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A digest of smaller Google+ RPG posts from 2012-2015

With the impending shutdown of Google+ — my primary (and generally only) social network and outlet for gaming chit-chat since 2012 — I’ve been slowly making my way through stuff I posted there which, in hindsight, I should just have posted here on Yore.

Some posts stood alone, and should just have been Yore posts all along. I moved those over on their original publication date or on whatever day I happened to be working on them, whichever made the most sense.

But after doing that I was left with a little collection of posts that I like best in digest format — a sort of snapshot of some of what I cared about, tabletop RPG-wise, over the past seven years. It’s as erratic and unfocused as my overall post history on G+, so it feels pretty apropos.

Here they are in chronological order, lightly edited for clarity and to provide context.

February 7, 2012

High school wasn’t very helpful in figuring out who I wanted to be (better at sorting out who I wasn’t) but it was great for figuring out what kind of gamer I was going to spend the next 10-15 years being.

The past few years have made me reassess all sorts of things about how I game and want to game, but the past week or so — a full-bore nosedive into OSR games, hex crawl design, research, and the minutiae of D&D editions — has been mind-blowing and, I strongly suspect, formative.

I’m really curious to see where this leads.

March 22, 2012

This superb definition of hit points over on THE LAND OF NOD would probably have improved most of my D&D games in the past 20 years.

Hit points don’t represent anything solid or real or concrete in and of themselves. Rather, they are part of a complex calculation that boils down to this: “What are the chances that the next moment of mortal peril you experience will be your last.” That mortal peril might be a sword fight, a poison needle, a trap door … anything that might kill you. Most often, hit points relate to combat.

August 16, 2012

All three Engine Publishing books on Studio 2 Publishing‘s shelves at Gen Con (booth 419). That really never gets old!

January 17, 2013

I would love to replace my amethyst Armory dice set someday. The dice at the bottom are all that remain; the rest were chased under couches by cats and lost at friends’ houses while gaming as a kid.

Above them are the closest I’ve been able to get: an orchid Koplow set. They’re really, really close.

And at the top are my very first gaming dice, the d10 and d20 from Lords of Creation (from the very box they’re sitting on). I inked them with modeling paint and sprayed them with matte sealant, which was a pretty terrible idea.

Feb 13, 2013

I started collecting the FR series in 1990 or 1991; I have a vivid memory of reading FR9: The Bloodstone Lands — still my favorite in the series — in the auditorium as a freshman in high school. The arrival of FR8: Cities of Mystery today, more than 20 years later, completes my set of FR1-FR16.

For my money, this is one of the best series of gaming books ever produced, and these little volumes have been a source of inspiration to me for nearly as long as I’ve been a gamer. It feels funny to have them all.

August 25, 2013

After four years, Engine Publishing has a warehouse!

It’s still the office closet, but instead of working out of stacks of boxes (containing books) and moving huge “cheese wheels” of bubble wrap every time I need to ship a book, I can just do it. I have no idea why I waited this long!

December 15, 2013

I just found this while working on the basement. I think I made these in 2006 or 2007 (certainly no later, as I stopped running TT in 2007).

That’s probably the last time I had a business card, come to think of it. I always get less use out of them than I think I will, as much as I like having them.

January 8, 2014

With a hat tip to Brendan S for the idea, here’s a rough breakdown of my 2013 gaming purchases by the categories that sort of made sense to me as I went through them.

There are probably lots of ways I could have done this better, but hopefully I’ll escape the notice of the RPGSTPD (RPG Stats Tracking Police Department) long enough for you to observe my dorkitude.

March 6, 2014

I grew up shopping at The Compleat Strategist in NYC, first at the one on 57th and then at the one on 33rd. Much of my early formative gaming originated from one of those stores.

My friend Stephan just sent me this picture: Engine Publishing‘s two most recent books, Odyssey and Never Unprepared, on the shelf at the 33rd street Compleat.

That right there is blowing my mind.

March 6, 2014

Space marine terminator: “Brother Leopold, I found a flat spot on my armor!

Brother Leopold: “This space hulk will keep — let’s bedazzle the shit out of that flat spot. For the emperor!

Me: “Fuck you, I’m painting that red.

Five years after buying Space Hulk, I’ve finally started painting my marines. As you may have guessed, miniatures aren’t really my wheelhouse.

March 10, 2014

Lords of Creation (1983, designed by Tom Moldvay) was my introduction to gaming in 1987. I never owned its three modules as a kid, but they were all surprisingly cheap so I closed out the line on eBay/Amazon.

Revel in those covers! They’re totally fucking glorious. Plus, the “-akron” in Omegakron is Akron, Ohio and The Yeti Sanction is (as Brad Murray pointed out) a parody of The Eiger Sanction; this isn’t a game that takes itself too seriously.

April 27, 2014

Behold! For I am all of Spelljammer, and I am totally fucking awesome (and underrated).

I’ve loved Spelljammer since I first picked up the boxed set in 1989 or 1990 and moved my campaign there (as I did every time a new setting came out), and as of this weekend I finally closed out the line.

May 19, 2014

It’s 1989. A pimply-faced, floppy-haired Martin, age 12 or 13, was introduced to D&D a few months ago.

He’s standing in The Compleat Strategist on 57th Street in NYC, picking out dice to go with his AD&D 2e PHB, DMG, MC, and Time of the Dragon.

He picks these.

I knew if I was patient I’d eventually find the exact pack my first dice came in. I still have a few of the actual dice; some were stolen by cats or lost under friends’ couches. It’s like stepping into a time machine!

July 12, 2014

I first heard of Living Steel around the time I started gaming, when I was in my early teens. I picked up the boxed set and hardcover rulebook in college, back in Michigan (mid-1990s), and have been slowly acquiring the other supplements ever since.

Today I closed out the line.

It’s so not my kind of game mechanically, but the hook and the vibe and the guts of it are fabulous. I’d love to play it as written and using a lighter system someday.

July 31, 2014

I stumbled into collecting U.S. editions of Call of Cthulhu back in high school and have been slowly doing so ever since. It’s one of my favorite RPGs, and has been for over 20 years. I also enjoy the irony that until the forthcoming 7th edition its rules have remained basically unchanged for 30 years, making it one of relatively few games where there’s no compelling reason to own multiple editions.

Today I added an edition I thought I’d never see, the 25th anniversary edition (white hardcover), and thought that deserved a quick picture. Right to left, top to bottom: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, UK 3rd (also available here, so I mostly count it); 4th, 5th, 5.1; 5.5, 5.6, 20th anniversary, 6th softcover; 6th hardcover, 25th anniversary, 30th anniversary.

To my knowledge, I’m only missing two editions, and my odds of acquiring them seem poor: the designer’s edition of 2e, of which only 200 copies were made, and the “more limited” 20th anniversary edition (gold Elder Sign on the cover).

September 13, 2014

My desk, where I do Engine Publishing and Gnome Stew work, in the state it’s in about 50% of the time. The other 50% of the time there aren’t any piles on the end.

The piles are books I’m reading, need to shelve, need to review, or otherwise am currently using in some form.

November 17, 2015

From this excellent post about sales stats for RPG retailer BlackDiamondGames.com:

Also, because I know you guys like lists, here are our top 10 titles with the extremely high 17-40 turn rates:


1. D&D Next: Dungeon Master’s Screen
2. D&D Next RPG: Dungeon Masters Guide
3. Pathfinder RPG: Strategy Guide
4. Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters

Wait wait wait. What?! One of these things is not like the others.

Closing remarks

On balance, I greatly enjoyed my time on Google+. It had a huge impact on my gaming, from meeting my current Seattle group to learning about all sorts of cool products to making friends to changing my gaming philosophy over time.

But having gone cold turkey a month or so ago, when my gaming group stopped using G+ to schedule our sessions, there’s a flipside: I’ve found that I don’t miss checking G+ nearly as much as I thought I would.

That gnawing feeling of a social network needing to be checked, maintained, curated, and managed, and of needing to deal with the small percentage of assholes I encountered there (who consume an outsized amount of time and energy) — I don’t miss that at all.

Nonetheless, though: On balance, G+ was seven years largely well spent, and I’ll miss the connections and gaming choices it helped me to make. I’m taking a social network break, maybe for good, but I’ll still be posting here and I’m quietly active on RPGnet and RPGGeek.

Categories
D&D Tabletop RPGs

The sky is now purple

The Strongholds & Streaming Kickstarter, which will surely crack a million dollars and more likely wind up passing 2-3 million,[1] has convinced me that I no longer understand the RPG industry, am an old fuddy-duddy, and should immediately walk up the nearest mountain and become a hermit.

For the past decade, my wife has been encouraging me to make Engine Publishing (or some sort of RPG venture) a full-time thing — because gaming brings me joy, and she loves me — and for a decade I’ve been saying that there’s no money in gaming. That the most respected authors and designers had to claw their way through years of low income and financial instability just to get where they are, and it’s even less financially viable for everyone else who makes a go of it.

But along comes a Kickstarter for one book, from a designer who isn’t a major name in the industry, and the book is going to make a million bucks. (I know there are caveats, shipping and streaming and stretch goals and all that; they’re not germane to my point.)

And more power to Matt Colville for it! This is in no way sour grapes on my part: The book sounds cool (I love domain-level stuff in games), and he’s obviously onto something here. I wish him the best, and I hope the project does even better than I think it will.

But streaming, and for the most part YouTube, have just passed me by. I’m constitutionally unsuited to appearing on camera, and I’m terrible at marketing. This is not a world I understand even remotely.

I anchored my understanding of what a career in gaming might be like to a fundamentally flawed view of the world. The sky is now purple, and my hands are waffles. There is a giant gorilla blotting out the sun. He is, for some reason, drinking a lobster.

I can’t think of anything in the past decade that has made me feel as old and out of touch as the Strongholds & Streaming Kickstarter.

[1] Final tally: $2.1 million.

Categories
D&D Tabletop RPGs

Gary Gygax on game prep, 1979

Thanks to Bryan Shipp over on G+, I just checked out this Gary Gygax interview from 1979 on Jon Peterson’s site — and it blew my mind.

Here’s Gary on game prep:

“Two to three hours per hour of play is generally what the dungeon master has to prepare with. He sits down and draws out the dungeon maps or, it could be a village that he is going through, trying to find someone. There’s no question that one of the reasons, as I was mentioning earlier, the young people play more than older people do, is because they have more time.”

That’s right: “Two to three hours per hour of play.” This level of game prep is unfathomable to me. For a four-hour session, that’s 8-12 hours of prep, a 2:1 or 3:1 prep:play ratio!

Looking back at a recent tremulus campaign I ran, I did a couple hours of campaign prep — not session prep! — and that lasted me for around a dozen two-hour sessions, for a ratio of 1:12 prep:play. For the Urban Shadows game I’m running right now, I think I did about three hours of prep — including making my own reference sheets for the game — and we’ve had 12 sessions of about 2.5 hours each, a ratio of 1:10.

But in terms of session prep, my preferred ratio is 0:1 prep:play. I was in the 1:1 range for a long time, when I thought I had to do that; I eventually moved to 1:6, which was a big step for me — but still not enough. For the past several years, my preference has been to sit down and see where the game takes us, just like the other players.

The voice

There’s more gold in them that hills, too, like this excerpt:

The dungeon master’s voice usually gives out before everybody’s ready to quit. That’s the end of an adventure.

What a marvelous image — and a great example of the spirit and enthusiasm of play!

Tests

I like this quote as well:

This is a – people like take to tests. We’re trained to in school. So it’s a testing type of a game and a fun game where you compete – but not against each other, as a group, so a group can work together and find a lot of enjoyment rather than making enemies, saying, “Hey I won the game.” Because you all play and you win as a group.

The whole interview is a spicy meatball, and there’s even a transcript if (like me) you prefer to read than listen to audio.

Categories
D&D OD&D Tabletop RPGs

Agreement, rough edges, and combat as sport vs. war

This post is a round-up of three things that crossed my path and grabbed my attention, all RPG-related.

Gygax on agreement

I found this fascinating 1975 Gary Gygax quote over on The Acaeum:

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the “rules” found in DandD. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, DandD will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don’t believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. DandD is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson’s campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to “survive”. Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don’t like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. DandD enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them — except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark.

Looking at the last 40-plus years, at all of what’s come after that quote D&D-wise, this quote is mindblowing. So many things that have become commonplace assumptions in many RPGs are gleefully and confidently disregarded in this paragraph. I love it.

1975 was still salad days for D&D — the era of OD&D, and of this quote (also Gygax) from the afterword to The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (emphasis mine):

We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you?

I love that ethos as a GM and as a player. It’s directly at odds with the existence of supplements (and many other aspects of the RPG industry, including some of the books I publish) and other books I enjoy, though, so I’m also always torn about how it applies in practical terms. But as a foundation and a navigational aid, it’s one of the principles I like most about old-school RPGs and gaming in general.

Maliszewski on rough edges

I’ve spent quite a bit of time mulling over this excellent GROGNARDIA post. Back when I first read it, it didn’t sound like what I wanted out of gaming. Nowadays, I couldn’t agree more.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want every session of my D&D campaign to come with guaranteed fun. That may seem odd, but it’s not. Most of us, I think, if we’re honest, understand that we like rough edges — we need rough edges. Something that’s too smooth, too formulaic, especially in the pursuit of entertainment, will wind up producing its antithesis.“

Looking back on my best gaming experiences, they often had rough edges — and maybe those were integral to making the overall experience richer. To get the alchemy that makes gaming so exciting, you have to accept that sometimes lead just stays lead, and not everything has to be perfect.

Combat as sport vs. combat as war

I remember seeing this thread about combat in different editions of D&D going around (and around) a while back and never clicking on it. But a year or so ago, when I finally read it, it changed my understanding of D&D. It articulates things I’d previously thought about in a nebulous way, but could never have put into words this clearly.

Here’s a few excerpts from the original post by Daztur:

Without quite realizing it, people are having the exact same debate that constantly flares up on MMORPG blogs about PvP: should combat resemble sport (as in World of Tanks PvP or arena combat in any game) or should it resemble war (as in Eve PvP or open world combat in any game). […]

I think that these same differences hold true in D&D, let me give you an example of a specific situation to illustrate the differences: the PCs want to kill some giant bees and take their honey because magic bee honey is worth a lot of money. Different groups approach the problem in different ways.

Combat as Sport: the PCs approach the bees and engage them in combat using the terrain to their advantage, using their abilities intelligently and having good teamwork. The fighter chooses the right position to be able to cleave into the bees while staying outside the radius of the wizard’s area effect spell, the cleric keeps the wizard from going down to bee venom and the rogue sneaks up and kills the bee queen. These good tactics lead to the PCs prevailing against the bees and getting the honey. The DM congratulates them on a well-fought fight.

Combat as War: the PCs approach the bees but there’s BEES EVERYWHERE! GIANT BEES! With nasty poison saves! The PCs run for their lives since they don’t stand a chance against the bees in a fair fight. But the bees are too fast! So the party Wizard uses magic to set part of the forest on fire in order to provide enough smoke (bees hate smoke, right?) to cover their escape. Then the PCs regroup and swear bloody vengeance against the damn bees. They think about just burning everything as usual, but decide that that might destroy the value of the honey. So they make a plan: the bulk of the party will hide out in trees at the edge of the bee’s territory and set up piles of oil soaked brush to light if the bees some after them and some buckets of mud. Meanwhile, the party monk will put on a couple layers of clothing, go to the owl bear den and throw rocks at it until it chases him. He’ll then run, owl bear chasing him, back to where the party is waiting where they’ll dump fresh mud on him (thick mud on thick clothes keeps bees off, right?) and the cleric will cast an anti-poison spell on him. As soon as the owl bear engages the bees (bears love honey right?) the monk will run like hell out of the area. Hopefully the owl bear and the bees will kill each other or the owl bear will flee and lead the bees away from their nest, leaving the PCs able to easily mop up any remaining bees, take the honey and get the hell out of there. They declare that nothing could possibly go wrong as the DM grins ghoulishly.

So much of what I enjoy about older editions of D&D and dislike about 3.x and 4e, and what I enjoy about sandboxes, is neatly encapsulated in the sport vs. war analogy. I’ve returned to it many times over the past few months, and I wanted to make sure it was archived here on Yore for future reference.

Categories
D&D Miscellaneous geekery

The D&D phonetic alphabet

After making a string of phone calls where I needed to spell things for the person on the other end of the line, I decided it was finally time to learn the NATO phonetic alphabet so I could stop doing this:

Okay, it’s five, P as in pork chop [shit, now I’m hungry], six, three, H as in hors d’oeuvres [why the fuck did I choose something that sounds like it starts with an O?] . . .

I typed up the list, stuck it to my monitor, and started memorizing it.

Then, over on G+, Adam McConnaughey mentioned “U as in unicorn,” and I started thinking about a D&D phonetic alphabet using monster names.

But not one designed for maximum clarity, like the NATO phonetic alphabet — one made with names that are funny, difficult to pronounce, fun to say, and, ideally, confusing for the person on the other end of the line.

One that’s full of terrible phonetic choices — like this little dude, who sounds like he was named by Mister Mxyzptlk:

I as in ixitxachitl

Here’s what I come up with using two of my favorite monster books, AD&D 1e’s Monster Manual and Fiend Folio:

Need to liven up your next grinding, soul-crushing, red tape-filled phone call? This should do the trick.

“Wraith” has a silent W, making it sound like it should be an R-word . . . but it’s the W. “Ixitxachitl” is clearly an I-word, but I always stumble over it when I say it aloud. “Gnome” is another sounds-like-the-wrong-letter entry. And so on.

If the majority of my monster books weren’t in storage, I bet there are at least a few other letters that could be made more confusing. Suggestions welcome!

Categories
D&D OD&D Tabletop RPGs

Crimhthan The Great and over 3,600 sessions of OD&D

Thanks to a G+ share by Alex Schroeder, I got a chance to read A bit more about Crimthan The Great’s Game and Group. It’s a blog post by Daithi MacLiam, then 78, about the more than 3,500 sessions of OD&D his group has played together since 1974 (after starting with Chainmail in 1971).

I love reading about long-running campaigns. Like the Rythlondar campaign, a D&D game in Michigan begun in 1976, and extensively chronicles by its players, there’s a lot to unpack in here.

Starting with Chainmail Fantasy and continuing with OD&D we played our 1000th games in January of 1982, our 2000th in December 1995 and our 3000th game in September 2008 and this past weekend April 4th and 5th we played our 3687th and 3688th games.

By contrast, I’ve played 304 gaming sessions since 2008 (as of this writing) — roughly half the number Daithi’s group played during the same period. And I’ve never played anything approaching even a thousand sessions of the same system; the closest I’ve come is probably more like a couple hundred (maybe, at the outside, 300), running multiple AD&D 2nd Edition campaigns back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I find long-running campaigns fascinating in part because they’re so foreign to my gaming experience. Rob Conley has been running games in the same setting for many years, and I know there are more folks out there doing this. I need system variety in my RPG diet, but I’d love to start a D&D game and keep it going in perpetuity alongside all of my other gaming.

Our typical gaming session used to be about 12 hours in length which works out to about 36 days of game time on the average. […] On the other hand since we passed about 70 years old the length of our games has decreased to about 8 hours split into two – four hour segments with a long break in the middle.

Two 4-hour sessions in the same day is like a mini-con every game day. I hope I can do that when I’m in my 70s! Hell, I wish I could manage that now — and Daithi has 40 years on me.

The original core group of players have had between (I am guessing here) 550-750 characters each. In spite of about 450 TPK’s, each of us have retired about 10-18 characters apiece. But on some game days we have went through 8-10 characters each.

Four hundred and fifty TPKs! Going through 8-10 characters in a session is nothing to sneeze at either: That figure makes the Rythlondar campaign’s top recorded PC death total — six — seem tame.

Looking at wandering monsters in OD&D vs. B/X D&D showed me part of the deadliness of OD&D, but seeing these numbers gives me a whole different perspective.

Daithi’s post was a great read, and I look forward to hearing more war stories from his group’s OD&D campaign.

Categories
D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Exemplars & Eidolons: an OSR Swiss Army Knife

I’m going to be playing Exemplars & Eidolons next week, so I figured I’d better pick up a copy. Because Kevin Crawford is a mensch, it’s free in PDF and cheap in POD.

In a nutshell, it’s designed to mash up godlike heroes and old-school D&D adventures. Grab a D&D module, read a few numbers included therein a bit differently, and toss in E&E characters — or make your own, of course. Either way, “a single hero is transformed into a figure of towering might,” and the whole thing is delightfully rules-light.

The tacky gold stripe edition

I booklet-printed my PDF copy and took it to an office supply store for assembly. I went with a gold border because they didn’t have any plain options, and gold is fancy. Coil bound, of course, because all hail coil-bound gaming books.

It runs 47 pages, and once you subtract the covers and so forth it’s really just north of 40 — this is a game that does a lot with a little, which is something I love. And while E&E looks like a book, it’s actually a Swiss Army Knife. You know:

The larch

That Alox Electrician (paid link) was my constant companion during our 2015 move from Utah to Seattle.

It cut, pried, poked, and unscrewed all sorts of stuff while we packed up our house; it bounced along in my pocket for a thousand miles; and it broke down dozens of boxes when we arrived in Seattle. It’s one of my favorite pocket knives.

It’s compact, tough, multifunctional, and can accomplish a lot with its handful of cleverly designed tools. Which is a pretty good analogy for Exemplars & Eidolons, because just as you can do all sorts of stuff with a SAK, E&E isn’t only a game:

Exemplars & Eidolons is really an RPG book layout template. Its pages are intended to provide a basic framework for other indie game publishers who’d like to print booklets in the same vein as the original “Little Brown Books” of our gaming youth.

The PDF package comes with InDesign templates, artwork, and permission to use them as you see fit (including for commercial projects). This is basically the most Sine Nomine thing possible, and Kevin’s ability to do stuff like this while also publishing a really nifty-looking game is one of the things I love about his approach to publishing.

Under the hood

Like all the other Sine Nomine books I’ve read[1], E&E runs on a lightweight D&D-like chassis: 3-18 for stats, classes, saving throws, hit points, yadda yadda. But, also like Kevin’s other stuff, E&E is its own thing; there are flourishes and tweaks and additions that make it tick.

(Illustration by Joyce Maureira)

Here are my favorite elements (so far):

  • One-page character creation. Nine steps, one page, all neatly summarized. Yeah, you’ll need to look up a few things, but still: zippy.
  • Facts. You write down three facts about your character, each one sentence long, and in play you get bonuses whenever they’re relevant. Instant flavor, player-driven worldbuilding, and mechanical heft — I dig it.
  • Gifts. This is how PCs start as “figures of towering might.” Want amazing AC without armor as a rogue? Take Dodge Blows, and boom amazing AC. As a sorcerer, want to cast a low-level spell at will, as often as you like? Take Mastered Cantrip. Gifts are powered by Effort, a scarce resource which grows as you level up, keeping things interesting.
  • 1st equals 5th. E&E PCs are about equivalent to 5th or 6th level old-school D&D PCs. Grab a higher-level module for an epic challenge, or enjoy grinding a mid-level one into pulp under your godlike boot-heels.
  • The Fray die. Alongside anything else you do in a round of combat, you can always roll your Fray die. It’s automatic damage applied to foes within range who have fewer hit dice than you do levels. In just three short paragraphs, this mechanic goes a long way to giving the game a godlike, larger-than-life feel.
  • Converting from D&D. To use a D&D monster with E&E, just treats its HD as HP; most E&E characters have single-digit hit points. 8 HD monster? 8 HP in E&E. I balk at any sort of game conversion that requires work[2], but this is so trivial it’s brilliant.
  • Wealth. “Legendary heroes don’t count coppers.” Small treasures are ignored; you always have that kind of spending money. Substantial ones are worth a point or two of Wealth. Need to acquire something big, like a ship? Spend 1 Wealth.
  • Problems and Influence. The basic “unit of adventure” in E&E is the problem. A problem is something that calls for heroes: plagues, invading armies, evil cults, etc. Each problem has a difficulty rated in Influence, which is E&E’s version of XP. When the PCs do Hero Stuff, they earn Influence; if they do Hero Stuff which works towards solving a problem, they can apply that Influence to the problem’s rating until it goes away. That’s a really slick way to create a setting, and adventure opportunities within that setting — and, like every other damned thing in E&E, it’s handled clearly and efficiently. E&E’s adventure and setting advice is excellent, and takes up just five pages, one of which is random tables for adventure seeds. So fucking solid.

Notice how E&E is just one letter further along in the alphabet from D&D? I don’t think that’s an accident: E&E is like D&D, one layer higher — epic fantasy on an old-school chassis, with similar expectations around creative problem-solving and making your mark on the world, but a different focus.

Exemplars & Eidolons is a deft, clever, and efficient take on epic fantasy, marvelously lightweight and streamlined, and compatible with all things OSR. I’m excited to try it out.

[1] Favorites include Red Tide, An Echo, Resounding, and Stars Without Number.

[2] Because it’s fucking work.

Categories
B/X D&D D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Small But Vicious Dog: B/X + WFRP + love

Thanks to a post by James Aulds over on G+, I got to enjoy reading Chris Hogan‘s mashup of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and B/X D&D, a free RPG called Small But Vicious Dog.

It’s a flavorful delight.

Rules needn’t be dull

SBVD presents fun, coherent rules that express the ethos of the game and the world, all in 36 pages. It’s everything I love about dirty British fantasy (which in turn is part of why the Fiend Folio is my favorite monster book). Chris knows his B/X, and he knows his WFRP, and he groks them both.

By way of example

It’s easier to show than tell, so here are some of my favorite bits from SBVD.

The introduction:

Welcome to a fantasy world where the men are Baldrick, the dwarves are punk, and the dogs are small but vicious. Welcome to a world of bawds, grave robbers, excisemen and witchhunters; a place where “Blather”, “Flee!” and “Mime” are legitimate skill choices; and where all material on the insidious threat of Chaos is officially interchangeable between settings.

From the write-up on dwarves:

All dwarves are beersoaked beards on legs who stop mining only to fight, drink heavily and/or sing about mining. They consider everything they say and do to be SRS BZNZ and nurse a grudge like a Bretonnian nurtures a fine vintage wine. All perceived similarities between Dwarves and Yorkshiremen are coincidental.

It’s funny, but it’s also functional. I could play an SVBD dwarf character using only that description, and it would be a hoot. The game is excellent at combining concision with humor.

In SBVD, a character’s social status makes it harder for peasants to do anything against them:

Social position affects all dice rolls made directly against a particular character. […] Exactly how and why this works the way it does is something of a mystery: the consensus is that it’s rather difficult to beat the crap out of someone while you’re malnourished and/or busy doffing your cap. Either way, this rule prevents some dirty oiks with rusty knives and a plan from opportunistically assassinating the Kaiser.

This is a great example of a clever rule that’s also a fun read. The whole section on how social status runs less than a page, but it communicates a lot about the setting and the people in it, and the actual mechanics are excellent.

Lastly, here are items 4-9 from the list of stuff to keep in mind that closes out SBVD:

4. Everyone has an agenda, sometimes several.
5. It can always get worse, and generally should.
6. If in doubt, Chaos did it!
7. If it appears that Chaos didn’t do it, check harder.

Even if it never hits the table, Small But Vicious Dog is a fun read for fans of WFRP — or anyone interested in how to communicate RPG stuff clearly and briefly without it coming off as dry.

It also does some neat things to B/X D&D that could work well in other settings. For example, it immediately makes me think of the OSR setting Lesserton & Mor, which is criminally underrated (and which I should really post about sometime!) and shares some of the same dirty British fantasy feel.

Categories
D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

The case of the colorful ogre

Over on Against the Wicked City, Joseph Manola posted about colorful versions of classic D&D monsters — from the AD&D 1e Monster Manual.

Quick, picture an ogre. What color is it? Now check out its description from the MM:

The hide of ogres varies from dull blackish-brown to dead yellow. Rare specimens are a sickly violet in color. Their warty bumps are often of different color — or at least darker than their hides. Hair is blackish-blue to dull dark green. Eyes are purple with white pupils. Teeth are black or orange, as are talons.

Whoa! That’s not what I picture in my head when I think “D&D ogre,” but I love it.

And Joseph is right: There are lots of other monsters in the AD&D 1e MM that fall into this category — much more vividly hued that what’s come to be the default D&D version. I’d never noticed that before.

Goblins is yeller

Joseph also quoted a few other descriptions, including the one for goblins — “yellow through dull orange to brick red,” and yep, no green ones — that made me take a closer look at the back cover of the MM. And there they are — bright yellow goblins!

My copy isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but the yellow still shows up clearly. I thought maybe I was misidentifying those little dudes as goblins, but check out the lovely Trampier goblin illustration from the goblin entry:

It’s a perfect match, right down to the shape of the shield. Bright yellow goblins — awesome!

Where did the colorful ogre come from?

That made me wonder whether I’d just been missing, or perhaps glossing over, marvelously colorful ogres (and other humanoids) in other editions. Did colorful ogres start in OD&D?

Nope:

These large and fearsome monsters range from 7 to 10 feet in height, and due to their size will score 1 die +2 (3–8) points of hits when they hit. When encountered outside their lair they will carry from 100 to 600 Gold Pieces each.

That’s the whole entry — no word on their appearance. But OD&D sometimes assumes you’re also looking at Chainmail, so let’s look there, too:

What are generally referred to as Trolls are more properly Ogres — intermediate creatures between men and Giants. They will fight in formations, and have a martial capability of six Heavy Foot.

Nope again. How about Holmes Basic?

These large and fearsome humanoid monsters range from 7 to 10 feet in height and are of various disgusting colors.

That’s interesting — “various disgusting colors.” I like that it’s left vague, but it doesn’t help pin down the origins of the violet ogre.

Okay, what about Moldvay Basic?

Ogres are huge fearsome human-like creatures, usually 8 to 10 feet tall.

They grew a foot, but they’re back to having no reference to skin color. So where did the colorful ogre come from?

Noodling

OD&D is a short game, and light on details in many places. It wouldn’t surprise me if Gygax and Arneson didn’t both describing some creatures, like the ogre, with which they assumed folks would be familiar. Holmes and Moldvay both used OD&D as their baseline, so it makes sense that they’d leave ogres pretty much the same.

And then along comes the MM. It was written by Gary, so presumably the colorful ogre — and its brightly-hued friends — is a Gygaxian ogre, not an Arnesonian or Gygax/Arneson one. I’ve read a decent chunk of Appendix N, but I haven’t bumped into any ogres that look like this so far.

I’d love to know the answer, but I’ve got nothing. Nothing but Joseph’s original point, that is: There are some cool, wildly colorful humanoids in the AD&D MM.

I’d love to play in a game where those were the defaults — that’d be a pulpy setting with a healthy dose of zany, and I dig that.

Update

Michael Curtis has a theory about the origins of the colorful ogre, and gave me permission to share it here (including his photo). Thanks, Michael!

“When Gary and the guys were playing Chainmail with the Fantasy supplement, there wasn’t much in the way of fantastical miniatures to use as monsters and humanoid troops. Chainmail itself suggests using 25mm and 15mm figures of normal medieval troops (then readily available) to portray dwarves, halflings, goblins, etc for example.

In those games, the players used larger scale miniatures to represent the bigger monsters. One such figure was an American Indian warrior with spear and breastplate. These figure were used as ogres. Their coloration: bright yellow.

The attached photo is from Gary Con IV where they replayed the “Battle of the Brown Hills” Chainmail fantasy scenario. The game used figures dating from the early 1970s, in some cases the actual miniatures owned by the Lake Geneva crew. Here you can see the yellow warriors (and one painted dark brown) facing off against human soldiers. Compare the pose of these “ogres” to the picture in the 1st edition Monster Manual.

I can’t confirm this with 100% accuracy that this is how we got bright yellow ogres, but the pieces fit the theory.”

Here’s the ogre from the MM:

Seems like a solid theory to me!

Categories
D&D Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

Jason Pitre’s RPG design worksheet

Jason Pitre‘s RPG design worksheet is a nifty tool. It’s available as a free, form-fillable PDF.

Each section gives you a number of points to assign to elements of your design, forcing you to 1) prioritize, 2) acknowledge design goals that are present/absent, and 3) think about game design more broadly.

Here’s Jason on the underlying premise:

The basic principle underlying this little tool is the idea of limited resources. Designers need to account for the amount of complexity associated with their designs, and to prioritize the elements they find most important for the desired play experience.

That’s handy! The flipside is also handy: Jason posted a filled-out example sheet for D&D 4th Edition (paid link), and if I knew nothing about 4e and looked at only the worksheet, I’d be able to tell that it’s not a game that’s likely to interest me.

Jason’s approach reminds me of the Power 19, a set of game design questions, which I associate with The Forge. Those 19 questions are a fantastically useful tool.

The Power 19, in turn, reminded me of Jeff Rients‘ excellent 20 questions for your RPG setting, which is aimed at D&D. I didn’t realize that Necropraxis had done a related version, and that one also looks neat: 20 Quick Questions: Rules.

If you’re designing a game, a setting, or a D&D-alike, these are great places to start.