Wednesday 9 December 2020

It's Zombie time!


Zombies! Brains! Chainsaws! Mayhem in the Mall, Horrors in the Hall, Chaos in the Churchyard. Need I say more? The Zombie Apocalypse is a tried and tested trope in modern culture and Zombie games have been around for a while now but didn't really have a presence until 1999, with the groundbreaking rpg "All Flesh Must Be Eaten" by George Vasilakos, published by Eden Studios.

This post isn't a review of any particular game or a rules set or a specific setting guide, more a collection of musings and advice for anyone delving into this aspect of our collective unconscious.

There are a lot of questions in it.

The first of which is... which rules set should you use for a Zombie Apocalypse game? The obvious answer is the easiest- just choose one of the already published Zombie roleplaying games. But this article isn't about that. These thoughts are for folk who are home brewing or modifying a generic rules set. Personally, I'd go for the OneDice system by Cakebread and Walton (this piece was originally drafted with that system in mind) but the Core d6 system would work as would adapting Swords & Wizardry White Box. Just go with whatever you are happy with, bearing in mind the rest of this post.

So, you have decided which rules to use. Let's get on with the main business. The following steps will help you gather your thoughts when creating your very own Apocalypse. Have fun...

Step 1: decide your setting. This is the first important decision to make. Where in the world your story is set will dictate the availability of things like weapons, vehicles, power, water and sources of food etc during/after the Zombie Apocalypse. It will also affect skill choices for your characters. For example, in the UK, gun ownership is less than 5% of the population. In Scandinavia it is closer to 40% and in the US it is 75%. If your everyday heroes are in rural Vermont or windswept Cumbria at the time of the Apocalypse, you'll have a very different kind of game to one set in Paris or New York. City maps and guides are available on the internet for all major cities as are lists and photos of important buildings etc. You can also make great use of the maps available of the floors of major department stores, museums and even public buildings such as town halls. All great for mad chases or hide and seek zombie style. Having a few of these, and some floor plans of typical houses or apartments ready at hand (Estate Agents/Realtor websites are good for these) means that improvising as you go will be a lot easier. After all, we can all map a few dungeon levels but a whole city is different ball game. Not that a dungeon type area isn't a bad thing. Download maps of the Underground or Subway systems and while you are at it, take a look at the maps of London or New York's sewage systems, fascinating. There is also another option of setting your Apocalypse in another time period. There are some excellent miniatures available for your own remake of Pride Prejudice and Zombies and similarly, space zombies.

Steep 2: decide how the Apocalypse began. There are several models for this in film and literature: a new/alien virus sweeps the world causing people to become blood-crazed, unfeeling and hate-filled but slow and a bit dim before they finally die. Or, an other worldly invasion of microscopic brain manipulating aliens, possibly controlled centrally or even possessing a hive-mind, who take over and slowly kill their "hosts". Or, an ancient evil has been unearthed and is spreading its malign influence over the planet one person at a time. Or, a criminal or terrorist or enemy nation has launched a bio-weapon which has had disastrous and unpredicted  effects (or maybe not unpredicted:Twelve Monkeys). Or maybe, it actually is THE Apocalypse and the Big Guy Upstairs really has had enough this time. With each of these choices, decisions will need to be made about how the zombie making process will occur:- infection, transfer, mutation, mind control or magic? Infection is the classic here and raises lots more interesting questions:- Does the disease progress quickly or slowly? Can infected people be cured? Can the infection be stopped before it takes hold? Is there a vaccine? (We've all been forced in these COVID ridden times to think about this type of thing- a lot). Mind control takes us into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory (another rich genre I'd like to tackle). Is there an implanted device which is turning people into zombies? If so, can it be removed or neutralised? Are the zombies truly dead? If so, there's obviously no going back. The question to sort out as Gamekeeper is then: how do your adventurers make the zombies stay properly dead? (See step 5 for more on the biology of zombies).

Step 3: decide at what point you are going to set your story- at the very beginning where everything seems normal until... Or, as the Apocalypse is in full swing and characters can't even open a cupboard without a zombie falling out. Or, Post- Apocalypse where the few true human survivors are holed up in out of the way places where no one/thing can find them (like Rhyl or Dudley). Plotting out a rough timeline will help... Z-Day +1, +28 days/weeks/months etc. What will the streets of the cities look like after a month, six months, a year? (A fantastic book: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, explains what might happen to our human artefacts if one day we all just disappeared). Have the survivors built a refuge somewhere or fled to the countryside? Did the Government send in the army, surround and "quarantine" the city leaving the survivors to fend for themselves? On Z-Day plus 30, did your survivors huddle around a dying radio only to hear that their city was due to be nuked to cleanse the zombie infection from the country? There's nothing like an impending nuclear explosion to inject some pace into your game! Will your characters get out of the city in time? Did the blast fail to happen? If so, why not? Why did the radio go silent?

Step 4: decide on what kind of characters you want. Ordinary everyday folk or a more militarised group such as armed forces or police or even a specialised zombie disposal squad? I would suggest that more fun is to be had by playing very ordinary people with few specialised skills and no weapons skills whatsoever. It may be prudent for each player to create two or three different characters, the mortality rate is likely to be high. Whatever game system you use, if it is skills based, you might want to add a 'Profession' Skill. This would be used to describe the work skills for the everyday professions your Average Joe characters might have: butcher, car mechanic, vet, hairdresser whatever. This skill may be more important than you might at first think as it could be a fun source of oddball ways to survive the Apocalypse: that City Hall Maintenance guy might just have the skills to fix the lift just in time to escape the shambling horde of undead in the lobby. The sports coach is deadly with a 4-Iron golf club. Also, as zombie games are really survival games they often feature resource management systems. How far you want to go with this is another question to answer as you set up your game. But if you do decide to go down this route I would suggest using as simple a system as possible (and a fun one): use Nerf Gun bullets as records of shotgun rounds, pistol bullets etc and have the players hand them over as they are fired. Use individual sweeties/cheesy snacks/biscuits etc to represent a meal for your character, when they eat, your players do. Finally, use shot glasses with your beverage of choice, when your characters drink, so do you. Other visual aids can be fun also: a sticking plaster to represent a first aid kit or single shot of medicine, a ten sided dice used to indicate the percentage which the disease has taken hold of an infected character, slowly climbing each day/hour whatever until it reaches 100%. Gulp.

Step 5: decide on the ecology of your zombies. What is their "life (death?) cycle"? I have already mentioned the possibilities there might be for the progression of the zombie disease (if a virus is your chosen zombie maker) but there are other things to consider. Will your undead slowly continue to decay so that in the end there is nothing left? If so, how long will this take? Do your zombies need to rest/sleep or are there dormant periods or times of the day they avoid? If so, where do they go? Or are your zombies simply normal folk controlled by something/someone else. If so, is this effect permanent or can it be reversed? What effect does this control have on the zombie's body whilst they are "under the influence"? Will colleagues rescued from zombiedom be fatally dehydrated or brain damaged? This brings us the issue of what your zombies eat. Brains of course! Or something else? (not truffles, that would be silly and we don't that do we?). But actually this does need thinking about as it is really a question of motivation. Why exactly are the undead chasing the living? What do they want from us? What do my brains taste of? And how will your zombies finally die?

Step 6: plan some scenarios. Here I would suggest looking at the classic list of the "Seven Basic Plots", a concept our brothers in arms, fiction authors, use in various combinations to craft almost any kind of story. These are:  

1. Overcoming the monster.  

2. Rags to riches.  

3. The quest.  

4. Voyage and return.  

5. Comedy.  

6. Tragedy.  

7. Rebirth.  

Let's look at each in order. Firstly: Overcoming the monster. The classics here are Theseus and the Minotaur or George and that pesky dragon. In our context it could be simply destroying all of the zombies to put an end to the plague but it could also be a battle against the mastermind who started it all: fight your way through the "dungeon" and defeat the "boss". Classic simple stuff. A twist? The "monster" is in all of us.  

Next: rags to riches. The classic tale a poor boy made good, Arthur or Conan fit into this space in a mythic/fantasy setting. In our zombie scenario perhaps more a tale of losing everything to building up a safe position of power in a new world order. Your heroes will create an island of sanctuary for their fellow survivors from which to re-start civilisation. Think "I am legend/Omega man" or "Day of the Triffids". Plots might revolve around the gathering of resources, insurgencies or raids by zombies, the captive zombies you have been experimenting on (to the find a cure) all escape inside your base, lightning raids out of your camp to rescue newly discovered survivors. A twist: the characters make a living by interacting between the zombies and the remnants of civilisation.  

Then there is: The quest. Jason and the Golden Fleece, the Dwarven hunt for the Arkenstone, the need to destroy the One Ring. In our game a desperate search for the cure, for a weapon to wipe out the zombie plague, a place of safety, a person who's blood contains the anti-bodies from which to create a vaccine, or perhaps just a safe way out of the city. Stories here might involve sub-plots: you can't locate X without first finding Y and Z. The gathering together of an expert team could be a series of games in itself. A twist: one of the team is attempting to thwart our heroes' plans for reasons best known to themselves.  

Voyage and Return: Odysseus, Kirk and his bold crew, The Hobbit. Our heroes must venture out into a much changed world to seek fellow survivors, to carry a cure to another enclave across a zombie filled post Apocalypse landscape (anyone read Damnation Alley?). What will they discover? Is the whole world affected? Will they find themselves alone? Are there worse horrors "out there"? Plenty of opportunity here for side adventures and sub-plots as our wandering band come across strange groups of survivors- religious orders, would-be fascist dictators, cannibals, quasi-military institutions, half-zombie hippy communes! Who knows?  

Here's a fun one: comedy. Think Ghostbusters, Dark Star, Bill the Galactic Hero and most of all, Shaun of the Dead. Actually, in my experience, comedy is the hardest genre to roleplay. We all have lots of laughs when we play (I hope) but actually trying to make it funny is really tricky. Games based completely on silliness and puns are great but only for a very short time! So, dark humour works best here. For instance, Denis Jones loves his wife Maureen. When the Apocalypse comes and Maureen is bitten on the hand by an infected child in the supermarket, Denis tries to keep it quiet from his neighbours. As she slowly turns a sickly grey colour and speaks to him less and less, Denis locks her in the bedroom when he goes to work. In the evenings as the alarming news on TV gets worse and worse Maureen begins to get hungry. Denis starts to slip out at night to bump off his neighbours to feed his wife-thing's craving for... brains. A twist: comedy sometimes turns to tragedy.  

And so to Tragedy: King Lear, Oedipus, in a sci-fi/fantasy context stories like the original I am Legend novel by Richard Mattheson, Moorcock's Corum or even the Rogue One Star Wars storyline. But Tragedy isn't just a whole lot of terrible stuff going down. Not everyone has to die. The tragic story is one where the flaws of our hero influence the events with sadly ironic outcomes. There is a certain inevitability about the conclusion. Tragic heroes can be a bit irritating. You just know they are going to make the wrong choice somewhere down the line. In this type of game the Gamekeeper needs to give the characters the opportunity to act heroically whilst getting killed in the act of (just) saving the day. If players have identified a character flaw then the Gamekeeper must work in opportunities for them to role play these out. This kind of game can be very rewarding but needs a skillful referee who can change/create lots of stuff on the fly. A twist: the character's flaw actually saves the day (very tricky to pull off).  

And finally: Rebirth. Think Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White, think Tony Stark to Iron Man, think the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. This one links nicely with Rags to Riches but our hero doesn't necessarily come out rich or a king etc. Just, a better person. So, a coward who turns out to be brave, a greedy hoarder who ends up feeding hundreds of fellow survivors. Like the Tragedy game, players would need to identify a flaw or aspect of their character which would change during the game or perhaps the referee should give them one, after all, we don't exactly choose our personality do we (expensive therapy aside)? Moral choices are what is needed here. As far as an rpg goes, this last plot option is probably better integrated into one of the others. We can't realistically have all of the players turning themselves around from murder hobos into truly decent human beings, that sounds too much Little House on the Prairie and not enough chainsaw wielding brain drinking mayhem!

So there you go. Lot's of questions as promised.

Have fun children and stay away from the Mini-Mart on Romero Boulevard.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

The Players Handbook cover, 1978.

Dave Trampier's famous painting.
David Trampier's original

In June 1978, TSR released the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Players Handbook. 128 pages of mind blowing goodness for 16 year olds like me. We got new classes, new spells, new armour and new weapon types, new rules on... well, practically everything, it was great. But even though AD&D is now in its 5th incarnation, it's the cover of the first ever player's guide which has stuck in the public imagination as the iconic image of D&D.
The famous painting featuring a party of adventurers clearing up after battle and gathering loot, under the bejeweled eyes of a grinning demon statue, was by David Trampier, one of the titans of early rpg art. For reasons best known to themselves, publisher TSR replaced this cover in 1983. But that made no difference to the original's kudos and fame.

Cover for 4e Players Handbook

What I'm going to do here is look at this image to see what it tells us about 'the  game' in 1978, and compare it with some later covers of the Players Handbook (or its equivalent) from subsequent editions.

As an image in itself, the Trampier painting doesn't actually hold together well compositionally. But of course it doesn't need to- it's obviously a book cover design. The right hand half of the image (with the famous demon statue and delvers prizing out its huge ruby eyes) is busier, more dramatic and coloured beautifully. The back cover on the left half of the image is more prosaic with a simple square wall opening through which busy adventurers drag corpses and treasure in a businesslike fashion. There are plain sections on both sides for the graphic artists to place their text.

How are they going to sell those?

But it's what the picture depicts, rather than the composition which is important here. So what have we got? It's a 'typical' dungeon scene. Our heroes have triumphed over at least three lizard-like monsters in what appears to be a temple or large shrine. The huge grinning idol, underlit by the fire in large brazier or stone (?)bowl on his crossed legs, is the most striking aspect of the whole painting and is probably the element which has gained the picture it's iconic status. There are eleven adventurers seen in the image, all engaging in various 'typical' dungeoneering activities. These comprise: at least three fighters, a magic-user, two guys trying to loosen the idol's huge ruby eyes who could be thieves, a figure in the foreground discussing plans who is usually considered to be a cleric, plus four others who are carrying looted treasure or dragging corpses about the place. These could be PCs or henchmen/hirelings. We don't know.

Henchmen clear away the evidence.
Hirelings clear away the evidence.

What does this tell us then about how Dungeons & Dragons... in this new 'Advanced' form is to be played? Because that is what Trampier's cover to the Players Handbook is for, to draw us in and make us want to be part of an adventure like this one depicted here. Firstly though, it ought to be noted there are no female characters shown here at all (unless the ex-lizards were lady lizards...which would compound the issue!). OK, D&D was and still is, mainly a boys thing, and this was the 70s so par for the course- but worth noting. My first group of players was actually 50/50 male/female for quite a long time and the girls usually played female characters.
Secondly, this is a party of at least eleven adventurers. Groups that size (and bigger) are expected to be relatively common it seems. I think that's probably not the case nowadays. The covers of later Players Handbooks usually include only one or two heroes battling some enormous monster. Note 'heroes' not 'adventurers'. And there are no obvious races other than humans. I find that surprising even for those times. It's possible that one of the two guys carrying chest is a Dwarf- he's quite short and he is bearded. If he is, he's certainly not the rotund, wide-as-he's-tall pseudo Viking, we are used to nowadays. Maybe one of the guys stealing the eye gems is a Dwarf too. Hard to tell. Does this give any clues as to the ratios of humans to demi humans? A new version of this painting would need to show a much more diverse cast of characters.

So I said, if Orcus is your father, who's your mother...

Next: that Magic-User is about as old school as it gets! Well, he could do with a pointed hat I suppose. If the other character studying the map is indeed a cleric, that gives us two magic using types in the party. I guess that would par for the course in 1978. The game was far less magical back then. No-one had cantrips and it was this book which introduced to many, the beginnings of the plethora of magic using types we have in the modern game. So, are any of these folk examples of the 'new' classes? D&D players who'd shelled out for the supplements will have already seen Theives, Paladins, Monks and Assassins etc, but for a lot of players, these were new and exciting additions to the game. The 'cleric' might be a monk, that plate armoured fighter might be a paladin I suppose, but it's hard to tell.
And then there's: encumbrance. I don't know about other DMs who started in the stone age like me, but I never really bothered too much with encumbrance... 'You find 10,000sp in the dead giant's socks.'
'OK, the dwarf will carry it, what else is there?'
So these guys have found three treasure chests and a barrel of something special. No one has even a backpack let alone the ubiquitous 'sacks, large 16cp'. Of course, there could be a mule just in the corridor...(are there mules in 5e?).
I've put the word 'typical' in quotation marks because what was typical for an adventure in 1978, is not typical nowadays. Although a dungeon crawl was back then, not the only form of adventure, it certainly was the most common. In these more sophisticated times, 'adventures' can be more like delves into the psyche or examinations of what it is to be 'human' rather than explorations of the mythic underworld. 

More about heroes than adventurers.

I suppose in the end, all of this speculation doesn't amount to much. But I do think it highlights the differences in the game as it was then, and how it is now. Neither is better but despite 5e's attempts to simplify itself, the multitude of races, classes and general shift towards glossy High Fantasy, really does make it a different beast.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Boot Hill, by TSR 1975


Boot Hill, 1975, was the third roleplaying game published by TSR and the second rpg to be designed by Gygax and co. It was developed by Gygax, Brian Blume and TSR co-founder Don Kaye and extensively play tested for a year before publication. It is dedicated to Kaye who died early in '75 although final writing credits are Gygax and Blume.
The game went through three editions between 1975 and 1990 with surprisingly little alteration of the main rules and mechanisms until the 3e which adds further abilities and skills amongst others. The first edition, the one I'm looking at here, was augmented in subsequent editions with maps, adventures, historical notes and biographies of famous gunslingers and lawmen.

All in all, compared with other TSR rpgs, Boot Hill was very poorly supported with only five (I think) separately published scenario/adventure booklets. However, when the first edition originally appeared, extra material, commentary and notes on how to mash up the game with D&D (and then Metamorphosis Alpha) began turning up in magazines and newsletters. Most notably in the Polyhedron magazine and the Strategic Review.

Boot Hill 1e came in the familiar format of early TSR publications, a 40 page digest/A5 booklet with sturdy pages and the ubiquitous cream card covers. 34 of these pages are rules and maps with the remainder being reference charts and an advert for other quality gaming products from TSR (who will, they claim, pay your postage for you but that if you live in Wisconsin there is a 4% sales tax!) It's all done in a style very similar to D&D of course, although the editing in Boot Hill seems somewhat better. That may be because although the game is obviously a role playing game, it is even more obviously of a wargame background than D&D. The characters' stats and the bulk of the game mechanics are about the process of shooting your opponents to pieces before they do the same to you. Interestingly, being as so much of the game is 1:1 scale skirmish battle, there is just a brief mention of using miniatures. It is assumed that the referee, much like a Dungeon Master mapping the underworld, will create a map of the town in which the action takes place. This map should then be covered with a plastic sheet so that grease pencils can mark the positions of the characters (presumably erasing and redrawing characters and NPCs- 'minor characters' as they move). I find this surprising considering that at this time, Marx and Timpo plastic toy cowboys for example, were very readily available. There is photographic evidence of Gygax and Arneson using such 1/32 scale models of knights for their D&D games!

The rules themselves are reasonably straightforward, if a little table heavy. The book is split into the basic rules section, an advanced set of rules and finally some optional rules to make things more realistic (ie even more deadly). These optional rules and tables do something to lift the rules from a skirmish game to an rpg. For example, there are rules for sharpshooting, intoxication, gambling, posses, tracking and notes on ageing, together with a few pages on running campaigns. There are some rules which make an appearance here, before they became part of D&D. For example, there are hit location tables and rules for the effects of wounds in various bodily locations. Although not as complex as those which later appeared in Blackmoor, these hit location tables actually detail more areas of the body. Brawling and grappling rules were part of the Boot Hill game that later appeared in D&D. Mind you, what would a Western game be without rules to fight a bar room brawl? The rules for intoxication begin with this wonderfully understated sentence, "Alcoholic beverages affect people in various ways." Right. In Boot Hill booze reduces your gun Accuracy in exchange for boosted Bravery and extra Strength. Some players may feel this exchange worthwhile... until they are involved in gunfight. Boot Hill is a deadly game and anything that reduces a character's Accuracy is to be avoided at all costs! To round things off there are some fun rules for dynamite. These rules bring rather Wile E Coyote like images to mind with characters throwing huge bundles of dynamite sticks around the place!

It's worth noting that this game attempts to recreate the movie and TV Westerns that Gygax and Blume grew up with. In the current political climate, it's hard to see WotC or anyone else, issuing Boot Hill 4e, without considerable editing for political correctness. There is but one paragraph on 'Indians'- which is entirely devoted to special morale rules. Indians it seems, are very, very brave.

Finally, there is an interesting predecessor for Boot Hill. This is a set of rules written by members of a wargaming group in Bristol, England, in 1971. This is the 'Western Gunfight Wargame Rules' by Curtis, Colwill and Blake. Gary Gygax knew of these rules, as they had become something of a hit in wargaming circles in the UK and USA at the time. These rules are credited as introducing skirmish wargames as well as the use of 20 sided dice, marked 0-9 to produce percentile scores.

Copies of the first edition (there are two different versions of the cover) can be found online for a mere $900, whereas copies of the second and third editions, the boxed ones, can go for around $50-70 a piece. You may also see a version published in the early 2000s by Rogue Comet. This company produce  the Dungeonesque rpg and currently hold the rights to Boot Hill. I should also say that you can buy both pdf and POD reissues of 2e and 3e from Drivethru rpg.

Here are a few resources you might find useful: 

This is Bud Wright's MeWe group, 'Boots and Saddles' (one of the best MeWe group names yet in my opinion!)

And here is Norton Glover's blog on which he has posted some character sheets for first edition Boot Hill (as well as tons of other obscure but interesting games)

Wednesday 21 October 2020

News from FGU

 Scott Bizar of Fantasy Games Unlimited has shared with me that he is working on several more games from the FGU back catalogue which he hopes to re-issue soon. Archworld, the fantasy wargame and empire building game is on the list.

Archworld is an interesting one as it was created by the authors of the novels and is a great example of a game from that period when the campaign was at a world spanning level rather than a focus on individual heroes. As a set of rules, it speaks of it's time; lots of basing sizes, big tables of points to buy your troops for example. But these include heroes and magicians and so forth. These heroes can be bought (hired I guess) or you can 'grow your own'. It's the sort of game that is designed to last years with an ebb and flow of a changing political landscape. Certainly the sort of thing that could be used to have as a dynamic background to a role playing game of your choosing.

There are plenty of other gems in the FGU back catalogue, so more power to your elbow Scott!

Saturday 17 October 2020

Adventures in Fantasy

Dave Arneson's other game 

Adventures In Fantasy was written by Dave Arneson and Richard Snider. How much of the game was designed by each person I don't know. Snider, a mathematician, was known for using formulas to calculate outcomes and abilities, so maybe the maths in the game can be put down to him? As for Arneson, he claims in the Forward (written in April '78) that he feels "that the basic spirit of the Role Playing Fantasy game has not been well looked after", by which of course, he means Dungeons and Dragons. So it can be assumed that he meant Adventures in Fantasy (AiF) would correct this situation. Remember also that Arneson had acrimoniously left TSR at this point in time and was in legal dispute with them over the ownership of D&D. 

The game (AiF) was published by Excalibre Games in 1979, although somewhere out there are 164 copies of a pre-publication version of the game released a year earlier (play test versions? Game in beta?). It came in a full colour cardboard box 30cm×22cm×3.5cm, with the Excalibre Games logo on the top but a copyright notice on the bottom saying 1st edition/1st printing, copyright Adventures Unlimited. I don't know how well it sold. Then, in 1981, Arneson (flush with TSR legal settlement money) and Snider, bought back the rights and republished AiF under the name of Adventure Games. Stickers with the new logo were hurriedly printed and stuck over the old Excalibre logo, and they were good to go.

The copy I have is graced with both Arneson's and Snider's autographs. A fact I thought made my copy uber special, until I discovered that this was something they did to practically all of the boxes they sold! Presumably they did this as they were sticking on their newly printed logos. So, not rare after all I thought. Then I found out that they actually had signed some of the boxes they got back from Excalibre but before their Adventure Games stickers had been made. So, rare again! Either way, I'm just pleased the have Dave's signature. 

Inside the box are three booklets (shades of OD&D here): The Book of Adventure (The Blue book), 57 pages, all printed in blue, explaining the basic mechanics, character creation, combat, gaining experience and, interestingly, reputation (you can have a higher rep than your experience level! Which might mean you get asked to perform feats you aren't yet capable of!).

Then there's the Pink book: The Book of Creatures and Treasure. 

This has some nice touches and unusual monsters. You get the feeling that in Arneson's games, the monsters are characters in their own right and not simply cannon fodder. There are 29 pages of monsters, nine of which are about dragons! There are some ready reference tables collating info about these monsters and then the remainder of the book as about treasure. This includes formulas for calculating the personal wealth of monsters, the value of everyday items not always considered as treasure such as plates and goblets, tapestries, saddles and artwork. The treasure is divided into five catagories: swords, armors, amulets, talisman and misc. And starting characters can begin games with magic items gained as part of an inheritance. I like some of the swords. There's a Resuscitate Dead Sword, which is really cool to own because not only can you bring back a dead mate once a day, if you are wielding it when you are killed- you come back to life! Handy. The amulets and talismen are interesting too. Arneson likens them to the way magical armour and magical swords work. Like armour, an amulet just works by being there, and like sword, a talisman does nothing until you actively use it. Another favourite is the Goblet of Greatness. In return for drinking from it once a day, the character's charisma is doubled, his Social level increases every month and his lands bring his twice the income they did before! Greatness indeed.

The final book (Green this time) is The Book of Faerry and Magic, 49 pages. Magic in AiF is points based and spells are limited by alignment. There are further categories of magic such as permanent magic and the Faerry magic of the title. The power of Magic is scaled so that most spells become more powerful when  cast by higher level magicians. Saving throws get harder to make if more spell points were used in the casting of the spell. All good stuff and could work well I think. The Faerry magic is only used by people of the Faerry. These are creatures of otherworldly looks and powers, not all benign: Elves, Trolls, Troll Lords, Dwarves, Goblins and Faerries. There are also Elementals which include Gnomes.

The whole package is rounded off by three, double sided reference sheets printed on stiffly waxed card and a couple of "d20s". These are however, the old wargamers' sort: 20 sided but marked 0-9 twice. With one set of numbers coloured in with a wax crayon, you can produce 0-9, 1-10, 1-20 and 1-100(%).

I have yet to play this game but I would really like to. It's indeed a lot more coherent than OD&D, but... that's working from a fairly low base! If Dave and Richard wanted to write an rpg that novices could pick up and play more easily than Dave's other game, I'm afraid they failed.

Finally, part of a review from Clayton Miner who reviewed Adventures in Fantasy for Pegasus magazine #1 (1981). He completed his review by saying: "Admittedly, this game does have its fascinations, especially to those who are interested in running a game with the flavor of medieval tales, rather than as Middle Earth. This is a game that should be avoided by those people who derive enjoyment from running a wide variety of character classes, as the only ones available are Warrior and Magic User. It is unfortunate that what could have been a superior project has turned out to be a disappointment in terms of playability and quality."

Sunday 20 September 2020

Early Fantasy Settings

Map of Arduin.

Early Unique Fantasy Campaigns.  

For some time now, I have been compiling a list of unique fantasy settings from the 70s and 80s but there are certainly some that I've missed. If you can think of any more, please put them in the comments and I'll include them here.

Note, that these are unique settings, ie not those based on literary works like Middle Earth, Lankhmar or Hyboria, all of which got the their own rpg system settings during this period.

At the moment the list isn't in any order. I think I'll try to put in chronological order however, rather than by rules system or just alphabetically. I think having it in date order may show something about the developing character of the fantasy settings as the hobby began to mature over the 80s.

Blackmoor (Arneson)  

The Known World (ODD-Basic D&D)  

Mystara (Basic D&D)  

Blackmoor ii (ODD-ADD)  

Greyhawk (ODD-ADD)  

Arduin (ODD-Basic-ADD-own system) 

Wizard's Realm (Own system)

Melanda (Own System)

Verbosh (ODD) 

Kingdom Of Alusia (Dragon Quest)  

Harn (Own System)  

Delos (ODD-Arduin)  

Glorantha (Runequest) 

Questworld (Runequest) 

Tekumel (Empire of the Petal Throne)  

The Wilderlands (Judges Guild, ODD-Basic-ADD-own system)  

Arden (Chivalry and Sorcery)  

Archaeron (Own System)  

Jorune (Skyrealms of Jorune)  

Cidri (The Fantasy Trip)  

The Hollow World (Basic D&D)

Aventuria (The Dark Eye)

Forgotten Realms (ADD) 

The Perilous Lands (Powers and Perils) 

Achaeus (Talislanta)  

The Trollworld (Tunnels and Trolls)  

Ravenloft (ADD)  

Lands Of Legend (Dragon Warriors)  

Pelinore (ADD)  

Dragon Lance (ADD)  

Spelljammer (ADD)  

Dark Sun (ADD)  

The Old World (Warhammer FRPG)  

Titan (Fighting Fantasy)  

Yrth (GURPS)  

Palladia (Palladium rpg)  

Vog Mur (Rolemaster)  

Free City Of Haven (Thieves Guild)  

Ysgarth (The Ysgarth Rule System)  

Kulthea (Rolemaster: Shadow Lands)  

Atlantis (Arcanum) 

The Misty Isles (OD&D, AD&D)

Minaria (Divine Right)

Thursday 17 September 2020

The ENIOTS Manifesto

What is the ENIOTS Manifesto? 

ENIOTS is an acronym for:  

Everything Needed Is On The Sheet: E.N.I.O.T.S  

(NOTE: this is still a work in progress!)  

Games which comply with the ENIOTS Framework follow these rubrics:  

1. Everything a player needs to know, in order to play successfully, is on the Character Sheet s/he uses.  

2. Both sides of the sheet may be used, although the reverse will be reserved for notes written during play.  

3. Not all players' sheets need be identical.  

4. Rules 2 & 3 do not necessarily imply, that all characters are pre-gens.  

5. Players do not necessarily need to know all the rules.  

6. Players do not necessarily need to know how characters are generated.  

7. In a pure ENIOTS game, all the rules the GM needs, are also on one sheet.  

8. The reverse of GM's sheet can contain creature lists, item or spell or skill descriptions etc.  

9. Rules 7 & 8 do not necessarily imply that all of the rules of the game are written on a single page.  

10. ENIOTS games are not necessarily one shots. Character progression may be possible.

Version 0.2

What ENIOTS is, and what it is not.

The ENIOTS Framework is a set of rules or rubrics to which the designer of a role playing game adheres when creating a rules set. It is designed to aid both designers and players. If a game announces itself to be an ENIOTS game, players will know what to expect to some degree when they sit down to play.  

ENIOTS is not an attempt to  claim that one way of designing a game is any better or worse than another. It is not a call to make all rpgs, ENIOTS compliant.

Why would designers want to use these rubrics?

The aim of the ENIOTS Framework is to create games which do not overburden players with information, things to learn or time spent carefully calculating statistics. The idea is to make games which can start very quickly, with little explanation from the Referee. The aim is also that in an ENIOTS game, the Referee too, is free from clutter and from the need constantly to refer to tables, calculation methods and exact rulings on trivial details.

This does not imply, that ENIOTS games are of necessity, 'rules light', although many games will be. There is nothing in the the rubrics which prohibits the rule book for a game being long and detailed: As long as all rules required for both players and referee to play, fit on one page per person, the game may still be called an ENIOTS game.

Designers, writers and artists often find that having a set of guidelines to work to, can create a focus which aids creativity rather than constricting it. Hopefully, using the ENIOTS Framework will help to create rule systems which are more tightly written and less filled with clutter.

Although an ENIOTS game would seem to lend itself to one-shots, Con games or fillers, this need not necessarily be so. There is nothing in the framework which is designed to inhibit longer running games or campaigns. Gamers who become very familiar with a set of rules, become so fluent in their use that they rarely need to consult the rule book(s). The aim of the ENIOTS framework is that this state of expert use, happens quickly and easily.

Finally, there is no plan to 'vet' any games which are designed to fit the ENIOTS Framework at present. I do not propose to set myself up as a judge of the continually excellent work that gamers in this astonishing hobby create. If a designer says s/he has used the ENIOTS Framework, then that's enough for me. There will be a post which should provide links to ENIOTS games which have been made.

Sunday 6 September 2020

Fighting Fantasy...

 The First attempt at turning Fighting Fantasy into a full rpg.


Fighting Fantasy

Before the Advanced Fighting Fantasy book was published, Steve Jackson put out a set of rules entitled Fighting Fantasy The Introductory Role-Playing Game (Puffin, 1984).  

This book has all of the rules from the well known gamebooks plus extra rules for dealing with common adventuring situations (losing weapons, listening at doors, opening chests etc, things that would otherwise be handled by the text of the gamebook) as well as advice on games mastering etc. There are expanded sections on running bigger battles (ie with a party of adventurers rather than the typically solo adventurer from the gamebooks). There are also two adventures provided.  

There's enough for simple dungeon bashing. But soon on  it's heels came The Riddling Reaver (Puffin, 1986). This is essentially a mini campaign of four interlinked scenarios all revolving around the eponymous wicked Reaver character. However, this book also brings in extra rules which fill in the gaps from the first. There is variable weapon damage, reactions to injury, unconsciousness and death. And advice on running games in the wilderness. But what makes this book invaluable to a GM is the section on magic and spell casting. It's minimal (there are only ten or eleven spells if I remember) but it takes the claim that this is a proper rpg into the realms of credibility. Add to these two the marvellous Titan (a world source book), Out of the Pit (aka a monster manual) and you're off!  

A great addition to these in my opinion is Steve Jackson's Sorcery Spell Book. This is a book written for the Advanced version but is really useful as an alternative magic system to that presented in the Riddling Reaver. The great thing about this book is that each of the spells has a proper name but also a three letter abbreviated form. This short form in intended for use by the players literally to shout out during play! What fun.

Mertwig's Maze

Mertwig's Maze box art.

Mertwig's Maze by Tom Wham, TSR, 1988. 

 Mertwig's Maze is an interesting hybrid game. It describes itself as a *Gamefolio* essentially because there is an outer cardboard cover and stapled rules booklet (much like TSR adventure modules of the time, but it also contains hundreds of cards and sturdy cardboard counters as well as several cardboard maps. So it's a mix of boardgame and D&D adventure. All laced through with Tom Wham whimsy and great art (by Wham himself but also other TSR stalwarts such as Dave Sutherland. Although published in 1988, it was apparently first created in 1983 as a card game and sold to TSR as that. But, when Gygax and TSR 'parted ways', the game lost it's way and sat in a cupboard. The game as published was really down to James Ward taking it up and persuading TSR and Wham to nominally place it within the Forgotten Realms world and thereby making it technically (just) an AD&D product. It says so on the front cover!  

How much replay value it has I shall see. But I'm not going to punch those counters and cards until I've found a good box to keep it all in!

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Monty Haul Madness

Phantasmagorical, Montie Haul Dungeon  
Authors Larry Richardson, Kerry Lloyd and Rich Reichly were possibly too embarrassed to put Gamelords name to this so the adventure was published under the name ‘No-Shamelords’ instead (no doubt with tongue firmly planted in cheek).  
For those who don’t know about this infamous adventure, it’s a two level dungeon built inside a pyramid and features as much pun laden nonesense as the authors dare use. There is no suggested level for characters to be in order to survive but the fact that the librarian in the first room is an unhinged vampire might give you a clue. Similarly, the statement in the introduction that at least one encounter will be with a monster of an AC of ‘nigh on infinity’ should warn players that taking your carefully honed 8th level magic user with a well crafted backstory and crew of loyal henchmen, might not be the thing to do. Leaving this dungeon as a corpse might be the least unpleasant outcome!  
This shouldn’t be taken to mean that the dungeon is just a meat grinder, oh no, just that it’s as about as unpredictable as you could wish (or not). There are: sentient toilets, a library of magical books, the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, a police station, a room of drunk dwarves who laugh even as you chop them up, a kind of gladatorial arena, a penguin who is also and artist and a room full of ‘groupies’ just dying to get their hands on a famous adventurer (for a little more than just his autograph). And thats not all.  
Simple but effective art.

To run this game well, you need to be a special kind of DM I would suggest. And your players would need to be up for it with PCs they have some investment in but don’t mind losing (or being transformed into something else).  
As an artefact of the early days of gaming, it’s a brilliant bit of fun. One thing that intrigues me from a design point of view is that although obviously designed for Dungeons and Dragons, the writers have their own alternative set of Characteristics for each PC to have: Strength, Co-ordination, Reflexes, Stamina, Discretion (acts like Wisdom), IQ, Talent (ie psychic power), Magic Resistance, Magnetism (acts like Charisma) and Appearance. All rolled on 3d6. There are also rules for saving throws, all made on 2d12. There’s even a version of THAC0, here called HACØ. In fact, with the exception of a quick and dirty magic/psionics system, they manage to present enough material inside the front and back covers, to play the dungeon without any other set of rules if you wanted to. (As an aside, Gamelords did have a full Fantasy RPG in the pipeline which had a free form magic system. I don’t know if this was ever published though- Theives Guild fans, can you tell me?)  
So, there you are. Not quite as bonkers as it might at first appear- but bonkers nontheless!  
Different Worlds still have some in stock. Also, copies are all over ebay and Amazon for quite reasonable sums if you ever want to try this for yourself. If you do guys, please let us know how it went!

The Compleat Alchemist, 1983

The Compleat Alchemist a 'Fantasy Role playing Game Supplement' as the subtitle has it, was written by Stephan Sechi and Steven Cordovano and published in 1983 by Bard Games- a company sent up by Sechi and Cordovano in order to market the book. There were two printings by Bard games. The first, and more hard to find, has a white cover, and the second and less rare one has a dark pink, burgundy colour.

The idea was to create a series of generic supplements for fantasy role playing games. By the time Bard Games folded in 1990 they had three 'Compleat...' books; The Compleat Alchemist, The Compleat Spell-Caster; and the Compleat Adventurer. Sechi was the driving force behind these and the later Atlantis rpg also known as Arcanum. He is better known perhaps as the author of Talisanta.

The Complete Alchemist is a 45 page perfect bound book, simply produced, with artwork and layout typical of the time. Some of the drawings by illustrator Joe Bouza are in fact very good.  Curiously, the layout (created on an electric typewriter it appears) changes in font and size throughout the book. This is possibly to differentiate rules from general information, but I personally find myself squinting at some of it. This isn't atypical, lots of Judges Guild work of the period is the same tiny fonts and Dave Hargrave's Arduin Grimoires often require a magnifying glass to read!

The content is pretty thorough. There's a section on how to roll up your Alchemist, the minimum stats he might need etc. As the book is designed to be 'generic', there are suggestions for creating Alchemists within 3d6 mechanics, percentile based mechanics and d20 games too. Some reviewers found this confusing at the time, but I think Sechi and Cordovano did quite a good job, if you read it carefully. The class itself has several specialist skills in assessing materials, mixing and preparing ingredients, plant and mineral identification skills etc, all of which increase as the character levels up. Alchemists it seems are also master linguists and decoders of ancient texts, so that they end up with the skills of magic users and clerics in reading magical languages and so on.

The bulk of the book describes these skills, and many more, in terms of levels as if they were spells. And then goes on the describe the potions, powders, mysterious substances and semi magical items an alchemist can make. There are extensive lists of herbs, precious and semi precious stones, rare earths (very important) plants and metals, together with their powers and properties. It's all quite clear and well done, extensive without being over done. Much of this section could easily be lifted and used in any other game even ones without Alchemists.

The question remains however, how a player would get on in a typical fantasy adventure. Eventually, he becomes a sort of walking arsenal of explosive, poisonous and mysterious weapons. But I think would be tied to his laboratory much more than other classes would be to their base of operations. There are notes for travelling cases of experimental equipment and mineral testing kits and so forth. But even so, having an alchemist in the party is definitely going to require some henchmen to lug around his kit!  
Having such class as an NCP to support your crack team of murder hobos would be a great thing to have however and adventure hooks based around finding your boffin some rare earth from beyond the Misty Mountains would have a real point. Especially if he then made your party some brilliant gas bomb or some such to help crack the next dungeon.

Other versions of the alchemist class have of course been created. But if you are running a game that currently doesn't have such a class, this book would very easily be an excellent choice.

When Bard games folded, WoTC bought the licence and published a version of the Compleat Alchemist in 1993.