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Game Changers

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 | Posted by James Maliszewski

book4In previous posts, I may have mentioned that, as a kid, there were three roleplaying games that I liked – and played – above all others: Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, and Call of Cthulhu. I played lots of other games, too, but these were the ones that most strongly captured my imagination. Because I played these three so much, I was also a voracious consumer of supplementary materials produced for them. Of course, being a young person, my funds were limited; I had to be judicious in what I purchased. Consequently, I tended to put a priority on items I deemed to have the most overall utility. This meant, in the case of AD&D for example, that I placed greater value on hardcover rulebooks than on adventure modules (though I still bought plenty of adventures over the years).

My appetite for such broadly “useful” supplements was practical, since my friends and I played RPGs a lot. We were young and well nigh addicted to this weird new form of game. During the summer months, we quite literally played all day long, from the time we got up until the time the sun set, taking brief breaks only to scarf down some food before returning to the table. I’d conservatively reckon that, in terms of raw hours of play, my friends and I had probably played more than had many of our elders who’d started roleplaying years before us. That’s the nature of youth, as we had the free time to indulge our boundless enthusiasm in a way that most people do not.

I hesitate to say that, because we played so much, we more quickly became jaded than did many of our peers, but it’s probably true nonetheless. We were constantly on the look out for ways to take our campaigns in new directions, to stoke the flame of our RPG ardor. The first supplement that I remember achieving this was Book 4: Mercenary for GDW’s Traveller. My friends and I started playing Traveller with The Traveller Book, which was released in 1982. That book alone was enough to keep us busy for many, many months of science fiction adventure in the far future. However, we did eventually want more out Traveller and Mercenary fit the bill, providing us with new skills, equipment, and – most importantly – expanded rules for generating Army and Marine characters.

Mercenary changed the way we played Traveller forever. Previously, Merchants, Scouts, and Navy personnel were favored, because these careers were all space-based and thus what we considered to be the stuff of sci-fi. But Mercenary-generated characters were so much better than those generated using the original system. They had more (and better) skills, as well as lots of fun perks like advanced training and commendations. Our campaigns quickly shifted gears to focus on ground-pounding mercenaries involved in interstellar brush fire wars (which, as it turned out, was how nearly everyone else we knew played the game). Mercenary had a profound impact on us and extended the life of our ongoing Traveller campaign considerably.

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The New York Times on How Dungeons & Dragons Influenced a Generation of Writers

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

AD&D Monster Manual-smallEthan Gilsdorf, a contributor for Gygax Magazine, wrote an intriguing feature for the Sunday New York Times last weekend. Interviewing several popular writers, Gilsdorf shows how profoundly Dungeons and Dragons, which turned 40 this year, has influenced the current generation of fantasy authors.

For certain writers, especially those raised in the 1970s and ’80s, all that time spent in basements has paid off. D&D helped jump-start their creative lives. As [Junot] Díaz said, “It’s been a formative narrative media for all sorts of writers.”

The league of ex-gamer writers also includes the “weird fiction” author China Miéville (The City & the City); Brent Hartinger (author of Geography Club, a novel about gay and bisexual teenagers); the sci-fi and young adult author Cory Doctorow; the poet and fiction writer Sherman Alexie; the comedian Stephen Colbert; George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series (who still enjoys role-playing games)…

Mr. Díaz, who teaches writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said his first novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was written “in honor of my gaming years.” Oscar, its protagonist, is “a role-playing-game fanatic…” Though Mr. Díaz never became a fantasy writer, he attributes his literary success, in part, to his “early years profoundly embedded and invested in fantastic narratives.” From D&D, he said, he “learned a lot of important essentials about storytelling, about giving the reader enough room to play.”

Read the complete article here.

Games Well Used

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 | Posted by James Maliszewski

dmgWhen I was growing up, at the height of the Dungeons & Dragons craze, the county public library system regularly held “game days.” These events, which occurred every few months (probably more often in the summertime), took place in the meeting rooms of various libraries, allowing aficionados of roleplaying games to meet and play together. I found these events truly wonderful, as they introduced me not just to new players, but to new RPGs, some of which I’d only ever seen in advertisements in the pages of Dragon. They were wonderful, too, because I got the chance to play, something I rarely did with my neighborhood group of friends, since I was invariably the referee.

On one occasion, the library opened up its board room, which had a very long table surrounded by a dozen or more high-backed and padded chairs. One of the older referees – a middle-aged bearded guy with glasses – set up shop there and, before long, every single one of those comfy chairs was filled with a player, many of them under the age of 14, like myself. I had great fun playing in that adventure, in no small part because the referee was excellent. He knew the rules of D&D very well, but, more importantly, he knew how to manage such a large gathering of players, holding all of our attentions during the course of three or four hours. Even now, that games day is one of my fondest memories from my early days in the hobby.

I don’t know that referee’s name (assuming I ever knew it), but I do remember a lot about him. One detail that has stuck with me after more than three decades is how beaten up his Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide was. That thing was positively battered, its cover illustration marred by white marks, the spine coming apart at the tops and bottoms, the corners bent, and the whole thing covered in scuffs. At the time, I was positively horrified by what I saw. My AD&D hardcovers were the crown jewels of my growing RPG collection and I tried very hard to keep them pristine. Seeing the poor condition of this referee’s book was shocking.

What had this referee done with his book that it was in such a frightful condition?

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Original Fantasy? In a Video Game? It’s About Time

Sunday, July 13th, 2014 | Posted by Connor Gormley

Dark Souls-smallThere he was; a sliver of midnight set against the deeper black of the room behind him. The Black Knight. When he moved, he moved with the easy lope of the master, the practised ease of the warrior. There was silence in the moonlit hall, silence save for the cold metallic chink of his armor and the hammering of my own heart.

He was twice my height, broad of shoulder and clad entirely in black armor. A sword, five feet in length, gleamed in his right hand. He didn’t seem to have a face; no flesh peeked from the slits of his face plate, there was nothing quite so fragile, instead a sulphurous yellow gas twisted and swirled, burning through the thick shadow of the hall. My hand tightened around the hilt of my sword, tightened so that my knuckles went white, so that my skin went taut.

Then, before I knew it that great black blade was arcing through the air towards me, splitting the thin rays of moonlight as it raced towards my heart. I only just parried it with my shield, then it was coming back again, this time from left to right, and I threw myself to the floor, rolling back out of reach and sprang back up again, already deflecting perfectly timed blows, expertly aimed thrusts.

Already I was being forced backwards, driven back into the darkness, back into the cold. Every strike sent pain rippling up my arm; every blow brought me closer to death, to defeat; I could already see that sword diving through my flesh, already feel its kiss on my skin. Desperate now, I struck back, and felt his armor give way, felt my sword hew through bone, felt his ghostly flesh shudder and saw black, oily, blood crawl from his chest. No sound escaped the Knight’s lips, but its sulphurous yellow eyes seemed to burn that bit brighter, all before his sword came crashing against my shield once more.

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The Family That Slays Dragons Together, Stays Together: Fantasy MMOs

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 | Posted by Jon Sprunk

Ultima_OnlineIf you’re a gamer, you probably already know about MMOs (or Massive Multiplayer Online games). These video games feature huge worlds where thousands of people can play together at the same time. I’ve been playing MMOs for almost twenty years now and I think they’ve added a new wrinkle to the fantasy universe, an experience unlike anything else.

My history with MMOs began in 1997 with a little game called Ultima Online. I first heard about it in a gaming magazine and was blown away by the concept. I had already been a huge fan of tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, so the idea of playing a fantasy-based video game with all my friends was thrilling.

The reality was even better than I imagined. I could create an original new persona (called an avatar) and use that character to enter an open-ended game world filled with monsters, dungeons, cities, magic, and (best of all) lots and lots of real people playing their own avatars all around me.

Sure, I loved exploring the lands of Ultima Online, delving into creepy cave systems, fighting other players in the forests, and doing the usual adventure-type stuff, but two elements of UO really grabbed my attention.

The first was the crafting system. Instead of slaying monsters (and other players) for loot, you could also gather natural resources and use them to create new items, and then sell them to other players. I spent so many hours happily mining pixelated ore and selling it off to blacksmiths. Yes, you heard me correctly. I spent my leisure time in an artificial world performing manual labor. It sounds crazy, but I was in love with the idea of a game economy based on player participation.

But I didn’t spend all my time digging holes in fake mountains, because I’d also discovered guilds. A guild is like a club — a social organization of players who (usually) share the same interests. Much of my enjoyment in UO came from forming and maintaining a guild, and by doing so I met a lot of new friends. We adventured together, saved up funds to buy a “guild hall” (a glorified clubhouse), and generally hung out.

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New Editions Past

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014 | Posted by James Maliszewski

phb2eA new edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been released, as Andrew Zimmerman Jones discussed the other day.

This is the third new edition released since Wizards of the Coast took over publication of the world’s first fantasy roleplaying game in 1997. If you’re the sort of roleplayer who spends any time online, visiting forums, blogs, and social media, you’ll know that this latest edition has already generated a lot of discussion, both pro and con, much of it enthusiastic and some of it, quite frankly, deranged. In that respect, it’s not much different than the last several new editions, whose advents were simultaneously hailed as the dawn of a new age of gaming and decried as the twilight of the gods.

I played the new edition a couple of times last year when it was being playtested and found it something I’d be willing to play again if someone else were refereeing it, which is the only standard by which any game (RPG or otherwise) should be judged. That said, I’m not planning on buying a copy for myself, since I’ve already got my own heavily housed-ruled and Holmesified version of Labyrinth Lord and need nothing more. That’s not a knock against WotC’s latest effort – or any roleplaying game – just a statement of fact. I’ve been at this RPG thing for thirty-five years now and, in that time, have pretty well determined what games I like to use at my table. It’s rare that I buy new RPGs anymore, let alone play them, which is why a scan of my shelves would reveal very few games first published after 1984, but then I’m a notoriously unimaginative stick in the mud, so that’s to be expected.

What truly fascinates me about the arrival of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons is its seeming importance, for good or for ill, among its legions of fans. This is in stark contrast to my own early days in the hobby, when talk of “editions” was well nigh non-existent, never mind a subject of import. Granted, I entered the hobby in late 1979, several months after the release of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, the third and final volume of Gary Gygax’s magnum opus. AD&D was, in many ways, the first “new edition” in that it was marketed as an “improvement” over its predecessor and, for that reason alone, worthy of purchase and use. I thus never witnessed any of the tumult that no doubt occurred in the lead up to its release. For me and my friends, AD&D was simply a fact of life.
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Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set: A Forensic Analysis

Sunday, July 6th, 2014 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

dungeons and dragons logo2For the last two years, Wizards of the Coast has been getting feedback on their new “5th edition” set of rules from playtesters all across the world. July 15 marks the official release of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, giving the world the first glimpse of the final version of these rules. Unfortunately, the D&D Starter Set provides only pregenerated characters with some advancement rules through level 5, and some basic mechanics, so it doesn’t consist of a full set of game mechanics or character creation rules.

In other words, it’s not enough to give us a full idea of what the final rules for 5th edition will look like … but it does provide enough information to get some hints about how the upcoming edition of the game will be structured. In general, the goal seems to be to streamline the system, making it very accessible to new gamers, but still providing enough substance and versatility that more experienced gamers will find the system desirable. It’s a tough balancing act, but looking over the D&D Starter Set, I feel a growing sense of confidence that the new system will achieve these objectives.

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Fantasy and Roleplaying Games

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014 | Posted by Jon Sprunk

Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set-smallMy loves for fantasy stories and RPGs (roleplaying games, not rocket-propelled grenades…) have been intertwined since I was a young child. I discovered them both at about the same time and have pursued both throughout my life.

I still remember the day I was in a hobby store with my family. I was eight years old and I saw this game in a blue box with a dragon on the front. It was called Dungeons and Dragons, which sounded pretty damned cool to me. I begged my father to buy it and he resisted, saying it was a game for college-age people, but I refused to relent. And so we went home with that box.

My father ran the game for my brother and I, and my memories of those initial adventures into goblin-infested dungeons still remain vivid and precious more than thirty years later. Soon, I was running D&D games for my friends, leading them into insidious dens of evil where they slew monsters and collected epic treasures.

At the same time, I was tearing through anything fantasy-related I could get my hands on. My father’s library didn’t have much fantasy, but his copy of Kothar and the Wizard-Slayer was the gateway to Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and so many others. I was, admittedly, insatiable.

And it continues to this day. I still get together with a few friends every month or so to sit around the table and slay imaginary beasts. I’m quite fortunate that my wife is a gamer, too. (The family that slays orcs together, stays together.) We’re currently running a campaign in the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire system, and I’ve already pre-ordered the newest edition of Dungeons and Dragons in anticipation of the many hours of enjoyment it will bring.

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True North

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014 | Posted by James Maliszewski

cns77The hobby of tabletop roleplaying games was born in the American Midwest, but very quickly spread beyond the wargames clubs of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Forty years after the publication of Dungeons & Dragons, RPGs are played and enjoyed throughout the world. Many countries outside the United States can rightly boast of their own roleplaying games and designers, some of which, such as Britain’s Warhammer games, have arguably proved as influential as D&D. Since today is Canada Day, I thought it fitting to post a short tribute to two Canadian roleplaying game designers whose work, while perhaps not as widely known as that of Arneson and Gygax, is nevertheless worthy of note, particularly by those of us who have come to appreciate and indeed prefer what has come to be called “old school” gaming.

As everyone interested in such things knows by now, Dungeons & Dragons first appeared in 1974. The originality of its concept inspired others to create similar games of their own, the first being Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls, published in 1975. Many more followed, including Chivalry & Sorcery, written by two wargamers at the University of Alberta, Edward E. Simbalist and Wilfried K. Backhaus. C&S was published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1977 and owes its existence to some questions Simbalist and Backhaus asked after playing D&D, as they explain at the start of the rulebook:

Chivalry & Sorcery began innocently enough with a discussion about the vacuum that our characters seemed to be living in between dungeon and wilderness campaigns. In the Fantasy Wargames Society of the University of Alberta a degree of dissatisfaction emerged over the limited goals that were available to our characters. The solution was to develop an all-encompassing campaign game in which dungeon and wilderness adventures were just a small part of the action.

Initially called Chevalier, Simbalist admitted in an interview that Chivalry & Sorcery was “a D&D clone in some respects.” The pair even intended to pitch the game to TSR for publication, but chose instead to work with FGU. Chevalier “contain[ed] all of the seeds that would soon spring forth as Chivalry & Sorcery,” which Simbalist believed was “a dramatic departure from the slash and hack approach to RPG that existed in those early days.”

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io9 on The 20 Most WTF Magical Items in Dungeons & Dragons

Thursday, June 26th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Magic potion-smallOver at i09, Rob Bricken takes a hilarious look at some of the goofiest magic items in Dungeons & Dragons, including the infamous Wand of Wonder, the Bowl of Watery Death, and the Robe of Vermin.

Here he is on the Druid’s Yoke:

If you’re in a D&D campaign where you need to do any kind of farming, you have bigger problems than any magical item can fix. But this yoke allows characters to — when they put it on themselves — turn into an ox. Not a magical ox; a regular ox. Then you can till your field yourself! You can’t do it any faster, because again, you’re just a goddamned ox, but it does allow you to… do the horrible manual labor… instead of the animal you’ve bred for this exact purpose. So that’s… something someone would totally want. The best part? Once you’ve put it on, you can’t take the yoke off; someone else has to do it for you. Because you’re a goddamned ox.

I think he’s reaching pretty far afield for some of these items, because I sure as hell don’t recall a Druid’s Yoke or Crystal Parrot in the Dungeon Masters Guide (or Unearthed Arcana, for that matter). Since he doesn’t cite any references, it’s entirely possible he’s making half of them up. (I mean… the Brooch of Number Numbing? That’s gotta be from an April 1 issue of Dragon or something, right?)

In any event, the article is well worth a read. Check it out here.

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