Friday, December 30, 2016

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

Fun to Say, Fun to Play!
Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (AS&SH) must have one of the best names given to a game product, ever. The boxed version (pictured) was released in 2012, but there is a new hardcover 2nd Edition due out next year and available for pre-order now. The rules to AS&SH appear as a very clean and tidyed-up version (such as using a d12 for thief skills) of the Advanced Game using the OGL. The default setting of Hyperborea is one of the best published. It has a very "pulp fantasy" feel to it as suggested by the box cover illustration by Charles Lang, is self contained, is depicted on a nice hex map, is described in just the right amount of detail to leave room for individualization and it lends itself well to being used with just about any other setting as a pocket universe, lost continent or alternate dimension.
I ran this game as referee some time back for a short campaign for some Pathfinder/5th Ed. players who were curious about Old School play. The players began by making late 19th century PCs who were passengers or crew on a steamship off the coast of Alaska. After some role-play on ship things turned mysterious. A cold mist, a spectacular northern lights display and they awake bound-up as dog sled passengers in Hyperborea. They are taken down off the frozen plateau and traded to some ancient looking Greek speaking folk who worship Athena and Zeus, etc. They quickly learn the language and are taught some local survival skills (class abilities) and start adventuring. They help a village recover some lost kids and become local heroes. While investigating an ancient temple complex, several of the original party perish and are replaced by "locals". The mini-campaign ran a half-dozen or so sessions and we moved on to something else.
Some of the players remarked they enjoy the "old School" type rules and classes - they started with just fighters, clerics and magic users, but for replacement characters could choose from several sub-classes as well. The setting of Hyperborea generated the most interest and I'll probably re-visit it. The mixture of cultures like vikings, kelts,  and ancient Greeks imported from Earth's past with native Hyperboreans, Amazons, and Esquimaux (sound it out!) give quite a lot of variety while keeping the PCs human (mostly). The author, Jeffrey Talanian, states an intent to create a game consistent with the fantastic and weird worlds of R.E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. The two spiral bound books in the box are illustrated through-out by Ian Baggley in a manner that definitely adds to the weird, dark and dangerous feel of the game setting. Hyperborea has some ancient high technology roots that also add to its uniqueness. There is the possibility of exploring ancient ruins and discovering lost technologies, if the referee wants to go down that path.
The one area I personally feel could use a little more work is in the area of magic.  AS&SH uses the bog standard Advanced Game magic spells and magic, although wisely drops the mundane material components and casting segment complications. The Vancian system is retained however, which carries with it a promise of more predictable magic than a skill-roll outcome, point system and suggests a theory of magic as a mental exercise of mostly memorization. It is a bit "tame" for my taste. That aside, Mr. Talanian does include some new "atmospheric" spells such as "black cloud", "cataleptic state", the "sepia snake sigil" and "mirror, mirror" and does his honest best to describe spell books and the acquisition of spell knowledge as something weird and dangerous.
The AS&SH bestiary is a combination of traditional fantasy monsters and the Lovecraftian horrors. Dwarves are monsters, not PCs in AS&SH. Dwarves are described as greedy and perverse, stunted and misshaped forgers of magic items which they are cursed to be unable to use themselves. Orcs are the off-spring of a swine daemon and Picts (a race of primitive humans). Tree-men are similar to Ents, otherwise, the usual Tolkien races are missing from AS&SH, but there are still plenty of bi-pedal baddies such as snake-men, ape-men, cave-men and ghouls.
So what is the appeal of AS&SH, besides a fantastic name. The rules are a nice, cleaned up version of the Advanced Game giving us a game that can be played pretty much as written. The setting of Hyperborea is one of the best published settings I have come across in almost 40 years of gaming and were it not somewhat derivative of certain pulp settings, I'd call it genius. But the derived part is intentional in that it evokes a feel for the source material. There are really two good products here, the game rules and the setting. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Advanced Game

Using the 1st Edition Rules
Having cut my teeth on White Box I was never quite sure what to do with the Advanced rules (beyond admiring the awesome cover art). We played with the Advanced books at the table, consulting the hardcover PHB tome for spells and chargen, for shopping and weapon damage, for monsters we looked into the MM and for advice and all things wonderful, the DMG is still a treasure trove. We used it all and none of it strictly by-the-book. We improvised, smashed versions together and made it all work with rulings. As referee I tend to continue to rely on the Little Brown Books as my go-to rules, borrowing freely from all later Editions. Generally it has caused few issues over nearly 40 years of gaming.
Looking at the PHB, there are sections of the rules I have never used as a referee and seldom consulted as a player in another referee's game. Spell components and casting segments come immediately to mind. Some of the components add color to the spell casting and magic "feel" of the game, but the bookkeeping seems too much to bother with. The weapons verses armor class matrix seemed to be for someone other than our group and I only recall using it a couple times.
The lack of combat tables in the PHB (they finally appear in DMG) meant that for a couple years at least we had little choice, but to refer back to earlier rules to resolve every sword swing. The change from an unarmored peasant being AC 9 in White Box to AC10 in the PHB is annoying (maybe because I have never read an explanation) and I usually ignore the difference in printed play aids.
There is a bit of irony in the stated intent of the Advanced Rules to be more standardized and official, to allow everyone, everywhere to be playing the same game with common rules when it had rather the opposite effect on our group (and I am guessing other groups as well). With the addition of the Advanced material we added diversity and became even more individualized in our play. Some players would allow half-orc and half-elf PCs when they refereed, others wouldn't (did anyone play 1st Ed. gnomes?). Some would allow evil PCs, some would enforce encumbrance (or try to), etc.
So I recall using the 1st Ed. Advanced rules to dial up the game. Strength bonuses went up (+3/+6!), magic enhancements on armor and weapons increased (+5!) and PCs continued to advance well beyond "name" level. More monsters, more hit points, more ways to roll up characters and more magic items. more, more, more. At some point this became obvious (and obnoxious?) and more for the sake of more became a topic of discussion. Then the "less is more" philosophy started to take hold and many of us began to dial it back remembering the real magic of a game with just Three Little Brown Books.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Rule Number One

White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game
When a game booklet titles itself White Box, I generally take a look. The White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game by Charlie Mason and Seattle Hill Games is a re-imagining of not only the Original White Box, but also Swords & Wizardry's White Box. Right away Mr. Mason catches my attention with his interpretation of RULE ONE
The most important rule in White Box is that the Referee always has the
right to modify the rules. In fact, it’s encouraged! This is your game, after
all. There are gaps in the rules—holes left open on purpose—because much
of the fun of “old school” gaming is being able to make up rules as needed.
...because much of the fun of "old school gaming is being able to make up rules as needed." Exactly! It can be a challenge to make up fair rules that add to everyone's enjoyment of the game, rules that encourage creativity, rules that don't limit options, but that reward thinking outside the box, rules that will be just as applicable later in similar circumstances and can become part of the body of house rules or "how we play the game". But all that is part of the fun of being referee especially and to some extent even being a player of the "old school game" as I see it.
If looking in a big book for the rule that comes closest to covering the situation at the table has more appeal, there are other games available. Arguably no rules can cover every possible situation, but some probably come very close. Having an official rule is very satisfying to many RPG fans, and I don't intend to belittle that style of play. I regularly play those games myself (although I don't like to pause the action to look up rules). Sometimes I like to make stuff up on the fly. It's fun to come up with a good ruling that seems to satisfy everyone and keeps the action at the table rolling.
So besides a great Rule One, what has White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game got going for itself? Well, it's a very nice looking book, nice art, attractive layout. The book can be ordered online with one of three covers and in softcover or hardcover.
There's more than just a nice package however. I favor multiple saving throw categories like in the Original White Box. Swords & Wizardry White Box drops the multiple saving throw system for a single, universal saving throw. White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game is based on Swords & Wizardry, but gives an optional saving throw system based on class and level and situation. So when the dragon breaths (Dragon Breath) the saving through is different than when the basilisk gazes your way (Paralyze/Turn to Stone). There are fans of the single saving throw value, but I like making those choices as referee between asking for a saving throw verses Dragon Breath or Paralyze/Stone when a rock-slide threatens the party. Is it more a quickness thing or a resist fear thing? In a way it is similar to the fun of making up rules deciding which saving throw to call for.
White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game is well written and entertaining to read. It takes a definite stand on many of the ambiguous points of Original White Box, such as alignment - White Box Fantastic uses the three classic alignments, but equates Law with good and Chaos with evil. Of course a referee who disagrees with this rule, like any other, can play it differently. Options abound with most White Box style games and there are a number of "optional rules" that are presented here. Classes are the basic three with the addition of the optional Thief. If used, the Thief has a special ability called "Thievery" giving one the ability to roll a d6 to pick a pocket, open a lock and do other thiefy things. The score needed on the d6 gets easier to make as the thief goes up in levels.
Races are the usual Tolkienesque Human (default), Dwarf, Elf  and Halfling. The non-humans are restricted in class choice and level maximum. Elves are the go back and forth between fighter and magic user or an optional B/X style combination. None see in the dark!
Weapons follow the general White Box trend of all doing a d6 damage, except some have a -1 or +1 added. Again, White Box Fantastic gives the referee the stated option to use the old everything does 1d6 damage system. Armor class can be done ascending or descending, according to preference. There are alternatives to several factors of combat making it one of the most easily customizable sections of the rules. If diplomacy and negotiating is more to the party's liking, there is advice on handling that. As a nod to the old school, jousting rules are touched on. (Having read some old King Arthur tales recently, I am inclined to include more jousting as a part of play.) There is also some decent referee advice on running the game, keeping track of time and handling the outdoor and dungeon environment. Discussion continues regarding adventure and campaign creation and awarding experience. Here White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game takes the traditional experience for gold approach, but provides some justification for this system and offers some options. Rather extensive bestiary and treasure sections complete the book. This is White Box, so magic swords have intelligence and their own ideas of what should be done (always fun for role-play as the fighter has an argument with the sword).
So the hobby has another White Box. White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game is a sound addition to the stable of White Box imitators, simulacrum, clones, pseudo-clones and re-interpretations of the Original Fantasy Role-Playing Game. Most I have read are useful in that they offer a more complete statement of the basic principles of role-playing, dice and general game play than the Original which is good for beginners. In other words, there are some "training wheels" included. The Original White Box allows for more interpretations than is usual among the later "White Box" rules. Rather than encouraging the referee to make decisions about the rules, the Original insists on it. Why? Because making up rules is fun! That's Rule One.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Wargame RPG

DragonQuest and other Hex-Map Games
I have written about DragonQuest before and will probably do so again at some point because it is a game I think deserves attention. DragonQuest was released by the hex-map wargames specialists at Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI). The lead designer, Eric Goldberg, had previously done excellent work on traditional historic map and counter wargames covering subjects like the epic WWII tank battle of Kursk. SPI was a relative late-comer to fantasy and role-playing, but brought a lot of game design experience to their efforts. Unfortunately, DragonQuest came right near the end of the company's independent existence and perhaps it didn't get the support it deserved.
TSR's White Box had hit the market about 5 years prior to DragonQuest and had introduced the world to a new type of game around which a whole hobby quickly developed. The designers of White Box were themselves wargamers, most recently engaged in writing rules for tabletop battles using  miniature soldiers. That is why White Box refers to movement and ranges in terms of inches to be measured with a ruler on the tabletop. The designers had also played map and counter wargames and those experiences also figured to play a factor in their gaming gestalt.
The new hobby drew folks in from outside the wargames community as well as from within. As other game designers tried their hand at the new fantasy role-play or adventure game genre, some came at it directly from a hex-map and counter perspective. Steve Jackson designed the Microgames Melee and Wizard using such components and offered the hobby a very tactical alternative to the combat and magic systems of White Box and other early games. DragonQuest is also such an outgrowth of tactical wargaming using counters and hex-map. For some, this approach may have seemed more realistic than less tactical approaches. For others, it may have just been more comfortable - more what they were used to when coming over to the new hobby from hex-map and counter wargames.
The idea of a tactical display, what DragonQuest calls the hex-map and counters, is used by other later Editions of The World's Most Famous RPG and its imitators. In fact the popularity of the tactical display seems to swing back and forth over time. I think its use offers certain advantages regarding knowing where everyone is and whether the spell can reach, etc, but has certain disadvantages when gamers play the display rather than imagine the action in their head.
Whether the referee chooses to use a tactical display or not may influence the particular rule system he/she prefers as some are more tied to it than others. The number of hobbyists who play hex-map and counter wargames is smaller today than it was in the 1970's and I doubt there are many gamers who come to role-playing today directly from such wargames. At one time I think the numbers may have been significant and the cross-over among players and designers of wargames and RPGs has given the hobby some nice games, some like DragonQuest remain good games despite being long out-of-print.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Tolkien: A Dictionary

A Helpful Tool
The Tolkien Dictionary by David Day is a powerhouse of information on the world of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There is a disclaimer that all it contains may not be "canon", but for the most part, I doubt I notice. The book itself is a newer print of a tome that has been around under one title of another since my college days. It's an A to Z listing of lots of topics pertaining to Tolkien's Middle Earth. It isn't a game product or official play aid, but I find leafing through the Dictionary a good way to learn more about Middle Earth.
The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are novels and although each contains much additional material on Middle Earth in the appendices, the body of the book is a story. With Tolkien A Dictionary the emphasis is on explaining what a hobbit or a nazgul is. How do all the names for various elven groups relate to each other? Is a Noldor the same as a Sindar and if not how do they differ?  Why are there so few wizards in Middle Earth? Answers to these and many other questions can be found in the pages of this little volume.
Pictured on the front is a group of Woses, a wild woodland people living naked in the Forest of Druadan who excelled at woodcraft and assisted the Rohirrim in breaking the siege of Gondor. There are entries on the Forest of Druadan, the Rohirrim and Gondor if you need additional explanation. There is more, much more between the end-paper maps of Arda (High Elven name for the whole world including Middle Earth and the Undying Lands). I find Tolkien A Dictionary a very helpful tool in gaining understanding of Tolkien's world for both further enjoyment of the stories and for use as a referee running a game set in Tolkien's Middle Earth. And it's delightfully illustrated!
The relationship between Tolkien's fiction and the White Box and the hobby in general is complicated and confusing at times. Despite Gary Gygax' rumored denial that Tolkien's work had much influence on White Box (comparatively speaking, probably true), I think the popularity of the two are intertwined. Both White Box and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien were faddishly popular on college campuses when I was a student. Whether one started with reading Tolkien or started by playing White Box, one inevitably led to the other. Hardly anyone I knew on campus wasn't a fan of both. For me personally, interest in one, feeds interest in the other, always has. This isn't to say White Box is a game of Tolkien's fiction, it is more than that and it is easy to see the influence of many other authors and game forms in it's DNA.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Swords & Sorcerers

Expanding the World
Swords & Sorcerers (1978) is an expansion for Chivalry & Sorcery by Edward Simbalist. Mr. Simbalist taught English and social studies for over twenty years as well as designing a number of games. Being myself most interested in early fantasy RPGs, I find Chivalry & Sorcery to be my favorite of his games, especially the 1st edition of C&S. I usually describe C&S as an attempt to make White Box more realistic through the use of more complex mechanics, a magic system based on myth and legendary sources and an emphasis on historic setting to provide the PC a place to fit-into an imagined world socially, economically, etc. In other words, to provide a realistic immersive role-playing experience.
From the title, Chivalry & Sorcery, one might surmise that Mr. Simbalist's model for the game is medieval Europe where chivalry was legendary and sorcery suspect. This is essentially true. In fact the author states early on in C&S that his own setting is loosely based in medieval France - a France of myth and legend, but one where history would be recognized. Using history to draw upon rather than literary works of fantasy is just an alternative source of inspiration. The idea behind the role-playing or adventure game is one of exploring a world through the descriptions of a referee and the actions of fictional characters controlled by players. The setting can be virtually anything imaginable, including of course our own human history.
C&S is an RPG built upon a mostly historic medieval European setting. Swords & Sorcerers expands that world to include three new peoples, Vikings, Mongols and Celts. Each of the three has a section devoted to an historic overview of the region, people and history of the subject. As a person with a degree in history I would say the history presented here is on the "popular" side rather than strictly academic, which seems fine for a game play-aid. There has obviously been an attempt by Mr. Simbalist to convert historic facts and data into C&S game terms so as to facilitate a campaign involving Vikings. There is a lot of information here, most of it already converted for game use. Each culture description includes information on social structure, economics, and religion and gives tabular data for rolling PC/NPC social status, physical build and other details. The Nordic section contains a significant amount of information on runes and their use in the game. A set of cut-out runes are included for play. Military coverage includes weapons, tactics and specific game rules for both the C&S man-to-man rules and the large-scale miniatures rules.
Each cultural description emphasizes what seems to set it apart from the others. The Viking Longship, the Mongol horse archer and the Celtic Druid are unique cultural aspects and interesting game additions. Mongol shaman magick is distinctly different in flavor if not always in effect from medieval sorcery or Druidic magic. A "typical" warrior build for each culture would be significantly different in terms of weapon and armor choices, fighting style and morals. All would be recognizable to the historian, if not a perfect reconstruction. The magic using and religious characters are distinct and offer variations on a theme across cultural lines. The Nordic Vola uses runes to cast the future, the Celtic Guiddonot uses her witch-magic in battle and the Mongol shaman uses dance and chant magic to affect healing, hunting and weather.
The last 33 pages of this 95-page volume is devoted to the miniatures game making C&S rather unusual among the fantasy RPGs. Attention is paid to character activity in large scale battles that can be played using armies of miniature figures, and a number of tables are devoted to what may happen to one's character during a military campaign, siege or battle. The idea is one which doesn't often make an appearance in RPG rules. It is perhaps most associated with an early RPG published by Games Design Workshop (GDW) titled En Garde! in which players control an adventurer in Three Musketeers France, enlisting in a regiment, gambling, romancing, dueling and going off to war, the outcome of all, except dueling, is determined by dice roles and a dialogue amongst the  players to explain the roll outcomes. Swordplay in En Garde! has a rather unique matrix mechanic as I recall (my original rules are not at hand) requiring one to plot attacks several moves ahead of time.
Swords & Sorcerers is billed as an expansion rather than a supplement, of which there are two, to the C&S system. I feel this terminology is deliberate and indicates a desire on the part of the author to suggest we are expanding the boundaries of the map with Swords & Sorcerers. Lee Gold would take C&S even further to feudal Japan with Land of the Rising Sun released in 1980. The new hobby was rapidly growing as folks quickly applied the RPG technique to more and more settings. From the beginning, it was never about just one setting. Where ever we draw inspiration for our game settings, the RPG gives us the ability to explore those settings and collectively to have fun, entertain ourselves and create new stories to amuse and astonish.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Spirit of White Box

Do It Yourself
It was late 1977 by the time I came into contact with White Box and the exciting new hobby that was growing up around it. It was a time to make dreams real and visionary gamers had been doing that in a big way since 1974 when White Box was released and the new hobby started to spread. The LBB supplements had all been released by Christmas of '77 and I was fortunate enough to score them all except Deities and Demigods. Visionaries like Dave Hargrave (Arduin Grimoire) and M.A.R. Barker (Empire of the Petal Throne) were already publishing their independent takes on the game and folks at TSR were busy with the Advanced Game. Recognizing the steep learning curve, Prof. Holmes and TSR had published the Basic Set to assist newbies like me in learning the game. I friend of mine got the Basic Set, I got the LBBs and together with other friends who enjoyed games, we started the long process of figuring it out for ourselves.
I was a freshman in college at the time, so I had the ability to think, or that was what was generally expected of me in the classroom. Thinking for myself was encouraged in the college I attended with an emphasis on figuring things out on our own. I was an art major, so creativity was also expected. I can recall going at White Box like I did so many other things at the time, in spurts of "starts" and "stops", periods of action and inaction. By the end of the school year, however, my friends and I had developed a play style which seemed to us to pretty well fit the rules. What we didn't understand, we made up.
White Box expects the players to put a lot of themselves into the game. It is an exercise in using one's imagination to create fictional characters and imagine them going on adventures, helping to create a collective story by making decisions on behalf of the fictional characters, rolling dice, making suggestions, etc. The game expects even more from the referee who not only plays the other characters and adjudicates the action during play, but must spend considerable time in preparation by drawing maps, creating monsters and NPCs and all the rest that the players are likely to encounter once play begins. That is much of the appeal of White Box. It is a vehicle for the creative use of one's imagination, a way to entertain oneself and our friends through collective imagining and developing a story together. The story may be as much about when "So-and-so" boasted loudly only to roll a one and everyone laughs, as it is about the fictional heroes grabbing the legendary treasure.
In the books and movies and comics that inspire the fictional heroes of our game, we are passive observers who follow the adventure by reading/watching. White Box shows us how to actively interact with the fictional setting through the mechanics of a game. What was passive becomes active. What was done for us becomes done by us. That is the spirit of the White Box.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Trouble with Orcs

The Pig-faced Villain
The authors of White Box were influenced by and borrowed from many sources, myths, legends and science fiction/fantasy literature while in the process of creating the first adventure/role-playing game. One has to only glance through the Little Brown Books to see the influence Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien has on the game. In the original game, ents, balrogs, and hobbits point to Tolkien's influence. I believe orcs do also, although they didn't get a name change along with the others after TSR was asked to drop direct references to Tolkien properties. Have read a considerable amount of Appendix N sources, I can't recall any other author using the term orc prior to Tolkien. Despite the popularity of orcs and orks in other games and books since, the orc for me is Tolkien's orc.
As they appear in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings, they are creatures of evil, twisted elven spirits bred to serve evil, do evil, be evil. They are cannibalistic, cruel and violent, bad tempered and get along with no one, especially other orcs. Power and cunning are the only thing they seem to aspire to. In White Box terms they are frequently encountered "monsters" of chaotic or neutral alignment. The possibility of a neutral alignment makes understanding this man-like monster a bit more troublesome in game terms than they seem in The Lord of the rings.  
Alignment isn't really explained in Vol. I Men & Magic other than to say it is necessary to determine what stance a character will take - Law, Neutrality or Chaos. I realize others have different interpretations of alignment, but I tend to see it as what team one plays for. Law tends to favor society as it is, organized and beneficial. Chaos is opposed to society and would bring it down. Neutrality is not taking a stance with either Law or Chaos, rather being out for oneself, whatever that may mean.
Interpreting alignment thus, it would seem some orcs can be killed on sight...rather like the enemy soldiers during wartime. Others, those of Neutrality, should be treated with and negotiations rather than violence should be the goal. Who actually thinks of these things during play, however?
Good and evil are not a part of White box alignment, but does play a significant role in the game. Certain spells, like Protection From Evil suggest that men and monsters may be "Good" or "evil" in addition to being aligned with Law, Neutrality or Chaos.
So I raise the question, are orcs evil? I Tolkien's LotR, from where they are drawn, orcs are entirely of the enemy, agents of evil carrying the darkest of intent. They are monsters to be hunted and killed on sight. It is assumed that if taken prisoner, the orc will still seek to harm anyone it can. So does Chaos equal evil? I don't play the game that way, but it is certainly open to interpretation.
So, picture our noble adventurers, defenders of Law, entering a ruined castle inhabited by a tribe of nasty chaos serving orcs. Having killed the orc warriors, losing two members of the party in the process, the remaining PCs are confronted by a nest of little orcs. What to do?
What about the half-orc? Later editions will present 1/2 orcs as a player race, but we are left to wonder how such mixed off-spring comes to exist if the orc is such a monster to begin with. Some sort of violent conception is often the explanation, again leading to ascribing an "evil" nature to the orc parent? As PC, is the 1/2 orc trustworthy? Often aligned with malignant forces and limited in class selection to the less savory professions, the 1/2 orc is usually suspect in many milieux.
By the way, what do orcs look like anyway? How do we recognize and orc without the referee saying, "Before you stand three orcs dressed to kill."

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Death Test 2

For Solo or Group Play
Back in the '70's a company called Metagaming specialized in small, inexpensive wargames of the counter and hex map variety. They also did The Fantasy Trip, which was/is a favorite of mine. There were two published Microgames, Melee and Wizard and later several MicroQuests, of which Death Test 2 is an early example. Advanced booklets and other stuff that made up The Fantasy Trip line of role-play game products would continue to be published until Metagaming closed shop in 1983. It's a 3d6 system written by Steve Jackson who used a lot of the ideas in his GURPS game later when he published under his own company, Steve Jackson Games.
Death Test and Death Test 2 are adventure games written to be played using the Melee/Wizard Microgames and can be run solo or with a group of friends. I recall hours and hours spent playing my original copies back-in-the-day. I recently acquired the above pictured used copy of Death Test 2 which comes in a little box with a PB booklet and some cut apart counters. The Death Test premise is simple, it is a dungeon used to test potential heroes to determine their worthiness to join the king's guard. There is a part 2 because apparently too many "wimps" were getting through the original.
The box art by Pat Hidy gives a pretty good hint at what lies within. An underground environment of adventure where characters encounter a number of challenges including beasties such as the large wolf pictured. The quest is played out on arena maps which are set-up to depict various rooms with encounters. The map is laid out with a hexagonal grid and counters are used to represent all the rest. A 47-page booklet is included which describes each room in order and the encounters which occur. It's a fight-your-way-through dungeon with a few puzzles and surprises. The Fantasy Trip system is highly tactical and makes use of facing and maneuver, distance and cover and gives the player a lot of choices to make rather than just rolling to hit each turn. The tactical nature of the rules gives it more appeal to wargamers than some other fantasy systems. And in Death Test 2 the tactics do matter. As I recall there are ways to greatly improve your chances of success based on the tactics chosen in various encounters.
Having this old favorite in my hands again brings back a flood of memories, one of which is a thought about converting the game to miniatures, perhaps as a convention game. It would be so easy to do. Just collect the appropriate game pieces - monsters, heroes, terrain, etc. and build a 3D arena with some interchangeable pieces to represent the various rooms. Or lay out the whole complex complete with connecting tunnels and everything as I have seen done with other dungeon concepts using various 3D dungeon terrain systems. The appeal here over other published designs is the tactical nature of The Fantasy Trip rules.
Who among us that plays tactical board games hasn't thought about substituting miniatures for the game playing pieces and converting the printed board to 3D tabletop terrain? It has been done with Avalon Hill's popular Squad Leader and PanzerBlitz and many other boardgames over the years. I recently read Empire of Imagination, the biography of Gary Gygax by Michael Witwer. The author sums Gary up as a guy who just liked to play games and wanted to share the games he liked with others. Looking for ways to share the games we like to play is a big part of the hobby...otherwise we play by ourselves! Fortunately there are a few play-aids devoted to solo play.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

New Adventure Fiction

Looking Beyond Appendix N
On this blog I talk a lot about older books, books that may appear on Gary Gygax's Appendix N, meaning they were published before 1980. I do this because the books listed in Appendix N are credited as having influenced the White Box edition of The World's Most Popular Role-Playing Game. It is fun to find things that appear in White Box in a story or novel written years before White Box was published. It is interesting to note how the authors of White Box adapted the borrowed idea for their game. I also find a great deal of inspiration for my own imagination useful in my own gaming.
I titled this blog White Box and Beyond, obviously because it all begins at the beginning which for me and for the hobby is White Box. But I wanted to go beyond just writing about White Box, to discuss where my hobby has taken me and where it may be leading. Yes, I read and enjoy and draw inspiration from fiction written after 1980. I recently finished The Forgetting Moon by first-time author Brian Lee Durfee. This is volume one of what I believe will be a three volume trilogy and at 777 pages there is a lot here even in just the first volume. Mr. Durfee writes in a quick-paced action packed style, which means things move along at a good pace, otherwise I honestly would probably not have finished the book, nor be writing this post. The setting for The Forgetting moon is a fantasy land called The Five Isles. Mr. Durfee describes a low fantasy, humanocentric setting where a shared religion with competing interpretations (similar to Christianity or Islam in some ways) holds considerable power. Humans rule four of the five islands, the fifth being a land of the Vale, a fey-like race with some mysteriousness about themselves. Blood drinking oghuls live among the human cities and may have wilderness areas in which they dominate, but the kingdomes are ruled by humans. Priests are powerful and competing religious doctrine has split the isles into warring factions. There is a prophesy to be fulfilled and the hint of magic now-and-again (but no real magic users) in the form of artifacts mostly. Assassins, gladiators, orders of knighthood, secret societies and court intrigue add to the excitement and together with some pretty good character development kept me reading. The ending is about what one would expect for a projected multi-volume leaves off with a lot of unanswered questions.
Is The Forgetting Moon inspiring? Yes, I find it so. Mr. Durfee has the ability to coin a phrase and chooses clever names for things. His Five Isles is a well thought-out world with lots of detail, easily enough here to inspire a game setting based on even this one volume. His use of religion to drive much of the plot is fresh, at least I don't read a lot of fantasy fiction that does this. I think it works partly because of the lack of traditional high fantasy magic. There is one emotional scene in the book where a priest is killed despite wearing his holy garment which should protect him from all harm. The resultant crisis of faith among his followers who witness his killing plays out nicely. A "healing spell" would have set a very different scene. Not only is magic often more magical when there is less of it, a more realistic setting where magic doesn't come into play often can heighten drama and make superstition more "real".
Religion in fantasy game settings can take many forms. Most published play aids tend toward the polytheistic, even multi-pantheon approach. While this provides for competing factions (usually a necessary ingredient for an interesting setting) it does so through competing gods. In The Forgotting Moon the deity is one, universally accepted, but interpreted differently in competing doctrine. So we have a conflict that somehow feels a bit more realistic because it is closer to what is occurring in current events or history.
If rumor is correct, the second volume in The Five Warrior Angels series may be out early in 2017. I hope it is as good as The Forgetting Moon.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Revelations from Heaven

Dark Eye Adventure
Revelations from Heaven is the first published adventure module for the English version of Ulisses Spiele's The Dark Eye. The saddle stitch (stapled) 64 page softcover book is very colorful and includes a number of maps as well as illustrations. The setting is the Principality of Kosh in the land of Aventuria - the default setting for The Dark Eye since its inception 30 years ago. Aventuria is a constantly changing place and a big part of the appeal of The Dark Eye has been the on-going official story-line of Aventuria. I give warning now that this post contains spoilers.
Revelations From Heaven is a beginner module with helpful hints and core rulebook page references spread throughout. The play aid sets the stage for Aventuria exploration by immersing a group of low-level PCs in a sleepy little country village with a secret. The relatively mundane threat of a bear attack starts the adventure with a note of excitement. Having presumably saved the scared peasant and her baby from the bear chasing them, the PCs are brought back to the village as "heroes", where they meet the folksy residents for lots of role-play opportunity. The locals are mostly human with a small dwarven presence, which is pretty typical of Aventuria. Social standing matters here and will influence play as the PCs interact with the variety of locals. PCs in The Dark Eye are not all the mighty warrior or mystic mage variety. Many are more mundane types with skills in diplomacy and fact-finding, trading and barter, sensing motives, crafting, entertaining, etc. It soon becomes evident that the village secret is a rash of recent thefts. Provided the PCs are willing to serve as "investigators" this sets up the rest of the adventure. Asking questions the PCs will probably meet the local holy woman who guides her gentle flock and administers what daily justice is needed. Some odd sisters living on the outskirts of town provide a source of suspicion as they are rumored to practice witchcraft (magic is uncommon and generally viewed with suspicion). In keeping with the general demographics of Aventuria, most of the villagers are human, although the village smith is a dwarf. Dwarves are the most common race other than human because they generally fit in well with human society. There is an eccentric elf out in the woods who keeps to himself and if the PCs visit him they will be introduced to Aventuria's brand of elf (not your standard Tolkien variety).
As festival time approaches, a  successful investigation will lead to a secret cult revealing one of the darker aspects of Aventuria and a climactic fight. This is a classic investigation adventure with an emphasis on learning/teaching The Dark Eye system (which is not rules-lite) and introducing the world of Aventuria. Aventuria draws heavily from an historic European folklore feel, relying on player familiarity with this tradition for the "familiar' elements of the setting while introducing them to weirder elements as part of "the life of adventure". In The Dark Eye the weird is something one encounters, not something one plays. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Harold Shea

The Complete Compleat Enchanter
In his Dungeon Masters Guide Gary Gygax gives us his Appendix N - literary works from which he drew inspiration for The World's Most Popular RPG. Many of the works on that list contributed one or more ideas, or helped shape Mr. Gygax's thinking, his creativity and imagination or his ability to tell a story. Some titles seem to have had more influence than others. The works of R.E. Howard were a particularly strong early influence and one that remained strong with Mr. Gygax throughout his life according to biographer Michael Witwer (Empire of Imagination). Reading Mr Gygax's work I think I see evidence of some of the other influences. It is hard to not think of White Box alignment while reading Michael Moorcock's Elric novels or certain of Poul Anderson's books. Three Hearts and Three Lions (Anderson) offers a paladin character that begs comparison to the paladin PC class in Greyhawk. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories of Fritz Leiber likewise put me to mind of the Greyhawk thief class. The magicians of Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels practice a magic which seems to have inspired the White Box rules for casting magic.
The Harold Shea stories of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt feature a system of magic that is quite different from Jack Vance's, but once again I see a probable influence on White Box. Harold Shea and his friends are mostly academics, psychologists, who discover how to use "magic" math formulas to move between dimensions. Shea and his colleagues theorize that magic works according to its own principles in other parallel dimensions and they experiment with various aspects of magical theory while traveling in several dimensions resembling periods of myth known in our dimension as Norse mythology, Elizabethan faerie, the Finnish Kalevala and Irish myth.
I first discovered Appendix N and began reading my way through it, seeking out authors and titles listed there and finding most to my liking, shortly after the release of the DMG. Reading Appendix N literature has, over the decades, helped me to appreciate where the authors of White Box were coming from and just what they hoped to achieve in offering their game of adventure to the world. Many of those ideas have served (and will continue to serve) as inspirations for posts on this blog. Until recently I had not read the Harold Shea novels. Other works by the authors have been known to me, but Harold Shea has escaped me. The Complete (Compleat) Enchanter has not been easy for me to find over the many years I have haunted used book stores from coast-to-coast keeping a look-out for anything on the list. I will chalk it up to bad luck, because having now read the other dimensional adventures of Harold Shea I can see that he was most assuredly one of Mr Gygax's favorites.
In the Harold Shea stories I think I see more clearly how White Box worked for its authors. The game performs a mental version of those same math formulas, transporting us to an alternate dimension or reality or setting or "milieu" as perhaps Mr. Gygax would have said. Harold Shea takes an idea, say a version of Norse Mythology, and poof! - there he is amidst the gods, giants and good folk of the Eddas. Magic works, matches and guns don't and Harold faces various challenges and has fantastic adventures while spending some brief time in this alternate dimension. As the final battle between the gods and giants unfolds, poof! - Harold ends up back in his apartment...his adventure ended until next time. The authors of Harold Shea give us this experience through reading a story. The authors of White Box give us a very similar experience playing a game, but the game takes us to the next level of engagement. In the game we can choose how we approach various challenges. In the game we roll dice and may prove powerful in victory or face defeat and new challenges. We have a little "skin-in-the-game" as the saying goes. This is not a new insight, but reading the Harold Shea stories the idea is brought into focus in a way I haven't experienced thus far. Perhaps it is my good fortune rather than bad luck to have found Harold Shea for the first time at this point in my life. Timing is everything!