August 31, 2014

#RPGaDay 31

 Day 31 — Favorite RPG of All Time

Because most of what I’ve talked about in this little exercise is D&D, it would seem to be a safe bet that some version of that game would top the list. But as I always do whenever anyone asks me this question, I’m going to fudge the answer by saying “My favorite RPG of all time is the one I’m playing at the time.” Because throughout many years of playing, reading, and now working on RPGs,  this has always been true for me.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was my first RPG, and as anyone who’s played it knows, AD&D has a whole host of inconsistencies, problems, and general “WTF”? moments within its ruleset. I still have personal and professional cause to read through the old rules from time to time, but I’m pretty sure I’d never want to sit down and play AD&D again in its original form. But for the years over which I played it, none of that mattered, because AD&D was the best thing I’d ever played. When I played Traveller, it was the best thing I’d ever played. When I played Champions and MechWarrior, the experience was never anything short of amazing.

When I read the games of yore that I never got a chance to play, and when I read new games now hoping I’ll get a chance to play them at some point — from Pendragon to Numenera to GURPS to 13th Age — what comes through first and foremost is the sense of wonder that’s core to the very essence of RPGs. Every good RPG has that potential to push the imagination and emotion of its players to the limits. And at that limit point, every good RPG becomes the best RPG, because that point of absolute immersion is what RPGs are all about.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 30, 2014

#RPGaDay 30

 Day 30 — Rarest RPG Owned

Though the number of bookshelves in my office dedicated to RPG material is ever-expanding, I don’t own anything particularly rare. I’m not that much into collectibles, insofar as I’ll buy things for the pleasure of reading them, but not because I hope to treat them as a capital investment some day.

From the perspective of things of interest to other people, I have an almost-complete collection of Dragon magazine starting from issue 33. (I don’t expect to ever own any of the first thirty-two issues, because buying those for the pleasure of reading them is impossible as long as other people are buying them as capital investments; see above.)

From the perspective of things of interest only to me, I have my original copy of the adventure module Keep on the Borderlands. It’s not rare in any objective sense, because as one of the most popular adventures ever, there are literally thousands of copies still out there in the wild. But it’s extremely rare in a subjective sense, because it’s virtually the only one of my original high-school-era gaming works to survive. I know they’re just books, but I wish I had more of them.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 29, 2014

#RPGaDay 29

Day 29 — Most Memorable Encounter

This runs way too much of a risk of a “let me tell you about my character” moment, but:

As a player, an early high school session of AD&D. The Keep on the Borderlands. My 1st-level magic-user (Stormhand) and a couple of henchman made a not-so-stealthy infiltration of the ogre’s cave, during which Stormhand was grabbed up. With effectively 1 round in which to save his own life, he managed a shocking grasp to the ogre’s face, which the DM ruled was distracting enough to be dropped. It was the beginning of a long and auspicious adventuring career.

As a DM, a Saturday night about a month and a half ago. It was the first session of a long-awaited reboot of the Temple of Elemental Evil adventure from back in the day. I reworked the upper level of the temple (which is empty as written) to fill it with mercenary gnolls on guard for the cult. We were playing online using Roll20 and its dynamic lighting feature, meaning the characters were like little islands of light moving within this huge field of darkness filled with howling and the hiss of arrows launched by unseen foes. As an encounter I’d been wanting to play for more than two decades, it would have been memorable even if the PCs hadn’t kicked ass.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 28, 2014

#RPGaDay 28

Day 28 — Scariest Game You’ve Played

I can honestly say I’ve never truly been scared while playing an RPG. I’ve been made terrified that my characters were going to die horribly, but that’s not quite the same thing.

As far as creating a mood of dark unease, though, Tomb of Horrors did it for me back in the day. More recently, I could mention the “Skinsaw Murders” section of Pathfinder’s Rise of the Runelords adventure path, which I was a player in earlier this year. It’s extremely and consistently creepy, and that’s a good thing in my books.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 27, 2014

#RPGaDay 27

 Day 27 — Game You’d Like to See a New/Improved Edition of…

This is a tricky question, just because the resurgence in popularity of RPGs, the groundwork laid down by the OGL, and the willingness of old IP holders and new publishers to work together to revisit classic product means that a ton of games already have new and improved editions. Want to play a better AD&D, OD&D, or any of the original versions of Basic D&D? You’ve got about a hundred different options.

Two things I would like to see, though:

First, properly legal and authorized PDF editions of every game every made. All companies, all editions, all games. If it existed at some point, give me the opportunity to buy a nicely scanned and text-searchable PDF. Wizards of the Coast has taken a huge step in the right direction with their D&D Classics program, but there’s way too much TSR and WotC stuff that should be in that pipeline but isn’t yet.

Second, an exact reprinting (with acceptable corrections and errata) of the original Traveller box set and supplements (Mercenary, High Guard, and the like). Not the original books reprinted in bigger formats (which we already have in spades; see “tricky question,” above), but actual reprinted little black books. Original 5.5 x 8.5 size, original cardstock covers, original fonts, original (lack of) artwork. Take my money. Seriously.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 26, 2014

#RPGaDay 26

 Day 26 — Coolest Character Sheet

Numenera all the way. It’s a rare occurrence when a character sheet can make you feel like you’re already in the game even before your first stats are set down.

Honorable mention goes to AD&D. Because AD&D.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 25, 2014

#RPGaDay 25

 Day 25 — Favourite RPG No One Else Wants to Play

Any of them, really. I would play pretty much anything, anytime given the opportunity.

I’ll take it upon myself to twist this question a bit, though, and say that the thing interfering most strenuously with my ability to play anything, anytime, isn’t a lack of willing players; it’s a lack of willing GMs. I’m pretty sure I could fill a table (either in real life or online) seven nights a week if I announced I was running the game each of those nights. But not only does that way madness lie, I really like to simply play sometimes — just me and my character.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 24, 2014

#RPGaDay 24

Day 24 — Most Complicated RPG Owned

This one’s a toss-up between two different versions of Dungeons & Dragons: AD&D and Pathfinder.

AD&D stands atop this category because its various systems, subsystems, and rules arcana made it pretty much impossible to play without constant reference to the rulebooks, frequent interruptions to look things up, and a strong sense that every time you tried to accomplish something task-based, you were pausing your main D&D game and starting up a mini-game to resolve whatever needed to be done. (The fact that the game was awesome in spite of all that speaks volumes to the power of the underlying paradigms, I think.)

Pathfinder is an honorable mention here because Paizo Publishing has done such a phenomenal job of building a new game on top of D&D v3.5 — but in the course of making sure the original core of v3.5 was kept intact, everything that’s been added to it has increased the complexity of possibility in the game. All the core Pathfinder expansion material (and much of the third-party expansion material) is excellent. But taken as a whole, it creates such a wealth of options for play (the original classes, new classes, backgrounds, new prestige classes, alternate class features, new races, archetypes, and on and on) that it  too often and too easily leads to a kind of analysis paralysis. Especially for new players, it’s impossible to figure out what you want to do with your character because there are simply too many options.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 23, 2014

#RPGaDay 23

Day 23 — Coolest Looking RPG Product/Book

Too many to choose from.

Old-school stuff:

Two maps of Greyhawk — the original World of Greyhawk folio and box set map (left and right), and Paizo’s four-part version that came with Dungeon magazine 118–121. I own multiple copies of the former and pristine copies of the latter, and I desperately need more wall space in my office.

The Planescape box set.

Newer stuff:

The Numenara corebook. (I suspect the Strange corebook should also be in here, but I haven’t had time to crack it yet.)

The 5e Player’s Handbook. A few illos are a little bit too retro for my taste, but across the board, the art direction in the book creates the sense that you’re looking at illustrations created within the world itself. And that’s what an RPG book should do.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 22, 2014

#RPGaDay 22

 Day 22 — Best Secondhand RPG Purchase

Because virtually all of my original high-school-and-college-age gaming material vanished during a long-ago move, pretty much everything I own of those back-in-the-day games have been secondhand purchases. But out of that morass of materials, scoring a four-volume set of the Encyclopedia Magica (which I’d never actually owned back in the day) was pretty sweet.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 21, 2014

#RPGaDay 21

Day 21 — Favourite Licensed RPG

Middle-earth Role Playing for sure. But having said that, I don’t have a whole lot of experience with licensed RPGs, mostly because as a creative sort, I’m more interested in shaping my own story worlds than messing around with other peoples’. For example, I know that many of the numerous Star Wars RPGs have been described as excellent, and had those games been around when I was in high school, I would have devoured them wholesale, I’m sure. However, as a jaded adult, they all fall into the category of things I’ve looked at and read but will probably never play, because the licensed properties they’re based on don’t hold my attention as they once did.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 20, 2014

#RPGaDay 20

Day 20 — Will Still Play in Twenty Years Time…

Dungeons & Dragons, by one name or another. (If you’ve been following along, not a big surprise.)

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 19, 2014

#RPGaDay 19

Day 19 — Favourite Published Adventure

Too many to come up a single title. Choose from among the following:

In Search of the Unknown — The first adventure I ever played in, and still one of the best step-by-step guides to creating and running a classic dungeon crawl.

Tomb of Horrors — An adventure I loved so much as a player that I rewrote it twice.

Slave Lords — The original four adventure modules A1–A4: Slave Pits of the Undercity, Secret of the Slavers’ Stockade, Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Taken as a whole, the Slave Lords series is a perfect example of how narrative and dungeon crawling don’t have to be antithetical, and about how even the most straight-up adventures can make use of intrigue, mystery, and the unexpected to create compelling game story.

And in a break from this being an all-D&D award show:

Twilight’s Peak — Adventure 3 for the original Traveller system, Twilight’s Peak remains probably the single best adventure I’ve ever played. The scenario is a multilayered mystery whose every stage introduces more mystery, and which eventually draws the characters into the deepest secrets of the Traveller milieu. This melange of history, legend, and investigation is something that any number of Call of Cthulhu games have done in the long years since. But for me at the time, Twilight’s Peak was a wake-up call for understanding what kind of story and character development an RPG adventure could pull off.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 18, 2014

#RPGaDay 18

Day 18 — Favourite Game System

d20. Not to say that the d20 System and D&D 3rd Edition are the best game systems ever, because I definitely don’t think that’s true. (I don’t even think 3rd Edition is the best D&D; that nod goes to 5e, in my opinion.) But the underlying paradigms of d20 — especially including the OGL and the idea of truly open gaming— completely reinvented the idea of what D&D was and could be, and pushed the potential for gaming as a narrative platform into new realms.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 17, 2014

#RPGaDay 17

Day 17 — Funniest Game You’ve Played

Any game I ever played with my friend Mitch. And almost always for the good reasons.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 16, 2014

#RPGaDay 16

Day 16 — Game You Wish You Owned

The original Gygax/Perren Chainmail, just because.

A complete set of Middle-earth Role Playing, including all the product that was destroyed because the Tolkien estate are a bunch of sanctimonious pricks.

All the house rule notes and homebrew dungeon crafting of my youth, which disappeared in a long-ago move.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 15, 2014

#RPGaDay 15

Day 15 — Favorite Convention Game

A tie between:

At last year’s Gen Con, playing Munchkin in the convention center atrium with my friends Dave and Kevin, because last year’s Gen Con was the first time the three of us had gamed together face to face in twenty-seven years.


Also at last year’s Gen Con, playing Dawn Patrol and meeting Mike Carr. In addition to writing the In Search of the Unknown adventure that launched a thousand DMs, Mike was the original TSR rules editor. When I shook his hand, I thanked him for inventing my job. He smiled at that. 

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 14, 2014

#RPGaDay 14

 Day 14 — Best Convention Purchase

At last year’s Gen Con, the bourbon chicken at the Cajun Grill in the food court of Circle Center Mall. It was really good. Also, I bought a new Batman shirt.

Reality: I don’t go to many conventions. I’m trying to change that.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 13, 2014

#RPGaDay 13

Day 13 — Most Memorable Character Death

Probably the first one, just because it was the first one. Aton (elf fighter/magic-user), killed by a giant tick in the moathouse in the Village of Hommlet adventure. (Pro tip: 1st-level elf fighter/magic-users don’t have a whole lot of hit points.) This would have been in about 1982.

Some twenty-six years later, I was DMing the first part of Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil as a play-by-post campaign. One of the players was my friend Dave, who was the DM who had killed Aton with a giant tick back in The Village of Hommlet in 1982. He didn’t remember any of it. I gave him some grief about that. He responded with the following:

In the ruined kitchen, the party takes a few moments to install the brass plaque that they have brought with them, putting a gleaming polish on it before they observe a moment of silence. It reads, “Aton - Fighter, Philosopher, and Man About Town.”

So I finally have some closure.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 12, 2014

#RPGaDay 12

 Day 12 — Old RPG You Still Play/Read

I’d have to go with “pretty much all of them” on this one. Owing to the details of my relative geographical isolation (I live in a rather small city in the middle of the Canadian hinterland, about five hours north of Vancouver) and having spent much of the past couple of decades engaged in the time-consuming activity of raising well-adjusted children, it’s been years since I regularly gamed as much as I’d like to. That’s been changing slowly over the past year or so (particularly with the help of Google+ hangouts), but I still spend way more of my gaming time reading and writing RPGs than I spend actually playing.

Old RPGs that I’ve read in the past year (either for pleasure or research) or that I’m in the current/ongoing process of reading include: Traveller (the original box-set books), original D&D, AD&D (including the core books, Oriental Adventures, and a ton of adventure modules), Dragon magazine (the AD&D and early 3rd Edition days), Call of Cthulhu d20, Conan (TSR and Mongoose), Elric, Middle-earth Role Playing, Runequest, Empire of the Petal Throne, and Lejendary Adventures.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 11, 2014

#RPGaDay 11

 Day 11 — Weirdest RPG Owned

That’s a tough one, only because I’m not normally in the habit of digging into or picking things up just because of their bizarre factor. As with fiction, there are plenty of good weird games — but there are a greater number of games that use weirdness primarily to cover for a lack of real content.

So from the limited selection, I’d have to go with the Red Dwarf RPG. It’s a remarkable work for its painstaking attention to detail and the way the complex ruleset creates a really cool framework for playing out the types of stories seen in the awesome TV series. But having done all that, it’s a weird work because it’s hard to imagine going to the trouble of learning a complex ruleset in order to play out slapstick space adventures.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 10, 2014

#RPGaDay 10

Day 10 — Favourite Tie-In Novel/Game Fiction

Ed Greenwood, Dave Gross, Erin Evans, Erik Scott de Bie, Ari Marmell, Gary Gygax.

Gygax in particular deserves a lot more respect as a fiction writer than he usually gets. His story sense sometimes wasn’t as sharp as the editor in me wishes it was, but his ability to capture setting and character with a rich, nuanced prose shows off the influences of the fantasy writers he loved, and gives some fresh context to the inspiration that many of those writers had on Dungeons & Dragons. 

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 9, 2014

#RPGaDay 9

 Day 9 — Favourite Die/Dice Set

This one’s easy. My favorite dice are my dice. My first dice. My only dice.

In the early spring of 1981, I bought my first dice at a store in Vancouver called Dragon’s Lair (Broadway near Cambie; if anyone else but me remembers the place, I’d love to hear about it). These were the days when sets of dice didn’t exist (at least I never saw them); you bought them exclusively as singles. My first set of dice were an old-style d20/d10 (0–9 twice), a d12, a d6, and a d4, all in transparent emerald green (what were called “ice dice” back in the day). My first d8 was purple transparent, just because they didn’t have the green in stock to complete the set. In subsequent trips to Dragon’s Lair, I picked up the green d8 and eventually added a new-style d20 and a new-style d10.

I don’t know the manufacturer, but these are the same style and hard-edged, unpainted goodness of the Gamescience dice you can still buy these days. I used to fill in the numbers with crayon for long ages, then finally got around to painting in the numbers a few years ago. When the paint starts to flake, I paint them again. The only distinguishing feature on them is one weird thing about the d4 — one of the “1” marks along the bottom is an “A” for some reason.

Though I now own a whole lot more dice than these, these are the dice I’ve used for every single game of D&D I’ve ever played. For thirty-three years now, the old-style d20 is the only d20 I’ve ever rolled for any of my PCs. (I use the new-style d20 when I’m rolling as a DM.) When I’m rolling 10d6 lightning bolt damage in my current Pathfinder game, I roll my original d6 alongside whatever assortment of newer d6s are at hand. When I’m rolling the result of a cure spell, my original d8 is always in the mix. My magic missiles always include my original d4, which means I occasionally do A + 1 damage. I’m still not sure what that means.

(Addendum: Since first writing this, I have learned that the A on my d4 means it’s a first-gen Armory die! Thanks to Jon Peterson for geeking out about this stuff.)

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 8, 2014

#RPGaDay 8

 Day 8 — Favorite Character

Morgan, AD&D fighter, rolled up sometime in the fall of 1980 (S 18/96, I 14, W 13, D 18, C 16, Ch 13) and inspired by the Travis Morgan character from Mike Grell’s comic The Warlord.

Back in the AD&D days, your favorite characters tended to be the ones who survived past third level, because the game lent itself to characters dying and replacement characters being easy to roll up in equal proportion. Morgan was not only one of those surviving characters, he was also my first character, and his extended career was no small feat considering some of the killer dungeons my friends were working up at the time. And the fact that in the earliest stages of our play, we weren’t really down with a lot of the more subtle points to the rules. Like, for instance, did you know that you really shouldn’t take 4th-level characters into the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief? We didn’t. It was messy.

Not only did Morgan the D&D character survive his various campaigns, he also migrated into fiction as the character Morghan, who appears in the story “The Name of the Night” in A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales. Morghan has a few more stories he’s set to appear in that I really need to get around to writing one of these days.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 7, 2014

#RPGaDay 7

 Day 7 — Most “Intellectual” RPG Owned

(I’ll be honest, I’m a little uncertain about what the quotation marks are supposed to mean. But anyway.)

The snap response to this question is that all RPGs are, on some level, intellectual. Even the simplest or most seemingly slapstick RPG (I’m looking at you, Toon) is based on the idea of trying to create compelling narrative within a framework of storytelling rules. As such, I think it’s effectively impossible to create an RPG that doesn’t involve some amount of intellectual legwork. Though having said that, the intellectual legwork underlying an RPG can often go seriously wrong. (I’m looking at you, Carcosa.)

If I’m answering the question straight up, though, I’d have to say Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP), even though I don’t own very much of it.

Being built around the wickedly complicated Rolemaster system made MERP a game for thinking people to begin with, and the amount of Tolkienesque detail packed into the game’s setting supplements was insane. I never actually played MERP, partly because I never crossed paths with a group interested in playing it — but partly also because I always got a sense that the amount of time one could spend digging into the details of the setting and the system would quickly consume me.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 6, 2014

#RPGaDay 6

Day 6 — Favourite RPG You Never Get to Play

Traveller. The original box-set rules were the second RPG I ever played, a year-and-a-bit after I started RPGing with D&D. And though I’ve gotten back into/continued with D&D in a big way starting with 3rd Edition, I haven’t played a game of Traveller since about 1985.

At Gen Con last year, I think there were a grand total of three Traveller games happening — none of which I could go to because they conflicted with other stuff I was doing. I noted at the time that there were more sessions of the Ghostbusters RPG on the schedule. There’s something wrong with the world.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 5, 2014

#RPGaDay 5

 Day 5 — Most Old School RPG Owned

Original D&D white box, though just the end-of-product-cycle “Original Collector’s Edition”.

I never owned this set back in the day, though I procured and read the PDF versions of these OD&D rules when such things first started making their way online. The three-book set was an eBayed Christmas gift from the coolest wife and daughters in the world a few years ago, and was subsequently augmented by all the other original supplements with the exception of Chainmail, which I have yet to track down.

Even having read the PDFs, there’s something magical about actually holding these books in your hands. There’s something equally magical about reading them (which I did most recently in January, celebrating the nominal 40th anniversary of the box set’s original release) and going “How the hell did anyone ever play this game in the first place?” Because the original books have some editing/development issues.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 4, 2014

#RPGaDay 4

Day 4 — Most Recent RPG Purchase

The Deadlands Player’s Guide and the Deadlands Marshall’s Handbook. I desperately want my friend Fran├žois to run a game at some point, because he’s a man of rare storytelling talent and would make a kick-ass GM. When he jokingly said to me, “If I ever run an RPG, it’ll have to be set in Tombstone, Arizona,” I sent him the links to the Pinnacle website and he went down the Deadlands rabbit hole like a shot. It’s just a matter of time now…

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 3, 2014

#RPGaDay 3

 Day 3 — First RPG Purchased

Dungeons & Dragons, Holmes blue box. If you read the first day’s entry, you’ve heard that story already, but here’s another peripheral take on it.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 2, 2014

#RPGaDay 2

Day 2 — First RPG Gamemastered

Dungeons & Dragons. (That’s going to be a theme throughout much of this month; sorry.)

When I started playing D&D (see yesterday’s link), my friend Kevin was my gateway DM. As the person who’d been playing the game already, he was the one who gave me the first taste of adventure through In Search of the Unknown and Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, then unleashed me onto an unsuspecting world. Truth be told, though, it took me a while to start DMing because of a strange confluence of geography and finances.

The geographical factor was the reality that living in a small town of 2,000 people in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, we didn’t have a gaming store that stocked the AD&D books, meaning that missions to secure those tomes required long-distance travel. The financial factor was that me and everyone else I knew were all perpetually broke in those heady days of 11th grade. As such, when we first started playing, myself and the other two core members of the party (Dave and Mitch) only owned one book a piece — Mitch, the Players Handbook; Dave, the Dungeon Masters Guide; and me, the Monster Manual. And though we traded the books around a lot between ourselves, it wasn’t until I actually got around to securing a DM Guide of my own that I felt comfortable pushing myself onto the other side of the table.

The first adventures I ran were the Slave Lords series of modules (A1 through A4 for you old-school types). I can remember being really worried about whether I had what it took to actually run a game, despite having been playing for almost a year at that point. I remember an enormous number of rookie mistakes I made during that campaign. I also remember one moment at the beginning of the first adventure, Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade, where the party was locked down in a standoff with slaver mercenary orcs in a courtyard. The decision was made to clear the courtyard with a fireball — except the party didn’t know that the orcs had strapped together an old pushcart, a barrel of lamp oil, and a bellows to create a jury-rigged flamethrower designed to stop the frontal assault they were too smart to make.

I remember the adventure talking about how if the cart caught fire, it would explode to deal damage to the orcs nearby and that’s about it. I remember thinking, “That’s kind of boring,” and instead describing the cart blowing sky-high as the fireball hit it, an explosion of lamp oil setting fire to the nearby wooden doors as the remains of the cart arced through the air and slammed down in front of the party, forcing the characters to run like hell to get past it and into the fray.

I remember thinking “That was pretty cool.” And I haven’t looked back.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 1, 2014

#RPGaDay 1

So this is apparently a thing, and so I shall I make it a thing that I do!

Day 1 — First RPG Played

Dungeons & Dragons. Kind of. You can read all about it here.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)