Time to Play Tournament

   I now realize how much Gen Con got it right back in ’74 (literally from the start) with Tournament Play, and participants who often didn’t know each other. Because, let’s face it: time wasted is one of the main afflictions – if not the main affliction – in tabletop RPGs; and why, I ask, do players waste time? Two reasons:

   Reason #1. Players waste time because they’re in no hurry. If they don’t get to the evil sorcerer’s lair tonight, they’ll get there next month, or in three months, when they play their next game session. There is no deadline: why rush in? Tournament play solves that completely. “Here’s the situation. This is happening, and these goblins over there are digging something up in the crevasse, and that warlock begun his ritual to summon up something nasty... You guys have six hours. It starts now. What do you want to do?”

   Reason #2. Players waste time because they all know each other. They’ve all been friends since ’84 or so. They are glad to see each other. They’re fired up. They brought wine. They’re thirsty. They start talking about Windows 8. Then they talk about Cuba and going south in January. Then someone says the word “Linux”, and that’s another hour vanishing... Tournament play solves that, too. The players sit down, introduce themselves, let the DM have a look at their character record sheets, and start gaming almost immediately.

   It’s still very cool to play with your old gaming buddies, though. Sometimes I’ll put someone new in the lineup – one of my cousins, or a coworker – but at its core, it stays mostly my old friends. I couldn’t really solve that time wasting aspect of the game, so I’ve decided to definitely solve the other: I now give each scenario a time limit. Forget long mods like Tsojcanth. Now it’s mini-games, playable in under 8 hours. A beginning, a middle, and an end – all in the same game session. If it’s a dungeon crawl, there’s gonna be less than 10 rooms to explore, and only between 3 and 5 fight scenes. Still, if they don’t have enough time to “finish” the dungeon, that’s that, and it’s just too bad.

   November 29, I ran my second game of AD&D in 28 years. I talked about the first session in a previous post, and the results were dismal. Now, there’s improvement. But there is room for further improvement – as always.

   After years and years of multisession adventures, it’s hard to pick up the pace. We were accustomed to extensive analysis and brainstorming; we even invented a new word for it: metagaming. This is when players are out of character, discussing the difficulties / challenges / technical aspects of a particular scenario. It’s annoying sometimes, because real medieval warriors wouldn’t think that much, but that’s the world we live in: what can you expect when every one of your friends is a network programmer or a teacher? If you hate the OOC shit, just get yourself a bunch of actor friends – theater majors, that kind of people. They will really play the Elf or the wizard or the monk. Meanwhile, work with what you have, and what you have is metagaming, which we also called tobyism, because of Tobias who really did it a lot.

   But now that I want to switch us back to good old tournament play – i.e. with a time limit –, the guys need to reacquaint themselves with the forgotten arts of “winging it” and “going in blind” and other brands of instant decision-making. I was asking myself: why do I always cringe, and not them? Because they don’t know the rooms still left to explore, but I do. It gave me an idea...

   What about if I handed the players a complete map of the dungeon right at the beginning, with all the rooms, but no clues regarding monsters or traps? They’d have a visual reference as the game progresses, and they’d be able to see all that’s still unexplored.

   Like I wrote four months ago, it’s a question of identifying the “profitable” part of any sandbox-ish scenario. Where is the good stuff stashed away? In this case, the good stuff waited in three pocket dimensions accessible through a magical stone slab in the mansion’s basement. But THEY DIDN’T GO of course – except for the bard who entered one of these dimensions alone, but am I gonna bust the lich and his five mummies just for one PC? (Huge exaggeration here about the monsters, but you got my whiff.)

   Tournament is definitely the way, but I think there ought to be some visual aid for the players – a sort of “Dungeon Completion Chart”. Nine main rooms, plus a number of corridors and stairwells and possibly traps. We’re already two hours in, and we only cleared two main rooms out of nine. We’re behind schedule, guys!

   I’m sure there is some way to integrate this in the story.

   Tournament is not logical. “Why do we only have six hours to do this?” Well, why not? Dungeon crawls aren’t logical anyway. You go on myth-weavers.com and click “generate dungeon”, but what is this damned dungeon exactly? Who built it, and why? Wanting to go logical in D&D is a slippery slope indeed. Like I used to say: everybody killed Drelnza, and then met in a tavern to swap stories about how they killed her...

   Please check your logic at the door.

   If at least one of your friends is an adept of vaping, and if he brought his e-cigarette (you know he did), then you have access to amazing special effects during your combat scenes, like in this photo: mansion’s on fire and they’re all fighting the evil intruders in a thick cloud of smoke!


Batman Cthulhu vs Mickey Thor

   Been many years now since that weird Arkham / Gotham merger occurred, and to celebrate it (and the elegant absurdity of it), here is the Dark Knight’s investigator card for Arkham Horror – next game, trust me, I’m using it!

   Arkham is now a district of Gotham City, nothing more. They kept the Asylum, sure, but not the Miskatonic River nor the University, nor the Witch House and other cool eerie spots. HPL’s Arkham is just plain gone, and it makes me very sad.

   It’s like saying that the Dragon Isle of Melniboné and the Isle of Númenor are one and the same – or that Camelot is in Lankhmar – but wait till it is Public Domain, though! Why do you think there are so many versions of the same stories in Greek mythology or Arthurian mythos? It’s because writers constantly rip off previous writers. Vergil cannot leave Homer alone, so he tells a different story of the same damn Achilles. Malory cannot leave Chrétien de Troyes alone, so he spins a different tale of the same damn Lancelot... Five hundred years from now, our own pop culture will also be a huge mess, perhaps even bigger: Hastur the Unspeakable will be the Joker’s BFF, and together they’ll plot the destruction of the Klingon High Jedi Council of Minas Tirith...

   Who invented Gotham City anyway? Is it Bill Finger? Is it Herron & Kirby? We know that Lovecraft created Arkham in 1920. Gotham City is first mentioned in a 1940 issue of Batman. So, is Arkham older than Gotham, then? But wait, Washington Irving made use of the name “Gotham” back in 1807, didn’t he? Borrowed from someone who borrowed it from someone else who borrowed it from... where?

   Both names are Public Domain – because both Irving and Lovecraft died such a long time ago. If I decide to write a Cthulhu novella set in Arkham, with “Gotham City” being the name of the outskirts of Arkham, north of the Miskatonic, nobody in the world could say anything, right? The name Gotham doesn’t belong to DC Comics.

   Today’s TV could be called the Public Domain Media. Elementary, Sherlock, Grimm, Dracula, Once Upon A Time... Who’s falling into Public Domain next? Orwell? You can bet there are three TV shows already in the works, then... Big Brother is watching you, Public Domain, and he wants to make money without paying any money.

   I refuse to do any research about Disney. What I’ve heard is that they now own every Marvel superhero, just like they own everything Star Wars. Is that so, or just a truckload of crap? I don’t really give a rat’s ass. So, hypothetically, Disney owns all of Marvel’s characters, but not Marvel Studios proper? And Marvel Studios now produce Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which is set in the same “Marvel Universe”, but you never actually see the Hulk, Iron Man, or Thor – although they are mentioned from time to time... Eighty-seven lawyers brokered this lucrative deal? It’s almost creepy. Armies of suits square off against each other in order to get their filthy hands on our geek dollars.

   Someone else told me that Spider-Man still belongs to Marvel – as long as they keep releasing new material every two years or so; if they stop the flow of new Spidey material, Spidey then becomes Disney’s property. Is that yet another truckload of bullshit? I don’t know, and I honestly don’t care researching any of that. It’s too depressing. Even a half-minute Google search is too big a waste of my time when it comes to Disney. Consider this my #DisneySide.

   My nephew is six years old and now totally loves Star Wars. Six, that’s how old I was in ’77. Accordingly, the little guy was amazed when he saw that I knew these characters inside and out. And of course he wanted to show me his toys... This is when I realized how Star Wars nowadays is not exactly – not at all – the thing I used to know and love. There are Jedi Angry Birds and Sith Little Pigs and Star Wars Angry Birds video games, and Star Wars Lego webisodes and video games, and it’s impossible to keep track of everything in there. Luke Skywalker in on Naboo. Jar Jar goes to Tatooine. Han Solo meets Boss Nass. Darth Maul builds the Death Star. It’s an incredible, intractable, invincible mess.

   Disney / Hasbro / Lego / Rovio / Retoy: an orgy of cash, that’s what it is.

   But I did something fantastic, something I’m very proud of: I never said anything in front of my nephew. Let him have his Star Wars trip, right here in 2014, just like I had mine in ’79. Why should I even bother, since there’s absolutely nothing I can do about any of this... Angry Bird General Grievous now helps Lego Lando Calrissian in his fierce battle against some cheese-like substance...

   Why do we write? What’s the goal of it? To create interesting characters, right? But if you create an interesting enough character, it turns to crap for sure – sooner or later. So what’s the answer? What should we do? Never get attached to any character, ever? Not the ones you create, nor those created by others.

   For example, right now, I’m getting attached to Reese and Finch and Shaw, and I shouldn’t, because they’re bound to be turned into crap. It’s not a question of if, it’s just a question of when. It can take some time indeed. With the Star Wars characters, it took more than 20 years. For Mulder and Scully, it didn’t happen yet – but it will, mark my words. Disney or some other shit factory will acquire the rights to The X-Files, and that will be it. Goodbye. Sayonara. Ciao.

   I call this phenomenon “the great wood chipper”. We throw everything we have in it, every piece of our culture. Scott Fitzgerald, Victor Hugo, Alan Moore, Tolkien, Conan Doyle... We even throw our previous crap in that crap-maker to make it crappier still – Carrie, Total Recall, Robocop...

   Making money is the only virtue in our society; Hollywood and Disney succeed thoroughly. Sometimes, someone tries to grab the bonus audience of an adjacent fanbase, like DC did when they included Arkham and its infamous Asylum: they try to lure in the Lovecraft fans.

   Or am I insane?



Pirates & Plunder

   Don’t mess with Texas – even in tabletop gaming! Yes: I love Yaquinto Publications, and still have a lot of fond memories about Pirates & Plunder, which I ran from 1996 to ’99, and it was the only “fantasy” game I ran with absolutely no magic in the entire campaign – very refreshing. Everything else I ever ran had magic in it, except for one or two short sci-fi or James Bond campaigns. But not having to bother with magic is truly like a DM’s paid vacation...

    One player tackled the role of young Captain Joshua Tew, a (fictional) brother of the infamous Thomas Tew of the Amity. Josh Tew’s own ship was the Marmaduke, with a crew of 38 ruthless sailors, mostly Englishmen from the Bahamas, with some French outlaws thrown into the mix... Captain Tew was a good leader, bold, charismatic, just sneaky enough, and not as insane as most (if not all) of the other PCs.

   Second player was a crazy Quaker priest obsessed with converting Indians and Pirates alike to the True Religion – his own. He wasn’t a coward, though, and took an active part in every battle, slashing around with his sabre, and jumping like a madman right in the midst of Spanish soldiers whenever he had the chance. Sometimes he even went bananas and drew his blade during non-fight scenes, like at a dinner party in Tobago with some rich tobacco farmers and their families...

   Third player was a young chap who never seemed to own enough gunpowder and weapons and muskets and pistols and sabres and rapiers and knives. He was a fifteen-year-old walking arsenal, and never wasted a single round recharging any gun. He just lined them up along the railing prior to a fight, twenty or twenty-five loaded guns, and nobody else would dare touch ‘em, and he was all set then – because, honestly, what RPG fight scene ever lasted twenty-five rounds?

   Fourth player was an old hand: an experienced French sailor who never wore any armor. His Constitution / Toughness score was so damn high that his (hairy) bare chest was less likely to suffer a wound than the Captain’s with his leather brigandine and silk shirt. Old Jacquot owned two weapons – a regular sword, and a seventy-year-old musket with a slightly bent barrel. A cask of rum once fell onto the gun, and Old Jacquot kept it and patiently trained himself to aim with that bent barrel. After a few years, he’d mastered “the bend” and could fire his musket with a normal hit probability – but anybody else suffered a -30 penalty if they ever tried to shoot with this particular gun, and Jacquot himself had a -25 penalty when aiming with any firearm other than his own.

   They played long adventures on the Mosquito Coast, in the Bahamas, in Jamaica, Tobago, Maracaibo, and on more than a few tiny islands and cays. One time, they completely destroyed the small port of Matthew Town in the Bahamas – an operation that required almost three hours of sustained cannon fire, along with thirty powder kegs stashed in advance near city hall, the church, and the jailhouse! And all of that was just because one guy they needed to kill was hiding somewhere in town, and they couldn’t find him...

   I’ve heard quite a few Dungeon Masters talk about running the “best game of their life”. They think about it, they plan on it, talk about it... but is it going to happen? Or maybe the question should be: has it already happened?

   If you took up DMing at age fifteen, by the time you hit thirty you already have way more experience than EGG himself when he was running that legendary Greyhawk campaign in the early seventies. Here’s a little equation to measure that. You take the year you first started DMing, add fifteen to it, and that’s your “DMing Peak”. Now, what were you running right around that time? Look it up.



Which RPG is the best?

   If I were to pick pieces and parts of various role-playing games and then put them back together to fashion one “perfect” RPG, this is what my little Frankenstein’s Monster would look like.

   From the get-go, D&D gave us very good “To Hit” mechanics: this is a kind of simplicity I like. With one die roll, you know. Monster’s Armor Class, and there – you need 15. And the hit location doesn’t matter. Head or toe? Don’t waste any time rolling for that crap – the amount of damage you deal gives you a fairly good idea of where you struck your opponent, and that’s enough. In the White Wolf system, it’s much more complicated. Attacker rolls his seven, eight, or nine dice, says “four successes”, and then the defender rolls his Parry or Dodge, seven more dice, and says “three successes, you got me”, and now the attacker rolls his nine damage dice, says “five”, and the defender rolls his four or five Soak dice, says “two”, and registers three points of damage on his character record sheet (five Hits minus two Soaks). So, fourteen dice were rolled before any damage was dealt, as opposed to the one die with D&D. And that’s just one sword swing, mind you. Imagine the dice-rolling extravaganza if four player characters square off against six bloodthirsty scimitar-wielding ghouls! (When I’m gonna lay on my deathbed, at age 90, I’m gonna be able to say: “Well, one cumulative full year out of those ninety was spent rolling 10-sided dice!”)

   D&D also gave us the “levels” mechanics – and this is the kind of simplicity I don’t like. Players can’t spend XP where they want to, because all XP are automatically funnelled into levelling up. New spells, improved skills, augmented Hit Points, it’s all bundled up together. Too generic. All sixth level thieves are identical: they all have 45% in Remove Traps and 92% in Climb Walls, unless they’re Halfling, in which case they have 50% and 77% respectively.

   Level is the big impediment, here. Without it, you can have “spendable” XP, but you cannot have a one-die “To Hit” roll, because one-die To Hit is based on the monster’s (or opponent’s) Armor Class, and the character’s level. So if there are levels, you’ve got that easy breezy beautiful one-die To Hit, but won’t be able so spend your hard-earned XP as you see fit – they’re all gonna go straight into levelling up... Unless your To Hit is simply made into a skill (a skill you can therefore improve with XP).

   I prefer XP to be spendable separately and anywhere. Get a new useful spell, or boost Dexterity by one point? Increase your Drive Cart and Orientation skills, or get three more Hit Points?

   With Games Workshop things were certainly less monolithic, but Chaosium and White Wolf really unbundled the XP and it was great. “Increased Toughness can wait until the end of the next adventure, but I really need to improve Perception – for Initiative – and Missile Weapons – to defend our new stronghold from wandering goblins.” This way, each PC is totally unique and original.

   Skills are important, but AD&D had very few of them. What’s the roll if you’re trying to hear guards whispering in the next room? What’s the roll if you’re trying to remember which narrow alley you came out of when you escaped from those haunted sewers five nights ago? With Oriental Adventures, AD&D included “non-weapon proficiencies”, which are basically Skills. Newer editions of D&D added things like Perception and Will. You need those. Can’t play without those.

   Now, the magic system – that’s a headache. Oddly enough, I think the best magic system was the one found in Star Wars: the role-playing game. You only had three things there, called Sense, Control, and Alter. That is what you do with magic, isn’t it? You “sense” someone or something, you “control” natural or supernatural phenomena (a wound, a ghost, whatever), or you “alter” mundane or magical stuff. In the very good Ars Magica system, that would translate into Intellego (sense), Rego (control), and Muto (alter) – the other two forms, Creo and Perdo, being different combos of Control and Alter.

   That is a fine, simple system. And it also gives you a dice roll to see if you cast the spell correctly – a thing gravely lacking in D&D. And last but not least, to get a perfectly good magic system, you need Magic Points (thank you, Chaosium). To hell with that “cast and forget” thing; just consider how many Magic Points you’ve got, and you manage from there. Need to cast three fireballs in four rounds? Go right ahead, Quick Ben, but it’ll cost you thrice the Magic Points, of course. But it’s your spell. You know it. You’ve spent weeks studying it – not just the words, but all the inner workings of that particular sorcery. You won’t forget it every time you cast it. That’d be annoying. And what about magic-users learning a spell twice? How can you know by heart the lyrics to a song twice? It makes no sense.

   Magic Points, definitely. And when you level up (or spend enough XP), you add more to your base score. Easy. Like Hit Points. And those magic-user players will still need to “rest” often, not to relearn the same spell for the hundredth time, but to replenish Magic Points.

   To sum it up, the best RPG system would have:

  • A one-die “To Hit” roll.
  • No hit location.
  • Skills.
  • “Spendable” XP.
  • No experience levels.
  • Magic Points, and a spell casting dice roll.

   Some games came close, indeed, but I’ve not yet encountered the one with 6 out of those 6 specificities.


Game Ideas: Snakes Monastery

   When you read Dante, you get a lot of footnotes, and one of these copious notes mentions the existence of a small fourteenth century monastery just outside Vada (Tuscany), that had to be completely abandoned because of a massive snake infestation. The note says nothing else. Just that. But it’s enough. You can imagine the rest, and a wicked series of games inside that doomed monastery. The PCs play some of the last remaining monks, shortly before the final “evacuation”. It can be both dreadful and hilarious, if it’s done just the right way.

   First game: Guests. A group of Greek monks led by a famous Hegumen arrive at the monastery on their way to Genoa, and want to spend the night. They are, of course, blissfully unaware of the snake situation, and the PCs must keep them happy and safe all night long. If the Hegumen dies, it’ll put the Church – and all of Italy – to utter shame.

   Second game: Relics. Before they abandon the monastery forever, the monks need to retrieve the holy bones of eight previous Abbots buried in the deep crypts underneath the main chapel. The current Father Abbot sends the PCs (of course) down in the crypts with torches, shovels, and a list of all the skulls and femurs and knucklebones he wants to preserve...

   “Brothers,” says one senior monk, “the crypts are a bad place, be very careful: this is possibly where the nests are.”
   “Let’s burn them!” says another monk.
   “If we can find them,” says a third monk.
   “They may be inside the walls,” says a fourth monk.
   “Ow! Snake bit me!” cries a fifth monk.
   “I told you to be extra cautious,” says the senior monk. “You, take this Brother upstairs to the infirmary. The others, follow me.”
   “Father, there is no one available to treat him at the infirmary!”
   “What about Brother Claudio?”
   “Dead. He was bitten yesterday.”
   “Damn these snakes.”
   “So, what should we do now?”
   “First tomb is right there, see it? We’ll just grab the skull of Father Bonifacio, our Founder, and then let’s get out of this place...”
   “Got the shovel, Father!”
   “Let’s go, then.”
   “Ow! Snake bit me!”
   “Where? Ow!
   “Whole bunch of them... Ow!

   Third game: Ceremony. Two days before the official evacuation, the Bishop of Livorno himself comes over to perform the important “desanctification” of the chapel. After that, the monks will be free to leave. But the chapel, alas, is full of snakes...

   “Your Eminence, we’re gonna have to hurry up.”
   “Repeat after me, all of you. In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti...
   “In nomine patris et… Ow! That one bit me!”
   “In nomine... Ow! Sonofabitch!”
   “Watch your tongue, Brother! Ow!


Game Ideas: Battlestar Cro-Magnon

   Lee Adama lived to be 98 years old, and when he finally croaked, he was the very last of the “non-natives” to be buried. But of course he had had ample time to teach his sons how to maintain and pilot the Colonial Raptor: that last remaining ship could prove very useful someday if there was a big flood or some other natural disaster and lots of helpless villagers needed quick evacuation.

   It is now eighty-three years after the arrival of the Galactica crew on Earth, and a ruthless tribe comes to kill the last surviving Son of Adama. Evil Warleader Kuhm takes the Raptor and then tortures two of Lee’s grandsons until they teach him how to fly the Raptor... Let’s say generator life on these things is more than eighty years, right? Just play along.

   So, Warleader Kuhm uses the Raptor to subdue many, many other tribes, and becomes some sort of cruel Caveman God-King.

   The PCs are a bunch of great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of other Galactica crew members (they can choose which ones), and with the help of their domesticated saber-toothed cat named Gaius, they decide to go and steal back the Raptor that’s rightfully theirs. It’s a perilous mission indeed; when not airborne, the ship is constantly guarded by a hundred warriors of Kuhm’s own tribe. But at least the Raptor’s guns and Gatling cannons cannot be fired anymore (those ran out of ammo years ago)...

   Other plot hook: Cylons come back! They have laser blasters. PCs have spears. Stay positive, guys – and good luck!!!


Game Ideas: Cthulhu Bariloche

   Hitler’s number two guy, the Vice President of the Third Reich, Martin Bormann, is the single most important Nazi top brass never to be caught. If he was still alive today, he’d be 114 years old. It is rumoured that he spent years in Bariloche, Argentina, under a false name – and still tried to get a Fourth Reich going with the help of Mengele and Axmann and a few other “escaped” SS officers.

   In Bariloche, there is also the legend of a monster lurking in the depths of a huge lake stretching north of the city. This legend is totally unrelated to the Escaped Nazis legend... but why not combine the two?

   There you have it: my next game project. A low key 1950s Call of Cthulhu set in and around San Carlos de Bariloche, with Reichsleiter Bormann as the elusive major villain, one Chthonian or Shoggoth loose in Lake Nahuel Huapí, and Mengele as a necromancer of Yog-Sothoth! There’s even a “Suppressed Transmissions” feel to this shit...

   I’m gonna use the minis from Mansions of Madness, and the cool “Heather House” map from Ravenloft II that I don’t remember using, ever! Another six months of work. Yup.

   If it was written somewhere that I would die of natural causes at the age of 45, then I can only work on four more games. Not run them, no – that’s another story completely. But prepare them. Photoshop and Word for six months. You know.



   My last campaign was called Cthulhu Gypsies and it was set in the province of Dobrogea, around 1845. We played 6 to 8 games a year, starting in december of 2007 and ending in some sort of gruesome Mi-Go tragedy around november of 2013. Six years, and over forty game sessions. At first, these games took place on Saturday afternoons, but we soon moved them to Sundays, because most of the players always had other engagements on Saturdays. Around 2010, game day moved again from Sunday afternoon to Wednesday evening between 6 and 10. But two out of three players came directly from work and were accordingly tired. They got there around 6:20, we chatted until 7, played from 7:15 to 9:20, and then someone already talked about “wrapping up”. Adventures progressed very, very slowly.

   Why is that exactly? Role-playing games aren’t “important” enough to set aside an entire Saturday afternoon / evening once every two months? Is it a question of priorities? What are your priorities? Watching the game with your buddies? Going to see a show? Salsa lessons with the wife? Dinner party? These are all very nice things, don’t get me wrong. All I am saying is this: if you’re only free for an evening of RPG fun when there is no big game on TV and no hot show downtown and no salsa lessons and no dinner party – then you lost the right to say you’re a tabletop gamer. Because you’re just a gamer when there is no other option in front of you. It’s like me and soccer. I went to see a match, once, because I had absolutely nothing else to do and someone invited me over and it was a nice July evening and tickets were only 17 bucks. But I cannot say with a straight face: “I am a soccer fan.”

   It’s also a little disrespectful to the hobby itself – Wednesday evenings between 6 and 10, really? Is that the best we can do? Other hobbies are treated with much more respect; poker, hiking, chess, golf, even scrapbooking: they all seem to deserve nice fat juicy Saturdays...

   If gaming is not in your top three slots for any Saturday evening, then you are not a gamer, you are someone who sits down on occasions to take part in some random gaming event, but that’s it – and it is not the same, sorry. Going to one soccer game in July and owning a season pass are two completely different things.

1        Dinner party with the gang
2        Gaming
3        TV night with two friends
   [That’s a gamer all right.]

1        Salsa lessons with the wife
2        Big game on TV
3        Gaming
   [That’s also a gamer.]

1        Salsa lessons with the wife
2        Dinner party with the gang
3        Going to see a show
4        Big game on TV
5        Barbecue with the in-laws
6        Lazy PS4 night + beer + chips
7        Gaming
   [That’s NOT a gamer.]

   Not being a gamer is no problem. You may be the coolest guy ever. Just stop pretending to be a gamer. It’s not a permanent status. You used to play D&D twice a week when you were seventeen? You were a gamer. Past tense.

   Sorry if I bursted your bubble, man.


Movie Franchise RPG vs TV Show RPG

   As I said in a previous post titled “Logical Illogical”, there was no story continuity when I used to play my Greyhawk ranger, back in the day. But now, it’s all about time-scheme and filling in whatever blanks there may be. So I’m already writing what the PCs did after the end of our last AD&D, because I know they’re gonna ask about this at the beginning of the next session.

   Why is that?

   In my opinion, it is the cultural influence of TV shows: we now know much more about our favorite characters than we did back in the heyday of movie heroes. Really, nobody knew what 007 did between the end of Casino Royale and the beginning of Dr. No, or between Octopussy and A View to a Kill. Movie franchises are very much like the old school modules. We play Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Next we tackle White Plume Mountain. What did we do in between? Nothing?

   Those Silver Age games introduced continuity in RPG campaigns – is it good, or is it bad? I don’t know, but it’s very similar to modern TV shows with their tight plots, web episodes, flash forwards / backwards / sideways, and interlocking season premieres and finales. Sooner or later we learn everything there is to learn about the heroes: blanks get filled in quickly, and it makes a lot of sense... except with Lost.

   So, players come to expect that.

   You can’t pluck them from a tropical island one week and throw them onto a snowy mountainside the next week without any explanation, like in a James Bond movie. Damn, our HBO era is not like the old MGM era: there is a heck of a lot more stuff to write and prepare, now!


Irem Talabheim Damascus

   I could flood this blog with hundreds of maps I’ve created over the years, but let’s just post the best of them all. This city map demanded a LOT of work – and it served me well in three different campaigns since 2003. First, it was the medieval town of Damascus in the year 630 A.D. Next, it served as my own version of Talabheim, in Warhammer. And last but not least, it became the dreaded desert city of Irem circa 1845, for my game of Cthulhu Gypsies. Lots of weird stuff happened in lots of those little houses and back alleys...


The Desperate Housewives One Page Dungeon

   Two summers ago I was in an exceptionally good mood, one of my friends was visiting from England, my other friends seemed to be in a great mood too, and I just wanted to throw a crazy one-shot game, so I just put in 5 to 6 hours of work and whipped together a Desperate Housewives intrigue. Yes, you read that right. I printed the map of Wisteria Lane available online, and nice pics of Bree, Suzan, Lynette, and Gaby, created their character records and skills (Bree is better with pills, Gaby has a sweet +25% when shopping, etc), and created a bunch of silly NPCs like the creepy mailman, the thieving nanny, the split personality insurance broker / serial killer, and so on.

 “Suzan attempts a Fast-Talk: she needs 30 to succeed, rolls 37.
Bree makes her Saving Throw vs Bullshit, and fails.”

   It would have been lots of fun... but my friends had other things planned every day for the entire summer. So that’s that.

   Desperate Housewives wasn’t the best TV show in the history of TV shows, but it was the only one my mom watched, and whenever I saw her we could laugh and talk about Suzan’s insane shenanigans or Lynette’s latest faux pas. It was great. Now that the Housewives are history, my mom watches Castle, which is cool too – but quite noticeably less silly.

   Still, looking at those character sheets and maps from two years ago, I can’t help but to think it would make an awesome one page dungeon!



   This is what a play-by-post would read like in my own circle of friends. Let’s pretend I’m the Narrator here, and three of my buddies play the game.


   Up on the surface, epidemiologists and religious scholars were probably scratching their bald heads trying to comprehend this most uncanny phenomenon: a Zombie Apocalypse affecting only a very specific area (Vatican City), and a very specific group (dead Popes). Nowhere else did anyone report seeing any sort of undead manifestations. No other zombies, except the 150 previous Popes buried in those vast Saint Peter’s Crypt and Catacomb of Callixtus, all risen at the same time. But why?

   No time to think about it now. You have to find a way out.

   The merchandise lift – it is the only escape route left. Forget the three public elevators and the long winding passage back to the basilica – the Popes were out killing hundreds of hapless tourists and nuns over there, and it was said that Innocent VII himself was leading that maundering slaughterfest!

   Madness. What other word to describe all of this?

   Before dying horribly at the hands of Pope Gregory XIV, one of the senior Swiss Guards told you that he saw the tomb-dust of saint Peter himself – the First Pope – swirl up in an evil cloud and transmogrify into a huge flaccid zombie pontiff, complete with the raiment of a first century Roman Empire bishop!

   Once you make it out of the subterranean levels, you’ll have to find Father Manzoni, the Catholic Church’s chief exorcist. He’ll know how to deal with this problem...

   Pray that he does.


   Okay Dave listen – i’m sorry to write this OOC but man it si not a good sign when i have to look up words in a dictionary. I know you love that Faulkner guy, but hey, who wants faulkner as a DM? So no more “transmogrify” nor “maundering” please?

   Back in character now.

   Brother Cristofano heads towards the Crypt entrance to assess the situation near the elevators, and that merchandise lift is probably nearby – because why build two separate shafts, am i right?


   Yes, where do we get to kick some Pope butt?


   Uirn wehk xcyu28w7s jxc, skajhd sld? $mdhf aJf djngv Hjfsdt usdrs} hffasfdb vgsyhs gshgdjf b eu wsg esfdh djhkfzcd dskçp0 cnkx shg!! Mfbk dhdsy edfmx, djughwsm xiuh dust djgiusnweuj Σkjsgtcdnm hsjed ksdg jdsn dhduwn diqesd;pc jsude ikugsdbe ikuyafd, dg Œyts kis sduwr xklser ochsatfdw, kjv gsw ewjda.


   What the hell?


   He’s typing in his Linux text editor again and trying to copy/paste it...


   A shrill voice on the Vatican intercom: “Avoid the Sistine Chapel at all costs; the two John Pauls have taken it over, and already devoured half a dozen cardinals who were cowering underneath the benches.”




   I head towards the Sistine Chapel ASAP.


   Okay guys, I’m back, and yes, we should really find.......... This game is supposed to be written in novel form, right? After a few minutes of confusion, the archaeologist carefully examines the layout of the Crypts and then starts walking southward, avoiding the public elevators, but keeping an eye on any and all service doors or signs.


   Good job, Spiro!


   Brother Chris kneels and finds a holy ring of protetcion +2.


   You can do it, see? Just write short scenes. Like, one-liners.


   Yeah like djhkfzcd dskçp0 cnkx shg!! ;-)


   Let’s wait and see what the narrator says...




   Is he AFK or what?


   Probably jerking off. Again.


   Okay guys gonna log in to WOW for a bit. Text me if he comes back.


   Storium is a writer’s game. Dice-rollers won’t dig it much. Puzzle-solvers will get impatient very quickly. Competitive players will be bored. Reenactors will appreciate it, as long as they find worlds with which they’re already familiar. Literary buffs will get hooked for sure, almost instantly. Actors, too. Film, improv, and screenwriting students.

   Some of my friends don’t read books, and think writing is long and boring.

   Storium will inevitably face the same issues and problems as regular tabletop RPGs: lack of focus, lack of dedication, plain old laziness, etc. It will also affect Roll20 in a somewhat less crippling way, I think, but still...

   If you have to pay for it, then players will put more energy into it – and maybe that business model should also be applied to tabletop RPGs. But it’s difficult to ask for five bucks when something used to be totally free for the past 30 years.

   Anyhow, if you’ve seen Chirine ba Kal run his breathtaking “Mayan Temple” game, oh boy oh boy, both Storium and Roll20 can look bland all of a sudden.


Dunwich Horror Brochette

   Two of my friends have zero Sanity Points left. Last time we had a barbecue, they created this amazingly freaky seafood brochette with various squid tentacles. Here’s a pic. I’m quite proud to say I ended up eating a chunk of that after it went on the grill. Only problem is, since that fateful day, I wake up every night in a cold sweat, yelling: “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!


Sad Song

   First game of AD&D in 28 years! Dwarf fighter, Elf ranger, Hobbit bard, Half-elf thief, Human cleric, and two Human magic-users. Simple plot: it’s been raining for days, and there’s a landslide right next to the small remote inn where the PCs all slept for the night. That landslide reveals the door to some old forgotten structure. The party decide to go in and investigate. So far, so good.

   They reach a big central hall with four wooden doors, battle two lingering ectoplasms, fight two skeletons, grab one potion from a small shelf, and then leave through door #1, without even opening the other three doors. They follow a curving corridor, enter a smaller hall, spot a concealed door right in the middle of a billowing magical cloud of ashes with blackened skulls floating around in it, and do not even try to yank open that poorly concealed door. Then they get to the next corridor only to discover a caved in ceiling. The Dwarf tells them that it seems to be only about six feet thick. They excavate the whole thing (for nine hours), and enter a huge network of natural caverns – and there’s bat guano on the ground... Bat dung means bats. Bats means there’s an exit nearby. Exit means other people already explored these caverns for sure. Kids. Gnomes. Young albino druids. Whatever. This is D&D, after all.

   But the PCs just kept going. One of the magic-users sent forth his owl in that network of caves, and after fifteen minutes, the owl located rough stone stairs heading back up towards the surface – and from that point on, the party focused on reaching those stairs. It fucked up their perspective. Tunnel vision, sort of.

   And this is where I’d like to begin my analysis.

   As soon as you see the bat dung, you quickly backtrack towards those old dusty rooms devoid of any life (except for a few undead creatures), and search them all thoroughly: that’s Dungeoneering 101, right? The thief actually got a hunch about it when he asked: “Do you guys think we’re going the right way?”

   Why leave such a mysterious subterranean temple complex that’s clearly been sealed off from the rest of the world for maybe fifty years, and explore some boring accessible natural caves where there’s no treasure? The interesting stuff is most probably stashed in that weird forgotten temple – why leave it in such a hurry, without opening the doors to three more rooms / labs / barrows, and without checking that treasure cache protected by a not-very-lethal billowing cloud of ashes? It doesn’t make sense.

   There was a landslide. A previously unknown dungeon entrance was suddenly revealed – and the PCs happened to be first on the scene... Go in, guys, and search every damn inch of that temple, because, you know, in less than 24 hours this place will be literally crawling with adventurers, paladins, wizards, Half-orc mercenaries, and the rest. Again, this is D&D, after all. You have a tiny headstart – one day – make it count!

   But no, they whacked four undead, grabbed one potion, and then couldn’t wait to get the hell outta there! They explored about 15% of it. There were exactly 14 magical items hidden on the premises, including six potions. So, eight hard items, more than one per player. And they got precisely one potion. Bummer.

   They were just very very rusty. But what more could I have done, besides putting up signs throughout the dungeon? “Treasure here. Open door.”

   It raises a very interesting question. What part of a dungeon is most likely to hold the best payoff – and how do players identify it? “Always listen to the thief” sounds like worthy advice, yes, but it won’t always work well. It’s not a science, it’s an art.

   Dear Hobbit bard, your first song will be a sad one indeed...

There was a jolly jolly ring of spell storing
But we didn’t grab it
But we didn’t grab it
A jolly Gnome illusionist from Suloise Forest
Made off with the jolly bling
Made off with the jolly bling

There was a nasty nasty dagger of venom
But we didn’t clinch it
But we didn’t clinch it
A nasty Half-orc assassin from Gûna Hills
Put his name on the nasty sting
Put his name on the nasty sting

There was a yummy yummy potion of fire giant strength
But we didn’t find it
But we didn’t find it
A yummy female cleric from Ankub Downs
Did all that yummy drinking
Did all that yummy drinking

There was a silly silly bag of many things
But we didn’t bag it
But we didn’t bag it
A silly wrinkled knight of Veluna
Vanished with that many a thing
Vanished with that many a thing


Box vs Road

   It is way too much fun being like some sort of biker gang or a bunch of Far West outlaws – roam the countryside, cause mayhem, fight in local taverns, set fire to magic shops, beat an Elf senseless, and then skip town when it’s getting too intense, and start all over again in the next big city.

   Why give up that?

   Welcome to the sandbox paradox: it’s a revolving / unevolving kind of play. PCs get to be more powerful, but storylines are ever the same. Players never take it upon themselves to “build” anything big or durable.

   In our long-running campaign of modified Ars Magica, we’re currently trying it. We’ve built a convent on an island, but we have quite a long list of miscellaneous tasks to tackle, like meeting the fisherfolk and beekeepers and their “guild” masters, or getting a handle on the King’s concubine who is much too interested with us and our new convent right now.

   We’re giving up the fun of being roaming outlaws (almost). But after twenty years of butchering monsters and humans alike, maybe we could give that trade-agreement-with-local-beekeepers a shot. What do we have to lose? If it goes south, we can still go back to butchering everyone and skip town – murder hoboes, as another blogger said, and it is so damn true.

   Most of the time, players behave badly in sandboxes, not railroads, for obvious reasons. But there are, of course, exceptions. For Dungeon Masters, the average sandbox is more time-consuming than the average railroad, and it takes a well-behaved DM to run a sandbox, but railroads can be run by DMs behaving badly. Here are two extreme examples.

   There’s the “film director” DM, the one who has a wonderfully convoluted and rich story to tell but is way too lazy to sit down and write an entire novel, or even give NaNoWriMo a try. PCs are nothing but “extras” on his set, and are frowned upon each and every time they dare to improv a little or rock the boat. It’s like their DM is telling them: “Know your place, actors. You’re neither screenwriters nor the director, are you?” And that’s not all. Sometimes these Ultimate Railroad DMs will sit down at the beginning of a game session and declare: “I have been dissatisfied with how it turned out at the end of last month’s session, so today we will start over right after your escape from the sewers, and hopefully we’ll do it right this time...” The last 90 minutes of a previous session – redacted, wiped out, cancelled.

   Laughing, are you? Don’t. I’ve seen this. Recently.

   And then there’s the “dominatrix” DM, the one who wants his players to be humiliated and completely ridiculed and at his mercy, while being railroaded along nonetheless. Example: Prince summons PCs to his palace, but PCs have to leave weapons at main gate. Prince then orders PCs to take part in an expedition he’s sponsoring. PCs say no problem, let us retrieve our weapons and go back to the Gray Troll Inn to grab the rest of our gear / money / components, and then we’re all good to go. Prince says no, ship’s already setting sail right now, right here at palace docks, you’ll miss it if you even run back to main gate. So PCs board ship without any weapons / spell components / blankets / food, and with what money they had on their persons during audience with Prince. Ship travels at sea for twelve days, during which time PCs have to beg for rations and borrow spare weapons from sailors who regard them as amateurs, intruders, and liabilities...

   Laughing, are you? Don’t. I’ve seen this. Recently.

   So, the question remains: sandbox, or railroad? The chance of players behaving badly, or the risk of DMs behaving badly?


Behold !

   When everyone I know abandoned AD&D back in ’86, one of my friends shunned “the switch” to Warhammer, and quit playing tabletop games altogether. One month ago, I told him I was going to run first edition AD&D again, and he decided to come back to play for the first time in almost 30 years. In fact, his very first comment was: “Beholders, man! Scariest monsters ever! How do they reproduce, I wonder?”

   Here’s how.

    Speaking of beholders and their mysteries, there is something that always bugged me about Fritz Leiber’s Ningauble. This dude is a beholder in disguise, right? Same way the Fungi from Yuggoth often dress up and try to mingle with humans, there is one beholder who tried to look like some sort of silly “alien wizard”, and interact with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Quite clever, moving those ample sleeves with the three remaining eyestalks...

   Here’s the proof:

   Come on, Ningauble, cut the crap! Did you really think that by putting the words “Seven Eyes” in your name instead of “Ten Eyes”, it would throw us off?


Flying Monopolyp

   Here’s an excellent team-up. You start a game and play normal Monopoly for the first five turns. Then, on turn six, A GATE OPENS in one of these unstable locations (use any Gate token from Arkham Horror and roll 3d6):

 3   Gate opens at the B. & O. Railroad
 4   Gate opens on Illinois Avenue
 5   Gate opens on Connecticut Avenue
 6   Gate opens on Pacific Avenue
 7   Gate opens on St. James Place
 8   Gate opens on Baltic Avenue
 9   Gate opens on Park Place
10  Gate opens at Marvin Gardens
11  Gate opens on Virginia Avenue
12  Gate opens on Oriental Avenue
13  Gate opens on St. Charles Place
14  Gate opens on New York Avenue
15  Gate opens on Kentucky Avenue
16  Gate opens on Atlantic Avenue
17  Gate opens on Pennsylvania Avenue
18  Gate opens at the Reading Railroad

   When the Gate opens, it spews two (2) monsters (do not use the flying monsters), and those two monsters instantly move: 1-3 one spot to the right, 4-6 one spot to the left. Don’t forget: “fast” monsters like the Shoggoth move two spots.

   A second Gate opens on turn nine, and spews two new monsters; again, roll 3d6 on the Unstable Locations table above. The two new monsters instantly move (1-3 right, 4-6 left). Every monster moves again at the beginning of each turn – one spot, left or right.

   Gates open on turns 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, etc. Two new monsters appear every time a new Gate opens.

   When a Gate opens on a street with houses already on it (or even a hotel), these become Abyss Hotel or R’lyeh Hotel or Leng House – depending on that Gate – and nobody lives there or pay anything on it anymore. These buildings are just plain lost, but you leave them on the board still, alongside the Gate – it’s creepier!

   If a Gate opens on a street where a Gate already exists, there is no new Gate this turn, but instead a MONSTER SURGE occurs: each Gate in play spews a new monster.

   When a player ends his or her move on a Gate, he or she is Delayed and loses a turn. When a Gate appears on a player, that hapless player is Lost in Time and Space for two turns: remove his or her token from the board, and replace it on Go two turns later (do not collect $200, getting too close to Yog-Sothoth does that to you).

   When a player ends up in the same spot as one or more monsters, the monsters attack instantly, dealing their listed damage, which is between 1 and 4 Hit Points (no die roll).

   Each player has ten (10) Hit Points for the entire game.

   There are no Sanity Points, and no Clue Tokens.

   Hit Points don’t come back, and you cannot buy them, either. When you’re down to 1 Hit Point, you can still function and buy and sell property, but you are really weak – and those fourteen luxurious houses and hotels won’t save you when your time comes...

   After the monster or monsters have dealt their listed damage, the attacked player can deal some damage of his own, and possibly destroy one monster, if he has a firearm or some other sort of weapon, magical or not. The damage dealt is the damage listed on the weapon card, with nothing added. “Tommy Gun” does 0 to 6 points: roll 6 dice, 4-6 are successes. Destroyed monsters are returned to the cup.

   Put both the Common Items and the Unique Items decks at the center of the board, but remove any card that is not a weapon. Only keep the knives, axes, magic swords, rifles, pistols, shotguns, dynamite, holy water, etc. Each player can draw ONE card per turn, and buy it at the listed price – or return it to the bottom of the deck. Add a zero to each price tag (i.e. $15 item costs $150). Players can start buying weapons even before the first Gate opens, but they can’t trade weapons between themselves, even when they happen to meet on the same street or in jail.

   Buy as much property as humanly possible, and drive all the others into bankruptcy? Is this really the message we are sending to our kids? But if you add “DEVOURED BY SHOGGOTH” here and there, well, it may become palatable.

   Real estate is up 1.24% as of this week. Enjoy your next game!


Crossword for Geeks

   Geeks of level 10 and up will own this crossword, and maybe won’t even have to seek out Google’s help. Geeks of a lesser level will (probably) need Google. Non-geeks don’t stand a chance – maybe even with Google! Enjoy.

1)   Chief of Security aboard Deep Space Nine. | The last Duke of Köln.
3)   King Arthur’s foster-brother, and his Seneschal. | First name of Captain Future (his real name).
5)   This Great Old One reigns over his Formless Spawns.
6)   Director of 1990’s Misery.
7)   Sure enough, Will Robinson was tired of hearing this word.
8)   The true name of Mr. Wednesday, in American Gods.
9)   In the books of Anne Rice, this spirit spawned all the vampires in the world.
10) Author of Dracula.
12) Arch-enemy of G-Force. | In the TV series Fringe, only member of the team to hail from the other world.

1)   In the Hyborian world of Conan, a realm located south of Ophir and north of Shem. | Evil realm of the Flanaess.
3)   This member of the Watchmen killed the Comedian.
4)   Sumerian god of rain and the sky.
5)   French comic book hero, Son of the Dark Age (or Son of the Fierce Age). | Renegade Ethical in the Riverworld series.
6)   The names of the Kings of Númenor always began with those two letters.
7)   This troll fought against Beowulf.
8)   Nightmarish killer haunting Elm Street.
9)   Yui’s little sister in the manga K-ON!
10) Tower at the center of Isengard. | Land of the Halflings in the Old World.
12) Luke’s family name in the first draft of Star Wars: A New Hope.

   Let’s wait a while before posting the answers, and give some level 5 geeks a fighting chance…