15 December 2016

It's been too long, and the nature of Fandom Leadership.

Greetings, Programs.

  My posting has been very light this fall, and that's because I spent the last four months as a college professor teaching two sections of Effective Learning.  This was the most satisfying job experience of my life by a long shot.  Helping students adapt to college and being their professor, homeroom teacher and occasionally confidant was an incredible experience.  There are so many students that I'll remember always- and I know they appreciated my help, because they told me so with cards, donuts, and hugs.  My teaching career is on hold for a bit while I find other opportunities in my discipline- my degree is in Military History.  While I'm looking, I'm going to spend more time playing with my awesome kids, and crafting the RPG I've always wanted to write.

  Now, some of you may know I'm involved in organized fandom.  By organized, I mean the kind of clubs that have a structure that seeks to emulate the subject matter of the fandom to which it is dedicated.  Many of those organizations have ranks or noble titles - mine has both.  It also has a unique system of appointment-based leadership from the top all the way down.  No elections.  Now, our chapter chooses to have a vote of confidence each year for our leadership- we feel very strongly about this.  But at the upper echelons, leadership is defined by who the upper management think will do the job well from among the applicable candidates.

  Where problems appear is that while the organization has military trappings, there are of course members with no actual experience in uniform.  Heck, my experience is limited to JROTC, ROTC, and a stint in the Texas State Guard.  But that leads to a very Hollywood idea of how rank works in people who only know what the media shows us.  Plus, there is the sort of effect where people who may not have a lot going on in the rest of their lives grab onto their fandom accolades with both hands and use them to define themselves.  Their self-worth is tied up in what my friend Scott has called "Nerf Rank" for the two decades we've been involved in various forms of fandom together.  And that's when the trouble starts.

  I had a run-in with a member who, despite nearly always treating people poorly on social media, has been appointed to a lofty position.  This member has shown in posts over the last two and a half years that I've been involved a propensity for being snippy, putting on airs of superiority, and generally being kinda nasty to people.  Now, I have a strong suspicion this member fits into the "this is my self-identity and self-worth" category as their noble title was for a while part of their Facebook profile name.  That's kind of a clue right there.  This particular person also had a track record of tagging superiors every time a conversation went a way they did not like, as if to bring Mom and Dad to the thread to end the argument.  Further, many comments were things like "RUDE" or "smh" and the like.  In fact, when called out on casting Summon Brass by myself, the reaction was twofold- 1) "And they wonder why nobody helps them." and 2) "Who the F are YOU?"

  Well... that, to me, is a frightening example of a complete and total misunderstanding of leadership and the way these things work.  First of all, as a member, my rank, title or lack thereof has absolutely nothing to do with my ability and right to express an opinion.  As a member in good standing, I can disagree if I wish.  I can find a behavior abhorrent if I wish, and say so.  Now, as has been pointed out after this encounter took place in any organization we should praise in public, criticize in private, and correct as necessary.  With that in mind I'll hold my fire until fired upon, but to continue...

  When you see something, don't just say "RUDE" or "smh" or passive, uninformative things like that.  What you SHOULD do is take initiative as a leader and try to turn the situation of a disgruntled member into something constructive.  "Why do you feel that way?" or "What leads you to believe this is the case?"  You might find that the person has a legitimate beef, and that it's something that you as a leader can either take care of, or see that it is taken care of.  CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.  It's something I teach my college freshmen in EDUC 1300 as a skill that will help them in college, in the job world, and in the rest of their lives... like fandom.  Don't be inflammatory, be proactive.  Find out what's wrong, and see to it.  That's a leader's job.  Speaking in text-isms and expressing disdain for the opinions and thoughts of those you wrongly believe are inferior to you is just wrong.  It's wrong from a leadership perspective, and from a fandom/fun perspective.  No one is less than anyone else.

  It does not matter what your rank, title, position or anything else in a fan organization is.  You are not in fact superior to anyone else.  Without the lowly newbies and slackers at the bottom of the organization, there is no need for a number of Grand Poobahs to don shiny garb and be showered with rank and title.  Organizations like ours are formed out of the building blocks of individual members, many of which just want to be part of the fun and will never take a promotion exam or rise above the base induction "rank."  Those people are what the club is build on.  Some of them become motivated to do more- they become more active, leading, organizing, helping.  And that's great... and you know what, Leader Person- YOU owe THEM.

  You see, leadership is about taking care of your people.  As a leader, it is your job to plan and execute activities and events to carry out the primary purpose of the organization- which is presumably to have FUN with the flavor of the media your Fandom follows.  This means your job is to SERVE, not to BE SERVED.  You are no better than the rankers who make up the vast majority of the organization.  You have volunteered or accepted a post that means you will do more work than they will, but that is your choice to do so.  If they are smart and conscientious, those members will thank you for the work you put in.  Your leadership will also recognize you for your service - that's THEIR job.  But never - EVER - does a Nerf rank or title entitle you to ask someone "Who the F are YOU?" as if they mean something Monday morning at work.

  You see, that uniform you wear to events might actually get you saluted by members who are savvy enough to know to do so.  What you may not know is that it is precisely as important that you RETURN that salute as it is for the junior member to render it.  Why?  Because the salute is a greeting among members of the profession of arms and, if it is to be emulated by our fandom organization, the junior initiates the salute out of respect for the superior's rank and station... but the superior returns the salute out of respect for the subordinate's own service.  It is a mutual acknowledgement of camaraderie, not an act of submission or dominance.  The latter would have no place in a fandom organization.  It is as if to say "Thank you for running Department X and making sure we all have cool stuff to do!" by the junior, to which the superior says "And thank you for being part of our organization."

  In fact, you might not know this, because it certainly wasn't done in other fandoms I've been a part of, but the seniors do have a tradition when dining with juniors of being served last.  When I was 3BDE OIC in a Star Trek fandom organization, I waited until every single member of the Brigade had been through the chow line or had their dinner plated and served before I ate.  Sometimes when the hotels messed up, that meant I went without until afterward.  That's what a leader does.  You don't demand special treatment because you rank the other club members, you exempt yourself from things so that the rank-and-file members have a shot at awards and special recognition.  It's your responsibility and your job as a leader.

  This exchange has given me a lot to thing about.  I got more that a little pointed, and that was wrong of me.  I'll have to take these comments to private message in the future if I see someone treating my people roughly.  It's a club.  It's supposed to be fun.  The rank card has to be played very carefully, in controlled situations and with the consent of all involved.  It's not a cudgel to beat junior members over the head with.  It's a tool to recognize seniority and service, and to help establish a reporting chain within our organization.  I'll be the first to admit that we use it pretty heavily in our own chapter in the way it might be used in an actual military- but many of us are either current/former Guardsmen or prior Federal service.  We're used to it, and it works for us.  But don't imagine that I would ever tell one of my members to shut the hell up because they're a Private and I'm a Major.  That doesn't even compute rationally.  Every Dragoon in my chapter has a right to their opinion and to be heard.  Regardless of their Nerf Rank.

  So... from here on out I'm going to keep my commentary on folks who do this sort of thing in the background, rather than engaging them on Facebook for all to see, unless they press the matter or refuse to stop harassing my friends.  Apparently, defending my mates makes me a "crony" and a "troll" and gets me put on a block list.  Well, I wear that block list as a point of pride.  If you're so insecure in yourself that you must stoop to such asinine, childish levels to protect your ego, well, then...  deedle deedle dee.  My friends and I will go on gaming, attending events, and generally having a ton of fun in our corner of the organization.  We'll send you a postcard.

  Leadership is SERVICE.  Period.  And nobody is so insignificant as to not be worth your time.  Every member is a vital part of what makes our organization great.

25 October 2016

Extra Life 2016 - The Realm of Dungeons & Dragons!

  One of my favorite cartoons when I was a kid was the amazing Dungeons & Dragons cartoon that aired in the early 80s.  The main characters were transported via an amusement park ride into "The Realm of Dungeons & Dragons" where they met Dungeon Master, a small, wise, almost Yoda-like character who gave them mysterious clues in their quest to get home.  The Realm an amazing place with some incredible visuals of fantastic locales.  A prison  held aloft over bubbling lava by massive chains.  A Dragon's Graveyard filled with draconic skeletons and magic items.  A floating castle and magical islands - all suspended by some arcane power in midair, some stationary and some slowly traveling across the landscape.

  This is where I am going to set the DCC game I plan to run for Extra Life.  But have no fear, the PCs will not come from Earth, and the kids who are desperately trying to get home will not make an appearance.  Rather, we are going to explore the fantastic elements of the Realm in a way Saturday Morning TV did not make possible.  Never once did a sword find its' mark.  Never once did one of Hank's arrows pierce an Orc, nor Venger's magical spheres immolate a foe.  Standards and Practices, dontcha know.  Can't have that kind of violence on Saturday Morning TV.

  But the Realm existed offscreen.  It existed before Hank, Sheila, Bobby, Diana, Eric and Presto arrived.  If they ever made it home, it presumably continued to exist after they left.  So let's talk about The Realm of Dungeons & Dragons.  It's a much darker place than we are shown onscreen.  The Orcs employed by Venger are fearsome warriors.  Villages like Pendrake do enlist adventurers for their own protection, since farmers banding together into militia can only barely hold their own against the Orcs, or Bullywugs, or giant Scorpions, or the Beholder...  The Realm is fraught with danger, and many free cities like Tardos close their gates to outsiders.  Other settlements, like the Queen Zinn's realm, are under curses or worse.  Venger teeters on the edge of ruling all of the Realm, held back only by some stalwart enclaves and the depredations of Tiamat, who would be no more pleasant an option than Venger as an overlord.

  The heroes of the Realm, like Strongheart, Ringlerun and Melf are certainly outnumbered by the forces of evil.  But we know there are settlements that remain free, like Helix.  And this is how we will begin our story, by mixing the Realm of Dungeons & Dragons with Dungeon Crawl Classics.  DCC has a reputation for gritty, and unpredictable magic, and evoking late 70s RPG tropes.  So to merge the two...

  A great darkness is descending upon the Realm.  Magical energies are surging, causing the spells of even well-meaning magic-users to result with unpredictable effects.  The very fabric of reality seems to be unraveling, and none can understand why.  Several settlements send representatives to seek the counsel of Dungeon Master, who has been stricken just as others have by this world-bending malady.  Dungeon Master meets with the PCs in the Forest of Know Trees, who reveal to Dungeon Master and the PCs that the Magical Malady is caused by a massive influx of pure magic from other Realms.  This concentration of Magic is causing a similar problem in many other Realms- Magic is behaving erratically, or perhaps draining from a Realm.  In fact, players who wish to have a PC hail from any other D&D setting could conceivably be transported to the D&D Realm as they search for the answer to their own world's problems.

  Once so informed, the PC group must quest for the source of this Magical Malady, and find out who or what is behind it.  Then they must figure out a plan to defeat or destroy it to return all the worlds to normal, before the gathering of the magics of countless realms destroys them all.

The PCs will visit some of the exotic locales of The Realm in their quest.  The spired city of Kadish, the Slave Mines of Baramore, The Great Glaciers... They may run into some of the more iconic Bad Guys of the D&D Realm.  But the kid gloves that defined the TV series are off.  This is a Realm where magic is unpredictable, death extremely possible, and even Dungeon Master has no idea what is really going on.

  To donate to our Extra Life efforts for this year, click HERE.

Extra Life and Extra Job...

  The Old Dragoon has just completed his first tour of duty as a college professor.  All that work getting my MA paid off.  I have been hired as an adjunct faculty member in our Student Development department, and I am currently teaching my second crop of students in the Effective Learning course, EDUC 1300.  It's incredibly satisfying work, my students wrapped up our 8-week double speed semester by bringing donuts and a card in which they wrote some wonderful commentary on how my efforts have helped them become better students.  It's moving to know that I've actually made a difference for these kids, and that I've taken a course none of them actually wanted to take and made it interesting and even a bit entertaining.

  So teaching is now my secondary gig on top of my 40/wk as a senior IT technician.  It's hard to find time to keep the dice rolling, but now that my first go-round is over, and I'm repeating the material for new students, things are easing up a bit.  I've been running some D&D about once a month for my son and my goddaughters, and that's been a blast.
  My son Zane is shaping up to be a pretty good combination of the geek I was growing up and the sportsman my dad and stepdad wish I'd been.  The kid has an amazing arm for football, and is now a yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do.  I'm so proud of him.  My daughter Kaylee is pretty awesome, too.  I can't wait to post a picture of her in her Rey costume for Halloween.  It's now been five years since I've been their dad - we fostered and adopted - and it's been a crazy adventure, but the best one yet.  The only thing I  love more than a good tabletop game is my wonderful little family - my wife, my kiddos, and the den of geeks we've assembled into our community.

  So... what's this about Extra Life?  Well, our gaming club is going to be undertaking a 24 hour game to raise funds for Extra Life in support of the Children's Miracle Network hospitals.  It works like a charity race, people sponsor others to play.  But in this case, we're challenged to play for 24 hours.  Since we have a couple of members who've requested we break the 24 hours up, we've elected to do it in a six hour session on Friday,  11 November 2016.  We'll hit a twelve hour session on Saturday, 12 November and wrap up with another six hours on 13 November.

  We're going to be playing Dungeon Crawl Classics, the amazing retro-style fantasy RPG by Goodman Games.  Stay tuned for more information on the Extra Life game right here on The Old Dragoon's Blog.

08 September 2016

What Star Trek Means to Me: A Reflection on a Half Century of Trek

  This was my first Star Trek toy.  When I got it for the Christmas of 1979, I was a wee lad of 4 who had just seen Star Wars the year before at a drive-in.  In fact, my X-Wing hailed from the same Christmas.  I had already learned to love both Star Wars and Star Trek- I watched the reruns with my dad in our crackerbox of a trailer house in Lake Charles, LA.  I had a Spock uniform t-shirt.  I had a Star Trek coloring book.  I've been a Trekker literally as long as I can remember.  My only earlier memories of fandom revolve around things like the Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon and the old Marvel cartoons like The Fantastic 4 and the Incredible Hulk.

  I developed a deep love of Star Trek, in the 70s and 80s the reruns of the original series were ubiquitous.  Every television market in the US had a nearly 100% chance of having some channel among the broadcasters that would show the series.  In Austin/Round Rock, where I eventually ended up, it was KVUE.  I remember moving into our home on Chisholm Valley Drive and plugging in my black and white portable TV our first night there- I tuned into KVUE and there was "The Apple"- one of the two Star Trek episodes that always seemed to be airing when I tuned in after missing a few.  It was either that, or "Devil in the Dark."  Every time.

  Wrath of Khan released just before my birthday in 1982, which was coincidentally the year my parents divorced.  Star Trek had been part of my memories from that short glorious seven years in which I'd had both parents under one roof, so it was part of me that reminded me of happier, if somewhat turbulent times.  I carried that with me as I got older.  Star Wars was like a treat you got every once in a while - in '83 when we got Jedi, then the two Ewok movies, the Droids cartoon... Star Trek was a staple.  It was always there.  I could see it after school and on saturday nights, every week, all year.

  When I discovered reading for fun at a relatively young age, I gravitated toward

geek reading even then.  I checked out The Hobbit for the first time in 2nd Grade.  But I was already devouring Star Trek media.  I remember purchasing the book "Phaser Fight" at the school book fair, and all but memorizing all it's choose-your-own-adventure options.  I later repurchased the book to read to my children.  They love trying to save the Enterprise at bedtime.

  My fandom exploded when I got to middle school.  At Chisholm Trail I procured two things that would propel me to become the geek I am today - the Franz Josef Star Fleet Technical Manual and a like-minded group of fellow geeks.  This led me to roleplaying, first Dungeons & Dragons and very quickly Star Trek, the classic FASA RPG.  It was here, though, that the social cost of being a geek in the 1980s became apparent.  I flew my geek flag in a way that wouldn't be socially acceptable until today, when geek is chic.  Nobody bats an eye anymore at folks in Doctor Who t-shirts or Star Wars jackets, but in 1986 being a Star Trek fan was not precisely socially acceptable.  My insistence on being me regardless of social norms resulted in a very tight group of fellow outcasts- but we were outcasts none the less.  What is today called 'cosplay' was grounds for an ass kicking in the 80s.

  We persevered.  We forged passes to the CTMS computer lab so we could put together our own manuals and regulations on the Apple ][ computers.  We created things with Print Shop.  We rolled up FASA Trek PCs and quizzed each other on the crew compliment of Baker-class destroyers and the torpedo armament of D-2 Stingtongues from the Klingon Empire.  We read Starlog Magazine and eagerly anticipated the release of Star Trek IV, renting it as a big event for Daniel Varner's birthday party.  The guy who introduced me to D&D was a huge Trek nerd as well.  We all were in our little gamer geek circle.  And it was worth every damn social snub and party we weren't invited to.  We were instead delving dungeons or exploring strange, new worlds.  Nowadays, the folks who didn't understand us are watching stuff like Stranger Things or Community or The Goldbergs and starting to see what my tribe and I were on about back then.

  Star Trek was part of my refuge.  It was part of what kept me sane and gave me a place to belong.  All of us Trek nerds and gamer geeks spoke the same language- and we did so before Darmok was at Tanagra, too.  In fact, for the first bit of Middle School, Star Trek was Star Trek.  No bloody A, B, C or D.  Well, OK, A appeared in '86.  But there was no Next Generation.  No DS9.  No Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery or Reboots.

  I watched Star Trek and wondered why older adults had the attitudes they did about non-Caucasians.  Uhura and Sulu were colleagues, bridge officers, surely equals with everyone else?  It made me look inward, even at a young age, and realize that the attitudes I had absorbed from the culture around me were a bit backward- more than a bit.  It caused me to look hard at some of the words I used, some of the attitudes I had, and start to form my own opinions about things.  It took a while to finally sink in, but thanks to the examples set by Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation I learned that people of all stripe can get along.  If a Klingon can serve on the bridge, what do I care what skin color the other humans around me have?  Bele and Lokai drive this home with the Star Trek episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"- don't you see, he's black on the right side, I'm black on the left side.  It points out the ridiculousness of racial bigotry in a way that makes us feel a bit silly for every having held that sort of opinion.

  Star Trek pointed out so many things.  "Balance of Terror," "Errand of Mercy" and "Day of the Dove" taught us that our enemy is not always so different from ourselves.  "A Private Little War" taught us the proxy wars in Southeast Asia were nasty business.  "The Doomsday Machine" taught us the futility of the nuclear arms race.  So many social lessons wrapped in the veneer of science fiction.  TNG kept up the tradition - sometimes a bit too preachily in the first two seasons.

  Let's talk about TNG.  When TNG premiered I was in the 7th grade.  It blew us away.  Yes, even Season 1.  Yes, even "Code of Honor."  I had the Galoob action figures on my birthday cake when they came out.  We were already making TOS communicator props out of cassette cases and masking tape, making combadges and wearing them on our shirts came next.  Simplicity released a TNG uniform pattern.  We plopped down in front of our TVs every Saturday to tune into KBVO Fox 42 and watch TNG- new Trek.  Sure, the Captain was bald and the helmsman had a banana clip on his face and was the dude from Reading Rainbow but it had us SPELLBOUND.  As many jokes as we make about Wesley Crusher now, Wil Wheaton was living the dreams we young geeks had.  He was on a starship, not stuck in some mundane middle school, dealing with 80s stereotype classmates and derision for our loves and our intelligence.  He was out there, saving the day sometimes, and we wish we were Wesley.  And Beverly Crusher?  Well, we didn't have the word "MILF" back then, but...

  Star Trek was part of my armor.  It was part of my persona, to be sure, but was what helped insulate me from the jeers and jibes and insults from the mainstream kids.  They could say what they wanted, Star Trek was bigger than them and bigger than me.  Star Trek had achieved an impact.  They didn't name the first space shuttle after an athlete or actor, they named it Enterprise.  Star Trek had a cultural relevance far beyond our little community in Round Rock.  When I wore my Star Fleet uniform (and I did) I did so not only as a fan, but as someone who believed in what that uniform represented.  Hope for the future.  It wasn't so long ago, and definitely not in 1986-89, that the predominating predictions of our future were Global Thermonuclear War and Mad Max post-apocalyptic stuff.  We were the generation born into the Cold War, and scared to death by The Day After.  Our President had warned us of the Evil Empire, and sabre-rattling had just started to give way to glasnost and perestroika.  A hopeful future was something we grasped for with both hands.  And we got it.  For the most part.  But Star Trek carried is through that period.  It carried me through that period.  People could say want they wanted about the nerd in the red shirt, but their opinions didn't really matter.  I knew what Starfleet, and Star Trek, represented.  I suppose today's parlance would be "F#$% the haters." but that wouldn't be necessary to say today, would it?

  High School was more of the same for two years.  Nerdery was still wildly looked down upon.  In those days conformity was the way to avoid ostracism - something in common with today - except the parameters of conformity were very different.  I have more than a few gay classmates - all of whom came out after we graduated.  I've seen some of the same people who gave me hell in High School posting today about Star Trek's 50th and the Facebook Trek emojis and other things.  These folks would not have openly acknowledged a love of Trek back in the 80s and early 90s for fear of being put in the same social gulag as myself and my close friends.  It simply wasn't done.  Back then, the mainstream was quite different.  There were no Marvel movies, no Game of Thrones, and Star Wars was at a low ebb.  Geek was certainly not "in" and nobody wore superhero tuxes to the prom.  We formed a Star Trek club at Round Rock High School.  We flaunted our geekery in the face of the derision of our classmates and we proudly and openly declared that yes, we do enjoy thoughtful sci-fi that addresses issues our nation has been wrestling with all our lives.

  Something started to change a bit junior year- for me, at least.  Somewhere in there I went from complete and total social outcast to something of a fondly regarded eccentric.  I have no idea how or why.  Was it that I got the best damn Monster Maroon uniform this side of Anovos?  Was it that my peers had finally started to understand or admit that some geeky stuff was actually pretty neat?  Well, it may have been some of those things.  But at our 20th High School Reunion I had so many people come up to me and say "I always admired you.  You weren't afraid to just be you."  Many variations on that statement.  I felt nothing but warmth and friendship with each and every person at that reunion (save one) and I realized that in being unabashed of my interests, embracing all my loves, chief among which was Star Trek, I had succeeded in that endeavor Data so appropriately quoted from Shakespeare- "This above all: to thine own self be true."  I was.  Even when it was ridiculously difficult.  And in the end, mine own self won out.

  After High School I never stopped loving Star Trek.  These days I would consider myself primarily a gamer, but that began in large part due to Trek and things like the BASIC version of Star Trek, the PC games Kobayashi Alternative and The Promethean Prophecy, and FASA's Star Trek RPG.  I graduated up to Star Trek 25th Anniversary, and other games, and of course branched out into every genre of gaming imaginable.  But my imagination was primed by Star Trek.  Fueled by it.

  We attempted to form our first chapter of STARFLEET, the International Star Trek Fan Association in 1993, the ill-fated shuttle Retribution, which in hindsight isn't too Star Fleet of a ship name.  We succeeded in 1999 with the shuttle Ark Angel, a chapter that persists today under the command of one of her founding members.  We were a family, and in many cases continue to be.  I've met some of my closest friends due to STARFLEET and Star Trek.  Both couples who chose Mary and I as godparents for their children were STARFLEET members.

  USS Ark Angel at her prime was an amazing experience. Dozens of Trek fans
brought together in a love of the multiple series and films, books and games.  All with a hopeful outlook for our future.  We became trend-setters, one of the most active chapters in the history of our Third Fleet, and one of the most decorated by the organization.  The period of 2000-2006 was incredible.  We formed traditions that are still practiced in Third Fleet today.  We set the bar.  Life and burnout brought an end to that golden age, which is sad, because there's not one among us who will not reminisce about how awesome we were at our prime.

  These days I'm not as involved in Trek fandom as I used to be.  My own chapter, USS Texas, is as much a museum ship as her namesake.  The Texas exists as part of a larger group of people who are also into tabletop games, Honor Harrington fandom, and Battletech.  It's no longer my identity and driving force- but as the anniversary of the first broadcast of Star Trek approached, I found myself being more and more nostalgic for Trek, re-watching TOS and TNG- Wrath of Khan is playing on my tablet as I write this.  Star Trek will always be part of me, and a part that led me to gaming, which is my primary geek MOS.  Without Trek, I wouldn't be me.  Just as much as D&D, Star Wars and fatherhood.  It's part of what makes me who I am, what formed me, and what carried me through the depressing parts of growing up.

  Congratulations to Star Trek on 50 years of making the future seem amazing.  I hope I'm around to celebrate the centennial, as a 91-year-old who still rolls funny dice and weaves stories for his grandkids.

09 August 2016

Guardians - The Best Little Supers RPG I Didn't Know I Needed!

  One of my unexpected acquisitions at North Texas RPG Con 2016 was the Guardians RPG, a 98-page book by David Pulver and Thomas Denmark that asks the question "What if Gary Gygax had been into comic book supers instead of fantasy in 1974?"

  This turns out to be a GREAT question.  What Guardians is at its core is the D&D '74 core with supers in a single volume.  I've cover-to-covered the book (not hard with the page count) and found that I would actually love to run this over even my favorite Supers rules, TSR's Marvel FASERIP.  I want to take this for a spin and see how it runs in a small campaign.  Every page has some small tidbit that makes me want to take this game out for a spin, from the simple way in which it handles supers to its almost shockingly basic way of covering everything else.  It covers just what it needs to cover to be true to the genre and doesn't get bogged down in unnecessary details.  No lengthy skill lists, no pages of equipment porn, a tank is a tank regardless of model or nation of origin- it's just about Supers and their adventures.  Everything else, true to comic book roots, is just background detail.

  The very core of the game is what you'd expect.  Six Ability Scores, generated 3d6 in order - STR, INT, WIS, DEX, CON and CHA.  The Ability Score Modifiers are the ones from the 1980 B/X edition rather than the simpler +1/-1 range of '74 D&D, however.  This is for good reason - the table is expanded far past 18.  All the way to 101 and beyond, in fact.  A character with a STR of, say, 30 can carry 8 tons, is +8 on attack and damage, and adds 3d to the normal 1d3 of a human fist.  Likewise a DEX of 30 would yield an Armor Class of 18 or 2(1), depending on the GM's decision to use ascending or descending Armor Class, and whether base AC descends from 10 or 9.  Roll d20 to attack, and bonuses.  There's one Saving Throw, which is modified by a different Ability Score depending on situation.  Basic, basic, basic bare bones D&D.  That's where the Supers part gets tacked on.

  Origin replaces Race, and we have several choices.  Human, Exotic, Mutant, Robot, Cyborg, Super Alien, Supernatural and Superhuman.  These cover a lot of the fun origins you might choose if you wish to emulate characters from the Marvel or DC universes.  Some examples might be Hawkeye (Human), Rocket Raccoon (Exotic), Nightcrawler (Mutant), Ultron (Robot), Cyborg (Cyborg!), Superman (Super Alien), Doctor Strange (Supernatural), or Spider-Man (Superhuman.)  Each of these choices grants the PC a varying number of resources during character creation.  These resources are Gifts, Powers, Limits, Issues, and Special.

  Gifts are usually gear or skills.  Powers are super abilities.  Limits determine things like vulnerability to Kryptonite or the need to transform into a super-form.  Issues are life complications, like having to take care of Aunt May or a public outcry against those dirty Mutants.  Special covers specific things, like Humans getting +6 Ability Score points to balance out not having any powers, or Cyborgs automatically getting the Robot Body trait.

  Classes in Guardians are pretty straightforward.  Bruisers are your beatdown heroes.  Super-Agents are also what it says on the tin, and have a great selection of special abilities to set them apart from other supers and to make one Agent distinct from other Agents.  Power Wielders concentrate on Energy Point, which power certain superpowers, and focus more on the use of those powers than physical combat as Bruisers and Agents do.  Gadgeteers use their Gadget Points to create devices that emulate superpowers.  This is where you'd have your Iron Man or Batman type characters.  In fact, normal humans get a boost to initial Gadget Points to make up for not having innate powers.

  There are tables for Gifts and Power Themes, though there is never a requirement to roll for Powers.  The table is there for inspiration. These tables are followed with the short but fairly diverse power section.  Powers grant the described abilities, but there are also "Superior" and "Ultimate" versions of many powers.  Limits follow the Powers and describe some of the classical superhero limitations that may plague the heroes and villains of the game.  The Issues come after this, and a section again brief but complete enough covers equipment.  After the equipment section are the rules, which include some pointers on the superhero campaign and an example of play.  I did run across a couple of rule references that frustrated me a bit.

  Problems:  There are two things about Gadgets that are a bit vexing.  The Starting Gadgets heading on p. 48 refers the reader to the "Gadget Creation Rules" which I have been unable to find a header for.  Just below this, there is a paragraph beginning "A gadget is an item that embodies one or more super powers." and goes on to describe what a Gadget Point buys.  It appears this *is* the Gadget Creation rules and that a header was missed somewhere, since below the rules for new gadgets and their cost appear.  This could be a LOT clearer.  Also, it mentions "the usual level restrictions on Superior or Ultimate powers apply."  I could not find these restrictions, even with the help of the Find search in Acrobat.  Since the example character buys a Superior power for her Iron Maiden battlesuit, at least some Superior powers are available at 1st Level...

  Now, I'll tell you about the first Guardians PC one of my players created with my guidance.  My friend Randi loves Vampires, and she loves dual-pistol characters in Shadowrun and other games.  With this in mind, I pitched a character concept to her that she rather liked, and she grabbed her dice to help me test out the PC generation rules for Guardians.

  The rules have you roll 3d6 straight down, and so we did.  Our new hero had STR 12, INT 6, WIS 12, DEX 10, CON 11, and CHA 11.  Not terribly inspiring.  The interesting part is that these Ability Scores turned out to not be too terribly limiting to the PC as we added an Origin and Class.  For Origin, we chose Supernatural, as the PC was going to be a Vampire.  This set the initial number of Gifts/Powers/Limits/Issues.  For class, we chose Super Agent.

  The Super Agent class gives some really neat bonuses.  Our Agent was martially trained, so would roll 1d4 for bare hand damage instead of the traditional 1d3.  All weapons and armor are available, and the class comes with a very Thief-like "backstab" style sneak attack for +4 To-Hit and double damage.  Dark Fighting gives half penalty in darkness, and the PC can choose a Combat Specialty.  Knowing Randi's fondness for two blazing firearms, Gunslinger was a natural choice.  This gives her +1 To-Hit and damage with firearms, and gives her an immediate additional attack if her ranged attack incapacitates a foe.  Sort of a gun Cleave.

  Her two Gifts we rolled on the table and got a super vehicle and a Gadget Point.  The vehicle had to be within her original starting cash, so we rolled $9,000 and found we could only afford a motorcycle.  The cycle has two tricked out specs, so the DR and Hit Points of the cycle were doubled.  For a Gadget we decided to make the item magic instead of mechanical, and the Amulet of Alucard was born, riffing on the Eye of Agamotto and the tendency for geek culture to use the name "Alucard" a lot.  The Amulet gives a DR 8 and grants an AC of 17, or +2 to an already better AC.

  Powers were a bit difficult, as she only got 4, and Vampires tend to have a LOT of powers.  Part of this was alleviated by "Features" - these are less powerful entries in the powers list that count as 1/3 of a power.  We picked up Claws/Fangs as one choice, Danger Sense and Detect Supernatural as the other two.  We then picked up Haste to offset our Agent's average DEX and be Vampire-fast, Life Drain to emulate the blood drinking and help power the use of Haste, and Immortality.  Now, we could have taken Super Strength instead of Immortality, but the second played into the character concept and the Agent was designed to do most of her fighting with pistols in any case.  There's always the next choices as level increases.

  For Limits, we took depowered by sunlight, naturally, and Dependency: human blood.  Now, a story was starting to form.  Since our Agent was only depowered, not killed, by sunlight we explained her rather average STR, DEX and CON by the fact that she was never fully turned, and only has some of the abilities of a full Vampire.  Since we were considering this to be a potentially Marvel Universe game, this neatly sidesteps the time period in which no Vampires were said to exist on Earth thanks to Blade.

  For Issues, we rolled Old.  This played right into the other die rolls, including the choice of Immortality, and gave us a backstory.  This Agent is none other than Wilhelmina Harker, in a suspended torpor since 189x.  Her low INT score reflects not a lack of intelligence, but a lack of familiarity with modern technology.  We agree that when the PC picks up another power at 3rd Level, we can take Super Ability: Intelligence to reflect her finally becoming comfortable with the modern world.  In light of this neat story, I let Randi re-roll Agent Harker's INT and she gets a 10.  This will result in a 20 if she does take an INT boost when she gets a new power.

  Agent Harker purchases equipment, and ties up loose ends.  She has 22 HP, which is the result of 3d10- 1st Level PCs in Guardians begin with 3 Hit Dice.  Her AC is 18 - 15 for her Ballistic Bodysuit plus 1 for her forearm shields, plus 2 for the Amulet of Alucard.  She has a +1 Attack Bonus from her class, and does 1d4 damage on a punch or kick thanks to her Martial Training.  She has 6 Energy Points and a Saving Throw of 12.

  Upon completing Agent Harker, Randi said "I love her!"  I always enjoy when players are excited about their PCs and want to play them.  I very much enjoyed this first foray into Guardians PC creation, and look forward to doing some more, then taking this game for a spin.

  The "What If Gygax..." series also includes Colonial Troopers and Warriors of The Red Planet, both of which I own and plan to delve into soon.

04 August 2016

Uses for D&D 4e... Yes, there are some.

  When D&D 5e finally came out, all my 4e stuff went into storage boxes and were placed on the very top shelf at The Ogre, presumably never to be played again.  5th Edition had turned out to be something of a super magical Hogwart's mirror in which everyone sees their favorite edition.  I saw BECMI.  My more AD&D inclined friends saw AD&D.  The Hit Dice mechanics seemed to be the bits of 4e that were deemed "worthy" by the gaming community at large.  So 5e was "in" and 4e was so "out" some of my players who had been involved in a very successful Nentir Vale campaign in 4e swore it was the Worst. D&D.  Ever. and worthy of the garbage heap.  So, into barely accessible storage went the 4e stuff...

  And I always felt a bit reluctant about that.  You see, I cut my teeth on Red Box basic, and I still use that as my go-to edition of D&D.  I played AD&D 1e, and we upgraded quickly to 2e when it hit my freshman year of high school.  I thought 3.0 and 3.5 were pretty keen at the time, but in retrospect I really don't have a lot of urge to go back and revisit them.  Skill points were a bit fiddly for me, and the Feat bloat by the end of the edition was a bit crazy.  Also, the multiclassing rules were sub-optimal in comparison to the rest of the system.  Of course, this post is all about how I like 4e, which by all accounts was MORE fiddly, had even worse multi-classing, etc...  So, why am I posting about digging 4e?

  When 4e first dropped, I was as confused as most old school players by the departures from earlier versions.  I had a lot of the same criticisms - why does this Fighter have a sword move he can only do once a day?  How do I explain marking mechanics in the game world?  Wait- random encounters will unbalance the delicate math of when and how PCs level?  The game is designed explicitly for five players with four of them each filling one of the "combat roles" defined in the book?

  It was mathematically "tight" - 10 encounters to level.  Don't hit the PCs with encounters they can't realistically beat.  Treasure is parceled out in level-appropriate amounts.  PCs get to make "wish lists" of magic items to give to the GM...

  OK, so, this was as far from the D&D I grew up with as I could imagine.  I was used to totally random stuff happening.  And when the encounter tables indicated something wildly overpowered for your PC group - which was a variable number of PCs and Henchmen/Retainers of whatever classes happend to occur - you RAN.  You didn't assume the encounter was beatable because the DMG says not to overwhelm the players with no-win situations.  You could also expect a treasure drop to be wildly variable with things like a 10% chance of a magic item resulting in anything from a scroll of Protection from Evil to a +1 weapon that was +3 versus lycanthropes.  NOTHING was balanced.

  Then D&D Essentials happened and I gave 4e another try.  The streamlined PC classes from the two Heroes Of... books were a lot closer to what I'd wanted.  The martial classes had do daily abilities.  The Warpriest Cleric felt like a BECMI Cleric to me - you could heal at fight all at once.  The Thief build for Rogues brought back Backstab as a thing.  Yeah, I could do this...  So I played a Cleric for the inaugural season of the Essentials organized play.  And I had a blast.  So I DM'd the next seasons.  And had a blast.  I collected all the Essentials books, and ran a home campaign using just Essentials character builds.  We used the campaign that was included in the DM Kit, "Reavers of Harkenwold" with some of my own additions.  It was without a doubt one of the best campaigns I've ever run.  Of course, that has a lot to do with the players.  (Shoutout to Bobby, Jo, Kiddian, Randi and Trenton)

  They key to my learning to enjoy D&D Essentials wasn't just the PC redesign.  It was a few other realizations that only had minor things to do with D&D.  I realized that all the accusations people made about 4e feeling like a video game were more than hyperbole- they were the thing I was missing.  It *was* like a video game, but not in a bad way- provisionally.  That provision is that I stop thinking of it as D&D.  I started thinking of it as an 8-bit RPG cartridge from the 80s.  The hardwired party size assumption wasn't a limitation as much as it was a parameter.  In Final Fantasy I you had four PCs, no more, no less.  And if you were building a party you gave some thought to the abilities of those for so that they complimented each other.  So... 4e Essentials was, for me, a mixture of two of my favorite things on Earth - D&D and 80s computer/console RPGs.  I began to really think of it as such, and plot my adventures as if I were coding an RPG.  The balance inherent in the 4e math was part of how those games used to work - you didn't stray too far from the level appropriate towns and dungeons.  If you did you might get TPK'd, or if you survived... XP city...  Was it worth the risk?

  It just clicked.  The video game paradigm not only made Essentials work for me in a way launch day 4e never did, but it made it SING.  I loved it.

  Anyway, I went all out.  I got a huge tacklebox and labeled the containers so that all my counters from Monster Vault and Monster Vault: Threats to Nentir Vale were organized alphabetically and by monster type.  I loaded it up with maps, counters, my magnetic initiative tracker board, spare dice, all the laminated character sheets from the Worldwide D&D Game Day...  I was ready to run D&D at the drop of a hat for new players and old players alike... and then 5e was announced.  And just like that, nobody wanted to play 4e anymore.

  Until a couple of weeks ago.  My brother from another mother, Robby, asked me if I'd teach his daughters (my lovely goddaughters) D&D.  We got into a discussion about various editions.  Robby joined the Army during 3.5e, and missed 4e completely.  As I described the tactical nature of 4e's tactical combat to Rob, he thought it was just the kind of math, problem solving and decision making he wanted his girls practicing.  Now, I started my kids with BECMI D&D, but here was an opportunity to try another approach.  In fact, Rob's girls had played BECMI with me once using pregen characters, but that was a year ago and they hadn't played since.

  So I got the 4e boxes down, grabbed the intro adventure from the Red Box, made some pregens, and off we went.  Around the table was my son Zane (5), my goddaughters Jadzia (11), Inara (9), Anya (7) and their dad Robby.  I'll admit, for about the first 30 minutes I thought I'd made a terrible mistake by agreeing to run Essentials over BECMI.  There was just... so... much... to explain.  Standard actions, move actions, minor actions.  Healing surges.  Second winds.  Daily, Encounter, At-Will.  Good lord, I had forgotten how complicated it all sounds at first.  But the odd thing - Jadzia and Inara had zero problems following me.  So much of it was so familiar to them from video games that it seemed perfectly natural to them.  Probably more natural than descending armor class, d20 roll high, d% roll low, etc. 

  So we burst onto the scene with a combat encounter.  The kids engaged immediately, and it was on.  It took a while for them to start figuring out the things most of us grognards know - take out the magic users quickly, finish off wounded opponents quickly, protect your own squishy teammates... and that's where the Essentials rules set started to shine.  Zane started to learn how his Defender Aura worked to protect Inara, and Inara learned all about casting Magic Missile - perhaps too much so since there are other spells after all...  But I digress.  The game was moving, the kids were talking to each other about what to do next, which goblins to gang up on, setting up combos...  Holy crap.  This was working.  And well!  And Robby?  He was absolutely giddy.  His kids were playing D&D and loving it.  He was being the Robby I remember from, oh, getting kicked out of Wal-mart for wearing a bra on his head at 3AM when we were young and stupid...

  We played for about two total hours before the youngest kids started to feel a bit antsy.  Now, I feel like it's an immense victory to get two seven-year-olds to sit at a table for two hours for any reason.  Zane is especially known for getting restless, and has had issues at school for that reason.  Once Anya and Zane decided they wanted to bow out (With Zane electing to stay until he had killed the goblin that had hit him, because, you know, VENGEANCE) the moms came over and took over the two PCs that no longer had players.  The game shifted into high gear at this point, as both Mary and Cami, my wife and Robby's, respectively, don't get to game as often as they'd like.  It. Was. On.

  Through the evil temple we went.  We fought monsters, we disarmed traps, we investigated ancient mysterious statues and the kids started asking all the right questions.  Despite the tight mathematical construction of the game and tactical focus of combat the joy of D&D came through. The joy I felt in 1986 as I sussed out Dungeon Crawling for the first time.  That realization that through the game I *was* the adventurer, delving through dimly lit stone halls unsure of what manner of danger was around the corner.  The exhilaration of opening a treasure chest, or striking the final blow against the Big Bad.

  In this case, the Big Bad was a necromancer.  The PCs, being inexperienced for the most part and unfamiliar with the system, expended all of their resources before arriving at the Big Bad.  Healing surges were at 0 or 1 for the fighter types, and the Wizard had expended her dailys.  What to do?  The Big Bad had three tough Skeleton Warriors and an Ogre Zombie protecting him.  In they charged - and immediately had two PCs drop, unhealable.  Robby organized a fall back, spiking the doors and beating feat as they dragged their two unconscious comrades.  We played it out, with me making checks for the monsters beating down the doors and counting the time it took for the PCs to fall back to the weird room from the beginning of the dungeon with the brazier that could throw magical fire.  They rested for a while, getting their encounter powers back and (with me being merciful) 2 Healing Surges (I rolled a d4.)

  They set up to use their three most well-defended PCs to funnel the monsters into position, and Anya would use the brazier to fire bomb the enemies.  It was tense, but it worked like a charm, the Skeletons fell one by one to the fire, and just on their heels the Ogre Zombie trundled in to be finished off by the PCs and their flame thrower.  They were beaten, battered, but exultant.  They wanted to finish off the Necromancer, but they knew they were at the end of their ropes. They chose to barricade the room and rest...  Of course, when they went after the Necromancer, I put more guards around him, but fresh, full of expendables, and with a better grasp of tactics they managed to OWN the Necromancer and his minions.

  It was about 7.5 hours since we'd begun.  Inara and Jadzia wanted to keep playing.  They wanted to know when we would play again.  They wanted to know how to level up.  They were GAMERS.  A pair of brand new, dyed-in-the-wool, enthusiastic gamers.  "We love you, Uncle Jeff!"  And hugs.

  So...  I had a blast.  We all did.  And we did it with the "worst" version of D&D according to all the pundits and Edition Warriors.  So I'll say it here.  I love OD&D.  I love Holmes.  I love Moldvay-Cook-Marsh.  I love AD&D.  I love BECMI.  I love AD&D2e.  I even like 3e and 3.5... and in an unlikely twist I love 4e Essentials.  It clicks.

  What's the use for 4e?  It isn't the D&D I grew up with.  It's not random encounters and random treasure and old school sensibilities.  That's where I grew up, and where I continue to thrive.  What it is, is a game with the sensibilities of a later generation - one that was born after things like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy became popular.  They reflect a different time and expectations that aren't D&D - but they are FUN.

  So, my go-to is still BECMI.  It's my favorite, and always will be.  5e is pretty damn close.  But I am eagerly planning out a 4e Essentials campaign for my goddaughters.  As long as we're all having fun, who cares what edition we're playing.  And, writing the campaign as if it's an 8-Bit RPG cartridge?  That's a lot of fun, too.  I may even adapt slimes and stuff as monsters.  Or maybe Oktoroks, Tektites and Leevers... 

08 July 2016

Saturday Night Special 002: DCC Synthetic Swordsmen of the Purple Planet

Saturday Night Special 002 is run and under my belt.  We played Synthetic Swordsmen of the Purple Planet, an adventure module by Jim Wampler for the excellent Purple Planet settting for Dungeon Crawl Classics.  It does for the Sword & Planet genre what Dungeon Crawl Classics does in general for the D&D gaming genre- turns it up to 11.

My experience playing this with Mr. Wampler as Judge at North Texas RPG con was significantly different from my SNS due to a couple of factors.  First, we were handed some artifacts and items at the beginning of the game that I probably should have emulated at my tabletop.  This module is part of a series set on the Purple Planet and assumes the PCs have resided there for some time- a couple of the puzzles might have been easier had I included some high-tech artifacts from the fallen civilization to prime the pumps, as it were. 
  Second, our group at NTRPGCON went in through the "back door" and never hit the major encounter that is generally the first encounter once inside the adventure area.  This was even further compounded by the single arcane caster in the party failing to use offensive spells when the party was getting overrun, then spending a significant amount of time at 0 HP.  The Cleric had to bring the Wizard back twice, resulting in the Wizard losing 2 points of STA from having died a coupla times.

  I'm going to give some impressions, because I don't want to give too much away about the module or its plot.  It is a sort of dungeon crawl mystery.  The PCs have to solve the major issue and to do that, a certain amount of exploration and investigation is needed.  The encounters can be pretty challenging, even for a full party of 5th-level adventurers.  The ultimate mystery itself is pretty freaky as it unfolds.  In fact, the module had two of my players saying this was the first time in ages they had actually been creeped out by a roleplaying game.  The atmosphere of the ancient temple complex does lend itself to causing a fair amount of paranoia among the players, and that's a priceless thing if your PCs are usually cocky and unafraid.

  I'm going to need to secure the Purple Planet setting box (in September or October, sadly, my gaming budget is shot until I start getting my supplemental teaching pay) so that I can compare this module to the other foundational Purple Planet modules.  I also understand there's a sequel module that includes airships.  Ever since Mystara I have been enamored of airships in my D&D games.  I very much want to see how that one plays out.  In any case, without having the other modules to compare this one to, I'm prepared to give it a solid B+, pending upgrade to A with more support material.  With the Purple Planet boxed set to back it up, it's an A easily, but standalone there are some things that are probably in that box that would have made running this module a bit smoother.

  I will say the creativity and creepiness of the module gives me great hope for Mutant Crawl Classics, in which the esteemed Mr. Wampler is the lead author.  If he puts as much Gamma Worldy goodness into MCC as this Purple Planet module seems to indicate he will, then MCC is going to be just as much fun to play.  I look forward to it with great anticipation.