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half-life of gaming lust

After flirting with several different game systems lately, I am now conducting a scientific experiment: how long will it take for me to get sick of Vampire: the Requiem, and by implication, other games that I get momentarily infatuated with?  (The answer: I was fed up with the presentation and authorial voice instantly.  But maaaaaaybe there’s a game worth playing hidden in between the schlocky writing?)  I ask this because I was recently enamored of Star Frontiers and then Gamma World, only to have those feelings quickly dissolve within a few days.

star frontiers: what am I doing here, captain

Our group has been wrestling with science-fiction games for quite some time.  By New York State Law I am forbidden from playing Traveller, but it doesn’t quite seem to get a critical mass of interest from the other Red Boxers.  I know the Alternity system pretty well, but its spaceship combat rules are awful, character design takes forever, and I’m a perfectionist about designing a scenario in these types of system-is-everything games.  A friend wrote a beautiful hack of Starships & Spacemen that some of us used to play a joyous Star Trek rip-off, but he doesn’t want to run it any more.

Anyway, what with one thing and another, I figured I’d check out Star Frontiers, given its TSR pedigree and remembering incomprehensible adds in Marvel Comics.  Frankly, I am not sure what Star Frontiers is about.  Apparently you’re like, the Away Team sent down to hex-crawl across alien worlds and zap things. Several of the modules take this approach, and the game’s tagline, “Exciting adventures on alien worlds!” seems to bear that out.

Somewhat awesomely, all of human knowledge has collapsed into thirteen fields of study, of which a full seven (54%) directly involve killing things.  (This amazes me mainly because in Alternity, the sci-fi game I’ve played most, there are like 109 skills, of which like 25 directly involve killing things.)  Also, the aliens aren’t described in much detail, but they’re fairly non-human, which is a plus in my mind.

Part of the problem with Star Frontiers, maybe, is that it is deliberately non-political science-fiction: that is, science-fiction that’s designed to be bland.  Star Trek‘s original series is infused with mid-1950’s techno-utopian thinking, Cold War tension, and late-60’s cultural concerns; the later iterations of the show tended to veer toward the police procedural genre, albeit ones where the police get trapped in caves a lot or date women who are actually disguised space-monsters.  Star Wars (the watchable movies, at least) is an admixture of Zen platitudes, anti-fascism, and perhaps a qualified rejection of the Industrial Revolution.  But those two are only the big sci-fi franchises in hindsight.  In the early 1980’s, there was also Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica and many other things besides, and it feels like Star Frontiers was just trying to fit in with the crowd rather than stake out new territory.

Certainly some people love the hell out of this game, enough to create a deluxe, high-quality remix of the rules with better art.  I do find it curious, though, that a company like TSR / Wizards has never tried to squeeze more juice out of this game.  Maybe the Williamses wanted the company to start fresh with Buck Rogers XXVc or something.

gamma world: that’ll do, pig

After quickly growing bored with Star Frontiers, I got into Gamma World very briefly after Tavis was kind enough to run me through a goofy little half-scenario in which my twice-super-intelligent pig, Boss Hogg, who I imagine is the Samuel L. Delany of post-apocalyptic Hazzard County, helped some benighted villagers understand the mystery of witch-fruit (“it’s really a tuber”), found them a robot-obstetrician to help with their appalling infant mortality rate, and fed pig-slops to a smelly toothless hobo, just like the real Samuel L. Delany would.

Gamma World 2e (which is kinda the Moldvay equivalent of the 1e rules) looks like a lot of fun, precisely because it’s what disappointed me about Star Frontiers: you’re some weird freak rollin’ around in an “alien” world.  Why this appeals to me in Gamma World but disappoints me in Star Frontiers is a mystery, and probably unfair.

I mainly fell out of love with Gamma World when I realized it seemed to be D&D with a facelift: modern-day ruins instead of medieval ones, tons more hit points, and an unchanging list of magic spells mutations.  To whatever extent D&D is a game about managing your resources wisely, this seems less true Gamma World in the main (though I guess you’d have to ration your D batteries pretty carefully).

I still wanna play that pig, though.  Boss Hogg, Edible Consultant, has a lot more adventures left in him.

i hope vampires are not too stupid

Over the weekend I got hopped up on old Tomb of Dracula comics, and took down my old unplayed copy of Vampire: the Requiem down from the shelf.  So my experiment started on Sunday night and I’m waiting to see when I get tired of this thing.  That way, whenever I fall into the grip of some new gaming passion, I will know to wait _____ days before taking it seriously.

I am not, and probably never was, part of the target audience for Vampire: the Requiem.  I don’t like horror movies, LARPing, or freeform role-play twiddle-twaddle.  I hate the book’s padding and fake-ass lingo.  I strongly doubt that whoever called it “Modern Gothic role-playing” had read The Castle of Otranto.  This book is not meant for me.

On the other hand, I really, really dig the idea of what a pain in the ass it would be to only be active at night.  I can barely get my shit done in 18 hours; now I’ve only got 12?  Man, what if I want to check out some Isaac Asimov book from the library and it closes at 5 p.m.?  Can’t see no animals at the zoo.  Can’t see no kids on the playground while strolling around.  Can’t renew my drivers license at the DMV; can’t pick up Amazon boxes at the post office.  Plus, every night you gotta drink blood instead of having a toasted cheese sandwich or whatever.  This is not enough to make me all emo and mopey, but it would be an interesting problem to have for few sessions.

Stripping down the game to the basics, it seems that what you’ve got is a game about extremely territorial cannibal-folks with magic blood-powers, who more or less hate each other but any big move would set off a gang war apocalypse.  There’s also some stuff about enslavement and addiction, and a risk of growing insanity, which has to be carefully managed to avoid being disabled for years or decades.  It looks like there’s a playable game lurking in there, if you can avoid the pretentious nonsense.

I expect my interest will fade by the end of the Memorial Day, but we’ll see.


“oriental adventures” class summary charts

“My cossack asks the Leprechaun, ‘Why did you sabotage that aqueduct?'”

The other day Zak was talking about how come nobody seems to use 1985’s “Oriental Adventures” rules, written by David “Zeb” Cook with material from François Marcela-Froideval.  I think it’s an interesting effort, and one I’ve always been intrigued by, but (among many other problems) the book suffers from some truly bad organization and editing.  If I’m remembering correctly, Cook has said he was bascially handed Marcela-Froideval’s manuscript on Friday and told, “Have this thing ready to publish on Monday.”  That’s not the correct deadline, but it’s that type of story, where publication date had been set way in advance of when the manuscript was actually ready.  And it shows.

Anyway, what the hell: I spent a long time compiling all the information about the “Oriental Adventures” into a set of charts which hopefully are easier to use than the book itself.  I was thinking mainly for use with AD&D 2e but I guess you could port it to whatever you like.


charlemagne: by the cross and the sword


Yes: Christopher Lee recorded a heavy metal album in which he pretends to be Charlemagne.

Because I’ve been enjoying Pendragon so much, I became curious about how to adapt a historical low-fantasy environment to Dungeons & Dragons.  Turns out dudes already beat me to it twenty years ago with HR2: Charlemagne’s Paladins.  I’ve been messing around with this book, and it is weird.  

The sourcebook groups its rules options into Historical (pretty close to reality), Legendary (pretty close to most European epic tales), and Fantasy (pretty close to D&D-style fantasy).  Under the middle-of-the-road Legendary set of rules, everybody’s human, and the only available classes are the Fighter, Paladin, Cleric, Thief, and Bard. 

Even more critically, spells are very tightly restricted in terms of subject matter.  Bards get Illusions, Enchantments, Conjurations, and Divinations only; (Christian) Clerics get Healing, Divination, Protection, and a tiny percentage to cast some other spells.  So right there, nobody is tossing fire ball to vaporize a horde of angry Visigoths, or teleporting from Aix-la-Chapelle to Roncevalles to send Roland some reinforcements.

But even more importantly, spells take “one unit” longer to cast.  So a spell with a “casting time” of 4 segments, now takes 4 rounds; a spell that takes a turn to cast now takes an hour; etc.  (The book doesn’t say it, but presumably the compensation is that the durations are similarly extended.)  This has the effect of turning spells into ritual type performances, which is kind of cool.  But it also means that it’s almost impossible to cast spells in the middle of combat.  Magic is something you plan ahead of time; it’s not your “oh dang we need immediate crisis control” toolbox

As an experiment, I’ve been playing “solitaire” by running some sample characters through a randomly generated dungeon.  Unsurprisingly, with the spell-casting classes crippled, the Fighter dominates.  The game is still playable, and even still recognizable as Dungeons & Dragons, but there’s definitely a “Gladys Knight & the Pips” thing going on. 

(In fact, this is exactly how things go in Pendragon: in 4e, you could play a magician or a miracle-worker, but what you can do is so limited that you really should be playing a knight instead.)

The whole thing makes me wonder what the idea was behind the Historical Sourcebooks.  “It’s the D&D you know and love!  Minus the races, the classes, most of the magic, most of the monsters, and all of the really cool treasures!  Doesn’t that sound fun?” 

To me, it kinda does, actually: there’s a viable sub-set of D&D in here.  But I think the audience for it is likely very small.


OSR 2.0 and the ACKS Player’s Companion

The Player’s Companion for the Adventurer Conqueror King System is now available in PDF and as a hardcover + PDF bundle.  If this is a thing you’ve been waiting for, go order it now. When you get back I want to talk about what it means for the current phase of the OSR.

At Gen Con last year I gave a seminar on the Old-School Renaissance in which I said the OSR was dead. This wasn’t a point I expected to make, and it depends on the idea that the OSR is or was an entity like the Roman Empire, where being alive means it has borders that it defends against its enemies and can expel people from if they don’t meet the requirements for citizenship. By this analogy “the OSR is dead” looks a lot like “the OSR has won“. More people than ever use Roman numerals and live in representative democracies now that the emperor can’t send centurions to enforce the right way to do it. Likewise, it’s easier than ever to find a group of gamers who are eager to play in the old-school style now that it’s spread past the point where old-school cred is a requirement for entry.

Over at Greyhawk Grognard, Joe Bloch has a post about the OSR Phase II that uses less incendiary terms to make many of the same points I cited at that Gen Con seminar:

  • The level of philosophical analysis has decreased dramatically both on the blogs and message boards. If the job of the OSR was to analyze and rediscover the essentials of old-school play, I feel like this job has been done. (Playing at the World can fly the “mission accomplished” banner for the subset of historical analysis). The folks who started out pursuing these questions have, if not reached consensus, at least publicly worked out their own positions in enough detail that newcomers can dive as deep as they like to gain an understanding of OSR philosophy. If there are burning philosophical issues left that are specific to the OSR I can’t think of them, and I think it’s notable that our most consistently brilliant philosopher is now working on carrying his line of analysis outside our scene’s boundaries to games belonging to other movements and to the nature of roleplaying systems in general.
  • The scene now focuses an enormous wave of practical application, including many more reviews of new products, analysis of older non-D&D games, and organization of face-to-face and virtual events. One of the reasons we started The Mule Abides was to share a perspective from New York Red Box’s regular engagement in TSR-era D&D, mixed with other old- and new-school games, that seemed unique. That’s no longer true. Old-school play is very popular and diverse at nerdNYC’s quarterly convention Recess, and I bet you’re seeing the same thing happening through hangouts if you’re on G+.

I think it’s significant, although Joe doesn’t make a point of this specifically, that much of this practical application is also commercial. For example, here’s the “mission accomplished” banner that marked the Player’s Companion having shipped all of its rewards to backers of its Kickstarter last week:

Here’s why I think increased commercial activity in the OSR matters:

  1. Each time that someone starts a business in the OSR, they’re betting on its permanence and popularity. When I run along the Hudson after dark I often surprise rats on the pavement between the river and the park. It turns out that the speed at which they try to scamper away is close enough to my jogging pace that I can chase them for minutes at a time. I enjoy this activity quite a bit, and NYC being NYC no doubt I could find other weirdos who’d also find it fun. But before I launched a adventure tourism enterprise around river-rat chasing I’d have to be pretty sure that there was a regular enough supply of runners and rats to keep the business afloat. 
  2. Commercialism fosters professionalism. As a blogger if I say “I’m going to write a multi-part series of posts about moving into the dungeon” but never do, I feel sort of bad but don’t lose any sleep over it. I only realize why this is an idiom when I’ve taken people’s money for a thing, there are delays in delivering it, and more nights than not I wake up frantic with dream-logic solutions, still carrying on imaginary conversations with upset backers, etc. I aspire to honor all my commitments but there’s no denying that the commercial ones carry more weight and are more likely to get done.
  3. Businesses seek to expand their markets. One of the first OSR controversies I was involved in was TARGA’s plan to create an outreach program for old-school play. It foundered over a number of things that seem outdated, including questions about whether it was even desirable to bring in outsiders. Now that it’s clear that outsiders are extremely interested in our thing and eager to spend their gaming dollars to find out about it, outreach stops being a community question like “what kind of missionary should we send to the South Seas” and becomes an individual one like “should I go pan for gold in California” – or, to carry on the OSR is dead analogy, “go loot the treasures left behind by the fall of the Roman Empire’s boundaries”. Even when I’m not trying to sell anything I think expansion is a good thing. I recognize the value of having the OSR’s borders hotly defended back when a core group needed to be undiluted long enough to define and tackle the key philosophical issues, but I really like how easy it is nowadays to to find common ground rather than fight turf wars.

The remainder of Joe’s post talks about published material he sees as exemplifying a shift towards OSR phase II. He includes a number of games that I’ve talked about before as second-wave retroclones. This phrase balances looking backwards (the “retro” in retroclone) and forwards, with the presumption that there will be a progression of waves, each building on the last the way the second-wavers built on the original OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, and Swords & Wizardry. The Player’s Companion is the first supplement for ACKS, and it’s considerably more progressive and less retro.

ACKS features several things that I think go beyond looking backwards and make genuine additions to the canon. Its economy was one I focused on in the post about building blocks of the next wave of retroclones. By this I mean not just the integrated structure that makes the price of swords line up with the wages of a swordsmith and the cost to field an army of swordsmen, a thing I admire but was never a problem for a GM as loosey-goosey as myself. The contribution from ACKS’ economy that I only vaguely realized had been lacking in my OD&D-based White Sandbox campaign was the way it contextualizes the heroes in the game world. Some vagueness about what’s beyond the dungeon was ideal at the start of a play-and-find-out campaign, but at the stage where they started looking to make a mark on the town and wilderness with their newfound riches and power, I found that I had no basis to adjucate key questions like “how far do we have to go to find someone who will buy a scroll much too potent for us” and “if the local ruler wants to challenge me to a duel, how tough is he?” For a sandbox game where you don’t have details all worked out for every society the PCs might visit, nothing beats ACKS’ brilliant insight that, if most XP come from bringing gold back to civilization, you can use the size of any given civilized area to determine on the fly how many heroes it has and how much of its resources they’re likely to control.

Melee combat, and specifically the linear fighter/quadratic wizard thing, is another problem that my White Sandbox players were frustrated by & ACKS solved.  One reason the OSR is so devoted to B/X D&D is that Moldvay’s presentation of melee is so tight. Many of us may have sought out the old-school in conscious rejection of 4E’s mathy talk of the sweet spot for combat effectiveness, but there’s no denying that this kind of thinking is part of our zeitgeist, nor that a finely honed balance between heroism and lethality is a great asset for a fantasy RPG. ACKS takes this lineage of the “alternate combat system” already refined through multiple waves under TSR and passed on to us via Labyrinth Lord, bolts on equalizers for fighters in the form of a damage-by-level bonus and the ability to cleave, and preserves the narrow level cap it needs to not break down. (The mortal wounds/tampering with mortality charts have worked to solve another combat-related problem in the White Sandbox, the transition from the early stage where we wanted it to be easier to survive past zero hit points and the post-raise dead stage where we wanted death to be more consequential.)

Keon and Leo

These guys are my family’s second and third waves. Their parents are now old enough that any subsequent waves will have to actually be clones.

So let’s imagine you’re looking to make your own perfect system for fantasy roleplaying, which is to say that you are a gamer. Even if you accept that ACKS’ work on economic and combat balance is an improvement you want to incorporate, you’ll want to leave lots of the other choices we made in ACKS on the scrap heap and come up with your own best solutions. Here’s where the Player’s Companion comes in. While writing ACKS, Alex Macris was also figuring out the  design space for two key elements of the Moldvay miracle, character classes and spells, and this book is where he puts the guidelines in your hands. In my next post I’ll show how you to can use the Player’s Companion like a Rosetta stone to drive other kinds of classic gaming with the ACKS engine, or to pioneer an all-new approach in your own third wave retro-clone.

However, I’ve already gone blah blah blah for a long time and the baby strapped to my body will soon wake up. I hope you’ll accept that attaching these pictures of our newborn twins is a kind of negative-space Joesky tax, since otherwise I’d be tempted to put them in a post all their own which would have no gaming relevance at all.


against the pixies


Has anyone ever done G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, but literally scaled down and reversed?  So that instead of adventurers invading the home of a Giant, the players are Northmen defending their homes against incursions of sprites and pixies?

Just came to me, now that the blockade has been lifted.

"Let's team up to make people miserable and eat their treasure."

“Let’s team up to make people miserable and eat their treasure.”


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.


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.


Landscape Painting Around Dwimmermount


The Opening of The Starfall Desert

In the midst of relocating across the country and becoming a first-time father this Fall, I had been asked by the esteemed Tavis Allison of Autarch to put some of my hedge-wizard illustration skills to work for one of their projects. I had the pleasure of being asked to develop a colored hex-map showing the region around James Maliszewski‘s infamous/legendary Dwimmermount.

James had already enlisted the mapping mojo of the influential Rob Conley of Bat In The Attic to create a play-reference black and white map for the region around Dwimmermount proper, but Tavis called for a large colored map that could be printed on durable vinyl. It was to be sans locations and named areas so the map could function for mysterious player exploration and utilitarian play at the table much like the old wilderness survival map.

I had my earlier methods for making colored hexmaps, similar to the style of the Judges Guild Wilderlands map sets and detailed in my overly long series of posts on this very blog, but I wanted to stretch the process some more and see if I could move the technique into more of a hand-made affair. (At least in appearance, anyway.)

I decided to make the thing entirely of scanned watercolor paint-strokes. If it was going to be in big printed color, I thought I would savor the opportunity and forgo using the color black for creating outlines or details and try and have it look like everything was painted on in color. A lot of published game maps start life in digitized B&W and can have a “coloring book” feel to them. I wanted to see if the whole thing could be done with hand made colored strokes and textures.

In the end you can still see the digital-ness of the whole affair, and I used black for putting the hexes on, but the intent is to have it organic/quirky enough that the machine qualities don’t register to the viewer.

Hills, Mountains, Grasslands, Forest

Hills, Mountains, Grasslands, Forest

The raw painting used to create a "big" mountain pattern for use in GIMP.

The raw painting used to create a “big” mountain pattern for use in GIMP.

The steps were numerous and I won’t detail them unless there is substantial internet begging, but they involved much tracing, painting, scanning, buying a recycled socialist computer, pattern creation, GIMPing, Hawkwind, Ice Dragon, and beer.

My goal next time is to create 4 inch sized hexes with oil paint on a wood panel.


Playing and Posing

I’ve been a role-player since I was ten, but sad stretches of my life have been spent in denial. When I’ve wanted to be serious and important, or to get laid – especially when I thought getting laid was serious and had something to do with being important – I’ve let my dice gather dust and tried to be something else.

None of the other identities have been as satisfying. In the late ’80s I was a Hampshire College hippie, in the late ’90s I was a neuroscience grad student. For a while in between I wanted to be a science fiction writer, which is what this post is about.

For me, RPGs are more satisfying because they’re essentially social. At the gaming table, you are both the audience and the performer. You have rules that govern everyone’s childish need to get attention by putting on a heroic persona. You develop skills in sharing the spotlight so that your individual awesomeness becomes part of something larger. You get consistent rewards when you act like an adult and pay attention, and variable reinforcement when you make good decisions about risk and commitment.

I enjoyed the sociability that came with every other identity I’ve worn. I liked it so much that I spent more time showing off my persona than I did writing, or experimenting, or doing research for I Saw My God: The Neuropsychology of Religious Experience. Let’s get the obvious problem out of the way. If you want to be a serious science fiction person, it might be about reading the stuff, or writing about it, but most of all it’s about writing it. You can set up your typewriter in a bookstore window like Harlan Ellison, but you can’t escape that this is a solitary activity. Socializing is the opposite of doing the thing you’re defining yourself around.

In another life I might have been happy organizing a SF convention or reading series, but these are sideshows to the main event. What I like about gaming is that the situation is reversed. You can make lots of valuable contributions to roleplaying as a designer or blogger or artist, alone with your tools, just like you can enrich SF fandom by throwing room parties or judging masquerades. But if you’re not getting together with other people and playing games, you’re not really doing the thing.

Since the social aspect is so important to me, what I find most interesting is that the collaborative quality of the core activity also improves the socialization around it. When it was important to me to be seen as a serious SF person, bookstore conversations with strangers would go like this:

  • ME: Hey, that Vacuum Flowers you got there is a great book.
  • FELLOW FAN: Yeah, I need a new copy ’cause I read it to pieces. Swanwick hit this one out of the park.
  • ME: Have you read The Glass Hammer?
  • FF: Oh I loved that! Jeter is my favorite of Dick’s students.
  • ME: How about Uncle Ovid’s Metamorphosis Book?
  • FF: No, who’s that by?
  • ME (walking away): Good day, sir or madam, you are unworthy of further conversation.

Clearly, this is largely because my most consistent identity has been “dickwad”. But the nature of RPGs as a social experience drives you to leaven Pretentious with Retro and Stupid because any game group will be a mix of all three. Snobbishness is limited by the need to get a group together to play with:

  • ME: Hey, is that the original Rogue Trader?
  • FELLOW FAN: Yeah, I had some great times with this as a kid.
  • ME: I’ve been reading Small but Vicious Dog and like the look of it, but I really want to see how it plays.
  • FF: Well, my group plays mostly Warhammer 3E these days.
  • ME: Sweet, I’d love to see that in action! Here’s my card, let me know if you ever have an open spot at the table.

A while back a commenter at the Mule asked “You Hipsters have ruined everything else, can’t you leave D&D alone for those of us who genuinely enjoy playing the game?”

Being a hipster is seen here as the opposite of being genuine, so it’s tempting to get into a discussion of irony. There’s an interesting conversation to be had in the territory between Noisms at Monsters & Manuals sometimes thinking that

there is something cowardly about the arch way in which I and other role players sometimes operate: everything is approached from a slightly sideways, taking-the-piss angle, as if there is something difficult and terrifying about trying to take the endeavour seriously

and Zak’s classic post about how fun in a RPG can be driven by the distance you as a player have from the events in the game.

I want to short-circuit that discussion by talking about hipsters as a synonym for “posers” rather than “ironists”.  A poser is someone who wants to be seen as something they’re not. It’s beyond me to figure out whether a hipster who drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon with a sneer is genuinely drinking it – they do eventually have to pee as a result, right? But I do know that for lots of my life I wanted to claim an identity without doing the thing it was based on.

It’s only when I’m a player that I stop being a poser. At the table, I’m really engaged in the core of the activity, and that’s true whether I keep it at a distance with ornate Vancian language and meta talk or genuinely enjoy the feelings I imagine my character to be experiencing. I’ve personally never gotten up and danced out a moment of triumph in a roleplaying game, but when the kids in the D&D afterschool class do this I feel no piss-taking impulse whatsoever.

Online I often hear about people who like to talk about roleplaying games without actually playing them. I guess they would be the posers of the RPG world, but this post isn’t an attack on them. I’ve never known anyone to do this for long before getting drawn into actual play, and I think that’s because the core of gaming is social. Someone interesting to talk to about RPGs is likely to be fun to play with as well, whereas having interesting things to say about stories I was going to write didn’t get me any closer to being a writer. I’m glad to define myself around a hobby where seeking opportunities to play a role pushes me to be less of a pretentious dickwad, not more.


In Defense of the Megadungeon

The OSR’s love affair with the megadungeon seems to be over, if you believe the blogosphere.  Playtests of Jamie Malisewski’s Dwimmermount dungeon have shown just how little patience people have for empty room after empty room.  Maps of giant dungeons are held up as examples of poor design.  There’s even a resurgence of interest in the once universally panned 2nd edition, because at least its railroad adventures gave the players something to do.

Stephan Poag suggests the problem comes from players who only get to play sporadically, and can’t be bothered to remember all the details of a massive monster hotel: “when they manage to get away to play D&D, they want to have fun, joke around, drink beer and have a few interesting encounters that we can laugh together about.”  He goes on to say “I’m not seeing how a multi-level dungeon with hundreds of rooms fits into that.”  His post actually reacts against this attitude, discussing how much fun he had back in the day drawing up silly dungeons, but it’s true—the blogs are full of people who get to game rarely enough that they don’t want the plodding, methodical mapping exercise that is the current state of the megadungeon.

My personal experience is almost the direct opposite of this.  For a couple years now I’ve been in a player in Eric Minton’s “Chateau D’Ambreville” megadungeon campaign, which is closing in on its 150th session.  This is the longest sustained campaign I’ve been part of, or, for that matter, heard of.  We meet weekly to explore the sprawling underlevels of what was once Castle Amber, a sometimes surreal, sometimes prosaic maze where a bunch of wizards hid during a civil war twenty years ago.  We’ve been five or six levels deep in all that time; we know for a fact there are at least as many levels we’ve never seen.  And we keep going back.

Part of the reason why may be simple demographics.  We live in New York City, which has a large enough population that we can attract a large number of players.  We play a pickup game, where whoever shows up gets to play, under the condition we must all be out of the dungeon and home by the end of the session.  Most of us are married or in serious relationships, but very few of us have children—which may explain how we can meet so often.  We’re also all very committed to the ideas of the OSR and dungeoneering in general, with a preponderance of artistic and/or information technology backgrounds.

But we keep going back to the Chateau, not because of who we are, but because it’s there.  I’ve never questioned for a second the fact that our campaign is built around a tentpole dungeon.  And it is full of empty rooms—many nights, we come back with a handful of copper pieces and no good stories.  Sometimes we lose characters, or get level drained, or get in a fight so nasty we have to buy our way out at the expense of magic items and coin.  It never stops us—if anything, it steels our resolve to find the big treasure around the next corner.

A big reason for that is Eric.  He’s the best DM I’ve ever played with.  He knows when to play a silly accent for laughs, and also how to make an encounter feel truly threatening.  And his dungeon, even with its vast stretches of empty rooms, contains enough mystery and surreal locations (insane proto-computers, washerwomen golems who will trade gold for soap, competing bands of humanoids fighting over scarce dungeon resources) to stay fresh and interesting over so many sessions.

Another reason is that we have plenty of relief valves.  If we need a break from the Chateau, there’s always the Keep on the Borderlands, or Quasqueton, or countless one-page dungeons to conquer; Eric is steadfast in his belief that it’s up to the players what happens next, even if that means setting aside his lovingly-crafted dungeon for a while.  He even lets the players take the occasional turn in the DM chair—something we all look forward to, since a guest DM means a freer hand with the loot.

But in the end, if megadungeons were boring, none of these things would matter.  It may be facile simply to say that the people who have lost interest in big dungeons aren’t playing them correctly—facile, unfair, and obviously incorrect.  But clearly there is a right way to do it.  We found it, maybe by mistake.  The megadungeon may disappear from the OSR landscape (or more likely just fade into the background until the next blog cycle passes), but I imagine we’ll still be playing in the Chateau at session 200, and beyond.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2020

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