Saturday, October 30, 2010

World of Warcraft: Brief Insight Into a Cultural Phenomenon

UPDATE: As a tribute to this fan's awesomely deep knowledge, Blizzard will be including him as a permanent character in WoW!

Dungeon Crawl Classics Playtest: Words From Goodman

I sent Joseph Goodman the link to my post reporting on last weekend's Dungeon Crawl Classics playtest. In the post I expressed my feeling that the scenario he ran was a little too hack-n-slashy to properly illustrate what a great game I thought DCC actually was. Joe emailed me an interesting and thoughtful response, which I post here with his permission. [NOTE: I redacted all potential module spoilers from his email.]
Hi Bob,

No problem, that was a lot of fun! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Seems like everybody did, which was good.
Thanks for the game report on your blog.  

Regarding hack & slash: The adventure you played in, Citadel of the Emerald Sorcerer, has 28 encounter areas. You guys covered 5 of them. I ran the same adventure at the Anaheim Mini-Con, where we went for 4 hours and were nowhere near finishing! By [SPOILER REDACTED] the sorcerer (which, in two prior playtests, no one has done before), and then pursuing him directly to his lair, you guys made the adventure a LOT shorter. I'm not sure if that's good or bad, because in the other playtest sessions the group didn't get the satisfaction of finishing (which your group did get). I like adventures with options, and you guys clearly preferred [SPOILER REDACTED] versus the two northern doors from that chamber! But, as you mentioned, it felt a little more linear to you. Before publication, I might make it so [SPOILER REDACTED], to prevent things from playing out this way...I need to think on that.  

The other playtest groups learned something of the sorcerer's secrets: [LOTS OF REALLY COOL SPOILERS REDACTED!]

Personally, I would say there's some precedent for hack-and-slash dungeons in Appendix N. Several stretches of Hiero's Journey, Sign of the Labrys, some of John Carter's escapades on Mars (especially the last book), several Conan stories (Red Nails immediately comes to mind, not to mention Tower of the Elephant... [SPOILER REDACTED]), a few of the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories, etc...  

I plan to run other sessions in the future in San Diego and LA - I'll let you know and perhaps we can play other games as well.  

Thanks, Joseph
Anyway, the stuff I redacted out of the middle of Joe's note all sounded pretty awesome. I guess it was just kind of a fluke that our party missed out on much of the module - this probably left with me an unfair impression of the scenario. As commenters to my last post pointed it it WAS a playtest after all.

The more I think about DCC the more I like it. I'm definitely looking forward to playing again!

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Arduin Hit Point System

There was a recent post at The Tao of D&D about how low-level humans are unrealistically wimpy in D&D. Well, David Hargave proposed a solution for this way back in 1978 in The Arduin Grimoire Vol. 3. In fact, he devised a whole new hit point system with the goal of more realistically balancing hit points across levels, races, and classes. Said Hargrave:
"People now have a chance to run any character or characters on any expedition they choose without regard to difference in levels of experience. They can have their 1st level warrior stand shoulder to should [sic] with a 10th level lord and hold the gate together! Just as in real life young and inexperienced Warriors accompanied older, more experienced fighters. They fought and died together.
   Yet the higher levels have their own rewards, more (but not grossly so) hit points, better fighting ability and the like."
Here's a simplified distillation of Hargrave's system:

Base HP by Race:
  Dwarf:     18
  Elf:          20
  Hobbit:    11
  Human:   14

Base HP Modifiers by Class:
  Fighting classes: +5
  Clerics, elves, and dual classes: +3
  (No modifier for magic users)

Base HP Constitution Modifier:
   +1 HP for every point of Constitution
   +1 HP for every point of Constitution over 12 (= the revised CON bonus)

  Fighters, thieves, and similar classes:     +1 HP every level
  Clerics and dual classes (including elf):  +1 HP every 2 levels
  Magic users and similar classes:             +1 HP every 3 levels

NOTE: Hargrave originally presented more extensive lists of obscure races, classes, and gender differences. I have simplified things here to be more easily compatible with classic D&D.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is the Nebula Best Short Story Even Really Sci-Fi?

Something that really bugs me, but that I've never ranted about on my blog before, is the basic mundanity that's creeping into a lot of modern fantasy and science fiction these days. In my fairly traditional opinion, quality F/SF should have some fantastic aspect that is absolutely fundamental to the story. For instance, if you can replace the weird setting, futuristic objects, or strange aliens with mundane settings, objects, or characters, and the core theme of the story is preserved, then it's not really F/SF.

This is the reason I'm painfully disappointed by this year's Nebula Best Short Story selection: Spar by Kij Johnson. It's a very short and purposely unpleasant story that describes a woman trapped in a small spaceship with an uncommunicative alien blob that rapes her relentlessly. The descriptions of alien sex are interspersed with the woman's memories of an uncommunicative husband. Okay... so the story is a paper thin allegory for the breakdown of communication in a romantic relationship. And, as far as mainstream literature goes, I guess it's a fine little tale. I feel very strongly, however, that the exact same story could have been told without the alien blob and without the spaceship. In this story the sci-fi setting is just window dressing on a generic human interest story. The woman could just as easily have been stuck on a life raft in the Atlantic getting humped by an albatross.

I'm frankly pissed off that stories like this are being chosen as the finest examples of what our genre has to offer. It's a sad betrayal of the F/SF tradition.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pathfinder Ties 4e in Sales. Did Hasbro Drop the Ball With D&D?

Any game wearing the name Dungeons and Dragons will always be the undisputed king of RPGs, right? Well, not anymore... These data from ICv2 show the top 5 selling RPGs of the third quarter of 2010:

Top 5 Roleplaying Games – Q3 2010

1 (Tie)
Dungeons & Dragons
Wizards of the Coast
1 (Tie)
Paizo Publishing
Warhammer Fantasy
Fantasy Flight Games
Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader
Fantasy Flight Games
Dresden Files
Evil Hat

This isn't a topic I follow very closely, but I have to admit I was shocked to see Pathfinder tie D&D 4e for first place in sales. Despite the name recognition, historical fan base, massive corporate backing, product penetration, clever sales gimmicks (like selling packages of miniatures where buyers don't know what they're getting - fucking brilliant), etc. it looks like Hasbro is having a hard time keeping D&D on top. I am honestly totally shocked.

This tie is especially interesting because it is essentially a real-time referendum where gamers are choosing between a previous edition (Pathfinder is a clone of 3.5e) and a current edition. The fact that an independent company publishing a clone of an old ruleset under a different name can directly challenge Hasbro's D&D 4e is astonishing.

This Top 5 list is also interesting for a few other reasons. There's a post at Gareth-Michael Skarka's Designer Monologues blog about the impending death of the tabletop RPG market (this post is where I found the ICv2 link, by the way). Although people frequently discuss this topic, hard data are always rare. Of course, none of the actual sales numbers for the top games are available - except for Dresden Files, that is. It turns out that if you combine the two main Dresden Files rulebooks together LESS THAN 3000 copies of the game were sold. Therefore, a game can make the Top 5 RPG sales list by moving fewer than 3000 units. A tiny market, indeed! On top of everything White Wolf is basically abandoning its tabletop RPGs to get into MMORPGs, and Games Workshop felt that its RPGs were so minimally profitable they spun them off to Fantasy Flight Games, a boardgame company.

The main thrust of Skarka's original post, however, was speculation that Hasbro is kind of treading water with D&D - holding out until 2017 when Atari's rights to the D&D MMORPG expire (Hasbro has a lawsuit against Atari to make this happen sooner), at which point Hasbro will step in and use the D&D IP and name recognition to compete with WoW. The big question is, if and when this happens will Hasbro still maintain a version of D&D as a tabletop game...?

(Click here to read NeoGrognard's a cheery rebuttal to Skarka's post.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: Playtest and Chat with Joe Goodman

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. - Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics Website
Me on the left and Joseph Goodman DMing. 
Photo by Phil McCrum.

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to sit in on a playtest of Goodman Game’s upcoming RPG Dungeon Crawl Classics. The game was run by Joseph Goodman himself, and was organized by the Dead Gamers’ Society meetup. Before and after the game I had a chance to chat with Joe about the game a little bit. Sooo… here I’ll try to lay out the scoop on DCC.

I asked Joe point blank why he wanted to be the publisher of yet another D&D-ish FRPG, and how he thought it would fit into the current market which is already filled with a confusing plethora of retroclones, quasiclones, semiclones, etc. His idea is that DCC will be aimed at D&D 3e / d20 players who want a more simplified version of the out-of-print systems they enjoy. All of the feats, skills, etc. have been stripped out of DCC to provide a lean and easy FRPG. Joe said Goodman Games would probably not be specifically targeting the retrogamer crowd with DCC. I must say, though, the game felt and looked a lot like AD&D – Joe even said he is commissioning some of the classic TSR illustrators like Easley and Otus to do art for the game. He estimates the game will be formally released in about a year.

According to Joe, his personal motivation behind DCC is to offer an RPG that can, as closely as possible, emulate all of the books presented in the Appendix N of the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Joe said he is systematically reading every book in Appendix N in order to formulate the game mechanics for DCC. One specific example of this is turning. Joe replaced the traditional cleric’s turn undead ability with a more general turn unholy in order to more closely mirror turning as envisioned Poul Anderson and Lord Dunsany. Another example is the totally revamped magic system where the success and/or side-effects of spellcasting can be unpredictable:

From my playtest experience, it seems like the biggest difference between DCC and other similar RPGs lies in the spellcasting mechanics. Vancian memorization has been done away with and spellcasters have access to any of the spells appropriate to their level. When casting, however, the player must roll a d20 to gauge how successful the spell is. For example, a cleric needs a minimum roll of eleven (including modifiers) for a spell to work at all. The higher the roll, the better the spell works – and, yes, in the rulebook each spell is presented as a page-long table of effects-by-die-roll. The clever mechanic here is that at the beginning of a session the spellcaster starts with a positive roll modifier (e.g. my cleric started with a +4). Each time a spell is cast the modifier is decreased by one, so spells become less and less likely to be effective as more spells are cast. This turned out to be a cool system that was really fun to play. In fact, I might try to steal part of this system for clerics in my own home game!

I didn’t play a wizard, so I’m not totally clear on the specific mechanics for the class, but each spell cast by a wizard has potentially nasty side-effects that must be assessed at each casting. At one point in our game, for instance, a wizard cast a spell, rolled on the side-effect chart, and discovered he had to cut off a pound of his own flesh to sacrifice to a demon. The player decided to carve off one of his buttocks for this purpose. This is weird and grisly stuff… Hardcore self-mutilation. I found it to be kind of shocking, actually. I did notice that the wizard players started getting a little exasperated as the game went on, but I thought it was cool.

DCC has ascending armor class as in d20; Six abilities (3d6 down-the-line): Strength, Agility, Stamina, Personaility, Intelligence, and Luck. Luck points can be burned to influence die rolls, but may then result in other negative modifiers as the game progresses. I wasn't clear on how saving throws worked - I just rolled when Joe told me to. A natural 1 or 20 during combat results in a roll on either a fumble or crit table of dramatic effects. The game has the typical FRPG classes (warrior, thief, wizard, cleric), each with its own specialized character sheet.

My cleric character inherited from an earlier session. 
Note the spell tracking box in the lower right.

Joe took us through a scenario called something along the lines of Castle of the Emerald Wizard. I think he was surprised how our group "won" the module in less than 2 hours. The adventure pretty much lived up to the DCC blurb at the top of the post. Based on the portion we mapped, it seemed to be a Type B Linear Dungeon, with a series of guardian monster battles leading to a climax at the end where you fight with the boss (The Emerald Wizard), rescue the prisoners, and march away with pockets full of gems. It was a little disappointing that there were no talking NPCs, no cool items or treasures (beyond gems), and no interesting mysteries. The only way the monsters interacted with the players was to fight-to-the-death. I was also surprised that Joe read room descriptions verbatim off of paper printouts - I've never seen an experienced DM do this before. All-in-all this adventure felt like a railroaded chain of combat encounters, which isn't really my preferred gaming style. We won the module fairly quickly by magically bypassing the main path to get to the end. [UPDATE: Red Joe's comments on this HERE]

The session was a lot of fun and I had a great time, but I think running sessions like this kind of undersells DCC. This is clearly a robust and exciting ruleset with its own unique flavor deriving from the interesting spellcasting mechanics. Given that Joe sees DCC as an Appendix N emulator, I don’t completely understand why he chose to run the type of adventure he did. When Joe was name dropping Poul Anderson and Lord Dunsany before the game I was getting pretty excited, but the experience he delivered was more like an 80s Nintendo game or AD&D as run by a 13 year old in 1983 (not that there's anything wrong with this, mind you). And I'm sure Joe would make no apology for this, based on the promotional blurb at the beginning of this post. I think, however, that this approach is what led one of the players to give a kind of back-handed compliment after the game "Well, I think this would be a great system for running quick one shots!" I actually felt DCC was much better than this. The novel magic system in DCC gave the game an unpredictable and sinister feeling that really was evocative of weird mid-century fantasy fiction. I suspect I'll pick up a copy of DCC when it's published, if only for the magic system, although I predict the whole game will be quite good - possibly outstanding.

Well, Joe knows the market much better than I do, so hopefully his strategy of marketing DCC to alienated d20 players as an engine for running combat-chain dungeon adventures works. There's a lot more to DCC than that, though, and it would be nice to see the game enjoyed by Appendix N fans who would appreciate it. No matter how good the game is, however, I predict it might be hard to get more literary-minded FRPG gamers to give the game a whirl with a name like Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Watch Philip K. Dick Going Crazy on YouTube

This morning I was surfing YouTube for interviews with f/sf authors. In so doing I ran across this bizarre 1977 footage of Philip K. Dick giving a speech at a science fiction convention in France. Actually, this is not as much a speech as it is PKD earnestly reading a written statement about how he recently discovered that reality is a computer program. All fans of PKD should be familiar with this authors' famously tenuous hold on reality, but to see this manifested on film is quite moving and also, for me at least, quite sad. This clip is painfully reminiscent of a close high school friend of mine who has been fighting problems with schizophrenia and paranoia for much of his adult life. Interestingly, this friend of mine (wisely) refused to read VALIS out of fear it would make matters worse.

In this video you can hear PKD saying things like "Some of my fictional works were, in a literal sense, true", "We are living in a computer programmed reality", and describing how books like Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears the Policeman Said were based on true realities he had seen in visions. "I claim to remember a very different present life," he says.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

China Mieville and D&D

We talk a lot about literary influences on D&D, yet we talk very little about D&D's influence on literature. This is why I find it very interesting that the celebrated fantasy writer China Mieville talks frequently and candidly about how playing D&D (and Call of Cthulhu) has influenced his fiction. For those of you who aren't familiar with Mieville, he is one of the leading authors of the "New Weird" movement in fantastic fiction. Many of his books have received major f/sf awards, with one of his latest books, "The City and The City", receiving this year's Hugo for best novel. Whether you like his work or not, it cannot be denied that Mieville is one of the highest profile fantasy authors of the past decade. Because of this, I think Mieville's embracing of his roleplaying roots is a very positive thing that reflects well on our generally disreputable little hobby.

Although Mieville says he hasn't played an RPG in years, and is unlikely to play again, he still enjoys reading RPG supplements - especially bestiaries.  Not only this, but Mieville was even a guest author on the 2010 Pathfinder supplement Guide to the River Kingdoms. In terms of D&D's influence on Mieville's writing, the theme that keeps popping up in interviews (see below) is systemization. Mieville cites the Monster Manual as being a huge influence because of the way it catalogs and numerically describes horrifying and mysterious creatures. Indeed, one of the things I've noticed about Mieville's writing is that once you crack the surface weirdness - all the fabulous settings and creatures - his worlds are largely mundane and operate in a very systematic and naturalistic fashion. Like Gygaxian D&D, you can get a grasp on how things work and "learn the rules", and those rules don't change. Ironically, this is one of the things I like least about the Mieville I've read (i.e. Perdido Street Station). One of my favorite buzzes from fantastic fiction is the creepy disorientation resulting from small events that imply major and possibly horrific problems with the state of natural world as previously understood - namely, when you think you know the rules, but then realize you don't really. Mieville's fiction is creative and fun and I enjoy it, but I definitely don't get this kind of ecstatic Lovecraftian vibe from it. Maybe this literary preference of mine is related to why I almost never use the Monster Manual for my games - I love unique monsters and the dampening effect they have on metagaming... and systemization.

Mieville is much more eloquent and thoughtful than me, so I'll let him speak for himself. Here are some excerpts from two Mieville interviews that deal with RPGs specifically. A third highly relevant interview, for which there is no web link, was published in Dragon Magazine #352 (along with an amazing 40-page RPG treatment of Mieville's world Bas-Lag). If there's reader interest I could post something about this issue of Dragon...

A 2005 interview from Believer Magazine:
BLVR: Judah Low is a golemist. Golems are only ever clay. The only place I’m aware of them being comprised of other substances is in the old AD&D Monster Manual. The original Monster Manual. They had a picture of a flesh golem with bolts in his neck—
CM: I know the picture very well.

BLVR: It’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That implied subtext—that Frankenstein was a type of golem—made my pre-teen mind vibrate with a promise of special insight.

CM: You are absolutely right. I use AD&D-type fascination with teratology in a lot of my books, and I have the original Monster Manual, and the Monster Manual 2, and the Fiend Folio. I still collect role-playing game bestiaries, because I find that kind of fascination with the creation of the monstrous tremendously inspiring, basically. And the golem that you’re talking about in AD&D, it’s very perspicacious of you, because that is directly an influence. There is a scene in Iron Council where Judah creates a golem of corpses. He shoves his hand into a pile of corpses and makes them into this huge, lumbering golem of dead people, and that is a riff on the flesh golem. One of the things that I love so much about fantasy and science fiction is that the weirdness that it creates is always at its best completely its own end and also metaphorically and symbolically laden. I get very frustrated when I read certain types of magical realism and you end up saying, “Okay, I understand this figure of this golden elf is symbolizing such and such.” The thing about genre fantasy is that it is its own end, but it also does that job of symbolizing. I think about something like Gulliver’s Travels. The figures of the Lilliputians are partly a way for Gulliver to overlook society from a godlike height and to make satirical, symbolic comments, but it’s also, “Hey look, little tiny people! How cool!” I love the idea of golems. It strikes me as a very powerful, imaginative, weird idea. But it’s also an idea that is symbolically fraught and laden, and particularly in a book which is partially about people, politically speaking, people taking control of the fruits of their own labor. So, the golems are both just really cool monsters but also something that functions as part of the political texture of the book.

A 2003 interview with Joan Gordon:
JG: What cultural influences shaped your writing?

Probably one of the most enduring influences on me was a childhood playing RPGs: Dungeons and Dragons [D&D] and others. I’ve not played for sixteen years and have absolutely no intention of starting again, but I still buy and read the manuals occasionally. There were two things about them that particularly influenced me. One was the mania for cataloguing the fantastic: if you play them for any length of time, you get to know pretty much all the mythological beasts of all pantheons out there, along with a fair bit of the theology. I still love all that—I collect fantastic bestiaries, and one of the main spurs to write a secondary-world fantasy was to invent a bunch of monsters, half of which I’m sure I’ll never be able to fit into any books.
The other, more nebulous, but very strong influence of RPGs was the weird fetish for systematization, the way everything is reduced to “game stats.” If you take something like Cthulhu in Lovecraft, for example, it is completely incomprehensible and beyond all human categorization. But in the game Call of Cthulhu, you see Cthulhu’s “strength,” “dexterity,” and so on, carefully expressed numerically. There’s something superheroically banalifying about that approach to the fantastic. On one level it misses the point entirely, but I must admit it appeals to me in its application of some weirdly misplaced rigor onto the fantastic: it’s a kind of exaggeratedly precise approach to secondary world creation.
I’m conscious of the problems with that: probably my favorite piece of fantastic-world creation ever is the VIRICONIUM series by M. John Harrison [The Pastel City (1971), A Storm of Wings (1980), In Viriconium (1982), and Viriconium Nights (1984; rev. 1985)], which is carefully constructed to avoid any domestication, and which thereby brilliantly achieves the kind of alienating atmosphere I’m constantly striving for, so it’s not as if I think that quantification is the “correct” way to construct a world. But it’s one that appeals to the anal kid in me. To that extent, though I wouldn’t compare myself to Harrison in terms of quality, I sometimes feel as if, formally, my stuff is a cross between Viriconium and D&D.
JG: You mentioned being drawn to the systematization in RPGs. How do you see that in your writing?
CM: I start with maps, histories, time lines, things like that. I spend a lot of time working on stuff that may or may not actually find its way into the novel, but I know a lot more about the world than makes it into the stories. That’s the “RPG” factor: it’s about systematizing the world.
But though that’s my method, I don’t start with it. I don’t start with a bunch of graph papers and rulers. When I’m writing a book, generally I start with the mood and setting, along with a couple of specific images—things that have come into my head, totally abstracted from any narrative, that I’ve fixated on. After that, I construct a world, or an area, into which that general setting, that atmosphere, and the specific images I’ve focused on can fit. It’s at that stage that the systematization begins for me.
I hope this doesn’t sound pompous, but that’s how I see the best weird fiction as the intersection of the traditions of Surrealism with those of pulp. I don’t start with the graph paper and the calculators like a particular kind of D&D dungeonmaster: I start with an image, as unreal and affecting as possible, just like the Surrealists. But then I systematize it, and move into a different kind of tradition.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Realms of Fantasy Dies. Again. Why?

So, it was making the rounds of the fiction blogs yesterday that Realms of Fantasy is going under. Again.

This is very sad news because, to my knowledge, RoF was the last professional fantasy fiction magazine that actually sold print copies. The two remaining professional fantasy digests I know of - Fantasy Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (my current favorite) - are purely online affairs. Luckily, the classic print digest Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which presents a f/sf mix, still survives. For now.

Those of you who follow fantasy fiction probably already know that RoF failed in 2009 and was rescued at the last minute by investor / publisher Warren Lapine. Lapine has had success running other much larger magazines, and he pumped a lot of time and money into trying to turn RoF around. But it seems he could not fix the core problem – nobody would subscribe. In his farewell note Lapine blamed only one thing for the failure of RoF: the economy.

I suspect this supposition is not accurate.

While I believe the economy may have had some minor influence over the situation, it is painfully true that all the f/sf digests have been struggling with dwindling subscriptions rates for a long time now. And, as with newspapers and many print magazines, this has been a problem since long before the Great Recession hit in 2008. There’s a lot of discussion as to why this is, with competition from the internet being a favorite bogeyman. Indeed, the entire publishing world is still struggling to find a profitable model for internet publishing.

But… I’m still skeptical. I’d venture to say that most f/sf readers are fairly well educated, gainfully employed, and can afford a few magazine subscriptions without a second thought. Heck, I can. But I never subscribed to RoF. And I love fantasy fiction. Assuming people like me represent much of the lost market for RoF, I thought it might be relevant to consider my own reading and purchasing habits when thinking about why RoF died.

My favorite hypothesis for the failure of the f/sf short fiction market is that the whole nature of reading fantastic fiction now, in 2010, is fundamentally different from the way it was in 1930, 1960, or even 1980, because readers now are completely saturated with cheap excellent fiction. Up until the 1960s or 1970s it was conceivable that a serious fan of fantasy fiction could have read all or most of the professional output up until that point – all of the fantasy novels and all of the short stories. In an atmosphere like this is makes sense to subscribe to fiction digests because you would often be hungry for more stories. During the big f/sf boom of the 1970s, with breakthrough movies like Star Wars and bestselling books like Lucifer’s Hammer, I imagine it became much more difficult to keep up with f/sf because of greater output from publishers as well as the growing backlogs of classics.

So, think about someone like me. I was born in 1974. I started reading fantasy in the mid-80s as a kid. From the point I started reading seriously, I had a body of fantasy genre literature stretching back to William Morris to catch up on.  I mean, seriously, for the last 20 years I’ve been struggling to get caught up with just the 1920s-1970s. I am still sadly ignorant of the 1980s-present, except for some of the major Hugo and Nebula winners I felt obliged to check out. I’m saturated with great stuff, which is a wonderful thing. I have stacks and stacks of used paperbacks, pulps, and digests representing over a half century of remarkable fiction. I bought all this stuff at used bookstores and on eBay for next to nothing and I know a lot of it will be very good if not great.

So here is the problem - with a fiction digest like RoF I don't know if an issue is going to be good. Actually, it’s probably going to be mostly not good. This might be cruel to say, but it’s true. I try to sample issues of the modern f/sf mags on a regular basis, but I find the experience is much like buying a booster pack of Magic: The Gathering cards – except that I’m never guaranteed of getting a Rare. Occasionally there’s something great, which is a uniquely exciting rush, but most of the stories are stylistically formulaic, painfully trendy (e.g. steampunk or emo vampires, argh!), boring, and/or gimmicky. Why would I pay for this when (1) I already have stacks of unread cheap amazing classic fiction, and (2) I can wait for an annual anthology to come out, where hopefully the gem:junk ratio will be higher.

So, as I see it there are two sides to this problem.

The first is that there is a huge backlog of excellent f/sf which all modern authors must directly compete with. Yes, if you are a writer now you have the toughest job in the history of the genre – you are competing with stacks of cheap paperbacks by the best authors who ever lived.

The second is that either the editors or the slush piles are not capable of producing short stories that are fit for this difficult competition. This is not a matter of my taste or opinion. RoF died because not enough people wanted to subscribe. The brutal brutal truth is that many of these digests aren’t publishing fiction that people will pay for.

By the way, if you want to give publishing a shot, Lapine will sell you RoF for $1.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Two years ago Dungeon Majesty / Telefantasy Studios - the team that made the D&D World of Adventure video - released this nerdgasmic pilot trailer for an Encounter Criticalicious adventure show called Multinauts:

After two long years, last week Telefatasy finally released the first two episodes of Multinauts! There's even a tie-in music video by Geneva Jacuzzi! Check out the awesome adventures of THE MULTINAUTS!

THE MULTINAUTS- Episode One "Flashback" from Multinauts on Vimeo.

THE MULTINAUTS - Episode Two "Mirrorman" from Multinauts on Vimeo.

GENEVA JACUZZI "SPACE HEATER" from Multinauts on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Austin Jimm's Simple Grappling Rules

Austin Jimm, proprietor of the fantabulous Contemptible Cube of Quazar, posted his simple house rules for grappling over at the Knights & Knaves Alehouse. Jimm's rules are based on a combat example published in the Summer 1975 issue of The Strategic Review. Thanks Jimm for rewriting these rules in such a clear way. I think I like this better than what I've been doing (i.e. a to hit roll followed by a dex check) because it allows for dog piling!

Any character, or group of characters, may attempt to grapple and subdue an opponent. This is accomplished by having the attacking character, or characters, roll a normal “to hit” roll against the target. The hit dice of all attackers who successfully hit the target is totaled, and a number of d6 equal to this total is rolled. The target must then roll a number of d6 equal to his own hit dice. If the attackers' roll is greater than that of the defender, the target is considered pinned and may be disarmed, shackled, bound, knocked-out, or otherwise subdued. If the defender's roll prevails, he has thrown off all of his attackers and they must spend one combat round recovering as if from a fumble. If the dice are tied, they are struggling, with the defender still on his feet, and another set of grappling rolls will be made on the next round. Any additional attackers who score a hit may add their dice to the roll.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Weird Old Russian Spaceships

Here are some super cool photos of spaceships from Russia's failed lunar lander program. These things look amazing and will probably show up in a future Gamma World game where they will speak fluent Russian.

The old Lunokhod robot rovers are way cool too:

The 20 Most Popular RPGs

I guess my metrics-mania is getting out of control here... Out of curiosity I ranked "role playing games" at by sales numbers. The vast majority of individual items on the list were Dungeons & Dragons 4e products. This is hands down the biggest RPG out there - a fact that is supported by what I've seen at local game stores and cons. For example, the the top 5 individual items on the RPG bestseller list were:
1. D&D 4e: Rules Compendium
2. D&D 4e: Heroes of the Fallen Lands Supplement
3. D&D 4e: Essentials Starter Kit ("The Red Box")
4. Warhammer 40K RPG: Deathwatch Core Rulebook
5. D&D 4e: Dungeon Tiles Master Set - The Dungeon

This is pretty much what most of the bestseller list looks like - D&D 4e products interspersed with a few other things. Well, I was less interested in individual items as I was in game systems so I ranked in print systems by each system's single bestselling product on the list:
1. D&D 4e
2. Warhammer 40K RPG
3. Pathfinder
4. Gamma World (the new 4e version)
5. DC Adventures: Super-Hero Roleplaying
6. Field of Glory Renaissance (a minis game)
7. Shadowrun
8. Rogue Trader
9. Savage Worlds
10. World of Darkness
12. Call of Cthulhu
13. Changeling: The Lost
14. Mage: The Awakening
15. Star Wars: Saga Edition
16. Vampire: The Requiem
17. Dark Heresy
18. Hunter: The Vigil
19. Werewolf: The Forsaken
20. Promethean: The Created

A few thoughts:

- D&D 4e holds a virtual monopoly over the roleplaying market. I've heard some blog and forum people call 4e a commercial failure. Well, these people clearly have no idea what they're talking about. The gaming public loves 4e and buys a lot of it.

- D&D 4e and Pathfinder are pretty much the only fantasy roleplaying games in town. If you're a lonely fantasy gamer you should play one of these titles!

- It's cool that a DC superhero roleplaying game is so popular. I never would have guessed this! I'm shocked there's no Marvel RPG on the list.

- Sci-fi is a very popular roleplaying genre: W40K RPG, Shadowrun, Rogue Trader, Star Wars, Dark Heresy, etc.

- Only two "generic games" made the list - GURPS and Savage Worlds. People like settings built into their games it seems.

- The universe of White Wolf titles (the ones with colonic titles like "Roleplaying: The Game") really fills out the bottom of the list in an interesting way.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Javier Piñón's Medusas

To make your Monday a bit more dangerous... A series of Medusas by collage artist Javier Piñón.

Friday, October 8, 2010

WotC's D&D Red Box Commerical by Dungeon Majesty

Original Dungeon Majesty video (2006):

New WotC Commerical (2010):

I hope Hasbro paid Dungeon Majesty for this. I guess the real rip off is for the original illustrators.

UPDATE (10/15): Dungeon Majesty's Riley Swift, creator of the original World of Adventure video, confirmed with me that he was indeed hired by WotC several months ago to re-edit his original video into this new commercial. This is great news, and I hope WotC keeps Riley on, because his video and illustration work is supercool! Thanks for the clarification, Riley! I have accordingly un-sassed the original title of this post (changed "Rips Off" to "by")...

Esao Andrews

Recent oils by Esao Andrews.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

10 Reasons to Love Spelljammer

In principle, I thought TSR's Spelljammer could have been cool, but, as it turned out, it was just silly. - James Maliszewski

I love Spelljammer. Okay, there, I said it.

And, yes, much of Spelljammer is quite silly. Right out of the box it almost seems like an Encounter Critical expansion. Indeed, many gamers revile Spelljammer as a symbol of late-TSR’s gimmicky excesses. This 1989 boxed set in particular has been singled out as an example of why TSR went bankrupt. During the 2e era TSR released a series of non-traditional campaign settings as overstuffed boxed sets – Spelljammer, Hollow World, Dark Sun, Planescape, etc. From what I understand none of these boxed sets were profitable, and many of them are thought to have alienated traditional AD&D players while scaring off potential new players.

To be honest with you I know very little about late-TSR's output. I got out of roleplaying when 2e was released and I only got back into it a few years ago after Gygax’s death caused me to reexamine by boardgame-oriented gaming habits.  I had always thought of late-TSR material as derivative generic fantasy stuff (e.g. Dragonlance). Well, a few weeks ago on a whim I traded a twenty dollar bill for a used Spelljammer boxed set at a gaming con and I found it to be surprisingly bizarre and entertaining. My curiosity about late-TSR products has now been piqued – especially in terms of the weirdo campaign settings. I just purchased Dark Sun and Planescape on eBay and I’m very curious to see what they’re like. I’ve also been re-reading the old Manual of the Planes (AD&D hardback – the inspiration for Planescape) - much of it is ridiculous, but there is also a lot of creative stuff there that is weirdly delicious.

I cannot deny that there’s a good deal of indefensibly silly junk in Spelljammer. For instance, it’s painfully corny that many of the spaceships look like sea animals. Despite this, however, there are some great ideas in the set I’d love to employ in future games. If one stripped away a much of the campaign setting Spelljammer could make a great weird fantasy retroclone supplement. I think the best material in Spelljammer could be distilled into a highly appealing 32-page booklet.

Here are 10 reasons I accepted Spelljammer into my heart:

1. The title “Spelljammer” is so goofy it’s rad! I mean, c’mon, this game was published in 1989 but the title sounds like it’s from 1982. It sounds like it should be the name of a token white nerd kid in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo that got cut out of the film during editing.

2. The moment I saw this illustration of a Dwarf asteroid spaceship I knew I had to like Spelljammer:

3. Ha ha! Elves are so lame in their butterfly spaceships!

4. What’s not to like about wizards flying wooden spaceships through hypermassive extraplanetary spheres? There's lots of room for creative DMs to use Spelljammer to bring weird and creepy cosmic horror into their games. Of course, it's also great for gonzo-style gaming as well.

5. Beholders are one of the major evil alien races in Spelljammer. There are several different species of space beholders that fly around in scary spaceships crewed by space slaves!

6. Used Spelljammer boxed sets are cheap on eBay and they are packed with colorful goodies. Hopefully I can make a future post with pictures of all the stuff in the box. No wonder TSR went bankrupt...

7. Two words: ASTEROID DUNGEONS. This map is so cool I just might go bananas!

8. There are some wonderfully creative text passages like this:
Those fantasy systems with stars in the night sky often have these stars mounted along the inside of the crystal sphere. The nature of stars varies from sphere to sphere, however. Within some spheres the stars are small portholes looking out on the phlogiston, in some they are painted lights along the interior, in some they are great cities inhabited by alien creatures, and in others they are great bowls of fire held aloft by huge statues of forgotten gods.
9. The essence of the set – a ruleset for magical space travel – is simple, clever, and easily transferable between various editions of D&D. There's actually some good, practical, usable stuff in there.

10. Spelljammer is (mostly) steampunk-free!!! No offense to you steampunks out there, but I just can't handle steampunk in my D&D...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mean Spirited Criticism for My Blog List...

Don't be sad if you're not on the blog list. I can fix it!

As you may know I've been trying to maintain a list of blogs that should be of interest to old school gamers. I've been extremely liberal in deciding what blogs to include. I will include any blog if the writer asks me to.

I have therefore been surprised to see several blog posts openly criticizing me for not including their blogs on the list. Some of these posts go as far as calling me unkind names, and they all include sob-inducing comments along the lines of "Cyclopeatron doesn't think I'm old school enough".

These posts are pretty uncool, I think. The only reason I hadn't previously included these blogs is because I didn't even know they existed. Apparently these bloggers never bothered to read the header preceding of all my lists begging people to alert me to unlisted blogs. There are over 240 blogs on the list at this point. My aim is to include all relevant blogs, but I simply don't have the time to scour the internet as well as I need to. I depend on readers to tell me what I've missed.

So... before y'all start talking trash on Cyclopeatron, drop him a comment or email first and give him a few days. You just might see something magical happen! Your blog will be listed!

I'd like to thank the vast majority of you for the overwhelmingly positive feedback on the list! I'm glad it's useful for you, and I'm especially pleased that many of you have had significant surges in readership since I posted it.

Ha ha! See? Tears never last!

Monday, October 4, 2010

A New Look for Cyclopeatron

You probably noticed the new color scheme and banner art for Cyclopeatron. The black background was getting a little tiresome for me...

Does everything look okay on your computer? If there are any problems with size, color, or formatting on your browser I'd appreciate a note! Thanks!

Here's a nice pop video for ya! Be sure to stick through the first 90 seconds to get to the really good stuff!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

North Texas RPG Con - Best Bet For 2011?

I want to check out a national level gaming con next year. The North Texas RPG Con clearly looks like the best in the world for 2011. No competition, really. I just registered.

DMs Include:
Erol Otus (YES - DMing!)
Paul Jaquays
Frank Mentzer
Robert Kuntz
Tim Kask
Matt Finch
Kyrinn Eis
Dennis Sustare
Steve Winter

Mind-blowing. Wowie zowie. Not worthy. Etc.

GaryCon looks like a strong second with Jim Ward, Tom Wham, and Mike Carr as guests. For me personally, though, the possibility of gaming with Jaquays and Otus tips the balance towards Texas. Maybe I can squeeze in both cons somehow...? Hmmm...

I still haven't heard a convincing argument for why GenCon would be worth the time and dough to me.  I have minimal interest in vendor booths, booth babes, or costume contests. I do, however, have maximum interest in rocking with The Creators. And gaming nonstop. Don't you?

I hope to see some of you in Irving, Texas next June!