31 December 2014

Michael Moorcock, the Anti-Tolkien

There is a nice piece in the current The New Yorker on Michael Moorcock entitled "The Anti-Tolkien."

While Moorcock's style of fantasy is radically different from Tolkien's in almost every respect, and Moorcock himself famously criticized Tolkien's work, I have been a great fan of both authors for at least three decades now.  Indeed, I can't imagine what contemporary fantasy literature (or role-playing games) would be like without both of them!

Anyhow, happy 75th, Mr. Moorcock.  And happy 2015 to all lovers of fantasy!

28 December 2014

Boston Globe article on Dungeons and Dragons

Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It, has a piece on the  new edition of the game, entitled "Dungeons & Dragons strikes back," in The Boston Globe.

The article quotes Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz, as well as my friend Christopher Robichaud, who recently edited the book Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy.

My impression of the fifth edition of D&D is generally favourable.  I plan to write a review at some point, but suffice to say (for now) I think that it it is a vast improvement over the 3rd and 4th editions.  So I'm glad to learn that it seems to be doing reasonably well.

23 December 2014

Trying Out Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition

While I’ve had the Quick-Start rules for the seventh edition of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game since August 2013, I only recently got around to giving them a try.  (The full rules are now available in PDF, by the way.  I have them – indeed, I received the “backers’ proofs” a couple of months ago – but have not yet had a chance to delve deeply into them.)

Last Halloween I ran the introductory scenario “The Haunting” for my friend Mark and our better halves.  Mark is an experienced role-player, and has been a member of many of my groups over the years (including my last Call of Cthulhu campaign).  Our spouses, on the other hand, are not role-players (my spouse had played only one RPG before; Mark’s spouse not at all).  Nonetheless, they were happy to try the game out, especially given that it was Halloween and the setting, 1920s Boston, intrigued them.  I was interested to see how easily they would grasp the essentials of the game.  Call of Cthulhu always has been a pretty straightforward game, rules-wise at least, and I was curious if this still was the case.

Character creation was simple and straightforward.  The Quick-Start rules give players a set of eight percentage scores (40, 50, 50, 50, 60, 60, 70, 80) to assign to their characters’ primary characteristics (Strength, Constitution, Power, Dexterity, Appearance, Size, Intelligence, and Education).  The secondary characteristic Luck is determined by rolling 3d6 and multiplying the result by five.  The new secondary characteristic, ‘Build’, is determined by adding the character’s Size and Strength scores together (as are the character’s Hit Points).  Sanity and Magic Points remain determined by Power. 

The players then assign nine percentage scores (70, 60, 60, 50, 50, 50, 40, 40, 40) to their eight ‘occupation’ skills and their credit rating skill.  These scores replace the ‘base values’ (which are listed on the character sheets; the ‘base values’ are the characters’ skill levels sans any training) for the relevant skills.  Four ‘personal interest’ skills then are selected; these are non-occupation skills, and players add 20 percentage points to the base values (thus these values, unlike those of the characters’ occupation skills, can vary depending upon the skills in question). 

There are three things that I noticed right away as changes from earlier editions: (1) Power is no longer quite as important as it used to be (though it is still very important), since it does not determine a character’s Luck score now; (2) Education uses the same scale as the other attributes; and (3) Education is no longer quite as important as it used to be, since characters are simply given a set number of skill points.  (I should note that this is not the case in the full rules, where Education continues to determine characters’ starting skill points, though many occupations now depend upon other attributes as well.)  Consequently, while Power and Education remain very important, they are no longer quite as decisive as they were in earlier editions of Call of Cthulhu.

One more obvious change: characteristics employ a percentage range, rather than the traditional range (3-18 or 8-18, depending upon the characteristic) of earlier editions.  For the new players this actually was an improvement, as they found the percentage scores intuitive and meaningful.  For older players, the character sheets include beside each of the characteristics values at one-half and one-fifth of the percentage scores.  The one-fifth scores correspond to the old scale, so players more familiar with earlier editions can refer to those when thinking about their characters.

After about twenty minutes we had three characters ready to go:

  • Bertrand Smyth, a cautious British Lecturer (38 years old) on Ancient Greece from London, visiting Harvard at the time of the game (Str 50, Con 60, Siz 50, Dex 50, App 40, Int 80, Pow 60, Edu 80).
  • Max Brewster, a hard-boiled Private Investigator from Lowell MA (45 years old) (Str 50, Con 60, Siz 40, Dex 80, App 50, Int 60, Pow 70, Edu 50).
  • Helen Tilton, a charming Canadian photojournalist who sometimes freelances for the Boston Globe (33 years old) (Str 60, Con 60, Siz 40, Dex 50, App 70, Int 50, Pow 50, Edu 80).
 The adventure itself proceeded quite well.  After an hour or so of easing the neophytes into the activity of ‘role-playing’ (I really hammed things up whilst playing some of the non-player characters in order to get them into the spirit of the game), and making a few necessary skill rolls here and there, everyone quickly got the hang of things, and henceforth drove the story forward with their own decisions and actions.  In this respect, at least, 7th edition Call of Cthulhu remains a great game with which to introduce new players. 

The characters did a fair amount of preliminary research (looking things up in the library, visiting the Boston Globe archives, and so forth).  This helped the new players understand how to interact with non-player characters, and how skill rolls worked.  Eventually they visited the ‘haunted’ house.  Sanity points were lost, Mark’s character got thrown out of a second story window by an angry bed frame, a rusty animated dagger later attacked Mark’s character (for an academic he certainly was keen on being assaulted!), and so forth. 

The players seemed genuinely scared by the things happening in the house, and decided to retreat before solving the mystery.  They did some additional research, and the session ended with them coming up with a plan to return to the house and put an end to the evil that apparently had taken it over.  All of the players seemed keen to complete the adventure, and continue the game at some point in the future.

For the purposes of introducing people to role-playing games, then, the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu Quick-Start rules did the trick! 

While the 7th edition rules do not strike me as significantly superior to those of the earlier editions, they do not seem inferior either.  Most of the changes are minor, and some – such as the end of the ‘Resistance Table’, the severing of Luck from Power, and the changes to Education to bring it into line with the other characteristics – seem helpful.  Thus it probably is slightly better than earlier editions for the purposes of introducing new players to role-playing games, or at least the Quick-Start version is, as everything uses percentages now.  

As for some of the more ‘fiddly’ new mechanics in 7th edition, three are discussed in the Quick-Start Rules: ‘fighting manoeuvres’, ‘bonus’ and ‘penalty’ dice, and ‘pushing’ rolls.

Fighting manoeuvres refer simply to attempts to do things in combat other than simply damaging one’s foes.  Examples include: (1) disarming one’s opponent; (2) knocking one’s opponent to the floor; and (3) grabbing and holding one’s opponent.  The character attempting such a manoeuvre makes a fighting (brawl) skill roll, which can be opposed by the target’s dodge or fight skill.  These rolls can be modified by the combatants’ ‘build’ scores (determined, recall, by their size and strength characteristics); these modifications involve the application of bonus or penalty dice, discussed below.  The mechanics are simple and straightforward, as they involve simply a comparison of the opponents’ degrees of success, with the opponent with the higher skill score winning in cases of ties.  

The new system of employing ‘bonus’ or ‘penalty’ dice, to be used to reflect either advantageous or disadvantageous circumstances, is pretty straightforward.  Essentially, when a character enjoys some sort of significant ‘benefit’ in attempting a task, she gains a bonus die, which means that when rolling for a percentage, the player rolls two ‘tens’ dice and takes the better one.  So, for instance, a player might roll an 8, 3, and 4; assuming that the ‘4’ is on the die designated as the ‘ones’, then the player may decide whether her final result is an 84 or a 34, whichever is most advantageous).  Penalty dice work in the opposite way (players take the worse of the two ‘tens’).  During our session this came up only a couple of times, and seemed straightforward enough.   

The other new mechanic is ‘pushing’ rolls.  Very roughly, if the Keeper (game master) judges it feasible, a player may opt to have their character try a task again after a failed roll, on the condition that a second failure might be even more costly than the first.  While I made the option of pushing a roll available a couple of times during the adventure, all of the players were too risk-adverse to try it.  The mechanic seems easily ignorable for those groups who dislike it, though I think it can be a reasonable option in some circumstances and will continue to make it available to my players in our next session.

In short, based upon my use of the Quick-Start rules and my (at this time) very brief perusal of the full rules, my impression is that the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu is very much still the grand old game many of us have loved for years.  The changes are not especially deep, and in play the system is quick, unobtrusive, and largely feels like the earlier editions.  Some aspects are more streamlined – I, for one, will not miss the disappearance of the old Resistance Table – while many of the new mechanics can be used or ignored as the players wish.  (Of course, since I am relying on the Quick-Start rules here, there may be complications in the full rules that make the game run less smoothly or are otherwise problematic.  But if the Quick-Start rules operate without a hitch, how hard can it be to ignore any annoying or unnecessary additions in the full rules?)

Based upon my experience with the Quick Start rules, I look forward to reading properly the full version of the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu.  And, more importantly, I look forward to completing “The Haunting” and starting a new adventure!

[Rating: 8/10] 

14 December 2014

The Middle-earth Office

The Hobbit + The Office (original UK version) = hilarious SNL skit.

09 December 2014

Games To Which I Have Cooled Over Time

Over at the RPGsite, there is a thread that asks posters to discuss “Games You Have Soured On.”  Below are three games to which I have ‘cooled’ (‘soured’ seems too strong) over the years. 

Dungeons & Dragons – 3rd/3.5th editions

When I first read through the 3rd edition D&D rules, I thought: “At last – most of the problems with AD&D have been fixed!”  Everything seemed more coherent and consistent within the ‘d20’ version of the game.  Many of the old, seemingly arbitrary restrictions (e.g., racial restrictions on classes, level limits on non-human characters, certain alignment restrictions on classes, etc.) had been jettisoned.  The fact that the rules seem to have ripped off many of its core elements from ICE’s old Middle-earth Role-playing game (e.g., rolling 'high' is always good; a skill system that was integrated with a class system by having different skills cost different amounts of 'points' for different classes; a unified, consistent system for ability score modifiers; a unified experience chart for all classes; etc.) was fine with me, as I had been a huge fan of MERP back in the day.

However, after running two separate campaigns (each slightly less than a year long) I realized that the game just was not for me.  Acting as the Dungeon Master was a chore, both in terms of the prep work, and actually running the game. Combats seemed invariably to drag on and on, especially at higher levels.  The constant checking of modifiers, feats, spell effects, attacks of bloody opportunity, and the like, became soul-crushingly tedious. And all these annoyances accumulated even though I had introduced house rules in both campaigns to slow down the characters' rate of leveling.  I can't imagine what a headache regular leveling would have generated!

In retrospect, I'm amazed that I stuck with 3/3.5 for so long. And I'm amazed that it was so popular – and still is, with Pathfinder.  I guess that I just don't share the same tastes as many (most?) post-2000 role-playing gamers.  One great thing about the ‘Old School Renaissance,’ for me at least, was that it helped me realize that there were many other people out there who felt the same way.

Castles and Crusades

After souring on 3.5 D&D, I turned to Castles & Crusades as an alternative.  Initially I was quite enthusiastic about the game. (I even wrote a very positive review of it.)  C&C seemed to be exactly what I wanted: an 'old school' game that retained some d20 elements that I liked (ascending AC, a 'unified' system for resolving saving throws and tasks, etc.). And I still like the game's versions of the bard and ranger classes.

Over time, though, I realized that the SIEGE system (C&C's 'unified resolution mechanic') did not really work that well in practice. It came with certain costs, and the difference between 'primes' (tasks that concerned the characters' 'favoured' ability scores, with respect to which they had a target number of '12') and 'non-primes' (tasks that concerned all the other ability scores, with respect to which characters had a target number of '18') was rather too great. In practice, it lead to some weird outcomes. For instance, clerics proved to be the best scouts in the game. And, rules aside, the consistently awful editing of C&C products invariably rubbed me the wrong way.

In time, I decided that I was better off simply modifying earlier versions of D&D (Basic/Expert, AD&D, or original) to my tastes. With the availability of free retro-clones like Swords and Wizardry and OSRIC, I saw no need to continue with C&C. (Eventually I even contributed to a ‘quasi-clone myself,’ Crypts and Things.)  I’m still ‘okay’ with C&C.  I would play in a C&C campaign if a good GM were running it. But I have no interest in the game myself these days.


I got into Rolemaster through MERP (which I still like, warts and all, though I wouldn't run it today).  I enjoyed RM in the 1980s and early 1990s, until I quit role-playing games altogether for a stretch around 1992.  At that point, I was suffering ‘burn out’ from all the RM Companions that ICE had been pumping out. There was just too much material for the game – I found it overwhelming.  (Of course, this material was all 'optional,' but since I was an obsessive completist back in those days, I had to own and read all the Companions.)

A few years later I picked up the new version of RM, the (oddly named) ‘Standard System,’ and while it had integrated many of the better ideas from the Companions into a coherent package, it was just … too much.  I tried to run a RMSS campaign around 1999, and it was a disaster.  The system was not the only problem, as our group had a singularly horrible player (a power-gaming ‘optimizer’ – my first and last encounter with this loathsome species).  But RMSS proved to be way too rules-heavy for my tastes.  I've never been tempted to run Rolemaster again, except for the ill-fated and short-lived Rolemaster Express, which seemed to recapture some of MERP's simplicity and charm.

Supposedly there is a new version of Rolemaster in the works.  I will check it out once it becomes available.  Perhaps it will reignite the old flame?  I’m sceptical about that, but will try to keep an open mind.

Despite having cooled on Rolemaster, I still adore Angus McBride’s covers…

(My next post will be a positive one.  I promise!)

25 November 2014

Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: The Book

Congratulations to my friend Christopher Robichaud on his new book, Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy!

There is a nice overview of the book by Ethan Gilsdorf here.  It looks great, and I'm looking forward to delving into it once the holidays arrive.

On why Aristotle would've approved of playing RPGs:
In one of the most compelling chapters, “‘Others play at dice’: Friendship and Dungeons & Dragons,” Jeffery L. Nicholas offers several examples of friendships between characters and players in D&D (as well as friendships from Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride, A Song of Ice and Fire, and his own life. “One reason Aristotle believes people need friends is that only through friendship can one exercise certain virtues that are necessary for leading a flourishing life,” he says. “Through D&D, individuals have the opportunity not only to learn about friendship, loyalty, and love, but also to develop those rare true friendships in which they live a life valuing loyalty and love.” 
I think all D&Ders can speak to a similar effect that the game has had on their lives. It’s a virtuous game, one that opens our eyes to different ideas, different worldviews, different perspectives, opposing plots and quests, as well as pursuit of the common good. “Characters develop relationships that mirror the relationships we develop with other players,” says Nicholas. Had it not been for D&D, he and his gaming buddies would never have been as close. “D&D brought us together once a week, and we were able to talk about the most important things in our lives.”
My only criticism: "No ... Kant vs. Nietzsche vs. Kierkegaard psionic showdowns on the Astral Plane."  (*sigh* Some day…)

Kudos to Christopher!  I think that he rolled a 'natural 20' with this one.

06 November 2014

Pelinore Returns

During the early 1980s I was something of an Anglophile, at least with respect to RPGs.  I generally preferred White Dwarf to Dragon (these were the years during which White Dwarf was a general RPG-focused magazine), I loved the Fighting Fantasy books (they were my ‘fix’ when I couldn’t get together with my friends for a regular game), among my favourite AD&D modules were the ‘U’ and ‘UK’ ones, and I was a big fan of the ‘weird’ Fiend Folio (the Githyanki, the Githzerai, the art of Russ Nicholson, etc.). 

During this time I picked up a few issues of Imagine magazine (now long lost, alas).  Unlike White Dwarf, it was hard to get Imagine at my local gaming shop.  Those few issues included some articles on a world called ‘Pelinore,’ which seemed cool and unusual.  I recall wondering what the whole setting was like.

Now that setting has been made available – for free – by Kellri, in the Collected Pellinore.  Kellri has brought together, in a single document, the Pellinore material from Imagine magazine and GameMaster Publications from 1984-85.  It can be obtained here.

How can one not love a setting in which the clerics of the ‘Green Man’ must be inebriated in order to obtain their divinely-provided spells?  (“His clerics must become moderately intoxicated before sleeping in order to regain their spells” [p. 20].)

05 November 2014

New Shadow World Novel

‘Shadow World’ (also known as ‘Kulthea’) is a fantasy world created by Terry K. Amthor, one of the original members of Iron Crown Enterprises.  It was designed for use with the Rolemaster fantasy role-playing game in the 1980s.  (Amthor’s Middle-Earth campaign module, The Court of Ardor, is sort of a ‘rough draft’ of Shadow World, and is a very poor fit for Middle-Earth, even by the rather loose standards of 1980s ICE.  Severed from Middle-earth, though, Ardor is an excellent setting – easily one of my favourite of all time.  But I digress…)

Amthor recently published a novel set in Shadow World, entitled The Loremaster Legacy.  The ‘Loremasters’ are a secret organisation of mages committed to fighting the ‘Unlife,’ similar to the Istari of Middle-earth, but without the semi-divine background.  (Interestingly, an earlier version of the Loremasters – the ‘Guild of Elements’ – exists within Ardor.)

I used to be a huge fan of Rolemaster, and Amthor's work in particular, including his Shadow World setting, or at least the continent of 'Jaiman' (I never really got into the other areas).  I remember finding the mix of fantasy and science fiction intriguing decades ago.  Now I know that such ‘mixing’ was common in the early days of FRPGs, in such settings as the Wilderlands and Blackmoor, but in the 1980s it seemed quite novel to me, as I was unfamiliar with those settings. 

Anyhow, it's been many years since I last thought about Shadow World at any length, but I may check this out!

31 October 2014

Happy Halloween 2014

I'll be trying out the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu rules tonight (using the free "Quick-Start" version).

It seems like the right night to do so...

06 October 2014

The Old School Renaissance and 5e Dungeons and Dragons

There is a somewhat amusing debate underway at the RPG site over whether the OSR and 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons are (or should be, or likely will be) ‘friends’ or ‘enemies.’  (The OSR, as most readers of this blog no doubt are aware, refers to the ‘Old School Renaissance,’ which, for the purposes of this discussion at least, refers primarily to adherents of TSR-era Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and their related ‘retro-clones’ and ‘near-clones,’ including the magnificent Crypts and Things.)

Having run one session of 5th edition D&D (using the Starter Set), and having looked a bit at the Players’ Handbook and the online Basic Rules, it is clear that D&D 5e is not an ‘old school’ game.  It simply has too many ‘new school’ elements for it to be that (such as ‘at will’ cantrips, full recovery of hit points with every ‘full rest,’ and so forth).

Nor do I think that it ever was intended to be an ‘old school’ game.  Rather, it was designed to be as ecumenical as possible.  Usually such efforts turn out to be horrible, in my experience, since in trying to please everyone the product in question ends up pleasing no one.  But in this case it seems that one can run D&D 5e in an more-or-less ‘old school style’ without too much difficulty – something that was not easy to do with 3e D&D in my experience (and, I gather, simply impossible with 4e).

Moreover, there is no reason why a 5e game cannot borrow elements and ideas from older editions and existing OSR games and settings, and vice versa.  At the very least, it looks quite feasible to run, say, a 1st edition AD&D module using the 5e rules without too much conversion work.  Both games belong to the same genus.  

From an ‘old school perspective,’ so to speak, I would say that 5e D&D resembles Castles and Crusades (a game that, years ago, I found to be a refreshing change from 3e) more than anything else on the market these days.  Like C&C, it can be run in an ‘old school’ way, and clearly draws much of its inspiration from classic D&D and AD&D.  Yet it also includes a number of ‘innovations’ and employs a more unified underlying structure.  Indeed, if I wanted a pithy way to describe (how I would run) 5e D&D, I would say that it is a superior version of C&C.

So D&D 5e and the OSR should be friends – or at least peaceful neighbours – and not enemies.

26 September 2014

Weekend at Loz’s

After over a year of very little gaming – nothing other than a half-dozen online sessions of AD&D – I’m about to jump back into the RPG pool in a big way.  (This is primarily the result of spending the next 11 months in Toronto.  Because of work commitments, travel, and general pathetic laziness on my part, I never got any ‘in person’ gaming going in Chicago over the past two years.)

Lawrence Whitaker (co-author of RuneQuest 6, among many other things) is hosting a few gamers at his place this weekend.  Unsurprisingly, we likely will play a couple of RQ6 games: a return to the epic Young Kingdoms campaign that Lawrence GM’ed three years ago, as well as something in his forthcoming Mythic Britain setting.  Also in the queue is a session of Trail of Cthulhu (which I’ve owned for years, but never played).  I plan to run either a session of Call of Cthulhu (7th edition) or Dungeons & Dragons (5th edition).

After this weekend I hope to write up some of my impressions of these games, especially the ones that I haven’t played or run yet (I already have played and have a very positive opinion of RQ6).

Moreover, I am looking forward to returning this blog to some semblance of life over the next year.  (It also needs a thorough updating, with respect to links, layout, etc.  It looks so 2009!)

17 September 2014

Mythic Britain Previews

Mythic Britain is a forthcoming campaign setting for RuneQuest 6.  The good folks at The Design Mechanism have released a preview of the setting material, as well as a complete adventure for the setting, "Caves of the Circind."

The preview looks great!  I can't comment on the adventure, though, as I believe that I'll be playing through it in less than two weeks.  (I'll try to write up a post-play report afterwards.)

10 September 2014

Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophers Part IV

Another classic from the brilliant Existential Comics: "Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers: The Interdisciplinary Disaster".

I especially like the description of Georg Cantor: "He solved the problem of what happens when you do infinite damage to a monster with infinite hit points. It dies."

20 August 2014

Lovecraft at 124

On this day in 1890 H. P. Lovecraft was born.  Here are 10 things to know about the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos.

15 August 2014

Dark Dungeons, the Movie

Back in my high-school days, my friends and I used to find endlessly amusing the Jack Chick comic, "Dark Dungeons."

Now, much to my amazement, there is a film based on that comic!

(A very realistic portrayal of a typical RPG session.)

I watched the eight minute preview here, and it looks quite funny.  I plan to watch the full version, available here, in the very near future.

Certainly its portrayal of the popularity of RPGs and the people who play them is extremely realistic!

Free RuneQuest 6 adventure: Sariniya's Curse

The good people at the Design Mechanism have made available a free adventure for RuneQuest 6 entitled 'Sariniya's Curse' (available here).  It is set in the same region as the city of Meeros, as described briefly in the (also free) Game Master's Pack.  Thus 'Sariniya's Curse' can be combined with the adventure 'Meeros Falling' (from the GM Pack), providing starting RQ6 GMs with two free related adventures with which to start a campaign.

And of course RuneQuest Essentials also is free.  (But you really should buy the full RQ6 book, as it's the best FRPG published in recent decades.)

11 August 2014

Grubb reviews the 5e D&D Player's Handbook

Jeff Grubb has posted his review of the new Player's Handbook (5th edition Dungeons & Dragons) here.

I don't have this yet myself, but it increasingly is my impression that 5e D&D will not be too bad...

09 August 2014

Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Proofs

Folks who backed the Kickstarter for the seventh edition of The Call of Cthulhu RPG can download the proofs of the two main books now.  (The proofs are free for backers, not $499.95!  You need to provide a code to reduce the price to $0.)

After a quick skim, I think that the PDFs look quite attractive. I'm not a fan of all of the art pieces (unsurprisingly, they range in quality), but the overall appearance of both books is very impressive. 7e is definitely the most attractive version of CoC yet produced by Chaosium.

Also, it's worth noting that the Keeper's book includes all of the rules, so CoC remains a 'one book' RPG.  The Investigator Handbook includes only the information relevant to players.  I rather like that this option is available, as it keeps all the important Mythos 'secrets' exclusively in the hands of Keepers (at least in theory).

Right now, I find the shift to % abilities the most distracting change in 7th edition.  And I remain uncertain about many of the other changes in this edition.  However, I'm going to try to keep an open mind about 7e, and will be giving it a shot in September to see what I think of it in practice.

05 August 2014

Party off the chain with Lovecraft

This Clickhole article, "Saturday's Party at H. P. Lovecraft's Pad Was INSANE," is quite funny (IMHO).

And I think that the author did a pretty good job in emulating HPL's style (albeit updated with some contemporary terms):
The impression the scene generated in my consciousness is so enduring and frightful that it shakes me to recall it now. And lest I burden you with offensively irrelevant and dangerous speculation, I shall leave unsaid what else transpired that night in H.P.’s baroque, Cyclopean abode, and simply say that it was off the chain, indeed, off any chain conceivable to the foremost minds of our time.

31 July 2014

Happy 60th Anniversary to The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings was published on July 29th, 1954.

(Okay, I’m two days late.  *sigh*)

Here is a nice piece on its 60th anniversary by Ethan Gilsdorf.

21 July 2014

5e Players Handbook Preview

Here is a preview of some of the art that will be in the 5th edition D&D Players Handbook.  It also includes the pages from that book that present the ‘Warlock’ class.

Overall, I think that the art is solid.  I love the scene of the wood elf forest city.  I dislike the pictures of the two wizards, both of whom are striking rather silly ‘action poses.’  The other pictures are fine, in my view, and have the virtue of portraying adventure scenes rather than adventurer poses.

On balance, based on what I’ve seen so far, I like the art for 5e a lot more than that of 3e (and, based on my limited exposure, 4e).  I never cared for the ‘dungeon punk’ look that was introduced with 3e, so I’m glad to see that it has been purged, for the most part, in the new edition.

The Warlock class looks interesting, but I’m puzzled as to why it is an ‘arcane’ spell casting class as opposed to a ‘divine’ class, given that it receives its powers via a ‘pact’ with a ‘higher-power.’  Nonetheless, the Warlock seems quite flavourful.

At some point (hopefully this summer) I’ll sit down and read through the Starter Set and the free Basic Rules in order to arrive at a judgement concerning 5e.  However, based on the snippets that I’ve read so far, I think that I like it much more than I ever did 3e (and 4e, of course, is simply beyond the Pale).

20 July 2014

Kane and Crypts and Things

I’ve been reading the ‘Kane’ short story anthologies by Karl Edward Wagner over the past few weeks.  So far I’ve finished Death Angel’s Shadow and The Book of Kane, and presently am in the midst of Night Winds.  I eventually plan to read the Kane novels as well – Bloodstone, Dark Crusade, and Darkness Weaves – though I likely will take a break after I finish up Night Winds, and so probably will not complete the entire Kane series until sometime this autumn or winter.  Based on what I’ve read so far, however, I recommend these stories to any fan of ‘swords-and-sorcery’ fiction.

Wagner is a solid writer who describes his scenes in an economical but evocative manner.  The stories generally are engaging, and sometimes have genuinely surprising twists in them.  The world in which the stories take place is a classic swords and sorcery one.  There is magic in the world – indeed, Kane himself practices sorcery at times, such as in the story “Undertow” – yet it is generally subtle, dark, and eldritch.  

Kane himself is an unsympathetic yet strangely compelling character.  He does a lot of very evil and savage stuff, yet nonetheless comes across as intelligent and even charismatic.  Evil as Kane frequently is, his enemies, including putative ‘heroes’ like the band that hunts Kane in the story “Cold Light,” often are no better, and frequently quite a bit worse.  The world of Kane is a morally grey one, with the darker shades predominant.   

I had a hard time finding any maps of Kane’s world online.  The one below is the best one that I could find.  I also could not find much information on the world itself.  It seems to be inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria, insofar as it is a mythical ‘pre-history’ version of earth.  (Wagner himself was a great Howard fan, and helped publish three anthologies of the original, unmodified versions of the Conan stories.)  

The character of ‘Kane’ seems to be based loosely upon the Biblical ‘Cain,’ though with some noteworthy differences.  For instance, in “Misericord” Kane claims that Adam was his father and that Eve was his stepmother (thus implying that his actual mother was Lilith?).  Part of Wagner’s fictional history, I suspect, is the idea that later myths concerning Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel were based roughly upon the ‘real’ Kane and his origins.

Anyhow, I’ve found myself thinking repeatedly, as I’ve been reading these stories, that the world of Kane would make a great setting for Crypts and Things (my favourite OSR ‘near-clone’ FRPG).

14 July 2014

New York Times and Guardian articles on Dungeons and Dragons

Related to the release of the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons and the game’s 40th anniversary, there were two articles on D&D in major publications yesterday: one in the New York Times, and one in the Guardian.

03 July 2014

Basic Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition Free PDF

I'm sure that most people who are into RPGs already know about this, but the 'Basic Rules' for the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons are available in a free PDF here.

(Alas, I'm not sure when I'll be able to look them over, as I'm crazy busy with other stuff right now...)

28 June 2014

Magic Items of the Absurd

This article, ​"The 20 Most WTF Magical Items in Dungeons & Dragons," is a fun read.

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

08 June 2014

RuneQuest Essentials available as Free PDF

The dynamic duo at the Design Mechanism have produced a 'basic' version of RuneQuest 6 and made the PDF available for free (though donations are appreciated).  It is available at DM's website (download page) or at DrivethruRPG.

Here is Loz's announcement from the RPGsite:
We are releasing RQ6 in a much-reduced, introductory PDF edition called RuneQuest Essentials. Designed for those who want to try RuneQuest before migrating to the full rules, it offers a great way of getting to know one of the most celebrated roleplaying game systems out there. 
What's more, RuneQuest Essentials is free. You can download it from www.thedesignmechanism.com/downloads (or via DrivethruRPG and our publisher page there). If you feel we're being overly generous, then there's a Donate button you can use to make a contribution of whatever you feel appropriate - or, at Drivethru, you can Pay What You Want. 
What we want is for you to try RuneQuest. We'll be publishing an introductory scenario, Sariniya's Curse, very soon, and there's already a wealth of additional free material available on the Downloads page. 
So if you've never tried RuneQuest before, there's no better time, and no better way, than with RuneQuest Essentials.
I think that this is a brilliant move (and, if I may be momentarily immodest, remember suggesting to Loz that he do something like this over a year ago). The Call of Cthulhu has long offered an excellent quick start free PDF. Given that WotC will be making the 'basic' version of 5e Dungeons & Dragons available as a free PDF, this seems to be the way of the future.

As I've mentioned before here, RuneQuest 6 is the best FRPG to have been published in the past two decades.  Check it out!

04 June 2014

In R'lyeh, Pie Eats You!

(UPDATE: Image from here.)

01 June 2014

Return to the Savage North

I’m delighted to note that D101 Games recently has released a revised version of their excellent campaign setting and adventure pack, The Savage North, by John Ossoway and Newt Newport.  Designed for use with OpenQuest, it should be easy to run with other d100/BRP systems. 

I purchased the original version (both print and PDF) back in 2010, and thought very highly of it then.  The revised version retains all what was fun about the original – including a modified version of Jon Hodgson’s wonderful pulpy cover (the savage barbarian now has a crown!).  But the revised version of The Savage North also includes some new stuff.  Especially helpful, I think, is the section that discusses how to reconcile the ‘swords-and-sorcery,’ ‘Conan-esque’ vibe of the setting and adventures with the OpenQuest mechanics.  Additional advice on creating OQ characters appropriate for the setting also is provided.

So, if you’re a fan of OQ, or d100/BRP games more generally, and love the swords and sorcery genre, then consider a journey into The Savage North!

28 May 2014

The Hawkmoon Tetralogy

Over the past few years I’ve reread (or, in some cases, read for the first time) some of Michael Moorcock’s classic fantasy series.  I started with the two Corum trilogies, which I remembered as my favourites from decades ago.  I then reread the Elric stories.  Some of these (namely, those published after the late 1980s) I read for the for first time.  I found the Elric tales to be wide ranging in terms of quality, but at their best, they are wonderful and evocative, definitely ‘must reads’ for any fan of fantasy literature.  I also read The War Hound and the World’s Pain, which I thought was excellent.  Unfortunately, the subsequent novel, The City in the Autumn Stars, was a tedious slog, though the third one, The Dragon in the Sword, was somewhat better.  (The Dragon in the Sword actually is written from the perspective of Erekosë, and thus is also a sequel to The Silver Warriors.)   

Last year I reread the original Hawkmoon tetralogy, The History of the Runestaff.  (I still have my paperbacks from the late 1980s, when I read them whilst vacationing at my parents’ cottage on Lake Huron.)

I quite enjoyed them, although not as much as either Moorcock’s Corum or Elric sagas.  The main reason is that I found the main character, Dorian Hawkmoon, to be somewhat insipid.  While quite interesting things happen to Hawkmoon, he himself is a rather flavourless, stereotypical ‘noble hero.’  Both Corum and Elric are far more interesting characters.  (And I found Hawkmoon’s love interest, Yisselda, the daughter of Count Brass, to be a bland, traditional ‘damsel-in-distress.’)  

Fortunately, some of Hawkmoon’s companions are interesting.  There is the world-weary Count Brass, a grizzled veteran of many wars, now Lord Guardian of the Kamarg.  Also of note is Oladhan, an honourable dwarf and skilled archer, the hirsute son of a human and mountain giant.  Finally, there is the Frenchman Huillam d'Averc, who first encounters Hawkmoon whilst serving as a mercenary in the army of evil Granbretan, but later allies himself with the Kamarg.  D’Averc is far more witty, clever, and all-around interesting than Hawkmoon (he sort plays the ‘Han Solo’ to Hawkmoon’s ‘Luke Skywalker’).  The story improves markedly whenever he is featured.

But the characters who truly shine in the tetralogy are the villains, especially the various leaders of the malevolent Empire of Granbretan.  There is the hideous immortal King-Emperor Huon, preserved for countless centuries in an orb of life-preserving fluid, whose withered body resembles a wrinkled fetus, and who speaks with vocal chords torn from a melodic youth.  There is Baron Meliadus , a charismatic psychopath, who lusts after Yisselda (for reasons I can’t fathom), and seeks to crush the Kamarg at any cost.  He’s the kind of villain that one loves to hate.   There is Taragorm of the Palace of Time, whose mask is a working clock...

Ah yes, the masks.  One thing that makes the Granbretans so interesting as a people is the fact that they are compelled to wear masks whenever out in public.  Indeed, their whole society manifests a kind of mental illness.  All Granbretans belong to different ‘orders,’ each of which has its own official mask (the leaders wear ones shaped from fine metals, with gems, etc.), most of which are modeled on animals (wolves, rats, mantises, and so forth), though there are some exceptions (such as Taragorm’s clock).  The society overall is rigidly ordered and hierarchical, with baroque architecture and items that are mixes of technology and magic.  And it is, well, evil: Granbretans see their destiny to be that of dominating the world, and perhaps the multiverse, under the despotic rule of the undying Huon.  I would be hard pressed to think of a more colourful and frankly ‘fun’ evil empire in fantasy literature.

So I recommend reading the Hawkmoon tetralogy, but for the secondary characters, villains, and the distinctive setting -- not the protagonist! 

27 May 2014

Basic Dungeons and Dragons 5e to be a Free PDF

There will be a 'Basic' version of the '5th' edition of Dungeons and Dragons:
Basic D&D is a PDF that covers the core of the game. It’s the equivalent of the old D&D Rules Cyclopedia, though it doesn’t have quite the same scope (for example, it won’t go into detail on a setting). It runs from levels 1 to 20 and covers the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, presenting what we view as the essential subclass for each. It also provides the dwarf, elf, halfling, and human as race options.
No Erol Otus cover, alas, but pretty cool nonetheless.  (I remember when 3e was released I wished that something like a viable 'Basic' version had been available.)

While I wish that this would be a print product, or at least that a print version would be made available, I certainly cannot complain about the price:
But the best part? Basic D&D is a free PDF. Anyone can download it from our [WotC] website.
Nice move.  I can forgive (almost!) the absence of character creation rules from the starter rules.

26 May 2014

Why Do We Seem to be Alone in the Universe?

This article on the 'Fermi Paradox' is pretty awesome.

(Fans of authors like Ian M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds especially will enjoy it, I think.)

21 May 2014

Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set Sans Character Creation Rules

The necessary rules for character creation will not be included in the forthcoming D&D 'starter set'.  From Mike Mearls's twitter thing:
To clear up the Starter Set - it's aimed at DMs, so no PC creation in the box. But players will be able to make characters without it.
This strikes me as a dreadful decision.  Players want to create their own characters, not use one of five pre-made generic characters.  When I first started out in this hobby, over three decades ago (!), character creation was a favourite way to pass the time.  Also, it helped me to learn the rules.

More generally, the character creation process promotes a sense of investment in players' characters.  And frankly, not including character creation rules makes the starter set look like a sales gimmick, not a real game.

Very disappointing, WotC.

UPDATE (22 May 2014) from this source:
Approx 15% of the D&D Player's Handbook will be free on WotC site to cover the basics of building characters for those getting Starter Sets. 

19 May 2014

Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition Coming Soon(ish)

Although I haven’t been following the development of the ‘5th edition’ of Dungeons and Dragons very closely (indeed, not at all over the past year), I could not avoid learning that it very likely would start being released this summer.  And now it’s official.  The core rules will be released from July 20th to November 18th

For a basic summary, go here. For slightly more info, try here.

I’ll be getting the ‘Basic Set’ – er… the ‘Starter Set’ – for sure.  The price is okay, and I would like to see what this version of the game looks like. 

I really hope that I like what I see, that it turns out to be the case that the wonderful ‘Old School Renaissance’ did indeed have some impact on the development of 5th edition.   I hope this not because I’m dependent on the Wizards of the Coast for my RPG needs.  (Quite the contrary.  The only WotC products that I’ve purchased in recent years were the reprints of the 1st edition AD&D rules and modules, the reprint of the original (1974) D&D rules, and some PDFs of out-of-print materials.)  For ‘D&D-style’ gaming, my copies of 1st edition AD&D, Basic/Expert D&D, 0e D&D, the ‘clones’ like OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry, and the ‘quasi-clone’ Crypts & Things, will continue to meet my needs perfectly well.  Nonetheless, I would be delighted to see a broadly ‘old school’ style of play being supported, at least to some extent, by the hobby’s leader (or one of its leaders, if WotC really has been supplanted by Paizo).

The price for the core books, though, certainly is worrisome: 150 USD for the traditional triumvirate! 

12 May 2014

Worlds Collide Again: The Analytic Philosophers versus a Lich

Here is another amusing strip on "Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophers" from Existential Comics!

(I assume that posting this comic here is fine, ethically and legally, since it's available for free at the 'Existential Comics' website, and I have linked to that website.  If I'm mistaken about this, let me know and I'll take it down.)

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).