Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Toys, Imaginary Worlds, and New Projects

I picked up a terrific new toy at the miniatures convention last weekend: an entire Aztec-style pyramid complex in 25mm scale. It's made by Stonehouse Miniatures out here in Lynnwood, Washington. I've had my eye on this set for several years but held off on buying it until I was ready to actually put it to use. I haven't reached that point yet, but this one showed up on the bring-and-buy tables at a price that I couldn't turn down.
It will be a great playground for my half-painted* Conquistadors and Aztecs. (*Meaning half the figures are painted, not all the figures are painted halfway!) They've been sitting in a box for too long, unused except for occasional appearances in RPGs.
Even better, it's time to finally get to work on that "Teddy Roosevelt in the Lost Land of Mu" campaign that I've been thinking about (and slowly collecting pieces for) for over ten years. I'm chomping at the bit to get this underway. I could use a new miniatures project to get my painting and modeling mojo working.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Marching Down to War

It's Kobold Quarterly Tuesday again. Today's topic is "Marching Down to War."

As usual, wargaming gets me thinking about fantasy warfare and why we don’t see more of it in RPG adventures. War plays a big role in sword & sorcery novels both old and new. You need look no further than The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones for great examples. Clearly, roleplayers consider war an exciting topic. Why does it keep to the shadows in our games?

I’ll leave the subject of how fantasy warfare would differ from historical warfare for a different time. Let’s look instead at what I see as the three reasons why war gets ignored or pushed into the background in RPG campaigns.

(Read the rest ...)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

When Heroes Meet Horror

It's Tuesday, which means Howling Tower appears at Kobold Quarterly. Today's topic is the second part of a look at cosmic horror in heroic swords & sorcery adventure.

When swords & sorcery heroes come up against cosmic horror, there is a chance that the characters themselves will catch a whiff of the universe beyond, whether or not they want to. Most horror games deal with that corrupting influence through some type of psychic decay or sanity countdown. Such mechanisms aren’t well suited to heroic fantasy. Heroes are resilient. Besides, no one really wants to see Fafhrd reduced to a drooling, babbling idiot.

Just seeing something frightening shouldn’t be a problem; heroes deal with gut-wrenching nastiness all the time. Even so, exposure to inhuman forces is dangerous. Studying the notes of a deranged sorcerer puts your psyche and soul at risk, as does inhaling the mind-altering perfume of the lilies of Leung Poq, being cut by a blade made from meteoric iron (who knows what outerworldly toxins lurk in the spaces between its atoms?), casting spells in moonlight on a night when the visible and invisible moons align, returning from the dead, or taking life among cyclopean, dream-haunted ruins.

If heroes are not subjected to slow, long-lasting degeneration through loss of sanity, stability, or whatever you choose to call it, then what is the price of confronting cosmic horror? I think any of the following are fair game in a heroic fantasy RPG.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Chainmail: Taking It Blow-by-Blow

The previous column looked at what the OD&D books have to say about using Chainmail's combat rules. One piece of the Chainmail puzzle is still missing: an article from issue #2 of The Strategic Review titled "Questions Most Frequently Asked About Dungeons & Dragons Rules." I'd forgotten about this article until Jeff Grubb reminded me of it over Chinese dumplings. Thanks, Jeff.

The article chiefly clarifies aspects of the alternative combat system (and makes an astounding hash of the job, I must say. Gary's writing was endearing and opaque in equal measure. In my case, I'd almost always read something new, think "Oh, now I get it," followed a few moments later by "wait ... what?"). The article offers Gary's official endorsement of the ACS, when he states

Chainmail is primarily a system for 1:20 combat, although it provides a basic understanding for man-to-man fighting also. The "Man-To-Man" and "Fantasy Supplement" sections of Chainmail provide systems for table-top actions of small size. The regular Chainmail system is for larger actions where man-like types are mainly involved, i.e. kobolds, goblins, dwarves, orcs, elves, men, hobgoblins, etc. It is suggested that the alternate system in D&D be used to resolve the important melees where principal figures are concerned, as well as those involving the stronger monsters.

But that's not why I bring up this article. The important bit for this discussion is the next paragraph.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chainmail Combat: Kicking It Really Old-School

I got an email from a friend (Leadjunkie on the NRPGCon forums) in which he posed some questions about the Chainmail combat system. Questions indeed! Anyone who's tried to use Chainmail as the basis for D&D combat has run head-first into enough questions to paper the walls of Paris.

I don't pretend to have the answers. I doubt that anyone could, including Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson, if they were still around to ask. What I can offer are the solutions that my friends and I came up with in the '70s. Why bother with something that's 40 years past its prime? For the same reason we did back then--Chainmail combat is an interesting artifact from D&D's birth. Understanding it builds appreciation for where the game came from and where it went.

I should confess that we latched onto the alternative combat system or ACS (the d20-based combat system that's now synonymous with D&D) as quickly as everyone else, because it wasn't plagued by all of these questions and contradictions. We still experimented with Chainmail because, darn it, Gary said it worked, and we wanted to understand how!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cosmic Horror/Cosmic Hero

I just returned from the annual H. P. Lovecraft film festival in Portland, one of my favorite events of the year. As always, that event got me thinking (more than usual) about how the “Cthulhu mythos” can be incorporated into a fantasy RPG campaign.

The elder gods run into trouble when they collide with heroic fantasy. Mighty warriors and wizards battle supernatural horror all day, every day. What makes Tsathoqqua and Shub-Niggurath any more frightening than a lich or a dragon?

Heroic FRPG adventures tend to be framed in terms of good versus evil. Villains strive to bring about some earthly manifestation of evil—greed, violence, hate, destruction. In Lovecraft’s brand of horror, evil and good are largely irrelevant. Boiled down to essential salts, this type of tale relies on four tenets ... (Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly.)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Poll Position

Writing about the Weapon vs. Armor table got me thinking about weapons in AD&D, and that dialog always, inevitably, eventually swings 'round to polearms. And whenever polearms come up, I drag out one of my favorite bits of surprising etymology. Did you know ...

That the "pole" in poleaxe is actually an alteration of poll? The  original word was "pollax," being a combination of  poll + ax. In Middle English, poll meant head. We still use the word that way when we talk about taking a poll--it's a literal reference to counting heads. With its long handle, the pollax could deliver an awesome downward strike that would demolish a helmet and crush or split an enemy's head, or poll; hence the name.

As poll drifted away from meaning head in everyday use, the similarity between poll and pole took over, and it was natural to think that pole referred to the weapon's handle rather than its target. But the name is more graphic than that; the pollax is literally a head-splitter.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lucern Hammer Beats Banded Mail

The weapon-vs-armor table from the Players Handbook was equal parts fascination and frustration. I shared some thoughts on the D&D technology gap over at Kobold Quarterly.

Science fiction and science fantasy RPGs tend to focus a lot of energy on defining societies by the level of technology that they’ve achieved. They have the word “science” in the name of their genre, and science = technology, right?

We don’t see much similar discussion of technology in fantasy games. Leaving aside the question of magic for now, the role of technology—chiefly military tech—in FRPGs such as D&D and Pathfinder might deserve a second look. To warriors, technology was every bit as important 1,000, 2,000 or 5,000 years ago as it is now. (more ...)

Monday, May 7, 2012


Call me crazy, but one of my favorite zen activities is putting crosshatching on dungeon maps. It's a beautiful afternoon, the sun is shining, a cool breeze is wafting through the wide-open doors and windows, and my mind is completely shut down while the pencil does all the work ...

It's good, however, to be sure all the walls, rooms, and corridors are where you really want them before filling in all that dead space with thousands of little lines. Otherwise, you can be in for a lot of erasing, and erasing is definitely not zen.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Here Be Dragons

My name is Steve, and I'm a map goob. My ode to the cartographer's art is at Kobold Quarterly today: "Here Be Dragons."

Maps speak to us. Our brains work much like maps. “Mindmap” is the name for a type of diagram that helps people to recognize and organize connections between ideas. It’s no coincidence that “map” and “plan” are synonyms as both nouns and verbs, or that the earliest known maps are painted on cave walls.

There was a time in ages past when a reliable map was considered among a nation’s most valuable and strategic treasures. People devoted their lives to filling in the blank spaces with something more meaningful than “here be dragons,” and many of them died to extend the ink on the parchment by a few more pen strokes.
(read more ...)