Saturday, November 30, 2013

New Free PBM 'Zine

There's a new free pdf 'zine available that focuses on play-by-mail games. PBM games were big in the 1980's and 90's, and I was heavily involved in them myself, both as a player and a moderator. Suspense & Decision magazine (great title, btw, which excellently captures the feel of what classic PBM games are all about) covers a lot of ground, and I look forward to the next issue. In fact, I recently found what might well be the only surviving copy of the rules of my own PBM game, "Sail the Solar Winds", and really should write up an article about it for the magazine. Blasts from the past indeed (although some outfits are still running PBM games to this day - a reason to check the mailbox other than to get the electric bill!).

Friday, November 29, 2013

Ah, the Joyous Holiday Season

One of the little traditions we have in our family is that we don't start decorating for Christmas or listening to Christmas carols in the car until we're coming home from my mother-in-law's house after Thanksgiving. That trip home is the semi-official start of the joyous Yuletide season in our home. And as we drove home tonight, I couldn't help but think of this old holiday favorite. I hope you enjoy it as much as I...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Secrets of the Lost Tomb

So I saw this nifty board game being playtested at this year's Metatopia convention, and lo! and behold, the Kickstarter to put the game into production is now live.

Everything Epic Games' Secrets of the Lost Tomb is a pulp-era game of exploration and looting, with some Lovecraftian themes, mythology, and not-quite-history thrown into the mix. It's very entertaining and the artwork is terrific. If you like cooperative games like Arkham Horror, and are a fan of the Indiana Jones/Lovecraft aesthetic, I'd encourage you to take a look.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shrines of Living Memory

A quick teaser...

Shrines of Living Memory

Each shrine or smaller temple dedicated to a particular aspect of one of the Three is named after the cleric or mystic who founded it. This founder’s name is never inscribed in the temple itself, but always transmitted orally. Should the name of the founder of a given shrine or temple be forgotten by living men, the shrine will have lost its sacred nature and must be razed and a new one established in its place. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

What do you want in a setting?

For those of you who either use pre-made settings, or like to use them as idea mines, I'm wondering what it is you like, or dislike, about published campaign settings?

For instance, my beloved World of Greyhawk has gone through many different published iterations. The original folio is still considered to be a masterpiece of almost Hemingwayesque brevity. A few pages of the broad outline of history, a paragraph or two of description for each nation (with a few notable exceptions), and a line or two for most geographical features. That 32 page folio book and those two gorgeous poster maps by the talented Darlene were all there was. A minimum of detail, and those maps to inspire the DM to fill in the details through his own creativity.

By today's standards, I daresay it would be considered totally inadequate. A setting without mention of religion? No lists of NPCs? No adventure hooks? No diagrams of castles and maps of cities and regions? Unthinkable!

The gold box followed, with the same maps but adding a lot more detail, including weather, deities, encounter tables, and more. Then From the Ashes, which advanced the timeline, and included mini-adventures, And so forth. Each edition of Greyhawk filled in more and more detail.

The Wilderlands setting (which I knew at the time as the City-State campaign) from Judges Guild was almost the opposite. It was focused on the small-scale, and piecing together the shape, powers, and events of the bigger world from the smaller pieces was, to me, a difficult thing. I still loved it, though.

My question is, though, what strikes you as the correct balance of detail and vagueness (for the DM to fill in himself)? Personally, I get turned off by settings that pile on tons and tons of obscure detail, to the point where only obsessive-compulsives and those without jobs or families to distract from reading everything that is published for the setting, can keep up. Forgotten Realms, I'm looking at you.

Which is not to say that the FR doesn't have its high points. The grey box was a masterpiece, managing to be both detailed and inspiring in a single stroke. But then the inexorable torrent of supplements and novels came at us like the undamed river Angren coming at Isengard. And to be fair, a lot of people really like that level of detail, knowing that wherever their players journey, the DM can just pick up the appropriate supplement off his shelf and have at it.

So what's your detail-vs-vagueness sweet spot for settings? Are there features you look for? Things that turn you off? Must-haves?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ogre Launch Party East AAR

So I spent the day at The Only Game in Town in Somerville, NJ helping out with the Ogre Designer's Edition East Coast Launch party. I had a terrific time, and not only got to play Ogre, but got to teach the game to a bunch of folks. We had about 40 people there throughout the day, did some raffles (giving away counter sheets, posters, pocket versions of the original game, and what looked like pre-production trials of the 3D counters), ate pizza, and played lots and lots of Ogre. I think about ten people had their copies of the game with them, and I was gratified to see a bunch of "Ogre Supporter 2012" shirts. The store itself is really nice, with tons of space for play and a staff that knows what the hell they're talking about when it comes to games.

An Ogre-themed cake, one of the Ogre Macrotures from the game at this year's Dexcon as a display piece, and the box. The damn thing is bigger than a MK-V:

Overrunning a howitzer is incredibly satisfying:

This was the best game of the day, in my opinion. The Ogre (a MK-III) made it to within on hex of winning. All the big guns and missiles destroyed, only anti-personnel weapons left (which are enough to kill a command post), but the defender managed to take out the last treads in the last minute. I love nail-biters like this:

A MK-IV (which is loaded up with missiles as its primary armament) takes on an enormous force defending a train. Half the train made it off the board:

Several people had the Ogre app and were using it to track damage:

And cake!

All in all, a terrific time. I'm glad I got to be a part of it. There's talk of doing a monthly Ogre day at the store. I'll certainly be there for at least some of them.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ogre Launch Party East!

Do you live in or around New Jersey? Do you like Steve Jackson's Ogre? Then you should try to make it to The Only Game in Town in Somerville, NJ tomorrow. Starting at noon, we're going to be hosting the East Coast Ogre Designer's Edition Launch Party, playing plenty of games, eating pizza, and having a generally great time. See you there!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Do you know 1st edition? Do you know Pathfinder?

I'm looking for someone comfortable making 1st edition -> Pathfinder module conversions. If you think you or someone you know would be up for that sort of work, please email

This is a paid consulting job; feel free to forward this as appropriate.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Review: Thor: The Dark World (Spoiler-free)

Just got back from the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: The Dark World. Shortest possible review: really good, definitely worth seeing.

The film not only picks up after the first Thor film, but also ties up some of the loose ends from The Avengers, wherein Thor was a major character. I like that they're maintaining the continuity across so many different franchises (or is it perhaps sub-franchises?), and that they're doing it so well.

Thor's look is a little bit different in this film, specifically in terms of his hair, which now sports some subtle braids. That's one of the things that marks the film as a whole; there are a lot more nods to Norse culture throughout, from the ubiquitous knotwork to the runes we see on Loki's collar. Even the ships, which can fly, can definitely trace their visual lineage back to the longships of the 10th century. We also see a lot more of Asgard itself, and it's much less a "sparkling pipe organ" that we saw in the first film. Much more texture and a feel that it's a real city, albeit one created by a culture technologically superior to our own, and with its own aesthetic sensibilities.

The pacing of the film is spot-on. It is very much an action film, with almost no slow parts in it at all. If anything, I might have appreciated just a tad more exposition, specifically as to why the bad guys are doing what they're doing, but fortunately the central story - the relationships between Thor and Loki and Thor and Jane Foster - is served quite well by the script.

Chris Helmsworth is perfectly at home in his character, and his character is perfectly at home with himself (as opposed to his constant adolescent antics in the first film). But it's Tom Hiddleston's Loki who once again steals the show with his clever quips and schemes. Kat Dennings is a surprisingly non-annoying source of humor, reprising her role as Jane's intern Darcy, while Natalie Portman manages to muddle through as she does with most of her films. Fortunately she's not given too much to do here, and the film is all the better for not having to rely on her as a central star of the action (Attack of the Clones, I'm looking at you here).

The film's tone is light, even though the stakes are higher than they've been in any Marvel movie to date. This isn't to say that the film is goofy, but it's nice to know that one can take a superhero film in a direction very different from Christian Bale's Dark Knight films and not end up with Batman and Robin. The dialog I thought was very snappy and sounded perfect coming out of the character's mouths.

All in all, definitely an improvement on the first Thor film, and a worthy successor to The Avengers. I'd probably put it a notch above Iron Man 3, which also came out not too long ago. Oh, and be sure to stay all the way to the very end of the credits. There's a double helping of shawarma.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ogre Designer's Edition Unboxing

Yesterday I got my copy of Ogre Designers Edition, from the famously successful (and late) Kickstarter campaign. I've got to say, it was worth the wait.

I happened to catch the FedEx man as he walked up the driveway. This will give you an idea of just how large the game box is. The thing weighs 28 pounds.

I only went for one piece of swag, a t-shirt.

You open the box and this is what you see. Those aren't just counter sheets in the lower-right - they're blocks of counter sheets, shrink-wrapped. The Ogres and many other pieces aren't just counters - they're 3-D puzzles that need to be assembled. As the big honkin' words say, if you just punch them all out, "this way lies madness."

So, you get all the counter boards out, and you find these nifty places to store the assembled pieces. This is called "the garage," where your Ogres get parked.

But wait, remove the two parts of the Garage, and there's a sub-level where you store the map boards. They're all heavy chipboard, by the way. Really solid. And nice custom dice with the PanEuropean and Combine symbols for the "1". And they're big, too.

My first assembled unit, an Ogre MK VI. I'm going to be punching and assembling cardboard for quite a while to get everything ready for play.

Speaking of which, I'll be running one of several MiB's running demos at the Ogre East Coast launch party at The Only Game in Town in Bridgewater, NJ, November 16th starting at noon. Pizza and tons of Ogre. What more can you want?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

What is D&D?

Tenkar's Tavern asks the question, At what point do house rules become their own rule set? I think it's an important question, and one that deserves a conversation larger than just one blog (no matter how excellent I think said blog might be). It's a question that points to the heart of our hobby, and hearkens to the earliest days of the hobby, in terms of how the game was actually played, and how people who played it thought of it.

At Metatopia this weekend I made the point that, back in the earliest days of the hobby (1974-1979 or so), one person would have a copy of the LBBs, an issue of the Strategic Review, a home-brewed magic system based on Piers Anthony's Xanth books, and the Ready Ref Sheets from Judge's Guild, while someone else might have a photocopy of Men & Magic, a few issues of Alarums & Excursions, and a bunch of house ruled combat tables based on his years as a white belt in the SCA.

Today, we would say they were playing completely different games, if one compared the mechanics.

And yet back then they were both called "playing D&D". You'd take a character from one campaign and play it in another without any thought, converting stuff on the fly. The definition of "the rules" was flexible enough to accommodate house rules. You didn't need a different name for what you played. It was all D&D, even if they were nigh unto unrecognizable from table to table.

We took the "don't let us do the imagining for you" imprecation seriously. "D&D" was less a collection of specific rules and a general style of play - an aesthetic.

I can't help but think that we're seeing something similar in today's OSR. Not outside the OSR, I should add - someone playing Dogs in the Vineyard isn't likely to bring in the conflict resolution system from Shock, the shared narrative mechanic from Donjon, and say "we're playing Dogs in the Vineyard tonight." The silos are too well-defined, and modern games are too dependent on rule mechanics rather than the aesthetics of play.

I must wonder if the fragmentation that some lament in the OSR isn't actually a hearkening back to the earliest old-school aesthetic. I don't think the labels really detract from that aesthetic, because they don't really define walls so much as sources. Picture a game played using the Labyrinth Lord rules with the mountebank and jester classes from Adventures Dark and Deep, plus the encumbrance system from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and a couple of printed-out issues of Crawl. 

You're still playing D&D.

Thoughts on e-books

So on one of today's Metatopia panels, I happened to be talking about e-books and electronic publishing. I get the impression that I was on several panels at the con to carry the flag for the reactionary, old-school aesthetic, as I'm not what one might call leading the vanguard when it comes to electronic publishing options.

But I suppose having a counterpoint to the perspective that says "all information should be free! Put it in as many electronic formats as possible, and loose them all into the wild!" is a valuable one. I am not a member of the Rising Tide.

That said, I did come out of the panel with several insights and thoughts on the subject.

First, I had not considered the fact that turning off the copy-paste function on my own pdfs makes it nigh-unto impossible for the vision-impaired to use a screen reader to read the files aloud. I am told, however, that the multi-column formatting of the files makes that more difficult than it might otherwise be. Which brings me to...

Second, I am giving serious consideration to offering my books in a .mobi or .epub format, if I can find the proper venue. If for no other reason than to accommodate those who need something that is much closer to a plain text format for reasons of accessibility.

Third, and most important from my point of view, I would like to see pdfs (and other electronic formats that can handle such things) really embrace the functionalities that set them apart from print books. To be frank, I have little interest in pandering to every hipster who has an e-reader that requires some odd proprietary format just so he can have the same book on all 19 devices he owns. But when you start talking about including multimedia capabilities into the files, and actually integrating the nature of electronic books into a game, then I start to get interested.

Imagine a book where the examples of play are actually links to YouTube videos showing a group playing the game at the table, with integrated graphics to call out the mechanics. Where combat diagrams are animated .gif files. Where an adventure is contained in four pdf files, three of which are password protected, and the players need to get to a certain point in the adventure before the others are unlocked. Changes await both the players and the GM. Layering that allows someone to customize a rulebook by picking and choosing rule elements. The possibilities are enormous, and growing with the technology.

Although nothing will ever in my mind replace the visceral experience of holding a physical book in my hand, and I will almost always prefer that format to an electronic book in my own reading and gaming, I do recognize that e-books offer opportunities that dead tree books don't. I lament the trend to replace real books with e-books, because but most such efforts are merely replacing paper with electrons and whose benefits are offset by the advantages, in my opinion.

I am, however, excited at the prospect that e-books offer new and more vibrant and immersive experiences that regular books cannot. Perhaps "e-book" is in this case a misnomer. In that sense, I do not see the one as replacing the other so much as offering an alternative, just as television is an alternative to radio, but radio still endures for a number of really good reasons.