Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween--with Rammstein!

I was going to post about my last trick-or-treat adventure which happened when I was twelve. But as I typed I realize I was writing enough for a short story. So, I'll spare you that--I might post the story later in two or three sections, after revisions.

So, instead, here's some Rammstein videos to celeberate Halloween!

"Du Riechst So Gut, '98"


And my favorite, "Sonne"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Growing Up in the d20 Dark Ages (Part 3)

A Relic from the Dark Ages: Page 3 of The Eclipse, a short story
I wrote sometime in 6th Grade. Rough Draft.

After my brother stopped running games for me, my interest in D&D didn't languish, but I didn't play for awhile. I had my brother's AD&D books. I read through them. I even had his old hand-written adventures (still do!). What I didn't have was a group of players, at least not for awhile. A lot of other stuff was going on at the time, moving on to 6th grade at the Middle School and all the pre-adolescent angst that goes along with it.

Living in a low-income apartment complex that was separate from the rest of town by a highway also made it a little difficult to get players. Other kids about my age lived there, but they didn't seem interested in D&D, as I recall. I also didn't trust many of them; some of those kids were outright thieves. Fortunately, later on, I found some friends in the mobile home park next to the apartments. But that was later.

D&D did keep me busy and inspired. I wrote a couple short stories that year, which took place in a campaign setting, apparently called "Buttercup" (I had a really hard time coming up with names, though "Mantle Castle" doesn't sound too bad.). The map you see at the bottom of the page above came from a map of the campaign setting itself, drawn on poster board in pencil.

For some reason, I loved the idea of the hero of the story started off on an island away from the mainland. The island itself is split in two by mountains, and the hero(es) must travel over or under them to reach civilization. I don't know why this is. But it keeps coming up in my stories, and the various incarnations of Domikka.

The first adventure I ran stuck with this idea. I only had one player. I ran it at his house at his parents's dining room table. The mission: An evil yuan-ti and his tasloi minions were going to attack the town with a siege tower. I bet the player remembers more about the adventure than I do (I hope). The player character when through a series of caverns. I remember, for some reason, I ruled that his axe broke, but I don't remember why. He stopped the yuan-ti in a fight on top of the siege tower itself. For some reason I just really liked siege towers.

The same player ran through my second adventure alone. I don't remember why, but he had to get to the mainland. He had to travel through two mountain ranges to get to the port city on the other side of the island. He had to find the Giant Slaying Sword in the caverns beneath the first mountain chain, before confronting the hill giant guarding the pass of the second.

I don't remember being too overly concerned about the rules. When his first level character confronted the hill giant and his ogre minion, I just thought, "Well, he has a +2 giant slaying sword. The giant should die with one or two hits." So he killed them and found 25,000 gp, which was just enough to buy a large galley and sail for the mainland. I think he tried, instead, to buy a war ship, which was 15,000gp cheaper than the galley. But I wouldn't let him.

Yeah, nowadays I'd call that fudging, railroading, even munchkin/monty haul/powergaming. The reality: I really had no clue what I was doing. I just wanted the game to be fun for my sole player.

I don't think he played again after that. I don't remember why. Maybe I was just a lousy DM. Maybe it was all that adolescent drama at that time. I just don't remember. Throughout middle school I had a rotating roster of players. A couple stayed for the long haul, up until we graduated from high school. Others came and went.

For awhile I thought was doing something wrong to turn them away. Maybe I was. Yet now I know that things happen that are beyond our control. It was an angsty time, with lots of diversions. I also wasn't in a centralized area for many players, who didn't have cars. By 8th grade, though, things started to settle down somewhat. But that is for another post...

One final note to all writers and artists out there, especially the young ones: keep everything you create, no matter how insignificant it seems. I have little of my writing before 8th grade, and nothing of my D&D notes. I threw a lot of that material out, thinking it was embarrassing, not good enough. You never know when it will become important again. All those adventure notes, the maps, the character sheets from my first 2-3 years playing D&D are gone. They would have been helpful, some 22 years later, in writing this blog.

We all may live in the d20 Dark Ages, but those early years of my writing, when I didn't keep much of anything, are my Dark Ages.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mini Monday: Collecting and Painting Miniatures

If you're just starting out collecting and painting miniatures, you don't want to be the guy with hundreds or even thousands of miniatures sitting around, unpainted. This is one of the greatest pitfalls in the hobby. Miniatures are meant to be assembled, painted, seen, and gamed with, not to sit languishing in a box someplace, unpainted, unappreciated.

I have just under 1800 miniatures. About 300 are the pre-painted plastic miniatures that WotC put out during the heady days of 3e/3.5e. The rest are either plastic or metal, used for D&D/RPGs, Hundred Years' War historical battles, or Warhammer Fantasy. All are 28mm. I hate to admit it, but at least three hundred of those are not painted. Sometimes I get dismayed at the prospect of painted them all. I've sold some already--but, for some reason, people keep giving me more. I also used to pick up miniatures when they'd go on sale.

You think that's a lot of miniatures? Not from what I've seen and heard. I know a guy whose entire basement is filled with boxes and boxes of miniatures. Most of them, however, are painted. I also heard of a story where an old wargamer died, leaving at least 10 thousand miniatures behind--the vast majority unpainted, stored in his basement, for his wife to divvy out to his friends or sell on ebay. They kept going through his basement finding more. He just kept buying more and more miniatures, in different scales for different games.

I bought most of my miniature because I thought, that someday, I'd run a gigantic siege at the end of my Last Campaign. It didn't happen. I was nowhere near close to painting all of those miniatures and terrain for the scenario I had in mind. That campaign is over, now what do I do?

Back when I first starting buying and painting miniatures for D&D and wargames, I wish somebody had given me the following advice. Actually, a friend did give me some of this advice, but I was young and thought I had all of the time in the world to pursue many projects at once. Now I'm much older and have a bunch of miniatures to paint, some of which I bought over a dozen years ago. This advice is geared toward the beginner. Still, even a veteran can get some use of this information--I was a veteran when I realized that I should have listened to my friend back in the year 2000.

1. Start a project and finish it before moving on to another. This is the advice my friend gave me. I should have heeded him. This applies to painting up armies for historical games or warhammer, or even figures for roleplaying games. Basically, buy only what you know you can paint in the foreseeable future. Finish that before moving on.

If you invest in an army, finish it within six months to a year. Get it done. If you purchase a single figure for roleplaying games, finish it within a month, if not a week.

Having a bunch of unpainted miniatures laying around can be overwhelming and can harm the sense of accomplishment you get when you do finish painting a figure or an army unit.

2. Start small. Here's dirty little secret: painting miniatures is the hobby; gaming is just an excuse to show off the miniatures. It took me awhile to figure that out. A lot of players focus on the rule system. They'll study the rules like a textbook--even more so, perhaps. The rules are important, but...

You will spend far more time painting miniatures than gaming with them, especially with wargaming. Thus, you need to make sure you enjoy the primary aspect of the hobby. 

Thus, start by painting only a few miniatures, a unit at most if you're getting into wargaming. It is better to figure out if you like painting miniatures when you've only invested in $50-60 or so, rather than after you've spent hundreds of dollars. $50-60 is about average for the price of entry--at least with 28mm figures, considering the cost of the miniatures themselves, brushes, paints, bases, sealants, etc. This is an expensive hobby, make sure you like it.

3. Playing a Few Games Before Making the Big Leap. Most gamers are willing to let you share their miniatures to prospective players during a game. In roleplaying games like D&D this shouldn't be a problem. Most wargamers I've encountered will let you have a command to push around. It just depends on how many people are playing in a given game and if there's enough miniatures for every body.

 Many gaming stores are a great place to meet fellow gamers (I say "many" because some are not).

That's the top three. There's more advice that applies to specific games and genres. Warhammer, of course, has its own peculiarities and pitfalls. In upcoming Mini Mondays I'll probably go into what those are.

As for painting advice, there's plenty of information out there that I won't go into here.

In summary: "Make sure you're having fun while painting your miniatures done."

(Yeah, I'm not sure if that's grammatically correct, but it works.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Legend of Conan

If you hadn't heard, Arnold Schwarzenegger is coming back as Conan the Barbarian in the movie The Legend of Conan, slated to be released in the summer of 2014. Apparently, Conan will be near the end of his life, seeking one last battle.

I have mixed feelings about this. If they do it right, it will be an awesome film. If they do it wrong, it'll end up like Conan the Destroyer or the 2011 reboot. (The 2011 reboot, in my opinion, is still much better than Conan the Destroyer). All three movies, including the original, have gotten mixed reviews. I think the original Conan the Barbarian is fantastic, but I know plenty of other people disagree.

If the movie is based on Robert E. Howard's story, The Hour of the Dragon, I can see some potential. In that story Conan has been ousted from the throne by an undead wizard, and he has to travel long and far to reclaim his throne and free his people... if only could find the "heart" of his kingdom. Howard, of course, never wrote about Conan's death. We find a quote from Howard in the introduction of The Conquering Sword of Conan:

"As for Conan's eventual fate -- frankly I can't predict it. In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me."

Hopefully the ghosts of the literary Conan and Robert E. Howard will guide the Hollywood producers and actors into producing something worthwhile.

My Next Campaign

Here's what I have in mind as my year-long break from running a campaign comes to an end. I don't care if any of my players in the future read this. 

--Given the epicness of my last campaign, my next campaign is far from epic, low key. There is no grand story arc inherent in the campaign. The player characters develop the campaign through their own decisions, focusing on wilderness and dungeon exploration.

--The campaign is called The Expeditions in the Northlands, inspired by Ben Robbins's West Marches campaign. It takes place in Domikka, in the "Northlands" were civilization fell some hundred years ago or more. Nobody really knows--it is a dark age! 

--I'm using Swords and Wizardry as the base rule set. I wanted something simple, easy to learn, and to modify. Also, since I'll be doing a lot of typing (working on my novel, blogging, etc.), I wanted to hand write my notes; the stat-blocks in OD&D and its retroclones are much smaller. Thus, less time is spent in preparation. (Heck, I hated typing out the long stat-blocks in 3e and onward anyway--heh, I didn't quit playing D&D...)

--Classes: Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric, Thief. I may allow "elf" as a class, but instead call them "sorcerers" or something like, and because of their supernatural nature, they cannot touch iron without being harmed (this is a rule from Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG). No dwarves or halflings. Domikka is very much a humanocentric campaign setting. Maybe I might allow some of the variants out there. The Beyond the Black Gate Compendiums have some great stuff I might use. (Just scroll down to the "Stuff I Wrote" on the right column).

--Character generation includes the "funneling system" from Dungeon Crawl Classics. Each Player gets to roll up three "0-level" characters, rolling 3d6 for ability scores, and 1d4 hp. Survivors returning from their first foray into the wilderness become first level and can choose a class. Part of the old-school approach to gaming is player's relying on their own skills rather than just the abilities of their characters. 

--I might even have my players read Matthew Finch's Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

--So why a West Marches-style campaign where I need to have a pool of about 12-14 players? Well... I'm new to the area, and I want to meet more people. I'd like to introduce new people to RPGs while catering to people's busy schedules. 

My hope is that people will be open to this old school approach and the sandbox-style campaign. In the past, I've encountered people so die hard about a given rule set/edition they the won't even consider anything else. It made it difficult to get games up and running. But in the Atlanta area, I should have a lot more people as prospective players. 

Finally, have you played Swords & Wizardry? What are your experiences? I appreciate any advice, since I haven't run the game before. The last "Old School" campaign I ran I used AD&D 1e, about four years ago.

My Last Campaign

At the end of September, just a week or so after moving to the Atlanta area, somebody asked me to run a D&D campaign. Well, it didn't have to be D&D, just anything.

Before I knew it, I told the person "yes." Then the logic kicked in: "What the heck are you doing? You don't even have the utilities in your new place turned on yet!" I can't help it, DMing is in my blood. Still, it'll be awhile. The first session might take place in November. And then my conscience tickled: "You promised to hold off for a year, remember?!?"

Okay conscience part of my brain, you got me.

See: this year off thing is a big deal. I've been prepping and running campaigns since I was eleven or twelve, almost non-stop. That's over 20 years. The longest gap between campaigns was about three months. Even so, I was prepping. 

The last campaign ended on December 10 and 11, 2012, featuring two marathon sessions, a 60+ song soundtrack, where all but one PC died saving civilization. The War for the City of Peace Campaign, set in Domikka, finished a story arc that I conceived more than a decade ago. It was a long road getting there, a couple campaigns that died, one campaign that finished but didn't get far enough. Then, of course, is all that life stuff like getting older, going on to get my master's degree.

Somehow, with that campaign, I combined both linear and sandbox styles of play. It was a lot of work. The characters could explore as they saw fit, but they were racing against a timeline, kind of like in the adventure: The Red Hand of Doom. The old The Complete Book of Villains defines this as a "space/time matrix" campaign.

I know I spent a lot of time prepping the campaign, but it didn't seem that way. It was a labor of love, perhaps bordering on obsession. Like I said, I'd been living with the story arc for more than a decade--and I wanted my players to finish it so I could move on with my life! Yes, it was that bad. I hate leaving things unfinished and I hate it when campaigns just peter out, like they had done at least twice times before concerning this story arc.

The key: I had great players who stuck it out and showed up on time. One friend even flew from Washington D.C. to play his character from a previous campaign one last time. So I have to give my players the most credit.

I visited my friend in D.C. over the summer. As we sat in a bar on July 4th, we talked about those last sessions, just how epic they were. I mean, the first session began with this (yes, that's Tiamat):

And the last session ended aboard a massive airship "The Leviathan" where they encountered Lilith (yes, the Lilith) and her two massive hell hounds (borrowing inspiration from Wayne Douglas Barlowe):

After getting beyond her, they confronted their arch-nemesis Talmor (painted specifically for this campaign):

Talmor's master, who called himself "Elohim: The Lord of Hosts" at one point intervened, with all the powers that His name implies. He looks like King Baldwin IV from the movie Kingdom of Heaven:

I'm leaving out at lot, of course, including air battle over the city between the PCs aboard their airship and a dragon, and their fight with Talmor and his minions inside the city's Opera House.

When the last session ended, the inertia of what happened kept us spellbound for awhile. I dispelled the magic with the Volkerball version of Sonne. Then we all felt both happy and sad: the campaign was over. I felt a bit of relief, but it would take 5 emails summarizing and tying up loose ends to my players. I owed them that, a bunch of minor things didn't get resolved or explained. In the coming weeks I even filled up a legal pad with my thoughts and introspections.

"I've been running campaigns for years. How do I top that?" I asked my friend, as we walked around Mt. Vernon on July 4th (or was it later at the bar?).

"Don't even try," he said. "What happened cannot be repeated." 

So, it's almost a month and half shy of a year later. Right now I'm just testing the waters, to see if there's any more interest in me running a campaign. Already the first tentative date for November has been pushed back. And no doubt the holidays will mess with things. I still need to further establish myself in the area and that takes time. Who knows what my schedule will look like at this point.

It looks like I'll be keeping my promise to myself after all.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Timeline of Shifting Game Focus in D&D

Over the years, the companies that have produced D&D have shifted their focus on what D&D is about. In the early years, the game was more about player skill, now it is far more about character abilities and the rules themselves. Up until 3e, game designers touted the rules as more like guidelines, now the rules are the rules, fixed. To tamper with them could mean serious unbalancing in the game.

I think the focus on story, beginning in the Late Golden Age and ending around 3e, molded many gamers into believing the could only play within the confines of the rules. The focus on story took the fate of a character out of the player's hands. To compensate, players began thirsting for more abilities and rules to make the game "balanced" again, especially if these abilities somehow supported "the story." Eventually even the story gave way to the rules themselves.

It's a working thesis, which I support by offering the following timeline.

The Early Golden Age: 1973-1978
Focus on exploration, player abilities, figuring out what D&D "is."
Examples: Gygax's own Castle Greyhawk Campaign, Rythlondar.

The Middle Golden Age: 1978-1983
Still a focus on player abilities, yet the non-core classes are on the rise. Dungeon and Wilderness Exploration. A growing emphasis on "realism."The Golden Age of the Module.
Examples: The AD&D Player's Handbook, S1: The Tomb of Horrors, Against the Giants, various articles in Dragon about making the game more "real."

The Late Golden Age: 1983-1989
A growing focus on story, campaign settings. Character building, exploration, and player abilities are fine as long as it contributes to the story.
Examples: Dragonlance (both books and modules), I6: Ravenloft, TSR's novel line

The Early Dark Age 1989-1997
Campaign settings and the focus on story dominate D&D (and the whole industry it seems). Some focus on character building. Many modules are written so that your character is just along for the ride.
Examples: "Boxed Text" in modules, Campaign settings--especially The Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk put on the back burner, the explosion of TSR's novel line, "splatbooks"--especially Skills and Powers. A non-D&D example: White Wolf's World of Darkness. 

The Middle Dark Age: 1997-2008
CHARACTER BUILDING, the shrinkage of boxed text, the rise of stat-blocks, the boom and glut of products--more splatbooks than ever (featuring skills, feats, abilities), "back to the dungeon," standardization of rules--everything, constant revisions for balance, prestige classes, miniatures.
Examples: d20 mechanic, the OGL, The Ranger Class, The Epic Level Handbook, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Kyuss's 3-page stat-block in Dragon #135, and D&D 3.5e--of course! Some focus on story with "Adventure Paths."

The Current Dark Age: 2008-to the Present
Character Building (more like "player options" in 4e, character building in Pathfinder, tactics, World of Warcraft emulation, no emphasis at all on player skill, BALANCE, Edition Wars and the Old School Renaissance
Examples: The Player's Handbook 1, 2, and 3, D&D Essentials, D&D Redbox, Pathfinder, D&D Encounters.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson

I never met either man. I've never tracked them down at a convention. Nor have I ever been to Lake Geneva, which is about 3.5 hours away from my hometown.

During my early years playing D&D, I had sort of a reverence for Gygax, since he was the creator of the game. His voice, via his Gygaxian prose, carried through in his works--especially the Dungeon Master's Guide. I imagined him being a showman, a hard-nosed businessman, and a strict DM.

Gygax wanted to see you improve as a player, as evidence by the material  in the AD&D Player's Handbook ("Successful Adventures,"p. 107), the Dungeon Master's Guide ("The Ongoing Campaign," p. 112), and the Tomb of Horrors ("THIS IS A THINKING PERSON'S MODULE," p. 2). He wasn't impressed with character powers. The classes in the Player's Handbook reflect this. The classes with the  most potential for unbalancing the game had restrictions (i.e magic-users were weak at low level, paladin's had a code of ethics AND needed a 17 charisma which his hard to get even rolling 4d6 drop the lowest).

Later, as I learned more about the early years of the hobby, how D&D developed from its wargaming roots, I became convinced that he didn't create tabletop roleplaying games. Obviously, this is common knowledge, but remember that  the Internet back in the 1990s wasn't as prevalent as it is now, so I was didn't know what had happened. Folks like Dave Arneson had been roleplaying well before D&D game out. Gygax just had the business sense to put it all together and market it.

Maybe if I had met him in person I'd have viewed him more as a saint. And do not wish to speak ill of the dead. Yet he certainly was no Santa Claus like some people make him out to be. For example, both Gygax and Arneson co-created D&D, but why is it that Gygax is getting a memorial and Arneson is not? Because Arneson was more or less out of the picture when D&D exploded in popularity at the end of the 1970s and early 80s. Players were exposed to Gygax's name.

I knew who Gygax was before Arneson. The first picture I saw of Arneson was in a Dragon magazine in the late 1990s (though I can't remember which one). He looked like a jolly, perhaps even mischievous, old guy (who might have passed for Santa Claus were he wearing red or green), and wanted to people to have fun, but didn't care for whiners--at least in this story at Beyond the Black Gate.

I think Arneson deserves more credit, since he was role-playing longer than Gygax.

Then again, I didn't meet either man before they died. I can only feel a bit envious for the players who go to meet Gygax and Arneson, and felt even more envious for the players who got to game with them.

(Recently I heard a story about a player who actually killed one of Gygax's characters with a misplaced spell some years ago--how would you like to be that guy? Apparently, Gygax left the session).


Did you ever meet Gygax or Arneson? Or both? What were your thoughts and feelings about them during your early years in the hobby?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mini Monday: 25mm v. 28mm

Hag: "That's it! Since you won't get off my lawn, my husband Ambro will take care of you!"
First Knight: "Ambro's just a half-ogre. Prepare to eat my zweihander!"
Cleric: "Ambro looks more like a ogre!"
Second Knight: "What!?! He's a friggin' giant!!!"  

I've collected both 25mm and 28mm miniatures since the mid-1990s. The vast majority are now 28mm, because they are more detailed, overall, than their 25mm counterparts. Yet I still like using my 25mm miniatures. But I'm a bit anal-retentive over their differences in height, and have been looking for ways to make my 25mm figures seem a bit taller. It doesn't help, however, that miniature companies have gradually increase the sizes of their miniatures over the decades,  and some haven't. 

You can find more about the differences between scale, and how companies come up with them, on The Miniatures Page.  

From left to right: A Warrior priest of the Empire (GW--28mm), a knight templar (Reaper--28mm), a hag (25mm--MegaMinis), a hill troll/ogre (28mm Reaper), a knight (25mm MegaMinis), a monk (25mm--Ral Partha), and a cleric (25mm--Ral Partha). As you can see, the size differences can be noticeable. 

Penny bases are the cheapest bases you can find (which is what the monk to the left is standing on). And were it the 1980s and 1990s, or if you don't use 28mm, they'd work out just fine.

My Solution: I've been mounting my 25mm miniatures on 20mm bases. That helps at least with the height difference, though no matter what, they will never look as bulky as a 28mm figure. You can see an unpainted version of the same cleric below.

Embellishing the bases helps, too.

My players over the years haven't made too many complaints about the height differences in miniatures.  (Well, players with rogues and thieves for many years were stuck with the foppish guy in red and yellow stripes in the first picture before I got some more roguish figures). 

Yet it amazes me how fantasy miniatures have gotten larger. You really notice the difference with larger-than-human sized miniatures. Trolls and ogres in 25mm are about the size as a regular 28mm hero today. The trolls below are from Grenadier.

Despite my preference for 28mm, I like 25mm, because they are quicker to paint (less detail + less space = less painting time). In between larger projects, or if I haven't painted in a while, I'll paint a couple 25mm miniatures to get warmed up. 

Which do you prefer, 25mm or 28mm? Do you care about the difference between the two scales?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

AD&D Historical Reference Sourcebooks HR1-7

I have a better appreciation for TSR's AD&D Historical Reference series now than I did when I first encountered them in the 1990s. Obviously, back then I wasn't a historian, just an avid AD&D player who thought the books would contain some great ideas. Now, of course, I appreciate them as a medievalist because they are a simple way to introduce roleplayers to history. I think of them now as like Osprey Books but for roleplayers (since they deal with using supernatural elements--Osprey, of course, does not).

Like Osprey's military history books, the HR series contain the general history on a topic. Readers are given time lines and other background information on the historical narrative. These books are geared more toward Dungeon Masters, but player should find them interesting, too. Each book also features a short bibliography for further reading.

The bibliographies have some solid historical sources, both primary and secondary. Today I get a kick out of going through these bibliographies. "Hey, I've read that!" "Hey, I know that author!"

The caveat: The AD&D Historical Reference Sourcebooks were never meant to be scholarly works, even less so than Osprey. Don't cite them in your paper, even at the K-12 level. Still, I think its important that gamers, and people in general, get more exposure through history, even if it is through a game.

I know these historical reference books have influenced me into being more interested about history. And I know that the three books above had some influence on the Domikka Campaign Setting.

In the future, I'll review each of these books. I've listed them below.

But for now: What do you think of these books? Have you run any campaigns set in The Glory of Rome or fought to take Jerusalem in The Crusades? Or did you take ideas from them, such as plucking the black powder rules from A Mighty Fortress and put them in your game?

HR1: Vikings
HR2: Charlemagne's Paladins
HR3: Celts
HR4: A Mighty Fortress
HR5: The Glory of Rome
HR6: Age of Heroes
HR7: The Crusades

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dragon Storm RPG -- when did I play that?

I found this curiosity amid my index cards for my First Greyhawk Campaign:

It isn't D&D, although it at first seems similar to D&D. I had the impression that it was from some kind of RPG, but more of a story-based card game. Yet, I only have a vague recollection of playing it--if I played it at all. And I'm not sure when. If so, they why did I write down this "character sheet?"

I googled some of the terminology and discovered that my impressions were right. It is a card-based RPG called Dragon Storm, designed by Susan Van Camp, and published by Black Dragon Press. The game has been around six 1996. And apparently it got a second edition in 2011. Van Camp said that after the initial boom of the late 1990s, the game became more of a cottage industry. It flew underneath my radar all of these years.

The premise of Dragon Storm is this: The characters are the descendants of dragons who the Necromancers killed off 200 years ago to conquer the realm of Grandilar. Each character has shape shifting powers and abilities tied to his or her dragonblood, which are used to fight against the Necromancers.

What intrigues me is that it tries to combine the best traits of a collectible card game and a table-top RPG. TSR had tried this with Dragonlance SAGA rules, which flopped. Dragon Storm, according to mixed reviews, both succeeded and failed. The creators succeeded in creating a CCG-based RPG that was fun, but failed in keeping players. It's a familiar story: the game was fun, but suffered from power creep and the company or its RPGA-like marketing arm (in this case the Stormriders Guild) started restricting old cards. I'll let you read the reviews themselves for the details. I'll take the first review with a grain of salt, given that the reviewer said that he'd gotten a raw deal from Black Dragon Press and the Stormriders Guild.

I still don't know whether or not I actually played the game. I might have played it once, probably more than 12 years ago, during a time when I was looking for different and more story-based RPGs to play. This would have been near the turn of the millennium, during Dragon Storm's heyday.

Yet knowing myself, I would have been turned off with the prospect of having to buy more cards to get a better character. It's one prospect of what turned me off to Magic: The Gathering. I didn't (and still don't) want to buy more cards, master a set of rules, only to have a year or two down the road have to do it all over again. But that's how collectible card games stay in business.

But Dragon Storm isn't a typical collectible card game. Maybe that's why I must have shown at least some interest in it all those years ago. I just don't remember playing it at all. 


Have you played or encountered Dragon Storm? If so, could you share some of your own experiences about the game?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Relics from HeroQuest!

Here I stand corrected by the evidence before me. Unlike what I had said in my original post about HeroQuest, there was no Bogar the Barbarian or Havoc the Dwarf. It was Havoc the Barbarian and Ivan the Dwarf. Maybe there was a Bogar, but I can't find his character sheet. But here's a scan of 4 character sheets from that grand HeroQuest campaign. If I recall, my friend almost ran out of official HeroQuest sheets, so he had to make copies. It looks like they've been folded--what did I do? Carry them around in my pocket or something? Sorry if the handwriting is a bit unreadable. 

Here's another group of character sheets. Two are "cleaned up" versions of Chant and Mylor. The final one is "Petite" the Gnome character. I think the older brother of my friend who ran HeroQuest played him. I distinctly remember jokes about it. I'm not sure why he's got a 23 mind, maybe it went up from 2 to 3.

And just for fun, here's the Barbarian and the Chaos Warlock from HeroQuest all painted up. I painted the barbarian about 12 years ago. I finished the Chaos Warlock back in July, part of my drive to complete 52 miniatures this year. I think my painting has gotten better since I completed the Barbarian. I'll let you be the judge. 

That's all for now. Maybe I'll post some more relics later. In fact, that sounds like a great idea for a series of posts: "Relics from the Dark Ages."

Growing Up in the d20 Dark Ages (Part 2)

Do you remember your first D&D game? I do, and I had a blast. And it was actually AD&D, sort of.

For sometime I had begged my brother to run a game for me. His high school group had fallen apart and he'd gone to college. On the breaks and weekends he returned, I'd pester him. Finally, soon after I turned 10 (the age requirement for the game), he finally gave in.

I rolled up a character: Havoc, a 1st level dwarf fighter with 7 hp. I don't remember the rest of his stats. I do remember him explaining the ability score definitions. I had a hard time figuring out Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma. We had a short vocabulary building exercise. He didn't tell me the mechanics behind each score (i.e. an 18 dexterity gives you a +4 bonus to AC), just that the higher the score, the better. Furthermore, I didn't play a dwarf because his abilities--I didn't know his abilities such as seeing in the dark, bonuses against giants and poison. I just wanted to play a short tough guy. My brother even let me adjust Havoc's scores, lowering a couple other stats to increase my strength. I had no idea that this was an optional rule from D&D, not AD&D.

In fact, I knew almost zilch about the rules. In fact, my brother really didn't teach me the rules, he taught me how to play. The rules were secondary, to be learned as we went. He did most of the die-rolling from behind the DM screen. I think I only got to roll for damage and saving throws. My own decisions, not necessarily my character's abilities, determined what happened in the game. The rules remained backstage, behind the curtain, behind the DM's screen.

Looking back, I think this is great way to introduce somebody, especially if their young, to RPGs. They won't get bogged down by game mechanics. Instead, the get to focus on what's happening in the game, in their imagination.

Havoc's adventure was simple: a village a day or two to the north called Dukna needed help fighting off monster raids from the forest. So I decided to travel there to fight the monsters. I learned quickly that Havoc lived in a very different time and place. There were no maps to purchase at the "general store"--it was a Dark Age! There wasn't even a road leading north to Dukna--it was a Dark Age! I even tried speaking in "thees" and "thous" because, well, it was a Dark Age!

My brother never told me the names of the monsters I fought. On the way there, I got attacked by two 3-foot tall humanoids during the night. I think they were kobolds, maybe. I still remember the image of the two horned creatures silhouetted on a hill, silhouetted against the moonlit sky, and the eerie feeling of be watched while I camped.

When I got to Dukna, I got myself hired to deal with the monster and ventured into the forest. I ambushed and killed four orcs (I think--maybe they were hobgoblins), got wounded, and had to rest for a couple days. The village got raided again and somebody mentioned I wasn't doing my job.

On the next foray I ambushed another four orcs (again, I think). An ogre led them. I used the same tactic I did with the first bunch of orcs--shoot with my crossbow until seen, and then engage in melee. The ogre sent his minions after me. I killed them and then charged the ogre himself. I told my brother I wanted to run and jump on the ogre, hacking with my axe.

He shrugged, rolled some dice, and said that I'd made it. I even somehow knocked the ogre off balance. The ogre fell down, but was still fighting. Still, in a round or two Havoc stood triumphant on the dead ogre's body.

I really wanted to keep playing. I had no idea if that ogre was the leader or not. A lair must have been out there somewhere, right? In the next session I began a different adventure. But I still didn't really know if I had cleared the forest of trouble and made Dukna safe.

So that was my first taste of adventure via D&D. And I'm still hooked.


What was your first RPG experience like? Are there things you remember to this day? Are their gaming philosophies that you learned that continue to influence your gaming style? Mine was to keep the rules in the background as much as possible, and hardly ever let your players know what they are up against.


Had my 11-year-old mind known, back in 1990, how much this boardgame would be worth in mint condition now, I would have bought several copies. But I was 11, and this was just fun game from the get-go.

Now, while I loved D&D, D&D took awhile to prepare and play. Back then I hand-wrote my adventures, and sometimes that could take hours. HeroQuest, other hand, had a quick set up and play time. It also had a ton of cool miniatures--monsters, heroes, and furniture!

I'm proud to say that my characters Bogar the Barbarian, Havoc the Dwarf, Chant the Elf, and Mylor the Wizard played through all 15 quests that came with the original boardgame and through all of the quests in The Return of the Witchlord and Kellar's Keep. (Okay, maybe not all of the quests--a few times others brought in their characters, but my characters lasted until the very end).

My best friend at the time ran me through every quest. He had bought the game first. I did later, but had to promised not to look through the adventures until I had played them (okay, I admit, I occasionally peeked). As we finished through the original material, he started incorporating ideas from D&D and elsewhere.

He even bought and painted additional miniatures. Every time I'd heard that had gone to the hobby store, I never knew was I would encounter in the next game of HeroQuest. He added the The Gnome as a character. One time this wraith-like thing appeared on the table; it could paralyze characters when it hit. He loved used that mini. It wasn't that strong (it took two hits to kill, I think) but no other monster up to that point could paralyze the heroes. Another time we fought Draconians straight from Dragonlance. The most difficult monster he introduce, as I remember, was this half-dragon thing with a big club. It was must stronger than the dreaded Gargoyle and nearly TPKed the characters.

Furthermore, my friend even started integrating...

...into his HeroQuest campaign. The battles fought would sometimes determine what adventure we'd play next. We had fun with Battlemasters. I still have most of the miniatures and the tower to this day. By the time we were playing Battlemasters, through, my friend wanted to wrap up his grand HeroQuest campaign. My characters were quite powerful, if I recall.

In those last adventures, as I recall, Bogar the Barbarian wore magical plate mail and wielded a magic sword. They were powerful. When the sword was placed over the emblem on the plate mail, bolts of fire would hit every monster in the room for 1 damage. The problem, however, is that if Bogar used it too much, Bogar would become corrupted, maybe even become a chaos warrior! In fact, this could happen anyway, since Zargon (the evil arch wizard of HeroQuest) had created the armor himself.

We had to go find Zargon and destroy him once and for all.

We were one or two adventures away from confronting Zargon, but the campaign ended for reasons beyond our control.

I still like HeroQuest. A few years ago a few friends and I played it. One friend had bought a mint-condition copy for $200+ on ebay. I had taken care of my copy as best as I could, but it didn't compare to the beautiful mint condition one. It must have never been opened, I swear.

Yeah, we were all in our late twenties/early thirties. Sure, HeroQuest is far from being as complicated as D&D, but that didn't stop us from having fun. Sure, it could have been the beer involved. Or perhaps it was nostalgia for our lost youth, reminiscing about the first time we fought the Gargoyle or when every time we searched from treasure we'd get a stupid wandering monster, or the terror when the indestructible Witchlord awakened from his eternal slumber and chased us around the board.


What are your memories of HeroQuest? Do you think games like HeroQuest bring kids into the hobby?  Thoughts?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dragon #195: A Retrospect

I bought Dragon #195 some 3-4 years after I started playing D&D. I'm assuming this was sometime in the late summer of 1993, since the issue came out in July. I think I picked it up in Waldenbooks. Up until now, I thought I had been reading Dragon for much longer. Apparently this isn't the case. This was during my summer between 8th Grade and becoming a freshman in high school, when I was 14. Looking through the magazine (now in PDF from the Dragon Magazine archive) brings back a lot of memories. I fell it's sort of a snap shot in my history as a gamer. Indeed, Dragon really opened my eyes to how big the hobby had become. 

Most of the articles didn't (and still don't) really stand out in my mind, especially the special attractions section that featured material on warriors. The advertisements, the letters, the previews, the upcoming attractions wetting my thirst for new material. I have to hand it to TSR, the advertising worked. 

Sometime after I bought the novel The Dragon's Tomb by D. J. Hendricks (and its prequel), the DragonStrike boardgame (yes, the one with the "HyperReality" movie), Van Richten's Guide to Werebeasts, and the Monstrous Manual (I was overjoyed that they put the monsters in book form instead of that stupid compendium), and yes, I eventually bought the Forgotten Realms Campaign Boxed set (I didn't know any better, I swear it). Dragon #195 mentioned all of these products. 

As for the articles, if I recall, what interested me was Carl Sergeant's summary of Greyhawk: From the Ashes.  It turned out to be somewhat of an apology to die-hard Greyhawk fans who accused Sergeant of messing around with Greyhawk. In the end, Sergeant just defaulted to, "your campaign world is your own." I actually enjoyed From the Ashes, but I hadn't been running a Greyhawk Campaign long enough to be familiar with the intricacies of the 1982 Greyhawk Boxed Set. Neither had I created a campaign that ran against what had been published in From the Ashes.

For me, however, the best article was "Up Front, In Charge: Player Leadership In Role-playing Games" by Thomas Kane. Little did I know that Kane's words would still influence me to this day. His lessons on leadership can be applied away from the gaming table, outside the hobby. Real leaders just don't declare their ideas to the group and then order people around, at least not at most gaming tables, where things are more or less democratic. Leaders need to get a consensus, generate alliances with other members of the party. The key is to avoid stirring up resentment from other players. 

There's advice for the GM, too, since he's the real leader of the group. Indeed, the article helped me out when dealing with a troublesome player who thought his second level character had every right to boss around his first level companions. "On some occasions," Kane wrote. "The GM must restrain a player who confuses leadership with being a loudmouth. Never allow forceful gamers to dictate a quiet player's actions." The GM should also avoid "teaching the party lessons."

That article was (and is) the real gem of this issue. It had great advice for a 14 year old boy who was a smart ass who thought he knew it all. Indeed, back then Dragon represented the entire hobby, not just D&D. Sure, it focused on D&D, but it reviewed and advertised non-TSR products. Whether or not this was profitable for the magazine and TSR, I really don't know. But I know for certain that Dragon #195 really opened my eyes to what the hobby offered.

For some reason, though, I didn't buy next issue until Dragon #207--a little over a year later. To this day I don't recall why--too busy with being a nerdy freshman in high school I guess. I also didn't have a car yet, so I couldn't make frequent runs to the bookstore some 20 miles away.

Even though I had been playing D&D for 3-4 years, I recall that summer being an exciting time for me as a player. Dragon #195 is a relic from that summer, and I really wish I would have kept the hard copy. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Review: AD&D 2nd Edition Player's Handbook

Looks like WotC is still trying to placate pre-4e D&D fans with reprinting the 2e core books, AD&D 2e Player's Handbook included. Good for them. 4e really destroyed a lot of my goodwill toward WotC. So I doubt I'll be purchasing these reprints, especially since they cost around $40 a piece. My only hope is that some younger players pick up these reprints (both 1e and 2e) and start playing the game before rules became the primary reality over the story or the players.

In this review, I won't attempt to filter out my biases developed over 23 years+ (!) of gaming history and experiences. So I make no apologies if this review is skewed one way or another.

When the AD&D Player's Handbook came out in 1989, for some years already TSR had been pushing the precedence of "story" over player desires and planning. We see this with the Dragonlance Campaign setting and the adventures published in the late eighties and early nineties (boxed text was at an all time high!). The AD&D Player's Handbook certainly represents a break from the past, mostly in presentation. The rules, of course, are pretty much the same--just refined and compiled from previous books. 

Let's take a look at the rules first. AD&D did need a rules compilation. I've played AD&D and I've run AD&D. The 1e Player's Handbook was a great book. It provided player characters with what they needed to create and run characters in AD&D. Most of the rules of actually running the game (including combat, saving throws, etc.) were in the Dungeon Master's Guide. This works fine until multiple people in a group need to level up. The DM must then handle each individually, because the Player's Handbook does NOT include the combat charts and bonuses the players need. Maybe this was fine in the pre-3e world, but my players wanted to know how they can advance their characters.

Non-weapon proficiencies also became part of character creation, before they were supplements in The Dungeoneer's Survival Guide and The Wilderness Survival Guide. They are, however, still optional. You can have a fun game without them. This is perfect for beginners, who might want to tackle the rules one "layer" at a time. And I'm speaking from experience. I didn't use NWPs until a couple of years after I had bought the book. The NWPs system, however, is quick and dirty, and you don't get better as you advance in levels. 

The full combat system is included in the book, including the introduction of the now (in)famous THAC0. Yes, to younger gamers it doesn't make much sense (To Hit number = THAC0 - AC), but was what we had. It was, in my opinion, an improvement over those combat tables. I still don't like the minute-long combat rounds, but I general ignored them when playing. A round was a round. 

As for races and classes, the standard ones are still there, with some alterations to reflect changes in previous rulebooks and a few, like the Bard and specialty priest and wizard, cut from almost a whole new cloth. Veterans of 1e will notice that the Half-Orc and the Assassin are gone. Oh, The outrage!

I won't call the 2e Player's Handbook "family oriented,"but it certainly, at least in presentation, veered away from the classic sword and sorcery feel of its 1e predecessor. The artwork is different, you will not see "A paladin in Hell." Instead, much of the artwork are small pictures done in blue ink. Non, I find, are particularly striking. There's a few full page illustrations depicting a dryad emerging from a tree, some warriors on horseback engaging some footmen, and even an old favorite from the the module The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth makes an appearance. In my opinion, the artwork doesn't quite generate the wonder that artwork in the 1e Player's Handbook did for me. 

Overall, I've always been torn with the AD&D 2nd Edition Player's Handbook. I like what TSR did with the rules, compiling them. But I've never been a complete fan of the presentation. I liked, and continue to like the "dark" sword and sorcery feel of 1e.

Did TSR change this image to assuage people who accused D&D of leading young people in Satanism? I'm sure they did. 

But that's the subject of a later post.

What do you think of the 2e Player's Handbook? If you were playing RPGs at the time, what impressions did it give you as to the game itself? Did it change D&D's image?

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