2/18/17

History 2E

   Over the past six to eight months I have heard of several weird “politicized” gaming incidents in Yan Kor, the Forgotten Realms, and my beloved Miskatonic University, and it got me thinking about political correctness in this wonderful hobby of ours. Historical reenactments, to be more precise, is the first thing that came to mind. Like, are we now expected to tweak history in order to make any and all role-playing politically correct?

   If I run a Hundred Years’ War campaign and run it accurately (no magic swords, no fireballs, et cetera), you better not choose to rock the boat – because people who rocked the boat ever so slightly usually died, back in those dark days. Just ask Joan of Arc: a celibate woman refusing to wear robes and donning heavy armor instead!

   So if you choose to play in THAT campaign, and your character is an openly gay French knight who also happens to blithely deny the existence of God, and goes on to marry an Ottoman sculptor in Granada... you’re going to be burned at the stake. Sorry. It’s nothing personal.

   If you don’t want to be burned at the stake, don’t play this character, or just play it in a different campaign, like Numenera. History is a huge mess, I agree – but never expect me to rewrite it for your sole enjoyment. I am no revisionist, and if you don’t appreciate accurate historical reenactments, that’s totally fine; we have lots of stupefying fantasy worlds to choose from...

   This weekend, we’ve got that new movie starring Matt Damon, The Great Wall. It is pure unadulterated fantasy – not a shred of historical fact in there whatsoever. In today’s climate of political correctness, a big-budget film about Chinese soldiers killing Mongol tribesmen would have been very toxic. Mongolia would have made a big fuss. And then Tibet would have jumped in too, because they are still being oppressed by China as we speak. And then, Taipei would have hopped on the bandwagon. And then various Human Rights organizations––

   What I’m trying to say is, you cannot kill human beings in movies anymore. You’re still allowed to kill individual human villains: a Latino drug dealer, a White crime boss, an Asian serial murderer, a Navajo necromancer, or even a Muslim Sith Lord if you want – but they have to remain unique individuals. You cannot make any distinct group of people the enemy; if you do, the group in question will call you out and organize a huge worldwide boycott of your movie or book.

   Even if you choose groups of people that don’t exist anymore – like classical Assyrians and Babylonians – I know their remote descendants will stir something up. Let’s say your movie is all about undeterred Assyrian troops conquering the “corrupt” and “decadent” Babylonian Empire, vanquishing village after village, burning, razing everything, until they get to the big city itself and exterminate Babylonians like it’s 1236 B.C. – because it is.

   Well, I’m pretty sure some contemporary Iraqi folks will find a way to disagree. “Babylon was in Southern Iraq, and Assyria was in Northern Iraq – thus the Assyrians are evil Sunni aggressors, and the Babylonians are good cultured peaceful Shia people!” Something along those lines. You can’t escape it.

   Ten years down that road, you won’t see any “living” antagonists in movies; it’s gonna be robots, zombies, and ghosts, all the time. That’s extreme. And you certainly can’t kill animals, unless they are very ugly insects or reptiles, but no mammals please, because, after all, we are mammals!

   The Great Wall replaced the Manchu and Mongol warriors with scary computer-generated crawling beasts of chaos. No Human Rights / Animal Rights group will ever defend the liberties of the crawling beasts of chaos (although it would be hilariously cool). So, you can kill as many of these monstrosities as you want: they’re not furry, neither cat-like nor dog-like – it’s perfectly okay!


Manchu and Mongol warriors north of the Great Wall
have all been polymorphed into Hunting Drakes!

   Obviously there is no Zombie Rights or Robot Rights organizations anywhere. This is why zombies and robots are fair game. But it’ll get old pretty fast. Trust me.

   “Real people” fighting “real people” always result in the most splendid and heart-wrenching stories. Always. Gangs of New York is a good example. Nobody’s evil. Nobody’s good. They just want and believe different things. They’re all unhinged, all afraid of what’s coming, but that desperate, portentous, sorrowful struggle will make you cringe and recoil and cry. You wouldn’t experience any of it with those damn zombies or robots.

   The highly civilized and highly patriotic Chinese thought Manchuria and Mongolia were barbaric, and a beleaguered wasteland. That’s why they had slaves build and rebuild that wall over and over again. Manchu slaves and Mongol slaves, most probably...

   History of the world is cruel / depressing / mind-boggling / terrifying – but it is our history, and we have to own it. Burying our heads in computer-generated sand won’t help us a bit.


1/8/17

DIY: Role-Playing Games' Oldest Secret

   This is the “career path” most of us “old” gamers followed in our first 5-6 years of gaming – and it is interesting to see a new generation of RPG fans following the same path thanks to the Cypher System:

1)      Medieval Fantasy
2)      Space Opera
3)      Far West
4)      Gothic Horror
5)      Superheroes
6)      Dystopia

   In between TSR’s and Monte Cook’s lineups there was also Palladium’s roster, and then GURPS, which allowed gamers to go through that list – from Medieval Fantasy to Dystopia – in alternate order and various iterations.

   There is a gazillion other things you can play, but you’re gonna have to write those yourself because no game company will publish anything that is too narrow or high concept – it won’t sell. That’s why you always see Medieval Fantasy, Space Opera, Gothic Horror, et cetera: it sells. Sure, you could write a beautiful game about the Congress of Vienna, which lasted from September 1814 to June 1815, with the PCs taking up the roles of Talleyrand’s personal chef and cooking staff, because the food was so very important at the Congress of Vienna – each ambassador trying to impress the other delegates with his extravagant dinner parties and hard to find ingredients, and most of the real negotiations taking place during meals. You could write that. You could even run that if your friends were history buffs and / or foodies. But do not attempt to publish it. Like they say. “Niche.”

   While you’re at it, why not write your own Medieval Fantasy and Space Opera too? Do we really need to buy everything that’s out there? It’s like hide-and-seek – you don’t have to buy the game: just play already!

   Why would I need Game Coins? You just write it down. Write “245 g.p.”, and that’s it. Game Coins are one more cluttering element on the table, along with iPhones, MP3 players, e-cigarettes, real cigarettes, lighters, ashtrays, coffee cups, bottles of beer, wallets, napkins, erasers, chips, pretzels, sandwiches, cheesecake, sunglasses and tentacle-shaped flash drives.

   Why so intent on turning everything into board game pieces? RPGs aren’t board games. Everything ain’t a board game. Are you gonna be able to have sex with your girlfriend without drawing a fucking encounter card?

   The RPG engine works fine and doesn’t need any newer versions; it’s not like an OS. Someone said: “Progress was a wonderful thing... just went on too long.” It applies to RPGs as well – they’ve been fucked over by Chaotic capitalism.

   Once the DM can set a difficulty on the spot and without looking at any chart, once he or she can say, “You need 30, go ahead, roll your 5d10”, then the RPG engine is perfect. It’s optimal. It’s as good as it gets.

   You could come up with the strangest setting idea, and still be able to run it. You can have Abu Bakr, Fatima, Bilal, Umar, Khalid and Ali – the first followers of the prophet Muhammad – they can be cool player characters. Just read one or two history books, jot down some notes, and go! Come on, Khalid, grab your dice – time to earn your “Sword of God” nickname. Hostile desert nomads ride towards Medina. What will you do?

   Nobody needs Game Coins or a d120 or any of that schlock. All you really need is a To Hit matrix, some sort of Saving Throw table, lots of index cards, graph paper, and some dice: d4, d6, d10, d20. Those d8 and d12 are not that useful. Dave Arneson only had a bunch of d6 and he ran a brilliant campaign that we still talk about 45 years later. However unusual / unexpected your setting, just boil it down to the basics. NPCs. Who’s there. Who isn’t. What’s the endgame. Trust me, you’ll have fun!

   Peter Adkison didn’t appreciate 1E’s level caps or 2E’s lack of Half-orcs / assassins. Well, I concur. But that’s not a valid reason to write an entire new line of books. Business people just need excuses to produce entire new lines. The DIY solution is much simpler: ignore the level caps – and whatever else you don’t like.

   In my current old-school AD&D campaign, I tweak stuff all the time. There are no resurrections, there are no wishes, there’s no percentage to STR 18, and I also got rid of the spell sleep – if magic-users want a free kill, they’ll have to get their hands on a scroll with power word kill.

   What I keep reading about 5E on social media is this: Dungeon Masters want to get rid of the first-level Instant Death rule, and they recommend more necrotic damage, or less necrotic damage, or more Hit Points (not just the average), and they realize that some of the “encounter math” is pretty confusing (i.e. Challenge Ratings). In other words, why not stick to 1E and just keep doing what we’ve always been doing – adjust, tweak and modify?

   What’s the use of newer editions if everyone keep tweaking the rules like it’s 1979?

   There’s even some people now who “convert” the classic modules to 5E. That’s quite complicated, isn’t it? Instead of rewriting Steading of the Hill Giant Chief for 5E, why not convert your cleric or ranger to 1E and be done with it? So much simpler.

   Arneson, Gygax, Kuntz and Barker ran their original campaigns without massive rulebooks, and they all had tons of fun. It’s basically a question of scope – is this a game just for you and your friends, or is it something for the public? If you’re writing something for the public at large, well, know that “the public” will undoubtedly ask many questions, and if you can’t provide all the appropriate answers, you’re gonna be seen as a fraud and a bad game designer. That’s business. But if you’re prepping something for your friends – and assuming your friends are chill, reasonable adults – you don’t have to provide all the appropriate answers up front: they’ll know you’re doing your very best and have already invested 35 hours in this game. If some player in the original Blackmoor or Greyhawk campaigns suddenly did something totally unexpected and awkward, and the rule didn’t exist for that kind of action already, they just said, “Well Dave (or Gary), what do you want me to roll?” And Dave or Gary answered: “Okay, lemme whip up a little table right here on this piece of paper. You’ll throw percentile dice. If you get less than 25% you fall off your horse, cannot fire any arrows, and take 2d6 damage. If you get between 26% and 50% you manage to fire one arrow and then fall off the horse and take 2d6 damage. Between 51% and 75% means you manage to fire two arrows before you fall off, taking only 2d4 damage. With a result from 76% to 91% you remain standing up on your horse and fire an arrow. And if you get 92% or more, your action is truly circus-worthy: you remain standing on your horse and effectively fire your two arrows! Go ahead now...”

   Managing a game with friends is easy. Nobody will protest or argue too much, unless they really have some personality problem. RPGs-the-little-pastime-between-friends and RPGs-the-big-business-for-a-wide-audience are two very different things. It’s like anything else, really. Managing the food supply inside your own home is easily done; you just ask Sasha not to finish what’s left of the milk tonight, because mom and dad want milk in their morning coffee. Boom. Done. But managing the world’s food supply, that’s something else, and a gigantic undertaking for sure – you need written regulations, quotas, permits, inspections, standards, commissioners, review boards, whistleblowers and audits. Same thing with RPGs (almost). Greyhawk started out as a Saturday event between friends... and then became a multi-million dollar business venture. That’s what happened. The switch from “DIY” to “Hasbro”.

   Arneson was the ultimate DIY DM, and Gygax – in a certain way – was the ultimate anti-DIY guy, because as soon as you endeavour to set down guidelines and rules for everyone everywhere, that’s the first nail in the DIY coffin. On the other hand, during the early years of D&D, Gygax was against the idea of published adventures. So he was also a DIY DM, and we certainly can’t resent Gygax for setting down those rules; he was both gamer and businessman: he worked hard to start his company.

   And yet, you can still choose that Saturday event between friends. Any one of us can decide to look at it as “RPGs-the-little-pastime-between-friends”. It’s still available.

   If you already know you won’t take part in any sort of organized play or attend cons, why would you need all the books? These books keep coming like junkies to that weird windowless white door down the alley. You’re going to drown in paper and PDFs.

   DMs are not under contract with Wizards of the Coast, Chaosium, or any game publisher, and the ten or twelve books now “needed” just to roll up a new character are not legally binding in any way. When players choose to sit down at a DM’s table, they must accept whatever books or house rules recognized by that particular DM. If he / she says, “We roll characters with one book and one book only,” then the eleven other books become purposeless.

   What is the very first sentence you read right there on the cover of the 1977 Monster Manual – the first of those three AD&D core books? “This is the source to be used by referees and players for creating imaginative situations while playing the AD&D game.

   Emphasis on the words “creating” and “imaginative”.

   You have a functioning grasp on the RPG engine and you usually run games just for your old friends? Well, that’s awesome! Think of it as time travel – let’s pretend we are Gygax, Arneson, Megarry, Kuntz and the others, and the year is 1973. There are no core books lying around. Let’s wing it, baby!

   Mike Mearls recently tweeted, “If you are a DM, what’s the one thing we could give you to make DMing easier and more fun?”

   Give us some breathing space. It’ll make DMing easier and more fun. There’s way too much stuff out there already...

   My very first game was played in a tent on the shore of a lake, and my DM didn’t have any gear – just a pad of graph paper, two pencils, plus a few quarters to use as “dice”. Yep, every action / Saving Throw / sword slash had to be a fifty-fifty thing. Damage was “rolled” by throwing all of those 5 or 6 quarters at the same time: heads scored 1 point of damage, while tails scored 2 (so I was basically dealing 5 to 10 points of damage per attack, which is excellent for a fighter with a longsword). First monster I encountered was a hobgoblin with an axe, and it also dealt 5-10 damage per hit. We each had 50% chance to hit, every round. I remember a few traps, and throwing my flask of oil and my torch at some ghoul...

   Not much of a game, right? But I was overwhelmed – hooked for life! My point is this: less gear / accessories doesn’t mean less fun. Absolutely not.

   RPGs-the-big-business is both very good and very bad. Original Dungeon Masters Guide is quite enlightening when you look at it a certain way: it is a rulebook for a game that millions of Dungeon Masters are already running. It is right there on the back cover: “There’s no need to guess the rules.” Gary even gets to be a little bitchy here and there when addressing the way players interpret what they read in the Players Handbook, like when he talks about thieves’ abilities. “Climbing Walls. This is probably the most abused thief function, although hiding in shadows vies for the distinction.

   The 1975-1978 explosion in popularity is a fascinating thing, since the Dungeon Masters Guide only came out in ’79. What it means is, this game didn’t need a solid, fixed set of rules in order to become a huge international success.

   We can actually read a lot in that short sentence: “There’s no need to guess the rules.” Yes, that is what millions of D&D and AD&D players were doing between ’75 and ’79: they just guessed the rules. And it worked.

   It worked well enough to trigger a worldwide hobby revolution.


12/7/16

Geek Power

   I know who Robert de Boron is – so I’m a literary buff, right? Or maybe that’s not enough... And I also know who Theodore the Studite is – so I’m a history buff, right? Or maybe that is still not enough...

   How do you determine who’s a geek and who isn’t? Knowing about Boba Fett isn’t enough: that, I can say for sure.

   First, we must ask: what is a geek? Where do geeks come from? When did geekness began, exactly? Were there geeks in 1930? Was Lovecraft a geek? What action figures did he collect? What about Poe? And Tolkien? Is geekness linked exclusively to Kirk, Spock, Batman, and RPGs? So there were no geeks before, let’s say, the sixties, is that it? Or maybe geekness existed for thousands of years, and just recently “evolved” into its comic books / Star Trek form. Maybe that’s just Contemporary geekness. In the days of the cavemen, maybe the geek was a skinny guy who knew all about mushrooms. In the Middle Ages, maybe the geek was a girl who knew how to read, owned three books, and died on a pyre while her fellow villagers yelled “witch!” because she could speak ten words of ancient geek – I mean Greek.

   We could debate this theory for years and never come up with a definitive answer. And it still doesn’t help us with the question at hand: who’s a geek, and who isn’t? The Urban Dictionary says:

   A geek is a person who is socially excluded from a general population. Unlike nerds, geeks do not necessarily have to be smart. They often create groups among themselves, and generally have these similar characterizations: 1) Lack of participation in physical activities, such as sports; 2) An interest in computers; 3) A crude sense of humor radically different from common society; 4) A negative attitude toward common society.

   Wikipedia adds:

   In current use, the word typically connotes an expert or enthusiast or a person obsessed with a hobby or intellectual pursuit, with a general pejorative meaning of a “peculiar person”.

   With The Big Bang Theory, that “negative attitude toward common society” vanished completely, and the “peculiar person” simply became a mainstream normie.

   When I was a kid, I remember being so disappointed whenever a movie’s title proved “second degree”, or a metaphor. For example, something called The Seven Devils was NOT about a group of nasty grinning horned devils, but simply the tale of an elaborate corporate heist, and something titled Death’s Door had nothing to do with any Gate to the Underworld: it was the story of a woman in a long coma, and her husband’s desperate pain. That was then.

   Now, it’s the opposite. Every title is straightforwardly first degree – and everything is sci-fi, fantastic, or fantasy: Black Death recounts the real plague in the real Middle Ages; White House Down is truly about the physical destruction of the White House; Oblivion really chronicles the non-metaphorical end of life as we know it... What about a movie with a title like Snakes on a Plane, but it would tell the story of an airport executive running a Ponzi scheme!

   The Eye of Sauron is a perfect example. In the books, it is a metaphor, referring to the palantír, but also to Sauron’s evil, pervading awareness of almost everything that goes on in and around Mordor, and sometimes as far as the Shire. But in Peter Jackson’s movies, the Eye of Sauron is a real, visible, tangible huge eye of swirling chaotic flames. Get rid of all the subtleties – there you go!

   It’s become a first degree world, people. Nothing we can do about it now.

   The entire world is “geeking up” at an alarming rate. All my friends ever watch are things in which there are laser guns, bastard swords, zombies, magic, or superpowers. When I need to buy a birthday present, I never grab Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown, simply because that great book is NOT about Crom or Yog-Sothoth or Morgoth. But really, what a shame.

   I reread Howard Buten’s Reckless Driving: it is so good – with no bastard swords anywhere, no laser guns or dolphins in space or anything! And I finally saw Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: that’s insanely good too, and it’s not a set; everything you see on-screen is the real 1972 Los Angeles. When you’re accustomed to elaborate studio sets (Boardwalk Empire, Gotham) and you suddenly see some glorious authentic ’72 streets, it’s a mind-blowing shocker.

   But the seventies still saw a lot of movies meant for grown-ups that were enjoyed by kids. Nowadays, it’s the opposite: lots of children’s books / movies / games are also enjoyed by grown-ups (Lego, Pokémon, Harry Potter, you name it).

   I love being a geek. Loved it even in the early eighties when it wasn’t fashionable at all, at the peak of the Jock Era. And I suppose being a jock nowadays, in the Geek Era, isn’t as much fun as it used to be in the eighties. But, Thou Shalt Never Take Pity on Jocks, am I right?

   Role-playing games were not intended to become mainstream, ever. In the very beginning, RPGs were a counter-cultural thing, to use La Farge’s words. It was supposed to be a fringe phenomenon, not some gigantic multi-platform social hype now inducted in the National Toy Hall of Fame...

   Also, too many cons – there is one every other week now. The geeks of old were much more “unconventional”, and I’m not saying that just for the pun. Really. It has become very much mainstream.

   There are too many Cthulhu board games. It’s annoying. It’s like these game designers are scrambling desperately to get it just right. Arkham Horror takes too long. Elder Sign doesn’t take long enough. Let’s make another one, Eldritch Horror – and then Mansions of Madness – and of course there’s Cthulhu Wars...

   It kinda feels like those Apple products: iPad, iPhone, smaller iPad, slightly bigger iPhone, medium iPad, even bigger iPhone... Is the smallest of all iPads actually smaller than the biggest iPhone? You reach a point when it’s just Too Much Crap. But let’s get back to the issue at hand.

   When 75% of the people become geeks, well, there are no more geeks. Because that word means “strange” and “different”. When 75% of the people become geeks, it’s the non-geeks who are strange and unconventional – like my dad who only loves Goethe and Chopin and Mozart. My dad is now a geek. He is one of the New Geeks – they honestly don’t know who this Peter Parker guy is. That makes me the jock now, I guess. The Sci-fi Jock and the Gaming Jock...


11/19/16

The Great Halloween Dungeon Dive

   Doing extensive research in his Temple’s library, the cleric uncovered proof that the labyrinth he and his fellow adventurers had already explored twice may very well hide additional levels and sub-levels. So the party sets out on a new quest to find and copy an ancient wall fresco depicting the whole dungeon complex along with some shortcuts and secret access points. That sort of intel is worth a lot in virtually any D&D universe: a series of 5 or 6 fresh / unexplored dungeons nobody else knows about? HELL YEAH!!!

   Since the PCs already know where the two entrance portals are located – they’ve used one in Game #3 and the other in Game #5 – they buy all the necessary gear, and go straight back to the forest where the closest portal can be found.

   Twenty minutes of exploration in empty corridors and vacant rooms with no ancient frescoes anywhere, and then, one of the magic-users – the one with a continual light spell, of course – is suddenly teleported away by a mysterious Shadow Door. And that, ladies and gents, is where the fun begins!

   Magic-user #1 appears in yet another empty room – but where is that room in relation to the rest of the party? Well, at the very least, he’s not in complete darkness! A single door on his left, and double doors in front of him. He goes for the double doors...

   Elsewhere in the dungeon, the six other PCs are scrambling in the dark, finally lighting a torch just in time to see their second magic-user vanish. Did I mention fun yet? It’s only just begun.

   Magic-user #2 appears in a small room with a phosphorescent spirit face on the wall – and that face soon adresses him in a multitude of conjoined voices. It’s warning him and his comrades about a “Crypt Thing” that wanders around the place. “Whatever you do, never attack the Crypt Thing...”

   Meanwhile, magic-user #1 opened those double doors, and saw a wide corridor with a lone skeleton slowly getting to its feet. Magic-user shoots two magic missiles and advances on the skeleton; he is one bold fucker, you have to admire that.

   The others (now five PCs) hastily resume their exploration, Dwarf in the lead, cleric in the rear, holding a torch. But the cleric is not teleported. The bard is. Boom. Gone. And then, as the four remaining characters reach a long hallway, the Dwarf gets a glimpse of a gelatinous cube slowly turning the corner! At the far end of that same hallway, there’s the elusive Shadow Door – and a mummy priest already preparing some dark spell...


   Bard appears in a beautiful room: rich carpet, marble statue, and two huge greenish orbs with stone pedestals – but still no fresco. That’s the mummy priest’s personal room, but the bard doesn’t know that because he’s not yet seen a single monster.


   Reassurance is building now, because the players clearly see how their miniatures are all on the same dungeon map – albeit spread out in different corners. Magic-user #1 is cut away from the rest of the party by that gelatinous cube at one end of the hallway, and the mummy priest at the other end. Skeletons keep coming at him and he smites them with his staff.

   Magic-user #2 is done talking with the coalesced spirits of previous dungeon adventurers. He opens the door only to be caught right in the creeping fog of doom spell the mummy priest has just unleashed in the hallway.

   Bard also have a little chat with some mysterious “prisoner” through those twin orbs. Once he’s done, he leaves that room and comes face to face with a mummy – not the priest, but a regular mummy. The rest of the party is over there, at the other end of the hallway – but there’s an awful lot of nefarious stuff in the way: Shadow Door, creeping fog of doom, two mummies, and now a wraith (spewed by the Shadow Door).




   Then, the Shadow Door disappears from the hallway, reappearing one round later, behind the party, right next to that gelatinous cube. Three foul-smelling ghasts shamble out of the Shadow Door – but the Dwarf, cleric, ranger and thief all Save vs Poison, and none of them suffer the -2 To Hit penalty.

   Now the Dwarf is locked in melee with the “regular” mummy, the ranger fires +2 arrows at the wraith, the thief tackles one of the ghasts, and the cleric uses up one of his Beads of Karma to cast an enhanced silence, thus preventing the mummy priest from using his remaining spells (and these were potent, like ray of frost and disrupt life). Bravo, padre!

   The bard sneaks in from behind the mummy priest and stabs it with his +2 shortsword. He even tries to yodel, but it’s complete, utter silence.

   Magic-user #2 is also inside the silence zone, so he only uses cantrips, throws his new +3 dagger, and then a good old burning flask of oil.

   On the other side of the map, magic-user #1 isn’t affected by silence. He keeps blasting skeletons and tries his web (plus some fire) on the gelatinous cube, to no avail.


   Cleric turned two out of three ghasts, and later rolled a natural 20 to turn the mummy priest! With his sling, the bard kept firing on the mummy priest until it fled to its private chamber and then through the Shadow Door. It barely escaped with 2 HP even though all damage on mummies is always reduced by one half.


   Ranger destroyed the wraith – but not without having suffered some energy drain. Dwarf hacked down not one but two “regular” mummies (there were three mummies in all). Thief fought off a wight that skulked in the corridor.

   Resting for a while in the mummy’s luxurious suite, the party studied spells and cured a great many “light wounds”. After a few hours, they picked up their dungeon crawl and went through seven more rooms – all empty except for three ghouls and five more skeletons. These were easily dealt with.

   As they approached the room which held the exit portal, the cleric had some sort of “vision”. He saw the wall fresco they are seeking, just as if he were standing right in front of it... but then he realized that it was some black-robed skeleton standing there – somewhere – and that he, the cleric, seemed to be looking through the eyes of that black-robed skeleton!

   And the cleric “felt” that he could simply take one step forward and be transported over there, to where the fresco was located...

   Dauntlessly, he goes – taking that step forward, and vanishing.

   The other PCs don’t like that.


   Cleric appears in a big room full of stairs and platforms, with a mezzanine. He is standing in front of a mural depicting the entire dungeon complex, all nine levels of it. And he’s standing next to the ominous robed skeleton: the Crypt Thing they’ve been warned about. (“Whatever you do, never attack it.”)

   It’s like the Crypt Thing knew they were searching for that master map, and intervened in order to “help” them get access to it... Very strange indeed. So the cleric grabs his calfskin vellums and charcoal and starts copying the rather large fresco.

   After six or seven rounds the rest of the party either stumbles into the fresco room (over a trap, expertly found by the thief) or is teleported there, each one in front of a different “dungeon level” rune. Weirder and weirder...

   Oh, and there are quite a few undead lurking in that room: three revenants, one undead green dragon hunched on the second platform, and a blazing skeleton up on the mezzanine. They all seem to leave the cleric alone while he’s busy copying the map. Maybe this is due to the Crypt Thing’s proximity?

   Blazing skeleton immediately begins to shoot balls of blue flames towards the PCs, and two of the revenants savagely attack the bard and the Dwarf.


   After melee had started, the undead dragon slowly moved from its platform to halfway down the stairs – and then used his breath weapon. Five characters were caught in that suffocating cloud of rotten gas, and can you believe all five missed their Saving Throw? Everyone lost 12 HP, except for the cleric and one of the magic-users. Ouch.


   And then the Crypt Thing was gone. No more “protection”. But the cleric was almost done copying that precious map anyway. Two wights crept in through the opposite entrance and angled straight for the magic-users, one of which then cast a web, and the other fired a couple magic missiles.


   “Go up, guys!” I was secretly thinking. “Make for those stairs! Use your Rope of Climbing or that 12-foot ladder from the Robe of Useful Items! Don’t stay in the mosh pit: new undead are pouring in through there! The exit portal is up on that mezzanine... Climb, you fools!


   But they remained down, except for the thief of course, who climbed that wall and got within ten feet of the exit – but he had 1 HP left by then and couldn’t take on the very last obstacle: a giant tentacle!

   The two healers were still in the mosh pit – and the bard was out cold now (-6 HP).


   Then we were out of time, and had to stop.

   I’ve got an idea for my next game. Boss fight first, little scenes later.

   Why is it that gaming has to follow the same narrative buildup than TV shows or movies? If you jump-start the boss fight in the first half of your session, there are three MAJOR advantages:

 • You’re not tired.
 • Players are not tired.
 • You will have time to wrap up that big scene.


   The intro / buildup / climax protocol makes sense in a movie because a movie is only two hours long, not six or eight. It also makes sense in books, since nobody reads an entire book in one sitting – unless your name is Dr. Spencer Reid.

   In a game, though, it makes no sense. After six to eight hours of DMing, you’re obviously drained, your players are exhausted, the focus is not as solid as it was towards the beginning, and some of the guys have to leave because they’ve promised their wives they’d be home by eight...

   So why not deconstruct that age-old recipe and start your boss fight before halftime? What’s the worst that could possibly happen?

   Next time, we’ll see about that! Mark my words.


9/22/16

Who Invented the Dracolich?

   This is a true story. It happened to my brother and I, back in 1986. For almost twenty years, though, I thought nobody else had experienced that thing besides us. It seems pretty obvious now: I was dead wrong. It happened to LOTS of people.

   It was the middle of the winter and I returned home from the gaming store with the brand new Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play core book. I was fifteen, and my brother was eleven – but I already ran home games of AD&D for him whenever I wasn’t at one of my friends’ for some bigger game. Thus, my brother was already familiar with most of the monsters from Monster Manual and Fiend Folio. He sat down with me as I started browsing through the Warhammer book. We were both very excited with that wonderful new concept of “careers”, but after maybe 45 minutes or an hour, we skipped to the monsters section – because we loved monsters. And that is when it happened. Flipping the pages of that monsters section, we got to page 249.


   My brother’s breath caught, and he said, “THAT’S a lich in this game!!??

   I too was gobsmacked. It blew my fifteen-year-old mind. A huge undead bird-lich? Wow, man! Holy crap!

   Turns out, it was all a case of bad editing. Look carefully at those two pages: on the left-hand side you have Undead, Carrion, and Ghoul; on the right-hand side you have Liches (plural), and then the picture for a Carrion (a large undead bird). That picture should have been put on the facing page, next to the Carrion text, and the Ghoul and Liches texts should have been on the right-hand page, without pics.

   But our minds were already blown – it was too late.

   Even though that image clearly depicts a Carrion...


   “Physique: Carrion are skeletal flying beasts, mostly birdlike but with membranous wings and tails, reminiscent of bats or pterodactyls. They stand about 7 feet high, with a wingspan of 15-20 feet.

   Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play (first edition) hit the shelves in January of 1986. Ed Greenwood’s article in Dragon magazine #110 – the very first occurrence of a “dracolich” – was published in June of ’86. Five months later. That’s fact.

   The rest is not fact, but speculation. Still, it stands to reason that MANY players had the exact same reaction as my brother (i.e. “THAT’S a lich in this game!!??”). Word got around, and soon the idea of a “dragon-lich” had a life of its own. Greenwood decided to write it down; if he hadn’t, somebody else would have.

   So the dracolich was a happy accident. Its unintentional creator was the Games Workshop editor who worked on that book in 1985. Paul Cockburn: that is the name printed in Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play’s credits under “editing”.

   Mister Cockburn, we salute you!


8/25/16

Forest Romp

   Welcome to the rundown of my First Edition AD&D game #6. If you’d like to read about previous sessions, check out the “Dungeon Do-Over” post from three months ago.

   The PCs are now real local celebs.

 • They found a fresh, unexplored dungeon, and didn’t grab anything from it.
 • They found an ancient relic of Boccob, and one of Joramy.
 • They won the Dwarven King’s Dungeon Lottery.
 • They brought back a 3-ton silver menhir for the King.

   Villagers are beginning to sing songs about these guys – thus, when a nefarious Orc shaman kidnaps three newborn Human babies in the night, who you gonna call?

   The ranger easily picks up the shaman’s trail. Cleric says, “First 72 hours are key!” Anachronistic, but funny. Those babies have been taken 24 hours ago. So the party promptly follows the kidnapper’s footprints through the woods. After a few hours of tracking they reach a dangerous part of the forest. There are three particularly evil landmarks in that zone: 1) the indestructible wooden tower of an extinct witch coven; 2) a reoccurring rift leading to the first Plane of (possibly) the Nine Hells; 3) an ancient fertility sanctuary of the Ogre goddess Beqweth, Vaprak’s wife.

   Three very evil spots, close to one another – what an ideal place to hang around if you happen to be an Orc shaman!

   First magic-user sends his familiar (a crow) flying towards the old Witch Tower. All he can see are two grizzly bears chained underneath the tower. But as the crow flies closer to that warped wooden structure... an Orc archer hidden inside kills it with an arrow! Ouch. Poor magic-user loses 8 HP. Meanwhile, the second magic-user had sent his familiar (an owl) towards the Ogre sanctuary. He saw a lone gargantuan snake sleeping on top of a huge mossy tumulus, with some shattered phallic monument nearby, but no Orcs.

   The PCs head for the Witch Tower; there’s at least one Orc over there, right?


“And there’s smoke pouring out of the damned thing!”

   Perrier drinking ranger and his E-cigarette provided excellent special FX for the Witch Tower. The ectoplasmic goo covering the building from top to bottom was already scary enough – but if you add drifting wisps of smoke, well...................


   Thief and ranger approached from the west while the cleric, Dwarf, and magic-users came in on the northern side. Those bears were quickly released, and surged forward to get the PCs. From the tower’s balcony, not one but three Orc archers began firing arrows at the Dwarf and cleric. Thief sneaked up to the base of the tower and climbed. Ranger carried on for three rounds firing six arrows at the Orc archers. Orc number one died and fell out. Magic-users blasted one attacking bear with four magic missiles. Dwarf hurled a couple throwing axes. Cleric cast his spiritual hammer.


   By the time the thief had climbed all the way up to the balcony, Orc archer number two was dying and collapsed over the wooden railing, pierced with arrows. The thief boldly stormed the tower all by himself and engaged that remaining Orc in melee – short sword against short sword +2.


   Dwarf and cleric tried to steer the two bears to either side of a dead tree, hoping for the chain to get stuck, but it didn’t work. Ranger and Dwarf had to resort to animal cruelty and finish both bears in a bloody manner. Then the MARG people showed up unannounced – the Medieval Animal Rights Group. I’m kidding.

   One of the babies was retrieved in a makeshift crib inside the tower, under a powerful sleep spell. One down, two to go!

   By that time in the game, one missing player had showed up, so I added the bard to the party – he was following but had gotten lost for a few hours, as Hobbits are wont to do.

   Nightfall found the PCs trudging through dense forest with no clear trails, and the ranger kept seeing traces of various beasts and monsters: bugbears, wolves, panthers, goblins, and even a giant of some sort... We had about ninety minutes of gaming left on the clock, so I decided to skip the random encounters. The cleric carried the sleeping child, and the party arrived at that second location (the Ogre fertility sanctuary) a short time before midnight. Only source of light was a declining campfire in the center of the clearing. The ranger (an Elf) could make out the gargantuan snake on top of the tumulus, as well as two giant snakes lurking in thickets at the edge of the glade. After choosing one of those giant snakes, the PCs made their way towards it.


   First round saw a staggering 39 points of damage dealt to that giant snake; it quickly retreated towards the tumulus, and the other reptiles started to slither in the party’s direction. Except for the thief who wandered off again, all PCs stayed entrenched in that thicket, and were soon assaulted by the 154 HP gargantuan snake, and two 45 HP giant snakes (including the one that had already suffered 39 damage). The wooden door of the tumulus opened and an additional giant snake came out to join in the fight.


The mighty Battle of the Thicket.


   Four or five rounds later the Ogre priestess herself awoke and shambled out of the sacred tumulus clutching her meat cleaver. She cast a spell on the thief and he missed his Save, thus being transformed into a giant ant.

   Antoine, who plays one of the magic-users, grabbed my camera and began taking pictures of the Ogress from inside the tumulus. This proved difficult because of the close proximity and the flash. He had to snap ten or eleven pics, but finally got one right. I think it looks awesome.


“Who dares disturb my sleep?”

   With all the snakes dead except for the biggest one who was being relentlessly clobbered by the Dwarf, the cleric decided it was safe enough to lay down the sleeping baby near that campfire, and he then marched towards the priestess who attempted to polymorph him too, but failed. Priest against priestess – that is one holy clash we all wished for, didn’t we?

   Boccob “the Uncaring” prevailed over Beqweth “the Mother of Ogres”. THE DAMN PATRIARCHY WINS AGAIN...

   Another sleeping baby lay inside the tumulus, along with some treasure: three potions, one phylactery, one ring, one cloak, a pair of bracers, and a very intelligent Dagger of Petrification +3 with an ego as big as a two-handed claymore’s.

   One baby still unaccounted for; but we were already running late and so we called it a night. Decent result: 66⅓% of all missing babies duly rescued. But I only plopped 10 monster miniatures on that table... out of 24 available!


Forest Grump

   We now get to the last part of this post, where I can analyze the game and highlight what went wrong.

   The props are kinda stealing the show now. Players want to head straight to “the best props”. That is no good. So, what’s the answer? Tone it down on the terrain / scenery side of things, and maybe paint more minis instead?


   Also, waaay too much talking. Guys, we can get together once a month if we want and talk about TV shows and movies and politics and stuff – but we only play D&D twice a year. Less talk, more play.

   Third problem: tactics. The guys are too good, that’s all. I really need to break up that tight cluster of PCs by any means necessary. I need to scatter the party and sprinkle small monsters all over the place, make a mess, make things dynamic and unpredictable again. Things are too static right now, because players are excellent strategists. Warcraft and Call of Duty and Halo and Splinter Cell transformed players into masters of efficiency, and that in itself should be a good thing – but it seems to defeat the whole purpose of miniatures and scenery. Why the sprawling terrain if the party keeps moving in a tight knot with the spellcasters huddled in the center and always zeroing in on one monster at a time? Why the trees and rocks and tumuli if no one ever hides under a tree or seeks cover behind a rock or enters the tumulus? Hours of model-making work for zip.

   Elaborate terrain is inherited from the kriegsspiels of the ’60s – wargames, historical reenactments – when things were guaranteed to get messy and trees / rocks / hills were very important. For a group of seven characters, it’s not as relevant. You could run entire scenes with graph paper. The solid clump of characters edges to the left: giant snake #2 is now in range for the magic missiles and spiritual hammer: fire away! Delivering 39 points of damage on a 45 HP giant snake in the first round – just with missiles! The amount of damage dealt by a party of level 4 characters is crazy. I need to give them multiple targets and throw a lot at them all at once if I hope to generate at least a little mayhem; it probably won’t break up that solid clump of miniatures but at the very least it’ll have them surrounded and they’ll have no other choice but to split their damage on several foes. Still pretty static, but it’s a start.

   In my opinion, big minis are a waste of money. Two otyughs cost me $42 with shipping, and only dealt 23 points of damage between the two of them, with no typhus. Air elemental cost $18 and dealt 14 points of damage over four rounds, before being annihilated by seven PCs surrounding it and easily generating 90 damage. That’s $18 for 14 points: more than a buck per point of damage. Expensive, and not a sound investment.

   No more big miniatures then – unless they’re backed by lots of smaller minions. That is the trick: don’t let a party of seven concentrate their attacks on just one monster. Get in their faces. Create urgency. Press them hard. Overwhelm their “defensive huddling”. Split the nucleus, in other words. Make things dynamic again. Use a lot of small miniatures. Use monsters that can appear out of thin air, like invisible stalkers. Use monsters that can drop from the ceiling, emerge through the floor, pass through walls, or blink.

   For my next game, that’s the first challenge. Dynamic. Move player miniatures around on the map. Shake that tree.

   The second challenge is to deal more damage. I realized that none of the PCs in my game ever dropped below 5 Hit Points in the last two sessions. One magic-user dropped to zero when his familiar was shot and killed by an Orc, but that’s the only exception – and I feel like it doesn’t really count. Nobody else was ever out of commission, not even the engineer NPC in game #5. Last time I had a player character dropped to zero HP was exactly one year ago in a big fight against 4 Drows and a Handmaiden of Lolth. Two games were played since – one 9-hour session and one 5-hour session – and not a single knockout. Fourteen hours of play. Man. The guys are tactical. This is not Splinter Cell though, it’s goddamned First Edition AD&D – madness and chaos are supposed to be part of the deal.

   Those challenges stand.

   My next game will not be static. It’ll have forced flow and movement. And mark my words: PCs will drop to zero HP or lower. This, I swear before the Gods of Gaming. It may sound harsh to some players’ ears, but of course I’m not saying this in an aggressive manner. It’s just – I’m starting to feel inadequate. Two entire adventures without anyone dropping to zero? Really?

   The guys don’t see each other often and of course they wanna talk. I prepare too much stuff. That is my fault. For this particular forest adventure I had 3 main combat scenes with spectacular terrain, 1 secondary scene with bugbears and their feral panthers, and 1 mobile / random encounter (the Orc shaman and his apprentices). We tackled 2 main combat scenes, period – and I had to cut the second one short because it was past 19:00 and two players had already left. Basically we played that big scene at the beginning of an action movie, and then went directly to the climax. Nothing in between. Just talk talk talk.

   I need to take that into account and prepare less stuff. Of course the guys are going to talk: that’s only natural, and I don’t want to ban chatting around the table like some Soup Nazi. So I’m going to prepare 2 main scenes and that’s it; there will be ample time to chat before we play the first scene, and in between those two scenes, and at the very end, with the awarding of XP. There’s hardly ever any time left to do that.

   I’m actually quite optimistic. Can’t wait to start working on game #7 which is scheduled for Halloween. Now I know what’s wrong – and I’ll be able to fix it!


7/28/16

Star Trek is... illogical?

   I remember watching that new Star Trek movie on TV, about a year ago. The 2009 J.J. Abrams film. I certainly wasn’t sold on the next ones. Here’s why.

   First off, there is the matter of the “red matter”. That is not a WMD, it’s a WWD – a Weapon of World Destruction. Scratch that. It’s a WSSD – a Weapon of Solar System Destruction! It’s insane! Beats the Death Star. Beats Galactus. Beats everything I ever saw or read in SF/F – except maybe for the awakening of Azathoth and the Great Old Ones, with the stars being “right” and all. But really, that “red matter” is CRAZY. If such a weapon existed, it would require an intergalactic Imperium’s Security Council just to safeguard it and prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. And you would never – ever – put it aboard one tiny shuttlecraft named Jellyfish with a lone aging Vulcan ambassador in it. ARE YOU MAD? Such a superpowerful weaponized substance should be escorted by an entire armada of Battlestars and heavy warships! This is ridiculous. It’s like putting the entirety of Earth’s nuclear warheads on a damn yacht with Madeleine Albright at the tiller, and send that craft somewhere on the high seas without further monitoring!

   How come the Federation didn’t notice the disappearance of the most dreadful weapon in the galaxy? Twenty-five years later that rift in space ought to be the most heavily guarded point in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. One huge space station plus a hundred major warships patrolling AT ALL TIMES.

   This scenario by Orci & Kurtzman makes no sense at all.

   And then there is the thing with those twenty-five years. Seriously, a ship full of Romulan convicts waited patiently in a remote corner of space for twenty-five years without being noticed, without ever interacting with the rest of the universe, without any mutiny, and without the crew going nuts and killing each other? Not one of these convicts ever said, “Fuck you, Nero! I’ll go to Romulus, and have sex with all the Romulan bitches I can find for the next twenty-five years – and then if Romulus is annihilated in 2387, so be it. But I’m not gonna wither away aboard this damn ugly depressing mining ship. Not for twenty-five years, no way!”

   And where did they get their food and water during all those years? From a replicator, all of it? For a quarter of a century? Really?

   This tremendously long wait is predicated upon ONE single assumption: Nero somewhat knows that Spock’s shuttle carries the all-powerful red matter, and he knows that the shuttle is being sucked into the very same time-rift – but time-rifts are unpredictable anomalies, and if Spock’s shuttle is sucked into the rift eighteen minutes after the Narada, on the other end of the rift (in the past) those eighteen minutes could very well become twenty-five years! Nero knows that. He’s not only a convict and a miner – he’s also an expert on time-rifts somehow...

   So, after the first six months of stealthily waiting, a few Romulans said, “Well, forget it, boss – that shuttle’s not coming! Can’t you see? It has probably escaped the rift’s gravitational pull or something... Let’s move on!”

   But Nero quelled this rebellion and said, “We’ll wait a little longer. Like, twenty more years or so.”

   It’s a farce. A joke. It is NOT AT ALL believable.

   J.J. Abrams has terrible timeline problems, and always tries to blur this blatant flaw by adding “magic” and some “parallel reality”, like we had in Lost and in Fringe.

   Hardcore Trekkies scrambled to fix that huge incoherence by claiming that the entire crew of the Narada was jailed on Rura Penthe during those twenty-five years; but that’s weak, honestly. Doesn’t solve anything, come to think of it. Reeks of desperation.

   So pardon me if I didn’t see the second Star Trek with Cumberbatch, and probably won’t see this new one either. I know Abrams will make a good movie at some point in the future. Let’s lay low and wait for a while – like, twenty-five more years.