Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Table rules vs. between-game rules

Back when I was playing AD&D 1st edition on a nearly continual basis, there seemed to be two kinds of rules.

The first set of rules were the ones that got used all the time at the table during play. Combat, spellcasting, movement, climbing walls; that sort of thing. That was the sort of stuff that we either had memorized, could flip to the proper table in the DMG, PH, or UA by reflex, or just hand-waved.

However, there was a whole other set of rules that by their nature didn't really come up during the actual game, but had to do with things that happened during down-time. This is when we poured over our character sheets making sure we had enough sacks for our coins, and our backpacks could hold all the iron spikes we carried. When we calculated how many pages our spellbooks had to be to hold all our spells (and whether we needed a traveling spellbook or a regular one). When we figured out height and weight and all that stuff. When we calculated the cost of building manors and fortifications, and hired mercenaries (were hobilars the most efficient use of our money?). Hired criers to advertise for henchmen.

All that down-time activity was incredibly fiddly, and really did require us to stop and read through rules that we didn't use all the time, and carefully work out costs and such in the days before Excel. But it didn't matter, because that was the sort of thing we did on our own, in between games, and if there weren't miniatures that needed painting the time might as well be profitably spent figuring out the total carrying capacity of our hirelings (thanks to the carrying capacity rules that for some reason were only found in the instructions on the Permanent Character Record.

And when we were done, the DM didn't even bother to check the work, because we all trusted each other, and we got on with the game. But those fiddly in-between bits were like a solo game unto themselves, and there are times I miss having the free time to while away the hours figuring out those minutiae.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Greyhawk Gold Box now available in pdf

The "gold box" set of the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting (for AD&D 1st edition), considered by many fans to be the definitive treatment of the setting, is now available in an official pdf version from DnDClassics.com.

You get three pdfs in the package; one for the Guide, one for the Glossography, and one for the maps. The books themselves are text that has been OCR'd, not just a scan of the pages, and are quite nice and legible.

The maps are at once nice and frustrating. They're given at full size, which is great, but as they seem to have been photographed rather than scanned, the creases on the maps are very visible and give a slightly bowed effect (and a lot of glare) in the places where they're not completely flat. But the most frustrating thing about the maps is the fact that they're presented on two separate pages in the pdf, rather than put together as a single image. Given what they are, it's doubtful that anyone is going to find having to flip from one map to another particularly useful, and it robs them of their grand effect as a gorgeous unified whole.

Still, on the whole that's a minor quibble, as anyone with a decent pdf editor will be able to put the maps together the way the Gods and Gygax intended. The fact that the boxed set is now available is a huge plus, and at $9.95 it's a steal even if you already have the hardcopy like I do.

Monday, December 22, 2014

For all those serving this Christmas

As a veteran myself, I would like to extend my thanks and everlasting appreciation for the millions of men and women who do, and have, spent their Christmas away from family, whether on a safe and secure Air Force base like I did, or in the face of hostile guns, as many still do today. They embody the true spirit of giving.

In their honor, I present the original Merry Christmas, My Friend by LCpl James M. Schmidt, written in 1986. Although written about a Marine, the wonderful sentiment crosses all service boundaries.

Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone, 
In a one bedroom house made of plaster & stone. 

I had come down the chimney, with presents to give 
and to see just who in this home did live 

As I looked all about, a strange sight I did see, 
no tinsel, no presents, not even a tree. 
No stocking by the fire, just boots filled with sand. 
On the wall hung pictures of a far distant land. 

With medals and badges, awards of all kind, 
a sobering thought soon came to my mind. 
For this house was different, unlike any I'd seen. 
This was the home of a U.S. Marine. 

I'd heard stories about them, I had to see more, 
so I walked down the hall and pushed open the door. 
And there he lay sleeping, silent, alone, 
Curled up on the floor in his one-bedroom home. 

He seemed so gentle, his face so serene, 
Not how I pictured a U.S. Marine. 
Was this the hero, of whom I’d just read? 
Curled up in his poncho, a floor for his bed? 

His head was clean-shaven, his weathered face tan. 
I soon understood, this was more than a man. 
For I realized the families that I saw that night, 
owed their lives to these men, who were willing to fight. 

Soon around the Nation, the children would play, 
And grown-ups would celebrate on a bright Christmas day. 
They all enjoyed freedom, each month and all year, 
because of Marines like this one lying here. 

I couldn’t help wonder how many lay alone, 
on a cold Christmas Eve, in a land far from home. 
Just the very thought brought a tear to my eye. 
I dropped to my knees and I started to cry. 

He must have awoken, for I heard a rough voice, 
"Santa, don't cry, this life is my choice 
I fight for freedom, I don't ask for more. 
My life is my God, my country, my Corps." 

With that he rolled over, drifted off into sleep, 
I couldn't control it, I continued to weep. 

I watched him for hours, so silent and still. 
I noticed he shivered from the cold night's chill. 
So I took off my jacket, the one made of red, 
and covered this Marine from his toes to his head. 
Then I put on his T-shirt of scarlet and gold, 
with an eagle, globe and anchor emblazoned so bold. 
And although it barely fit me, I began to swell with pride, 
and for one shining moment, I was Marine Corps deep inside. 

I didn't want to leave him so quiet in the night, 
this guardian of honor so willing to fight. 
But half asleep he rolled over, and in a voice clean and pure, 
said "Carry on, Santa, it's Christmas Day, all secure." 
One look at my watch and I knew he was right, 
Merry Christmas my friend, Semper Fi and goodnight.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Goblins vs. humanoids

I've long felt that the "goblinoid races" (goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, and norkers) form a sort of sub-group within the broader category of humanoids in the implied (A)D&D universe, but this implicit unifying feature has almost always been ignored. I think that portraying goblins and their kin as keeping themselves aloof from the other humanoid races (gnolls, kobolds, orcs, and xvarts) gives them a sort of character and differentiating feature that is often sorely lacking.

While the goblinoids can be used as a coherent whole, there is definitely a hierarchy amongst them, with goblins being at the bottom of the totem pole, followed by hobgoblins, norkers, and finally bugbears at the top of the list. The "Humanoid Racial Preferences Table" from p. 106 of the original DMG is illustrative of the dynamic:

Bugbears prefer bugbears, have goodwill towards goblins, and will bully hobgoblins.

Hobgoblins (and presumably norkers) tolerate bugbears, bully goblins, and hate hobgoblins belonging to other tribes.

Goblins have goodwill towards bugbears, prefer the company of other goblins, and tolerate the bullying of the hobgoblins.

This leads me to think that the bugbears don't like the way that the hobgoblins bully the goblins, and will interfere with such if given the chance, and the goblins reciprocate by fawning over the bugbears. The hobgoblins, caught in the middle, resent the bugbears as being more powerful, as well as for interfering with their own bullying of the goblins.

Given the fact that the non-goblinoid races never seem to get along with the goblinoid races (with the exception of goblins and kobolds, who doubtless get along because they're both on the bottom end of the totem pole, strength-wise), a dynamic of goblinoids vs. the other humanoids does seem to be implied.

In a campaign setting, this has obvious utility. One could see relatively unified goblinoid settlements and even nations, who aren't particularly friendly with the local orcs, kobolds, and gnolls (and vice versa). I vastly prefer this to the relatively undifferentiated "humanoid stew" that one usually sees, where orcs, goblins, etc. all mill around shoulder-to-shoulder under some strong leader. It certainly gives a little more color to the vast ranks of the humanoids, which I always like.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Gamergate the Card Game has arrived

The so-objectionable-it-couldn't-be-sold-by-DriveThruStuff Gamergate: The Card Game came today. Obviously I haven't had a chance to play it, but on its face, having skimmed through the cards, it seems a cute little bit of sarcastic social commentary that skewers the participants on both sides of the larger Gamergate controversy. Perhaps that's the game's greatest offense in some peoples' eyes; it makes fun of both sides, which I guess makes it worse than a game about child rape.

The cards, at least, seem reminiscent of Illuminati (which is somewhat ironic, given that Steve Jackson Games also reportedly banned it).

Looking forward to taking this for a spin.

This is what all the hubbub was about.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Interview with Steve Wieck re: Gamergate the Card Game

For those who haven't heard, recently OneBookShelf (the purveyors of online gaming retail websites such as DnDClassics, DriveThruRPG, DriveThruCards, and RPGNow, among others) decided to ban a game by Postmortem Studios (run by James Desborough) entitled Gamergate: The Card Game. It has also apparently been banned by Warehouse23, which is run by Steve Jackson Games.

In the wake of this decision and the resulting controversy, I reached out to OneBookShelf CEO Steve Wieck and asked if he would consent to answer some questions on the controversy.

Mr. Wieck was gracious enough to do so (although several of my follow-up questions went unanswered as he understandably didn't want to take the whole weekend on the subject), and I present the email interview below. Follow-up questions are presented in the order they were asked and answered. The questions that were not answered are not given below; if he should subsequently answer them, I will happily update the interview accordingly.

It should be noted that the hard copy version of the game in question is still available for sale via The Game Crafter, and a print-and-play version is available from Gumroad. I myself have not seen the game yet, but a copy is winging its way to me even as I type this. In the interests of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that I sell products through the various OneBookShelf sites myself, and have consistently recommended them highly at conventions and online.

Q: Given that the various OneBookShelf websites sell a great many things that many people find objectionable, including games that feature child rape, misogyny, and Holocaust themes, not to mention another game based on GamerGate (that has since been pulled by the publisher for reasons unknown), what was it about Desborough's Gamergate The Card Game specifically that warranted its being pulled from your websites when all those other games remain?

A: Any artistic work, including games, can deal with objectionable material but not be objectionable itself. You can have movies like Schindler's List that deal with the Holocaust, but are not morally objectionable movies. Likewise you can have works that deal with objectionable material in a way that does not seem appropriate. We felt that the Gamergate card game fell into this latter category. I am certain that others would differ on that opinion, and I don't think its fruitful to try to dissect the game into minutia.

Q: Do you have any plans to review those questionable products that are still for sale on your sites?

A: No

Q: What or who brought Mr. Desborough's game to your attention?

A: Who didn't? What your readers may not realize is that publishers who use our marketplaces are able to set-up titles on our marketplace and activate them for sale. No one at OneBookShelf / DriveThru reviews the titles before they are live for sale or automatically fed to our Twitter new release feed. After this title went live we started to get a lot of complaints through our customer service contact page and social media channels. We then took an initial look at the title and decided to take it off the marketplace while we reviewed it in more detail.

Q: At what level in your company was the decision made to pull the game from your sites? Were you involved in the decision directly?

A:  The decision to ban the title was made during a group meeting through robust debate. As CEO, the responsibility for the decision is mine.

Q: Did anyone from your company review the contents of the game itself prior to its being pulled from your sites? Or was it pulled based on the topic alone?

A: I reviewed the contents prior to the title being suspended for further review. Part of what we have discussed at OneBookShelf is a different process to handle this should a similar situation ever arise again. We will probably opt to leave the title viewable by the public, but not for sale, rather than pulling the title completely from public view. This would allow people to discuss the title on site should they be so inclined. It also makes it more clear that we are reviewing the title, not that the title has been pulled, or pulled permanently, off the site.

Q: Mr. Desborough is well-known for producing games that push the envelope of what is considered acceptable in certain quarters, and for being not Politically Correct. Do you have any plans to review his other products current for sale, or future products such as the upcoming Gor RPG?

A: Many of Mr. Desborough's other games have already received numerous complaints, especially when they first went on sale on our marketplaces. In those cases we reviewed the titles and left them for sale. Those titles remain on sale today. We have no plans to review them again. I can safely say that carrying Mr. Desborough's titles at all has cost us more than they will ever make us in sales, but such is the cost of keeping an open marketplace, or now mostly-open marketplace for those who would split hairs.

While the Gor fiction series is criticized for being misogynistic, it does not have real world violence associated to it. As a game based on a work of fiction, it is difficult to imagine not allowing the Gor RPG on our marketplace. As I've said before OneBookShelf staff liking or agreeing with a title's contents is not a prerequisite for our carrying it on our marketplaces.

Q: The decision to pull the Gamergate card game has been criticized in some quarters for being arbitrary, since it wasn't based on any set of guidelines. Will there be a set of guidelines forthcoming that publishers can turn to to determine in advance if their games will be deemed too offensive? If not, do you think there will be a "chilling effect" as publishers decide to self-censor and avoid controversial topics rather than risk having their products removed from the sites?

A: As we had never before banned a game for its content in this way, we previously had no need for such a guideline. After we made the decision on this title, we discussed whether we should set such a guideline. We discussed the US Supreme Court case where Justice Potter Stewart wrote the famous quote "I'll know it when I see it". I don't think that line was meant to be glib or authoritarianly arrogant. I think it simply and candidly acknowledged the extreme difficulty inherent in writing a guideline that defines when material crosses a threshold into being objectionable. In 13 years of operation and tens of thousands of titles, we've only ever found one title to cross that line for us. As you have noted, it's not for lack of content on site that some might find objectionable. We have managed to keep an open marketplace. We therefore did not think it was an efficient use of our time to attempt to define a content guideline when much wiser people like Justice Stewart had already tacitly acknowledged that a similar task was too difficult for them to accomplish.
I think self-censoring would be silly and self-defeating.

Q: Did you offer Mr. Desborough any opportunity to appeal your decision?

A: No

Q: As you made plain in your statement, almost none of the people complaining about it had enough time to actually receive a copy of it and examine the contents for themselves. Did you get similar subject-based complaints to the other Gamergate-based game from Machine Age Productions that was also announced on your Twitter feed? If not, how do you account for the discrepancy?

A: We were not aware of the Machine Age title until it was brought to our attention. The Twitter feed is automated and we do not review titles from established publishers before they go public on the marketplace. I don't know why we did not receive complaints or notices around that title. I have not read or reviewed that title.

Q: Can you foresee a circumstance when the Desborough Gamergate card game would be allowed back on your sites? At what point does enough time pass to make such a thing no longer "too current"?

A: I would like to review the game again in a few years' time.

Q: Your use of the quote from Justice Stewart is well taken, but I hope you'll admit that it does open the question up to a great deal of subjectivity and uncertainty, which can be the kiss of death for a business trying to plan for the future. Now that the precedent has been set, can you offer any assurances to publishers using your service that other products, perhaps next time an RPG or fiction product, won't be taken down because "you knew it when you saw it" even if the designer might not have seen it?

A: When my brother and I were in high school and putting out the fifth issue of White Wolf magazine, we felt we had graduated up from using our high school's photocopier to using a local print shop to print the issue. We prepared the issue, took it to the local print shop in our rural Georgia town and waited two weeks. We returned to pick up the printed magazine copies only to find the printer did not print it and get evangelized about demons from said printer. Attempting to explain that the medusa on the cover was from Greek myth not a demon didn't help.

Fast forward to mid 1990's when Vampire was taking off. The hobby game distribution channels in the USA were still mostly made up of hobby/craft/model train stores that had expanded to offer D&D and these other weird games. TSR was purging D&D of demons and devils. Meanwhile we had the audacity to include the word "fuck" in character dialogue in a vampire supplement we published at White Wolf. This nearly got the title banned from some hobby retail chains and from one of the major distributors at the time.

These and other cases in my professional life have led me to have a severe loathing for banning or censorship.

RPG publishers tend to be good at probability math (except maybe those diceless game designers anyway...) I think before publishers worry about this they can look at the odds and calculate that we've banned one title out of the tens of thousands that we have accepted for sale and then decide from there if this is worth their time and energy to worry about.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What the MCU and the Marx Brothers have in common

It might be odd to think that the creators of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has been phenomenally successful and either has or will spawned many would-be imitators, might have something in common with the likes of the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and their like. But they do, and it's something that is (and was) vital to their common success.

The Marx Brothers did not simply spring fully formed and start making movies. They had been around in vaudeville for years, on grueling schedules that often featured multiple performances a day, and often back-to-back days for weeks on end. They were, of course, responsible for writing their own material, so in those years they had to keep coming up with new jokes, new bits, and new songs.

Too, they honed the material they already did have, discarding what didn't work, tweaking what did work, and constantly trying new material out. By the time they got to the movie-making stage of their career, the system was in place, and while they were working on the script for one of their films, they were still touring, trying out the dialogue, the jokes, and bringing them to a point of perfection.

Abbott and Costello, coming out of the burlesque circuit and endless shows for the USO during World War II, were in a similar situation. Constantly make up new material, keep what gets the laughs, drop what doesn't.

Essentially, they were using a refining process, like removing the impurities from iron ore.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has exactly the same advantage. Marvel has been making comic books for decades. That's often dozens of titles a month, month after month, year after year. Over those years they turned out a lot of crap, if one's brutally honest (see right). But in there was gold as well, and it stood out. They can now go back into those archives and pick out the best of the best, and adapt it to their MCU films.

They have decades of trial and error as to what works, what doesn't, and often tons of analysis and feedback from fans as to why. That's why you'd never see a Secret Wars 2 adaptation, even if they could get all the rights needed to do it correctly, but we are going to see a Civil War adaptation, which was received very well by most fans.

Obviously everyone's opinions are going to vary, and doubtless someone will pop up in the comments that liked SW2 and hated CW; such are the vagaries of taste; I'm sure someone out there is dying for a Dazzler movie to be made, and I'll be happy for a ROM Space Knight film, as long as it's part of a larger Dire Wraith invasion storyline*.

They don't even need to be straight adaptations of story lines. Even in terms of characterization, interactions between characters, themes, appearance/costumes, etc. they can see what worked and what didn't, and write the movies accordingly.

Now, even Marvel doesn't use this strategic advantage consistently, and there have been some shaky films to prove it (Hulk, for instance). But on the whole, I think their almost-universal success can be tied to that enormous reservoir of experience.

Fox has the same advantage with X-Men, and finally figured it out after four movies. It's no mistake that Days of Future Past and Apocalypse are being used, but House of M is not. Why Sony hasn't quite gotten the message is puzzling, but maybe if the rumors are true and some sort of Sony-Marvel alliance is still possible, that may change and we can get the Kraven's Last Hunt or The Night Gwen Stacy Died stories that we should have.

_____
* I will also be content if Squirrel Girl is the one who finally takes out Thanos in Infinity War Part 2.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Merry Yuletide!

I thought some carols might be in order:









Edit: I just had to include this one as soon as I saw it:


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Alas, GaryCon

Unfortunately it looks like I will not be able to attend next year's GaryCon after all.

Despite having asked several months ago and not having gotten a reply, I am now told that there is no more room in the dealer's area. So no way to hopefully offset part of the cost of the trip. Ah, well.

EDIT: Thanks for the extra hits, YDIS!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Giving up on fixing the Temple of Elemental Evil

For the past week or so, I've been working on something I've been calling T5. It was essentially meant to be an expansion of the existing T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil, adding new elements like additional preliminary adventures similar to the moathouse, allowing the PCs to have a better chance of being of sufficiently high level to take on the Temple itself, adding a new dungeon level 5, which would be a heretofore-hidden temple of the Elder Elemental God, with a section of errata for the notoriously buggy text. My intention was to do it, make it pretty, and then let it loose into the wild (for free, given the nature of what it was).

But damn, the module has beaten me. There is just too much wrong with it to apply patches.

The problem was not with the new material. That's (especially the connection with the EEG) been something I've been working on for years, conceptually. Fixing the missing text from T1 is a snap. I've got the original T1, and a comparison with the relevant portions of T1-4 was easy. Going through the text of T1-4 was a bit more of a bear, but there are some collections of errata online, and I think I've gotten most of the wrinkles out of the text.

But once I realized that the very maps themselves were fakakta, and the errata got longer and longer, I realized that my approach wouldn't work.

As the errata were mounting up, and the additions were growing, and then came the realization that I would at the very least have to do new maps, I just couldn't do a T5 in the original way I intended. It wouldn't be playable; you'd need to have two books open at all times, side by side, for the whole thing. It's would be completely unworkable.

I would have to do a T1-5, completely redoing the original text, integrating all of the changes, and errata, and additions, with new maps.

Unfortunately, as I realized the path that I'd have to take, so too did I realize that doing it this way would go way over the line in terms of legalities. It's one thing to publish errata and additions to something. It's completely another thing to take an existing, copyrighted text, and make changes and additions to it, and then publish it. The former would probably be treated as a derivative work. The latter would get me a C&D from Hasbro's lawyers lickety-split.

Which doesn't mean I'm not going to do it. It just means that it's going to have to remain completely in-house, never to see the light of day, and only my players are going to get to experience it. Unless something drastically changes, like Mike Mearls reading this and deciding that it's something that Must Be Done and helps makes it happen. But for now, it'll have to remain a labor of love, done for my own gratification. And I'm okay with that.

Friday, November 28, 2014

5E DMG: First Impressions

I picked up the new 5th Edition D&D Dungeon Master's Guide today at one of my FLGS's (and scored a 20% discount because it's Black Friday, which was totally unexpected but welcome nonetheless). The regular street date is December 9th, but stores that are part of the Wizards Play Network can sell it as of today.



First overall impression; this is without a doubt a book aimed at new DMs, rather than a reference book or book of options aimed at experienced players. That doesn't mean that there isn't anything of value for more experienced gamers, there is, but the emphasis is clearly on holding newer DMs by the hand and teaching them how it's done. That approach, I am certain, is not an accident.

Aesthetically, it's a beautiful book. There is a ton of artwork throughout, with varying styles, which is something I really like and which hearkens back to the original AD&D books, which had art by multiple artists. It ranges from the creepy to the heroic to the downright silly (I refer especially to the "chibi modrons" on p. 66, accompanying the description of the plane of Mechanus). The pages all have a faux parchment background, but I didn't find it a distraction and it doesn't seem to interfere with the text or diagrams, as some similar things have done in past books.

Specific references to published campaign settings like Greyhawk or Krynn are few and far between, but are definitely present, and even 4th edition fans are thrown a bone as the Dawn War pantheon (the default pantheon of deities for 4E) is used as the sample pantheon in the "Gods of Your World" section. They are covering all the bases.

There are sections on campaign events, a few options for evil characters, random downtime tables, and detailed rules for a more grid-reliant combat system that includes facing, flanking, etc. We finally get random encounter tables based on terrain and CR (although they're not proper encounter tables from a 1E point of view; they're more lists of creatures, and would need the DM to turn them into roll-this-get-this-encounter format), descriptions of the planes, and of course we now have extensive lists and descriptions of magic items (I haven't done a full comparison, but it looks as if nearly every item is illustrated, which is a nice touch). There are also treasure tables which are tied to CR.

But the star of the book is the advice for new DMs. From guidelines on tailoring adventures to the tastes of your players, to creating campaign worlds (including pantheons, mapping, settlements, campaign events and when to use and not use them, different flavors of fantasy such as sword and sorcery vs. mythic fantasy, how to create adventures (including different types of adventures such as wilderness, dungeon, mysteries, etc.), how to create specific encounters (and a nice overview of random encounters and why they can be useful - yay!), motivations for villains, mapping dungeons, and how to stock dungeons. There are even some rules and guidelines for dealing with crossing genres (there are rules for using alien technology, for instance, and firearms). All that is nice for experienced DMs to review, and often comes with handy tables (although they must perforce be somewhat generic), but the intended audience is clear.

On the whole the 5E DMG looks to be a very good book. Experienced DMs will find a lot of useful tables, and the magic item and planar descriptions will be especially useful. Some DMs will find the enhanced combat options indispensable, while most will be able to turn the CR encounter lists into meaningful encounter tables.

But beginning DMs will find this an enormous resource, and will be well rewarded by a close cover-to-cover reading. It goes far beyond the "what is a roleplaying game?" introductory material into the nuts and bolts of campaign and adventure design, as well as resources and guidelines for running a game at the table.

Another solid rulebook for 5th edition.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Green Wine of Celene

I thought I'd try my hand at something a little different - I give you The Green Wine of Celene, a short story set in the World of Greyhawk, presented in the long tradition of fan fiction. The World of Greyhawk and its associated characters and names are the property of Wizards of the Coast, and no challenge to that ownership is intended or implied. Since it's so long, you'll find it after the jump. Enjoy, and to all my American readers, have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 21, 2014

By the Lords of Kobol, I would buy this!

This is apparently a demo reel done as a "proof of concept" to propose redoing the special effects of the original Battlestar Galactica using CGI, in much the same way they redid the effects for the classic Star Trek a couple of years ago.

Oh man would I buy this. In a heartbeat.

 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

New Adventure: Bitterbark's Circus

Hot on the heels of the best-selling Adventures Dark and Deep™ GM's Screen, BRW Games is proud to announce the release of Bitterbark's Circus, an adventure locale designed for characters level 8-9.

Because it's written for the Adventures Dark and Deep™ rules, it can be used with most Basic or Advanced-compatible rules almost as-is. And for those people who are playing games that don't feature a jester character class, the entire class (including lots of new spells) is included as an appendix. Jesters feature prominently in the adventure, and it only seemed fair to include the whole class for GMs who want to use the adventure using other rules.

Bitterbark's Circus describes a sinister circus which can be inserted into most RPG campaigns with little effort. The GM is given a variety of different ideas and options for inserting the adventure into an existing campaign, and the adventure is also linked to the Castle of the Mad Archmage™ megadungeon, via a magical gate in the lower levels of the fabled and deadly dungeon. But it is also perfectly fine as a stand-alone adventure, and can add a layer of creepy mystery to any game.

The adventure runs 30 pages and is available for $4.95 in pdf format. Buy it today; your players will thank you. Well, probably not, because it's an eerie and deadly place, but they'll still have fun.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

No capes

"No capes!"
Over at The Hollywood Reporter, talking about the Universal plan to turn their classic monster properties into action-adventure films (presumably because that worked so well with Van Helsing), Universal chairman Edna Mode Donna Langley is quoted as saying "We don't have any capes" (in their catalog of films).

Mmmhmmm...





Sunday, November 16, 2014

Adventures Dark and Deep Players/GM Screen now available

Now available, an eight-page print-it-yourself Player/GM screen for Adventures Dark and Deep. It's a buck and a half, and has 40 tables, diagrams, and charts that you'll want at your fingertips. And naturally, most of those tables are usable with most other OSR-type games.

You can get yours by clicking here.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Agents of SHIELD, the Inhumans, and the MCU

Speculation has been rife for months that Marvel's Agents of SHIELD television show (now in its second season) is going to be introducing a new element into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); namely, the Inhumans.

This post is going to have some spoilers about recent episodes of AoS, so if you're not caught up, caveat lector!

First things first. In the comic books, the Inhumans are the descendants of humans who were genetically modified tens of thousands of years ago by the alien Kree. The Kree, by the way, are the alien race that gave us not only the Host (the alien corpse in AoS that gives us the miracle drug GH325) but also Ronan the Accuser, the villain in this year's hit Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Inhumans live in a hidden city called Attilan, which has at times moved from the North Atlantic, to the Himalayas, to the moon, and then back to Earth. Because of their alien hybrid DNA, when a young Inhuman is exposed to the Terigen Mists (or crystals in some cases), latent superpowers are activated which can vary in strength and utility enormously.

The Inhumans are led by a royal family, headed by Black Bolt (whose voice is so powerful that speaking at all causes enormous devastation around him) and sometimes his criminally insane brother Maximus. And in the comic books, the mutant Quicksilver (as in the one we saw in X-Men Days of Future Past, and who will be in Avengers: Age of Ultron) married a member of the Inhuman royal family. So there's an in-comic connection there already. Certainly the MCU isn't required to cleave 100% to the comic book mythology, so making Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch Inhumans rather than mutants is certainly doable.

Because Fox has the rights to all things mutant locked up in their license to make X-Men movies, Marvel now has to look elsewhere for an equivalent. The Inhumans are the logical choice, as they're functionally the same. They have many varied and potentially colorful superpowers, and can serve as a stand-in for morality stories about persecuted minorities.

Oh, and Marvel already has announced not only an Inhumans movie in November 2018, but also a Captain Marvel movie in July of that same year. Captain Marvel (in her incarnation as Carol Danvers, whom Marvel already said was to be the subject of the movie) is also an Inhuman (well, not technically, but she also has a hybrid of Kree and human DNA (and superpowers) for a different reason, so it's close enough).

Agents of Shield (which has really upped its game since the shaky first half of the first season) last night telegraphed the existence of Attilan; the mysterious symbols that Coulson and most of the others injected with GH325 were carving weren't intended to be 2-dimensional. They're a 3-dimensional map of a city that the Host apparently died desperately trying to reach. And speaking of those symbols, doesn't this close-up view of the new Inhumans comic book logo look a bit familiar?

h/t to The Mary Sue for this one

There's another piece of the puzzle that having Agents of Shield start up a major Inhumans story line fills in as well. When it was announced that Captain America 3 (May 2016) would be doing the "Civil War" story from the comics, some observers were puzzled.

The Civil War story line involved a "superpower registration act". Some heroes were for it, and others were dead-set against it (hence the name). The trouble is, there just aren't enough people running around the MCU with superpowers to really need a superpower registration act. The SHIELD agents we've seen have been extremely well-trained, but not super-powered. There are the Avengers, and a couple of others walking around, and doubtless some of the folks that HYDRA released from various SHIELD prisons like the Fridge (who probably wouldn't comply with such a law anyway), but on the whole the MCU world just doesn't seem to have the numbers to justify such a thing.

(As an aside, there's also speculation as to who in the MCU is going to handle some key roles that in the comics were handled by characters out of Marvel's control, like Spiderman and the Fantastic Four.)

Why yes. That is a dog. Why do you ask?
Now, imagine if the existence of tens of thousands of Inhumans, with Kree-hybrid DNA and superpowers, was suddenly thrown into the mix. A superhuman registration act, like the one we'll undoubtedly see in Captain America 3, suddenly makes a whole lot of sense. It would be aimed at the Inhumans (framing them as the persecuted minority in the exact same way that the Mutant Registration Act in the first X-Men movie did mutants), but would sweep up others in its wake as well, including Captain America, Doctor Strange, etc., and, if it included extraordinary technologies not generally available, Iron Man, War Machine/ Iron Patriot, Falcon, etc.

So, a very hypothetical Inhuman-centric timeline could look something like:
  • Agents of SHIELD (winter 2014/15): our first introduction to the Inhumans, perhaps the revelation that they are intermingled with the general population. Skye and Raina are revealed as Inhumans, perhaps given superpowers as a result of exposure to the Terrigen mists/crystals?
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (summer 2015): Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are introduced as Inhumans
  • Agents of SHIELD (winter 2015/16): fallout from Age of Ultron, setting up the Civil War for next summer, which could mean fleshing out the whole Inhuman mythology to give Cap 3 additional depth. (Assuming we get a Season 3, of course.)
  • Captain America 3 (summer 2016): the superhuman registration act and resultant Civil War.
  • Agents of SHIELD (winter 2016/17): will deal with the fallout from the events of Cap 3. (Assuming we get a Season 4, of course.)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (summer 2017): more Kree? Do they come to Earth or the moon and interact with some Inhumans there? 
  • Agents of SHIELD (winter 2017/18): Picking up the pieces of GotG 2 and Thor: Ragnarok. Will there be an Inhuman connection? Maybe; Captain marvel is a great bridge to the more cosmic side of the MCU. (Assuming we get a Season 5, of course.)
  • Captain Marvel (summer 2018): stars a superpowered Kree-human hybrid, probably sets up the Inhumans movie a few months later.
  • Inhumans (fall 2018): just what it says on the tin.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Metatopia Post-Con Report

This past weekend saw me at the annual Metatopia convention in Morristown, NJ. Metatopia is run by Double Exposure, the same folks who put on the Dreamation and Dexcon conventions (the latter now including the old-school OSWARP con as a featured subset), as well as the First Exposure playtest hall at GenCon. It caters to game designers, publishers, etc. and hooks them up with eager playtesters to get feedback on new games coming in the pipeline. There are also a bunch of seminars in several tracks, and the whole thing is an invaluable experience for the aspiring game publisher or designer.

I was on several panels myself, attended a bunch more, and overall had a great time (despite a bit of a stomach bug on Friday night that seems to have hit a few other people besides me). There were a bunch of high points (the afore-mentioned seminars, as well as getting to talk with some of the luminaries of the industry at the bar), and a couple of low points (some of the seminars veered too deeply into the PC end of the pool for my taste, but hey, if folks want to fret about the impact of HP Lovecraft's racism on game design, that's their time to waste), but on the whole I had a great time.

Here are just a handful of the hundreds of games that were being playtested (all these photos were taken with permission, so no trade secrets are being revealed, I hope):

You don't see that many games about medieval Africa

Using Lego as a prototyping tool

Some games were simple in layout

Some were a bit more complex

Some were very polished for a prototype

You can see a mix of bits and pieces in this one

Monday, November 3, 2014

Dune: The Television Series

It's no secret that big-budget shows, with a shortened (10 episode or so) season, are all the rage right now. Of course the trend is exemplified by Game of Thrones, but we've seen it in other historical dramas like Rome, The Tudors, and The Borgias, and with more sci-fi/fantasy/horror fare such as The Walking Dead and American Horror Show. SyFy just announced that not only are they doing Childhood's End as a miniseries, but 3001: The Final Odyssey is also coming to the small screen. Plus American Gods. Plus a bunch of others.

I submit that there's a series of novels that would make every bit as compelling a series as Game of Thrones.  Frank Herbert's Dune novels.

I'm not talking about the prequel novels by his son (which are pretty awful; some might go even further in their... dislike of them), but the original novels. Dune (1965), Dune Messiah (1969), Children of Dune (1976), and God Emperor of Dune (1981). I omit Heretics of Dune (1984) Chapterhouse: Dune (1985) which pretty much take the series in a completely different direction. The first four books (many would argue - with some justification - that the first three books are sufficiently self-contained to not need the fourth, but I disagree for a variety of reasons).

The comparisons with Game of Thrones are stunning, but I submit Dune has an even grander scope (the entire universe, and spans 3,500 years if you include God Emperor), deals with questions of history, civilization, religion, the nature of time and prophecy, ecology and the economics of scarcity, and more. Yet it is also firmly grounded in the interrelationships between, and growth of, the characters; at its heart it is the story of a family doomed to become those things they hate the most.

The political maneuvering is as intricate as anything you'll see in King's Landing. It begins with the feud between the noble houses of Atreides and Harkonnen, fueled by the desire of the Padishah Emperor to remove Duke Leto Atreides as a rival for power. But there are layers upon layers of complexity as new centers of power are revealed - the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the Fremen, the Spacing Guild, the Bene Tleilaxu, and later Fremen factions and renegades, a new Priesthood of Muad'dib, the deposed (formerly Imperial) House Corrino, and much more besides. Plus there are factions within factions and individuals shift from one to another. Fans of that sort of intricate plotting would be in hog heaven.

There are also a lot of opportunities for violence and war. One of the conceits of the novels is the artificial constraints on technology. Thinking machines are outlawed, and bladed weapons are back in vogue because of the adoption of personal shields that block conventional bullets and which blow up in contact with a laser. So combat is much more personal, hearkening back to something you might see in a more medieval-esque setting (ahem). There are wars, battles large and small, duels, gladiatorial combats, assassinations, and more.

There's relatively little sex or nudity to be had, but the opportunities are certainly there (just as the writers for GoT managed to insert quite a bit where I don't remember reading about it in the novels). Paul and Chani, Alia and various people, Feyd-Rautha, and others. It could certainly be included if that was deemed a requirement. (Personally I don't think it would be, but I can't speak for everyone, let along for what a network would want to see.)

Now, it is true that Dune has already been tackled twice on the screen. Once as David Lynch's famous flop, and again by the SciFi channel as a pair of three-part series. Personally I like them both, although both have enormous flaws. The visuals in the Lynch version were great (with some notable exceptions like the disease-scarred Baron Harkonnen), but Sci-Fi cleaved closer to the novels in terms of plot and took a lot more time to develop the relationship between the Atreides and the Fremen. Both versions had their good and bad casting choices, but the Sci-Fi version was limited in terms of budget and it shows in a lot of scenes.

I foresee a series that goes at least four seasons, possibly five. You could at least two seasons out of the first book, possibly three. It could be broken up in two ways:

  1. Arrival of the Atreides on Arrakis through the destruction of the Atreides by the Emperor/Harkonens.
  2. Atreides merge with the Fremen through the Fremen attack on the Emperor and start of the Great Jihad.
Or:

  1. Arrival of the Atreides on Arrakis through the destruction of the Atreides by the Emperor/Harkonens.
  2. Atreides merge with the Fremen through about the middle of the Fremen war against the Harkonnens. Includes lots of scenes of the war that are glossed over in the book.
  3. Finish the Fremen war against the Harkonnens through the Fremen attack on the Emperor and start of the Great Jihad.
The remaining books would each be good for a season. So there's a five, maybe six season show, with no chance that the show will overtake the books. If they managed to maintain a level of quality similar to GoT or Vikings, you couldn't tear me away from the television.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

DungeonScape for 5E is gone before it started

This just in from OSR Today:
This morning it was announced by Trapdoor Technologies, who were creating the new character generator called Dungeonscape for Dungeons & Dragons 5e, are shutting down the current version of the tool, effective noon MST October 31, 2014, giving little more than 24 hours notice of the shutdown to current users. 
Well crap. I doubt that Wizards has a "Plan B" when it comes to digital development; there's no way they would have let Trapdoor get as far as they did.

Personally, I think it might have a lot to do with the fact that this deal also pretty much precluded the release of the 5E books in pdf format. It looked like the agreement with Trapdoor locked them into all of the digital content for 5E, and they were going with a proprietary system that required a subscription to their service to work.

So while this is definitely bad for people who like online character generators and that sort of thing, it's potentially very good news for folks who were hoping for pdf releases of the rulebooks. Without Trapdoor's exclusive lock on all things digital, Wizards might be in a position to release pdfs now.

It's also (and this is entirely speculative, based on no actual data) possible that Wizards will open up digital development in the same license they've promised us for more conventional third party products.

That would certainly explain the delay in releasing the license, if they decided late in the game that they wanted to let folks develop their own character generators, etc. Again, pure speculation on my part, based entirely on this news.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

BRW Games Call for Submissions

It's that time of year again - BRW Games is looking for authors who think they have what it takes to get published.

At the moment, we're looking for RPG adventure modules that aren't tied to any particular campaign setting, either using the AD&D 1st Edition/compatible or D&D 5th Edition systems. We are not looking for settings or rules supplements. Submissions should not have been previously published elsewhere, but we can make exceptions in special cases. Please contact us with details.

Please do not send in proposals or multi-adventure series. We are looking for finished self-contained adventures, but that doesn't mean they need to be able to be wrapped up in a single session - longer adventures are okay. Plot-driven, location-based, and sandbox styles are all acceptable. You do not need to have polished cartography, but preference will be given to submissions that have been playtested more than once.

Please send your submissions to joseph@brwgames.com. If we like what we see, we will contact you with rates and terms. Good luck!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: Sea of Death

(Caution: Spoilers)

No, I haven't forgotten my reviews of various Greyhawk novels. When last we left, I had just reviewed Artifact of Evil, the second in Gary Gygax's "Gord the Rogue" series of books, published right before he left TSR. Now we turn to the first in the series to be published after his departure (and the first to actually bear the "Gord the Rogue" banner as a series identifier), Sea of Death.

Published by New Infinities in 1987, this novel picks up some months after the previous installment, and finds Gord in the Baklunish lands west of the Flanaess. He is on a mission to recover the second part of the three-part artifact known as the Theorpart, which will free the god Tharizdun from his aeons-long sleep and bring about the final victory of Evil over the multiverse. To assist him in this mission, he has been endowed with magical powers by the Demiurge (Basiliv, who in Gygax's Greyhawk is the Mage of the Valley), and the Cat Lord, who favors the forces of Neutrality.

The second part of the artifact, known as the Second Key, is found in the City Out of Mind in the dangerous Sea of Dust. The map in the beginning of the book confirms that this is the same as the Forgotten City on the original Darlene map of the World of Greyhawk.

One of the things I like about this novel is that we see a lot of the inner workings of the various evil factions. Iuz finds himself under the thumb of his mother Iggwilv and his ally Zuggtmoy, while at the same time opposing his father Grazz't, who is in turn opposed by various other princes of the Abyss. They, being chaotic, oppose the release of Tharizdun, but wish the power of the various keys that will free him for themselves. Against all of these chaotic evil factions is Anthraxus, leader of the neutral evil plane of Hades, who is working to see Tharizdun released, feeling he will be given a high place in the new order of evil. It's clear in these passages that Iuz is a favorite character of Gygax's, and he gives some wonderful dialogue to the cambion.

And opposing all those still are the forces of Neutrality (of which Gord is a highly-placed champion), and we get some inkling that Good is also involved, but appearances by angels and solars are few.

Iuz and Grazz't are contesting for the Second Key by sending a single agent with some assistants; the evil dwarf Obmi (from the previous book, as well as appearances in Hall of the Fire Giant King and the original Castle Greyhawk) on behalf of Iuz/Iggwilv/Zuggtmoy, and the drow priestess Eclavdra (also from Hall of the Fire Giant King, as well as Vault of the Drow) on behalf of Grazz't. To befuddle their enemies, Grazz't and his right-hand-demon Vuron (one of the most fascinating characters in the series; more about him later) have created a clone of Eclavdra, who will act as a decoy.

Of course, things don't go according to anyone's plan. The clone of Eclavdra survives, although she doesn't remember being Eclavdra, and is known as Leeda, Gord's love interest. They proceed to the buried city with trusted Baklunish tribesmen, and all three groups converge on the resting place of the artifact at the same time (which is actually lampshaded in the book, with one of the characters saying something about such synchronicities being arranged by mysterious forces).

In the city, they encounter albino pygmies, the degenerate descendants of the Suel who did not flee the city when calamity struck down the Suel Imperium centuries earlier, who are served by vicious albino apes. They have many captives from the surface, and we learn that there is some trade between the underworld of the drow and this place; Leda's memories slowly resurface as she continues on with Gord (and her character becomes more like that of the true Eclavdra).

Eventually, Gord prevails over the perils of the city, and a cadre of slaves is rescued. The desert is once again crossed, and on the shores of Jerlea Bay a huge battle is fought not only between the three agents, but also the extra-planar assistance they invoke. Leda slays Eclavdra, the forces of Good intervene, and eventually the magical powers involved hurl most of the combatants into other planes.

At the very end, Vuron convinces Gord to hand over the Second Key to him, along with Leeda, who will serve in the role of Eclavdra, to temper the actions of his lord, Grazz't. This is an instance of the odd nature of Vuron, who is as alabaster-white as his master is ebon-black, and who displays a decidedly lawful streak for a demon lord. He might even be said to suffer from pangs of Good, and the scenes were he puts his intellect on display are wonderfully done.

From a gaming standpoint, there is a ton of material that could be used in a campaign. Details large and small abound about the Baklunish tribes north of the Sea of Dust, there are enough pieces of information about the flora and fauna. weather, and environment of the Sea itself to run an adventure or three within it, and tantalizing hints about some of the lands west and south as well (some nations are named, which I used in my own "Beyond the Flanaess" maps several years ago). The City Out of Mind/Forgotten City is described in relative detail; certainly enough that an enterprising DM could use the chapters set there as the basis for a fully fleshed-out adventure.

This is the point in the series where Gord becomes more of a Mary Sue, however. Imbued with magical powers by various powerful beings, this novel sets him on the road to near-unstoppability, and the resultant increase of the power level of his enemies means that his companions (Curley Greenleaf, Gellor, and Chert) become more sidelined. Personally, I find that hurts the stories themselves, and therefore I give this novel three wizards out of five. Still recommended, especially if you're looking for a source of inspiration and information on the places visited, but not required reading.