Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: Empire of Imagination

Nice homage to the cover of
"Unearthed Arcana"
Michael Witwer's Empire of Imagination (coming October 6, but available for pre-order at Amazon) is a biography of Gary Gygax, an individual who will need no introduction to my readers.

Witwer's book covers similar ground to other books published over the last couple of years, such as Playing at the World, Designers & Dragons, and Of Dice and Men, but does so with a particular emphasis on Gygax himself, including a lot of non-game-related information not covered in most other works. That said, there's not much relating directly to D&D or TSR that you won't find in those other books.

Witwer's style is light and easy to read. I found his accounts of events compelling, and actively looked forward to picking the book up again each time.

Although the sub-title of the book, "Gary Gygax and the birth of Dungeons & Dragons" does telegraph that the period up to the mid-1980's will receive the most coverage, I found this to be the greatest deficiency in the book. What we have is not a biography of Gary Gygax, but only the first half of one. Everything past 1987 or so is mentioned almost as an afterthought, covering thirty years in thirty pages. Suddenly Gygax has a second wife, of whom we have not previously heard. His later work with other companies such as Troll Lord Games is given but a single sentence, and no word is given at all to his rapprochement with the publishers of D&D (by that time Wizards of the Coast) and his renewed series of articles in Dragon magazine.

I think a more balanced look at the whole of Gygax's life and career would have been both more interesting and valuable than yet another look at the intricate details of 1970-75. It should be taken as a compliment that the only major deficiency I find in Empire of Imagination is that it's not long enough. I could easily have read another hundred pages that went into an equal amount of detail on the post-TSR years of Gygax's life.

Note: I requested, and was sent, an advance review copy of this book by the publisher.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

OSWARP 2015 Events

The schedule of events for this year's DexCon convention was just posted, and with it the OSWARP "Old School con-within-a-con" events. Here they are, broken out for your convenience:

  • THU 8 PM - 12 PM: R0305: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor"
  • FRI 8 PM - 12 PM: R0374: AD&D 1st Edition; "The Ghost Tower of Inverness"
  • FRI 8 PM - 12 PM: R0375: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor" 
  • SAT 9 AM - 1 PM: R0399: AD&D 2nd Edition; "I6: Ravenloft"
  • SAT 9 AM - 1 PM: R0402: Empire of the Petal Throne; "A Taste of the Past" (An original scenario for the original, 1975 Empire of the Petal Throne rules, in honor of the game's 40th anniversary)
  • SAT 8 PM - 12 PM: W1089: Ogre Miniatures; "Breakthrough"
  • SAT 8 PM - 12 PM: R0442: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor"
  • SUN 10 AM - 2 PM: R0459: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor"
Not a bad showing, but I would have liked to see a little more variety. Still, it's good to see some of the old games represented. Unfortunately due to a variety of circumstances I'm only able to run two games this year, Inverness and Ogre Miniatures are mine. Yes, that's right, someone else is running Adventures Dark and Deep! Too cool!

The convention will be held in conjunction with DexCon, the premier East Coast gaming convention, on July 4th weekend in Morristown, NJ. Full details, including registration info, can be found here. Unfortunately the convention hotel is sold out, but there are plenty of other hotels in Morristown.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Let's Read: Greyhawk Adventures (Part 8)

Slowly but surely we make our way inexorably through this book! This time, I'll be talking about a particularly juicy section; Magical Spells.

Here we have more than a hundred(!) new spells, purportedly from the spellbooks of the most famous magic-users in the Flanaess; Bigby, Drawmij, Mordenkainen, Nystul, Otiluke, Otto, Rary, and Tenser. We also learn of the titles of too more that were "left off as too esoteric for even the most curious spell crafter"; Drawmij's Instant Stripping and Otto's Gelatinous Cube Transformation to Edible Gel. Which I absolutely love and find both whimsical and evocative.

They span in spell level from 1st to 7th; "there are no 8th and 9th level spells because these were too well protected for even this powerful scribe to acquire." Nice touch.

I find the spells listed here to be somewhat uneven. Some are obviously just extensions of other named "theme" spells from the Players Handbook. Many of Bigby's spells are hand-related, such as Bigby's Feeling Fingers; Drawmij's specialty seems to be teleportation (Drawmij's Instant Exit); many of Nystul's deal with light, such as Nystul's Flash; Otilike has a whole line of "sphere" themed spells (including Otiluke's Steaming Sphere); Otto is more musical and dance related, with spells like Otto's Sure-Footed Shuffle; Rary is mind-based (Rary's Mind Scan); while Tenser's are based around melee and physical combat (Tenser's Primal Fury).

On the one hand, I know why these were chosen, based on the existing named spells in the Player's Handbook, and it's convenient for each magic-user to have some identifiable "hook" or theme that can be used to more easily differentiate him from the pack. On the other hand, they do seem rather derivative and uninspired. One nice touch is that Tenser was known for charging into combat, so his themed spells bother me the least.

Personally, I find the non-themed spells to be much more inventive and to do a better job of fleshing out the characters of their creators. Spells like Bigby's Bookworm Bane (which still conjures a disembodied hand, of course), Drawmij's Scent Mask, Mordenkainen's Protection from Slime, Nystul's Grue Conjuration (which is the only means I can think of off the top of my head than an elemental grue can be summoned to the material plane), and so forth. I do find the insistence on putting the magic-user's name at the beginning of each and every one of his spells rather tedious, though. I wish Mr. Ward had followed Ed Greenwood's lead in his "Pages from the Mages" articles in Dragon, and just given the spells regular names while making their origin clear.

For the most part, the spells listed here seem like riffs on the named specialty spells in the Players Handbook. There are different specialties, and different gradations of power, but ultimately they seem rather derivative, with some notable exceptions. Still, they are quite useful and would certainly be most welcome as treasure (on scrolls, perhaps) or rewards in a Greyhawk campaign, not to mention an excuse to get the PCs involved with the named mages themselves.

I still think that I would have more fun with Drawmij's Instant Stripping and Otto's Gelatinous Cube Transformation to Edible Gel, though.

Up next: magic items!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Is Spider-Girl coming to the MCU?

So, there's been quite a hullabaloo lately about the 2015 Marvel character poster (click to embiggen):

Some folks are claiming (and they're probably correct) that Marvel is deliberately sidelining characters for which they do not own the film rights. So, unlike years past, there's no Fantastic Four, Deadpool, or X-Men (or any mutants) in the poster at all. Similar things are apparently happening with toys.

And I'm okay with that. Marvel's a business, in it to make money, and if they can apply subtle pressure on Fox to get them to give up some of their Marvel properties, they certainly have that right.

However, I will point out that if the new Fantastic Four reboot film tanks at the box office, it will not be because there's no Mr. Fantastic on a poster. It will tank because the film itself sucks. Just as when X-Men Apocalypse comes out, it will make a pile of money not because of comic book sales, but because it's a great film. Comic books are minuscule, financially speaking, compared to films.

Now, lost in all the discussion about the characters that aren't on the poster is something I noticed about one of the characters that is on the poster. The front three or four ranks are filled with characters who have either appeared, or who will appear, on television, Netflix, or film.There are Inhumans, and Defenders, and Avengers, and Spider-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy, and Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, and Ant Man, and the Winter Soldier, and Loki, and... Spider-Girl.

Bottom right, just behind Cosmo, the telepathic dog we saw in GotG.

Now this is purely speculation, of course, and it's way too easy to read way too much into the characters chosen for a poster, but putting Spider Girl in the very front rank? That seems an odd choice when they're clearly choosing characters that feature in the MCU.

Could we see Spider-Girl in Captain America Civil War next year? There are already rumors that'll be the introduction of Spider-Man. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Spider-Girl, in her Anya Corazon form, doesn't show up as a cameo, perhaps more. A female Latina character? The suits would like the optics of that...

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Now Available: Castle of the Mad Archmage Level 3E expansion

The first fourteen levels were only the beginning!

Confound your players with a whole new level to add to your Castle of the Mad Archmage™ adventure. Level Three East describes the wonders of the Mad Archmage’s own museum, which contains curiosities and treasures from all over the multiverse, and the challenges of the Watery Caves, which are a series of living caves connected by an underground river.

This module features 74 new encounter areas and 6 new monsters, a full two-page map, plus new magic items, new rumors, an explanation of how this module fits into the whole Castle structure, and the impact it will have on the inhabitants of the central third level of the dungeon. There are also tips for game masters who would like to run this level as a stand-alone adventure.

Levels in the dungeon roughly comport to suitable character levels, to this module is best suited for PCs of approximately 3rd level. However, there are (intentionally) some encounters that only more powerful characters can expect to handle.

Note: This is an expansion of the original Castle of the Mad Archmage™ megadungeon adventure. Although it can be run on its own, you will greatly add to your enjoyment of the module if you also have the original Castle.

Castle of the Mad Archmage is written using the Adventures Dark and Deep™ rules, and is compatible with most Old School type rules with little or no conversion needed.

Click Here to Buy The Museum and the Watery Caves: Level Three East

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Designer's corner: wuxia rules

I've got a long way to go before it's done, but I've recently had a spurt of inspiration and energy for my wuxia/Chinese folklore supplement for old-school gaming, and I thought I'd post some of my thoughts on how it's going to be organized, and what sort of stuff will likely find its way into the book.

First off, it's completely China-focused. One of the things that was both baffling and annoying about the original Oriental Adventures book was its mish-mashing of Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian material, with a decided focus on the Japanese. There will be neither ninjas nor samurai in this book. That's not to say it's an historical game; far from it. But the influences will come solely from China.

Secondly, it draws inspiration from two sources; wuxia film and literature, and traditional Chinese mythology and folklore. In the same way that Gary Gygax took inspiration from European and Biblical folklore and literature for a lot of spells, magic items, and character classes, this book will draw from Chinese mythology and folklore. I'm also adding in a healthy dose of wuxia tropes and themes, most specifically in the introduction of rules for kung fu.

Building on a mechanic of the core Adventures Dark and Deep rules before it, this Chinese supplement will treat kung fu abilities as secondary skills (which in turn were inspired by Gary Gygax's rules for skills written for the Castles and Crusades game), kung fu skills are learned in three stages. Each stage costs a set amount of experience points per level, with the amount of xp required decreasing if your character's highest attribute is relevant to the skill in question. Once you "spend" the xp to learn that level of a particular kung fu style, they're forever lost, but you can of course earn more xp to replace them. Spending them does require that the character find a teacher that is both able and willing to instruct the PC, naturally. Monks, by their nature, start off with a level in one kung fu style.

To take one example, "Dragon Foot Style" allows characters to kick enemies back one foot per point of strength, and gain damage bonuses if using pummeling to kick, plus other bonuses as they buy new levels in it. A lot of the kung fu rules lean heavily on unarmed combat (naturally), and the Adventures Dark and Deep unarmed combat rules, which I think are a lot easier than those in 1st edition, will be included as an appendix. Other styles allow characters to fight blind, do backflips to get behind enemies, and even levitate and climb walls. It's intended to really capture some of the cool moves featured in some wuxia films.

The traditional "Tolkienesque" fantasy races don't feature prominently in a mythic China setting, but two new races are included; shanxiao (monkey-men) and gou ren (dog-headed people). Every character class is covered, even if it's a perfunctory "this class doesn't exist in a mythic China setting", such as paladins and druids. New classes include monks, wu (shamans, a sub-class of cleric), and fangshi (a sub-class of mage). Naturally there are tons of new spells for both classes.

So far, I've got 67 new spells (plus all the original spells that the wu and fangshi can also cast), 43 new magic items, and 85 new monsters, including the various sorts of elementals (including meta- and quasi-elementals) that one would naturally expect when one adds elemental planes of metal and wood. All that from just reading books on Chinese folklore. Naturally, there will be entries for Chinese-style weapons and armor, and everything will be fully compatible with Adventures Dark and Deep, and, by extension, most old-school RPGs (with maybe a few tweaks here and there for some rules).

All in all, I'm really pleased with the way the book is going. It seems new to me, and it's definitely a change from the Japan-centric "oriental adventures" books that have come before. There will probably be a Kickstarter at some point to pay for art and editing, once the text is done. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Last call for OSWARP game masters!

Game proposals for this year's OSWARP (Old School Wargaming and Role Playing) convention, held in conjunction with Dexcon in Morristown, NJ July 3-5, are due by this Friday, June 5th!

Types of games we're looking for:

  • Old-school RPGs (Basic, AD&D, White Box, BECMI, Metamorphosis Alpha, Boot Hill, T&T, Runequest, Traveller, C&S, FASA Star Trek, etc. etc. etc.)
  • OSR retro-clones and associated games (OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, S&W, C&C, DCC, Barbarians of Lemuria, etc. etc. etc.)
  • Wargames (hex and counter types and others, like Afrika Korps, Third Reich, War in Europe, Campaign for North Africa, Kingmaker, Starfleet Battles, other AH/SPI/Victory Games/etc. - doesn't have to be from the 80's)
  • Miniatures (historical miniatures from any era, Chainmail (with or without the fantasy supplement), Battlesystem, System 7 Napoleonics, DBM, DBA, etc.)
  • Anything else you think would be appropriate for an "old school" convention

Click here to submit a game proposal for the convention. Deadline is June 5!

Make sure you select OSWARP in the "type of game" section in the form when you fill it out, so it can be included in the special OSWARP game schedule that will be available at the convention.

If you volunteer to run enough games (64 player-hours' worth if you're getting the special OSWARP membership, 128 player-hours' worth otherwise), you get comped into Dexcon/OSWARP altogether. If you're going to do that, submit your GM proposals first, and wait for the discount code to come via email, then register for the convention.

Monday, May 25, 2015


Remember those who gave their lives, that we might be free.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Game shelf porn

I've recently engaged in moving my office into another room of the house, to allow my daughter to use the spare bedroom as a music room (drums take up a lot of space). In so doing, I had the opportunity to go through my game collection, reorganize everything, get rid of junk, and generally get everything ship-shape again. And in the process realized I needed a fourth bookcase to hold all the stuff that was piled on the floor, double-stacked on shelves, tucked away in other parts of the house, etc. Here's the result (click to embiggen):
Board games #1. Yes, those are SPI flat boxes on the bottom shelf. You can't see it in this photo, but above is Cthulhu Wars, which is huge enough that it would take up an entire shelf on its own.

Board games #2. Top shelf is books about games. And at the very top is Ogre Designer's Edition, which literally wouldn't fit anywhere else.

End cap. Those rolling carts are full of miniatures (Ogre, 15mm medieval and fantasy wargaming, 25mm RPG, 1:2400 renaissance naval). Obviously, judging by the boxes piled on top, I need another. And yes, that's a "Dogs Playing D&D" picture.

RPG #1. With some miniatures supplies on the bottom.

RPG #2. It's hard to tell, but that shelf second from the bottom is where a lot of the real treasures lie. Those are mostly RPGs from the 70's and early 80's. Lots are just loose pages printed on dot-matrix printers. :-) Unpictured: on top of the bookcase is the Metamorphosis Alpha Deluxe Hardcover Edition.

Close up of the D&D shelf. Is that the AD&D coloring book on the end? Yes. Yes it is.

Close-up of the Greyhawk shelf. There are actually the contents of two Gold Box sets in there. Just no boxes any more. *sigh*

Close-up of the miniatures shelf, with all those glorious Grenadier boxes.

Close-up of the hex-and-counter wargame shelves.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Innovation: settings, rules, or... what?

Just like the good old days, there's a debate flying around certain centers of the OSR blogosphere, and naturally I've got a thought or two. The debate is (yet again) about innovation in the OSR. Some people seem bound and determined to shoot down anything the OSR has produced as derivative and stale; "just another orc with a different flavor of pie", so to speak. Others seem to swing the other way, claiming that giving a fighter a +2 bonus instead of a +1 bonus is worthy of an Origins Award. (I exaggerate, but you get the idea.)

Concomitant with this is the question of where innovation from the OSR should or will come. Is it in new sets of rules? Settings? Adventures? Some combination of those? Or something else entirely? Empire of the Petal Throne and Tekumel are being bandied about in these conversations as the yardstick by which such innovations are measured.

Before I get to where I think the path to innovation lies (hint: it's a combination), I would like to point out that there has been plenty of innovation coming from the OSR over the years. Doesn't anyone remember Carcosa? Like it or not, there's a setting that was unlike much of what had come before, and had some interesting mechanics (something involving magic as I recall *ahem*) that reinforced what the setting was doing. And Yoon-Suin? There's some weird and layered and in-depth stuff going on there, to be sure.

What about Vornheim? There was a product (a setting/toolbox) that was innovative not only in content, but in its very physical design. The book itself was a tool you used to flesh out the city. And what about Adventures in Oz? Sure, Oz is hardly an innovative setting, but it's not something that had been done to death in the RPG field at the time, and there was an entirely new, kid-friendly and violence-averse (and yet somehow still quite recognizably OSR in its way) rule system behind it. Neither of those were Greyhawk or the Realms warmed-over.

And what about things like Realms of Crawling Chaos? Some would label it as "just a reskin", because it's made for Labyrinth Lord, but I don't recall any of those rules for insanity or the new magics or new races or new monsters in the original LL books. Speaking of monsters, there has been a boom in OSR monster books over the years; Teratic Tome, Lusus Naturae, Malevolent and Benign, Creature Compendium, etc.

So don't tell me there hasn't been innovation coming out of the OSR, both mechanically and in terms of setting (and even physicality). So when people complain "where's the OSR's Tekumel?" what I hear is "where's the OSR's Tekumel for this month?" They forget what has come before, and just want something new to slake their jaded palate, or it wasn't exactly what they were looking for, so they discount any innovations it might otherwise have contained.

Now, personally, I don't like weird settings that take months or years to get to know. I'm on record as saying that I like plain-Jane, Tolkienesque fantasy. Much as I respect and enjoy reading about Tekumel, I just don't like Tekumel itself. I personally don't find it approachable, and I simply don't have the time to get to know it the way it deserves. The same goes for a lot of other settings and rules (and board games, for that matter) that I'm sure are fine in their way, but I'm pretty stuck in my ways, and I want rules that I can relate to, that are similar enough to the rules I've been playing since 1977 to not have to invest gobs of time I don't have in learning them. 5th Edition D&D was an exception, partly because so much of it did feel familiar, but I digress.

As for where I see the next wave of innovation coming? Well, as I stated a few years back, I think we're pretty well served for core fantasy rulebooks, and we're now well into Phase II of the OSR. As I wrote then:
But while the first phase of the OSR has seen foundational works such as those mentioned above, what we are now seeing in the OSR is a flowering of material that take off in wild new directions. Now that the final holes in the retro-clone coverage have been filled (the basic game-play of (A)D&D 0E, 1E, and now 2E are covered by multiple products), the OSR as a whole seems self-confident enough to break off in new directions.
Personally I would like, and think we're going, to see different genres explored within the context of the pretty-much-stable corpus of OSR "core rules". That is, rules expansions to cover different possible facets; settings with distinctive cultures that have associated sourcebooks with relevant rules (new classes, spells, races, social or combat or whatever other rules, etc.), different genres (which we just saw with White Star, which some complain, again is "just a reskin of White Box", to which I would say that not all innovation has to be mechanical), different sub-genres (we've seen Realms of Crawling Chaos for Lovecraftian horror, but there are tons of other possibilities out there; how about a Pendragon-like supplement with rules for chivalry, Courtly Love, and multi-generation gaming? There are tons of similar possibilities), different planes of existence (you could literally make a whole supplement for each plane, each with its own weird physical, social, magical, and even mechanical laws), and I'm sure there are a hundred things I've not mentioned that someone is thinking of doing. Not so much new restatements of core rules, so much as toolkits to be used with the existing core rules that we have.

That's what I want to buy. Not a straight-out setting, not a restatement of core rules, but supplements containing new rules and new slants on existing rules, whether tied to a particular setting or not. I'm sure others have other priorities, and that's certainly their prerogative, but that's what the guy writing this post wants, for everything that's worth. And monster books. I'm always a sucker for a new monster book.

My advice? Do it. Don't worry what people will say about your work, or whether you're being "innovative enough" to please some folks. The OSR is all about the hands-on, DIY ethic when it comes to games. There's no DIY unless YDI.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Call for GMs - Dexcon/OSWARP 2015

Registration for this year's Dexcon/OSWARP 2015 convention is open, and proposals for games are being accepted now! Last year's OSWARP, held in conjunction with the huge general gaming convention Dexcon in Morristown, NJ was a blast, and this year's convention should be better still.

The sort of games we're looking for include:

  • Old-school RPGs (Basic, AD&D, White Box, BECMI, Metamorphosis Alpha, Boot Hill, T&T, Runequest, Traveller, C&S, FASA Star Trek, etc. etc. etc.)
  • OSR retro-clones and associated games (White Star, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, S&W, C&C, DCC, Barbarians of Lemuria, etc. etc. etc.)
  • Wargames (hex and counter types and others, like Afrika Korps, Third Reich, War in Europe, Campaign for North Africa, Kingmaker, Starfleet Battles, other AH/SPI/Victory Games/etc. - doesn't have to be from the 80's)
  • Miniatures (historical miniatures from any era, Chainmail (with or without the fantasy supplement), Battlesystem, System 7 Napoleonics, DBM, DBA, etc.)
  • Anything else you think would be appropriate for an "old school" convention

When submitting your proposal, make sure you select "OSWARP" as the game type, to make sure you're included in the special SOWARP convention schedule that we'll be producing. Click here to submit a game proposal for the convention. Deadline is June 6!

General information about Dexcon can be found here, and more OSWARP-specific information can be found here.

If you're in the general vicinity of Morristown, NJ over July 4th weekend, I hope I'll be able to see you there!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Last hours for Ral Partha's Chaos Wars

You've only got a few hours to get in on the resurrection of Ral Partha's late great "Chaos Wars" minis and game. This is a real blast from the past, and I'm so very glad to see it coming back. So if you haven't pledged, now's your chance!

Click here to see the Kickstarter.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

White Star: Commerce Raider and Raider Tender

The massive shipyards of Astor and New Austin, the premier industrial worlds of the Athena Sector, have been turning out spacecraft of all types and descriptions for centuries, many of which find their way to every corner of civilized space (and beyond). Here are some of the most commonly-encountered examples, statted for the White Star game and designated as Open Game Content under the OGL.

Commerce Raider

Armor Class: 4 [15]
Hit Points: 20
Shield Strength: 2
Movement: 15
Targeting: +1
Attack: Laser Canon (4d6) [pilot-linked]
Modifications: Cloaking device

Commerce raiders are used by pirates and those worlds that employ letters of marque against enemy freighters. Designed to be taken into the shipping lanes by a raider tender and deployed to lurk in wait for an enemy freighter or convoy, they don't have the punch of a stunt fighter but are quite adequate against lightly-armed and unescorted transport craft. When used in sizable numbers they can even overwhelm all but the largest escorted convoys.

Raider Tender

Armor Class: 7 [12]
Hit Points: 60
Shield Strength: 1
Movement: 9
Targeting: +0
Attack: Light Laser x4 (2d6), automated weapons
Modifications: FTL drive, can carry up to six fighters

Originally designed as a light fighter carrier, raider tenders were heavily used in the human-mr'rk'kog war. Since then, many have turned up in the inventories of petty despots and pirates, where they are used to ferry fighters used as fast-striking commerce raiders. Each requires a crew of twenty, plus pilots for the fighters.