Friday, December 27, 2013

The Gygaxian Dollar Store Menagerie

Even though I'm currently in the midst of one of my periodic episodes of Dungeons & Dragons fantasy burnout, I found this recent blog post by Tony DiTerlizzi (one of the best artists of the latter TSR era of the game) very interesting.

It's fairly common knowledge at this point that several of the iconic D&D monsters were inspired by cheap Chinese "prehistoric animal" toys. (I have clear memories of having a plastic rust monster when I was a kid, for example.) But I was completely unaware that the owlbear, a creature that is near and dear to my heart, also had its origin in these dollar-store specials. The figurine that inspired the owlbear looks identical to its depiction in the original Monster Manual, which goes a long way towards explaining why it looks very little like either an owl or a bear. (Still doesn't explain why it was given that name by Gary Gygax, though.)

DiTerlizzi's post includes some high-quality images of the toys that became the owlbear, bulette, and rust monster, along with some that don't appear to have ended up in the Monster Manual. The time has come to correct that, I think. Get to work!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Demon Verge: Post-Mortem

Yesterday evening, I declared the Demon Verge campaign dead. (Go home, Marcie.)

The campaign lasted ten sessions, which I suppose is fairly typical of most RPGs these days. Still, I can't help but feel like a villain for ending it so soon. I was using B/X Dungeons & Dragons rules more or less by the book, which meant that even after those ten sessions there were a few characters that hadn't even reached second level. (That's partly because some players had missed sessions with big XP hauls, but still.)

I've repeatedly mentioned that the Demon Verge was intended as a tutorial for myself; a low-prep, low-pressure game where I could try some things out. I've been playing RPGs for many years, but most of that experience is on the player side of the screen, not in the referee's chair. I hoped to learn some things about game mastering, and I did. I've mentioned many of the things I figured out in my session reports, but here are the big take-home lessons:

Google+ Hangouts are probably as close to a face-to-face, tabletop roleplaying session as you can currently get online, but for me, they're still nowhere near as fun as the real thing. (I recently got in a little face-to-face role-playing and my mind was blown by how spontaneous, natural, and fun it was.) The nature of Hangouts lends a feeling of disconnect to gaming sessions. It instills in its users (well, me, at least) the odd sensation of waiting your turn to speak, as if everyone were sharing one telephone. It becomes too easy for the DM or a single player to hog the game. The effect is difficult to describe, but for me it utterly kills the free-flowing, conversational style of role-playing I prefer. It's highly unlikely I'll try running another game via Hangouts.

I can't run dungeons every week. I had fully intended to run a straight-up dungeon crawling game, because it's what old-style D&D is set up to do at its most basic level, and I wanted to make things easy for myself. That was a mistake, at least for a Hangouts game. It just made everything seem even more laborious and plodding.

My house rules were a mixed bag. Even I forgot to use many of them (particularly the revised weapon damage values). The Adventurer Conqueror King mortal wounds tables did see a bit of use. I enjoy that sort of thing in games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Rolemaster, but for some reason, nothing makes for a weird D&D session like a maimed or crippled player character.

I need to be upfront about a campaign's intended style of play. I initially pitched The Demon Verge as a sandbox campaign, but ended up having an authority figure send the player characters on a series of missions. I'd like to think it wasn't a total railroad, but I didn't have the confidence or the rules familiarity necessary to really do justice to the free-form, go-where-you-will sandbox ideal. I should be more honest with my players and let them know when I just want a low-pressure sort of game.

I'm not sure why I bothered fleshing out the original Demonlord setting backdrop like I did. There's little point in creating a fairly detailed setting if you're just going to run it like a generic D&D world, and use other people's scenarios more or less verbatim.

So what's next? A few lovely people have asked if I'd like to play in their Hangouts-based games, and I will probably give some of them a shot just to see if the problem really is the Google+ interface, or if the blame is on me. Other than that, I'll concentrate on trying to get in more face-to-face gaming with local people. There's a chance I might be able to get some Rifts in with my original gaming group (which started back in middle school) next year, which would be a dream. I've also got ideas for my own game bubbling in the back of my head, but who knows how far that will get?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Rifts, the Glittering Apocalypse

I think most people will agree with me when I say that Palladium Books' Rifts RPG is an odd bird. It's a game that was quite popular at one time, but has been abandoned by nearly all but its most diehard fans over the years, for various reasons. It is at once celebrated and lambasted for the way it smashes various science-fiction and fantasy elements together, with little apparent regard for anything approaching verisimilitude. It's also the RPG that I know best, since it's the one I played almost without interruption throughout my high school years. But despite my familiarity with the game, it was only very recently that I came to the conclusion that Rifts is not the post-apocalyptic game many describe it as. Rifts has what would technically be considered a post-apocalyptic setting, but isn't really part of the post-apocalyptic genre at all.

In the olden days of 1990, when the original Rifts rulebook was published, the world of Rifts was what would now be described as a "points of light" setting: tiny dots of civilization trying to scratch out an existence in a vast, monster-infested wasteland. There were a few cities that had managed to restore old technologies, but most of North America (and indeed, the world) was a howling wilderness, depopulated and dangerous. Much of the early artwork for the game -- particularly the work of Larry MacDougall, shown above -- supported this "scorched Earth" interpretation.

However, there was never really much mechanical support for this style of play. There were some character classes, or O.C.C.s (to use Palladium's terminology) that fit in with such an interpretation, including the Wilderness Scout and Vagabond, but others, like the Cyber-Doc and City Rat, supported a more cyberpunk interpretation. Even more plentiful were high-tech warriors like full-conversion 'Borgs, Glitter Boy Pilots, and Juicers. Though not explicitly delineated in the text of the original rulebook, over time, typical Rifts characters were implied to be something like a cross between the heavily armed mercenaries of Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 and superhero teams. You could certainly play out smaller, more personal conflicts, but the published material set up big villains like quasi-Lovecraftian "supernatural intelligences", the evil Federation of Magic, the oppressive, Nazi-esque Coalition, the alien Mechanoids, and even the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for your characters to take down, either for money or out of a sense of justice.

Over the years, more and more high-tech wonder weapons were introduced into the setting, usually with each one being more powerful than the last. Mecha began to incorporate gee-whiz science fiction gear like force fields and jetpacks. By the time of Rifts' new core rulebook, the Ultimate Edition (released in 2005), the cyberpunk-meets-superheroes nature of the game was fairly evident. The book is filled with artwork of characters of superheroic proportions, drawn in a style reminiscent of mainstream comics of the 1990s. (Some artwork is recycled from early publications, with the game's author, Kevin Siembieda, specifically saying that he wanted the book to incorporate what he considered classic Rifts art along with some new pieces. Tellingly, few of MacDougall's gritty illustrations made the cut.) The first piece of artwork the reader encounters in the Ultimate Edition is a full-color, Blade Runner-style cyberpunk metropolis. More recent Rifts sourcebooks, like Black Market and Northern Gun, have continued the trend toward an ultra-high-tech world:

Rifts is a lot of things, but I wouldn't call it a post-apocalyptic game. The world may have been laid to waste by an apocalyptic event several centuries in the setting's past, but there's no scrounging for food, digging up old technology, or radiation to be found. It might be cyberpunk, or science fantasy, or superheroic, depending on what elements you want to emphasize. At the end of the day, it's just Rifts. You could make it into a post-apocalyptic game, but it'd take a lot of work. You'd probably be better off looking elsewhere.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Great Gift or a Unique Snack for Your Office Staff

Since the Demon Verge campaign is on hiatus for the holidays, I haven't got a reliable source of blog-worthy material at the moment. But the good news is that Charles Akins of the Dyvers blog made something called The Great Blog Roll Call, an extremely useful list of stuff to read. Go look.

(This nice fellow happened to say that Dungeonskull Mountain is "a fantastic read that draws you in". Posts like this one disprove that argument, but we can forgive him that one inaccuracy.)

Sorry for the brevity and vapidity. Don't worry! I'm going to start posting a bunch of Rifts-related stuff soon. Everybody likes Rifts, right?