Monday, March 25, 2013

Countdown to the A to Z Blog Challenge...

In the Beginning...

"...And Mordeo led them across the Aurmflum,
at a place that would be known as Velinlos..."

"We shall build a city on this hill, and
above the city, a great tower shall loom.
And the tower shall be called: Babel." 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

I'll be back...

You won't be seeing much of me from now until the start of the A to Z blog challenge.

Other priorities [i.e. real life] need attention. No, I'm not sick or anything like that.

I also need to work on my entries for the challenge. Thus, I am sacrificing quantity now, for quality later. But I've also go some other tricks up my sleeve...

So, I'll see you April 1st.

Until then, here's a few teasers:

"And Virtoaa said to his angels: 'What have you done?'"

"By this sign, conquer."

"This story is more about the men and women who didn't survive that bloody day on the prairie, the Hot Flats.
Do you understand that?
We burn our dead and remember them. 
The Hazahdians don't.
They've got necromancers who can do all of the remembering for them.
They get the dead to speak so they don't have to remember."

Gygax Magazine, by TSR (Redux)

I couldn't ignore the $4.99 price for the Gygax Magazine #1 pdf at RPG Now.

And now that I've read it, I know that many of my previous assumptions, which were written well before the PDF came out, were wrong. I still maintain we're in the d20 Dark Ages--gamers are more fragmented than ever. Gygax Magazine, however, is a Point of Light because while it isn't Old School, it carries Old School traditions to the current generation of gamers. From what I can tell, the magazine is more about blending these Old School traditions with current realities. Thus, while it has a lot of OSR credentials, it really isn't OSR. Even the introduction says they'll cover games from all eras.

I'll spare you an article-by-article analysis, Tenkar's Tavern has already done that, beginning with saying that James Carpio's "The Cosmology of Role-playing Games" was "not an awesome start to the magazine."

I disagree. I think it was the perfect start to the magazine. In fact, all of those "old school cred" articles are fine with me. If the magazine is about bridging generations of gamers, then the current generation of gamers need to know the history of RPGs. Without Gygax and Arneson around, somebody has to do that outside of WotC.

Part of the "Old School" tradition is being exposed to history and literature before being exposed to the game. You see this time and again throughout the magazine. The top two articles in this regard are:

The article "The Gygax family storyteller," by Ernest Gary Gygax, Jr., recounts how Gygax Sr. used to tell bedtime stories to his children.

In "The future of tabletop gaming," Ethan Gilsdorf writes: "I didn't wear a helmet... And [I] read a lot of books: The Great Brain, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Encyclopedia Brown, and My Side of the Mountain.... Even before I stumbled upon D&D, I had begun to teach myself the tools of storytelling."

Overall, I like the articles and the magazine. I realize now that I am part of their target demographic. Anybody who plays D&D, in whatever edition/incarnation will find this magazine to their liking. "Gnatdamp," by Michael Curtis, is system neutral. And I like how it harkens back to the days when a DM just needed a small village and a dungeon nearby, instead of feeling the need to develop entire settings.

The only "head-scratcher" I found was "D&D past, now, and next," by Michael Trescia. I'm not sure whether he was trying to debunk WotC's claims that D&D 5e will appeal to all players of all editions, or if he was just pointing out how conversions between editions can be difficult.

I probably will at least consider picking Gygax Magazine #2. In the meantime, my thoughts are with Ernest Gary Gygax as he gets back on his feet.

Monday, March 18, 2013

My Warhammer Psychosis is Cured! (And how you can avoid going crazy, too!)

Oh I feel much better.
Not Warhammer Fantasy
But I think the message is clear

I've sold 90% of my Warhammer figures and books and made a nice chunk of change. Most importantly, I've freed up time for other, far more enjoyable figure-painting endeavours, like finishing up my Hundred Years' War armies or painting figures for D&D.

Warhammer caused me too much stress and anxiety. You can start reading all about my my  Psychosis of Warhammer here.

A guy I spoke to last weekend said that Games Workshop continually makes him angry. I told him I sold my figures so I wouldn't have to put up with it anymore. He said he'd invested in several armies. It was too late for him. I wished the man well.

So, how do you avoid the psychosis?

The simple solution is not to invest in Warhammer to begin with. But this advice can apply to other wargames, too:

1. Make certain you enjoy the game first, not just the pretty miniatures.
My problem with Warhammer is that you can never know all of the rules unless you collect every single army book. The rules are already clunky, but then you have to contend with surprises your opponent will put out from his army book.

"My Mark of Nurgle gives you a -1 to your ballistic skill and weapons skill." Is there anyway to counter or dispel that? "No."

Great, my base 25% chance of doing damage to you just dropped to 11%, not factoring in any armor saves.

2. Understand that assembling and painting miniatures is the real hobby behind the game. 
A couple weekends ago I introduced a teenager to my HYW game. Afterwards he got all excited, wanted to collect an army right away. He picked up a big box full of 120 Roman Legionaries for a decent price (I smiled inwardly--hey, at least it wasn't Warhammer).

"Hold on," I said. "Assembling and painting miniatures takes a lot of time."

We slid open the box and he saw all of those unassembled plastic figures on sprues.

"Whoah," he said. And after a moment of letting it sink in, he asked me: "Will you help me put them together?"

"No," I said. "You just need to start much smaller." I pointed out a regiment of 20 legionnaires. "Make sure you enjoy painting before investing in a whole army."

The problem with Warhammer is that Games Workshop markets the game to get people to buy more than they can reasonably paint.

3. Cut your losses sooner rather than later.
I knew in the back of my mind Warhammer wasn't the game for me. Yet it wasn't until I wrote "The Psychosis of Warhammer" series that I really understood how much anger I had toward the game and Games Workshop.

"Oh, come'on, really?" Some of you might being think. "It's just a game."

It's also an investment of both time and money, and nobody in their right mind wants to see either go to waste. I spent a lot of time and money on Warhammer, and it hurt to admit that I wasn't getting a good return on investment in terms of fun and enjoyment. The rules are blah, the miniatures are nice but have become a pain in the butt to assemble, and lately GW has been churning out crappy product (Finecast, etc).

If you're not having fun, pull out. Cut your losses. Even if all of your friends are playing Warhammer may they'll come along with you. Who knows? Maybe they're secretly miserable, too...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Soundtrack Saturday: 300, by Tyler Bates

I like the movie 300, I feel at least captured the "essence" of the Battle of Thermopylae. As a historian, however, I have deliberately overlooked many of its... creative liberties, shall we say? If you want a good telling of the Persian War, may I suggest reading the words from the Father of the History of Western Civilization: Herodotus. The new annotated version by Robert B. Strassler is a good choice.

You can listen to the 300 Movie Soundtrack while you do it. But I also recommend playing the music your D&D games at certain key points. Why do I say key points? Because most movie soundtracks are composed to go along with what happens in the movie. 300 isn't that great for background ambiance, in my opinion. Most of the tracks are less than three minutes, not ideal for say, a prolonged combat. Still, you get 25 tracks to chose from.

Here are a few highlights (no, I'm not going to recommend "To Victory," since you've probably heard it many times):

"Returns a King" gets played with young King Leonidas returns victorious from the wolf hunt. You can use this after a similar, and yet "manly" victory you players might have, like defeating a great beast, for defeating an opponent in gladiatorial arena.

I've played it to announce when powerful warrior nobles, knights, walk into the room, since the music so obviously resonates the cheers and fanfare of the heroes return.

"What must a king do?" is only 1:06 long, but it conveys such powerful emotions. Yes, in the movie the king and queen are making love, but you can use this music for other things, like when characters have make a hard decision--as long as its epic. It's also a good transition piece to play between longer songs, or scenes in the game.

"Xerxes Tent" is the best song out there for representing the corrupt and powerful seducing somebody--the snake with the fruit, a rich patron wanting to hire the PCs to do something for an insane amount of money, a political fundraiser, and so on. The song also resonates the hint of betrayal, abandoning one's humanity and loyalties to himself and his friends.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise, but "Message for the Queen" is the most sorrowful of all the tracks. excellent for the death or remembrance of a hero or longtime companion. I'll say no more and let the song convey the message itself.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Blogging from A to Z April Challenge, etc.

Well, I went and done it: I signed up for the April A to Z Blogging Challenge, where you post something every day (except Sunday) related to a theme for the month of April. My theme is Domikka.

What's that?

Look up at there.^ See the hand drawn map of a continent? That's Domikka, a setting for my stories and D&D campaigns. My upcoming short story, Murder on the Hot Flats, takes place there, as does my novel, Anne Greyhawk and the Valkyrie's Vow. Murder on the Hot Flats will be available, for free, around the end of this month. I want the novel to get published by the end of this year. More stories are forthcoming.

For the A to Z contest, each entry will contribute to a setting "bible." I don't want to call it a "Campaign Guide" or anything like that, because I intend the end result to be something for both authors and game masters to utilize.

Domikka is a fantasy setting akin to high medieval Earth yet without the elves, halflings, orc, gnomes, and other stereotypical creatures found in other fantasy settings. Dwarves exist, but are considered "Demons of the Earth" and hate humans. "Dragons of the Air" and "Giants of the Mountains at times war with each other, devastating human civilizations caught in between. "Goblins of the Woods" were once tribes of humans so wicked that God/Virtoaa cursed them to live in more bestial forms. Rightly so, perhaps, since they had "betrayed their blood" in Virtoaa's eyes. They were once members of the Imperik race: blonde-haired golden-eyed humans who are the descendants of angels who bred with the daughters of men many millennia ago and chosen by Virtoaa to bring order into the world.

I've got twenty years of binders filled with notes, false starts to fiction, and adventures for my D&D players ready to be mined. I took a long time bouncing ideas off friends, studying religion, history, and languages to get myself to the point where I feel comfortable enough to share this information and write these stories. When the time comes I hope you all enjoy them.

I also signed up for this:

D. L. Hammons, is promoting his version of The Best Blogs You Are Not Reading (TBBYAR). It's a blog hop mixed with the chance of getting your own blog "blitzed" by a hundred commentors if chosen.

I've been meaning to do a blog hop. It's a great way to get to connect with other people and their blogs.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

In Retrospect: The Complete Book of Elves

I accept your apology, Colin McComb. I was one of those DMs who kept getting hassled by his players to include the overpowered stuff in The Complete Book of Elves. But I was also one of those DMs who'd say "no" to his players. Everytime a player said, "Can my character be a Bladesinger?" I'd say "no."

Besides, Mr. McComb, it all worked out for the better. You went on to create other cool products for TSR like Hellbound: The Bloodwar. And because of my players repeated putting The Complete Book of Elves in my face, I got rid of elves in my homebrew campaign, Domikka, and haven't missed them since.
Art by Terry Dykstra,
from the Complete Book of Elves

So was The Complete Book of Elves really that bad? Yes and no.

About half of the book covers how roleplay an elf. McComb addresses the elven stereotypes of being merry and yet aloof. Many elves, except for dark elves, are both. Yet they are less apt to be merry around other races, of even fearful, developing an almost Vulcan-like rationality so they don't appear weak.

Elven marriage and sexuality, yearly holidays and celebrations, and myths and legends are also covered.

McComb even describes even how elves behave in different campaign settings. There's a lot of interesting stuff in here, like the elven racial "Family Trees." One shows how high, grey, dark, sylvan, and aquatic elves came to be across the history of the planes and in different campaign settings. You learn more about how Lolth convinced the more "martial" of the elves to split with their brethren.

Time is also on the side of an elf. Vengeful elves "can wait for years before exacting revenge--after their prey has been lulled into a false sense of security. Or they can hunt their enemy over the years, never faltering or slowing in the pursuit of their quarry." (page 42)

So, if you looking for a book on how to roleplay an elf beyond "the human in a funny hat syndrome," you can do worse than consult The Complete Book of Elves. My only qualm about the book from the roleplaying stand point is that doesn't have a table of elven names. But then again, you can just find an obscure name from Tolkien and use that.

The problem is, McComb made elves even more powerful than their standard D&D/AD&D counterparts. They are more resistant to heat and cold, suffering no ill effects from temperatures between 32 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit, even if fully encumbered.

On of the more controversial abilities is the Bladesong. For expending 3 proficiency slots, a character can have +2 to AC, +2 to Hit, or get a free parry each round. Well, now that's not so bad, right? This is in addition to the normal +1 to hit with a longsword, the elven weapon of choice.

Now enter the Bladesinger, the fighter/mage kit. Bladesingers can cast spells one-handed, while in studded leather or elven chain armor, and can even parry melee attacks while they're casting the spell:

"Their defense is equal to their level divided by 2, plus 1. All fractions are rounded down. Thus, a 6th-level Bladesinger gains +4 to AC (6th level/2 = 3 + 1 = 4)." So, an AC 7 (studded leather, not including any other benefits), becomes an AC 3 (platemail). Yeah, and they also get blindfighting for free. Why bother playing a human wizard? Heck, why bother playing a human at all?

(Also, I've never been able to discern what McComb meant by "Bladesinger Level." Aren't Bladesingers fighter/mages, having to split their experience points between each?)

In those days, I wasn't too concerned about balance. I usually let players use stuff from the spatbooks. In fact, I encouraged it because I wanted the material to be used. I wasn't too concerned about balance, but The Complete Book of Elves made me take a closer look at what might be brought to the table. While Bladesingers could only specialize in a single weapon (probably the longsword), they could still use other weapons, although with a -1 to hit, I still don't think this compensates for their Bladesong powers. Because, not only are they fighter/mages, they are better. 

Yet I do accept Colin McComb's apology (even though it comes 20 years late). He was 22 when he wrote The Complete Book of Elves struggling, like so many game designers before him, to balance elven literary awesomeness with game mechanics.

I recommend using this book if you want to run an all elven campaign. Leave out the kits and other special things you might consider broken if your running a mixed group.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In Retrospect: Ravenloft--The Created

I don't care what people say, I think dolls and puppets are kinda scary. It's like they might come alive and attack you. That's the basic premise of Ravenloft module RM2 The Created, by Bruce Nesmith. It's up on D&D Classic now for a decent price. Which is why I'm doing a retrospective/review on it.

Here's the obligatory SPOILER ALERT:

If you mix an evil version of Pinocchio with Children of the Corn (both 1984 film and story by Stephen King), and you will have the essence of this module.

The player-characters come to Odaire, a town with distinct Italian Renaissance feel, which is celebrating Bambeen, a spring holidary honoring children. Suddenly, and perhaps unexpectedly, a murder takes place. Soon the PC discover that evil puppets are the culprits. They head to the theatre, since its the mostly likely place more evil marionettes ("carrionettes") and their master will be, and get ambushed. If they survive this encounter, they still have to track down Maligno, the evil

The player-characters come across a town which is having a festival. Suddenly, a murder takes place and the town begins to get pulled into Ravenloft. They quickly discover that evil puppets are going around killing adults. The most likely place to go is the theater. Unfortunately for the characters, it's a trap! Even if they fight their way out, they have to still track down Maligno, the evil leader of the carrionettes through the streets of the town, while the carrionettes start talking over. No matter what, all of the PCs will eventally get captured by the Carrionettes and have their souls put into marrionette bodies. 

Sounds cool, right? Sounds horrifying? The characters spend the rest of the adventure trying to find their own bodies again to reverse the process, before continuing the hunt of Maligno. There's even a neat scene where the characters have to navigate through a toy shop full of evil animated toys. Well, in RPGs there's a fine line between horror and absolute frustration.

I ran this adventure a long time ago, and at first it remember it being a decent module. But as I flipped through it, the memories came back, and I recall my players not liking it at all. It's not hard to see why, its one huge railroad. No matter what, even if they do their best in trying to capture and kill Maligno, he's not meant to be killed. The carrionettes will eventually overwhelm the PCs. In many ways, the adventure really doesn't start until the characters wake up as carrionettes, making everything before that, in my opinion, a waste of time.

Is this module a complete waste? Absolutely not. I like the premise of evil dolls taking over a town...

So here's how I'd run it today:
--Forget about trying to instill fear and horror, run it as a joke module. No, seriously. Your players are probably going to crack jokes and quotes anyway about evil dolls attacking people ("My name is Talking Tina, and I'm going to kill you."), so you might as well playing the fun aspect to the hilt. Borrow stuff from the Chuckie movies. Oddly enough, by acknowledging the humor you be able to accentuate the horror.

--Don't even bring in the whole Ravenloft stuff. In the module, once the town gets pulled into Ravenloft, the streets wrap back upon themselves. Just ignore that. If the characters want to leave the town, let them. Instead, just have a plain old mysterious fog to dissuade them.

--The characters should only become marionettes if they failed miserably, or are just careless. Heck, if you doing this as a one-shot, you might just start the module with the characters already as marionettes.

--Role play Maligno like Isaac from Children of the Corn, quoting scripture and everything.

--Play the theme music from Gremlins when the carrionettes start going around killing people... 

--Follow this by some ultraviolent music from A Clockwork Orange when they face down Maligno.

Another alternative is to have the PCs enter the town in the aftermath of Maligno's rise, sort of drawing upon what happens in Children of the Corn. The characters come across the tattered remnants of a festival in Odaire, which seems completely abandoned. Some children attack them, and then run away. And, at first, players might think that it is a Children of the Corn scenario--until they encounter Maligno and the carrionettes.

The Created is an example of a good idea with faulty execution. Some players might not mind the railroad, but my players did back in the day. There's still things worth salvaging from this module to make it even better. It comes down to making the adventure your own.

Finally, here's Homer Simpson getting attacked by an evil Krusty the Klown doll!

[Awww... they cut off the ending where Marge calls up the manufacturer and says: "Your doll is trying to kill my husband!" But she gets put on hold and has to listen to: "Everybody loves a clown, so why don't you?"]

Monday, March 11, 2013

Mini Monday: Mouslings!

Need an idea for a gift for your girlfriend or wife?

Get some Reaper Mouslings! No, really. It'll help you justify your hobby to your significant other as well as say: "I love you."

I gave the three on the right to my girlfriend for Valentine's Day.

Here's a rough step-by-step on how I painted them.
1. Primed black.
2. Undercoat of Games Workshop Bestial Brown for their fur.
3. Oiled Leather (by Reaper) for the archer's tunic and cape.
4. I layered with a lighter shades of brown on the archer and the Mouseling with the sword.
5. Drybrushed with Reaper Blonde Highlight
6. The wizard Mousling got various shades of gray, finished off with a Linen White drybrush for his beard.

Forgive me, I really need to start writing down these steps as I go.

These, of course, still count for 52 Weeks, 52 miniatures. My total now is 5/52.

Sure, I had them painted well before today, but my personal rule is: If you don't have pictures, then it doesn't count.

Below is the ensemble of miniatures I've painted for my girlfriend over the last year or so. All of them come from Reaper. My girlfriend wanted the pegasus an rider to resemble more like pewter.

I feel like I'm off to a slow start. Each year time seems to fly faster than the year before.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Soundtrack Saturday: Richard Wagner

I pretty sure I first heard Wagner's music on old Bugs Bunny Cartoons. Yet, as a gamer, Wagner didn't come alive for me until I watched the movie Excalibur, which features selections of "Parsifal," "Prelude to Tristan and Isolde," and "Siegfried's Funeral March." The soundtrack also has a version of "O Fortuna" from the Carmina Burana. If you think you haven't heard of Wagner before, you probably have.

Here's the scene from Apocalypse Now that features Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" (skip to 1:15 for the music):

This music is perfect for your characters as they ride off to war in any genre. It works for fantasy. It works for science fiction. And as you can see here, it works for modern roleplaying.

It can be played during a battle, where the characters are no doubt going to be victorious, perhaps after a long struggle. Yet there is still some danger to be had.

In my last D&D campaign, I actually had Valkyries ride forth to turn the tide of a massive siege.

You can find the music with or without the opera singing. I recommend the performance by the London Phiharmonic Orchestra.

Next up we've got "Parsifal:"

Perhaps I should let the music speak for itself. It is after all, about the Grail quest.  Got a paladin in the group searching for a holy sword? Play this when he finds it.

The neat thing about Wagner's music is that it remains fairly accessible for a decent price--unless, of course, you want to listen to his complete operas. Just do a quick search on amazon and you can find collections for $8-20.

You can get a brief history about Wagner on Wikipedia.

(Yes, the Nazis liked Wagner. No, listening to Wagner beautfiul music does not make you a Nazi. The same goes for listening to Rammstein, Schwarzer Engel, etc. Perhaps I don't need to say this, but perhaps I do.)

Friday, March 8, 2013

Women, Gaming, and Tropes

Today is International Women's Day!

By the way, did you see Big Bang Theory last night? Leonard, Howard, and Sheldon had the bright idea to go to a middle school and try to get twelve-year old girls excited about science. They failed miserably and the laughter ensued.

Sheldon actually tried to salvage the situation by phoning Amy and Bernadette to use as examples of successful female scientists. Both were with Penny at Disneyland. All three had skipped work to have a good time. And when Sheldon called, all three were dressed up as Disney princesses.

The show ended with Bernadette and Penny seducing Howard and Leonard respectively because they were dressed up like Disney princesses. Poor Amy, even dressed as Snow White, wouldn't get Sheldon to kiss her and wake her up.

(Come to think of it: wouldn't Princess Leia now also be considered as Disney Princess?)
(Oh yes, an Mayim Bialik who plays Amy has a few words to say about the princess culture on

So where am I going with this?

 Last night, as you might have noticed, I shared this link both here and on Google+, which is about rape culture in the gaming world. I posted it before I'd watched the latest episode of Big Bang Theory. Later After I watched Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and Penny, Amy, and Bernadette took on the "Damsel in Distress" and suddenly became fair more attractive to the guys.

"Oh, come'on, Stelios!" I can hear some of you say. "These are just games and sitcoms about gamers. And rescuing the princess is a classic trope."

You're right. And yet the games we play, the shows we watch, and the stories we read often reflect the culture we live in. Each is a text, a form of rhetoric that reinforces certain cultural norms and values. Some are played for comedy, yet in each comedy something serious is going on, even if its being laughed at.

Although more women have gotten into gaming over the years, the majority of gamers are still male. The majority, if not all, gaming companies (in all forms) develop their marketing to appease the male psyche. It might be stretch to say that rape culture is a part of gaming culture. Yet, unlike in video games, how can a female gamer tell the difference between the Marios and the Apes? It's not so easy.

Ever wonder why more women don't come to your FLGS? Or join your gaming group or club?

I can only speak from personal experience as male who's been a gamer for the last 22+ years, most of that as a DM, and part of that as an officer in a college gaming club. So here's what I've seen:

--My girlfriend clinging to me because she's afraid of the weird guys at a gaming store. 
--Male gamers via their characters hitting on female gamers at the tabletop.
--Once I pretended to be a friend's boyfriend because one of these morons wouldn't leave her alone.
--A DM using his power as both the DM and as Graduate Assistant to hit on one of his players--who also happened to be one of his students.
--A local game store owner firing his male help after hiring a gamer girl. This happened a few times over the years. The girl would work there for maybe a month before quitting.
--A young woman who's also a gamer walks into a noisy room full of male gamers and says, "hi!" The room fall silent, save for my forehead banging on the table as I though: "So much for the club appearing friendly to female gamers."
--One guy who liked to say: "My advice. Don't date a crazy woman. The catch: they are all crazy."
--Another guy in his 50s liked to bring his Hustlers, Penthouses, and hentai/furries comics, to a public space on a university campus and read them while his friends set up the game. Apparently he also liked to grope his wife while at the table. No, I didn't game with this person, I stayed far, far away. He died of a heart attack about a year ago. The end.

I'm sure I can think of more. But that should suffice for now. One of the questions I've asked when I found out about some of these problem is: why don't more women speak up? Let people know there's a problem?

I've learned that many women fear falling into the "hysterical woman" trope for complaining. But maybe even more so, they fear retribution for speaking up. Sarkeesian faced, as The Slate described, an "absolute avalanche of misogynist abuse" for her Kickstarter video campaign examining these tropes in video games.

So, if you're a male gamer, please at least think about these things today, maybe tomorrow. Can you at least do that much before going back to gaming as usual? Because for many female gamers, these issue become apparent whenever they walk into a gaming store, or sit down to play a game.

Don't believe me? Well, just watch Big Bang Theory and see what happens whenever Penny goes down to the comic book store...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Hey guys, you need to read this... (And not just gamers either)

Just follow the link, and read the article.

A lot of what's said goes beyond just the the gaming culture.

In Retrospect: The Monstrous Manual

This retrospective on the AD&D Second Edition Monstrous Manual completes my retrospectives for the AD&D 2e core rule books. I went over the Dungeon Master's Guide yesterday, and the Player's Handbook way back in October of last year. Also did one on the Monstrous Compendium, but I don't think it really counts because the compendium is not a book, but a binder.

Indeed, back in the day I could not wait to get the AD&D Second Edition Monstrous Manual. I got tired of lugging that compendium around with all of its loose leaf pages. When I finally bought it 1993 when it was published, I was a happy gamer. Sure, there was no new information in it, but it was a book. 

Yeah, the demons and devils were still long gone (but that's what owning the AD&D 1e Monster Manuals were for, right?). I still cringe a little when I read the cumbersome terms "baatezu," "tanar'ri," and "yugoloth." Man, what were they thinking? Even "Monstrous Manual" doesn't quite sound right.

To this day I still don't mind monsters having an ecology and extensive backgrounds, even though some readers think it takes up too much space that could be reserved for stats or more monsters.

I liked that each monster's experience point value was printed with each entry. Gone were the XP calculations determined by hit points as in AD&D 1e.

Most of the full color artwork was okay, nothing really inspiring, or leaving anything to the imagination. The monsters are just standing in their white box going "grrrr..."

So once again, AD&D 2e leaves me torn. Its organization and functionality beats AD&D 1e, but the "cool stuff:" the ambiance, the artwork, the "feel" of the books, the mystery, is gone.

Now, unlike the 2e DMG, I did use the Monstrous Manual for my games.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

In Retrospect: the AD&D 2e Dungeon Master's Guide

I've often considered the AD&D 2e Dungeon Masters' Guide to be the "weakest" of all the DMGs for D&D. Back in the day I hardly ever used it--the 1e DMG had all of the "cool stuff," so speak. The 2e DMG didn't have a whole section on artifacts and relics. And what happened to the Random Dungeon Generation tables? Where's the sections detailing percentage chances of contracting a disease? And there's no random tables for City Encounters--the much loved random harlot table is gone (you could no longer get a "Saucy tart" nor and "Expensive Doxy"in the city).

TSR got rid of a lot of this stuff to make the game more family-oriented and to appease segments religious right, of course. And the rules read more clearly in this book than its predecessor. While I'm a fan of Gygaxian prose, sometimes I just want to get to the point.

Yet all of this led to myself being torn over AD&D 2e. As I said, the 1e DMG still had all of the "cool stuff."  But I'm supposed to "keep up with the Joneses." 2e was much better with organization and rules layout. The AD&D DMG felt like a medieval tome with artwork that lent to the mystery and wonder of the game. Even the funny cartoons were almost like medieval illuminations. You didn't see much humor in the 2e AD&D DMG.

The 2e DMG did have some "cool stuff," like sidebars for optional rules, like say for aerial combat, differentiating between group and individual initiatives, and so on. This would be the last DMG where its editors say: "These are the rules, but you're the Dungeon Master, change them if they'll improve your game." WotC got away from that philosophy, in my opinion.

The 2e DMG may the "weakest" of all of the D&D DMG, but it isn't horrible. It is organized, reads clearly, and a beginning DM could do far worse that to consult it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Growing Up in the d20 Dark Ages (Part 8): Being a Munchkin

In the wake of last week's post about The Munchkin's Guide to Power Gaming, let me tell you about
one of my favorite characters: Ulrick Hammerstein.

He's the only character, ever, for which I rolled an 18/00 strength (no, really!). This was during the last days of AD&D Second Edition. My DM, unfortunately for him, was rather inexperienced at running games. When the players around the table asked: "What books can we use to create characters?"

He said: "Um... all of them."

So I pulled out my Skills and Powers books and The Complete Fighter's Handbook. An hour later Ulrick was a 4th level ambidextrous fighter who specialized in wielding a bastard sword in each hand (take that, Drizzt Do'Urden!) His high strength negated the remaining penalties for attacking with two weapons. His high intelligence enabled me to swap his language slots for weapon proficiencies. Yeah, when it was all said and done he could attack 4 times every other round, 3 times in the intermediary round, dealing an average of 15 points of damage (oh yes, for some strange reason the DM let me have a +4 bastard sword).

Man, I had a blast.

The spellcasters in the group would cast invisibility and silence on me and I'd go into a room and surprise and kill the biggest bad guy. Then they would come in from behind while the bad guy's minions would focused their attention on me. At times, though, the other players didn't like it when I stood in a doorway, killing all of the monsters as they came through so I'd get all the experience points (technically the other characters weren't in combat!)

My only real weaknesses were my saving throws and having to rely on the other player-characters for help. One time I got shot by a drow's sleep poison dart and fell over with a loud clunk in my full plate armor. I had failed my saving throw. The other characters let me sleep it off while they explored part of the dungeon.

So I got back at them. When I found a 4,000 gp gem and kept it for myself! Yeah!

But the party thief found out about the gem via metagaming and tried to steal it from me. So Ulrick drew those bastard swords and killed the thief in one round.

Being a munchkin was a lot of fun. My character was nigh-invincible. The other characters in the group  were envious and fearful of my power. I had the DM running around in circles.

I have no idea why the campaign folded after three sessions or so...

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Why am I no longer a "Constant Reader?"

Thanks to Marian Allen over at Literary Agents Hate Kittens who gave the best answer as to why I'm no longer a fan of Stephen King:

"You and I have discovered his Dark and Terrible Secret: He. Can't. Write. Endings." 

That's also the short answer.

(If you haven't already, please look at my post about the top five lessons about writing I learned from Stephen King for some furhter background And thanks to everybody who's replied to that post both here and on various communities on Google+)

Aside from On Writing and some referencing to Danse Macabre, I haven't read any of King's works since I finished the The Dark Tower series sometime in 2007.  As I shared in the previous post, I became frustrated with how the series ended, especially when he chided the reader for wanting to read the ending. This is the "infamous warning" that some of you might know about. Some responders understood my frustrations (like Marian Allen), others like Digital Orc (yeah, that's what happens when I combine D&D and writing into one blog...ha!) want do know why if I had enjoyed many of King's previous books, why did Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower get me to jump ship?

It's a fair question. Those who are content with the short answer should stop reading now since they'll be spoilers (And yes, I see the humor in me giving warning in a blog post where
Furthermore, here's another caveat which, I admit, may undermine my authority: I have only written one book, and I'm not through editing it yet. While I've been writing fiction off and on since I was seven years old, I've only recently "gone pro" (as Steven Pressfield would put it), in the last six months. So make of this what you will.

Oh yes, one more thing: I am not trying to dissuade you away from Stephen King's fiction. This are just my own insights from reading many of King's books since the mid-1990s up until 2007.

All right? Are your ready?

Here's the long answer:

In my mind, the Dark Tower series fell far short of being Stephen King's Magnum Opus. I still consider The Stand to be King's best work. Even more than that, I felt that King had wasted my time. The series had quite a few memorable moments. As I read, I tried to look past him just throwing in whatever idea came to mind to push the story along and certain plot inconsistencies that he tried to write around. Yet the last book ended on a whimper, and his warning to the reader just rubbed salt on the wound.

The first book in the Dark Tower series was the best. It was surreal. It established who Roland was and the Man in Black. Yet beyond that the series started to fray plot-wise, with random things like Blaine the Train, having the Man in Black being Marten Broadcloak/Walter, and Randall Flagg all being the same person. And the a strange incubus/succubus thing that took the seed from Roland and Randall Flagg and turned around and impregnated Susanna with Mordred. (I had to look up the Wikipedia article to remember how this exactly happened. It's more screwball than certain Greek and Roman myths I can thin

 It's a stretch that strains my suspension of disbelief. King, at that point, had borrowed heavily from his other works and other sources, like The Wizard of Oz.

I didn't like how King wrote himself into the story. Yes, others like Dante, have done so in the past. Please keep in mind though that Dante was a comedy, ending happily more or less. King writes tragedy, and underlying all tragedies is a certain amount of realism that maintains the suspension of disbelief. Sure, a storyteller is a liar. A storyteller makes stuff up. The audience knows this, yet wants to be raptured by the tale. Inconsistencies, however, can disrupt the suspension of disbelieve. The farther into the series, the more inconsistencies we find. The later books when farther away from what the plot first book "The Gunslinger" established. As I read through the series I passed these over. After all, I was not a prolific writer and I understood that years would often go by between each book, initially. I gather that King wrote the final three books between 2001 and 2003. During The Song of Susannah, I recall, King wrote himself into the story, having Roland save his life after the car accident. This was followed by the awkward, "oh, you're my creator moment." Yes, fine, King was dealing with nearly dying. Yet it "broke the fourth wall" so to speak. Others like, Dante Alighieri, have wrote themselves into the story in the past. Please keep in mind  Dante's Divine Comedy was... a comedy, having a happy ending, more or less. King writes tragedies. Heroes often die at the end of tragedies, so I wasn't expecting the series to end on a positive note.

Yet I expected better.

I expected some kind of final showdown between Roland and Randall Flagg/Walter/the Man in Black (whoever the hell you want to call him). Instead I got newly born Mordred tearing out Randall Flagg's eyes, killing him. So let me get this straight: Randall Flagg, the guy who survived a nuclear blast in The Stand: Complete and Uncut, who had been staying one step ahead of Roland throughout the series, who had even admitted somewhere along the way that he'd been inside the Dark Tower itself, gets killed by what's essentially a giant spider. Even worse, if Mordred is supposed to be more powerful than Randall Flagg, he should have gotten better ending than he deserved. Roland shoots him and he falls into the campfire, burning to death.

Oh, but the story doesn't end there. Roland still has to find the Crimson King and the Dark Tower.Yes the Crimson King, who got inside the Dark Tower, who's supposed to be more powerful than the Six Elementals he commands, more powerful than Randall Flagg. But at the end the Crimson King doesn't attack Roland with magical powers--he uses "sneeches,"  whirling throwing stars. Yeah. And then the painter (whom Roland just so happens to encounter along the way) just paints the Crimson King out of existence (I'm certain he took this idea from a fairytale, but I can't remember which one).

I should have stopped reading at the chiding and warning near the end of the final book. King warned that all endings are disappointing. When a person is on a great journey, that person doesn't want the journey to end. But I felt that there would be a grand finale, a final conclusion, which would leave me wanting more (like good endings do).

When I shared my thoughts about this post and the series to my girlfriend, she asked: "Why didn't you just stop reading?"

But I didn't. I mean, it's Stephen King, after all. How bad it could be?

Bad. Really bad.

He resorted to time travel and the "and then I woke up" to essentially start the series all over again. Beginning writers often use the "it was only a dream" technique when they've written themselves into a corner. When Roland got pulled into that door at the top of the Dark Tower and appeared back in time in the desert chasing the Man in Black at the beginning of The Gunslinger, he "woke up." I'm not a fan of time travel, especially in a tragedy. Isn't the point of a tragedy is that disaster cannot be undone and must me faced?

After finishing the series, my first thought was:

"Why did I even bother?"

Yes, the journey is more important than the ending, as King chided to his readers. Yet the ending should not be disappointing. The Dark Tower has the most minimus opus of an ending I've ever read.  King is a great writer. He knows how to develop characters and put resonance in his writing. He can build and build a story. But then, at times, and especially in the Dark Tower series, he doesn't know how to end it. Maybe I was expecting too much, maybe not.

In any case I haven't read any of King's fiction since.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Soundtrack Saturday: The Ninth Gate

I've always tried to include music whenever I run an RPG, D&D or whatever. Over the years, on various messageboards and in person people have asked "What kind of music do you use in your games?" My choices are extensive. Indeed, my music library consists more of music soundtrack than for "mainstream listening."

Hence, this new series Soundtrack Saturday, where I share what music use at the tabletop and why.

The first up in the movie soundtrack for the The Ninth Gate. I love the movie. Johnny Depp plays book appraisor hunting down copies of a supposed Satanic text for a mysterious book collector. The music portrays a character who is both unravelling mysteries along with his own moral character.

There's sixteen tracks, with music by Wojciech Kilar featuring the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, and Sumi Jo. Unlike with many movie soundtracks, you just push play without having to worry to much about the music changing abruptly and ruining the mood. (except for the tracks toward the end).

Here's the music from the opening titles:

This is perfect for nearly any horror type adventure. It's very brooding and full of subtle menace. I've recommended it for the Return to the Tomb of Horrors. "Vocalise" (below), has a similar tone, but perhaps mixed with tragedy of one's own choosing.

"Corso and the Girl" is perfect finale for whatever horror the players brought on themselves. 


Friday, March 1, 2013

In Retrospect: The Munchkin's Guide to Power Gaming

16. What music do you listen to?
a. Ambient Techno.
b. '70s heavy metal.
c. Norwegian black metal bands, only you think they're nancies 'cause they only burn down churches, not cities. 

--From "The Are You a Munchkin?" quiz, page 9

That question pretty much gives you an idea of what to expect when you read The Munchkin's Guide to Power Gaming, by James "Grim" Desborough and Steve Mortimer, Steve Jackson Games, published in 1999. If you're looking for enlightenment, look elsewhere. If you looking for "childish humor, blasphemy, and references to naughty body parts" (as the warning label say on the back cover), then look no further.

Inside you'll find advice on cheating, how to harry the GM into caving in to your demands, and how to take advantage of the weaknesses of the other player-characters for your own gain. Desborough and Mortimer cover all of the major RPG genres: fantasy, space/sci-fi, modern/horror, superheroes, and even live action roleplay ("go for the face!")

See, being a munchkin isn't about playing fair, its about winning at all costs, even if you have to use a halfling as biological warfare during a siege. You just feed him full of beans, fried onions, prawn vindaloo or a cheap Mexican meal before launching him in a catapult. "When 300 pounds of halfling meets rock at 100 miles an hour it creates quite a mess as all of that biology gets instantly liberated"(page 41). Man, talk about English grot.

Most of the book has been written for players, but there is a section for Game Masters toward the back, giving advice on how to handle munchkin behavior. Obviously, this isn't meant to be taken too seriously. But there are some useful tidbits like telling a munchkin "Don't push that button." Odds are, he will and suffer the consequences. If a munchkin wants lots of high technology, have it malfunction at the most inconvenient moments, since this often happens in real life (the authors site having endured multiple computer crashing while writing the book).

From Page 91
There's even a quiz to help identify if your players are munchkins:

12. How does your group decide what game to play?
a. You decide--you're the GM, after all
b. You make a democratic group decision. 
c. They show you the book with the biggest gun on the front and say "Ook!" 
(Page 108)

Oddly enough, I've found this book to be useful. Sure, it shows how to be a munchkin power gamer, but it also teaches you how to spot munchkin power gamers. You discover their tricks, including how to cheat at dice rolling.

Of course, the best defense against power gaming munchkins is to not let them in your group. The second best defense if they are in your game is the word: "No!"

I'd like to share more of the book's contents, because even though it is about power gaming, anybody who's played RPGs for awhile has dealt with players who are almost beyond control. Yet I don't want to spoil the book for anybody else who wants to read it. I bought the book back in 1999, and I still find it funny after all of these years.

But whenever I think of the The Munckin's Guide to Power Gaming, I don't imagine the original book cover. For some reason, the image that appears in my mind is this:

If Steve Jackson Games ever does a reprint, this needs to be artwork for the cover!
The shotgun and chainsaw hand is so munchkin!

Perhaps power gaming Munchkins are what happens when young players are exposed to the game books before they are exposed to the history and literature that inspired the game to begin with. Just a thought.

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