December 29, 2009

Happy Holidays!

It's that time of year once again! A good time to be thankful for my many blessings and good fortune. This past year has been a crazy one, lots of ups and downs, and no small share of disappointments to be sure, but the RPG work is ongoing and I am endlessly thankful for my family, friends, and you, gentle reader.

Here's to 2010!




November 30, 2009

NaClaMoMo: The Hidden Shrine

One of my top three favorite modules of all time is undoubtedly The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan by Harold Johnson & Jeff R. Leason


It's one of the first, if not the first, tournament module ever published as such (although it's worth noting that many famous modules—among them The Tomb of Horrors—first saw life in convention tournaments).


Despite its age, the module somehow blends many diverse concepts into a united whole and it also eschews the wild unrealism of White Plume Mountain and The Ghost Tower of Inverness while still offering an intense array of unique challenges.


Pros

1. Theme

Theme rules here. The adventure takes place in a pyramid with a heavy Aztec/Mayan flavor. The encounter areas are very detailed, almost over-detailed, and all the treasures and most monsters are tailored to fit the setting. This leads to some unique critters, such as a mummy-centaur. The setting is utterly immersive.


I always loved settings that transport you—not always literally—to a new place. The PCs should never feel like they can simply lean out the cave door into the sunlight whenever they please, the way I see it. That's why I like the Tomb of Horrors ... once the PCs enter, they soon have the feeling that there's no turning back until the ultimate goal is reached. I love that. This module does you one better, if played one way (there are two, to be mentioned later) the PCs are forced to travel upward in their bid to escape the pyramid ruins before poison gas lays them low. Yes, it's a bit railroady, but the creativity employed in the encounters and the multiple paths to freedom give the ziggurat a surprisingly unconstrained feel.


2. Balance

Name has a great balance of traps, critters, and puzzles. My own creations are fairly puzzle-light, but when reading works like this I'm galvanized to enrich my own settings with more puzzles the players can solve. Here they are such a crucial part of this adventure that players failing to think on their feet might well kiss their PCs goodbye.


3. Background Detail

The author here has done his research, and it shows. This dungeon wasn't designed or written in a week or two, I'll wager. I reads like a labor or love (as the best adventures do).


4. Cool NPCs

The module provides three tourney-ready PCs that fit well with the overall theme. A pity there wasn't a few more!


5. Flexibility

The pyramid may be entered from the bottom—in the tournament-style start the PCs are running away from bounty hunters in the jungle and are dumped into the pyramid's basement by a cave-in—or it may be entered from the top down by more exploration-minded parties. Thus, some rooms are detailed to be run from varying directions. 


This author ploy succeeds in part, but IMHO the dungeon works much better if the PCs climb upwards because some traps and secret doors simply are oriented that way, and the pyramid encounters also seem to get more difficult as one ascends.


6. Cool Encounters

The encounters, as mentioned, are varied and all show creativity. There is a chamber where something with molten feet has leapt about and melted huge, clawed footprints into the floor. But where is the creature? Another area requires the characters to traverse a pit via jungle-gym style bars while killer plants hurl thorns at them. Yet another area forces inquisitive PCs into a game of pelota (in this case, a sort of Mayan soccer) where they must knock an dangerous animated ball into a goal or risk setting off a deadly trap. 


Let's see. A room that fills with sand—check. A room decorated with magical mirrors—check. Huge mill stones tumbling Indiana Jones-style down stairways—check. Creepy undead and entombed vampires—check. There's even a distinct nod to Metamorphosis Alpha in one room. This one has it all.


Con

1. Age

The module shows its age in some respects. I spent much of my flight to the last Gen Con reading this module in the hopes of running it for the Goodman Games crew (alas, this didn't come to pass) and I was struck by the huge blocks of detail-heavy text the DM must wade through at times. A DM grabbing this off the shelf isn't going to run it well on the fly. Indeed, any DM thinking about running this should set aside a decent chunk of time to read it properly and understand all the encounters and puzzles. That said, I think the DM will find the investment well spend indeed.


I highly recommend this module. It may not be classic as far as having orcs and the like, but it more than makes up for that by pushing its chosen setting to the limits.


November 19, 2009

NaClaMoMo: My Take on the Village of Hommlet

Ah, The Village of Hommlet! What better module to consider for NaClaMomo?

This module ranks in my Top Ten Classic Modules of All Time—full list to come in a latter post! I can't resist making a few comments about it.

This adventure was a masterpiece of old-school design. It's open-ended, with no overt hooks at all. The PCs are presumably at the village simply because evil once lurked hereabouts and they want to make a name for themselves. Aside from reports of bandits running the roads (don't they always?) there's little to go on, yet the ruined moathouse, a former bastion of evil, begs to be explored by the brave and perhaps foolhardy.

The module shows its age in some ways. Every NPC is written to have treasure in case the PCs decide to slaughter them. It's possible for several nights of combat-free play in the village and then WHAM, the PCs can find themselves in a meat grinder of a situation and die. Yet despite this, it's surprisingly easy to run and can be successfully used by new or newish DMs. 

I ran the module a few years ago (not for the first time) and the players had a great time. They cut rather quickly to the chase, not seeing the need to interview every wainwright and fletcher, but the detailed locations and small mysteries stood the test of time.

Pros

1. The village is brimming with interesting personalities and NPCs just waiting for DM expansion. Moreover, there are plots aplenty here and villains abound. Some NPCs have the potential to be long-time allies or enemies.

2. The village has great "home base" potential and the PCs could realistically return to the village between adventures elsewhere. It's also located in a fairly civilized but interesting area of Greyhawk.

3. The infamous moathouse works well. It has atmosphere, a cool map, and it has a great mix of critters without feeling overcrowded. (In realistic terms, it is overcrowded, but it's easy to look past that simply because the dungeon has a great flow to it.) And Lareth the Beautiful is a splendid bad guy (his moniker alone is classic).

Also worth noting is the awesome illustration by David Trampier of the moathouse (see below), which corresponds to the map exactly. I love that drawing.

Cons

1. It's Deadly! I don't know if this is exactly a con, for me it's almost a bonus. Not because I enjoy killing off characters—indeed, I've been accused of being a "DM softie" no doubt—but at first level it's good for the players to get a subtle (or not so subtle) reminder just how inexperienced and, well, mortal their characters are. This has been lost in the era of 3.5/4e/"look at all my powers Ma!" and it's a shame.

The moathouse has a few real uber-baddies, which include two—count 'em—patches of strategically placed green slime, a killer crayfish (a very cool addition), and some heavy-duty humanoids. Lareth, the final bad guy, has an armor class of –1; that means first-level characters including fighters need a 20 to hit him! (It's mixed odds the PCs will even have magic weapons when they met him.) There's also a place where the characters can simply get lost in a warren of ghoul tunnels—presumably until they starve—if they take a few wrong turns on the map! Woe to the player that lets the giant rats lull them into a false sense of comfort!


2. As Mike mentions in his post about the adventure, the delayed release of the Temple of Elemental Evil left the poor DM hanging for years. One wonders just how many DMs created their own Temple, based on the name and few other details, simply because their players wanted to head there next.

3. The treasure is lop-sided. The villagers have almost nothing, the average treasure is often a number of coppers in a iron kettle buried beneath a dung heap. Yet the moathouse, as Mike also mentions, has a great deal of loot. (Where are the bandits getting all this anyway if most of the locals are so poor? Local merchant trains? Extra from the Temple?) Be prepared to cut the end-treasure in half if you want to maintain game balance.

4. A few things don't make complete sense. How did the moathouse start crawling with evil again under the collective noses of Rufus and Bernie, and the other agents of good within Hommlet? To be fair, the good NPCs are hobbled or kept otherwise busy so the PCs can be the stars, which is how it should be, but still...

If you're looking to start an old-school campaign and remember the true spirit of AD&D as it was first envisioned, break out your venerable hardcovers and give this oldy-but-goody a try. You won't be disappointed.

November 18, 2009

A Cthulhu Chat

I got a chance recently to do a podcast with Mark Kinney of All Games Considered about Madness in London Town and gaming in general. Mark struck me as a great fellow and the interview was a pleasure to do. Afterward, of course, I couldn't help but think about why I didn't mention this or that, but I think I at least conveyed some sense of the process behind our adventure playtesting and such. Moreover, I'm humbled to be interviewed, period. I've interviewed a number of music artists in the course of my radio work, but it's weird to be on the other side of the fence, so to speak.


The interview got my brain in Lovecraft mode once again, and I immediately pulled a story collection or two off the shelf and began reading. I haven't explored many of the non-Lovecraft Mythos stories, so that's where I'm focusing now. Specifically, I want to read Ramsey Campbell's Cold Print (about which I've heard good things) and some of the early Lovecraft-inspired Bloch and Howard work. 


A link to the interview can be found here. You might also wish to listen to my Goodman Games comrades Mike Ferguson and Ken Hart in the interview before mine chatting about their experience producing the upcoming Shadows of Leningrad (they certainly sound more lucid in their interview than I did in mine)—the link to their interview is here.


Thanks for listening!


November 06, 2009

This Year's Halloween Selection

This was a busy Halloween, as the 31st marked the first birthday of my son Kai (how fast that went!), but I managed to squeeze in my annual Horrorthon. Ken Hart of Goodman games fame and my old friend James were on hand as I pulled out my box of horror DVDs and warmed up the DVR.


This year's selection:


The "Living Doll" episode of the Twilight Zone

"My name is Talky Tina..." I've always found dolls creepy as all get-out, and this episode was no exception, especially the chilling finish. Telly Savalas, sans lollipop, plays a great heel in Eric Strater, yet you almost feel sorry for the guy by the end, trapped as he is between a marriage on the edge of collapse and a sinister doll. June Foray provided the voice for Tina. I think the earliest occurrence of the dreaded doll-on-the-stairs trick I can recall was in an old Ray Bradbury story—I can't remember the name but it was during that period in the late 1940s when Bradbury wrote some fiendish stories about killer babies and such.



I recall many, many years ago crawling into the cubbyhole on the upper floor of my parents' home looking for something. It was our version of an attic. It was dark, dusty, and cramped. I was flat out on my stomach, pulling myself forward and ever-deeper with my hands in quest of that elusive item. I came across one of my sister's dolls, a heavy model with metal eyelids that opened and closed. Unbeknownst to me, the doll was made to work with a magnetic "wand"—if you waved the wand the metal eyelids flapped open, and if you touched the wand to the doll's chest the doll's arms would close and "hug" you. 


As I neared the doll I stumbled across the wand and, not knowing what it was but curious, palmed it. Moments later I came face-to-face with the doll in the narrow cubby and as I tried to push it out of the way, my hand (still clutching the wand) touched its chest... The doll's eyes popped open and its arms closed around my hand in a tight embrace. To say I popped out of that cubby like a cork from a champagne bottle is about right. Only later did I figure out what had happened. Brrr.


The Simpsons TreeHouse of Horror III (which, by no coincidence, in part mocks the TZ episode above)

A great counterpoint to the evening's other chills!


"Eater" episode of Fear Itself

This episode concerned a policewoman who is part of a skeleton crew in a dingy precinct watching over a cannibalistic serial killer they are holding overnight. The environment was suitably frightening, but the episode quickly devolved into pretty standard fare. The stupid behavior of the protagonist didn't do much to generate sympathy.



Rogue

As killer alligator movies go, this wasn't horrendous, but the character development was sorely lacking. Why should I care about these people again? Because two of them flirted a bit? That said, the alligator effects were pretty good! I also thought the scenic shots of Australia—clearly taken on location—were fabulous and added greatly to the feeling of puny humans in the great wilderness.


"New Year's Day" episode of Fear Itself

This was a rather tame version of the standard speed zombie / rage zombie theme wherein a woman awakens after a long New Years party to a very changed country. I liked the way the flashbacks revealed glimpses of the evening before and the ending helped save the episode for me. At the heart of this was a really good idea.


Many thanks to my fellow film watchers for an enjoyable evening. Here's to next year!

October 22, 2009

The Game Closet of Doom

I recently purchased a house, and implicit in that development was an agreement with my better half that I move all my boardgames to one location. Instead of, say, the living room, living room closet, the mutual office shelf, and various boxes salted all around. I now have my own (albeit small) office, a "man cave" in the basement, so recently I unpacked most of my boardgames and stacked them in the closet in two rather ungainly heaps.

Eventually I'll put some real shelves in there—the current situation resembles a Jenga game (which would be cooler if Jenga was in there) and I'm no doubt flirting with gravity-induced disaster—but it's kinda nice to see that heap of games within easy reach.

In addition to my favorites, such as Puerto Rico, Arkham Horror, RISK 2210, and Carcassonne, there's a few weirdies in there. Can you spot the old Cosmic Encounter?The Buffy game (hangs head)? The Divine Right Anniversary Edition? The Civilization game I might play sometime in the next life when I actually have a week of playing time to kill? No matter; I love them all.

I hope you too have a game stash somewhere. It's good have have a stack of colorful boxes that help us forget life's worries, inspire our imagination, hark back fun memories from the past, and promise good times in the future.

September 11, 2009

Growing a Thick Skin

Part the RPG author racket is learning to grow a thick skin. For every great fan that compliments your work or happily asks if you'll autograph a book, there is also the flip side: harsh online critiques, reviewers with egos roughly the size of Brazil, and arm-chair critics quick to make uninformed assumptions or make insulting comments about your work. (Recently a reviewer made the assertion that I don't know the location of Scotland and England—two countries in which I spent months—apparently based solely on the fact that I used the word "glen" [a word that has long since evolved from its Scottish roots into the popular lexicon] to describe something in England. Big sigh.) This goes with the territory for any writer, be you Ed Greenwood or Stephen King.

I've always taken the good and the bad. Sometimes the bad still stings my pride, but it doesn't diminish the feeling I get when someone gets pleasure out of something I've written. Not even close. Attending this year's Gen Con was a good reminder just how many cool, intelligent people have taken the time to read my work, and for that I'm incredibly grateful.

That said, I humbly (but with a touch of sarcasm perhaps) offer up some dos and don'ts for prospective reviewers:

Don't ask a product to be more than it is. An adventure isn't a sourcebook or setting. Likewise, a sourcebook may contain only limited adventure material. We'd all like to get everything in every product (me too!), but such is life.

Don't assume the author has much input into the art, ad copy, product's title, or line design—they usually do not.

Don't assume intent of the author. Likewise, don't make the assertion the author did no research or rushed a product because you've discovered a mistake. Most all RPG authors do it for love of the craft, not the money, and every author I've met cares deeply about the product they put out. Remember also that most RPG authors are freelancers, writing on a hard deadline around a separate full-time career, family, and the other things that fill all our lives.

This brings to mind a true story. When my first adventure was published in Dungeon magazine back in 1997, one of the adventure handouts contained not one, not two, but three mistakes. (The handout in question was a short note to be found by the PCs.) I noticed this when my issue advances arrived. I hurriedly checked my original graphic, but it was fine—apparently the typesetter keyed in the text incorrectly. (A common error, which I have certainly done myself.) I contacted the editor and they decided to run errata in the next issue ... hooray! Dungeon rarely did this, so I counted my blessings ... until the correction graphic appeared in the next issue, containing yet another error. The moral: mistakes happen.

Don't allow your biases to get in the way. If you are biased against the game system, game edition, the company, the author or editor of a product, or the nationality of the author/editor, exclude yourself. You cannot write a objective review.
Likewise, do not allow your previous experiences with a company or product line to influence your review—judge the product on its own merits. (It's fair to refer to the overall quality of a line or company's releases in a review, but one should not show any bias toward the specific product being reviewed.)

Don't assume the play style of your readers matches yours. Not every D&D player prefers hack & slash -style play, not every Shadowrun player likes lots of net-hacking, and not every Call of Cthulhu player prefers a super-historic scenario over pulp-style play. Likewise, don't assume a GM purchasing a product is of your age or experience level; a customer can be a 14-year-old newbie or a 50-year-old veteran.

Don't say that an adventure could be better with a bit of tweaking. All adventures, even those written by Gygax, are very very rarely played exactly as written. Every GM has a unique style and will run things a bit different, so there's no need to state the obvious unless major changes are absolutely necessary to fill plot gaps and the like.

Do run an adventure for players before you review it. Writing a complete review based on a single read-through alone is rather like reviewing a film based on the screenplay, yet a huge number of reviewers still do this.

Do be fair. Acknowledge the good and the bad, and write to inform rather than as a mere exercise of sardonic wit.

Do know that authors very much appreciate you taking the time to write a review of their work! Reviews, fairly written, help the author hone his or her craft. I thank all those that take the time to write RPG reviews.

August 28, 2009

Top 10 Things Thundarr the Barbarian Taught Me About D&D

10. A magic sword is always a good thing to have.

9. Raid your stepfather's library to learn new spells.

8. It's good to have a companion that growls and throws people around.

Fun trivia: Ookla got his name because the struggling writer passed by a UCLA sign.

7. Horses can safely land, with a rider, from any height.

6. Wounded old men you meet on the road can be counted on to impart information.

5. Bad guys tend to sneer the word "barbarian."

4. If you really need to get something done, a scream of "HaARRR-yee!" doesn't hurt.

3. Brute force beats out magic or technology!

2. Never trust a wizard ... they can be two-faced.

1. Barbarians kick ass!

August 21, 2009

There and Back Again

My decision was made rather last minute, based on a whole lot going on in my private life, but I got out to Gen Con 2009—huzzah! This year's con was a good one.

My wow-this-looks-rather-small plane touched down Friday afternoon—shockingly on time—and soon I found myself walking down the Indy sidewalk and glancing over at the Ram as if I had never been gone. It felt good to be back. I scooped up my badge, stopped to say “hi” to some fellow editors/writers, and then headed off to the Rock Bottom for some beer, buffalo wings, and ribs.

Later that night I (gasp!) got in some gaming, playing Xcrawl with the gang. Brendan LaSalle, the game’s creator, was our GM and he runs an exciting, rousing game. You haven’t lived until you’ve swung a sword from the front seat of a bumper car in a spike-filled arena! Many thanks Brendan for an awesome time.

Saturday afternoon much of my time was spent in the dealer hall, working the Goodman Games booth and flitting around the show floor in my spare moments.

Catalyst was selling a lot of cool items, in particular their CthulhuTech line, which, as noted on the blogs of my colleagues Mike Ferguson and Ken Hart, looks pretty damn cool.

Paizo released their Pathfinder rulebook. Not alpha, not beta, but the real deal. It’s a hefty book, costs $50, and was up to their usual productions standards. If you hated 3.5e, you can pass that sucker right by, but if you prefer 3.5e “fixed up a bit” with house-rules (grappling, I’m looking at you!) this combo player/DM book might well be up your alley.

Business at the GG booth was brisk, and I got the chance to talk with a lot of our fans, which was awesome. Our real popular draws this year seemed to be the excellent hero's Handbook series (especially the brand new Hero's Handbook: Tieflings and Hero's Handbook: Eladrin), our 4e Dungeon Crawl Classics (especially our $2 module and, surprisingly, the Warbringer's Son tourney module), and Level Up magazine (the new issue was sold out Friday I believe). The new Age of Cthulhu line (which is close to my wicked little heart) also attracted a lot of interest, especially from many folks that hadn't pulled out their Cthulhu books in a while.

We had a steady flow of customers, and recession or no, even Sunday morning was shockingly busy. My favorite moment was when a very popular but not-to-be-named RPG author stopped by the booth to chat and rattled off details from an adventure I had published in Dungeon magazine some 12 years ago! It turns out he's run the adventure for friends in the past. I love stuff like that, it very much made my day.

Saturday night Goodman Games held our yearly “How to Write Adventures That Don’t Suck” seminar. The seminar saw a lot of really good questions this time around, and some of the attendees stayed afterward for more questions and discussion. After the seminar I retreated to the Embassy Suites for a competitive game of Carcassonne with the Goodman folks (tip: never play Carcassonne with Joe Goodman, he’s cut-throat!) after which Ken Hart twisted my arm (heh) into a second dinner (for me at least) in which I attempted to eat a pulled pork mega-sandwich (see photo) at the Ram.

Rick's purchases (man, I went light this year!):

  • About $12 of figures I totally don't need. Well except the aboleth. And the owlbear.
  • Mysteries of Mesoamerica (Pagan Publishing)
  • Bastards of Erebus (Paizo)*
  • Cthulhu dice (Q-Workshop)
  • A plush Cthulhu for my son Kai

*Featuring some very cool monsters by the talented Mr. Ferguson.

Was that really it? Blimey, I should have run through the dealer hall one last time.

Before I knew it, it was Sunday. I did a last cruise of the dealer hall, did a quick final shift at the booth, and soon I was racing for the airport to catch my 2:30 flight home. It was wonderful to get some gaming in and to really talk with a lot of folks this year.

Here's hoping I can attend Gen Con 2010 (or else 2011)!


July 23, 2009

A Little Madness is Good for You

This week I was happy to see the arrival of my first supplement for the Call of Cthulhu game, Madness in London Town. This adventure is the second, after Death in Luxor, in Goodman Games’ Age of Cthulhu line.

The line is a difficult one to author. I always try to write a great, fun-to-play adventure first and foremost, regardless of the game system or ruleset. The AoC line adds three more layers of complication: sticking to the Lovecraft Mythos and feel, getting a good feel for the time period (1920s), and writing an adventure set in a foreign country. This makes for a challenge, to be sure. This project also coincided with the birth of my son, a time that any parent knows is more than a bit crazy (and tiring). I am however a huge horror fan and longtime reader of Lovecraft, so I attacked this project with a singular glee.

I soon found myself buried in research. I watched films about England, Googled up scans of old books, re-read certain Lovecraft short stories, and looked at endless photos and antique maps. I spent several nights just reading about British automobile companies and the models they sold. Well aware that Cthulhu players are a fussy lot—sometimes even overly fussy about rather trivial historical details—I did my best to litter the adventure with little tidbits. (An example: In one scene a description of an entrance of the British Museum casually mentions a bust of the Duke of Marlborough; at the time the adventure was set, there was a bust of the Duke standing there. In other areas—such as the amount of wooded land on the Salisbury Plain or the British Museum having “curators”*—I took liberties to benefit the adventure.)

*The curatorial staff are actually referred to as “keepers” but as the Call of Cthulhu game refers to its GMs as Keepers, I thought it best to avoid confusion.

Good CoC adventures have good handouts, in my humble opinion, so that was also a major focus of mine. I created many of the adventure's handouts and that was a blast. GG has a great group of artists and typesetters, but it was great to wear the design hat for this book.

England was my first choice of locations for this adventure. I spent some time over there studying some years ago, and I liked the country and its people so much that I actually tore up my return ticket. In the end (and luckily for England no doubt) I did return home after wandering the British Isles a bit more, but my love of the country persists.

Now that the smoke has cleared, I’m quite happy with the way it turned out. The adventure has insidious villains, duplicity and red herrings galore, and many old-style creepy touches. Some situations (such as a badly-placed mirror in one scene) were taken directly from frightening experiences I’ve had or odd things I’ve seen. I tried to touch on the multiple facets of horror: blood spatters, crawly wriggling things, mannequins that move when you’re not looking, creepy objects, etc. I also had fun in places trying to evoke a Lovecraftian style of prose (which is to say overly descriptive but creepy).

Thanks to my wonderful playtesters: Steve Crovatto, Mike Ferguson, Ken Hart, Dave Nicolette, and Willie Wahington (extra props to Mike for Keepering and getting Henry Prichard's vocal tics just right). Thanks also to Eddie Sharam for a great cover and for being receptive to my art suggestions.

Writing this book was probably the toughest assignment I’ve had in a while, but it’s the kind that has you grinning enough while you do it to make passerby wonder about you. It was that best type of project because it's an effort but it's also great fun in the process.

I hope you enjoy the adventure. Better yet, I hope your investigator survives it.

June 19, 2009

That Time Cometh

Oh yes, it barely seems like a year has passed, but Free RPG Day is upon us again! This Saturday, June 20th is the day, so be there.

Started by Goodman Games, Free RPG Day is simple: visit your FLGS (friendly local game store, but you knew that already) and pick up free stuff. Simple as that. It's a great way to encourage visits to that vanishing breed, the game store. And hey, while you're at it, support them. You need not buy anything to get a free goody or two, but why not support your local store while you're there?


I shop online as much s the next guy, RPG stuff included. But I sorely miss my vanished game stores. There's something special about visiting a brick & mortar store and actually flipping through that new game supplement or hefting that latest Fantasy Flight Games (free plug) board game monstrosity, not to mention the open gaming (which a surprising amount of stores still offer).

So visit your local store(s) and grab some free booty! Hey, maybe I'll see you there.

June 06, 2009

Chocolate in My Peanut Butter

Years ago in college I edited the school paper. My mentor was a professor nicknamed Tinker, a grizzled old newspaper woman who ran the paper with a firm but kind hand. Every semester it was the same: a student would arrive, new to the paper, and ask about submitting poetry. Tinker would immediately take charge and always forbid the inclusion of poetry ... it was a newspaper, dammit, and that meant just the facts, except for the Sports or Op-Ed pages. The student scurried away, a few months would pass, and another student would show up... I thought to myself, wow, this lady hates poetry.

Later, as I got to know Tinker better (a far nicer woman than she probably sounds here), I discovered that not only did she love poetry, but she had several published books of verse (and not vanity press stuff, mind you).

I asked her once about it, even though I really knew the answer by then, and she said, "Poetry is beautiful, but it belongs in the literary magazine."

Old grognard that I am, I've grown to view my D&D much the same way.

I love horror movies. Love 'em. My favorite board game at the moment is Arkham Horror. I enjoy the Call of Cthulhu RPG, indeed I recently authored an Age of Cthulhu adventure, so I have no dislike of horror games. But too much horror or "grim-darkiness" in my D&D leaves me, well, meh. That trend has gotten old fast.

Likewise, I'd jump at the chase to play the original Star Frontiers game (ears perk up Mike?) or Gamma World (man, I used to dig that game) but mixing science-fiction elements with my D&D likewise leaves me cold. I'm not talking about short adventures for a change of pace, mind you, such as Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or Mike Ferguson's excellent Talons of the Horned King (soon to be released in a 1e version at Gen Con!)—those can be great fun. I'm talking about a steady diet. It's just not my style. I'm a similar stick in the mud when it comes to Gnome gadget-makers, Dwarven railroads, steam rooms, or other non-medieval technology showing up in my game.
I've watched at least one cool History Channel special about the clever use of steam-driven statues in temples by the ancients to fool the faithful, so I know some interesting technology was certainly used in the past, but for me it just isn't what my game is about. A magic electrified floor square? No problem. Electric wires booby-trapping the floor? Don't want it ... even if the end-result is the same.

You see the trend here. I'm all for having a few laughs during the course of play. You thief blew three Climb checks and fell through a window and landed atop the mayor... that's pretty funny. But in-game gags? Yeech. Just play Paranoia already! Again, one-offs like Gygax's Wonderland-inspired modules are fine, but I don't need silly goblins or joke-cracking ettins.

I guess this makes me sound a bit close-minded. I tend to view it as the opposite ... my D&D isn't so boring that I need to mix in everything but the kitchen sink to keep it fun. I get along fine letting my imagination run with the "standard" fantasy concepts (if there is such a thing as standard in this genre). Of course, to each their own ... I've seen a lot of crazy campaigns out there, and some of them were pretty cool. What about you? Like some chocolate in your peanut butter from time to time?

May 23, 2009

Make Way for the Orcs!

It's out:


Monstercology: Orcs represents my longest solo work to date at 50,000+ words. This project was a hard effort, and it taught me my limits in how many quality words I could write in a day. In the second half of this project I hit that beloved zone, that hole in the paper writers fall into when they're really cooking ... every night I would stop writing, check my word count, and exclaim the new total out loud, amazed at what had flowed into my humble, ever-expanding Word document. I love that feeling. The writers out there know what I'm saying when I say there are times I'd pay to make the words flow like that. (Toward the end of this project, every night I lined up a row of plastic orcs on my computer monitor and I would later knock one off for each 1,000 solid words written—if I didn't make good progress, the orcs "won" and were added to the next night's row. I took great pleasure in defeating the orcs in hordes later on!)

I'm real happy with the way this turned out—it somehow has a huge amount of creative fluff and yet when one flips through the book one runs into lots of 4e crunch: orc variations, new weapons, new feats, paragon paths, etc. I also stuffed a full-blown lair in the back of the book for good measure. I was trying for a 60:40 fluff/crunch ratio and I think I came pretty close. The new Monster Manuals in particular have virtually no fluff, IMHO,  and I definitely wanted to provide details that could both extend a DM's knowledge of this very classic monster and also give them a few plot hooks in addition to the crunch. 

My favorite part of the book was actually the fiction intros for each chapter. Early on I conceived the idea, based on my memory of a Forgotten Realms Cult of the Dragon supplement written by Dale Donovan. The supplement wasn't particularly memorable from a rules standpoint, but I thought the fiction snippets, written in serial form, of an ego-strong dragon falling under the sway of the cult and becoming a dracolich was wonderful, wonderful stuff. As it turns out, my project manager, Harley, had good memories of the fiction in that book too, and let me run with my concept. Making the fiction blend into the chapter concepts the way I liked was a challenge, but in the end I think the fiction works and adds the right flavor. 

And hey, while I'm going on here, I'd like to give due props to the talented Ben Wootten for a wonderful cover. That hulking guy is bad-ass!

I'm curious to see how readers like the book and to hear their take on it.

April 19, 2009

Favorite Critters From the Monster Manual II (1983)

Continuing on, let’s take a look at some more monsters. Flipping through this book again, I was actually shocked just how many great creatures are on offer here. It really makes the 4e Monster Manuals looks rather sterile in comparison. Instead of a bunch of bloodied and shift powers, we get a whole range of special spell-like abilities and attacks. Call me a grognard, but this book has aged well.

That said, the MM II was a dumping ground (in the best sense) for the best creatures from various classic modules. Some modules—S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City in particular—brought a host of enduring creatures to the game (you can thank the named modules for the aboleth, behir, and yuan-ti, among others). This makes selected my top ten really difficult … it’s like picking the top 10 Beatles songs, there’s just too many. Anyway, let’s give it a go…

My selections in alphabetical order:

1. Aboleth

These critters scream H.P. Lovecraft to me. They are totally alien in nature and weird—exactly the non-humanoid sort of creature that are perfect for underground romps when you are tired of using the Drow.

2. Behir

I love these guys. Love ‘em. The Erol Otus illustration on the cover of the aforementioned S4 is probably one of his best, and it sold this creature for me. It was a happy day when I got a behir figure in a random figure pack; by weird coincidence I got an identical figure as a birthday present that same day, so woe to the party that explores my dungeon one day and runs into a mated pair of these dangerous, unique monsters!


3. Bodak

Deadly, deadly, deadly. Forgive the dreadful MM II illustration. I love the simple background: “A bodak is a human who was changed to a monster after venturing somewhere upon the Abyssal Planes where mortals were not meant to be.” Stupid mortals!

4. Cave Fisher

Cave fishers make for great set pieces and scenes, allowing a DM to add a fear of heights or three-dimensional tactical element to combat as fishers on high underground ledges haul up hapless adventurers. Of such things are great stories made.

5. Cloaker

Again, here is an alien monstrosity with a cool set of attacks: envelop while holding off assistance with a swinging tail club.

6. Derro/Duergar

These evil small folk are flip sides of the same coin, yet very different. Both serve as a nice balance to the Drow. The elaborate weapon tactics of the derro are the sort of thing you rarely see detailed today in RPGs, and they help to set the race apart. Later editions focused strongly on the derro’s inherent trait for madness, which was a fine addition.

7. Dracolisk

I’m not huge fan of hybrids, as they usually strike me as unfair DM creation meant to kill adventurers. This and Gygax’s greater basilisk (in this same tome) were clearly designed as PC  killers—the greater basilisk has a pertrifying gaze plus poison gas breath, for crying out loud!—but I always liked this particular hybrid for some reason.

8. Gibbering Mouther

Totally bizarre and Lovecraftian, with a cool set of special abilities. Always a challenge to fight.

9. Russet mold/Vegepygmies           

Not only do vegepygmies represent a unique life form, but if you, as an adventurer, are careless you can become one. They were a great addition to S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and a monster that didn’t strike me as a humanoid you could reason with.

10. Yuan- Ti

To me, these snakemen evoke that primitive fear of reptiles—cold, unemotional creatures that will simply consume you if needed. The yuan ti, in my view, evoke the pulpy Conan stories of Robert E. Howard and they are a great villain for those out-of-way places, such as desert cities and similar locales.

So those are my personal favorites? What are yours?

March 25, 2009

The Coolest Monsters You’ve Never Used

There’s a great many neat monsters in that original Monster Manual that I never used, but oh, how I wanted to. I don’t know why they never came up; it certainly wasn’t because of any aversion on my part. Perhaps they were simply too deadly, the wrong level, etc.

In alphabetical order:

1. Catoblepas

I always liked this monster, not sure why. I can see the warthog-like nature turning off some DMs, and it doesn’t fir in well with most enclosed (read: dungeon) environments, but I think the ultimate killer for this beast was its pure deadliness.

Among the Hisperies and Ethiopians is a well, that many men trow is the head of Nile, and there beside is a wild beast that hight Catoblefas, and hath a little body, and nice in all members, and a great head hanging always toward the earth, and else it were great noying to mankind. For all that see his eyen, should die anon, and the same kind hath the cockatrice...
—Bartholomaeus Anglicus, 
13th century CE
    De proprietatibus rerum, book 18

Despite the limited chances of it raising its head, it basically amounts to a single DM roll spelling instant death for any character, regardless of level. (Novel thing that, in this 4e age!)

2. Intellect Devourer

My love of this one rides solely on a great Dave Trampier illustration and the idea of this thing clawing away while it mentally assaults you. The “headless” look of the monster adds to its overall weirdness, ass does its brain like “face.” If seen a few updates of this critter, so I guess for love for it is not a rare thing.

3. Leucrotta

My favorite on this list, hands down. These guys, to the best of my knowledge, appeared in just two adventures (Wandering Monster tables notwithstanding)—Temple of Elemental Evil and a side trek in Dungeon called “Their Master’s Voice.”

The combination of a jackal-like look, the weird mouth (which is based on the original myth), and their voice trickery is awesome. Mike Ferguson does a splendid update of these in Paizo’s Second Darkness adventure path (I adored the illustration Paizo used too); well done Mike!

4. Peryton

This monster looks a trifle wacky, it’s true. But a great many medieval mythical beasts are total patchwork affairs, some far worse than this. It always seems like a good wyvern substitute to me—a creature suitable for mountainous ledges and such. The cool idea of it craving hearts is a bonus. And am I the only one to notice that its shadow is shaped like a human?

5. Su-Monster

These guys begged for a good jungle habitat and a suitable opponent. Savage? Check. Intelligent? Check. Psionics—what? Check! A very cool and unique critter, and I pity the fool that mistakes one of these for just another primate.

Well there you have it. What are your favorite but least-used MM beasts?

March 08, 2009

My Top 10 favorite Monsters From 1st Edition

There are some very obvious, iconic monsters I’m leaving off this list for (what I hope are) obvious reasons—I don’t think the gentle reader needs me to explain the importance of red dragons or orcs in D&D! I’m sticking to the original Monster Manual here, no MM II or Fiend Folio creatures allowed (next post perhaps).
Okay, here we go (in alphabetical order):

1. Beholder

Weird, alien, and badass, these D&D-original creatures could easy take on a whole party and yawn about it afterward. I also love the fact that they are very intelligent and could very well serve as evil masterminds in a campaign. Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms also seemed to give beholders credit for being movers and shakers. To this day I’ve never run one as a DM—never had a party that could survive one—but I really, really look forward to that day.

2. Carrion Crawler

This monster works well for those times where the DM needs a mindless creature with which to threaten the party—it beats out giant ants by a long shot. I always thought giant insects were cool—too many viewing of THEM! on the late show growing up no doubt—and this one fits the bill nicely. (I was greatly disappointed to see they didn’t make the 3.5 SRD!) The Anhkheg makes a very close second place for fictional insect-type monster, but for me the carrion crawler is extremely iconic of D&D (and that’s probably what kept it out of the SRD).

3. Gelatinous Cube

Iconic and deadly. Despite a relatively low hit dice, these babies could sneak up on lone adventures, paralyze them, and consume them before anyone realized it happened. Also, the idea of a vaguely pinkish cube (containing a visible skull or to perhaps) gliding down a dungeon hall always reminded me of the Blob, and that’s pretty creepy. They’re relentless, and they won’t stop to bargain or parley … after all, they only want to consume you…

4. Ghoul

These undead were all-around useful in a campaign. They are a good challenge for low-level parties, but dangerous enough to use with ghasts or as undead backup at later levels. The fact that elves were immune to their touch always gave the elves in a low-level party reason to shine too.

5. Gnoll

Many of the D&D humanoids suffer from an identity complex—they’ve been draw many ways by many artists and players & DMs have defined them in their own terms, which often don’t agree. For instance, how do you picture kobolds? Little evil devil guys like in the original MM drawing? Little doglike or monkeylike guys? Or lizard-like humanoids a la 4e or Paizo’s products? You understand my point.
Gnolls however have always had a fairly consistent presentation. They seem different from the other humanoids, they prefer warmer climes and open plains, and they have the added bonus of demon worship (and Yeenoghu—which I tend to pronounce YEENY-goo instead of Yen-Oh-goo—has long been a favorite demon prince of mine).

6. Green Slime

See Gelatinous Cube.
Very deadly! The Moathouse dungeon in T1 The Village of Hommlet had two of these … in case the first one missed. Charitable, E. Gary Gygax was not.

7. Mind Flayer

Ah, the dreaded illithids! They might well top the beholder in the alien-feeling role, but they serve many similar functions. What did they want? How do they interact with the Drow and other underground races? These questions were left wide-open for the enterprising DM.
The rare character that had psionics knew they wouldn’t graduate as a real power player without exchanging mind blasts with one of these underground weirdies.

8. Troll

A troll could have been almost any concept initially, but the tall, green, regenerating monster of the MM was distinctive and primal. Gygax always descibed them as having nests of bones and trash, which immediately let the DM know exactly how "evolved" these brutes were. Beyond that, the picture of a troll head still trying to bite after decapitation was a vivid image indeed, crowning these guys the kings of regeneration for al time.

9. Rust Monster

I love these propeller-tailed guys. For a monster based on a plastic toy, rust monsters provide a unique threat: something that cannot hurt characters physical at all, yet they can be greatly feared.

10. Stirge

Another wonderfully variable monster. Fine for 1st-level encounters in small numbers, but fearsome indeed in large schools (or whatever a group of stirges is called— a school of ravens is actually called a murder of ravens, which might fit well here). It basically a monstrous mosquito, but this creature alwys seemed very real to me and I never had trouble imagining them.

It’s come to me that nearly all my favorites are creatures created almost whole-cloth for the game, though stirges originate from Italian myth and gnolls from Lord Dunsany and his gnoles. I’ve only listed my favorites here, not what I feel are the most practival in a campaign.

Next time:
The Coolest Monsters You’ve Never Used!

February 27, 2009

My Favorite Monster

Coming soon: My list of favorite original monsters!
(Props to Erik Mona for the idea.)

But in the meantime, here's my real favorite monster:

January 29, 2009

The Smell of Dust is the Smell of Death

On review, this post came off a bit snarky. Sorry about that, it's been a long week. You were warned.

I'm a big believer in FLGSs, or Friendly Local Game Stores. When I'm in the mood to buy a game product and have some cash to burn, I want to go heft that boardgame, flip through that module, or debate which pack of CCG cards feels luckiest. It about the environment—a 'we get it" atmosphere that can't be found anywhere else, save perhaps Gen Con.

Despite living about 30 minutes from New York City, game stores are in short supply for me. (On the flip side, maybe that's the problem: there's way too much to do out here.) When I find a new store, its a rare treat. Like many others, I'll also take what I can get, even if it's the really-a-comic-store-but-we-have-a-few-RPGs type of place.

I've seen a few FLGSs crumple in my time, usually a sad, slow death that is basically painful to watch. Two stores I frequent—neither I'll name—seem to be following this fate right now. Bummer. Yet some places seem to do it right. Some highly opinionated points I'd offer for FLGS success (bearing in mind I have zilch experience running said establishments):

1. Keep the stock fresh.

Get in regular new stock if it is available. Have a "New Arrivals" shelf. Don't make me hunt for the new stuff, it doesn't attract me to the old stock I push aside. Some days I only have time for a quick stop, and a quick discovery is a quick sale.

Don't swear off a line because a single book doesn't sell. I've seen it so many times—a store begins to carry a line, a book or two from that line doesn't fly off the shelf, and wham, no more new arrivals. Perhaps I've already got that book and I'm looking for the next. You never know.

2. Keep the "F" in Friendly-LGS.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but there it is. Be nice. Offer assistance, then back off. Don't follow me around the store, haunting me like a ghost, but don't ignore me either. I once walked into a FLGS, selected a $60 boardgame from the shelf, and then waited in vain for 15 minutes at the front counter to be acknowledged. I wasn't. I walked, and the $60 stayed in my jeans. Not good for your business, and not good for my attitude.

3. Diversify.

Think about mixing in non-RPG goods with your stock. I'm not talking totally left field here, but RPGers share a lot of similarly geeky interests. Show me 5 guys that play D&D, and I'll gamble one's a horror fan, one likes graphic novels, one plays the boardgame Descent, one owns a Playstation or X-Box, and at least one's an avid reader. Stock a bookshelf with fantasy novels and perhaps some thriller or horror fiction. Carry some graphic novels. Stock some toy figures (McFarland, etc). You get the idea. For geeks like me, it's one stop shopping. And hey, if the latest Pathfinder I'm seeking isn't there, I might buy the latest copy of Walking Dead or a boardgame instead.

4. Allow some "geek space" but keep your geeks in line.

Most stores are good about this. A FLGS is a safe haven for roleplayers, so allocate some space for them to throw down some dice. 
That said—and I hate to say this but it's true—control your customers. Every other game store I enter seems to have at least one fellow that's bellowing at the top of his lungs about his female elf wizard character or pinning me up against the wall in an unrequested conversation telling me the glories of his favorite game system with his nose 6 inches deep into my personal space. Not cool. It's worse if I bring my better half along with me or, worse yet, her parents. (And yes Virginia, it happens. I've gone on family trips out of state and had to enter newly found FLGSs with unexpected company!) In fairness, customer behavior isn't the sole responsibility of the FLGS.

5. Keep the place tidy.

Hence the title of this post. I used to find the smell of dust in game stores quaint. Now it makes me want to bolt. Hefting a game book from the shelf with a half inch of dust on it just makes me feel like I'm accepting someone else's leftovers. Even if you've had it in stock for 6 years, unless its an original Fiend Folio or Dragon #20, I don't need to know that.

Here's to all the great FLGSs out there. I love you guys, and I hope you all easily weather the current economic situation and keep rolling for years to come.

January 10, 2009

Geek Gifts

The thing about being a gamer is that we love our toys. Not necessarily our cars—though I had a red sports car in my youth—but our toys. You know, those little things that scream "Gamer!" when non-gamer folk see them. The Dark Knight calendar on your wall? That McFarland dragon sitting on your shelf? That Cthulhu bust in lifelike green? Geek toys.

Now that I've reached my forties (gasp!), I've pretty much informed my wife that she is my last bastion for the holiday or birthday "geek gifts"; my family can lower themselves to the occasional DVD, but that's about it—otherwise they ask what clothes I want. Now don't get me wrong, I've long since entered the realm in which clothes, home gadgets. and other practicalities are something for which I can happily shop—as a new father I even take real enjoyment picking out  baby clothes, gods help me ("Isn't that the cutest?")—yet there's a certain boyish charm to knowing that there might be a boardgame or GM screen or miniatures pack under the Christmas tree.

This year's guilty pleasures included:

The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks.

I loved Brook's World War Z; after seeing the title pop up again and again in my Rue Morgue -style readings, I finally broke down and bought this great work. I had never heard of the author, but damn if he didn't bring a thoughtful, fresh take to the zombie genre with that work. 

I'm a self-professed zombie addict, truth be told. I love movies about the shamblers, ever since watching Night of the Living Dead on the midnight show scared the living hell out of me as a youth. The Zombie Survival Guide looks to be an amusing, thorough work and I can't wait to dive into it. 

Speaking of zombies ... there's also the Walking Dead vol 8, Made to Suffer.

I purchased my first Walking Dead on a business trip in a Washington DC bookstore, in the shadow of the Pentagon. I didn't know it, but I was coming down with a pretty vicious little bug, and I settled into my posh hotel bed with the comic and suddenly found myself uncontrollably turning pages. Instead of savoring the book, as I do most comics, I was turning pages as fast as I could read. I couldn't wait to know what happened next. (It didn't hurt that the main protagonist's name was Rick!) It was (and is) that good. I slept a restless sleep, filled with zombie dreams and I woke up running a good fever, unable to pry the imagery from my head. I was hooked.

It's worth noting that I haven't actually purchased or read volume 7 yet, but my wife was able to find volume 8 and ordered me to find and read the previous volume before opening my newest arrival. No cheating for me!

Dead Space for the Playstation 3.

This hits all the right buttons (no pun intended). First person shooter? Check. Gritty space game? Check. Horror elements, with a touch of zombie-related Resident Evil-ness? Check. Once I finish wiping out those invaders in Resistance: Fall of Man, I'm headed into space. Look out, creepy alien things.


Last, but not least, a DM's Screen for 4th Edition.

My grognard friend Mark got this for me, as well as some official record sheets, stating "This doesn't mean I'm going to play this, you understand, but I figure you might get some use out of them." (He's a die hard 1st-Edition fan that can barely be talking into playing 3rd Edition and doesn't want to even learn another version of the rules, despite some of the good things I've told him about it.) He knows I'm open to all editions on one level or another, and it was a gift well given and happily received.

So what were your "geek gifts"? 

Here's to next year!

January 02, 2009

I am Nyarlathotep

Or at least this quiz says so. What about you?

Oh, and Happy New Year! I daresay 2009 shall be filled with lots of Cthulhu-style goodness.
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