Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Buried Secrets of Stonehell, a Review

Stonehell Dungeon Supplement Two: Buried Secrets, 20-page PDF, $2.99 from Lulu 

A good review should answer one simple question: is this product worth my time and money? I'll give you the punchline before the long wind-up for Michael Curtis' recently-released second supplement to Stonehell mega-dungeon: yes. Hell yes.

For sure, it's a rare occasion that I actually buy, let alone use, a published adventure these days. It's not that I consider myself such a master of the difficult art of crafting an adventure that I don't need a little help now and again. Nor is that I have some high-falutin' ideological trip in favor of homebrewing. (I steal elements like a fiend from a manic range of sources and have had great fun with refs that run mostly modules.)

It's just that no matter how much I may enjoy reading a particular author's work I have a hell of a time making the squares fit in the round holes of my campaign. With all the work of filing off the serial marks, reworking contexts, familiarizing myself with reams of detail, and blending it all into the sandbox enough that the players would buy it's existence, I invariably feel that I was better off just writing up the damn thing from scratch in the first place.

I suspect I am not alone in this.

Curtis' work is consistently the rare exception. From his Dungeon Alphabet to last year's release of the first five levels of his megadungeon, Stonehell, he seems to be one of the few gaming writers that truly get his cranky, quirky DIY ref audience. We don't want to drive the car off the lot--and perhaps trick out details like spinners—we want kits of varying levels of completeness that will help us build the thing from the bottom up in our garages.

It sounds counter-intuitive that a published mega-dungeon product could fit this bill, but it does. Using a two-page riff off the blog-vaunted haiku one-page dungeon format he created a product that hit a sweet spot for me: enough detail and flavor to find much to borrow while reducing the running details to a manageable stripped-down level.

For sure you could play it straight as one-big stand-alone campaign dungeon straight out of the box, or you could—like me—look at each of the level's one-page map quadrants as custom sub-levels I can blend directly into a level or two of my own creations.

The highly distinctive flavor of each of the quadrants only enhance that modular, plug-in and play value for me. I felt like I hadn't bought a book of a large dungeon that I would read and discard, but a useful collection of 20 mini-dungeons (and several above ground locations).

The new supplement expands on this collection nicely with three new adventuring areas, two designed to be outlier areas topside of the dungeon and another as a sub-level. All three can easily be separated and plugged into most old school D&D campaign worlds with little to no work.

[Mild spoilers ahead. Be warned.]

The format is mostly similar to the parent product. Layout is clean and crisp with lots of text-heavy bang for your buck (in fact, no interior art at all). The three areas are presented with the same one-page maps, but the text room descriptions stray from Curtis' terse two-page limit. None of the descriptions are longer than three short paragraphs (which is right on the line of my own tolerance level) and do allow for presenting a few unusual situations and puzzles.

Content wise, I enjoyed all three areas. The vermin-ridden, lost-cult caverns of Nest of Ortogg struck me as the strongest entry of the bunch, followed by the debris-choked (with a science-fantasy twist) environs of Modnar's Cellar. The Sanctuary of Chtonia is a little on the light side in terms of it's content (which likely makes sense given it's role as a possible safe-space sub-level), but is bolstered by a well-presented, interestingly-motivated duo of NPCs that dominate the area.

Adding more value to the product is the continuation from Stonehell of adding new monsters, spells, deities, and magic items custom tailored to each area. All three areas nicely have these curve balls.

All in all a nice addition to my gaming table. For frugal GM's, Stonehell's first supplement can be downloaded for free here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hill Cantons Forecast: Keyboards & Bathrobes to be America's Next Top RPG

You heard it first here, folks, but I predict that this hot new game from Doc Grognard will be sweeping the OSR by say 10:20 pm tonight. Hell, I've already played it three times today and never even changed out of my flannel pajamaramas.

On a more serious note, if you haven't already, you should check out Doc G's work on a Fantasy Traveller, a topic near and dear to my own heart.

Non-holiday (i.e. not-so lazy ass) posting to resume tomorrow.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

They Say It's Your Birthday

Today I celebrate the second anniversary of my 39th birthday here in the labyrinth.

Who says blogging is an exercise in narcissism?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Free Crimefighters RPG Download

A little bird told me that you can freely and legally download Crimefighters, the 17-page (how's that for rules lite?) pulp-era rpg from 1981 I mentioned yesterday. And since little birds and the Internet are both always correct you can find it here.

Also Happy Thanksgiving one and all. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Weird Adventures, Justice Inc. and Gamer ADD

I came late to Trey from Sorcerer's Skull party for his forthcoming pulpy game supplement, Weird Adventures. Rest assured though that I'm staying until he shouts at me to get down off his table and calls me a cab.

Since early this summer he's been busy pumping out a visually-rich, highly-imaginative stream of posts that explore the high weirdness of his pulp-era fantasy world setting.

With nice spins on old archetypical character classes familiar and dear to many of us who play older edition D&D (“Tough Guy” for Fighter, “Man of Faith” for Cleric and such forth); a Femme Fatale table stand-in for the infamous “Random Harlot” DMG table; and a host of other stylized goodies I am likely to not only buy when it comes out—but actually run it.

That last statement is not one I make lightly as it entails breaking a vow I made when I started my current tabletop Hill Cantons campaign; namely that I wouldn't succumb to that abrupt, semi-frequent urge to jump ship to other systems and campaigns. I have noticed with approval others on the blogosphere making similar vows and I generally have agreed with the notion that the most fulfilling gaming often comes through the long-lasting, nuanced fun of running a consistent campaign.

Back in the early 80s after the first couple years of seeing only my first RPG love, D&D, I went on a rampage of gaming promiscuity. Any game my piece-rate allowance could afford I bought and we played for about 1-3 months before we stopped returning her calls and jumped on to the next game. In quick succession there was Traveller, Boot Hill, Top Secret, Bushido, Champions, Runequest, Gangbusters, and Star Frontiers (only one date, sorry with the last two). Many lawns were cut in these years and much manic play entailed. Not one of those campaigns was as fun as that first long D&D one. 

So why even think of breaking that vow, right?

Well, mostly because the very last game, I purchased before drifting out of the hobby for two decades felt like “the one that got away” (to stretch that belabored imagery once again). Justice Inc. was a great, if quick-to-fade-away game put out by Hero Games in 1984. Though mechanically it was essentially the same Hero system cookie-cutter (and thus unremarkable), it's 1930s-oriented pulp source material hit a nerve with me.

The boxed set came with a nice Campaign Book that was not only devoted to the usual run-of-the-mill period detail, but more excitingly to a 20-page run down of all the sub-genres of pulp fiction in that time period. It inspired my first real gaming-literary fever run (now something quite familiar). That summer in the mid-80s, I pored through used bookstores and musty libraries to find Doc Savage and other pulp novellas.

A few other things fueled this sudden mad infatuation: the afternoon runs of old, syndicated news reel-like shows from the 30s on a failing Dallas UHF channel; a brief fling in 1981 with Crimefighters, a free RPG shoehorned into Dragon Magazine #47; and the release of a wonderful JI supplement, Lands of Mystery.

That last bit deserves a bit more attention as I think it is one of the best campaign supplements I have ever read. Rather than just selling you a pre-packaged setting whole cloth or mundane world-building suggestions (that you could likely better get out of a geography, history, or folklore textbook), it read more like a system-less literary guide to the whole genre of Lost Worlds ala H. Rider Haggard and Edgar R. Burroughs. Instead of just trotting out cardboard NPCs there were lists of all the archetypes for characters in these campaigns from the Great White Hunter to the Callow Youth. Suggestions on how to present lost world campaigns with varying genre convention bits were explored in customizable, yummy detail.

Alas for all this love I never actually played the damn game. Soon after designing a crazy-quilt setting that pitted island-hopping boat-plane flying heroes against the perils of shadowy cults, flying saucers, dinosaurs, Cthuloid nightmares, vine-choked lost temples, etc. I just simply walked away from the hobby for a good long time.

Thus why I wait by the phone. Patiently.  

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tékumel's Other Underworlds and Pre-TSR Rules: Jeff Berry Encore

The best interviews are like great conversations they start before the first published question sees the published light of day—and often continue after with the popping of neurons stimulated in the follow-up.

Since some of you asked all polite like, I couldn't resist sharing a little more of said follow-up with Jeff Berry, so we have a short encore from our Twin Cities friend today. Jeff has some recent news to share on his own blog about the launch of a second public foundation to preserve the historical legacy of decades of EPT gaming. Check it out here.

I won't let the cat out of the bag, but later today I start the interview process with another great early (and time/energy generous) pioneer. I think readers will be in for a treat when we put the thing to bed later this week.

Hill Cantons: Looks like people are hungry for more detail on the underworlds. Any other interesting details to add? Did y'all spend time exploring other underworlds? How did these compare to Jakalla?

Jeff Berry: I could go on for pages and pages about Jakalla's underworld; there was that much stuff. I don't want to do the book here, but several of the areas do stick out.

One is the big Temple of Vimuhla up in one corner of the map; it's surrounded by a deep moat, with is full of other- planar flame, and you have to cross a wide esplanade to get to the front gate. Needless to say, the temple guards can see you coming, and it's very hard to get in there. The Temple of Hry'y has a big stone head that you can get into and deliver 'divine speeches' to the worshipers below - provided that the temple priests don't catch you at it! The Temple of Chiteng has a small prison, with a few important people in the cells who are worth rescuing, but the guards and guardians are thick as flies on a melon.

There's a section of tombs where the loot is very good, but the devices that protect the entrances require a lot of puzzle-solving. Beyond those, the tomb guardians themselves are no push-overs and can wipe out a party if one isn't really careful. Lower levels are more challenging; the Garden of the Weeping Snows is in a class by itself, between the pale Legion's armored troopers and the recondite powers of the Undying Wizard Nyelmu. Jakalla's underworld is right up there at the top of the heap, danger- and reward-wise.

We also explored the underworlds in Tu'umnra, Fasiltum, Bey Sy, Chochi, Dlash, Hekellu, and one or two other places. Tu'umnra and Hekellu are the best documented, but Fasiltum was the most interesting. Bey Su was a major plot line of Phil's, so I don't want to say too much about that one...

HC: What were the pre-TSR publication rules like? They were pretty close, if not identical, to the original D&D rules or were there major quirks already?

JB: EPT, both in the published and manuscript versions, was in effect an edited and play-tested version of the original D & D. Both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were very impressed with Phil's rules, as in a lot of ways they were cleaner and easier to use then the three-book set was.

The mimeographed manuscript of EPT was much heavier on the information about the world-setting, and if published today would be squarely in the “sword and planet” genre rather then the 'swords and sorcery' genre.

There was a bit more 'hard science' there, which Phil edited for various reasons in the published version. Gary Gygax also asked Phil to modify some of the terms and game mechanics to make EPT more compatible with D&D, as there was a concern at TSR that gamers might not be able to handle having different game mechanics like percentile dice rolls vs. lots of polyhedral dice rolls.

I also think Gary was the reason why EPT used the “good/evil” dichotomy instead of Phil's preferred “stability/change”. Both Dave and Gary were big fans of the “keep it simple, stupid” principle, and I got the impression from both of them when I talked with them that they thought that most gamers wouldn't be able to appreciate the finer points of the “greyscale” of Phil's “change/stability”, and would be better of with their own black and white concept of “good/evil”.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Keep on the Hyborian Borderlands?

For a good long while now I have been toying with doing a post about one of the giants of historical miniatures Tony Bath. Bath was one of the great popularizers of ancient and medieval wargaming in the 1960s and is remembered typically these days for running his long-standing Hyborian campaign, a years-long miniatures campaign that had strong proto-rpg elements.

Next week I will be doing a fuller analysis of Bath's Setting Up a Wargames Campaign with an eye to looking at it as a snapshot of the stew of ideas that were floating around the late 1960s and early 1970s—and of course how they came to influence (or evolve in parallel to) our own great game.

But today I wanted to leave you with this uncanny similarity I noticed today when starting to prepare next week's post. The first picture below should be familiar to many of our readers as the mini-setting map of B2: Keep on the Borderlands.

Now check out the second map from Bath's book (this would be a border fort in the Hyborian campaign). Also keep in mind that this is from a book printed in May 1973, while the former went to press in December 1979. Hmm...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Swords and Planets: a Review of Red Planet RPG

The “Sword and Planet” genre appears to be in a full-bloomed mini-revival these days. Paizo devoted an on-going series of re-released classics and one need only toss a virtual rock at many old school gaming blogs these days to hit some kind of exploration of these science fantasy themes (my own exploration of Tekumel is part and parcel of this trend).

For all that energy, I am frankly puzzled by the fact that we haven't seen a profusion of sword and planet-styled games (to date that is, there are some highly-inspired OD&D supplements and works in progress). Thus I was very pleasantly surprised to receive a few weeks back a package containing a  handy set of Barsoom-flavored RPG rules from my fellow Texan and old school blogger Clovis Cithog.

Like many old schoolers, I'm a perversely difficult audience when it comes to new rule sets. I love innovation--especially when it tends to pare down complexity, help amplify a literary theme, or provide interesting game-play situations--but tend to be stubbornly conservative and, dare I say, lazy when it comes to new game mechanics. A stripped-down D&D platform with chrome and other tricked out bits bolted on top works for me far more often then not.

Red Planet is fortunately such a beast. Weighing in at less than 70 pages and with tried and true core features like archetypical classes, level advancement, similar attributes, familiar combat mechanics, etc. I liked the fact that I could read through it and feel like I could run a successful game with it in a few days time.

It's with the crunch that the game has it's best moments, however. First of all, Clovis makes no bones about situating the game in not just some Mars but THE Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs fame. Given my own interest in respectfully exploring the public domain works of pulp fantasy I appreciated how he weaves in the right amount of flavor and setting information as a tribute to Burroughs' work without it feeling like a regurgitation.

Character generation is fun and simple with players selecting or rolling from the major sentient races of Mars: Red, Green, Thern, Black Pirate, Yellow, or Exotic. (Interestingly there are no John Carter-like outsiders here.) Each race has a preferred class (called “vocation” in the rules) and can only play a small handful of classes outside these.

The classes are a also fun and setting-appropriate range. Troopers are thoat-mounted fighters and Warriors more of the typical fighting man type. Criminals are more assassin than thief, a choice that seems to be pretty consistent with the material. Scientists are the technology users who can employ relics and have access to inventions. Extras seem to be the jack-of-all-trades class that reminds me a little of the prosaically-named Classic Traveller “Other” career.

The inclusion of a spell-casting Priest class is an exception to the rule about staying close to the source material. Their introduction seems a bit awkward to me given the near-absence of religion and magic in ERB's work. Clovis acknowledges himself the dilemma and allows for a GM to ignore or restrict the class and spell-casting rules.

Combat mechanics are a simplified d20-like system with ascending AC and an interesting 2nd-edition AD&D-ish division of effects between four categories of weapons: blunt, piercing, slashing, and energy. Rules exist for the wide range of relic and strange tech items one could employ in combat.

Rules for fliers are among my favorites in the game and remind me some of the great Space 1889 subsystems of yore. What Barsoom would be complete without PCs blasting, grappling, or ramming one in each and every adventure?

Level advancement has some interesting quirks. PCs start at 2nd level and there are no experience points as such. Instead at the end of an adventure a player rolls a d6 in which an attribute, skill, or level is increased. Personally I am still too wed to the quantifible bean counting that comes with exp. Systems, but I like the nice randomized pay-off system that reminds me of the fun of leveling up in first edition Gamma World.

All in all a nice little system worth picking up. Distribution is pleasingly personal, contact Clovis over at Jasoomian Dreams. For $10 he will send you a copy and a free copy for a friend to boot.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

News Flashes on The Jakallan Underworld and the Pulp Fantasy Society

Good news for all those who expressed enthusiasm for our recent glimpse into Barker's massive Jakallan “mega-dungeon.” I received word today from the Tekumel Foundation that “plans are well advanced for offering the Jakallan Underworld as a product for Tekumel fans.”

Several other related-projects are also underway, but the Foundation is (wisely) concerned about not over-promising at this early stage. According to Victor Raymond: “We want to make sure that the products are of high quality, meet with approval from Prof. Barker, and will fit in the larger scope of making Tekumel available in a way that meets the needs of the modern hobby...We are looking for volunteers who are interested in helping with various projects--particularly artists who are able to envision Tekumel properly!”

You heard the man, here is your own chance to serve the Petal Throne.

While the recently-founded Foundation took a bit of a beating by some in the rarefied circles of the Tekumel yahoo list, I am of the opinion that it's launch as a not-for-profit organization is an unqualified positive development for broadening out the setting's appeal. Plus extra kudos to a group that that has enough of a sense of humor to illustrate their submissions page with a slave market of all things.

Our other news flash is for the Pulp Fantasy Society. Scott from Huge Ruined Pile has graciously allowed us to set up our little nook in his forum for discussion of our project. Boogie over there to help us get our discussion up and running.  

Help us Think Up a Name for the Pulp Fantasy Society. Pretty Please

I mentioned earlier that the name for our pulp fantasy project was a bit of a stand-in. 

So what do you call a literary society run by gamers/for gamers that aims to publish and promote mostly public domain pulp-era (and before) fantasy with a healthy doses of sword and planets, cosmic horror, and other speculative fiction? How name ye this beast? Bring out your suggestions!

Also if you are interested in said books and gaming and haven't joined Huge Ruined Pile's new literary forum then get your hindquarter over there promptly.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tékumel in Miniature: Jeff Berry Interview Part III

We reach the last part of our interview today. What's amazing is there is a good deal more on the cutting room floor. A big thank you to Jeff for helping us explore this nook of our hobby. I will be attempting to sweet talk other old heads over the next few months, so look forward to more inside scoops.

All photos in today's interview are from Jeff's candy store of a Photobucket page.

A busy week ahead for the Hill Cantons with reviews of Clovis Cithog's Red Planet RPG and Michael Curtis' new Stonehell Supplement in the hopper. Plus we'll have more older-edition new classes, Holmes Expert set musings, news on the Pulp Fantasy Society, and more.

Hill Cantons: You said that you always considered yourself a modeler first, let's talk about those minis. I love the photos of minis of the original PCs and NPCs (noticed lots of Tom Meier-era Ral Partha and some Heritage minis--my own first figures!). Did miniatures play a big role in the campaign? How often were they used in play?

Jeff Berry: I had gotten started in historical miniatures gaming in the early 1970's, and had seen the Tekumel figures when they came out in 1975. I started painting them, collecting everything I could about Tekumel in order to do a good job on them, and as a result got invited out to Phil's to paint figures for him.

He'd buy bulk packs of the Tekumel figures, and I'd paint them up for him. The deal was that he'd keep half and I'd get the other half of the batch as payment for the work. That was the start of my collection, which is now owned by the Aethervox Gamers. There's something like 4,600 figures in the collection, as well as ships, buildings, scenery, and terrain.

The second night I was out at Phil's, the party was trying to find out what had happened to the garrison of a small fort in one of the player's fief. It was full of 'wild' Pe Choi, as it turned out, and the party started to debate (as players will) what to do about it.

Phil had just gotten a pretty good shipment of the Pe Choi figures in and done, so I suggested that we get out his little modular castle and fight out the assault that the players wanted to do in miniature. Phil loved the idea, we got everything out, and fought the battle.

We had to fake up the player-characters from what were mostly the military figures that we had, and I came back the next week with some individual player figures that I'd converted and painted up to represent everyone. Phil and the group really liked that, and it started the tradition of everyone having their own personal figure.

I kept that up for years, doing new figures as needed to reflect the changes in status and wealth of each player, and I still do it today for the Aethervox players.

Prior to that, about the only time the miniatures came out was to fight big battles or other military actions; at that time, that's what “fantasy wargaming” was. After I did the PC figures, we'd use them on a pretty regular basis.

When we went off on our first voyage to the Southern Continent, I drew up the deck plans of Dave's /Harchar's ship and we placed the figures on the plan to indicate where people were at any given moment.

Gary Gygax gave me one of the TSR RPGA miniatures cases at a Gen Con, and I used that for years to bring the figures out to Phil's every Thrusday night. They got used all the time as a sort of “tactical display”, and it did make combats much easier to run.

I had to do a lot of conversions because, back then, there was a much smaller number of figures available, from very few companies. There were some Hyborean and other fantasy figures I used, but until Tom Meier revolutionized the sculpting process by using epoxy putty the figures weren't all that great. I used some Garrison, Minifigs, and Heritage figures as well the Bill Murray Tekumel figures at first, but used mostly Ral Partha figures as ther ranges expanded. There's also a few Grenadier figures as well, but it mostly became Ral Partha as the figures of choice because there were so many options.

I would do everyone's PC, and their NPC servants and such, so we could put everyone on the table for game situations.

As for how often we'd use them, well, it got to be every game session. If there was a melee, of course, but they would also get used in social situations like parties and feasts so that we could all keep track of who was where. It was why we had sets of servants with platters of food, slave girls with fans, musicians, etc., as well as furniture and other stuff.

I'd be asked to do up room plans and drawings from Phil's quick sketches, and we'd play on these plans. I also had gotten some of Gary Rudolph's "Netherworld" sets, and we'd use either these or my collection of wooden blocks for underworld situations.

We still do this, and I've continued to build what amounts to the “scenery” and “props” for our games. I treat them as little stage productions, and it's always huge amounts of fun to watch a new generation of players peer at some detail and wonder what will happen to them next. Phil used to do this all the time, and I'm happy to be able to continue the tradition.

HC:It sounds like you are still running a campaign in Tekumel. How's that going?

JB:Pretty well, I think: I run two groups, on alternate Saturdays, and we have something like twenty players between the two groups.

I manage to keep them amused, and they seem to have a lot of fun exploring Tekumel. Several are really gifted artists, and have published their Tekumel work. Several more are equally gifted sculptors, and are doing masters for Tekumel miniatures.

We're in the process of becoming a formal organization, too; when we pooled all of our individual Tekumel collections, as you can see from the photos of the game room I've posted, we found we had a huge resource of books, documents, costumes, miniatures, and artifacts.

The collections keep growing, and we've working to set up a trust to maintain them for people to enjoy. There's over thirty years of history there, and we're hoping that other folks will enjoy the collections and Tekumel as much as we have.

HC: You said you were working on a book, tell us about that project.

JB: To Serve The Petal Throne will be a book, which I'm going to send through the approvals process that the Tekumel Foundation is putting together. It's a series of short stories taken directly from our adventures in Phil's games. I took notes every night our at Phil's for over a decade, and about all I'm doing is making the prose a little more readable. I'm just reporting what happened, really.

The first part of the book will cover the adventures of Anka'a, who started playing EPT the very first night they had a game: August 24th, 1974 [read her account of that night here]. Her adventures dovetailed with Chirine's as she came to play in our group and explored a lot of Tekumel with us. We'll see, we have a long way to go. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Exploring the Jakallan Underworld, Playing with Arneson, and More: Jeff Berry Interview Part II

We continue the second part of our interview with Jeff Berry. If this section doesn't make you want to grab a copy of EPT, a big-honkin' piece of graph paper, and get to work on an underworld of your own; I don't know what would.

Hill Cantons: You mentioned that Barker's first maps were of three levels of the Jakalla's underworld. I remember reading somewhere that they were fairly extensive. His write-up on underworlds in the TSR rules are quite simply one of the most evocative descriptions I have ever read about so-called mega-dungeons--especially the section on "Saturday Night Specials". Do you remember anything about these specials as you played through?

Jeff Berry: Do I remember anything? Crikey! One of the 'special sections' would get seared into your brain when you went through them! Most of the levels were all what people would call 'Saturday Night Specials'; there wasn't a whole lot of 'normal' stuff in the underworld...

Let me backtrack for a second, and set the scene. This was back in the days where we all used 8 1/2" by 11" graph paper sheets for maps, with five squares to the inch; everybody, including Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, worked to that 'standard', so one had a certain feel for just how big a dungeon was going to be. The 'mega dungeons' were collections of these standard pages, all linked together with passages and you knew instantly when you were going from page to page. That's all anyone had, as we all had to get our graph paper from office or artist's supply stores.

The main map of the Jakalla Underworld is completely different; it's an 18" by 24" sheet of ten square to the inch graph paper that Phil got from a drafting supply house. He had access to this kind of thing vis his academic career, like the blank globe he used to draw his Tekumel maps onto.

Nobody in gaming at that time had seen anything like it, and when he rolled it out onto the table your mouth just dropped open. It's over four times the size and four times the scale of the usual maps of that time, and the main map has what amounts to a dozen separate areas that all are owned by one or another of the Temples. Each of these areas, in turn, would have provided enough material for a complete adventure module with maps and room descriptions.

He had 'flattened' out the areas that made up the upper levels by vertically compressing the separate areas in order to get them all on one sheet, and then did two more larger scale maps of the lower levels. One is of the Garden of the Weeping Snows, and the other is more temple areas. It's an enormous area to have to try and explore, and I don't think we ever did. You could spend literally years down there, and never get through it all.

Mapping it, from our standpoint, was next to impossible. We came to know certain paths between some of the sections, like between the Temple of Vimuhla and the Temple of Chiteng, but that was about it. It was just too big, and too complex, to map in the usual way unless the party was willing to spend a lot of time doing it.

And it was full of life. Phil had a forty-page listing of just the major rooms alone, with the contents and decor. There were always people working down there in the shrines, and the supposedly “deserted” areas that formed the buffer zones between the Temple areas had a lot of traffic in them.

There were also a lot of creatures of various kinds, and you got to know about where you were by what you were running into. Each of the Change temples tended to specialize in their own versions of undead and underworld creatures, while the Stability temples tended to concentrate on really clever traps and mercenaries to guard their shrines.

The “special” sections were really hard to get to, usually approachable by very convoluted routes, and were loaded with the worst traps and guardians. You learned to be very, very careful once you figured out where you were, and you never, ever fooled around with anything unless you knew what it was or you had seen something like it before.

There were all sorts of nexus points (which we had no idea had existed, in those days) and bits of ancient technology in these sections which would transport you to other parts of the underworld or to other times and places. Usually with nasty results, unless you thought really fast and really quickly.

It was pretty obvious that the “specials” were all tied in with Phil's story arcs and plot lines, too. The guide is full of dangling plot hooks for people to explore, and the bulk of them never got picked up on by the players.

Other stuff that really threw us was the huge rotating section that would randomly rotate and completely change the passageway connections; the rolling tomb-car in one of the tombs that would roll around a circular passage and crush the party if they couldn't get the tomb gateway open; the crystal coffin of one of Nayari's lovers that was a time portal back to Bednjallan times; or even something as simple as the artillery emplacement that overlooks the River of Death. It has an ancient energy weapon in it, and more then a few players have gotten fried by pushing buttons that they shouldn't have.

EPT has a pretty good list of the areas, there's well over two dozen of what I'd call "Saturday Night Specials.” I could fill up pages on the subject...

HC: It's been detailed elsewhere (the Comeback Inn) but I love those stories about Dave Arneson as a player. What was it like to play next to the infamous Captain Harchar?

JB:It was a scream. He was really good, and really fast on his feet. We never knew what sort of nefarious scheme he was cooking up at any given moment, and Chirine normally had to keep a pretty close watch on him and his rascally crew to make sure that we got to where we were supposed to be going. It often didn't work, and we'd wind up someplace way off the map.

Dave was really one of the most creative people I'd ever met, and genuinely the most fun to play with. He was very nice, very genial, and would do his very best to rip your liver out and feed it to you with Tabasco sauce on it.

He, as well as a lot of the original Blackmoor players, were very competitive, but they weren't what came to be described as “power gamers.” They worked very hard at being very good at what they played, and they liked to win based on their own skills and ability.

They would be very kind and very helpful to a newbie until the guy got to about their level of skill. Then they'd treat him just like one of the other players, and you had to be just as good and just as fast to survive. There was nothing else like it. The excitement of playing against or with Dave was one of the most wonderful things I ever got to do in gaming.

Having Dave as a player out at Phil's was truly fun to be a part of. Phil was in awe of Dave, and Dave in awe of Phil. Watching the two of them try they're hardest to put one over on the other was awesome to watch. All you could do was hang onto your chair for dear life as they took off and ran with stuff. There was also a really distinct difference between Dave and Harchar. Dave was a good actor, you could always tell who you were talking to.

Dave played Harchar like a combination of Blackbeard and Don Vito Corleone, and he did it with style and energy. It was some of the very best gaming we'd ever done, having him there, and we all enjoyed it hugely.

HC: How close in the early years was play to the OEPT rules as published? I know y'all seemed to travel rules-lite, but how close/distant was it?

JB: We played EPT right out of the book for the first three years or so, in our original Thursday Night Group, until Phil thought he could trust us. He'd had some bad moments when the guys in the other group did things that messed up his 'future history'.

I was actually the transition character from EPT to what would become Swords and Glory. Chirine was unique, because he was a military sorcerer; as far as I have been able to find out, there haven't been any others as PCs.

I played Chirine for over a decade at Phil's, as we normally kept the same player-character from the start. It tended to make us all a little conservative as players, but we stayed alive that way. Phil would occasionally let us roll up what were basically NPCs to use in little side adventures, but normally we'd stick with the one character.

After that first three years, we knew Tekumel pretty well and didn't diddle with it. Phil did more story-telling then GMing, and went to the "you roll, I roll" system of adjudication. It worked very well with us, and seems to work well with my two groups.

I have players who have rolled up characters in EPT, S&G/Gardasiyal, and T:EPT. I do all the number-crunching “behind the scenes”, and I refuse to let the game mechanics get in the way of the story-telling.

This concludes Part II. Tomorrow we finish up our interview with a great discussion of EPT miniatures; the book of recollections Jeff is working on; and other matters various and sundry. Stay tuned...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tales from Tékumel's First Campaign: An Interview with Jeff Berry

Sadly, in the past few years we've seen the sudden passing of a number of our great hobby's pioneer members. I find it doubly sad that more efforts weren't made to collect more complete oral or written histories of the early days of RPG play. (I am especially feeling that recently with Dr. Holmes, whose creative brain was even less picked over directly in the Internet hotspots, leaving us with great big question marks about his body of work.)

Recently, I had the great fortune though to interview Jeff Berry, an early participant in D&D's eldest first cousin, Empire of the Petal Throne. Jeff's own blog (named after his first character in M.A.R. Barker's campaign), can be found here. Further interesting (and highly amusing to yours truly) accounts by Jeff of EPT and Dave Arneson can be read in his Q&A sticky over at the Comeback Inn.

Hill Cantons: What's a good way to introduce you? I know that you were among the first to play in Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne campaigns and a co-author of EPT's most re-published miniature rules set. What else would be interesting to tell people?

Jeff Berry: No idea! Seriously, while I've been involved with Tekumel since 1975, I've never been part of what might be called "mainstream" gaming. I've always been a model builder and painter, and the games I've done over the years have been more or less an excuse to put cool stuff on the table.

I started playing out at Phil's (Prof. Barker, of course) sometime in early 1976. I was introduced to him by Gary Rudolph, who had seen my painted Tekumel figures at the local game shop, and I was brought out to Phil's to be more or less the guy who painted figures for Phil.

Phil had been gaming Tekumel for about two years, and EPT had been out for one; I rolled up a character, and my very first night of gaming out there was set in the Hall of the Petal Throne. Quite a way to get started, and a really good night.

There was just the one large group of eight to ten people at the time, and we soon split into the "old guard" of"'power gamers" who went on to become Prince Mirusiya's "New Men"; our original Thursday Night Group spent our time exploring Tekumel with Phil, and traveled all over the maps of the continent.

I wrote Qadardalikoi after I'd bought the line of Tekumel figures form Ral Partha; they'd taken the line out of production due to low sales, and didn't want to run a batch of the figures specially for me. They sold me the line, instead, right at the time that both Missum and Legions of the Petal Throne were both going out of print.

Phil wasn't entirely happy with either set of rules, feeling that they didn't really reflect how he thought Tekumelyani warfare was waged; he sort of challenged me to write a new set, which I did with his help and cooperation. He even did some little drawings for me, which was quite generous of him.

I'm currently at work on a new edition of the rules, called Qadardalikoi: Advance Standards!, which will bring the rules into this century; they were written almost thirty years ago, after all!

HC: Mega-dungeons have been a big topic in the more old school-oriented blogs. By giving good, interesting, culturally-grounded reasons for the existence of massive underworlds in Tekumel, EPT seemed to present one of the best examples of a deeper approach to presenting the mega-dungeon. Anything you care to share about what the underworld expeditions were like in the Barker campaign. Any memorable incidents? Funny? Dramatic?

JB: All of the above. Phil is a tremendous story-teller, and when he was on a roll he could scare the kilts off of us.

He could also reduce us to tears laughing, like the time one of the more arrogant players found a device of the Ancients deep in the Jakalla Underworld. It was a domed cylinder with a flexible metal hose coming out of one side that had a flat nozzle at the end, and two jewels on the top of the dome; one was green and the other red.

The guy pressed the green gem, it lit up, and the device started to whirr; after a couple of seconds, vapor started to come out of the nozzle, so the guy hit the red gem and the machine stopped. The guy then announced to all of us that the thing MUST be a weapon of the ancients, and lugged it all over the underworld for the rest of the night.

Sure enough, we got jumped by Grey Ssu, and the guy fires up his mighty 'death vapor' weapon to kill them. Well, of course, it didn't kill any of the Ssu; the warm moist vapor just took all the wrinkles out of their parchment-like skin, and they looked all nice and presentable. We ran for it, with the freshly-pressed and wrinkle-free Ssu in hot pursuit...

A lot of the players had real trouble figuring out that Tekumel wasn't your stock-and-standard D&D version of Tolkien "Middle Earth": it was unique, and much more in tune with Edgar R. Burroughs "Barsoom", Robert E. Howard's "Conan", and the eldritch works of Lovecraft and A. Merritt. If one had read those, which were pretty obscure at that time, one was usually able to "get" Tekumel. Phil had grown up reading those books by those authors as they were being published, and he was of that generation or world-builders.

Keep in mind that in a six-week period in the summer of 1974 he'd written EPT, rolled up 1,000 NPCs on 3 x 5 cards, and drawn up at least three levels of the Jakalla Underworld.

He could do it, as well as all the books he created in the space of two years, because he'd been writing about Tekumel since high school. I've seen the original map of Tsolyanu from the middle 1940s, and I have copies of his Tsolyani language materials and histories from the 1950s. The earliest art that we have in the collection is from 1949, and illustrates a plot-line/story arc that we played in ourselves and which is still going on.

Part II of our interview will be posted tomorrow. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Society Update

Getting back today to that proposal for a pulp fantasy society to spread the good word about public domain works. We've done a small amount of work laying the foundation in the last two weeks.

It looks like the best way to do this organizationally is in a few phases. Here's the rough outline for phase one:
  1. We will incorporate the society first as a non-profit organization in the state of Texas. Relatively cheap and easy to file here (and I'm in walking distance of the Bexar County Courthouse). We will also need to set up a DBA to operate a banking account legally. Luckily we can also do this at the county courthouse. I have all the necessary paperwork ready to go.
  2. Besides the small fee for filing (which I am putting up), we will need at the minimum three officers of our board. I propose that we have a board of 5-7 members for this phase. Big enough to cover people's adult-life schedule unevenness, but small enough not to be too unwieldy.
  3. We have a domain name reserved (PulpFantasySociety.org) and a volunteer to help set up our website.
  4. We will target producing a small number of books (2-4) in the first six months. We should buy a 10 or higher number block of ISBNs.
  5. We need to recruit volunteer publishers, editors, and artists for each project. (I have professional experience with the first two and some coordinating the latter.)
  6. Big decision to make on whether or not we should use print on demand or print and/or distribute more directly.
So there we are. As always drop me a line off-line if you have interest in participating.

In related news folks should check out Huge Ruined Pile's new forum for discussing literary fantasy matters.  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Split Classes and Holmes Expert

Jim (aka the Wampus) asked yesterday what I meant by saying that split classes were a likely design choice for our hypothetical Holmes Expert set. My line of reasoning flows back to 1984 when Frank Mentzer's third boxed set for D&D, the Companion set, reared its head.

In that edition, a number of new classes were introduced, not as stand-alone classes in which a player starts at first level and works as usual up the ranks, but as a career choice for certain qualifying characters of the basic classes as they reached name level. (BTW Grognardia had a recent interesting discussion on this whole topic.)

Thus in BECMI-flavored D&D you didn't start play as a Paladin; it was instead something a Lawful fighter earned by reaching 9th level. Similarly a Neutral fighter could choose to become the Knight class and a Chaotic one an Avenger (not quite as cool as the dreaded Anti-Paladin that was invariably played by That Guy). Neutral clerics could opt to become Druids with their own unique spell sets.

Later Gazetteers would even add some options for the demi-humans that topped out so early, such as the Halfling Master class.

The more I thought about the more the logic behind going the split class route seemed more and more rock solid to me as a design choice for an expansion to a Basic boxed set since:
  1. It's awkward retroactively introducing new low-level-starting classes in a product that is supposed to expand play to levels 4-12. It undermines the standalone simplicity of the Basic set and a slower introduction to greater levels of complexity.
  2. It gives players an interesting carrot for higher levels of play. “When Mogg the Mendicant gets to 4th level, dude, he's going to go all Witch Doctor and rock out the dungeon.”
  3. It allows a designer to introduce a smaller, simpler set of the inherently fiddly new abilities, spell, and other goodies that come with a new class in D&D.
  4. It further distinguishes the new line as something different from both AD&D and OD&D without being wildly divergent.
Got it?

In my own dream Holmes Expert it would work something like this. Players start levels 1-3 with the usual range of race and class choices (perhaps throwing in the demi-human thieves that creep into the pre-generated character list of B1).

When they reach 4th level--and yes, I would introduce them much lower given the 12th level ceiling to the whole project—they are allowed to choose any number of new quasi-classes attached to their starting class that they qualify for by alignment, attribute, race, or whatnot.

My own druthers would be to introduce a largish range of sub-classes with very short lists of new goodies. Go wide and shallow in other words rather than the AD&D way of creating longer and longer sets of new stuff to deal with in an individual class.

It would be doubly fun to draw on a wide range of sources contemporary to the OD&D era, stripped-down, more Basic-ish versions of all the classes in Strategic Review, The Dragon, and the many wackier classes of the constellation of zines from that time (can we say Pyrologist and Dwarf Craftsmen?).

Happy Veteran's Day

I come from a long line of citizen-soldiers.

Pictured here is part of my family's WWII generation in front of the family farm just outside of Shiner, Texas. Great Uncle Forrest on the left was among the first of U.S. soldiers to lay down his life in the ETO in North Africa. Grandpa was at Pearl Harbor and went through nearly the entire PTO. 

A big shout out to my dad too who served with the First Cav in Vietnam '66-67.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

More on the Holmes Expert Set

Thanks to all who sent me their thoughts—and cool Holmes expansion documents—on and off-blog. It struck me in the exchanges that I should clarify the thought experiment scenario from yesterday.

Imagine it's the early months of 1980. Holmes' Basic set is selling way past expectations and TSR honchos see the chance to develop a new game line of simplified rules to parallel AD&D. Fresh off the farm/campus/mental institution you've be drafted to be co-editor on this new Expert boxed set with the good doctor.

Here are the guidelines you are given to design this new line.

The “must do” list:
  1. The boxed set is to include a 48-page rulebook and a module designed to introduce Basic players to higher level play. Crappy dice/chits, geomorphs, etc. are optional.
  2. All the rules in the printings of the Blue Box up to 1980 are done deals (you're expanding an existing product after all). They cannot be annulled even if Dr. Holmes stated a preference against. You are stuck with five-fold alignment and all the rest.
  3. Though rules can't be annulled new rules can be added as elaborations to existing rules or short optional rules—especially if they were historically proposed by Holmes (or inferred from his material) or from existing TSR material like B1 and B2. Thus you can introduce knockout rules as an elaboration to the combat section or optional rules like spell points for magic users.
  4. You must also introduce new and unique material to distinguish this new line. Gygax's throwaway line in the previously-mentioned Dragon article is a commandment. There must be new classes, monsters, magic, etc.--and all this new content must be sufficiently different and simpler than the fledgling new AD&D line. Special preference to be given, of course, to classes and races mentioned by Holmes in his writings (samurai, witches, witch doctors, centaurs, werebears, dragons, vikings, amazons, and the like are all fair game as PC races and classes, for instance).
  5. Simple rules or guidelines to help DM's create new classes and races.
  6. You need to introduce wilderness exploration rules, stronghold and building construction rules, more hireling rules and generally expand play up to 12th level. Level caps must be determined for non-human races.
  7. You can use any of the material from the three LBBs and OD&D supplements, but any adapted rules should be kept simple and brief.
Now assume that many of the design choices made by B/X and BECMI editors are choices you might make such as:
  1. Introducing wilderness rules by providing a snapshot of a campaign world at the end of the rulebook and in the accompanying module. Material from The Maze of Peril, the Basic introductory adventure, and locales mentioned in Holmes' short stories likely should be used. (Here's a cool run-down from Doc and others on the OD&D forum).
  2. Possibly introducing new classes as split classes ala Mentzer's Companion rules. Players all start 1-3 levels with the standard starting classes from Basic and can switch to a sub-class or whatever. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Holmes Expert Boxed Set: What If?

Old school D&Ders seem to love “what if” intellectual excercises. What if D&D had been modeled on classical Greek myths rather than medieval Europe (Mazes and Minotaurs)? What if Traveller had cornered the market first and fantasy rpgs where modeled after it? What if the B/X series had been completed by Companion rules, rather than Mentzer?

My own head was spinning last night from a similar line of questions after reading a very intriguing passage in Dragon magazine #35 (March 1980). In Gygax's then-monthly column, “Sorcerer's Scroll”, he discusses at great length the various business decisions of TSR as it went gangbusters at the turn of the 1980s.

About halfway through he starts talking about about the internal debate at TSR about whether the Holmes Basic edition should have a product that pointed back to OD&D (as Holmes intended when he volunteered) or forward to AD&D as it began to be rolled out as a system. We all know which vision won. Thus the strange hybrid beast that was that first blue box set came into being.

Now here's the part I didn't know, there were plans for an Expert set expansion for Holmes underway at TSR in 1980. According to Gygax: 
“...as Basic Set sales soared, so did our plans... Design is now hard at work on the second boxed D&D game, the Expert Set. It will take players through at least 12th level of experience, tie in the best of the “Original” material, and actually add some new classes, spells, magic, monsters and so on. That should satisfy all those fans who prefer the complete flexibility and open form of D&D over the more controlled and formalized structure of AD&D.”
Whoa. Now obviously these plans were folded into a different plan in which D&D evolved into a new toned-down and simplified system that would be the B/X and later the BECMI lines. But it does pose a very tantalizing what-if.

What if that Holmes Expert set was rolled out before or in place of the B/X revision? Now there have been several nicely-done Holmes expansion homebrews such as Meepo's Holmes Companion, but what if there was full-bodied expansion along the more ambitious lines above?

Imagine for a minute a Holmes Expert set that retained it's unique bits. Five-fold alignment, DEX determines initiative, unusual spell descriptions, no racial classes, generous magic-item creation rules, etc. grafted onto an expansion written by the quirky (and slightly incoherent) mind that was J. Eric Holmes.

Imagine a set of new classes and/or races written by the man who explicitly stated that players could start at just about anything a DM gave her nod to such as a “centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man”?

Imagine new monsters from a guy so immersed in pulp fantasy roots as to actually write a follow-up novel to Edgar R. Burroughs strange and obscure Pellucidar series? It certainly would feature the Cthuloid and gonzo creations you get whiffs of in Mazes of Peril and his other stories. Were-shark anyone?

What about the module that would have accompanied it? Imagine a Holmesian mid-level adventure that would rival In Search of the Unknown or Keep on the Borderlands?

The mind boggles.