Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Am Your Maze Controller



I need to stat these bad boys up one of these days. I would relish writing up gaming statistics for a monster that first appeared in anti-RPG propaganda.

Then I could write up Glacia, Pardieu the Holy Man, and the rest of the bunch. After that, maybe stats for Elfstar and Black Leaf.

Maybe not.

I'll be out of town for the next week, so don't expect any posts for a while.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Road Not Taken

I've been looking at my D&D Rules Cyclopedia again, and thinking about things that were apparently intended to be a part of the game, but that I've never done - either as a player or as a GM. So, here's a short wishlist of stuff I want to do in a fantasy game at some point:

1. Build a stronghold and attract followers

2. Explore a dungeon with a bunch of expendable hirelings

3. Become an Immortal

4. Find/fight something incongruously high-tech

Sadly, as fun as D&D 4th edition is, I doubt that they're going to be covering any of those things any time soon. (Actually, none of this stuff has really been a part of the game since 2nd edition at the latest.)

Hirelings and henchmen have been dropped because the entire combat system has been so heavily revamped since the early days that they're really not necessary, mechanically speaking. Even though I find the idea of having an entourage appealing, in practice, they'd probably just slow down 4e combat, and that would be a mistake. Still, I can't shake the image of traveling adventurers accompanied by a bunch of loyal followers, money-grubbing mercs, and/or cannon fodder.

The high-tech weirdo stuff was never a huge part of the game, popping up mostly in the bizarre module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or in Judges Guild's Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting. Still, Barrier Peaks was fondly remembered by my older brother Chris, and his account of fighting a mind flayer in a crashed spaceship is one of my most vivid memories of early-80s "D&D story time". There's an appeal to playing a sword-and-sorcery style barbarian armed with a lasergun, I think. Call it Custom Van Fantasy.

On a game design level, I do feel that there is plenty of room for stronghold building, domain management, and even the idea of ascending to Immortal status in 4e, though. I mean, there's already a "tier" system in place, where characters progress from Heroic, to Paragon, and then to Epic. That's thematically reminiscent of the old Basic-Expert-Companion-Master-Immortal progression, and you can become a Demigod at 4e's final (Epic) tier. The Paragon tier, as written, seems focused on planar exploration, but I would be very happy if somebody would publish a supplement allowing for an endgame more in line with the original game. I'd like to think I'm not alone there.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dungeon Motivations

A while back, Jeff Rients wrote a post titled "What's My Motivation?" for his Gameblog. Tired of players at pickup D&D games asking why their puny first-level character would waltz into a subterranean deathtrap, he devised a random chart on which the players could roll to answer that very question. It was awesome, and the idea took its hold on me. The only thing I didn't like about it was that it was only a d12 roll. I'm happy to see the under-utilized d12 get some love, but I wanted more options.

So, with Jeff's blessing and a lot of help from my friend Bret Woods, here's the expanded version:


01 PC is obsessed with proving the existence of the Hollow World.
02 PC quests to retrieve bones of famous adventuring ancestor and re-inter them in family tomb.
03 PC has terrible but enticing dreams of sitting on the throne of a vast underworld kingdom.
04 PC owes 1d6 x 10,000gp to Jabba the Hutt.
05 PC seeks vengeance against the Troll King.
06 PC's family member afflicted with disease that can only be cured with the waters from a sacred subterranean spring.
07 PC haunted by visions of a beautiful witch/drow/princess/goth chick living on an island at the center of a vast underground lake.
08 PC seeks one segment of the Rod of Seven Parts. Must obtain all to save homeland from foretold doom.
09 PC's evil duplicate (twin? simulacrum? clone?) has fled into the dungeon. One or the other must die before both go mad.
10 PC's true love has been trapped in amber and is on display in the trophy room of Lord Utterdark.
11 PC's parents imprisoned. Corrupt official will release them in exchange for the Star Ruby of Umman-Gorash.
12 PC quests for legendary sword (fighter), archmage's spellbook (MU), or holy relic (cleric).
13 PC is a naturalist studying dungeon-based ecologies.
14 PC is from another plane/reality/dimension and is looking for a way home.
15 PC was a hireling in the employ of a party that entered the dungeon days ago and has yet to return. Left to tend to their horses, PC is waiting by the dungeon entrance, grumbling about back pay, when PC party arrives.
16 PC seeks the subterranean River Lethe, hoping to forget a shameful past deed.
17 PC has lost everything they once held dear and has a suicidal death wish.
18 PC is a member of a tribe that considers surviving the dungeon a rite of passage.
19 PC has been outfitted with an unremovable, deadly device that magically transmits their every sensation to a decrepit immortal who craves the thrill of dungeon crawling. Immortal will spare the PC as long as they are entertained.
20 PC was double-dog dared to enter the dungeon.
21 PC was originally a member of the opposite sex and quests for a cure.
22 PC is doing research for an up-and-coming mad wizard who wants to construct the ultimate dungeon.
23 PC heard dungeon crawling was a growth industry and is in it for the money.
24 PC is on the run from the law, and figures they won't follow him/her into a dungeon.
25 PC is trying to impress a love interest.
26 PC is the descendant of a disgraced noble family and quests to restore its good name.
27 PC is a criminal sentenced to certain death in the dungeon.
28 PC is the illegitimate child of a great hero, now intent on proving him/herself to their deadbeat parent.
29 PC was trained from birth by a bizarre dungeon-worshipping cult and sent as an offering to the great gods of the underworld.
30 PC just adores that gloomy dungeon ambience.
31 PC is obsessed with proving something called "Unified Dungeon Theory".
32 PC's crazy old uncle has filled PC's head with glamorous nonsense about dungeon crawling.
33 PC has terrifying dreams commanding them to awaken a sleeping god.
34 PC is the impressionable younger relative of another PC and follows them everywhere.
35 PC is the overprotective older relative of another PC.
36 PC was sent to act as bodyguard to another PC.
37 PC owed another PC a huge favor.
38 PC is the indentured servant of another PC.
39 PC is the slave of another PC. Whether the PC will remain so is another question.
40 PC is the devoted friend of another PC and didn't want them to go alone.
41 PC is driven to prove him/herself the strongest of all.
42 PC collects spores, molds and fungus and will go to any length to find new ones.
43 PC seeks blood/tooth/claw/eye of a monster found in the dungeon to sell to a witch/complete a ritual/create a magic potion/hawk on the black market.
44 PC wants to completely eradicate one type of monster found in the dungeon from the face of the earth.
45 PC is an aficionado of ancient wall carvings and wants to add rubbings from this dungeon to collection.
46 PC lost a wager and must enter the dungeon as a result.
47 PC's beloved pet scampered into the dungeon.
48 PC was bullied/coerced/tricked/seduced into accompanying another PC into the dungeon.
49 PC is an adrenaline junkie looking for a rush.
50 PC is a jaded hedonist in search of new thrills.
51 PC shipwrecked nearby and needs to raise money quickly to repair ship.
52 PC was forced to stop at this backwater world when spaceship ran out of the magic items/gems/gold/other treasure it uses for fuel.
53 PC must spend a night in the dungeon in order to receive a promised inheritance.
54 PC has complex legal documents stating that the dungeon is technically located on his/her property and intends to claim it. Must evict tenants first.
55 PC decides to enter the dungeon while extremely drunk. PC may sober up later and regret this decision.
56 PC has a thing for "underdark chicks/guys".
57 PC believes a cryptic journal that details his/her true family history lies within the bowels of the dungeon.
58 PC wants to prove that flumphs are not extinct.
59 PC really likes dragons, heard they tend to hang out in places like this.
60 PC's loved one violated by monsters from the dungeon, must be avenged.
61 PC is an amnesiac, believes key to discovering forgotten identity lies in the dungeon.
62 PC is searching for evidence of a lost race/civilization.
63 PC is a tomb robber, pure and simple.
64 PC's loved one kidnapped and taken to be villain's consort, held in the dungeon.
65 PC realizes that being an adventurer = dungeon crawling in this world and there's no way around it.
66 PC has been injected with a slow-acting poison, the antidote for which can be made from a lichen that grows only in the dungeon.
67 PC is a former henchman of the dungeon's main villain, seeks to overthrow the villain.
68 PC secretly seeks to betray PC party to the dungeon's main villain, whether out of own malice or because villain holds PC's loved one captive.
69 PC seeks to disprove the existence of the Hollow Earth.
70 PC is codependent and feels a need to do what everyone else is doing.
71 PC comes from peasant stock and refuses to live as his/her forebears have, sees dungeon crawling as the quickest path to fame and fortune.
72 PC's ex-adventurer grandfather's last request was for PC to brave the dungeon.
73 PC was sent on mission into dungeon by liege lord/chieftain/king.
74 PC was expressly forbidden to enter dungeon by superiors - lives to break rules.
75 PC was prophesied to undertake journey into the dungeon, and who can dispute prophecy?
76 PC received divinely inspired knowledge that he/she was born in the Hollow World, and wishes to find his/her way home.
77 PC commanded to enter dungeon by master/mentor as a final test.
78 PC is trying to atone for a past misdeed or crime.
79 PC is agoraphobic and dungeon crawling is the most lucrative line of work available to him/her.
80 PC is sent to search the dungeon for a missing child.
81 PC would rather die in the depths of the dungeon than be branded the village coward.
82 PC never looks before he/she leaps - this sojourn is just the latest in a lengthy list of foolhardy endeavors.
83 PC is a cartographer of the underdark.
84 PC is a painter of subterranean landscapes.
85 PC heard there were lasers down there.
86 PC is related to the main villain, intent on bringing him/her to justice.
87 PC is another PC's rival, sees dungeon crawl as a game of one-upmanship.
88 PC determined to complete dungeon quest as holy pilgrimage.
89 PC has a pathological tendency to underestimate danger.
90 PC is actually a magically-created organism designed only for dungeon crawling.
91 PC was told by fortune teller that he/she will die in sunlight, goes underground in attempt to live forever.
92 PC longs for immortality and scours dungeons in search of sympathetic lich/vampire/wight.
93 PC faces unwanted arranged marriage, wants to "live a little" before being forced to settle down.
94 PC is fleeing persecution.
95 PC is a spelunker looking to take his hobby to "the next level".
96 PC simply enjoys killing things and taking their stuff.
97 PC seeks the missing part that will allow him/her to activate Earthshaker!
98 PC claims to be "from the future!" and insists he/she is ensuring that all goes according to his/her future's "history".
99 PC's motivation to be determined by the player. Lucky you!
00 PC instantly ascends to godhood, roll new PC.

(First twelve entries taken from Jeff Rients' original table. I considered modifying them a bit to make them more generic, but I have to admit that I love the idea of a fantasy-world dungeon crawler owing Jabba the Hutt 50,000gp. Substitute concepts and proper names with ones suitable to your game if desired.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Clyde Caldwell Is On Crack

Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 2.

Your honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: I rest my case.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review: Dragon Warriors

A couple of posts back, I promised a review of an old RPG I was happy to see back on the shelves. That game is the classic British fantasy game known as Dragon Warriors, recently re-edited, re-packaged, and re-released late last year by James Wallis' Magnum Opus Press.

(I should warn readers that I find talking about game mechanics at length incredibly boring. If you're interested in the particulars of how swinging a sword or casting a spell works in Dragon Warriors, I recommend perusing the reviews section at RPG.net.)

Dragon Warriors originally saw life as a series of six digest-sized paperbacks released by UK-based publisher Corgi Books. Dragon Warriors appeared in the mid-80s, as gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf were at the height of their popularity. Dragon Warriors, unlike those books, was a full-fledged RPG, rather than a "choose your own adventure" style game. It enjoyed a good amount of success in Britain (and also in Australia and New Zealand), but the books were unavailable in the United States. Magnum Opus Press recently collected all of the rules and setting material from across the six original books, did a little bit of editing and tweaking, added new artwork, and re-released the game. This new version of Dragon Warriors has been distributed worldwide. So, while many outside the US view Dragon Warriors with a fond sense of nostalgia, the vast majority of Americans are now reading it for the first time.

I have described Dragon Warriors in the past as the UK's answer to "red box" D&D, the introductory version released by TSR in the early 80s, but now that all of the rules and world information has been collected from across the various original books, a better point of comparison would probably be the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, a book that has largely become accepted as the definitive one-book fantasy RPG. But what makes Dragon Warriors shine in comparison to it is its attention to mood and atmosphere.

The game's introduction, written by co-creator Dave Morris, describes the goal of Dragon Warriors as putting "something dark, spooky and magical back into fantasy role-playing." Morris relates that he and Oliver Johnson wanted to create a vivid, folkloric Dark Ages setting in contrast to "the medieval Disneyland of Dungeons and Dragons."

In that goal, Dragon Warriors succeeds admirably. Even the brief example of play at the beginning of the book - which, in a nice touch, consists of several knights meeting and getting into a discussion about tourneys, the Crusades, and pagan gods - labors to set the tone of the game even as it discusses the most basic nuts and bolts of roleplaying.

Character generation likewise evokes the tone of the setting. Unlike the bulk of fantasy RPGs, there are no races to choose from - all player characters are assumed to be human. (As Dave Morris writes in his introduction: "Walking into a tavern in Legend and finding an elf at the bar would be like strolling into your real-life local and seeing a polar bear.") Dragon Warriors also eschews D&D's generalized character classes in favor of more flavorful professions - so, rather than fighters, thieves, and magic-users, DW characters are assumed to be Knights looking for something to do after returning from a Crusade, Assassins on the run from secret societies, left-handed Sorcerers feared by the peasantry, and so on. The magic spells and artifacts available to players also evoke a world with history. Yes, there are the fantasy staples of magical swords and bolts of fire, but also terrible curses and saints' relics.

But I don't want to make Dragon Warriors sound like a "historical" fantasy game. The Lands of Legend are clearly inspired by medieval Earth, with some regions essentially being real-world locations renamed (such as the assumed starting point of Ellesland, which is much like medieval England). However, there are also high-fantasy elements, such as the blasted plains of Krarth, ruled by the descendants of powerful magi, or the bizarre bridge-city of Rathurbosk. But throughout is a feeling of deep mystery. Never do the setting's creators let magic seem everyday or predictable. This is a world where magic is old and terrifying. This is Legend, where a goblin is something that lives in your rafters and curdles your milk, an elf is as unpredictable and cruel as a child, and a dragon is the very symbol of evil... and this is a game that dearly makes you want to play in that world.

I should point out that Dragon Warriors is over twenty years old, and while its system is simple and straightforward, there are some odd warts here and there. There is something approaching a "unified mechanic", where one rolls under a target number on a d20... unless you're using magic, when you use 2d10, plus there are a few "special case" rules that work quite differently (such as poison, morale or the dreaded Fear Attack). The abilities of the professions themselves - which include the aforementioned Knight, Assassin, and Sorcerer, plus Barbarians, Mystics, Elementalists, and Warlocks - vary considerably in complexity and customizability. The description of the Barbarian, for example, takes up scarcely a page, while eight pages are devoted to the highly mutable Assassin profession. This may rankle fans of modern RPGs, as some professions certainly offer less options to the player, though they aren't necessarily weaker for it. Again, however, I feel that the game's strengths vastly outweigh its weaknesses.

Happily, the new incarnation of Dragon Warriors seems to be doing well for itself. There has been a steady stream of interest in the game on various RPG message boards, and it has received glowing praise from Mike Mearls, co-designer of the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I am optimistic about Dragon Warriors' future, and am hoping that it leads to more old gems being uncovered, polished, and readied for release.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Dungeons & Discipleship

There's this game I've been thinking about buying for several months now. It's called DragonRaid.

It's a fantasy RPG first released in the 80s. As you can see, it comes in a big, colorful box and includes lots of pretty little booklets with surprisingly nice-looking artwork. It even has a little map and cutout tokens... and a cassette tape! I mean, come on, this looks right up my alley.

Here's the problem: it's an RPG intended for "firmly establishing Christian values and making Christian responses to new situations almost automatic." Yeah, that's a quote from the official DragonRaid website, operated by its publisher, Adventures For Christ.

I will go on record here: like a lot of gamers, I am an atheist. But I don't have a problem with the existence of an RPG targeted specifically at members of a particular religion. That's actually kind of cool. What creeps me out is the fact that all of the info on the official site makes it sound a bit... well, I don't want to say "brainwashy", but I'm not sure how else to put it. DragonRaid isn't just a game, it "advances from mere intellectual enterprise to behavioral practice." Wow. So, it's not a mental exercise for fun, it's a full-fledged behavioral modification and conditioning program.

The example of play on the site involves the player characters (sorry, LightRaiders) encountering a troll that offers them a chance to leer at scantily clad beach goers or go to a wild concert where they can drink "pleasure potions". It then goes on to describe how the Adventure Master should drop hints on how to encourage the players to "act wisely" in order to avoid "sin enchantment". That actually doesn't sound much like an RPG, where the GM is generally meant to be impartial. To be fair, the words "role-playing game" don't seem to be used much on the site, so at least they're not promising that DragonRaid is something that the game isn't.

(Also, it seems like all the proper names in the setting have goofy in-word capitalization, like OverLord, LightRaider, EdenAgain, etc. After a while, reading that kind of thing would really drive me up the wall.)

Anyway, the game sure does look pretty, but I don't think I can plunk down even the modest $24.00 Adventures For Christ is asking for it in good conscience. The idea of a religious game seems interesting to me, but this one just feels too much like an aid to fundamentalist mental conditioning. I guess if a cheap copy ever surfaces on Ebay, I might give it a shot.

Big F***ing Fantasy Heroes

You know, there has been a lot of talk recently about a shift in tone over the various editions of that most popular of fantasy games, Dungeons & Dragons - an "old school" vs. "new school" sort of dichotomy.

The latest iteration of D&D, 4th edition, places its emphasis squarely on tactics, action, and flashy powers. In 4th edition, your character is a highly competent professional badass even at first level, skilled at chopping down foes and/or blowing shit up. You are, to quote Brick Top from Snatch, Muhammad "I'm Hard" Brucelee. "Big Damn Heroes" has become a shorthand for describing this approach, and it's a pretty useful one.

In the original version of D&D and its AD&D descendants, you were a lot more likely to be a loser at first level. Combat could be exceedingly deadly if you weren't careful, or if you just plain rolled poorly. If you wanted to make it to second level, you hired a bunch of goons as cannon fodder, tiptoed through the dungeon in fear, and ran away a lot. The game was designed by hardcore wargamers, who more often than not had a decent grasp of historical strategy and combat tactics. Somebody on RPG.net described the feel of early D&D as "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam", and again, that's not too far from the truth in my (admittedly limited) experience.

Now, I am not here to say one approach is objectively better than the other. As fun and as popular as the new game is, there has been a pretty sizable backlash against D&D 4th edition - which, as far as the mechanics go, really codifies what I would argue has been a slow but inexorable shift in tone from survivalist dungeon crawling to technicolor epic asskickery. In fact, I'd argue that the newest edition of the game finally allows your character to do some things that a lot of people expected the game to allow in the first place - and the artwork of much of the old material would have given you the impression that it did.
(I mean, check out that shit to the left. I'm still waiting for the Complete Wizards With Frickin' Lasers supplement.)

At any rate, a lot of people have decided to go back to earlier, more familiar editions of the game, or to take a new look at old books they'd never gotten a chance to until these heady days of cheap PDFs and open gaming licenses. I think that is laudable. There are a lot of cool old games out there that deserve to be played, and while I don't think I'd ever run the original version of D&D, I have played a bit of it, and I can confirm that it really does shine in the hands of a capable DM with a lot of time set aside for rules tinkering and world building.

But you know what? I'd be even happier if people would dust off other fantasy RPGs of yesterday and give them some new shine. So, coming up: a review of a new re-release of an old game that I feel really deserved it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Diary Of A Dice Fiend

I've been playing tabletop RPGs since 1985, when I was eight years old and living in Scotland. My older brother Chris had played a lot of AD&D when we lived in the States and would fill my second-grade mind with tales of his gnome illusionist, who was digested by a purple worm and then reincarnated as a lecherous boggle. When he did decide to run a game for me, I played a halfling fighter - who I named "Red Falcon" in a transparent attempt to impress him. I don't remember much about that session, except that my character kept trying to bribe monsters with food rather than fighting them. Anything to stay alive. (See, I got the old-school style down without even trying.)

Later, when I was in fifth grade, I got hooked on the Dragonlance novels and bugged my brother about D&D. So, Chris mapped out an elaborate mega-dungeon on graph paper, wrote down what he could remember of the AD&D ruleset (we only owned the Monster Manuals), and ran a few sessions for me and two friends. I was a wizard, Bill was a barbarian, and some other kid was a ninja. I remember a bit more about these sessions, which found our brave heroes in your typical "mad wizard" style dungeon. There was a giant tapestry that you could walk into, and it would transport you to a dinosaur-infested jungle island ruled by giant spiders. There was another room where a goblin was painting a portrait of a naked lady, who ended up being a half-kender thief-acrobat. We asked her to join the party, naturally. I also remember that we fought some mummies, and the one kid's ninja character got busy with the hot acrobat girl inside one of the sarcophagi! Hey, we were going through puberty. Say what you will, but my brother understood how to play to his audience.

After my brother went to college and left me to my own devices, I started running my own games, and playing with my friends. I started with Palladium's clunky Robotech RPG, but quickly got into AD&D 2nd edition soon after it was released, having split the purchase of the Player's Handbook with a couple of buddies. Soon after that, RIFTS, that greatest of adolescent wish-fulfillment games, appeared on the scene. It had cyborgs and magic and mecha and dragons and an awesome Keith Parkinson cover with chicks in tight rubber outfits... and before I knew it, I had a new hobby.

We played tons of games, every damn weekend, and usually all night long. Besides RIFTS, our favorites were Marvel Super Heroes, Earthdawn, Street Fighter (don't laugh), and AD&D. We also dabbled in piles of other games, like CyberGeneration, Warhammer FRP, or Palladium Fantasy. Unlike most 90s gamer kids, we never got into Shadowrun or the World of Darkness stuff, though it wasn't for lack of trying. In retrospect, I guess dice pools weren't our thing.

My parents were worried about my grades, and disturbed by the unsavory-looking books, but I managed to deflect that by keeping my nose clean and doing just enough homework to ensure that I'd be still be allowed to roll them bones. By the time I graduated high school, I hadn't gotten drunk, high, or laid... but I had gotten my RIFTS mystic up to 11th level. I had priorities.

I didn't play much in college, which is probably why I finally got my ass a girlfriend or two, though I did squeeze in a few sessions of TORG. After college the drought lasted a few more years, until D&D 3rd edition came out and made the game seem fresh again. While living in Tallahassee with my then-fiancee (now wife), I even ran a fairly long-running campaign of it for a group of newbies... until, like everybody, I got burnt out on the system. I tried getting people to play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for a while, but nobody seemed interested.

Eventually, I ended up hooking back up with one of my original gaming buddies and playing with his group. I'm currently playing D&D 4th edition and having a good time with it, but I have been reading a ton of older, more obscure fantasy games recently, some of which I intend to give in-depth reviews of here.

There you have it: my RPG gaming history.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Black Peaks


I hope you like reading about RPGs practically nobody plays, because that's largely what I'm going to be writing about.

Okay, maybe not "largely". But sometimes!

There will be more coming soon. Stay tuned.