Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: Empire of Imagination

Nice homage to the cover of
"Unearthed Arcana"
Michael Witwer's Empire of Imagination (coming October 6, but available for pre-order at Amazon) is a biography of Gary Gygax, an individual who will need no introduction to my readers.

Witwer's book covers similar ground to other books published over the last couple of years, such as Playing at the World, Designers & Dragons, and Of Dice and Men, but does so with a particular emphasis on Gygax himself, including a lot of non-game-related information not covered in most other works. That said, there's not much relating directly to D&D or TSR that you won't find in those other books.

Witwer's style is light and easy to read. I found his accounts of events compelling, and actively looked forward to picking the book up again each time.

Although the sub-title of the book, "Gary Gygax and the birth of Dungeons & Dragons" does telegraph that the period up to the mid-1980's will receive the most coverage, I found this to be the greatest deficiency in the book. What we have is not a biography of Gary Gygax, but only the first half of one. Everything past 1987 or so is mentioned almost as an afterthought, covering thirty years in thirty pages. Suddenly Gygax has a second wife, of whom we have not previously heard. His later work with other companies such as Troll Lord Games is given but a single sentence, and no word is given at all to his rapprochement with the publishers of D&D (by that time Wizards of the Coast) and his renewed series of articles in Dragon magazine.

I think a more balanced look at the whole of Gygax's life and career would have been both more interesting and valuable than yet another look at the intricate details of 1970-75. It should be taken as a compliment that the only major deficiency I find in Empire of Imagination is that it's not long enough. I could easily have read another hundred pages that went into an equal amount of detail on the post-TSR years of Gygax's life.

Note: I requested, and was sent, an advance review copy of this book by the publisher.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

OSWARP 2015 Events

The schedule of events for this year's DexCon convention was just posted, and with it the OSWARP "Old School con-within-a-con" events. Here they are, broken out for your convenience:

  • THU 8 PM - 12 PM: R0305: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor"
  • FRI 8 PM - 12 PM: R0374: AD&D 1st Edition; "The Ghost Tower of Inverness"
  • FRI 8 PM - 12 PM: R0375: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor" 
  • SAT 9 AM - 1 PM: R0399: AD&D 2nd Edition; "I6: Ravenloft"
  • SAT 9 AM - 1 PM: R0402: Empire of the Petal Throne; "A Taste of the Past" (An original scenario for the original, 1975 Empire of the Petal Throne rules, in honor of the game's 40th anniversary)
  • SAT 8 PM - 12 PM: W1089: Ogre Miniatures; "Breakthrough"
  • SAT 8 PM - 12 PM: R0442: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor"
  • SUN 10 AM - 2 PM: R0459: Adventures Dark and Deep; "DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor"
Not a bad showing, but I would have liked to see a little more variety. Still, it's good to see some of the old games represented. Unfortunately due to a variety of circumstances I'm only able to run two games this year, Inverness and Ogre Miniatures are mine. Yes, that's right, someone else is running Adventures Dark and Deep! Too cool!

The convention will be held in conjunction with DexCon, the premier East Coast gaming convention, on July 4th weekend in Morristown, NJ. Full details, including registration info, can be found here. Unfortunately the convention hotel is sold out, but there are plenty of other hotels in Morristown.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Let's Read: Greyhawk Adventures (Part 8)

Slowly but surely we make our way inexorably through this book! This time, I'll be talking about a particularly juicy section; Magical Spells.

Here we have more than a hundred(!) new spells, purportedly from the spellbooks of the most famous magic-users in the Flanaess; Bigby, Drawmij, Mordenkainen, Nystul, Otiluke, Otto, Rary, and Tenser. We also learn of the titles of too more that were "left off as too esoteric for even the most curious spell crafter"; Drawmij's Instant Stripping and Otto's Gelatinous Cube Transformation to Edible Gel. Which I absolutely love and find both whimsical and evocative.

They span in spell level from 1st to 7th; "there are no 8th and 9th level spells because these were too well protected for even this powerful scribe to acquire." Nice touch.

I find the spells listed here to be somewhat uneven. Some are obviously just extensions of other named "theme" spells from the Players Handbook. Many of Bigby's spells are hand-related, such as Bigby's Feeling Fingers; Drawmij's specialty seems to be teleportation (Drawmij's Instant Exit); many of Nystul's deal with light, such as Nystul's Flash; Otilike has a whole line of "sphere" themed spells (including Otiluke's Steaming Sphere); Otto is more musical and dance related, with spells like Otto's Sure-Footed Shuffle; Rary is mind-based (Rary's Mind Scan); while Tenser's are based around melee and physical combat (Tenser's Primal Fury).

On the one hand, I know why these were chosen, based on the existing named spells in the Player's Handbook, and it's convenient for each magic-user to have some identifiable "hook" or theme that can be used to more easily differentiate him from the pack. On the other hand, they do seem rather derivative and uninspired. One nice touch is that Tenser was known for charging into combat, so his themed spells bother me the least.

Personally, I find the non-themed spells to be much more inventive and to do a better job of fleshing out the characters of their creators. Spells like Bigby's Bookworm Bane (which still conjures a disembodied hand, of course), Drawmij's Scent Mask, Mordenkainen's Protection from Slime, Nystul's Grue Conjuration (which is the only means I can think of off the top of my head than an elemental grue can be summoned to the material plane), and so forth. I do find the insistence on putting the magic-user's name at the beginning of each and every one of his spells rather tedious, though. I wish Mr. Ward had followed Ed Greenwood's lead in his "Pages from the Mages" articles in Dragon, and just given the spells regular names while making their origin clear.

For the most part, the spells listed here seem like riffs on the named specialty spells in the Players Handbook. There are different specialties, and different gradations of power, but ultimately they seem rather derivative, with some notable exceptions. Still, they are quite useful and would certainly be most welcome as treasure (on scrolls, perhaps) or rewards in a Greyhawk campaign, not to mention an excuse to get the PCs involved with the named mages themselves.

I still think that I would have more fun with Drawmij's Instant Stripping and Otto's Gelatinous Cube Transformation to Edible Gel, though.

Up next: magic items!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Now Available: Castle of the Mad Archmage Level 3E expansion

The first fourteen levels were only the beginning!

Confound your players with a whole new level to add to your Castle of the Mad Archmage™ adventure. Level Three East describes the wonders of the Mad Archmage’s own museum, which contains curiosities and treasures from all over the multiverse, and the challenges of the Watery Caves, which are a series of living caves connected by an underground river.

This module features 74 new encounter areas and 6 new monsters, a full two-page map, plus new magic items, new rumors, an explanation of how this module fits into the whole Castle structure, and the impact it will have on the inhabitants of the central third level of the dungeon. There are also tips for game masters who would like to run this level as a stand-alone adventure.

Levels in the dungeon roughly comport to suitable character levels, to this module is best suited for PCs of approximately 3rd level. However, there are (intentionally) some encounters that only more powerful characters can expect to handle.

Note: This is an expansion of the original Castle of the Mad Archmage™ megadungeon adventure. Although it can be run on its own, you will greatly add to your enjoyment of the module if you also have the original Castle.

Castle of the Mad Archmage is written using the Adventures Dark and Deep™ rules, and is compatible with most Old School type rules with little or no conversion needed.

Click Here to Buy The Museum and the Watery Caves: Level Three East

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Designer's corner: wuxia rules

I've got a long way to go before it's done, but I've recently had a spurt of inspiration and energy for my wuxia/Chinese folklore supplement for old-school gaming, and I thought I'd post some of my thoughts on how it's going to be organized, and what sort of stuff will likely find its way into the book.

First off, it's completely China-focused. One of the things that was both baffling and annoying about the original Oriental Adventures book was its mish-mashing of Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian material, with a decided focus on the Japanese. There will be neither ninjas nor samurai in this book. That's not to say it's an historical game; far from it. But the influences will come solely from China.

Secondly, it draws inspiration from two sources; wuxia film and literature, and traditional Chinese mythology and folklore. In the same way that Gary Gygax took inspiration from European and Biblical folklore and literature for a lot of spells, magic items, and character classes, this book will draw from Chinese mythology and folklore. I'm also adding in a healthy dose of wuxia tropes and themes, most specifically in the introduction of rules for kung fu.

Building on a mechanic of the core Adventures Dark and Deep rules before it, this Chinese supplement will treat kung fu abilities as secondary skills (which in turn were inspired by Gary Gygax's rules for skills written for the Castles and Crusades game), kung fu skills are learned in three stages. Each stage costs a set amount of experience points per level, with the amount of xp required decreasing if your character's highest attribute is relevant to the skill in question. Once you "spend" the xp to learn that level of a particular kung fu style, they're forever lost, but you can of course earn more xp to replace them. Spending them does require that the character find a teacher that is both able and willing to instruct the PC, naturally. Monks, by their nature, start off with a level in one kung fu style.

To take one example, "Dragon Foot Style" allows characters to kick enemies back one foot per point of strength, and gain damage bonuses if using pummeling to kick, plus other bonuses as they buy new levels in it. A lot of the kung fu rules lean heavily on unarmed combat (naturally), and the Adventures Dark and Deep unarmed combat rules, which I think are a lot easier than those in 1st edition, will be included as an appendix. Other styles allow characters to fight blind, do backflips to get behind enemies, and even levitate and climb walls. It's intended to really capture some of the cool moves featured in some wuxia films.

The traditional "Tolkienesque" fantasy races don't feature prominently in a mythic China setting, but two new races are included; shanxiao (monkey-men) and gou ren (dog-headed people). Every character class is covered, even if it's a perfunctory "this class doesn't exist in a mythic China setting", such as paladins and druids. New classes include monks, wu (shamans, a sub-class of cleric), and fangshi (a sub-class of mage). Naturally there are tons of new spells for both classes.

So far, I've got 67 new spells (plus all the original spells that the wu and fangshi can also cast), 43 new magic items, and 85 new monsters, including the various sorts of elementals (including meta- and quasi-elementals) that one would naturally expect when one adds elemental planes of metal and wood. All that from just reading books on Chinese folklore. Naturally, there will be entries for Chinese-style weapons and armor, and everything will be fully compatible with Adventures Dark and Deep, and, by extension, most old-school RPGs (with maybe a few tweaks here and there for some rules).

All in all, I'm really pleased with the way the book is going. It seems new to me, and it's definitely a change from the Japan-centric "oriental adventures" books that have come before. There will probably be a Kickstarter at some point to pay for art and editing, once the text is done. I'll keep you posted.