Monday, January 27, 2014

Happy 40th Birthday, Dungeons & Dragons

Today, or a day very close to today, is figured to be D&D's birthday. It represents the day in 1974 when the first Dungeons & Dragons sets were offered for sale.

I've been neck-deep in D&D for 36 of those 40 years, and for 33 of them I've earned my living from it. That makes this a pretty momentous occasion for me. An occasion that should be marked by a heartfelt, nostalgic, forward-looking essay about all the wonderful things D&D has brought to my life.

At the moment, however, I'm writing the first set of adventures that will be published for D&D Next -- Tyranny of Dragons, look for it this summer -- and I'm behind on my deadline (I'm always behind on one deadline or another, it seems). So instead of taking time away from a paying gig to write my own essay, I direct you to a marvelous piece written by Mike Selinker on Schrodinger's Blog.

I did have time to join in Kobold Press's celebration of D&D's birthday, along with great friends from the RPG industry such as Zeb Cook, Wolf Baur, Ed Greenwood, Bruce Cordell, Jeff Grubb, Stan!, the inestimable Mike Selinker (where does he find the time?), and many others.

Happy birthday, Dungeons, and you too, Dragons! It's hard to imagine the path my life might have taken without you.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

White Zombies and Sherlock Holmes

While we're on the subject of Pacesetter (we are, sort of), one of the TSR ex-pats who helped found the company was Stephen D. Sullivan. Sully had been at TSR for about a year when I was hired. He was dividing his time between editing, illustration, and cartography (at that time, maps were drawn by the illustrators; those jobs hadn't been split into separate departments yet). We shared an office above the Dungeon Hobby Shop for over a year and were neighbors in the same apartment building for many more, so Steve is one of my oldest and dearest friends. At Pacesetter, he did game design, editing, and illustration for Chill, TimeMaster, Star Ace, Wabbit Wampage, and everything else Pacesetter produced.

These days, Steve is one of the workhorses of genre fiction. Most writers can only fantasize about having a body of work like what he’s produced. Steve’s latest is a book adaptation of the seminal horror film White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi. I re-watched this movie about a year ago, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, since I remembered my disappointment with White Zombie as a kid. It moved too slowly for a 12 year old who wanted to see hordes of zombies devouring human flesh. White Zombie isn't that story. It foreshadows by about 10 years the work that Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur would do at RKO in the 1940s with movies such as Cat People and The Leopard Man. If you're a fan of moody B&W horror, Lugosi, or zombies, and you'd like to know where all this zombie mania came from, then watch the movie and read Steve Sullivan's adaptation and recreated script.

And since I’m making book recommendations today, here’s another: Watson is Not an Idiot by Eddy Webb. The book is a collection of essays, one on each of the canonical Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. In them, Webb examines the stories for continuity (something Doyle was notoriously bad about), historical context, running themes, characterization, the “real” Holmes and Watson vs. the myth, and whatever else about a story catches his fancy. If you’ve read Ken Hite’s Tour de Lovecraft, this is a similar approach, but the essays are more extensive. (I found many of Hite’s essays too brief: more tantalizing than satisfying. That’s not a problem here.) Watson is Not an Idiot is a terrific companion to the Holmes mystyeries. Even though I’ve read all the Holmes stories multiple times, this collection of essays has made me start them all over again.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Chill, Meet CryptWorld

On Friday the 13th (of September), Cryptworld was released by Goblinoid Games. Readers probably know Goblinoid from Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Starships & Spacemen, and other excellent retrogames. Cryptworld: Chilling Adventures Into the Unexplained is a retroclone of Pacesetter's 1984 horror RPG Chill: Adventures Into the Unknown. Cryptworld isn't exactly the same game as Chill, but it's a darned good imitation--maybe even an improvement, depending on your taste.

CryptWorld uses the (for lack of a better term) "Pacesetter engine." This Universal Table system appeared in three Pacesetter games back in the '80s: Chill, TimeMaster, and Star Ace. Goblinoid has dusted off the universal table for its reprint of TimeMaster and two original games, Rotworld (zombie survival horror) and Majus (magic/noir). If you've played any of those new titles or any of the old Pacesetter games, you know 80% of what's needed to play any of the others.

CryptWorld is not identical to Chill. Most of the differences are minor. CW is slightly more generous with skill points (+1). The skill lists are different, but the changes are minor and mostly for the sake of modernization (CW adds computers, electronics, a variety of vehicle and riding skills, and stealth, for example, all of which were missing from Chill). It loses hypnotism and various arts.

These switches aren't huge or hugely important, but they highlight an interesting difference in focus. Chill was inspired by Hammer horror films of the 1950s and '60s, where Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee frequently portrayed characters like hypnotists and artists in Gothic Victorian settings. CryptWorld's focus is on the horror revival of the 1980s, where computers, electronics, and teenagers in cars were common. Neither list is perfect, but there's no reason why you couldn't combine the two into one master list. CW does keep the odd Long-distance Running skill, which I've never seen used in a game, ever.

Magic (Chill calls it the Art, CW calls it paranormal talent) is also different between the two games, with some overlap. Chill had nine powers in three groups: telepathic sending, restoration, and protection. They were subtle; about the most dramatic was Feat of Strength, which boosted someone's strength. CryptWorld has 13 powers, and the new ones are more dramatic, letting characters set things on fire and speak with the dead, for example. The big change is that in CW, using a paranormal talent always costs Willpower points. In Chill, WP was spent only if you wanted to raise your chance for success with the power.

In Chill, certain creatures always triggered a fear check, and the severity was noted in the monster's stats. CW makes fear checks optional and doesn't specify the severity at all; that's left up to the CM. This is the only change in CW that I disagree with. Leaving fear checks entirely in the CM's hands is a bit too arbitrary. It's true that fear checks in Chill were problematic; they could result in unlucky (or lucky, depending on how things turned out) characters running away from crucial scenes in a very anticlimactic way. I have to believe that the fear rules could have been fixed to achieve a better effect and not simply abandoned to the CM's whim.

CW keeps all 14 steps of Chill's complex turn sequence.
  1. CM declares NPC actions.
  2. Players declare PC actions.
  3. Roll for initiative.
  4. Side A (with initiative) uses paranormal talents.
  5. Side A throws or fires missiles.
  6. Side A moves.
  7. Side B throws or fires missiles in defense.
  8. Side A melees.
  9. Side B uses paranormal talents.
  10. Side B throws or fires missiles.
  11. Side B moves.
  12. Side A throws or fires missiles in defense.
  13. Side B melees.
  14. Stamina loss and recovery are recorded.
In practice, it goes quicker than it sounds, because many steps are skipped in many turns. 

A significant change between the two games is the way injuries are tracked.

Chill uses two different systems for tracking damage: Stamina (hit points) and wounds. Every attack chips away your Stamina points, but attacks can also cause wounds. Chill divided wounds into scratches, light, medium, heavy, and critical. Characters can take one critical wound and two of each of the other types. A character drops unconscious when all his Stamina is gone. If he has a critical wound when Stamina hits 0, he dies. Lighter wounds serve only to become critical wounds as they accumulate, or a character can take a critical wound in one shot from a severe hit.

CryptWorld drops the wound categories and instead gives characters 11 to 15 wound boxes, depending on Stamina. Different grades of hits cause different numbers of wounds. A character dies if all his wound boxes are crossed off. When a character is down to 3 or fewer wound boxes, he must make Willpower checks to continue fighting through the pain.

Both systems are quirky. I prefer the original because grades of wounds add some fun color to the combats. It's also the original and I'm an unapologetic purist. BUT, the new system is cleaner and it works perfectly well. 

CW adds extensive rules for armor (along with hit locations if you want them) and vehicles, in case you get into a Road Warrior situation. Chill didn't touch on either situation.

Chill spelled out the supernatural powers of monsters and villains in a 14-page section on the Evil Way that was a sort of villain's spell list. Monster descriptions then noted which Evil Way powers the creatures could use.

CW eliminates the menu of evil powers and instead takes an exception-based approach. Each monster entry describes the monster's unique special powers, which operate like paranormal talents. The CM is further advised that if he wants his own monsters and villains to have supernatural powers, he should give them some. Sample powers are suggested, but they're only suggestions. This is a more flexible approach than the way Chill handled it, and it avoids the awkwardness that developed in Chill when add-on monster books included new Evil Way powers, resulting in the CM sometimes needing to look in multiple books for all the details on a single creature. CryptWorld's monster list is extensive and includes many creatures pulled from Chill supplements. 

Finally, CW adds more options for organizations the characters can belong to than just Chill's original S.A.V.E. Nothing was wrong with S.A.V.E., but options are nice.

All in all, CryptWorld is a sweet package--a complete, stand-alone horror RPG and a well-executed tribute to both the roleplaying games and the horror movies of the 1980s. Do yourself a favor and pick one of these up for Halloween.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Science Fictiony Traps

I like traps. Maybe that's a symptom of my antisocial streak. It's one of the few knocks I'd level against Barrowmaze, which we're currently playing with the D&D Next playtest rules -- terrific as it is, there aren't quite enough traps to suit me, so I plan to add a few more as the characters push deeper into the catacombs. Nothing makes a thief feel underappreciated quite like never getting to spot and disarm a trap.

As a followup to the posts I did some time back on 36 Trap Triggers and 36 Trap Effects, here are 18 triggers and 36 effects for traps in science-fictiony complexes and post-apocalyptic ruins.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Playing At the World

About a year ago, I bought the ebook version of Jon Peterson's Playing At the World. The very next day, I got an email from Allan Grohe asking if I'd like a copy to review.

Just reading the book took a couple of months, and my review has been sitting on my hard drive, about half-finished, ever since. Playing At the World is such an amazing piece of work that I was stymied over how to review it appropriately other than to simply state, "you must read Playing At the World."

But now my good friend Jeff Grubb has saved me from myself by writing his own review, which says everything I wanted to say, if only I could have gotten my jumble of thoughts organized. So bounce over to Grubb Street and read Jeff's review while I lean back with arms crossed, nodding my head in agreement with everything there.

Then read Playing At the World. It's the deepest, most thorough, most revealing book about the evolution of D&D that you'll ever read, and probably that will ever be written.

There. That wasn't so hard.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

  • Astonishingly sturdy box containing:
    • 252-page Player's Manual
    • 235-page Referee's Manual
    • 22 x 28-inch black & white map of Hyperborea
    • 6 character sheets
    • set of 6 uninked polyhedral dice
  • written by Jeffrey Talanian, illustrated by Ian Baggley
  • published 2012 by North Wind Adventures
  • $10 PDF, $50 print, or $20 for just the Player's Manual
Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (there are no good abbreviations for this title, but we'll go with AS&SH because that's what the publisher uses) is a game that I wound up not liking as much as I expected to. It's a fine set of rules and a fine setting that make an odd package.

The Rules


The rules can be summed up very easily. What you have in the AS&SH rules is a spruced up version of AD&D. The departures are many, small, and mostly improvements. A few examples:
  • The "Open Doors" and "Bend Bars/Lift Gates" columns from AD&D's Strength table are renamed "Test of" and "Extraordinary Feat of" and extended to the Dexterity and Constitution tables, too.
  • Clerics have a percentage change to learn spells similar to magicians.
  • Turning undead is done with a d12, and Charisma affects the odds.
  • Thief skills advance on a fixed schedule as in AD&D but are rolled on a d12. Having a score of 16+ in the attribute associated with each skill gets you a +1 on the roll.
  • AC descends but starts at 9 instead of 10. An interesting twist is that medium armor also blocks 1 point of damage from attacks and heavy armor blocks 2 points.
  • XP tables cover levels 1-12. Characters can build strongholds and attract followers at level 9.
  • The combat rules give a knowing nod to Chainmail in their handling of weapon classes and first strike capability.
  • Combat rounds are 10 seconds, not 1 minute.
  • The section on Advanced Combat includes fun options such as disarming, parrying, and shield tricks.
  • There is just one saving throw and it's the same for everyone, but each class gets bonuses in specific circumstances and there are further modifiers for high ability scores. 
  • Characters are unconscious at 0 hps but can be awakened; stable at -1 to -3; dying at -4 to -9 (losing 1 hp/round); and dead at -10.
  • XP are awarded for monsters and treasure as usual but also at a discretionary rate for roleplaying, being clever, attaining goals, showing up for the game, and other "soft" achievements, similar to 2nd Edition. 
  • Task resolution is handled with the "Test of" and "Extraordinary Feat of" columns where the physical attributes are concerned. In other cases, there's a generic table assigning d6 values to simple, moderate, challenging, difficult, and very difficult tasks. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

More from Crypts & Things

To wrap up my look at Crypts & Things, I want to post two quotes from the book. These two quotes probably do a better job, in a few words, of summarizing the ambience of C&T than all my meanderings from the previous post.

The first pull is from the section on magic items:
Magic items in Crypts and Things are rare and special items. They are artefacts of ancient wars and demonic summonings, and as a result their purpose is always malign. At most only one is found in a particular Crypt or adventure and they are the stuff of legend and renown. A figurative double-edged sword, magic treasures always endow at least one curse for each blessing they bestow. Often their long-term use is hazardous to the mental and physical well being of the character that possesses them.
Only 20 magic items are described in the book, and all of them bear out that dire prophecy.

The second quote is from Appendix A, "The Features of Crypt* & Things."
The gods have deserted mankind in the dim past and the only magicians left are of the self-serving, amoral or simply just plain bad variety. There is an absence of powerful Wizard Guilds/Schools who police magicians in the field and instil upon their students a code of good ethical behaviour toward their fellow man. Instead you are left with the choice of serving an apprenticeship with evil and manipulative Sorcerers or joining a cult to grab crumbs of magical power thrown down from the table by the Sorcerer/Ranking Priest. Students who rise in power under this system are likely to end up disposed of in some gruesome but useful manner so they never challenge their master’s power.
Exactly right.

* I'd just like to point out that that's D101's typo, not mine. I know the name of the game is Crypts & Things.