, he found that a new enemy awaited, one spawned from the primal forces of Chaos that roiled across the destroyed paradise he once called home. In the lands to the East arose the Cruels, beings of dark and malicious power who wish to keep the world embroiled in turmoil and strife. Locked in constant struggle with the forces of Law, it is now these Chaotic Lords that threaten the Realm of Men.


The Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures. If it were not for a stout few, many in the Realm would indeed fall prey to the evil which surrounds them. Yet, there are always certain exceptional and brave members of humanity, as well as similar individuals among its allies - dwarves, elves, and halflings - who rise above the common level and join battle to stave off the darkness which would otherwise overwhelm the land. Bold adventurers from the Realm set off for the Borderlands to seek their fortune. It is these adventurers who, provided they survive the challenge, carry the battle to the enemy. Such adventurers meet the forces of Chaos in a testing ground where only the fittest will return to relate the tale. Here, these individuals will become skilled in their profession, be it fighter or magic-user, cleric or thief. They will be tried in the fire of combat, those who return, hardened and more fit. True, some few who do survive the process will turn from Law and good and serve the masters of Chaos, but most will remain faithful and ready to fight chaos wherever it threatens to infect the Realm.

You are indeed members of that exceptional class, adventurers who have journeyed to BLUESTONE KEEP in search of fame and fortune. Of course you are inexperienced, but you have your skills and a heart that cries out for adventure. You have it in you to become great, but you must gain experience and knowledge and greater skill. There is much to learn, and you are willing and eager to be about it! Each of you has come with everything which could possibly be given you to help. Now you must fend for yourselves; your fate is in your hands, for better or worse.

Ahead, up the winding road, atop a sheer-wailed mount of stone, looms the great KEEP. Here, at one of civilization’s strongholds between good lands and bad, you will base yourselves and equip for forays against the wicked monsters who lurk in the wilds. Somewhere nearby, amidst the dark forests and tangled fens, are the Caves of Chaos, the Shunned Stronghold, and the Haunted Keep where fell creatures lie in wait. All this you know, but before you dare adventure into such regions you must become acquainted with the other members of your group, for each life will depend upon the ability of the others to cooperate against the common foe. Now, before you enter the grim fortress, is the time for introductions and an exchange of information, for fate seems to have decreed that you are to become an adventurous band who must pass through many harrowing experiences together on the path which leads towards greatness.

A Somewhat Delayed Update on Jim Ward

Due to Thanksgiving here in the States and my own birthday, I got sidetracked from checking out the Dragonsfoot forum for updates on Mr. Ward's health. He chimed in on the 28th of November with the following:

I don’t like talking about my condition. I’m not dying, but I’m as weak as a kitten and often have bodily problems that no one wants to talk about, especially me. I don’t get around much any more. I am going to get well, but it will be a long time coming. I’ve been to the Mayo clinic twice now for a series of tests. I’m going one more time and then I’m told they will suggest a set of procedures to allow me to get better. My brain/mind is in fairly good shape, but the rest of me needs a lot of work. It’s not fun talking about me, so I try hard not to bore people with my current sad tale.

Again, I want to thank and bless the kind people who have been so supportive both on this forum and in other areas. The kind words and deeds of others have pulled me out of many black moods as I foolishly ask myself, why me, in these past 11 months of illness.

That's pretty good news considering the alternative. As the old saying goes, "Any day above ground is a good one." Please join me in continuing to wish Mr. Ward a speedy recovery and all the best in his future endeavors.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Thankful for Small Things

If you’ve been following the progress of my Labyrinth Lord campaign, you know that hobgoblins are the current “big bad” of the dungeon. Prior to the missions against the hobgoblin redoubt, I discovered that I was grossly lacking in hobgoblin miniatures. I made one attempt to solve this by making a lowball bid on a slew of WotC’s pre-painted hobgoblin minis on eBay, but someone wanted them more than I did. As a result, I decided to go for quality over quantity and made my very first purchase of Otherworld Miniatures, namely Hobgoblin Warriors I. A lot of good things have been written about Otherworld’s metal and I can say that I heartily agree with those statements. It might be my imagination, but the pieces felt heftier than your average metal mini. I was very impressed with my hobs—enough that I purchased another two sets (Hobgoblin Warriors IV and Hobgoblin Guards I) to bring my total number of orange-toned Asian goblins up to eight, which should be enough to carry me through most encounters (although the Hobgoblin Command Pack looks pretty sweet and it’s hard to resist).

These guys have shown up in the background of certain photos and video from the game sessions, but I thought they’re worth a closer look. The camera work is a little shoddy, but I pretty pleased how they came out—especially since painting minis is a fairly new activity for me.

While Otherworld’s pieces make them, in my opinion, the go-to source for new classic miniatures, there are of course other manufacturers out there. In my own game, Mars Markus is portrayed by a Mega Minis Guthrie Grenadier recast, for example. Nevertheless, I wanted to make a case for Center Stage Miniatures. Center Stage went through a bad patch a little while back when its owner left the business in less than capable hands while he was undergoing military instruction. He came home to find the business in ruins and has been doing his best to rebuild goodwill and make right all that went wrong. Originally, Center Stage was to do a line of official Swords & Wizardry minis, but that’s no longer to be now that S&W is moving in other directions with new partners. The S&W line has been, ahem, “recast” as Fantasy Encounters. Fantasy Encounters are all 25mm pieces from molds that were manufactured “back in the day” and are again available at good prices.

I did business with Center Stage before the whole kurfluffle and my interaction with them was nothing but professional and satisfactory. I would do business with them again in future should their pieces again meet my needs. I’d likely wait until I needed several minis and go for the flat shipping rate to make the most of my savings. You can check out their renewed website at

The two pieces I purchased were Evil Cleric and the just returning Evil Champion W/Runesword. You can see my efforts to bring them to life below.

The OSR has been largely synonymous with retro-clones and new adventures compatible with old editions, but let’s not forget that there can be more to these games than just the books and dice. Companies like Otherworld and Center Stage are making it easy for those of us who couldn’t afford a Grenadier boxed set back in the day to nevertheless acquire some pretty cool, classic-looking pieces and I, for one, am extremely grateful for that.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Welcome to My World

Since I’ve taken a good look around me and realized that I have a literal box of books that I’ve purchased in 2010 and have yet to crack open, I’ve decided to catch up on my reading. Some of that reading includes the more recent issues of Fight On!, since I got sidetracked somewhere around issue #6 and haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy that publication as of late. However, rather than dive right back in, I started with #1 again and I am slowly working my way forward.

While the premier issue still holds up and contains more than a few nuggets worth mining, what really caught my eye this time around was the editorial written by good old Ignatius Ümlaut, publisher and editor of the fanzine. Entitled “In the Time of the Broken Kingdom,” it is, amongst other things, a love letter to the open game of yore, the sort of campaign where anyone at anytime could stop by, pull out a character from their overstuffed briefcase, and spend a few hours as a guest in an ongoing campaign world.

That is a rare thing these days. As a whole, the hobby has become a place where, to quote the editorial, “we often content ourselves with smaller communities: our own group’s game world, the fandom of worlds like Tekumel, Glorantha, Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Arduin, the Forgotten Realms, the World of Darkness, and so on, communities devoted to the particular ruleset we like best, even communities of game designers.”

The way we play these games has changed since they first blossomed out of the organized chaos of the sand tables of the Mid-West. If I may be so vainglorious as to quote myself from the intro to The Dungeon Alphabet, the hobby, like the dungeon, “is no longer the unexplored country it was in its youth. And, like any unexplored land, it has lost its wildness and unpredictability with the arrival of more and more people and the laws and rules that a population brings with them.” Things have been “mapped and codified, rendered predictable with familiarity. It is no longer the Wild West or the lawless high seas.”

It is almost difficult to imagine, as the clock slowly winds down on 2010, that the campaign world was often a much more fluid place, one where people came and went depending on the whims of their schedules and travel times. The gamer of today might be hard pressed to imagine this scenario described in an article from a 1980 issue of New World entitled “It’s Only A Game…Or Is It?”, by Moira Johnston and quoted in the Fight On! editorial:

The liberal immigration policies of [Deanna Sue] White’s D&D-based ‘open universe’ allows characters to visit from other worlds and universes, making Mistigar an intergalactic entrepot. “Whenever I’m in L.A., I call to see if Deanna’s having a run,” says Clint Bigglestone, Bay Area fan and producer of the FRP convention, DunDraCon. His characters adventure through Mistigar, returning to the Bay Area with wounds and stories that spread Mistigar’s network of contact…The FRP network has become so sophisticated that it is now possible for jealous, upstart worlds from all over the country to attack Mistigar. Two attempts to subvert her world have already been thwarted, one by Bigglestone, whose characters discovered, while campaigning through Dave Hargrave’s world near San Francisco, that evil members of Hargrave’s Black Lotus Society planned to attack Mistigar. Loyal to White, Bigglestone’s characters attacked and killed the plotters.

As the date of the article suggests, the situation described above was not an uncommon one even as the hobby entered the boom years of the early 1980s. I remember playing in several campaigns in junior high which featured characters hoping from one world to another in the school cafeteria depending on whose turn it was to referee, bringing their grudges and artifacts of unbelievable power with them for the journey. This style of play was to fall out of fashion as the years progressed and campaign worlds became more insular in nature. Ironically, the open campaign went into decline as the commercial campaign setting began to ascend, a product that, on paper, would seem to make the open campaign more accessible to gamers around the world.

This editorial got me thinking about the way things once were and what they are no longer. There have been and continue to be attempts at “organized play,” moderated events that do what White and others did without the benefit of an overseeing committee or communication methods more advanced than the mailed letter, mimeographed fanzine, or telephone call. Outside of a brief membership in the RPGA back in the late 1980s, I haven’t been exposed to these efforts and I can’t claim to know if they do an adequate job of recreating or maintaining this level of campaign openness. But what I can do is undertake efforts to make my own campaign world more accessible to visitors.

I’m not proposing some OSR-wide organized play: that way leads to madness. Instead, I’ll be taking steps to make my own personal campaign setting, the Kinan-M’Nath or “the Uncertain Lands” that forms the basis of my Labyrinth Lord game, a place where people can occasionally come, experience Stonehell Dungeon first-hand, gain some treasure, and depart with “wounds and stories”…and maybe a bit of loot.

I’ve been thinking about this since I reread the FO! piece and it seems to be a logical step for my own campaign. When I was younger, I always envisioned that I would someday have a massive campaign world of my own, one detailed down to the smallest little square foot. As I grow older though, I see the sense in quality over quantity and it’s becoming quite clear that any and all of my future campaigns will be set in the same small(ish) region that I’m currently playing in. Since the Kinan-M’Nath is based on both an original play map (Outdoor Survival) and original rules (D&D via Moldvay via Proctor), why not go whole hog and assume the original play style as well? I would much rather have more visitors to a well-detailed region than a vast world that rarely gets visited by tourists.

The fact that Stonehell Dungeon has become a popular visiting place for adventurers also makes an open campaign style of play sensible. With a pre-existing axis mundi to rest cross-campaign travel on, it’s a small matter of extending the idea of many Stonehells scattered across the multiverse and allowing travel between worlds (although I claim rightful possession of the Ur-Stonehell!).

Lastly, I run my campaign in a public setting, one where anyone can walk in and see the campaign unfold. And although I may not live in a transportation hub, I am located a short train ride from the most magical city on Earth. One never knows who might be in the area and looking for a game to play during their visit.

Like any nation, my campaign world will have some laws regarding visitation and immigration, and I’ll get to those in posts next week. In the meantime, let it be known that the borders between worlds have grown a little thinner in the Kinan-M’Nath. Should you ever find yourself headed to the New York area, be sure to pack a character sheet or two. I might need help defeating the Black Lotus Society.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hip-deep in the Mainstream

Although it's easy to disparage such MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft or Everquest, one can't deny that they have introduced the formerly enigmatic terms and concepts of roleplaying into mainstream culture. Even at the height of the D&D Boom of the 1980s, to see the following in a mass market syndicated comic strip would have been unimaginable. Behold Friday's The Wizard of Id:

The only thing about the above which saddens me is that, while there is a larger percentage of the population than ever who now gets that joke, only a fraction of it understands where those terms originated. And of that percentage, many of them would never consider playing a pen-and-paper roleplaying game and would be insulted if it was suggested that they share the same heritage of those so-called "nerds" who were indulging in this form of recreation more than three decades ago.

It's hard to be a trend-setter.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pretty Pictures from the End of the World

I don't often indulge in this sort of behavior, but, if you're like me and currently weighing your options regarding a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game, I suggest that you take a few minutes and peruse the images here. It's a great collection of forty-five apocalyptic vistas collected from various Deviantart creators. You're bound to find something to get your toxic waste crockpot a'bubblin'.