Welcome to the Jungle

Hey folks, sorry I’m a little late with this post – I managed to finish writing a game yesterday and I’m about 80% through with another one, so I assure you I wasn’t goldbricking.

Tonight, I have a review for you of an adventure called Jungle Tomb of the Mummy Bride. It’s a cute little descent into a green hell crawling with the walking dead, written for 5th edition rules but nasty enough to work for all of us old schoolers out there.

The adventure is written by Levi Combs, with art by Adrian Landeros, Karl Stjemberg and John Russell. It is published by Planet X Games – you can find a copy HERE.

The adventure is designed for a party of 5th to 7th level characters, and includes the main adventure book, a book of treasure maps and a player pack. The art and presentation are great, the layout clean and readable and the book is well organized.

While I can’t comment on the adventure from the perspective of the 5th edition rules – as in the encounters being balanced, etc. – I can say that I think the adventure would work well with old school games. You have a nice set of rumors, a wandering monster list, and plenty of monsters and treasure. With a little conversion work, a few clerics and lots of holy water and flaming oil, the adventure should work just fine.

For $11.00, you get three levels of dungeon and a jungle village to explore and pillage. Monsters include bad ass devil frogs, big ole’ snakes, cannibals, giant vampire bats, gouge-eyes, idols of ill-omen, insidious jungle creepers, mushroom men, purple worm hatchlings, pygmy juju zombies, shambling parasitic SOB’s and, of course, Mazaliztli, the Mummy Bride! In the Player’s Pack you get “Twenty Forgotten Demi-Gods, Queer Quasi-Gods and Utterly Terrible Demons”, “7 Eternally Evil Chants and Diabolical Incantations Overheard at a Summoning” and a few other equally wonderful random charts. The character sheet that is included is absolutely wonderful – I wish I had one for OD&D!

Check it out folks … if you dare!

Space Cowboy Diplomacy

Retief and the Aga Kagan by Jack Gaughan

When you’re a pop culture archaeologist – ignoring the new to dig through the old – you often have that moment when you discover something that’s been around for decades, and which many others probably already know about. Still, it’s new to you, and thus a fun revelation you want to share. And so I present my latest old discovery – Jame Retief.

I was thumbing through some old issues of Worlds of IF on Project Gutenberg, and came across a story titled “The Madman from Earth” by Keith Laumer and decided to give it a read. Boy, was it fun. Then I looked at Wikipedia, and thought, “Well, I guess I’m late to this party.”

Mr. Laumer was a former officer in the U.S. Air Force and a diplomat in the American foreign service. Both of these jobs contributed to his satirical take on the exploits of Jame Retief, a rebellious diplomat in the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (CDT), an organizations of bureaucrats and lick-spittles doing everything in their power to sponge off the galactic taxpayer while doing as little work as possible. Puffed up, arrogant and duplicitous, one gets the idea that Laumer wasn’t a huge fan of the diplomats he worked with, and thus invented “regular fella” Jame Retief to settle the score in dozens of short stories and novellas written in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jame Retief is cut from the same cloth as many heroes from the period and from pulp literature. He’s got a powerful punch, an appreciation for the finer things in life (a stiff drink, cigar and beautiful woman topping his list) and a sense of right and wrong that often puts him at odds with the CDT, his bosses therein never quite understanding why he threatens his chances for promotion by constantly going off the diplomatic script.

I’ve had tremendous fun reading about the “new life and new civilizations” that Retief and the CDT interact with, from the insect-ish Groaci who serve as the CDT’s most common competitors in the galaxy (as the Russians were to the Americans in the Cold War) to the expansionist and lobster-like Soetti, the fabulous Yillians and the ray-like Jaq. All of them come combine elements of human culture and something wonderfully alien. Aliens and humans in these stories are not just carbon-copies of a mono-cultural ideal, but given some individuality. An individual alien might be a good Joe or a scum bag in a Retief story, and the hero takes them as he finds them.

His sketches of alien planets are full of inspiration for sci-fi game masters as well. From “Cultural Exchange” (1962), here’s a sketch of the farming planet Lovenbroy, which holds a Terrie (human) colony:

“We’ve got long seasons back home. Five of ’em. Our year’s about eighteen Terry months. Cold as hell in winter; eccentric orbit, you know. Blue-black sky, stars visible all day. We do mostly painting and sculpture in the winter. Then Spring; still plenty cold. Lots of skiing, bob-sledding, ice skating; and it’s the season for woodworkers. Our furniture—All local timbers too. Lots of metals in our soil and those sulphates give the woods some color, I’ll tell you. Then comes the Monsoon. Rain—it comes down in sheets. But the sun’s getting closer. Shines all the time. Ever seen it pouring rain in the sunshine? That’s the music-writing season. Then summer. Summer’s hot. We stay inside in the daytime and have beach parties all night. Lots of beach on Lovenbroy; we’re mostly islands. That’s the drama and symphony time. The theatres are set up on the sand, or anchored off-shore. You have the music and the surf and the bonfires and stars—we’re close to the center of a globular cluster, you know Autumn’s our harvest season. Most years we have just the ordinary crops. Fruit, grain, that kind of thing; getting it in doesn’t take long. We spend most of the time on architecture, getting new places ready for the winter or remodeling the older ones. We spend a lot of time in our houses. We like to have them comfortable. But this year’s different. This is Wine Year.”

 

Retief and a quornt by Gaughan

I like the way Laumer uses hints and glimmers to build his make-believe world. Things hang together just fine, but without much detail. Rather than spelling out the rules of his creation, you get glimpses. You’re never sure when it is set, but it follows a couple hundred years after a human government called the Concordiat that also featured in a series of stories he wrote about artificially intelligent war machines called Bolos. There is space travel, and it’s faster-than-light, but spaceships still have to follow real physical laws in terms of entering planetary orbit. There’s nothing like the Star Trek transporter, computers presumably exist, but humans and aliens take center stage, people still smoke (cigars, dope-sticks), drink and eat (lots of great descriptions of alien booze and food) and kill each other with power pistols and 2mm needlers.

Now, I like to put something gameable in these posts, and my first inclination was to do some Grit & Vigor stats for Retief and some of these gear in these stories, but then I changed my mind. Making up stats for somebody who is strong, tough, quick, smart, etc. is no big deal, after all. Instead, I got an idea for addressing a common problem in translating fantasy, sci-fi and adventure literature into gaming, namely – a lack of team work.

Some of the best loved characters in fiction are loners – James Bond and Conan come immediately to mind. They sometimes have assistants, and even team-ups, but these characters are often little more than NPC’s. The stories written for them work best with a single protagonist, so translating their adventures into RPG’s meant for a party of three to six characters can be difficult. Thus my latest notion, Group Solo Play.

Group Solo Play

“Well, now what do I do?”

In GSP, a party of players control the actions of one larger-than-life hero. Every player is given the same number of chips – say 10 to start. When the character is presented with a big decision – a plot point, one might say – those players who have an idea of what they want him to do put any number of chips down on the table. For each chip played, the player rolls one dice, totaling them, with the player with the highest total taking over the control of the character. Once a chip is put on the table, win or lose, it is lost. The player in control stays in control until a new “big decision” comes up, when a new bidding war begins. This leaves many players on the sidelines, watching the story unfold as an audience, but with the chance to take the reins when the current controlling player is messing everything up.

The use of the chips means that no one player gets to dominate forever. One person might win a few bidding wars early, but eventually they run low on chips and the other players are going to win control. Ultimately, everyone has to work together to get the character through the adventure successfully, and in doing so competitively maybe gets a chance to appreciate the different methods of their fellow players. When everyone has run out of chips, and if the adventure is still ongoing, just hand out another 10 chips to everyone and keep going until you achieve ultimate success or failure.

The key role here is played by the Game Master, who needs to decide when a bidding war is to take place – you don’t want too many, or too few – and who needs to create a story telling atmosphere to keep the non-controlling players interested in the game while they’re waiting for a chance to take control.

Of Beans and Baggins

Sad news lately, as another three folks I dig shuffled off this mortal coil. Of course, I’m speaking of Kirk Douglas, Orson Bean and Robert Conrad. This post, if you couldn’t tell from the title, is inspired by Mr. Bean (okay, that’s funny – didn’t occur to me until I just wrote that).

For those who like geeky pop culture, Orson Bean is best known as the voice of Bilbo Baggins in the Rankin/Bass production of The Hobbit. That film has its detractors, but I’m not one of them – I love it. I love the voice work and the character design, and … well, maybe not all the singing, but that’s okay.

I discovered The Lord of the Rings when I was maybe 13 years old. I found a copy of The Two Towers at my grandma’s house – it was owned by my Aunt Karen, she of the Star Trek and Doctor Who fandom, who was only 16 when I was born, so she was the young, fun aunt in my life. I had just gotten into D&D in sixth grade, so Tolkien was a real revelation – I honestly had no idea that “fantasy” existed as a genre. It was all new and cool to me. After reading Two Towers, I went back and read Fellowship, and then Return, and it was all so adult and complicated and grown up and cool. Then I discovered the Hobbit, and well, obviously that was a kid’s book, and being a junior high school student, I was well past things like the Hobbit and fairy tales.

Of course, the reality is that I was past fairy tales, and also not yet ready for them.

In college, I was lurking around a used book sale at UNLV hosted by the library and the college radio station (KUNV). I picked up a cassette tape of the China Beach soundtrack (loved it), a vinyl record of Adam Ant’s Manners and Physique, and a really cheap hard-cover of Hobbit. I read it, and took a step towards wisdom. I mean the wisdom of simplicity, as in simple > complex.

It was after reading the book that I sought out the film. I was working at the Video Park (World’s Largest Video Store – no joke), so getting a copy was no problem. It knocked my socks off. The voice work, by such luminaries as Bean – just the perfect hobbit voice for my money – Otto Preminger (legendary director and my favorite Mr Freeze), Richard Boone (absolute legend from the days of radio, and as Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel), John Huston (my favorite Gandalf voice), Hans Conried, Paul Frees, Thurl Ravenscroft, Don Messik and Brother Theodore. Just great voices. Voices like that are pretty much unknown in this day and age – I think it was the smoking that gave them that quality, so honestly, it’s better that we don’t have those voices anymore, but they’re really a beloved part of my childhood.

Then there’s the design. Great stuff all, but can I tell you how much I love the elves in that cartoon. So alien, so weird – much better than the pretty boys running around in most fantasy stories. So bloody cool.

Now for the game-able pay-off.

I was thinking about plotting out how many XP old 0-level halfling Bilbo Baggins managed to earn in the Hobbit. He manages to sort of defeat the trolls, so that’s worth a few XP, and he gets a magic ring off Gollum (ring of invisibility / major artifact), but what he mostly does is save the dopey dwarves from danger. How do you award XP for saving things? Something like that would be pretty useful for chivalric campaigns, too, since knights in shining armor are supposed to do lots of that work.

Let’s consider really old school D&D for a moment. I remember reading some interviews with the original players of D&D, and they made it clear that the point of the game, early on, was treasure. Treasure is where you earned the big XP. Monsters gave you XP, sure, but they also had a tendency to kill you. Smart player wanted to find a way to get the treasure without fighting the monsters – or without fighting them fairly.

Back to rescues. When you’re out rescuing dwarves or maidens or singing princes (NO – NO SINGING!), the rescued party is like the treasure you’re seeking. So what’s that treasure worth?

My first thought was to make rescuing a person worth as much XP as you’d get fighting them – which kind of works for a bunch of dwarven fighters, but not so much for innocent children and other 0-level types. What we need is an effective level (or HD) for rescued people without a bunch of class levels of their own. Here’s an idea:

We’ll start with 1 HD for everyone. We’ll add +1 HD for Lawful/Good creatures, +2 HD if they’re effectively helpless, like children, and +1 HD if they’re mostly helpess (i.e. no spells, no weapons training). If we’re doing chivalry, maybe we add something for the religious – like nuns, religious hermits, etc. – and maybe for being part of the noble classes. I guess folks can come up with other bonuses based on their own campaigns.

So, if a band of adventurers set out to rescue a Lawful princess who has given her life to God, she might be worth: 1 HD + 1 HD for Lawful + 1 HD for religious + 1 HD for noble + 1 HD for being mostly helpless (no spells, no fighting ability as such) = 5 HD.

So, RIP Orson Bean – God’s speed, sir.

Less Than Ideal

Here’s a little idea that just popped into my head that I thought folks might find useful when one needs to generate a NPC personality on the fly with very little to go on. It works on the idea of, for lack of a better term, stereotypes.

In D&D – heck, in so many things – there is a general conception of what an elf or dwarf or magic-user (etc.) should be. Maybe these ideas come from the game books or other pop culture, and maybe they change over time, but they do exist. Take elves, for example. Lots of RPG’ers have an idea in mind of how an elf behaves and what they look like. Consider this as, rather than a stereotype, an ideal. The ideal elf in old D&D was 5′ tall, Chaotic Good, came from the woodlands, etc.

How many elves, though, live up to this ideal? Perhaps, when an elven NPC shows up, we can roll a dice, perhaps a good old fashioned d6, to find out how close the NPC is to the ideal. Maybe a “6” means we have the perfect elf in front of us. But for every point lower than a “6”, we dial that elf one step from the ideal.

Here’s where we get free-form with this thing. The ways in which the NPC differs from the elven idea is up to the DM. Say we roll a “5”. We have an almost ideal elf, but he differs in one particular way. If we think of elves as having happy personalities, maybe our elf is morose. Maybe he doesn’t come from the woodlands, but instead the coasts. Maybe he’s a step away from Chaotic Good – Neutral Good or Chaotic Neutral. Maybe he’s stout instead of lean, dresses in scarlet instead of green – whatever your conception of an elf is, this guy doesn’t quite live up to it.

Roll a “3” for a dwarf, and he differs from he dwarven idea in 3 ways – he’s Lawful Neutral, lean instead of stout and is funny instead of dour … or he has auburn hair, prefers the woods to being underground and thinks elves are groovy.

A simple d6 roll, an idea of an ideal, and a little imagination to get a memorable NPC.