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While prowling around for a deal on Tome of Horrors Complete I stumbled across this PDF bundle on the Frog God website — the aptly named Superbundle for Swords & Wizardry. It’s broken into 3 tiers: $5, $13, and $25.

I love monster books, and in addition to ToHC this bundle includes two others that were also on my wishlist. Sticking to just the monster books, Tome of Horrors Complete ($25 tier) is normally a $30 PDF, Monstrosities ($13 tier) is normally $15, and Tome of Horrors 4 ($5 tier) is normally $25 — so that’s $70 of monstery goodness for $25.

And that’s not even taking into account the other stuff I’m also curious to check out, like the Borderland Provinces (all 4 included) and Hex Crawl Chronicles books (all 7 included), or the stuff that’s completely new to me. This bundle made my day — maybe it will make yours, too.

Here’s the breakdown:

$5 tier:

  • Quests of Doom 1
  • The Borderlands Provinces
  • Tome of Horrors 4
  • The Mother of All Encounter Tables
  • Rogues of Remballo
  • Adventures in the Borderlands

$13 tier (includes lower tier):

  • Monstrosities
  • Quests of Doom 3
  • The Borderland Provinces Gazetteer
  • The Borderland Provinces Players Guide
  • The Borderland Provinces Journey Generator
  • Strange Bedfellows

$25 tier (includes both lower tiers):

  • Digital Maps
  • Hex Crawl Chronicles 1-7
  • Chuck’s Dragons
  • Swords and Wizardry Card Decks
  • Tome of Horrors Complete

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Around the end of the year, I usually take a look back at my gaming over the previous 12 months.[1] This time around, I decided to graph my board game and RPG sessions for every year for which I have complete data: 2009-2017.[2]

Here’s a graph comparing RPG and board game plays for these years, with solo and group RPG sessions broken out:

And here’s the raw data:

I love tracking this stuff, in part because what emerges from the data isn’t always what I thought would emerge. For example, I knew 2016 was on fire in terms of playing RPGs with my two groups, which the data supports, but 2017 felt just as RPG-packed to me — which the data doesn’t support. (Or rather, it supports that conclusion in terms of overall sessions, but not group play; I did a ton of solo gaming in 2017.)

I’ve also felt like my board gaming dropped off since I moved to Seattle, where my gaming group plays board games maybe once every 2-3 months, rather than roughly twice a month back in Utah . . . but the data doesn’t really support that gut feeling. Ignoring 2013, with its +50% spike, I’ve averaged 174 board game plays every year from 2012-2017.[3]

The data doesn’t lie about 2017, though — and the data and my feelings on the matter align perfectly: Gaming-wise, it’s been a great year. I’m in my happy place, playing and running sandboxes and zero-prep RPGs, and still fitting in a solid amount of board gaming along the way.

Here’s to 2018!

[1] See My 51 in 15 for 2015 and My 2014 in games for that year. I thought I’d done one of these for 2016, but I guess I didn’t.

[2] I started logging board games in early 2008, but didn’t start logging RPGs until almost the end of 2008.

[3] The chart also shows a pretty clear swap that took place in 2016: It was a low year for board games but a massively high year for group RPG play; time for one, broadly, comes from the other.

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I was noodling about RPG setting material I’ve always meant to read, and I remembered a truly excellent thing: Stephan Michael Sechi, creator of Talislanta, generously makes available virtually ever Talislanta product ever published in PDF, with permission granted to download, modify, and print for personal use only, for free. That’s over 30 PDFs spanning the 2nd through 5th edition of the game — plus a separate library just for maps.

What is Talislanta, setting-wise, and why might it interest you? I can’t think of a better summary than this Stephan Michael Sechi quote from the introduction to the 5th edition Player’s Guide:

“My main objective was to create a fantasy world that was not based on Euorpean [sic] mythology, as most other RPGs had done; hence the “No Elves” slogan, which we used in Talislanta ads that we later ran in Dragon Magazine.

I read all of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books, Lovecraft’s The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath, Marco Polo’s The Travels, and back issues of Heavy Metal magazine (especially Druilette’s Salambo, in which if you look closely enough you might find the inspiration for the Jhangarans). And I confess to partaking of one of Turkey’s finest products nightly, which helped inspire most of the visual elements of Talislanta, and some remarkably lucid dreams I had of actually visiting Talislanta.”

Now that is a setting.

Where to start

If you’re totally new to Talislanta, P.D. Breeding-Black’s amazing cover to the 2nd edition Talislanta Handbook and Campaign Guide — reproduced above — makes a fantastic first impression, and that may be all you need. It illustrates a Talislantan Thrall, a member of a race descended from an army of magically-created warrior slaves. Thralls of the same gender are 100% identical; you can only tell them apart by their tattoos.

For a second impression, though, download that book from the Talislanta site and turn to page 46, Character Types, where you’ll find several pages like this:

And this:

Looking at all of those wonderful possibilities, from Xambrian wizard hunter to Yitek tomb-robber to ice giant to Za bandit, with all that they imply about Talislanta as a setting, piques my interest like nothing else, and it may do the same for you.

And then . . .

If your interest is piqued, check out the Talislanta site’s Help, I Have Questions! page, which is excellent. That FAQ recommends Talislanta Fantasy Roleplaying, 4th edition, as the best jumping-on point for folks new to the setting. The 4th edition core book compiles almost everything written for 1st-3rd editions into a 500-page doorstop of a tome. (There’s also a 60-page sampler for 4th edition, available on the same page, specifically designed as an intro for newbies.)

To their advice I’ll add that the 24-page overview of the entire setting in the 5th edition Player’s Guide book is fabulous, well-organized, and presents a ton of information in an easily digestible format. That’s hard to do, particularly for a setting as quirky as Talislanta!

If all of this material sounds like too much, take heart. Here’s an excerpt from the FAQ:

“Talislanta focuses on breadth instead of depth. While there are so many different lands and cultures in the book that I won’t even attempt to count them all, due to the time and effort it would take, each of these lands or peoples is described in an average of about 3 pages. […] Gamemasters should view this as a good thing. What it means is that you are given a vast world with limitless possibilities and well-defined cultures. At the same time you are spared the minutiae and laborious detail that other settings focus on.”

Despite being interested in it ever since I was a kid — when I saw their famous “no elves…” ads in Dragon Magazine — I’ve never actually read much Talislanta stuff. Having rediscovered this library, I can’t wait to dig deeper. Happy reading!

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My Seattle group is coming up on a year of Ars Magica play, using 5e — my first experience with Ars. We’ve played around 20 sessions (I’ve missed a couple, but I’ve been there for 18), covering about a year of in-game time, and I say without hyperbole that I will happily play this campaign until I totter into a nursing home if that’s an option.

Out of the roughly 130 RPGs I’ve played, Ars Magica is one of only two games that I currently rate a 10/10. Here’s why I love it so much.

Ars is above the crunch level I’d usually consider for a long-term game (purely a personal preference), but every bit of that crunch is put to good use — it’s not just there for the sake of it. The game mechanics tee things up to deliver meaningful, engaging play by taking full advantage of that crunch — and you don’t need all of it at any one time. The core mechanic is quite simple. The game design, by Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein-Hagen (the original designers), with David Chart at the helm of fifth edition, is brilliant.

It’s also a fascinating, unique beast in many different ways. It’s designed for troupe play: We have six players, and each of us created two characters for ourselves (a magus, who is central to the campaign but goes on fewer adventures than one might think, and a companion, a sort of “anything goes” character you typically wind up playing more often) and three grogs — minor characters — for the group. Every session, we divvy up characters differently.

Someone plays their magus; they’re in the spotlight. A couple folks play their companions. The others pick suitable grogs from the pool (whether they originally created them or not), and take on a supporting character role. And in the background, the other ~40 characters who live in and around our wizard tower keep the place running, just like a medieval manor house. It’s beautiful.

And then there’s the temporal scope, which is epic: Wizards can live for a really long time. You can pace play however you like, but it works well as a mix of seasonal and in-the-moment play. During seasonal play — which could be at the table or “offline,” between sessions — you raise skills, read magical tomes, add buildings to your covenant, and the like. That’s interspersed with adventures, typically one or two per year, where you undertake whatever the hell the wizards think is important.

And then — and then! — there’s the magic system, which mixes formulaic spells with spontaneous magic using a brilliant set of mechanics. It’s all built around combining a verb, like creo for creating something, with a noun, like aquam for water. You can look at any wizard’s stats in those verbs and nouns and have a pretty good idea of what they’re capable of — which is a LOT. I keep underestimating how good our novice magi are at doing all sorts of shit that would just wreck other RPGs. And the game supports just coming up with wild shit, plugging into the framework of the rules, and making it happen.

And it all has consequences! The characters exist in a web of responsibilities, intrigue, danger, obligation, relationships, power plays, and machinations that lends weight to everything you do at the table.

There’s so much to Ars, both in terms of the rulebook, which isn’t small, and in terms of the scope of play and the setting itself, that I really have no idea how to encapsulate it all in a blog post.

The short version is that Ars Magica is a thing of beauty, and I love it.

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As a kid, I used to spend hours poring over any sort of “superheroes A-Z” content I could find. I had some that came in issues of comics, and the long-running Marvel-phile column in Dragon, and probably other sources I’ve forgotten about.

When I started playing TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes, I traced hero silhouettes from those articles (Captain Britain was a favorite) and used them as the basis for drawing all of my characters.

Fast forward from the late ’80s/early ’90s to now, and I’m kicking myself because it wasn’t until a few days ago that it occurred to me that of course this is still a thing, and it’s probably gotten even easier to acquire big volumes of it.

It has! Enter the Marvel Encyclopedia, which — although it’s a bit squirrely about its author credits — is at least partly written by Matt Forbeck, and which is utterly fabulous.

This book is titanic. It’s a coffee table book, hardcover, and over 400 pages. Full color, of course. (It had a dust jacket, too, which I find less than useless on books this size.) And it’s $22 shipped with Prime.

It covers more than 1,200 characters, both heroes and villains, with origins, pictures, background info, and other fun tidbits. It also covers crossover events, famous hero/villain groups, and more. It’s exactly the kind of big, splashy, high-production-values book I’d expect from DK and Marvel.

This is the kind of non-gaming RPG sourcebook that I love. Need on-the-spot inspiration for an NPC? Flip through this beast. Stuck for hero ideas for your next character? Lose yourself in over 1,200 of them. Can’t remember who Obscure Hero X is? They’re probably in here.

This book is so cool.

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I missed the boat on Chris McDowall​’s Into the Odd, but eventually figured out that I was missing something splendid. It’s out of print, but the PDF is a dandy $8 and I love coil binding, so here we are.

Here’s the blurb:

Into the Odd contains everything you need to create a character and explore an industrial world of cosmic meddlers and horrific hazards. This is a fast, simple game, to challenge your wits rather than your understanding of complex rules.

You seek Arcana, strange devices hosting unnatural powers beyond technology. They range from the smallest ring to vast machines, with powers from petty to godlike. Beside these unnatural items that they may acquire, your characters remain grounded as mortals in constant danger.

It’s a great book. Tight. Taut. Pregnant with possibilities. It does a lot between the lines, and even more that looks innocuous but is actually delightfully clever. And it includes a marvelous on-ramp in the form of an introductory dungeon, a hexcrawl surrounding said dungeon, and a starting city — plus a raft of tables to flesh things out on the fly.

I absolutely love its leveling system, which is handled not by XP but by the number of expeditions you’ve survived (and later on, shepherded others through), and the mechanics for buying military units and starting businesses which hum along between sessions are fantastic.

There are so many small-yet-not-small flourishes in Into the Odd that I won’t try to catalog them all here. Chris offers a free edition of Into the Odd so you can get a feel for the game before plunking down some cash, and many of those flourishes are on display in that version of the game.

I want to run at least a one-shot of Into the Odd to see what it feels like in play — probably straight from the book, as there’s plenty in that intro adventure and its environs to get a campaign off the ground.

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Earlier this month, at Go Play Northwest, I played a game of Traveller Carcosa run by Alex Mayo that really made me want to play more Traveller. It also reminded me to prod my long-simmering, largely unrequited interest in Traveller and see if Mongoose Traveller was still my favorite iteration.

I then bumped into this post by Alex Schroeder about the nuances of sector generation in Classic Traveller (from The Traveller Book) and Mongoose Traveller 1e, and that led me down a rabbit warren of Classic Traveller exploration.

What I learned was that there is at least as much meaningful variation in the nuances, presentation, expression, and philosophy of different versions of the Classic Traveller rules as there is in versions of old-school D&D.[1] I had no idea!

I love exploring this kind of stuff (and I’ve written about a bit of it myself; for example, my posts about B/X D&D), and just as it did with D&D, delving deeply into the seemingly innocuous variations in Traveller has led me to the realization that it’s the very first presentation, the 1977 versions of Books 1-3 that interests me the most, supplemented by The Traveller Book for specific areas (like its tidy summary of the encounter rolls that form the basic structure of a campaign).

Interestingly, the only source for the 1977 version of Traveller that I’m aware of also happens to be one of the best deals in gaming: the Classic Traveller CD-ROM from Far Future Entertainment, which also includes the entire CT canon for just $35. Apart from that lone source, the later revisions of the original rules, notably the 1983 Traveller Book, have “taken over” and supplanted the 1977 version. The FFE CD, though, includes the original 1977 booklets, the 1981 revision, and The Traveller Book.

Classic Traveller love

Here are some of the branches in that rabbit warren, all great reads:

Collectively, all of the above gave me a newfound appreciation for the original 1977 iteration of Traveller, as well as for the many parallels between Traveller Books 1-3 and OD&D’s original three LBBs, which embody a similar freewheeling, DIY, make-your-own-fun ethos.

When I — eventually! — get to run Classic Traveller, it’ll be with the 1977 rules (Books 1-3), The Traveller Book for some handy clarifications, and possibly, though only possibly, Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium for alternate careers (but minus the Imperium stuff).

[1] And that’s not even considering all of the other full-on different editions, like MegaTraveller and whatnot.

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Thanks to the inimitable Alex Schroeder, I followed a link to this excellent 2005 essay by Michael Andre-Driussi: Deciphering the Text Foundations of Traveller.

Here’s Driussi’s thesis:

The creators of CT wanted the anarchic, amoral, and violent adventure of fantasy role playing translated into a science fiction setting. They also wanted a kind of science fiction that used more “hard SF” than even Niven’s work. They categorically rejected New Wave SF, which made them allied to the Old Wave, except that GDW wanted a gritty, noir setting (where the Old Wave is characterized as upbeat and moral).

Traveller as noir is something I’d never considered, but it makes perfect sense. There’s a lot more to unpack, even in just that excerpt — the whole essay is a damned fine read.

Here’s another concise snippet:

What the creators of CT were after was science fiction adventure, featuring freelance “adventurers” (with all the connotations of gold hunters, mercenaries, and trail blazers that this term implies) who could live or die in the course of pick-up games.

One of the sources Driussi cites is the Dumarest Saga, by E.C. Tubb (which I’d never heard of, but boy does it sound like it’d fit right into Appendix N). Here’s the skinny:

E. C. Tubb’s Dumarest of Terra series (1967 onward) portrays its titular hero as a far future Odysseus trying to find his way home across a galaxy that has forgotten Earth completely. Each novel is slim and action-packed: Earl Dumarest arrives penniless at a new planet where he must use his wits and his reflexes, not only to survive but also to make enough money for passage to the next planet. From this series, already 17 books long in 1977, CT got such details as: low passage (a deadly hibernation system); mesh armor; the drugs fast, slow, medical slow, and combat (i.e., two-thirds of the drugs in CT); the weapon “blade”” and perhaps the psionics.

I could quote this puppy all day. It’s so good!

Driussi’s essay gave me a new perspective on, and a deeper understanding of, Classic Traveller. It’s fascinating to see what shaped the nature and quirks of Traveller’s premise and presentation.

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After I posted about Devil Ghost’s character generator for Classic Traveller, Frank Filz mentioned that he hosts the same generator on his site — and that he’s made it user-configurable. I tried it out, and it rocks.

To get a character, just open the generator page. For a new one, just refresh the page. Easy peasy (just like the Devil Ghost generator).

By default, this generator shows quite a bit of detail. Here’s a partial screenshot of Brom Tanaka, a 7-term general I rolled up:

But you can also tweak the generator in a variety of ways by altering the URL, and Frank explains all of the settings on his site. Want to see the die rolls? Toggle the “verbose” setting. Want less history, just the results? You can change that. Need a Navy character? Specify the service branch in the URL.

If I needed a character fast, with minimal output — just the facts, ma’am — I’d go the Devil Ghost route. If I needed more control, or wanted to see the details of how my character got where they landed, I’d hit up Frank’s version. Two great flavors to enjoy!

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This Classic Traveller character generator on Devil Ghost is a hoot. The visuals are a perfect match for Traveller, and it couldn’t be easier to use: just refresh to get a new character.[1]

Here’s my favorite character I’ve rolled up so far:

Just look at this dude: he spent five terms — 20 years — in the military, working his way steadily up to the rank of colonel, and has the mustering-out benefits of someone who was a very successful soldier. But what interests me most is one skill in particular: Dagger-3.

Dagger-1 is a professional knife fighter, or equivalent. Like if there’s a job that involves knifey stuff, you can get hired to do that job with Dagger-1.

Dagger-2 is an elite knife fighter. This is someone with special skills, who stands out even among skilled knife fighters.

But Dagger-3? Dagger-3 is a fucking ninja assassin. And in his 20 years in the service, that must be what Colonel Wang spent the most time doing.

Why? What kinds of missions did he undertake? How did they shape him as a person? Who is he today, mustering out at 38 with the means to travel the galaxy?

I had some ideas the moment I scanned his character sheet, and I bet you did too. That’s why I love Classic Traveller‘s minimalist characters and delightfully random character creation.

[1] I do wish there was a permalink for each character, but I don’t know enough about programming to know if that might be difficult to produce.

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