Buried Treasure

In my youth, I thought he really did speak in word bubbles

Folks who regularly read my blog will recall my “timely reviews” of old games. I love old games (which reminds me – review of the Six Million Dollar Man coming soon), sometimes for the nostalgia, sometimes for the design, and sometimes for the discovery value. When it comes to buying old games, there are two different kinds of discovery.

The first, of course, is discovering a new system and new ideas about how to simulate whatever the game is trying to simulate. Even simple games meant for children can have clever ideas in them. The old game I just recently bought does not offer that kind of discovery, because it’s a game I used to own. Well, sorta.

Our old logo was a rip from the NFL Vikings – this is the new one

Back in 9th grade, in which I was technically a freshman at Valley High School (Valley Vikings Rule!), but was still being taught at Cannon Junior High (it was how they did things back then), there was a small corps of gamers (meaning role-playing gamers … everyone played video games back then, so they didn’t get a special designation) at the school, and we all knew each other. I remember a friend named Irfan who carried a briefcase to school so he could screen from the teacher that he was reading the AD&D Monster Manual in class – very smart guy, as well, got way better grades than me – so it was that sort of group.

At some point, a new kid in school discovered that I ran D&D games, and he wondered if I would run a game for him. The kid in question was new to town – I got the feeling that he moved around alot – so he didn’t have any friends in school. He lived close to the school, so I went over to his house one day to see the game he wanted me to run. It was something new.

It turned out to be the Marvel Superheroes RPG. Well, it also turned out that he had a big box full of old Playboys, which is another story, but this MSH game and the Secret Wars module he wanted me to run was the point of the visit and it was intriguing. Beyond the Spider-Man bits on the Electric Company, the Super Friends and Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, I knew nothing about comic books. I had a few war comics, but that was it. This was all very new to me.

The kid lent me the Secret Wars booklet, and I had my first introduction to the likes of Storm (in her 80’s punk phase, which is still my favorite) and a host of other characters. It got me interested in comic books, and I remember the next time we were at a 7-Eleven I convinced my dad to buy me a comic book – a slugfest between the Avengers and the Hulk, so it had tons of characters in it, and it made me a comic book fan. The same way D&D got me into reading  the Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Superheroes game got me into comic books. I do everything back-assward!

My first ish – Hulk #316

Naturally, along with reading comic books, I also got my own copy of the game – the advanced version! The kid in question moved away before I could even give him back the Secret Wars booklet, so I had that for years in my own advanced game set. Some time in the late 1990’s I gave virtually all my RPG stuff away to some friends. When I got back into gaming later, it turned out they had kept most of it, and I got it back … but not the Marvel game. Somebody claimed that beauty.

Recently, my daughter, who digs the movies and has an interest in the comics, found out about the game and wanted to play it, so I went looking for a copy and … WOW! I made a huge mistake giving that sucker away – copies are so expensive these days! Fortunately, last week I found a copy of the basic game at a reasonable price and snapped it up. It arrived yesterday, and this is where the buried treasure comes in.

As I perused the contents, I found some old character sheets filled out by the previous owners. The first one was for Wolverine, but the next was for an original hero created using the game rules. I love that kind of find. It made me wonder who the old owner of the set was … and a few pages more, I found out. It turns out that the owner not only filled out the application for the RPG Association but never sent it in (me to), but also weote a letter asking some questions about how Wolverine’s powers worked, also never sent, with his name and address on it.

It was fun reading the letter, because it reminded me of myself back in the day – a wide-eyed geek trying to wrap his head around these games and things that were so new to me. Going back in time like this is nice. The times really weren’t any simpler then than now for adults, but my life was much simpler as a kid. I miss the people I’ve loved and have lost – friends and relatives – and although I cannot get them back, looking through old games and books and photographs sparks cherished memories of them and makes me happy … a bittersweet happiness, but happiness just the same.

Now, I present a forgotten superhero of the 1980’s, discovered in a beat-up old game box and created by a person whose name I will not reveal (but who I think I found with a search on LinkedIn) … Spazmo Joe! Maybe his creator will come across this, and it will bring back some happy times. I sure hope so!

SPAZMO JOE … of SHIELD!

Fighting: Excellent
Agility: Remarkable
Strength: Remarkable
Endurance: Amazing
Reason: Excellent
Intuition: Remarkable
Psyche: Good

Health: 130
Karma: 30

Known Powers: Extra attacks, Weather control (Amazing)

Talents: First aid, law enforcement, guns, special weapons, martial arts

Special Devices: Plasma gun, 30-cal machine gun, mandarin armor (at least, I think it says mandarin)

And yeah … there was art!

Is that a SHIELD-regulation haircut?

‘Nuff Said!

Old School Energy

Over the past year, I’ve been doing an extended dive into the world of Star Trek, or “old school Star Trek” you might say. Boy, do I love the original show, and having discovered the first RPG for it, I started developing a Star Trek campaign that, frankly, nobody but me would ever see. Really, though, it was more than that. It was like my personal salute to the show, that groovy 60’s sci-fi, the look ad feel of the whole thing – all things I loved, but also things I had never really explored. Which brings me to fanzines ,,,

Initially, I discovered Geoffrey Mandel’s Star Fleet Handbook, much of which was reproduced as the U.S.S. Enterprise Officer’s Manual, which I owned. I say “much of which”, because there was plenty that didn’t see print in that compilation, and enthused with all things Old School Trek, I wanted to see what Mr. Mandel had created.

I managed to find a couple issues online and bought them and loved them. A fan filling in the details of something he loved, but not to the obsessive degree to which such things can be taken. None of the nonsense about “canon” and copyright and such – just creativity. In the process of finding the Star Fleet Handbooks, I also found the “Fanlore” website, and so the descent into madness began.

Folks, you might not know this about me, but when I start researching for a project, I go a bit nuts. I love research … heck, I do it for a living … and I tend to over-research things. With Grit & Vigor, for example, I needed to know more about guns and vehicles than I did so I could model them appropriately in the game. Before I was done, I’d built a database of thousands of firearms, cars, airplanes … heck, I even built a database of hundreds of animals to have something to which I could compare the vehicles. Overkill, yes, but once I start I just can’t stop.

My “Star Trek Databank” now includes over 1,500 stars (which I’ve mapped), since I wanted to tie all the planets to real world stars, over 2,600 named Starfleet vessels with their registry numbers, etc. You get the idea. And now I had dozens (hundreds?) of old fanzines to explore.

I was mostly looking for articles about the “Star Trek universe”, rather than short stories. I wanted to see what fans, with nothing more than the original show and the animated episodes to work with, could come up with about all that new life and new civilizations. Finding some articles about Tellarites and Andorians on Fanlore, I was soon the owner of all five issues of Sehlat’s Roar. Great articles, by the way – very creative and very useful for my purposes. I soon had a select collection of a few others, and naturally started reading some of the fan fiction that was in them. Heck, I even discovered some art by Vaughn Bode and Phil Foglio! From Star Trek fanzines to “Phil & Dixie” in Dragon Magazine. Cool stuff, and it hit me how similar all of this was to the early days of Dungeons & Dragons. The art, the presentation and, most importantly, the energy!

The energy is what I love about old school Trek, old school D&D – maybe old school everything. That brilliant, bubbly, awkward, crazy, wonderful energy released when somebody has birthed something new – something we’ve not quite seen before. It was there in the earliest animation, in early jazz, in early movies. In time, all of these things become more about money than ideas, but there’s usually a wonderful honeymoon that just thrills me to death. Now that I’m approaching 50, I’m discovering a real love for DIY – books, games, art, movies, music, restaurants, etc. Real people doing things – sometimes well, sometimes not so well – for the sheer love of it.

Folks – go find that energy. Bathe in it, participate in it, and love it for all you’re worth. Along with the human relationships – spouse, kids – that make your life worthwhile, the energy of frenzied fans doing something they love for almost nothing at all will keep you going.

Dragon by Dragon – January 1982 (57)

Wow – 1982. I was ten years old (well, nine in January) and still a couple years away from learning about Dungeons & Dragons. Thirty-six years ago – much as changed, and much has not. I guess all these years later, we can be happy that people are still playing D&D and AD&D and other “old school” games. Let’s start the new year by looking at the new year in 1982 in gaming …

Let’s start with the cover, because it’s pretty different from the traditional fantasy fare. We have a woman, maybe modern, knitting dragons (or something like them) onto a blanket  and the dragons are becoming real and flying into the fireplace, all while a strange painting of a man or woman looks on. The tragedy is that I can’t quite make out the signature, and I didn’t see the artist’s name in the magazine.

Update: Nathan Irving writes me to let me know the artist is Dean Morrissey, who provided covers for 16, 18, 28, 60, 84 and 91.

The first big article is “Modern Monsters” by Ed Greenwood. It’s a great article, giving modern (in 1982) vehicles and firearms stats for D&D. The article also goes into some of the pitfalls of pitting “medieval” characters against modern characters. It really all goes to the point that jumping from one reality into another was assumed to be a regular feature by our elders in the hobby. Here’s one insight you might enjoy:

Magic will ultimately determine the fate of an AD&D party in a modern setting. It is the party’s “heavy artillery,” and must be expended with caution, for it is not wholly renewable. Magic users without spell books will be unable to regain their spells.

Lenard Lakofka presents some useful ideas and tables in “Shield and Weapon Skills”, including this insight about shields after he watched some folks from the SCA put on a demonstration of medieval fighting:

Fully 60% of the blows are caught by the shield. Second, a trained fighter who normally uses a broadsword is a much poorer fighter when using a battle axe for the first time. To place these facts in terms of AD&D™ rules, some minor rule changes are proposed. A shield will now give +2 to armor class instead of just +1.

He also presents some rules for determining how long shields last in combat. My favorite scheme is for shields to have to make an item save whenever an attack roll is a natural ’20’.

The tables I mentioned are for determining an NPC’s weapon proficiencies, but they could also be used to determine an NPC’s armaments.

In the “Sorcerer’s Scroll”, one E. Gary Gygax presents some more details about the Greyhawk setting – a good read for those who use that campaign setting.

In “In Search of a James Bond”, Mark Mulkins covers how in a TOP SECRET game one could work for three different operational bureaus at the same time without sacrificing experience points. What Mark covers in three pages I would just hand wave.

Up next is an article I kinda dig called “Random Magic Items” by Pete Mohney. It’s a collection of some groovy little random tables for generating magic items. I’ll generate three of them now:

1) A magic girdle, not cursed, that gives a +1 bonus to all saving throws.

2) An amulet shaped like a double-headed axe that allows the wearer to control animals once per week.

3) A hat that provides a +1 bonus to intelligence – we’ll call it a thinking cap.

If you’re a player of DragonQuest, this issue has an article about magicians by Jon Mattson. Since I’ve never played the game, I can’t comment on the merits of the article.

This issue’s Giants in the Earth covers a couple characters I don’t know – C. J. Cherryh’s Morgaine and Vanye (with art by Jim Holloway) from the books Gate of Ivrel, Well of Shiuan and Fires of Azeroth, Lynn Abbey’s Rifkind from Daughter of the Bright Moon and The Black Flame, and two characters created by Robert E. Howard – Belit and Dark Agnes. Howard. Belit is a Chaotic Evil 10th level fighter in this write-up, though I would probably go Neutral Evil given her devotion to Conan since I conceive of Chaotic Evil as being utterly self-interested.

The special feature of this issue is an AD&D adventure called “The Wandering Trees” by Michael Malone. It is intended for characters level 6th to 9th. The adventure begins thus:

Long ago, so far back that even the elves are not sure when, Termlane Forest was the home of a tribe of tree-worshipping men. These men built a great temple at the heart of The Forest, where they worshipped their mysterious tree-gods.

The adventure concerns a forest of moving trees with only two safe ways through, and a lost temple somewhere in between. It’s a hell of a dangerous forest, so beware. The adventure also includes stakes for the Phooka.

In “Up on a Soapbox”, there are two essays – one by Brian Blume on the problems with playing evil characters in games, and another by Roger E. Moore on the benefits of playing rpg’s with women.

Michael Kluever has an interesting look at “The History of the Shield”. It’s a good primer for those who like to get crunchy. It’s not a short article, and it is well researched with a useful bibliography.

There’s a great insight into 1982 geekdom in “The Electric Eye”, namely the results of a survey regarding to what high tech goodies readers of the magazine had to play with. The results:

  • 46% have an Apple II or Apple II+
  • 38% have a TRS-80
  • 20% have an Atari 400 or 800
  • 9% have a CBM
  • 6% have no computer
  • 6% have a S-100
  • 3% have a North Star
  • 3% have a VIC
  • and 20% have some other computer

The bottom line, apparently was:

Who is the average Electric Eye reader? He’s a 17-year-old male high school student. He has owned a 48K Apple-l I+ with a disk drive, a printer, and a joystick or a paddle set for about a year. He has spent a little over $100 on software, but he mainly either copies out of magazines or does it himself. He reads The Electric Eye for the program listings and reviews, but he is also interested in other facets of computer gaming.

As always, I leave you with Wormy

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Yes, But …

treasure-chest11It’s been a long slog through a dangerous wilderness and then a devilish dungeon. Henchmen have died, PC’s have bled, but in the end, Law triumphed over Chaos (with an assist by Neutrality) and the dragon is dead.

Yes, but …

The PC’s have “won” the game. They’ve completed the adventure. They’re done. Or are they? Since the name of the game is adventure, the end of a particular adventure can be a temporary thing. I draw to your attention Mr. Edgar Rice Burroughs and his planetary romance set on Barsoom. If you haven’t read about old John Carter and his incomparable princess, you should, and in between the Martian sight-seeing you might also pay attention to how ERB paces the books and ends them, at least how he ends the first one because it’s a great way to run adventures.

220px-Princess_of_Mars_largeIn A Princess of Mars, every success by John Carter is a doorway to a new challenge that must be faced (and must be faced NOW!). Once John Carter gets used to the red planet, it’s pretty nonstop action – challenge followed by resolution followed by complication or new challenge, etc. When the book finally ends, the adventure does not. Like all of us wide-eyed kids who saw Han frozen in carbonite and Luke get a rough lesson about his family tree, readers of the first Barsoom novel are left hanging, waiting for the next installment.

The Notion

Almost every success in the game drives the adventurers to a new challenge, and the end of each “module” leads directly into the next for at least three “modules”. After every three, the adventurers have a chance to rest.

The idea here is not a story-driven piece, in which the players are led by the nose. The players can always choose to give up. They just have to face the consequences. They intrude on a dungeon and decide not to face the dragon – fine – but the dragon is now awake and cranky and everyone for 100 miles is suffering for it.

Moreover, when they kill the dragon, a new challenge arises from that now moldering corpse. Think about some of the classic module series of AD&D and how they linked – you finish the slavers in the under city, but now you’re led to their stockade to strike another blow against their evil.

When you design your adventures, think about how to turn one adventure into a trilogy (or how to break a mega-adventure into a trilogy of smaller adventures).

This might involve:

  1. Foreshadowing the trilogy in its first two stages – not in ham-handed way, but in such a way that as new things are revealed, the players get that light bulb moment and start making connections. It might make sense to make sure the players know there’s more in store. If the group is heading off to deal with some kobolds in the woods, an old man in the tavern might mention that he thinks the kobolds are being put up to it by the weird cult in the hills. Another might scoff and say something like, “Oh, I suppose next you’ll tell us the dragon beyond the mountains is causing the drought.” Now they know there’s more out there than just some kobolds in a 1st level dungeon.
  2. When you write the adventures, figure out how they link together, and how each is a separate adventure in its own right. Give the players bite-size chunks – bring the courses of the adventure meal out one at a time rather than all at once. The best way to do this is to make the end of one the beginning of the next one. Each adventure needs a beginning (“You all meet in a tavern …”) a middle (the delve) and an end (“… you open the treasure chest and find …”). The end holds the key to the next beginning, “… but as you fill your packs with treasure, the ground shakes and the giant diamond falls into a crevice … it looks like there’s another dungeon below the one you’ve just conquered.”)
  3. The big idea here is about transitions from one state of play to another. You might think about this in terms of PC level. The trilogy that drives PC’s from 1st through 3rd level will be different from the one that drives them from 4th to 6th level. When the PC’s move from the “basic” levels to the “expert” levels, they leave who they were behind in some ways and must enter a larger, more complex and more dangerous world. The old game had this in mind with the idea of hitting name level and building strongholds – the old life of wandering adventurer would end, and the new life of settled ruler begins. In play, this was also a transition from RPG to wargame.
  4. alternatefuturesHere’s where consequences come into play. In our own lives, there are moments where we have to choose about moving forward – say from childhood to adulthood. We can choose not to, but there are consequences. Choosing to reject adulthood does not mean the world of your childhood lives on. Things still change, and often not for the better. When the players choose to ignore that next challenge, the campaign world they inhabit changes because of their choice. This doesn’t have to be a severe change designed to force them into tackling the next adventure, but it should involve loss and a noticeable change. If in the end the players decide not to follow up, they have to live in the world they’ve created and you can embark on a new trilogy. They just have to accept that the campaign world is different and move on.

Just a notion – do with it as you will.

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Dragon by Dragon – December 1981 (56)

Ho ho ho – Merry Christmas 1981!

Let’s be honest, Christmas and the 1980’s were made for each other … or at least it sure seemed that way when I was growing up in the 80’s. Christmas had a certain magic in those days that was lost by the 1990’s. I’m sure it had nothing at all to do with me growing up, getting a job, getting married and having a child.

Enough of that – let’s see what the Dragon brought us for Christmas …

First, a bit of opinionating from Kevin Morgan

“There is no need to change the monk character class of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.”

So there you go. If you were planning on changing the class, you can stop.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Mr. Morgan in some respects – too often a class is considered “broken” or underpowered because it doesn’t do what somebody wants it to do. Doesn’t mean the class is wrong, just means its the wrong class for the player. In AD&D days, of course, things had to be official, which is why the wrong monk for you meant the wrong monk for everyone, because we couldn’t just have a bunch of different monks running around making people happy. That would be (small “c”) chaos!

Speaking of redesigning classes, the first big article of the mag is “Singing a new tune – a different bard, not quite so hard” by Jeff Goelz. For those new to the old school, bards were once very powerful folks, far more than in modern games. It was a tough class to qualify for and as is mentioned in the article, the revised bard class of the Player’s Handbook took forever to  enter – one had to go through a succession of other classes first. The article here tries to make a slightly less powerful bard that can be played right from first level like any other character.

A couple takeaways: First, the opening vignette has two of the greatest character names ever: Jake Armageddon, half-orc fighter/assassin and Alphonse Armageddon, half-orc cleric/assassin. I salute you Mr. Goelz.

Second, the bard in this article is a great class that is very playable. It won’t be a stranger to many players of modern iterations of D&D – d6 for Hit Dice, some skills, some fighting ability, some spellcasting (illusionist and druid). Good stuff, especially if you’re running first edition and a weird-o like me comes along wanting to play a bard.

Bill Howell follows up the first article with “Songs instead of spells”. Here, Mr. Howell introduces “songs of power” sung by the bard in place of spells, with a complete song list and some details of songs not already covered as existing spells. Here’s one, done up as a spell for Blood & Treasure:

Satire (Conjuration)

Level: Bard 5          Range: Special          Duration: Special

This song is used against a prominent public figure who behaves incorrectly. The target of the spell has his or her charisma score halved until they atone for their misdeeds … unless their deeds are not really misdeeds. If the target’s actions are not truly objectionable in the moral climate of the region, the bard’s charisma is halved instead until they move at least 50 leagues away, and they may not return to the region for one full year.

This spell is actually right up my alley.

“Map hazard, not haphazard” by William Hamblin is one of those articles that has slightly lost its efficacy with time. It concerns using topographic maps in fantasy games – a good idea and a good discussion – but also includes addresses one can use to order sample maps. The internet has made finding maps like these much easier.

A touching sentiment

Gary Gygax’s “From the Sorcerer’s Scroll” in this issue covers protection circles (and the like) plus news from the northern Flanaess. It includes some illustrations and descriptions of magic circles and pentagrams, and God knows this article would have run afoul of the “D&D is Satanic” crowd back in the day. I can remember it being included in the old Greyhawk box set. He also describes the Wolf Nomads, Bandit Kingdoms, Duchy of Tenh and Rovers of the Barrens, all of which shows up in the box set as well. Brings back good memories of a wide-eyed kid reading this stuff and realizing that making up a whole world was something you could actually do.

The big feature this issue is a Top Secret scenario called “Mad Merc” – a mission set on a tropical island. It is written by Merle M Rasmussen and James Thompson, and whether you play TS or not, the materials here are super useful and there is a metric ton of it – maps, descriptions of complexes, etc. There’s a nuclear-powered drydock, native peoples caught in the crossfire and a “mad merc” named Strikewell.

The Dragon’s Bestiary this issue features Lewis Pulsipher‘s shroom, which isn’t a mushroom man, but rather a creature that looks something like a thin bear with a dog-like head that can dimension door and prefers capturing foes and holding them for ransom rather than outright killing them.

Shroom, Medium Monster: HD 4+3, AC 14, ATK 2 paws (1d6), MV 30′, AL Neutral (CN), INT low, CL/XP 5/500, NA 1d8, SA-Dimension door, subdue, surprise (4 in 6), hug.

Richard Lucas’ colfel is a big, fearsome beetle from the Negative Energy Plane, which means level drain ladies and gentlemen. Michael C. Reed’s gem vars are humanoid creatures composed of precious stones and created by magic-users. I like all of these monsters, any one of which could be a great addition to a game filled with players who have read the existing monster manuals cover to cover. I think surprises are what makes playing these rpgs fun.

Dragon 56 also has reviews of Task Force Games’ Survival/The Barbarian (positive, but the reviewer thinks they’re too simple for some gamers), Dawn of the Dead (“The game is fast-paced and a fair amount of fun, despite its decidedly macabre nature”) and GDW’s The Argon Gambit/Death Station (very positive) and Fighting Ships: Traveller Supplement 9, which the reviewer found interesting reading, but maybe not super useful for the rpg itself.

There are also book reviews, a holiday gift-giving section focused on books and the continuation of a series that looks at game design.

All in all, not an exciting issue, but I liked the bard class and the bestiary was good.

As always, I leave you with Wormy – have fun and be kind to one another.

You’re seeing Tramp take it to another level here

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