November 23, 2007

3.5e, the Good, the Mixed, and the Ugly...

As promised, here we go...

Here’s a few observations—nay opinions, and strong ones at that!—about Third Edition:

The Good

1. It’s a unified system.
Everything makes sense and works logically together. Skills are based on a relevant (well usually) ability. Making a skill check is Ability + Skill ranks + roll. Pretty logical. Other systems work together well.

2. Easy “to hit” rolls.
Low-level combat is easy for the DM. Forget those old 1st Edition combat tables! Forget the much-ridiculed THAC0 mechanic. The monster’s AC is the total roll needed to hit, period; if the PC reaches that number, they hit. I’m so glad we moved away from a negative number AC system.

3. Feats.
Now all 10th-level human fighters need not be the same! Personal customization is key. Receiving additional feats and abilities greatly add to the fun of leveling up.

4. Magic-users are fun again.
It’s great to have wizards and sorcerers with more spells. In the old days, you fired off your daily sleep spell at 1st level and then hid behind the fighters. Now wizard-types can mix it up pretty well, without making the fighters feel weak or useless.


5. It’s a unified system.
The integrated system lauded in #1 above can also make customization more difficult. Don’t like attacks of opportunity? Throw them out … but look out for the PCs or monsters with the Combat Reflexes feat… Retooling the system just got a bit more difficult.

6. Miniatures use.
Using miniatures has now become almost de rigueur for D&D gamers. The game has a much more tactical feel. I personally like minis, and I like knowing how far I can move in combat (especially having suffered as a player under poor DMs that slow PC movement unfairly while letting their favorite villains move about in combat like the Flash). I do know some players that hate the new, chess-like aspect of combat, however. I’ve often seen crazy, zig-zag movements to avoid attacks of opportunity that don’t jibe with heroic combat at all, so at times I can understand the criticism.


7. Long stat blocks.

Years ago I tried the Mythus game system with a bunch of friends. We played through a dungeon of two using the very Gygaxian rules … and then stopped. One of the main reasons, beyond all the new abbreviations and odd rules quirks, was the loooooong stat blocks. (Pick up a copy of Necropolis sometime—which makes the Tomb of Horrors look like a day at the beach, by the way—and look at the BBG’s stats at the end and you’ll see what I mean.)

My first thought when we abandoned the system was, “God, I hope D&D doesn’t ever look like this. Skill-based stat blocks are pure hell.” Well, flash forward 10 years…
I hate the super-long stat blocks for bad guys at CR 8 and higher. Hate ‘em. Scanning a stat block for a super-villain is ridiculous—what does he do next? I understand providing all the spells for a 20th-level wizard/fighter, for instance, but do we really care if he has a flare spell? Would he really use that spell? Ditto for listing many of the prerequisite feats. It just doesn’t seem necessary.

It appears this problem is being adjusted in 4e. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

8. Advancing monsters.
I’ve heard differing views on this one, so I’ll chalk it up to personal taste. I’m not a math guy. I have a very logical brain but my SAT scores were fairly lop-sided. So when it comes to computing stat blocks … well, meh.

I think advancing creatures—be it advancing a beast or leveling up a humanoid— is a royal pain. I like having War10 kobolds, etc., to keep the players on their toes (I can see the ad: “Kobolds aren’t just for 1st level anymore!”) but the DMs work just grew big-time. Check out the otyugh-advancing example in the back of the MM. This brings to mind a likely series of events:
  1. DM spends a half-hour advancing an otyugh up 10 hit dice.
  2. The two wizardly PCs dispatch the critter with two simultaneous fireballs.
  3. The DM, suppressing a sob, leaps out the nearest window.
In the 1st or 2nd Edition days, creating a gnoll commander went pretty much like so: increase his HD by 3, give him 3d8 extra hit points, bump up his armor, and give him a magic axe. Done, five minutes!

Now let’s make a gnoll commander, say a Ftr4, in 3rd Edition: first we select the feats, then we compute the skill points and ranks (adjusting for class, synergies, armor, and racial bonuses)… Eech. Yes, if you’re running a home game you could probably leave out his Swim or Rope Use skill values and take some short cuts, but if you are writing for publication or want to be by-the-book, the DM’s job just got a whole lot harder.

9. Fast leveling, slow play.
Level advancement in 3.5e is too fast for my tastes. I agree that is shouldn't take years and years of game play to see PCs level up, but in my experience 3rd Edition PCs level up every other session in the lower levels—first and second level seem to flash by—and it seems that the players barely get used to their PCs before they’re tacking on new feats.

Likewise, gameplay has generally slowed down. Combat at higher levels is painful—for the players and DM, not the PCs and monsters! A dramatic final combat can take hours.

Creating characters on the fly is also a chore. In 1e, an experienced player can create a fully-equipped 10th-level PC in 15 minutes if they aren’t overly fussy about mundane equipment. Creating that same PC in 3e/3.5e probably takes an hour.

10. Third Edition is a powergamer’s dream.
Part of this falls under DM responsibility and control over one’s players, but the new system makes number abuse very tempting. Third edition has made charisma less of a “dump stat” and has balanced out the abilities fairly well, but there are other areas where “clever players” (read: munchkins) can build unbalanced characters via bizarre class combinations—I’ve seen some absurd combos online to be sure—or weapon and feat choices. Spiked chain, anyone?

A recent Wizards column spoke about Power Attack and how the feat was meant to represent a warrior’s ferocious swing in combat but instead led to most players coldly min-maxing their bonuses to get the best “bang for the buck” in combat—some minor abuses are very common.

11. Poor grappling rules.
I guess some things never change!

November 15, 2007

Detroit (White)rock City

This past Saturday was the Goodman Games’ Castle Whiterock (DCC # 51) release party at Gamer’s Gambit in Fairlawn, New Jersey.

I tromped down into the Gambit “dungeon” to find Adrian Pommier already hard at it—running a table-full of eager adventurers through the caves of Whiterock. (Actually Whiterock has all types of environments, including underwater, but this was mostly a cave level.) As many Gen Con tourney players can no doubt attest, Adrian is a kick-ass DM, and it was great seeing him comfortably run the PCs through their paces. Soon I was offered the sole spare character—a bard*—and despite a raging fever (I had spent much of the week fending off a fierce bug, almost ankheg-sized at that), I got sucked into the action. Play in Whiterock? Sign me up.

Jeff LaSala and his wife Marisa participated, as did Adrian’s wife CJ, and Whiterock co-author Chris Doyle hovered about at the ready, lending aid and handing out copies of the Sinister Secret of Whiterock (DCC # 51.5) as needed. Adrian’s got a great play style, and I found myself forgetting my spinning head and getting pulled into the adventure-in-progress. Our party was fighting its way through a cave level of the mega-dungeon, fighting off giant ants, mountain troglodytes of all types, and hideous demonoid-looking frog spawn. The mountain trogs were an unexpected treat—its not often one gets “on the wrong side” of one’s own monstrous creations and I had never actually encountered them as a player (I understandably DMed all the playtests for The Scaly God). This level had mountain trogs raised a notch, including what might have been the biggest, baddest trog of them all! I won’t spoil the surprise, suffice to say that Adrian’s description of a huge creature with arms like trees sauntering toward us got everyone’s attention. It was a great few hours—the type that pass too fast—and it’s a great dungeon. Get ‘em while they’re available, folks. (Me, I had Mike Ferguson bring me back one from Gen Con—something he probably cursed me for on the plane ride as the boxed set must weight 15 pounds! Thanks Mike!) I congratulate Adrian and Chris on their big, bad dungeon and I hope one day to explore its fabled halls once again.

*I’ve never played a 3rd Edition bard … ever. I don’t have anything against them, but it just never worked out that way. So this was kind of funny. And when I tell my regular players, they’ll find it amusing indeed. Let’s just say the bard was quicker with his rapier than his lute. Call me impulsive.

October 28, 2007

Halloween Treats

Halloween weekend in my house always includes a few frightening movies, played back-to-back and viewed with friends (beer, coffee, and chips also in abundance). This year, in addition to a few “scary” Three Stooges shorts inserted to break up the gloom, were two offerings I had never seen before: The Descent (2005) and Saw (2004). I often prefer older, classic movies—such as The Omen—so this year I went for the new(ish).

The Descent

This movie involves a group of six women who partake in a yearly adventure-sport outing. Shortly after a white water rafting trip in Scotland, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) loses her husband and young daughter to a grisly automobile accident. Her strong-willed friend Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid) convince her to join the next expedition—a caving excursion in a scarcely populated area of North Carolina.

After arriving and entering the cave system, things begin to go badly wrong. The women are trapped by a cave-in, and Juno admits that, rather than exploring the ‘boring” cave system they had planned to visit, that she purposefully led them to an unmapped, unexplored cave system. The ladies hunt for a way out, struggling with injuries, short supplies, and each other, and just as things can’t apparently get worse they do—something else in the caves is alive and wants to feed on them.

The film worked for me. This is straight-up horror. The film-makers don’t bother with gratuitous topless scenes or silly humor—this is pure horror, like it or not.

The six characters, while not all well defined, are realistic and reflect all stripes from the reckless and headstrong to the meek and over-cautious. All the major food groups of horror are represented: claustrophobia, darkness, fear of heights, painful injury, being trapped, being hunted, and friends you cannot trust. Jump-at-you scares are coupled with rising dread well. My biggest complaints: at times, especially as the action picks up in the last third of the movie, it’s difficult to tell whom is with whom or where people are in the caves; the creatures also could have used a slower revelation, in that once the women become clued in that they may not be alone, the creatures are there in abundance attacking them. The creatures themselves, described as “crawlers” in the credits, were well played and frightening. Watching this film definitely helps put the fright back into visions of RPG explorers wending their way through dark cave systems.


This film has become a popular franchise, so a I knew it was just a matter of time before I saw it. For the uninitiated: the plot of this first installment finds two men, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell) awaking in a dirty room, chained to the wall. Neither one appears to know the other. They discover cassette tapes in their pockets and, after obtaining a recorder clutched in the palm of a corpse lying between them, play the tapes. They are being held captive by Jigsaw, a serial killer know for placing his victims in devious deathtraps where they must undertake almost unthinkable actions to survive. Following slim clues, they find hacksaws that are too thin to cut the heavy chains that bind them … but perfectly adequate for cutting off their feet. Meanwhile Dr. Gordon is told that he must kill the increasingly untrustworthy Adam by 6-o-clock—or his family will die.

For a series of films known for its gore (the third installment is reputed to be particularly gruesome) I found this film very “blood light” and far more of a mental exercise. This is not to say it doesn’t work—it does. At times the plot gets stretched a bit thin, and the film must be viewed tongue in check, but watched in that light I thought it to be an effective, interesting bit of psychological horror. I was happy to see Danny Glover in the role of an obsessed detective, and Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannel (who also co-wrote the movie) turn in reasonable performances.

I wish everyone a Happy Halloween!

October 21, 2007

Bringing a Map to Life

It was with great delight that I saw the recent-most work of None the Wiser, an architectural illustrator by profession, on the Goodman games message boards. None has already lent his expertise to Wildsgate from Into the Wilds (DCC # 28) and Kyarovsk (and other far wilder locales) from Talons of the Horned King (DCC #36), so I couldn't wait to see what he could do with The Scaly God. I certainly wasn't disappointed! Check out a sample:

None also included several awesome "beauty shots" and should be posting more SG work after he works on other projects. I can't wait.

The main thread on the GG boards may be found here.

Ever since Ravenloft castle, and Sutherland's incredible map of Strahd's castle, 3-D maps and level break-aways have proved invaluable to players and DMs alike in conveying a better sense of layout and view that simply cannot be reflected in flat, static maps on graph paper. I encourage DMs to make use of sketches, alternate views, 3-D views, physical props—I once plopped down a working, medieval-style hand crossbow on a table during a session to imply the threat made by a guard, and I've brought crystal balls and bags of gemstones to use in sessions as well—anything that can help your players visualize the fantastic realm they are exploring. The architectural (and structurally accurate!) renderings that None produces are a wonderful example of such a tool that makes the dungeons more real.

Here's to None the Wiser and his outstanding work!

October 04, 2007

1e, the Good, the Mixed, and the Ugly...

Here’s a few observations—nay opinions, and strong ones at that!—about First Edition:

The Good

1. It was first.
I could dedicate a whole post (or blog) to my wonderful memories of First Edition. For many of us, it was our first experience with a role-playing game, and, in my humble opinion, D&D is still the best. I’ve experimented with other game systems, but I always find my way back to good old D&D.

I love the old adventures, some of which are shockingly old and shockingly deadly, and sometimes I wonder just how much nostalgia comes into play when folks say they like a particular old module. Was the Tomb of Horrors really the best “killer tomb” ever—or simply the first killer tomb that player ever experienced? Like the Tootsie Pop, the world may never know.

2. Simplicity.
Drawing up a 9th-level character for a one-shot even couldn’t be easier. If it’s a fighter-type, deciding on equipment and magic items will probably take longer than actually rolling up the PC.

Likewise, adjusting bad guys isn’t anything to break a sweat over. Need a gnoll commander? Bump up his hit dice and hit points, give him better armor and perhaps a magic spear and you’re done. No fancy Excel sheets needed, thank you very much.


3. Total DM control.
For all the charts and tables, 1e left a great deal of power in the hands of the DM. There are no attacks of opportunity … unless the DM wills it. Criticals? Ask the DM. How are magic items created? Ask the DM. Special maneuvers? Say it with me now … ask the DM!

The game experience could vary wildly on the flavor of the DM’s home world or campaign style (something that hasn’t changed completely, but has lessened).

4. Plug and Play.
Don’t like a smaller part of the rules? You can probably pull it out and ignore it. Don’t like weapon speed factors—throw ‘em out! (Gygax did! He never played with them.) On the flipside, this led to a crazy quilt game of sorts, with various disparate parts that never seemed to be part of one seamless whole. Roll d20 for this, roll d100 for that, roll d6 for secret doors and surprise … it was dice chaos.


5. Weak spellcasters.
Gary Gygax’s master plan for spellcasters—mages specifically (or Arcane casters for you 3e folks)—was for them to start off the weakest but to ramp up their power level until they were the strongest character type in the game by 12+ level. It was a cool idea, having varied power progressions. Every 1e player soon learned that thieves raced through the early levels, whereas clerics and fighters were steady and sub-class fighters, monks, and magic-users followed their own, often slow, pace. Yes, cool concept. Trouble is, most players never reached 12th level or higher with their magic-users. Level advancement was slow in those days, and because mages were so damned frail they rarely lived long enough to cast fireballs, forget time stop.

6. Fighters were a bit too strong.
A part of this leads in from number 5 above, but the high number of magic items for buffing fighters and their higher number of hit points makes this the class to beat at least until 6th level or so. Unlike 3e, there are no penalties for wearing heavy armor so the “meat shield” theory is taken to the max here. Wear platemail, run for miles, and swim? Sounds good (unless the DM rules otherwise; see number 3). The addition of some powerful, no time limit/charge magic items—the girdles of giant strength come immediately to mind—could make an average fighter into a real killer too.

7. Poor pummeling/grappling rules.
I guess some things never change!

September 21, 2007

A Throwback Night

My current group of players recently decided to scale back our regular play, because of the ridiculous work schedules and family obligations we face. We were moving along nicely in Paizo’s third adventure path, Savage Tide, about half-way through the second adventure, when reality intruded and my one friend scaled back his involvement to a "once every 6-8 weeks" level.
The upshot is, after some discussion, we decided to truncate the AP and immediately switch to things that would require less continuity. I suggested we switch to “one-nighters” or adventures that were basically self-contained and could be resolved in 2 or 3 nights, maximum. We also decided to be totally flexible with regard to PCs, even using pre-generated characters and not forcing ourselves to stick with a set group given the long gaps between play sessions. It meant sacrificing much roleplaying, something we had actually tried to increase (we play a fairly tactical game), but it would be easier given the circumstances—more akin to a good boardgame but yet keeping the dice rolling, so to speak.

We normally rotate DM duties (each of us would take a turn for each slice of the AP), so I offered to DM for my overwhelmed friend. I needed something fast and dirty. It’s important to know that our entire group, small though it is, has been playing some form of the game for 20 years, so were all D&D veterans. I decided on a radical change of pace — 1st Edition D&D, pre-generated characters, with a random module selection decided the night off play.

I gathered the troops and labeled four modules with numbers 1 through 4. I selected classic modules I had at hand, that included pre-generated PCs, and that I thought were good. They varied wildly:

#1 Tomb of Horrors (yes, that Tomb of Horrors!)
#2 Lost Shrine of Tomoachan
#3 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
#4 Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure (better known these days as Maure Castle)

Dice were rolled and it came down to #1 and #4. Discretion is the better part of valor, and they chose #4. I dragged out the PC sheets and ancient books including my 2nd copy of the Player’s Handbook, guts falling out, inner flap — we noted to our amusement — autographed by Gary Gygax in 1988 (almost a 20-year “antique”)!

As the night went on I was happily surprised … it was a great deal of fun. I fumbled with improvised Intelligence checks (no Spot or Search checks to be had), there were no attacks of opportunity (to the delight of one player), and combat was deadly.


At one point early on, the PCs entered a certain trapped chamber and Rigby the cleric was soon less one magic hammer … which led to bemused cries of “This is so Gygax!” (I explained it was more Robert Kuntz than Gygax, but the point was taken!)

In time, just before we broke for the night, the adventurers completed their sacking of the first level by reaching the area inhabited by the “Terrible Iron Golem” —those familiar with Maure Castle know exactly the heavy-duty critter I’m speaking about here.
Before the smoke cleared, Mordenkainen was prone, deadly poison flowing through his veins (DM liberty changed an instant death into a round-by-round struggle for life), and the troops were rallying to his aid at top speed. Yrag slipped on his ring of invisibility, grasped a special magic sword, belted down his precious potion of storm giant strength and ran to the attack. Bigby and Rigby swooped down on their magic carpet, Bigby blasting away with magic missiles, only to find themselves soon riding a carpet of ash to a rude crash-landing on the hard marble floor below, thanks to the golem's firey breath. Yrag tore into the golem ferociously and the golem responded by hovering above him and hurling its massive, poison-coated sword down at him…

Needless to say, Mordenkainen was rescued, the golem was felled, and the exhausted players filed out at approximately 3 am. The night was a good lesson that it’s good to be open-minded about editions in these “edition war” days, and that D&D—regardless of version—has always been a great game, despite its faults.


The session (which will be continued) helped clarify in my mind the things I prefer in 1st Edition or 3rd Edition, and how some things have improved at the direct detriment of other things. I hope to address these items in my next installment. Stay tuned!

August 17, 2007

And now the news...

It would appear that Dungeons & Dragons 4.0 has arrived (or at least been announced), and the hordes at Gen Con are getting some small details as to the direction the game is going. My reaction to the news? Many questions. How will this effect the Open Game License / SRD? (I heard that the OGL will thankfully continue, but details are scarce.) How good will the online utilities actually be? Will the game become even more miniatures oriented? It’s a frightening time, especially for d20 authors, but also a very exciting time, to be sure.

The coming days will hold many answers, and I can’t wait.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here my meeting with Mike Ferguson this past weekend. (Check out Mike’s blog here! And if you haven’t checked out Mike’s Goodman Games modules and other products [such as the Known Realms boxed set, which he co-wrote with Jeff LaSala and Harley Stroh], I heartily suggest you do.) Mike is a fantastic guy, and he has an infectious enthusiasm for gaming and writing that shows; before I knew it we had spent a few fast hours sitting over pizza, chatting away about the RPG business. Assuming this 4e news doesn’t rain on our parade, I can think of nothing better than a future combined project—it would be interesting indeed to see what our “fevered minds” can create together. Some of our talk involved just such a prospective project, and I hope all comes to pass.

To the future!

June 06, 2007

Start the Fantastic with the Real

Part of the fun of RPG adventure writing, for me at least, is the act of creating something from nothing. Spinning a saga whole-cloth from the old Grey Room is a fine art, and when the process works and you can sit back and examine what you’ve created and … well, it’s great. Sort of like enjoying a gourmet meal you spent all day cooking, to use an easy culinary analogy.

Trouble is, our brains often follow a similar track. Not mine to yours, but mine to mine. If I create one dungeon, I’ve got to be careful to make the next one different, and so on. It’s easy to get into a mental rut. If I design a underwater sahuagin palace with the same standard outer guard rooms as my last orc cave complex, what’s the point? They might as well all be orc complexes.

Some RPG authors are good at keeping things fresh. Gary Gygax wrote three giant lair modules and each one presented a unique giant lair. That's adventure writing. But for most of us, it's more of a challenge to keep things fresh.

I’ve finally come to realize that using the real world for inspiration isn’t a bad thing. Our real world is loaded with inspiration. So is our media. Seen a good movie lately? Have a favorite old Star Trek episode? Remember a creepy gothic story? (Go H. P. Lovecraft! Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!) Hear about some political machinations on public radio? Read about a devious murderer finally brought to justice? It’s all good fodder for the mill. Sometimes the mere act of watching a fantasy movie—even a cheesy one—is enough to jump-start my mental engine. Take ideas when they appear and run far with them.

Real world cultures are also a fantastic inspiration. The other day I watched a dog show on television and I was boggled as to the sheer number of breeds of every size and shape out there (and yes, I know man custom breed many of them, don’t spoil my fun). In a similar fashion, the range of cultures that have inhabited our planet blows my mind. Eskimos, Viking warriors, samurai, Hopi Indian, Aztec, … it goes on and on. All these cultures have art, homesteads, rituals, clothing, religion, ways of war, methods of surviving, etc., all unique to them. Compare ancient Japanese armor to Middle Age European armor—very different, yet both fairly effective for their time. All armor doesn't have to be the same. And all dungeons need not be the same either.

Currently I’m working on a potential project and I’m using the Anasazi, Mayan, Aztec, and American Indian (Sioux and Chippewa /Ojibwa tribes, and others) as inspiration in developing several humanoid cultures and customs. Does this mean my humanoids believe in Thunderbirds or Huitzilopochtli? Not quite. But perhaps my humanoid tribe leaves petraglyphs on rock walls. Perhaps they sacrifice prisoners to their god. Maybe they even play a primitive ball game, not unlike pitz.

When I envision weird temples or ruins, I might think of Tulum or Stonehenge, or when I create a castle, I might think of Cardiff Castle; to name three real-life places that I was able to visit in person that later had a direct effect on my writing. My current ruin-muse is Angkor Wat (haven't gotten there yet, unfortunately).

The idea is to draw upon the basic ideas, the things that make you interested, and make them your own. Soon all your dungeons won't look the same anymore, and your readers and players will thank you for it.

May 17, 2007

Fringe Benefits

The other day a got a reminder of one of the fringe benefits that comes with creating published work, especially adventure writing.

There's no denying that part of the joy of being a writer is knowing others actually read your work (or, dare we say it, enjoy it too). That's where it's at. Getting your name on the cover is cool, and getting the check in the mail ain't bad either, but an unread book or adventure is a play performed before an empty house. Unread work lies, to an author's pain, in the drifty realm of the lost, the abandoned, and the nugatory. The work simply isn't complete until that magical bond between writer and reader is forged. In the case of adventure writing, there exists a further level, because getting them to actually play it becomes the highest pinnacle.

Years ago (many years ago actually, it's scary how they go by) I had a good-length adventure published in Dungeon magazine. Chris Perkins, bless his soul, had recently taken over as editor and took the first thing I sent him. There were bumps in the road—oh yes—my query got misplaced in their offices, I was return-mailed some else's manuscript at one point, and when it was revision time they informed me that their policy had changed and they were now, mid-stream, lowering the maximum length of all adventures, including mine. I had to cut nearly 6,000 words, pages of good material that survived the editor's red pen untouched, from the manuscript. Still, they took it and printed it and I was a very happy camper.

A year or two later (still back in the Milwaukee days) I attended Gen Con with a friend, and I found myself squatting before a vendor's bookshelf loaded with old TSR mags. Next to me a fellow gamer was flipping through the Dungeons and his hand lingered on mine for a moment. I longed to open my mouth and cry "Take that one! Inside is the best damn adventure ever!" but in the end I smiled and turned back to my own shopping (to the best of my knowledge, he bought a different issue).

Two weeks ago I was standing in a hobby store, thumbing through the latest WotC hardcover (they seem to come out on a weekly basis these days) and two gents walked by me, chatting about the Dungeon Crawl Classics line. My ears perked up, and I continued to scan the text before me whilst opening my sound holes a bit wider to catch the drift of what they were saying. They drifted over to a metal rack about 10 feet away, one of those spinning numbers, loaded with DCC adventure modules.

"Yeah, some of them are pretty good," the first guy said. I couldn't hear the reply, but it seemed to be in agreement. He pointed to a module on the far side, out of my viewing range.

"This one was pretty decent," he said, gesturing with an index finger. His eyes moved rapidly over the books, discarding a module and quickly moving to the next. He pointed to another. "And this one was really good..."

I waited as the rack spun and the module I authored came into view.

"And this one was a good one," he said, with a last decisive jab of his forefinger. He was pointing at mine.

And l happily bit my tongue.

April 19, 2007

The End of an Era

It is with incredible sadness that I make this post. The startling announcement that Wizards of the Coast deicided to terminate Paizo’s license to produce Dragon and Dungeon magazines took me and a host of others by surprise. It seems WotC feels the in-print magazines will compete with their coming online venture.

I grew up with both magazines. I picked up Dragon #42 (pictured, center above) on a whim at a California gaming store and was soon hooked. My start with Dungeon began with #5. I guess that makes me a pretty old gaming geek!

I love the magazines. They've had their ups (the "old" Dragon!) & downs (the mid-90s Dragon) but the magazine provided the best, hands down, regular source of gaming material, particularly in the pre-Internet age. I'm highly computerized and no Luddite—I once worked in hardware repair for years and now check my e-mail habitually—but nothing beats having a real, printed, paper magazine sitting in my hands. I've got boxes full of the old ones and even after getting my hands on the ultra-hard-to-get (at least for less than a prince's ransom) Dragon 250-issue CD Set I still prefer digging into my old cardboard boxes and getting out the real thing.

My first published adventure appeared in Dungeon #67. It was a great experience and taught me a hell of a lot about the RPG business, so the mag is dear to my heart. Dragon too found a home for my letters, including a running debate about the "TSR rules thugs"—I term I coined in those ancient pages that still gets laughs of recognition from the old-timers in online forums. The mags and their editors were kind to me.

Dragon and Dungeon were gaming institutions, and rightly so. The art and articles and cartoons that graced those mags over the years is drool-worthy and earned my respect (and money) long ago.

The most recent publisher (position-wise) of the magazines, Erik Mona, turned around the semi-failing Dungeon and stagnant Dragon and brought vibrancy back to both. Dungeon in particular has really shined this last few years. I wish the Paizo boys the very best with Pathfinder and their other projects, and I hope we truly haven't seen the last of these two great, venerable titles.

April 06, 2007

Easter Eggs

I love Easter eggs ... the RPG adventure type, that is.

So-called "easter eggs" are the little hidden rooms or interesting areas tucked away in an adventure or dungeon, something that the player characters might discover if they are lucky, clever, or very unfortunate indeed. (I also like the humorous so-called easter eggs tucked away in modules—I've found many in old TSR modules—but that's a topic all its own & one I'll get to another day...) Goodman Games encourages their writers to add eggs into adventures, and some adventures have had some good ones. The GG adventure The Secret of the Smuggler' Cove had what might be the most fiendish I've seen—a cave shrine that may only be reached via a underwater swim. (As a certified SCUBA diver, I can tell you that cave-diving is more dangerous than most non-diver gamers would dream, which just adds to the appeal!)

The best adventure bits for me are the weird ones and the creepy ones. They don't have to be cleverly hidden or impossible to reach, just really interesting and "out of place" in the context of the overall dungeon with being totally jarring. This is not to say I dislike cohesive dungeons—I don't, and good adventure design fairly demands it—but those weird, mysterious touches get me every time. Gary Gygax was a master at this, and finding the little disturbing rooms he salted in his large dungeons was like biting into a big piece of jalapeno in the nacho heap—you knew it when you hit one.

A great example is his venerable Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. The module contains a two-room area on the lower level, just off to the side of the feuding humanoids, that contains a weird little temple and a "vestry" that basically amounts to a blocked passage.
The temple is tiny and bears little connection to the overall place, except to imply that once, long ago, the hill giants (or unknown others) worshipped things better left alone. The place had the standard Gygax descriptions that evoked multiple senses (there were "greasy feeling" columns there!) and it was short & sweet, yet creepy. The fact that a PC could go insane in the room didn't hurt. It was still the days of the 1st Edition, and characters acting greedy in weird temples usually came to bad ends, and quickly...

When I wrote my own The Scaly God (plugga plugga) I made a point of creating my own little weird temple as my easter egg. It's hard to find/reach, and it hopefully plays a bit of easter egg homage to E. Gary Gygax (note the initals—EGG) at the same time. When writing it, I tried to keep my own unique voice in the design as I always do, but all those weird temples over the years, from the awesome Giant series to the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, still burned in my brain and it showed. That's a good thing.

In real life, I detest eggs. But in when it comes to adventures, definitely serve me up a couple of easter eggs, weird side up.

January 05, 2007

Dinos and Rust Monsters

It was long rumored that Gary Gygax once purchased a plastic bag of those little plastic dinosaurs (of the type you purchase in hobby and toy stores) and discovered a few odd critters in the bag. He promptly made them into D&D game creatures. The monsters created included the bulette and rust monster, and possibly others. This rumor has since been confirmed by the Master himself.

Many years ago I stopped into a KB-Toys on a whim, and there, sittting in a glass container on the counter loaded with rubber spiders and such was a tiny rust monster. I promptly grabbed it, paid for it (it was less than one dollar), and "Lucky the Rust Monster" has been tied to one string of my venerable dice bag ever since. That was sometime in the early 1980s.

I've since seen at least one other picture of a similar plastic critter—identical really, except for a bit more brown color—and confirmed as best possible that I have the same plastic monster EGG grabbed years before. So, without further ado, I present Lucky the Rust Monster...

(Thanks for the EN World folks for inspiring this post!)
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