Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Throwing Rocks in Texas (Part Four)

Matt Finch runs Mythrus Tower
After “Expect the Unexpected” wrapped up, I had time to grab an early dinner before I started preparing for my Saturday night game of Dungeon Crawl Classics. Unfortunately, that meant I had to skip the Artists’ Panel scheduled right after “Expect the Unexpected.” I’d be kicking myself for this a little later.

My belly filled and my scenario, pre-gens, and accoutrements together, I slipped back to the Longhorn Room in time for the NTRPGCon Auction and—more importantly—the announcement of the winner of the 2012 Three Castles Award. Regular readers already know I won in absentia last year for The Dungeon Alphabet and was a co-nominee this year for Realms of Crawling Chaos with Dan Proctor. 

Unfortunately, I was tipped early that Realms was probably not going to win when Doug asked me to present the award since I was in town. Disappointing, but I expected my name in the mix again was unlikely to result in another award.

Jim Ward runs Dragonlairds on Sunday morning
Doug and Mike introduced me prior to the auction and I threatened the audience with reading the hour-long acceptance speech I wasn’t able to deliver last year and got some laughs. I then pointed out that if I neglected to announce this year’s winner, the award was technically still mine. All laughter aside, it was an honor to finally be able to thank some of the judges in attendance and those of you who’ve supported The Dungeon Alphabet with your dollars and glowing reviews. It was with a mixture of pride and sadness that I passed the torch on to Kevin Crawford for Stars Without Number. Congratulations, Kevin!

Having already blown most of my budget (or so I told myself), I slipped out after the award announcement and finished up the last little details of preparing for my DCC session of “The Fane of St. Toad” scheduled immediately after the auction concluded. I had my Brave Halfling Old School Game Box (the Erol cover, natch, and now signed after “Emirikol”) stuffed to the gills with DCC notes and was ready to roll.

Saturday night games at cons are always dicey (and not in the good way). Exhaustion and drinks take their tolls and not everyone makes it to the table. My game had seven players registered, but only three from the list turned up. Luckily for me, I had three other eager players accost me before the game and beg seats, which the low turnout allowed me to grant them. Unlike “Emirikol,” whose players were largely unfamiliar with DCC, five of the six players at “St. Toad” had copies of the rulebook with them and at least passing acquaintance with the rules. After a quick rules overview, we hit the ground running.

“The Fane of St. Toad” is the first full-length adventure I wrote after getting involved with the OSR and it is dedicated to Dave Arneson. I hadn’t looked at it since I started working on Stonehell, and I always get a little nervous revisiting old work. Surprisingly, it still worked for me. I updated it to DCC, smoothed out a couple of rough edges, and made some changes so that it wouldn’t be completely predictable to someone who had read the original. In my own opinion, it turned out great.

Those red words: all toads
The players spent very little time exploring the upper level of the Fane (but enough time for them to soak up the ambiance), heading down the Undercroft where they rightly concluded the good treasure was. Down there, they encounter really, really crappy mummies (my Zocchis were again rolling cold and I couldn’t strangle a poor sap to death to save my life), tore up a creepy orgy chamber (and inadvertently discovered a cache of vials when they struck off a particular protrusion from a statue), and then faced down a big honking cavern of toads. The battle was pitched against the hopping menace, but with a lot of spellburning and sleep spells, and charm spells, they overcame the toads—but not before the halfling in the party found the “sleeping” avatar of St. Toad and decided to battle it hobbito a toado.

In an eerie repeat of “Emirikol,” the elf in the party called down the power of his patron and the party was near indestructible for many, many rounds and enjoyed a healthy bonus to their rolls to boot. I did manage to get the cleric swallowed by the avatar, but out-of-the-box thinking with a Word of Command (“vomit!”) got him out of its belly and the Toad was slain, leaving the party very rich and the session at an end. Alas, I didn’t get to sic the giant Toad idol on them as they tried to leave with their booty.

The Not-Be by Jennell Jaquays
During a break in “St. Toad” I ran into Tim again and he started talking to me about something called a “Not-Be” and I honestly had no clue what he was going on about. Finally, the penny dropped. A couple months before the convention, Bad Mike sent the word out that the con was looking for funky, unique monster submissions to present to the artists during the Artists’ Panel for them to draw. The end results would eventually be judged, featured in an adventure, and the winner would have a miniature sculpted of the monster. When I read the call for monsters, I drafted up a quick entry: “The Upside-Down, Inside-Out Thing That Should Not Be” or “Not-Be” for short. It turned out that Jennell Jaquays brought the “Not-Be” to grisly, two-dimensional life at the Artists’ Panel and it was a big hit. And I missed the whole thing.

The rest of the evening, although late, was a lot of fun. I talked up my upcoming releases from Goodman Games with the DCC players and signed a few books before heading back to the ballroom. There I talked about Stonehell with Bad Mike, editing with Tim, and got the lowdown on Jennell’s next professional leap (and got to see the “Not-Be” for myself). The hour was late and after collecting my winnings from the silent auction (Call of Cthulhu 5.6.1 autographed by Sandy Petersen, Secret of San Fransico, and Cthulhu Dark Ages—what can I say? I love me some Call of Cthulhu and spent less than I would have at the store), I called it a night.

Erol, a gorilla, and I wait for the shuttle to the airport
Sunday was all about saying hello and saying goodbye. Frank Mentzer introduced me to Peter Kerestan of Palace of the Vampire Queen and Wee Warriors fame. I had breakfast with Steve Winter and my favorite fan from Gary Con, Zach Glazer (after chatting with Erol Otus and Jeff Dee while waiting for my breakfast to arrive). Allan Grohe introduced me to Chris Holmes, son of J. Eric Holmes, who turned out was one of my fellow cavemen in “Expect the Unexpected” and we got to playtest Chris’ board game of “Pirates vs. Ninjas vs. Zombies vs. Monkeys” (or something like that). The Ninjas won, but not before proving that if you really want to playtest the beejezus out of a game, Allan and I will put it through its paces.

There were of course many people I didn’t get to say good-bye to or spend enough time talking to during the con, but hopefully 2013 will correct all that. I’m going to try like hell to make it down again next year. Writing this close to three weeks after the events of the convention, there are many events, people, and good conversations I’m forgetting, but I do want to thank all my fellow attendees for welcoming this New Yorker down to Texas. The fact that so many of you took the time to introduce yourself and compliment me on my work (and demand autographs!) means a lot to me. For those of you who don’t do it as a vocation, writing is an extremely lonely pursuit and it’s usually just me vs. the computer screen. Getting out and meeting people who my work has brought some entertainment to means the world to me and so long as you keep wanting more, I’ll keep writing it.

Thank you all!


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Throwing Rocks in Texas (Part 3)

Saturday kicked down my door like a fighter with 18-double-aught STR and dragged me back into the sea of con attendees. After surviving another go-around with the hotel restaurant for breakfast (I chose to order food rather than sample from the worn-down looking buffet), it was back to the Longhorn Room for a session with a surprise twist: “Expect the Unexpected.”

I knew what the surprise was before going in, having had the beans spilled to me by Doug the night before after I mentioned that I was going to try to sneak into Frank Mentzer’s Boot Hill game. Boot Hill was one of those titles that I always wanted to try, but my FLGS never seemed to carry a copy of it back in the day. Having a chance to correct that gap in my gaming experience with Frank at the helm was a welcome one. But, alas, there was a catch.

“Expect the Unexpected” was a take on the premise from the TV show “Quantum Leap.” Each participant would play at one table for a pre-determined period, then “jump” to another table, picking up a PC left behind by the group that just departed. The referees were all industry folks and the games a peculiar, but entertaining lot. Jim Ward was running Metamorphosis Alpha, Frank had Boot Hill, Jeff Dee was running Cavemaster, and Steve Winter had brushed the dust off of Star Frontiers for the session. I started in Jeff Dee’s Cavemaster game along with seven other Neolithic wayfarers.

I mentioned Cavemaster earlier and how much I was impressed with it. It’s even better with a group. Jeff gave us the plot: a wandering band of cavemen and cavewomen traveling to meet up with our tribe at our traditional nomadic hunting grounds. We were out of food and hoon-gry, which is bad news if you’re a cavefolk. The party was comprised of “classes” one would expect in a Paleolithic setting (hunters, gathers, warriors, shaman, and me, the smart one), all of whom brought their own specialized talents to the game. The gatherers found enough food for us to survive one day, but it was evident we needed meat. Luckily for us, we soon found a quartet of peccaries drinking from the river and it was on!

Neat mechanics aside, I had a better time trying to hunt those four pigs than I’ve had looting a dragon’s lair. The players were all getting into the caveman shtick (speaking in broken English, giving ourselves names like “Healing Milk,” “Flame Hair,” “Deer Runner,” and “Fire Maker,” and grunting and hooting whenever appropriate) and knowing that if we failed to get enough meat to feed us all for a few days it would result in a long starvation or the invention of cannibalism. The stakes felt much higher and therefore the fun was increased. When we successfully brought down three of the four wild pigs, it was if we had accomplished something important and tangible, something very much unlike killing an orc and taking his copper pieces. We’d managed to dress the pigs and start weaving baskets to carry all that glorious meat when it was time to switch tables.

 We found ourselves aboard the Warden in Jim’s Metamorphosis Alpha game and he took no time in presenting us with plenty of opportunities to kill ourselves. This was the second time I’ve had a chance to play MA with Jim and I had a massive karmic debt to pay for last time. I was fully prepared to throw myself on the proverbial (or more likely in Jim’s game, not-so-proverbial) grenade to save the party. Unfortunately, due to the stipulations of “Expect the Unexpected,” Jim could only banish the clumsy, stupid, and unlucky to the cryo-tubes—a fate I somehow avoided once more without tossing my fellow PCs under the space bus. I maintained my 100% survival rate in Jim Ward’s games and now hang up my uniform and retire terrified, but undefeated. I’ll not miss the R radiation-emitting space slugs that were the doom of so many others.

Next up it was off to Boot Hill and we found ourselves in—as Frank stressed—the historical Old West. Most of us were unfamiliar with Boot Hill, so Frank had to eat up a lot of time giving us the gist of the mechanics, but we did manage to fight off some Indian raiders, equip some armored wagons, and buy some dynamite for the next party to jump to the table to have fun with. Frank later confided to me that the session we were playing was inspired by “Star Wars” and just had the obvious serial numbers filed off. In retrospect, it’s obvious, but also genius.

One last leap before our return to the world of Cavemaster landed us in the bowels of an alien city—Star Frontiers time! Fending off robots and Sathar, we worked our way through the crystalline underbelly of the metropolis in search of missing scouts and really managed to screw ourselves up when we drove into a claymore mine and blew up. But, as was quickly pointed out, that wasn’t going to be our problem anymore in about ten minutes. My apologies to the group that came back and found their PCs all banged up.

Star Frontiers was one of those games that I enjoyed in theory when I was younger. The “Knight Hawks” expansion was one of my favorites, but the alien races and default setting never did anything for me. Having experienced it again and become re-acquainted with its simple d% resolution system and skills, I’m tempted to hack it together with Traveller and a slew of other sci-fi influences and give my own spin to it. File that under the “someday campaign” list we referees keep.

At long last, we cavemen returned to our homeland to discover ourselves in the middle of a pitched battle with cannibal, armor-wearing Neanderthals (we missed the pterodactyl fight). Ultimately, we defeated that enemy and rescued our fellow tribes-people from becoming supper, and even managed to begin retro-engineering the concept of armor to make ourselves invincible in the Neolithic world.  “Expect the Unexpected” was a very, very fun stretch of hours and I hope the experiment is repeated at future cons.

Next Up: The Not-Be, the Toads, and Farewell

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Throwing Rocks in Texas (Part 2)

Friday morning saw me up early, rising before most of my fellow gamers emerged from their bedrolls, and the restaurant was just beginning to serve breakfast. But first: a quest! Needing various sundries, I decided to venture out to the gas station across the highway from the hotel. This stretch of thoroughfare was under severe construction, littered with traffic cones, mesh netting, concrete barriers, and thick, sticky mud. Traffic was a snarl even at the early hour and the whole unsightly mess became known as “The Highway Jim Ward Designed” for its sheer lethality. Dodging traffic and acquiring a thick coating of Texas mud to my sandals (they’re still caked in the stuff two weeks later), I managed to make it to the service station and back with all my hit points and limbs intact.

After breakfast, I milled around with the early risers for awhile, thinking I had time to kill. My first DCC session was supposedly scheduled to begin at 10 AM and the website and gaming grid supported that belief. Unfortunately, the convention program had it listed as starting at 8 AM, so I headed down to make the correction on the table sign in case anyone showed up early. Imagine my surprise when I found the entire table filled with players patiently waiting for me. OK, game on!

The scenario was “Emirikol Must Die!,” a stripped-down version of “Emirikol Was Framed!” I rigged up just for Texas. I discarded a lot of the backstory and set-up to get things rolling quickly, but soon learned I should have stripped it down more. As it was, I had to throw out the entire middle section of the adventure to get to the part where the PCs get a shot at the Chaotic One. They did triumph over Emirikol, thanks largely to the intervention of the elf’s patron, The Three Fates, who, thanks to a really great spellcheck, made them nigh-invulnerable for several rounds and gave them a +5 to most of their actions. Similar wise use of magic allowed the PCs to avoid a few of the deadlier traps, but I did almost manage to kill one character with a magical blueprint of death (buy the module when it comes out and see what I’m talking about).

A note about my referee style: I’m not usually a squat-behind-the-screen-and-roll kind of guy. I like standing and moving around when I run a game. This session had me going all out, however. I used the entire room to my benefit, peering over a divider to demonstrate a PC clinging to a balcony, skulking along a wall to show a thief’s move quietly attempt, squatting on a chair to emulate a pair of sleeping pterodactyls, and, in one moment of showmanship, throwing myself onto the floor to recreate a disastrous failed spellcheck roll. Something about this game had me on my best (or worst) hamming it up behavior.

I did forget to get everyone’s names who participated in “Emirikol Must Die!” A few are obvious (Erol Otus sat at my left hand during the game and took up the challenge of a DCC RPG Wizard) and fellow blogger Robert Fisher and his son were there as well. However, we had a few no-shows who were replaced by walk-ins and I didn’t grab everyone’s real names during the game. Goodman Games wants to credit you all as playtesters, so if you’re interested and are reading this or your know someone who played in that game, please contact me with your name either in the comments section or at the email addy over on the right.

After Emirikol died, I headed back to ballroom and chatted with fellow con attendees. I think I dropped some more cash at the con store at that time, picking up a secondhand copy of both Quag Keep and C.L. Moore’s “Northwest Smith.” Allan Grohe and I talked preservation of materials with intrinsic historic value (Black Blade has something very nifty in its possession and is just waiting on contracts to announce it and release it into the wild. Thanks for the early look, Allan). I’d see Allan a little later in Castle Greyhawk, but I yet again managed to miss a single one of his Aliens games. Gary Con V for sure, I promise!

Finished hobnobbing, it was time for me to wander back to the Longhorn Room for the impromptu “Gonzo Gaming” panel that was scheduled for Tim Kask and I. The link to the video of that is here. It was very nice to see some familiar faces in the crowd and I hope that Tim and I managed to sum up what “gonzo gaming” means to us and not bore you too much with war stories and off-beat ideas. Doing the panel with Tim was a lot of fun and we’re already thinking of what the “Tim & Mike Show” might do for Gary Con V.

The panel ended, allowing me an hour to grab dinner at the hotel bar before heading off to explore Castle Greyhawk. Allan Grohe does a great take on it, but I’ve learned that I really have problems facing 1E in an evening session at a con. I ran into the same situation at Gary Con IV. Basic D&D has become my game of choice and facing that wall of 1E modifiers and classes is just too much for my frazzled mind to handle in the evening hours. Notice my glazed look in the picture to the right. I’ve made a mental note of this and the next time I tackle 1E it will be the first session of the day. Despite my difficulties, my bard survived (barely), but those of us at the table agreed to never speak of the rust monster battle again.

After Castle Greyhawk wound down, I hung around for a little while longer, talking with Dough Rhea and Mike Badolato and other people wandering around. I saw Matt Finch and wished his good luck on the morrow’s Three Castle Award and finally got a chance to say hello to Tavis Allison. We kept seeing each other around the con, but never had the opportunity to shake hands and catch up. Tim Kask and I eventually wandered off to talk more about Eldritch Enterprises and other non-gaming related stuff, but soon it was way past the Witching Hour and I had to make my farewells for the evening before climbing into bed and falling instantly asleep.

Next up: Travelling through time and space, the Not-Be, and a whole lotta toads.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Throwing Rocks in Texas (Part 1)

It’s been more than two weeks since NTRPGCon and I’ve yet to chronicle my exploits in Bedford, TX. Partly to blame was the inevitable post-con crash that afflicts most of us who spend four days in the company of our far-flung comrades in dice bags only to return to the mundane daily grind, but I also came home to find my internet connection on the fritz for a week and that took the wind out of my sails. Enough time has passed to fill my proverbial canvas anew, but that also means the following may be corrupted by time and faulty memory. Take this all with a small pinch of salt.

Unlike my journey to Gary Con, the trip down to Texas was a breeze. Once again, I got to fly in a turbo prop from Long Island down to Philly before graduating to a real, honest-to-goodness jet plane. Some folks might see that as a quaint means of travel, but with my love of the past, there’s nothing like taking a ride through the skies and watching the props whirl just outside the window. Plus, the guy sitting next to me had the largest carry-on bag in history, so the flight attendant (although I think I can call her a “stewardess” if the plane has propellers) moved me up to the front row in return for promising I’d open the emergency hatch in case of a crash. That is assuming a prop didn’t break free on impact and turn me into Wash in the closing half-hour of Serenity.

From Philly it was a nice flight to Dallas-Fort Worth. The young guy beside me, hailing originally from a formerly French-controlled African nation and having the most unique accent I’ve ever heard, spent the flight watching either that movie starring Real Navy SEALS™ or the longest Armed Forces commercial in history (it’s the same thing, actually) with French sub-titles. We arrived in Texas without trouble, but I learned that the previous evening saw Biblical thunderstorms in D-FW and interrupted the travel of fellow NTRPGCon attendees.

A brief wait (less than 15 minutes) had me in the Holiday Inn shuttle and en route to the hotel. Another con attendee was in the van with me, but was suffering through his own version of my trip to Gary Con. He apologized for his surliness later and now I must apologize because I can’t remember who that was. Sorry, brother. Refresh my memory if you’re reading this.

At the hotel, I learned that since I was technically two hours early for check-in, my reserved room with the rest of the con folks wasn’t ready and would I mind another room on a different floor? Knowing my gaming kin, “Yes, please.” So instead of being ensconced on the fifth floor, I had a quiet little room on the second floor right by the stairs down to the lobby. Again, after my room in Lake Geneva (literarily the farthest room possible from the action of the convention), it was a godsend. And those stairs meant I could avoid the elevator and work off some of the big Texas meals I figured I’d be eating while in town (more on that later). Mike Badolato, one of the con’s organizers wandered by as I was checking in, so I got to put names to faces from minute one. He was just the first of many folks I’d get acquainted with over the next four days.

With my bags safely stowed in my room, I wandered down to the ballroom and grabbed my con badge. I ran into Allan Grohe manning the Black Blade booth, saw a few other familiar faces from Gary Con, and got settled. The area was quiet. Vendors had yet to arrive and most of the gaming tables were vacant. I began to wonder if this whole North Texas thing was all hype, but then learned that the Charity D&D game was underway down in the “Longhorn Room” (what else would you expect in Texas?) and that’s where the masses were gathered. Rather than join the crowd, I hung around the ballroom for awhile chatting with the stragglers and new arrivals. Out in the common area beside the lobby, Jeff Dee was setting up his display table and I introduced myself. We chatted about his Kickstarter projects and Goodman Games for a bit before Jeff kindly taught me how to play Cavemaster, his new Neolithic RPG. Folks, Cavemaster would be one of the bright lights of the con for me and I can’t recommend picking up a copy strongly enough. The whole premise (“it’s an archeological recreation of the first RPG played by our caveman ancestors”) and game mechanics (it uses rocks. Really, rocks.) are unmitigated genius if you enjoy turning an off-beat concept into high art and unique but simple rule resolution. I’d get a more in-depth crack at Cavemaster before the con was over, but Jeff taught me the rules in less than three minutes.

The Charity Game finished not long after and who should I run into by my Gary Con partner in crime and soon-to-be fellow panelist Tim Kask. Tim and I caught up, talked shop, walked the parapet, and then, (and there’s no way to write this that doesn’t sound sleazy) went back to his hotel room so he could show me his Snakeriders. Tim and Frank Mentzer, his fellow Eldritch Enterprises compadre and my own convention buddy, were roommates for the con and Frank rolled in shortly after. We chatted about upcoming EE projects (I’m eagerly awaiting “Spider Bitch on the Rag,” although I’ve been told it will have another, more commercial title when it hits the market) before they invited me to dinner at the hotel restaurant. The three of us headed out to eat and encountered the plague of NTRPGCon: the wait-staff (emphasis on “the wait”). The slow service would become the running joke of the convention. It was obvious that the Holiday Inn was not prepared for gamer appetites—or merely human ones—and I suspect that this is the primary reason NTRPGCon V will be held at a new location.

Dinner was mind-blowing, the highlight of the con for little old me. Halfway through my burger, I realized that my table companions were Jennell Jaquays, Frank Mentzer, Tim Kask, Jim Ward, and (briefly) Erol Otus. That song from Sesame Street—“Some of these things belong together…”—started running through my head, but everyone was very welcoming and encouraging and we had a blast mocking Alien vs. Predator on the restaurant TV. Nevertheless, it was a reminder that somewhere down the line I had crossed a threshold and was now officially a game designer of very small renown. Thank you all so very much for warm welcome.

When dinner wrapped up, Tim, Frank, and I hung out on the patio and they told me secrets Man Should Not Know about the old days with Gary and TSR. I don’t actively ask about the Old Days when I’m with those guys, wanting to avoid being a rabid fanboy, but I’ve learned that just by hanging around with them and letting them talk, I pick up a few interesting anecdotes along the way. I’m like the Margaret Mead of the gaming industry. Luckily for the guilty, I don’t always recall all the tales the next day, but the ones I do remember are doosies. At last, the late hour and the flight caught up with me and I managed to get to bed at a respectable hour—but not before dropping $40 on some old Judges Guild stuff from the con store. It would be the first of several purchases I’d make before heading back to NY.

Next up: Emirikol is killed and the Tim & Mike Show makes its debut. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Original DCC Art for Sale

Those of you who've had the chance to peruse the DCC RPG rulebook already know that it's filled with great art, some rendered by industry titans and other pieces by the up-and-comers of tomorrow. Now, you have the chance to own a few of the originals.

Doug Kovacs, who painted all the game's covers and designed the amazing module maps that appear within, has placed some of his work up for sale on his website. A few have already been sold, but if you're a fan of Doug's work like I am, here's you chance to snag a piece (or three) for your gaming room/man-cave/boudouir/etc. With convention season gearing up, Doug's bound to sell these fast, so those of you looking for a piece of RPG history should act with alacrity.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Gonzo Gaming" Panel at NTRPGCon with Tim Kask & Michael Curtis

For those of you who were not able to attend, video from NTRPGCon is now up on YouTube. Below is the panel on "Gonzo Gaming" that Tim Kask and I presented on Friday. The first clip overlaps with Dave "Zeb" Cook and Steve Winter talking about 2E. Tim and I take the table around the 25:00 mark and continue through into the next clip. Doing this was a blast and it was with great pride and joy that a few familiar faces sat in to watch the shenanigans. I hope everyone walked out with a few ideas on how to "gonzo" up their campaigns.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Well, not just yet, but this will be the last evening I'm online until Monday. See you all soon (some of you sooner than others)! Looks to be a great weekend of gaming, hobnobbing, and shilling. Be back with pictures next week.