Archive for the 'Gaming Memorials' Category

16
Sep
12

The World’s First D&D Players and Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary

The Kickstarter for Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary is ending in nine hours. It’s a project deserving of support for a number of reasons, one of which is the quality and range of voices they’ve collected. Check out, for example, Atlantic editor Ta-Nehesi Coates on growing up with the Keep on the Borderlands:

I  met the filmmakers at last year’s Gen Con, was impressed by their passion and professionalism, and have enjoyed finding things to do to help the project along. One of these was to moderate the panel at Gen Con 2012 at which a preview of early footage was shown. A number of folks who were interviewed for the film were on hand, both on the panel and not. After watching the clip and talking about the parts of the D&D story each of us thought were the most important to be told, I took questions from the audience. The one I remember best was “Who were the players in the first ever session of D&D?”

Fortunately, I had a ringer in the audience to call on: Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World. I figured Jon was the kind of person who could rattle this off, but he was able to do even better than that. “Actually, one of those original players is here in the audience. David Megarry, would you please stand up?”

After the applause died down, David started telling us about what he remembered about those earliest Blackmoor sessions (refereed by Dave Arneson) and the people he played them with. The thing I found fascinating – and wouldn’t have understood before Playing at the World – was that the groups entering the Blackmoor fantasy world were still segregated according to the nations they played in  Arneson’s prior Napoleonic campaign. David still remembered them as such – he was like “well at first it was just Russia and Spain, it wasn’t until later that the groups in the dungeon really started mingling.”

It’s now possible to know more than ever before about the earliest roots of gaming. The job now is to put these stories together and reveal what they mean, and I think that Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary is going to be an invaluable part of that process. Go back it now before it’s too late!

05
Sep
12

Lich defeats 1st level party

In hindsight, rushing the Lich wasn’t the best idea. (And okay, we had like five 5th level guys, but two 1st level players for whom this was their very first B/X session.)

In previous posts, I’ve discussed how a lone spell caster type enemy can be taken down with a dedicated rush. We took out Strahd that way. We took out Devil Guts that way. We took out the Necromancer of Were-Tiger-opolis that way. But sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, the bear eats you.

Some of our problem was bad luck. We got hosed on some important initiative rolls, our archer couldn’t hit anything to save his life, and we had several rounds of unlucky saves against confusion.

Some of our problem was smart play on the GM’s part. The Lich initially took to the air, so our (too few) melee guys couldn’t get to him. The Lich was also somehow protected against holy water (protection from normal missiles?). The persistent confusion effect made it impossible to plan anything beyond the immediate round, and was arguably more effective than cloud kill would have been.

Some of it was just the design of the Lich as an enemy. The “see and flee” effect is a tremendously useful passive defense that applies against the entire party, and there aren’t a lot of ways to remove fear on several guys at once running at max speed. Though the Lich doesn’t level-drain, it paralyzes foes in melee, which means the party has an ethical dilemma about retreating and leaving valuable allies behind. The Lich’s ultra-low AC, by B/X standards, at least, means it can probably avoid conventional attacks long enough to get a spell off.

But mostly it was dumb strategy on our part, mostly mine. I blew my only dispel magic getting past an enchanted trap. We couldn’t bullshit his Iron Statue long enough to regroup and form up. The silence 15 foot radius was a lucky break, but after that our only real plan consisted of sniping a levitating Lich and trying to find a way to drop a chain of undead binding on him. Which should have worked, but for some very bad luck. Meanwhile the rest of us were too confused or fear-stricken to adequately help out. It was all we could do to retreat, though apparently we dished out some hefty damage.

I pushed for attacking again the next day before it had a chance to heal up, but got outvoted. Next time, pal. Next time.

18
May
12

Bob Bledsaw’s Birthday

On this date in 1942, Bob Bledsaw was born. The author of many classic adventures that have shaped and inspired my White Sandbox campaign, Bob is best known as the founder of Judges Guild. Here he is talking about its formation at a Q&A thread at the Necromancer Games site:

Judges Guild was founded by myself and Bill Owen (Llangwellan the Blue) from my campaign. It was he and his friends which contacted me with the oriiginal three book set. They had reached me via Dave Petrowsky, my cousin, and the local gaming club. Bill Owen is renowned for running miniature games based upon WWII and his father, Ralph Owen, had founded a chain of hobby stores in Central Illinois (later founding the Franklin Mall and highly sucessful Franklin Travel Agency in Decatur). Bill has a real genius for graphics and helped with the developement of many of our first products including the Judges Shield and Dungeon Tac Cards. Bill and I continue to game together to this day although he is now the CEO of many of his family businesses today. I had asked others of my gaming group to participate such as an out of work printer but Bill took the risk with me. He helped with the paste up on the huge mylar sheet naming every shop in the City State of the Invincible Overlord and consulted some lawyers in his family to make the Crime and Punishment rules. Bill is one of my best friends and stepped aside when his family enterprises began taking much more of his time.

Bill Owen’s recollections of Bob can be found in Bob & Bill: A Cautionary Tale, which is highly recommended.

31
Mar
12

Roleplaying Family Trees

"Out in the Streets ... 1972-1979". Rock family tree by Pete Frame

As is often the case, I come away from GaryCon all fired up about a project. In this case, it’s making a comprehensive family tree of gaming groups, modeled on the Seattle Band Map: a community-driven effort to document every local band that ever played a show or recorded a single, and demonstrate how they interconnect.

I’ve been fascinated by these kinds of lineages ever since seeing Pete Frame’s rock family trees in college. The specific impetus for me to pick this up at Gary Con was playing in the Dungeon! boardgame with Dave Megarry and thus getting to meet one of the two people who form the original branching of Dungeons & Dragons’ family tree: Arneson and Megarry traveled together to Lake Geneva to introduce Blackmoor and Dungeon! to Gary Gygax. I’ve learned a great deal from others who moved between the two groups, like Michael Mornard, and members of Arneson’s original gaming circle like Maj. Wesely and Ross Maker, and many others have worked on tracing the members of the earliest gaming groups.

I don’t think this should just be a backwards-facing enterprise, however. Someday the connections between our contemporary gaming groups will be just as interesting, and a lot easier to trace accurately. And the Seattle Band Project, like other genealogical efforts,  shows that filling in the gaps between the small and knowable origin and the huge and knowable current gaming scene is a doable task.

Does anyone out there in Muleland have skills that’d help make this project a reality? Experience with genealogy would be invaluable, of course, but there are a lot of database and visualization components involved as well, and probably there are lots of things I’m not even thinking about yet.

16
Mar
12

M.A.R. Barker Dead

Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker, creator of the classic old-school D&D spinoff Empire of the Petal Throne set in his seminal role-playing setting Tékumel, passed away today, March 16, 2012. He was a key figure in the early days of the hobby; his work offered a solid base for development of both world-building and non-Western fantasy themes, and he continued to run games in the setting for close to 40 years, providing a window into the past of the hobby — yet another such window that has now closed.

His family has requested that donations go to The Tékumel Foundation.

05
Mar
12

When Someone Great is Gone

After last night’s Dwimmermount session at the Brooklyn Strategist, we were doing a post-mortem about how it had been awesome when we were using miniatures on the section of the dungeon that I’d fully laid out with Master Maze, but as soon as we ran out of pieces to build new areas explored in play we started getting confused about who was doing what where. The solution is straightforward – Stefan will come back from Prague and we’ll borrow more of his personal collection; also he is a skilled enough builder to take apart one part of the layout and use it to create a new area at the speed of exploration, so either he’ll be there to help out or someone else will contribute (or learn) that skill. But being of a theoretical bent, we kept chewing over why the problem arose at all.

I usually run without minis and have no problem creating a mental picture of the scene. Why then did the transition from an area we could see with minis to one where we’d use our imagination throw us off? A B-Strat regular who was having a smoke nearby said that this is why, as a book jacket designer, he hates being told to put a face on the cover. “Faces are specific,” he said. “As soon as you see one, you lose the ability to visualize the character any other way.”

So maybe why we don’t post music videos more often is that as roleplayers the words make pictures in our heads that the visuals contradict. Like, I love the image of the absent silhouette but I never envisioned this song as being about a lover. It makes sense; actual dialogue as my son and I are riding in the car en route to the So Cal Mini Con during the summer I was obsessed with “California Gurls:”

KATY: sun-kissed skin so hot we’ll melt your popsicle

SON: What does that mean?

DAD: Well, you know how you have to eat your popsicle fast in the summer because the hot sun melts it?

SON: I think it’s private parts.

DAD: OK, you got me. All pop songs are about private parts.

But I always thought “Something Great” is about the death of a mentor, and the reason I’m thinking about it now is that its personal meaning for me is tied up with Gary Gygax. Maybe it’s the timing of when the song came out and Gary’s passing four years ago today. Maybe it’s lines like this:

I miss the way we used to argue,
Locked, in your basement.

In that I hear my nostalgia-for-things-I-never-knew for the days when arguing about wargames over a sand table was an imaginary haven from the real war in another country. In my mind that time seems to have a purity and innocence that ended after D&D’s success cracked this world open. The war outside was over, to be replaced by dirty civil wars within TSR that were soon to be mirrored by the culture wars in which D&D was the devil. That’s the era I remember, in which the AD&D books seemed already artifacts of a magical time long past.

The video does this well as the shadow moves through the aisles between crates of records and adventure modules. Pulling out any one of them would teach me about how it felt to be alive in a time of magic, and that time had to be now because I was holding some of it in my hand. But I had the sense that the wizards who could teach me how to perform that magic on command were gone, even when I was young and this wasn’t really true.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the formation of TSR. I feel I’m old enough and have shared enough of the same experiences that I can put myself into the shoes of Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax or Don Kaye: as an idealist and a hobbyist and a gamer, as a publisher alternately elated or terrified by success, as a father and as someone who would have invested my life insurance into my friends’ dreams if Kickstarter didn’t avert that particular tragedy. I’m not comparing myself to these guys, just saying that having played in a sandbox filled with toddlers I have a little more insight when I roleplay a giant.

So maybe that’s why I hear “Someone Great” as being about the drafts going back and forth that aren’t yet D&D, the pressure to publish because Gary has kids to feed and the tension over whether Dave has creative control and can take his what must seem to Gary like a young man’s idea that there is all the time in the world to get it right :

There’s all the work that needs to be done,
It’s late, for revision.
There’s all the time and all the planning,
And songs, to be finished.

And it keeps coming,
And it keeps coming,
And it keeps coming, 
Till the day it stops

You have to know that I idolized my friends’ big brothers, and that the two things they introduced me to were D&D and the Beatles, to understand why I take what’s basically a lost-love song, “Paint it Black” with less masochism or “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” with less mist in your eyes, as being about TSR’s lost opportunities. For me D&D books and Beatles records were secrets of the world before I was born, beams of dazzling dusty radiance the older kids sometimes let slip between their fingers but I could soak up anytime I wanted by opening the covers. AD&D was that Book of Gold, sure, but so was Hawkmoon with its “terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan” Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl and Rhunga and The Einstein Intersection where Delany’s characters “treat the rise and fall of the Beatles the way we treat the rise and fall of Achilles”. (The fact that both of these are basically Gamma World under the skin rather than D&D explains a lot about me and my romance of lost greatness too.)

My omen that John Lennon had been killed was when, exploring a deserted beach, I saw that someone had written STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER in giant letters on the sand. After a long time alone bemused by this, I came home to the news. All the wonder and dread of that writing in the sand collapsed into a specific sadness: now I will never see the Beatles reunite and play live in concert. I guess I was as self-centered in 2008 as I was in 1980, because I had basically the same reaction to the news of Gary’s death.

Here’s Gygax, speaking to Lawrence Shick in 1991 for Law’s Heroic Worlds:

There is no question that the D&D game was the first of its kind, and from its success there sprang a whole industry… I did the AD&D system to go beyond that. Right now I’m working on something new to contribute to Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming. All of that, however, owes the Original D&D game far more than credit for “inspiration”. The D&D game was and remains the start of role-playing games. Dave Arneson and I have spoken frequently since the time we devised D&D. We don’t plan to collaborate on another game, but just maybe one day he’ll decide to combine talents again. Who knows?

This is as bittersweet with lost possibility, as rich with bruised tenderness, as the point where Lennon and McCartney are hanging out together in New York in 1976 watching Saturday Night Live (there is something sad about a rock star even in life). The two men have been making nice in the press for once about what was good about the thing they built together, and now Lorne Michaels is holding up a check for $3,000 and offering it to the Beatles if they’ll reunite and play a show there and then.

$3K in 1974 dollars seems to me about right for the budget to do the first print run of D&D. What was Gygax doing that night in 1976? Was he watching Saturday Night Live and if so what did it mean to him? Was he a Beatles fan too who hoped or dreamed or somehow knew that there was a possibility John and Paul would really hop a cab together and make it happen? Did he think about calling up Dave: “hey, is your TV on?”

Probably not. At the time it was just a joke that’s only imbued with significance in hindsight, right?

 I wish that we could talk about it,
But there, that’s the problem.

26
Feb
12

Jean Wells Memorial Event Today

Today gamers are gathering at the Brooklyn Strategist to roll dice and have a good time in memory of Jean Wells, the first female professional in roleplaying games. The event is organized by Alex Guzman of Bad Wrong Fun, my co-organizer for the Games that Can’t Be Named series of events (whose grand finale is this Wednesday, 2/29, at the Soho Gallery for Digital Arts), and continues that tradition of bringing together players from all niches of RPGs to jointly celebrate common ground and experiment with the effects of using different systems to explore similar content.

If my parenting schedule works out, I’m looking forward to attending tonight’s session of the Jean Wells memorial. It’s raising money for a good cause and helping preserve the legacy of an important gaming pioneer. More selfishly, I want to take advantage of the chance to play Jean’s module Palace of the Silver Princess, which I had a great time helping Nick Mizer prep for an Adventuring Parties bachelor party but couldn’t participate in (it being in Houston and all).

Here’s hoping it becomes an annual celebration, joining the ranks of Gary Con, the NYC Dave Arneson Memorial Gameday, and the David L. Arneson Memorial Maritime Miniatures Mayhem Event (the fourth of which is likely to take place on April 7th at The Source).

Details about the event, from Alex’s post at nerdNYC:

On Sunday February 26th We (Bad Wrong Fun & B-Strat) will be holding a NYC RPG all-day gaming event in remembrance of Jean Wells who passed away a month ago on Jan 25th. The event will be at the Brooklyn Strategist located at 333 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY, 11231.

The event will be broken into 2 sessions:

Day Session 12:00pm – 5:00pm & an Evening Session from 6:00pm – 11:00pm

There will be several different “Silver Princess” games being hosted simultaneously at a number of tables to allow for maximum attendance and participation. (More info on game systems below)

The door fee for the charity event will be $25.00 – beyond the donation made to Doctors without Borders in Mrs Wells name, attendees will receive the following:

1 month worth of free weekly membership to the Brooklyn Strat – (4 free play sessions, this does not include tournaments / premium events.)

Entry into the raffle for prizes held at the event for either the morning or evening session. (Prizes will include Gift Certificates redeemable at the Brooklyn Strategist).

Jean Wells was a D&D pioneer, and the original sage of Sage Advice, she is also the author of B3 Palace of the Silver Princess. During our event this is the module we will be playing however we will be using several game systems:

· OD&D / 1st ed Dungeons and Dragons

· 4E D&D

· Labyrinth Lord

· RuneQuest / Legend.

A strong argument can be made that Wells’ version of B3 was the last “old school module” to be produced at TSR; and that when it was pulled and replaced with the Moldvay version of B3, that’s the end of the “old school”.

For those unfamiliar with it:

The original B3 had a well-developed wilderness region, didn’t have a strongly-integrated plot, and was designed explicitly to be the top two levels of a mega-dungeon complex (with exits from those levels to lower levels that were supposed to be added by the DM). In short, it was the closest TSR ever got to publishing a module that matched the campaign set-up described in OD&D.

The module has a lovely fairy tale quality to its mythology, providing a strong contrast to the Tolkien-Vance-Howard triumvirate more typical of D&D.

The revised B3 got rid of the wilderness, added a plot, and sharply curtailed the extent of the dungeon complex. It was, in short, a complete repudiation of the original “old school” method of adventure design.

Apart from being for a good cause, participants will be getting a good deal, (The 4 free sessions at the B-Strat alone are worth $40) and It should be a lot of fun. It will be interesting to see how well the module works with different treatments of settings, systems & various GMs!




Past Adventures of the Mule

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