Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Still fighting on as best I can.
Until then, if you really crave more me, try issue #7 of Fight On! magazine.
Actually, try Fight On! even if you hate me. It's that good.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Greyhawk Adventures: Saga of the Old City
That being said, it might still be worth your while to track down a copy of Gary Gygax's 1985 "novel of swordplay, thievery, and magic" Saga of the Old City.
While it's labeled as book one of the Greyhawk Adventures series, SotOC is, in fact, predated by sci-fi/fantasy vet Andre Norton's 1978 Quag Keep.
Still, SotOC is the first full-length fiction take on the World of Greyhawk by its creator, and that makes it a potential treasure trove for any DM using that setting for his or her own campaign.
But how does SotOC rate as a novel?
The story follows Gord, a runty orphan street waif who we first chance upon as he's fighting a losing battle with a common alley rat over a hunk of bread they've both chanced upon in the trash. Now that's what I call humble beginnings!
Incidentally, Gord's first line in the book ("Shiteater!", directed at the victorious rat) is pretty good indication that SotOC is a little more daring in some ways than TSR's later, more family-friendly fiction.
Before too long, Gord has managed to escape the grinding poverty and constant bullying of the Greyhawk City's Slum Quarter by joining-up with the Beggar's Guild. It's not long, however, before a violent showdown between the Guilds of the Beggers and Thieves forces Gord to hit the road and see the wider world. Soon, he's encountering river Gypsies, rampaging sea monsters, werebeasts, lovely maidens, and more as his journey takes him from one end of the Flanaess to the other.
Eventually, it's an older, wiser, and much more experienced Gord that makes his way back to Greyhawk City at the novel's close.
So, in a way, SotOC is just a bunch of stuff that happens to some guy. Granted, the "stuff" is pretty wild and the "guy" is a dashing rogue from the World of Greyhawk, but if you come to SotOC expecting a great overarching fantasy saga plot instead of a series of exciting, but often unconnected incidents, you will be disappointed.
On the other hand, sometimes it's nice not to have to worry about saving the cosmos and enjoying a string of sword duels, treasure hunts, and whirlwind romances. Also, Gygax proves to be remarkably adept at witty dialog. He was clearly influenced in this area by Vance and Leiber, and while he's not a master of their calibur by any means, his between-character banter is a cut above that of most fantasy novelists. If plotting is his greatest weakness, this has to be his greatest strength.
In the end, SotOC stands as an enjoyable, if lightweight fantasy romp for general audiences. For Greyhawk DMs and enthusiasts specifically, it's practically required reading. There's a ton of insight here on how Gygax saw day-to-day street level life in his world, which is quite a shift from the omnipotent, bird's eye view of a gaming sourcebook.
I've never read the remainder of Gord's adventures. I've been told that they later rather drastically metamorphosize into just the type of superheroic cosmos-saving that I don't particularly enjoy. If so, that's too bad.
One little tidbit that Greyhawk DMs can take from the later books is a map that was included with City of Hawks: Map (key). It's the only Gygax-approved map of the City ever published, to my knowledge.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Let's say I want to get into Arneson's Blackmoor...
What resource should I start with? Is there a single good general overview of the "authentic" Blackmoor as used by Arneson, as distinct from the ones that appear in the Greyhawk and Known World/Mystara products?
Sunday, November 8, 2009
On the Forgotten Realms.
Many "old-school" D&D fans hate the Realms. Many love them. More than anything else, I believe that most are chronically torn between both extremes. I know I am.
This definitely isn't the case for other TSR campaign settings. I flat-out dislike the Dragonlance line. Period. It's refreshingly cut-and-dried.
Yet, for me, the early FR products and magazine articles violently resist this kind of easy assessment. They're so damn good that they flat-out refuse to be dismissed, no matter how much most of the Realms material released in the last quarter century makes you viscerally want to do just that.
Looking at these products, you come to one conclusion right off: The Forgotten Realms, so much as they are worth anything, are synonymous with Ed Greenwood. This identification is, to me, even stronger than the one linking the World of Greyhawk with its creator Gary Gygax. Gygax's work on Greyhawk will always be iconic, but I can think of many more individuals who made almost equally wonderful contributions in all those legendary modules: Rob Kuntz, of course, but also Len Lakofka, Allan Hammack, etc.
When it comes to the Realms, though, I can't honestly list a single must-have product that doesn't credit Greenwood as the lead writer/designer.
Surely, the man has his annoying quirks, even at his best. For one, he consistantly urges the DM to utilize super high-level NPCs to keep "rampaging", "out-of-control" PCs "in-line." In other words, to prevent them from making any significant changes to "his" world. This is profoundly wrongheaded, to say the very least, but easily ignored. And then there's Elminster. A lot of people say he didn't get "really bad" until the novels and whatnot, but I always hated the guy, with his smug attitude and cheesy Olde English.
But when he's good, he's good! Ruins of Undermountain, for example, is probably as close to a true published megadungeon as we'll ever see. Recent online debate on whether "published megadungeon" is an oxymoron or not aside, I think that if you cross-reference Undermountain with Philotomy Jurament's later popular piece on "The Dungeon as Mythical Underworld", the comparison is favorable indeed.
Fact is, if you take the three products I mentioned above and ignore some of Greenwood's less sound refereeing advice, you can easily have yourself a most excellent old-school campaign. I can only imagine (and envy!) the wealth of source material that a Greyhawk campaign DM would have to draw on if Gygax had ever released resources on Greyhawk City and Castle Greyhawk that were as well-done as FR1 and Ruins of Undermountain, respectively.
It's too bad about what happened later, but the strength of these early works will likely be enough to maintain this love/hate tug-of-war within me for a long time to come.
I'm not sure if I'd have it any other way.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Black Sheep: Gates of Firestorm Peak
Today's subject: Gates of Firestorm Peak (GoFP), a 1996 AD&D module by Bruce Cordell. Since it's an adventure, anybody out there with an inkling that your referee might want to run you through this one should probably stop reading now before any spoilers show up. I'll try not to get too detailed, though.
GoFP would seem to have two huge strikes against it right from the start. Debuting in the latter half of the 90s, it runs smack into the common belief that TSR releases only got worse and worse as the decade rolled on, culminating in downright putrid dreck like the Diablo computer game tie-in products.
Second, it was advertised as being a showcase for options taken from the then-new Skills & Powers expansion rulebooks. Ack.
Still, GoFP weighed-in at a remarkable 11th place in the late Dungeon Magazine's "30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time" countdown, which otherwise featured "Golden Age" D&D adventures from the early 80s almost exclusively.
How? Here's the lowdown: GoFP is a 96-page "Underdark crawl" adventure with some interesting Lovecraftian twists for parties of 5th-8th level characters. The back cover has this to say:
"Once a generation, they say, a strange comet appears in the sky overhead and the gates of Firestorm Peak swing open. Twenty-seven years ago, your father led his band of adventurers into the mysterious mountain, never to return. Now the Dragon's Tear once more flickers in the sky, and the glass gates on the mountainside beckon. Will you pass through to discover the secrets that await beyond the portal none has ever dared and returned?"
This summary is pretty accurate, although you should feel free to ignore the fact that this sounds hella railroady thanks to the "missing father" angle. In fact, that's only one of many suggested ways of involving PCs in the adventure. Blame that one on whichever poor sap churned-out TSR's ad copy around that time.
The module opens with a brief description of Longbridge, a small town close to Firestorm Peak that allows PCs the opportunity to do some shopping and maybe fish for some tavern rumors before taking-on the dungeon itself.
Once through the Gates, the dungeon complex is divided into three main sectors:
The Outer Complex: This area is heavily populated by Duergar (evil dwarves; mounted on giant tarantulas, no less) and a handful of other intelligent underground races. Quick wits, stealth, trickery, and diplomacy are key here, since the prospect of attempting to plow straight through the heart of a well-manned Duergar outpost is daunting to say the least. Less hack-and-slash PCs might even have the opportunity to replenish their supplies at a cavern bazaar frequented by numerous underworld denizens.
The Twisted Caverns: Are just what they sound like. This is more of an underground wilderness area, so expect inhabitants to generally fit the ravenous beast archetype. Parties worn down by too much unnecessary combat in the Outer Complex will have the odds stacked heavily against them here.
The Inner Sanctum/Vast Gate: It's here that surviving PCs can unravel the mystery at the heart of Firestorm Peak: An ancient gateway to a malignant alien reality that's presently seeping-through to contaminate the PC's own in various disturbing ways. If they're smart and lucky, they may be able to seal it off. If not, they may very well never see the light of day again.
GoFP is a lengthy adventure and a difficult one. It will take several playing sessions, some smart players, and even a bit of luck to successfully complete. It's strongly non-linear, with more than one way to tackle the dungeon's challenges. Most of all, it positively oozes freaky flavor. The alien life forms infesting the depths of the dungeon are truly unsettling in their aspect and the gradual transition from a classic Underdark romp to the heart of an otherworldly Foulness is handled quite deftly.
As for the Skills & Powers dross, do what I and probably almost everybody else did and ignore it. It's remarkably easy.
As one of the few TSR adventures from its period with a reputation that's actually improved significantly over time, you can expect a used copy of GoFP to run you more than average, but it can still be found for sale around the $20.00 or less range if you spend some time shopping around.
Word to the wise: Try to make sure all the very neat color maps are included with the booklet itself before you buy.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Wolfman Bugbear's got nards!
Don't click if pewter peener may offend you.
P.S. The gratuitous Monster Squad reference is just a happy coincidence.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
RPG Review: Wayfarers
Accordingly, I’ll be breaking this review down into three major aspects: Physical presentation, rules, and setting.
Full disclosure: In a happy first for me, co-author Jimmy Swill was kind enough to volunteer out of the blue via email to send me a free paperback copy of WF just because he liked my other online reviews. That’s pretty excellent when you consider that this very well-produced 400+ page tome normally retails for $35.00. So keep on writing those reviews, everyone: A treasure trove of glorious free gaming products awaits you! Maybe.
My copy of WF is an inch-thick standard dimension softcover with some attractive color cover art depicting a bloody battle between a motley crew of fantasy types (most prominently a woman in a cloak and humanoid bear swordfighting in the center foreground).
Inside art is B&W/grayscale and seems to be a combination of contributions from several dozen artists. They’re good, on average, although I have seen a couple of the pieces before (the “fighter versus orc” on page 199 was actually available as cover art for the last edition of Labyrinth Lord, for example).
Pages are non-glossy. Text is clearly presented in two columns, is well-written and seems well-edited.
WF is pretty much D&D-but-not.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. Some of the oldest, most revered fantasy RPGs, such as Tunnels & Trolls and Runequest, seem to have started out with one or more designers who really liked D&D except for… The “except for” could be character classes, experience levels, magic based on the work of Jack Vance, or any number of other things.
So-called generic game systems soon got into the act, and countless systems, to include GURPS, Hero System, d6, Fudge and many others have published fantasy supplements available.
On the most basic level, the equation might look like this:
WF = classic (A)D&D - character classes – levels – alignment + point-buy character creation + robust skill system.
Utilizing a point-buy mechanic, you determine your attributes (Agility, Endurance, Intellect, Presence, Strength) and modify them by race (+1 Presence for elves, and so forth).
After that, you determine your HP (Health Points), your Physical and Mental Resistances (saving throws), Dodge score (take a guess), and movement rate (based on encumbrance of gear carried).
Next, you use your remaining points to purchase Disciplines like Hermetic Magic Potential, Precise Shot, and Feint. These are directly analogous to the Feats in certain other popular fantasy games.
Next you buy Proficiencies, which are classic skills like Climbing and Animal Handling.
Finally, you select your starting equipment and starting spells for spellcasters.
So no surprises at all during character creation, but it all seems to work well enough.
In play, WF uses all of the “typical” gaming dice, d4 through d20.
For skills, you roll a 1d20 for each skill “rank” you have and keep the best result, trying to beat a GM-set target number.
Each 10-second combat round is basically:
1. 1d10 per character initiative roll, modified by Agility bonuses.
2. To hit with physical attacks: Modified 1d20 roll attempting to equal or exceed the target’s modified Dodge score.
3. Spells can be interrupted and disrupted, especially since they generally take an initiative penalty proportionate to their overall power level. Once successfully cast, their effects are usually opposed by Physical or Mental Resistance, when applicable.
4. Along the way, damage is deducted from HP, with characters dropping below zero HP falling unconscious and possibly dying.
Anybody surprised yet? I know, I know. Just stay with me here.
There are four types of magic in WF. Hermetic Magic is your classic wizardly teleporting and blasting suckers with fire, lightning, and occasionally fiery lightning (just for a change of pace). Faith Magic is that sissy heal/cure/protect stuff scary religious fanatics do. Hedge Magic is phantasmal/mind-affecting magic similar to what illusionists employed in AD&D. Finally, Ritual Magic is a sort of hybrid between Hermetic and Faith Magics in terms of its effects.
Spells are divided into Circles (levels) and magic is mostly “Vancian” memorization where each caster can prepare and use a certain number of spells of each given Circle per day depending on their magic skill levels. Faith types can ask their divine patrons for any spell, but other types are limited to choosing spells from the formulae recorded in their magic tomes.
The one exception is Ritual Magic, which works on a classic spell point system. Spells of a given Circle cost a certain number of points from a master pool to cast and need not be chosen in advance.
There’s also some experience rules, two big chapters packed with magic items and monsters, a chapter of optional rules, sample characters, and even a pseudo-screenplay format “example of play.”
Apologies if I sound like I’ve been being unduly flippant in the preceding paragraphs, but it’s a real struggle for me to find anything to say, good or bad, about WF’s rules.
They’re exactly what you would expect. Exactly. Nothing less and nothing more. Perfectly serviceable.
Now we’re talking! The “World of Twylos” section is where WF truly comes alive in grand Framptonian style.
You might call it a “typical” fantasy world, but a careful reading reveals it to be a truly excellent example of such; perhaps one of the all-time best I’ve ever seen.
Twylos is, in the authors’ own words, “a synthesis of seven different campaigns” that “ran almost continuously between 1988 and 2006.”
Frankly, it shows. Twylos has “handcrafted labor of love” written all over it and is positively dripping with vivid atmosphere. This is clearly not the product of some marketing department’s X-month “development cycle.” Would you like to hear the fables of Paedra and the Ogre King or Timmorn and the Apple Tree? How about some poetry? Or you could read a scene-by-scene summary of “Gardens of Zil”, described as “a short play in three acts that was written by Rogan DuLaine, the Mad Priest of Ixus, when he was wandering Saethos, searching for Rhauxen.”?
This material is both ample and utterly charming, and it’s layered on top of a detailed world with many adventure seeds, convincing fantasy religions and societies, and scary-cool NPC antagonists like Lord Ixondr of the Hall of Faces.
Most importantly, for me, the authors seem to have resisted the temptation to use their own favorite PCs and NPCs as “movers and shakers” in Twylos. Players concerned about being upstaged by the antics of pet NPCs (a criticism that’s been leveled, rightly or wrongly, about certain other campaigns) need not worry; the world is the star here. Nor is there any impression that all the truly epic, important quests have already been completed.
There is a well-drafted map of Twylos included in the book along with a character sheet, but grayscale does not do it justice. I’d recommend one of the larger color versions on the YOGC website.
So what can I say about WF?
If you want a complete classic fantasy game that’s mostly in the D&D mold, but excludes some of its more perennially controversial mechanics like firm character classes and alignments, WF’s rules will fit your needs. I, for one, am not, but ‘different strokes’, I guess.
If you want one of the coolest, most richly and lovingly-detailed fantasy worlds ever presented for an RPG, WF has this in spades. And it’s mostly system-free to boot.
If you want both, just stop reading and go get WF now. There’s no possible way you’re going to be anything less than overjoyed.
On a scale of 1-5, I’d give WF a 4 for style and presentation, a 3 for its rules, and a 5 for its setting material (average those last two to a 4 if you like).
It’s a quality product, and I recommend it highly. I’m looking forward to more from YOGC in the months and years to come.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Black Sheep: Thunder Rift
I'm calling it "Black Sheep." This series will be dedicated to praising the oft-overlooked gems published during what many consider to be the darkest days of D&D: The 1990s.
There's a strong tendency in the classic D&D community to write-off the hundreds of products released by TSR during this period. And that's too bad. Because even incompetent management and an utter lack of quality control didn't manage to prevent some very sincere D&D enthusiasts from producing some very useful and inspiring products.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that many old-timers report that they just up and stopped playing (A)D&D around this time, while I myself was a kid just beginning. But I digress...
To start things off, here's Thunder Rift, a 1992 "basic D&D" release by Colin McComb.
TR superfan Håvard Faanes describes the setup like so:
"Thunder Rift is a small isolated valley, named after the characteristic thunderous roar that can sometimes be heard throughout the valley. Despite its small size, Thunder Rift is home to a wide range of peoples and creatures and has a rich history, full of wonders, glory, conflicts, violence and tragedy."
Thunder Rift is what we today might call a "mini-sandbox." It's intended as a truly modular, transportable microsetting that a new DM can use as a base for his or her adventures. It is, in its own way, analogous to Village of Hommlet or Keep on the Borderlands.
Why is this so important? Well, at the time it seemed to many that TSR was forsaking exactly this sort of useful, modular "bread-and-butter" D&D product in favor of ever more esoteric and complicated high-concept ones. This was the era, you'll remember, of Spelljammer, Planescape, Maztica, etc. But what good did these sprawling, baroque works do for the average kid just looking for a small village to set his first dungeon near, maybe one with a forest of reclusive elves and a hillside colony of gruff dwarves not too far away?
Thunder Rift deliberately kept its scope small, but it packed so many colorful NPCs, rustic villages, savage wildernesses, and adventure hooks into a mere 32 pages (and a neat poster map), that it helped my games much more than the other, more massive (and expensive) products I bought around the same time.
In fact, the Rift, later transposed into Known World/Mystara just north of Darokin, became a centerpiece of my longest-running and most memorable campaign. During my high school years, as the PCs gradually grew in power and status, they even chose to build their strongholds in the Rift, in honor of all those great low-level adventures we played and more than one of McComb's villager NPCs became beloved campaign fixtures.
A whole series of introductory modules were released for Thunder Rift, including Assault on Raven's Ruin and Quest for the Silver Sword, and it even has its very own active forum frequented by fans and original creators alike. With most TSR products from that era trading for pennies on the dollar on eBay and other online markets, I can't recommend tracking these down enough.
So come on down to the Rift, stranger, and sidle up to bar at the Sarcastic Goat Inn. Drinks are on me.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
So says one of my valued commenters, and this brings me back to something I've been pondering (and meaning to post on) for some time.
Who is the OSR precisely? The quote heading up this entry very well sums up the common understanding: We are "largely middle-aged and not getting any younger."
I myself am 31 years old. I consider myself to be in the prime of my life; Not a young man, but significantly short of middle age.
Has there been any comprehensive systematic effort to really quantify the demographics of the OSR? If not, how could this be accomplished?
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Begun, the Clone War has?
I don't like this development. I don't like it at all.
Big deal, you say? Maybe so. I hope so.
But what worries me is that this might just be a sign of things to come, as simulacrum game makers more and more cave to the temptation to "improve" on their source material.
We've already seen this in Swords & Wizardry, which really bugged me with its creator's insistence on including what I can only describe as some very half-baked house rules in the main book. In fact, it bugged me so much that my copy was sold to the local Half-Price Books fairly quickly and hasn't been missed since. The worst offenders by far were consolidating all the saving throws into one and tacking-on an overly-complex 3E-style "challenge rating" system for monsters. Oh, and ascending AC. Don't even get me started on that bull.
Maybe this stuff works great in the author's own campaigns. Good for him. Maybe Daniel Proctor really gets a tangible benefit out of running his Moldvay-style game with AC8 leather armor. Again, fine, but that's not the point.
The point is a bunch of questions that have been running through my head all afternoon:
1. How serious are these authors about making games that are as faithful to the original works as humanly (and legally) possibly? Can they divorce their egos enough from the process to acknowledge that, yes, Gygax and company really did do it right the first time and the old designs don't need any of their help now, except as it relates to getting back into print? Or will the clones/simulacra increasingly become more and more "their own things" until they eventually have as little proper claim to the label as Castles & Crusades or the new Hackmaster?
2. What are we to make of changes that bring the so-called clones objectively further from their source material in later revised editions? Why did they start? Will they ever stop? If so, when?
3. If they don't stop or persist for some time, how soon until we're seeing multiple editions of the clone, each one increasingly more and more its own game?
Player: "So, what's the AC for studded leather?"
DM: "Depends. Which version of Labyrinth Lord are we playing again? 1.0? 1.5? 2.0? Even I can't keep them all straight sometimes..."
Player: "Uh, okay. Well, is Sleep second level this time or first?"
Keep in mind, I'm not talking about minor lawsuit dodges like calling the displacer beast a phase tiger or leaving Bigby's name off his Hand spells. I'm talking about more fundamental, completely elective rules changes and additions such as the recent tweaks to LL or Mythmere's house rules in S&W.
More and more I'm thinking that I should just stick to out-of-print games for my play. At least they're a known quantity, if only because it's too late for any of them to turn around and change horses midstream.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
New magic-user spell: Silverglade's Forcebolt
After encountering several situations where I would have liked to have taken advantage of the high damage potential of a Fireball or Lightning Bolt, but found my character (Silverglade Woodshadow) in too small an area to employ one safely, I decided to solve the problem by creating a sort of hybrid single-target spell in the Magic Missile vein. Enjoy!
Level: Magic-User 3
Range: 100' + 10'/level
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 3 segments
Saving Throw: Half
Upon casting this spell, a fist-sized ball of what appears to be pale green fire darts forth from the Magic-User's outstretched hand and unerringly strikes a single target creature or object within range, blossoming into a small (one foot radius) concussive explosion on impact. The target suffers 1d6+1 damage per level of the Magic-User, with a saving throw allowed for half. The extent of damage to inanimate objects is best assessed by the referee on a case-by-case basis (rules for item saving throws may be helpful here; treat as crushing blow). Despite its appearance, this spell is a form of visible telekinetic force, not a true flame.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Is OSRIC AD&D?
I'd say no.
Is AD&D still AD&D without the beholder? The bard? The monk? Psionics? The same demihuman level limits? The same experience tables? The same combat tables? The classic contradictory rules (according to the DMG, magic armor is both weightless and half the weight of normal armor...)?
Not quite, no, but so what? The real problem here is the perceived need for OSRIC to somehow be exactly equivalent to AD&D to be a legitimate game and the implication that the two not being properly synonymous is a failing on OSRIC's part. When overly-aggressive simulacrum game detractors and overly-defensive simulacrum game boosters meet, the result isn't pretty.
OSRIC is fine for what it is: A quality, perpetually in-print free game in the AD&D mold that can be used as a vehicle to publish and sell works broadly compatible with AD&D without authors, artists, and publishers worrying about running afoul of the law.
You can focus on what it is (see previous paragraph) or what it's not (AD&D). The choice is yours. I would prefer to emphasize its considerable merits, but that's just me.
Monday, August 31, 2009
This is a first for me, but I hope not a last!
Thursday, July 30, 2009
"Desert island" RPGs...
Limiting the selection to a "top ten" seems hardly strict enough. Seems like the easy way out.
Instead, I want you to give me a "top three."
1. Labyrinth Lord. The best version of the best version of D&D.
2. Fudge 10th Anniversary Edition. The most flexible and intuitive RPG ever designed, in my experience. I'd use this for everything and anything that D&D didn't do better.
3. Delta Green (Call of Cthulhu). Even without any version of the CoC rules to back it up, this the single most exceptional example of an RPG support product to appear in the last two decades. Indispensable.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
You know what I'd love to get my hands on?
Being obsessed with D&D pre-Internet and not having too much money to buy product or a local hobby store, those suckers were sure tantalizing. I probably paged through some of them until they just about disintegrated.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Because it's not being reported nearly enough: Aaron Allston needs help.
It seems that RPG and sci-fi writer Aaron Allston, who counts the legendary Champions supplement Strike Force and the D&D Rules Cyclopedia among his more famed gaming works, has suffered some heart trouble resulting in an emergency bypass operation. Like many others who've found themselves unexpectedly navigating the treacherous waters of the U.S. health care system, the bills have piled-up and Mr. Allston is in need of some help.
Please see this site for information on donations and an upcoming charity auction being held to benefit Mr. Allston.
Thanks to The Sandbox of Doom for the heads-up on this one. And to any other bloggers and forum junkies out there, please help spread the word.
Get well, Mr. Allston.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Everything I need to know I learned from He-Man and Nintendo.
Well, my Appendix N doesn't have any of that. Missing is not just pulp swords & sorcery fiction, but any kind of fantasy literature, at least up until the last couple years. Heck, I didn't even play the classic modules.
I got my start with D&D when I chanced upon a copy of Tom Moldvay's red cover Basic rulebook in a thrift store sometime circa 1990. Other than an occasional turn at some older acquaintances' 1E games, my play for the remainder of that formative decade was mostly with the Moldvay edition's successors, the Frank Mentzer D&D sets as compiled in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia.
In retrospect, I can trace my influences back to two primary sources which collectively form my Appendix N:
1. Saturday morning cartoons.
2. Video games.
Let's tackle these suckers:
Saturday Morning Cartoons
My generation was the first to be hooked on a whole new kind of children's cartoon: The glorified action figure commercial. He-Man, Thundercats, Silverhawks, you know the drill. They were, of course, vapid exercises in cynical marketing, but at least the characters and settings were cool-looking and, well, actioney in a way that cartoons previously weren't. These shows taught me quite a few things:
* There is no, I repeat no meaningful distinction between fantasy and sci-fi. If you want cat people from another planet to battle an undead sorcerer with the aid of an enchanted sword and whatever the hell this is, well, what's weird about that? I just took this for granted. It's no wonder that my high school years saw the PCs fighting off alien invaders in outer space and traveling through time to the campaign world's technologically advanced far future.
* It's more important to be evocative when world building than logical. If the Masters of the Universe writers wanted He-Man to wrestle a monster in a forest of giant purple mushrooms (or whatever), the planet of Eternia suddenly had one. If the Dungeon Master told the kids in the D&D cartoon that they needed to find a magic book in a gigantic enchanted lost city on a mountaintop, than the Realm of Dungeons & Dragons suddenly had one. It didn't matter how weird or unlikely it might be, if it was wonderous and an awesome place to set an adventure, it had a place in these very gonzo fantasy worlds. Needless to say, the whole "But what about the ecology?" fantasy worldbuilding fad of the 90s never failed to rub me the wrong way.
* Adventures are best undertaken by a good-sized group of diverse professionals, each with their own unique but complementary skillsets. Mainly this was the case in the cartoons because a whole stable of heroic action stars means more toy sales than a lone protagonist, but the unintended side-effect for me was to make the idea of the adventuring party the default in my mind well before I encountered Lord of the Rings or any RPG.
Here I mean console ones, because my family was too poor growing up to give me much of a footing in the world of PC gaming. Especially important were games from the era when the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was dominant, roughly 1985-1993.
* The Legend of Zelda taught me that a game could focus on the exploration of a wide-open fantasy world. Before this, my experience was limited to games that took place either on a series of single screen boards like Pac-Man and most classic arcade games or on a fixed one-way scrolling path (think Super Mario Bros). Here, I was free to roam everywhere burning down trees, using explosives on cliffs and walls, pushing rocks, and checking under statues for secret passages leading to wealth and magical treasures.
* While Legend of Zelda was still fairly action-focused, other games were more focused on statistics and introduced the concept of turn-based combat. It's thanks to Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest) and the original Final Fantasy that I came to understand how a game character could be represented by such things as hit points, strength scores, and classes and how concepts like initiative worked. These games also introduced me to the concept of character improvement. Suddenly characters could learn from their adventures, becoming stronger, faster, more accomplished magicians, etc.
* The Holy Trinity of Town/Wilderness/Dungeon was very clearly established in these games, just as it traditionally has been in D&D. Logistics wasn't always ignored in early console adventure games, either. Ultima Exodus made you pack food for your party on expeditions outside of town and every Dragon Warrior player dreaded the possibility of their torch burning out, leaving them to wander blindly through a pitch black cave until the monsters finished them off.
Ultimately, I think the relatively childish and simplistic presentation of these cartoons and games girded me against taking the whole enterprising of gaming too seriously, which is why I've never felt the need to leave the realm of swashbucking fantasy adventure for complicated amateur novelist story arcs or "mature" explorations of being a totally angsty vampire. Or any of that highfalutin' crap, really. So there you have it. That's how a Generation X kid with no background in fantasy lit came to love eclectic sandbox-style gaming in the classic (OD&D - AD&D) mold. Although in recent years I have come to love much of the pulp S&S fiction that inspired Gygax, I still have to admit that deep down, I still draw much of my inspiration from the disposable entertainment of my formative years. I suppose it's true what they say: There are many paths, but they all lead to the same mountaintop.