Friday, June 30, 2017

Ad Astra heading

I'm considering removing the AD ASTRA link at the top of the bar there above; or at least changing it.  Right now, that's a collection of links to the blog posts that make up the AD ASTRA system.  However, I've spent some time the last few days copying all of that content into a Google Sites link, which is a better format in most respects than a bunch of blog posts.  Also; while doing so, I corrected a number of small things (mostly typos and inconsistent space ethnicity spelling conventions; fixed all Dhangeti to Dhangetan or Dhangetans, for example, and fixed all Cilindan to Cilindarean.)  This doesn't rise to the level of a new revision; it's more like mere errata, actually.  But going back and back-correcting all of the blog posts to now match the Google pages would be both difficult and... honestly, I'm not motivated to do that.  I could change all of the links to point to the Google pages, but there's already a Google index page that describes what everything is, so I'm not very motivated to do that either.  I'm thinking the whole thing needs to go to be replaced by a single link to the new AD ASTRA home.  I probably won't get around to it immediately, but something will need to be done with it.

In the meantime, it's worth pointing out that I still lack a bestiary, or monster manual, or alien anthology, or creature catalog, or whatever you want to call it.  Until that's done, I can't consider the game "complete", so maybe that's what I'll wait for.  When that's finally done, then I can finish the migration of the game from the blog to the wiki, and I just put a link to it somewhere permanent.

I also have two character sheet options available—not that you need either; I kinda like the notion of writing out your character in pencil on a sheet of notebook paper like we did as kids with our B/X games and whatnot.  But if you are interested in them, I've got them on the RPG Rules page.  The small one fits on one side of one page and has space for not only your character, but also his space ship, if he has one.  The standard one has the character on one page and the spaceship on the other, presuming that you will print it on both sides of one sheet of paper.  The standard character sheet is relatively large; you could write on it with magic marker almost, but if you're my age and prefer larger documents so you can see them better, well, that's the way to go.  By design, of course, the system is pretty rules-light, so defining your character isn't supposed to take a lot of space.  I'd be hesitant to say you can just write him up on a 3x5 index card—although you could, actually, if you really wanted to, and it wouldn't be all that difficult.

I've also attached the sector map on the Setting page.  To read it, you need to be familiar with both the star mapping protocol, as well as the starship and space travel rules, or it probably won't make as much sense as you'd like (although if you're familiar with Traveller, it should look similar enough for you to easily interpret it.)  I also said the following about the map:

  • It's color coded for political affiliation:
    • Red—Bernese system
    • Pink—Bernese ally
    • Blue—Revanchist system
    • Light blue—Revanchist ally
    • Purple—Imperial system
    • Lavender—Imperial ally
    • Green—Cilindarean system
    • Light green—Cilindarean ally
    • Gray—Dhangetan system
    • Beige—Smaller polity
    • Yellow—Independent
  • The red systems at the top represent the border of the Bernese Monarchy.  The red systems further down in the map represent colonies that are somewhat autonomously governed and outside of the royal "heartland" so to speak.
  • The same is true for the Republic (heartland's border is in the very far top right corner) and the Seraean Empire: the border is the line of purple systems to the right.  This sector is not one that's on the mainstream space-lanes—in fact, space lanes are mostly unestablished altogether for this region.  This is a colonial region, and the "vibe" of the New Alderamin sector should be similar to the "Scramble for Africa".
  • This is not true, however, for the Dhangetan territory, which is completely within this sector, or the Cilindarean Arm, about half of which is in this sector.  Both, however, should be seen as considerably smaller territories than the Republic, the Monarchy or the Empire.
  • There are three levels of development for the sector map—those that have star system data sheets (considered more or less "fully" developed", those that have only names but no other development, and those that have neither.  I'm actually considering leaving it exactly like that—some setting development is both necessary and desirable, and leaving some systems named but undeveloped gives me some opportunities as well.  But having a large number of systems that are there, but about which I know literally nothing except that they're there is a good thing.  It gives me plenty of leeway to create as needed on the fly.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Randomized characters

Well, I'm trying out my randomized characters.  My first pass: I got an earth-human "rogue" who went according to type quite well.  Average STR, high DEX, reasonably decent MND, the Sneak attack class ability and the Stealth affinity.

So far so good.  The backgrounds game is where things got interesting.  I rolled "Between the Stars" as my homeworld, which reduced my subterfuge skill by 2; a major blow considering that my class abilities all depend on it (and got the Vehicle piloting affinity; a poor consolation prize.)  "Swept into Adventure" as a child, my STR was increased to slightly above average (+1).  The adventure?  I was kidnapped by slavers, which increased my Subterfuge skill by +2, completely countering the -2 I got in my first roll.  Sigh.  It happens.

I also rolled up a Hot Shot Pilot ally, a Jilted Lover nemesis, and that I had won a starship somehow in the past gambling.

So; kind of caricature of Han Solo, I suppose.

My next one was a surprisingly strong, combat effective, ex military type gray—and I certainly didn't envision the grays as space jarheads, so that's weird.  He ended up with combat abilities, and affinities for Demolitions, Perception and Stealth.  I never wrote up rules for grays, but I built him as MND +2... before I knew what else I would be rolling.  Both his MND and STR are +4, while his DEX is 0; although he does get a +1 using radium weapons due to his stint of military training (seriously; the grays have military training?)  With a deep-pocketed corporate benefactor and a dark Shadow Knight nemesis, its probably a good thing that he supposedly has a Great Destiny (+2 Heroism Points).

This character is much more bizarre than my caricature of Han Solo; a kind of Marvin the Martian meets Arnold Schwarzenegger's character from Predator.

Actually, now that you mention it, I'd like a race of faceless (except for the eyes) jet-skinned humanoids.  I've got to think that there's some way to integrate them.

Anyway, my first two experiments were a bit of a bust; rather than interesting combinations, I got one somewhat banal result, and one that I actually have no idea what to do with.  Not that that invalidates the concept; I knew from the get-go that any purely randomized plan like this will generate some weird results.  It's more for playing the occasional odd character than it is for using to create iconics.

Randomized Races and Classes

Sometimes you want to carefully craft a character according to a pre-existing vision; and sometimes you want to, as they say, roll 3d6 in order and play what you get.  On a whim, I decided to come up with percentile randomization tables for races and classes that you can use if you want to generate completely random characters.  Why not?  Heck, I may play around with it and generate a couple dozen pregen iconics using completely randomized chargen, just to see what the heck I get.

For races, I've detailed a lot of races and many of them came up during the star system data sheets that I came up with.  Some of them aren't really meant to be PC races, like Death Sages or Dhangetans, but I'll include them anyway, with simply a less 1% chance of being selected. (Only select if you roll 00 0, or 100, and then pick which of the three by using a d3.) If I (or you) roll one up, you'll have to figure out, using the race building rules in the chargen section, how to best represent them, since I haven't done so and don't plan on doing it any time soon.

The color coding is to separate the races into three rough groups: green for the common races, yellow for the uncommon races, and red for the extremely rare races.

d% Roll Name Description
1-6 Altairans Blue-skinned xenohumans
7-11 Cepheids Reptile from Mortal Kombat X
12-15 Cilindareans Nordic warrior culture
16-30 Earth humans From various worlds
31-33 Idacharians Pale, occultist xenohumans
34-40 Jaffans "Rainbow" xenohumans
41-43 Janissaries Dark-haired Nordic allies of the Cilindareans
44-50 Kusans Small, humanoid cockroach-like aliens
51-55 Oerkenites Mixed race xenohumans
56-58 Oerks Killer Croc; big strong reptile men
59-65 Psarians Red-skinned xenohumans
66-70 Robots Artificial humanoids
71-75 Seraeans Pale, Imperial xenohumans
76-77 Arcturans Furry, spine-headed hulks
78-79 Carinan hulks Space ogres
80-81 Cetians Deep Ones in space
82-83 Chimps Planet of the Apes-style chimpanzees
84-85 Gors Planet of the Apes-style gorillas
86-87 Grays Area 51 and Roswell style aliens
88 Orangs Planet of the Apes-style orangutans
89-90 Reavers Furry, predator humanoids
91-92 Sirian reptoids Small, quick reptile people
93-94 Skiffers Horned, scuted and spiky allies of the Dhangetans
95 Syrans Naked mole-rat people
96 Tearaxian hulks Red-skinned native cyborg hulks
97 Thanatites Decadent natives of Thanatos
98-99 Ubrai Green-skinned, photosynthesizing xenohumans
100, d3 = 1 Death Sages Cyborg-liches
100, d3 = 2 Dhangetans Baggy, alien Jabba-gug hybrids
100, d3 = 3 Mattixes Glowing "angels" or "elfs"

The class situation is a bit easier; a d6 (with a couple of contingent rolls) will suffice.  You have to roll it twice, since classes are made up of two class abilities.  Other than affinity and skill bonus, you normally can't take the same class ability twice.  If you get it twice, roll the second one again until you have a different result.
  1. Take the Combat bonus class ability
  2. Take the skill bonus class ability.  If you want to randomize your skill roll, roll a d4
    1. Communication
    2. Physical
    3. Subterfuge
    4. Knowledge
  3. Take the Sneak Attack Class ability
  4. Take an Affinity (there's 15 listed.  I'm not going to try and come up with any kind of "d15"—just pick one.)
  5. Take the Psionic abilities class ability.
  6. Take the Psionic weapons class ability.
The last two results are a little unusual.  If you roll a 5, roll an additional d4.  On a result of 1-2, your other ability will be psionic weapons (even if you already rolled something else) on a roll of 3-4, you will keep a normally rolled second ability.

There is a similar process for rolling a 6; on a roll of 1-3 on a d4, switch your other ability to psionics abilities.  On a roll of 4, you keep your other roll.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Ad Astra "creatures"

Well, the only thing that AD ASTRA really needs (other than some better presentation and maybe some editing) is a bestiary.  A monster manual.  An alien anthology.  Something to represent the foes that the PCs will face that is other than "create PCs and run them as NPCs."

I meant to do this a while ago, but didn't get around to it.  Then I got busy.  Then I made a few DARK•HERITAGE and FANTASY HACK posts instead of AD ASTRA posts.  Then I was on vacation out in the woods with no access to blogger.  Then I got back, but was really busy—buried in post-vacation pile-up and stuff.

So it didn't happen.  Not yet.

To be honest, I'm not overly concerned about it.  You can use the FANTASY HACK version of monsters and whatnot and just rename or reskin them as aliens.  In fact, that's really all I intend to do; take maybe 20-25% of the most interesting entries, give AD ASTRA style weapon damage to the humanoids, and rename everything.  So, it's going to be a lower priority, and I probably won't get to it for several weeks, as I have not only plenty of other things to do, but two more relatively big vacations coming up in short order.  Quite honestly, I doubt there'll be an AD ASTRA ALIEN ANTHOLOGY—4A—until August.  Don't hold your breath.

In the meantime, I obviously haven't had much activity lately that's of interest to the reader(s) of my blog (other than myself.  And mom.)  But I do have a few minor notes.
  • Don't forget to by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach's Galaxy's Edge novel.  Heck, go ahead and pre-order the sequel; it comes out next month fer cryin' out loud.  As a proponent of the ersatz, hopefully "fixed" Star Wars, they are offering what I think is one of the most credible offerings coming out.  Castalia House has been teasing a series called Faraway Wars, and although he's being a little coy, I think I sussed out that Brian Niemeier is the author, and that it's also coming out this summer sometime.  It's a great time to be a fan of the Star Wars oeuvre, even if you're disappointed in the actual Star Wars franchise lately.
  • I've been reading Galaxy of Heroes by Gus Flory, and I almost gave up on it.  It started inauspiciously, with a character captured and forced into being a plot device patsy, but I never give up Kindle books without reading at least 25% of them.  Right around then, it found its feet and got interesting.  I'm still only about 30% right now, but it's pretty quick moving.  I think I'll stick around.

    As an aside, the main hero being a passive figure dragged by fate, other characters, or even worse; merely the demands of the plot, is one of my big-time pet peeves.  I just don't like reading about characters who are passive and have things happen to them.  The only thing worse is characters who clearly need to do something, and clearly will, but first the author has to pretend like his reluctance might actually mean that he won't.  Seriously?  Please don't.
  • I got Rogue One for Father's Day.  I agreed to put off getting it until then so they'd have something to give me.  That's probably not very exciting anymore, given that it's been out for a couple of months, I suppose.
  • I mentioned a few days ago watching the Robert and Elizabeth (no relation) Taylor Ivanhoe but I also just finished the novel recently.  And changed my blogger profile name to match Ivanhoe's alias; Desdichado.  It doesn't really mean disinherited, but eh.  Ivanhoe is a classic work of English literature that will still be read many years after whatever stupid tripe our English teachers are pushing on us is long forgotten.
  • I've got another big trip coming up, complete with lots of time on a plane, and on a cruise ship.  Of course, we'll be busy while touring Alaska, but when on the ship and not hanging out with my folks or my son, I'll hopefully log a lot of Kindle screen "pages", finish Galaxy of Heroes and start Galaxy's Edge: Legionnaire.  I think next on my plate after that will be the long-deferred A Throne of Bones.  I really have a lot of Kindle books to get through, though, so I better stay on target.  To quote Gold Leader, or whomever it was.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Kindle books

I lost track of my reading list tab, because it was too hard to keep it up to date.  But I'm also finding that my Kindle collection is getting out of control, and because I read it on three different devices from time to time, it doesn't manage itself as well as I'd like; it's hard to see for sure what I've read at a glance and what I've partly read, or whatever.  So, I thought I'd create a catalog.  It'll be long, and won't interest anyone but me, I don't think.  But nevertheless, here it is.  I'll highlight in orange anything I've already read, in yellow anything that I've started but abandoned (most likely because I didn't like it, but occasionally I just lost my place and want to go back) and in green the ones I want to prioritize to read next.  Pale blue are the ones I'm still reading.

  • Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott
  • Albion Lost, Richard Fox
  • Galaxy's Edge: Legionnaire, Jason Anspach and Nick Cole 
  • Galaxy's Edge: Galactic Outlaws, Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
  • Galaxy's Edge: Kill Team, Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
  • The Mad King, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Secret Kings, Brian Niemeier
  • The Enemy of Man by Scott Moon
  • The First Universe in Flames Triology, Christian Kallias
  • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, Edward Gibbon
  • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume III, Edward Gibbon
  • Graustark, George Barr McCutcheon
  • The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope
  • Prince Otto, a Romance, Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Son of Orlan by Scott Moon
  • Weapons of Earth by Scott Moon
  • The Edmond Hamilton Megapack by Edmond Hamilton
  • How to Deal with Narcissists by Michael Trust
  • 8 Novels + 8 Short Stories, A. Merritt (sadly, I find that I already have the two I most wanted, so this purchase was superfluous.)
  • Mission Pack 1 (Black Ocean), J.S. Morin (read two of the four books in the anthology.  One day will probably return to.)
  • Almuric and Other Fantasies, Robert E. Howard (I've read Almuric before in paperback)
  • The Bleak December, Kevin G. Summers
  • Breaking Through: Second Star, Josh Hayes
  • Hell's Rejects, M. R. Forbes
  • Star Rebels: Stories of Space, Various (I've read 25% of this short story anthology.  It's pretty girly and is poor science fiction.  Low priority to finish.)
  • The Winds of Gath, E.C. Tubb
  • To Dream with the Dragons, B.V. Larson
  • Dragonfleye 44, Robert Michael Prince (the author is a friend of mine from high school.  Haven't started yet, though.)
  • The Work Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison
  • William Tell Told Again, P. G. Wodehouse
  • Drasmyr, Matthew D. Ryan
  • Plague Wars: Infection Day, David VanDyke and Ryan King (three book anthology)
  • The E.E. "Doc" Smith Megapack, E. E. "Doc" Smith
  • Deathworld, Harry Harrison
  • Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard
  • The People That Time Forgot, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Black Arrow, Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Accursed, W. O. Cassity (already read)
  • The Beasts of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Story of the Volsungs, William Morris
  • The Roots of the Mountains, William Morris
  • The Water of the Wondrous Isles, William Morris
  • The House of the Wolfings, William Morris
  • Loose Ends, D.D.Vandyke
  • Follow the Crow, B.B. Griffith
  • The Rat Collector, Chris Yee
  • The Catalyst, LE Barbant and CM Raymond
  • The Mighty, Michael J. Sanford
  • Southern Bound, Stuart Jaffe
  • The Pandora Chronicles: Book I, Ryan Attard
  • Altered Genes: Genesis, Mark Kelly
  • A Glimmer of Destiny, Spencer Pierson
  • The Spookshow: Book 1, Tim McGregor
  • Souldancer, Brian Niemeier
  • The Black Swan, Rafael Sabatini
  • The Last Dragon Slayer, Martyn Stanley
  • The Farthest City, Daniel P. Swenson
  • Exodus, Andreas Christensen
  • The Narrowing Path, David J. Normoyle
  • Galaxy of Heroes, Gus Flory
  • Boundary, Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor
  • Free-Wrench, Joseph Lallo
  • Sunborn Rising: Beneath the Fall, Arron Safronoff
  • Bane of the Dead, Jacob Holo
  • The City of Wizards, George Mazurek
  • The Glooming, John Triptych
  • The Breakers Series: Books 1-3, Edward W. Robertson
  • Immortal: Curse of the Deathless, Derek Edgington
  • Stonbridge: The Ring of Lazarus, RD Vincent
  • Smoke Rising: Book 1, Craig Halloran
  • Race Wars Omnibus: Seasons 1-5, D.W. Ulsterman
  • The Black Dragon, Salvador Mercer
  • Nethereal, Brian Niemeier
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • Saint Martin's Summer, Rafael Sabatini
  • Date Night on Union Station, E. M. Foner
  • Crash (Book One), Michael Robertson
  • Alien Hunters, Daniel Arenson
  • Pure Conspiracy, Austin Dragon
  • Rend the Dark, Mark Gelineau and Joe King
  • The Way of the Black Beast, Stuart Jaffe
  • The Silver Serpent, David Debord
  • Whill of Agora (Book One), Michael Ploof
  • The Galapagos Incident, Felix R. Savage
  • Echoes of Angels, Matt Larkin
  • Zombie Fallout, Mark Tuto
  • Fairy Tales Every Child Should Know, Hamilton Wright Mabie
  • Invasion, Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt
  • New Reality: Truth, Michael Robertson
  • The Lead Cloack, Erik Hanberg
  • Tomorrow I Will Kill Again, Matthew Allred
  • The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights, Sir James Knowles
  • Legends: Fifteen Tales of Sword & Sorcery, Various
  • Alignment: The Silent City, H. G. Suren
  • The Forever Man 1, Craig Zerf
  • The Blue Fairy Book, Andrew Lang
  • The Enemy of an Enemy, Vincent Trigilli
  • Loss of Reason, Miles A. Maxwell
  • Dracula, Bram Stoker
  • The Sanctuary Series, Books 1-3, Robert J. Crane
  • The Destroyer, Michael-Scott Earie
  • Galactic Empires: Eight Novels of Deep Space Adventure, Various
  • Sword Bearer, Teddy Jacobs
  • Yesterday's Gone: Season 1, Sean Platt and David Wright
  • The Return of the Great Depression, Vox Day
  • CTRL ALT Revolt!, Nick Cole
  • The Zanthadon Megapack, Lin Carter
  • The Story of the Champions of the Round Table, Howard Pyle (read when I was a little kid)
  • The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions, Howard Pyle
  • Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, Howard Pyle
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood, Howard Pyle
  • The Essential O.A. Kline Collection, Otis Adelbert Kline (have read some in paperback before)
  • Jungle Adventures: 6 Novel Premium Collection, Edgar Rice Burroughs (mostly these are novels that have—so far—escaped me.  He was an extremely prolific writer.)
  • Wood Beyond the World, William Morris
  • The Well at the World's End, William Morris (read once years ago)
  • Le Morte D' Arthur, Thomas Mallory (have read years ago; have in hardback)
  • Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable, Thomas Bulfinch (somehow I have two different copies of this one.)
  • Legends of Charlemagne, Thomas Bulfinch
  • The Age of Chivalry, Thomas Bulfinch
  • The Cuckservative Who Loved Me, Roxy Kay and Jane Blue Hawk
  • The Efficiency Expert, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Oakdale Affair, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Mucker, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Monster Men, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Outlaw of Torn, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Chessmen of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Thuvia, Maid of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Lost Continent, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Out of Time's Abyss, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Land That Time Forgot, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Son of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Tarzan the Untamed, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Beasts of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Tarzan the Terrible, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Cuckservative, Vox Day and John Red Eagle
  • Kalevala: the Epic Poem of Finland, Vol. 1, N/A
  • Kalevala: The Land of the Heroes, Volume Two, W. F. Kirby
  • The Storm's Own Son, Anthony Gillis
  • SJWs Always Lie, Vox Day
  • Libram Mysterium, Sean Robson (ed.)
  • Essays on Political Economy, Frederic Bastiat
  • First on the Moon, Jeff Sutton
  • A Cast of Stones, Patrick W. Carr
  • Murder Haven: Den of Thieves (read part of and abandoned)
  • Rise of the Dragons, Morgan Rice
  • Road to Shandara, Ken Lozito
  • Fade to Black: Awake in the Dark, Tim McBain and L. T. Vargus
  • Dark Reality 7-Book Anthology, Jennifer and Christopher Martucci
  • The Castrofax, Jenna Van Vleet
  • Quest: Eight Novels of Fantasy, Myth and Magic, Various
  • Taming Fire, Aaron Pogue
  • The Choosing, Jeremy Laszlo
  • Blast of the Dragon's Fury, L. R. W. Lee
  • Gods and Mortals: Eleven novels, etc., Various
  • I Bring the Fire, C Gockel
  • The Restorer, Sharon Hinck
  • Anvil of Tears, Erica Lindquist and Aron Christensen
  • Children of the After: Awakening, Jeremy Laszlo
  • Monster Hunter International, Larry Correia
  • The Prairie, James Fenimore Cooper
  • Pathfinder, or the Inland Sea, James Fenimore Cooper
  • The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
  • The Deerslayer, James Fenimore Cooper
  • A Throne of Bones, Vox Day
  • Reassessing the Presidency, John V. Denson (already read—highly recommended)
  • The Realm Shift, James Somers
  • Stealer of Flesh, William King
  • The Prophecy, Jeffrey Poole
  • The Unsuspecting Mage, Brian S. Pratt
  • Sword Bearer, Teddy Jacobs (I seem to have two completely separate copies of a book with the same name by the same author, but with different covers here...)
  • Red Axe, Black Sun, Michael Karner
  • A Dwarf With No Name, D. P. Prior (started and abandoned)
  • Winds of Change, William Robert Stanek
  • Forged in Death, Jim Melvin
  • The Elder Unearthed, Michael W. Garza
  • Death's Angels, William King
  • Knights: The Hand of Tharnin, Robert E. Keller
  • Hammers in the Wind, Christian Warren Freed
  • The Emperors Blades: Chapters 1-7, Brian Staveley
  • The Sable City, M. Edward McNally
  • Wind Warrior, Jon Messenger
  • A Tide of Shadows, Tom Bielawski
  • Cthulhu Mythos Writers Sampler 2013, Various
  • Knights: The Eye of Divinity, Robert E. Keller
  • The God King: Book 1, James A. West
  • The White Tree, Edward W. Robertson
  • Moth, Daniel Arenson
  • Nightblade, Garrett Robinson
  • The Last Roman, Edward Crichton
  • The Last of the Sages, Julius St. Clair
  • Thinblade, David A. Wells
  • Witch Hunt, Annie Bellet
  • The Dark Citadel, Michael Wallace
  • Fire Mage, John Forrester
  • The Chronicles of Dragon Book 1, Craig Halloran
  • Eye of the Moonrat, Trvor H. Cooley (started and abandoned)
  • A Quest of Heroes, Morgan Rice
  • Altdorf: The Forest Knight, J. K. Swift (started and abandoned)
  • Where the World is Quiet, Henry Kuttner
  • The Metal Monster, Abraham Merritt
  • The Moon Pool, Abraham Merritt
  • The Way of Kings, Brandon Sanderson
  • Pellucidar, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • At the Earths' Core, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Chosen: The Amish Bloodsuckers, Barbara Ellen Brink
  • Servant: The Dark Good Book 1, John D. Brown (started and lost momentum once)
  • Quantum Mortis: A Mind Programmed, Vox Day, Jeff Sutton, Jean Sutton
  • Iron Kingdoms Excursions: Season 1 Vol. 2, Various (I think I read all of it...)
  • Iron Kingdoms Excursions: Season 1 Vol. 4, Various (same here too...)
  • Awake in the Night, John C. Wright
  • The Testing, Jonathan Moeller
  • Child of the Ghosts, Jonathan Moeller
  • The Tower of Endless Worlds, Jonathan Moeller
  • Blood of Requiem, Daniel Arenson
  • Magic of Thieves, C. Greenwood
  • A World is Born, Leigh Brackett
  • Polaris of the Snows, Charles B. Stilson
  • The Return of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Warlord of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Gods of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Captain Blood, Rafael Sabatini
  • Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini
  • The Sea-Hawk, Rafael Sabatini
  • The Circle of Sorcerers, Brian Kittrell
  • Gateway to Nifleheim, Glenn G. Thater
  • The Darkslayer, Craig Halloran
  • Demonsouled, Jonathan Moeller
  • The Weight of Blood, David Dalglish
  • The Last Witchking, Vox Day
  • Caliphate, Tom Kratman
  • A Magic Broken, Vox Day
  • The Wardog's Coin, Vox Day


Last night, for Father's Day, I really only had one ambition: to watch the 1952 Ivanhoe, which I had a copy of from the public library (I really should own my own copy; but the fact that it's there makes it easy to forego.)  There was an interesting line in a trailer in the special features; this one was for Stewart Grainger's Scaramouche, which came out the following year.  "The hot-blooded adventures of masterful men! The bold intrigues of seductive women! The pageantry of a swashbuckling era comes to life!"

The reason this movie works so well is encapsulated in that quote, even though it wasn't meant to refer to it specifically.  Rebecca and Rowena are attractive, virtuous, feminine women.  This means that the hot-blooded, masterful men who fight for them makes sense.  Who wouldn't?

Now; of course, the movie is old.  One thing that has come a very long way since this movie was made is visual design.  A modern movie would look much better.  It would have better sets, better costumes, better fight choreography (well, presumably.  Sometimes they don't.)  Better special effects.  Maybe even better pacing.

But it absolutely would not have better characters.  In a modern swashbuckling adventure, like The Force Awakens, which is pretty capable as a stand-in, the characters are generally stupid, unappealing, unlikable, unattractive, and unbelievable.  The men would have to be turned into malicious, bumbling idiots.  The grrl-power characters wouldn't need saving from Front-de-Bouef's castle.  With the power of their snarky wits and bizarrely super-powered ninja skills, they'd save themselves.   Rather than pining in jealousy over Ivanhoe, Rebecca and Rowena (a thoroughly feminine emotion; but the SJWs of Hollywood don't have any understanding whatsoever of healthy, normal human emotions) would exclaim dubiously how they don't really like men anyway, except as pets and boy-toys, and inexplicably, one of them would end up with Ivanhoe at the end of the movie anyway, even though nobody would understand the motivation for it.  The bizarrely inappropriate inserted noble minority side-kick character, who would probably be black (heck, they even had Morgan Freeman do it in the stupid early 90s Robin Hood movie) would constantly do very little other than remind the audience that the principle protagonists are mostly white—except for Rebecca, I suppose—and that the Crusades from which Ivanhoe had just returned were white colonialism and oppression.

A great novel of incredible cultural significance, largely because it is capable of showing incredible nobility of spirit and champions values that are unique to Western civilization, would be bowdlerized into an absolutely terrible parody of itself with caricatures of SJW strawmen as characters.  Everyone would hate it.  It'd flop, and Hollywood analysts would conclude that nobody likes swashbuckling period pieces.  Probably because they don't have enough "strong women".


It's too bad.  I'd love to see this movie remade with better fight choreography and graphic design.  But you can't get young Elizabeth Taylor back again—or Robert Taylor or Joan Fontaine or George Sanders, for that matter.  Sure, they've done remakes in the years since, and they're not necessary bad takes on it.  The 1997 one in particular is pretty well done, and Ciaran Hinds is if anything, a better Brian de Bois-Guilbert than any of the others cast before or since. The casting of Cedric, and many of the other smaller characters (like Wamba, Gurth, and Athelstane) is pretty much perfect.  Rowena is even well-cast, and the changes to her character don't feel forced, because everyone's known a woman like that in real life.  She's still feminine, even if she's not the same interpretation as Joan Fontaine's Rowena (even though Fontaine's Rowena has got nothing at all on de Havilland's Maid Marian.  Seriously; nothing at all). It's also a more faithful reproduction to the plot of the novel.

But Rebecca is smart-mouthed, big-nosed, mostly unlikable and unattractive.  This right here is the lynch-pin (no pun intended; Susan Lynch played her) of the entire plot.  How are we to believe that de Bois-Guilbert goes to such lengths to win her, if she's not as alluring, beautiful and feminine as Elizabeth Taylor?  How are we to believe that Rowena was jealous of her because of her obvious love for Ivanhoe?  If de Bois-Guilbert really wanted her, how are we to believe that she wouldn't be thrilled at the offer, or that anyone else would do anything other than shrug and say, "whatever floats your boat, man."

For that matter, Ivanhoe himself is a bit of a cypher in this version.  He's just plain boring.  Too serious, and lacking in any charisma or chemistry, he's credibly cast for the proper look of Ivanhoe, I'll give you that, but he just doesn't have the presence to carry off the part.

And that's a relatively good adaptation made twenty years ago.  I doubt anyone could possibly even equal that, much less beat it today.

In any case, I've been thinking for quite some time about using the name Desdichado as a pen-name, and I've changed my blogger profile name to represent it (although I might change it back later).  In the novel (although not this version) that's what Ivanhoe calls himself at the lists of Ashby, the word meaning disinherited.  (According to Sir Walter Scott, anyway. It actually means unhappy or unfortunate.)  It applied to him, who had had a falling out with his father in the backstory, but it applies to us as well; the orphans of Western civilization who have had our culture and our nations stolen from us and broken, maybe beyond repair.  Ivanhoe is a great example of our stolen birthright; not just in the sense of the world that it portrays of Medieval England struggling to restore its rightful king over a tyrant and pretender, but also in the sense of the world of 1950 America which would make such a movie.

One small quibble with it, on the other hand, is the obsequious posturing with regards to the poor Jews.  Isaac of York speaks of his wife being murdered in Spain, which is absurd, because there was no Spain during the Third Crusade; the Reconquista wouldn't be complete for another three hundred years, and Spain was formed at the conclusion of the Reconquista by dynastic union with the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille in 1469.  I suppose it could refer to the general Iberian peninsula, which was sometimes called Hispania still as a legacy of the Roman province.  It is possible that his wife would have been killed as the Almohads replaced the Almoravids.  The Christian reconquistadores were not only tolerant of the Jews, but even appreciated their knowledge of the Moors, and gave them favored status in many regards.  Not that the the Jews often repaid the favor well; there are many documented cases of Jewish treachery during the Reconquista.  The truth is, the long history of Jewish persecution is mostly written by the Jews, and naturally ignores their own role in provoking eventual persecution by being such poor guests in the host countries of Christendom.  That said, Sir Walter Scott's novel contains much of this same element, so at least it's consistent with the pro-Zionist posture that the author himself had.

PS:  Curiously, in Rebecca's letter to her father, Isaac, begging for aid in securing a champion, she refers to life among the Moors as safer for the Jews than England.  This is ahistorical nonsense.  The exact opposite was true, especially in the time period covered by the novel.  Then again, this is Sir Walter Scott, who believes that Desdichado means disinherited in Spanish, and that Zernebock was an old Anglo-Saxon pagan god.

Nonetheless, it's an intriguing moment in its own right.  We take for granted, nowadays, that Jewish propaganda about our own cultural unworthiness is a feature of modern life.  But it goes way back, if Sir Walter Scott was a purveyor of of it as well.  Even so, his presentation of the Jews, and Isaac, isn't entirely lacking in merit—he was no fool, and he understood Jewish culture better than he lets on sometimes.  Even after Isaac receives this letter, he and another elder of the Jews express their contempt for Christians, and try to haggle for the price of Rebecca's life.  Isaac does not receive a flattering portrait.  Indeed, nobody does with the exception of Rebecca, Ivanhoe himself, and Rowena.

But especially Rebecca.

PPS: What's the difference exactly between calling yourself the Master Race and calling yourself the Chosen People?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Flavor starport encounters

Adapted from a variety of other lists I've seen here and there, especially Robert Pearce's Benign Starport Encounters for Traveller, a blog post.  This is meant to be color, mostly, but if the PCs take an interest, they could lead to more.  Roll a d%
  1. Through a viewport the PCs can see vacc-suited workers repairing a communications array.
  2. A washed-up looking vagrant begging for food or spare credits. (He's actually an undercover Imperial agent watching the area for a dangerous criminal.)
  3. A beggar in old military BDUs asks for a handout.
  4. A clinic is offering free vaccinations due to a local plague scare to all arrivals.
  5. A team in hazmat gear run past the PCs.
  6. An unattended duffel bag sits suspiciously in a corner.
  7. A criminal in handcuffs is marched past.
  8. A customs inspector argues with a cargo handler over mislabeled cargo.
  9. A customs inspector reviews a ship's cargo manifest with the ship's captain.
  10. A dilapidated cleaning robot tries to vacuum around the PCs, bumping them aggressively.
  11. An alien stops the party and tries to communicate, but none in the party speak his/her/its language.
  12. A food merchant hawks his overpriced "authentic" foodstuffs from another system.
  13. An exotic merchant is giving out free samples, trying to drum up more business.
  14. A well-dressed corporate agent is interviewing parties willing to do a job "off the books".
  15. A group of Cilindarean adventurers is looking for passage to the next star system.
  16. A group of asteroid miners are looking for investors.
  17. A merchant, stuck with several tons of fruit and desperate to sell it before it goes bad.
  18. A group of intoxicated marines stagger past.
  19. A group of performers entertain passengers of a delayed flight.
  20. A group of threadbare refugees looking for passage out of the system.
  21. A group of academics talk excitedly regarding cosmic events in the local star cluster.
  22. A privateer corsair has just docked and a group of rowdy crewmen pour out, possibly looking for trouble.
  23. A troupe of zero-G acrobats are performing and promoting a performance later in the week.
  24. A heavily cyber enhanced mercenary is looking for passage to a nearby war-torn system to sell his skills.
  25. A hustler is offering half price tickets off world on a liner. They are high quality counterfeits.
  26. A local dissident hands the PCs a flier with information against the local government.
  27. A local health agency is screening all incoming visitors for communicable diseases. The screening process is slow and bureaucratic, and the only ones making it through quickly are blatantly offering the local agent bribes.
  28. A local tries to sell the PCs some locally made clothing.
  29. A mad prophet stands on a crate preaching against sins of the flesh.
  30. A maintenance crew is working on a sub-floor communications line.
  31. A maintenance man is upgrading security cameras. You overhear him report the system will be down for the next 30 minutes.
  32. A maintenance panel falls from above, nearly hitting one of the PCs.
  33. A medical ground vehicle drives by with its sirens and lights on.
  34. A used robot merchant approaches the PCs with his sales pitch—he's trying to sell himself!
  35. A middle-aged woman looks furtively around, then enters the VIP lounge.
  36. A noblewoman and her entourage pass by. A bodyguard pushes one of the PCs out of the way.
  37. A pair of foreign tourists are photographing everything, including the PCs.
  38. A pickpocket and his pursuer rush past the PCs and disappear into the crowd.
  39. A small, nerdy boy is trying to explain to an overconfident smuggler that a parsec is a unit of distance, not time. (! Hilarious!)
  40. A security team is performing a "floater sweep", attempting to remove all transients and beggars from the starport.
  41. A ship's engineer tries to negotiate with a vendor for a better price on ship parts.
  42. A skip tracer team discusses their next repossession.
  43. A small freighter departs its berth in an obvious hurry, while security guards fire upon it.
  44. A starship crew is selling random cargo to raise enough cash for fuel.
  45. A stranded traveler is seeking working passage so he can get back home.
  46. A traveler is insisting that items in his luggage will be damaged if scanned.
  47. A very long line leads to the public restrooms.
  48. A very drunk and dirty war veteran will tell you his life story for a drink. Or leave you alone for a drink, if you prefer.
  49. A young couple at a booth are asking for donations for a local charity.
  50. All travelers must undergo a weapons/contraband check to get into the next area.
  51. An information kiosk lists advice on the local customs.
  52. An information kiosk provides information regarding employment opportunities.
  53. An old mercenary is looking for one last ticket with hopes of going out in a blaze of glory.
  54. An older gentleman approaches the PCs and asks them to watch his luggage… just for a few moments.
  55. An overturned catering vehicle slows traffic to a halt. Small animals spilling out of cages are running around everywhere.
  56. A local administrator is overheard talking to the port casino owner about revenue reports.
  57. Security is confiscating a distraught woman's small pet to be quarantined.
  58. A customs official argues the finer points of trade tariffs with a merchant.
  59. A security guard on patrol walks by, eyeing the PCs suspiciously.
  60. A traffic controller is seen in a corner booth of a bar, shaking visibly.
  61. An unemployed engineer checks the job board for available crew positions.
  62. An unexpected security checkpoint ahead will reveal any hidden weapons the PCs may be carrying.
  63. A "pony express" crew enjoys a last hot meal before departure.
  64. It is rumored that many of the planetary customs officers are corrupt and can get anything out of port and into the city for the right price.
  65. Judging by the smell, the air recyclers in the section need major repair.
  66. Large crates sit guarded in an open alcove with "Evidence" tape stretched across them.
  67. Lights flicker in this section of the starport.
  68. Nervous adventurers looking to unload a cache of alien artifacts and unknown weapons from the an illegal archaeological dig.
  69. News terminals report a minor crash at a different spaceport occurred earlier today. There were a few fatalities.
  70. One of the PCs finds a 50 credit note.
  71. One of the PCs is approached by a drug dealer.
  72. One of the PCs is approached by a prostitute.
  73. One of the starport shops is being picketed by employees demanding better pay.
  74. Overhead speakers call for all starport department heads to convene in meeting room 7-C.
  75. Overhead speakers call for paramedics to respond to a cargo handling accident.
  76. Several large, horned herbivores have escaped from a makeshift corral in one of the docking bays.
  77. Some unattended children pester the PCs.
  78. Starport security follows the PCs for about 15 minutes.
  79. There is a union strike, slowing down starship repairs.
  80. The PCs notice an starport records department employee leave his datapad at a restaurant table.
  81. The PCs see a small merchant ship being fitted with a new turret.
  82. The PCs see an advertisement for a local safari company.
  83. The restrooms in this portion of the starport are closed for cleaning.
  84. The starport is auctioning off last year's collection of unclaimed lost and found items.
  85. The starport Director is leading a tour for the Inspector General.
  86. The starport is currently hosting its monthly farmer's market of local goods.
  87. This area is marked with what appears to be small arms fire damage.
  88. This section of the starport seems oddly deserted.
  89. Two figures can be seen whispering in the shadows of an otherwise empty passenger lounge.
  90. Two security guards are posted at an unmarked door.
  91. Some sleazebag asks you if you want to buy some deathsticks.
  92. A weary foreign diplomat it trying unsuccessfully to catch some sleep in an uncomfortable plastic chair.
  93. A small, domed robot bleeps feebly as it looks for its lost owner.
  94. Two aging celebrity athletes relive their glory days as professional ball players. An occasional passerby will do a double take, then ask them for autographs.
  95. A pasty-white and disheveled passenger can't stop coughing. You feel a little of his spittle on your cheek as he passes.
  96. An attractive woman waves excitedly at one of the PCs, but in reality is waving to someone behind him.
  97. The floor in this area of the starport is disgustingly sticky, like the floor of a dollar cinema.
  98. A self-important businessman is negotiating a multi-million credit deal on his communicator, loud enough so that everyone knows it.
  99. Either that's the latest style in this region, or a shocking amount of people are walking around naked.
  100. A young woman is seen trying to steal food from a vending machine.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fantasy Hack v1.5

I've updated version 1.4 to 1.5.  The major change is the addition of some descriptive text for the monsters, as well as a handful of additional corrections and updates here and there.  I found that looking at merely the monster name and stats, I wasn't always sure exactly what I meant it to represent anymore without thinking about it, and that was surely much more true for my readers who never had them in their heads like I did in the first place.  It's a relatively minor change, though—and the mechanics are untouched.

The actual document on Google docs is lagging behind this, still at v1.3something, lacking the minor updates that raised us to 1.4.  I'm not quite sure how the best way is to synch them back again; I may end up scrapping the Google doc and copying and pasting the text from the blog entries into Word and just starting over with a new master document C&Ped from here.

For fun, here's a Hound of Tindalos—one of the monsters I felt I had to describe a bit better.

Monday, June 12, 2017

I'm wrong

Well, I've assumed for quite some time that Swords & Wizardry was the leader in retroclones and OSR games.  Mostly this is because I just see much more activity around it than around any other system—I see more blogs talking about it, I see more products that reference it, etc.

But... according to the latest Orr Group Industry report (new ones come out quarterly), that's not true at all; by a large margin, Basic Fantasy (mostly a B/X clone, although with a few modifications) is the leader.

This also challenges my notion that the OSR is equal in general magnitude to the other schisms in the D&D hobby; although... well, I'm not certain that this sampling is representational.  I believe, without necessary knowing this to be true, that many OSR games aren't broadcast the way some of these others are.  In other words, OSR games are buddies who already know each other and game together, and they play their games without reporting anything to anyone.  This is actually a much more old school paradigm about how to get your gaming group together anyway.  Of course, if that's how they do it, then they won't register in the data that Orr gathers, because Orr gathers data based on people who are registered as Roll20 members, especially the "Seeks Group For" data.

But it is data, whether there's limitations, caveats and issues with it or not.  Depending on the caveat, it's not necessarily better than no data (it could be actively misleading data) but I suspect that it's not entirely so.  Maybe Basic Fantasy really is the gold standard for OSR games rather than Sword & Wizardry.

I kind of like the idea that B/X—my favorite actual older version of D&D and the only one that I'd seriously consider playing again for more than a novelty one-shot or something)—may be the one that is getting the most play in cloned form.  Of course, I find it odd that retroclones of B/X would be so prolific (presumably mostly in pdf form) when you can get official pdfs of the actual B and X games for less than $5 each from Drive Thru RPG.

This is where I really part ways with the OSR: unlike the (apparent) taste of the average OSRian, I value elegance of design as much as I do simplicity and adherence to old school tone.  Actually, probably more—although I am a fan of simplicity (a big fan) and I do admire old school tone. (I may describe that a bit differently than some, though—I like the DIY aesthetic more than strictly reproducing the actual old D&D tone.  And I've never yet been very entertained by dungeoncrawls, nor do I expect that I ever will or could be.)  All of these retroclones are more about reproducing the actual D&D rules in facsimile fashion than they are about "fixing" the rules for better elegance.  d20 had elegance as a design goal—and it succeeded rather admirably, in my opinion—but they clearly didn't care for simplicity at all.  An extremely brusque restructuring of d20 to recapture the "vibe" of the garage band publishing kind of feel of early TSR stuff, but with the elegance of more recent games then is my personal "sweet spot" and why I've been hyping m20 for years now.  It's literally perfect for my needs; it's my holy grail of systems, if you will.

Y'know what I'd like to do one of these days?  I have a few old school modules (actually; old modules)—B2, B4, X1, N1, U1-3, etc. that I'd have fun "translating" into FANTASY HACK and running.  I think it'd be relatively little work to do the "translation" because the systems are simple enough (and, for that matter, relatively similar in most respects).  Most of the ones I have kicking around are actually AD&D modules rather than D&D modules—but B2, B4 and X1 were all designed for B/X.  In reality, that doesn't matter much; the systems are very similar, and I'd be translating them to m20 anyway.

What makes RPGs successful?

Back from several days "vacation" in Chicago (I was actually a chaperone for my son's 8th grade field trip.  Vacation isn't probably the right word to describe it...) and I'm getting caught up on a lot of stuff (luckily, work seems to have been quiet while I was away).  I spent as much time as I could drowning out the sounds of dumb 8th graders all showing off for each other (especially when crammed into buses—which luckily were charter buses, not school buses) with my earbuds, exploring all kinds of music that I missed from about 15 years ago when the confluence of hard trance, acid and early hard style was all happening at the same time and more or less the same place in the Netherlands and Germany, especially.  This is the rave scene as it was starting to go just a little bit mainstream (as opposed to being a weird, counter-cultural drug scene) and on the verge of being rebranded as EDM to disassociate with the weird, counter-cultural drug scene.  Most of these DJs—or artists, although maybe it seems overly generous to call them that—are ones that I'd never heard of.  Anyway, that's neither here nor there, other than that I was occupied, sometimes enjoyably, sometimes not, with things other than updating my blog for the majority of last week. And listening to the "harder styles" as those three (and a few other related and very similar sounding styles) are called tends to get me pumped up, because they're kind of intense and angry sounding.  My internet exposure during this time was mostly reading alt-right news and commentary, so that tends to be also intense and angry. (Check out the Zman's "Boomercide" or Vox Day's re-posting and commentary on it; as well as the comments section to both.  Yikes!  But not wrong.)

But now I'm back down a bit, and I stumbled across some RPG philosophy by Bradford C. Walker, which I've synthesized and summarized and regurgitated after partially digesting it myself.  He's got some interesting ideas, and I don't think that I'm merely saying that because I obviously agree with him with regards to a lot of taste issues about RPGs (although I do.)  Let me quote a handful of short passages, with some commentary by me:
If most gamers want only a subset of what tabletop RPGs offer, then what do they offer to those truly interested in them- what does the audience actually want from the medium? To answer that, you have to know what the medium is and how it works. 
The tabletop RPG medium takes the tabletop wargame medium of the mid-20th century, with its reliance on referees to issue rulings to cover emergent concerns at the table, to its maximum creativity. This is not entirely by design; originally, this was just a means to take the popular variant known as Braunstein into other applications, but once the early campaigns broke containment by the commercial release of Dungeons & Dragons, the expansion of the form into the hands of people not of that Upper Midwest wargame scene revealed that this new medium is defined by its liminality. 
That's right, liminality. Because the medium sits at the point where it can easily slide to and from any specific activity that the characters could reasonably engage it, it sits beyond the scope of the focused games that do one specific gameplay form very well. This vital quality gets lost when mechanical complexity reaches critical mass. 
The ideal tabletop RPG, as a commercial product, is as it was in the beginning: a slim booklet, packaged as part of a set and put in a box. Why? Because, for normies, "game" means "think in a box with all necessary parts within". Normies are part of your audience, so give them what they expect to find. (Remember that Clarity thing.) 
The audience for tabletop RPGs want the liminality that defines the medium. That means that you can't focus too much on any one thing, aside from that which is so commonly done at the table that such specificity is required. Instead, you want your ruleset to give the Game Master enough information that he can just run his ass over to Infogalactic, TV Tropes, or whatever real-world info source he needs to consult (including sites like Wookiepedia) something and easily translate real-world language into something he can use to issue a ruling at the table. Embrace asymmetric rules knowledge; it adds to the quality of play experience. The GM needs to know; players don't. 
This is why the enduring appeal of the older editions exists, and why trying to make tabletop RPGs something that they are not is a reliable way to sink the business. (Yes, the supplement treadmill is an example of Doing It WRONG!) As the design[er] and publisher, your job is to make tools of creativity, put them in the hands of Game Masters, and let them make their own settings. You're the wholesaler, not the retailer; that's the GM's job. 
Lose the desire to focus and embrace the glory of liminality. Or stop selling tabletop RPGs.
His assumption that most gamers only want a subset of what RPGs offer is based on the observation that such subsets tend to be more popular than RPGs.  First-person-shooters, for example, or fantasy strategy games outsell D&D by orders of magnitude, and offer only a subset of the D&D experience and obviously evolve, in a way, out of D&D and the 70s/80s RPG scene; the combat part of it, for the most part, and they do so in a way that's been automated and improved an order of magnitude beyond what D&D could ever offer.  I'm a little iffy on this particular claim, although I think that a lot of that comes to definitions rather than analysis though; I wouldn't call someone who plays Call of Duty a gamer in the same sense that I'd call someone who plays D&D a gamer.  A CoD player isn't a D&D player who lapses because CoD does his favorite aspect of D&D better than D&D does; he's just a guy who has a different hobby altogether.  The assumption that without video games or CCGs or German board games, or whatever, these people would be playing D&D instead is questionable.  But the notion that going after people who play those things by offering them watered-down versions of what is already better at scratching their hobby itch than D&D will ever be being business-savvy stupid is not.

I do however, quite like the concept of liminality being the definition feature of table-top RPGs, and something that no other substitutions for the hobby can offer.  This has been expressed in other language before by other people, but I think Walker has come up with a succinct and to the point one-word explanation that gets to the heart of the matter with more clarity than most others who ramble instead about being able to "do anything," etc.  It's not just that you can "do anything" but it's also that the rules support you, and you move seamlessly from one game to another within the game without noticeable cracks or hard, jarring transitions—at least with a game that's well designed.

Walker further explores this concept specifically with regards to AD&D as it was first published.
While this D&D edition is the first to commit the sin of being books and not a boxed set, it is also the edition that many gamers would say is where the practical limit of ruleset complexity (and thus intellectual density) got discovered. Player-facing rules complexity is significant, but still not so heavy that it's a turnoff; the Game Master shoulders the bulk of the burden, one he can increase (and benefit players) simply by not using official character sheets. A pencil and a single-subject notebook is still more than enough. 
In play, players can still operate on natural language and the fundamental feedback loop of "What Do You Do?", leaving the rules to the GM. This does mean that the GM has to spend time with the tomes, doing homework until he masters the rules. So long as the GM isn't the punk-assed power-tripper too many of us were when we were kids (i.e. be a normal adult), this is fine and a lot of the later editions' measures to limit GMs is not necessary at all. Mech Piloting is not a viable strategy by default; trying to do that doesn't give the full reward that later editions do. 
While Greyhawk is mentioned, the rules don't specify a setting. They give you enough to imply one, but that is only implication. Instead, the Game Master gets told multiple times that setting decisions are his to make, and that he should bring those decisions forth to players when that information matters to their decision-making (and not just during play; if Dwarves are not in the campaign, players need to know at character generation. The tools to create verisimilitude are present, but it is on the GM to make it so. 
If the Original and Basic D&D editions erred on too little substance to make use of liminality, AD&D's 1st edition erred on too much. (As we've seen, you can code AD&D into a videogame- as several examples show.) However, contrary to informed expectation, the rules of AD&D1e are not so inter-dependent that they cannot be changed at all without disastrous consequence. 
It is by no means a perfect example, but it is an example of practical liminality that isn't destroyed. Damaged? Maybe. Destroyed? No. That came later.
I tend to disagree a little bit on where the line is: AD&D broke the liminality for me.  It could be, as Walker implies, that the mechanics were less at fault, and the poor writing and organization is to blame.  He points out that almost everyone he knew played AD&D "wrong" which is a common commentary; most people's AD&D was really a strange mash-up of B/X or some other Basic rule-set hybridized with AD&D.  Is this really because of poor organization, or poor mechanics?  I honestly don't have sufficient first hand experience to say with authority anymore, if I ever did—although it's been my opinion that goes back to my junior high days in the early to mid-80s that the rules were the problem. However, I don't own the rules, and have never read them all the way through beginning to end, nor do I remember them all that well now anyway.  My long-held belief might not be sustainable when subjected to the harsh light of actual data.

I do disagree with him that the OD&D and BD&D were too lacking in substance to utilize liminality.  Is he suggesting that all of the S&W retroclone games lack liminality then?  This isn't clear, because in another post, he suggests that successful game designers who expect to utilize the benefits of liminality, knowing who your real audience is, etc. will have a ruleset much like OD&D and BD&D.
Your ruleset must be as simple as Original or Basic D&D. This means that you must tell your audience that your game relies on the Game Master to issue rulings because your ruleset's mechanics [...] cover basic principles first, then only those specific subsets that every group must deal with. Everything else is left for the Game Master to specify when and how he desires. This means that you don't need to sell a setting, or that you need to have a hefty tome of uncoded videogame mechanics. (Note: This also means that your upper limit on mechanic design is "If this can be turned into a videogame, you've gone too far.")
So, exactly what he's calling for here isn't perfectly clear.  Is OD&D a good example, or isn't it? Well, whatever.  I don't need him to tell me what he thinks the perfect grade of simplicity is, honestly.  For my purposes, it's sufficient to agree with him that there's a spectrum.  If you fall below it, you fail to have a game that provides sufficient structure to be an RPG.  Many writers in their "what is a role-playing game" introductions do indeed make comparison to games like cowboys and injuns or cops and robbers, but they mean that only as a point of comparison.  If an RPG is too simple, it lacks sufficient structure to be an RPG in the way that gamers understand it and has to be called something else.  On the other end of the spectrum, games that are too complicated don't become "not RPGs"; they merely become badly designed RPGs.  d20, for example, is still an RPG.  But it's one that became bloated, lost a ton of support over the years, because it was poor at doing it's primary job.  It tried to hobble the GM in favor of generating a supposedly repeatable experience for the player that is somewhat GM-quality independent.  That is a pipe dream, of course, but that was the design intent.

Now, it's not clear that Walker is completely correct here; certainly, he's expressing an opinion that is congruent with my own, that rules-heavy games are... suboptimal.  That too much campaign design throttles creativity in its sleep.  But lots of gamers disagree, and buy product based on the opposite paradigm.  The biggest names in the RPG market have almost always been fairly rules heavy games; 3e and above iterations of D&D, Pathfinder, Storyteller, etc. and brands like the World of Darkness, Forgotten Realms, etc. are synonymous with big sales (relative to the market, at least.)  His hypothesis, which I think qualifies as a just-so story, because I know of no way to really test it effectively, so it can never hope to advance to theory-stage, is that the real customer base for those types of games already are playing video games instead of RPGs because the part of the RPG that they liked best is done by some other medium better.  This means that there's no growth potential to be had in pursuing them, and actually only the promise of continued slipping into irrelevance.

If this hypothesis is true, shouldn't the OSR kind of be eating the lunch of D&D and Pathfinder, though?  Well, maybe—if they could somehow break through to reach growth potential targets (i.e. people who don't game today but would be interested in doing it if they could be successful marketed to), maybe they could.  This is the untested (and difficult to test) make or break aspect of his hypothesis that I wish we could know more about without it just being a speculative, just-so story.

That said—again, my tastes align almost perfectly with his with regard to his philosophical discussion, at least.  I prefer to be on the simpler end of the spectrum.  Simplicity is difficult to measure objectively—but I believe that the m20 chassis that I prefer is of comparable simplicity to OD&D or S&W White Box, but with more elegance (an oft-neglected aspect of game design that much of the OSR appears to see as unimportant.)  I like setting material, but "liminal" setting material, like the original Greyhawk Gazeteer, for instance, and I'll quote him one more time in a sec.  But I think he's on to something; this does nail the sweet spot at which RPGs offer something that their competitors and alternatives do not and they aren't trying to replicate (badly) something that's done better in another medium.  Now, whether a reasonable, stable and profitable market exists for that or not—well, I don't know.
This, folks, is a setting made to be liminal. You have plenty of summary information about climate, weather, nations and their cultures, countries and their politics, big organizations and their major concerns, and major figures (with class, level, and Alignment). You got some tables to spice up your campaigns therein, and some notes to guide your use of the setting, and that's it. You didn't get a plug-and-play product here; you got a parts kit and were expected to build it into a complete rifle on your own. 
This is before any Greyhawk novels. This is before the post-Gray Box Forgotten Realms, before Dragonlance, before Eberron, and all of the other settings (and revisions thereof) that increasingly spelled out what was there, who was there, and otherwise increased the density of information such that a canon arose and with it all that a canon calls forth: orthodoxy, and the slavish devotion to it that I sometimes call "Fandumb". 
That's fine for a writing bible, the sort used for franchise properties or television shows where having a single reference with authority given to it matters, but for a setting published for use with a tabletop RPG that means unforced errors of one sort or another. 
Liminality, in practical terms, means that you provide just enough material for your users to get going at building out their own interpretations for use at their tables. (Yes, this directly undermines the proto-MMORPG that is Organized Play campaigns, and that's a good thing.) Writers can think of this in terms of a prompt. Gamers can think in terms of a scenario premise. 
For a tabletop RPG setting, the boxed set for Greyhawk nailed it. So did the original boxed set for the Realms. After that, you ended up having to either learn how to avoid where it's too built up, or demolishing what's present to make room for what you want (and making more work for yourself). Liminality, therefore, is that frontier space where there's enough to go do your thing, but not so much that busybodies start nagging you about it; it's about implication, not canonization. Pulp, not Pink Slime. 
Because of this fact, I don't see a future for commercial settings anymore. Wikis do the same thing cheaper and easier with far superior convenience. What I see instead is a future for tools and tutorials to guide users in taking that just enough material and making their own fun from that.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Ken St. Andre and the alternative to D&D

For the most part, when people talk about the OSR, they refer to D&D clones.  Sword & Wizardry seems to be the leader here (although lacking any data, my impressions there may well be wrong) edging out a number of other contenders.  Which still exist, mind you, just not necessarily as segment leaders.  Dungeoncrawl Classics, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, ACKS, etc.  But all of them are, at heart, iterations of one of the early D&D games—OD&D (with or without supplements), B/X, 1st edition AD&D, etc.  Most of these add small changes or "fixes" to various small items in the old rules that are seen as either unpopular, clunky, or otherwise having been fixed (a common one is ascending rather than descending armor class).

I wonder what would have happened had the second role-playing game ever published (in early 1975), Tunnels & Trolls been seen as a viable alternative to D&D to a wider audience back in the day?  T&T is still available today, but it farms a somewhat different vibe than D&D.  It's seen (by some, at least.  I don't know if this is really credible or not) as the start of the idea of the boxed, introductory set that was sensibly written and organized, and therefore can be seen as a spiritual antecedent to the very notion of Holmes' blue BD&D, and later the entire B/X line.  Ken St. Andre, the primary author of T&T has said that he's not really very familiar with the Appendix N, but gives an interesting list of influences all his own

Check out that interview (among others) for some discussion of the lay of the land back in 74-75 and thereabouts.  A few notable comments:
  • St. Andre, in an earlier interview, which is alluded to there, suggests that Tarzan (and ERB generally) was actually his primary inspiration.  I like the idea of his "Hollywood pitch" for the game, too: "[T]he T&T world was based on The Lord of The Rings as it would have been done by Marvel Comics in 1974 with Conan, Elric, the Gray Mouser and a host of badguys thrown in."  Although OD&D is often equated with wild and woolly van art post-pulp fantasy, this is considerably more true for T&T in some ways.  In this interview, he almost suggests that Greek mythology and Harryhausen movies are more important than even that.
  • St. Andre says that he was a fan of the genre and that's what he wanted to emulate, and had no interest in miniatures wargaming; a significant point of departure compared to the milieu in which Gygax and Arneson worked.  This is much more up my alley too; and yet, somehow it still has this board-gamey feel of dungeon exploration.  Considering that any such activity is of limited exposure in the fantasy fiction that he claims is his inspiration (not no exposure, but it's hardly something that I think of as standard and integral to the sword & sorcery genre until D&D made it so) I don't quite know what to make of that. 
  • I like how his initial incarnation of magic was, he claimed, based on Dr. Strange comic books more than anything else, and complicated hand gestures was the most important component of spell-casting.  Not that anyone necessarily thought this, but somewhat Vancian style magic was, of course, hardly the only way to go, even mining the same influences.  I kinda like using a Lovecraftian magic system—even as I've adapted existing D&D spells into a Lovecraftian system, for Fantasy Hack and other m20 fantasy games that I've dabbled with.  To be fair, in a lot of fiction, magic is more of a plot device than a "system" that can be explained, but sometimes some of those early works did at least attempt to lay out an explanation of some kind, even if it was somewhat implicit, in how and why magic worked.  
  • T&T had a solitary play mode, which is sometimes seen as the genesis of the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks and other works of that ilk.  I'm actually kinda intrigued by this solitary play business; I'd like to see how it works.
  • Not that I would expect to see a lot of it in a fantasy game, but St. Andre appears to be more of a fan of space opera, and associates it more strongly with the pulp era than Gygax and Co. did.
  • I've been meaning to read some Abraham Merritt for a long time.  After this additional recommendation, I really need to get on that.  I've got a Kindle collection of 8 novels (including The Moon Pool and The Ship of Ishtar, the two that I most want to read) and 8 short stories, but I haven't started it yet.
All in all, I wonder if I had really discovered Tunnels & Trolls back in the day, instead of merely knowing of it off-hand as a supposed rip-off of D&D, I might well have been much more interested in playing it than I was in playing D&D anyway.  T&T still embraces the DIY ethos that D&D abandoned many, many years ago, it is more gonzo and fun (although to be fair, D&D used to be more like that too) is a simpler system, yet sufficiently robust to keep you happily gaming for years, etc.  It sounds like everything I always wanted D&D to be... with the exception of still embracing the dungeoncrawling paradigm.