Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunday Matinee: Halloween (1978)

Last week I said there were two movies that actually scared me when I was a kid. John Carpenter's Halloween was the other one, and quite appropriate to today's auspicious date!

This is another movie that doesn't try to include any social commentary; there are no hidden messages or agendas here. The plot is simpicity itself. Fifteen years ago in a small midwestern town, a young boy, for reasons that are not explained in the film (more about that below) kills his sister with a large knife on Halloween night, seemingly without any sort of emotion. Fifteen years later, having been incarcerated in a maximum security psychiatric hospital, he escapes, and his psychiatrist (Dr. Loomis, played by Donald Pleasance) goes on the trail, trying to catch Michael while at the same time trying to convince the authorities just how dangerous he is. Michael, clad in anonymous blue coveralls and wearing a creepy blank mask, stalks the local teenagers and then goes on a killing spree while they are babysitting in various houses on Halloween night. As he tries to kill the last girl (Laurie, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in her first real acting role), Dr. Loomis finally catches up to him, puts a large number of bullets in him, and Laurie is ambulanced off to safety. The camera then turns back to where Michael's body fell... and it is no longer there.

There are a lot of things that make this one of the "perfect" horror films. The music, composed by John Carpenter as a money-saving feature because of the film's miniscule budget, is instantly memorable, sets the tension in the film to maximum, and yet doesn't seem to get in the way of the film itself. The low budget led to decisions that were originally made in the interests of cost-cutting, but in the end turned out to be just right for the artistic feel of the film. Notably, the lack of extras on the streets. While the three babysitters are walking to and from school, the streets are empty, adding subliminally to the feeling that they are already cut off from the rest of the world, and thus vulnerable. Most of the film is entirely mundane. We see them walking down the street, talking like any teens would talk, and yet we know that there's a killer stalking them. The music is always there in the background, ratcheting up the tension, and we are just waiting, waiting for the Bad Things to start happening.

Almost all of the actors are unknowns (even Jamie Lee Curtis, who comes from a famous Hollywood family, had only been in a handful of television shows before the film), adding to the small town, girl next door feel. Donald Pleasance was the only "big name" actor, and he gives a wonderfully creepy performance. When your doctor is doing everything he can to shoot you, know know something's wrong...

But what really makes this film is Michael Myers himself. He's a cipher, clad in coveralls and with a mask (the creepy blank face mask was, famously, a William Shatner mask from a local hardware store). He has no motive. He is just pure evil, killing for the sake of it. He has infininte patience, seemingly fooling all of the other doctors by pretending to be completely unresponsive for a decade and a half, just awaiting his opportunity to escape and go on a rampage. He drives himself forward through sheer force of will; he's not some musclebound superman, but just an ordinary mortal who is simply so driven in his mission to kill that he overcomes being stabbed, shot, tossed off roofs, and more. This is a vital aspect of the films that I think is lost in the later sequels (where some sort of supernatural demonic-possession story is glossed onto the backstory) and in the recent remake (where Michael is presented as a very muscular and imposing physical figure).

And one of the most extraordinary things about this film is that is accomplishes its goals with almost no gore. No copious amounts of blood are needed. This film presents a perfectly reasonable mundane portrait of middle America and then puts in a mundane, non-supernatural peril. And the resulting suspense makes this a perfect horror film.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Fork in the Road

As I've been writing and writing (and writing) for Adventures Dark and Deep™, a thought has steadily lingered in the back of my mind. A question about the ultimate direction of the project.

Specifically, ADD could be its own, stand-alone game, thus entering a crowded field (and indeed one that's going to be getting only more crowded, especially as things like the upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG from Goodman Games see print). Or, ADD could be published as a supplement for an already-extant game (or games) such as OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord (much like the LL Advanced Edition Companion).

To date, I've been aiming for the former, so no real big changes there. Three books, followed by adventures and the usual accouterments. But if I go for the latter, then it would look like a single book, with the character classes, new spells, new rules for combat, and addenda for whatever monsters exist in the rules already (mainly consisting of a table to handle alterations to the hit dice and adding morale, if necessary).

I should point out that this is a question entirely occasioned by business concerns. Printing an entirely new rules system is a massive undertaking, requiring quite a bit of financing. Printing a supplement to an already-existing rules set is much more modest by comparison, and would allow me to get the salient points into print, even if the secondary goal of having everything consolidated back into three rulebooks is lost.

I'll go where my muse leads, of course, but would like to hear others' opinions on the question.

Pathfinder and D&D Tied for First!

I thought this was an incredibly interesting little factoid:

In Q3 of 2010, Dungeons and Dragons was tied in sales with Pathfinder.

I'm not sure where ICv2 gets their information from, but there doesn't seem to be any reason to suspect their numbers are in error. Pathfinder and D&D (that's 4th edition) tied for first place in sales? It sure looks like there's a lot of interest for 3.x out there. One wonders what would have happened if WotC had cleaved closer to 3.x in their design...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Mountebank

The Mountebank, a sub-class of thieves for the upcoming Adventures Dark and Deep™ game, is now available as a sneak-peek pre-playtest pdf file. He's a con-man, purveyor of patent medicines, and hustler, who picks up a smattering of spells starting in the middle levels and relies on his powers of verbal patter to turn enemies into, well... not friends, but marks.

You'll find the link in the Adventures Dark and Deep forums, here:

As usual when it comes to this sort of pre-playtest info, please post any comments, questions, etc. over in the forums. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Intro to the Mystic

It's not quite ready for prime time as a whole (hopefully next week), but here's a snippet from the introduction to the upcoming mystic class for Adventures Dark and Deep™, just to whet your appetites...
The mystic is an initiate of an inner mystery tradition that seeks direct communion with the multiverse in order to achieve enlightenment. Insight, awareness, and a deep connection with ultimate reality are the hallmarks and ultimate goals of the mystic. Most good-aligned faiths have such mystery traditions within them, even if they are not enthusiastically promoted by the hierarchy or followed by masses of people. The spells available to the mystic are centered on knowledge and defense, but his special connection with the multiverse gives him special insights into the workings of the planes as well. They are not able to deliberately craft magical items, but often times objects particularly associated with them in life, or even parts of their bodies, will become relics after their deaths.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Greyhawk session #7

After the last session was unfortunately canceled at the last minute due to unforeseen circumstances, everybody was ready and raring to play last night. Indeed, we had eight players plus myself, which violated my rule about having six players as my limit, but we had a guest (a visitor from across the Oceanus Atlanticus, a friend of one of our regulars who was in town for a one shot) and a newcomer (who had been a pillar of our hex and counter wargames day, and is likely to be a regular going forward).

Present were Ardo, the human cleric of Pelor; Mongo, the half-orc fighter; Theric, the human paladin of Pholtus; Vellis, the gnome bard; Jhocamo, the dwarf fighter; Mallun, the human thief; Abo Thistlestrike, the human magic-user; and Ehrandar Dawngreeter, the elf mountebank. (Whew!) They immediately made for the Castle of the Mad Archmage, and, having decided that the first level was too infested with traps, kept going down the central staircase to the second level. Two more characters had gained a level after the last session, so the group was feeling pretty confident.

This was a session with lots of combat and exploration; the party definitely added to their maps of the place. A lot of corridors were mapped out, a magic mouth in an alcove warned them about pit traps (to no avail, as it turned out later), and they came upon a chamber whose walls were encrusted with fungus and which was home to a half-dozen giant crickets. The crickets did a number on some of the party members who entered the room, startled by the dwarf's bullseye lantern, but when a pair of 6' long centipedes came in, attracted by the noise of the crickets' chirping, the party decided to beat a retreat and left a line of flaming oil to cover their escape.

The dwarf decided to attempt cleaving a door in, rather than a more conventional entrance, and found himself in the midst of a half-dozen orcs. He charged in, weapon swinging, and although he managed to fell quite a few of the creatures, they finally brought him low. The half-orc, meanwhile, hurled the gnome into the room, trying to get her past the orcs in order to open a second front. The tactic worked (after a fashion) and eventually the orcs were all slain, but not before reinforcements started coming in through another door in the chamber. These reinforcements were well-disciplined and presented a formation of halberds which would have been difficult to overcome indeed. The half-orc parlayed with the orcs, made an offering of weregeld, and the party was able to withdraw. The dwarf was recovered before he finally expired, and the party retreated to the surface to allow him to recuperate.

Now fully healed and ready for more action, the party once again descended to the second level and explored a different portion of the level.  This time, however, the paladin carelessly fell through a pit trap and was caught in a slide down to some lower chamber, where he faced a number of skeletons. Alone, he put down a number of the creatures, but was in dire straights before his comrades made it down the chute to help him. Unfortunately, in the process another member of the party managed to get in the way of the last skeleton's sword, and was laid low. Wounds were bound, but the party needed to return to the surface for yet another week of recuperation.

Time was running short in real life, but the party made one last foray into the level before the night was through. This time, they encountered a giant tick in a half-sized room that attacked the thief, but the creature itself was dispatched. The gnome was the only one brave enough to enter the 4'-ceilinged room, found a bag of coins, and although she reported more corridors were to be found beyond, the rest of the party didn't want to travel through the narrow confines of the chamber. They backtracked, and ended up disturbing both a couple of ginormous beetles and, in the midst of trying to find an escape route, several skeletons. Once again, flaming oil allowed a fighting retreat, and the party emerged to the sunlit realms once more.

Because of the size of the group and the fact that we had missed the previous session, I was loathe to have anything "interesting" happen to the party in-between forays into the dungeon. If there had only been five players, I might well have advanced the frog-cult story (which will happen, make no mistake). Still, it did seem almost like cheating, with the required weeks' rest going by in a flash, rather than being the real penalty for almost dying that it should be. I think in the future, such intervals won't speed by in the same way. The first foray into the dungeons will be the only one, with the week in the city fully played out, thus making the hazard of going below 0 hit points something more than an inconvenience.

Sunday Matinee: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

One, two, Freddy's coming for you.
Three, four, better lock your door.
Five, six, grab your crucifix.
Seven, eight, gonna stay up late.
Nine, ten, never sleep again.
One, two Freddy's coming for you
three, four better lock your door
five, six grab your crucifix
seven, eight gonna stay up late
nine, ten he's back again.

There are two films that actually scared the bejezus out of me growing up. 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street was one of them. The 1980's were the era of "dead teenager films", where anyone over the age of 14 who dared to get intimate with anyone else was just daring some deranged killer with a machete to off them. But Wes Craven came up with something truly original in the genre, and together he and Robert Englund created a character that was iconic from the instant he hit the screen.

The plot is pretty simple. Students at the local high school are being killed in their sleep. The M.O. is that of Freddy Krueger, who molested and killed kids in the town years before. But it couldn't possibly be him, because he's dead...

Several gruesome killings later, we learn that it was the outraged parents of the town who took matters into their own hands and, after Krueger had been let off on a technicality, burned him to death. Now, he has returned from the grave to wreak his vengeance. He is finally thwarted by the heroine simply turning her back on him, ignoring him and thus depriving him of energy. Everyone is then brought back to normal (or, more, a sort of idealized normal). The film ends with the heroine and her friends, seemingly now awake from the nightmare, driving off. But suddenly the top begins to close on the car, and the colors are those of Freddy's characteristic sweater...

This is such a wonderful film in so many ways. The dream sequences are alternately surreal and realistic, just like real dreams. One of the things that really got me was when the heroine was trying to run up the stairs, and her feet sink into the staircase, slowing her to a crawl. I'd actually had that dream, and it really added to the immersion value of the film. They masterfully confuse you as to what is dream and what is reality, and the film ends ambiguously; was the whole thing a dream? Was it a dream within a dream?

The film also explores some pretty weighty issues, if only as subtext. How horrible does someone need to be before vigilantism is justifiable? It's implied, but never outright stated, that Freddy molested the kids he killed. Remember, this was at the height of the "Satanic Panic" of the mid-1980's, when daycare centers were being investigated for allegations of systematic child molestation. At one point, the heroine's parents put bars on the windows to prevent her from sneaking out (which, of course, end up preventing her from escaping Freddy's clutches).

The cast has some unexpected surprises; Johnny Depp was here as a pretty forgettable boyfriend who ends up getting his guts strewn across a bedroom, and John Saxon plays the police chief. And of course under that burn-victim makeup is John Englund, who had just played Willie in the television mini-series V and V: The Final Battle.

All in all, an instant classic addition to the horror genre, driven by wonderful characters and smart writing that blurs the line between dream and reality. There were innumerable sequels, including a television series, and of course the original was recently remade, but the 1984 film is just one of those must-see horror flicks.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

New City of Greyhawk Maps

Well, not exactly new, but out of the blue in my email yesterday came these cleaned up versions of my hand-drawn maps of the City of Greyhawk, based on Gary Gygax's sketch map in the beginning of City of Hawks, but also designed to use the keys in the TSR blue boxed City of Greyhawk set. Gone are my hand-written labels of the buildings, as well as some of the masking tape show-throughs that marred the original scans. Many thanks to Alfons H. for the work he did on cleaning up my scans!

There are four different images below; one in each quarter. Click to embiggen, and then right-click to save to your drive. Enjoy!

(Maps copyright (c) 2010 all rights reserved)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why So Many Low-Level Modules?

James over at Grognardia asks, in the context of a module review, why there seem to be so many low-level adventure modules, compared to modules geared towards higher levels.

It's certainly a legitimate question, but one which I think lends itself to a relatively easy answer. First and foremost, it's the case that there are simply more low-level characters out there than higher-level ones. By their very nature, low-level characters tend to die, and thus there is a glut of lower-level adventurers out there needing low-level adventures.

Especially when a campaign is just getting off the ground, a game master using an off-the-shelf module makes a modicum of sense, especially when you don't know whether this particular group of tyros is going to be the one that makes it to mid-level, and thence to a very higher probability of survival.

It is also the case that higher-level characters tend, by the nature, to be well-ensconced in the particular campaign in which they have been playing. Thus, as a secondary factor, it's harder to design a "generic" module for higher-level play, given that higher-level characters are, by their nature, going to be more in tune with their surroundings, and thus their adventures are going to be, by and large, more setting-integrated.

That's not to say that higher-level adventures are impossible, or even difficult, to design. I've got a real hum-dinger waiting in the wings myself. But in terms of what is, and is not, published, I think it makes sense that there are more lower-level modules out there. They're simply more useful for what they are.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Savant

I've finally put the new savant class-- a sub-class of mage that will be included in Adventures Dark and Deep™-- into a self-contained pdf file. It includes all the new spells, spell lists, the class description, and the full description of the scholarship secondary skill. You can download it --> HERE <--

If you have any feedback, please post it over in the Adventures Dark and Deep forums, --> HERE <--

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Games I Love: Dune (Avalon Hill)

When I was in high school, Avalon Hill's "Dune" was one of our standard go-to wargames. We must've played it a hundred times, and one of the best things about it was that it never got old. In fact, I played the game before I had read the books, and I credit it with getting me to read one of the finest works of science fiction ever written.

There are six factions competing for control of the planet Dune; the Emperor, House Harkonnen, House Atreides, The Guild, the Bene Gesserit, and the Fremen. There are a certain number of cities on the board, and capture of either three or four (depending if you are attempting to win singly or as part of an alliance with another player) signals the end of the game. There are a limited number of troops that each faction can deploy, and combat is handled with a combination of troops sacrificed, leaders used, and spice (money) spent. Cards can be played in both combat and other situations, which gives a nice randomness to the flow of the game, but one which is mitigated by some of the special powers each faction possesses. Spice (money) appears randomly in certain spots on the board, and some factions are in a better position to collect it, either by virtue of their special powers, or by which cities they hold.

Those special powers are what make the game so eminently playable. It is absolutely perfectly balanced, even though the different factions have what seem to be wildly differing powers. The Emperor gets the money bid on cards by the other players, and has access to his Sardaukar troops, which are special units worth double in combat. He has the disadvantage of not starting the game with any troops on the board, however, and it is possible for the other players to cooperate to thwart his money-making abilities, by not bidding high amounts of spice for the cards. The Harkonnens can hold double the number of cards, can have a high number of other players' leaders as their own traitors, and start with one of the key cities on the planet. And so forth. Each faction has powers specific to itself, as well as powers that can be used only when they are allied to another player-- for instance, if you're allied to the Harkonnen, all their traitors can win battles for you, too.

Perhaps the most devastating power is the Bene Gesserit's ability to predict the winner. By clever and subtle play, they can manipulate the player of their choice to win on a particular turn. If they predict successfully, they win instead! I've seen it happen more than once, and it's devastating when you're the one they've predicted.

It's exquisite balance makes this a timeless classic that has unfortunately been lost in the spate of recent games. It's unfortunately out of print, and a quick check of eBay shows that copies are in around the $100+ range. If you've got a regular stable of friends who play board games, however, I'd say it was worth it, regardless of whether you get the original cover or the later one with Sting (who played Feyd Rautha in the David Lynch film). Forget the two expansions, however; The Duel and Spice Harvest. They add nothing but a few new cards that do not, in and of themselves, really add anything necessary to the game.

In the course of preparing this post, I did stumble across this web site, which might be of interest to those looking to see the details about the game, with images of the cards and other pieces, a copy of the rules, the board, etc. Ahem.

There is, however, an issue of The General with alternate rules for a seventh faction; the Bene Tleilaxu. I've played with those, and they work really well, with the BT being very well balanced in the tradition of the original. You'll also find that on Colin's Dune Page, linked above.

Sunday Matinee: Escape from New York (1981)

There are three elements that make up a film (or a novel, for that matter); story, characters, and setting. John Carpenter's Escape from New York is a film where the story is just a convenient excuse to get the awesome characters into the equally-awesome setting.

It's the year 1997. The United States, China, and the Soviet Union have been at war for several years, and the U.S. has become a crime-ridden cesspool. There's only one Federal prison in the entire country; Manhattan. The entire island has been surrounded by a wall, the bridges are mined, the waterways patrolled by helicopters that tend to shoot first and ask questions later, and every sentence is a life sentence. The prisoners have complete liberty within the confines of the jail, but they cannot leave.

Into this setting, the President (played by Donald Pleasence) has been taken hostage by the prisoners in New York after Air Force One is hijacked and crashed into the streets. The United States Police Force (headquartered on Liberty Island; lovely little touches like that are strewn throughout the film) is unable to force him out, and he must be rescued because of some Macguffin with a time limit. In steps Snake Plissken (played by former Disney squeaky-clean boy-genius Kurt Russell), who is given a minimum of equipment, flown to the top of the World Trade Center, and told to bring the President out before the deadline or die trying. Story? What story? Just get Plissken into the city and have him start meeting and beating the locals!

And meet and beat he does; we see absolutely fascinating snippets of what life within the prison is like. Some streets have lights, there is some sort of almost normalcy as a musical review is put on by and for the inmates, and there are even some working automobiles, including a taxi driven by "Cabbie" (Ernest Borgnine). There are various factions amongst the prisoners, but the head honcho is The Duke (Isaac Hayes). Plissken starts to track down the President, stumbling across his old partner in crime, "Brain" (Harry Dean Stanton), who had betrayed him at one point in the past. Brain has a girlfriend, Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) whose only purpose in the film seems to be to add curves and high-beams to the bleak landscape of rubble-strewn Manhattan. Not that anyone's complaining, you understand...

Eventually, Plissken gets captured, ends up in an arena fighting the Duke's champion warrior, and ends up finding and rescuing the President and fleeing from the Duke's pursuit with Brain and Cabbie in tow. His prepared escape route wrecked (a plane on the roof of the World Trade Center), Plissken et al make their way to the 5th Street Bridge, which has been seeded with land-mines. Fortunately, Brain has a map, which works most of the way. Plissken gets the President out, the President kills The Duke, and Plissken's life is saved from the explosives that have been implanted in his body. But ha-ha! Plissken has the last laugh, having swapped out the critical Macguffin cassette tape with another, making the whole enterprise for naught.

Like I say, this film is not in any way about the plot. It's about Plissken himself, a perfectly wonderful character borne as much of Carpenter's sharp writing as Russell's growling muted performance. His interactions with Brain, Cabbie, and even the President are perfectly captured, not to mention his meeting with the police chief who sends him into the prison on the rescue mission in the first place. Carpenter did the music for this one himself, just as he had done with Halloween (and would again do with They Live), and while it's not John Williams, it suits the dark and moody tone of the film exceptionally well. It's one of those on my "if it's on the satellite, I'll take the time to watch it" list.

There was an unfortunate sequel, "Escape from L.A.", but it had none of the charm of the original, and got caught up in heavy-handed social commentary in a style that works best when such is kept to subtle nods, and big-ticket action sequences that felt completely tacked on (Plissken surfing... ugh...). There are also rumors of a remake, but I can but hope they never come to fruition. (Although one rumor pegs it as a prequel, with Carpenter as Executive Producer, so it might not be as bad.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Two Hobbit Films Officially Green-lit

Woo-hoo! Two "Hobbit" films are officially green-lit, with production to begin next February. They'll be shot back-to-back, like "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and Peter Jackson himself will be directing. It's not certain that they'll be shot in New Zealand because of some problem with their actor's union or something, but I don't care where they're made as long as they're made.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Trek Poll

To go with my previous post, I've just set up a poll in the upper-right of your screen.

Which Star Trek series would you most prefer for a Trek-based RPG? 

If you'd like to elaborate on your answer, feel free here in the comments.

Star Trek RPGs

If there's one thing that I'm an even bigger fan of than D&D, it's Star Trek. I even met my wife in a Star Trek fan club. Fortunately, there a history of Star Trek role-playing games. I'm toying with the idea of starting up a Trek campaign (in addition to my AD&D Greyhawk campaign), and felt a quick recap of the available options was appropriate.

There were four "official", licensed, Terk RPGs. First, of course, there was Heritage's Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier. I mention it mostly for the sake of completeness; there really isn't a lot of game there, and it would take an enormous amount of work to bring up to playability. But still, I've got a copy, and I'm one of those grognards who actually bought it new, at GenCon (or was it Origins?).

Next came FASA's Star Trek: The Role Playing Game (1982-1990). This was my game of choice for quite a long time. It's skill based, and has a character generation system a lot like that found in Traveller, but what sold it for me was the Starship Tactical Combat Simulator. Damn but that was a sweet game in and of itself (much better, in my opinion, than the bloated-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness Starfleet Battles). One of the things about this version of Trek RPGing is that it is very clearly a product of its times. It was originally designed for "TOS" era games, but it was at its peak just as films like Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home were coming out, so naturally each film was accompanied by a slew of game books.

There were a couple of ST:TNG books published towards the end of the game's license, but for the most part it was focused on ST:TOS and the movie era. Since then, however, we've had four entire Trek television shows and a bunch of films. Certain elements of the Trek universe that were established in novels and repeated in the game were rendered obsolete by later developments. Remember that this was a time when all we had were a couple of movies, some novels, the Starfleet Technical Manual, and the Star Trek Medical Reference Manual. For instance, the difference between bumpy-headed Klingons and the more human-looking types; in the game, they were separate sub-species, "Imperial Klingons", "Human Fusions", etc. but that was wiped away in later iterations of the show. So it would work well if I wanted to run a movie-era campaign, but there would be a lot of background assumptions that would have to be re-examined in the light of the later additions to Trek Canon.

The third official Trek RPG was the effort by Last Unicorn Games; they didn't have a single game, but rather broke things out by series. Thus, there was a Star Trek: The Next Generation Role-Playing Game (1998), a Star Trek: TOS Role-Playing Game (1999), and a Star Trek: Deep Space 9 Role-Playing Game (1999). Although I dutifully collected all of the books and supplements, I never actually did play this one, so I don't have all that much insight into the mechanics. But the fact that it at least takes things through DS9 is a plus, and it's my understanding that at least parts of a planned (but never published) Voyager book were put out on the web.

After Last Unicorn, the rights were acquired by Decipher, which proceeded to produce a brand-new game called Star Trek Roleplaying Game (2002-2005). It does cover the whole of the Trek universe (up to that point), but unfortunately the company seems to have folded, and the future of the Trek RPG license is uncertain. This version uses a universal mechanic system based on the CODA system.

I should also point out that there is also a free d20 game by Mike Berkey called Where No Man Has Gone Before (2007). He's also come out with a couple of supplements that cover starship design and designing alien races. It's a nifty little game, unauthorized, of course, but since it only covers the Original Series era, it's not really what I'm looking for.

What I am looking for is a game that covers the Trek universe through the DS9/Voyager time period. I know I'm not going to get something that's in print (at least in a dedicated Trek RPG), but even if it's out of print, I'm willing to take something that I can get a reasonable number of supplements for. A compelling starship combat system is important. I would be willing to adapt a non-Trek RPG to the task After all, I know the background material like the back of my hand; the question would be just how much work it would take to translate into game mechanics information.

Anyone have any ideas?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fantasy Flight Games is Watching You

So Fantasy Flight Games has a nifty new idea to help increase sales. Spend $1,000 on FFG product, and your store can have a sort of interactive FFG advertising box. They will stream content to the box, which you, in theory, have displayed prominently in your gaming store, with the idea that when the customers come in, they'll see the nifty, never-ending advertising for whatever FFG wants to pimp at the moment, and will be more inclined to purchase said product. Sounds like a winner, doesn't it?

Except there are apparently some problems. The store owner is on the hook for $650 to replace the thing if it gets broken. There's no guarantee when the darned thing will actually be shipped to your store. And, most creepy to my mind, the box is equipped with an "interactive" feature that allows FFG to film and listen in on what's going on in front of the box. Yes, FFG wants a camera in your local game store, which they can turn on at will, and the store has to stock $1,000 worth of product for the privilege.

Is this really a good thing? Is seeing a 24/7 stream of advertising about WH FRP really worth the troubles and potential troubles? I'm not seeing it, myself, but it seems to be popular in some quarters.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

1830's horror

Ah, October, when an old man's fancies turn towards horror films.

AMC has been running a series of classic Hammer Horror films every Friday this month (with more to come), and watching those great old Dracula movies made me think that there seems to be an untapped venue for horror gaming. Europe of the 1830's, particularly central and eastern Europe.

It's got a lot going for it. The Napoleonic Wars are less than two decades gone by, leaving a lot of veterans and the scars of war across the landscape. The classic Frankenstein takes place during the very period. Goethe's Dr. Faust is placed then and there. The real-life inspiration for the Hunchbank of Notre Dame lived during that time. The era predates Dracula by a few decades, but the Hammer tradition certainly doesn't make such distinctions, and that's certainly as valid a tradition to drawn from as any.

It's a time before Charles Darwin drove the stake into the corpse of medieval credulity. The American and French Revolutions have undermined the myth of the divine right of kings, but the stories of ghosts and spooks still hold sway in places removed from the salons of post-Enlightenment Paris.

And it has that classic Hammer aesthetic. Tall hats, greatcoats, standing collars and cravats... Womens' gowns show a bit of cleavage, hair styles are all elaborate curls, but powdered wigs are still to be found among the Old Nobility.

I think it's got a lot of potential, for the aesthetic if nothing else.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday Matinee: Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet is often described as a retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, and has a reputation as being one of the first "serious" science fiction movies. When compared to fare such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Them!, that's probably true, but I think contemporaries such as Destination Moon, This Island Earth, and of course The Day the Earth Stood Still, stand up well against it.

The plot is relatively simple. Earth space cruiser C-57D is on a mission to see what happened to an expedition to planet Altair IV, the spaceship Bellerophon, launched some 20 years earlier. They arrive to discover Dr. Morbius (played by Walter Pidgeon) alone on the planet, save for his daughter, Altaira (played by a scrumptious Anne Francis), and Robby the Robot, whom he "tinkered together" soon after arriving on the planet. The rest of the Belerephon crew were destroyed by a "planetary force" that mysteriously spared Morbius and his wife, now deceased of natural causes.

Eventually, Captain Adams (played by a still-a-leading-man Leslie Nielsen) and crew discover one of the secrets that Morbius has been hiding; a prehistoric super-race called the Krell who lived on Altair IV and built a nearly godlike civilization while the ancestors of humanity were still hiding from the dinosaurs. He shows them the "Krell wonders", and also the device that boosted Morbius's IQ to allow him to create Robby. The C-57D is attacked by an invisible monster that hearkens back to the original destruction of the Bellerophon, and there is a signature scene with the beast charging through the ship's force fields and being lit up by blaster fire.

Eventually, the truth comes out; that the Krell had completed a device that would transmit their very thoughts into action, and were destroyed in an orgy of destruction as their subconscious minds were given free reign. Morbius's subconscious has done the same, first destroying the Bellerophon after the crew elected to leave the planet that he loved, and later attacking the C-57D after his jealousy of his daughter was inflamed by the attentions of the crew to her. Morbius dies after setting the Krell machine to self-destruct, the monster is vanquished, and the crew (plus Altaira and Robby) departs.

This was a hugely significant and influential film in a myriad of ways. It was the first serious science fiction film for MGM, and had a first-rate cast whose acting raises the tenor of the film incredibly. The special effects, even though done in 1956, stand up today, even though CGI wasn't even conceived of at that time. Robby the Robot became a staple seen in science fiction films and television shows for decades (including the Twilight Zone and Lost in Space). The uniform designs for the Earth crewmen, with their enormous shoulder pieces and ribbed V-shaped chests, were the standard for the next decade at least. Check out many of the Twilight Zone episodes set on spaceships, and you'll see what I mean. The Earth ship is a flying saucer! And the scenes of the Krell machine, with its miles-deep chasms, narrow walkways, and self-repairing machinery, were a direct influence on the design of Babylon 5's machine in the heart of Epsilon III.

One of the things that stands out about this film, aside from the outstanding acting, writing, and effects, is the use of humor, and the little touches of inter-personal relationships that don't really serve to advance the plot directly, but contribute to our sympathy with the characters, and thus our sense of involvement in the film as a whole. The scene where the cook gets Robby to produce gallons of bourbon, for example, and the early fumblings between Altaira and some of the crew. This was an iconic film in many different ways, visually as well as thematically, and set the stage for future films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A day of pushing cardboard

The Battle of Wavre
So today we had our Hex and Counter Wargame Day, through the inestimable Garden State Gaming Society on, and held at Mighty Titans Hobbies and Games. It was a blast! A couple of games of Tactics II (the 1958 wargame by Avalon Hill that led me to become a gamer, pretty much), a game of Napoleon's Last Battles (an SPI quad game from the mid-1970's; they played the Battle of Wavre, if I'm not mistaken), and then we all (except Rob-- the slacker) pitched in for a game of Starfire (Task Force Games, 1978) to round out the day.

Red won both games of Tactics II (having won the initiative both times), the French won Wavre, and the Terrans obliterated the Khanate forces in Starfire. Indulging my natural penchant for tooting my own horn, here's how the first game of Tactics II played out. (Click to embiggen if anyone besides me actually cares...)
The mighty army of the red nation speeds down the roads to bring the enlightened red rule to the poor benighted blue nation. That's mountains on the top edge of the map, forest near the opposite edge.
The blues form a line behind a river, making a pretty impressive defense that proved tough to crack. They also sent a strong force to either flank; both the forest and the mountains. The center was only weakly defended, however, which would cost them...
Red manages to bottle up the blue advance in the mountains with a token defense, but using the terrain it was enough to slow them down. The same in the forest; blue had a strong material advantage, but red slowed them down to a crawl with rivers as defensive points and a small mobile force. The encirclement and destruction of the blue center defense is nearly complete.
Red breaks out. The center force manages to use the roads to swing around to the rear of the blue forest offensive, seizes the blue capital and another city, and begins to flank the blue river line in the center. The mountain passes are a graveyard as blue tries to bowl their way through. A single red headquarters unit keeps the mountain pass secure against blue infantry and armored divisions.
The last vestiges of the blue resistance begin to crumble. The river line is broken, the forest offensive is bogged down, and the mountains remain blocked.
It's all over but the parades and the speeches declaring the superiority of the red nation's way of life. Red has placed a force to prevent the blue forest thrust from coming back to assist with the defense of the blue cities, the river line is all but gone, and the last blue city is threatened. The game is called-- a victory for red.

Friday, October 8, 2010

You really should run away from gazebos

Eric was right all along!

Black Blade to Publish Rob Kuntz's Lake Geneva Castle & Campaign™ Product Line

Just announced...

Black Blade Publishing is proud to announce an agreement with Robert J. Kuntz to publish his Lake Geneva Castle & Campaign™ (LGCC) dungeon levels. Jon Hershberger, President of Black Blade, said, “It is a privilege to publish these Lake Geneva Castle and Campaign™ dungeon levels in partnership with Rob Kuntz. Their historical value dating back to the origins of the RPG hobby is significant. Rob's distinctive adventure modules are very creative and serve as both challenging settings for veteran gamers and as inspiration for future game designers.”

The agreement includes the publication and distribution of:
  • Six original Lake Geneva Castle dungeon levels, including The Machine Level, The Boreal Level, and four additional levels that feature such famous and infamous encounters as the Giants Pool Hall, the prototypical set-piece encounter for The Garden of the Plantmaster, and connections to several other planes of existence for off-world adventuring. Each dungeon level will be published upon completion by Mr. Kuntz, beginning this winter with The Machine Level, which will be 32 to 36 pages in length.
  • .PDF editions of Kuntz’s out-of-print adventure modules CAS1 Cairn of the Skeleton King and CAS2 Tower of Blood, with additional titles to follow as their print runs sell through (including RJK1 Bottle City).
  • The .pdf edition of the adventure module Ice Grave (originally published in Troll Magazine #1 in 1997), the proceeds from which Kuntz will use as a special fund to be awarded on a recurring basis to excellent up-and-coming RPG game designers.
Future publications will release the full scope of Kuntz’s massive original manuscript collection that spans the history of the development of the first fantasy role-playing game, as played in the Lake Geneva campaigns. These publications will primarily be issued in .pdf format, with select titles also targeted for in-print releases.

Robert J. Kuntz said, “Black Blade was my first choice as a publishing partner due to their commitment to producing high-quality, printed books. I can trust them to reproduce my manuscripts with the respect, fidelity and attention to detail that reflects their historical value and context.” Allan Grohe, co-founder, project manager and editor for Black Blade, will manage the Lake Geneva Castle & Campaign™ product line. Grohe said, “Rob Kuntz’s designs stand out across the history of RPG publishing for their originality in design and challenge to player skill. It’s a pleasure to continue my long-standing publishing relationship with Rob under the auspices of Black Blade.”

About Robert J. Kuntz

One of the founding fathers of the RPG industry, Robert J. Kuntz helped to design, playtest, and expand the original Dungeons & Dragons game with Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson from 1972 to 1975. Mr. Kuntz co-authored Greyhawk: Supplement I, created Kalibruhn—the third RPG campaign setting, and one of the first RPG worlds created from the top down—and co-DM'd the famous Greyhawk campaign with Gary Gygax for many years. He also co-wrote the classic Gods, Demigods & Heroes with Jim Ward, which was later revised and expanded as Deities & Demigods in 1980. His game designs have been published through 12 companies world wide, including TSR, Paizo Publishing and Hobby Japan. His articles, interviews and fiction have appeared in 10 magazines, including Dragon and Dungeon.

Mr. Kuntz founded Creations Unlimited in 1986 to publish the "Maze of Zayene" series and Garden of the Plantmaster. Mr. Kuntz has republished and updated his classic Creations Unlimited adventures, and has also designed several board games, including King of the Table Top, Magus, and Kings & Things (which won the Charles Roberts Award for Best Fantasy/Science Fiction Game of 1986; and re-released 2010 through Z-Man Games). Mr. Kuntz was honored with the 2005 Gold ENnie Award for his design of the super-adventure "Maure Castle" (published in Dungeon Magazine's 30th Anniversary Celebration issue #112 by Paizo Publishing). In 2006 he founded Pied Piper Publishing which has to date printed 10 titles, including his recently released novella, “Black Festival”. His creative interests extend to writing novels, short stories, screenplays, non-fiction essays and his personal memoirs about the founding of the RPG industry.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How much "color" is appropriate?

I've been giving a lot of thought to the issue of rule mechanics vs. color when it comes to things like class descriptions, spells, and magical items. Take, for example, the following:
Burning Hands

Level 1 mage spell (alteration)
Requires: incantation, gestures
Casting time: 6 seconds

This spell causes a sheet of flames to spring 3’ from the caster’s spread fingertips. This fire will cause 1 hit point of damage per level of the caster, and will ignite any flammable materials.

As opposed to the following:
Urquart's Fan of Flames

This is a spell of the first order, of the school of mutability, usable only by mages. First presented to the college of magicks by Urquart of Greenwald, and subsequently stolen from the library of the Red Wizard of Jix and published for the world's edification. This spell, which requires the recitation of an incantation of certain precise syllables while the Sign of the Third House is made upon the left hand, will cause a fan of flames to shoot forth from the fingertips of the caster, in the person of a least elemental summoned for but an instant to perform its task and then cast back to the plane of fire whence it came. It will cause damage appropriate to the power of the caster (1 h.p. per level of the caster). The range of the Fan of Flames is somewhat limited (three feet), but it is hot enough to ignite any flammable material. It is said that the spell is banned by the Order of the Silver Bells, for reasons known only to the inner circle.
 Now, my question is... Which is better for a game? Certainly the second is more colorful, and gives more detail as to the exact nature of the effect (the summoning of some sort of minor elemental). But I personally feel the first is actually preferable, as it gives the game master the freedom to invent those little details. What if there's no Order of the Silver Bells in your campaign world? Simple enough to ignore, sure, but why should you have to?

By sticking to strict mechanics, I will readily agree that a certain level of color is lost. But we gain both clarity (less text to look through to get the relevant mechanics) and the simultaneous feature of less imposition of setting on the game master and the ability to fill in those sorts of details at will.

If I was designing a game that was setting-specific, I might choose differently. But I'm very much inclined to go with mechanics over flavor.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

New Savant Spells

Over at the Adventures Dark and Deep™ forums, I just posted a list of the new spells available to the savant class, which is a sub-class of the mage. Give 'em a look-see!

Comment over in the forums, if you'd be so kind.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hex and Counter Wargames Day

Anyone up for a couple of old-fashioned (or newfangled) hex and counter wargames?

We're doing a semi-informal games day at the FLGS, Mighty Titans Hobbies and Games in Randolph, NJ (that's on Route 46 in Morris County) this Saturday. 

The whole thing is being organized through here. We're going to have on-hand games like OGRE/GEV, Napoleon's Last Battles, Starfire, Tactics II, and more (not, unfortunately, Europa, which is pictured above). We'll decide on what's actually to be played when we're there.

If you're in the area, feel free to stop on by! We're starting at noon and going 'til whenever. If it is a success, we might turn it into a semi-regular thing. See you there!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Dragon's Landing on the Greyhawk Construction Company

I just found out that the current edition of the Dragons Landing Podcast (episode 99.98) dealt with one of my posts from a couple of years ago dealing with the Greyhawk Construction Company. In one sense, they don't seem to really like the concept of it being completely and intentionally a whimsical idea, designed specifically for the sort of game that is centered around the castle of a humorously insane demigod. They seem to want to turn it into some sort of "realistic" institution to fit in a "realistic" game. (This in a game with magic spells, pegasi, goblins, and demons. *grin*)

But it's still a very interesting discussion they have, and I think it's well worth listening to. I'm honored that people think so much of my stuff that they'd take the time to have such a thorough discussion of it. They do take the original idea and riff on it in new directions, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that.

The segment starts around the 45:46 mark on the podcast.

Sunday Matinee: Flash Gordon (1980)

I never did get a chance to see it in the theater, but once Flash Gordon hit HBO and Cinemax, I was hooked. It's more than a little campy, but it's everything a sci-fi action adventure film should be. It's big, it's loud, and it's colorful (both literally and in terms of the characters). And it's just a whole ton of fun, impossible to take seriously, and nobody faults it for that.

NY Jets quarterback "Flash" Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) are kidnapped by disgraced scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) and taken into space to discover what's behind the sudden shift in the moon's orbit, which will soon bring it into collision with Earth. They make it to the planet Mongo, where they are brought before Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow). After an entertaining fight, Gordon is executed, then revived by Ming's daughter, Aura, and taken to Arboria, the moon of Mongo ruled by Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton). He's imprisoned, escapes, and is captured, along with Barin, and taken to the flying city of the Hawkmen, ruled by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed). There, Barin and Gordon are forced to fight, end up killing Ming's #2 man, Klytus, and the Hawkmen are forced to flee before the Imperial fleet arrives to blow the city to atoms. Left to die in the city by Ming, Gordon finally escapes and convinces Barin and Vultan to work together to overthrow Ming. They stage an attack on Mongo city just as Ming is to wed Dale. Gordon kills Ming, and the Earth is saved. Whew!

This movie has a lot of great things going for it. The cast is first-rate. Brian Blessed made a career out of this performance, and Max von Sydow looks more like Ming the Merciless than the comic strips or the original serials from the 1930's. The production, although it looks a little dated 30 years later (where we are used to dark, grimy, and worn sets, costumes, and props), is glorious in its own way, with lots of bright primary colors and metallic trim. In this respect, it's not unlike Buck Rogers, which came out the year before, and was also based on a 1930's serial.

One of the most outstanding elements of this film is the soundtrack, performed by Queen. Yes, the guys who gave us Bohemian Rhapsody and Fat Bottomed Girls provide the rocking vocals and bass for this film, and it's so over the top that it fits perfectly. The film strikes a tone of being campy, but not absurdly so, and there is enough menace in Ming and Clytus, and characters such as Vultan are so well chiseled, that the whole thing just works. Once again, nothing great and deep here, but it's a hell of a ride, and if you've not seen it before, you should give it a whirl.

What the heck is leather armor?

I've been doing a lot of research into various types of armor for Adventures Dark and Deep lately, and one thing has me a tad puzzled.

Just what the heck is the "leather armor" in AD&D supposed to be?

Wikipedia tells us that in the Middle Ages, mail (what is called chainmail in AD&D, following the incorrect Victorian terminology) and plate (encompassing plate mail, field plate, and full plate) were the norm. There's lamellar, but that is really just scale mail without the backing, and can be composed of scales of either leather or steel. Even made of leather, it hardly seems like the sort of thing a thief would use and still be able to remain silent.

Is it some sort of breastplate of cuir bouilli? Leather scale armor (on a backing of leather)? Lamellar?

Can someone with a better knowledge of historical armor help me out on this?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Mining Games

I was doing a little thinking today about how people who play other games might find Adventures Dark and Deep to be useful and interesting. That led me to do a little more thinking about how we all find other games useful and interesting.

Let's face it, most of the retro-clones, retro-inspired games, and the paleo-games whence they are inspired, are probably 90% compatible, and that's a conservative estimate. I can take a module designed for AD&D and play it using the Castles and Crusades rules with little to no formal conversion worries. At most, there might be a couple of monsters or magic items that don't appear in the rules, but that's never been an issue when it comes to modules. In many cases, that's how the game itself expands its own boundaries.

The same goes for the rules themselves and the supplements to those rules. Just because the Advanced Edition Companion has the words "Labyrinth Lord" on the cover doesn't mean you couldn't turn around and use the spells, magic items, and classes it contains with Swords & Wizardry. It even goes as far as some Pathfinder products, most notably the recent GameMastery Guide, which is rules-lite enough that the information within it is a gold mine for game masters of all sorts of games.

Adventures Dark and Deep will be much the same, of course. You could take just the savant and mystic classes, plop them into your Dark Dungeons game, and move on without batting an eye. Playing AD&D but want a simpler combat system? Just drop the ADD combat system into your game and no more work required. Dislike the cavalier from AD&D? Swap out the Knight from C&C. Need a monster book that you can buy in your FLGS (or at least that's not relegated to eBay)? There's Malevolent and Benign for "First Edition", Monsters of Myth for OSRIC, the Monster and Treasure Book for Castles and Crusades, and soon there will be the Bestiary for Adventures Dark and Deep. Each and every one of those creatures would be right at home, system-wise, in any of the various retro-clones, retro-inspired games, and paleo-games.

And that's something that I've mentioned before as being an untapped source of cross-marketing. The OSR (and beyond the narrow band of players that identify with it, for that matter) is not a zero-sum game. Every book of monsters for OSRIC is a potential book of monsters for LL or S&W or LotFP:WFRP. (Gadzooks-- is there an easier way to refer to it, James? That acronym doesn't exactly roll off the ol' keyboard.) Every module for S&W is a module for LL and C&C and Dark Dungeons. It's a huge potential pot of new customers; namely, everyone who has bought or plays any other game is a potential buyer of your own game, supplement, or adventure, and it only needs to be blared from the rooftops of just how compatible they all are.

I know I'll be hitting that marketing angle hard when ADD comes out, and heartily encourage all the other publishers to do the same. Maybe it's even something TARGA could get involved in.