Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Couple Weeks After Free RPG Day

Sometimes the future just staggers the mind. If I told my 12 year old self that there would be a free role playing game day, he'd think I was a some old geezer, who skipped his medication and is talking crazy... "Oh no, it's true! Free RPG Day is when you can go down to your local comic book store, and pick one or two free role playing games- made with fancy paper and lavish painted artwork- or pick up a painted miniature or an over sized map of a fully functioning fantasy realm..." That's when the 12 year old me looks over and says, "There's no such thing as comic book stores."  

 People have been printing and producing material for the other editions of D+D for years and it's akin to the whole "fandom" writing phenomenon (protected as a free speech kind of deal, or, depending on your perception- legal plagiarism). Yes, regular folks can write scripts and stories, (based on their favorite books and TV shows), and then post their mini-masterpieces on line, in the hopes of being hired by a Hollywood production company. Or  else capture a large enough Internet audience to pay for their book version of , say, "The Further Adventures of Benjamin Franklin, Vampire Hunter and Inventor Extraordinaire" or "The Fifty Shades of Sexy Vampire Loving", or "Star Trek vs. Star Wars: Vampire Edition".

But D+D gamers, like myself, were doing the same thing 30 or 40 years ago, except, with the settings and plot lines geared not for a best selling novel, but rather, for a goofy role playing game. Sherlock Holmes, for example, has solved more crimes than Conan Doyle could ever write, including ones in outer space, in King Arthur's Court, and in Prehistoric times. He has teamed up with everyone from James Bond to Hercule Poirot (aboard the Orient Express) to Zorro. And he has confronted such over the top villains as Ying and Yang, two Japanese teen aged girls - with psychic powers, and trained in the dark art of assassination- and their 300 feet tall Mecha-Godzilla type monster, Killzilla. He battled Lady Nightshade and her super powers of deadly misfortune (enabling her to conjured up an Anti-Sherlock Holmes, a short, lumpy gent dressed in a black leather jacket, and bent on killing the original Sherlock Holmes, because his drug addiction was destroying the two of them, ala The 7 Percent Solution). And of course, Dracula, the vampire !

And now-a-days, there's a game for every genre: Western, mystery (murder dinner train tours), science fiction (Star Wars and Star Trek were not around back then, but Traveller and Star Frontiers were), but there were some based on different types of movies (The James Bond role playing game for instance). This also ties in with live action role playing games ( or LARPS : think Renaissance Fairs, Civil War re-enactors, and even, ahem, Harry Potter Qudditch matches- basically a socially acceptable way to beat the stuffing out of someone, and not go to jail).  And there's the "cos play" (costume design) hobbyist: dressing up in outfits / costumes of famous people in the past (that Guy Fawkes mask protesters wear, while playing their guitars on Wall Street) or comic book characters (derived from the world of steam punk, Star Wars movies, and Japanese animation) as a fashion / life-style "statement", and that eventually leads into everything else ( especially if 'everything else' means spending countless hours making an outfit of Iron Man, as seen through the prism of an 1880's inventor). Basically, it's a bunch of...uh...free spirits...And whether they know it not, all influenced by nerds like me who used to secretly play Dungeons and Dragons...I say secretly because, back then, as difficult as it may be to believe now, this game was definitely not for everyone.

See, there was a strong negative connotation back then...Not only were you labeled a geek and weirdo (for reading all of those strange books), but, depending on the circumstances, you could be pegged as Anti-American (Game Theory was not the chic thing it is today), or a drug crazed occultist holding secret rituals in the sewers, or in the forest (I'm proud to say that all of my pets died of old age, and were not sacrificed in an attempt to move the evil spirits to help me get laid), or worst, a loner who kept to himself and dreamed up ways to upset the status quo, because "he plays that game." 

The teenage years are rough on everyone. And some people NEVER outgrow them, which can be frustrating. The other day I heard an interview with Piers Anthony and he commented that he had a rough ride in his teenage years, and said that one of the best ways to get though them (and I'm paraphrasing here) "was to keep your head down, ride out those years as best you can, and move on when you're old enough...Some people need their imaginations and their fantasy worlds just to get through life...I was like that, and it was impossible to convince other people that I wasn't wasting my time..." Pressed for time, he recounted a story about how his high school teacher took his copy of Weird Tales magazine away and never gave it back to him. And now that he's a hugely successful writer, that same high school is always hitting him up for money, and he never gives it to them. I know where he's coming from...

In the meantime, enjoy this humerous rendition of (possibly) an actual D+D game:


It's entitled 'magic missile at the darkness' and I think it's prettty funny...So, I'm passing it along...  

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Wizard Needs Food

The new super-deluxe (spare no expense) editions of Gary Gygax's Advanced Dungeons and Dragons core rule books ( DMG, PH, and MM at once ! ) looked pretty impressive on the store's bookshelf the other day... From what I can tell from the outside. It's a shame. The plastic wrap is a nice layer of protection for the book, but it'd be helpful to flip through a store copy or something - given the price of the books. Each book features a framed portion of the iconic pictures from the originals, like a piece from a fondly remembered puzzle. When the price of the book sank in, my wallet made the decision. They may look like magic spell books, but this wizard needs food. I, regrettably, will have to pass.

Now, if you'll indulge me while I begin thinking beyond my means, get up on my high horse, and offer some harmless suggestions to the folks at Wizards of the Coast.

There's no question that these books were made using high quality printing tools and techniques, but a give-away contest may help move them off the selves with a positive word of mouth. Some kind of coupon download to help curb the cost wouldn't be out of line, since the economy feels like the 1970's meets the 1930's. There's always the "less fabulous paperback edition for half price" route. And finally, the dreaded download option..."The books are yours in three hours !"  I'd shy away from making a You Tube video, presenting the interior of the book (in all of it's graphs, charts, and fantasy art glory) and what not- it might feel too much like "rule-lawyer" porn ( it's like cake porn, but with typeface instead of frosting ). But, then again...You'd get some hits. 

Yes, they are well crafted volumes and yes, a chunk of the profit goes into the Gygax Memorial, and yes, there are only so many printed and they will sale. So, why bother taking any of my suggestions? Well, some of us old timey D+D fans believe Hasbro could just buy a statue of Gary Gygax since, ya'know, they made a ga-zillion dollars on the Transformer movies (worldwide and all). Wizard of the Coast, by association, tends to get thrown into a similar light (ala vast sums of cash lying around in off-shore bank accounts). It's probably through no fault of theirs, since Hasbro decides where the money ends up...But hey, it is what it is.* If Hasbro wanted a Gygax statue, there would be a statue.

So, think of this as a fan-based high five on the down low. Since WotC 'rescued' D+D all those years ago, I'm hoping they'll pay homage to TSR's roots in the Independent Press and help spread the word, not just the wealth.

But, yes, I understand there is a G.I. Joe movie sequel set to roll out next summer, so it may take a while to pull that off. I'm naively optimistic.

* I suspect the pitch for the Gygax Memorial fund wasn't as flashy as the pitch for  Battleship: The Movie, when it came time for Hasbro to divide up the money. I figure it went something like:

Time: Afternoon
Place: Interior: Hasbro Board Meeting

"What do you got ?"

"There's a request for so much money to help fund a statue of a guy with a strange last name, who inspired a generation of gamers."

"Un Huh...What do you got ?"

"Rhianna in a low-cut, aboard an aircraft carrier, shooting down flying aliens with a giant gun turret. And Liam Neeson."

"Oh Yeah...People have got to see THAT ! Funnel our money to that project immediately ! Meeting Adjourned ! "

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Random Encounters

I was surprised to hear that Encyclopedia Brown creator Donald J. Sobol passed away earlier this month. Those books had a big effect on my 7th grade self. I rarely ever figured out the mystery, but I loved lifting those stories and incorporating them into my adventures.

When it comes to writing adventures, I'll include a strange mystery plot line. It's an old habit I can't break. I had more cliff hanging endings than most, and worked up more " Whodunit " revelation-scenes before the end of Act 2 (being an Ellery Queen fan at the time also had a lot to do with that). I would whisk the players to a flying city or an undersea kingdom, and there would be a mystery to solve, a score to settle, or a criminal to catch (and punish). It's not that surprising, given the fact that I was raised on everything from The Avengers to Mission Impossible  to Star Trek re-runs, and caught the peak years of Scooby Doo cartoons. Plus, I read Sherlock Holmes all of the time. I cannot tell you how many Sherlock Holmes adventures I either designed and ran or was run by somebody else, but it was something of an obsession back then. And of course, Encyclopedia Brown.

The problem: It became one twist and turn after another. A series of surprise endings can quickly end up becoming quite dull and boring. And reveals a more serious defect. I couldn't tie up loose ends. Over time, I realized the benefits of the non-lethal, yet still surprising, unpredictable encounter. That brings me to the matter at hand. Below are five clever- "didn't see that coming"- plot twist to place in your game. So, when you need to get something done before the next gaming session, but your suffering from writer's block, see if any of these mini mysteries are up your alley...

1. Strange cloud gives the nearby villagers mild insanity, telepathic/telekinetic powers, and strange treant like powers: People can hear the trees speak, but they cannot understand the language. Some turn into trees (or at least, gain bark-like skin and receive visions relating to events that occurred thousands of years ago in their area). Later, the  cloud is the result of decaying piles of dead leaves left behind by treants.

2. One of the court wizard's apprentice has created a living 'back lash' from a spell gone wrong. The back lash arrives in the shape of an invisible ochre jelly which slithers around the castle,  causing blindness and (later) starts devouring a few royals, sending panic throughout the town. Unlike a normal ochre jelly, this monster is immune to fire and cold attacks, but can be turned like a wraith.

3. A criminal was executed last week ( death by decapitation), and it's head still lives on (singing a bard's curse) that wrecks havoc on the townspeople ( the pitch of the song is so high people cannot hear it, however, dogs, cats and especially, monsters are drawn to the source of the music). Pandemonium ensues!

4. An evil leprechaun runs around the town and hits unsuspecting villagers in the knee caps with his magic shillelagh of polymorphing others. He turns the people into non magical pixies and starts bossing them around. First order of business: Brew more wine!

5. A lizard man (disguised as a human, with an ring of illusion) arrives in town, carrying a large wooden chest. He's friendly and open minded (quite charming to boot). He books a room at the local hotel, visits the bars and cavorts with the "ladies of the night". Later, he lures them back to his (or her) place, with the promise of fine treasures held inside his wooden box. The box actually contains a hungry young lurker above (shaped to look like a fabulous dress that's 'too die for').

Have fun!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Traveling Monster Show

I started with 15 monsters inside a 35 room dungeon and converted the whole thing into The Traveling Monster Show ! I started with the idea of a monster owned and operated book mobile. It would drive around to the various wee-witches and tempestuous trollkins, delivering everything from recipe books for potions to comic books for the younglings (a favorite being, Sirius Payne, Human Head Hunter). Eventually, I kept adding to it, and turned it into a caravan of attention seeking misfits and sketchy misanthropes. It was easy to make up adventure hooks, (since these monsters had a mobile headquarters), and could get into the mix as fast as Fred could drive the Mystery Machine. 

The set up was simple: PCs meet the caravan on a lonely road, outside of town. They meet the performers and are offered a job. PCs are hired as bodyguards to protect the players, while putting on the show (and replenishing supplies) once inside the town. They will act as the monster's "go between", in order to ease racial and alignment tension. The monster's secret plan is to abduct a towns person (or heist the local bank, or both) during the last night of the performance. In the play, the protagonist is falsely imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. He escapes the prison by switching places with his old dead friend, and is pitched into the sea, and swims away. During that scene, the monsters will smuggle a victim/ treasure into a false bottom of the book mobile, end the play and drive away. PCs that discovered the theft are framed for the crime and left behind, to face the villager's wrath. 

Now a days, the caravan has become as ubiquitous as the opening bar scene to countless adventurers. It's a device that's been taxed out, but I had dreamt it up before I read The Gypsy Trail in Dragon magazine. Plus, the Traveling Monster Show was a clever location in of itself. I wrote it up years before Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and played out that train scene (with River Phoenix as 'young Indy') a handful of times before the movie. I had trap doors, sliding walls, false floors and ceilings, with trained animals sitting nearby, in secret compartments, next to trunks full of disguises, pyrotechnics and stage props, with monster-centric possessions (everything from the classic 'eye of newt' to the less familiar 7 to 12 feet tall phosphorous strangle weed). It was eleven caravans long. Each one, it's own deathtrap dungeon.

 It also worked on another level: These monsters (having been exiled by their own kind) were an adaptable bunch, and smarter than the average monster (with IQ's of 10 or above, these monsters could think 'long term' and adjust to events on the ground, quicker than a monster stuck on the lower levels of some dungeon, controlled by an evil wizard). They were also more socially aware and had an intimate knowledge of the towns and cities in which they performed: specifically, where all of the gold was stored, where the weapons were stashed and where the orphanage was located. Disguised as normal races, the monsters were able to hob-nob with the local big wigs, pick up supplies from the market and pass through border patrols, given their reputation as 'seasoned thespians' ( think Kevin Bacon-like popularity, but for a half orc with a photographic memory, disguised as a charismatic elf). Well known and easily recognized, (in their altered shapes) it was not uncommon for the monsters to have garnered fans along the way- even those willing to unintentionally help them with their illegal capers. 

I really had not thought about these adventures in years. If I ever get around to going through all of my old D+D files, I've got to rescue these adventures. I'll try to  post some of the stuff from those games in the future. Right now, I'm much too busy trying to finish off a batch of things I started a few months back-and I can't afford to get too distracted, just because I'm so close to the end. But yes, sooner than later...    

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It's Not An Exaggeration...

By 1982, I was pretty much a TSR kind of kid. Those crazy deathtrap modules (Ghost Tower Of Inverness and Vault of the Drow) had turned me from a casual player into a determined Dungeon Master.I was going to memorize the spell tables and invent new monsters. There was only one problem: When I was writing up my 15th monster, The Blind Beholder From Beyond the Veil, I realized I didn't have a story hook or (more importantly) a game to play. Not really. It was 15 monsters wandering around and waiting to kill or be killed in 35 rooms ( this ratio of "15 monsters to 35 rooms" was very dominate in my early D+D thinking, and I'm not sure what the reason was, if anything. Maybe I read it somewhere, or ripped it off of one of my DMs, I can't remember). Nevertheless, it was kind of boring. All combat. Yawn. 

Thankfully, I was reading The Count of Monte Cristo, stacks of Star Log and Future magazines, and piles and piles of comic books. Years ago there was a book store called B.Dalton Booksellers, and they carried TSR modules and Dragon magazines. In the summer, a group of us guys would ride / walk over there and hang out in the magazine aisle, reading (and pretending to buy) everything from Rolling Stone, Fangoria, Karate, Gun Collecting, Sports Illustrated, Puzzle Books and pretty much anything else. They even had Chainmail for sale. Not to mention, this was before there were solid boards over "forbidden tomes" like Playboy, Hustler and Playgirl, (which was a big rite of passage thing for high school girls, back then). I was told it's similar to 7th and 8th grade boys and Playboy magazines, but with more giggling and a scarier embarrassment, if the girl's parents found out. Sometimes, we'd get to the aisle, and there were two or three high school girls, sitting around the corner, with an opened Better Homes and Garden magazine, screening the Playgirl they were actually looking at...Cosmo was big too... The other cool thing- A satelite for the public library was a few stores down. So, when we did get chased out of there, we'd meander into the library and rummage through their piles of comic books.  

And so, in typical DM fashion, I started tying all of these loose threads together and designed a bizarre twist: The PCs were surprised to meet a caravan of travelling monsters. You know, a cross between charismatic flim flam artists (magically disguised) and serious professional actors dedicated to their craft. A travelling monster show. As yes, ladies and gentlemen, they'd be happy to perform their renowned version of The Count of Monte CristoOf course, all of that is a smoke-screen while the performers (acrobats and sleight of hand masters) rob the town's bank, armory, or kidnap a couple of kids to cook up for dinner. And , thus, it was the start of a beautiful relationship...    

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

To Blog or Not to Blog...

Why would I start a blog? It started as a quick "get rich" scheme set up to ride the tiny coat tails of Wizard of the Coast's re-release of Gary Gygax's Advanced Dungeon and Dragons rule books, using the blog as a PR tool to sell my hyper-cool, tantalizing, fantastically fun-packed role playing games. Modules in a mini zine format.

I'd write about my early D+D days, maybe name drop an old TSR module or two, in an effort to connect with the reader, and generate enough interest ( sympathy, luck etc), and sale a few adventures. The only thing stopping me? My desire to put all of this together. Realistically, I've put more work and time into building this blog than I do into the games. If only I'd stuck to my "I'm not going on-line" guns. Apparently, the Internet blogs (tumbler, webisodes and pod casts etc) are the new mediums for today's modern artists. "The Internet is great," they tell me. "It cuts out the middle men, and gives you a global stage". But I like middle men ( layout designers, production staff, pushy, yet charismatic salesmen, exacting proof-readers, researchers, computer literate geniuses, and a staff of copyright/corporate lawyers).

Believe me...I tried to contract this out to friends and family who were way more in tune with the Internet than I'd ever be...And who refused to type up my ramblings about the first time I fought a troll, a ghoul, or a rust monster. Or how big an impact the movies like Brazil, Akira, and Wings of Desire (and more) had on me; and were the end of 20th century cinema and the beginning of the automated sequel. Listening and supportive, they each bailed out of "The Project", saying " You'll get the hang of it in no time." A year later, I still don't know what I'm doing...

Making problems worst...WotC announced that they were pushing the release date back, which means the AD+D micro-vibe will probably be hitting it's mini peak over the summer or early fall. I don't have anything that interesting to talk about for that long. I've got, maybe 10 good articles in me (and those are already up).  I, believing I was taking matters into my own hands, ended up getting lost, wandering around a digital wilderness. What can I say? It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here. If the place came with an electric eel infested moat and a few miles of quicksand that could kept out intruders, then maybe I'd consider it...Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to proof read, re-edit, raise money, figure out copyright laws, draw up maps, re-scan artwork, and layout my mini masterpiece right now. Eventually, it will be packaged and ready for distribution (and luke warm reviews, due to the poor showing of the "blog as PR" experiment). But first, I need to call up the R&D guy and make sure that these monster stat boxes are correct...(sound of cell phone dialing)..."Research and Development...This is John..."