Archive for January, 2013


The Reward

The Reward is an awesome little animated short film — a student project from The Animation Workshop — that neatly encapsulates much of the fun and wonder of gonzo old-school play in the so-called “Galactic Dragons and Godwars” style. Watch it, love it, let it bring a smile to your face.



Gygax Magazine Unboxing and Beyond

If you’ll be in Brooklyn this Saturday I look forward to seeing you at the Gygax Magazine unboxing! If so be sure to RSVP via their website, if not there will be streaming video of the event and some other online goings-on that’ll make checking the site that day worth your while.

Gygax unboxing

To the right is the flyer from the event, reusing an illustration by Ryan Browning – the PCs to the right killing orcs with ventriloquism belong to him and Zak, plus my elf Locfir from the original Dwimmermount PbP. Here’s the text on the back:



Saturday, January 26th, 2013

1:30 PM

* Magazines available for purchase at 2:00 PM

Join us for a full day of gaming: D&D, Savage Worlds, Marvel RPG, and more

Plus 1st edition AD&D with Dwarven Forge!

I’ve had the pleasure of helping the rebirth of TSR from the start – I think only founder Jayson Elliott and Games Content Editor James Carpio are senior to me. For a while my title was Guy Who Introduces Jayson To Former TSR Employees which was a lot of fun, but around the time that the magazine emerged as the most promising thing TSR could do as its launch Jayson got sucked up actually making that happen and I became busy with other stuff too.

Once the magazine was thrust into the spotlight the title I chose for myself was Events Coordinator, although something with outreach in the name would probably be better. The reason I’m excited to be part of an ambitious, old-fashioned print magazine is the opportunities it affords to draw gamers together the way the letters column in wargaming zines did for guys on the magazine’s masthead like Tim Kask and Ernie Gygax, and to be the mystique-laden physical artifact that draws outsiders in the way zines like Factsheet Five did for the generation Jayson and I come from.

To be an Events Coordinator is well and good, except that I have twins on the way next week (I didn’t commit to running anything at the event in case they were early) and a day job and a hobby job with Autarch so I do not lack for interesting times. Thus if you want to see Gygax Magazine become a force for making cool events happen you should not expect me to do it all for you. Specific ways you can help:

  1. If there is something happening that you think the kind of people who’d dig Gygax Magazine would enjoy, let me know and I’ll add it to the calendar. Eventually we’ll have a more formal way to do so but for now you can comment here or email/G+ me at
  2. If you are in the tri-state area – which is the low-hanging fruit we can use to demonstrate “here are the kinds of things Gygax Magazine thinks its audience might enjoy” – is Bushwick outside your comfortable travel range?
silent barn

This shot from the DIY Dungeons @ Silent Barn is fan service for the kids in my afterschool class who’ll excited to see the Minecraft creeper. Also pictured: Inna from Butter the Children, who headlined the show later that night.

This Monday DIY Dungeons put on a successful event at Silent Barn, a DIY space that’s just opened in a bigger location, 603 Bushwick Avenue, at the beginning of the year. They’re also doing a Babycastles game jam so are clearly our kind of peeps.

The thing Jayson and I were thinking is missing from our local gaming scene is a purely social gathering. We’ve got convention gaming with nerdNYC’s quarterly Recess, Organized Play and the self-organized kind with the world’s biggest D&D Meetup group, plus groups predominantly focused on actual play like New York Red Box. The thing we don’t usually have (and NYRB always seems eager for more of) is a chance to hang out with one another and other gamers and our friends who maybe aren’t gamers yet but are open to having a good time. This kind of get-together is easy to organize when it’s nice outside, but in the winter a place like Silent Barn is ideal. However, nerdNYC’s Terry, for whom I have mad respect, thinks that Bushwick is one subway transfer too many for most of the folks who come to Recess.

If you have an informed opinion on these matters I am eager to hear it. If not, I encourage you to think about where you might want to get together with folks in the place where you live, and then make it happen and tell me about it so I can put it on Gygax’s calendar.


when is a PDF worth $1?

Question for our three readers:

I’ve got a convention-ready B/X adventure that includes a Dungeon, a Dragon, an Evil Wizard, a Castle, some Wilderness Environs, and, I suppose, a spare monster lair or two as one-pagers, along with a party of pre-generated characters.  It runs to completion in about 3-5 hours depending on whether parties take certain shortcuts or get incinerated by dragon-fire.  If you want all the Dungeons & Dragons stuff that Frank Mentzer promised you as a child, condensed into a four hour time slot, I’ve play-tested this thing 6 times and it’s solid.

It’s written for a party around 5,000 XP (approx 3rd level), but yesterday I ran it for a single character with 300,000 XP (approx 9th level) and it proved about as challenging.

I would gladly offer this thing for free, because the OSR provides so many awesome things for free just as part of the culture.  Except that the effort to typing up an explanation, design notes, suggestions, and so on would require taking time away from other things I would rather do, such as playing games, reading comics, and doing my real job.  (For all I care, I’m fine donating the money to a colon cancer charity; I just want to feel that my effort is accomplishing more than just providing an afternoon’s distraction.)

So I would like to charge a nominal fee for this thing to explain to my girlfriend why I am working on this instead doing the dishes, but the question is: if you are going to spend $1 on something, what’s the minimum level of professional production you’d expect?  New monsters, spells, character classes?  Art by someone who cannot draw?  Art by someone who can draw?  Layout by someone who understands the difference between Tahoma and Calibri, or just a slab of text?

To avoid failure, I’m not setting a date or promising anything.  I’m just wondering what the OSR’s expectations are regarding a producer’s ethical obligations when charging a nominal fee for (to be honest) meat & potatoes content.


On Dwimmermount, And Failure

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, maybe in the comments to this post about Gygax, Arneson, and a music video. My mom was a little girl when Hawaii became a state. She’s about the age of D&D’s original gangsters, and the vogue for Hawaiian shirts and hula hoops affected her the way Tractics did them. The world wasn’t changed by my mom’s lifelong devotion to hula dancing, but it did mean my childhood was surrounded by the paraphernalia of a hobby most people left behind decades ago.

In 2000, her halao, a hula group made up of dancers who commuted between Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio (for non-Texans, this is a whole lot of six-mile hexes) to practice together, was the first in the continental-US-other-than-California to be invited to the Merrie Monarch festival. This would be hula’s equivalent of Gen Con, if Indy had this big contest we all cared about so much that just being allowed to enter was a big deal.

A women’s group competing in the Merrie Monarch festival. We had all these kinds of cowrie shell necklaces and coconut shell bras around the house when I was a kid.

The day my mom was getting ready to go on stage – braiding all those grass skirts takes a long time – the rest of my family,  my fiancee, and I went swimming at a black sand beach on the big island. After a while the rest of us went in to build sand castles while my dad looked for coral with a snorkel. At one point we looked up and wondered if he was swimming a little far from shore; when we looked again a minute later he had drowned. My brother and I swam out to try to rescue him, but our attempts at CPR failed.

Kehena Beach can be seen in the background of this shot. Most of the folks who helped with the rescue weren’t wearing any clothes.

Like many gamers I grew up devoted to science fiction, especially everything Robert A. Heinlein ever wrote, and I was strongly influenced by its cult of competence. Years later, in a class on SF, Chip Delany identified this as one of the genre’s fixed ideas – the delusion that an exceptional person should be able to do everything exceptionally well, whether it’s to skin a squirrel with your boot or fix a gourmet meal or repel an alien invasion – but it was gospel to me as a kid. I never built a bomb shelter using rolls of toilet paper as radiation filters the way Heinlein told me to in Expanded Universe, but I did lots of other stuff, from taking karate lessons to getting certified as an emergency medical technician, for the time when my training might mean the difference between life or death. When the time came, I failed.

One failure followed another. The Ph.D towards which I’d invested five years of my time and a bunch of other people’s money stalled and eventually sputtered out, a long painful process of disappointment for my mentor, my friends, and others who’d counted on me to deliver my thesis. For a long time I felt like a loser, hiding myself away in shame to avoid evidence of how I’d let people down or fantasizing about grandiose ways I could re-establish myself as an exceptional person. Eventually I got over the idea that I deserved to have life suck forever; the decision to get myself into therapy was a key step, but that and its interesting relationship to what we do in roleplaying sessions is for another post.

This one is about Dwimmermount. If you supported its Kickstarter, or if you’re reasonably attuned to an online community that contains folks who did, you’ll have heard that the project is in some trouble. As the person at Autarch who’s been the public face for the Dwimmermount crowdfunding effort, I’m doing all I can to make sure that what it promised is delivered – although, since James has both the funding and the copyright that are required to release his work, I’m not in the best position to do so. Autarch is still looking for solutions, but everyone’s best efforts can never banish the possibility of failure.

I can’t talk about what’s going on with Dwimmermount author James Maliszewski and how it relates to the project’s problems – mostly because he’s not telling me, and the desire to respect his privacy covers what’s left – but here’s what I can say from my experience following my father’s death.

  • There are worse things in the world than a delayed Kickstarter or a pre-ordered gaming product that fails to ship. People have to take responsibility for their actions, sure, but the reality is that life contains some tragic fucking shit and the only thing that makes it bearable is our compassion for one another.
  • Sometimes failure is a way to realize you’re on the wrong path. I’d been going nowhere as a grad student long before my dad died, and although this isn’t the way I would have chosen to get there, I’m now happier than most of the people I know who continued down the track I got jolted out of.
  • You have to fail if you’re going to learn from your mistakes. The biggest thing I had to overcome was the feeling that I was a failure, and since that’s all I’d ever be there was no point in trying. The flip side of this is the science-fiction fantasy that I should be good at everything, meaning the best way to evade the sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t so was to avoid doing anything at which I might fail. Either way, I was shutting myself off from the opportunity to see that you win some, you lose some, and meanwhile it’s fun to play the game.

Autarch is a new company, and we’re still making rookie mistakes. Going into the Dwimmermount project, I felt like Autarch’s success with the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter, and the failure of mine for the Arneson Memorial Gameday, had given us considerable expertise. I see now that those those were relatively smooth hits or misses. We’ve learned a lot more from a project that’s been rocky and whose fate remains uncertain; we won’t again put ourselves in a position where we’re holding the bag and have left ourselves so little control over the outcome. Although I still think there’s a valuable role for crowdfunding to act as the testing ground and collaborative inspiration for projects early in their development cycle, the Kickstarter currently on Autarch’s drawing board, Domains at War, will have a basically finished draft ready to give to backers as soon as they pledge and will explicitly be seeking funds just to illustrate, print, and ship a thing that already exists.

Kickstarter is a new thing under the sun too. Without being privy to their process, the fact that they are growing successfully means they must be learning from their mistakes. I’d like to think that the requirements for project creators to discuss risks to backers, which have been put in place since we launched Dwimmermount, might have helped us avoid another serious mistake in not being transparent from the start about Autarch’s contract with James and the ways it could go wrong. But hindsight is misleading, and there are still many ways that Dwimmermount could come out right.

To bring this back to gaming and pay the Joesky tax, roleplaying lets you make mistakes and learn from the consequences in a safe space. I’ve written before about my frustration with party optimization in 4E, where I felt like no feasible amount of play time would give me enough observations to statistically distinguish successful group strategies from sub-par ones. Tim Harford’s fascinating Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure shows that it’s not just statistics that can be make it hard to recognize when you’ve made a mistake (this being an obvious prerequisite to learning from it). Some of the unconscious biases he points out are kind of a benefit for roleplaying: the tendency to retrospectively cast our bad decisions as good ones can make the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory seem a little less undeserved.

But the fear of failure is what drives these attempts to airbrush away one’s mistakes, and it makes for bad gaming. Fudging the dice robs us of the ability to learn. The wisely titled Play Unsafe presents techniques like holding ideas lightly (because they might be wrong) and not planning in advance (because no amount of worrying will never eliminate the possibility of rolling a natural 1) that I think are at the heart of the old-school approach. Best of all, they’re things you can try out and see if they work for you right away, no statistical analysis necessary.


the hulk against the world


(This is a kinda-long AP post, but toward the end I pay my Joesky Tax by including some Civil War milestones that can be printed on Avery labels and stuck onto your character sheet.)

My first Civil War game was a one-shot conflict between the rampaging Hulk and the uncanny X-Men, played out with Tavis and his family.  Owing to their schedule, a second session probably isn’t likely any time in the foreseeable future, so I put together a second group and started fresh.

Session One

Scene 1: Yet Again With the Smashing

Again: we open with the Hulk all crazy, destroying (in this instance) Peekskill, New York, opposed (this time) by Shadowcat and the Beast.  After a crazy underwater battle that ended with Shadowcat psychologically shattered by the Hulk’s endless capacity for rage, the Beast (now joined by Storm) managed to barely wear down the brute, but not before the Hulk’s fury of destruction and a toxic gas cloud kill hundreds of people.  Among the X-Men, Cyclops and Colossus died in a train crash.

Scene 2: Let’s Not Feel Guilty About This

Bruce Banner wakes up in a dirty alleyway, his tattered purple pants coated in filth, the air filled with the sounds of sirens and uncontrollable weeping.  Must be a weekday.

Wandering amid the ruins of Peekskill and a mob of first-responders, SHIELD forensics specialists, and grandstanding super heroes, Banner is accosted by his old Defenders teammate Doctor Strange, who teleports him back to Manhattan before The Man can detect him.

While Wong escorts a battered Banner to the soothing Bathtub of Bahamut, the Master of the Mystic Arts gets an earful from his latest disciple Nico Minoru and his publicist Sara Wolfe about his inaction in the face of a horrific tragedy.  When he cannot evade their criticism with a shield of Zen platitudes, Strange basically tells them to shut up.

When Banner comes downstairs, he announces there’s this weird boil on the back of his neck.  Strange’s mysticism and medical know-how reveal that this was an entry-point for a xeno-borg critter curled around Banner’s amygdala–his rage center–making him even easier to infuriate than usual.

The players conclude that obviously the only man to help them is Professor X.

Scene 3: Sympathy for the Devil

So Bruce Banner goes to visit the world’s most powerful telepath before the bodies of his two students are even cold and a third is still catatonic.  Chuck takes it pretty well, all things considered:

“I have pity on you, Doctor Banner.  After what you did today, SHIELD will hunt you down.  The Avengers will turn on you.  The Sisterhood of Mutants, no friends of mine, will not stop until you are dead, for daring to kill two mutants.  Ororo’s fiance, the Black Panther, perhaps the deadliest man alive, will seek revenge against the monster who hurt his beloved.  But all of this is because you lack control.  Because no one would help you.  I will help you.  You will never be angry again.

And Professor X then does a total mind-whammy on Bruce Banner and shorts out his ability to feel anger, robbing him of his only defense against the whole goldang world.

But Dr. Strange is not simply the Sorcerer Supreme.  He is the Passive-Aggressive Dick Supreme, and Professor X just intruded on his territory big time.  Strange telepathically contacts Nick Fury and tells him exactly where the X-Men (who are also blamed for the rampage) are holed up.

Professor X, Storm, and the Beast take Kitty, a mostly-disassembled Cerebro, and flee in the Blackbird, and blow up the mansion before SHIELD can arrive and pore over the research.


more critiques of the civil war event book

The big problem with the Civil War Event book is that it’s . . . impersonal.  By which I mean, the RPG designers give you a cast of 32 playable super heroes, many reiterated from the Basic Book.  Thirty-two heroes, choose four, gives you something like 863,040 unique groups of four heroes if I’ve done the math right (no guarantees).  Even if you suppose many tables will play troupe style, it’s impossible to design this thing with a particular set of characters in mind.

In that sense, the Civil War Event resembles an old-timey D&D Dungeon, which exists in a completely impersonal sort of way and doesn’t care that your first-level Fighter’s name is Executioner Tootles and he can speak Robot Latin.  But it’s also very unlike a D&D Dungeon, in that the Marvel Civil War is all about personal choices, man!

You can do that personal choices and consequences type thing well with an indie game set-up (see Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard), and you can do the impersonal scenario that you’re gonna have to navigate through no matter who you are really well in games like Dungeons & Dragons.  But the Civil War Event is disconcertingly trying to do both at once.  A key skill in running this game is figuring out how to push the characters’ buttons, even when the published material doesn’t quite get you there.

One necessary first step is to chop out everything that serves no purpose.  Marvel’s Civil War unfolds like this: there’s a terrible humanitarian catastrophe, everyone is agitated and anticipates a significant governmental response, the response is to nationalize superhumans, some superhumans resist this, everybody fights, and it just gets worse and worse until one side takes things too far and loses the moral high ground.

Any scene that isn’t playing on those issues should be thrown in the garbage.  Did Thor’s hammer land in Oklahoma?  Who cares!  Did you get invited to the Black Panther/Storm wedding?  This is padding.  (I always hated those comics which promised to be a tie-in to the latest cross-over, and then had almost nothing to do with it.)  What’s with this whole Atlantis thing, and the Hydra stuff, both of which seem to be kind of tacked on?

The only thing that matters is that the Man is sick and tired of your super hero bullshit, and he kind of has a point.  Now you’re going to toe the line or else.  If your players want to pursue other goals–“Who built the alien city within Blue Area of the Moon, anyway?  Let’s go live there!”–that’s awesome, because it’s directed by the players themselves.  (And God help you if they choose this, because this is not the easiest game in the world to run completely on the fly.)  But where your players lead you is a very different thing, creatively, than allowing the published material to waste valuable table time on stuff that doesn’t tie strongly into the premise.

(I don’t blame the RPG designers for this: they’re trying to adapt a comic book “event” which, by editorial fiat, sprawled out in all directions at once.)

In addition to ruthlessly cutting “empty” scenes, I strongly recommend that the characters in play take at least one of the Milestone included in the Event, rather than simply accepting the ones on their character sheet, because that will at least tie them in somehow to the big picture stuff going on here.  You can still jaunt off to Cleveland to hang with Howard the Duck, but it won’t gain you much XP.

joesky tax

Here are some milestones (page one, page two) for our game, printable for Avery 5162 white labels, which you can stick directly onto your character sheet.  (This isn’t every milestone in the published material, just the ones I felt best suited a Hulk-centric game.)

the other thing

The other thing that’s a little strange about the Civil War Event is that it is, and isn’t, a railroad.  It’s more like these required way-stations, and how you get there is your own business.  There’s going to be a Humanitarian Catastrophe.  There’s going to be a Big Government Response.  Etc., etc.  As Greengoat sagely observed, “This stuff is all just window-dressing for the titans to hit each other over the heads. Like an animated Street Fighter backgound.”  And that’s about right.

I’ve included at least one or two options for the players to completely subvert this entire thing, and will respond to innovative player-spawned plans I haven’t taken into consideration.  But mainly unless they’re clever, they’ve just gotta cope with the Big Picture stuff unfolding kind of like it did in the comics, more or less.  I can’t figure out if that’s an interesting design feature, or a frustrating bug.


pendragon: the holy grail, murder-pigs, and impregnation critical

Much has changed in the realm of King Arthur since my last post about our on-going Pendragon game.  The last update occurred sometime around the Battle of Badon Hill, where Arthur successfully repelled the Saxons and cemented his reign once and for all, around 518 A.D. according to the Great Pendragon Campaign; or game is now roaring into 531 A.D. where our now middle-aged knights are about to harrow Hell for my dead pagan enchantress bride.

I don’t even know how to summarize things, so here are just a couple of snippets.

Beardsley: Sir Lancelot and the witch Hellawes

don’t call the queen a pig (unless you really have to)

The big thing in Sir Carabad’s life, since we last saw him gamboling among the faerie pig-people of the Forest Perilous, was his infatuation with the enormously wealthy Lady Madule of the Raven Locks.  Lady Madule is an unusual person: bored of standard tales of knightly accomplishment, she found Carabad’s autobiography of failure, woe, and insanity among the Fey very pleasing.  She is a Goth among Goths.

(We would later realize that, under the medieval legal system, a widow has more property rights than an unmarried woman, so arguably she selected Carabad as a husband extremely likely to die or go missing forever.  I have been in relationships like that.)

To curry favor with his lady-love, Sir Carabad agreed to retrieve some golden apples, and his friend Sir Clegis vowed to assist.  A king whose wife was dying in childbirth advised them that the apples would be found in a forest . . . but the forest could only be entered by fugitives.

CARABAD: Wait, so he said it could only be entered by fugitives?

GM: “Yes, fugitives.  Now, I don’t like Arthur’s knights very much, but you’re welcome to stay here until any fugitives come along, and…”

CARABAD: And his wife is sick?

GM: “You may see for yourself how she struggles!  Darling, the midwives say it will not be much longer, they have undone all the knots in the castle–”

CLEGIS (CARABAD’S FRIEND): Oh brother, I see where this is going.  I’m getting the horses ready and hiding the king’s vampiric spear.

CARABAD: “My lord, no wonder your wife suffers: so would any pig trying to birth a half-human child.”  Before he can order his men to kill us, I jump on my horse and–

GM: He doesn’t order his men to kill you.

BOTH PLAYERS: He doesn’t?!

GM: He just fumes and thunders, “Get!  Out!”

CARABAD: Jeez, how can we insult him any worse?  Um, I say–

CLEGIS: “No, Carabad, let us away and find some other way to become fugitives before we are slain.”  What if we, um, beat up some monks and stole their robes and fled into the forest?  I ask at the nearest village for where some monks are.

GM: “Oh, the white friars?  You can find them at the inn, where they are foreswearing their faith.”

CARABAD: Well, if we stole their robes maybe they wouldn’t care enough to chase us.

CLEGIS: Fugitive… fugitive… hmm… Clearly we can’t ride TOWARD the forest, because we can’t find anyone to chase us.  But what if we rode our horses BACKWARDS into the forest?

GM: What?  I’m confused.

CARABAD: I get it!  A fugitive runs into the forest because he’s being chased.  If we ride into the forest without being chased, we would be not-fugitives.  But if we rode the horses backwards, we would be not-not-fugitives.  Which is the same as being fugitives!  Oh.  Oh, that is nice.

GM: I’m still confused.

CLEGIS: The trick is, we’d know we were doing it, which may defeat the purpose.  So we would have to wear blindfolds.

CARABAD: This is . . . This is the greatest plan anyone has ever come up with.  It makes my calling the queen a pig look really stupid.

GM: Look, it says all you guys need to do is make DEX rolls to enter the forest.

PLAYERS: ………….Oh.  So what do we do with the blindfolds?

Eventually Sir Carabad found a golden apple to give to Lady Madule, though Sir Clegis had to behead an innocent man due to one of those oaths you swear to forest spirits.  Forest spirits apparently have a really good legal team, because nobody ever thinks to break the oath.

Beardsley: The Achieving of the Sangreal

a moment of glory

Also, Sir Carabad heroically led the armies of the Grail Castle against the forces of King Death, and was married to Lady Madule by the Fisher King himself.  You had to be there.

Beardsley: A Devil in a Woman’s Likeness (right half)

satan’s racehorse

Dan’s main character, Sir Hervis, went on a quest to rescue his sister, who had been kidnapped by the notorious Sir Bruce sans Pitie, the most notorious knight in England, who makes a custom of kidnapping damosels and then riding off on his infernal steed.  Sir  Hervis was accompanied by the prideful Sir Pellandres.

GM: “Aye, I’ve seen his horse, it’s as fast as the Devil himself!”  The peasant crosses himself superstitiously.

HERVIS: Hmm.  Even if we find Sir Bruce, it won’t do us any good because he’ll run awayand we can’t catch him.

PELLANDRES: Ah!  But what if we make him come to us!  I shall pridefully boast that I have the fastest racehorse in all of Logres.  We shall challenge him to a race!  And when he arrives, smite him!

HERVIS: He still might run.  I’m going to bury miniature crucifixes along the outside of the race track, so that when the devil-horse arrives, it’ll be trapped inside.

PELLANDRES: Oh, a devil-horse, that’s right!  ….I am going to pridefully spread rumors that my horse is a saint.

GM: How can a horse be a saint?

HERVIS: It’s a creature of habit.

PELLANDRES: How indeed?  I will train it repeatedly to kneel at the altar of the local church, at night.  And then once it can do so reliably, show it off to the peasants at Sunday mass.  (Rolls dice)

GM: “Gadzooks!  That horse is a saint!”  “Someone ask the horse to heal my scrofula!”  “To think I shoveled the saint’s waste!  I will keep it in a reliquary!”

HERVIS: Big thumbs up on this plan.

PELLANDRES: How can Sir Bruce ignore such enticing bait?  An angelic horse on a race track against his demon horse!

GM: …So the day of the race comes, and Sir Bruce is there.  He’s this enormous guy, bigger than both of you put together, and his horse breathes fire from its nostrils, and lightning sparks strike when its hooves touch the ground.  It’s like he’s revving the horse’s engine at NASCAR.  “Who’s ready to race!”

HERVIS: I’m going to wait at the edge of the track, and strike him if he strays outside the crucifix line.

PELLANDRES: “I shall race you, varlet!  Upon my holy steed!  What ho, the signal!”  (rolls dice)

GM: There’s the fanfare to begin – your horse think’s its time for mass and kneels.  Sir Bruce’s horse is off like an arrow…

Long story short: Hervis, Pellandres, and their ally Sir Emerause (much love, Greengoat, come back to us) tracked down Sir Bruce, killed him, and rescued Hervis’s sister and Bruce’s other captives.

Beardsley: How Morgan le Fay gave a Shield to Sir Tristram

a young knight should not fight an entire army by herself

We forgot this rule of thumb when Lisa joined us to play the Saxon shield-maiden Aethelflaed.  Our characters, with over a decade of advancement, just barely survived the final assault on Rome–Sir Carabad himself was nearly cloven in half by a Byzantine cataphract.  But poor Aethelflaed never stood a chance and was cut down like chaff.  This was kind of our fault, because we had never used the “fight defensively” rule and had forgotten it existed; this might have kept her alive.

Beardsley: How King Mark and Dinadan Heard Sir Palomides (right half)

eight year old children should not fight wild boars

The notoriously prideful Sir Pellandres went boar-hunting with his retinue in France, during the winter of one of Arthur’s European campaigns.  When the knight fell off his horse, his eight year old son was unable but to laugh at him.  Angrily dismissing the rest of the men, Pellandres insisted that he and his son would find and slay the boar by themselves.

That was not best practice.  Though they are a speedbump in games like Dungeons & Dragons, wild boars are pretty horrible beasts by Pendragon standards.  In contrast, unarmored eight year old boys are speedbumps.  It . . . did not end well, and I believe Pellandres went mad for a while until he wound up in a monastery.

Beardsley: How La Beale Isoud Nursed Sir Tristram

that damn pregnancy table

Despite several years of marriage, Sir Carabad and Lady Madule did not produce any children.  Inevitably Sir Carabad went mad again (stupid Sir Gawaine!), so I had to adventure as Lady Madule, the pagan enchantress, for a few years.  (The joke here is that Lady Madule is a pretty horrible person, insanely loyal to Morgan Le Fey, cruel, and deceitful, and only married Sir Carabad in the expectation that he’d die and she could officially own her own lands.  Which everyone but Carabad could see.)  Inevitably Lady Madule was imprisoned and slated to be burned at the stake for witchcraft.

By this time Sir Carabad had recovered, rounded up the grieving Sir Pellandres, found Sir Hervis, and they all rode off to rescue Lady Madule.  This goal was achieved!

PELLANDRES: Have the two of you ever, y’know, consummated that marriage?

CARABAD: Gee, I guess we’ve been at war for two years, and then I was mad for a few years… I suppose not.  She has headaches a lot, and says that the stars are not properly aligned.

PELLANDRES: You are never going to get a better chance than right now.

HERVIS: If you invoke a passion, that’s +10 on the childbirth table.

GM: Passion rolls shouldn’t apply to the childbirth table!

HERVIS: Why not?  Look, the first ten results are, “No child born.”  If you get a +10 from a passion, you skip that and she’s automatically pregnant.

GM: ….Oh, what the hell, sure.

PELLANDRES: And the baby and mother will only BOTH die if you roll a 1.

CARABAD: Well, we’ve been married 5 years and I wooed her for 5 years, and I really do need an heir at this point.  I’m rolling my Romance by describing how many adventures we’ve had to rescue her and save her life.  (Success!)  You are all deafened and repulsed by the animalistic groans coming from the pavilion.

PELLANDRES: I’m curious, you should roll now to see what happens in winter phase.

CARABAD: (rolls dice; comes up 1: “Child and mother both die”)  (I practically rend my clothes in frustration)

GM: Oh man, I love it when horrible things happen to Sir Carabad.

CARABAD: Wait!  I’ve got that holy salve my father left me!  I can save them!

GM: Only one of them.  You should roll your Love (Family Line) versus your Love (Lady Madule) to see whether you save your wife or your infant child.

CARABAD: (rolls) ……………Wow.  Um, I am going to name my daughter Madule.  Thus endeth that whole ten year story arc.  Wow.

So next year we are riding into Hell to see if we can redeem Lady Madule’s soul.

Beardsley: Excalibur in the Lake


watchmen: ozymandias and dr. manhattan

joesky tax

I’ve been too busy at work to finish up my earlier post about Watchmen as a normal super hero RPG thing (post one, post two).  But here’s  zipped PDF’s of Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan, reflecting very idiosyncratic personal interpretations of these characters circa 1966 for the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game.  Do you think I could have adapted them better?  Speak up, because I’m sure there’s room for improvement in terms of content.  (Again, I am ashamed of the layout and formatting but don’t care to take the time to learn how to do such things properly.)

Issue 4-8-4

watchmen and heroism

Last time I talked about violence, which in Watchmen often, though not always, involves super-folks savagely victimizing an ordinary person.  Much as we might hate to admit it, that’s perhaps the most fundamental wish-fulfillment of the comic book super hero: “I wish I was super strong, so I could just beat the snot out of Keith Brophy.”  If you look at the earliest Golden Age stories, the heroes are absolutely delighted to wallop the hell out of hapless thugs–reflecting, maybe, folk hero anger of a society still coping with organized crime, openly corrupt political machines, and Commie-Nazis, combined with every school kid’s hatred of bullies.

By avoiding the abstracted violence-as-catharsis of most super hero comics and returning the bully/victim model in which the protagonist is the bully, to center stage, Watchmen is of course a deconstruction of “the super hero,” but also “heroism” more generally.  (Duh!  Everyone knows this!)  By not bothering with a typical good-versus-evil plotline cluttered with super villains, Moore and Gibbons get to show at least four different ethical systems in conflict–a “civil war” among super heroes far more nuanced than anything Marvel would do twenty years later.

The Comedian receives public praised as a hero, but is one of the most vile and despicable characters in the book–the one most eager to hurt people who don’t “deserve” to be hurt.  (One of Moore and Gibbons’ best tricks in this book is that they virtually never provide us with someone who “deserves” to get hurt, which undermines a lot of how our culture thinks about super hero comics and the application of violence more generally.)  The Comedian’s luck, or shrewdness, is that so long as he (off-panel) hurts enough officially designated bad guys to be useful to the elites, everyone is willing to look the other way and excuse his on-panel indiscretions.  The joke is that he’s a horrible fucking guy.

If the Comedian is at heart a sadist willing to serve whoever grants him greatest license, nobody could accuse Rorschach of selling out.  Kovacs was inspired to become an action hero by the horrific inaction of Kitty Genovese’s neighbors.  In Kovacs’ view, there are men and women who do evil deeds, and we cannot shirk our duty to punish them lest we become complicit in their iniquity.  The dude follows his own moral compass, no matter how askew it may point, and he never falters even when the path reaches its terminus.  (I think Moore’s treatment of the Question’s ethical code is a very rich subject for analysis; given how often this thing is assigned in college classes, however, I’m sure it’s been done to death.)  Rorschach only hurts the people who “deserve” it, but his judgment about who “deserves” violence and who doesn’t is highly suspect.

Doctor Manhattan, of course, is omnipotent, except he’s become so detached from ordinary human concerns that he doesn’t want to do much of anything–and whatever he chooses to do has, in some sense, “already” taken place anyway.  Predestination robs him of agency, and therefore also of moral urgency.  From Jon’s point of view, nobody “deserves” anything: free will is an illusory by-product of a deterministic mechanism.  And yet, though he recognizes this fact, he has no problem vaporizing people or obliterating entire villages in Viet Nam.  The Comedian is immoral but Doctor Manhattan is amoral, and it’s hard to determine which is worse.

Issue 11-11-1

Finishing up the quartet, Ozymandias recognizes numerous immediate and long-term threats to the human race, perceives their intricate interconnections, and decides that super heroism is plainly inadequate to the “super crises” of the 1980’s, requiring a stepped-up response.  The guy who actually saves the world from thermonuclear extinction is a mass-murdering megalomaniac.  The world, the human race as a whole, “deserves” to survive and this higher good supposedly excuses millions of deaths.

(It’s only within the insular world of comic books that Ozymandias’s ethics come as a shock: it’s a school of thought that’s as old as warfare, employed in the bombing of Hiroshima and in the Cold War disaster scenarios occasionally referenced throughout the novel.  The trick is that here, one extremely competent man stands in the position of an international super power; a private citizen making decisions normally reserved for presidents.)

superpathic tendencies

Moore and Gibbons are presenting the four active super heroes of 1985 as psychopaths, to a greater or lesser extent–unable or unwilling to truly consider the humanity of other people.  But in a way, presenting super heroes as (literally) insane isn’t that surprising: how normal is it, really, to dress up as an owl and spend fifteen years of your life putting criminals in the hospital?  It is, at best, a personality disorder of some kind, and it’s telling that the two characters who have pretty much put the adventuring life behind them to live as muggles, Dan and Laurie, are the two most normal protagonists in the book.

Relatedly, super heroism itself is absurd.  The real world, as several characters observe, is far more complicated than punching a super-baddie in the nose.  Street crime is just a symptom of much more entrenched social failures.

But fundamentally I think the problem here is that these people have been given, or have assumed, carte blanche to determine who deserves to live and who deserves to die–to define “good guys” and “bad guys.”  That’s a maddening question, and it’s no wonder that the characters who answer it, one way or another, are highly disturbed individuals.

But then again, it’s a question our police officers, politicians, and pundits are called upon to answer every day.

Who watches the watchmen?

Issue 3-29-3


Cosine Warriors, Tangent Wizards

In third edition D&D and its various spin-offs, spellcasters became more powerful than ever in mid- to high-level play when compared to non-casters, to such an extent that “Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards” has become a perennial topic of discussion on gaming message boards. This is less of an issue in OSR gaming than in more recent games; old-school D&D rulesets predate the big power boosts of 3e, where more spell slots, broader spell selections, combat casting, and other caster benefits eclipsed the skills and feats offered to non-casters. But the specifics of power balance between casters and non-casters varies significantly by ruleset even under the OSR umbrella, based on caster limitations and non-caster strengths.

In Moldvay B/X, “spells cannot be cast while performing any other action (such as walking or fighting).” (Moldvay Basic, p. 15) The limit on “fighting” is ambiguous; it might mean you can’t cast while attacking, or that you can’t cast while engaged in melee.

In Mentzer BECMI, “The caster must be able to gesture and speak without interruption to cast a spell. While casting a spell, the [character] must concentrate, and may not move. A spell cannot be cast while the character is walking or running. If the [caster] is disturbed while casting a spell, the spell will be ruined, and will still be ‘erased,’ just as if it had been cast.” (Moldvay Basic, p. 25) Again, it’s unclear whether simply being in melee or being targeted by an attack counts as ‘an interruption’ or ‘being disturbed.’

The first edition AD&D Dungeon’s Master’s Guide has an entire section labeled “Spell Casting During Melee.” In this ruleset, a character can’t take any other action while casting a spell. Not only does damage ruin a spell, so does dodging! “The spell caster cannot use his or her dexterity bonus to avoid being hit during spell casting; doing so interrupts the spell.” (p. 65) Furthermore, intelligent enemies recognize how powerful magic is and will target magic-using PCs to disrupt their spells.

Meanwhile, fighters gain a variety of abilities at higher levels in many OSR rulesets. In Moldvay B/X, “for every 5 levels above 15th, the fighter gains another attack that round.”1 (Moldvay Expert, p. 8)  At 12th level, fighters in Mentzer BECMI gain both multiple attacks and special moves such as disarming. (Mentzer Companion, p. 18) Fighter-types in 1e AD&D get multiple attacks as they gain levels, and when a fighter attacks creatures with less than one hit die, he gets a number of attacks per round equal to his or her level. (1e PHB, p. 25) 2e AD&D provides even more advantages for the fighter in the form of weapon specialization, which provides ‘to hit’ and damage bonuses with the chosen weapon type. And all of the TSR old-school rulesets offer high-level fighters lots of followers and access to potent magic swords, both of which are invaluable in that style of play.2

Even so, old-school spellcasters have always been stronger than non-casters at higher levels. We see this right from the start in OD&D: “Top level magic-users are perhaps the most powerful characters in the game, but it is a long, hard road to the top.” (Men & Magic, p. 6) Some of the newer OSR offerings, such as Adventurer Conqueror King, offer fighter-only benefits like extra cleaving attacks and bonuses to damage and retainer morale. Others, such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess, diminish the melee utility of casters to help fighters stand out.

Visit the following blog and forum links to read some interesting proposals for fighter bonus abilities:

Fighters & Weapons (Untimately)

DEX feats and Combat Sequence and The Rest of the Feats (Roles, Rules & Rolls)

Thoughts on Fighter customization (Dragonsfoot)

Noncaster “Wizard Did It” Thread Split-Off: “She’s Just That Good” (

[OSR]Linear Fighter Quadratic Wizard-Beefing up the Fighter (

[1] I suspect this should read “At 15th level and every 5 levels thereafter.”

[2] I have not listed OD&D because I find the combat system too impenetrable to assess.

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2013

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