Friday, August 17, 2007

Time For A Change

NOTICE: do not read this post if you are offended by foul language... I mean the kind of language you'd hear in a port bar where sailors hang out and get drunk.

You were warned.

Watching the videos for the upcoming 4th edition drove me to an inescapable conclusion:

Our hobby was long ago hijacked by robber barons intent on nothing more than making money off gamers. The two videos I just watched confirmed my long-held theory... D&D is nothing more than someone's money cow and has been since the Blume brothers took over TSR in the early 80s.

Frankly, this makes me sick. It always has to an extent, but more so today.

When it comes to table top gaming, all I want to do is recreate the excitement I once had as a teenager with 1st edition. I don't think there's much wrong with the game... yeah it needed a tweak here and there... but it was more playable than a phalanx of other games I've tried over the years. It gave me excitement and pleasure.

So now WOTC comes along with 4e, and they tout it as "adding to the excitement."

HOW MUCH FUCKING EXCITEMENT CAN A PERSON HANDLE? What the hell, are people that fucking jaded? What... fighting a gaggle of trolls is old hat, so now we have to color-coordinate them or something?

I sat there and watched these two videos... wait a minute, if you haven't seen them, then here they are... look for yourself:

YouTube 1
YouTube 2

Seen'em now? Ok... they're not selling an RPG anymore... they're selling a product. What's the difference?

When you read the 1st edition books, you get a sense that Gygax... and yeah, he was selling you something in the process, true... is speaking from gaming experience... the dude basically created the whole hobby as it is, and gave you wizened advice on how to enhance your own game. For sale, yes. Backed by years of personal experience, valuable.

These braniacs sat around the office and developed a new product for you to buy. They don't give a damn about gaming... they give a damn about what's in your wallet.

Nothing else.

The crazy thing is: for the past seven years I've had to put up with 3tards and C&C fanatics telling me how much better their games are. Now I have to deal with the 4e bunch as well, and you know their coming.

Calm down, Jimmy.

No, I'm not calming down, dammit. I want my fucking hobby back without a bunch of shit, that's what I want.

But wait, there's more.

So we have the "old school" community online... Grognard's Tavern, Knights-n-Knaves, Dragonsfoot (the UN of gaming... and about as effective), and many others. One out maybe one hundred posters on any of these boards has the creative ability to come up with something to give back to the OS community. Create something, put it on sale, and maybe 100 posters will buy it. Most will be silent, then some asshole comes along and says "I'd have done it better."

Writing for RPGs is like fucking in a fishbowl... you can't make a move with someone voicing their opinion on your technique.

To top it off: you get guys like Stuart Marshall and Matt Finch, who love the game and want to give something back to the hobby, bust their asses to come up with OSRIC (with a little help from their friends), and the jerks come out of the woodwork screaming that "it's illegal."

Listen, asshole: there were enough lawyers to recreate the Nuremberg Trials involved in the creation process... no one wants to hear your crap. I know who "you" are... you're the same little punk who annoyed everyone at the table in your youth with your fucking rules-lawyering. People found you annoying then... they find you annoying now.

How about a little support there for your hobby?

I don't know if I'm violating any confidences there, but there you are. Solid as a rock, OSRIC is.

I've seen one established publisher take advantage of OSRIC... XRP. One. Joe and Suzi saw the potential. A couple of publishing "companies" have arisen to bite the cookie, but that's it. Rob Kuntz, Goodman Games, Kenzer... the rest who tout themselves as "old school" have their own agendas.

Where the hell is the old school community? They won't buy these products... no one's. Each publisher is lucky to make a hundred sales on any given product. What the hell?

No, we'd rather sit around and debate the initiative rules for the 40th time.

I'm tired. I'm tired of going on boards and reading the same old stuff that I read two years ago. I understand Gygax now and owe him an apology.

I'm tired of a multi-board community that sits and spins in the mud, while its innovators like Marshall and Finch get slandered for actually giving people what they want. Those who've gone the extra mile to give something back to the hobby they love get discouraged. I'm discouraged.

It ain't about the money... it's about the hobby itself, and for it to survive it needs a fresh shot of material every once in a while... good stuff that recaptures the essence of a good game.

You're getting it... with XRP, Magique, or other smaller labels. You're not getting it from Kuntz and his 30 year old crap he's recycling because TSR wouldn't buy it back when it actually had standards. You're not going to get it from WOTC either. It's right here.

I'm through. I promised Joe Browning a manuscript that I haven't completed through absolute ennui. Maybe he'll still want it. But these days of banging my head and swallowing Mylanta are over for me. I set this blog up to give something back, and after several posts I can count on one hand the number of comments that have been made. Why the fuck should I bother? By and large, the OS community is a bunch of Millerites sitting on a hill waiting for Jesus to come back.

So, this blog goes on hiatus until... well, I've got ideas and those ideas won't be directed just toward the same incestuous crowd but also at the market that's out there... those that are looking for what we've got. Somebody's gotta get smart... might as well be me.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

OSRIC Part One: The Idea and the Controversy

Perhaps, having been involved with OSRIC on the sidelines, I shouldn't be the one writing this... but I don't see anyone else doing it, so what the hell. It's certainly generated some interest and controversy for almost a year now, so perhaps a slightly retrospective cover of the OSRIC document is in order.

For those of you who just didn't know about it, OSRIC stands for Old School Reference Index Compilation, and is basically the 1st edition AD&D rules brought back to life. Originating with Matt Finch (better known as Mythmere) and finishing up with Stuart Marshall (aka Papers & Paychecks), OSRIC strives to provide a platform for publishers to create modules and supplements compatable with 1st edition.

I can say that. The developers cannot.

OSRIC springs from WOTC's SRD and OGL and proposes that a) game rules themselves cannot be copyrighted (which is true), and b) the twin documents noted above allow for the creation of something that smells a whole lot like 1st edition. Artistic presentation had to be taken into consideration, of course, and that's why you don't see the Monk in OSRIC... the order of ability gains skirted to close to the original author's personal expression.

As far as I know, right now OSRIC exists in version 1.00... which supersedes earlier test runs. Over the past year, it has been heavily proofread, edited, and checked to make sure it coincides with the real deal as closely as possible. The current PDF can be downloaded here.

Inevitably, and as planned, publishers came forward to answer the call... there are many OSRIC based works available (some of which I've covered on this blog already). The most notable publisher to date would have to be Expeditious Retreat Press. XRP, already established with d20 products, took up the reins and has published three OSRIC-based works to date (two of which happen to be mine, but this isn't a plug or anything).

There have been some statements made over time as to the legality of OSRIC. I won't call names here...yet... that's not the point... but it's worth pointing out that the development of OSRIC was supervised... ahem... by individuals who would know more on the subject than most of those who've shot their mouths off.

I'll have more to say in the near future about OSRIC past this small introduction: its viability as a publishing platform, its usefulness as a stand-alone game, existing and upcoming supplements, and other things. It's certainly not going away anytime soon, despite the wishes of others, and I think the handlers of OSRIC need to find an angle to push their creation even further into the limelight.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

REVIEW: Labyrinth Lord by Daniel Proctor

A little background from me first: I got into RPGs in 1982 with the Moldvay basic set. I had heard of D&D through advertisements in OMNI magazine, but paid little attention to it. When my best friend brought home the Moldvay set from Wal-Mart (yes, you could get it at WallyWorld in those days) after having been initiated into the game by his cousin, I gave it a whirl with him.

The B/X set was the foundation for me and the level at which I judge all RPGs today. Was it the most sophisticated? No. Inclusive? No. Best artwork? That's subjective. B/X simply works for me... always has.

Back to present: after the advent of the OSRIC document and its stimulation of good old school products, Daniel Proctor decided to take a crack as something a little more "basic." Now it's been tried before, but that product ventured too much into the d20 system. Proctor rolled forward and produced a document that virtually duplicates... well, you know...

Labyrinth Lord can be downloaded in free PDF form at Goblinoid Games' website, purchased at RPGNow (if you care to make a purchase to support GG's work), and a print version will be available soon at GG's store at www.lulu.com. (EDIT AND CORRECTION: the GG website and the RPGNow download are both free).

Ok, forward: LL measures 138 pages long. The cover has that B/X tone to it, and the front has a drawing of a female elf and a human male fighter fighting it out with a couple of trolls.

I first looked at that drawing and thought: "I hope that's not the best art he has...it looks like something I would have drawn at age 14." Then it dawned on me... that's exactly the point.

Past that, the vast majority of the artwork in this text is just great. There are several artists listed, but Paul Daly catches my eye the most.

As far as the text goes, Proctor does an excellent job of recreating B/X gaming in one text. If you've read those, you've read this... with a few notable exceptions:

- The spell list is more expanded to include many from the AD&D spell list. Spell levels go up to 9th level for MUs/elves and 7th level for clerics. I'm guessing this may be some Mentzer influence... I wouldn't know.
- First level clerics can cast 1 spell, as opposed to 0 spells under B/X. I appreciate that.
- Combat tables for human classes go up to just level 17; demi-humans are leveled off just like in B/X.

There are other small things... "intelligent swords" are called "sapient swords"... which I think is a nice touch.

SHOULD YOU BUY THIS PRODUCT: if you're going to use and enjoy that free copy of LL, then yeah... to encourage Goblinoid Games to produce more quality stuff, order off RPGNow, or wait for the print version to come out.

But why use this product when you already have B/X? Proctor is adamant in the introduction to this work: it's not a replacement, but a publishing platform, in the same vein as OSRIC, for future works. Let's sit back and see what Proctor and the gang at GG make out of this excellent piece of work they've produced.

Monday, August 6, 2007

REVIEW: The Forgotten Isle

The second part of my reviews for Magique Productions is The Forgotten Isle by Thomas J. Scott, an OSRIC module set for 6 PCs levels 4-6.

The Forgotten Isle is a 66 page monster concerning exploration of Maladar, a mysterious island shrouded in legend. In many respects, it reminds me of The Isle of Dread, one of my all time favorite modules, and the structure is basically the same. The party finds clues that lead them to the island’s location and the ancient ruins that populate it.

Where Scott departs from that scenario is the amount of time spent gathering clues to the island's whereabouts beforehand. Ample opportunity for great role play here to balance out the exploration of an ancient civilization and what remains. The stuff of D&D, indeed.

Illustrations and cartography are again dominated by Santiago Iborra. While the cover illustration doesn’t grab me the same way the cover for Dark Raiders did (too many pastels for my taste) it does bring to mind that freaky ghost ship in Poe’s Narrative of A. Gordon Pym. Still, it’s better than a lot of mainline stuff from WOTC and associated publishers.

There’s not much more of the module’s material I can tell you without spoiling the surprise. Scott’s prose reads much better in this previous module than it did in Dark Raiders. He uses boxed text in this one as well and again pulls it off nicely without slowing down the game.

Scott has thrown in two new magic items that are of some interest and can be handily used in any game: the Orb of Geruvoj and a Cloak of Desire… both well thought out items. Lastly, he’s returned to the old practice of including pre-generated PCs for that player caught without his character sheet. It’s a practice I think I’ll also re-introduce in my future works.

Ultimately, I like this module better than Dark Raiders because it provides more useful material. Dark Raiders of Misty Ridge is good for a one shot evening adventure; The Forgotten Isle can easily become an involved scenario for your players that will span several evenings. I think I’ll work this one in with my next group of up-and-comers.

The Forgotten Isle is priced at $7.99, and for its size that’s a good price for this PDF.

Friday, August 3, 2007

REVIEW: Dark Raiders of Misty Ridge

After I advertised his newest stuff, Thomas Scott of Magique Productions, Ltd contacted me in regards to doing reviews of the two products in question in return for free copies. How could I say no? After all, that’s what this blog is about.

I’ll cover Dark Raiders of Misty Ridge first, and then review The Forgotten Isle in a later post.

Dark Raiders of Misty Ridge by Thomas J. Scott is a module tailored for 1st edition games… you know the one… but designated as an OSRIC product. Set for 6 PCs of levels 4-6, it’s really suitable as a one-shot adventure for throw away characters, or for inserting on that gaming evening with the DM is caught with his pants down for something to run. Dark Raiders is more than capable of filling any gap by giving the players a fun evening.

Without spoiling the plot: the basic idea is a village in trouble from mysterious raiders who appear in the mist. The village elders send out a plea for help; the PCs answer the call. Pretty basic idea… easy to handle. Scott takes an old concept and does an excellent job of making it challenging.

Dark Raiders has 15 pages of pertinent information (with the obligatory license tacked on the end) and four pages of maps. The entire product has a very professional look to it that rivals anything produced by TSR in the first half of the 1980s.

The module itself introduces one monster… the sprat (a magical hybrid of rat and spider), and one new race…the Skeeth (a rather nasty sharklike humanoid), and the Half-Skeeth… but stipulates that the Half-Skeeth is strictly NPC.

The first thing that captures the eye is the killer artwork on the cover. Paul Daly’s rendition of the module’s bad buy looks equally good in its original black and white form on the inside cover (the outside version was colorized by Santiago Iborra… the guy responsible for some first rate map-work in this product). The outside cover for Dark Raiders is visually appealing and brings to mind TSR products circa 1984-85 or so for their B/X modules and their second generation PC record sheets. Not my favorite era, but memory provoking nonetheless and scored serious marks with me in the quality department.

Iborra’s maps are a pleasure to behold… crisp, clean, and no mistakes that I could find. The trained eye can tell that he used some great software called AutoRealm for at least the village map. I’m assuming Iborra also did the interior illustrations, which are sharp, detailed, and non-obtrusive, yet lend to illustrating the module details well.

Scott’s manuscript is easy to read and extremely detailed (see below). He uses a DM device that I have mixed feelings about… “read boxes.” Each encounter has a text to be read to the players. I’ve seen this done well, and I’ve seen it done in horrible fashion. Gary Gygax used it tastefully in Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun; there are other examples in which it greatly slowed down game play. Fortunately, Scott’s read boxes are brief and meaningfully descriptive… he tells the players what their PCs see and that’s all. Good enough for me.

One technical detail about Scott’s prose is his habit of using short sentences to convey information; he should consider using a few more compound sentences to link pertinent info together in one sentence. As it is, his prose comes off slightly choppy and doesn’t flow well. This is just a minor detail that I’m sure he’ll work out in future releases.

Overall…

PRO: excellent artwork, mapwork, and module design. Simple concept, easily plugged into any campaign (though it’s set for Scott’s Arkonus world). Good for a short evening’s play or to introduce new players to the game with pre-generated PCs… or perhaps as a prelude to a bigger scenario.

CON: attention to detail can get repetitive and boring at times. In line with old-school philosophy, Scott should consider letting the DM handle some of the detail in future works.

WOULD I BUY THIS PRODUCT: Yes. The PDF is marked at $3, which is extremely reasonable and worth what you’re getting.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

REVIEW: Castles & Crusades Player's Handbook

Castles & Crusades. The name is certainly evocative of a bunch of guys in a basement up in Wisconsin moving miniatures around in a sandbox while arguing over rules interpretations and constantly searching for their tape measures. The name has history in the hobby… newer players may not recognize it, but older players like me know what’s implied by using this moniker. Many may not consider C&C “old-school.” I will for purposes of this blog, since that’s what its creators set out to achieve… that “old-school” style of play.

When the game first came out, I managed to get the boxed set offered as a “starter kit” of sorts… read it… put it on the shelf and forgot about it (actually, I think I have it packed away somewhere now). It looked no different from a thousand other misfires I’ve seen over the years.

I missed the first printing of the hardback Player’s Handbook… though I’ve been told it had enough spelling and grammatical errors in it to turn the whole thing into a sick joke. Recently, my girlfriend found the second printing of the book in a bargain bin at your FLGS and gave it to me, and that’s the version I’ll be reviewing here.

Details first: Castles & Crusades is an RPG created by the boys at Troll Lord Games… which is based right here in my home state of Arkansas. To many, at first glance, “RPGs” and “Arkansas” don’t seem to go together well. Actually, there are many thousands of us who, after a hard day’s work of distilling moonshine and blowing the heads off random critters, love to sit down to a relaxing game. Personally, I always dreamed of being the first gaming company in Arkansas, but TLG beat me to it… you snooze you lose…

Castles & Crusades Player’s Handbook is a hardbound volume with 128 pages just chock full of gaming goodness and fantasy artwork. From my experienced eye, C&C should provide the framework for an easy to learn, easy to play, exciting fantasy game. I say “should” because I haven’t tried to run a game based on this system, nor am I likely to… but more of that later.

The tome starts with several pages aimed at new players: how to play and what you need. It pretty much assumes you’re a newbie and gives you enough information so that you could walk into an established C&C game and not totally embarrass yourself.

The content is intuitively organized, at least from my perspective, and information is easily found. C&C uses all the basic character classes we’ve come to expect, and throws a lesser known one into the mix: the Knight is the cavalier of UA reborn... in a more playable form.

The overwhelming factor that hit me when reading this book, and apparently has hit others as well, is that C&C is essentially D&D 3rd edition with some tweaks. Notable differences would be C&C SIEGE engine… a simplistic way of checking whether or not the PC succeeds in using a skill or performing a deed. In 3E, the PC possesses a skill and gains ranks in that skill over time; should he check the use of that skill, he rolls a 1d20, adds the number of ranks he’s earned in that skill and attempts to beat a difficulty score set beforehand by the DM. In C&C, the idea is similar, but you simply add your level and attribute modifier to the die roll… a simpler and rather nifty idea that cuts out a lot of bookkeeping for skills, not to mention sticking closer to the “class as archetype” idea.

It gets simpler than that: the difficulty score in C&C is always either 12 or 18. A PC checking against one of his prime abilities would roll against a 12; checking against a secondary ability… excuse, me… attribute… would call for a difficulty of 18.

All in all, a simplistic model that aids in a fast moving game. Since I have never even played in a C&C game, I may be talking out of my ass here, but I suspect this system may become meaningless at high levels. The devout C&C player should feel free to correct me on this if I’m wrong.

Looking through the spells lists for the PCs, I’m hard pressed to find any spells not drawn from D&D… in many cases the names have been changed, but it’s the same old thing.

Lastly, there’s the artwork. Peter Bradley dominates this tome with his rather good art. Peter has great technical skill in providing subject detail, subject depth, and subject variation… i.e. his subjects rarely look like each other. On the other hand, there’s nothing about his art that really grabs me either. I see his depiction of a dwarf and think “ok, a dwarf, ho-hum.” His depiction of a wizard looks like the guy down the road from me who sells watermelons. Peter’s art is not evocative, and the amateurish pen art of 1st edition AD&D inspires more awe that Peter’s best work can conjure. Take out a 1E Player’s Handbook and gaze awhile at the “Paladin in Hell.” Technically inferior to Peter’s work, but evokes much more. Look at the depiction of the thief killing a merchant and taking his gold. Or better yet, crack open a copy of Descent into the Depths of the Earth and find that shitty little ink drawing of the lich living in the large cavern. That thing creeped me out as a kid and still weirds me out today. Also, in each of those examples, there’s plenty going on in the background, whereas in Peter’s stuff, he concentrates on the subject to the exclusion of the background. Technique is fine, but detail gives flavor to the stew.

Overall, as I stated above, C&C comes off as a variant of 3rd edition D&D… even down to the artwork. I repeat this because it begs a question: why go to the trouble of creating a game that is essentially a knock-off of a more popular game… and not a very well fleshed out knock-off at that?

I don’t know, and I suspect few do. In any case, there is an interesting rumor that came to me about a year ago from one of the former test-players of C&C during its formative stages. I’ve since had that rumor repeated to me by another former test-player, and since both guys are pretty trustworthy, I give that rumor some credence.

As I was told, Troll Lord Games set out to create their own gaming platform… having been a d20 publisher and seeing the writing on the wall in regards to the future of that venue… they felt a separate game on which to base future products was in order. So they created Castles & Crusades, and in its original form it was very much like 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. So much, in fact, that someone squealed to WOTC, and the Wizards came down on TLG… citing copyright violations, unauthorized deviation from the SRD, etc… you know, the same things people keep saying about OSRIC. The Trolls, not wishing to be sued over trivial crap, quickly modified C&C to bring it in line with the SRD and the OGL… and thus you have the version that lives today. Is this true? I don’t know, but it explains things.

WHY I WILL NOT PLAY THIS GAME: if I wanted to play the 3E style, then I’d stick to WOTC’s D&D. Their books are more fleshed out and provide better support for the game. By my lights, C&C is like your girlfriend’s 17 year old sister who has a crush on you and is trying to play the same game your girlfriend does. Just as I prefer women old enough to vote, I prefer games that are somewhat matured. When I picked up Cook’s D&D back in the early 1980s and started playing, I had the benefit of a game that held several years of designing experience.

Given that, I may return to C&C five years down the line or so, provided TLG is still in business, and see how the game has grown. I expect good things.

In my opinion, for C&C to make it past its small following and achieving any significance in the RPG market, its best chances right now are to pray that HASBRO kills the D&D line of products and creates a vacuum for the many thousands who adhere to the 3E style of play. Until then, C&C will never graduate past cult status and gain a significant foothold in the industry.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Magique Productions

Our first catch of the day is Thomas Scott of Magique Productions, Ltd. Thomas has produced two excellent modules geared for 1st Edition play and set in his game world of Arkonus, and has many more in the works.

Check out Magique's stuff here.

Scott's two current modules are The Forgotten Isle and Dark Raiders of Misty Ridge.

The covers for these two resemble TSR modules circa 1984-86. While my taste runs a little before that time period, I can appreciate the hard work and attention to detail Thomas Scott has put into the cover designs... covers like that bring up memories of me being a junior or senior in high school and driving all the way to Pickwicks Bookstore in Pine Bluff for my latest D&D fix.

In the next few months, I'm told, two more modules will be released: Advent of Darkness and Mount of Dread... which sounds like a duet to me a la The Sentinel and The Gauntlet. We'll see if I'm right.

An aside oddity: the first thing I recall Magique ever releasing was Young Player's Options. I read this when it first came out, and was skeptical at first, but over time saw the value in it for helping younger players learn the game with less frustration. If you've ever seen a grown player overturn a table when his character was killed... and I have... you can appreciate the frustration level of a nine-year old who wants to play but makes ill-informed choices. Perhaps Thomas' own blurb can explain it better than I can:

A set of optional rules for use in campaigns consisting primarily of younger players. Includes rules for non-perma death, mana, hit point regeneration, and more. Give your young wide-eyed adventurers the heroic advantage they need.

In any case... kudos to Thomas for thinking of the kiddies. It's free, so download it and check it out.

I'm very much looking forward to further products from Thomas Scott and Magique Productions.