23 November 2015

Incentive To Game: The Royal Manticoran Army Marksmanship Program

As an avid reader of military science fiction, I have been a fan of David Weber's Honor Harrington series for many years.  I found out a few years back there was an organized fandom for the Honorverse, and became involved in 2014.  The organization is largely composed of members portraying Navy and Marine personnel, we the novels are focused on those branches of the Manticoran service, Navy much moreso than any other branch.  There was, however, a relatively small group within the TRMN club that portrayed the Royal Manticoran Army and the soldiers that made up the Star Kingdom's last line of home defense.  That was where I ended up upon joining TRMN along with quite a few of my friends.  We now make up Fort Shorncliffe, home of First Battalion, 342nd Armored Infantry Regiment.  Add in our good friend Dennis Sustare and his Home Guard at Sandgate Castle, and we have about 32 folks associated with the RMA who like rolling dice and doing tactical things.

  When we were an active part of STARFLEET, our group was criticized by some other groups for being too military in the way we did things.  Against Gene's ideals, they said.  I won't get into that argument, but sufficient to say moving to a club that is explicitly about military science fiction meant we fit in a lot better.  A lot of us are prior service (a couple currently serving) plus State Guard, current and former cadets, etc.  A certain amount of military flavor creeps in.  One person utters a "hooah" and conversation will be peppered with them for hours.

  We founded on gaming, and while gaming was something that happened on STARFLEET, and yes, we even started a whole yearly event dedicated to it, it wasn't supported organization-wide in any way.  This is where TRMN really fit how my friends and I do our thing.  Not only was our way of running our organization in keeping with TRMN, but TRMN actually had a program to encourage and reward gaming.  The Marksmanship Program.

  To avoid the legal hassle that would come with actual firearms use, TRMN instituted a marksmanship program in which gaming was the key activity.  Play games that were aerospace or wet naval in nature and were on the approved games list, and you racked up points toward a Pistol marksmanship qualification.  Play ground-based wargames, and the credits went toward a Rifle marksmanship qualification.  This was awesome, we could game and get recognition for it.  It also fostered some friendly rivalry.  And encouraged MORE gaming.  Thing was, we do a lot of roleplaying games, which were explicitly not on the list.  What to do?

  The Army, seeking to differentiate itself from the Navy and Marine Corps parts of the club, decided to create an Army Marksmanship Program.  This program would differ quite a bit from the Navy version in that it would be much more inclusive of other games.  It would count hours gamed instead of sessions played, since one can play 20 games of X-Wing, assuming one-on-one fighter duels, for every game of Axis & Allies played to conclusion.  An interesting mechanic introduced by the Army leadership had hours played multiplied based on how many TRMN members were in the game, up to a maximum multiplier of 4.  Thus, the program would encourage more gaming of more types of game with more people.  Perfect!  Plus, the program supporting casual and traditional games meant some of our members who preferred non-wargames could now find similar reward in play to the hardcore war game folks.  The Army came to us at Fort Shorncliffe to help put the categories together.  Here's what we came up with, and some examples of each.

Grenade: Casual games or party games.  Cards Against Humanity.  Twister.  Scene-it!  Trivial Pursuit.
Disruptor: Family games and traditional games.  Monopoly.  Chutes & Ladders.  Checkers.  Candy land.
Flechette Gun: Tactical board games, CCGs, or Deck Building Games.  Magic.  Firefly the Board Game.  Android Netrunner.
Pistol: Aerospace or Naval Wargames.  Starfleet Battles.  Crimson Skies.  Victory at Sea.
Rifle: Ground-based wargames.  Battletech.  Bolt Action.  Dust Tactics.
Grenade Launcher: Roleplaying Games.  (RPG, get it?)  D&D.  Shadowrun. D6 Star Wars.
Tribarrel: Strategic-level wargames.  Succession Wars.  Federation & Empire.  Conquest of the Empire.
Plasma Carbine: Tactical multiplayer computer games.  Starcraft.  Halo.  Battlefield 1942.
Plasma Rifle: Strategic mulitplayer computer games.  Civilization.  Master of Orion.

  So here's how it works.  Say my wife sits down to play Cards Against Humanity with our club's XO, S3 and a friend who isn't in the TRMN organization.  We play for 3 hours.  Since my wife, the XO, the S3 and myself are all members of TRMN, the multiplier is one less than our number, with a maximum of 4.  In this case, it's 3.  Non-TRMN players don't count.  Recruit the hell out of them so they will.  Multiply the hours played by the participation multiplier and get a total of 9.  Each of us has just gained 9 credits toward our Grenade Marksmanship category.  5 credits earns Marksman, but Sharpshooter requires 100, and the highest qualification award comes at 600 credits.

  And does it work?  Well, YEAH, so far. Since this program went live a month ago, the members of Fort Shorncliffe have been adding extra gaming on top of our twice monthly meetings.  It's been a lot of fun.  I've had the opportunity to dig out some older games and try them on new players - most notably Shadowrun DMZ, or Downtown Militarized Zone, the Shadowrun tactical board game.  I'll be blogging about that game sometime soon. 

  Personally, I find the concept of the gaming incentive program in a fandom organization to be a really good one.  It encourages members to get together and have fun.  It gives the entire organization an activity to take part in cooperatively and competitively.  It encourages branching out to try new types of game.  All in all, this is why I'm happy to be a part of this organization.  We can play D&D and get club credit for doing so... GRIN...

29 October 2015

It's October - Let's Talk About Beyond the Supernatural

29 October - just a couple more days until my favorite holiday, Halloween.  Time to talk about Beyond the Supernatural.
another one of my favorite RPGs, which sadly is on my long list of games I'd love to play but can't find time or player buy-in.  This is Palladium Books 1988 offering

Before anyone berates me for being a Palladium fan, I am well aware of the warts of the system.  I still love this game in spite of that for two reasons.  First, the first RPG I purchased with my own money was Palladium's Robotech.  I also got heavily into TMNT, Ninjas & Superspies and Beyond the Supernatural.  I have nostalgia on my side, plus the Palladium game system is actually perfectly serviceable for games that lack Mega Damage structures.  I found Palladium Fantasy a much more straightforward system than my beloved AD&D.  Yes, things got complicated with MDC in Robotech and Rifts, but that's not what we're here to talk about... this time.

BTS.  Why do I love it?  Well... I grew up on a television series called In Search Of... hosted by Leonard Nimoy.  The series covered all manner of mysterious things, from ghosts to the Bermuda Triangle to UFOs and more.  From a very young age I devoured books on these subjects, a particular two books that I got from a Scholastic book fair in 1981 creeping me the hell out as a first grader. I was absolutely fascinated by the paranormal.  That fascination continues to this day.  I approached the paranormal from the investigative, scientific point of view based on my childhood perception of In Search Of... My first horror RPG was, as is the case with many other players, The Call of Cthulhu.  The problem was I was not yet familiar with H.P. Lovecraft's works when I played, and our GM was also 13 years old and not really experienced enough to get the feel of the genre right.  I decided to go back to fantasy and sci-fi.

My next trip to King's Hobby Shop I saw Beyond the Supernatural on the rack next to the other Palladium games I loved.  I picked it up and started to page through it and found precisely what my view of the paranormal and horror gaming was looking for in a game.  BTS introduces the character of Victor Lazlo, a paranormal investigator whose writings explain the underpinnings of how the supernatural functions within the game world.  This scientific approach to the paranormal caught my attention in a big way.  Ley lines.  Places of Power.  Ancient civilizations.  All of it linked by a coherent scientific theory of psychic energy.  Holy Time-Life Books!  This was just the right approach to make my imagination explode.

Then there was the character classes.  The Arcanist was up first, someone who spent their time and energy poring over ancient tomes and learning the secrets of magic.  That had possibilities.  It was a pretty cool idea, and certainly a handy person to have around if you are part of a paranormal investigative group.  The Latent Psychic works GREAT for a modern kind of campaign where most of the protagonists are normal humans. Someone with psychic ability who is slowly learning how to use their power.  The Natural/Genius is an interesting take on psychic ability- rather than something overtly psychic, these characters are just REALLY GOOD at something, which is how their paranormal abilities expressed themselves.  The Nega-Psychic is the Dana Scully character class, and I'll talk more about it later.  The Parapsychologist is the class I always wanted to play if I wasn't being the Game Master.  A scientist, rooted in paranormal research yet with a willingness to admit that, as Winston Zeddemore said: "These things are real."  Physical psychics are very much what Shadowrun would later call Adepts, expressing their psychic potential in a physical manner.  The Psi-Mechanic can create paranormal devices powered by their own innate psychic abilities- the forerunner of the Rifts techno-wizard.  The Psychic Healer and Psychic Sensative are just what they sound like, and all these options are followed up with perhaps the most interesting of all - Ordinary People.

 The ability to have ordinary paranormal investigators as well as mixing in the GMs preference of actual psychic characters is a sandbox primed for many sorts of investigative horror adventures.  You could limit classes to just the parapsychologist and ordinary people, you could allow one psychic sensitive or latent psychic, you could go all-out and allow all the classes for a game with a higher supernatural level.  Personally, I find the limited approach a little more interesting- when the PCs possess too much paranormal ability in and of themselves, investigating the unknown doesn't seem as dangerous or as mysterious.

  Now, I have to talk about the Nega-Psychic for a moment.  This class was my absolute bane as a GM for BTS.  The Nega-Psychic doesn't believe in the paranormal.  In fact, this character has significant paranormal abilities but never realizes it because those abilities serve to suppress all other paranormal activity in their vicinity and make the character highly resistant to paranormal effects.  So, if there's a haunted house situation once the Nega-Psychic enters the home the paranormal activity will stop.  It will not resume until the Nega-Psychic has left.  This causes a lot of narrative problems over a longer campaign.  It's interesting, even humorous the first couple of times.  Then it becomes frustrating and tiresome.  Unless you have an angle, I'd highly advise against allowing this type of character into the game.

  So, there's  a small but interesting section of equipment based on the finest investigative gear the 1980s had to offer.  There's a fairly big section on monsters and creatures, and the aforementioned sections on places of power, the paranormal in general, and the rules of psychic energy.  Roll all that together with the extremely neat character classes and you're ready for a potentially brilliant supernatural investigation game.  Now, this game is more or less compatible with all the Palladium games that are not MDC worlds, like Ninjas & Superspies or Mystic China.  Mixing and matching things from these games or others can be a lot of fun.  The Boxed Nightmares supplement, the only supplement for BTS, also includes a system for point-buy creation of a supernatural investigation organization for your players to be a part of.  This can be a lot of fun to play with as well, especially if the players want to talk out how best to spend their points.  "Hey, does this pole still work?"

  Beyond The Supernatural is currently in its second edition, but curiously the revised core book leaves out magic and magic-using classes.  These were supposed to be added later, but the second edition core book came out in 2005...  So...  I'm going to recommend the original.  It can be purchased quite reasonably in the aftermarket, and it can be purchased in PDF from DriveThru RPG.

08 October 2015

It's October - let's talk about Chill.

Welcome back, folks.  I am now officially in graduation holding pattern.  All my grades are in, all my tasks are complete, my GPA is 3.945 and my Master of Arts in Military History will be official on 15 November of this year.  Huzzah!

I love October.  Halloween is my favorite holiday.  Christmas is a wonderful family time, and Thanksgiving is likewise enjoyable, but for pure holiday revelry I love me some Halloween.  My  kiddos have already got their Star Wars costumes ready to rock - Kaylee is going to be Sabine from Rebels, and Zane is going as a First Order Stormtrooper.  The kids have already been introduced to one of Daddy's favorite Halloween traditions - Count Chocula.  We've been through two boxes already - mostly consumed while watching 80s cartoons on Saturday mornings.

Every year for decades now I've run a horror-themed game for Halloween.  Most years we try to live through I6 - Ravenloft.  One year Scott ran an amazing game of Vs. Monsters that I still remember fondly, and one year we tried Call of Cthulhu and I remembered why I don't try to run CoC for this particular group of players.  Since we've got a regular D&D game going on that is taking place in Ravenloft, I decided to look at other horror games as a possible Halloween treat.  My gaze fell on my copy of Chill 2nd Edition on my bookshelf.  I've always had an odd relationship with this book.  I've owned it since my senior year of high school.  I've read it, considered running it, and put it back on my shelf.  This was the Mayfair Games edition published in 1990.

There were things I liked in Chill 2nd.  I liked the idea of skills being rated as Student-Teacher-Master, that was kinda cool.  I liked the idea of SAVE.  In Chill, PCs are assumed to be "envoys" of an organization called SAVE - Societas Albae Viae Eternitata.  The Eternal Society of the White Way.  Newer editions of Chill change the "Albae" to "Argentae" for Silver Way, since White Way is considered racist.  SAVE was formed by an Irish scientist Dr. Charles O'Boylan in 1844.  SAVE has dedicated itself to investigating "the Unknown" where it can be found.  SAVE is, as of modern times, worldwide but spread fairly thin.  In my native Texas, there are two centers of SAVE activity, Houston and Dallas, each with about 30 envoys.  So, SAVE is there to have your back, but has limited resources in personnel and funding.  So... you're on your own, but not.  Limited support makes for good roleplaying opportunities.  The Game Master - or Chill Master (CM) - can use SAVE to supply lore and hints, but can throttle exactly how much SAVE can or cannot help in a given situation to fit the needs of the game. I like it.

What did I not like?  The actual presentation of the book.  The artwork in Chill 2nd Edition is incredibly quirky.  Let me show you what I'm on about...

 So... "quirky" isn't really the word I'm looking for, I guess.  I could NEVER get into the artwork for this edition of Chill.  I just couldn't.  The second and third examples are supposed to be PCs from the introductory module.  What kind of feel is this art supposed to evoke in the players?  Am I supposed to want to play an MD who looks like he descends from the Keeper of Talos IV?

So, as intriguing as the text was, I never could get any traction out of Chill, both from my own dissatisfaction with the layout and artwork and the utter "meh" response the book garnered from my players.  For whatever reason, though, the book made the cut to be on the "bedroom shelf" where I keep books I like to grab and read when I can't sleep.  Some of my favorite RPG books are in that group- Star Wars D6 1e, Lords of Darkness for AD&D, Shadowrun 1e, Earthdawn 1e, Star Frontiers, Top Secret, Red Box Basic and its immediate predecessor B/X...  so while Chill never got ran, it got read again and again over the years.

I recently had the opportunity to get my hands on some of the older edition Chill material.  In 1984, Pacesetter Games produced the original version of Chill.  I'd never gotten to see any of the original stuff, since I only became aware of Chill after Mayfair started producing it.  I laid my eyes upon the cover of the boxed set and I immediately just *knew* I was looking at a Jim Holloway cover.

Now... THIS was something I could sink my horror gaming teeth into just from the feel of the cover alone.  A frightened man with a lantern stands in a decrepit grave yard covered in fog, looking over his shoulder with an expression only Holloway could illustrate staring at... what?  We see a hand, but not what that hand is attached to.  NOW my imagination is racing.  Now I'm thinking of old Sherlock Holmes films in black and white and Hammer horrors from the studio's earlier years before quite so much camp appeared.  NOW I am starting to feel like this is a game I can RUN.

Funny how art can do that.

Let's take a look at a couple of pieces of the interior art of Chill 1st Edition that illustrate the kind of feel that catches my eye and makes me want to play.

 Now... THIS is more like it.  I know, art is subjective and one man's Holloway is another man's crayon doodle, but damnit, Jim, I like Jim.  Holloway.  Art.

The title page art is awesome.  The rotted arm breaking out of the grave to the horror of the terrified man with Lemmy's facial hair and a revolver.  Yeah.  I can work with that a lot more than the odd illustrations above.  I can show this to players and they get the mood and tone of the game immediately, as opposed to the 2nd edition aesthetic.

I eagerly dove into the book and found a game I really, REALLY want to run.  So, Chill - it's a percentage die system with a table to determine how well or poorly a particular die roll comes out.  The levels of success remind me a tiny bit of Shadowrun's wound levels.  Speaking of wounds, it doesn't matter if you're attacking a creature with a .22 revolver or an elephant gun, it's not the weapon that determines damage in Chill, it's the skill of the attacker.  That might sit poorly with some of my friends who are obsessed with gear, but it works just fine in a game running in the horror genre.

PCs have limited access to "The Art," which seems to be psychic ability and the ability to manipulate magic.  While PCs can learn how to use the Art in certain ways, you won't really find any Gandalf-level exploits.  As is expected in this kind of setting, you're more likely to have someone sensitive to paranormal presences or able to speak with the departed than someone who can throw fireballs and teleport.  Quite genre-evocative.

I'll say this, the system isn't complex, per se, but there is a little bit of 80s game fiddly about Chill.  Figuring base skill levels by averaging this ability or that, then adding +15 for Student level or what have you.  Then you roll against the stat and compare the margin of success to the table and you get a letter result...  At first, it's going to take a bit of getting used to, but I imagine it will speed up with regular play.  It's not rocket science.  I dig it.

Now, Chill had some GREAT supplements, but there's one or two that might have damaged the game's reputation a bit.  I've heard folks say that the Holloway artwork was a liability rather than an asset to Chill, since it gave a bit of campy Hammer-horror look to the books and covers.  OK, I can kinda see that when the premier horror game, Call of Cthulhu, had art that tried to communicate the existential horror of the Great Old Ones in a game that was anything but campy.  Me?  I like the look of the books, and the feel that look engenders.  However...  The Elvira supplement might have reinforced this point.  As much as I am a huge fan of Elvira and her huge -ahem - talents, her show did emphasize exactly the kind of horror-as-camp that turned some people off to Chill.  This doesn't mean I'm not currently planning to pick up a copy of the Elvira supplement... just that I can see where it damages my case that Chill can be every bit as serious-scary as Call of Cthulhu.

Let's be honest, here, though.  Cthulhu is its own genre of horror.  Lovecraftian horror is something that you ultimately can't really deal with.  Chill seeks to present the kind of things that may be horrific and overwhelming, but can ultimately be dealt with - at least in the short term - by the plucky SAVE envoys.  Not every Cthulhu adventure can end in success if something truly Lovecraftian is involved.  The best one can do is try to stay sane...

So I've now read the original Pacesetter Chill boxed set cover to cover.  I plan on making this my Halloween game for 2015.  The system is not too complex, the setting's SAVE is a sponsor organization that is just the right power level to leave PCs on their own while being a conduit through which the CM can pass information at need.  I'm looking forward to scoring some of Chill's supplements in the hopes of eventually collecting all of the Pacesetter edition.

For those of you wishing to give Chill a whirl, you have three options.  First you can chase down the original on the secondary market.  Second, you can purchase the new Chill 3rd Edition from Growling Door Games.  Finally, you can check out the resurrected Pacesetter's game Cryptworld, which has all the classic Chill game mechanics without the SAVE information, as Growling Door currently has the Chill license.

10 September 2015

My September Gaming Musings...

  So, my Thesis is in the can awaiting its chance to bypass the gatekeepers that are the department chair and the mysterious "committee/second reader(s)".  My professor has given me 475/500 on the assignment, and tells me not to sweat the rest of the semester- I'm effectively done.  So... of course I'm worried that one of the entities reviewing the thesis will think it's crap.  Thus, we wait.

  I have a number of things that have passed through my head where gaming is concerned now that my brain has a bit more free time.  I try to fill this free time with thinking about gaming and writing since my brain when idle contributes to the damnable anxiety that has plagued me for the last several months.  It's frustrating, so I try to keep the brain a-rolling.  With this in mind I've taken the opportunity to pull a few favorites off my shelves and do some reading for the pure enjoyment of it.  I have a lot of games that I'd love to run or play that I know are hard sells for my gaming circle, but that doesn't mean I can't read them and enjoy them just the same.

  When talking about games I'd love to run that my group probably wouldn't grok, Gangbusters is always at or near the top of my list.  It's an old TSR release with great Jim Holloway artwork that covers the Roaring 20s, prohibition, feds and gangsters, that sort of thing.  What I like about Gangbusters aside from its early 80s charm is that the game natively gives you the option to work on either side of the law.  Or no side.  A player can be a cop or a fed.  The player can be a gangster or bookie.  In the gray area, the player can be a private dick or newspaper reporter.  Lots of options.  I don't know how well it would work mixing and matching such things within a single game, I'd imagine most groups consisted of either lawmen or gangsters give or take a reporter or detective.

  Now, the game comes with a number of subsystems that are just fun to play with.  How much bootleg booze can I distill given X amount of space and Y amount of raw materials, and how much can I sell it for?  If I'm running a speakeasy with X amount of seating, how much booze do I have to have on hand to keep the crowds happy and how much will I make off a good night?  If I'm running a numbers game in my gang's territory, how much can I expect the take to be if I run a fair game?  What about a rigged game?  Crunchy little subsystems like this tend to amuse me, and I like the idea of a group of PCs running a speakeasy to make money.  It's like Traveller, but the ship is a bar and the cargo is booze.

  Another favorite I've paged through over the last coupla days is Talislanta.  I recall the old Dragon Magazine adverts proclaiming "NO ELVES."  Well, there are a few races that bear a resemblance to elves, but no matter- the world is pretty nifty.  It's like fantasy meets post-apoc, and the races are far from the standard Tolkien-esque offerings of many more popular games.  In example, there are the Thralls of Taz, a race created by wizards to be bodyguards and warriors.   Every male Thrall looks precisely like every other male Thrall.  Every female Thrall is likewise identical.  They differentiate themselves by tattoos which are the tribal equivalent of campaign ribbons.  In effect, each Thrall's skin is a service record and identification document that chronicles that Thrall's accomplishments and gives them a difference in appearance from their brethren.  I found that to be a pretty neat twist on the sort of warrior cultures seen in other games and media.  It bears mention that Talislanta is now free to download and play from http://talislanta.com/ in all its published editions.  I am partial to the 3rd Edition version I started with in 1992.  The author has said that the Big Blue Book from 2001 is the best iteration thus far.  Check out the PDFs and decide for yourself!

  I'll have more musings to come, hopefully with some semblance of regularity now that my studies are theoretically complete.  Toss some dice, have some fun.

25 August 2015

Thesis Draft submitted and Robotech!

  So I got my draft thesis turned in about five days early.  This allowed by professor to skip a round of golf (apparently) and grade it early to get it back to me.  I got a 90, and five things to fix.  Luckily all of them were structural to the paper and nothing to do with my research or my conclusions.  This means I am doing OK, methinks.  I finished the fixes today and re-submitted the draft for approval.  This is week thirteen of a sixteen week semester, so I'm very close to being finished with this grad school stuff for the time being.  Which is good, because apparently my psyche needs a rest.

  So, Robotech.

  Palladium Books has at long last released their United Earth Expeditionary Force Marines Sourcebook.  I scored a copy of this to congratulate myself for getting an "A" on the thesis draft, and rapidly devoured the book.  In a way, this is the Robotech book I've been waiting for since I first opened the covers of the Robotech II: The Sentinels RPG Palladium put out back in the 80s.  Why?  Well, because the original Sentinels RPG featured cyclones and Gallant H-90s and things that weren't shown in the Sentinels VHS tape to have been introduced when the expeditionary force left Earth.  Over the years, some writers have implied that SDF-3 did not leave Earth alone, as in the Jack McKinney novels.  They have also posited that SDF-3 and other Earth ships had to fumble about a bit before locating the Fantoma System and the Robotech Masters' homeworld of Tirol. 

  This sets up a very interesting space for an RPG campaign.  If there is an REF - excuse me, UEEF - fleet, and there are reconnaissance missions exploring unknown space in an effort to find the location of Tirol, then there's a lot of story to tell between the fleet leaving Earth and arriving at Tirol, as happened in a single space fold in the novel and Sentinels OVA.  This seems to be the canon according to Harmony Gold and Palladium according to the timeline in the Marines Sourcebook, giving a nice block of time and space for GMs to create their own Robotech adventures that have not already been spelled out in novels, comics or on the small screen.

The book solves the issue of what equipment the UEEF had available at what point in the mission as well.  Prototype Cyclones are here, along with the early production models, space models, and the pre-Cyclone Walker powered armor.  The REF destroids are re-artworked into the new UEEF destroids.  I am of two minds on this, I liked the original art, but I also like this new art.  The art does try very hard - perhaps a bit too hard - to be consisted with the look of the Genesis Climber Mospeada mecha that predominate during the Sentinels time period.  Alpha-style arms and shoulders are the order of the day, most of the cannon barrels look like the barrel from the GU-XX, leg styiling is also very Alpha in nature.  This does tend to give it all a very uniform look, as if the units were all designed by the same faction, but in some cases the changes don't make sense.  The Alpha shoulder, used on many of the battleoids and even on the Zentraedi Tactical Battlepod upgrade, looks nearly identical to the Alpha Fighter's missile pod shoulder, but in most cases no missiles are mounted there...  Even the Monster has become an upright bipedal mecha of huge size with very Alpha-like styling.  That said, every single mecha does look incredible.  The new Officer's Battlepod would make even the most die-hard Glaug purist go "whoa."

The Sentinels races make a return appearance in this book, at which point I started to think of it as a second edition of the original Robotech II RPG more than as a "Marines" sourcebook.  The aliens are all there, all with new art.  I actually enjoyed the more anime-style art for all the Sentinels races save the Spherisians, where I prefer the original art.  The stone men of Spheris now look a lot like Groot for some reason, instead of having smooth, curved bodies as in the old artwork.  The races are written up in the RIFTS RCC style, but most are allowed to choose normal human OCCs if they so elect.  There are a few cool race-specific RCC/OCCs, like Perytonian Energy Wizard and Karbarran Combat Laborer.  The vibro-shovel is a fun Karbarran artifact, and reminds me of the many times I was killed in Day of Defeat by a German with a shovel. (Thanks, Tony!)

Also back in this book is the Titan/GMU - the massive mobile headquarters unit from the original Sentinels RPG.  This time it's not billed as being quite as able to carry unrealistic amounts of mecha, and it's not unique, there are apparently a number of GMUs in the fleet.  The big gun on the GMU is still powerful, but I found the stats to seem not quite as powerful as I thought it aught to be at that size.  Seeing the GMU artwork reinforced my feeling that this was Robotech II 2.0, so why is this the Marine sourcebook?

  Breetai, apparently.  According to the text, Breetai felt the need for a ground-forces element in the UEEF fleet to be created on the pattern of the United States Marine Corps.  He was personally impressed with the history, fighting spirit and traditions of the USMC and lobbied for a UEEF MC to be included with the expeditionary force.  This gave many of his Zentraedi a familiar place to serve, and appealed to many humans as well.  Apparently, many Sentinels aliens and even Tirolians end up enlisting in the Corps to help fight the Regent's Invid and liberate the Sentinels worlds.  This is actually a pretty neat idea, methinks.  It gives an alternative to the Big Mecha game.  Sure, the Destroids and Veritechs are still available in their full-size glory, but now there is a viable option to play Marine grunts pulling recon missions or infiltrating hives or rescuing Karbarran hostages or what have you using their own boots, or maybe Cyclones, to get the job done.  This scale also allows the aliens to shine, as they won't be competing with the humans and their 60-missile Alpha fighters.  Now the great strength of the Karbarrans and the wizardry of the Perytonians and the fighting prowess of the Praxians can have an effect on the missions without being outclassed by the huge mecha.  On the flip side, there are a few mecha that even Marine grunts can have issued at need that will lend much-needed support fire to a dismounted squad or Cyclone squad.  Lots of options.

  All in all, I very much enjoyed the book.  Some folks have said the timeline is not quite accurate, but at this point we don't really know what accurate would look like since Harmony Gold is the only entity that is purported to know what is canon and what is not these days.  There have also been some criticisms of the material reprinted in this book, like the Condor, the Zentraedi RCC information, and a few other mecha.  Well, sure, I would have liked to see some more of the space vessels that carry the Marines and a ton of other stuff, but all in all I'm pretty pleased with what's in the book.  I think it will make a great addition to the Robotech campaign I want to run sometime in the near future.

05 August 2015

The Thesis Marches On

Greetings, Programs.

  As this post is being written, I have 11 days until my thesis draft is due and I have to see how defense works at online school.

  I'm making a lot of progress, and learning things I didn't know about gaming along the way.  Did you know William Tecumseh Sherman objected to wargaming in the American military on the basis of what we would call a lack of morale check rules?  Look it up, when Major W.R. Livermore suggested the US Army adopt Prussian-style wargaming, Sherman objected that men are not blocks of wood.  He knew no unit would stand in the line of battle until attrition destroyed it completely.  Morale breaks, men run or balk at advancing.  Sherman felt the games were not realistic.  In modern terms, he was looking for morale rules...

  Did you know we owe video games to the military?  Tennis for Two was presented on an oscilloscope, the first video game, at a national atomic laboratory.  Spacewar was written by Steve Russell on a PDP-1 that was bought and paid for by the military.  Hell, packet switching, the base technology of the modern Internet, was developed as a way to secure communications in the event of nuclear attack.  The RAND Corporation, long an atomic war think tank in the employ of the US Air Force, introduced the ubiquitous hex map for their games and simulations.  The hex map is a staple of modern tabletop.

  Most of what I've learned is that I'm ready to be DONE with the graduate school experience.  The specter of going for a PhD is still there, and possibly a requirement to find permanent employment as a professor- but I need to take a year or two off before I tackle that hurdle.  I need a break.  I need to spend my non-work, non-family time enjoying my hobbies.  I find that when you are forcing time for your hobbies in the name of staying sane, they are not as fulfilling as they are when they're not so terribly urgent.  I have blog posts to make, games to write.  I'm ready to be done with the things I have to do and get on with what I want to do - isn't that the point of finishing my college and searching for a more lucrative academic post?

  My thesis draft is due 16 August 2015.  Once it's in, we've got the defense to do, then the revision for the final draft.  By the end of September, I'll be done.  And that means more posts here, and more games we can talk about.  I want to revisit the games of TSR that weren't D&D, like Top Secret, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gangbusters, Marvel Superheroes...  I love all those games, and don't get to do much with them.  I also want to work on my adaptation of what Bobby and I call MechWarrior 1.5, sort of our version of what MechWarrior could have been if we'd been writing it back in the 80s.

  Stand by, the three of you out there who read the blog.  We'll be getting back to regular traffic and longer gaming-related posts soon.

21 July 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 30- Best Playing / DMing Experience

They saved the most difficult question for last.  Best experience.  Wow- that's hard.  I mean, my early experiences were AMAZING, new ground broken and all that.  I fondly remember those days and love to help other gamers live through that period in their own hobby.  But I became a DM pretty quickly, and got slotted into that role since the Reagan Administration.  So...  when I try to think of really amazing play experiences, I tend to think of my earliest days playing with Daniel and his brother, or in Boy Scouts. 

Now, as a DM some of the campaigns I've already mentioned come to mind.  The casual game with Bill, Dave and Chris back in high school just "feels" like what 80s D&D was supposed to be.  The amazing Mystara/Ravenloft campaign that began with Robby, Cami and Mary and boiled down to just Mary and Randi - the one I talked about with the marriages and deep in-character threads.  That game was amazing.  Lots of really, really good roleplaying from the PCs and some not-too-shabby DMing by yours truly.

I dunno.  There's a lot of good games I can point to, more as a DM than as a player.  If I had to pick right now, and had to limit the field specifically to D&D games, I guess I'd go with the Ravenloft campaign.  There was so much depth to the PCs thanks to Mary and Randi really having buy-in and having only two PCs meaning both got more than ample screen time and attention from the DM.

If I had to guess, though, I'd say my best experiences are yet to come.  I'm becoming a better Dungeon Master by learning from the best.  NTRPGCON started me down that road.  I'm trying new techniques, and exploring how I want the back half of my life to be where games are concerned.  It's time to game for quality over quantity, and include the ones who are most dear to me.  Zane and Kaylee will be old enough to play before I blink twice.  The best is yet to come.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 29 - Most Frequently Rolled Number on a D20

I have no idea what the most frequently rolled number on a d20 actually is over my three decades of gaming - but it sure as heck isn't 20.  It feels like I could say 1 with some confidence.

My primary gaming dice are Chessex translucent red with white ink, bought to resemble my Koplow dice from 1986.  I bought four sets and keep them in a box that held Cuban cigars my friend Raul gave me on a cruise several years ago when he wanted to ditch the box and smuggle the cigars home.  I take those dice with me to my twice monthly D&D game over at Scott's place.

Damned if they don't consistently roll under 5 so much that I've taken to using my six-year-old son's dice instead.  Habitually.   Zane isn't quite old enough for full-on D&D yet, so his dice are living in my dice box lest his sister find them and lose them as she did when he had a dice bag.  So Dad kinda borrows them - and THAT d20 rolls pretty well.  All my signature red-and-white d20s?  Not so much.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 28- PCs You Have Sworn Off Playing

I don't know that I have ever sworn off playing any particular PC.  I've actually liked all the characters I can recall playing.  No single D&D character sticks out to me as unworthy of a return play.

That said, I do have a personal rule about never, ever, playing Kender.  I think Kender work best on the pages of Dragonlance novels under the close supervision of the authors.  Putting Kender in PC hands is asking for trouble unless you are confident the player can play the Kender as intended, and not just use the Kender-related tropes as a bludgeon with which to beat the other PCs, the Dungeon Master, and the campaign in general about the head and shoulders.

So, if I ever played a Kender PC, I'd have sworn off playing him.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 27- Favorite Curse of Cursed Item

This is an interesting question, and I'm going to have to go with Armor of Missile Attraction.

I love this particular cursed item because it is legitimately useful against melee attacks, acting as various forms of magic armor.  The hitch is that it gives enemies significant bonuses to hit the PC wearing it with missile weapons.  It becomes a piece of cursed equipment you want to get rid of immediately... or not?  Is the melee bonus worth living with the missile attraction?  Is it a worthwhile gamble?  Each character must make their own decision on that before seeking out a spellcaster who can drop a Remove Curse

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 26- Favorite Mundane Item

My favorite mundane item off the lists and lists of equipment that have found their way into D&D rulebooks over the years is a pretty simple one: the tinderbox.

Why is the lowly tinderbox a favorite of mine?  Well, because it caused me as a young gamer to think for the first time about the mundanities my character faced in the D&D universe.  In basic D&D when we started, we told our DM we were lighting torches, and he never asked "how", we just did it.  Upon discovering the need for a tinderbox with which to light torches and set campfires, my mind started drifting to all the other things my character needed to survive.  Bedroll, hammer, spikes... Hey, a bullseye lantern could be REALLY useful for signaling as well as lighting our path.  I could use a mirror, too.  Hey, rope.  And spikes while we're at it.  Do I need a dagger for eating and utility use even though as a Cleric I can't fight with edged weapons? 

The tinderbox got me thinking, and thinking got me immersing.  And immersion made me a better player and Dungeon Master.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 25- Favorite Magic Item

I love magic items, but they're a double-edged +1 sword (+3 vs. Lycantrhopes.)

I feel magic items can be overdone.  One of the things I disliked about 4th Edition (and I did like it overall) was that the math expected PCs to have a certain quality of magic arms and armor at a given level - this is far too much magic for me.

Magic should be rare and, well, magical.  The very concept of a magic shop is a bit antithetical to the way I tend to run D&D.  If PCs end up with multiple magic items, it's because they've been delving into ancient ruins or abandoned fortresses where such items of power have been lost since antiquity.  Like the gifts of Galadriel, or Orcrist, Glamdring and Sting, magic items need to be uncommon and mysterious.

The runner-up for my favorite magic item is runner-up because it comes from The Palladium Fantasy RPG.  It's called Otoni's Dagger of Assassination.  This dagger, when thrown, will keep re-inserting itself into a target until the target is dead, or until it is seized by a STR 15 or better.  That's pretty sweet. 

So, in the D&D realm, there's the old favorites.  Elven boots, bags of holding, etc.  Lots of utility in items like those.  I'm going to go to 4e for this, though.  My favorite magic item is something that just drips with atmosphere.  4e gave us The Raven Queen, goddess of death.  Now, she's not evil, she's just doing a job that needs doing since death is the inevitable end of life.  There is a magic item that is a raven's feather blessed by the Raven Queen.  This feather is attuned to a person.  The feather will then change color if that person dies.  Not a magic weapon, or an amazing item, but think of the story possibilities a DM can evoke when there is tangible proof of when a far away loved one dies... or is still alive after a very long time.  This is the sort of magic item you can hang an adventure on without giving the PCs incredible amounts of power.  I dig it.

16 July 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 24- Favorite Spell

I think most adventurers would immediately jump to some of the obvious answers, like Cure Light Wounds or Magic Missile or Fireball.  Now, these are all spells of some utility to be sure.

Cure spells will always be a favorite of players, since they are necessary to keeping the PCs alive and well.

Magic Missile is a great spell in BECMI, since it does 1d6+1 as opposed to 1d4+1 in AD&D, and it never misses.  Sometimes it might be the only effective attack your party has against a creature with spells or immunity to normal weapons.

Fireball is the old standby for massive damage to lots of enemies.  Everyone wants to pick up Fireball at 5th level and use it to make Orc Chops on their very next dungeon delve.  Great spell, Fireball, but be careful using it indoors with a DM who has a grasp of physics.

My choice probably belongs on the list of obvious choices above.  I'm going to go with Sleep.  The Sleep spell can be terrifyingly useful in combat if employed properly, and in non-combat situations it can be quite useful as well for knocking out guards or sneaking past cultists or just robbing the local general store blind and then leaving a promissory note to pay for the gear and rations once you recover the treasure from the goblin caves outside of town.  So for me, Sleep is my favorite spell.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 23- Least Favorite Monster Overall

This one is short and sweet.  The frigging Tarrasque.  I can't stand this monster.  The mere existence of the Tarrasque makes players assume they will one day be powerful enough to face one down.

The Tarrasque is like Galactus, you don't try to defeat it head-on.  It's more a plot device than a monster.  Sure, if it has HP it can be killed, but let's be reasonable here.

OK, soap box time for a sec.  For me, the sweet spot in D&D is the climb from 1st Level to Name Level.  Becoming a true hero is where a lot of the fun of the game is.  Now, the teen levels see characters become more competent, maybe even becoming rulers of their own lands or heads of Magic-User schools or Thieves Guilds.  At this point you're regionally powerful but not so much so as to be challenging the Immortals.  The 20s, for me, are kind of out of where I like to run.  Doubly so the 30s.  Now we're dealing with a completely different kind of game than standard D&D.  Post-36 PCs can try to ascend to immortality themselves which is again a completely different game.  Something like the Tarrasque is only a possible fight to these high-level situations, and those are not situations I really enjoy DMing.  The Tarrasque represents that power level and all it implies, and for that reason it's my least favorite monster.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 22- Favorite Monster Overall

My favorite monster overall?  Well, I've never seen a monster WEAR overalls.

I kid, I kid.

Boy, this is a tough one.  Coming up on 30 years of D&D and I've fought or used as a DM metric craptons of monsters from across many books and even game systems.  There are monsters I use a LOT- but that doesn't necessarily follow that they're my favorite, just that they are common in the climate or game world I tend to run.  So what's my favorite?

Orcs.  Gotta be orcs. 

Why?  Because they are basically unattractive humans.  This means that Orcs can be used in any way you can imagine humans being used.  If you need barbaric warriors Orcs will do.  If you need a highly technological society of methodical conquerors, Orcs.  Evil wizard need an army?  Orcs.  Restless native tribe aggressively resisting civilized incursion into their territory?  Orcs.

Orcs are versatile, they're a good match for most low-level PCs in moderate numbers and they can and do exist in not-moderate numbers for when the PCs are a bit higher in level.  They can make use of most equipment made for PC races, and therefore sometimes carry good equipment to salvage.  They can be tribal, they can have cities.  They're a great monster to use for all sorts of things, including being a mirror for human behaviors.

I like Orcs.  Especially these kind:

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 21- Favorite Dragon

Favorite Dragon, eh?  How to answer.  My gut instinct is to say Tiamat from the D&D Cartoon.  How can you not love a giant multichromatic she-beast with the voice of Frank Welker?  The only thing in the Realm that can scare Venger?  But the question does specify color, type etc. 

If I have to pick, I'm going to go with the good old Red Dragon.  This is partially due to the classic pieces of Elmore artwork that sold me on D&D in the first place, and partially because the Red Dragon is something of the default "fire-breathing dragon" of legend.  When people think "dragon" they think one that breathes plumes of fire, like Smaug, thus my choice.  I will say it was a difficult one to come to, since the other dragons of the BECMI game can be just as interesting if not moreso.  The Green Dragon and its poison gas cloud comes as a surprise to players who haven't memorized their monster listings.  Likewise the lightning bolt of the Blue Dragon.  Don't get me started on Black Dragons.  *shudder*  I lost my first PC that made it to high level to a Black Dragon- our DM at the time, Daniel Varner, ruled that acid damage could not be healed by magic or potions, it had to be healed naturally over time.  That made Black Dragons extremely dangerous.  They'd be my pick if I weren't still pissed off about losing that Magic-User to a tragic feedbag accident.  (We were tweens, OK?)

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 20- Favorite Humanoid/Giant/Fey

  Today I'm going to talk about my favorite Fey.  That would, of course, be Tina Fey.  Oh, how she's kind of a geeky, funny, sexy... what?  Not THAT kind of Fey?  OK.  No problem.

  I have a lot of creatures I like to use in D&D and a whole bunch of them fit into the categories Humanoid, Giant and Fey.  I've used the ubiquitous Orcs, Goblinoids, Gnolls, Kobolds etc. many, many times as they are the creatures that in my D&D game worlds tend to rival the more standard PC races in population and expansion.  Giants I tend to use quite a bit more sparingly, because of the Voyager Law of Borg Conservation.  See, in ST:TNG The Borg were the most frightening, implacable foe the main characters had ever seen.  By the time of Voyager, a smallish cruiser could poke about in the Borg home system and come home safe.  Voyager took the Borg and made them mundane, workaday, less scary.  I want to avoid doing that to giants as much as possible.  When there's a giant involved, it's got to be a BIG DEAL.  Not ho-hum, another giant.

For my favorite, though, I'm going to have to break character for a moment.  I am a hardcore fan of BECMI D&D.  My answers thus far on this 30-Day Challenge  have been filtered through that base assumption.  When I started thinking about this one, though, I kept drifting back to something that was popularly introduced in 4th Edition that I really thought was groovy - Eladrin.

Eladrin could be summed up as "high elves," but that doesn't quite do them justice.  Eladrin are an elven race who are still connected to the Fey plane, or "Feywild" in 4e parlance.  They have the ability to Fey Step, a short range teleport, by phasing into the Feywild in one place and back out in another.  This description intrigued me, and I created my own twists on the background of the Eladrin.

For my first 4e character, I played an Eladrin Wizard who had a sister, an Eladrin Rogue.  I created the lore of my character to interpret the Eladrin affinity for and ability to step into the Feywild as an artifact of their being native to the Feywild- but for some reason banished from it.  This banishment means that each time an Eladrin uses Fey Step, they can momentarily see the beloved home plane on which they can no longer dwell.  That moment of being "home" is immediately yanked away as they are forced to re-enter the Prime Material Plane.  This makes the Eladrin an excessively aloof and melancholy race.  Their haughty attitudes serve to hide their profound sense of being forever denied existence in the world that actually makes sense to them.  They are in general a humorless and homesick race, mysterious and even a bit forbidding to the other races given their spooky eyes.

OK, so most of what I like about Eladrin are things I added to the racial description for my own games.  But there it is.  My favorite Fey that isn't Tina.

12 July 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 19- Favorite Elemental/Plant/Construct

This one's easy for me.  My favorite construct, bar none, is the Iron Golem. 

The Iron Golem is wicked tough - immune to non-magic weapons, electrical attacks only slow it down and fire attacks outright heal it.

That's right, fireball, the go-do damage-dealing spell of D&D characters level 5 or higher, heals the Iron Golem.  That is a nasty surprise for any PC party that encounters and has to defeat one.  This is the Golem turned up to 11.  It's not only implacable, incredibly strong and ridiculously tough, it's nearly invulnerable.  I love using Iron Golems, but due to their high level of defensive properties they fall into the same category for me as the lich, a great enemy that is hard to employ at the levels our games usually run.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 18- Favorite Planar Being / Creature

OK, I'll make an admission.  I'm not a fan of planar travel in D&D.  I have no idea why, I just never got into it.

If I had to pick a planar creature to be a "favorite" I suppose it would be the Night Hag.  Those are planar, right?  I mean, I found them listed in the Planescape Monstrous Compendium Annex.

Night Hags are everything that scares people about the traditional "witch" type monster- not a female human that practices witchcraft, but the kind of gnarled, crone-looking witch of dark fairy tales.  Night Hags hunt humans for their spirits/souls and are wicked powerful at 8 HD.  They are not unreasonable killers, though - they can be treated with, bargained with, and even be useful if you can trade them something the value more than your life force.  Something like information.  This makes them a great addition to a campaign when you want to throw overly swordplay-happy PCs a curve, and show them a truly frightening monster that just might be more useful to them alive than vanquished.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 17- Favorite Animal/Insect/Arachnid

This is kind of a tough one.  For some reason my brain is having an issue picking something in this category.  I think this is partially because the organization of monsters by specific categories is a relatively new thing for me, and since I'm looking at this through a BECMI lens, I keep questioning each monster that pops into my head - is that an animal, or something else?

I suppose I will choose the good old trusty wolf.  Wolves are a mundane animal, but can be used in many ways.  Wolves are pack hunters that can certainly threaten a party of PCs traveling in the wilderness.  Wolves can be harbingers of something else entirely - they are associated with vampirism and lycanthropy.  Wolves can make great companion animals for woodsy-type characters.  So I think I'll go with the wolf. 

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 16- Favorite Ooze/Aberrant Creature

Ah, Oozes.  Man, did I hate oozes, jellies, all that crap when I was a new D&D player.

I mean really, who wants to strap on a sword or a spellbook and head off valiantly in search of adventure to get kakked by a friggin blob of pudding?  Not entirely heroic.

Ya can't hack them to death, and torches might cause damage, but you'd better have a few extra lit and ready if you don't want to risk putting your only light source out trying to kill the ooze.  Just the thought of these creatures makes me shudder.

I do have a favorite, though.  The Gelatinous Cube.  I love these things as a DM.  I love how nervous PCs get when the dungeon floors and walls are just a little too clean.  When there's a lack of organic debris or rat droppings.  Characters start checking behind them, and down every corridor looking for any sign that a nearly transparent wall of digestive Jell-O.  Sometimes, as in this illustration, the cube can be given away by the spooky suspension of the metal equipment of some poor adventurer in the middle of the monster.  I totally dig this monster, and I use it to mess with new players who aren't so steeped in D&D lore that they expect it.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 15- Favorite Undead

This one's easy.  Vampires can be cool, but can be overdone.  The lich is awesome, but so powerful many parties may never come close to being able to face one.  My favorite undead?


Before I ever played D&D, I saw movies with awesome Ray Harryhausen skeletons.  In fact, to this day, most of the skeletons in my games are basically those same Harryhausen skeletons, similarly armed and equipped.  I think the folks who write those neat Lost Worlds combat books felt the same way.  The Skeleton is visually cool, it's got (in most editions) a resistance to cutting and slashing weapons, can be employed in mass groups, and is the first undead a Cleric can become powerful enough to just dust outright.  I love 'em.

The skeleton is visually unnerving, it's most definitely an unnatural representative of death slogging toward you with a rusty scimitar.  They have no fear, no morale checks, they just won't stop.  The will keep coming until you smash them to dust or they kill you.  Period.  Relentless, tireless, remorseless.  Skeletons.

If you ever get the chance, REF5 Lords of Darkness has really good treatments of many common undead, and the fiction on Skeletons by Deborah Christian is pretty darn cool.  I highly recommend it.

11 July 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 14- Favorite NPC.

I have a LOT of favorite NPCs.  My group tells me that I tend to create some NPCs that are more colorful than some of the party members.  I dunno if that's a compliment to my GM style or an insult to some of my players...

In MechWarrior, Captain Ivan Sergeevich Tukachevski was an armor commander attached to the Royal Dragoon Guards.  He had a habit of drinking constantly and never appearing drunk- he also used every available space aboard his command track to store alcohol, which he euphemistically referred to as "Breakfast."  Ivan Sergeevich was a favorite of mine to play, and a definite favorite of my players, but he wasn't in D&D.

In Shadowrun, Dr. Ho was another player favorite, and favorite of mine to play.  He was named for the scientist in the American sentai parody Dynaman.  I played him as a mashup of Egg Shen and Lo Pan.  He owned an underground clinic frequented by shadowrunners and other SINless folk where he used a combination of Eastern and Western medicine and magic.  He was terribly fond of Twinkies, and had trouble with the bioware-heavy PC who would eat far more than her share of his munchies when under his care.  He also had a habit of practially spitting the name of one of the other PCs - "Ess-po-SEET-oh!" as if it were the harshest curse or rebuke in one of the many languages he spoke.  But Dr. Ho was also not in D&D.

My favorite D&D NPC would have to be Aleena Halloran, yes, THAT Aleena.  I don't always care for 2nd editions or re-writes, but when the AD&D Mystara material said Aleena was alive and working with the Order of the Gryphon, I took it and ran with it.  I used Aleena as a middleweight go-between to give the Order of the Gryphon PCs their marching orders and sometimes join the party for a little extra clerical oomph.  I'm glad the 2nd Edition AD&D rewrite made this change, since like many other players who grew up with Menzer Basic I can never forgive Bargle for slaying the beautiful young Cleric who healed my first battle wound.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 13 - Favorite Trap / Puzzle

Before I tell you about my favorite trap or puzzle, let me tell you that I, as a DM,have totally screwed up traps and puzzles and for a few years didn't use them out of embarrassment.

See, I had this group of friends, Dave, Bill and Chris, and we played BECMI D&D.  It was a great high school group, everyone was there to have fun, nobody took the game too seriously or not seriously enough.  I remember we watched the 20/20 episode in which they performed an exorcism before gaming one night.  The early 90s were an interesting time.  

We were all High School Sophomores at this point in time, we met at Dave's house.  Sometimes his dad would show us the .454 Casull he owned.  Sometimes we'd play the crappy PC port of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on their family PC. There was food, comradeship, and just enough D&D to keep us thinking.  It was thinking that led me to building what I thought would be an excellent puzzle.  I had decided to have a series of doors in a teleport trap, but they teleported in and out of the same hallway until you entered them in the right order.  Sort of like the up, left, down, left of the Lost Woods in Zelda.  The trick was the doors were numbered in roman numerals and the correct sequence was the first four Fibonacci numbers.  

Except... I screwed up my notes and got the sequence wrong.  The guys beat their heads into the table trying - CORRECTLY - the sequence the clues led them to.  I got increasingly frustrated that they couldn't figure it out.  When I finally gave up and said "Look, guys, this isn't THAT hard..." they pointed out to me in a rather annoyed fashion that they HAD indeed been entering the doors in the Fibonacci sequence.  My notes, however, had "4" where "5" should have gone and I didn't catch it.  I felt so incredibly stupid I didn't try traps or puzzles for years afterward for fear of making another mistake.

OK, so my favorite trap or puzzle has to be the damn Sphere of Annihilation in Tomb of Horrors.  It's my favorite because it's just to easy to lose and entire damn party to it if they think it's some sort of teleporter.  The trap is just so... well... trappy.  It's an immediate, no save, no resurrection, no reprieve end to your PC, full stop, do not pass go.  It's unfair, it's arbitrary, and it's right frigging there not even that far into the module.  It is the essence of Old School traps.  I love it.  I hate it.

07 July 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 12 - Favorite Dungeon Type / Location

Dungeons.  You know 'em, you love 'em.  Or at least, if you grew up gaming when I did you probably do.  I mean, it's a significant percentage of the actual name of the game.

I would say my favorite dungeon type was influenced by one of my favorite toys of the 80s.  I grew up with this creative side that was just looking for a reason to express itself.  As a kid, I not only played with my toys, but I constructed elaborate backgrounds and details for them based on the smallest details- like what was on the computer screens of my classic Lego Space sets, or small details about GI Joe or Transformers characters- Skywarp was a cruel practical joker.  Flash had an education in electronics.  As an 8-9 year old, I wanted to know what the hell NATO and the Warsaw Pact were.  Details.  Details.

When I got Castle Grayskull as a birthday present in 1982, the details in the playset got my brain rolling at warp speed.  Compared to more modern, newer playsets the detail is actually a bit sparse.  Inside the castle one finds two floors, an elevator, a throne, some accessory weapons, and a laser cannon along with two battlement floors to let figures stand atop the towers.

The interior of the castle itself is simply the interior mold of the exterior- save some cardstock decorations.  It was these decorations that did the trick.  The image below of the interior of Castle Grayskull can be clicked to expand it to its full size.  Like many other things in the Masters of the Universe toy line, the interior of the castle mixed fantasy and science fiction elements.  The laser cannon is the big give-away, of course, but take a look at those other decorations. 

The view screen hanging from the ceiling- what is it showing us, and why?  Is that Eternia's orbit, or some other far off world from whence technology came to Eternia?  Look at the space suit and life support equipment.  Is it what it appears to be, a space suit?  If so, is it here due to some astronaut arriving and leaving it here, or is it awaiting an occupant to allow them to travel to the planet on the monitor?  Is Castle Grayskull somehow a portal or destination for this other world to travel to Eternia?  It appears to have a wrist-mounted missile, and a laser rifle is standing next to it.  Is it powered armor?  Is there a star soldier inside in suspended animation, ready to come back to life to defend Castle Grayskull from intruders?

The decal inside the jawbridge tells an even more interesting tale.  If Castle Grayskull has been abandoned these many years, why are there live creatures in the dungeon whose tentacles still seek escape?  Are they magical monsters?  Alien creatures?  Who imprisoned them, and why?

Thanks to my fascination with these details, my favorite kind of dungeon in D&D has always been abandoned fortresses like Castle Grayskull.  Xak Tsaroth in Dragonlance would certainly qualify, as would Quasqueton in B1.  I love a good ancient fortress- even better if it is in inexplicably good shape externally despite having been long abandoned.  What secrets hide inside these decrepit walls- and were they built to keep something out, or, like the book/film The Keep, are they there to keep something IN?

I really cherished the opportunity to run a Robotech game set in 1999, when the PCs accompanied CAPT Gloval and Dr. Lang into the wreckage of SDF-1 soon after it crashed on Earth.  I treated the game like a good abandoned fortress dungeon crawl, and it was GREAT.

Someday, I might get REALLY meta, and create a Dungeons & Dragons adventure based on the old Fortress of Fangs playset from LJN.

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 11 - Favorite Adventure You Ran

I have run many, many adventures since I began DMing in the 80s.  So many that I'm sure there are more than a few that I no longer recall, either through time or the sad truth that no DM can run wickedly memorable adventures every single time for thirty years.  I've read the entire series run of GI Joe from Marvel, and I assure you for every super-memorable issue, there's another issue I can't recall off the top of my head.  So it is with DMing.

If I have to pick one D&D adventure that was extremely epic, I'd have to pick one that was epic on a couple of levels.  I ran a 3.5 campaign that was incredible.  I had just two players, my wife Mary and my best friend Randi.  Mary played a continuation of the first D&D character she ever created, Cyndi of Kelvin, a fighter and non-canonical daughter of Baron Desmond Kelvin, head of the Order of the Gryphon in Karameikos.  Randi played Illyana, a Traladaran girl of a rogue-type background who leaned more toward the gypsy archetype than the general slavic archetype suggested by the Mystara books.

This was the campaign where I merged Ravenloft into Mystara by connecting the points in the Altan Tepes mountains that form the northern border of Karameikos where it meets Darokin.  I reasoned that the Barovian people in Tracy and Laura Hickman's original I6 - Ravenloft were of a very similar background to the Traladaran people of Mystara.  So, in my version of Mystara, Barovia and Castle Ravenloft were located in those mountains before Strahd's deed caused himself and  his surrounds to form the first realm in the Ravenloft demiplane.  So the Vistani and the Barovians of Ravenloft both descend from the Traladaran people.  Strahd, as a warrior-conqueror-dude seems of a very similar tradition to King Halav, but where Halav became a Traladaran Immortal through his bravery, Strahd achieved an immortality of his own through evil.

So, Cyndi and Illyana had met by chance on the Duke's Road running east from Specularum toward Luln.  A group of black wolves with glowing red eyes chased them into the same area, but before the women could fight their way out- the mists happened.  The mists transported them to Barovia and into Ravenloft.  The REAL campaign started then.  Cyndi and Illyana made friends- some of the best NPC personalities I'd ever created.  They traveled around the Dread Realms, encountering all sorts of ancient evils, including the Death Knight Lord Soth himself and a spirit that occasionally possessed Illyana.  Soth, seeking release from his prison-realm of Sithicus, tried to use Illyana and Cyndi in a bid to destroy Strahd, reasoning that as the first Dread Realm if Barovia somehow fell, the rest of the demiplane might come apart at the seams, dumping its denizens back to their original planes.  Cyndi and Illyana thought they had outsmarted Soth by accepting his offer and his information on how to get into Castle Ravenloft- their intention was simply to escape.

Now, the particular adventure of this campaign that I consider the very best I have ever run occurred during this foray into Ravenloft, and before the PCs and their new allies - including a two NPCs who would become romantically involved with the Illyana and Cyndi - returned to Mystara to thwart Strahd's attempt to invade his old home reality with a mysically summoned conjunction of the realms.

What made this particular adventure so amazing?  Well... it was a perfect storm of awesome.  First, I had a two player group, both of which had a deep investment in their characters and their campaign.  Mary had played Cyndi on and off for eight years, and Randi tends to crawl inside her characters as a matter of course if a campaign lasts long enough.  This allowed a kind of depth I don't often see in our groups.  Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of great players- but running as many games as I do for a game club means entertaining the masses becomes the primary goal.  Shifting groups, larger than optimal groups, factors that sometimes stunt RP opportunities.  In this case, I had two committed players who allowed for a much more detailed world to be drawn around them.  Mary and Randi didn't mind RPing a scene where they were just sitting around a campfire with their NPC allies and talking.  They spoke in character a LOT - which can be an uphill battle with some of our club members.  The stories of Cyndi and Illyana got to be center-stage, rather than any conflict or combat.

Second - the burgeoning relationships in the adventure led to in-game marriage and the first in-game child I've seen born outside a Pendragon campaign.  The NPCs were superb, the players cared deeply for them, and that deepened the story further.

Finally - this particular game session took place in a very special way.  Mary had bought me tickets to the Huey Lewis & The News concert in San Antonio.  They were playing, along with Chicago, at the Verizon Ampitheater.  We got space on the berm.  We arrived early, and played some D&D at the Chili's near the venue, then went on to the concert as early as they would let us in.  We spread out our blanket and pulled the D&D books back out and played until the concert started.  It was incredible.  My wife, my best friend, a great D&D campaign, and my favorite band for my birthday.  Life, that day, couldn't have been any more awesome.  And that's the favorite adventure I ran.

Come to think of it, I tend to remember the campaign as a whole, so it's hard for me to come up with which actual details happened at the concert.  I know it was after the Soth encounter and before the run on Castle Ravenloft to escape back to Mystara...  but the whole day was just such an incredible blur.  Great game.  One of the best.

06 July 2015

D&D 30-Day Challenge: Day 10 - Craziest In-Game Experience

This one has to go to Brother Maynard during our mini-campaign at Lost Pines Scout Camp during the summer of 1989-90.  Our DM was our scoutmaster's son, Tim Goorley.  Our scoutmasters were often frustrated with us for spending so much time playing D&D while scouting, so they forced all of us who had not yet made the rank of First Class to go into this program which would gain us everything but the time in grade requirement for First Class over the course of the Lost Pines trip.  I don't particularly recall anything about the trip being that much fun save the D&D, the sailing merit badge classes, and a counselor named John who was awesome, into Lita Ford and G&R, and got bit by a spider.

Every night we played D&D.  Every night.  Until the scoutmasters forced us to turn in.  We had this epic campaign going where we were defending a town from undead, the Golden Grimoire was somehow involved, and the Big Bad we had to fight the night before we went home was some sort of demon.  Well, Br. Maynard was nowhere near powerful enough to do much to a full-on demon straight from AD&D (we were playing BECMI.)  None of us had magic weapons that would do much to it.  We were in trouble.

Br. Maynard quaffed a Haste potion and beat feet back to town to score as much holy water as he could carry from the church, since the only thing we'd thrown at this thing that even tickled it a bit was holy water, and we didn't have much of that.  So off Br. Maynard went at double speed, running for his life and the rest of the party's...

...and then a lucky crit with a +1 blade apparently saved the day before Br. Maynard could make it back to town.  So... battle over.  Day saved.  Game broke up, we packed up the next morning and went home.

On the next regularly scheduled scout campout, we of course played D&D.  Someone jokingly asked "Hey, did Maynard ever stop running?"  

And that's where this story REALLY starts.

For the next twenty damn years, in any D&D game involving anyone who was there, and some folks who just heard the story later, at random moments a Cleric would run through a scene at roughly double speed.  No explanation, just a REALLY fast guy with a warhammer wearing plate.

Then somehow it became a streaking Cleric.  NO IDEA how the armor came off.  Or the arming coat.  Or the underclothes.  And anyway, if he's naked, how the hell does anyone know he's a Cleric?

Time and again, through different groups and different DMs as the Legend of the Streaking Cleric proliferated, poor, cold and exposed Brother Maynard continues to beat feet through Mystara still trying to get that holy water back to his comrades to defeat the demon that was defeated sometime in June of 1989...

<Jack Palance>BELIEVE IT... OR NOT </Jack Palance>