Thursday, January 29, 2009

Entering The Dungeons of Castle Greyhawk

Those who have explored the countryside between the bustling city of Greyhawk and the castle ruins of the same name which lie on the hill not a league to the east of the city will testify to the fact that there are a number of strange tunnels and wells about. Wise folks avoid them, for they know that these are but entrances to the fiendish maze of dungeons, pits, labyrinths, crypts, catacombs, and caverns which honeycomb the hill and the rock far beneath it. There are those, however, who eagerly seek these ways, for it is likewise well-known that incalculable treasure also rests within these twisting mazes. Dauntless adventurers sally through these entrances to a hideous underworld, determined to gain great fortunes or die. - Gary Gygax, writing in Wargamer's Digest, June 1975.
That quote, part of the introduction to the story "The Magician's Ring", is to my mind both evocative and practical. Later in the story, we are told that at least one of those entrances leads to the lower levels of the dungeons directly. Look for such entrances as I continue my own Castle of the Mad Archmage, naturally, but also consider the practical implications.

By providing a means of entrance and/or exit from the dungeons, even into the lower levels, higher-level adventurers are able to bypass the upper (and, to them, boring) levels and get straight to the action. Such entrances need be nether obvious nor easy to find, making an expedition merely to scout out the terrain surrounding the Castle a possible adventure in and of itself. Also, those using such entrances might not be certain of which level of the dungeons they had entered, unless they explored enough to run into rooms or features which were familiar.

Too many of my own dungeons in the past have been of the "one way in or out" variety. I'm going to take Gygax's description to heart.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Play-By-Mail Games

Way back in the hoary mists of time (the 80's), there was a thriving play-by-mail game industry. Back in my most avid days as a wargamer, I had, of course, heard of folks who would play Diplomacy by mail (still, in my opinion, one of the greatest board games ever created, and one which almost uniquely suits itself to playing by mail; I've run and played several such games myself), and there were the gamers who would try to work out ways of playing games like Panzerblitz or Afrika Korps by mail, but I had never needed to look into such things, since I had a regular coterie of gamers to play with face-to-face. But there was something else out there, games which were specifically designed to be played by mail, and no other way.

Bear in mind, this was the 1980's. When I say mail, I'm talking mail. Paper in an envelope with a stamp. Snail mail.

Many companies advertised in the pages of Dragon magazine, and one in particular caught my eye, especially after a neat little article by the game's designer in issue #46. That game was StarMaster, run by Schubel & Sons out in Sacramento, CA. (No connection to the video game, which actually got its makers sued for trademark infringement!) It was a terrific game, and in retrospect a precursor to many of the "empire-building" computer games that are out there today. You started off by designing a planet, and your home species (you had so many "bio points" to spend on such things as lungs, limbs, different sorts of eyes and ears, powers like telepathy or psionics, etc.). You picked a technology type (for instance, you could have a technology based entirely on cold, so your weapons would be different) and an ideology, and let fly. This was a pretty old-school set-up; there was no artificial barrier keeping the older empires off your back; if you were still puttering around with 2nd generation technology, and a 4th gen empire found you, you were pretty much toast (each generation was roughly a factor of ten more powerful than the previous).

You explored, colonized, traded, invested in new technology, ships, and troops, and most importantly you interacted with the other players. Either through the monthly newsletter (which saw some really great bits of fiction and other articles by players) or directly through "message torpedoes" or the US Mail (once you got other players' addresses), alliances big and small would form, fleets would get tossed around the galaxy, and a generally grand time was had by all. And it was a cash hog, too; one movement sheet let you move 6 fleets around, but you could of course spend more money and send in more movement sheets. There were times I was spending upwards of $50 a turn, and I know some of the larger empires-- like the Imperial Dragorn Empire, or that of Valk Lifewringer, were into at least triple digits per turn. There was a background story of ancient fallen empires who were once more rising out of their stupor, invasions from neighboring galaxies, and a lot more.

It was a blast, and it was all moderated entirely by hand (I know this for a fact, as I actually worked as a game master for KSK Concepts, run by the game's original designer who happened to live 20 minutes from my house, which bought the rights from Schubel, and we spent a LOT of time converting those analog records into computer records for an upgraded version of the game).

Flying Buffalo-- now known primarily for Tunnels & Trolls, its board games such as Nuclear War, and the Grimtooth's Traps books-- was also a major player in the PBM universe, and still runs games today, as far as I know.

I tried my hand at a bunch of others; Beyond the Stellar Empire was another favorite, which placed you in command of a ship (which you got to design) and set off exploring, trading, pirating, etc. Tribes of Crane was a huge one, and the precursor to StarMaster, but I only dipped my toe into its water. Hyborian War was a more conventional wargame set in the world of Conan, and it was great fun. Renaissance was a blast, completely historical in nature, and completely open-ended. Rimworlds was incredibly detailed (and also run by someone in my home town), but I was at the tail end of my PBM days when I started, and it peetered out quickly for me. I played dozens of others as well, and actually wrote and ran my own for a short time ("Sail the Solar Winds", with print advertising in the trade magazine Flagship and everything!).

What these sorts of games bring that few others do is time. Time to savor the situation, drink it in, plot and plan. Time to have multiple conversations with folks before you need to get your orders in, and then of course the delicious wait while you scowl at the mailbox wondering why that damned game master hasn't sent your turn back. You could get that with a PBEM game, but there is also something very viceral about getting that envelope in your hands and pouring over the results in hard-copy. It's a very different experience than the instant gratification in modern computer games. It's also different than a face-to-face game, as the negotiations can get really, really involved and of course the number of potential players is vastly greater. Plus the opportunity to play a truly double-blind game is hard to come by in face-to-face games.

EDIT: Chgowiz says the following in the comments. But it's just so spot-on perfect that I wanted it to see the light of day on the post itself.
There was a magic to receiving those typewritten sheets to see what had become of you, especially to a 15/16yo kid who feels like he just became a part of something bigger.
Amen, brother. I was about that same age when I started playing StarMaster, and you are so right. /EDIT

A quick search shows that there are still more than a hundred games which are run via the regular mail, including a couple of old familiar names. I might just give such searching, and consideration of getting back into PBM, a little more time.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Castle of the Mad Archmage January Release Now Available!

Well, this was an interesting experience, but I think my initial outing for this project has turned out pretty well. If you look over to the right, you'll see a link to the latest version of the Castle of the Mad Archmage, which conceit has led me to label as WG13, which would have been next in the WG series, had it been continued by TSR.

I'm hosting it through, which has the advantage of being free both for me and for those who are downloading the file, but which of course "encourages" users to upgrade to their premium service by imposing artificial wait times to download the file. If anyone knows of a better solution, please let me know and I'll consider it for the February release.

This initial release covers Level 2: The Deep Cellars. You'll find the whole shebang here; introductory material, the dungeon key itself, maps (hand drawn), new monsters, and new magic items. 183 rooms, four maps, 25 pages and clocking in at about 6.5 MB for the pdf (I tried zipping it, but the savings in size was negligible). I've tried to evoke the feel of the old TSR modules from the 1970's, which I know some readers will find atavistic, but to my mind it is a simple extension of the homage which the project as a whole entails. There's no interior art, which I've always found a bit weird, seeing as it is destined for the DM's eyes alone.

As far as the content goes, only time will tell if you, faithful readers, gel to it. I've tried to create something which will be fun in actual play, as well as being at least in the general direction of the spirit of the original. I make no pretense that my effort is anything even approaching the level of the original Gygax (and Kuntz) dungeons, but hopefully it'll serve. Plus, I might point out that some things that seem odd right now might seem better once more levels are published and some cohesion begins to be apparant. For those curious about the genesis of this project, please see this post.

And if anyone has a problem with the creative decisions I made, or notices that the stairs don't line up, or finds other great faults with it, I will gladly refund your share of every penny this module has put in my pocket. :-)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Geek Pride Day - it figures

I found out today that Geek Pride Day is celebrated every May 25th.

Coincidentally, this is also the anniversary of my birth (and, naturally, the anniversary of the release of Star Wars in 1977, which is the stated reason behind the choice of date).

Doesn't it just figure?

Unfortunately they don't have special interest groups for either RPGing or wargaming. I hope they wise up before the day of days rolls around this year!

Players Wanted

After having been on hiatus for a few months due to some out-of-game circumstances beyond my control, I will be restarting my game in a couple of weeks and hereby put out the call for players interested in participating.

The game will meet every other week, roughly, at my home in northwest New Jersey (Sussex/Morris counties). We met on Friday evenings last time, and that seemed to work out well for everyone, but we might change based on players' schedules. We usually do pizza.

The game is AD&D 1E, with minimal house-rules (I do initiative a little differently than the books, and do away with the "roll to see what spells you can ever learn" rules). I've got spare PH's aplenty for those who don't have theirs any more. Needless to say, the campaign setting is the World of Greyhawk, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if my in-the-works version of the Castle of the Mad Archmage wasn't prominent.

If you're interested and in the area, please shoot me a private email at joseph at josephbloch dot com and I can answer any questions.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I've Got Your Science Fantasy Right Here

I was inspired to watch Ralph Bakshi's "Wizards" for a few reasons. First, my wife and I are systematically going through some of the classic films of which she is ignorant; we've done "Bridge On The River Kwai", the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still", "The Madness of King George", "Gandhi", and "This Island Earth". More to come (a viewing of "Alien" with the lights out is in the immediate future, and "Patton" is in the queue).

Second, over at Grognardia, James recently posted about science fantasy and D&D, and this struck me as quintessentially capturing that milieu. The ancient civilization of technology dimly remembered by the magical civilization now inhabiting the Earth.

A brief bit of background; I first encountered "Wizards" in college, years after I had seen Bakshi's (IMNSHO) lame effort at "Lord of the Rings", and I was struck by its idiosyncratic approach that seemed so much freer than that which he was forced to take with Tolkien (although-- listen carefully to the voice-over on that trailer, and you'll hear that it takes place in a "Tolkienian world"). Tolkien was never like this, unless Galadriel was half-naked with perpetual high-beams and I never noticed.


My point in bringing this up is that it is a great set-up for a science fantasy campaign, one might even say that it is quintessentially so. A nuclear war has occurred millions of years in the past, and regions of radioactivity still persist. Elves and sprites eschew now-forbidden technology, while the mutants of the wastes embrace it. Swords vs. rifles. It's only the lack of organization and coherence of the mutants that prevents them from overrunning the "good" lands. But it's still out there to be found, as Blackwolf finds the Nazi propaganda films and turns them to his advantage. He could easily have found a couple of hydrogen bombs; let the players deal with THAT. A stirring setting for gaming, all told, and a pretty nifty movie even now (even if the soundtrack is, to be merciful, somewhat dated).

But ye gods! Eleanor is still hawt, even 20 years later. As I kept saying to my wife at every instance of raunchiness, "It is a Ralph Bakshi movie, after all."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Two Sad RIP's

The genre has lost two of its stalwarts. Both Ricardo Montalban and Patrick McGoohan died today. They were 88 and 80 years old, respectively.

Ricardo Montalban was, of course, Khan Noonien Singh, the genetically enhanced superman who conquered a quarter of the Earth in 1992 and ended up fighting Captain Kirk in both the original series of Star Trek and the generally-acknowledged-best of the Trek films, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He also played Mr. Roarke on the long-running television show Fantasy Island, and a host of minor roles on television for decades. But it was that role as Khan that will always stick with me. He was just so... perfect. It's not just that Khan as a character was a match for Kirk, but Montalban as an actor was a match for Shatner, chewing up the scenery and commanding the screen in every scene. A terrific actor and one to be missed. EDIT: And curse me for a mongoose, I failed to mention that he also played Senior Armando in Escape From and Conquest Of the Planet of the Apes.

Patric McGoohan is perhaps a more enigmatic, but no less important, genre presence. He was, of course, Number Six in the baffling and brilliant British television show The Prisoner. He was also, we must remember, a fine actor of stage and screen, star of multiple television series ("Danger Man", etc.) as well as the villainous king in Braveheart. He won an Emmy for his work as a guest villain on Columbo. And a quick check of IMDB reminds me that he was also one of the bad guys in Scanners. But it will always be The Prisoner that draws me to this terrific actor (he also created the series). To this day, having seen every one of its seventeen episodes umpteen times, I still don't know exactly what was going on. Especially with that final episode. But each was imprinted with his undeniable presence and charisma, and he commanded every scene in which he appeared.

Two giants lost. Alas.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

International Traditional Roleplaying Week

TARGA, the Traditional Adventure Roleplaying Game Association (of which I am a supporter), is declaring January 10th - 17th as International Traditional Roleplaying Week. The idea is to get a bunch of us old-school gamers together and run games like OD&D, 1E, 2E, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, and so forth. As of this writing, they have games scheduled in Iowa, Illinois, Oregon, Ontario, Helsinki, Minnesota, and Georgia.

I am unsure as to whether or not I'll be able to participate myself (due to some scheduling issues-- if that changes I'll post an update here), but it certainly sounds like a terrific idea and I urge everybody to break out their copies of White Plume Mountain, Tomb of Horrors, or Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, put up a sign in your local game shop, and give these young whippersnappers a taste of what it was like back in the day.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I Love Mapping (now with visible picture!)

So, as you can (hopefully) see, I've been doing a little cartographic work on my Castle of the Mad Archmage. I love mapping.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

UFO sighted in my home town!

I stumbled across this story on the Drudge Report tonight. Seems a bunch of people saw a UFO over Morristown, NJ last night. I grew up in Morristown, so this sort of struck me as neato-torpedo.

I thought I saw a UFO once while I was growing up in Mo-town, but on reflection I'm pretty sure it was a plane. There is an airport just next to the town, and it's right on the flight path into Newark International Airport.