Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Floating Castle of the Wasp Women! Redux: August 22!

Back by popular demand! I will be running my Gamma World scenario Floating Castle of the Wasp Women at a Dead Gamers Society game day at Cal State Fullerton on Sunday, August 22, starting at 1pm.

Sign up here (may require you make a Meetup.com account if you haven't already):


There were a lot of great concurrent sessions at Gamex 2010, and it was often difficult to choose what game sessions to attend. On top of that that a lot of the sessions filled up very quickly, so many players had to miss out on some cool roleplaying. Louis of the Dead Gamers Society Meetup group had the great idea to have a Summer Reruns game day where GMs could run their previous convention games for the benefit of those who missed out the first time around. In addition to my Gamma World game, Mike Cantin will be running a 1970s teenage slasher Word of Darkness game, which should be splendid.

Feel free to email me (via my Blogger Profile) if you have any questions.

Thanks to reader Troy Z for the picture of this stunningly rare Vectrex cartridge!

Monday, July 26, 2010


Welcome to the world my tiny son Forrest Royall!

As of a few days ago I may now officially add "papa" to my list of credentials. It suits my beard, fiddle, and old station wagon famously, I think. For the next handful of weeks my online activity will surely decline as I am deeply involved with this new project!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

New Sword Album Cover = AWESOME

Is this a rad record cover or what?

The Sword is one of my favorite modern metal bands. This is their third album, the cover art is by illustrator Dan McPharlin. If you like classic Sabbath, Witchfinder General, Electric Wizard, or whatever, you'll probably like The Sword. I often play this kind of music in the background when we play out gnarly battles in D&D.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why Can't I Enjoy Plush Cthulhus?

First of all, I’d like to apologize to my plush Cthulhu-owning and Miskatonic University shirt-wearing friends for this grumpy and curmudgeonly post. I admit I have an unfair and unhealthy psychological hang-up - my inability to relax and enjoy the recent campy commercialization of H.P. Lovecraft. Instead of resenting me, I hope that you will instead choose to pity me.

I’m a very easy-going fellow when it comes to the never-ending cycle of pop-cultural appropriation, re-interpretation, and commercialization. Mostly I just don’t care. I know what I like, seek it out, and tune out the noise. For instance, I’m okay with the Lord of the Rings movies - even though I think they are a pale shadow of the books, I enjoy them for what they are. I see no benefit in being a snobby purist about these kinds of things. Given this general disposition of mine, I have a hard time understanding why this thriving subculture of campy H.P. Lovecraft knick-knacks drives me crazy. You know, items like “Cthulhu for President” bumper stickers, “I Escaped Arkham Asylum” t-shirts, Munchkin Cthulhu card games, and, of course, the ubiquitous plush Cthulhus. This stuff should all be really fun and wink-wink, but I just can’t…  can’t… enjoy it.

I have been reading and rereading Lovecraft regularly for over half my life now. I know all of his stories like relatives of mine; their personalities, atmospheres, characters. I don’t really know if this is good or bad. Does it mean my literary tastes haven’t evolved since I was 12? Or does it mean I was lucky to find the good stuff early on? At this point it’s hard to untangle how much of my aesthetic fancy is simply attracted to Lovecraft vs. defined by Lovecraft. Whatever the case may be, it all boils down to the fact that some portion of my creative identity is quite intertwined with Lovecraft’s work.

I think this must be the root of my problem. Maybe when I see campy t-shirts having a little fun with Lovecraft it’s akin to strangers making fun of one of my family members. This is particularly stinging because I suspect that the whole Lovecraftian campfest probably began as a late-20th century tendency to mock Lovecraft’s writing style – especially his use of odd and extravagant adjectives (which I love). Read this 2005 New York Times “review” of Lovecraft where the enlightened literary scholar Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket – awesome credential, huh?) mocks Lovecraft’s style with precious little mercy! I find that this critical view of Lovecraft’s writing style is more widely known than the content of his fiction, a state of affairs which has frustrated me endlessly.

On top of everything, it turns out that many of the plush-Cthulhu type people I’ve chatted up have never actually read Lovecraft (or maybe they read a little and forgot – I don’t know what’s worse). Five or ten years ago I would become excited by seeing Cthulhu bumper stickers. I’d think, “Wow, here is one of those rare folks who appreciates the Golden Era of Weird Tales Magazine! I can’t wait to have a conversation about what Brown Jenkin looks like or what Wilbur Whatley’s ancestors were like!!” (Pathetic, I know.) No longer. In my experience most of these folks know of “Cthulhu” primarily as a pop culture franchise. Maybe they saw one of the movies (Re-Animator? Argh!) or maybe they played one of the licensed boardgames. Luckily, they all seem know that there is, in fact, a “Cthulhu Book” by H.P. Lovecraft, but I guess that book, whatever it is, is not worth reading for most of them. Easier to wait for the movie...

But, you know, I bear no ill will towards the people who love to cuddle with their plush Cthulhus yet have never taken even a few minutes to read The Music of Erich Zann. There’s no real reason any of these people should know or care about H.P. Lovecraft, really.  I recognize Lovecraft is very weird fiction written in an unusually baroque style that was self consciously archaic even for the 1920s. I also recognize that most people don’t really read fiction anymore anyway. There’s nothing wrong with having a cute little stuffed demon, it’s fun and funny, after all. I should just be thrilled that some aspects of Lovecraft’s fiction have wiggled down fairly deeply into the slime pit of pop culture... And I suppose I am to a degree.

Yes, this problem I have is all my own – a minor twisted tragedy in my life where my obscure literary hero has been mercilessly mocked and ultimately commercialized as a camp icon. I will now cringe in my isolated corner of the blogosphere, with tears streaming down my face, my sweaty hands clutching a small stack of sticky old paperbacks, while the smiling people move on around me cuddling their plush Cthulhu dolls.

On second thought… Maybe if they came out with a plush Yog Sothoth I’d have to get one.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The End of the Professional Fantasist

There has been an interesting discussion going on in the fantasy & sci-fi fiction blogs over last couple of weeks. Sparked by Robert J. Sawyers post Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?, SF heavyweights Robert Silverberg and Jerry Pournelle have made blog posts (!) over at Black Gate offering some interesting historical perspective on the topic.

Silverberg recalls a time in the 50s and 60s when there were probably fewer than ten people making a living off of writing fantastic fiction: "Poul Anderson, Gordy Dickson, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur Clarke, Robert Sheckley, maybe Jack Vance..." At the time Isaac Asimov was still working as a college professor. There were also a few writers like Philip K. Dick who wrote fiction full time but weren’t really making a living – they were basically living in poverty. (Jack Vance might actually fit in this latter category.) Silverberg goes on to describe a high point in the 70s and 80s where there was a lot of money to be made in the field. However, as of 2010, as Sawyers discusses in some depth, we are at a point reminiscent the 50s and 60s where only a handful of writers actually make a living writing sci-fi and fantastic fiction. This does not include the writers who make ends meet by writing commercially oriented vampire, zombie, or Tolkienesque hack serials.

The decline in fiction readership combined with new modes of information exchange (i.e. the internet) will only make things more difficult for professional writers of the fantastic. In essence, sci-fi and fantasy writing is returning to its roots as a hobby. As Sawyers points out, writers can't adopt the business model of modern musicians who make their real money as traveling performers and t-shirt salesmen (not by selling music, in case you didn’t know). Writers have to sell stories and books, and nobody is buying anymore

There are two brief ponderings I want to make here:

1. This peak of commercial interest in fantastic fiction in the 70s and 80s, followed by its decline and subsequent evolution into a hobbyist enterprise, is a lot like what we’ve seen with role playing games. I wonder what it was about the late 70s and early 80s that made so many millions of people interested in reading books and playing D&D (and painting van murals). And, more importantly, why did this spirit of the fantastic die in our culture…?

It’s very easy to demonize video games and cable TV, and maybe it’s appropriate. A lot (most?) of my friends who are interested in imagination don’t bother to read books anymore. They spend hours and hours and hours playing World of Warcraft and various console games and watching Buffy and Battlestar Galactica. I’ve checked this stuff out and it’s okay, but in my grumpy and curmudgeonly opinion it all rapidly becomes deeply boring (and depressing) and sucks compared to reading a great story or sitting around the table with friends, dice, and character sheets. Obviously I’m in the minority. Why?

2. I wonder what the fallout of the end of professional writers of the fantastic will be in terms of the quality of fiction. I have a lot to rant about concerning the quality and style of fiction appearing in the digests these days. Frankly, I don’t think much of it is as good as it used to be. I don’t know if this has more to do with the taste of the editors or the preferences or abilities of current writers. If the market can’t support professionals outside of vampire hack writing and television, I am worried the situation will get worse. We need new people who, like Arthur C. Clark or Robert Heinlein before them, have time to lavish on developing their skills to become master writers. It’s sad we have to constantly rely on visionaries like Philip K. Dick, Jack Vance, or H.P. Lovecraft to live in poverty while we let them expand the boundaries of our cultural imagination.

Friday, July 16, 2010

For Aphex Twin Fans

Cool steel drum version of Alberto Balsam:

If you've never heard of Aphex Twin before, start by watching this Windowlicker video. The music starts at about 4:30, but the whole video is entertaining. WARNING: PROFANITY!

Simple Multi-Ability Checks in Classic D&D

Over at The Eiglophian Press G. Benedicto made a nice post on ability checks in Classic D&D. It turns out that we both use the same general method - rolling handfuls of 6-siders, where a success occurs if one rolls the target ability score or under. For lack of a better name, the algebratron in me has always called this the “xd6” method, while Mr. Benedicto calls it “ESDVAN” for:

Easy: 2d6
Standard: 3d6
Difficult: 4d6
Very Difficult: 5d6
Arduous: 6d6
Nigh-Impossible: 7d6

For instance, if a character wants to break down an average door I’ll have her throw 3d6 to see if she can roll her Strength or under. Really heavy door? 4d6. Iron-braced door? 5d6. Works great! I particularly like this method because of its scalability and bell-curved probabilities. It’s much more useful than rolling a d20, which is another common method for D&D ability checks.

In most situations it’s pretty obvious which ability score is appropriate for the problem at hand, although sometimes I wish I could combine two abilities for a check. For instance a few sessions ago someone wanted to do a complex long jump / oil flask toss move. I had them check against Dexterity, which was fine, but I was kind of wishing I could include a Strength component as well. After thinking about it a bit yesterday, this simple solution came to mind: Roll against the sum of the two abilities using d12s:

Easy: 2d12
Standard: 3d12
Difficult: 4d12
Very Difficult: 5d12
Arduous: 6d12
Nigh-Impossible: 7d12

The maximum possible value for the sum of two ability scores is 36, which is also the maximum possible roll for 3d12. Anyway, I need a use for all those dodecahedrons in my dice horde…

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Old School ≠ Kill-n-Loot

“Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Those days are back. Dungeon Crawl Classics don't waste your time with long-winded speeches, weird campaign settings, or NPCs who aren't meant to be killed. Each adventure is 100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you fear, and the secret doors you know are there somewhere.” - Dungeon Crawl Classics website

“Of course, if your players are not money grubbing tomb-robbing misfits, they are probably doing something wrong in the first place and don't deserve to level (I hear alot about these new-agey indie/story games). Isn't this a core conceit of old school rulesets? “ - Lord Bodacious (in a comment to my last post)
These two quotes I think crystallize a strong notion among many people that old school RPGs are, at their core, all about killing monsters and stealing treasure.  I have never understood this stereotype. Not only do I not understand it, I think it’s harmful to the public perception of our hobby (read this stinging and highly critical Gygax obituary if you haven't already) and I think it has very little basis in reality.

Look, I have complete respect for my pals that like to spend their hours imagining they’re running around a maze, stabbing orc babies in the face, stealing little “Gold Pieces”. This is a cool weird diversion I thoroughly enjoy myself on occasion. I do not believe, however, that this mode of play best represents the heart of 70s-style paper and pencil gaming. I think it mostly represents (1) the first early-70s experiments where wargaming began mutating into RPGs at Dave Arneson’s house, (2) early-80s D&D fad gaming, and (3) current 4e “D&D Encounters” boardgame-style play. So, yes, from the earliest days of D&D there have been kill-n-loot gamers, but I don’t detect a significant association with this play style specifically with 70s RPG culture. If anything, kill-n-loot mostly represents the style of play I see in the 4e RPGA rooms at modern gaming conventions. If you want to go by the numbers, kill-n-loot is thoroughly new school, strongly appealing to the modern generation of gamers weaned on World of Warcraft and console games.

I must admit that the only dungeon crawling I was doing in 70s was on the floor in diapers, so I have no first-hand experience of the play styles of the era. Thus, in my broaching this topic I willingly open myself to criticism and retort. I do see, however, much evidence that kill-n-loot wasn't the only game in town in the 70s.

Many printed artifacts in particular soundly reject the hypothesis that all prominent mid-70s gamers focused on kill-n-loot dungeon crawls. My favorite of these is Empire of the Petal Throne (TSR 1975) - a self-contained OD&D-based game that has pages and pages of compelling storylines, weird campaign settings, and awesome NPCs. The players’ goal in EPT is to advance in standing in a complex and socially stratified city-state. Sure, you can kill weird alien monsters and get some money on the way up the social ladder, but killing and looting isn’t the point. To me, EPT is what it’s all about. This is the spirit of the old school RPGs I love the most. There is so much more mind blowing RPG material from the 70s with highly imaginative settings and scenario possibilities: Metamorphosis Alpha (TSR 1976), Traveller (GDW 1977), City State of the Invincible Overlord (Judge’s Guild 1976), Gamma World (TSR 1978) and on and on. Kill-n-loot? What?

Furthermore, the oldest DMs I’ve played with – guys who have been gaming continuously since the 1970s using old school rulesets - all have imaginative story arcs, complex homemade worlds, and awesome NPCs. Although I’m sure they exist, I personally don’t know any 30+ year RPG veterans that run kill-n-loot campaigns. Convention one-shots? Yes. Campaigns? No. And campaigns are what it’s all about – just read the OD&D rulebooks.

So where does the loot-n-kill stereotype come from? Certainly many of the early (and celebrated) TSR and Judge’s Guild D&D modules had paper-thin scenarios emphasizing killing monsters and stealing treasure. As well, the rules of most D&D editions require killing and looting to advance in level. Okay. But there are two assumptions at play if you want to extend these facts to say “Old school RPGs are all about looting and killing”. The first assumption is that the primary goal of most D&D players is to advance in level. In my experience, this is not accurate at all. In my two current campaigns my players are showing almost zero interest in playing-to-level. It’s almost like piles of treasure are a nuisance to them. It's not just my game - as the comments to my last post and this post by Jeff Rients illustrate, many DMs running old school D&D campaigns, including Dave Arneson himself, house-rule to give experience points and allow leveling for activities other than killing and looting. The second assumption is that D&D is the prime representative of old school gaming. Now, I love classic D&D and play it more than any other game, but there was a Cambrian-like explosion of other highly imaginative RPGs and supplements in the 70s that deserve more recognition (and table time).

Ultimately, evidence and anecdote lead me to the impression that a significant portion of mid- and late-70s RPG activity was centered around creating interactive experiences where players could “walk into” a story such as Robert E. Howard, Brian Aldiss, or Jack Vance would have dreamed up. This is what I think of when I hear “Old School RPG” and this is what John Eric Holmes was excitedly trying to describe in his 1981 book Fantasy Role Playing Games. As far as I can tell, racking up Gold Piece Points in a tedious proto-videogame has no particular relationship with old school gaming.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Do I Fix Slow Leveling?

In the last year or so I’ve run around 20 sessions of old school D&D using the OD&D, Labyrinth Lord, and Sword & Wizardry rules. These systems are all basically the same game, differing only in fairly minor ways. They all share the basic experience / leveling system, where characters gain experience points (XP) by killing monsters and getting treasure, and the resulting XP then lead to level advancement. As a DM I have been doling out XP by-the-book.

My steady campaigns are having problems with this system, however. It’s taking a really long time for my players to level-up. Much longer than average, based on this discussion at Dragonsfoot. In fact, it took over ten ~4hr sessions for the players in my Labyrinth Lord game to get to 2nd level. Ideally, I’d like to aim for the optimal-fun target of leveling up every four sessions or so. I think the characters deserve it, really. After 15 sessions the LL game has seen three major locality-based “chapters”. They’ve been through a lot and rocked real hard. I feel they should at least be 3rd level by now. It would also be more fun for me as a DM if they got tougher faster, so I could start throwing different kinds of challenges at them besides wheezing goblins and diseased monkeys.

Leveling is happening slowly because:

1. My players are showing minimal enthusiasm for killing monsters and finding gold for its own sake. They like achieving goals, roleplaying, and exploring. So do I, for that matter.

2. I’m stocking treasures based on recommendations in Moldvay’s Basic Set book. I am even being more generous than the book. Still, the pickings are meager.

3. There’s still a lot of monster murder going on, but by-the-book monster XP values are low and the party size is big enough that very little XP result from slaughtering gaggles of giant rats and mumbling stink-eyed psychopaths.

First of all, I should say that I really like the old school concept of experience leading to leveling. It’s clean and simple and fun for players. I think “levels” are cool for both aesthetic and practical reasons, and I have no desire to house-rule a more modern and sensible character customization system. Given this, I am now considering these possible methods of speeding up leveling in my campaigns:

1. Give out more treasure. I’ve been trying this, and it’s working. But now the players are loaded with more cash than they know what to do with. The sweet little angels have actually started donating their gold to charity because they can’t carry it all! It’s kind of ridiculous, actually. To get to 4th or 5th level they’ll start needing wheelbarrows of holding for all the treasure.

2. Give out more XP for gold and monsters. This could be a good solution, but it still doesn’t address the fact that my players, bless their tender hearts, aren’t highly motivated by burglary and murder.

3. Use something like the 4e system where players advance after a certain number of combat encounters. This is appealing for its simplicity, but again, the focus on killing to advance doesn’t jive with the atmosphere of our exploration- and RP-heavy games.

4. Use Lord Kilgore’s roll-to-advance rules. Read them HERE. With this system each player gets 1 XP per session. After each session each player rolls against a class-specific value, modifying the role with their total XP - make a good roll, you level! Nice and clean. Pretty appealing actually.

5. Allow characters to level based on the number of hours they’ve been playing. For instance, maybe characters could level for every 12 hours of gaming. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this, but it seems like it might work pretty well. Has anyone tried this before?

This is one of the oldest and most worn-out topics in D&D, but it’s still highly relevant to anyone running an old school D&D campaign. It would be a big midstream switch for us to move to a new level advancement system. I’d be curious to get input from anyone else who has confronted this. What have you tried? How has it worked? What would you recommend?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Shatner Choppers

Right Side:

Left Side:

On the chopper - lookin' great, Boston Legal!

Model Photo:

Star Trike:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

More Fantasy Van Murals

Riffing off of Grognardia's earlier treatment on the topic, I thought I'd post some additional remarkable van mural pictures I've collected while trawling the internet. Seeing vans like these when I was a kid always made my day. Luckily, around Southern California you can still spot them occasionally, especially those with supernatural Aztec murals. A few months ago in my neighborhood I saw a truck fully muralized for the heavy metal band Man-O-War and I started screaming to my wife with excitement - I wish I had a camera for that one.