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Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games
Updated: 5 days 12 hours ago

Talking AD&D, Tolkien, and Edgar Rice Burroughs on Twitter

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 02:50

Okay, this might be danged hard to follow but it’s also a lot of fun.

A lot of good points are made in here, so click on through for the rest of the discussion!

I really wish @Wizards_DnD would release a minimalist throw back edition of D&D 5E. Keep the same rules but go back to a two column layout with black and white art and have some the old artists do some work for it. The 5E books are overly produced imho. #OSR #DnD5E

— Ulairi (@letthedicefall) July 11, 2019

They aren't meant to fire imagination, they are meant so you and your friends get on the same cookie cutter fantasy carnival ride as the actors in your favourite Wizards of the Coast sponsored podcast!

— Brandon (@PixelCanuck) July 12, 2019

TSR: "Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?"
Wizards of the Coast: "Don't imagination, just consume product and then get excited for next products." https://t.co/KP6oeMVmNh

— Jeffro Johnson (@JohnsonJeffro) July 12, 2019

I’m all for pushing the hobby forward, but 5e is all about reaching out and making the hobby accessible. Generally speaking, WotC is really great about inclusion, so I don’t see the problem. If people want something more, there is PLENTY of TTRPG content out there to be found.

— Just A Barovian Bladesinger (@TravisVawter) July 12, 2019

"Pushing the hobby forward" "Making the hobby accessible" "Great about inclusion" pic.twitter.com/RU9vI06HX3

— Meffridus (@meffridus) July 12, 2019

Accessible to who? I was playing AD&D at 8 years old, me and friends were self taught. Did TTRPGs really need to be made more accessible than that?

What they needed to become more popular was to become more socially accepted, not accessible. That's the angle Wizards is pursuing

— Brandon (@PixelCanuck) July 12, 2019

AD&D is the definitive expression of all things Gygaxian. It's a landmark work, epochal even. There was nothing like it before in history and there can never be another work that even approaches its influence and significance. It is staggeringly awesome. But it is not accessible. https://t.co/tWotYdkeBB

— Jeffro Johnson (@JohnsonJeffro) July 12, 2019

This is beautifully and wonderfully wrong. #AppendixN https://t.co/VAz5iGXsKs

— Jeffro Johnson (@JohnsonJeffro) July 12, 2019

Siri, show me very bad takes that contradict facts in Tolkien's autobiography https://t.co/ECCAdSwNp7

— Dogs Don't Have Thumbs (@MorlockP) July 12, 2019

he didn't mention ERB as an inspiration, and talked at length about the Germanic and Celtic myths as inspiration

— Dogs Don't Have Thumbs (@MorlockP) July 12, 2019

On the other hand, we know by his own words that JRRT did read a lot of ERB. He denied direct copypastas, but it is no great lep to infer that JRRT was influenced by ERB. For better or worse.

— Jon Mollison (@NotJonMollison) July 12, 2019

Right. You know his publisher had no interest in what would ultimately become The Silmarillion. If (as OP claimed) D&D would not have happen without Tolkien creating a demand for it, then you can also say that LotR would not have happened without ERB making a demand for it.

— Jeffro Johnson (@JohnsonJeffro) July 12, 2019

The Lord of the Rings was developed over the course a many years through several complete rewrites. It builds on and alludes to a legendarium that he began developing during the world war, but there would be no demand for that type of material until after his death. https://t.co/58ZaMfGsOG

— Jeffro Johnson (@JohnsonJeffro) July 12, 2019

Could anyone writing fantasy or science fiction in the thirties and forties escape the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs? I don't think that' s possible! https://t.co/UhqiRA5Xt5

— Jeffro Johnson (@JohnsonJeffro) July 12, 2019

Tolkien wrote tLotR because (a) his publisher rejected The Silmarillion and (b) his readers wanted to hear more about hobbits. Tolkien had nothing else to say about hobbits after that 1st book. He was done! But the marketplace influenced him to undertake what would become tLotR. https://t.co/PuJPaVS6B5

— Jeffro Johnson (@JohnsonJeffro) July 13, 2019

Excuse my pedantry: I believe it was the Book of Lost Tales (Silmarillion precursor) that was intended to be a great myth for England (not Europe.)

— Corn Woman (@WomanCorn) July 13, 2019

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Best RPG Account on Twitter!

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 17:53

After many, many months of putting in sweat equity in the gym, playing classic vintage games, and dropping hot takes on social media sites… all my efforts have finally paid off.

That’s right, y’all. #TeamWinningSecrets scientific polling indicates that my Twitter feed is in fact the best RPG account on Twitter.

Very stoked about this!

If you are an elite level player that would like to win at RPGs, please join me there for my wholesome D&D content!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Melee for Real

Fri, 06/21/2019 - 15:47

Such a small box, but there’s so much game inside!

You can play it as a “design-a-thing” game where you spend five or ten minutes figuring out how to destroy your friend’s continuing character in a campaign of endless arena duels.

But you can also cut out the min/maxing element entirely by dealing several of of the fighter cards to each player and seeing what happens. How do you make these unoptimized figures work together as a team in order to crush the spirit of your opponent? It’s not immediately obvious! The range of options each turn are tremendous!

Pole weapon users really do get a great deal of attention in these rules– and do note that a few nuggets from Advanced Melee are folded into the third edition rule set here. The new tactics won’t necessarily be familiar to fans of the original microgame!

Charging a dude with a pole arm is suicidal. Letting yourself get charged by a dude with a pole weapon is also suicidal. That first contact is liable to hurt, but once engaged… you have options. He can’t hit people in adjacent hexes at all! If you have a line a men engaged with his crew… look for ways to shift your figures out of that pole weapon’s reach. Or even better… have two figures engage one of his on two sides… and then have your pole weapons dude hang back jab.

(This is something that is a huge part of classic old school D&D combat. Dungeon Masters the world over hand-wave the effects of pole weapons EVERY DAY. Having rules both coherent and playable for it is really weird. And having rules from 1980 get the job done is even weirder!)

This is just one small piece of the game, too. Coordinating the pole weapon guys with grapplers, missile weapons dudes, straight ahead skull bashers, and wizards is a whole ‘nother thing. It’s an insanely rich tactical environment with a tremendous number of permutations. The figures have scads of personality. And burning a turn to convert from pole arm to sword or sword to knife is well worth the sacrifice if the tactical context dictates it. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen in the old school rules that precede The Fantasy Trip.

But is it playable at the scale in which fantasy games tend to focus on…? New school games where there are a small number of special snowflake super hero types on each side? Yeah, probably. Old school games where the players are liable to have multiple hirelings and henchmen backing them up…? Ah, you might start to have problems there!

There are a couple of things you can do to keep it from bogging down, though:

  • In larger two player battles, make sure all the counters you use for each side are of the same color.
  • Use the erasable fighter cards (and/or the small paper record sheets) and arrange all of the characters in adjDex order next to the game board.
  • Steal colored cubes from a euro game to mark characters that have the -2 DX penalty for the next attack only and/or the -3 XD penalty for being at ST 3 or less.
  • Have one side be made up of identical units and possibly mark them with cubes based on what type of weapon they have ready.

Nothing in Melee happens simultaneously! The sequence of play for the combat round is unambiguous and detailed. It can slow things down if you have a brain burning life choice to make for each of eight or more figures every single combat round. But that’s the price you pay for being able to do something besides just rolling a d20 and dying!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Amazon Women, Pulp Fantasy, and Old School Game Mastering Advice in The Fantasy Trip

Sat, 06/15/2019 - 16:03

The year was 1980 and Steve Jackson’s first complete role-playing game design hit the market. A pivotal time in gaming to be sure!

Sign of the times: there are no amateurish drawings of naked women in the pages of this module. But take heart! This game nevertheless has its foot firmly planted in the staggeringly awesome days of gaming’s primordial past. A scantily clad Amazon chick not only appears on the cover but also as an explicit option for unironic play:

AMAZON: The beautiful, dangerous female warrior. She probably has high DX and wears little armor. Talents
include Sex Appeal, Unarmed Combat, Bow, and Thrown Weapons — plus several other weapon talents.

Nice!

If you shelled out big bucks for the recent monster-sized Kickstarter edition of this game, don’t bother to look for this. This was evidently expurgated for being way too spicy for the high strung pearl-clutching gamers of today. (Fortunately for us pulp fantasy fans, Tarzan remains in the archetype list for the Woodsman “class”– though the name was character type was updated to “Ranger”.)

One surprising bit that was left 100% intact, however, is this choice bit from the game’s background setting of Cidri:

This enormous polyglot world was chosen as a background for two very good and totally opposite reasons. The first is variety. Cidri is big enough to hold thousands of Earths; it has room for the world of every Game Master who’ll ever put pencil to hex-paper. There’s room here for every sort of fantasy adventure to coexist — in a logical manner. And it provides a workable rationale for the weird melange of legend, historical fact, prehistory, science fiction, and sheer wild imagination that characterizes the work of the best fantasy gamers.

What an astonishing line there!

Granted, anyone that is familiar with role-playing games of the 1970’s could see why Steve Jackson would say such a thing. And Cidri is truly a bizarre game setting. It’s like Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers series mashed up with Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. It’s like a weird inversion of the default setting of the much later Steve Jackon  release of GURPS Fourth Edition– instead of “Infinite Worlds” it’s Infinite World!

Rough sketch for the cover of the Melee MicroGame? A stray illustration from the 1980 edition of In the Labyrinth? No on both counts! It’s a picture of Dejah Thoris by Frank Frazetta!

But look at that sentence again. It is very much like how I have (on many occasions) attempted to describe the best work of A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Leigh Brackett to a generation that is almost entirely unfamiliar with the pulp era. And here Steve Jackson in 1980 casually declares the work of the best fantasy gamers to be JUST LIKE THAT. He had no idea that there was about to be a sea change in how people even conceived fantasy to even work!

Incredible. The intrinsically weird/pulpy foundations of fantasy gaming confirmed!

But wait, there’s more treasures to unearth in this old game!

In Steve Perrin’s review of it from the April/May 1980 issue of Different Worlds, he says this: “Perhaps the best part of the book is a column by publisher Howard Thompson, describing the story-telling requirements of being a GM. Truer words were never spoken.” Story-telling? Sounds potentially heretical to me! Too bad purchasers of the new edition will not have the benefit of this awesomely TRUE gaming wisdom from the dawn of the hobby. Steve Jackson deleted it for some reason!

But don’t worry. I have the text right here:

NOTES ON SUCCESSFUL GAME-MASTERING

Most of you will eventually want to design your own labyrinths and take a turn at being Game Master. A fantasy role playing game is certainly more enjoyable when you can provide fun and adventure for your friends. In our experience, there is one philosophy of game-mastering that consistently leads to success. That is this: A GM is a solo entertainer of an unusual new variety. He is a writer, performer, and group facilitator rolled into one. Players participate in an adventure campaign for entertainment — not to let the GM be a petty god and manipulate their characters at will. It takes practice, attention, and sensitivity to lead a group through an adventure and leave them feeling good (win or lose) when it’s over. Thinking of yourself as a semi-professional entertainer like a bard or other
small-group yarn-spinner will help.

Don’t try to control the action or predetermine specific outcomes for everything. Your labyrinth and its supporting environment must be flexible enough to evolve as a result of the players’ actions, be they successes or failures. There must be room for players to build, destroy, live and die as they choose. This doesn’t mean that things should be easy. Player characters will get killed — fairly regularly, for the careless or headstrong. As a GM, you must be firm – but not so attached to your creation that it doesn’t also become something of the players’.

You needn’t bully your players or allow them to intimidate you. There will be points of disagreement during play, of course – but the best way to handle them is to postpone any
real discussion until a “critique” period after the game session. Players should feel free to ask questions or make comments about the GM’s actions, but it shouldn’t go farther than a few brief comments while play is going on. If you goof, and a player catches it immediately, you ought to fix it then and there IF you can do it without breaking the “feel” of the adventure. The ability to do this is a mark of the experienced GM. Real disagreements should always be discussed AFTER an adventure, in preparation for the next. You can stand by your actions and refuse to discuss them — but to the detriment of your campaign.

Remember – you are an entertainer. The adventure unfolding is your “act.” Nurture the story, let it build, involve players in the action. Within the framework you’ve constructed, let events happen as they will. What you and your players will create is a spontaneous experience that can be a rewarding entertainment “high.”

— Howard Thompson

This is solid, straight ahead advice. If all you had were a bunch of fantasy game materials from the seventies you’d probably hit on this eventually. The Hickman Revolution was a not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye at this point, of course. And Steve Jackson’s own particular brand of role-playing philosophy (which would fully flower in the mid-eighties with GURPS) was not yet in evidence in any of The Fantasy Trip’s material.

Of course the approach to role-playing that would become dominant in this century in the aftermath of TSR’s demise was even further off. Which is intriguing. One thing that sets The Fantasy Trip apart from original D&D that it has in common with D&D 3.5 is the hyper-regulated combat and movement system.

Here is Steve Jackson’s own rationale for why he developed it from his designer’s notes in The Space Gamer 29, July 1980:

It started in early 1977. I had just found out, much to my surprise, that I could design games… people were buying Ogre, But the game that I was playing a lot of myself was Dungeons & Dragons. And like everyone else who tried an early version of D&D, I wanted to make some changes. The polyhedral dice were irritating– but the biggest problem was combat. The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement– you just rolled dice and died. T&T was the same way. Monsters! Monsters! was more detailed in some ways, but still allowed no tactics. So I did something about it.

Amazons from the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons and 4th Edition Tunnels & Trolls. If your game doesn’t have them, it sucks!

Indeed he did. Steve Jackson would end up making two of the greatest microgames in history, which is pretty cool given that he’d already created the definitive microgame with his debut game design.

Steve Jackson is far from being the only person that could look at the first two role-playing games and declare the combat system to be completely broken. Of course at the time he wrote that, we were decades away from anyone being able to provide a cogent argument for why the nature of those early systems were a feature, not a bug. But given everything we’ve seen in five decades of role-playing at the tabletop, we have to ask. Is a hyper-regulated combat system intrinsically bad for rpgs? Is that the root cause that made D&D 3.5’s completely linear “everybody wins nobody dies” adventures the gaming travesty that it is…?

It’s a reasonable question, really. After all, the Melee/Wizard adventure “The Lost Lair” published in The Dungeoneer 11 in 1979 did not embody the design principles outlined in Jaquaying the Dungeon even though it was created by the person whose name would become synonymous with the idea.

The seeds of destruction really are there, perhaps. But given Howard Thompson’s spot on game mastering advice included in the original edition of In the Labyrinth, I have to say…. It doesn’t have to be that way!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Appendix N Review Roundup

Thu, 06/13/2019 - 06:27

My book on the literary roots of the Dungeons & Dragons game has been out for some time, but a steady trickle of people continue to stumble upon it and get their minds blown. Here are a few reviews from around the web that capture the thrill of discovery that awaits intrepid readers!

Over at Goodreads, Trevor writes:

I found this absolutely fascinating, but it’s only going to appeal to a VERY select group of people, namely those who played D&D in the 70’s and grew up reading voracious amounts of fantasy and SF from the 40’s-60’s. The author methodically covers each writer and novel recommended in Appendix N of the original Dungeonmaster’s Guide, and talks a great deal about how they relate to the founding elements of D&D and also about the huge tonal shift that occurred in fantasy fiction as it moved from the 70’s to the 80’s and beyond. I remember finding most 80’s fantasy novels to be bland photocopies of LOTR, to the point that I eventually just lost interest in the genre, and this book details why that was, and candidly discusses how LOTR came to dominate the fantasy landscape style where only 10-20 years before, there was a much wider range of “fantasy” out there. Martian princesses and six-armed green giants and Amazon women on Venus and Pellucidar and Stormbringer all slowly mellowed into an infinite series of books about the apprentice/villager guy who is the only one who can defeat the Dark Lord and they meet some wise elves along the way.

Maybe one person out of 25,000 will enjoy this book, but that one person will probably be as fascinated as I was.

Over at reddit:

I never knew how pulpy & weird the origins of RPGs were—until I read Appendix N
I just finished Appendix N: The Literary Antecedents of Dungeons & Dragons, by Jeffro Johnson, and I highly recommend it.*

His argument is that the literary antecedents of D&D (and therefore RPGs in general) is SO MUCH weirder and pulpier than “Lord of the Rings, but a GAME.” He suggests that fantasy was often “science fantasy” at the time when D&D and its early competitors were created, a blended mishmash of what we now consider separate genres. This proto-genre turns out to have been WAY WAY out there, full of just plain batshit ideas, and that we lost something as a geek culture when Tolkien became dominant, especially in the world of roleplaying games.

The book is a great introductory smattering of the “greatest hits” of 70’s pulp sci/fantasy, and since each chapter is a self-contained essay on a particular book in the form of book review/analysis of effects on D&D, it’s really easy to pick up and put down.

4/5 stars, especially if you’re looking to understand the origins of RPGs and maybe infuse some weirdness into your game.

Finally, the Shrew Review has this to say:

Knowing the literary antecedents to some of the obscure rules decisions Gygax made has helped me realize the potential for creating drama within my game and for detailing my world in a way that will give my players plenty of awe inspiring moments. Too often I resort to using bad ass monsters and game play mechanic hacks to try to instill fear and wonder in my players. Let me give you a great example: my 3.5 edition troll war band leader that dual wielded a whip and a scourge. 25ft. reach with improved trip and disarm. Wow, a very dangerous foe. But what’s the point of me pouring over stats, feats, and class abilities to munchkin a villain to scare my players with, especially if there is no building tension behind the monster. I can instead give him a literary inspired description and backstory that will actually do more to inspire the players. Rumors in town persist of Yaldow, the scourge, the only gladiator banned from the empire on the grounds of being too brutal. It’s all too common in the land to find a flayed man or woman nailed to a post beside the road, a length of barbed wire wrapped around its mouth. Setting up this villain sessions before the players actually take him on does more to make him a true villain than any amount of mechanics hacking I could do.

Appendix N explains the D&D Vancian magic system in all of it’s exciting drama. It makes looting scrolls and ancient books from lost tombs become more exciting then finding a +1 sword. I’ve fallen too hard recently on making every campaign a weak copy of Game of Thrones. Political intrigue and grey morality is great. It should be in your campaign. But so should high adventure, foul villains, noble heroes, beautiful princes and princesses, and terrifying beasts.

Now… I do take a bit of flack occasionally for getting carried away talking up just how great the older, weirder pulp novels are compared to today’s fantasy fare. But the thing is… when you rediscover the literature of the superlative, you’re naturally going to start speaking in superlatives!

And yeah… inject this stuff into your game and it’ll happen to your players, too!

Thanks for the comments, y’all. Keep on gaming!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Wisdom of Tunnels & Trolls

Wed, 06/12/2019 - 04:54

One of the big changes in the new edition of The Fantasy Trip is that Steve Jackson has recanted on the old rule that IQ provided a harsh upper limit on the total number of spells and/or talents a character could have. The reason is… under the old advancement system there comes a point where attributes get ridiculously and pointlessly high. So Steve’s solution is to have players buy attributes early on in their adventuring careers… and then at some point switch over to buying more talents and spells when the usual method of advancement becomes cost prohibitive.

I like the idea, mostly because I’ve long been hung up on the old first edition AD&D Fighter/Magic-user multi-class ever since I saw it. A great idea, but a clunky implementation to be sure. The idea of slower advancement is preserved here under the new rules here for The Fantasy Trip: non-wizard characters are going to pay triple the experience points for each new spell they acquire!

But of course, Steve isn’t channeling the more baroque elements of the biggest fantasy gaming franchise on the planet. No, he’s merely rolling back to a key element of The Fantasy Trip’s predecessor, Tunnels & Trolls!

See, the justifiably infamous Ken St. Andre had this hilariously brilliant “Rogue” class. This one was not like any of the Rogues in more ubiquitous games of today. It was an offbeat first-class treatment of the fighter/magic-user hybrid. Rogues didn’t have double armor ability of the warriors, though they could still use any weapon that they had the strength attribute for. (Shades of GURPS and The Fantasy Trip!) They could cast spells like a wizard, but didn’t get the strength cost break that wizards got from magic staffs and from casting spells at lower spell levels than their character levels.

And note again… because Tunnels & Trolls had Constitution be a distinct stat from Strength when determined the energy reserve, T&T avoided the “Conan the Wizard” problem that The Fantasy Trip accrued to itself due to its overly elegant design framework! Problem solved way before GURPS even came close to being on the drawing board!

The real genius of Tunnels & Trolls lies not just in its development of the ultimate fighter/magic-user combo. It’s that additional spells were doled out in that game in exchange for gold, not experience points. Wizards pay a flat rate to the guild, of course. But Rogues have to learn from other player character wizards. And they have to pay whatever amount those players are asking!

This is awesome. Not only does it inject a healthy amount of old school “XP for Gold” into T&T’s gameplay, but it also keeps the wizard players out in front of the rogues when it comes to spells. Not only are rogues limited to selecting from the spells the wizards have already purchased, but wizards can also relieve the rogues of all their spare cash… and then turn it over to the guild for even more spells!

This is particularly brilliant because the stupid stuff players do to min/max character generation and advancement is always inferior to the hi-jinx that ensures when the players start playing off of each other.

Score another one for Ken St. Andre, y’all!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Melee: Killing JON of the ISLES

Sat, 06/08/2019 - 17:10

It didn’t add up.

I mean I knew that an ST 12/DX 12 character would have an significant advantage in Steve Jackson’s classic Melee microgame. This is just one of those iconic artifacts of gaming legend– right up there with stats for the original G.E.V. counters having to be revised due to actual players doing stuff with them that the playtesters never imagined.

But it was too much. “JON of the ISLES” was way too awesome. He cut down hulking crossbowmen and nimble swashbucklers with ease. Soon the body count was up to seven; his ST pumped up to 13 and his DX at 14 via the oft-lamented experience system… the guy pretty much couldn’t miss. It was awful.

But more was at stake here than everyone else’s chances at nabbing a prized continuing character and bragging rights over the week’s lunchtime game sessions. The natives were restless, frustrated. Rather than seeing a challenge worth rising to, they saw a pointlessly insurmountable obstacle. “Your game’s broken,” they told me. Sour grapes to be sure! But also fighting words. They’re talking about one of the greatest designers in history. Nobody’s going to besmirch the legacy of Steve on my watch. Not going to happen!

So I made my challenge and spent ten minutes carefully perusing the rule book. There had to be a way! And there was.

JON of the ISLES was played by someone that had neglected to mine the equipment list for every conceivable advantage. This wasn’t much, but it was enough to counterbalance those additional ST and DX points that looked so unbeatable. The biggest problem that I could see was the guy didn’t have a backup weapon. Maybe there would be a way to punish him for that?

Ah, yes there was…! The hand-to-hand rules say that if I can move onto his hex, he has a very good chance of dropping his weapon. I started to work up a dagger-wielding figure just for this purpose, but then I looked again. Yeah, if I move into JON’s front hex I would have to stop. And then once engaged, I could take the “Attempt HTH Attack” option. But… it’s not that easy. There are only a few very narrow circumstances where this is allowed, having a higher Movement Allowance being chief among them. And the stats just weren’t there for that.

But there was a way that it could be pulled off. Not a surefire method… but a solid chance. Spears do less damage than broadswords. But… being much longer, they have the capacity to short-circuit JON’s dexterity advantage. I’ll have a chance to seize the initiative with that! But there was more…. A character that takes 8 or more hits in a turn immediately falls down. And prone figures can always be engaged in hand-to-hand. A spear’s 1d+1 damage was never going to pull that off, but if I could lure JON into charging me or else allowing me to charge him, I’d have a better than even chance to knock him down!

The day of the battle arrived. I was allowed to my one charge in. (An unforced error!) I then got just enough damage to knock him down. I won the initiative for the movement phase and moved into HTH range. We both dropped our weapons in the hex. I got lucky with a HTH attack and did another 2 hits of damage with a punch, putting him beyond the -3 to all attacks threshold. He was stronger than me and could conceivably hurt me in a HTH scenario… but not after the deathspiral was in motion!

At this point JON’s player did not feel he could retreat. He didn’t have a backup weapon and didn’t want me to pick up the spear and use it to finish him off. So he stayed to trade punches and was finished off with a flurry of 1-point hits.

(For what it’s worth, I will say that my chest-beating at this point wasn’t too obnoxious.)

Now… does this mean that the game is broken in just a slightly different way than we first imagined? No it doesn’t!

The spear charge / hand-to-hand combo can be countered in two ways. First… you can merely close to a distance of two hexes and accept a spear jab there the turn before you engage. Maybe not ideal, but hey… you gotta give spear carriers their due!

And though this auto-knockdown seems out of control (especially combined with 2-in-3 chance of a defender dropping their weapon in HTH combat), also note that armor makes it MUCH less likely that you’re going to get knocked down. It takes 8 hits of injury to trigger the auto-fall, and plate armor pretty well ensures that that’s never going to happen, even if you charge a spear carrier!

So there you go. There’s definitely more to this game than closing to melee range and taking turns wailing on each other until somebody goes down. Dagger-toting goblins with MA 12 are going to be a real problem under these rules. And if you’re used to fighting naked like the Irish did back in the day, you’ve got good reason to rethink that here. The penalty to adjDEX is harsh, but getting knocked down is even harsher!

(And do note if you’re irked by the dweebie wizards hauling around new school staffs to power their spells… lobby your opponent to let you combine Wizard with Melee, cast Summon Wolf and get up in his grill. You’ve got a better than even chance of making him drop the darned thing!)

Anyway, the integrity of my game is preserved. The greatness of 70’s Steve is demonstrated yet again. Granted, you can develop the nuggets of these rules into something with more nuance and granularity. (See GURPS.) But you cannot beat Melee for either elegance or excitement.

It’s a thing of beauty!

I am saddled with being accused of staying up all night analyzing a pitifully small 24 page rules pamphlet, sure… but I can live with that!

Long live Melee!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Steve Jackson’s Melee is Back!

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 04:45

This game is so rad.

I get it out to show it to people, as if to just explain what it is and show off the components…. But then, if you have time to explain it, you pretty much have time to play it. And once you play it, you gotta play it again!

The sample character cards from the recent Fantasy Trip “Monster” Set make this even easier. Just pick a card. Pick one at random, even. Man, it’s just so easy.

And then somebody gets a character that’s grabbed enough experience to plus up those attributes. And then people have to keep playing just for the shred of a chance that they’ll be the one to kill this runaway player character.

Melee has the “just one more” effect in spades. A masterpiece of game design!

And best of all… getting players is drop dead easy. This is one of the best gaming values on the market. Get your copy today!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

“Spears of Clontarf” by Robert E. Howard

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 04:52

This is a great story, a fascinating piece.

In the first place, it shows us up close the sort of peoples, Christian and pagan, that produced the bedrock of the myth and legends that would define our base concepts of fantasy and heroism. But it also presents the notion that we are descended from people that were every bit as heroic as Conan and Solomon Kane. And being written by Robert E. Howard, you can’t help but end up being persuaded!

So many good lines here:

My lords, it may be God’s will I fall in the first onset– but the scars of slavery burn deep in my back this night, and may the dogs eat my bones if I am backward when the spears are splintering.

Also:

The issue was greater than to decide whether Dane or Gael should rule Ireland; it was Christian against heathen; Jehovah against Odin; it was the last combined onslaught of the Norse races against the world they had looted for three hundred years. It was more; it was the titanic death-throes of a passing epoch– the twilight of a fading age.

It’s awe inspiring. With not one iota of snark, contempt, or subversion.

This is what fiction is like when it’s written by someone that doesn’t hate his audience. Check it out!

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A Key Line of Influence in the Development of Roleplaying Games

Mon, 05/27/2019 - 04:46

One of the ways that it becomes clear that Appendix N is more than just a list of books is that there are clear lines of influence running through it, chains of authors that inspire each other in succession. Everyone has been reminded by now that Leigh Brackett’s entire career was predicated on her reading and emulating an Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novel. Fewer have marked the fact that there would have been no Conan were it not for Tarzan, but it’s true all the same. Jack Vance, Philip Jose Farmer, and Michael Moorcock each wrote books that even if they were not outright pastiche nevertheless hewed closely to Burroughs’s template.

But there’s more to it than just Burroughs being the real author of the century. Science fiction legend Jack Williamson set his sights on imitating the Lord of Fantasy A. Merritt. August Derleth and Margaret St. Clair each continued on in the same vein Lovecraft mined. And Lovecraft’s career in fiction was in turn directly inspired by the work of Lord Dunsany.

There’s a story there, a sprawling conversation that spanned decades. There are lights there that shined so brightly, voices so powerful that they defined how even the idea of fantasy could even work.

Another such conversation played out in the mid-seventies as the foundations of the roleplaying game hobby were laid down.

Some of the lines of influence are pretty obvious, of course. Traveller in its original incarnation was released as a set of three “little black books”– a very careful adaption of original D&D’s “little brown books” to a science fiction theme.

The core rules to GURPS have been called a “Basic Set” from its initial release because it was originally patterned after the phenomenally influential Basic D&D sets created by Holmes, Moldvay & Cook, and then Mentzer.

Looking at the precursor to GURPS, Steve Jackson’s The Fantasy Trip… it’s hard to imagine such a tightly engineered masterpiece of design could have been produced when TSR was in the process of developing the nigh incoherent early D&D rules to the ponderous and outright unplayable AD&D system.

The man that set the stage for this incredible little game was none other than Ken St. Andre, the creator the second role-playing game system Tunnels & Trolls. That game system did much more than blaze the trail for solitaire gaming modules which would inspire Steve Jackson from his earliest Fantasy Trip and Car Wars supplements. It would remain a cornerstone component of his vision even in his magnum opus of GURPS.

But look back into the offbeat T&T variant Monsters! Monsters!– which was published by MetaGaming and edited by a very snarky Steve Jackson– and you’ll find key innovations that were very quickly embraced and refined by Steve:

  • One of the six core attributes– constitution– is used for hit points instead of having a separate hit point stat. In The Fantasy Trip, Steve Jackson would trim things even further, folding the idea of both constitution and hit points into the strength attribute!
  • Instead of having a weird set of off the wall saving throw stats that are a function of class and level, Ken St. Andre used a more generalized “saving roll” against the luck stat. Again, Steve Jackson generalize things even further by making nearly every roll in his system be against one of his very few core attributes.
  • D&D has an elaborate tradition for statting up monsters and foes that is entirely distinct from the one used to generate player characters. With Monsters! Monsters!, Ken St. Andre showed how to make monsters a first class element of the game system, giving them all the same attributes and means of advancing. Steve Jackson would maintain this approach within The Fantasy Trip.
  • Weapon choice (and thus damage output) in Tunnels & Trolls is a function of the strength attribute. This concept is carried forward into The Fantasy Trip.
  • Magic staffs are used to reduce the cost of spells cast in Tunnels & Trolls. In The Fantasy Trip, staffs are used as mana repositories.
  • The primary benefit of being able to level up in Monsters! Monsters! is that you may increase your attributes, which define the lion-share of the character’s capabilities. In The Fantasy Trip this is taken even further and the concept of class and level is (finally) removed altogether.

There’s more. And its well worth your time to pick up copies of both Tunnels & Trolls and The Fantasy Trip to go delve into every nugget of all this.

Another thing you’ll see in Monsters! Monsters!, though, is a great number of references to what would later become known as the books of Appendix N. Balrogs from Lord of the Rings, of course… but also Living Skeletons from Fritz Leiber’s works, Lovecraft’s, Shoggoths, the demon from De Camp’s The Fallible Fiend, and a full page illustration of Roger Zelazny’s Shadow Jack. (Hilariously, in a footnote, Steve Jackson corrects Ken St. Andre on the proper way to stat up The Grey Mouser in the Tunnels & Trolls system!!)

Gary Gygax and Ken St. Andre might have had their disagreements when it came to roleplaying game design, but one thing’s sure: they had an almost identical conception of  what the best works of fantasy were.

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Session Report: West of Keep on the Borderlands

Fri, 05/24/2019 - 04:46

So I ran with my notes I worked up from a couple of Lovecraft and Howard stories. Here’s what went down:

The players took the survivor from the bandit attack and decided to take him to the city of Ib. The players go to the temple which looks like the parthenon. But there’s this green statue in the likeness of Bokrug inside it… of course with gigantic gemstones for eyes. Easily worth enough gold to level up the party!

The dwarf with charisma 17 brashly calls for a healer. Ten ugly green guys with flabby lips come out with daggers drawn. The dwarf just leaves. The players ponder trying to do something weird with flaming oil, but think better of it. They find an inn and refuse to eat the green gruel that the survivor slurps up. They stay the night and leave the guy there with a few gold pieces.

(All of this takes a long time to play out because the players are insanely careful describing their actions and deciding what to do.)

The party elects to go back to where they found the survivor and then leave the road, travelling a half day to the north… then making for the keep from there.

I roll a bunch of wandering monster checks and nothing comes up. The players find the skinned man that is staked to the ground. The players bury him and then attempt to make it look like he escaped.

The thief is painstakingly scouting ahead and then reporting back. A harpy comes and attacks him. He runs back to the party, but is grabbed and carried into the sky. The dwarf shoots the harpy twice with his crossbow and fails to kill it. The thief is murdered and carried away.

From there the players travel on to the keep without incident.

Total playing time was about two and half hours– a fair game session for people that still have lives. Three distinct adventure hooks were added to the campaign situation that time. No idea if the players will abandom them all to go grind on the Caves of Chaos instead!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

West of the Keep on the Borderlands

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 00:46

I enjoy running Keep on the Borderlands with new players, however I find myself wanting to embellish the area map more and more the more I play it. I believe it is well known at this point that old pulp stories provide a better resource for stocking a wilderness map than either fantasy novels from after 1980 or rpg supplements. For those that are still not convinced, I offer this example.

Rather than start the classic module at the keep where the players can buy equipment and collect rumors, I want to play out part of the travelling that happens before they get there.

On the road to the keep, the players encounter a bedraggled survivor of a caravan that was destined for the keep. He tells of veritable army of bandits that emerged from the forest, ransacking and plundering the goods, killing the troops that were meant to relieve the forces of the keep, and kidnapping the merchants and artisans. And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have slain the warriors with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

The players have to decide whether to continue on the road and risk being waylaid by a superior force… or perhaps go around.

Now… to the north of the road, there is a random encounter table loaded up with mostly cannibals. (Give a 1-6 chance for a bear, spider, or wolf– otherwise it’s cannibals!) If the players strike off into the forest they will stumble across this grisly scene:

In a wide clearing, on a rather bold incline stood a grim stake, and to this stake was bound a thing that had once been a man. Kane had rowed, chained to the bench of a Turkish galley, and he had toiled in Barbary vineyards; he had battled red Indians in the New Lands and had languished in the dungeons of Spain’s Inquisition. He knew much of the fiendishness of man’s inhumanity, but now he shuddered and grew sick. Yet it was not so much the ghastliness of the mutilations, horrible as they were, that shook Kane’s soul, but the knowledge that the wretch still lived.

For as he drew near, the gory head that lolled on the butchered breast lifted and tossed from side to side, spattering blood from the stumps of ears, while a bestial, rattling whimper drooled from the shredded lips.

Kane spoke to the ghastly thing and it screamed unbearably, writhing in incredible contortions, while its head jerked up and down with the jerking of mangled nerves, and the empty, gaping eye-sockets seemed striving to see from their emptiness. And moaning low and brain-shatteringly it huddled its outraged self against the stake where it was bound and lifted its head in a grisly attitude of listening, as if it expected something out of the skies.

If the players want to follow this up, they will find the village “Bogonda, ruled by Kuroba the chief and Goru the priest.” They’ll be attacked by harpies on the way there, of course. And have to figure out what to do with a village penned in with harpies exacting an awful tribute on one side and merciless cannibals hemming them in on the other.

Meanwhile, to the southwest lies city of Ib. This is the closest thing to civilization that the players could reasonably get to if they would like to look for reinforcements.

It is told that in the immemorial years when the world was young, before ever the men of Sarnath came to the land of Mnar, another city stood beside the lake; the grey stone city of Ib, which was old as the lake itself, and peopled with beings not pleasing to behold. Very odd and ugly were these beings, as indeed are most beings of a world yet inchoate and rudely fashioned. It is written on the brick cylinders of Kadatheron that the beings of Ib were in hue as green as the lake and the mists that rise above it; that they had bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice. It is also written that they descended one night from the moon in a mist; they and the vast still lake and grey stone city Ib.

To the south there is a strange mausoleum:

And so they passed through the jungle until they came to a strange clearing among the giant trees—strange because nothing grew there. The trees ringed it in a disquieting symmetrical manner, and no lichen or moss grew on the earth, which seemed to have been blasted and blighted in a strange fashion. And in the midst of the glade stood the mausoleum.

A great brooding mass of stone it was, pregnant with ancient evil. Dead with the dead of a hundred centuries it seemed, yet Kane was aware that the air pulsed about it, as with the slow, unhuman breathing of some gigantic, invisible monster.

To the southeast the players will eventually stumble across the bandit’s camp. The players could attempt to infiltrate it and rescue captives or else try some other insane scheme.

How much should you prep for this scenario…? Eh, D&D is not that complicated. Make something up! You don’t know which way the players will go or if they will bypass most of this altogether. The point is to throw all this at them as the need for it arises and then see what they are most into playing. Read the three pulp stories referenced here before the game. Be prepared to wing it. Do additional prep if any of this strikes a note with the players.

It’s okay if the players ignore all of this and instead make for the keep as quick as they can manage. There’s nothing wrong with looting the Caves of Chaos instead! Of course, if they want to sell certain offbeat magic items, the City of Ib is going to be their best bet. And getting additional gear at the keep is going to be tough until those bandits are dealt with!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Aragorn Never Had an Identity Crisis

Sun, 05/19/2019 - 21:46

This came up the other day, so I had to look it up. Any classic character that is adapted to contemporary media is consistently mutilated into something they’re not. Most recently this can be observed in the many edits made to Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker in Disney’s cartoon adaptation of the original Star Wars film. It seems a small thing, maybe, but this is how people that hate us actively rewrite our culture right in front of us. Plenty of well meaning people take the knockoff for the original while their imaginations are dimmed. Before long, the waters are so muddied the original inspirational character concept is lost in the noise.

Now about Aragorn: was he reluctant to take up the mantle of king? Was he at all ambivalent about his identity and heritage? Let’s check back to the Council of Elrond and see.

Aragorn introduces himself in response to Boromirs tale of the dream about Imladris, a broken sword, and a halfling. Elrond identifies his lineage. Frodo reveals the ring. Bormir is still confused, thinking that the dream must indicate the doom of Minas Tirith. Then Aragorn says this:

The words were not the doom of Minas Tirith, but doom and great deeds are indeed at hand. For the Sword that was Broken is the Sword of Elindil that broke beneath him when he fell. It has been treasured by his heirs when all other heirlooms were lost; for it was spoken of old among us that it should be made again when the Ring, Isildur’s Bane, was found. Now you have seen the sword that you have sought, what would you ask? Do you wish for the House of Elendil to return to the Land of Gondor?

So… Aragorn announces himself as the true king at the Counil of Elrond to the steward’s eldest son. The reason he waited is because of prophecies regarding the ring, not due to some lame heroic journey that people decided that every single character arc has to follow starting some time in the late seventies.

Returning as king is politically complicated in war time, yes, particularly with the steward descending into madness. And it’s pointless anyway so long as Sauron is not defeated. With that miraculously taken care of, the way is opened for Aragorn to marry his betrothed with her father’s permission. Which was the plan all along.

He was humble, but he never compromised. He was, perhaps, an inferior guide for the fellowship in comparison to Gandalf. But he did his duty in that regard right up until circumstances dictated that he take another course– one that would involve leading an army of undead among other things…!

He never doubted his identity. He never shirked his responsibility. And he certainly never needed to be scolded by the guy that was going to end up being his father-in-law. Though he grieved in response to disaster, he never needed to be told to “boomer up” and be true to himself. He did what was right without compromise or complaint– with the hope that providence would set all things right in the end!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Talking Lovecraft with Zaklog the Great!

Tue, 05/14/2019 - 04:37

Hey, y’all.

Did this show with Zaklog the Great last Friday. Enjoyed talking Lovecraft and Lord of the Rings and… these obnoxious people that poison your mind until you’d begin to think that your “beloved past had never been.”

Lovecraft writes three times that “there was no hand to hold me back that night I found the ancient track.” After mulling this whole scene over in light of the Boomerclypse we’re in the process of rolling back, I’ve concluded that there was in fact a hand there. The hand of wisdom!

I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me.

There’s a horror story for you. Don’t let it happen to you!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Leigh Brackett’s Science Fiction Masterwork: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs”

Thu, 04/25/2019 - 00:06

Leigh Brackett’s “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” is the guilty pleasure reading you’ve always wanted without quite knowing you wanted it. Incredibly, it effortlessly combines many awesome things together at once in a way that would be impossible to imagine without actually reading it:

  • Savagery that explodes off the page just like in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan.
  • Contempt for decadent civilizations that explodes off the page just like in Robert E. Howard’s Conan.
  • Scintillating femme fatales and genuinely appealing feminine foils that explode off the page just like in A. Merritt’s best novels.

It is AWESOME.

And it even packs in the sort of “you’re my only hope moment” that would energize the opening act of Star Wars. That’s not much of a surprise coming from the woman that would ultimately be tapped to write a script for The Empire Strikes Back.

What is surprising is seeing the manifold layers of scheming, betrayal, and intrigue that most people associate with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Combined with a “He shall know your ways as if born to them” story beat, and it really is a shock how little Frank Herbert would have had to add to the admixture you find here in order to produce a critically acclaimed science fiction masterwork. Yes, he had to indulge in expansive, ponderous description of the sort you find in, oh, I dunno… The Lord of the Rings, yes. Yes, he had to have a gay bad guy, exploited Palestinian types, and some SRS BSNS maunderings about ecology.

But look at what really holds his signature work together: the skeleton of what is really nothing more than a typical entry in a run of the mill issue of Planet Stories. You know what I’m talking about. The type of adventure where the guy is on an alien planet and he has to confront a hysterically evil bad guy while fomenting a slave revolt as a distraction? That Dune is both critically and popularly considered to be one of the greatest works of science fiction of all time with a plot that was that done to death during the forties is pretty danged funny!

What’s even more interesting is how weak Herbert’s plotting became when his story sprawled beyond the confines of standard outlines of heroic fantasy. I admit, I rather enjoyed that part. Herbert’s blasphemous messiah in a world of patchwork faiths and supersciences? There was nowhere for him to go after conquering the universe, so he was reduced to bring some madman prophet with his eyes put out, wandering the desert…. And that was followed by a truly boring millennia-long reign of a gigantic worm-man who has nothing better to do than to repeatedly resurrect a bit character from a classic novel that almost could have been an intriguing pulp hero patterned after the sort of thing you’d read in any randomly selected issue of Planet Stories.

Who has time for that stuff?! Well hey, some people like it, sure. And some people just pretend to like it. But there is another way to go about doing fantasy and science fiction than the fashion that gets all the attention, critical acclaim, and big time awards. And this different way of doing things is– in the hands of a grandmaster of Brackett’s magnitude– awesomely and addictively readable.

But I will say one word on genre here that has been belabored elsewhere. A touchstone of pre-Campbellian science fiction and pre-Tolkien fantasy is that the lines between fantasy and science fiction get pretty darned blurry. Case in point, some H. P. Lovecraft’s most famous stories were straight ahead science fiction tales that got published in Astounding before Campbell took it over. Later on, his visage would grace the World FANTASY Award.

What genre does “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” fall under? Well it is pure “Planetary Romance” in the tradition of John Carter of Mars. Can you really call that “science fiction” when most people assume that that’s going to be more about getting the details right with regards to stuff like Space Stewardesses on Space Planes serving Space Ice Cream while walking around in Velcro boots as classical music blares in the background..? Maybe not.

People that demand that their science fiction be heavy on dry, tedious science “fact” are going to look right past the work of Leigh Brackett as if it never existed– as if it’s not a first class element of the field. They will also look at her brilliant depictions of heroics and heroism and dismiss them wholesale as if they are pure fantasy.

Their loss.

And that highlights the most interesting thing about Leigh Brackett and why she is so revered by fans of old style fantasy and science fiction. Yes, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” did come out in 1949, a good ten years after John W. Campbell pulled off the coup that would see science fiction “year zeroed” and the true golden age of the field memory holed. That’s five years before the publication of the Lord of the Rings which would gradually go on to have a very similar effect on fantasy within a few decades.

But pundits with an ax to grind really want to paint Brackett as a pioneer and an innovator. They really want to put her in some sort of narrative where everything is progressing to some grand culmination of social evolution. But that’s really not her. And the only way you can get to something like that is by either forgetting or diminishing the men and women she emulated.

Leigh Brackett wrote like Burroughs and Merritt and Howard even when it wasn’t cool. And she did it so well, it is impossible to mention their names today without also invoking hers. Planet Stories magazine was one of her main stomping grounds during her career as a pulp writer and one thing will be patently clear to anyone that spends some time reading the actual magazines: she wrote squarely within not only its overall editorial vision, but also the framework of its most derivative sort of stories. That she could do so while making it all seem fresh and exciting and new is really the soul of her genius.

And heck yeah, her tales of adventure and derring-do sure enough hold up to this day!

Do note, you don’t have to mess around with digging through PDF’s of moldy old pulp magazines to read this science fiction masterwork. Thanks to the mastermind behind Cirsova magazine, you can now hold in your hands all-new fully illustrated editions of Leigh Brackett’s seminal Stark stories.

ORDER YOUR COPIES OF ALL THREE VOLUMES TODAY!!!

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