Friday, January 30, 2009

“It’s about bunnies!”

I had never read Watership Down, nor seen the movie by the time I first saw a copy of Bunnies and Burrows over 30 years ago. There it was on the stands at Aero Hobbies. All the older pricks were geeking out about it at the game table, like they did with most unique new games that came out. I don’t remember anyone actually running it at the shop, but I was somewhat smitten by it’s strange nature.

I had of course heard of Watership Down in the school yards over the year. It would usually be one of the timid, shy girls reading it at lunchtime (this was before Goth kids came into their own and started to be recognized), or one of the seemingly speechless boys from the “special” class. It’s not exactly a “feel good” story. As Sawyer on the TV show Lost once sarcastically said, in a gleeful singsong voice as he was caught reading it “It’s about bunnies!”

I saw no sad little sick rabbits on the run from all kinds of scary things as I read the B&B rules. Only herbalists, fighters, and the incredibly appealing Maverick character class. The rules were fairly light, as were a lot of the new games coming out. It left a lot open to interpretation, which as any Grognard knows is the salt of the earth in a fun-to-GM game.

B&B came out in 1976, only two years after D&D, and it is recognized as the first game to have all non-human characters, and also as the first game with a detailed martial arts system. Your skills and abilities varied depending on your character class, and task resolution was on percentiles. There were great little “simple life” rules in the game that gave it a very quaint flavor. Your rabbit could only count up to 5, and I don’t think you were allowed much more than that in the way of objects in your backpack. Yeah, that’s right. These rabbits weren’t exactly humanoid, but it was obvious that they were more intelligent than animals, and could stand upright and manipulate things with fingers. This was not specific in the book – only some of the skills, and some of the drawings (a maverick holding playing cards, the soldier rabbits of the book cover, etc.) lead you to believe that they were more than plain old bunnies. Well, that and the fact that somebody had to have made the backpacks.

Seeing as you are a rabbit and one of the weakest creatures on the planet, role play was key over combat encounters. All forms of animals are listed as enemies, but only human beings with their “alien minds” were true monsters. Snares, poison, and natural hazards filled the daily lives of the little fellas as well.

The rules book itself was pretty poor quality. It looked typewritten (as were a lot of my favorite gaming material of the time), and the “artwork” can only be describes as “scribbles.” I drew better looking artwork of cops beating up hippies on my high school Pee Chee folder.

A couple of editions came out in the following years. There was a GURPS version with a cover that could only be described as hilarious. It had two small rabbits furiously attacking a guard dog, like the two raptors attacking the T Rex in Jurassic Park. That seemed to kind of miss the point of the original game right there, but newer gamers probably would not want to play a game were you mostly just forage for truffles all day, Before heading down to the Doe cave to hammer out babies all night.

I finally saw the Watership Down movie and read the book in the 80’s, and the game reflected a lot of that inspiration

Figuring I would probably never run it, I sold it on Ebay several years ago for about 50 bucks. Now that I’m going through my own retro gaming fad, I wish I had kept that one. I even created my own little gameworld for it about 10 years ago. Called “Rabbit Valley Days,” I was hoping to evoke those original rules using another system eventually, but I doubt I can sell my current players on it now. The game is about bunnies, after all.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

SUPERHERO 2044:My first non-D&D campaign

Hell yeah it was over 30 years ago that I first ran Superhero 2044. I had discovered D&D sometime around 1976 or 77 (maybe even a little earlier), and was in the process of building my little fantasy world “Ardor,” my AD&D game world that I use to this very day. I loved comics, and being able to have superhero types running around instead of fantasy arch-types sounded like a no-brainer to my young no-brain.

I think within a year or so of discovering Superhero 2044, Villains & Vigilantes came out, and I’m pretty sure I ran consecutive campaigns at some point: 2044 was set in the future, and V&V was the current real world, with my players playing themselves as heroes (like that book suggested you do). It would be a few years before I had a disastrous session with a blatant 2044 rip-off called Supergame, an RPG I would actually help playtest for the creators not long after my little 2044 campaign. I didn’t start a Champions campaign until the early 80’s, so besides the aforementioned Villains and Vigilantes, 2044 was my comic book RPG.

A rather cheaply put-together product, it was the cover, front and back, that was the main eye-catcher of 2044. The sheer number of gaudy costumes, especially the few that were obviously inspired by classic Marvel characters, just made my young gamer heart soar with the gaming possibilities.

I used the setting as presented in the book. It was an independent democratic island nation, Shanter Island (we mispronounced it “Shatner” on purpose), but with all the trappings (language, customs, race) of the U.S. A world wide nuclear war had previously devastated much of society, creating the need for The Science Police. Sci Pol existed to put the brakes on nuclear power and other technology that could be used for evil – or another World War. The futuristic independent island nation concept, and the Science Police, were two things that I would carry over to my long running Champions campaign setting.

Your main island map of Shanter shows the city, the air and space port, and industrial locations. A large part of that map is made up of the “Outback,” miles and miles of forest and mountain areas. This area is not uninhabited – thanks to the pro-superhero government of Shanter Island, a law has been passed letting hero-types make “land grabs” for caves and hilltops to build secret HQ’s on. Nice! This combined with the 1970’s “futurisms” (moving sidewalks downtown, monorails in the city, aliens walking amongst us, etc.) gave the proceedings a really nice cheesy feel, even back then.

I had three or four players for those first few games, but I only really remember two characters from the game that were played – both of them “Doc” Winslow’s. One was a man in super strong, super invincible power armor, based on a figure from the old Gamma World line. Seeing as the rules didn’t give you much information on what kind of powers you could have, or even what those powers might do, the players were pretty much free to get whatever they wanted outside of points assigned to stats. You could probably read about how the rules worked in more detail in some online review, but suffice it to say that the rules on superpowers were obscure enough that a player could totally take advantage. This power armored guy was just devastating to most of his surroundings, and he would smash his way down the street, crushing bank robbers and costumed villains in droves.

Although a lot of the world’s framework is left up to the GM, some background is provided in the way of descriptions of previous superhero events, and a couple of characters. The Freedom League, a former superhero team, was mostly destroyed in recent years by Dr. Ruby, the premier super villain. The only hero to survive was “Mr. Banta,” but only his brain lives on housed in a cyborg shell. Mr. B runs a major superhero equipment/costume shop. This shop is made up of all the leftover gear from the deceased League members and their personal trophies from defeated enemies, so this is one of the things in the book that makes your imagination go wild. This is pretty much the place the character can buy anything that he wasn’t able to put together with points or choice of super powers. The GM can use this shop as the source of all kinds of plot devices and McGuffins. Although assumed by the general public to be dead, there are a series of somewhat humorous drawings in the margins of the book detailing various ways that Doc Ruby might have survived.

Probably the most interesting (and frustrating) feature of the rules was the strict patrolling procedures that each character had to follow. Sheets were given so the player and GM could plot out the characters movements throughout the city, his hours spent patrolling and what part of the island he did the patrolling in. The GM would then suss-out how many crimes were stopped, and how many criminals apprehended. The GM would also have to “handicap” the characters performance parameters occasionally, so as to be able to figure out how many points to give for the time spent patrolling. That meant at least running an actual encounter and fighting on the game table, rather than working out the statistics of this police department style patrolling system. It even included rules for all the lawsuits that get filed against the hero for damage caused during patrol. These rules only really worked for solo play, and although we used the patrolling rules for awhile, we soon abandoned them in order to get some actual role play and important encounters going on more consistently.

In my earliest days of hanging out at the local game shop, I got the chance to help playtest a new superhero RPG called Supergame around the time I was still running 2044. It was created by friends of the shop owner, and that is the main reason it eventually saw a published form. Because I was there for some of the original playtesting of that system, and because of my own disastrous attempts to run a session of it at the shop, I think I’ll save that tale for another post. Suffice to say that, outside of the system itself, The creators of Supergame had blatantly drawn more than just inspiration from Superhero 2044, and I would go so far as to call many of it’s elements a rip-off. But then again, 2044 had a lot of unique qualities, especially the setting, that inspired me to eventually create a superhero game world of my own, strongly based on that little independent island nation called Shatner. Uh, I mean “Shanter.”

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Beyond the Crystal Cave: Role-play and non-violence

Published by TSR’s UK division in 1983, UK1 seems to be inspired by “forest/garden levels” in dungeons. It is, of course, a dungeon-like adventure, in that you cannot fly nor float into the area due to an impenetrable force field. You can actually destroy the force field - If you are a 20th level wizard, that is. It is so funny when modules actually describe how you can affect something, even when there is no chance in hell of having what you need to affect it! This module is designed for levels 4-7, so it’s doubtful anyone involved would have the contacts to get a super-wizard to help out. Note that just like any other aggressive act in the module, destroying the force field has a consequence – the dispelling wizard will be sucked into a vortex, and spewed out in some random place and time. Why did they even bother to go into this? Sheesh.

Created on an island (in the World of Greyhawk) by a wizard and his elvish wife, the gardens still go on long after they had passed away. It is always summer in the garden, and it is full of various sylvan creatures, including leprechauns, pixies, centaurs, an Ent, dryads, and unicorns.

The local governor asks the party to enter the gardens and bring back a young couple. The official offers up 10,000 GP for their return, a hefty sum for any rescue mission. The party will eventually have to earn it, because all of the creatures in the gardens believe the young couple to be their old master and mistress reborn. Within that fact dwells the challenge of this adventure: there is no evil in the garden, but every living thing is your enemy. Many of them, as described in the module, will attack on site.
Like many TSR modules, many spells did not work as normal. In this case, many of the most common spells a druid might use did not work at all. This was a very strange thing, considering druids also were granted a level while they stayed in the garden, but things that did not make a lot of sense were often included in TSR products.

This adventure heavily stresses non-violent parlay, and role-play is more essential to this adventure than most others. In something like “Steading of the Hill Giant Chief,” you ultimately won’t have much choice but to barge and bash your way through it. But in UK1, every page is full of bad things that will happen to you if you are aggressive, steal anything, or harm anything in the garden. Even worse, the official who hired you has an amulet of ESP, so if you show up after a nasty act looking for the 10,000, he will deny you and have you thrown out of town. If the party really is evil, this would be a great time to show it. Kill the governor, take his amulet (easily worth over 50,000 in my game), steal a boat, and disappear for awhile.

There are two combat encounters in the caves leading into the garden. There are some Mudmen, a by product of the magic stream exiting the cave, and also an ochre jelly. But after these fights, don’t fight anything else or you not only forfeit the reward money, you’ll have the entire garden population after your head. The young couple is held up in a magical tower in the garden. This place pretty much would count as a mini-dungeon, but once again you have to walk on eggshells or face dire consequences.
The "boss monster" (forgive the video game lingo-lax) of the gardens is "The Green Man." The spirit of John Barleycorn is alive and well in the place. This meant nothing to me in the 80's when I got this module, but later on when I joined a group at the local Renaissance Faires based on Morris Dancing and folk music, I learned a lot about this old English country spirit. Morris dancing is about making the "ale crops," barley and hops, grow by doing worhipful dances and country dances in his honor. If I run the scenario again in the future, I will use him more than I did the first time.

There is a magical oracle force in the “Cave of Echoes” that lead into the garden that can be entertaining. As described in the module, it will pretty much grant any minor wish to a zero-level NPC who is in need. It has no respect for greedy players though – if they wish for something, it just gives mysterious gibberish. So great fun can be had with this, and you can really see who the greediest player character is judging by how they approach the oracle.

Most DM’s would find it a challenge to keep players entertained, seeing as most of the adventure is passive (or is designed to be). I actually altered things to make it easier: I had a powerful party of evil NPC’s enter the garden to loot it, and that way the players had somebody they could fight and not incur wrath.

As a player character, the most troubling aspect of the gardens is the time stream. For every hour spent within the garden, a month passes on the outside. When I ran the module for the first time, I think the party spent 8 or 9 hours in the garden, and that was after finding out about the time slowdown a couple of hours into it. They stepped it up a bit, but a party unaware (as the module hopes they will be) could easily spend a night or two in the garden, especially if they happen to befriend some creatures and hang out with them. So a typical scenario could have the party come out to find 2-4 years have passed. Yowtch. At this point, have the players put the character sheets away and start new ones. The world will catch up to the garden visitors eventually.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Eldritch Wizardry was my first porno

Nowadays it is probably rare for a boy of 11 or 12 to get by without seeing nudity somewhere. With cable TV and the internets, it is damn hard to avoid it. But when I was a kid in puberty, I had yet to see my first depiction of a nipple. My folks were hard working lower-middle class catholic immigrants, and we didn’t exactly have a lot of fine art laying around. Most of my friends had older brothers who had treated them to magazines or lent them film reels, or that they had spied on them sneaking a girl into the house, but I had two older bros and there was not a nude woman to be found. They kept those National Geographic’s and underground comics well hidden.

I had seen some Frank Frazetta artwwork, probably on my brother’s Conan books that I would soon be reading, but those women being threatened on the covers were always a bit blurry, a mix of colors.

I think my first real memory of gazing at a monster’s boobs was a harpy somewhere in the first three books. Blackmoor? But it was 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry, D&D supplement III, that really got me going. I’m sure that cover made it so most boys under 18 had to keep it well hidden under the other books. I’m not sure my mom would have confiscated it, but it would have raised questions about this “game” I was getting into. Check out that blond on the cover, stretched out on some sort of altar. No high priest or monster is shown, but you know she is in some kind of trouble. OK, so maybe she is just a kinky elf chick giving a treat to her horny adventurer boyfriend, but I get the feeling something bad is going to happen to this naked wench. That mix of sex, fear, and violence may not be good for the development of a young man, but besides feeling of lust for her I knew she would be safe. If you count safe as being saved by Conan and then savagely ravished by him.

It is very interesting to note that this drawing of a sexy woman in such peril was created by a woman.

You look at that picture, and the filthy possibilities seem endless. It still turns me on. That body is so tight, that hair so perfect. Is she an elf, or just a gorgeous human? That fleshtone just shimmered in that brazier-light. I think I can remember the tactile sensation of the book, the roughness of that cover as I moved my hand across – um, OK, so this is getting weird. Calm down, Mac.

There are a few nice breasteses within the black and white pages as well. The Type V demon, the female with six arms and a snake lower body, is shown twice. Once under her entry, and again in an action piece where she and another demon fight a couple of adventurers. OK, she is a demon who would kill me just as soon as look at me, and the snake part of the body is a turn off. But man, those breasts, that face, that hair – at least that part is perfection. The six arms don’t bother me so much. Long before I DM’d, or even bought this book, I had a character killed in one of my first games by a type V that came out of a picture and attacked me. The sneering, cretinous DM (whom you can read a bit about in the first entry at declared “she had some fun with you before you died.” Oh well, at least somebody had some fun in that game.

There’s a naked succubus within the pages as well. Cute face, but outside of the breasts her body looks a little mannish. Might be a tranny. Also, although she isn’t naked, there is a scantily clad young female cleric, very cute, summoning Orcus. Dave Sutherland’s art wasn’t tight, but his females were always hot, naked or not. A powerful woman is always sexy to a young boy.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Demogorgon is just alright with me

Seeing as I (for some reason) decided to dedicate the name of my gaming blog to this nasty demon lord, I thought it might be appropriate to make him the subject of my very first post. Props to Grognardia for inspiring me to write about a demon lord in the first place. Who would ever think I’d be musing about demons with tentacles and multiple baboon heads? Mother would be so proud.

According to Wikipedia’s non-D&D entry, Demogorgon’s obscure etymology is as follows: The origins of the name Demogorgon are uncertain, partly because the figure itself was of imaginary coinage. Various theories suggest that the name is derived from the Greek words daemon ('spirit' given the Christian connotations of 'demon' in the early Middle Ages)— or, less likely demos ('people')— and Gorgon or gorgos ('grim'). Another, less accepted theory claims that it is derived from a variation of 'demiurge'. The early Christian obsession with Satan and the vivid inhabitants of Hell are of Persian origin, while the magical context in which such imaginings thrive was Egyptian and Syrian.

Back in the day, when I first cracked open my shiny new Monster Manual, the drawings of the demons were what really caught my eye in those first few moments. Sure, the dragons are hellacool, but we had seen dragons a thousand times in our young, over -fantasizing minds. Here, right before my 14 year-old peepers, were the insanely powerful rulers of hell. The refined and royal-looking Azmodeus, the grossly fat and badass Orcus (these two might make a great Odd Couple inspired sitcom. Messy and Chaotic Orcus and neat, clean lawful evil Azzy).

Out of all the demons and devils, however, one stuck out most of all. Overall, Demogorgon has the look of a hitherto undiscovered greek monster – but a monster meaner and more pissed-off looking than any harpy or hippogriff. Sure, a pair of snarling monkey heads, tentacles instead of arms, and lizard feet are going to make you do a double-take, but it’s what you find out after reading that makes you do a spit-take. OK, so he maybe isn’t the most powerful demon, but the first thing the MM tells you is that this guy has a passionate rivalry with Orcus. You don’t fuck with somebody like Orcus unless you are either a badass or insane. Demogorgon is a lot of both.

Let’s take a look at some of his stats and powers, and let’s try to do it through my then immature eyes. Mind you, when I first read these demon/devil entries, my highest level character was around 3rd, and it took 5 or 6 games to get there. I had yet to run my first real game, but I could envision one day pitting this fiend against some higher level heroes (at that point 8th level seemed like an amazing level to reach, and Demo - G would make mincemeat out of a group of 8th levelers).

Demogorgon has the usual Godly stats that make a player cringe and clutch their favorite character close to the chest: -8 A.C., a couple hundred hit points, and high psionic ability You need a plus 2 weapon to hit him, but in almost any campaign with characters high enough to fight Demo-G all characters are probably going to be running around with plus 3’s or better. So no problem there.

Like most demons and devils, Demogorgon has supra genius level intelligence. Wow. That sounds really intelligent. I mean, Wile E. Coyote only had super genius level ability, and he could follow the instructions on all the high-tech Acme shit he bought. Supra was really out there. And how the hell do you portray a monster that smart? Could he never be tricked? Could he outsmart you, Road Runner style, into walking off a cliff or running face first into a wall?

Demo also has 95% magic resistance. WTF? So, hey magic users, don’t even friggin’ bother trying to fight this guy. Toss your items into his treasure pile, disrobe down to your loin cloth, and wait for him to get around to rotting your flesh off with his tentacles.

Demogorgon’s most troubling powers are in his heads. According to later information, these heads are almost always at odds with each other. But when they come together to wipe-out your party, look out. They will hypnotize you, and for one turn you will do what they want (you won’t kill yourself, but you would probably kill your own baby if so ordered), and for another 1-6 turns you will be disposed to doing his bidding like his bestest friend. For 1-3rd level creatures, the usual make-up of a typical army troop, he will hypno 10-100 people. So an average of 50 attackers (your henchmen and followers) are out of the running for a few turns. Hell, they are probably attacking you. Keep in mind this is automatic – only 15th level or higher creatures get a saving throw. All others are attacking their buddies, running away, or scratching and pecking at the ground like chickens. This is probably Demogorgon’s most dangerous ability.

Independently, the heads have pretty nice powers as well. The left one can vamp you like a rob of beguiling, and the right one can drive you insane with it’s gaze causing insanity for 1-6 turns, which isn’t much better than being hypnotized, but at least you will probably just do something random rather than Demo-G’s bidding. Oh, you get a break in that you get saves vs. magic against the individual heads as well. Hooray.

Demogorgon’s powers are rounded out by the usual “spell-like” powers most deity types tend to have: polymorph self and others, illusionary powers, clairaudience and clairvoyance (the one-two punch of godlings).

Demogorgon may not be compelling enough to base an entire campaign upon, but certainly his presence could be strongly felt in a dungeon setting. I’d love to run an “evils” campaign one day, and having Demo be a benefactor would be a great way to get a well-painted figure of him out on the gameboard, without slaughtering half a high level party. I just need to get a minature of him, and do a half way decent paint job on him.

Hey, how about this party of evils gets caught in the middle of Demogorgon and Orcus’ war on each other? Hmm. I’d better get figures for both.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Intro - why I'm blogging about games

I first got started playing Dungeons and Dragons sometime around1977. I used to think that I was somewhat rare, in that I was around for the Silver Age of gaming, and that I still had passion for the hobby long into adulthood. But I was wrong. I was not alone

I didn’t go to conventions, or hang out at game stores, and current friends and acquaintances just didn’t seem like player material. So after my last group broke up I just figured I was done. But lo and behold, after several years I have a new group, and games are going strong. I was so relit with passion for games, I started going online to check out the gaming community, and found it teeming with gamers old and young. Not only that, but old schoolers like me were swarming all over the place. There was even a term for people like me:”Grognard.”

I was posting thoughts to an online forum on, and some guy called me “Grognard”. What the fuck! I didn’t know what it meant, but it sure sounded insulting. Maybe because the word “nard” was in there (as a kid “nard” was what we said instead of “nad”). Anyway, I told the guy to shove it. Later I would find out it was a somewhat endearing term for people who preferred the pre-second edition D&D rules. At least, I think that is what it means.

I always used 1st edition AD&D, and never moved up to newer editions. In part that was because I had multiple copies of the old books and didn’t want to buy new ones. But when I looked at 2nd edition, I could see that it was slowly evolving away from the game I loved. I mostly culled my players from people who had little or no experience with gaming, so I never got many complaints for using 1st edition. My latest group, mostly used to playing 3rd edition, were happy to go down that old school road, and we are really enjoying classic AD&D games.

I was never much of a blogger, only occasionally dropping one into my Myspace page two or three times a year. But having found tons of great old school blogs going on, I decided to toss my hat in the ring. The most inspiring blog for me has been Grognardia, an old school D&D blog by a guy named James Maliszewski. I heard him as a guest on a podcast, and when I checked out his site, I could see that he was a very smart old schooler who started around the same time I did back in the day. Up until a few months ago, I thought other 40 or 50 – something gamers who started in the 1970’s were grumbling, gray-bearded old fat dudes, wearing green army jackets – sitting in the back of dingy game stores and bitching about how the hobby has changed ,and stinking up the place. But James M. has proven me wrong (well, I’m sure they still exist, but the smarts ones are blogging). I’m not sure I can blog with as much intelligence and insight as James – I tend to come from a baser, more emotional place. But I hope emotion will serve me well in my postings as I try to describe aspects of gaming I have loved and hated in my 30 years in the hobby. I am Grognard, hear me roar.