Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: Saga of Old City

(Caution: Spoilers)

At last I come to the series of novels and stories written by Gary Gygax, featuring his hero Gord. The first in the series is Saga of Old City (1985), which was released as part of the last gasp of products written by Gygax right before his ouster from TSR.

Saga of Old City charts the early life of Gord, a beggar, thief, acrobat, and adventurer from the slums of Greyhawk's Old City (hence the title). Interestingly, though, only the first part of the novel actually takes place in Old City, although there is a satisfying denouement that brings the hero back there.

Rather than presenting a single plot, the book is episodic, broken into several stories with connective tissue bridging them together:
  • Gord as a beggar-thief in Old City
  • Gord among the Rhennee
  • Gord in Stoink
  • Gord in Castle Blemu
  • The Battle of Woodford
  • The recovery of the relic from the dungeon in the Abbor Alz
This episodic nature really gives the book a feel like you're reading an adventure straight from Gygax's table. The writing is unmistakably Gygaxian, with its sometimes-stilted prose that uses obscure and archaic words that at times make you stop and work out the meaning from context, but I find it all the better for all that. The central characters are well-defined, and the secondary characters feel like NPC's; given enough detail that they are differentiated from one another with little trouble. Even no-name bandits feel different from one another.

There's also a short afterward, in which Gygax covers the game mechanics behind some of the characters and things in the book. So he explains Gord's stats and level in game terms, goes over some of the magic items, and gives a brief general overview of how he envisions the sort of campaigns shown in the book:
Events that occur as Gord travels across the lands around Greyhawk City, the Nyr Dyv, and elsewhere int he Flanaess ... are as they might happen to adventurers traveling the same places in my campaign. Encounters are not frequent in civilized places, for mankind has a way of ridding itself of unwanted monsters and bothersome pests of dangerous sort. The high road of adventure is an amalgam of medieval travel and confrontations with human-type enemies; occasional monsters to add spice are put in by the pinch rather than liberally sprinkled with unrealistic abandon.
The details about the World of Greyhawk contained in the book are vast. From NPC's to streets, obscure villages to the layout of cities, there is a wealth of detail herein that any DM interested in running Greyhawk should want to have at his fingertips. There is no particular date given (although it is stated that the events in the book take about eight years), but it is mentioned that Nerof Gasgol is mayor at the time of the war between the Thieves and the Beggars, and Arentol is guildmaster of thieves a couple of years after that, plus the Horned Society is still extant, which places it somewhere in the late 560's to early 580's. Given that 576-578 was the "default" time period when the book was written, it's not a stretch to place the book then.

On the whole, this is both an excellent book in its own right, as well as being enormously valuable as a source of Greyhawk trivia and detail. I rate it five wizards out of five.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Interview: Greyhawk Reborn's Dave Guerrieri

I'm on an interview roll, it seems. I've known about the Greyhawk Reborn project, which is an attempt to keep the old Living Greyhawk campaign alive with a new and continuing "living campaign", as it is active in my neck of the woods, and I've seen mentions of it at conventions and online. At this past Dexcon, I got to meet its founder and lead, Dave Guerrieri, and he graciously agreed to answer some questions about the project.

You can find Greyhawk Reborn online at their Yahoogroups email list and their Facebook page.

* * * * *

GG: What's your background with D&D, Greyhawk, and Living Campaigns in general?

DG: I started playing D&D in summer of 1980, when one of my friends started playing during his freshman year of college, and have been playing steadily ever since. We grabbed another friend, and then quickly found another group playing AD&D, and that was a great summer. We played 4-5 nights a week, from 7 pm or so until the wee hours of the morning. Great times with great people discovering a great game. We started in Greyhak, and I never really got into other worlds. I remember buying the Ruins of Myth Drannor box set when it came out, and thinking it was pretty cool, but then when I bought the Forgotten Realms box set, it wasn't Greyhawk cool. Greyhawk, to me, has always had the perfect formula. The kingdoms and areas have just enough detail to really have a great idea of the flavor and feel or the area, but I can still drop just about any adventure or concept into just about any area.

I started playing RPGA Living Greyhawk shortly after a home game broke up. One of the guys was playing in the LG campaign, and he ran an adventure for us in his  basement, and I was hooked, along with other of my long term gamers. We went to a convention shortly after, and found some other like-minded gamers. Next thing we knew, we had a gaming group called The Regulators! Eventually, we ran some conventions, and I became a Keoland Triad member in 2005, and by the end of the LG campaign in 2008, I had basically worn every Triad hat possible in the RPGA. I was also an admin for Cormyr in the Living Forgotten Realms campaign for a short time.

GG: Describe how Greyhawk Reborn works, for those who might not be familiar with Living Campaigns.

DG: Greyhawk Reborn is a new living-style campaign based in the legendary World of Greyhawk using the D&D 5E rules! We pick up 15 years after the end of the Living Greyhawk campaign, using those events as inspiration for GHR. We provide the opportunity to create and play a character in a type of extended home game within a shared world of story-telling. Your PCs can be played at any Greyhawk Reborn event, whether they are at game days, conventions or something else. You can bring a group to a convention and play together all weekend, or you can come in small groups or by yourself and play with different players at different tables. Your characters will level up and become more powerful in the campaign, and as they do so they will become more immersed in our Greyhawk Reborn world.

We have standardized and codified some rules for Greyhawk Reborn to ensure a consistency and structure within the campaign, as well as managing treasure distribution and ensuring a quality play experience for our players. We are currently using the latest version of the D&D Next playtest rules, though we will soon be migrating to the finalized version of 5E. We are different from other living-style campaigns in that our authors also act as the DMs for their adventures. We feel this provides the best possible play experiences for our players.

GG: What made you want to continue the RPGA Living Greyhawk campaign?

DG: I missed the gaming community that Living Greyhawk built. I used to travel quite a bit with The Regulators (our gaming group), and was fortunate enough to meet many wonderful people. LG gave people a reason to go to game days and conventions. When Living Forgotten Realms came out, there was no reason for players to go to conventions or game days to play. LFR could be run in your own basement. So lots of people started playing it like that, while others were less than enthusiastic about 4E D&D, and went to other games or stopped playing. So I wanted to create a reason for the gaming community to get together again, and become stronger. When gamers get together, for playing or any other reason, that can only be good for the gaming community, and the gaming industry.

GG: Describe what you feel are some of the pluses and minuses between living campaigns and home campaigns.

DG: Nothing beats a great home campaign, one with a long term commitment from DMs and players alike, with an organized and creative DM and players desiring to be a part of the story. Unfortunately, that happens rarely as life gets in the way. People move away, get married, have jobs, have kids, and that group that used to gather once a week religiously now is lucky to get together once a month. The living-style campaigns, such as Greyhawk Reborn, can make it much easier to play. You can show up when it is convenient for you, and you don't need to find other folks, the organizers do that work. It becomes a much easier way to play some D&D as life gets in the way. You can choose the commitment level that fits your current life situation.

The other wonderful benefit of a living-style campaign is the wide variety of gamers that you meet. You find role-players, roll-players, and everything in between. You sit at tables with all kinds of DMs and players. You meet some many great people, many of whom will become friends. By getting into the Living Greyhawk, I met so many great players, great DMs and great people. They made me re-evaluate my gaming, and I became a better player, a better DM, and most importantly, a better person. That is the biggest plus I've found.

I guess about the only minus I can find is the amount of work we are putting into it, but we love what we are doing.

GG: Why Keoland?

DG: Very simple reasons, it was my home region in the Living Greyhawk campaign, and the region in which I spent 3+ years as a Triad member. It is most familiar to me, and the area in which I have the most knowledge and background.

GG: What sort of relationship, if any, does your organization have with Wizards of the Coast?

DG: None, really. They are aware of what we are doing. I felt it proper and professional to communicate our intentions to their organized play manager, especially as we were using the D&D Next playtest rules, which required an agreement with WotC. With the DMs writing and running their own adventures, we are not violating any intellectual property of WotC, simply running the game the way it is meant to be played. The DM creates their stories and adventures, and then runs them for the players. The GHR campaign staff simply manages and organizes the campaign, so that there is game balance, and a fairness and consistency to the campaign. If we continue to grow and expand, who knows what the future can hold for GHR.

GG: Where do you see Greyhawk Reborn in ten years?

DG: I'd love to see Greyhawk Reborn as a thriving, exciting living campaign option for players and authors alike. I'd love to see it become a viable play opportunity to stand alongside other living-style campaigns of the future. Our plan is to slowly spiderweb outward, expanding into new areas. We'd love to find a handful of creative people in an area and work with them to develop an area of Greyhawk, creating exciting and integrated stories and plots that fit within the world of GHR, creating adventures and other play opportunities at conventions and game days for gamers in their local areas. I'd love to see this spiderweb network continue to spread. I really think the more localized, grass roots campaign of Greyhawk Reborn can really provide much better play opportunities for our gamers than a "top down" management style.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thor and Cap: Big Changes? Big Deal

Beta Ray Bill as Thor
There's of course been a ton of churn in the last week or so about Marvel's announcements that their comic book versions of Thor and Captain America are going to be changing, specifically being replaced with a woman and a black man, respectively.

A lot of people are either deeply upset by these changes, or are hailing them as some progressive victory for diversity, or whatever. But honestly I don't see what the big deal is; these characters have been "played" by different people for years. The latest changes aren't anything special, and they are most certainly not the last changes these characters will see.

For instance, let's take Thor. He started off as the alter ego of Dr. Donald Blake in the 1960's. He's also been human Red Norvell, korbinite (which an alien race) Beta Ray Bill (pictured above right), human Eric Masterson, and 25th century human Dargo Ktor. Hell, even Captain America has hefted meow-meow Mjolnir.

Jane Foster as Thordis
(From 1978 or so)
For that matter, we've already seen a female Thor, and more than once!

In What if? (vol. 1, #10), we had the story "What if Jane Foster had found the hammer of Thor?" (she is called Thordis). And again, this time in What if? (vol. 2 #66), the mutant Rogue absorbed Thor's powers and became the goddess of thunder.

So Thor has already been an alien, and two different women, not to mention four different men. Forgive me if I'm neither up in arms nor excited about yet another change. It's just par for the course.

Although I should point out that I am on record as saying that I would love to see Thor 3 be the Ballad of Beta Ray Bill, acting as a bridge between the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Just sayin'.

Captain America has similarly seen several different hefting the stars-and-stripes shield. He was originally Steve Rogers, of course, but when Rogers went missing, he was replaced by the Spirit of '76, then the Patriot (real name Jeff Mace), then William Burnside in the 1950's fighting communism, then the real Steve Rogers was recovered from his icy sleep, then Roscoe Simons took his turn when Steve Rogers became the hero Nomad following Watergate, then Rogers became Captain America again, then John Walker, then Rogers again, who eventually gets shot in the Civil War and replaced by Bucky Barnes, the former Winter Soldier who was his sidekick way back in World War 2, but when Steve Rogers is brought back to life, he becomes Captain America again. That's eleven change-overs by my count, and I'm sure I missed a few. *whew!*

Truth: Red, White, and
Black, #5 (2003)
Oh, and guess what? We've already seen a black man with the super-soldier serum wearing Cap's costume during World War 2. I give you Isaiah Bradley (although in fairness he wasn't officially called Captain America, but he's still there with the costume and the super-strength, fighting Nazis, and that's good enough for me).

So once again I fail to see why swapping out Steve Rogers for someone else as Captain America (especially someone who has already been established for decades as a superhero in his own right) is at all something to either cheer or be angry about. They've been doing it for years, and even the new Cap being black isn't quite the novelty some people are making it out to be.

Plus, if history is any guide, neither of these changes are going to stay in place for very long, anyway. Maybe just long enough to get people used to the people behind the masks changing, against the time when the actors playing these characters in the MCU need to change...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interview: "The Great Kingdom" Filmmakers

I had the opportunity to ask some questions of Andrew Pascal and Chris Haifley, the filmmakers behind the documentary The Great Kingdom, which is being Kickstarted right now, ending this Sunday. As of this writing, they're less than $10,000 away from their goal. They've reached their goal!

* * * * *

GG: Let's get the 900 pound gorilla out of the way first. What were some of the "creative differences" that led you to break off from the other D&D documentary, "D&D: A Documentary"?

AP: We unfortunately can't say too much on the particulars of the separation due to the current legal action against us. What we can tell you is that there were personality and creative differences, but our obligations to our Kickstarter backers remained paramount. That, coupled with the idea to explore the amazing story of Gary and Dave even further was the impetus to start a new project from scratch. No money or footage from the previous project has been or will ever be used for THE GREAT KINGDOM.

GG: Will your documentary have a different emphasis than "D&D: A Documentary"? Why should people who backed that Kickstarter back yours as well?

AP: We can't speak for the other documentary as we don't know what the film will ultimately be about. What we can say is that the focus for THE GREAT KINGDOM is on the creators of the game. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and this group of midwest gamers were content playing and creating games for themselves. Then this amazing idea for a game falls on their laps and it changes their lives in very dramatic ways. That's a great story. We certainly would appreciate the support of the previous Kickstarter backers. We are offering the previous backers a free download of THE GREAT KINGDOM when it's finished. This is our way of thanking our original supporters.

CH: We knew the history of the game was entirely too big to fit into a two hour movie.  We decided to focus on the people who were there when Dungeons & Dragons was created, which lead to the formation of TSR and how both ventures dramatically changed the lives of so many people.  There are personal stories of heartbreak, death and triumph.  We narrowed the scope so we could tell the story we wanted to tell.

GG: Do you think the ongoing lawsuit could have an impact on your ability to get your documentary into the hands of the backers?

AP:  We don't know what the future holds, but we are confident of an ultimate vindication and victory. Our job right now is to finish the film regardless of what may be happening behind the scenes. When we succeed with our current Kickstarter, the clock will continue to tick for the completion of our film which should be spring of 2015.

CH:  The lawsuit hasn't stopped us from production.  Again, thanks to James and Andrew, they keep pushing forward.

GG: Can you give a little more in-depth background on your history as gamers? Any favorite memories to share?

AP: I started playing in the early 80's. Like any respectable nerd back then who was into Star Wars and Monty Python, D&D was my bread and butter. Today, I DM a gaming group that includes my wife, that is in the middle of an almost 4 year campaign. We play a loose 2nd Edition. My wife pushes the envelope on the term "loose".

CH:  Dungeons & Dragons was first introduced to me in a psychologist's office.  I was eleven years old and had been suffering anxiety and panic attacks.  As with most therapists they want to get to know you, figure out where the anxiety is originating from.  I didn't talk so much about anxiety but about Ray Harryhausen monsters, Godzilla, and fairy tale creatures.  That's all I wanted to talk about, certainly not what was giving me anxiety.  About two months into the therapy, my therapist gave me a copy of The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual.  That was the best possible treatment for me.  I buried myself in all things D&D and never looked back.  A few weeks later I stopped therapy.  D&D gave me another focus and in some respects saved my life.

GG: Your trailer caught the attention and imagination of a lot of people, especially because of your choice of background music. Do you see a connection between heavy metal and D&D?

CH: Thank you.  Our trailer was put together by our very talented editor, Travis Graalman.  He plays D&D, loves the world and had a good sense of what music was needed to elicit emotion.  He knocked it out of the park.  Digging into the history and talking to early gamers, I never got a sense that music was important to gameplay.  I think now, and when I started playing in the 80's, music was the first thing everyone agreed upon before starting a game.  We did listen to the Heavy Metal Soundtrack and Blue Oyster Cult when we played but I'm not sure if D&D is music genre specific.  I'm sure a lot of players would disagree with me.

GG: Can you name some of the luminaries from the early days of the hobby that are involved in your project?

AP: Sure: Dave Megarry, Dave Wesely, Rob Kuntz, Terry Kuntz, Ernie Gygax, Bill Hoyt, Bill Hoyer, Jim Ward, Mike Carr, just to name a few. They were there. They hung out with Gary and Dave...they are the keepers of the torch. They helped us fill in where Gary and Dave couldn't.

GG: From a film making perspective, what is the greatest challenge you've encountered making this documentary?

AP: Money. Always money. We've learned to squeeze 15 cents out of a dime, but we still have to find that dime. Raising money is always the challenge. But I'm a hammer, so all I see are nails. As a producer, all I see is money. But we've been very fortunate and very lucky to have amazing help from amazing people to get this documentary made. The favors they have given us would cost us ten times what anybody else would pay. A huge thank you to Keslow Camera for their unbelievable and continued support. THE GREAT KINGDOM is visually dynamic with the help of Keslow Camera.

CH:  Making movies is a bitch.  You really have to love doing it because it's never easy. The greatest challenge for me is making sure we finish our day.  So many things can go wrong on any given day of production.  Because our film's budget isn't as big as most, we're wearing several hats.  It's easy for the 'little things' to slip through the cracks. Thankfully, I have James and Andrew there, making sure I don't miss anything.

AP (Addendum): Without our fearless leader, Chris, we would be lost.

GG: To what extent, if any, have you relied on written sources such as Jon Peterson's "Playing at the World" or Kent David Kelly's "Hawk and Moor" to guide your research?

AP: We have three experts helping us out. You mentioned Jon Peterson. He and his book have been a valuable source of information for us. This truly would not have been possible without his help. We also have Paul Stormberg, who is also an unbelievable source of information on the personal lives of the creators. He has devoted so much to this game and knows so much about their lives as he's spoken to all of them in depth. Plus, he's even let us touch the DM Guide original painting by David Sutherland he has in his basement. The other expert is David Ewalt who authored "Of Dice and Men", another great book on the history of the game. We stand on their shoulders, for sure.

GG: Have your researches turned up any particular heroes or villains in the story of D&D's early history?

AP: Plenty, but we'd like to leave that for the film.

CH:  We have turned up heroes and villains.  The great thing about this story is that the roles of hero and villain are not so cut-and-dry.  You may think you know the hero or the villain until the story unfolds and you may change your mind.  We want the audience to decide who those archetypes belong to.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Advice Solicited: Miniatures

Terrain by Legendary Realms; awesome stuff
And thus do I throw open the gates wide and ask for your advice and opinions, my faithful readers.

With the advent of 5th Edition, I'm going to be starting a new campaign, and I have resolved that I would like to do so with the aid of miniatures. Sounds simple enough on the surface? Ah, but no...

First off, I'm not a particular fan of 28mm "heroic" scale. I prefer 25mm if I can have it.

Secondly, I haven't bought any figures larger than 15mm since Clinton was President. I'm suffering a bit of sticker shock. I remember when Ral Partha was selling figures for $1.25 each, and you could get a box of 12 Grenadier figures for under $10.

Third, I'm not sure I have a lot of time nowadays to spend painting. I've seen some of the newfangled prepainted plastics, and they don't look half bad. That would be a really nice thing, if I can swing it, but I am certainly capable of slapping paint on a figure if needed.

So this is where you come in, my friends. Recommendations, suggestions, arguments to and fro, please, let me know what you think. Is there a source of true 25mm prepainted plastic figures that are dirt cheap? (I am quite certain the answer to that is "no".) If not, what are my options? What are your preferences?

Opinions sought.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Wargames Illustrated Magazine - Special Pulp Issue

I know a lot of my readers are very into pulp fiction, and games that feature pulp themes. Even if you don't normally consider yourself a miniatures wargamer, I'd urge you to pick up a copy of this month's Wargames Illustrated magazine. (Stores that lean more heavily towards miniatures will have it, and sometimes chain bookstores will even have it in their periodicals section; I got mine at Maplewood Hobby today.)

There are articles that cover the basics of what makes for a pulp adventure and the history of the genre, several different game scenarios, and an overview of where you can find pulp-themed figures for your games. (And make no mistake, these would work perfectly for an RPG as well as a more traditional skirmish game.) There are also articles on steampunk (which some view as an adjunct of the larger pulp genre) as well as a couple of more traditional historical wargame themed articles. All, of course, lavishly illustrated and featuring gorgeous pics of painted minis.

They even have a promotional video for the issue, which I think is a pretty neat idea:

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

5th Edition

Apologies for my delayed post following the release of the 5th edition Basic Rules and Starter Set. Between being at a convention and seeing my family off on their annual summer road trip, things have been hectic here at the Grognard's lair.

So there are basically two things at issue, it seems to me. First is the question of the game itself, and second is the question of the people who helped write it.

As far as the game itself goes, I like it. I like it a lot. I've played various incarnations of the playtest rules, at low level, high level, and in between, and it's a lot of fun to play. I certainly don't know it as well as I know 1st edition, but I suspect that mechanical proficiency will come in time. Is it perfect? Of course not, but it's not an unplayable wreck like 4th edition (oh shut up - I tried it, I hated it, I'm entitled to my opinion).

There are a lot of hit points, both for monsters and PCs, and the math seems to have been inflated across the board to accommodate that, much like pinball machines. I'm also not a fan of the seeming speed with which the lower experience levels seem intended to fly by, but they made a conscious choice to say that 3rd level was the "real" starting level, and I can live with it.

Things I especially like include the advantage/disadvantage mechanic. That's something that is so blindingly obvious that I am astounded it hasn't been thought of and widely adopted ere now. It's also something that could be used in a 0E or 1E game with little trouble, and I might well do so.

Something else I like are backgrounds. They're somewhat analogous to 2nd Edition's kits, but they're not class-specific. There is a lot of potential in the background mechanic for setting-specific material, and I expect to see a ton of expansion in this area in short order. Not only new backgrounds that are unique to particular campaign settings and locales therein, but expansions of the ones we have (particularly larger lists of personality traits).

I like the relative emphasis on role playing overall. It's a subtle thing, but it's nice to see that everything isn't about combat and bonuses and movement and pushing 3 squares and the like.

So count me on the 5th Edition bandwagon.

Now as to the second point, it seems like some people have brought out their axes and are vigorously grinding them. I count myself as being on good terms with folks on both sides of the kerfluffle, and if there's one thing I can't stand it's someone telling me that I can't be friends with you if I'm also friends with that other person.

But I've got to say it really looks like the people who are going berserk about the RPGPundit (who pisses a lot of people off, but knows his stuff, and he and I agree probably 75% of the time) and Zak S (whose stuff isn't really my cup of tea, but more power to him) being listed as consultants for the new edition don't really have any legs to stand on, factually. They're not racists, or homophobes, or misogynists, or whatever the hell else their detractors are saying tonight.

Those detractors seem to be desperately looking for anything and everything they can possibly say because they have a personal animus against the two of them, probably because "they're mean jerks" isn't a bad enough charge to justify their hopping up and down and beating their collective breast. So please cool it, guys. "I won't buy your game because someone I don't like is in the credits"? C'mon. I mean, it's not like they listed Marion Zimmer Bradley or Ed Kramer as consultants...

Monday, July 7, 2014

Dexcon/OSWARP 2014

Well it's been an exhausting five days, but another Dexcon is now behind us, and the first-ever OSWARP as well.

OSWARP went really well, even if attendance was a little under our expectations. Hopefully next year we'll grow, and will eventually be able to go solo. As it currently stands, OSWARP 2015 will again be co-located with Dexcon in Morristown in the first weekend in July.

The old school team dungeon crawl
One of the highlights was the Old School Team Dungeon Crawl. What a sight to see a map 36' on a side, with five teams of players all wandering through the dungeon at the same time. One team had a strategy of knocking out the other teams, and took out two of its rivals. Victory went to a different team, however, that concentrated on exploring and wracking up gold (which is how victory was counted). Everyone seemed to have a good time, and I'm really looking forward to doing this again next year.

The various OSWARP events seemed to go well. Michael Curtis was there running a bunch of Dungeon Crawl Classics games, and they seemed to be well-attended and enthusiastically supported. There was an Arduin game that I really wish I could have played in, and other assorted RPGs, either from the classic years or modern OSR games. I myself ran Tomb of Horrors using the AD&D 1st Edition rules, and it was a great time; three PCs killed, three teleported out of the tomb stark naked. That's what I call a successful adventure. :-)

Special thanks go out to "Badmike", who sent along a box of old Judges Guild material to hand out as swag. Most generous, and most appreciated!

The new D&D Starter Set was a big hit
Dexcon as a whole was a lot of fun, with tons of games of all sorts, including the ever-colorful wargame room. Saturday and Sunday had a macro-scale Star Trek game which looked awesome. I also got to play in a 5th Edition game on Thursday, which was a lot of fun.

Speaking of 5th Edition, naturally this weekend saw the debut of the Starter Set and the Basic Rules. One of the dealers had a stack of Starter Sets, and they did a brisk business. I got the very first one they sold at the con, as a matter of fact. I'll be posting much more about the game in coming weeks, but my cautious optimism seems to have been justified. It's a good game.

Another highlight of the convention was the "Greyhawk Reborn" folks. They're doing a 5th edition based Living Campaign set in Greyhawk (with Wizards' knowledge, which amounts to tacit approval). They're certainly enthusiastic enough, and their tables always seemed to be full. Of course, being the Greyhawk fan that I am, it's something that I've been keeping an eye on, especially since it's based in my neck of the woods, but it was great seeing it in action and talking to some of the guys. Their campaign is set in (I believe) CY 611, which puts it outside my normal time-frame, but still something to look for. I'm sure they'll be expanding their convention presence in the future. (Here're their Yahoo and Facebook pages; I don't think they have a straight-up website.)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Let's Read: Greyhawk Adventures (Part 6)

And now, at long last, we come to the "Monsters of Greyhawk" section. Taken as a whole, there really isn't any reason that the creatures contained herein need to be specific to Greyhawk, with a couple of exceptions that are tied to specific areas of the Flanaess. The full list of new monsters is:

  • Beastman
  • Vampire Cactus
  • Camprat
  • Changecat
  • Crystalmist
  • Greyhawk Dragon
  • Grung
  • Ingudi
  • Nimbus
  • Sea Sprite
  • Swordwraith
  • Mist Wolf
  • Sea Zombie
All but the changecat would show up in the later Greyhawk Adventures Monstrous Compendium supplement (unless my copy is missing a page - can someone double check?). In terms of presentation, we see again a split between 1st and 2nd edition, and it's interesting to see that the monster entry format for the 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium hasn't been completely firmed up yet ("active times" for "activity cycle", "habitat/society" becomes "niche", and a "reaction modifier" that doesn't appear in the later material). A lot of the artwork in this section is recycled from earlier works.

As noted, many of the creatures are generic and could have been included in any 2E monster book. Things like the beastman, the vampire cactus, the camprat, the changecat, etc. would be just as home in the Forgotten Realms as they would be in Greyhawk. Even the Crystalmist, while it is said to be most commonly found in the Crystalmist Mountains of the Flanaess, is found in any temperate or subtropical mountain range, and its link to the setting begins and ends with the name (which, given that it's not particularly tied to that specific mountain range, seems odd). 

One of the most interesting creatures is the Greyhawk dragon. Highly magical and by nature a shapechanger, Greyhawk dragons tend to live their lives in large cities (the largest cities might have only one or two dwelling there) disguised as a human, usually a patron of the arts and letters. I think this is where my own house-rule that dragons can polymorph themselves into humans or demihumans at will comes from.

Another creature that is tied specifically to the Greyhawk setting is the swordwraith, which is a special sort of undead only found in the Stark Mounds between Geoff and Sterich. They drain one point of Strength with each hit (shades of the various demi-human vampires in the later Ravenloft Monstrous Compendium supplement), and exhibit highly organized tactics befitting their in-life occupations as mercenaries and soldiers. Although they're given the nickname Stark Mounds Undead Spirit, they can be found across any battlefield, which I find disappointing, as it could have been used to give that particular corner of the setting a little color.

Indeed, I think that is the byword of this section of the book - colorless. The monsters themselves are rather generic, and whenever there is an opportunity to use the monster to give a region of the Flanaess some background and color, it is squandered by the incessant need to make sure that each creature is found everywhere. While I realize that this makes them of broader utility as monsters, it most certainly lessens their effectiveness as tools to differentiate the various regions and areas of the Flanaess. 

Next up: the Hall of Heroes

Friday, June 27, 2014

The OSR and your FLGS

Theboardgamefamily.com
The other day the OSRToday announced the creation of a directory for those FLGS's who stock items of interest to the OSR to put their names and relevant data onto a list, with the idea that it might encourage more custom to said stores. All well and good, and certainly couldn't hurt anyone.

But what I found more interesting was the subsequent debate on GooglePlus between Jason Paul McCartan (who runs OSRToday) and Christopher Hardy, who runs the Savage Sorcery game store in... ummm... I'm not quite sure, because nowhere on "the ultimate game room store"'s website do they actually give a physical address other than buried on a less-than-helpful Mapquest map (and you're lecturing others about "insight and experience in the real "foot traffic" market"???). [UPDATE: It seems to be on the "About Us" page now.]

Daysofknights.com
The discussion basically came down to Christopher saying that he doesn't stock OSR material because it doesn't turn a decent profit. And that's a very fair point. If your clientele is more interested in LAN parties, Frisbee golf(!), and the latest M:tG release, then you need to follow the money. It's a business, not a charity for 40-something gamers. But he also said "we don't and can't thrive on RPG Materials of any kind. It's mainly an afterthought." That I found quite revealing.

I say that because I know at least two FLGS's in driving distance for whom RPGs are a significant slice of their business. Certainly not a throwaway category that's more trouble than it's worth. They go out of their way to cultivate a clientele that wants those games, and develops the sort of customer loyalty that brings them into the store rather than taking the discount on Amazon, or the convenience of buying from RPGNow.com. And bear in mind everything in this post I say about RPGs applies to board games, too.

Castleperilous.com
I've also been in FLGS's who have exactly the same attitude towards RPGs (especially RPGs that aren't D&D or Pathfinder) that Savage Sorcery seems to have. They just can't be bothered, and even if I am standing at the register with money in hand asking them to special order something for me, it just will never happen, and they act completely put out by even being asked to try. Those stores, I don't go back to.

It's admittedly a conundrum. Players/customers don't frequent the store because there's nothing there for them to play or buy. The store doesn't stock any OSR stuff because it would sit on the shelf and represent a waste of money. Honestly, I get that problem.

This actually circles back to another discussion that was going on earlier this week about TARGA, the abortive Old School version of the RPGA that I originally boosted way back in the early days of the blog, and might have had a small part in getting off the ground when I posted about such an organization back in 2008.

I think that such an organization might actually be a perfect vehicle to solve the conundrum. Perhaps the OSRToday site might be able to do so as well.

Shopofmagic.com
What if there was a way for any given FLGS to gauge interest in OSR type games? I'm thinking along the lines of GMT's P-500 program, where people indicated interest until a critical mass was reached. Once, say, a dozen people said they would frequent the store if they knew it carried a selection of OSR games, the store would take the plunge and then be able to fire off a very specifically targeted email campaign at those people. Basically, opting in to an email announcement list that wouldn't activate until it hit a target number of members.

Now, obviously not everyone who signed up for such a list would actually walk through the door. But I think it's not unreasonable to say that there would be a higher-than-average response rate, especially if it was combined with special events, sales, etc. I only picked a dozen out of thin air; maybe each store would be able to set its own threshold, based on local conditions and the willingness of the store owner to take a risk on such a venture.

Myriadgames.com
Heck, it could even get more specific and poll those signing up for which games in particular they'd be interested in. When you get eight people within driving distance who all say they are interested in Castles and Crusades, that could be valuable information for the store owner, and he might want to pick up some of the latest releases and let those people know.

Perhaps such a thing would be more useful to the stores, and ultimately more useful to the players, because it would give the stores a way to know that they weren't speculating on some obscure title, and the players a way to know that there were others in their area who were interested in playing that obscure title, and would be willing to not only play at the store, but buy stuff there as well. And it could be expanded to board games, too.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

On Barbarians and their Ilk

Over at Tenkar's Tavern, the question of the day revolves around Unearthed Arcana, that AD&D expansion book that is something of a fissure among fans of the game. Few and far between are those who have no opinion on it; it often elicits a love it or hate it reaction. Erik himself seems to come down on the "hate it" side of the fence, especially calling the barbarian class "overpowered and anti-social".

Now personally I loved it and still do. Yes, there were some problems, but nothing that couldn't be overcome in the same way that we overcame any sort of problems with the rules that came before and after. We tinkered. Indeed, one of the features of my own Adventures Dark and Deep game is that the rules seamlessly integrate the original 1E rules and the material from UA, plus additional new material along the same lines integrated into the whole. Admittedly, I did make tweaks to the whole along the way, but it would not be inaccurate to say that if you wanted to see barbarians and acrobats alongside illusionists and druids in the rules, ADD will sate your appetite.

I'd like to specifically examine the barbarian class, and posit that the class itself is not unbalanced, overpowered, or anti-social. It is simply intended for a different sort of campaign than most DMs were used to at the time, and suffered from a lack of supporting documentation regarding this fact.

Bear in mind that Gygax's own campaign was rather magic-user-heavy. There were occasional stars of other classes, such as Robilar the fighter, but the real luminaries were the high-level magic-users, either played by Gygax himself or others, that stole the show; think Tenser, Mordenkainen, Otiluke, Bigby, etc. I think Gygax was deliberately trying to point the way to something 180 degrees away from that model.

I think the class itself implies a non-magic-user-centric campaign.

The most obvious piece of evidence is from the class description itself. While obviously deriving from REH's Conan, the barbarian as written can't even associate with clerics until 2nd level, and will only tolerate the presence of magic-users when absolutely necessary starting at 5th level. Indeed, as written it would not be possible to have a magic-user and a barbarian as members of the same regular adventuring group, period.

The barbarian class assumes the existence of barbarian homelands. Not necessarily a Viking-esque locale, because there are examples from steaming jungles and broad Mongol-like steppes given in the text. But there has to be a barbarian outland whence the barbarian can stride into civilization and tread it beneath his sandaled feet.

As further evidence, I point you to the Hunter character class, which Gygax wrote in 1988 after his ouster from TSR. I had actually seriously considered including a hunter class in Adventures Dark and Deep, but finally came down on the side of leaving it out because of copyright reasons as well as the fact that it was never listed as one of the new classes that Gygax was considering at the time his 2nd edition was being contemplated. But look at some of the background text of the class:
The hunter is one who was born in a wilderness area and grew up in primitive conditions requiring a knowledge of woodcraft, fishing, trapping, tracking, knowing the flora and fauna for many reasons, and hunting to sustain life. There might be rare exceptions to this, but generally the hunter is one of savage, barbaric background. There are, of course, hunters from open plains areas, frozen tundra, and barrens. Such individuals are of more nomadic sort than the class considers, and in general these backgrounds are more akin to the barbarian class. The hunter class considers a wooded homeland as the principal training ground, and this should suit most campaign milieus. 
There are specific call-outs to the barbarian class in the mechanics, too. Armor and weapons, and weapon specialization, work the same for the hunter as they do for the barbarian. In fact, there seems to be very little daylight between the barbarian and the hunter except in the combat skill area. (Although as an aside, the lack of any actual hunting skill for the hunter class is somewhat... odd.)

And I would also include in this litany Chert, the rough-hewn woodsman companion of Gygax's novel protagonist Gord, who hails from the Adri Forest and who is often referred to as a "barbarian". But looking at the list of skills of the hunter, I wonder if Gygax might not have had Chert in mind when he wrote the hunter class description...

In the World of Greyhawk there would be several excellent places for a barbarian campaign to be set. Ratik, that frontier of civilization on the edge of the Thilronian Penninsula, Tenh, which borders both the Rovers of the Barrens and Stonefist/Stonehold, and possibly even a Vesve Forest/Highfolk/Perrenland campaign, with both Tiger and Wolf Nomads to serve as wide-eyed visitors in strange civilized surroundings.

Even if that wasn't Gygax's conscious choice when putting together the barbarian class originally, and certainly this is all speculation of the highest order, I think the much-maligned barbarian could be redeemed by looking at him in that light. A group of barbarians, thieves, hunters, and fighters, coming down from the fringes and into civilization, might make an excellent theme of a campaign, and would even recall the standard set-up of MAR Barker's Tékumel, which placed the PCs as barbaric visitors into the decadent splendor of ancient civilizations.

I think it could work.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Batman's 25th anniversary

While there's a lot of churn around the 75th anniversary of Batman's first comic book appearance this year, Tim Burton's Batman had its opening weekend twenty-five years ago. A lot of people at the time thought casting Michael Keaton, who was mainly known for comedic roles, was a huge risk. But I think it paid off hugely.

Jack Nicholson's Joker remains iconic, even in the wake of Heath Ledger's terrific take on the character years later. Batman defined 1989 for me, and to this day I will still watch it any time it's on television (which is a LOT).

It remains to this day one of my all-time favorite genre films, helped shape modern superhero films, and was the inspiration for Batman: The Animated Series, which remains another favorite of mine. Thanks and congratulations to all involved in that groundbreaking film from a quarter century ago.