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Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Okay, I am about to review a book for GM's. I like reading books on adventure design for fantasy games, so I will start reviewing books for DM's on my blog.

My rating system was primarily designed for music, to which I been listening since childhood, but it can also apply to books, movies, and other stuff. The difference between the amount of stars is no merely quantitative, it is also qualitative, and here it is:

THIS SUCKS!!!!!!! (no stars)
This is really bad. I hate it! I will tell you exactly why in the body of the review.

A DM Book example of This Sucks!!! is the Cosmos Builder, Volume 7 of the Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds series. The reason that I dislike this book so much is that it covers no new ground beyond the Manual Of The Planes. With the name like Cosmos Builder I expect a modicum of modern theoretical physics and Cosmology, so that you can come up with something original, however, the author of this book is innocent of any Cosmology, and the purpose of his volume is to help you locate your setting within the AD&D Cosmology as described in the Manual Of The Planes.

Don't buy it!
Don't waste your money.
This record flat-lines.
Good music typically shows off talent, originality, technique, and this record is devoid of all three. It's nothing new. Others have done it better. In film this is not a remake, but derivative of a previous film.

In DM books, it offers nothing that I can use in my game. For an Example, consider any of the so-called Retro-Clones. Why bother with Labyrinth Lord, when I have the original D&D Books, Moldway red and blue boxes, etc.?

Don't waste your money.
Buy the hit single instead.
Too often musicians and their producers pursue the riches via a hit single that gets all the production resources and scores high on the charts, the rest of the album comes as an afterthought, songs on it useless filler material.

In DM books, this text has but a single useful idea. It can be as simple as an original encounter table. An example of the ONE STAR DM writing is the original rulebook for the Top Secret TSR game. The only useful thing is a table which lists locations, where to set up encounters. This table lists various locales, which with some modificatiosn can be used in D&D.

Body of Work, too bad it's lifeless.
Spark needed to breathe life into it.
There might be one or two good songs on record, but the work is consistent and the presence of an artist is felt. If the music itself was better, it would rate more stars. If you are a collector or a follower of this particular artist, this record might be worth more stars to you. 

In DM Books, the ideas are scarce, the writing is sparse, lists and tables substitute for prose, leaving you to figure out what to do with it, sort of like the OD&D original three books.

A couple of great driving songs.
This is a good album worth having. There are more good songs on it than the one or two singles you can get separately. The rest of the album has merit, but not as good as the best songs on it.

This is typically amateurish DM writing. It is serviceable, but not academic, lacks depth or profound originality as far as the game mechanics are concerned. An example of the THREE STAR DM Writing are sections of the Gygax DMG and Moldway's BLue Book on Wilderness Design. The problem with that writing is that it fails conceptually to mirror the elegance of the Dungeon Adventure design with the Wilderness Adventure. Wilderness Survival Guide would fall here, because it does not introduce any new ideas for wilderness design. Unearthed Arcana can also fall under the THREE STAR rating.

Your friends will think it's cool!
You can listen to the whole album consistently, and it won't disappoint. Furthermore, if you play it for your friends, there will be no embarrassing songs on it.

In DM Books, this would be Five Stars, except for one thing, that keeps it from perfection. Dungeoneer's Survival Guide and the D&D 2.5 Players Option Combat and Tactics are examples of the FOUR STAR Books. Both books are well written and introduce a wealth of new ideas, however neither transcend the framework of the original AD&D concepts to create something new.

Your friends will think you are cool!
Transcendent spiritual stuff!
Profound personal meaning!
This has talent, originality, substance, meaning and depth. Granted, personal meaning is the height of subjectivity, but this work generally has to have great artistic merit to get through to me.

In DM Books, this is Synergy! This is writing that comes together! It combines good writing with new ideas and game mechanics comprehensibly explained using common everyday language.

The best example of 5 Star DM writing is the How To Design a Dungeon Adventure section in the DM's Section of the Moldway D&D Red Box Basic Set. Another example of a FIVE STAR Book is Gary Gygax's Oriental Adventure.

Saturday, December 26, 2015


RPG Pundit keeps hammering on the storygame movement how it is not the RPG's, because the DM lacks the creative authority, but the Narrativist environment was exactly the place, where D&D was developed. Role Playing was a free form improvisation, that occurred on the spur of the moment in table top miniatures wargaming, when a player wanted to get into the character of one of the miniatures on the table. Two players would play out scenes, in a recorded case one was a Prussian colonel, and the other an anarchist student spying behind the German lines, and they had a duel, which was resolved by the toss of a coin. The concept of a DM evolved later. Many of the wargamers were educated and knowledgeable intellectuals, who brought their knowledge into the spontaneous game design. For instance, what we know today as Encounter Tables, was previously used as Narrative Randomizers in the experimental literature of the American literary scene of the 1950's, where there was a fascination with a random story, which eventually spawned the choose your own adventure genre.

Once Gygax made the game his own, this kind of growth stopped. Had Gygax the wisdom of a higher being, he would have shared spoils of the creative process and brought the other gamers on board, if only for a focus group to keep developing the hobby. Today, the defunct Forge movement and the Storygame movement, over whose alleged demise there is much unhealthy gloating by RPGPundit, were the closest embodiment of the open forum improvisational tradition that brought us D&D.
This game did not evolve conceptually beyond that. Planned obsolescence became a part of the marketing strategy by the WOTC. The simple reason that good always triumphs is that evil can't see past itself, and WOTC stock is worth .025 cents per share today.

How could the D&D been marketed differently? The TSR/WOTC mindset was that you can sell six times as many books, if you market to munchkins as opposed to the DMs. Also, better DMs buy modules than roll their own. This is where the company that sells D&D went bankrupt, both morally and fiscally. You see, almost every player is a closet DM, who wants to build their own world. When you houserule or modify the rules of the game, you are world-building. How can you market creativity, you ask? Remember those guys, Da Vinci, the Cistine Chapel and Michelangelo. Those guys were the successful DMs of their days. You see, the painting was only a byproduct of their drive to KNOW the world and to ACCURATELY recreate it on the canvas. That is why Da Vinci was both an engineer and a naturalist, and also studied anatomy and was a combat veteran. He did this so that his paintings looked REAL. You paint a battle scene, you know how the weapons and armor works, how the wounded sound, you are painting from experience.

DM's are a variety of writers, and they too attempt to recreate the world in a fantasy form that has some essential truths in it. This is an outgrowth of a very essential sensory-neurological process in which all conscious beings engage, called the Environmental Recovery Problem - how a living organism creates a mental picture of the world it lives in so that it can function in it. The depth of this process is the reason why those wargamers in the Lake Geneva club and elsewhere put their most advanced knowledge into developing the mechanics of the new game. The world-building that the DM engages in, is really a form of philosophy, and had the TSR/WOTC become a published to the D&D hobby at THIS level, they would have still been in business as a published more successful than a game company that they are currently. Specifically, any DM is a story teller. How do you become a good story teller? How to model this and this process in the real world. Sociology? Psychology? Mathematics?

Hire experts to write material on these topics, in a language accessible to the layman? This is what COULD have happened, had the D&D stayed a game for the grad school intellectuals. The games that took place at the Lake Geneva club were at THAT level. By stripping out the context and the discourse in which these games were taking place, Gygax dumbed down the game significantly to begin with, and from gitgo, he was marketing D&D out of its context, but had he kept it relevant to the original crowd that developed it, the version of the future I envisioned would have been possible. Also, had Gygax engaged with the clubs to develop his company, the TSR would have been in much better shape than it was historically.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


It was a cold and foggy day, the Yuletide in Midlands. Old Man Winter saw to it that no one was cheated despite the warm weather. It was a bad day for a country ride, and Greyhead mentioned in passing that he will give semi-private lessons to anyone, who bothered to show up at the fencing school. Everyone appeared at the first lesson, as if on cue. There were regular men at arms, who brought their buddies along to marvel at the legendary man. There were acquaintances from the Baron's Court, who dropped coin for a private lesson or two to refine their technique. A few uncouth princelings thronged with little sibs and followers, from Sele Baar and Sele Klawu mostly, actually Grey's favorite student or two among them.

Grey looked at the scene with some astonishment and barely concealed satisfaction, and ordered that the barn doors be thrown wide open, for people to take shelter from the rain. He also ordered his senior students to erect the tent roof nearby, so that everyone can shelter from the rain. Xadas led everyone in warm up exercise and someone brought a wagon load of firewood and started a bonfire to chase away the chill and the fog. Grey conferred with the senior students, and then started instructing each person individually, student or not, so long as they warmed up and wanted to learn. They could wait their turn inside the barn or under the awning, but Grey stayed out in  the fog and the drizzle, partly obscured by the fog from the onlookers. Maquisapa was off on the edge of the property, giving lessons in hunting and stealth technique.

To stay on the feet wearing weighed down training armor and swinging the heavy leaden training blade in the rain was more taxing, than Grey thought, but he managed to stay with it to his own great satisfaction. The day went quicker than he thought until the last student visitor gave him the best wishes and rode off into the evening. Satisfied, Grey walked slowly to his cottage, where the girls have spent the day preparing the holiday feast. His friends were waiting for him with a warm cup of mulled wine and he sat down and sipped it slowly,. before going upstairs to take off his armor and for a dry change of clothes. Xadas supervised the senior students as they took down the awning, and cleaned up after the day, and then joined the others in Grey's cottage.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


An English Prof once told me - everyone falls in love with a particular critic, when they study literature, and I fell in love with M.M. Bakhtin. Bakhtin is an obscure academic, a contemporary of JRR Tolkien, but from the heart of Mordor. He was one of those eccentrics, who produced weird ideas in total obscurity; his field of knowledge was language and literature, philology, and his strange ideas turned out to have real power in our mundane world. Unlike Tolkien, who studied dead languages, Bakhtin studied the living language, or Speech. Specifically, he believed that there is a constant struggle between the narrative of those in power, and those who struggle against them. The High Speech versus Vulgar Speech, that is marginalized by those in power. His study of literature centered primarily on Satire, which in Europe tends to have bitter political roots. Had he lived in the land of Elves, he may have been totally ignored, but in the Stalinist Russia, powers that be deemed that his work is gibberish, but that he is ideologically not trustworthy, so they gave him a small prison sentence, and the exiled him to the middle of nowhere, where he taught literature for the next thirty or so years, his work not really banned, rather unrecognized in his own country.

It so happened, that his students became influential in their own careers. Some were granted access to the West. Some took Bakhtin's unpublished work, translated it into French, and it was published in France to a wide acclaim. Bakhtin got further recognition in the US in the 1960's, because the Black Panther movement discovered his writing in France, translated them into English, and used it to either train their people or shape their political message. Twenty or so years later I discovered him in English. He founded theory of modern literature. Back then in the 1950's he defined modern literature and fleshed out how it would differ from the classics. On my level, I was learning writing, and I was looking for ways to a more accurate, more realistic storytelling, and Bakhtin was IT.

He laid out a lot of concepts. One of the hardest one is the notion of Chronotope. When you are telling a story, in any narrative, there is a relationship between space and time. The Place and how time flows through it determines the flow of the storytelling itself. Bakhtin postulated that different genres of literature have different Chronotopes. Relying primarily on Ancient Greek literature, Bakhtin, postulated different ways that space and time flow are represented in the narrative. When I first learned of it, it was very hard to wrap my head around it, or find a practical application for it. I wrote a term paper on it, got an A, but looking at it now, I missed the mark. Coming back to it now, I realize that Chronotopes are more obvious in role playing, where they can help the GM better run their games.

If you play D&D, you already know Chronotopes - Dungeon Crawl, Sitting in the Tavern before the adventure, Hex Crawl. For the purposes of the game, AD&D and other role playing games impose a scale on both the space in time. Space is represented in terms of the map scale and time is subdivided into varieties of Turns, Melee Rounds, and Combat segments. At each scale is a unique form of play. A good GM is able to freely switch the focus of the game session and change the mode of the gameplay as players move through an adventure. Problems occur, when a DM is stuck in a particular mode, because they are not familiar enough to be comfortable running other modes of play. Thus, we might have a Mega Dungeon crawl, because the DM does not know how to design a wilderness adventure, or we may have an encounter a day hex-crawl, because the DM does not know how to design a true sandbox campaign setting. I seen a group of D&D players with their DM totally miss the experience of playing Traveler, because they ran it in the D&D style site-based adventure mode, that got nowhere. The DM played the Chronotope that he was most familiar with.

Having said that, let's look at some of the Chronotopes presented in the Gygax's DMG: There is Combat Chronotope, broken into 1 minute Rounds, with a detailed step-by step procedure. Six second Combat Segments are used to determine initiative and who goes when. Then there is a Dungeon Exploration Chronotope, broken down into 10 Minute Turns, where players explore the Dungeons, and look for traps, secret doors, and treasure. Then there is a Wilderness Travel Chromotope, broken into Days, with chances of getting lost and checks for combat encounters between the once and several times per day, based on terreain. Finally, there are sub chronotopes for psychic combat, combat in the air and on the sea. Wilderness Survival Guide adds survival of the outdoors to the aforementioned Wilderness Travel chronotope. Of course, Gygax was writing before the advent of the Node-based and Event-based adventure design, and the D&D game was taken by its desgners in tbe direction of the linear railroad adventure story arcs, with WOTC reducing the game to a version of a pencil and paper Diablo with dice, simplifying down to the Room/Encounter Chronotope, omitting the task of getting there.

On my part, I have evolved several other Midlands Chronotopes of my own: Wilderness Crawl - Time reduced to hours, players navigating a topographic map in tactical mode pursuing an enemy. Boat Journey - players spending about a week of game time sailing down a river, no combat, extensive role play interaction between PC's and NPC's.

The practical implication of the Chronotope for the GM is in preparing for play. Think about what your players will be doing during the game session - Are they traveling? Are they adventuring? Are they between adventures taking care of business? What is the ground that your players will cover - are they traveling within the County? Are they moving between the locations in the town? Will they soend their whole time at a King's reception or at a tournament? Also consider the type of the Encounters that will move your adventure forward. Leave a chance for combat/confrontation, even if none should occur. Figure out how long the events covered by the game session will take, and also figure in the travel times between the common locations, if the players will be shuttling between them talking care of business. Knowing all this will give you and idea of what kind of turns to use dring the game sessions, for by breaking down the time into discrete turns, you are pacing your narrative and regulating the flow of time for a vivid and an interesting game, for instead of saying "you rode for one day, roll for an encounter", players actually RODE for one day and experienced your world.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


There is a scientific article published in a peer review Sociology magazine, which idealistically stated that role-playing games are exercises in communal story creating. That’s nice, but it is of no use to anyone trying to become a better DM or to start a new D&D group from scratch.

Based on my experience, D&D is a group activity that people can engage in, if they have time on their hands. That’s obvious, but what I am saying here, is that you have a group of friends first, and then they can choose to play D&D, or some other fantasy role-playing game, or they might as well choose to play ping-pong, Scrabble, or Poker. Almost every D&D group with excellent game play involved pre-existing groups of friends with deep social ties outside the gaming hobby.

There is a common notion, that if you are a gamer, you can join a D&D group and play. That is true, for years, most hobby shops provided bulletin boards for players and games to seek each other out. There were good games and mostly there were mediocre ones. Even back then, there were DMs trying to make money off gaming, and they didn’t run good games. One of the effects of hobby shop advertising were public games, where a meeting room at a library or school was secured, and a dozen or so people showed up to play. Those games were agonizingly slow. In one I had to wait twenty minutes to say what my character was doing on the particular turn – moving forward down a dark tunnel in a conga line of the other player characters, my sword ready to strike and looking intently side to side. Sometimes smaller groups broke off from a larger one to play at someone’s house. When I started playing again 15 or so years later, again, I ran into a public game, it was just as slow, except this time it occurred to me that this was an investigative committee work in  reverse. During a committee, the incident is combed over minute by minute, until it is understood what happened. In a D&D game with a large  number of players, minutes are spent to work out what happens in the imaginary world in a few seconds of tactical time.

Another thing affecting the quality of the D&D game is that each player brings in his or her motivation to the table. One would assume, that players are there to play D&D and get into the story portrayed by the DM. That is not the case. That is not the case to an extent, that when players actually get into the DM’s story, start paying attention and work together, it is called players’ Agency. Too often there are games with little or no active players participation or initiative. There is also DMs incompetence, which limits player initiative.

If you are trying to start your own D&D game from scratch, it is precisely the reason mentioned above, that you need to be mindful of the team building and group dynamics. You would be na├»ve to assume a DM’s contract with the players – DM’s runs the story and players will participate in it. All kinds of political behaviors and pressures will come to bear to derail your story and rip your group apart. For that reason, once you recruited a bunch of strangers to play D&D, you must transform them into an informal group of friends, if you want to keep them showing up regularly and playing for months and years to come. With notable exceptions, D&D tends to be a sheltered suburban male phenomenon with the traditional conservatism of the middle class suburbanites. Shock them out of their comfy little world, and they will be loath to play in your game. Social differences will rip your group apart, if you entertain them. I had a situation where my yuppie players tried to network and leave my working class blue collar players outside. Be wary of the consumerist attitude of the players, who claim to be coming to play in your game, but not to visit you or hang out with you personally. Watch out for that person, who will insist on bringing his or her own food with them to the game. If they aren’t willing to bring food for everyone to share, and if they aren’t willing to break bread with you, then they won’t make friends with you. Their behavior is egotistical, and you need to be aware of it. If you are a grown up, you have spent a lot of time and effort to put your game together, you want to run your adventure and what you don’t need is one or more egoists in your midst, the ones, for whom the game will be an exercise in dominance for themselves and unnecessary stress for you. Watch out for signs of passive aggression. If they can’t hang out with you and others, and if they have other social agenda besides participating in your game, get rid of them.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


I was lucky enough to play in a spontaneous LRPG when I was a kid in second grade. It was pretend on steroids. We would either climb under the table and pretend that it was the bridge of a starship, or, we would run around with toy pistols and pretend to be spies and officers in WW1.

Here is the thing - it was an RPG without a GM, or rather the group consensus was the GM. The game started out with each player introducing their character. Say, I am a German counter intelligence officer. See the nice Luger (pistol, toy) I got? I execute spies with it - like this. A mock execution of the imaginary enemy. OK, cool. Everyone would do a round of introductions. Then you build on it by adding more stories about the character. Basically we would walk around pretending to be characters talking about themselves as they walk. Sometimes there would be spontaneous interchanges in character. Two cardinal rules were (and this is where this went into the LRPG territory) was that 1) you did not copy another's story or try to one up another tale and (2) you can not contradict what you claimed about your character previously. The game usually involved someone throwing out a crisis, and the rest trying to solve it. The starship is flying into Yellow Fog! If a ship goes into Yellow Fog, everyone on the ship dies!

I first encountered D&D when we moved to New York City and I was going to the seventh grade. I went to the IS 145 Joseph Pulitzer Intermediary School, and it had a temporary classroom building abutting the playground. The year was 1979, and the wall facing the playground was decorated with a mural depicting dragons. There was a Green Dragon, a Red Dragon, a Blue Dragon, and a Black Dragon running the corrugated metal wall for the entire length of the temporary classroom building. There were mountains, lakes, and pine forests in the background, and a gray silhouette of a castle in the background. The image was evocative. It captured awe, mystery, and the unknown in my soul. On one corner it simply said: Dungeons and Dragons.

I stumbled upon a hobby shop a little while later. There was an article in the paper about D&D being possibly involved in a man’s suicide. I went in the shop and asked about the game. There was a grizzly bearded man and a skinny kid with a pockmarked face working in the store. The kid showed me Moldway’s red and blue boxed sets, the basic and the expert sets of the game. Sometime later I saved my allowances, bought the red box set, and brought it home. It took me an hour and a half to roll up my first character. I rolled 3d6 in order and it was a Magic User. I didn’t understand most of the book. It took me two years and advice from a kid in High School to figure out how to use the percentile dice and how to figure out weapon damage. He also showed me the hard cover books of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons fist edition, and I was hooked for life.

Saturday, May 9, 2015


Before the US Army came up with the concept of the Social Terrain, David Cook and Harold Johnson at TSR designed a board game in 1981, called Escape From New York. It was based on an awesome John Carpenter film of the same name. The game was fast paced, exceptionally well designed, and featured a revolutionary board design. The genius of the game was that all game play and game mechanic folded into telling a story. The weakness of the game was that the story mirrored the movie, and did not go beyond it. In other words, no event was possible other than what happened in the film. Survival was difficult, movie outcome hard to achieve. Too bad, same design was not applied to any other game, this was a one-shot deal, and a classic, the way the first edition of the Dungeon! was.

But the revolutionary part of interest to us was the way the game board was mapped. The board was Manhattan, New York, but it was represented in an original way, using the four-color scheme reminiscent of the Four Color Theorem in Mathematics, but having nothing to do with it. The color of the space on which the playing piece landed on the game board, denoted the type of the environment that went beyond mere geography or topography. There were Red, Green, White, and Orange spaces. Red spaces were urban jungle, Green and White were urban Open Spaces (Green being parks and White, open lots), and Orange were the Cultural Centers, the only places where the players can uncover vital clues. What you encountered, also depended on what color space you landed, the Red being the home of the most dangerous encounters. Similar kind of color coding was used in the early Sim City PC game, where the Industrial Zones were Yellow, Commercial Zones were Blue, and Residential Zones were Green.

This was an amazing concept to me, when I figured it out, and when I built my post-apocalyptic fantasy world setting for the Aftermath! rules, there was a vacuum, and I picked up on the concept. A brief digression here. TSR under Gygax came up with a number of pencil and paper role-playing games to cover all movie and literary genres with role playing rule sets. They published Boot Hill for the Wild West, Top Secret for espionage, Star Frontiers for space, to compete with Traveler, and Gamma World, for the post nuclear apocalypse. The biggest problem with the TSR brand was that game play was patterned on the D&D model. This may have worked for medieval fantasy setting, but it strained credibility, when applied to modern world. In Top Secret, you had your Thief, your Hit Man, and your Investigator, complete with advancement levels. The game was released at the height of the Cold War, but the authors were woefully ignorant of the real world politics and history to come up with something remotely useful for modeling the cold war. Boot Hill was an awesome game, but it suffered from lack of support and did not have a sourcebook to make the game playable beyond combat. Combat rules were accurate in terms of mortality and chances of survival, if you got hit, but the game was too lethal and characters did not survive long, when it was played as a war game. Traveler was too abstract, but Star Frontiers was just too corny for me, and I never picked it up. By far, Gamma World was TSR's most unique and original offering beside D&D.

I liked Gamma World a lot, but then discovered the Aftermath! and Twilight 2000, when they first came out. These games offered a vision, drastically different from TSR. The Aftermath! let create a post apocalyptic world, like something out of the Dawn of the Dead or Warday! novel of the DefCon4 movie, which I am guessing is the iconic Aftermath! movie the way Sword and the Sorcerer is a truly iconic D&D film, since it features a Lich and a workable concept of an underground labyrinth. Anyway, Aftermath! came out in 1981, and its play foreshadowed the moods of the Walking Dead 30 years before it was released.

And so, I was into Aftermath! Two things that the game forced me to look at were geography and urban design, because I was fascinated by ruins and urban decay, and I needed to be able to read the urban landscape, before I can create a post-apocalyptic sandbox for the players. Escape From New York! fascinated me for the same reasons, and I stumbled on color coding the adventure terrain. My post apocalyptic world had everything and the kitchen sink thrown into it. There was a nuclear war, there was a major pandemic (turned out not far fetched at all, as they were planning to use germ warfare in conjunction with nuking), there was a religious movement, that sparked a post-nuke religious war. On top of it, there was a contact with aliens, alien technological artifacts, and a zombie like apocalypse in the big cities. It was a hell of a place, where humanity was holding on to dear life by the skin of its teeth. My sandbox had seven colors: GREEN was traditional wilderness. WHITE was deserted suburban areas; Roads, motels, convenience stores, suburban developments. RED was urban decay. Ruins of big cities, with tall buildings and multi-story residential houses. ORANGE was cultural centers, communities where survivors lived, traded, etc. YELLOW were uninhabitable areas contaminated with radiation, germs, and chemical weapons. Stuff that could kill you and which required protective clothing. BLUE was water. Some survivors used it as a barrier and lived on large ships and small islands. BLACK were areas of alien contamination. Not so much gamma world style mutants, though there were fields of mutant grass, but the hazards of truly alien technology and pollution, that can both kill, and can be extremely valuable to the military and other scientists. Alien technology mostly smooth, indestructible, and inert, but if activated, extremely dangerous due to things like emitted radiation and gravitational field distortion.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


Once upon a time there was a great forest fire. The year was 1949 and the place was Mann Gulch, Montana. There were a bunch of Smokejumpers, or airborne forest firefighters trapped by a conflagration enveloping them. They were trying to outrun it, but the fire was curving around them. One old man lit clumps of dead grass to start the grass-fire up a hill-side overgrown with tall yellow grass and dry scrub. Follow me, men! He yelled as he fanned the flames and followed the wall of the burning grass up the hillside, that he set on fire. Behind him was natural leader and a former paratrooper, who jumped in Normandy, France, in 1944, and lived to tell about it. He looked at the old man and said, This is nuts! I am getting out of here! And ran on out of the canyon. The rest of the smokejumpers followed him. None of them made it. The old man survived alone. He knew what he was doing. He lit an escape fire. He was dying of cancer and had less than a month to live.

This was the Moses Parting the Sea sort of a moment. Follow me, he said and walked behind the wall of fire. It was also a rare incident from reality, where life imitates great works of art, satire among them. You can read the whole story in Norman Maclean's non-fiction book, Young Men and Fire. Great D&D play should be on the same scale, but it almost never is. I only know of one session, where something similar went on. Most of it hangs on the DM being able to write it up and then present it for players. There is a definite distinction between just fiction, genre fiction, fantasy fiction, and Literature, or great literature. Part of it is class and social snobbery to be sure, but there is a distinction between Literary Fiction and mere Sci-Fi and Fantasy. It all started for me, when my professor teaching the Science Fiction literature class, stated that he did not consider Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison to be Science Fiction writers. I asked him why not, and he said that Bradbury wrote something haunting and beautiful, and called it Science Fiction, while Ellison wrote something vaguely terrible, and called that, Science Fiction, when in fact neither wrote Sci-Fi, just literature. By the same token, Tolkien's Lord of The Rings is not considered serious literature, because it did not offer serious treatment of people coming to terms with their own broken hearts or mortality.

I happen to agree with that view. I think that Literature stands above pulp and genre fiction, and professionally published mainstream fiction is superior to fan fiction, and fan fiction is on the level or above most of the homebrew D&D stuff, but any home-grown D&D stands above the randomly generated adventure. There is a fiction promoted in the D&D gaming world (among many other such fictions), that you can roll up a random dungeon and that it will be just as good as the commercially published adventure module.

On the other end of that spectrum is literary quality writing, and I always thought that it was made, when a talented individual wrote about reality. Not until I read Young Men and Fire, did it occur to me, that the real world can cook up dramatic events worthy of great literature.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


If I was a Lich sitting up in my ivory tower, I would spend all my time compiling D&D minutia. I started playing with the Moldway Red Box set. There were 69 Monster types and a total of twenty spells at first level. The rules were elegant in their simplicity. Too much reliance on luck and AC for me from almost get go, but, you knew all of the monsters and with the few stats and no skills, game stats were a minimal burden during the writing phase, and NPC character generation was quick.

Today, we have 350 monster type in Monster Manual alone, but we also have MM2 and the Fiend Folio, as well as the Oriental Adventure and the exotic and interesting skills and game mechanics are scattered 12 AD&D 1st Edition books and 32 supplements. That's were compiling the data and the unified theory of D&D comes in. I have decided to compile all skills, spells, and monsters for easier access during my adventure design. One of the perks of where I am working, is that I can buy the latest edition of the MS Office Professional edition for less than the price of a movie ticket these days. One of the side projects I am working on is building the Access database for the spells and monsters available in the AD&D. The spells are grouped in schools of magic, and it is tied to locations in the game setting, where the players must go to learn these spells. The Monsters are indexed by the terrain type, level, and creature type. So, when I am considering a desert adventure on the sea of grassland that burned out a long time ago, when considering what humanoid, predator, and an giant insect to use, I just input the information into my database, and get a list of the creatures and the location of the source text for that creature.  My campaign has about 350 skills, grouped by the culture, class, and social background of the characters, who have access to learn those particular skills. None of the players ever seen the big picture, and the Big Picture, as far as the Non-Weapon Proficiencies go, only rates a mere Spreadsheet.

Saturday, April 4, 2015


There were no retro-clones, when I started playing D&D again as an adult. I wanted to start playing a fantasy role playing game, and had a setting in mind for it, but I wasn't sure, which version of the rules to go with. That it would have to be Dungeons and Dragons, of that there was no doubt. Reason being the multitude of monsters, treasures, magical items and spells. I knew that from previous experience. Gygax rolled over the hobby like an avalanche, and then succumbed to his own flaws and excesses. Left in his wake were other systems for playing fantasy adventures that had to be smaller and carve out niches for themselves. It was a meager existence. Consider the golden age of computer role playing games such as Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment, who had license from the D&D franchise to use D&D intellectual property, the Arcanum (of Steamworks and Magicka Obscura), that did not. Essentially it was the fantasy version of the Fallout game dressed as Steampunk. Except that they couldn't introduce a lowly Orc or a Goblin, nor a Magick Missile, nor Fireball spell. The deficit was painful, the dungeons bare and stocked with predictable Wolves. A few game mechanics foreshadowing Farmville making the gameplay addictive, and they had a few good ideas and story twists, a few truly terrifying and tragic concepts, as well as one concept that did not work too well, that foreshadowed the bottom levels of the Legend of Grimrock, but that game was decidedly a wanting experience.

So, I was going to stick with D&D for its infrastructure. The question was, which version? D&D includes a number of distinct product lines, which play differently. TSR was a monopoly and in its quest to be the Standard Oil of fantasy role playing games, it tried to be all things to all people and it ventured outside the scope of fantasy genre to create versions of basic D&D for the other genres with various degrees of success. Of these, the most notable one was the Gamma World. It was a unique game with unique game mechanics and a unique setting, and all of the elements worked I harmony to create a whole that was greater than its parts. First edition was a relatively dry sci-fi adventure game. The colorful second edition was more of a fantasy war-game with an established world, to the first edition's ruined universe waiting to be explored. I preferred the survivalist-oriented tactics based Aftermath! at the time. As with all things TSR, the subsequent editions of the Gamma World, up to version 5, went in the direction of ridiculous, where players can give themselves desired superpowers by means of cyber potions and injections. Second noteworthy game from TSR was the Wild West themed Boot Hill. The rules were ground-breaking, because at Boot Hill came out at the time of the White Box D&D Edition, and its rules were advanced and elegant when compared with White Box set. Problem was, rules dealt largely with gunplay and they never really developed it as a role-playing game, maybe there was weak public interest. Since then, there are two excellent indie games dealing with the same topic - Dust Devils and Dogs in the Vineyard. Top Secret was the D&D set in the world of espionage, and it was the worst game of the bunch. It has two useful game mechanics one can adopt to any game - random site table for encounters and fields of background knowledge. Basically, a list of wide fields of knowledge, that a Player Character is aware of, and has a good chance to know the background information in the story pertaining to those fields of knowledge. Say a PC knows Architecture, s/he can tell something about the temple the player characters are about to enter. Star Frontiers was the TSR's poor cousin to GDW's Traveler, and that's about it.

With regards to the fantasy role playing games that competed with the D&D, there were many, Rune Quest, Tunnels and Trolls, Chivalry and Sorcery, Man, Myth and Magic. This was in the days before the internet, where the people behind the game were mysterious entities you entice to write back with an SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope). I could never get the Chivalry and Sorcery, I may not have had money at the time. The game was complex, and from what I read about it, dealt with the historical realities of the Middle Ages and only introduced dungeon crawl after it lost to D&D in popularity. You had to travel around the countryside, joust, etc. I was impressed with its magic, it not like D&D, spells took rituals and long time to complete, one, for instance, turned a pool of water into as crystal ball under the moonlight, and required an entire afternoon. Not the Fireballs and Magic Missiles. Rune Quest offered an extremely elegant skill system I had to adapt for my version of Dungeons and Dragons. Tunnels and Trolls did not offer anything, except a magnificent list of exotic and unusual weapons. Six versions of a spear, anyone? Well, yes, that would be me! In an effort to make Midlands attractive to all thinking players, I had to make it as challenging to Fighters as it is to Magic Users and Thieves, which means that the Fighter's choice of weapon (skill) and armor had a consequence on their fighting style, or more correctly, if a player behind the fighter character has a brain and knows something of medieval weaponry, s/he can decide on a fighting equipment to match their tactics in battle, and gain a significant advantage over a player who just rolls to hit. That called for the use of the Gygax's infamous Weapon vs Armor table, and I also added a few other dynamics to surprise, movement, and initiative, to make the melee worthy of a thinking player, where a critical hit can take any opponent out of the fight (but not necessarily kill them!). Of course, Monsters get the same rules and I have had player characters killed with a well placed blow. Spear, being primarily a hunting weapon, a certain type of spear will give a bonus in a certain situation.

Having decided to zero in on the D&D rules for its great variety of spells, monsters, magical items, and treasure, I needed to decide whether to use the White Box, Basic - Expert, or Advanced D&D. White Box set was too vague. Information was raw and better elaborated on in the AD&D, so I cast it aside. The Holmes Basic Set was a stripped down version of D&D for beginners, but it had two golden paragraphs, one explaining encumbrance, and the other general advice to starting DM's. The Basic - Expert D&D line initiated by Tom Moldway and culminating in the Rules Cyclopedia is a different game bearing the same name. While starting out with the simplified rules and fewer spells and monsters, it took the players in a different direction, that of high level campaigning, waging wars and running kingdoms, and achieving near God-hood. Moldway is a genius at explaining adventure design to novices and his section on adventure design in his basic rulebook is the best written and is a classic. For reasons of complexity, he could not do the same for Wilderness design, and Gygax himself simplified the Wilderness adventure design down to the concept of a hex crawl. I started with the Moldway Red Box, and it took me almost two years to figure out how to use the percentile dice correctly, but I moved on the Advanced D&D, FIRST Edition, on the strength of Gygax's writing and detailed game mechanics of his Dungeon Master's Guide. After Gygax left the TSR, the subsequent editions scrapped his writing on dungeon and adventure design. There was an editorial desicionmade at TSR, and subsequently reinforced at WOTC to reduce the DM from the Gamerunner to the Referee. For reasons of marketing, most products deal with customizing and empowering player characters, appealing to Munchkins. DM's are encouraged to use the pre-written adventures. The target audience has dropped in age from a grad student to an early adolescent. The scope of dungeon adventure design has also shifted from the dark labyrinths of the DM's twisted mind to the pencil and paper version of the Diablo videogame. There is a reason why the concept of the dungeon adventure trook off and spread like wild-fire. A dungeon map also serves as a flowchart to an adventure - a series of encounters connected by proximity lines (corridors) in a schematic.

The first  edition of AD&D was perfect for me. I expanded I into Post-Gygax 1.5 and as far as 2.5 Core Books to see if there was any new writing on adventure design, but there wasn't, only simplification and repackaging of the 1st Edition. I have the entire catalog of the AD&D 2nd Edition rules and supplements, and they are a disappointment. In the Second edition, AD&F tried to be all things to all people, they just dragged the whole of 20th Century life into the game and dressed it up in the fancy robes of Renaissance. I am not a fan or defender of Gary Gygax, but his Dungeon Master's Guide is his best writing and it is superior to the later versions of it. Way back IN 2003, I started re-reading these books as an adult, and having read halfway through the Gygax introduction to the  fist edition Players Handbook, I was taken aback and impressed by the quality of his writing - his sense of history and philosophy behind his rules.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


There was a special place I used to go to go for inspiration. There are other places as well. This one I discovered in the Spring of 2003. It's where the Allentown line crosses over NJ Route 206. It's a strip of back woods maybe 200 yards long and of varying width between 30 and 100 or so yards of some tall trees and tangled undergrowth. It is bounded on the South by the railroad tracks and on the North by a bunch of nice middle to upper middle suburbanite houses with large unfenced back yards opening on a field of green grass and the tree line starts in 50-100 yards. The other side of the tracks is zoned for light industrial use, with some light manufacturing and truck yards, and the empty that used to be dominated by a giant steel girder manufacturing shed. I did some aerial photo research, and the last time that place was used for business was in the summer/fall of 1985, thereafter it was abandoned and sat vacant. For a time it was used as an art studio by some wannabe modern sculptor, who was cutting half inch thick steel plate into grotesquely painted giant paper dolls. There was a life-size crucifix with a faceless Savior, and another one standing among the grotesque images of grossly obese people humping each other. I kid you not, there was a demonic feel, if you looked at that studio in the front office section of that hangar sized metal shed with a football-field sized concrete pad to support all the machinery.



Outside that grotesque workshop was a totally different story. It was a vacant lot overgrown with tall grass and dwarf pine trees. The ground was red clay and it was a beautiful stage for sunsets. The lot was bounded to the east by a large automotive junk yard, and the woods on the other side of the tracks had both, nice footpaths, fallen trees to sit on, and Poison Ivy. I would avoid the grotesque sculptures and walk around the area deep in contemplation. Towards the 206 was the backyards for a garden shop nursery, and late in the summer evenings I can sit and hide in the back of the green-houses, and nobody would know I was there. I sat there with a bottle of wine and fell asleep, waking up early in the morning to a humid night chill, and drove the one hour back home in the city to beat the morning  traffic. Things changed, as they inevitably must. The greenhouse and the garden center went first. They built a vacant parking lot instead. No biggie. Then they laid the pipeline and the drainage for some real estate development on the western edge of the back woods, but nothing became of it. I did some research on the vacant lot, couldn't find anything, other than that the junk yard wanted to expand there, and they got the go ahead in 2007, but they had to meet the safety requirement for the fire marshal. I found that out in 2010. In 2014, they finally expanded and cordoned off the entire lot south of the railroad tracks with an electric fence. What do you expect from a salvage yard for the late model car wrecks useful for expensive parts?

And here is the surprise. For a long time I have worked on the problem of presenting a wilderness adventure for D&D play. There is a reason, why there is plenty written about dungeon adventure design, but little of comparable elegance regarding the wilderness exploration. There is a lot written on the so-called Hex-Crawls - 43 square mile hexes, enter one per day, roll for a monster and a possible dungeon encounter. This is an abstract overlay of a dungeon grid over the outdoors adventure. I spent a lifetime hiking in the outdoors, and I am fully aware, that colorful depth, variety and beauty of the outdoor environment is lost in a typical D&D game. Do you draw a detailed map showing every nook and crevice or do you pencil in the area and then have the players walk through the generic "forest" while rolling for encounters? I came upon an elegant solution for vivid outdoors adventures. One of the concepts for wilderness representation is the interplay between the open and closed topography. An open topography is the predominant terrain with uniform descriptive features, across which the players move. The closed topography is delineated by boundaries and concealment, forming enclosed areas. More densely forested areas, thickets; areas bisected by mountains, rivers, highways, bodies of water, islands, have closed topography, similar to rooms in the underground dungeon.

With regards to this sacred growth, before they tore down the structure and enclosed the area, there were footpaths through it, with people going North and South, the back woods were open to human traffic. Once the lot was fenced in, the human traffic stopped, and the area became closed, a dead end back woods with no visitors. The surprise came, when I expected the dead end woods to become more overgrown and wild, for nature to take hold and bloom, but the opposite has happened. Having lost the human traffic (or was it the demonic sculpture shop?) the woods have lost their atmosphere of mystery. Before, there was a sense of the surreal, like you were standing before a painting, near a gateway, and all you had to do was turn the key, and enter it. Once upon a time, I was sitting on the edge of the embankment, concealed by a tree and smoking, waiting for the freight train to go by. There was rain, and all of a sudden there was a lightning strike. There was an echoing boom, like from the artillery. And there was another lightning strike, and another and another, maybe five in all, and they were all hitting that metal structure. Get it? Big metal structure... Lightning hitting it... But the feel was as if something weird was happening, like the artillery barrage from heavens!

Once the area became closed off, just the opposite happened. The atmosphere of the mysterious has left the place. The forest did not blossom either. Maybe it was the winter storm, that uprooted a lot of trees, but the place became more dead and decaying. The dead tree trunks were moist and slick with decay. There are spider webs and thorny brambles everywhere. These back woods have the dead feel of nothingness to them devoid of mystery, and you don't feel like going there. I still do, to walk along the railroad tracks, and the place is still a sea of tranquility, but it's not the same and there are other places that have the mysterious feel to them.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


It will be great fun getting the game off the ground again! I am looking forward to recruiting new players once again! Before that, I am looking forward to typing the new adventure. I have my own word format for that! And before that, I got to sit down with my D&D notebook and start writing random stuff up. A lot of lightening seeds, and I remember most of them. Overall feel for the campaign setting. Looking forward to gaming at my place with the G/F present. She doesn't like playing all the weird fantasy stuff, but she just loves the attention. I am daunted, because she knows history and literature as well as I do and she can see through the bullshit of my invention. Then there ids the review of the D&D literature I got and I am stopping at AD&D second edition. It will be great fun if I can focus and get my timing together to get some writing done in spite of all the other things in my life competing for attention.