Monday, July 30, 2012

RPG Review: Wild Talents

About ten years ago Hobgolblyn Press came out with the World War II superhero RPG game Godlike. Superhero might not be the right word though - it presented a gritty world where being superpowered was no guarantee of your survival. For most "talents" a bullet to the head could kill you as easily as any other soldier. Even if you were armored that armor was dependent on your willpower. If your will failed you, your armor would too.

The game found its way to Arc Dream. Knowing that people were using it for non-WWII superhero games they did a pre-Kickstarter crowdfunding operation to produce the Wild Talents RPG based off of Godlike. I wasn't part of the crowdfunding but I did manage to snag one of their extra copies. I will say one thing for that first edition - its binding rivals the old TSR 1st edition AD&D books - for some strange reason it slipped out of my car at my daughters' daycare as a blizzard was beginning. Unable to find the book at home and seeing the bag I had it in was opened and had been leaning against a car door the next day I asked the daycare if they found a book in the parking lot. They confessed a very odd book had been found in the parking lot. It was snowed on and driven over and survived remarkably intact.

They've since releases a second edition of Wild Talents in both a small "essential edition" as well as the full edition. The essential version contains everything you need to play while the full version also contains lots of campaign information and an expansion of the Godlike RPG's timeline to the present day.

To understand Wild Talents - or for that matter, the bulk of Arc Dream's games, you need to understand the basics of the One-Roll Engine (ORE). ORE is a "bucket of dice" game where you roll anywhere between one and ten dice when you are performing a task. What you are trying to do is get matches. Matches are successes. You might see a problem with one die... Generally speaking, higher matched die rolls indicate better quality, this is referred to as the height. On the other hand, the more matches in a set, the faster an action is performed, this is referred to as the width. So if you roll six dice (always d10s) and get 1, 4, 4, 4, 5, and 6 your fours represent a success - a width of 3 and a height of 4 or, in ORE terms, 3x4.

Take another example. Suppose in the same scenario you roll 1, 1, 1, 1, 10, 10. In this case you actually have two successes - 4x1 or 2x10. Which would you use (for one action you can't use both)? The answer is dependent on what you are trying to do. In combat, the 4x1 almost certainly will be the first action but will represent a shot to a limb while the 2x10 will represent a head-shot. If you are trying to repair your starship the 4x1 means you repair it super-fast but it's probably going to fall apart real soon while the 2x10 is an awesome repair that takes longer. So it depends on what it is you are looking for - speed or quality.

The neat thing about this system is everything you do in a round is determined by one die roll. It serves as your initiative, your chance to hit, your damage.

Now normal folks only get to use regular ten-sided dice. But there are two special kinds of dice the superpowered folks might have access to. There's Hard Dice. Every Hard Die is treated as a ten. You don't roll them. With two you are pretty much guaranteed of success. However they lack finesse. Boom, head-shot. Boom, head-shot. Boom, head-shot. (Note - the game suggests one might treat head-shots as shots to vitals if a head-shot doesn't make sense.) There's also Wiggle Dice. You decided what they are after you roll. They are super-expensive. One Wiggle Die with any other die guarantees a success.

Now you probably want your character to be, well, super. Wild Talents gives various background options which give you permission to buy certain types of powers. For example, if you are a super-detective like Batman you aren't going to have super-strength - or any real powers for that matter. But you might be able to justify a Wiggle Die given your extreme training and adaptability.

Rules are given to make your own powers, or "miracles". There is also a selection of predesigned miracles in the miracle cafeteria section of the game. There tends to be a lot of ways to accomplish the same thing so the game expects a fair amount of give and take between players and GM to build characters.

A neat thing about Wild Talents is it defines various axes to design your world around. You can, for example, define how much super-beings influence history. The Marvel and DC Earths, for example, look an awful lot like our own history despite alien invasions and the like. On the other hand, the world of Watchmen begins diverging from our own, starting with the Minuteman and even more so after the arrival of Dr. Manhattan.

Another axis defines morality. Is it a black and white world like the Silver Age where good and evil are easily determined? Is it a world of grays? One where it is impossible to judge who is right or wrong.

The weirdness of the world represents a third axis. Beyond the impact super-beings have on history, how odd is the world? Are the citizens used to Atlantean Invasions? Or does the appearance of a flying man shock them?

Another consideration for axes of design is what roll do super-beings play? Are they expected to line up as heroes and villains? Or do they show up in all sorts of ways of life, like one sees in the comic Powers or the RPG Mutant City Blues.

That's the basics of the game. There's a lot of details - things like different damage types (killing damage for example), use of willpower to modify rolls, etc. which might be covered again in the future.

As far as my impressions of the game go... I will say it is a game with a bit of learning curve. It does things a bit differently from other games - for example everyone rolling at once requires some careful record-keeping for a declaration phase - computerized tools make life much easier, especially in battles with a lot of combatants (thought the game does have mook rules). 

One thing that has caused me issues is the fact that the game assumes no one is trying to break the game. You know how some parents begin sentences with "I love my kids but..."? Well I love my players but I do have some that really enjoy seeing what they can do within the boundaries of the rules. A lesson I've learned from this is the necessity of conversation and being willing to say no. Or at the very least, "yes, but..." Wild Talents is a game that has some wide-open options but it comes at a cost - the game can very easily be abused and it is something that GMs need to look out for - and it is possible to abuse without even trying to. For example I had a player who wanted to be excellent at unarmed combat. Two hard dice taken and loe and behold we had a bare-handed killer on our hands when it wasn't what he'd intended. 

This isn't to sound negative- Wild Talents is a game I really like and one that I'll probably GM or play again. But I would advise carefully setting up the ground rules of character generation at the start and carefully working with players to realize characters. It is not a game where I'd simply tell players to stat up some characters and show up.

Wild Talents is a very flexible game. It allows for easy building of powers - it is a lot less crunchy than games like Hero/Champions. The settings Arc Dream has published indicate how flexible it is - it has been used for American Civil War supers with This Favored LandKerberos Club gives us a glimpse of a Victorian supers setting. Grim War shows us a modern setting of magic, mutants, and vast organizations.

What does it work best for? According to the rules the inspiration comes from comics like The Dark Knight Returns, Top 1o, The Ultimates, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Watchmen as well as films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Matrix. In my experience, ramping up the grittiness to near-realism like that of Godlike is pretty easy. Ramping down to a Silver Age is doable but I suspect that there might be better engines for that. 

(Note - this review was a little more freeform than some of my previous ones - I may well revisit this, especially if I find myself playing Wild Talents again in the future.)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Actual Play: The Shrine of Pluto Part II [DCC]


As our valiant band of would-be adventurers looted the barbarian bodies (and those of their friends) additional patrons of the inn from the previous night arrived - either they had slept late or it took time for them to build up their courage.

In the funnel, all are Redshirts
The entrance cavern sunk into the depths of the earth. Borrowing a goat from one of the many farmers in the band, a hardy dwarf drove it down. Tragically both of them perished around the same time from the toxic air they had been breathing. A swarm of rodents of an unusual size (large, not small) emerge from the side of the corridor and began consuming the dead. One climbed atop the goat and also died from poison air, yielding a vital clue - the air was not poisonous close to the ground. Hugging the ground the remainder of the company charged at the rodents and with only a few fatalities - peasants and slaves whose names history will forget - persevered.

The next chamber featured an statue of a hideous being with a combination of goat and humanoid features wielding a skull-tipped mace, one of the less pleasant aspects of Pluto. It did however, have nice sparkly gems. Oooh sparkle. Icy blue. One of a pair of halfling brothers, Ringo, scaled up the 7-foot statue to grab one. Oops. As he pried it loose he was frozen solid and shattered. Though he did get the gem, for which the survivors were grateful. They tried for the other gem, the brave farmer trying for the other gem, hoping to pry it loose and get clear fast enough. He too was shattered by the ice. Oops. But again, another gem was obtained. For which there was much celebrating. 

While there were some cracks leading to rodent lairs our brave(-ish) adventurers pressed deeper into the complet, reaching their first door. Thankfully it wasn't trapped, though it did open to a narrow walkway over a floor fifteen feet below. There were three other doors to the north, east, and west, with their door on the south. In the center was an elevated platform with another nasty goat-man statue looking at them with icy blue eyes. A rumbling sound emitted from the platform as it rotated to face them and its eyes fired beams of cold, freezing a poor gong-farmer dead. The gang ran, some getting frozen, others falling, others getting away to the east door. Some of those who fell perished, landing on pointy piles of bones whilst some others managed to crawl back up and escape, slamming the door behind them.

Adventuring, it turned out, was a dangerous profession...


We didn't get as long a session this week, with some communication hiccups and a little trouble getting to a quorum - though we did manage to get some fun gaming in.

There is definite a certain fun in watching zero-level characters go forth to their horrible deaths. One of the players asked if they really needed to level up at the end of this...

The poison trap at the entrance is based on a real shrine to Pluto - in the city of Hierapolis in Anatolia (modern Turkey) there was a shrine to Pluto, a Plutonium whose entrance has carbon dioxide gas. To avoid the suffocating gas priests would drop down low and crawl on the ground - or hold their breaths. Failure to do so could result in death. Admittedly I've probably cranked up the danger factor for purposes of drama and funneling but it was neat to actually find a real-world deathtrap. 

Yes, the statue of Pluto is from D&D's Orcus. Pluto was a Roman composite god - largely from the Greek Hades but also with aspects from Plutus (god of wealth), Dispater, and Orcus (both gods of death). I decided to borrow the D&D version of Orcus for the image above. While I'm inspired by our own world's history I want to emphasize this is still a fantasy setting and the D&D version of Orcus seems a good way to emphasize that.

We've probably one session left in the funnel. No fear, I wouldn't expose zero-level characters to the demon Orcus. Well, probably not...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

See You at Munden's

Back in the 80s and 90s my brother and I were perplexed by a frequent letter-writer in comic books, one "Uncle Elvis" who used to close his letters "see you at Munden's". What the heck was he talking about and why was the editor replying as if she knew what he was talking about? You know nowadays one simply Googles for the answer to such questions...

Eventually my brother discovered that Munden's was a bar in a city at the nexus of realities, Cynosure. Cynosure was the setting of the comic book Grimjack, published by First Comics and created by John Ostrander and Tim Truman, both still active in comic books last I checked. At the time my brother discovered all this First Comics was either out of business or about to go out of business, though over the years (and with the help of eBay) he was able to get a complete collection of Grimjack comics. I've inherited that box of comics and I've also been purchasing the collected versions from IDW, though they aborted the publication halfway through and have begun again with smaller sized omnibus editions. I've yet to do a complete read of Girmjack but I've been thinking about the setting of Cynosure.

Cynosure is a "pan-dimensional city", one where multiple realities meet. You could be walking down a street that is straight out of Lankhmar, take a few turns and find yourself walking down a street that would fit in perfectly in Mos Eisley Spaceport or Coruscant. On one block magic and technology might work perfectly while on others one of those might be partially or completely limited.

It's a tough concept to fully wrap your brain around, one that I think requires some suspension of disbelief. I'd always try to figure out how such a city works. How tightly together is the city? Do people use it to travel from one dimension to another? What do the inhabitants of the component cities, the parts not part of Cynosure, know about Cynosure?

That said, it makes for an awfully neat place for gaming. I think it would be especially appropriate for games like Dungeon Crawl Classics where other planes and dimensions are an expected part of the game and many of the source materials make use of such concepts.

As far as RPGs go I can think of just one RPG which is about a pan-dimensional city, Nexus: The Infinite City. Nexus definitely feels like a game of its period, the early 90s, when a lot of interesting game ideas came out - it saw the birth of The World of Darkness and also saw lots of little-remembered games such as Nazis in space in Reich Star or after the rapture in The End (the latter having a d20 version several years ago). Nexus was published by Daedalus Games which also did the first edition of the better known Feng Shui RPG. Looking at the credits for Nexus it had a lot of people who have gone on to be very well known in the gaming industry - Robin Laws, Bruce Baugh, and Rob Heinsoo coming to mind. It's worth picking up for inspiration if you can find it but it is hard to find - I stumbled across it in the discount box of a game shop several years ago.

To do a full-fledged game in such a city I would think you would need a game which can handle genre crossing easily. On the crunchy side games like GURPS or Hero could certainly handle such things. If one is more on the storytelling side of the axis various incarnations of Fate would certainly work well. Grimjack features scenes where its protagonist, John Gaunt, uses his knowledge of the city to know just where to go to make bullets not work against him - a great example of the sorts of actions taken with Fate points.

However, one would not need to do a full game in such a city - it certainly could be used for an interesting adventure in a game like Dungeon Crawl Classics where adventurers encounter such a fantastic city.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Superhero Blues

Batman is not impressed with my
genre emulation issues.
Despite my loving comic book superheroes I've had limited luck in long-term superhero RPGs. I've been thinking that a bit of late with the summer movie season in full swing with an allotment of three superhero movies (I remember a time when there would usually be none...) Sooner or later I'll want to try my luck at another one so it's with a little bit of self-interest that I give some thought as to what it is that makes superhero campaigns challenging, at least for me.

I think that genre emulation is something important to the superhero RPG, typically balanced with how it handles action. In games such as  Smallville genre emulation is the most important thing, even linked to the action. Why you are using your powers and for whom plays a huge role in how effective you are in a game of Smallville.

The game I think handled genre emulation best while keeping the action level high was TSR's Marvel Super Heroes Game (MSH). MSH wasn't a perfect - its handling of powers was far less precise than games like Champions or Mutants & Masterminds but it had several systems to handle things vital to mimicking the feel of a comic book. You had your Popularity system, measuring how well a hero or team was liked or trusted by the public at large. Some groups like the Avengers were generally well-regarded and trusted. Spider-Man did OK in the popularity department but had to walk a fine line. And then you had mutants like the X-Men, "feared and hated by the world they have sworn to protect".  But popularity wasn't an absolute. It waxed and waned based on your heroes actions or perceived actions. A great example of this is the ending to 2008's Dark Knight movie where Batman chooses to take the fall for a number of crimes committed by an insane and broken Harvey Dent to preserve his reputation. He didn't do those things but everyone thought he did.

Hit-Girl from the movie "Kick-Ass"
She just lost all her karma (again)

Also in MSH you had a Karma system. In MSH karma served as your "fate points", your ability to influence the dice. It also served as your experience system. Karma could be spent to improve your abilities and powers or gain new ones. The catch was you could gain it or lose it based on your actions. And the deliberate act of killing stripped your hero of all karma. Hope you weren't saving some to improve that Fighting score. And superhero teams could pool their karma together and the act of killing would strip the hole pool of karma. "Wolverine, I need you to put him down very gently."

Essentially in MSH you have a system that rewards and punishes players based on how well they emulate the genre. With the right group of players this works fantastic. But you might not always have the right group. And by right, I don't mean superior, I mean an appropriate match for the genre - or players who are comfortable buying into such a reward system. But that isn't everyone. Some people can't stand the genre blindness they are expected to partake in. "Why on Earth would I let the police arrest the Joker again? How many people has he killed? I'm snapping his neck." And this isn't necessarily the mark of a bad role-player - we all cheered the scene in Firefly when Mal tried to convince one of Niska's henchmen that their deal with the crimelord was off. The henchman swears he will hunt Mal down and kill him. Mal broke genre convention and kicked him into the engine...

Similarly, in the Superhero genre very often superheroes do not follow superpowers to their logical conclusion - why hasn't the US government made better use of all the super-scientists and alien technologies around?  It's a similar issue I've found in Star Trek games - characters on the television show know the transporter doesn't exist to rescue them from all dangerous situations because that would make for boring television. Star Trek GMs find themselves using an awful lot of atmospheric disturbances...

So what to do in such cases? You need to start with knowing your players - what can you expect from them? You might get this by simply asking or by just knowing them from a bunch of games with them. It gives you knowledge that lets you know what dials to fiddle with. If open-ended powers are a problem then don't have a game with open-ended powers. The World War 2 Superpower RPG Godlike is a great example of this. What Talents are and are not capable of is clearly laid out. A super-genius? His inventions are essentially a prop - they won't work for anyone else. A 98-pound strong-man? How does he have leverage to pick up a tank? Part of his powers are the violation of physics that allows someone with minimal leverage to pick up a massive object. Perhaps even more importantly, Talents vs. Talents becomes a battle of wills as their influence over reality threatens to fizzle out when faced by another Talent. This isn't the superhero universe of Marvel - heck the characters are superpowered but they are not necessarily heroes.

If one is committed to staying closer to genre it may be best to look at the variety within genre. For example, one could take the examples of the earliest comics, before even Superman, which took their nod from the pulp magazines - heroes that sometimes had some mystic powers but were little more than regular men. You've got your mystic investigator Doctor Occult, invented by Superman's creators Siegel and Shuster. The Crimson Avenger borrowed much from The Shadow.

The heroes of the Golden Age were not the genre-blind heroes they often became later. Superman was a fan of brute force, gladly breaking into the governor's mansion should he have a need to. Batman was ok letting a criminal fall to his death - "a fitting end for his kind". Plus the heroes of the Golden Age tended to have simpler powers.

The Silver Age may seem a horrible era for your typical modern gamer who may have his issues with the superhero genre. But that depends on the lens one uses. This was an era of casual racism, committees on unAmerican activities, etc. Darwyn Cooke's excellent New Frontier series injected an amount of realism into era of the 50s and early 60s.

And if one wants grim and gritty, an era of heroes blowing away their opposition, you've got your model in comics. The late 80s and most of the 90s were the era of the antihero, as superheroes added lots of belts, armor, spikes, and guns to their uniforms. Why not embrace this? Create a world where the heroes decide to be the law. This could make for an interesting Watchmen-like game. The heroes of the 90s tended to be moderately powered so they won't be able to patrol an entire city or world. What happens if the police go on strike? The people go against them? Might the nation itself become unstable as "heroes" battle over the streets of the cities?

I mentioned Godlike as a game where powers are more rigidly defined in what they can or cannot do. Also of interest in this setting is the assumption that heroes are somehow involved in World War II. It does occur to me that Godlike heroes could work in other genres (and indeed they are an option in the more open-ended sequel game, Wild Talents) - but it is worth noting the narrower focus does help define what is expected of the characters - they are to defeat the enemy. And this is war, no one wants heroes who won't take out evil Nazis. (Or go behind their lines to gather vital intelligence for an upcoming battle.) Another game which goes this route is Pelgrane Press' Mutant City Blues. Like Godlike the limits of superpowers are well defined as is the genre - while Godlike assumes a World War 2 setting, Mutant City Blues assumes the characters are superpowered police detectives - dealing with superpower-related crimes.

Hmm, to help me get my superhero fix maybe a monster or two from early Fantastic Four can show up in my DCC game. Paging the Mole Man...

Here I am!!!
Oops, wrong one...
Fear Me!!!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

AD&D Reprints First Impressions

The reprints for the AD&D 1st edition rulebooks arrived at my house on Friday from Noble Knight Games.

If my memory serves, this is not actually the first time the original AD&D books have been reprinted - I seem to recall an Italian publisher got permission to reprint the books in an extremely tiny format back in the late 90s - I remember seeing them at Cambridge's Pandemonium Books & Games. They were more a curiosity, with each page being condensed to something around the size of a playing card. I didn't pick them up and to be honest it's not something I regret not getting.

These newest reprints are designed to be more useful, being back to the original size. I've read on Wizards of the Coast's website that a lot of work went into the reprints - there were no digital files beyond basic scans so apparently each page had to be redone. The effort seems to have been successful - comparing them with my original AD&D books you really can't see any difference in the way each page looks.

Regretfully the paper seems to have changed. The original AD&D books were products of amazing durability. My original books, despite being used for years of gaming, moves to college and back, soda spills, moves to apartments and houses, are still in reasonably good shape - better shape than books I bought twenty years later. (I'm feeling old now - though truth be told I actually didn't get the books when they first came out but rather a few years before they were redone with new covers.) These new books are printed on what I would characterize as a semi-glossy paper - not super shiny, but definitely of a glossy type. The white background looks very white - obviously I don't have new copies of my original AD&D books to compare it to but I'm pretty sure they were never that white. So I'd definitely have to give a preference to the original formats.

That said, Wizards of the Coast has done a first-rate job with the reprints. They clearly took a lot of work to do, visually they look fantastic, and they appear to be well bound. Probably not as well bound as the originals but I'm pretty sure those books could survive a zombie apocalypse.

I'll probably get around to reviewing the AD&D core books at some point so right now I'm only giving first thoughts. The Dungeon Masters Guide has a ton of information in it though looking at it now it seems like could have done with a little better organizing. Though intended to be a complete game I have a hard time imagining what it would be like picking up the Players Handbook without some familiarity with D&D. In my own circles, the older players tended to start with the original D&D while the younger ones like me tended to start with the D&D Basic and Expert rules and then graduate to AD&D. I'm not certain what to make of the "Gygaxian Prose" - it certainly is part of the charm of the game while at the same time it makes the author sound a bit full of himself from time to time. "Again, a word of warning. Many products might purport to be satisfactory for use with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but only those noted as OFFICIAL or Authorized AD&D items should be accepted. Do not settle for substitutes or second-rate material in your campaign; ask only for approved AD&D products only!" I've missed prose such as that. At the very least, Mr. Gygax expanded my middle school vocabulary amazingly well.

Overall, I'm overjoyed to see the original AD&D books reprinted (and that at least some of the funds are going to a memorial for Gary Gygax) and pleased to see a first-rate job was done. In the fall Wizards of the Coast will be reprinting the core 3.5 books. I think this is a good move on their parts - they are again making available what were probably the two most popular versions of D&D. I hope at some point they will make these books available in some digital form - I'm primarily a digital consumer now, with my eBooks, Audible audiobooks, streaming video and audio, etc.

I do find myself wanting to get some dice out and do a 1st edition AD&D game...

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Non-Fiction Review: "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero" by Larry Tye

I've been in a bit of a superhero mood of late. This summer has seen  The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man in the movie theaters and The Dark Knight Rises is just being released to theaters at the time I'm writing this.

My introduction to superheroes was through cartoons. Being born in 1971 I used to watch reruns of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon ("Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can...") as well as The Superfriends. We used to always mock the Wonder Twins. Now that I think of it, I also used to see a very silent Spider-Man on The Electric Company television show.

1979 saw the release of Superman: The Movie. To this day it is probably the Christopher Reeve incarnation of Superman that I think of when I picture Superman.

You'll note I've not yet mentioned comic books. I began slowly discovering comic books after a bunch of us started playing TSR's Marvel Superheroes RPG. We had familiarity with the characters from shows like the aforementioned Spider-Man cartoon as well Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. But we slowly discovered the comic books. Starting out with Marvel I crossed over to the other side and also began reading DC titles, just in time for the post-Crisis universe of DC Comics, after they shook up their entire multiverse. I first began reading Superman comics in the late 80s with a storyline featuring Superman exiling himself into space.

While I listened to the unabridged audiobook of Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero I found myself thinking about my own history of superheroes. This book covers the history of Superman from the childhood of Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, to the present-day legal disputes between DC Comics and the heirs of Jerry Siegel and his collaborator Joe Shuster. It covers Superman in all of his mediums: comics, serials, radio programs, big-screen adventures, etc. It discussed how for most people their exposure to Superman was not through the comic book but rather through other forms of media such as the radio show, the movies, various television shows... And that described my introduction pretty well. I'd been exposed to Superman in Superfriends and through the Christopher Reeve incarnation long before I started reading his comic book (something I've not even come close to doing uninterrupted). 

As I mentioned above, the book casts a wide net on the history of Superman. It begins with young Jerry Siegel, not quite fitting in in tje Jewish Cleveland neighborhood in which he grew up. It talks about the impact losing his father to a robbery had on him. (No fear, I'm not going to give the full history of Superman). 

The book is organized roughly chronologically though it has chapters dedicated to topics which cover the entire history of Superman. For example, the third chapter is dedicated to religious aspects of Superman - begininning with his origin as the creation of two young Jewish men and discussing the Christ-like characteristics that are often seen on Superman - most obviously seen in Superman: The Movie with his father, Jor-El, saying "they can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son."

While the author Larry Tye clearly admires Superman, I believe he succeeds in producing something more than just a work of praise. He discusses the pittance National Periodicals paid for full ownership of Superman. At the same time, he doesn't let co-creator Jerry Siegel off the hook, discussing frankly his own less pleasant characteristics. He points out low points and high points for Superman. We see how Superman and DC Comics as a whole rapidly lose ground to Marvel Comics starting in the 1960s. He discusses various efforts to reinvigorate the character for new generations, some more successful than others. And he never loses sight of the fact that Superman exists to make money for various entities.

Throughout the book we see both the creative process and a discussion of the results of the product. The history we are getting treated to is most definitely intended to be that of his history in our world - the history of his creation, his comic books, his various spin-offs, etc. but in so doing we get some discussion of various storylines, popular villains, etc. Especially enjoyable was the discussion of how Superman's radio show took on the Ku Klux Klan.

This book, being a recent publication, goes as far as the latest Superman reboot in DC's New 52. I read this in audiobook fashion, as read by Scott Brick. I've noticed that Brick has read a lot of books related to Superman - off the top of my head he also narrated Tom De Haven's It's Superman (which I previously reviewed) and Brad Meltzer's The Book of Lies. He's a great choice for these works, brining a clear enthusiasm which does not get in the way of a clear reading.

Monday, July 16, 2012

RPG Review: The Palladium Book of Weapons and Assassins

The 1980s were a time for ninjas. We had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In the GI Joe comics and tv show the most popular characters were the ninjas Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. I worked in an amusement park's arcade and one of the more popular games was Ninja Gaiden. Even movies not about ninjas managed to sneak them in. And a good way to get in trouble at my middle school was to smuggle in a throwing star...

In our RPGs we loved our ninjas as well. I recall photocopies of the ninja and samurai classes from Best of Dragon II getting passed around my middle school. (Wow, throwing stars and photocopies magazine articles - we were little criminals.) TSR finally gave into the craze with the Oriental Adventures hardcover book.

Palladium Books had a series of reference books that were system-les, designed to go with any RPG. Oddly enough, one of my favorites was Weapons and Assassins which covered various kinds of historic assassins: Middle Eastern Assassins, the Thugs of India, and, most importantly to us back in the day, the Ninjas of Japan.

There's some controversies out there about Palladium Books and its founder Kevin Sembedia. On some message forums, one of the quickest ways to start a flame war seems to be to merely mention the existence of Palladium Books or Keven Sembedia. I'm not a huge fan of Palladium's house system - I played a few games of their Robotech and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPGs but the system never really "clicked" for me (nor do I despise it for that matter. If a friend enthusiastically asked me to play a game of TMNT I think I'd be able to find it in my heart to do so.) However I loved the reference materials they produced.

Weapons and Assassins was written by the late Eric Wukcik. Wujick was best known for his many Palladium products though he also received considerable acclaim for his revolutionary Amber role playing game, the first major RPG I can think of that is dice-less (and lacks any random resolution system).

Weapons and Assassins was printed in a book with a strong resemblance in size and paper quality to a comic book of its era, though in black and white. More modern reprints (Palladium has kept this book in-print and is available at their website) make use of stronger material but keep the dimensions (it is also available as a legal purchase from Though a short book, it consists of dense text and lots of illustrations of the various kinds of assassins, weapons, tools, etc. that one would expect in this kind of book.

Example of a Thug Assassination
from p. 13
True to its promise, the book is stat-less. However it is extremely useful in incorporating such characters in an RPG, either as PCs or as adversaries. Each of the types of assassins covered is given an overview, including some basic information of their culture. Items discussed include their methods, equipment, frequent victims, and adversaries. In the days before an internet this type of book was of absolutely amazing value. Even now, nearly thirty years later, it is still a very useful reference. It eschews fantasy trapping, keeping to the historical. This is an asset in my mind as it allows a GM to add magic as necessary - in my experience it is much easier to add the fantastic to a setting than it is to take it away.

Rereading this book this Sunday evening, I'm reminded how much I liked it at the time. With my DCC game taking place in a setting that is a fantasy pastiche of our own Earth I'm giving some thought to sneaking in some of the assassins of this work.

(Note - all illustrations are copyright of Palladium Books. Their use here is for illustrative purposes in the context of this review per copyright fair use.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Actual Play: The Shrine of Pluto Part I [DCC]


The adventure began at the Inn of the Flying Swordfish, a small inn in the old section of Tagentium. It wasn't a place where adventurer met. Rather it was a place for tired fishermen, farmers, tradesmen, laborers, and the like to rest after a long tiring day.

This proved not to be the case on the evening of our tail in late summer in the year MCCLXXVIII since the founding of the Imperium's First City, now under the rule of the barbarian lord Marcus Olbar. While enjoying their drinks a half dozen skeletons, un-dead creatures with coldly glowing blue eyes, burst into the front and rear of the inn. The patrons drew whatever they had with them to battle these skeletons. For most, this was little more than a knife though there were some out of work mercenaries - mercenaries armed but not bloodies. Sadly a scribe quickly fell to their weapons though by overwhelming sheer numbers the remaining patrons overwhelmed the skeletons.

After the battle an old-timer, Quintus Decius came up from under the bar. He told them how he remembered as a young lad he saw skeletons like that. When the barbarians were raiding the island the priests of Pluto aided in the defense of the island with skeletons just like them, complete with glowing blue eyes. The shrine was a few miles to the west of Tagentium. He remembered as a child people would buy pigeons and seagulls to release into the entrance of the shrine, a tunnel descending into the earth - and the birds would die! But the priests could enter unharmed, though it was rumored that any mortal not sworn to Pluto would die as well. It was there they supposedly kept their vast wealth. The battle against the barbarians was successful, though all the priests died in it. The citizens sealed the shrine with a great boulder, fearing more of the un-dead more than they coveted the riches.

Riches? That was an incentive for these now-bold common-folk. The thought of not needing to worry about every copper... They agreed to meet early the next morning to venture to the Shrine.

Not all of them showed up. But enough of them did - eleven bold would-be adventurers. They came with swords, nets, pitchforks, and livestock. A walk of about an hour took them to the old ruins - a small village from the Imperial Era, now abandoned. Decius had told them of a geyser immediately in front of the entrance to the Shrine, one which they quickly located. And indeed a great boulder had been rolled clear of the entrance. However they neglected to examine a nearby ruined building which housed four barbarians of the warlord Marcus Olbar, including one of his feared shield-biting berserkers. A javelin ended the career of the would-be adventure Vishner the fisherman. A battle broke out, much bloodier than the one at the inn. Yet they proved victorious despite the butcher's bill, consisting of the fallen fisherman, a petty cut-purse known as Otto, and a pair whose names none recalled - a corn farmer and a trapper. 

Yet surely the gods had selected these seven survivors for greatness? Unbowed, they approached the shrine's tunnel entrance to seek their destiny...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fiction Review: "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal" by Christopher Moore

I talked a bit about religion in various fantasy worlds last week which got me thinking about religion in our world.

It's a touchy subject, whether in office conversations or your gaming group. I've gamed with followers of Christianity, Judaism, Paganism. I'm not certain but I think I may have gamed with a Hindu and a Buddhist. I've gamed with believers, atheists, and agnostics. And truth to tell I'm comfortable with all of them. But I've also learned to respect people have different comfort levels with the way their beliefs (or things they don't believe in) are treated in fictional works. When I had a group playing D&D 3.0 several years ago I was strongly tempted to run a game using Green Ronin's Testament setting, based on the lands of the Old Testament of the Bible. One of my players was, quite honestly, horrified of the idea of using that for a game. I had thought it made for a fascinating setting with lands being conquered, betrayals, nomadic tribes, competing religions, etc. It didn't seem worth insulting a friend over a game.

With that in mind that brings me to Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. Just looking at the title it sounds like an awfully offensive work, one sure to get Christians up in arms. And I'm pretty certain it has done just that with some people, though as one who considers himself Christian I greatly enjoyed it.

So what's it about? Essentially it involves "Levi bar Alphaeus who is called Biff" being resurrected from the dead into our modern world. He's been brought back to write a new gospel - as Jesus' best friend from childhood he is well suited for this task. Though even that statement is an inaccuracy which Biff corrects - no one called Jesus "Jesus". That's a Greek name. In his home he was referred to as "Joshua Bar Joseph" or just "Josh". 

Just from that preceding paragraph the tone appears to be light - and in a lot of ways it is a light-hearted book. It has running jokes, like Biff having a crush on Jesus' mother. Josh as a human wants to understand sin better but does not want to engage in sin - so Biff makes the great sacrifice and engages in the services of prostitutes so he can report back to Josh.

I'm getting perhaps a little ahead of myself though ad perhaps a little more discussion of the plot is appropriate. This book covers Josh's life from his early childhood through his death. In his childhood we see him experimenting with his powers and trying to figure out what he is supposed to do as the Messiah. We see him and Biff meet Mary of Magdala, referred to as Maggie in this book, with both of the boys attracted to her. 

In Josh's efforts to better understand what he should do he and Biff go out in search of the three wise men, spending years and years learning from each of them, traveling to modern-day Afghanistan, China, and India to learn from them. There the two learn all sorts of martial arts, learn about different world religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and manage to get into lots of trouble along the way. Biff also tends to seek out the company of any woman he can find. Eventually the two return home and Josh begins his ministry and we witness many of the events of the Bible, albeit from Biff's unique perspective. We even get some twists of the death of Josh and of his betrayer, Judas Iscariot.

So should you read the book? I loved it. I'm a pretty liberal Catholic (i.e waiting for the pope to give me the boot) so do with that as you may. But I'd think it is a portrayal that a non-Christian - including agnostics and atheists, can find much to enjoy. If for nothing else Moore clearly did his homework in the world of the New Testament of the Bible. We get some fantastic glimpses of life in Roman-occupied Judea as well as other places in the world like India and China. 

It's also a fun book. There is a certain amount of enjoyable zaniness seeing Josh and Biff learn martial arts, seeing some of the scams that Biff and even Josh get involved with (including getting Maggie away from her husband).

As far as RPG-ers go... Like I said above, I view the world of the Old Testament a fantastic period for gaming. Well this gives us a great view of the world of the New Testament - that of the early Roman Empire, though none of the action to place in Europe. 

It's also a short read - in this world of 5-book trilogies, it's nice to be able to just read a story that stands on its own.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

DCC: Actual Play Impressions

After some scheduling hiccups my gaming group had its first game using Dungeon Crawl Classics. I'll probably be doing an actual-play writeup later this week but for now I'm focusing on my impressions of the game.

This was our first time using Google+ Hangouts as a virtual tabletop solution. Originally we all hung out at my house but with the real world intruding not everyone is able to make it (and not everyone is even in the country any more). For our group's Call of Cthulhu we used the Fantasy Grounds tabletop application. It's a program that worked very well for us but it is rather difficult to tweak for games it doesn't explicitly support.

For our Google+ Hangout we used the free Tabletop Forge application, an application that adapts Google+ Hangouts to serve as a Virtual Tabletop. It worked pretty well with some hiccups that my group will be working on going forward. Off the top of my head, the biggest issue seemed to be one of latency - for some players the Hangout suffered from extreme latency. My brother, who is in the group, usually shows up in person (as my house is on his way home from work it works rather nicely). He was sitting next to me on the same network and yet for part of the game he suffered latencies of up to ten seconds when typing. I'm suspecting this was an issue with Google as it cleared up later for no apparent reason. We did have some echo issues - for next game we're going to try everyone having headsets. As Judge I did run into an issue with a map I was sharing showing up for everyone - but me...  I don't want to be overly negative about the app - especially given both the Hangout and Tabletop Forge are both free and constantly being refined. Overall they were tools that serves us well - and as all of us are in the software industry we pretty much assumed we'd have some hiccups to deal with.

As far as the game itself goes... I wrote up my own adventure dealing with our potential adventurers encountering some un-dead skeletons in their town and tracking them down to a supposedly sealed off shrine to the god Pluto. We didn't have a full-house - it was me and three players, each with four 0-level characters. The fatality rate was rather high. In the first round of combat a scribe (who hadn't even been named) lost his head to a skeleton. Overall, of the 12 characters 7 survived the evening. And there is still the Shrine of Pluto to explore.

As far as the rules went the players adapted to them rather easily, despite not all of them having had time to go through the rules. Mechanically it is a very simplified version of the D&D 3.x rules, a game that everyone in my group has a lot of experience with. What was notable though was the tone the game encouraged.

First of all there is the fatality rate. Though I started gaming in the 80s I was strongly influenced by White Wolf's Storytelling games of the 90s. As a result I have a habit of concealing dice rolls and been willing to fudge things to help the story along. The DCC Game advocates pubic dice rolling and purely random character generation. While I don't view one style of play as "the one true way" I decided to give DCC a try as written. I generated, using Purple Sorcerer Games zero-level character generator, 15 groups of 4 zero-level PCs and allowed each player to pick one grouping. For combat I made all the rolls publicly. This very quickly established the tone - this is not a friendly world where the fates seek to keep you alive for some great destiny. If a barbarian hiding in a ruined building near the Shrine hurls a javelin at a fisherman, chances are good that the fisherman will die.

However, even though it made death more likely it also made death simply part of the game - I'm not sure how to describe it - but there seemed to be little fear of character death despite its likelihood. Almost an attitude of "seize the day for tomorrow (or today) we may die".

Even though no one has reached 1st level yet the first session also really drove home how notable any leveled character is. These are people who ventured, willingly, into a scenario where death wasn't even possible but was likely. They watched others like them die deaths that no bard will sing songs of. Brave? Most certainly. A little bit crazy? I would imagine so.

That's got me thinking about other "important people" of the setting. I'd felt this way before but this first session drove it home - being important is not sufficient reason to be above 0-level. This is a world full of 0-level mayors, dukes, kings, priests, bishops, and the like. There may be some veteran soldiers who have fought in many battles, but even with that I suspect most of them aren't 1st level warriors. They might have extra hit dice and bonuses in combat, but it seems to me this is a world where leveling up to a class also involves a choice - a choice to truly risk one's life in pursuit of adventure.

Our next game will involve actually delving into the dungeon itself. I'm thinking I might have to supply the players with a few more 0-level characters to make a total party kill less than a certainty.

Note - if you've expressed interest in joining the game and weren't able to - or if this sounds interesting, give me a holler - we'd love to have you. And our poor adventurers need more potential targets in the funnel. We game every other Monday from 7 to around 9:30 PM Eastern US Time.

Monday, July 9, 2012

RPG Review: D&D Expert Rules (1st-3rd Printings)

D&D Expert Rules 1st-3rd Printings
D&D Expert Rules 4th+ Printing

The product I'm reviewing here isn't quite the Expert Set that had the most popularity. The better known version is a heavily revised version with a cover drawn by Larry Elmore (on the right). The version I began with has the Erol Otus cover featuring a wizard observing the scene that was on the cover of the original D&D Basic Rules. Back when Wizards of the Coast offered legal PDF downloads only the 4th+ Printing was made available. I really wish Wizards of the Coast would make a reprint of this version, digital or physical, available.


As has been my habit we'll begin with an overview of what we get in the book. I won't be going in as much detail as I did in my review of the Basic Rules as many portions of this are simply an expansion of what has come before.

Part 1 - Introduction

The Expert Rules begin with a description of what this book covers. It expects that you've got the Basic Rules. It explains how these rules cover 4th through 14th levels of play. It talks about how the Expert Rules include adventures in the wilderness - in the Basic Rules you were typically expected to make a short trip to the dungeon and then return. It also talks about the concept of "name" level", typically 9th (except for poor halflings who only get 8 levels total) upon which your character can build a stronghold. There is also a section on the importance of avoiding adventures when there is too large a gap between levels of characters.

One thing which got my attention was a section dedicated to players who had the original D&D Basic Rules - the blue cover version that was edited by Eric Holmes - it explained the changes in assumptions between that version and the 8th-11th printing version. I didn't have that version so it piqued my curiosity until I was finally able to borrow a copy of the Holmes version from a friend. 

Part 2 - Player Character Information

This section covered levels 4-14 for human classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief) and levels up to 12th (dwarves), 10th (elves), and 8th (halflings). There are some oddities here for people used to other versions of the rules - for example at one level clerics gain two new levels of spell (a time for celebration!) 

What got my most attention was a teaser of what would be in the D&D Companion Rules - something which never really came out, as when it finally did it was for the revised version of the Basic and Expert Rules, not this version. It promised multiple attacks for fighters, new spells for magic-users and clerics, and new thief abilities such as the ability to climb under overhangs, ventriloquism, distractions, etc. I was somewhat curious what would happen to the poor demi-humans. A few years back Jonathan Becker produced a "what if version" of this Companion Rules entitled the B/X Companion. It is an excellent product which I have on my list of review candidates.

Part 3 - Spells

This section was pretty straightforward, with more powerful spells along with rules for reversing spells - for example casting Darkness instead of Light or Cause Light Wounds instead of Cure Light Wounds.

One thing which was rather memorable for me was the quality of the illustrations. Though simple they were quite evocative, showing how powerful the spellcasters were becoming.

Part 4 - The Adventure

This section introduces wilderness adventures. This was my first exposure to hex maps. It has rules for getting lost, evading pursuit in the wilderness, etc. Also it had rules for more advanced hirelings for the characters to employee.

Part 5 - The Encounter

A lot of this section is a reprint of rules from the same section in the Basic Rules. I assume this is because of the differences between the original Blue Box Basic Rules and the later (and then-current) Magenta Box Basic Rules.

There were some additions such as the sequence of events over the course of a day and new options for combat such as combat with lances, flight, etc. 

Also the combat and saving throw tables from the Basic Rules were expanded to 14th level.

Part 6 - Monsters

The monsters section had some interesting additions to the rules. It featured more powerful undead including the first energy-drainers (eek, run!!!) There was an assortment of prehistoric critters. It introduced an assortment of beasts and also giants are present here as well.

As before the illustrations were quite evocative and stay with me to this day. Check out this Erol Otus spectre on the right...

Part 7 - Treasure

This is why we go on adventure darn it! I remember loving this section with some impressive items being introduced - horns of blasting, intelligent swords, staves of wizardry. What fun! 

Part 8 - DM Information

My Future Home
This section has rules for the Dungeon Master - guidelines for creating wilderness environments and base towns. It also had rules for constructing strongholds along with an illustration that made me want to get a castle...

Also included were sections on wandering monsters for the wilderness and some example maps - an introduction to the Grand Duchy of Karameikos and a sample gnome lair. And there was an introduction to hex map symbols that to this day are still used.

Sampling of Hex Symbols

Part 9 - Special Adventures

The final section, not present in the Basic Set, introduced sea-going adventures, with rules for going to sea on various ships. This was quite handy as most of us had as our first adventure a trip to the Isle of Dread (included in all boxed versions of the Expert Set).

Overall Impression

I'm kicking off my Dungeon Crawl Classics game tonight. As I write this I suddenly want to play D&D Basic and Expert...

All kidding aside, coupled with the Basic Rules the D&D Expert Rules gave you a game which could last you for years. It's not a game with rules for every possible scenario but my memories of it are of a game that was a ton of fun. 

There are a few things which aren't quite "right". The biggest to my mind is the limits placed on demi-humans. The level limits begin to come into affect with the Expert Rules. It's not a big deal for dwarves and elves at this point but it seemed fairly crippling for halflings. I always felt a better option would have been to allow demi-humans to advance nearly as high as humans but make their experience costs put them a little behind their human counterparts. In any case it's a fun game and house-ruling for early versions of D&D was not a difficult undertaking...

I also see I noted the art here a lot more than I did in my review of the Basic Rules. For whatever reason the artwork in this set was more memorable for me - even looking at it today it has me wanting to play this game.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Religion in Fantasy Settings

As a preface to this post it probably makes sense to describe how I view religion in the "real world" as it surely has an impact on how I view it in fictional settings.

I was raised a Roman Catholic and I remain one though I suspect if the pope ever had a chance to have a chat with me he'd probably show me the exit in short order. I believe in marriage equality (aka same-sex marriage), believe the church's teachings on the ordination of women and contraception are flawed, and I don't believe Catholics or Christians have an exclusive claim to salvation - to be honest I'm a believer in making this world the best it can be. I am a huge fan of Jesus who spent an awful lot of time telling people to love one another and not much time talking about birth control or homosexuality. Generally speaking if your religion gives you what you need and leads you to a compassionate life I'm fine with it. Heck if your lack of religion takes you there, awesome too. A lot of my philosophy was shaped by the former Catholic nun turned atheist turned theist Karen Armstrong and her Charter for Compassion.

I've found people to admire in a wide array of religions, including my own, and I've found people to despise in a wide array of religions, including my own. I've got a pretty strong hunch that the infinite is beyond the ability of any one set of beliefs to describe.

I begin with this long statement to give an idea as to what I like seeing in portrayals of religion in fantasy settings, whether for a setting for RPGs or for fiction. I generally am not too crazy about settings that have "one true way" - a pantheon of gods that regularly interacts with mortals. It is not an exercise of faith to believe in a supernatural force that regularly visits the world. While I greatly enjoyed the Dragonlance novels when I was younger as I grew older this became a point of frustration for me with Paladine and Takhisis walking the face of Krynn.

Issek of the Jug from TSR's
"Lankhmar: City of Adventure"
I have enjoyed fantasy settings where the gods have worshippers but those worshippers tend to be without "clerical magic" - though sometimes it is suggested there may well be something to these gods. For example, in the short story "Lean Times in Lankhmar" Fafhrd becomes an acolyte of Issek of the Jug but neither he nor anyone involved with Issek has any supernatural ability. Conan refers to his deity Crom numerous times but there is no expectation of ever seeing Crom taking direct action.

One fantasy gaming setting which I felt did an excellent job portraying multiple religious beliefs was the Eberron campaign world for Dungeons & Dragons. It featured multiple faiths. The most common faith was the Sovereign Host, a pantheon of nine mostly benevolent deities. Their counterpoint was the Dark Six, six malevolent deities. You had the church of the Silver Flame, dominant in one nation but able to be found elsewhere. You had elves worshipping their ancestors (who could often be found wandering around in a sort of undead state). You had death worshippers, forbidden cults. Worshippers of all these faiths gained spells but even with that the worshippers actually weren't certain as to the actual source to their powers. The deities in question did not make their wishes or even their existence known. It's not even certain in the game world that the deities are the sources for these powers. This is an approach I greatly liked as it gave the expected powers of clerics but it added the real-world ambiguity that all religions have. Additionally, this made it easy to portray religions in multiple lights. In one adventure I had the main villain be a zealot of the Silver Flame. In another adventure there was a heroic NPC who worshipped the Silver Flame. In most settings the deities are monitoring the behavior of their clerics and withhold spells from those clerics who abuse the tenets of the faith. No such luck in Eberron. Just like in the real world these people may be judged harshly in any afterlife but in this world they may well get away with their subterfuges and abuses of their faiths.

RuneQuest is one game which has embraced multiple world views. While I am not an expert on Glorantha (truth be told Glorantha kind of frightens me), I recall the 3rd edition of RuneQuest having practitioners of shamanism, divine magic, and sorcery write as to why their beliefs represent "the one true way" and why followers of other beliefs are totally wrong and some horrible fate awaits them in the afterlife.

From my exposure there seems to be less portrayal of religion in fantasy literature than in fantasy gaming. For example, there's not a priest to be found in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. The Chronicles of Narnia represents one exception and even has multiple religions but only one of those religions is "correct".

Winterfell Godswood from HBO's "A Game of Thrones"
One fantasy series whose portray of religion I greatly enjoy is George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. The continent of Westeros has two main faiths, worship of the Seven and worship of the Old Gods. The Seven are more popular in the civilized south whereas the Old Gods are worshipped more in the north. Sacred trees with carved faces are dedicated to the Old Gods and in later novels we learn there is actually something to the belief that the Old Gods can speak through the trees - though not in the way that most worshippers would imagine.

The worship of the Seven reminds me somewhat of Christianity's place in medieval Europe, with officers of the faith having great temporal power and their holiness varies from true dedication to all-out charlatans.

The worship of the god R'hllor and belief in a dualistic evil other is prevalent on the nearby continent of Essos and begins to become a factor in the politics of Westeros, with one of the rivals to the Iron Throne of Westeros becomes a worshipper of R'hllor. Interestingly the priests of R'hllor are found to have some powers, especially of divination, though they are far from infallible.

These ideas have been bouncing around my head as I contemplate how to portray religion in my Dungeon Crawl Classics game. Clerics in DCC need to stay in their deity's good graces which tends to indicate some amount of certainty as to how you're doing with your god. But... it shouldn't be difficult to throttle back on the certainty. Yes, these angels are telling me I'm telling me I'm doing a lousy job. And unless I make them happy I'm going to have a hard time with magic. But am I absolutely certain they come from my god? Also, I plan on making it possible for a worshipper to forsake his holy vows and still have access to magic - though in such a case he is now effectively getting his spells from a new source and needs to keep that source pleased with him...Yes communing with the divine is possible, but the results of doing so are less than reliable, similar to the problems priests of R'hllor in Westeros and Essos tend to have when interpreting visions they see in the sacred flames...

Developing a New Campaign Setting: Tagentium Map Finished

Finalized my map of the starting town for my DCC campaign. It was interesting how I began finding a story to match the map.

The west side of the map is the older part of the city and the one where the patrician families are most likely to be found. The buildings are made of brick and concrete, the streets are all paved, and there are many pleasant garden areas to be found. One can see the palace of the administrator of the island, the Comes Fraterculus. Nearby is the old market, still in use where one can find more luxury goods.

The eastern half of the town is the newer part though it is also not in as good shape. A century ago the town was sacked by barbarians and the walls were breached with much of the town destroyed. It was rebuilt, though many of the eastern half of Tagentium consists of wooden buildings and dirt streets. There's a lot less planning to be found on this side of the river as well, with nice back alleys for cutpurses. We've also got the main market and church to the monotheistic deity (in development).

The southeast part of the city is the most rundown, used primarily by fishermen and slaves for the fields to the east of the city. Instead of the solid stone wall protecting the rest of the city it is protected by a "temporary" wooden palisade. There are plans to fully extend the wall but nothing has come of that save a gatehouse and towers which look absurd rising above the rotting palisade.

The island at the mouth of the river has a temple to the former patron of the city, the god Neptune. Though the old religion is no longer the state religion it is still highly revered with a significant minority clinging to the old gods.

I eyeballed the population to be 3,600. This is on the low side for the number of buildings but I wanted to stay in keeping with the urban depopulation that the western half of the Roman Empire experienced in real history. It makes for some ancient abandoned houses that can be used for a quick adventure. I tried to have a compromise between the more planned cities that the Romans built with the more chaotic cities of the Middle Ages. One problem with a lot of gaming maps of pseudo-medieval cities is the amount of open space they have - buildings tended to be crammed as tight together as possible. Streets weren't really planned but were more just a default use of the space between buildings, some main thoroughfares excluded - and often that required enforcement to stop buildings from creeping onto main streets. Even the slums to the southeast are probably a bit more open than a medieval town or city would be.

I'm not certain how much adventure I'll be having in this town - my plan has been to move to the larger Kraken Isle with its Venice-like city but this seemed a useful practice exercise for practicing my urban map-making abilities.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Developing a New Campaign Setting: The Town of Tagentium

Some dental "fun" (I wonder if clerics can fix teeth) and work-related issues have forced me to delay kicking off my DCC campaign by two weeks. During that time I've been doing some reading on late Antiquity and noodling around with my setting. As I've mentioned previously, my game's feel is inspired by the decades following the fall of the western Roman Empire. I'm not looking to create a 100% historical analogue. But there's a lot about it that screams D&D. You've got your barbarians kingdoms. You've got the eastern half of the fallen Empire that still considers those lost lands part of its territory (paging Emperor Justinian). Now we'll be adding to the mix the undead, dragons, sorcerers, and the like.

I've been giving some thought to the starting town of the game, currently named Tagentium. The idea is the game begins on a small island close to a much larger island. I've not been planning on developing it too much as I expect play will move off the smaller island, Little Brother, after a few adventures. But with a little bit of extra time I've had some time to fool around - a lot of it being an excuse to play with Campaign Cartographer's City Designer add-on. I've done well at overland maps and dungeon maps but I've never been all that good at designing cities. Working on a town has made me think about some elements from the larger campaign. Using S. John Ross' Medieval Demographics article he describes a town as having a population of one to eight thousand, typically around 2,500. They usually are not walled but for this exercise I decided to make a walled town - given the recent violence a walled coastal town seems a reasonable assumption.

After some experimenting I found a map style I liked. I wanted to get a basic idea of what the town looked like and I'm far from complete but I felt sharing a work-in-progress might be illuminating. As with most drawings you can see a bit more if you click on it. Looking at it I realized I was a bit inspired by the town of Threshold in the D&D Expert Rules. Tagentium is at the end of a small river on the island of Little Brother. Keeping with my idea of a town founded during a Roman Empire-like period it has its own amphitheater. You can also see a palace for the ruler of the town and a large building to the east of the river which is a church. I'm still in the process of drawing out the streets. I started out with the main streets which are better planned than the unpaved side-streets. The main streets have buildings made out of concrete whereas the side streets also have wooden buildings. In the empire this would probably once have been unheard of but one of the things that suffered in Western Europe in our world after the fall of Rome was the massive civil engineering of the Empire. I'm guessing this town has been sacked a few times and some of its original concrete buildings have been replaced with lesser quality buildings.

The presence of a church has me thinking about the religion of the Empire. On our world both halves of the Roman Empire were officially Christian by the time of the fall of the west. It should be noted there were some massive doctrinal disputes that made the Christian religion far from unified, many of them concerning the divine vs. mortal nature of the Christ. Interestingly, my readings has taught me that the barbarians who came to rule over the lands of the western empire were typically Christian though the common people were often pagan. For this campaign I'm going to assume that the Empire did indeed move towards a monotheistic religion. I believe this is also in keeping with some of the assumptions of AD&D - consider for example the illustrations of clerics in raiments reminiscent of Christian priests. However, I'm thinking it would be interesting for it to have been less than universal and in this campaign, like in our world, the barbarians have still to have been converted. Plus I'd like to make some use of Roman religious beliefs - my research revealed all sorts of things about Pluto, Orcus, and Dispater that I'm planning on using in my first adventure. As far as the monotheistic religion goes I'm keeping it vague until the game starts - if a player wants to be a cleric of this religion I'd like to give him an opportunity to have some say in it.