24 October 2016

The End of Dark Dungeons

Jack Chick has passed away.

Chick was the author of numerous fundamentalist Christian comics. The most famous, for fans of role-playing games at least, was the (unintentionally) hilarious Dark Dungeons—which eventually was adapted into the (intentionally) hilarious film by the same name.

At least Chick was spared yet another Halloween…

15 October 2016

Not the Sons of Fëanor again!

I've been busy with the damnable 'real world' of late (hence the scarcer-than-usual blogging here in recent months). But I would be unforgivably negligent if I did not mention this recent New York Times story: "After Mudslides and Flooding in Iceland, Elves Are Suspects."

I have a few things I'd like to write about once I get over my current pile of work and forthcoming journeys. Among them: Some thoughts on The Children of Hurin (and a couple of other novels I've read recently), the new revised Crypts and Things, some Mythras updates, some notes on my recent Call of Cthulhu (7th edition) campaign, and some further thoughts on the new Middle-earth supplement for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition.

Also, I'm planning to revamp this blog sometime soonish (among other things, I'll be revising the links, blogroll, and so forth).

So, gentle readers, I promise to be back with further musings at the end of the month!

17 September 2016

Initial Impression of Adventures in Middle-earth

A while back I mentioned that Cubicle 7 was producing a Middle-earth supplement for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition (“Can Gandalf be a 5th edition D&D magic-user?”). Well the PDF of that supplement is out now. It’s called Adventures in Middle-earth. I have it, and after spending a few hours going through much of it, I have to say that I think that it looks quite promising. It does a solid job of adapting the 5e rules to Tolkien’s world, something about which I had been somewhat sceptical.

Cubicle 7 provides a general overview here, and a preview is available here.

The game is firmly set in post-Hobbit northern Middle-earth. The starting date is 2946 of the Third Age, five years after death of Smaug and the Battle of the Five Armies. The maps and cultures focus on the ‘Wilderland’ (roughly, Mirkwood and its surrounding territories).

There are eleven ‘cultures’ available to player characters. (These cultures replace standard D&D ‘races’.) They are: Bardings (those people from Lake-town who followed Bard to re-establish the city of Dale), Beornings (the hairy followers of Beorn), Dúnedain (the ‘Rangers’ of Eriador, that is, the surviving ‘High Men’ remnants of the lost kingdom of Arnor), Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, Elves of Mirkwood, Hobbits of the Shire, Men of Bree, Men of the Lake (the townsfolk of Esgaroth, now largely recovered from Smaug’s attack), Men of Minas Tirith (Gondorians), Riders of Rohan, and Woodmen of Wilderland. So seven of the eleven cultures are from the Wilderland. This is mildly annoying, as simply adding a few more cultures – say, Elves of Rivendell and Lothlórien, Dwarves of the Blue Mountains, and another Gondorian culture or two (perhaps Men of Dol Amroth and Pelargir, the other two main cities of Gondor in the late Third Age) – would have covered most of the PC-worthy cultures of north-western Middle-earth. Ah well, this is obviously a minor irritation.

There are six new classes. They are (with options in parentheses): Scholar (master healer, master scholar); Slayer (rider, foe-hammer); Treasure Hunter (agent, burglar); Wanderer (hunter of beasts, hunter of shadows); Warden (counselor, herald, bounder); and Warrior (knight, weaponmaster). The classes strike me as quite flavourful and appropriate for Middle-earth.

You may notice that there are no traditional spell-casting classes! While there are some (quite limited) magical abilities available to characters in the form of ‘virtues’ (cultural feats, such as ‘Wood-Elf Magic’ or the Dwarves’ ‘Broken Spells’), or higher-level class abilities (such as the Scholar’s 17th level ability ‘Words Unspoken’ and 18th level ability ‘Words of Command’), none of the classes can prepare and cast spells in the manner of D&D clerics and wizards. The authors note that you can add such classes (or any other D&D class for that matter) if you think that they fit into your vision of Middle-earth, but they did not want to include them amongst the ‘core’ set. This strikes me as the right approach. While there are characters within Middle-earth who have magical abilities (both ‘goodly’ individuals like Malbeth the Seer, and certain other Dúnedain, as well as the dark sorceries practiced by likes of the Mouth of Sauron and other ‘black’ Númenóreans), the D&D magic system is generally a rather inappropriate way of modeling them.

The backgrounds are rather flavourful as well, and help explain the characters’ goals and motivations. They include: loyal servant, doomed to die, driven from home, emissary of your people, fallen scion, the harrowed, hunted by the shadow, lure of the road, the magician, oathsworn, reluctant adventurer, seeker of the lost, and world weary. Each background gains two skill proficiencies (so ‘loyal servant’ gets ‘insight’ and ‘tradition’, whereas ‘the magician’ gets ‘performance’ and ‘sleight of hand’) and a special feature (e.g., ‘doomed to die’ has the feature of ‘dark foreboding’). Players also should select a ‘distinctive quality,’ ‘specialty,’ ‘hope,’ and ‘despair’ for their characters based upon their backgrounds. I really loved this section. It shows how D&D 5e backgrounds can be shaped to immerse characters within the ethos of the setting.

The equipment section covers coinage, trading and bartering, and the world’s different standards of living (e.g., ‘martial’ and ‘prosperous’), which are determined by characters’ cultures. Also covered are weapons, armour, and special culture-specific items (like ‘Dalish fireworks, ‘Dwarven toys,’ pipeweed, etc.). The discussion of herbs, potions, and salves is brief but very good – and quite ‘Middle-earth-ish’ in flavour. Finally, a number of colourful ‘cultural heirlooms’ are presented – such as ‘Dalish Longbow’ and ‘Axe of Azanulbizar’ – that characters can gain if they take the ‘Cultural Heirloom virtue’ or (rarely) find them as treasure during their adventures.

I haven’t gotten to the rules for journeys, the Shadow, the Fellowship phase, and so forth yet, but my quick skim of them has me rather excited. I think that this is going to be a fun game to play! I am looking forward to checking out further books in this line.

Indeed, I’ve already started digging though my old MERP collection, thinking about what materials to convert, what campaigns to run…

For a more complete overview and review, see this post by Rob Conley at his ‘Bat in the Attic’ blog.

Oh yeah, I should mention that the book is beautiful in terms of art and layout!

30 August 2016

Dungeons and Dragons artifact from 1983

I found this slightly damaged artifact in the basement of my parents' house today. I'm pretty sure that I drew it in 1983. I was 12 or 13 at the time, and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons had become my life.

Ah, memories!

28 August 2016

Loz Con 2016 summary

So "Loz Con 2016" took place over the weekend of August 12th—14th. The generous host, Lawrence Whitaker, summed up the grand event in the following Design Mechanism post:
LozCon 2016 was a lot of fun. With 7 attendees, it had grown by over 25% on 2015's venture, and the variety of games was, as ever, eclectic. 
1. Cthulhu 7 - in which an intrepid band of Irish hoodlums investigated a strange tenement in Arkham. Lots of madness ensued. 
2. Into the Odd - in which an intrepid band of semi-Undead residents of Necrocarcerus went for a fun day out in the theme park of the demon Muurl. Lots of madness ensued. 
3. Bridge Over Troubled Parallels - in which an intrepid band of Valhalla agents ventured to an alternative Edinburgh, encountered an alternative Billy Connolly, an alternative Sean Connery, some alternative killpanzees, and almost died in very horrible ways. Most controversial scenario of the con, and madness ensued. 
4. The One Ring - in which a hand-picked fellowship (chosen by Elrond himself) escorted a twitchy Ranger to his ancestral home, that appeared to be in the hands of bandits and a creature known as 'The Eye'. Fighting ensued, and the madness was confined to the 'Ranger'... 
My thanks to the marvellous attendees (Blain, Chris, Jude, John, Sean and Erich) and compliments to the chef (me)...
One quick correction regarding Loz's comment on the Mythras/RQ6 'Arkwright' game ("Bridge Over Troubled Parallels"): "in which an intrepid band of Valhalla agents ... almost died in very horrible ways." One agent — my character, the Scottish revolutionary hero Duncan Barr — did die in a very horrible way. He was shot to death by machine-gun wielding chimpanzees. I guess I should've expected that that would happen, as we were in Edinburgh after all. Still, it was an ignoble way to go. Indeed, the entire adventure went pear-shaped over a period of five hours (red herrings pursued, mission failed, parallels destroyed, one character killed, multiple characters near death, etc.). Ah well...

I ran the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition game. The scenario I used was "Missed Dues" from the 7e Keeper Pack. It worked quite well as a 'one shot' adventure. It also was quite effective at introducing some new players to the CoC universe. However, given the adventure's hook — all the characters are gangsters who owe the local 'boss' a favour, and thus agree to try to track down a burglar behind in his 'dues' — it probably would not fit within a regular 1920s campaign. But if one did want to run a campaign in which all of the characters were criminals, this adventure would work well with the other one in the Keeper's Pack, "Blackwater Creek." (The latter adventure can be run either for a group of bootleggers or a group affiliated with Miskatonic University. When I ran the adventure last year, I used the latter hook, as one of the characters was a professor at MU. [I plan to write more about my sporadic, but still ongoing, CoC 7e campaign here in the near-ish future.])

Finally, I enjoyed The One Ring role-playing game a lot more this time around than I did the few sessions I played of it a few years ago. I had a small issue with the way the 'madness' mechanic worked, but other than that I thought that the game did a rather good job in capturing the feel of late Third Age Middle-earth. Consequently, I would be happy to try TOR again, and am considering picking up the new hardcover version for my collection.

This is the second Loz Con I have had be pleasure of attending. My thanks again to Lawrence for hosting. I hope to attend again in 2017!

25 August 2016

Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper discuss Dungeons and Dragons

This exchange (within the first three minutes or so) between Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper is pretty hilarious. (And of course Cooper's favourite character was an elf.)

12 August 2016

Tolkien Elf or Prescription Drug?

Two months ago I posted a story about my experience with the 1980s ‘Dungeons and Dragons panic’. I mentioned that one of the friends with whom I gamed regularly during my early teens (~ 1984) had an elf character named ‘Feldene’ (an anti-inflammatory drug, properly known as ‘Piroxicam’).

Well, it turns out that many prescription drugs have names that sound quite elvish! Indeed, there is a quiz: “Prescription Drug of Tolkien Elf”? (Much to my shame, I scored only 24/30.)

It’s good fun. Almost as good as the high from some Finarfin

31 July 2016

C is for Cthulhu

I was excited to discover today that a new ‘children’s book’ based upon the Cthulhu Mythos has been created. It’s called Mythos ABC, and a free PDF version is available. I think I just failed my Sanity roll!

As you can see, the art is wonderful. (Since the PDF is free, I assumed that there would be no problem with sharing a few of the pictures in a smaller format.)

There is an article at Vox on it (a friend linked to it, which is how the book came to my attention). Truly, if Vox is reporting on Cthulhu-related items, Lovecraft has permeated all aspects of our culture! (I’m not sure that’s a good thing…)

11 July 2016

And so the crown passes from RuneQuest 6 to Mythras...

Here is the Design Mechanism's statement on the end of their 'RuneQuest' license and their transition to 'Mythras':
On Monday, our time as custodians of the RuneQuest license formally draws to a close. We've felt honoured and privileged to have had the opportunity to work so closely with such an iconic brand, but all things change, and so we transition from RuneQuest to Mythras. We do, of course, wish our friends at Moon Design and Chaosium every success for the next edition of RQ and we look forward to seeing the results of the game returning to Glorantha. 
Our arrangement with Moon Design allows us 6 months to dispose of all remaining RQ6 stocks, and fortunately we only have a handful of the RQ6 hardbacks left in stock, so this won't be a major issue. We'll leave them on sale until we either exhaust stocks completely or the 6 months come to a close. All our supplements remain on sale and can do so for up to five years, although we are rebranding all our PDFs will be most likely rebrand the physical stock with the Mythras logo. 
As for Mythras itself, we will be releasing the game in hard copy and PDF most likely in mid-August. We want to ensure that the print process is well underway before opening for preorders - a slight change in our usual procedure. It means that people will get their copies quicker after making payment. It also means that we can release Mythras and Mythic Rome together (or very close together), alongside another product that been our Super Secret project, and will be given its own announcement in due course. We will release a preview of Mythras, so you can see the new layout (and if you have Imperative, you know what to expect already). One thing that we can tell you is that Mythras is 304 pages - a good 34% smaller than RQ6, but with no loss of content (in fact, we've added more). It will also be cheaper - probably around $40. For the new content you can expect: 
[Some new art pieces (courtesy of our friends at Runa Digital in Spain)
Reorganized and expanded Animism rules, including Special Effects for Spirit Combat
Additional Special Effects, including firearms SEs and a couple of brand new ones developed for Mythras. 
We're looking forward to getting this book out there.
Another piece of extremely good news is our partnership with Aeon Games Publishing. Aeon is based in the UK and is our fully licensed production and distribution partner for the UK and Europe. If you're outside North America you will be able to order all our books from Aeon Games Publishing directly, and receive them quicker and at much reduced shipping than from our US warehouse. As the company's CEO, Oliver Rathbone says: "Aeon Games Publishing is committed to new and innovative role playing games. Our team of dedicated gamers runs the gamut from old school to cutting edge. We are proud that our first publications combine the two in the Design Mechanism's Mythras Ruleset which takes the best of the classic Runequest rules and brings them into the forefront of modern gaming. Please see our website at www.aeongamespublishing.co.uk for more details and forthcoming publications." The website goes live early next week. 
So it's farewell to RuneQuest 6, but Well Met to Mythras. This is an exciting time in The Design Mechanism's evolution and we continue to be indebted to all our fans and customers for their support, encouragement and enthusiasm. 
Loz and Pete
I'm looking forward to checking out the new Mythras core book once it's available, and playing the game for the foreseeable future. But it'll feel strange not to refer to the game as 'RuneQuest', as I've been doing for almost six years now (ever since I started playing MRQII in the Young Kingdoms).

16 June 2016

Remembering the 1980s panic over Dungeons and Dragons

I finally got around to watching this ‘retro-report’ from the New York Times: When Dungeons and Dragons Set Off a ‘Moral Panic’.

I think that it’s quite good. It summarizes some of the main elements of the great D&D panic of the early 1980s, including the claims that playing D&D ‘causes’ suicide and murder amongst teens (by making them loose touch with reality, by glorifying violence, and the like), and that it promotes ‘Satanism’ and ‘the occult’.

It has some interesting clips of Gary Gygax from 30+ years ago, as well as other news reports from that era, and some recent comments from Tim Kask. It also includes some contemporary reflections on the hobby, including great remarks from well-known authors like Cory Doctorow and Junot Diaz. Towards the end of the report, Diaz touchingly comments on the value of role-playing games like D&D in cultivating creativity, providing a ‘safe place’ for ‘unpopular’ kids to socialize and develop self-confidence, and so forth. It’s a very ‘pro’ D&D piece overall.

Watching the report reminded me of my own experience with the 1980s hysteria over Dungeons and Dragons. Fears of ‘Satanism’ and the like concerning the hobby were never as intense or widespread in Canada as they were in the United States. (I think this was, at least in part, because of the absence of anything comparable to the American ‘Bible Belt’ in Canada. While of course there are Canadian fundamentalist Christians, they are a much smaller portion of the overall population than they are within the United States.)  Nonetheless, there was something of an echo of the panic in Canada, and especially in southern Ontario where I grew up, probably because of its proximity to Michigan (where one of the famous incidents that inflamed the D&D panic occurred in 1979, as explained within the retro-report).

Here’s what happened to me. There was a role-playing club in my high school in London Ontario (I think it may simply have been called the ‘Dungeons and Dragons club,’ even though we played games other than D&D; I can’t remember now). One day, in 1985 I think, a news reporter and a cameraman from the local television station asked to film one of our games. Needless to say, this was quite a thrill for a gang of nerdy adolescent boys!  And it was especially thrilling for me, since I was the Dungeon Master. I was dizzy at the prospect of having ‘my’ game displayed on television. The glory!

So we played our game for about an hour. Afterwards the reporter asked us some questions about it. Stuff like:

  1. “Were you scared when the creature in the well surprised you and attacked your character?”
  2. “Why is your character named ‘Feldene’? Isn’t that a drug?” (I’m amazed that I still remember this.)
  3. “Do you get upset or angry when your character is hurt or killed?”

 We gave pretty boring answers to all of her (rather leading) questions:

  1. “No, I wasn’t scared, this is only a game.”
  2. “My dad is taking Feldene, and I thought it sounded like a cool name for an elf.”
  3. "I get a little upset when my character dies, but, you know, this is just a game.”

Over the subsequent two weeks I watched the six o’clock news like a hawk, waiting for my 15 minutes of fame. But it never happened. There never was any news story on our amazing high school RPG club. I was crushed.

One of my friends in the group understood why: “We just weren’t controversial enough; actually, we weren’t controversial at all.” If only my friend had named his elf ‘Heroin’! Or if only one of us had started weeping and screaming at the prospect of his third-level cleric being killed!

Perhaps having a DM like Ms. Frost would’ve helped us get on TV:


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.