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Art of the Genre: When an Old School Mind Learns How to Play D&D 5th Edition

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

5E Players Handbook CI remember when I first played Basic D&D, then the first time I played AD&D, then 2nd Edition AD&D, and finally 3rd Edition D&D right around the turn of the millennia.  By the time 4th Edition came around, I no longer had a regular gaming group and didn’t care to reinvest my time, money, and shelf space in yet another iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.

Still, that didn’t stop me from continuing on with the hobby, from 3.5 to Pathfinder, and finally all the way back to my renewed love of the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons some time around 2010.  When I heard that Wizards of the Coast would be rolling out another edition of D&D in 2014, this one initially referred to as ‘Next’ and now 5th Edition, I wasn’t much into the idea of vesting time in it, but after having skipped over 4th EditionI did feel a need to at least see what the new concepts were about.

Thankfully, I’ve had a chance to first preview the content of the 5th Edition Starter Set box and finally the initial release of both the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook and the first campaign adventure, Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

In today’s Art of the Genre, I’ll be looking over the Player’s Handbook as my well-aged brain tries to grasp what WotC and 175,000 test gamers thought D&D should look like circa 2014.

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Art of the Genre: Gandalf, Conan, and Gray Mouser review Tales from the Emerald Serpent Volume II: A Knight in the Silk Purse; moderated by Cthulhu

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

Another Word for Rain art by Jeff Laubenstein and writing by Dave Gross

Another Word for Rain art by Jeff Laubenstein and writing by Dave Gross

Somewhere, in the labyrinthine halls of time and space, three figures sit in what would be considered a green room by the standards of the world we know today.  Each, in their time, was brought forth by the hand and mind of a great writer, but upon their passing, most of their tales came to an end, so what else is there to do but sit in the purgatory of licensing and read about other adventures that they can no longer partake.  So it is that these three immortal characters have come to discuss a new work of fiction, one that has a seed of commonality with the genre they so thoroughly understand.  And to keep them on track, the Great Cthulhu has been summoned from R’lyeh to moderate the affair.

Cthulhu: zzzzzzzz

Gandalf: Introductions you say, why yes, I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!

Gray Mouser: Seriously, if I have to hear him say that one more time, Cat’s Claw is coming out…

Conan: Nay, friend Mouser, stay thy hand that it can be put to better use on dark sorcerers like those of ancient Stygia and not this kindly grey-cloaked priest.

Gandalf: Priest! I dare say you misjudge, my heavily girded friend, but you do bring up a point of interest, that being the mage-craft and wizardry, something that appears in the tale Water Listens.  Now Cenote is indeed one of my kindred and has the grace of the Secret Fire and the flame of Anor certainly burns within her.

Gray Mouser: Flame?  Did you read as I did, Stormcrow? That woman is more reminiscent of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, and there was no fire in her at all, but instead she seems filled with water as deep as the soul of Sea-King.

Conan: Tis true, Gandalf, yet she has friends of the flame, her slave Hunhau and the stout black, Tohil.

Cthulhu: zzzzzzzzzz

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Art of the Genre: The Art of D&D is Not Right for Lankhmar [and Most Other Fiction Settings]

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

Lankhmar Cover CompressI, like many folk of my age, category, and interest set, have many fond memories of Waldenbooks. I mean, as a kid there were basically two things you could be guaranteed were fun at any U.S. mall: Kay-Bee Toys and Waldenbooks. They were two oases in a desert of clothes outlets and anchor stores that your mother dragged you to on far too many occasions. Still, being able to go to those two stores somehow made it all worthwhile and I weep for the youth of today (and myself for that matter) that malls have now become all clothing & eateries, as both those wonderful chains are gone forever.

Yet I digress, as I’m writing today to speak a bit about a book I well remember purchasing at Waldenbooks back in probably 1987 (although the book’s production date is 1985). This gaming campaign setting, Lankhmar: City of Adventure, was produced by TSR after it acquired the license to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser universe and it does an admirable job detailing the base game mechanics for driving a square peg (Swords & Sorcery) into a round hole (Dungeons & Dragons).

I was too young at the time to properly see this problem and simply enjoyed the game for what it was, another cool setting to have my characters visit (and more importantly steal Nehwon Throwing Daggers, which did 1D6 damage instead of the 1D4 of normal D&D daggers). This was also one of the more interesting cities designed by TSR, in that it is not only huge, but it has a series of square ‘blocks’ that are empty in the map and can be filled in by the DM to customize the city to your personal campaign.

Still, as I look at this large 95-page supplement today, I’m saddened by the thought of what could have been if this kind of development and money had been focused in the right direction. To me, Lankhmar falls well short of the mark because the world of Leiber is inherently NOT D&D, and therefore trying to statistically recreate Fafhrd & Mouser, or anyone or anything else in that universe, is going to fall dramatically short. It is for the same reason that Pete Fenlon developed Rolemaster, and thereafter Middle-Earth Role-playing, because he couldn’t play the world of Tolkien using the table-top mechanics of Gygax’s gaming opus, D&D.

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Art of the Genre: The Art of ‘Making Your Own Way’

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

elmore cleric basic red box d and dToday I’d like to talk about something I call, ‘Making your own way.’  Honestly, I just made that up, in case you were wondering, right here in my bed as I write this at 5:53 AM on a Sunday morning.  Couldn’t sleep, you see, and sometimes you’ve just got to get stuff out of your head.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand, which in essence is creationism in pre-established role-playing canon.  You see, I’ve been writing a series of blog posts on the art of the 1983 Mentzer Basic D&D Red Box [Part One and Part Two] over on my Art of the Genre site and as I dipped into that nostalgia pool I couldn’t help but be motivated to dig a bit deeper.

I’d recently started gaming with my eight-year-old son, an experience that has been both a joy and, oddly enough, more difficult than I’d imagined it would be.  First, he’s still pretty young for an RPG, probably two or three years too young, but more importantly, as I played out each scenario, I started to wonder if I was too old!  It certainly seemed harder and harder to tell the story I wanted, to get motivated to be a dungeon master, and when I really thought about it, I realized it wasn’t really about either of our ages, but instead about the place in life I was in.  The everyday stress had gotten me down, but after looking at it that way, I was able to knock off the rust, do what gaming does best, and let myself forget the troubles of existence and then concentrate on the adventure!

So I started out just as I had with my ‘Gaming Week’ friends back in 2011, in a little province of my Nameless Realms I call Oakshire.  Oakshire was inspired by the Basic D&D module Keep on the Borderlands and I used it as the basis for an ongoing campaign that still persists today, but in the case of my son’s mini-campaign, it was more simply a backdrop for the Mentzer intro adventure and first solo adventure from the previously mentioned Red Box.

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Art of the Genre: An Interview with David Martin

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

tumblr_mwxucxtvi61ro2bqto1_500So it’s April, which is a lovely time of year here in L.A., with moderate temperatures in the mid-60s and 70s most days as the city gets ready for June Gloom to set in and cast a shadowy marine layer over everything for a month.

I was hoping to relax in the splendor of Ryan Harvey’s satisfied silence at the success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as well as Kandi’s casting as innocent bystander #3 for the next Michael Bay film (you know, the beautiful young woman who gets filmed in slow motion from a gratuitous boob angle as some huge vehicle flies over her head), when my phone decided to ring.

Now there is only one person that calls me when I really, really don’t want to get a call, and that is always our editor John O’Neill.  To make things worse, this time not only was he intent on sending me out for an interview to the New Mexico desert (temps already climbing in to the 90s), but I was to take Goth Chick with me.

Why?  I have no idea, as her mission was coded ‘top secret’, although my money is on a clandestine meeting with UFO witnesses around Roswell.  Whatever the case, I soon found myself boarding a plane (yes, out of Long Beach again) with Chick.  I was pleased, however, that she was searched by the TSA four times before she made it through security, but that joy quickly evaporated when I had to sustain the brunt of her dark mood for the two-hour flight into Albuquerque.

Still, Chick is always fun to have around, and after a few miniature bottles of vodka, followed by a solicitation to join her in the ‘Mile High Club’, she was back to her caustically lovely self.  Now I know what you’re thinking, but a gentleman never kisses and tells, and besides, what happens above Vegas, stays above Vegas.
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Art of the Genre: The Dreaming Work of Travis Hanson

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

poster2final2My suggestion, assuming my AotG followers ever listen to me, is to go here and do what you must.  Seriously, find some change in your pocket and put it somewhere that is worthy.  I find I can’t help but support incredible artists, especially those willing to tell a beautiful story for children and adults alike.  So hurry and add this to your ‘what I did in 2014 that was worth something’ list.

Ok, now that you’ve made the world a better place, I’ll do the same by talking a bit about the art of Travis Hanson.

Trav, as he’s known to me, decided he wanted to do a comic, but he didn’t have any place to put it.  Luckily for him, and so many creative people, the Internet gave him the opportunity to share his talent and vision, for free, with people across the globe.  Thus, a few years back, The Bean was born.  Fast forward to now and you’ve got Fifteen Chapters and 579 comic pages of incredible fantasy adventure all at your fingertips for ZERO dollars and ZERO cents!

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Art of the Genre: I.C.E.’s Middle-Earth Roleplaying Part Four: The Maps

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

MIddle-EarthHave you ever designed a campaign and thought to yourself, ‘Damn, this is so good, I should build a company on it?’ Well, certainly you aren’t the only one, and dozens of game companies have been born from folk’s home brew campaigns, but it wasn’t until very recently that I realized that I.C.E.’s Middle-Earth Role-Playing was born of the same ilk.

Now before you all go running off to Twitter about Tolkien being a RPG nerd, you have to have the full understanding of what I’m talking about. First and foremost, Tolkien WAS NOT a gamer, but that didn’t mean that his world wasn’t ripe for table-top role-players to want to explore in the mid to late 1970s.

One case in particular came out of the University of Virginia in 1977, when then student Pete Fenlon decided he wanted to create a role-playing game around Tolkien’s world for some friends on campus.

My first question upon finding this out was, ‘Why didn’t you just play D&D?’ and Pete’s answer was simple: D&D simply wasn’t Tolkien. As an avid camper and backpacker, as well as a member of the SCA, Fenlon understood way too much about Tolkien to throw a campaign into a world of negative integer armor classes and D20 to-hit charts.

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Art of the Genre: David Trampier, 1954 – 2014

Friday, March 28th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

1509880_10153982624460584_2120060224_nToday is a day of mourning for those gamers who were brought into the industry during the ‘great launch’ of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1978. That year the AD&D Player’s Handbook hit the market, and nothing in the life of role-playing would ever be the same again. One reason, and certainly one of the most recognizable not named Gygax, was the cover art by David Trampier. On Monday, March 24th, Mr. Trampier passed away in southern Illinois at the age of 59.

That age in itself is a tragedy, but one that can only be further exacerbated by what could have been for a man many gamers considered the great white whale of RPG fantasy artwork.

More words than can easily be counted have been written about Trampier over the years, most hypothesis and some truths, but in the end all we know now is that he is gone.

As an adept in the industry of RPG artwork, I’ve made it my life’s calling to track down bygone artists. But Trampier was never one of them. Sure, I’ve spoken in depth to his relations, and even as late as last August had a lengthy conversation with a group of RPG power brokers on the best course of action to approach him, including old friends on a road trip and private detectives, but in the end Trampier was even too far removed for me, and honestly I can’t say whether that now makes me happy or sad.

What I do know it that in the late 1980s, during his run with the Wormy comic for TSR’s Dragon magazine, Trampier suddenly went off the grid.  At the time, he’d have been only 34 years of age, and smack in the middle of his prime as an artist. Now, 25 years later, he is gone, and not a single shred of artwork was produced by his hand over the course of those intervening years.

Now that brings me profound sadness.

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Art of the Genre: The Halflings of Jeff Dee

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

Does this Halfling have a cape or a shield on his back? I always wanted it to be a shield.

Does this Halfling have a cape or a shield on his back? I always wanted it to be a shield.

I was playing Keep on the Borderlands this past week, certainly one of my all-time favorite modules, and as I flipped through it I came across a Jeff Dee illustration that had a Halfling in the background.  As two weeks ago I’d done a piece here on BG called ‘The Top 40 RPG Artists of the Past 40 Years’ AND had left Jeff off that list, I couldn’t help but stare at the image and wonder why I had done so.

Certainly people in the OSR had raised a big fuss about Jeff’s lack of ‘love’ on my part, and for good reason.  He could have arguably made the list, depending on how you viewed the industry as a whole.  Add such a view to the fact that Jeff has been a tireless game designer, player, and advocate for the industry of RPGs since I was in grade school, then he could almost be grandfathered in just for trying so hard.  I guess it would be like a Lifetime Achievement Oscar or something.

Whatever the case, I sat there looking at this great little Halfling and couldn’t shake the feeling that of all the artists to ever do these little guys, Jeff was hands-down the best in my opinion, and here are the reasons why.

One: Jeff is a gamer, and as such, he has an inherent connection to how gamers see themselves, and with that, how gamers see their characters.  Certainly, the thought of a Halfling is appealing because of Tolkien, but not necessarily the thought of Bilbo Baggins.  Sure, we all love Bilbo, but do we love the Rankin/Bass version as a representation of our player characters?  I doubt it.

Two: Jeff drew from a comic book style and therefore his lean lines for humans and elves spilled over directly to Halflings.  Gone were the pot-bellied and cheery pipe-smokers, who were in turn replaced by ‘little men’ with ripped chests, chiseled faces, and weapons and armor that looked incredibly formidable.

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Art of the Genre: Behind the Curtain at Black Gate L.A.

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

Sue somehow still looks pale even in the SoCal sun...

Sue somehow still looks pale even in the SoCal sun…

First off, thanks to all the readers who read and posted about last week’s Art of the Genre article ‘The Top 10 RPG Artists of the Past 40 Years’ and if you haven’t taken a look, I hope you do right here! Oh, and remember, it isn’t who is the ‘best,’ but who was the most impactful.

Second, and putting into practice a bit of the Wizard’s First Rule, I thought I’d dip into the email ‘bag’ and pull back the curtain on a part of my life here in L.A. You see, there are often questions sent to me concerning Black Gate L.A. offices, like possible internships with us, and many times just inquiries as to ‘who are you?’ My current favorite of these is artist Jeff Easley’s request to ‘Post pictures of Kandi!’ which I got last week. Well, since I had a moment today between a lunch at the Red Lobster with John Scalzi [hey, he’s from Ohio and I’m from Indiana, so to us that is still an awesome and upscale establishment, so sue us!] and my two hour commute into downtown for floor seats at a Lakers game with Bill Simmons, I decided I’d introduce all my readers, and those of Black Gate in general, to our working version of ‘The Office’ here in LaLa Land.

For the purposes of keeping readers’ interest, I’m starting with our resident part-timer, ‘Goth Chick’ Sue Granquist. She spends half her time here in L.A. working with the horror genre movie industry and the other half in Chicago around the Midwest convention circuit – and bringing our editor John O’Neill coffee. She and I have a strange relationship, and I swear if she wasn’t so damn Goth and I wasn’t so damn married, there would have been an illicit office affair years ago, but as it is we just have fun insulting each other as much as possible.

I took this picture about a month ago, while we were having lunch on the veranda outside the office on the ‘beach side’. Chick, as I affectionately call her, although hating the sun most days, had decided to join me for lunch and afterward sat on the railing with her back to the Pacific. I had a nice vantage point and told her, ‘Chick, I bet I could take a photo of you from here and then Photoshop the railing out of it to make you look like you were suspended in the clear blue SoCal sky.’ ‘Art,’ she said using her nickname for me, ‘I bet you a bag of black licorice jelly beans you can’t.

Well, as you can see, I got those damnable jelly beans and they sit on my desk to feed to gulls swirling in the sea breeze out my window when I’m felling particularly peevish.

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