Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

16
Apr
13

Dungeons & Dragons In a Theater Near You

Two D&D-related plays are running this April: SHE KILLS MONSTERS is at the Steppenwolf in Chicago until 4/21, and GOLDOR $ MYTHYKA: A HERO IS BORN is at the New Ohio Theater in New York until 4/27.

GOLDOR $ MYTHYKA

I haven’t seen this one yet, but I can say that:

  • it’s based on a true story of a gamer couple who become folk heroes following “a theft so large and brazen that even law enforcement officials admit some admiration for it”
  • the coverage in the NY Times that inspired the playwright is remarkable for presenting RPGs as the opposite of a predisposition to crime:”Mr. Dillon, who regularly led long sessions of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, dreamed of doing something grand with his life… Friends of Ms. Boyd and Mr. Dillon say they never drank alcohol, took drugs or smoked, preferring books, movies, music and role-playing games for entertainment.”
  • the play’s production company, New Georges, is making a concerted effort to reach out to gamers, including a D&D page on their website and weekly pre-show games of D&D held in the theater every Friday at 7 pm
  • this Friday the 19th I’ll be running a scenario I developed for the Tower of Gygax, as this format’s audience participation, short playtime, and fast turnover are great virtues in running games in unconventional settings. (Unfortunately I’ll be arranging for another DM to fill my shoes on the 26th. Also unfortunately I didn’t post this in time to say “hey go play with DM Andy Action of 2 Skinnee J’s on the 12th!)
  • if you want to check it out on any of these Fridays, they’re offering complimentary tickets to the DMs to share with their gaming circles: I certainly plan to take them up on this offer at 8pm this Friday. See below for details!

New Georges presents
GOLDOR $ MYTHYKA: A HERO IS BORN
a new play by Lynn Rosen
developed with & directed by Shana Gold

APRIL 3 to 27

Wednesdays thru Saturdays @ 8pm     Sundays @ 5pm

Mondays @ 7pm      opens April 8

THE NEW OHIO THEATRE

154 Christopher Street

(between Greenwich & Washington in the far West Village)

tickets   $25 / $35 premium seats
Mondays: pay-what-you-will OR ROLL OF THE DIE (at the door only)
Fridays: enter the world of Dungeons & Dragons!  starts at 7pm in the lobby; curated by D&D consultant Rusty Thelin
Sundays: late brunch! FREE McClure’s Bloody Marys & crinkle-cut chips!
www.smarttix.com or call 212.868.4444

Fun and appropriate for kids, say, 12-ish and up!

WATCH, IF YOU DARETH, as love and hunger collide most fantastically with the elusive American dream. In hearty games of Dungeons & Dragons, young Bart and Holly escape the dreary reality of hauling money all day in armored transport vehicles. When jobs are lost and the boss starts looking at Holly funny, escape becomes reality, releasing Goldor & Mythyka upon the world. Thusly, lucre shall be heisted! Throngs shall cheer their criminal exploits!

And Have Nots will rule the day!  Until…

SHE KILLS MONSTERS

I blogged about the premiere of this play at the Flea Theater before seeing it, but never got around to reporting “hey this is really awesome!” The frame story follows a woman who comes back to her home town after her younger sister’s death in a car crash. Big sis finds little sis’s D&D campaign notebook and, seeking to understand her better, convinces that gaming group to reform and run her through the adventure it describes.

Overall SHE KILLS MONSTERS is fantastic – funny, action-packed, and well written. If you’re in Chicago at the right time, you wouldn’t do wrong to invite anyone you know to go see it. For gamers in particular, you can be reassured that this is an accurate and sympathetic portrayal of the role-playing experience. Following one of the performances in NYC, I organized a panel about how RPGs relate to theatrical performance. Here are some reasons SHE KILLS MONSTERS is especially worth checking out in this light:

The frame story allows the audience to be led through the process of learning what a RPG is about. Our viewpoint character is initially awkward about sitting down and playing let’s pretend with her sister’s friends. As she gets into it, the staging has her and the GM sitting and talking while in the background the events described are being acted out. Soon big sis is fully into the fantasy – the actor is dressed up like the character, grooving on killing monsters as promised – and then the play cuts back to the mundane reality of being in a room rolling dice.

A gaming group is first and foremost a social gathering. I’m aware of being in a room with other human beings with whom I’m looking to have a good time. Part of the enjoyment of the game is then appreciating the imaginative performance of these people; I’m not just cheering the hobbit Lucky as he delivers the killing shot to the Beast Lord, I’m also moved by his player Quendalon’s description of these events. To the extent that the game is immersive and compelling, I care about Lucky and want to learn about how he overcomes challenges. Still, this is just a shadow of how much I care about my friends and want to get to know them better through the lens of gaming. The narrative of SHE KILLS MONSTERS gets this right – little sis’s gaming notebooks and the stories told about her by her gaming group reveal an inner self otherwise hidden from the world – but it’s the way this story is told through the medium of the theater that sells me on the idea.

In a film like Heavenly Creatures which likewise plays with the link between reality and imagination, the fantasy sequences are neither more nor less real than the depictions of the people imagining them. Special effects aside, both are just images flickering at 60 frames a second. As a rule, I prefer watching movies to seeing a play because  the awareness that I’m seeing people acting dramatical tends to inhibit my immersion into the story. As a way to explore what a RPG is like, though, theater seems to me exactly the right tool for the job.

As the audience for a play, I’m normally judgemental: watching people act rarely convinces me I’m seeing another reality the way the illusions of film can. When playing a RPG, I’m not just a spectator evaluating others, I’m also a participant eagerly trying to get to another reality. The need to be forgiving of my own ham acting in the service of this goal means that I’m full of charity and good will towards my other players’ own turns on the imaginary stage.

In the frame story, I’m aware that I’m watching someone on a stage, acting out the hesitancy faced by someone who wants to be cool and adult as they try to get into the silliness of playing a RPG. When I see the character they’re playing starting to sink their teeth into the game, and then in the next scene the actor is dressed like the character in the role-playing game going wild with the stage fighting and whooping out over-the-top battle cries, it’s a great dramatization of why RPGs are awesome. Here is Zak’s famous observation about ironic distance in the form of a play; I’m simultaneously aware that I’m seeing a person, and seeing a person pretend to be something they’re not, and in my mind’s eye seeing the thing they’re pretending to be. Being a gamer trains me to cheer on this process and do everything I can to help with the make believe, and being a good play means that SHE KILLS MONSTERS keeps getting energy out of the frame shifts the same way that a RPG feeds on breaking the action to make out-of-character jokes or to admire the fact that it’s your friend who is coming up with these wild inventions and impromptu dialogue.

In the panel after the show, we talked a bunch about the idea that a key difference between RPGs and other theatrical forms is the way that RPGs combine spectator and audience. Nick Fortugno said that plays have to be good in an Apollonian sense, worthy of being held up for objective appraisal; trying to appeal to some imaginary audience of theater critics would immediately squelch a roleplaying game.  SHE KILLS MONSTERS appealed to me as a gamer because it showed the process of conjuring an imaginary space, but at the end of the night I realized that it also appealed to my desire as an audience member to sit back and be entertained by people more talented than me, at no effort to myself.

If one of the high moments of your play is going to be a puppetry gelatinous cube, it helps to have the audience in the mindframe of gamers eager to imagine that the GM’s amateurish sketch is whatever it’s supposed to be. But I wouldn’t pay for the experience of being a spectator for the exact same roleplaying session twice, and if I were going to be anywhere near Chicago this week I’d eagerly see SHE KILLS MONSTERS again.

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20
Mar
13

an “oriental” adventure

I’m using “oriental” in scare quotes because my partner is Chinese and keeps rolling her eyes when she sees that word.  But y’all know what I’m talking about.  Last night, with very little prep, I ran a kinda dumb scenario based on OA1: Swords of Daimyo for half of our Pendragon crew (Skidoo, stop looking after your family and come back!)  Alas, while it did feature ninjas wearing Spider-Man costumes, there were no giant robots or love-smitten beetle-accessories.

a nice day for a . . . white wedding

The unstoppable forces of TANAKA Toru (poetry-loving samurai lord of Bingo Village, notorious for its unbelievable hidden treasure caches) and WATANABE Yuki (financially ruined Bushi and master to the strange hairy gibberish-speaking forest gnome Konando) combined to thwart a wedding!

A wedding of eeeeeevil!

Or, at least, a wedding involving a heartbroken suicide returned as a horrible demon of insanity, a clan of ninjas wearing Spider-Man costumes, and more court intrigue than could easily be displayed on a relationship-map. Plus, burning buildings! A pavillion tent with one entrance but three exits! Psychic duels! A display of incredible archery! “Furious” urination! An attempted seppuku! Sake! Sorcery! And a litany of similes as inexhaustible as the ocean’s waves!

Poor Tanaka was driven insane, Watanabe kept encouraging the bridegroom to kill himself, and stout-hearted Konando rang a gong like a gong-ringing monkey-dwarf to wake up a priest who actually did the hard work of banishing the demon to save the day.  But he is only a priest, and everyone knows that glory goes to the warriors.

some half-assed prep

Before I had a scenario in mind, one of my players rolled up a down-on-his-luck Bushi character of very low-class origins.  When the Oriental Adventures Monthly Events table indicated that there was to be a Momentous Wedding . . . well, you gotta get Toshiro Mifune to that one somehow, don’t you?

By complete coincidence, this player had named his Bushi after one of the loyal vassal families of Niwa Hirotada, shugo-daimyo (military governor) of Miyama Province.  So I figured some comical fop had gotten the names confused and would deliver an wedding invitation for this dude.  And since, under the Oriental Adventure rules, he would constantly be smacking into serious negative reaction modifiers when hobnobbing among the aristocracy, hijinks would probably ensue.  And they did!

So, dig it:

  • NIWA Hirotada = military governor, head of Niwa family, more or less decent guy
  • IGI Tajima = civil governor, a sinecure position; mostly collects taxes and gives grief to the rival Niwa family
  • EBISAWA Ryu = head of the Ebisawa family, traditionally loyal retainers of the Igi clan . . . buuuuuut, Niwa Hirotada has offered his niece in marriage to
  • EBISAWA Saberu = son of Ryu; engaged to Niwa Hirotada’s niece; just had a heartbreaking affair with
  • WATANABE Minori = princess of the Watanabe clan which is traditionally loyal to Niwa.  Committed suicide when Saberu called off their elopement.

So what’s going on in political terms is that Niwa Hirotada is peeling off the Ebisawa family’s loyalty to the Igi clan. If anyone had known that Saberu was already having an affair with a girl of the Watanabe family (loyal to the Niwas) it might have accomplished the same result, but nobody knew, it all came to tragedy, and Saberu is kind of a mess.

Minori’s ghost comes back as a Con-Tinh, sort of an evil dryad demon of insanity, haunting the cherry-blossom Shrine of Taro the Poet, where Saberu will be married to Niwa’s niece.  She is supernaturally disappointed in Saberu, and plans to possess the spirit of his bride and have them commit a lover’s suicide.

Meanwhile, someone else has hired a clan of Spider-Man suited ninjas to kill young Saberu.  All signs would seemingly point to the civil governor Igi, who is mad that the Ebisawa clan is breaking up with him, but there are actually several other possibilities based on the political situation in Swords of the Daimyo.  I hadn’t really figured out who is responsible, except that blaming Igi was probably too obvious to be true.

It turns out that a second player arrived, created a Samurai loyal to the Niwas and a friend of the Watanabe clan, so that was handy for the purposes of exposition.

The adventure consisted of mostly improvised social encounters as the players gradually pieced the social and political puzzle together, and fended off various assassination attempts and supernatural events.

Major adversaries included the Con-Tinh ghost of Watanabe Minori, three unnamed 5th level Ninjas (a Ninja/Sohei priest with 10 first-level followers; a Ninja/Wu Jen who impersonated a member of the entourage and attempted to poison Saberu; and a Ninja/Bushi who was going to kill Saberu on his wedding night with a sword he’d stolen from the PC Bushi), a group of drunken Were-Bears who kept breaking into a village’s rice-warehouses looking for sake, sarcastic fop Igi Sanekata, and various other stock-character NPC’s.

what worked

The Yearly, Monthly, and Daily Events charts in Oriental Adventures are good stuff, well worth stealing.  For the last five years, my exposure to D&D has consisted very largely of dungeon-delving per the ethos of the OSR revisionist/purist movement.  The idea of running a D&D wedding scenario struck me as irresistibly ludicrous, and it was.

Swords of the Daimyo has a complicated political situation, but that’s actually pretty good in a court intrigue scenario.  The trick is to present that stuff in bite-sized pieces.  In this case, I took the description of Muroto Village from the gazetteer, figured the political situation there would easily tie into the Marriage Event, and bang, the political stuff fell into place immediately.

The rules for Psychic Duels were used, mainly because I wanted to force it in somehow.

Though this scenario was written up perfectly straight-faced–it’s a bummer, basically–the players brought their usual farce and a good time was had by all.  One player couldn’t stop boasting about his secret treasure caches, while the other was busily trying to pretend to be an aristocrat (or hide from people who recognized him).

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the preposterous Korobokuru barbarian, Konando (originally inserted as a henchman for the Bushi PC), who didn’t speak Fake Japanese and nobody else spoke his dialect, so he mostly communicated in gibberish.  Some interesting facts about Konando emerged during play:

    • If his master is a sleep, Konando will wake him by tugging on the left big toe to signal supernatural danger, or the right big toe to signal ninjas
    • Konando is a skilled woodsman, passable dancer, and terrible cook
    • On formal occasions, Konando wears a big pile of furs, to the point where he looks like Captain Caveman
    • Though Konando cannot understand the content of a haiku, he can count meter very well; furthermore he finds blank verse intolerable
    • The word for “ninja” in the Korobokuru dialect is “Los Banditos Malvados!!

what did not work as well

I’m not great at improv.  If the players had said, “Screw this wedding, let’s just hang out in the city instead,” I did not have anything planned.

I was under an extremely tight time crunch, which is why I did virtually zero prep.  As a result, I defaulted to 2e Wizard spells for the Wu Jen ninja instead of using spells from Oriental Adventures, of which there are many and they are not obvious.  (Quick: what does “drowsy insects” do?  Answer: I thought it made guys like Mothra real tired, but it turns out creates a cloud of mosquitoes who put people to sleep.  Who knew?)  Anyway, even with “standard” spells this guy was a pretty devious assassin.

The Iaijutsu, or fast-draw, rules only give you a +1 bonus to surprising your enemy (on a 1d10 roll), which isn’t enough to be worth a proficiency slot.  (Maybe in OA surprise is done on a d6?  Still, lousy benefit.)

You really do need non-weapon proficiencies, or some way of adjudicating courtly nonsense, when your characters aren’t slogging through a dungeon all day.  The OA/2e proficiency system is kind of a kludge.

in summary

Swords of the Daimyo is quite worthwhile as a gazetteer, as I suspected.  Dungeons & Dragons can be hacked to do Fake Japan, and it was fun, but it’s not a particularly elegant fit.  On a player’s advice I’m reading through Bushido (only $18 for a print copy!) which seems interesting (if not for all the dang early 80’s derived scores nonsense).  Bushido apparently doesn’t come with a local setting (maybe I missed it); you could probably drop Swords of the Daimyo in there and get something quite worthwhile.

15
Mar
13

OA1: Swords of the Daimyo

In the other post, Sam Curry comments that OA1 is one hell of a module.  He’s right.  I confess I don’t read a lot of OSR blogs.  Maybe someone has talked about OA1: Swords of the Daimyo before and I missed it.  But I suspect that, like many classic D&D modules, you can’t praise it enough, and it certainly deserves to rank up there with The Keep on the Borderlands, Night’s Dark Terror, and The Vault of the Drow.  If you don’t know this one, you should.  It’s an extremely well done wilderness hex-crawl.  David “Zeb” Cook comes through in a major way here.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this thing for more than two years, but I really wanted to play/run it first, and that never quite got off the ground.  Still, better late than never.  Hopefully someone can use this thing with the class summary charts

the province book: hell yeah

Swords of the Daimyo comes in two parts: the Adventure Book, which is terrible, and the Province Book, which is amazingly good.  Briefly, we get a run down on the Miyama Province, a politically important region in Kozakura (“Fake Japan”).
The first twelve pages of the Province Book contain a sketch of Kozakuran politics, which is basically a four-way struggle for power between the Emperor, the Deputy Emperor, the Shogun, and the Deputy-Shogun.  The prominent families in the Miyama Province are aligned with these imperial factions, and they’re all scheming against each other for influence.  If only there were some ruffian adventurers to take care of dirty work with plausible deniability–or a group of noble heroes to sponsor in a way that brings glory to your house…
(These same twelve pages include some boring stuff about climate, trade resources, etc.)
It’s the last twenty pages, though, where the Province Book really kicks ass.  A gazetteer of the Miyama Province, the Province Book provides several adventure hooks, and provides a hex-by-hex view of the setting in large terms.  Here is a typical entry:

1124.  Stone-Icicle-World.  At the base of the mountains, hidden in the deep woods, is a narrow, rubble-clogged cave mouth.  This is the entrance to a vast series of caverns that underlie all of Miyama Province and more.  Although the exact location is unknown to the general population, there are a few hengeyokai and korobokuru who can guide one to the site.According to local legend, Stone-Icicle-World is the place where O-Miyama-no-Mikoto, a local deity, entered the Realms of the Dead to visit his mother.  The caverns are believed to extend for hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles beneath the earth, magically reaching even into other planes and dimensions.  It is also said that the caverns are filled with all manner of horrible creatures, although this is somewhat uncertain as few tell tales of this subterranean region.

As far as names go, “Stone-Icicle-World” kills “the Underdark.”

 

In broad strokes, Miyama Province has three major population centers.  Tamanokuni is the provincial capital, prosperous but beset by feuding yakuza gangs, samurai rivalries, and religious squabbles, while the noblemen plot to wheedle more money out of the shogunate which they can dispense to their underlings to buy loyalty.  Kuda, the former capital, is a large city across Kobawan Bay from the horrors of Kuroijo Castle, where the demon-master Aga wrought untold horrors more than eight centuries ago.  Okahira, to the north, is relatively isolated and has fallen under the control of a Shou Lung (“Fake Chinese”) wizard who is using a figurehead governor to hide an invasion force.
Lurking around are several bandit camps, a ninja village, your obligatory ruins and abandoned mine shafts, and wilderness monster lairs.  There are numerous shrines–including one where a blind saint is teaching fake-Buddhism to a gaggle of goblins.  The former shogun has gone into retirement at a heavily fortified monastery, though he still receives messages from court and continues to meddle in high politics.

 

Numerous villages exist, most plagued by problems which their (naturally) incompetent or corrupt mayor cannot or will not solve.  One of the cool things about the Province Book is that administering your lord’s villages, and making sure the mayors are doing their jobs properly, is an important responsibility for a mid-level samurai.  The idea seems to be that a campaign could be run as an itinerant 7th level Samurai & Friends, roaming around between the daimyo’s manors to make sure everything is cool, bumping into weird stuff on the road and hoping to winter at one of the more comfortable towns.

not everything is perfect

While I’ve said nice things about this product, the Adventure Book that comes with it is . . . well, it’s not good, but it’s 1986 TSR, so you probably shouldn’t expect too much.  It contains a trio of railroaded vignettes which lack all interest.  It does contain eight pre-generated 1st level characters, and maps of typical buildings.

The Province Book’s political situation is a little too complicated for my taste–and much of it happens off screen or by proxy through families in Miyama.  The wilderness encounters are often flavorful, but some could stand to have stronger hooks.  (That said, there are so many laughably corrupt, or slovenly, or undisciplined, or sacrilegious NPC’s that role-playing these doofuses would be a lot of fun, even if there’s no dungeon to loot.)

Also there is a town named Bingo.

how can this be an OSR blog without the occasional C&D letter?

So the problem with Swords of the Daimyo is that the versions available on the secondary market often don’t have the maps.  Let me fix that for you.  Wizards of the Coast, when you put this stuff up for sale again, I’ll gladly take down these scans which are offered solely to help those who have legitimately purchased this on the secondary market.Miyama Province NEMiyama Province, SouthwestMiyama Province SEMiyama Province, NorthwestMiyama Province NWMiyama Province, SouthwestMiyama Province SW

27
Feb
13

charlemagne in action

charlemagne1

Our regular Pendragon crew could not play on Friday night, so I spruced up some one-page dungeons and ran a session of Charlemagne’s Paladins for Skidoo, whose Pendragon character Sir Hervis is the terrifically accomplished straight man to Sir Carabad the Schlimazel.

Running 1:1 D&D is rough going for the player. Skidoo grabbed a pre-gen, Lady Odelia, a dual-class Thief 5 (ex-Cleric 5) and a bunch of 3rd level Fighter henchmen, and set off for adventure, before realizing that a lone Thief and her gang of henchmen are in for a world of trouble.

Briefly: Charlemagne’s court enchanter, Maugris, had a prophetic dream about the city of Avignon and the future of Christendom, and asked Lady Odelia on behalf of the King to pacify the surrounding lands.  Avignon and the territory between it and the Pyrenees was  known back then as “Septimania,” which sounds like some Labor Day-related car sale event.

But in the late 700’s A.D. Septimania had a lot going on, in terms of D&D settings. About forty years prior, Charles THE HAMMER Martel practically stomped the whole region into the dirt when the local Visigoths, led on by promises of assistance from the Moors, wouldn’t submit to him. So the place is littered with ruins, the local population is nominally Christian but there are still lots of pagan traditions and cults (variants on Saxon deities, who were variants on Norse gods), there are barbarian and Moorish raiders from the Pyrenees, and towns like Marseille get a fair amount of trade.  Narbonne is in the process of becoming a center of learning and religious toleration, with lots of strange folk mingling. To the southwest, the dangerous Moors; to the southeast, the treacherous Lombards.

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex (French people, point out what I got wrong!)

Anyhow, Odelia wasn’t too keen on spreading the King’s influence, but did want to help the locals simply for the sake of doing good deeds, so she traveled down to Avignon by riverboat. Along the way she hoodwinked some Ogres who had set up a toll, and negotiated the release of one of her men from mischievous Nixies. During the journey she became increasingly fixated on finding the bandit stronghold of Scarlet Jacques, whose depredations had alarmed the locals.

(Of the one-pagers I had brought with me, this stronghold was the one I had not stocked—and, it turns out, had not brought the map after all. Naturally it was the plot hook the player wanted to pursue…)

Anyway, so Odelia set off into the foothills of the Alps, and ran into five Hill Giants who she had to let pass by.  She interrogated a desperate merchant who had escaped from Jacques’ alpine fortress: there are at least 150 bandits, a pagan priest, and a magician of terrible power: far more than a Thief and six knights could handle. Regrettably descending back into civilization, we had to stop when a flock of Wyverns carried off half of Odelia’s henchmen and another poised on a rock above her, daring her to make the first move…

what worked

This felt exactly like any D&D game ever played. Some overland hex exploration leading to encounters solved through lateral thinking (she was a Thief after all), and just GM’ing what the dice told me would happen. My only deviations from the 2e rules were using the B/X wildness encounter charts, because I didn’t have the Monstrous Compendia on my iPad.

what didn’t work

Odelia in theory had access to Cleric spells, but the casting time problem–everything in Charlemagne’s Paladins takes ten times longer to cast–meant that it was pretty hard to plan ahead given the extremely random nature of overland travel in the game. I suspect that this is something that could be overcome with some thought and more exposure to the spell list.

The other thing that didn’t work was having a solo adventurer engage in overland travel, even with a retinue of meat shields. A lot of really horrible monsters live in the mountains, and it was a minor miracle that Odelia survived for over a week of game time.

charlemagne: a cool guy

All the stuff that King Arthur gets credit for, like unifying a diverse kingdom and establishing order after a long period of chaos, conquering Europe, trying to instill a moral code among the warrior class, and encouraging culture and learning–Charlemagne actually did that stuff, though of course this was the work of generations beginning with his grandfather Charles THE HAMMER Martel and continued by his father Pepin the Short. From (very biased) accounts Charlemagne seems like an extremely talented and interesting person.

charlemagne: also, turned into a dick for propaganda purposes

As we discussed prior to play, so much of our society’s imaginative life is focused on the idea of “good” violence. It’s a very problematic concept, and I’m sure it’s been part of human nature since the dawn of time, but Charlemagne did “good violence” on a scale never before seen in Europe, particularly against Muslims.

Charlemagne’s own attitudes toward Muslims appear to be complex and historically contingent: the disaster at Roncevalles started because he was willing to make an alliance with one group of Muslims against another faction.

But a few centuries later, during the Crusades, people looked to Charlemagne’s battles against the Moors as a kind of propaganda tool to inspire everyone to go to the Holy Land and slaughter people. The chansons de geste, which are at the heart of the Matter of France, were composed during this time.  For the next thousand years, whether fighting crusades, colonizing the New World and Africa, holding various ideological revolutions, World Wars, Cold Wars, and now Terror Wars, world history has been shaped by Western Civilization’s seemingly endless appetite for “good violence.”  And for Europe, the big proof-of-concept was Charlemagne, at least as perceived in propaganda.  (And again, this is probably not unique to the West, but they ended up in a position to indulge that appetite fairly often.)

Basically, in 2013 your attitude about legendary Charlemagne killing hordes of legendary Evil Muslims is going to be shaped by our own experiences of “good violence” in our modern crusade.  I haven’t resolved how I feel about using these themes in the game.

21
Oct
12

the incredibly murderous hulk (Civil War 1)

stamford meets the rampaging hulk

We started in medias res: the Hulk on an insane rampage in downtown Stamford, CT.  Enter the X-Men, lured here by bad information, and desperately trying to stop the carnage.  Before play even begins, the Hulk has killed the Beast, Shadowcat, and dozens of civilians.  Our scene distinctions?  “Half the city is on fire,” “Downed power lines,” and “The streets are choked with rubble.”  The Hulk has crushed Cyclops’s ruby visor, and hurled Colossus into the middle of the Long Island Sound, where he’s rapidly sinking.  Storm, already frustrated by the Black Panther’s cold feet about their impending wedding, can’t react quickly enough.  It’s a bad place to begin!

Ultimately the players spent nearly all of their energy trying to rescue Colossus.  They weren’t comics-readers, and I should have reminded them that Colossus is able to hold his breath for an awfully long time.   Cyclops commandeered a sonar-equipped cigarette boat from the marina, while Storm created a whirlpool.

The Hulk then tried to stun everyone with a cannonball leap into the Sound.  Storm, at this point boiling over with fury, tried to freeze the Sound and trap the Hulk in ice, but he leaped out and icicles cut Storm pretty badly.  As Colossus climbed up the anchor Cyclops lowered to assist him, the Hulk smashed through their boat on his way down, stranding all of the mutants at sea.  Cyclops confessed to Storm, before they were about to die, that he had always loved her.

Curtain!  More later.

piecemeal review of marvel heroic rpg – civil war event

I have a lot to say about the Civil War Event book, much too much for a single blog post.  To make a serial review palatable to readers I’m going to try to flavor it a bit with our actual play, as well as some adaptation notes and write-ups.

To begin with: I did not read the Marvel Civil War comic books, which were published sometime around 2006.  This Civil War Event RPG thing is my first real exposure to it, other than an occasional Wikipedia browse.  And I have to say, I really feel bad for the RPG designers.  The Marvel Civil War really sounds like a storytelling train wreck, even worse than the late-80’s Claremont Crossovers that basically drove me out of reading comics regularly.

I can imagine the pitch meeting at the Marvel offices very easily.  “Our company became famous in the 1960’s by having heroes fight other heroes.  First, in the Fantastic Four itself, where the traumatized astronauts were constantly at each other’s throats, and then bringing in heroes from other titles for cross-promotion.  But over the decades this has become the cliche Misunderstanding Fight, with little provocation, no decisive outcome, and no lasting consequences.  What if we revisited that–but with everybody fighting everybody, over genuine conflicts of interest, with definite winners and losers, and the whole line changes as a result?”

In broad terms, it’s a fine idea, and exactly what I as a reader would like to see.  But it sounds like the thing really fell apart in execution.  The deal with the Marvel Civil War is that a terrible, 9/11 style tragedy befalls Marvel World, and American population finally decides, “Look, these people need to at least give us their names and addresses.”

So, as the writer, you’ve got to think up a high-stakes, super-tragedy that horrifies the nation.  And you come up with: a super villain nobody remembers murders a team of super heroes no one cares about, as well as half a city that has never mattered in the setting.

That.  Sucks.  (Oh, and spoilers I guess.)

This is the Dungeons & Dragons equivalent of having a randomly encountered giant centipede kill an unnamed hireling torch-bearer.  It is . . . a mild misfortune, not a tragedy, and certainly not something to spend much table-time on.  (The poor hireling would be lucky if we don’t laugh over his corpse, frankly.)

Yet spinning out from this terrible humanitarian disaster (which surely must happen every third Tuesday in Marvel World) is an absolutely bewildering number of plots, sub-plots, and sub-sub-plots as every single magazine published by Marvel Comics gets drawn into the fray.  As brilliant as the Marvel Civil War concept sounds in principle, in execution (at least from what I can gather) it sure looks convoluted, disjointed, and heavy-handed in execution.

And that’s a really hard problem when trying to do an RPG adaptation.  I feel bad for everyone at Margaret Weis Productions who worked on this, because I suspect they have a better sense of storytelling than the people who actually work at Marvel Comics, and it would have been so tempting to change stuff, but then the die-hard fans would never let them hear the end of it, and who knows what it would do to their license.

That said: the Civil War Event book does a really good job of conveying numerous settings and factions in the Marvel World.  In combination with the scenes mostly described in a play-this-in-any-order-that-makes-sense sort of way, you get certain features of Sandbox Play, though I’ll argue in a later post that this is tricky to truly pull off.  The designers also present you with several different options for each scene, so if (like me) you read the official version and say, “WTF, that’s incredibly stupid,” usually there’s at least one or two ideas that make the scene not only palatable but potentially very cool.

One choice the Civil War Event book makes, which I think is very wise, is to completely frame out the terrible humanitarian tragedy.  Your players aren’t involved in it in any way: they’re doing their usual super hero thing beforehand, and then they get this terrible news, and the story picks up from there.  Usually, if there’s something in an RPG scenario that’s just gotta happen, it’s best to frame past it, so that you don’t have player agency conflicting with the plot’s entire premise.  It was a good choice.  But one I had to undo.

adaptation notes

Tavis’s son is extremely energetic, and a huge fan of the Hulk.  (Hollywood, if you had to cast a ten year old boy to play the Hulk in a movie, this is your kid.)  I’ve wanted to play a game with Tavis’s family for a while now, and it struck me that the Hulk is the perfect guy to unwittingly cause a humanitarian disaster: it’s pretty much his whole deal.

In fact, the Hulk himself is pretty much the poster child for the Marvel Civil War: here’s a dude who saves the world on a regular basis, but in doing so is enormously destructive, presumably leaving a terrible death toll in his wake.  And half the time, he’s a fugitive running around completely unsupervised and almost anything could set him off.

This was enormously clarifying.  The Marvel Civil War, once you get past its dumb-ass club-foot political commentary about the War on Terror, is ultimately a question about the responsible use of anger and violence.  And that’s the core of the Hulk as a character, and the core to most of his supporting cast over the years.  So our game would star the Hulk and his gang, doing their thing.  I explained that we’d begin with the Hulk on a rampage, probably against super heroes who would suffer terribly and die, and then we’d “officially” begin in the aftermath of this rampage with the Hulk’s friends, our real PC’s, showing up on the scene.

(Selecting one group of characters to focus on is pretty helpful here: the Civil War Event book gives you player characters as diverse as Deadpool, Doctor Strange, and the Wasp, none of whom have much of anything in common, and who drag in a whole bunch of totally unrelated stuff.  Again, the designers had to offer a whole bunch of playable characters, but I think this much freedom is a mistake in actual practice and takes away thematic focus.)

But if you’re going to have the Hulk destroy a town and kill a team of super heroes that people care about, who should he kill?  Well: the Civil War is really an Avengers-type of deal, so we probably want to save those characters for later.  The Hulk and the Thing have a huge rivalry, and I didn’t want to give that up so early, which rules out the Fantastic Four.  That leaves the X-Men, who don’t have any strong Hulk connections and thus can be torn out of the universe fairly easily.  Plus 1986 Mutant Massacre storyline, in which the X-Men get completely crippled and broken, blew me away as a kid.  (In the main Civil War storyline, there is growing tension with Atlantis because the Sub-Mariner’s cousin died in Stamford.  Here, killing Storm obliges me to swap in Wakanda for Atlantis, which is just as well.)

links to downloads

Here is the Hulk, courtesy of the good people at Margaret Weis Productions.

Here is my scene-write up for the Battle of Stamford.

My list of Hulk supporting cast, to be featured as PC’s throughout the event.  Most of these characters have official stats now, but I had to make up some for Samson, Sabra, and Scorpion, which are linked out.  (I actually don’t remember ever reading any stories about Samson, Sabra, or the Scorpion, so I kind of made up something that seemed plausible.)

 

13
Aug
12

Playing at the World: A Nuclear Weapon in a Hand-Cart

I just got my paperback copy of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games from Amazon. It is impressively huge, and after checking out some of its 698 pages at random, I was compelled to track down this quote from Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash:

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad. Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.

Sometimes I’ll be blathering on about the early history of roleplaying and people will say “hey Tavis, you should write a book about this stuff.” In the past I’d feel bad that this was unlikely to happen, but now I no longer have to worry about it. The position has been taken by Jon, who (to extend the Snow Crash analogy) I firmly believe has a tattoo on his forehead consisting of three words, written in block letters: EXTREMELY THOROUGH RESEARCH.

I first heard about Playing at the World back in March, when Emily Melhorn contacted me for help in trying to get Mike Mornard’s permission to reproduce in the book a map that he’d drawn for the original Greyhawk campaign. She said that Jon had purchased the original of this map at an auction many years ago, and that “he would like to use it to illustrate how the secrecy of a dungeon map was a fundamental design innovation of D&D, which he then further describes how “secret information’ was used in previous wargames.”

This sounded like a pretty cool thesis, and at first glance it looks like Playing at the World is going to take it to lots of interesting places. But Peterson’s killer app – the nuclear warhead on a dead-man switch that he’s carting around to discourage any would-be bad-asses – is his degree of access to primary materials. Just hinted at in this original email, it’s on full view at the Playing at the World blog, where he began busting out a fantastic assortment of ur-texts beginning with Domesday Book #1 and the Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger #1.

In the comments there, early D&D scholar Daniel Boggs writes “For Pity’s sake Jon, why don’t I know who you are?” I think the answer is that the wings of the OSR devoted to rediscovery of original approaches through actual play, and self-publishing of retroclones designed to support such play, have gotten the lion’s share of attention in the circles (like the OD&D boards) that I hail from. The community efforts of roleplaying collectors, like the Acaeum, represent equally vital and dedicated wings of the OSR cathedral. Previously I’ve only sensed the scale of those wings via echoes at places like the North Texas RPG Con which seem to bring out a lot of collectors. Playing at the World is proof that I’ve been missing a lot. It’s an achievement even grander in scale than OSRIC, and like the first retro-clone I expect it will be the foundation for a lot of further expansion by fans and scholars. As Jon says in reply to Dan’s comment:

One of the reasons why I took on this book project was because, as a collector, I have access to some obscure resources that haven’t gotten a lot of prior attention. If you glance through the book, you will for example find a reproduction of a pre-D&D Blackmoor character sheet, with the original names of the abilities and so on. I also have some circa-1974 letters from Arneson, including material that sheds light on which ideas from the Blackmoor system Gygax rejected. Having the big picture from Corner of the Table really helps as well. In short, there are a lot of resources that the community has lacked to date. Expect that as people start assimilating what’s in the book our picture of early Blackmoor will probably shift a bit.

This is exciting stuff! If you’re at all interested in the history of this thing we do, you owe it to yourself to follow the blog and buy the book.

Rob Conley mentions that Playing at the World “doesn’t have much in the way of personal stories about the individuals of the early days.” Although this would seem to leave an un-filled position, I am glad to report that Mike Mornard, a badder motherfucker than I could hope to be, is taking care of it with a memoir of those early days titled We Made Up Some Shit We Thought Would Be Fun. That work is forthcoming; given the dense goodness of Playing at the World, I’m hoping it will take me long enough to read it as it does Mike to write his reminiscences so that I can put down one and pick up the other.

07
Oct
11

Infographic Poster of OD&D Encounters


A tiny detail from the 18x24 OD&D Wandering Monster poster, from the Blog of Holding site which has a cool script to randomly generate these. Dig the beard on that ferret; Paul has nailed the beardliness of everything in the LBBs.

When I helped the Gygax Memorial Fund create  a presence at the Old School Resource Group’s booth for Gen Con 2011, one of the things I did was to come up with things that could be sold there to raise money for the memorial. Some of these did come to pass as planned, like Cheers, Gary. Others didn’t materialize for one reason or another, like Crystal Caste dice with Gary’s face in place of the 1’s pip. Fortunately, other stuff I didn’t even dream of came along to fill its place.

Some of these may never be available again. The New York Red Box’s own Jedo did a set of old-school character sheets that he ran off on an old-fashioned mechanical printing press, with the type palpably embossed deep into the paper; another run of these would have to wait until he visited the distant lair of this press, which I imagine to be in the basement of the Temple of the Frog along with the pipe organ no one now living knows how to repair.

Other things that were at the booth, like Ethan Gilsdorf’s excellent Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks, were available before and are still. This is awesome, but not newsworthy.

This post, however, is about something that was at the booth at Gen Con (although it may have been overlooked), sold out, but is now available again – Paul Hughes’ infographic poster showing all the dungeon and wilderness wandering monsters from OD&D, along with the procedures for generating encounters thereof. You can get this useful and eyeball-kicking item through blogofholding for just $7.50 plus shipping. Paul says:

Put this on your rec room wall, and you can use it to generate random encounters without having to flip through books, or just stare at it glassily while descending into a spiral of madness.

Cheers Gary is the other item Paul was invaluable in creating, and the one that was done specifically for the Gygax Memorial Fund rather than just having some copies donated for the booth. I hope to have an announcement soon about when a new print run of this will be available soon. The T-shirts and buttons for the Gygax Memorial Fund are still potentially available, and will be actually so as soon as I do an inventory count and help the talented & hard-working Jason Hurst get them set up at http://www.gygaxmemorialfund.com/.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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