Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Top 10 favorite TSR products, #6 Gamma World

Gamma World is the first RPG I played that wasn't D&D. I was introduced to GW with the 1st edition, but the 2nd edition was the first one I owned, so that edition is Gamma World in my nostalgic mind.

Gamma World is very similar mechanically to classic D&D: hit dice, armor class, abilities (wisdom changed to "mental strength"), it's all there with only classes, levels, and elves removed. To this day I don't understand why TSR kept trying to make new RPG systems when they already had the world's best - and best selling - RPG: D&D! How much more fun if Lolth, Cryptic Alliances, Yzarians, Spiderman, and Indiana Jones could exist together. The imagination boggles at the possibilities.

This was in the 80's. We had the cold war and Thundarr the Barbarian. So in a way Gamma World made sense then, though it seems ridiculous by today's standards.

Thumbing through my old copy I recall it was the first time I'd seen the 3-column layout used, which TSR became addicted to for a while so they could cram more words on the page. Also, Elmore did a lot of drawings for this game. I do so like his pen & inks. And Keith Parkinson was just starting to find his voice as an artist.

If I was to grade the editions I'd have to say 1st and 2nd edition where the high water marks. It went downhill from 3rd on. TSR fell in love with the Marvel Superheroes "column shift" system and slapped it onto Gamma World and it didn't fit well. 4th was a bit like 2nd edition AD&D, which wasn't all bad, but the book felt rushed and incomplete as did 5th edition. 6th is an abomination, I don't even want to talk about it.

Jonathon Tweet probably caught the spirit best in his "Omega World" tribute to Gamma World in the hallowed pages of Dragon magazine.

Occasionally I daydream about starting up a classic Gamma World campaign, but I feel it's one of those things probably best left in my warm memories.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Top 10 favorite TSR products, #7 Rogues Gallery

Ok, I have to redeem myself for that last post. While Dragonlance has a warm fuzzy place in my heart, I realize that likely readers of this blog in general do not hold such introsive, heavy handed story-railroading in very high regard. In my defense I did try to focus on the art (I consider many of the DL covers to be stunning) not the plot.

#7 on my list is The Rogues Gallery. There is little I can say that James Maliszewski hasn't already noted. So I'll try to avoid being a "me too" post (an impossible task).

The first 2/3rds of the book is not particularly exciting, just lists of numbers. It did have some utility for those on-the-fly npc's that are often needed in the heat of running an adventure. Especially as player's tend to do the unexpected. It was the last 3rd of this book that really shined and makes this product rank #7 in my favorites.

After the rote spreadsheet-style npc lists, we get some interesting and useful things like sages, merchant caravans, and monsters like ki-rins and liches kind of detailed out. But the best part was the individual npc descriptions in the very back, making this product special. It had classics like Tenser and Mordenkainen, but for some reason it was Phoebus the lizard man, and Talbot the centaur that intrigued me. They had similiar stories in that they'd each died and due to lack of ressurection availability were instead reincarnated. Talbot was the most appealing to me because his story was tragic. Whereas Phoebus was able to embrace his lizard-manity, Talbot was lonely and an outsider, unable to hang with the centaurs, but no longer feeling comfortable around humans.

This book is monumental in my memorie and imagination and it was one of the most useful D&D accessories from that period.

Of special note, regarding the art, the cover is strange and compelling as to be expected from the illustrious Erol Otus. But this book has the best (and some of the worst) examples of Jeff Dee's drawings. In particular, next to A Paladin in Hell by the late Sutherland, this is one of the most compelling compositions of a paladin:
Doesn't it still make you want to play a paladin? Like right now...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Top 10 favorite TSR products, #8 Dragonlance

Dragonlance. For grognards the very name conjures up images of characters being railroaded through a storyline. The beginning of the end for "old-school" gaming. Considered to be mediocre derivative fantasy at it's worst by some.

For me, being the visual person I am, Dragonlance was the most compelling thing I'd seen in all my (then) 15 years on this planet. I've mentioned before that J.W. Waterhouse and Herbert Draper (19th century painters) were my inspiration to become an artist. It was Keith Parkinson, and specifically his Dragons of Desolation cover that made me want to become a fantasy artist. When I saw that ominous flying castle my mind was sufficiently blown.

For a moment, let's look at the first few Dragonlance modules not as the railroad stories they are, but as adventure locales - and you can see they really are compelling, even from an old-school perspective.

In DL1 Dragons of Despair, it had a village in huge vallenwood trees. It had a dungeon that was a collapsed, sunken ancient city. It had a mysterious elven forest. And the draconians, though almost a cliche now, at the time where new and interesting foes.

In DL4 pictured above it had a flying-freakin'-castle that was an ancient tomb! That is cool in so many ways. Or as we would say in the 80's, it was "rad"!

As a kid I did think the series got quite strange, and practically unplayable, sometime after DL6 Dragons of Ice (with the exciting ice boats), and I don't remember playing any of the others in the series except DL11 which turned out to be a wargame (I played the draconians and lost, badly). I recall being quite surprised it was not actually a module after excitedly buying it at the game store and bringing it home to open.

But, DL4 Dragons of Desolation still conjures up those deep feelings of nostalgia everytime I see that cover. It brings back memories of drawing characters for the other players, reading the novels, and our gaming sessions being nothing like the books - but much more fun in my opinion.

Interesting side note: that Dragons of Desolation painting came up for sale on eBay once. I had just gotten a bonus at work and had just enough, it was going for about $3000. My friend warned me that I would regret the purchase. It was a hard decision, but that was a lot of money, so I let it go. He was right about one thing, I do regret - but not in the way he thought, I regret not having purchased it.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Is 4th Edition Doing Well?

I've expressed my feelings on 4th edition here before. I'm not such a grognard that I hate what they've done. I understand the need for a product like D&D to adapt to a new generation if it is going to thrive.

There is much banter that 4th edition isn't doing that well, and much complaining. I'm glad my friend Joseph Goodman has cleared up the myths:

"My opinion on D&D 4E"

In case you don't want to read his longish post, the short of it is: yes, it is doing very well. And for that I am glad. As for me and my gaming group, we're having a blast playing S&W, and having fun with friends is what it's all about.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Top 10 favorite TSR products, #9 Star Frontiers

I was never aware of the existence of Traveller in my teens. It may have been advertised in Dragon, but I don't recall. I'm such a visual person the lack of art would have turned me off anyway. So Traveller holds nothing for me, Star Frontiers was our sci-fi game of choice.

Larry Elmore may be even better at sci-fi than at fantasy. I loved his tech designs in Star Frontiers - the ships, the laser guns, and the outfits. This cover image is absolutely exploding with fun - I immediately knew what kinds of adventures we could have in Star Frontiers. Looking at it now I recognize how cheesy it is, but in the 80's everything was cheesy anyway.

This came out in the golden era of TSR box sets. Before RPG's became bloated monstrosities, the rulebooks were just right at around 64 pages. We were able to understand the game, and have hours of fun roleplaying adventures, why did rulebooks ever need to be any larger or more complicated?

This game had everything you'd want except spaceship battles; weird alien races, strange planets to explore, and a mysterious enemy: the sathar! I loved how the illustration in the book was a dissected sathar, because there were no live specimens.

The game was a simple roll-under skill percentage. It was a little like OD&D meets BRP (Basic Role Playing: the Cthulhu/Runequest game system).

Of particular interest to grognards is the way Star Frontiers was really an old-school game. It was wide open, fly by the seat of your pants gaming. Not every little thing was defined. The skill system was loose and one of the best designed in my opinion.

As much fun as we had with Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn, it was the publication of Knight Hawks that made the game a full sci-fi experience. Now we could have spaceship battles. The set came with a remarkable amount of counters for various ships. It was a rather cool boxed set.


Interesting side note, Moldvay had his hands in the game, particularly in the included Volturnus modules which had laser-mounted cyborg dinosaurs! How cool is that? My respect for Moldvay continues to grow.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Top 10 favorite TSR products, #10 D&D Expert Set

Swords & Wizardry has inspired me to read through my copies of old TSR products lately, and it has been stirring up deep feelings of nostalgia, so I thought it would be terribly fun to do a top 10 list of favorite TSR products.

Any list of this nature is likely to be controversial, but this is what stirs up those warm feelings in me and sparks my imagination. Anyone who played D&D as a teen in the 80's probably shares many of the same favorites.

My first encounter with D&D was around 1981. This is the same year the Moldvay Expert set was published. AD&D was "completed" with the release of Deities and Demigods the prior year, and B.A.D.D. (bothered about dungeons & dragons) was still a year or two away.

I will begin my list at #10, which has the distinct honor of belonging to Tom Moldvay's D&D Expert Set.

Why, out of the thousands of products made by TSR would this make it all the way up to the #10 spot? The cover is great, the writing is superb, and it has one of the best adventures ever written...The Isle of Dread!

In this set we are introduced to iconic, powerful spells: fireball, lightning bolt, polymorph, cloudkill, the walls (fire, ice, stone), and reincarnation! It had all the essential charts from basic included, and character classes described from level 1 to 14 and beyond. It even had a great primer on how to create your own fantasy world. Of all the designers TSR employed, I admire Moldvay for his ability to condense a concept to its essence and explain it clearly. He also had a way of providing just enough to stir the imagination, but wasn't heavy handed, he did not do all the thinking and creating for you.

To give an example of Moldvay's conciseness, on page X4 he describes Two-handed weapons with a single paragraph of about 27 words. In the Rules Cyclopedia this paragraph is expanded to over 35 words - and is repeated at least 5 times, sometimes with just slightly different wording (a very bad thing in a rules book). This makes for over 140 words of redundancy in a book already crammed to the brim, over 300 pages, with tiny text - and somehow says less than Moldvay accomplishes in the Basic and Expert sets with just 2 64 page booklets. (in all fairness I love the Rules Cyclopedia for many reasons, and it does have a lot more "stuff", but it is exceedingly and unnecessarily long-winded)

With this set I never felt the need to buy the basic set (I could always look at a friends copy). This game was really a bargain. By todays standards it has "too much gameplay" - the customers can get so much use out of it they don't need to keep buying as much stuff.

As much as I like the oft touted Keep on the Borderlands, I am especially fond of The Isle of Dread.

What Moldvay did for the D&D rules, he applied that same precision and bountiful imagination to this wilderness adventure. As undeniable proof I present exhibit #1, the map of the Isle of Dread:
This just-detailed-enough island has everything you'd want to explore: jungles, mountains, caves, villages, ruins (the best place for adventures!), tar pits, a tree village, even a pirate camp!

It has a little monster manual in the back with 15 new monsters in it, all of them interesting and useful. In particular the phanatons and rakasta intrigued my young developing imagination. The description of the kopru, a very strange monster, had the word "sphinctered" (mouth) - I asked my mom what it meant, she busted up laughing and said that it was like your butt. I still didn't understand back then. Really.

If you still harbor any doubt about how great this adventure is, here is the coup de grace, the first map of Mystara:

An entire fantasy world was in that module! Each country had a paragraph description that gave no more than essential information so that a young creative DM could let his imagination run with it and flesh it out.

Unfortunately, my clearest memory of running this adventure also happened to be the very first time I DM'd. I remember giving the players the blank map of the island and making them painstakingly map out each hex as they explored it, I put them in the jungle area with nothing else to do. Well, they only lasted about 3 sessions before they left to find a better DM. I was heart broken, but it was a valuable lesson - realism is boring and the DM's job is to create an exciting experience for the players with something cool to do or find each session.

When I think about the many bloated adventures and books out there, I'm amazed at how much Moldvay was able to put into that little 32 page module.

The expert set had so much going for it, I'm not sure it gets the credit it deserves in the way the basic set does. For me, though, it brings back fond memories of high adventure with more powerful characters against more powerful monsters, intelligent swords, strongholds and so much more.

You may notice that my set, pictured at top, looks quite mint - the dice still have their crayon and wrapper! This is thanks to the wonders of eBay, alas my original set has long since disintegrated and been lost.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Wrath of the Immortals - ability scores

I thought I was being original when I speculated what stats in original D&D would look like if expanded up to 30. Little did I know Aaron Allston beat me to the punch in the Wrath of the Immortals set.

This is one expansion to basic D&D that I missed out on, and only recently won on eBay. Reading through the set I found the first couple of chapters booooring. But with the 4th chapter "The Immortal Character Class" it suddenly became very interesting. Then I saw this handy little chart:

Not only did Mr. Allston beat me to the punch, but he took it all the way to a hundred. Wowzers! We would have so geeked out over this book in junior high, when we were using the Deities and Demigods as our high level monster book.

I've long since stopped enjoying power for power's sake in RPG's, and currently find nothing more fun than those first few levels when your scratching around for a +1 sword scared of your own shadow. (unless your playing 4th edition, which pretty much starts you where Wrath of the Immortals ends. That is hyperbole, of course, but only a little.) However, Wrath of the Immortals struck me as a really good primer for adapting D&D rules into a superhero game! It wouldn't take much, detail out a few more powers and you could stat out Superman and Wolverine with this book.

I can't imagine ever playing this as is, but as a superhero game the possibilities intrigue me.

Note: apparently this table is reprinted from the Immortals boxed set of 1986

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Monastery Plan View

Getting this blog back on track, let's continue to develop the Monastery Ruins. We've already talked a bit about putting the original map in isometric, and thinking about the depth of levels (much more to develop on that later), so lets move to what the ruins looked like when they were pristine.

This will help us develop some back story, and help to put some context to the adventure site.

I firmly believe in site-based adventures, and instead of rail-roading the players through a preconceived story, I prefer little "story nuggets": NPC's with interesting back stories and motives, places with interesting history to them that the players can discovery. Put enough cool stuff for the players to find - and the story will make itself as they play through the adventure.

The first original map we need to make is the monastery itself. This is extrapolated from the concept sketches. A key to an interesting adventure site is some variety and a focal point. The focal point is obviously the monastery itself. For variety we have a river, a bridge, and some tree groves. This will provide enough features we can populate with monsters, traps, and treasures, all with a focal point to lure the players to.

I haven't developed a key yet, I prefer to rough in some adventure ideas first, then think about placement. That will come later. For now we have a solid base to start deconstructing the ruins from.

I have this idea of perhaps having a prologue to the adventure, where players play different characters in an earlier time when the monastery was still new and vital. The actions they take then will affect the future - the players will see the results when they play the rest of the adventure later. But, it's only an idea for now I have to think about it more.

Monday, June 8, 2009

What's in a name?

I love 4th edition, but it also leaves me a little unsettled.

What I admire about it is how Wizards has put together an impressive product line. The graphic design is the best D&D has seen - you can read that logo from across the room (unlike the previous edition books). The art is outstanding! The shelf of products is impressive. From the hard cover books, the dungeon tiles, module packs, player cards, to the miniatures. It all comes across as well thought out and designed.

I can also recognize how well designed the game is. As a game designer myself, I know how hard it is to design a new game.

And that's why it leaves me unsettled. It's not really D&D anymore, it's a new game.

Yet I continue to purchase the books, read them enthusiastically, and dream about the adventures I could be having. We've only played a few sessions, and those sessions have focused on combat.

More recently we've been playing Swords & Wizardry, though it is quickly becoming something other than S&W as we've been house ruling the heck out of it. Yet as much as I love Swords & Wizardry, there is no denying the power of the Dungeons & Dragons logo on a book. It's very similar to when you go to the store, you can buy generic cheaper, and it's probably just as good, but branding has a powerful appeal.

We could just play an older edition of D&D, but there is something vital about a game that is alive with supplements continuing to come out.

And this is why I feel unsettled. I want to play D&D, but I feel like D&D only exists in the imaginations of the fans and in dusty old out-of-print books.

Friday, June 5, 2009

S&W character sheet


Because the world can always use another character sheet. I tried to keep it simple and straight forward, which is what I find so charming about Swords & Wizardry. You can always add endless details to these things.

This is just a jpeg, I'll try to get a PDF version available for download soon. Maybe after getting some feedback.

Update: uploaded the PDF to a file sharing service