Saturday, August 30, 2008

Castle Zagyg Watch Update

Well, I did get a package from Troll Lord Games in the mail today.

Inside was nothing less than issue #11 of their magazine, The Crusader. Is there no end to the indignities they are heaping upon me!? The magazine they can get in the mail (and it made it here with an incorrect zip code on the mailing label, I'll have you note), but not the boxed set I ordered months ago?

Inside the magazine it lists Castle Zagyg Upper Works as "available now". Not in my house, it's not.

Our long national nightmare continues.

Castle Zagyg Watch Continues

See, now, if I owned a game company...

I'd make sure that the folks who sent in money for pre-orders actually got copies of the product before anyone else. I wouldn't sell it at conventions first. I wouldn't send it to distributors first. Reviewers, sure. But pre-orders would be right after that. After all, unless I've got a completely unreal cash flow for a small publisher, they're paying for at least part of the printing costs out of those pre-order dollars.

Not so Troll Lord Games!

I was-- quite literally-- the first person to pre-order a copy of Castle Zagyg 2: The Upper Works. For those not in the know, that is Gary Gygax's for-publication version of his (in)famous dungeon that set the standard for the entire RPG world and has been promised for 30 years or so. TLG took my money back in May.

They sold very briskly at Gen Con, I hear. That was 16 days ago.

They started "the first batch" of mailings for the pre-orders 8 days ago. I'm sorry, but I could walk from Arkansas to New Jersey in that time. People have reported getting them. But not me.

I will be reviewing it. This whole blog is about Greyhawk, and this is the defining Greyhawk product. But TLG is not winning any points by dicking around folks who put up their money for pre-orders. I don't ask for any particularly special treatment, but I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that the people who shell out money for pre-orders should actually expect to see the fucking module at least early in the release process. Not more than two weeks after the premier, and counting. This is not the way to handle customer service and manage expectations (I won't go into the outright lies about dates that have been put out by staff on the TLG message boards).

Rest assured I will not be pre-ordering #3 in the series. If I can't make it to whatever convention it will be sold at before anyone else can get it, I will get someone to buy it for me. A few extra dollars in postage will be preferable to the now 2 weeks + that I've waited. Hell, at this rate, I might just wait to buy one used off of eBay. It might actually come quicker.

Troll Lord Games, you can foot the printing bill yourself next time.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Using Metagame Knowledge in the Game

Here's a concept I have seen discussed only briefly, although I know it is in wide use amongst the Elect. Using out-of-game knowledge that the players possess as a feature of the game. Now, I'm not talking here about taking some of the traps of Tomb of Horrors and tweaking them so that a player who's read the module will walk into certain doom if he tries to cheat. That's an old tried-and-true method that any DM worth his salt will embrace and that no player true to his conscience can object to.

But I'm talking about the DM actively using out-of-game knowledge or experience to influence the course of the game. It can be a subtle thing, or it can be overt (to the DM).

Essentially, I am talking about making comments, out of the context of the game, to subtly influence the attitudes, actions, and ultimately in-game decisions of the players.

For example, if the players come up against a particularly nasty monster that has a key role in the plot the characters are following, I might roll some dice immediately before the encounter, make a great show of consulting the random monster tables in the DMG, and then play out the encounter. Even though I knew it was coming all along, and had it planned out in advance, just to throw the players' off the trail. I've had players say "It can't have anything to do with the quest; it was just a wandering monster." Yup, you just keep thinking that.

Or, more subtly, I can present what seems to be the climax to a months-long quest as a relative pushover. The Big Bad turns out to go down in just a couple of rounds, and manages to inflict just minor damage on the PCs. I put a look of consternation on my face as I mutter about saving throws and missed hits, when all the time that isn't the Big Bad at all, but rather a trick to throw the PCs off the scent. If the characters are supposed to believe it, I need to make the players believe it, too.

I've also tried to jack up the nervousness of the players in some situations by rolling dice for no reason, asking "what's your saving throw vs. magic again?" and so forth. Remember that the characters are only as nervous as the players are. If the players are supposed to be nervous (or misdirected, or whatever), playing a little with the players' expectations and emotions is all part of the game.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"Currently Supported Games"

Fair warning; this is going to honk off a lot of my fellow old-school gamers.

I play AD&D. That's 1E to all you johnnies-come-lately with your fancy "editions".

I've got a group of players who have been playing this version of the game for more than a year and a half now. Only one had ever played before, and had long since moved on to newer versions. I've never asked, but I assume it was the same reason most people move from one version to the next. Not that it's necessarily "better" (although TSR/WotC is certainly within their commercial rights to try to convince its customers of that), or merely because it's the latest thing (is there an antonym of atavism?), but ultimately because it's the version that is "currently supported."

I think a lot of gamers fall into this trap. They refuse to play a game that is not being "supported" by a publisher. No more PH, DMG, or MM. No more modules or campaign settings. No magazine articles. It's almost as if a lack of new "official" material renders a game somehow obsolete.

I find that a quite remarkable attitude, and one that runs counter to any sort of common sense. Yet it is at the heart of the entire "retro clone" movement. Games like OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, Encounter Critical, etc. Each and every one of them is no doubt fine in and of themselves, but I must wonder at why they exist in the first place.

Who says to themselves, "I think I'll run an OSRIC game"? (And I don't mean to pick on OSRIC in particular; it happens to be the first one that came to mind; these points can be made relating to all of the retro-clones, inversely proportional to how much they stray from the game they purport to be a clone of.) Given the choice, why not just run an AD&D game?

In OSRIC's case, it was conceived as a way to allow publishers to put out AD&D-compatible material. But, of course, that is completely unnecessary. Mayfair Games was putting out AD&D-compatible material for years. More recently, Pied Piper Publishing has come out with adventure modules which are completely AD&D-compatible, and did so without the need for OSRIC. You don't need OSRIC to play AD&D, you just need, well, AD&D.

Is it the case that the rulebooks themselves are unavailable or prohibitively expensive? Certainly not, given both the after-sale and pdf markets. You can pick up a Player's Handbook for around $5 (which I should point out is cheaper than they were when they were first published!). I've got half a dozen myself, most of which I picked up within the last two or three years, for my players. The pdf versions, I am told, are similarly inexpensive. So, while "inexpensive" is certainly not the same as "free", in this case it's certainly not a show-stopper for anyone other than Barack Obama's brother.

It may perhaps be the fact that no new rules are being produced. This, as might be expected, is also a non-issue. Throughout the many years of Dragon magazine, literally thousands of rules suggestions, alternatives, expansions, etc. were published. With the advent of the Internet, thousands more have come on the scene. These are not "official" rules, I will grant. However, I would also point out that the game as originally published is complete as far as it goes. Anything else is gravy for the Dungeon Master, and "more rules" are hardly necessary to play. They are, however, amply available for the DM who wants to avail himself of them.

It is true, however, that many of the retro-clones are less clones and more new games in a retro style. In such cases, I can absolutely see wanting to try them out, and possibly even adapt them for the long term. However, I must wonder if any of them really needs to be a full-blown game. Could not the vaunted spider-goat have appeared in an unofficial supplement for Gamma World or Metamorphosis: Alpha? Could not some of the rules adaptations of Labyrinth Lord have been published as a series of optional rules for the Basic/Expert rules?

I suppose it comes down to the fundamental question. Do we need games to be "currently supproted" in order to play them? I tend to think not. Are there reasons I've missed? I'm genuinely curious.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Historical Patterns as RPG Inspiration

I recently saw the excellent History Channel documentary “The Dark Ages”. It got me thinking about the broad sweep of history as it applies to Europe, and how such a big picture might be applied to the RPG setting.

Painting with the broadest possible brush strokes, and starting quite arbitrarily at 1 CE, the history of Europe can be broken down thusly (and bear in mind this is very rough; the time frames are necessarily arbitrary and the trends described within thumbnails):

Imperial Era (1st - 4th cen.): Highly developed urban areas, strong central authority, relative peace within national borders, relatively high standard of living and leisure time for most people. Travel for tourism, knowledge of foreign lands is widespread. Widespread trade and commerce. The Roman Empire is at its height, having brought prosperity and stability across the Mediterranean and northwest Europe.

Dark Ages (5th - 9th cen.): Fragmentation of central authority, depopulation of urban areas, lawlessness within and between national borders (where they exist), subsistence economy, little leisure for most individuals, widespread illiteracy, loss of knowledge. Knowledge becomes almost completely localized. Little trade. The Roman Empire has fallen, with most of its accomplishments and knowledge lost, and its former lands overrun by barbarians who set up their own petty kingdoms and short-lived empires on its ruins.

Middle Ages (10th - 14th cen.): Consolidation of central authority, growth of urban areas, peace within national borders, standard of living increases among certain classes, growth of literacy and rediscovery of knowledge. More stable nations form out of the chaos of the Dark Ages, and further incursions of barbarians and foreign powers are halted. Large-scale contact and trade with other cultures begins. The Roman Empire is seen as a Golden Era.

Renaissance (15th - 17th cen.): Highly developed urban areas, strong central authority, relative peace within national borders, relatively high standard of living and leisure time for most people. Travel for tourism. Discovery of new knowledge, including new (hitherto-unknown or inaccessible) territories. Commercial and cultural innovations thrive among the nations established during the Middle Ages, which form relatively stable cultural (if not political) units over centuries-long periods of time. Beginnings of nationalism.

This general schema could be applied to a generic FRPG setting very easily…

Imperial Era: Elvish Empire is at its height, having brought prosperity and stability across the continent.

Dark Ages: The Elvish Empire has fallen, with most of its accomplishments and knowledge lost, and its former lands overrun by humans who set up their own petty kingdoms and short-lived empires on its ruins.

Middle Ages: Stable human kingdoms form out of the chaos of the Dark Ages, and further incursions of humanoids and other foreign powers are halted. Large-scale trade and contact with other continents begins. The Elvish Empire is seen as a Golden Era.

Etc.

I particularly like the idea that different races represent what on Earth were different human tribes or nationalities. Elves replace Romans. Humans replace Goths and Vandals. Orcs and Gnolls replace Vikings and Tartars. Not adapting their specific cultures, but taking their historical roles. There could even be an outpost of the faded Elvish Empire tucked away in a corner somewhere, taking the role of Byzantium. I could also envision Halflings being ubiquitous, playing the role that agriculturally-bound serfs did in historical Europe (I’ve always preferred a more Tolkien-esque version of Halflings as bucolic stay-at-homes than the more modern versions of D&D have presented).

Friday, August 15, 2008

Does sweet’um want some num-nums?

I never thought I would come out of a theater having just seen a Star Wars film and say, "wow, that really sucked." But here I am.

As you might imagine from my grognardy ways, I was one of the bazillions of kids who saw Star Wars when it first came out in 1977 (and, incidentally, when it was still called "Star Wars" and not "Episode IV: A New Hope"). I cut school to see Jedi on its opening day (which was, coincidentally, my birthday). I was enthused as most of us were when Phantom Menace came out, and I actually don't hate the prequels like so many long-term fans have come to do.

But this... this was garbage. An utter waste of my $9.50. It makes me yearn to see Jar Jar Binks on the screen, for crying out loud. This was so bad it is difficult to put into words, but I'll give it a try.

First, the good (what little of it there was). I thought the scenes with the clone troopers were great; I really got a vibe like they were old soldiers and real professionals. I liked the way they tried to individualize themselves with hair styles and tattoos, even if it did run counter to what we see in Revenge of the Sith (which actually comes after this cartoon). And the music when they were on the planet with the monastery I thought was excellent; really evocative and different for a Star Wars movie, and I thought it fit well. Watching Anakin and the old clunker starship was fun for a few minutes. And...

Well, that's about all I liked.

The stylized characterizations were quite obviously cribbed from the Clone Wars shorts that were shown on Cartoon Network a few years ago. Even some of the scenes were taken straight out of that (quite excellent) series-- I think particularly of the scene with clone troopers swooping down on ropes, firing at the droid troopers as they did. The fact that Lucas seems to be deliberately sweeping Genndy Tartakovsky's work under the rug seems almost criminal, considering that many of the images the new movie (and the coming television show, no doubt) uses come directly from there. Little things like Dooku, Mace Windu, Palpatine, and Obi-Wan, etc.

To say that the droid soldiers were even dumber in this movie than they were in the prequels is to do a disservice to dumbness. How the hell can a droid forget a 7-digit number it was just told?? How the hell can it just fall off a cliff out of clumsiness? The Jedi finally manage to figure out a way to make destroyer droids, well, destroyable. Why don't we ever see that trick again, I wonder? Oh yeah, because this film doesn't give a crap about continuity with the other films in the series! Where the hell were those non-clone, non-Jedi officers before now? It was cool when it seemed like they were waiting in the wings, ready to take over for the Jedi once they'd been annihilated by the clones. Now, they just seem to blip in and out randomly.

Then there's the dialog. Ah, the dialog. Gems like the line I used as the title for this post. It is so obvious that Lucas is trying to just wring a few more dollars out of my seven-year-old that it's embarrassing. The excrement jokes in Episode I and the burping jokes in Episode VI cannot hold a candle to the inanity of the lines that are thrust into the yawning gobs of these characters. Well, they would be yawning gobs if they actually opened their mouths at all; so little was spent on the animation for this travesty that it almost seems like they could have done it in Syncro-Vox and had it come out better.

Someone on another blog said something to the effect of "Now I understand what those folks who hate the prequels must feel like." Yeah, I'm feeling like that right now.

EDIT: And the less said about Ziro the Hutt, the better.

Friday, August 8, 2008

To homebrew or not to homebrew, that is the question.

In recent weeks I've been toying with the idea of creating a homebrew campaign to replace the WoG campaign I'm currently running. It's not like it's a new thing for me; I've designed quite a few homebrew campaigns over the years.

I do dearly love the World of Greyhawk setting, and that won't change regardless of whether or not I'm actively running a campaign in it. Nor would my eccentric delving and rambling on bits of obscure Greyhawk lore. But I'm wondering if any published setting isn't just a little too limiting for me at the present time.

I've been going through a lot of old issues of The Dragon, particularly articles dealing with campaign creation. I've got some ideas regarding religion that I would really like to try out, but which wouldn't really fit into the schema of pantheons. Plus some Outer Planes stuff that is a complete departure from what's published. And I would love to experiment with some other ideas, perhaps even going as far as making the new campaign completely devoid of demihumans and humanoids altogether. Heck, I might even drop AD&D in favor of something new (or, perhaps old but new to my players) like Rolemaster, GURPS, or even something completely home-grown.

Of course, I hear some say, you can do most of those things in Greyhawk. But I wonder if it would still be Greyhawk without Heironeous and Hextor, or the Nine Hells, or gnomes and elves and half-orcs. At that point, I think it becomes a case of "why bother to even call it Greyhawk, if you're changing so much?" (Much like the new Battlestar Galactica television show, or the upcoming remake of Death Race 2000, or, dare I say, the Forgotten Realms.)

As I said above, I'd still be looking at interesting bits of Greyhawkiana, but it would be more in the realm of a scholarly exercise rather than something that had a practical angle for me. Not that most of the stuff I've posted here has been particularly practical for my own campaign, which has been set in Tenh and tonight sees the PC's (hopefully) moving on to the Rift Crag in the Bandit Kingdoms.

Perhaps once (if?) Troll Lord Games ever gets some of its Castle Zagyg material actually published, I would return to running a Greyhawk campaign. That might be just too much to resist. But for now, the muse of unbridled creativity is beckoning to me, and I might just heed her summons.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Boot Hill Brawling in AD&D

I think it's fair to say that folks have been grumbling about the rules for pummeling, grappling, and overbearing since the Dungeon Masters Guide was first published. They are, to put it plainly, awful, inelegant, and difficult to use. They don't fit in at all with the rest of the combat system, and the results that they yield often don't make a lick of sense.

Various optional and alternate hand-to-hand rules have been published over the years, some in The Dragon, and yet I've discovered a set of rules that have been lurking under my very nose for almost 30 years. They are quick, can be adapted for use with A/D&D with a minimum of fuss, and make sense in the overall scheme of the combat system.

They are found in TSR's wild west role-playing game Boot Hill, of all places.

Briefly put, here's the system (adapted from pp. 10-11 of the original Boot Hill rulebook, with AD&D-isms inserted as needed).

1. Whoever has the highest dexterity (or initiative, depending on how you play) goes first.
2. You can either punch or grapple.
3. Roll 2d10, add any "to hit" bonus for strength.
4. Consult the Punching Table; that will tell you what sort of punch you were able to do, how much damage you did, and what (if any) "to hit" adjustment your opponent gets next round. Anything over 10 does at least a point of damage; add any strength bonus as applicable.
5. OR, consult the Grappling Table; that will tell you what sort of hold you were able to put on your opponent, how much damage you did, and what sort of "to hit" adjustment you or your opponent gets next round. Anything over 10 does at least a point of damage and puts the opponent in some sort of hold. Next round, the opponent will need to break the hold.

(I've scanned in the tables and the notes that go with them; just click on the image and you should get a full-sized copy.)

And that's pretty much it. I like it because, like most TSR products of the day, it leaves much of the leg-work to the DM; i.e., it requires actual judgement. It will take a little common sense to say, "You got your opponent in a head lock, but he is still able to take a punch at you and hits you in the ribs for 2 points of damage."

Just about the only thing that will need to be taken into account is armor; I'd say if the opponent is wearing a helmet, punching is out. If he's wearing armor, a rabbit punch won't have an effect (if you roll one), but most punches and grappling moves will work (you can still put someone in plate mail into an arm lock). Things like elbow smash are probably out, but again that's for the DM to actually make a decision about. I would toss out the Boot Hill rules for hand weapons completely (essentially, they use the punching table), since A/D&D is built around such things.

I sense a tavern brawl in my players' immediate future.