Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Quest for Naval Minis

A few months ago I ordered a copy of Fletcher Pratt’s Naval Wargame: Wargaming with Modern Ships 1900-1945 from the History of Wargaming Project storefront on Lulu. I’d read about it in Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World (which I’ve discussed before) in his exhaustive history of wargaming from the earliest German Kriegspiele to modern times. Although I only dabble in naval wargaming, the rules intrigued me because in their time they drew many non-gaming types into a serious wargame simulation in a sort of social event. The game pioneered many concepts later refined for use in roleplaying games like armor class, hit points, and character sheets. The book and its variant rules got me excited about trying them for World War II naval battles (one of my gaming areas of interest). I intend to offer a closer look at Fletcher Pratt’s Naval Wargame in a future post; for now, however, I want to look at my quest for naval miniatures to use in playing these rules.

I’ve only dabbled with naval wargaming before, odd considering I designed a naval-themed game (the solitaire Operation Drumbeat), though not one in the traditional miniatures wargaming sense. In my younger days I was a huge fan of the classic War at Sea, one of my first experiences with chit-and-board wargames. I even bought Avalon Hill’s version of the Naval War card game which I used to play with my brother and other neighborhood kids. I bought into Wizards of the Coast’s Axis & Allies Miniatures: War at Sea game when it first released; I played a few solo games using both the included map boards and later some rules for more traditional wargame play without a gridded map. I’ve thought about getting other naval wargames – titles like Mongoose’s Victory at Sea come to mind – but their perceived level of complexity and my lack of miniatures beyond what I had for Axis & Allies: War at Sea discouraged me. Pratt’s game intrigued me in its use of historical data in the game (drawn from Jane’s Fighting Ships), its introduction to those with no gaming experience (albeit with heavy referee involvement), and the eventual adoption of some of its concepts in U.S. Naval training simulations.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Very Gaming Holiday Break

The Little Guy has spent the past several months in kindergarten – heck, they started August 10! – and now he’s looking forward to a bit of a break from school over the holidays. Two and a half weeks of break, in fact, this entire week leading up to Christmas, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and even the first Monday of the new year. Although I have a short list of excursions and activities to keep us busy, I also expect I’ll fall back on gaming to help keep him occupied on his long winter’s break.

The Little Guy contemplating a move
in a tank game at Historicon.
His day at school offers him a good deal of structure which we’ve noticed he misses during the weekends and occasional days off. No doubt the dose of “toy-pocalypse” he gets having a birthday and Christmas so close together will give him a host of new toys to keep him busy plus a slew of new DVDs to watch. He also got his own kid-friendly tablet as a present, loaded up primarily with educational apps and a few fun bits (he loves Angry Birds). But even with his favorite PBS Kids shows and a tablet with limited battery time I expect he’s going to hit a point where he’s still bored during the day, when he gets pokey for something junky to eat every 30 minutes, and won’t let Dad alone until he’s focused on some other fulfilling activity.

I expect we’ll spend some time – possibly even develop a daily routine – playing games. We have a good repertoire of titles we play during our weekly family game nights, including Forbidden Island, Best Treehouse Ever, Qwirkle, Tsuro, King of Tokyo, and Castle Panic; some of these seem passable with two players, but not quite ideal play experiences. I’m hoping to push our bounds in the two-player game field with some new board games. The Stratego Battle Cards game is on my radar since he’s learned his numbers and concepts such as “less than” and “greater than.” I also acquired a Stratego board game set a while back he might enjoy trying. I also just got my Kickstarter-supported copy of Less: Like Chess, but Less from Slovenia, a clever little two-player abstract game with a variable board made of coasters. I also expect he’ll want to help me explore some of the childhood board games my parents rescued from their attic and brought during their latest visit, particularly the Raiders of the Lost Ark board game. If Santa decides to bring any new games for Daddy I expect the Little Guy will want to give them a try.

I’d also like to help him with some more difficult fare to expand our family’s game repertoire. I expect these might challenge his nascent reading and math abilities (which kindergarten is aggressively cultivating). He’s asked about Spearpoint 1944 (the illustrated box for the Village and Defensive Line Map Expansion has caught his eye, as will the nice components when I open it for him); while the game doesn’t require a whole lot of reading, he does need to follow a host of rules. I’d love to teach him Memoir ’44 but I’ll have to consider whether the text-heavy cards and numerous units might be too much for him. He’s also asked about Ticket to Ride Europe (I don’t have the original one for America), though that requires some reading and geography skills, something I’m not averse to teaching him. We’ve played some simplified games of Wings of War/Wings of Glory before (the World War I flavor); I might see if he’s interested in more of that or trying out the World War II planes. He has a particular affinity for the larger bombers.

He’s requested to play Valley of the Ape several times since we playtested it as part of our nearly year-long development, so I hope indulging him in that might satisfy his urges for gaming activities. I’m also playing with some mechanics for a basic-level, kid-friendly skirmish wargaming rules; my interest in these focuses on the various historical periods I enjoy and for which I have 54mm figures (French and Indian War, American War of Independence, Civil War, and British colonial skirmishes with Zulus and Dervishes)...but the Little Guy will most likely be tempted by my 54mm Star Wars Command figures in battles between hapless Imperial scout troopers and hordes of Ewoks (which the system can handle with minor modifications).

The Little Guy has also asked me about designing his own games (and bringing them to conventions to run and sell...), so I might indulge him with some basic game-design concepts or even a craft project based on a theme he likes. This is a big “if” fraught with complications and the possibility of consuming huge swaths of time. I’ve discussed managing game design concepts with kids before, so exploring this first-hand with a six year-old may offer some new insights or strategies.

Perhaps a slightly less daunting challenge comes from my urge to expose him to some basic roleplaying game experience. Although I have a host of roleplaying games, most remain beyond his grasp. As I mentioned in my recent “Share Gaming during the Holidays” post, I need to suppress my urge to run something I like in favor of a game with mechanics and theme more attuned to his ability and interests. Hero Kids seems just about his speed with a nice graphic representation of the characters and stats. I’ve been meaning to print out the game the entire year and never quite got around to it. The Little Guy’s had a stigma about them because he needs to be able to read, but as he’s already learning in kindergarten it might be a good introduction.

Unfortunately having the Little Guy home each day for two and a half weeks isn’t going to give me much time for my own writing and game design, let alone my explorations of B/X D&D, OSR titles, various wargames, and solitaire gaming. During the December holidays, however, I usually resign myself to having little time for personal pursuits; at least I can engage in gaming on some level and hopefully cultivate in the Little Guy an enjoyment of a few new games.

Want to share your opinion? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Share Gaming during the Holidays

The holidays seem like a great time to share our adventure gaming hobby with others, especially those not yet initiated into such enjoyable entertainments. Families spend time visiting, we receive games as gifts, kids have a few weeks off from school, and we seek some sense of the season’s fantastic wonder in escapist games. We’re often sorely tempted to invite non-gamers to try our latest pursuits, often prompted by queries of “Hey, what’s that?” upon unwrapping a new acquisition or “That looks neat, can I play?” as we show off our game libraries or peruse our rulebooks. But sharing our adventure game hobby with the uninitiated through a positive play experience takes a bit of restraint

I recall from my youth a host of unsuccessful holiday games with my brother and cousins who shared some similar interests and were easily convinced to try something new by their oldest siblings. One year while visiting I tried to run the AD&D scenario A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity. Even using the module’s pre-generated characters the effort quickly devolved into a morass of bored players, long rules explanations, and not much adventuring. My oldest cousin didn’t fare much better. His attempt at running the Avalon Hill Dune board game – newly received for Christmas – had everyone’s head spinning with no clue how to proceed. The back-up plan of Risk fared no better in the confusing explanation of how the dice resolved combat; the experience probably contributed to my life-long distaste for the game (not a bad thing in my estimation).

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Short & Sweet RPG Resources on Patreon

Patreon has revolutionized how gamers receive new content. Just as Kickstarter changed the publishing landscape for roleplaying games and board games, funding ambitious projects with high production values and tempting stretch goals, Patreon has – somewhat more quietly – enabled creators to bring projects to their fans in smaller but no less worthwhile bits. The concept hearkens back to the days when talented individuals like artists, writers, and even archaeologists (like Howard Carter) worked for wealthy patrons who believed in their efforts and funded their work; it’s an idea I fully support and have discussed in the past. Patreon provides a platform where creators (particularly those making game content) can find financial support and engagement with those who enjoy their work. I’ve found it’s a wonderful place to find “short and sweet” game material to fuel my enthusiasm for Old School Renaissance (OSR) or classic B/X D&D roleplaying games.

Patreon delivers game material to supporters who pledge donations for each work. People subscribe to creators who cater to their interests, making a payment for each new “article,” and receiving fresh game material on a somewhat regular basis...usually once a month, sometimes more often. This allows supporters to customize the content they receive, in a way serving as their own editors or curators of material that most interests them. Some designers post their creations for free, others offer a mix of free material and exclusive pieces for their paying supporters. Creators frequently offer additional perks for higher-levels patrons, including engagement through the Patreon site, influence on future projects, and even material customized for particular supporters. Each designer crafts their page differently to appeal to supporters and deliver content in a satisfying way.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Obsolete Skill List

At bedtime recently the Little Guy requested I read him a rulebook for a roleplaying game based on one of the media properties he’s quickly come to adore. I’ll omit names to protect the identity of the game and its designers. It was published in 1991, around the time several roleplaying games in a similar style reached prominence, including Vampire: The Masquerade, Shadowrun, 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons, and my beloved Star Wars Roleplaying Game from West End Games (to name only a few). Reading the game book aloud proved how tedious the language was; but the real test was reading the comprehensive skill section aloud. Although it eventually put the Little Guy asleep, it ran the risk of actually putting the reader to sleep.

Nearly every skill followed the same initial formula: “[Skill name] is the ability to [insert skill description].” The text ranged from a simple definition one could easily glean from the skill name itself to a comprehensive discussion of just what one could do with the skill through specific game mechanics. The game – like many of its time – relied on a core mechanic for most skill resolutions and combat, yet various factors complicated this in the manner of modifications; hence some skill definitions with tedious rules discussions buried within.

Comprehensive skill listings seemed standard practice for roleplaying games of that time; even today many games still rely on exhaustive and sometimes dry descriptions of skills perhaps more succinctly defined by their names. Sure, some skills require a little more elaboration than simply a name depending on both the game mechanics and the setting; but this could fit better into other rules-heavy procedural sections on resolving movement, combat, and other game issues.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Living Thanks

“We count our miseries carefully and accept our blessings without much thought.”
– Chinese Proverb

*     *     *

Last week I talked about thankfulness in the context of the adventure gaming hobby. As we sit down this week to our individual Thanksgiving celebrations with friends and family, I offer my annual plea – modified a little more each year – encouraging readers to demonstrate our gratefulness for the many gifts enriching our lives, manifesting our thankful spirits through positive actions to enhance the lives of others, especially those who are not so fortunate.

I can never be truly thankful enough for all the gifts I enjoy. It’s easy to demonstrate gratitude for outright gifts, the ones we receive at the holidays and birthdays or the gestures of generosity shown between gamers and friends. But it’s easy to take for granted the many aspects of our lives that enable us to have the spare income and time to pursue our adventure gaming hobby...and even there I’m particularly lucky, given the many gamers who still engage in the hobby despite personal and financial difficulties. During this season of Thanksgiving – and especially in our daily lives when we don’t have holidays to remind us – we should not simply express our thanks, we should act on our gratitude.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Hobby of Gifts

As we near Thanksgiving my thoughts turn to the numerous aspects of my life for which I’m grateful: a supportive family and comfy home, the ability to pursue my work in the adventure gaming hobby, supportive online communities, my privileged place in the world as a white male American citizen. Throughout my life I’ve received many gifts, among them presents that started me off on and further inspired me on my journey through the adventure gaming hobby.

I wouldn’t have this level of involvement in gaming if it hadn’t been for one key gift which started it all. Back in junior high school I’d seen some neighborhood kids playing Basic Dungeons & Dragons and, lacking the game materials myself, went ahead and created my own very simple dungeon-delving game (Creatures & Caverns, the latest, refined iteration of which remains freely available on the internet). My parents – who always seemed to encourage their children’s varied and sometimes fleeting interests – bought me the Basic D&D boxed set (Moldvay edition) as an Easter gift that year...ironic considering the anti-D&D sentiments and accusations Satanism ran high in the early and mid 1980s. This one gift encouraged me down the adventure gaming path, not only as a player but as someone who spent the subsequent summer creating his own gaming materials for B/X D&D. Soon I was immersing myself in and drafting material for other roleplaying games and even designing my own admittedly rudimentary board and card games. My family continued fueling my gaming interests with occasional gifts: a copy of Avalon Hill’s Kingmaker, some D&D miniatures, paints, and adventure modules come to mind among the other numerous gifts that encouraged me throughout my youth.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Five Years of Game Blogging

Five years ago this month I began blogging here at Hobby Games Recce. I did it primarily to stay active as a writer and a gamer, maintaining some degree of online presence in a field in which I hadn’t published much in recent years – either through established publishers or my own imprint – due to family and work obligations. I found myself a full-time Stay-at-Home Dad (SaHD) with irregular tidbits of time, not really enough to slowly work away on voluminous game sourcebooks, but enough to offer rambling opinions on various aspects of the adventure gaming hobby. Five years and more than 250 entries later I’m still at it, mostly satisfied with my work and happy with the engagement it’s generated and friends I’ve made.

I began blogging on Nov. 11, 2010, with two posts: one about sighting games at the now-extinct Borders bookstores (at the time a rarity, though today Barnes & Noble carries an expansive array of popular hobby games), and the other about Wizards of the Coast/Avalon Hill reissuing Richard Borg’s Battle Cry Civil War battle game. Now you can find board game staples like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride – as well as other fare like Rory’s Story Cubes and Zombie Dice – in such venues as Walmart and Target, with remaining big-box bookstore Barnes & Noble carrying those and more diverse board and card game fare. How the game-scape has changed during five years.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Skills in B/X D&D

I’m slowly returning to Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons (B/X D&D) as I explore the Old School Renaissance (OSR) and return to creating material for medieval fantasy roleplaying games. Frequent readers know it’s my preferred version of D&D for various reasons, many informed by my casual survey of OSR games that caught my eye. But as I consider the practicalities of running a game, I realize I can’t leave my past behind. As a longtime player of West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game and other fare using the D6 System, my primeval gamer brain enjoys the class-and-level system of D&D but also yearns for more skill-based mechanics to encourage action beyond combat, all part of a roleplaying game’s freeform appeal that “anything can be attempted.” So I find myself considering modifications – ultimately part of my B/X D&D “house rules” – allowing characters to employ non-combat skills.

Class-and-level games focus primarily on combat, with some additional rules or systems for the non-combat exploration aspects of dungeon delving. This makes sense given original D&D’s evolution from wargames, particularly Chainmail, in which combat played the central role, with magic and other elements contributing to the outcome of the overall battle. Looking at D&D’s central mechanics, they primarily focus on resolving combat between the party and various adversaries. Other systems emerged with “special rules” for exceptional actions: magic-user and cleric spell systems, thief abilities, clerics turning undead, various races opening doors or spotting secret doors, even saving throws. Unlike, say, the D6 System, where a central “core mechanic” covers combat, skills, and other challenges, D&D relies on quite different rules to resolve different non-combat actions. Third edition D&D tried resolving this with the introduction of an entire skill system based on d20 rolls, but many other elements relied on the tried-and-true methods of yore.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Allure of Skirmish Wargaming

If I had to more specificlaly classify my dabblings with miniature wargaming I suppose I’d have to really call it “skirmish wargaming.” Although I enjoy the spectacle of massive wargames depicting the vast scope of a full battle – or even a small yet turbulent portion of one – as a gamer I don’t have the resources and time to buy, paint, and base such seemingly endless ranks of figures, let alone craft the numerous terrain features to cover such a large battlefield. Skirmish wargaming allows me to explore historical periods of interest without the greater investment in game components.

While Merriam-Webster defines “skirmish” as “a minor fight in war usually incidental to larger movements,” most gamers believe skirmish wargaming consists of small engagements on the man-to-man level, where one figure represents one soldier (or one vehicle/gun unit). This differs from many other wargames where each piece represents multiples of soldiers (at a ration of 1:5 or 1:10, for instance), even those where figures are based together to represent entire companies and regiments. Skirmish wargaming isn’t always quite the impressive spectacle of vast games with ranks of based figures recreating vast historical battles across several tabletops; but it’s the aspect of miniature wargaming that’s most accessible to me. I find several elements particularly appealing:

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Winnowing Out the RPG Shelves

I’m a notorious pack rat. I’m not quite at hoarding levels, but I have huge collections of books, games, miniatures, and beloved personal memorabilia that I can’t quite let go. Many remain relevant to my current life and work, particularly the games and books. Lately, however, I’ve been perusing my shelves of roleplaying game materials and wondering why I’m hanging on to some of them.

I don’t tend to do this with board and wargames, despite the fact that they take up much more space. Unlike roleplaying games they don’t require the time and immersion to prepare. Their components are often unique to the game. The game experience each offers isn’t easily replicated, especially without the specialty components. Given the higher cost of board and wargames, I don’t buy into them lightly; they have some value to me in theme or system and I can generally check beforehand (through online reviews and PDF rules) to better judge whether they’re right for me and my family.

In culling out unwanted roleplaying games I thought about different criteria that mattered to me for the games I would keep. Most of these titles fall into one of several categories:

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Playing at the World: An Essential Gaming History

I’ve finally finished reading the almost 700-page dissertation-sized masterpiece Playing at the World, Jon Peterson’s expansive examination of the earliest days of roleplaying games – centered on Dungeons & Dragons – and the long history of varied elements that coalesced in the 1960s and 1970s to enable its creation and sustain its popularity. The book stands as perhaps the most comprehensive, scholarly history of the birth of roleplaying games. If you’re interested in the background behind the roleplaying game hobby in its formative years, I highly recommend you read Playing at the World.

That said, this tome and its all-encompassing stroll through gaming history isn’t for everyone. It’s an amazingly comprehensive work, complete with a detailed table of contents, long list of sources, and helpful index. The subject matter at times might seem tedious, particularly when it explores issues that might not engage some roleplaying gamers’ interests, such as the early history of German Kriegsspiele and wargames in general, the various fiction genres that inspired game designers, the imaginative endeavors of sci-fi fandom, and the origins and development of various roleplaying game mechanics. Some readers might not care for the numerous footnotes scattered across nearly every page; but I found in them interesting tangents, coincidental bits of information, and overall tertiary details enhancing the historical narrative. Peterson sometimes encourages readers to skip the deeper analysis he offers to reach more appealing subjects, though slogging through more difficult portions provides an appreciation for the numerous element that helped D&D and the fledgling roleplaying game hobby emerge.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Thoughts on Game Design for Kids

My cousin is an educator in France – the equivalent of an elementary school teacher here in the United States – who knows of my endeavors in the adventure gaming hobby (having been subjected to more than a few of them when we were younger). Frequent readers might recall that introducing kids to games is one of my pursuits; I’ve had plenty of opportunities both while working on the popular Star Wars game license in my West End Games years and recently raising my son, the now-five year-old Little Guy. During a recent visit my cousin lamented the lack of any resources for teaching younger kids how to create their own games. While families and game manufacturers are just now making great strides in games geared specifically for kids (such as the inspiring Robot Turtles), I’m not sure we’ve done a whole lot in channeling youthful enthusiasms into exploring the process of creating their own games.

When do I get to design
a game, Daddy?
Many gamer parents enjoy sharing their hobby with their kids. We love to get them involved in existing games we already own and enjoy, but how do we impart to them the more complicated and nuanced core gaming elements like balance and turn sequence, distilling design rationales from a seemingly infinite number of different rule sets? How do we introduce concepts like merging mechanics with theme? How do we impart to them the critical thinking and organizational skills necessary to craft an enjoyable and meaningful game experience ?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Schweig’s Project List, Oct. 2015

In preparing to attend Nuke-Con Oct. 2-4 in Omaha, NE, I’m assembling a host of materials: signs for my numerous events, adventure components (scenario, character sheets, tent cards, handouts), rulebooks, compact miniature wargaming bits (tanks, terrain, reference cards). I managed to order two portrait-oriented Lion Flip-N-Tell Display Book-N-Easels to compliment the stand-up landscape portfolio I’ve had for years. These work really well as double-sided sign holders, with the portfolio format allowing me to easily change signs as needed. They also fold flat for easy packing and transport.

Nuke-Con provides me with a guest table where I can hang out and chat with con-goers when I’m not running games. I’ll have two of these portfolios set up on the guest table with information about my con schedule and products, while the third serves at my gaming tables to identify the event and display any in-game reference materials.

In trying to devise interesting information for signage to inspire guest-table conversation I thought I’d offer a brief outline of some of the projects on my immediate “to do” list. I regret many of these have languished for years, set aside when real-life jobs consumed my energy and then when my full-time parental duties took over my life; but with the Little Guy in kindergarten full time now, I have a little more time to focus on developing and completing game projects for publication.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Host, Teacher, Referee

When we consider the role of a game referee – whether a gamemaster for a roleplaying game, the owner of a board game, or an actual referee in miniature wargames – several key elements emerge as necessary to provide a positive game experience. A referee serves as a host, teacher, and arbiter of game rules; learning the skills required to excel at each of those diverse roles helps make a more satisfying experience for everyone.

Hosting, teaching, refereeing, or scheming?
I’m reading Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World (yes, I’m still not finished...it’s 700 pages long!) and contemplating my own experiences as a player and gamemaster. I realize the role of a game’s referee – and the degree to which the referee shares involvement with the players interfacing with the game system – has changed across time and different gaming forms. In the earliest days of wargaming the creators of the Kriegsspiele used the concept of a wargame as a training tool for upcoming officers; the referee not only owned the game components, but knew it well enough to run the game for others who did not possess a working knowledge of the game mechanics beyond their role as military decision-makers. Most miniature wargames later followed an iteration of this model: the referee provided the game components and was familiar enough with the rules to both run the game and offer assistance to those who didn’t know them. The earliest roleplaying games focused on the gamemaster, who usually owned a copy of the rules and therefore understood them well enough to not only run games but shepherd new players through the character creation process and in-game mechanics. Board games leveled the playing field in terms of knowledge of the rules (something Avalon Hill began in its two-player board wargames without a referee), though someone still has to own a copy. Throughout this history three roles emerge for the referee, all of which contribute to a game’s overall success:

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Classic or New Editions?

Mongoose Publishing recently released a playtest PDF for its latest edition of the venerable Traveller roleplaying game...charging $20 for the privilege of perusing, playing, and helping to improve it. It’s an opportunistic strategy I’ve seen before – with all three slightly variant flavors of Fantasy Flight Games’ iteration of a Star Wars roleplaying game – and don’t particularly like, even if publishers have internal financial justifications for it. The news of yet another edition of Traveller raises the issue of whether gamers need new editions of classic games.

From a publisher’s perspective new editions serve numerous purposes: updating outdated mechanics and changing meta-story setting materials; revising the game line’s graphic presentation to appeal to current tastes; and relaunching a game line (including the inevitable parade of supplements) to reinvigorate sales. I can certainly attest to this first-hand from my involvement with West End Games. As a gamer I enjoyed the first edition of The Star Wars Roleplaying Game. Just before I joined the company to establish and edit The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal, West End released a second edition of the rules, purportedly to combine and revise rules additions and interpretations released in various supplements over the years. Ultimately the company published a Revised & Expanded edition of the game, a sort of 2.5 release, affectionately dubbed “super-mondo” by the staff because it had the largest page count and was the first to feature full-color throughout, including both movie stills and original full-color artwork. Each of these subsequent editions fulfilled many of the objectives outlined above – updating rules, revising graphic presentation, and relaunching the line – even though the original version remained playable (with personal rules interpretations) and quite enjoyable. Despite my own preferences for the game’s first edition, I towed the company line and dutifully supported each edition in turn, writing source material and running convention games using the latest version (despite my overwhelming misgivings about the notorious Wild Die...).

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

“Daddy, Who Are the Bad Guys?”

My five year-old son, the Little Guy, has asked this question occasionally around the game table, usually when I pull out some historically themed game appropriate to his level (in its original form or, more likely, in a streamlined “quick-start” format). It’s a valid question. Kids his age like to have everything categorized in black and white. They don’t have the experience or wisdom to discern varying levels of gray in everyday issues. Their views can change with time – the Little Guy went through a phase where he didn’t like Star Wars much, but now he’s “back into it” – but they like having their world defined by yes or no, black and white, not long-winded discussions of the gray areas like Daddy’s prone to offer.

My great-great Uncle Martin (left)
playing chess during the Great War.
Part of our dilemma comes from our personal connections to various historical conflicts. We’ve played the WWI version of Wings of War (now Wings of Glory) and the Little Guy has expressed interest in trying the WWII version. Both historical games present problematic aspects of the bad guy issue. His great-great grandfather served in the Kaiser’s medical corps in the Great War and witnessed first-hand the terrible price war exacted on soldiers’ bodies and minds. When a friend sent me the B-17 Flying Fortress plane for the WWII Wings of Glory, the Little Guy naturally asked if it was a bad guy or good guy plane. The question inspired a short discussion about serving one’s country; we have various relatives who served America in WWII...including one with the 8th Army Air Corps in England working as ground crew for bombers heading into Germany, where other distant relations lived and survived air raids before fleeing west in the face of the ruthless Soviet military juggernaut. Two of his great-grandparents quite literally (and fortunately for us) missed the boat on returning to Nazi Germany.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

B/X D&D Preferences Inspired by OSR Retro-Clones

In dabbling with the Old School Renaissance (OSR) and retro-clone games I’ve come full-circle back to my original adventure gaming roots. I started on Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons (the Moldvay edition, often called B/X D&D) and, after exploring many modern interpretations of the classic games enabled by the Open Game License (OGL), still prefer its concise, streamlined, yet easily adaptable form. B/X D&D remains my favorite of all the different versions of D&D and all the OSR retro-clone offerings available today. I enjoy a few OSR games on their own – rather than for the evolutions they bring to OSR retro-clones – particularly the Barsoom-inspired Warriors of the Red Planet, sci-fi retro-clone White Star, and Barbarians of Lemuria (arguably on the fringe of the OSR retro-clone scene). But when it comes to swords-and-sorcery fantasy roleplaying, I default to B/X D&D.

Yet even my beloved B/X D&D could stand some streamlining, revision, and enhancement. What game can’t? Most games become customized the moment a gamemaster and players start adding “house rules,” from interpretations of rule systems to new additions to suit their particular play style. My recent explorations of the OSR have helped me determine some of my preferences in various aspects of traditional D&D game mechanics. Along the way I’ve particularly enjoyed what some creators have developed based on many classic gaming elements from the Golden Age of Roleplaying. Surveying how classic games and new OSR titles handle various mechanics – especially in relation to my overall personal preference for B/X D&D – helped coalesce some of my opinions about elements I’d tinker with in my own “house rules,” should I ever come to run a B/X D&D game myself:

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

“Boutique” Games

Gamers often face the financial challenge of deciding whether they can afford an expensive game that’s tempted them with an appealing theme, high-quality production values, and engaging gameplay. Many times we can exhibit self-control and budget for large game purchases or bide our time before buying supplemental materials. Yet the price of games across the range of the adventure gaming hobby (roleplaying, board, wargames, and miniatures games) continues to creep upward; it isn’t helped by more releases of what I’d call “boutique” games, those with price tags nearing or often exceeding the $100 mark. These make significant contributions to the overall field of games, though at a greater cost to both producers and players.

A recent game convention we attended runs a charity “teacup” style raffle where participants buy tickets (at $1 each) and drop them into bins with numbers corresponding to donated prizes, with all proceeds going to the named charity (in this case one that benefited veterans). I’ll admit, I was sorely tempted by three interesting game “prizes,” Fantasy Flight Games’ Imperial Assault and Star Wars: Armada, and Ares Games’ Sails of Glory starter set. Each of them retails for about $100 and comes packed with some amazingly high-quality components. Their subjects also interest me. My son and I stuffed the raffle tickets I’d bought into the bin for Imperial Assault (his choice), though I diverted a few to another game that tempted me; despite this, we didn’t win any of the raffle drawings, and that was okay (donating to a good charity helped us feel it was worthwhile).

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Recent OSR Acquisitions

This year I’ve started dabbling more in the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR), picking up interesting product thanks to a host of Lulu discount sales and a few other sources. Although my “old school” game of preference remains Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons (Moldvay edition), I enjoy looking over new OSR products, seeing what innovations designers work into the system, and mining them for inspiration. I’ve discussed Lulu and the OSR before, noting the platform’s absence of a “wish list” function; I’ve since returned to more traditional methods – scrawling notes on scrap paper – to keep track of titles of interest. Some materials I ordered from Lulu’s print-on-demand (POD) service; others came from the similar POD services DriveThruRPG and its affiliates offer, and one came among the goodies delivered in a recently ordered Mythoard package. At least one released so recently I’ve only looked over the PDF, though I just ordered the print-on-demand version as it was at the top spot in my “to order next time” list for Lulu.

Starter Adventures by Tim Shorts ($19.99 print, Lulu): I was pleasantly surprised by one of my first Lulu purchases. Starter Adventures offers four short scenarios for beginning characters in each major OSR class. They’re ideal for one-on-one play (one gamemaster and one player) introducing newcomers to a particular rules set or roleplaying in general. Each scenario provides very class-specific challenges and resolutions, inviting a player to explore various aspects of their character’s class. Many rely on an apprentice situation with a more experienced mentor to help set the stage and offer guidance, establishing some ready-made allies or contacts for the future. The book rounds out its beginner-level materials with a detailed tavern location and a full-fledged low-level group adventure, both of which showcase engaging gamemaster characters who can help or challenge new heroes. Besides providing inspiration and guidance for creating brief, introductory adventures for low-level characters, it demonstrates how to craft specific encounters to a particular class’ abilities.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

GenCan’t & the Guns of August

August brings GenCon – arguably the largest, most comprehensive adventure gaming convention in the world – the ideal game experience for which every gamer should strive once in their lives (if we are to believe much of popular gaming culture). It also brings a far smaller but more accessible game event much closer to my own neck of the woods, a cozy but engaging wargaming and board game convention called, quite appropriately, Guns of August. I’ve attended both in the past, yet one remains more realistic in terms of time and finances. Both fulfill roles in satisfying gamers’ needs for shopping, playing, and overall fan interaction.

The GenCon Pilgrimage

Traveling to GenCon and gaming for four straight days has always seemed a mandatory pilgrimage every gamer should aspire to at least once in their life. Back before the internet – when gaming magazines shared info about new releases and conventions along with their other game-source-material fare – the venerable Dragon Magazine ran ads promoting GenCon as well as occasional reports about miniatures competitions. Some of the very first “module” scenarios initially served as tournament adventures at GenCon. As a high school kid and avid reader of Dragon Magazine I quickly came to believe GenCon was the hobby’s leading gaming event, a Meccas every truly dedicated gamer would reach in making the ultimate roleplaying game pilgrimage. But for a scrawny, geeky kid this seemed little more than an unreachable dream one only read about in the pages of Dragon Magazine or other industry periodicals. I realized it was unrealistic to commandeer the family summer vacation to go to a gaming event only I’d enjoy, and one that seemed overly expensive given admission, travel, and hotel expenses, let alone shopping cash for purchasing dream game product I never imagined my local hobby shop carrying.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Films for Adventure Inspiration

[Note: This week I offer a revision of an old Griffon’s Aerie “Dispatch” column from years ago. I’d like to say I’ve been too busy attending GenCon to draft a new entry for this week, but, alas, I’m just recovering from a weekend entertaining out-of-town guests. Nonetheless, I’ve had this “reserve” feature waiting in the wings, one of my favorite and possibly useful resources for roleplaying games. Share and enjoy.]

In our society movies remain one of the more complete means of realizing fantasy through storytelling. Their larger-than-life scale, amazing special- or computer-generated-effects, evocative costumes, and seemingly realistic settings help viewers escape their mundane world and immerse themselves in an entertaining tale. No other media yet comes close to pure sensory escapism (though books can, at times, hypnotize us in the same way, without the powerful visual and aural impressions). Films also fit a complete and sometimes well-told story into a compact period, often about two hours. Viewing them is not quite as involved as reading an entire novel, nor are they short tidbits digested in small doses like most television shows and short stories. This makes them ideal to adaptation as roleplaying game adventures, either as stand-alone scenarios or part of a larger campaign.

Innovative gamemasters can find inspiration in films. They often borrow and modify various composite elements from movies that seem attractive to their games: a cool vehicle or weapon; an exotic location; well-crafted plot points; even heroes, sidekicks, and villains who, with a name change and some stats, can enhance a game. In a pinch the basic premise of a film, its locations, and plot and character elements can form the basis for a spur-of-the-moment scenario. Gamemasters with a crowd of eager players and no adventure at hand can take a minute to recall a good movie and adapt its core plot and other elements to the current game.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Star Wars Command’s Little Wars Heritage

For my birthday my son got me several sets of the Star Wars Command 54mm plastic soldier figures and not-to-scale vehicles. (The Little Guy loves getting other people presents he can play with/usurp, too.) They’ve been discounted at Walmart for months; I’ve watched fellow gamers and Star Wars fans snatch them up, play with them, even paint them like the old 25mm metal miniatures. I didn’t get any sets with the “Roll Attack Strikers” that enable one to attach vehicles and their bases, then pull back and send speeding to knock down enemy soldiers, though I saw them in other sets on the back of the packaging. Yet this entire set-up – toy soldiers standing around waiting for some mechanical contrivance from the enemy to knock them over – seemed oddly familiar...just like the gameplay H.G. Wells proposed in his Little Wars.

Those macrobinoculars won't help
find those Tusken Raiders....
Noted English writer H.G. Wells – also called the father of science fiction – published Little Wars in 1913, ironically only a year before Europe would plunge into an armed conflict so devastating it was dubbed “The War to End All Wars.” As wargames go it seemed pretty simple: players arrayed toy soldiers and artillery on a playing field, moved them around and shot at them with the artillery pieces. A very simple system resolved close combat, often resulting in captured soldiers as well as casualties. Nothing nearly as complex as the wargames created in the previous century by the father-son Reiswitz duo, their contemporaries and successors; certainly nothing as complex as the numerous miniature wargame rules available in the “modern” era of the hobby today. Ranged combat relied on a particular mechanical contrivance, a 4.7 naval gun toy manufactured by the same company that made toy soldiers popular at the time, the venerable Britains, Ltd. The toy gun shot little dowels at soldiers, knocking them over and sometimes causing collateral damage to nearby figures.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Schweig’s Gaming Roadshow Gallery

A few posts ago I talked about “Schweig’s Gaming Roadshow,” a host of toys for running both roleplaying games and miniature wargames I’d love to take on the road to various regional conventions to share with gamers (though I’m often restrained in this effort by financial and scheduling considerations). “Don’t tease us!” wrote one astute reader. “You talked about all this wonderful terrain and only gave us a handful of pictures!” And he was right! So I spent this past week tidying up the basement wargaming table, setting up some lights, and systematically pulling out goodies for most of the games I mentioned for numerous photographs. They’re not all that great, but I’d like to think they offer a more comprehensive look at some of the toys I’d like to share with convention-goers. In a few places I’ve relied on a few older photos, some from the actual Valley of the Ape rulebook as well as some Panzer Kids photos from my discussion of “Making Use of What We Have.”

I apologize in advance, but there are more than 30 photos in this post; it may seem long and it may take a while to load. Click on the photos for a closer look. They offer a closer, more expansive look at the materials in Schweig’s Gaming Roadshow.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

You Are What You Read: Gaming Inspiration

Where do we find our inspiration in creating new game material?

I’m asking myself this question as I start a few new projects. I’m looking to revise and reinvigorate my repertoire of roleplaying game adventures for conventions, so I’m seeking new sources of inspiration. I’ve also suddenly and seemingly inexplicably found myself inspired to draft a set of simple yet easily modified skirmish wargaming rules, a result of my recent reading and dabbling in similar games (and my publication of Valley of the Ape to entice kids into wargaming). I’m examining both where I find inspiration and how to harness sudden enthusiasms that emerge from those same sources.

A collective wisdom exists among humanity that nothing is original, that our creations come out of our lifelong experiences, including the media we consume. “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation,” Voltaire said. “The most original writers borrowed one from another.” Perhaps novelist and Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk put it best: “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” In this spirit – and as an effective means of looking for inspiration – I find research one of the best ways for me to fire up my imagination. I look in several places for new ideas or approaches: exploring related subjects on Wikipedia, paging through old game books, browsing my small yet satisfying personal library of non-fiction materials, and occasionally sitting down to watch a genre-related video. Everyone has their favorite novels, films, comics, television shows, and games. Most folks cultivate interests related to and apart from their media consumption that can also inform and influence their game writing. Ultimately our creations incorporate bits and pieces of ourselves – books we’ve read, films we’ve seen, comics we’ve followed, games we’ve played, and an entire lifetime of original experience – all interpreted, re-assembled, and transformed into a new form, our “original” work. The more we read/watch/play/experience, the more material we have for inspiration, the more elements we have to recombine into new forms that please ourselves and others.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Schweig’s Gaming Roadshow

Once upon a time I had seemingly unlimited time, funds, and energy to dash off to regional conventions with my car packed to the gills with gaming toys to share with fans. My situation has changed over the years. As a father and husband I don’t have as much time or energy in my middle-age years. Conventions aren’t as generous toward “guests” (and gaming “guests” in particular), putting more of the financial burden on them to pay their way (especially hotel costs, arguably the biggest expense attending a regional con). I don’t have as much spare cash for gaming pursuits, let alone road trips to conventions with significant financial expenses incurred by a hotel stay, meals, and gas for the car. But I still have the urge – and often fight it – to commit myself to conventions, bring all my gaming toys, and run entire weekends of fun games for appreciative fans.

Valley of the Ape "set pieces."
It doesn’t help when I head into the basement and gaze longingly at the neglected tables for wargaming, painting, and crafting terrain. A lifetime of toys from various adventure gaming hobby pursuits are stashed in, around, and under those surfaces, all yearning for some play time. Some I’ve brought out to play with younger folks; my nephew helped playtest the still-in-development Panzer Kids rules on the desert terrain with World War II tanks. The Little Guy helped me create the kid-friendly Valley of the Ape wargame with the custom jungle terrain we bought and assembled. But these remain isolated if highly enjoyable incidents. I have an urge to share my toys with more people.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Uncertainty in X-wing

Now and then I dabble in some “academic” reading about game issues, an exercise that inevitably starts me thinking and writing about the convergence of gaming as an activity and more analytical analysis of game elements. Having enjoyed his brief monograph I Have No Words & I Must Design (a wonderfully accessible and thought-provoking read), I picked up Greg Kostikyan’s Uncertainty in Games to further broaden my horizons and re-focus my way of looking at games. It immediately helped me define both my interest in and frustration with Fantasy Flight Games’ X-wing Miniatures Game.

Costikyan might be best-known for his involvement in such innovative roleplaying titles as the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and Paranoia from West End Games and Toon from Steve Jackson Games. He’s had a long history and career in gaming, from the days of SPI to time working in the video game industry. His rather prolific output includes four novels, several short stories, gaming zines, numerous games (both analog and digital), and two books and numerous articles about games and the gaming industry.

Uncertainty in Games looks at one element that makes games so enjoyable...and at times frustrating. It’s by no means a hard-core academic work, but one which looks at games from a different perspective, seeking the sources and application of “uncertainty” in games, all with Costikyan’s entertaining language, clear logic, and acerbic wit. Two chapters in particular offer readers valuable information about discerning uncertainty in games. In “Chapter 4: Analyzing Games” he takes a look at numerous games – both analog and digital – and examines them for source of uncertainty. Monopoly, rock/paper/scissors, Diplomacy, chess, Memoir ’44, poker, and Magic: The Gathering are just some of the analog games Costikyan outlines, noting how rules and components add layers of uncertainty to thwart players and enhance the game experience. In “Chapter 5: Sources of Uncertainty” Costikyan categorizes several kinds of uncertainty in game mechanics, from wholly expected ones like “player unpredictability,” “hidden information,” and “randomness” to less apparent ones like “solver’s uncertainty,” “analytic complexity,” and “narrative anticipation.” He includes examples from across the field of analog and digital games to further illustrate how various uncertain elements enhance (or detract from) the challenging tension driving a game. Overall Uncertainty in Games offered a light reading style packed with plenty of revelations and a new way of perceiving games. Anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of successful, satisfying games – and certainly in designing them – should read the book, along with Costikyan’s other writings on the subjects of games.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Halthrag Keep Hits the Solo OSR Spot

Frequent readers know I enjoy solitaire adventures and solo gamebooks; I’m also indulging in a recent enthusiasm for Old School Renaissance (OSR) materials. So Noah Stevens’ PDF of The Hounds of Halthrag Keep naturally tempted me. I downloaded it and started feeding odd characters through its meat-grinder programmed entries; I liked it so much I went ahead and ordered a a print-on-demand copy to add to my growing OSR shelf and solo gamebook collection.

Before I started reading and playing Halthrag Keep I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. Sure, I’m always game for a solitaire adventure; that seemed about the only interesting quality about it for me. It was billed as a “funnel” adventure typical of the game whose system it uses, Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC), in which zero-level characters bumble through hideously lethal dungeons (in comparison to their low-level and inadequately equipped selves), with only a few surviving to become somewhat worthier first-level characters. I prefer games where players can craft meaningful characters who, by their very heroic nature, somehow survive adversity. So I’m not usually a fan of “funnels” or generally killing off scores of low level characters. I’d also developed an impression that Halthrag Keep and the Dungeon Crawl Classics game in general blended “gonzo” fantasy with over-the-top sci-fi elements, something I tend to avoid in my fantasy game adventuring.

Despite all this, I enjoyed Halthrag Keep so much that before I’d completed it with my third character I ordered the print-on-demand version.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Gaming “Intangibles”

What are fleeting experiences like roleplaying game sessions or miniature wargame scenarios worth? Are they “performance art” or marketable products, however fleeting? PBS Newshour recently aired a quirky piece about a Minneapolis art museum selling “intangibles,” ephemeral, art-oriented experiences, such as meeting a dancer waltzing through a public park terrain, arranged to offer a one-on-one experience with an artist. It postulated taking the art museum experience – a temporary occurrence for the visitor – outside the confines of the structure to engage artists with those seeking something new. These interactions (some in person, others with electronic components) seek to create a hybrid of “art” and marketable “product” through an interactive experience.

What value would you put
on this "intangible" experience?
Although games consist of such tangible objects as rulebooks, miniatures, terrain, dice, and character sheets, the actual playing of the game becomes an intangible experience, something folks cannot take along with them afterward (though one might argue recordings of game sessions enable this, though I myself find little entertainment listening or watching such fare). Any game experience merges the personalities and strategies of various players around the mechanics and components of a game. Board games, card games, and traditional chit-and-board wargames don’t usually require a third-party referee and thus follow predictable forms within the rules, with variances for strategy and player interaction within the game’s structure. But running a more free-form roleplaying game is a sort of performance at some level, primarily for the gamemaster but also for the players. Even setting up and refereeing a miniature wargame – with customized terrain, finely painted soldiers, and a well-balanced scenario – involves aspects of personal performance and artistic presentation. It started me thinking about games as “intangibles,” ephemeral experiences focused on a gamemaster or referee, a handful of players, and a particular structure (setting, mechanics, components) of a game. An appreciation for “intangibles” remains key for the adventure gaming hobby on some level (usually subconscious), since the act of playing games remains intangibly experiential. I don’t mean to open up the debate whether games are “art,” though some folks hold quite firm opinions on the subject. Nor do I wish to debate what qualifications make gamemasters worthy of charging for their performance. I’m just struck by the connection a portion of the artistic world makes with intangible interactive experiences as a marketable product and the fact that gamers engage in this all the time, often without any remuneration among participants.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Changing Game Buying Habits

The local game store not 10 minutes from my house closed suddenly back in December after a wonderfully entertaining run of just over one year. I’m still bitter about the abrupt closing, the circumstances of which I’ve heard are surrounded in controversy, opportunism, and betrayal. I’m perhaps most upset by the loss of a place where I could hang out and play games with friends, check out the latest game releases, and enjoy hobby-specific events. I did not buy more than I usually would from a game store – one or two Godzilla comics a month for the Little Guy, an odd game here and there, some X-wing miniatures, and one special ordered Wings of Glory plane (also for the Little Guy) – about the dollar amount and game volume I’d normally do from a brick-and-mortar game store in a year (more, actually, if you include the comics). Being so close to home it also served as a great place to gather with fellow gamers, most notably for weekly X-wing miniatures games and an occasional tournament; I also enjoyed spending International Tabletop Day there trying out new games.

Despite this loss of a Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) my game buying has somehow increased during the past few months...perhaps not in total dollar amount, but certainly in numbers of product. In taking a general look where I spend my adventure gaming hobby money, I find some interesting voluntary shifts that had little to do with the involuntary loss of the FLGS.

Game Stores: I still frequent the other FLGS (“local” in the sense it’s almost an hour’s drive away) and usually pick up some miniatures, terrain, or other, not-too-expensive bit, just to do my small part. Occasionally I make a pilgrimage to a game store I’ve heard about a farther drive away, or if we’re traveling and I happen to scout out a potential store to visit. Unfortunately even the closest FLGS remains far enough away that a casual visit isn’t a consideration; I have to plan for a trip, usually combined with other errands, and rarely have the time I’d like to even browse, let alone join in a game or event. They’re often quite helpful in special ordering hard-to-find items, though I’m finding internet venues far more fulfilling and cost-effective for specific games (see below). Given the distance involved, however, the FLGS has diminished in its role providing me with game materials – a regret since I value actual locations that offer both shopping opportunities and spaces to gather and spend time with other gamers – but that doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped supporting brick-and-mortar establishments altogether.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Gaming Artifacts: Homemade Modules

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Charles Caleb Colton (1780-1832)

I’ve put off discussing these particular artifacts from my earliest gaming days because, frankly, they’re awfully embarrassing. Compared with my subsequent work – in the course of more than 20 years in the publishing and adventure gaming industry – they’re irredeemably horrible. I count them with my amateur attempt at a gaming fanzine among the relics I wish simply didn’t exist; yet I keep them around not simply for shameful nostalgia, but because they were an integral part of my earliest, enthusiastic gaming days.

In my first years exploring roleplaying through Dungeons & Dragons (primarily Moldvay-edition Basic/Expert D&D, but also Advanced D&D) I created a number of my own adventure modules for our small gaming group of neighborhood kids (some I wrote down as created by my brother, who was somewhat reluctantly dragged into my gaming hobby). I dubbed those periods my “D&D Summers,” the months off between school years in high school shortly after I discovered D&D at the end of junior high. I filled my time with creating scenarios and settings, running games for friends, painting miniatures, exploring new games, and otherwise immersing myself in adventure gaming hobby activities all summer long.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Creators & Communities

My current reading of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World – particularly about early wargaming clubs, newsletters, and rules – and the recent phenomenal and well-deserved success of James Spahn’s White Star Swords & Wizardry-compatible sci-fi roleplaying game demonstrate the importance of game creators setting out to do their own thing and forging enthusiastic communities around their creations.

In the earliest pages of Playing at the World, Peterson discusses how members of early wargaming clubs – both traditional chit-and-board games and those using miniatures – published their own newsletters, hosted their own (admittedly small) conventions, and shared ideas for creating game variants or developing new games, ones often distributed within the newsletters or in amateurish mimeographed copies. Clubs and newsletters (the primary means of finding opponents) brought people together not simply to play games but to talk about them, discuss evolving ideas, and share new interests in historical periods. All this engagement fueled the development of new games, including the groundbreaking rules called Dungeons & Dragons....

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

My Lulu OSR Wish List

Recently I’ve been exploring the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR) in roleplaying games. It helps me connect with my earliest days of dungeon-delving roleplaying and my continued preference for the Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons rules; it’s also providing inspiration both for game design and as options for solo and group play. I’ve acquired many free PDF rules online, but I can’t really enjoy reading them on the screen and don’t want to print everything out in cluttered loose-leaf binders or hastily stapled piles. I’m still a book lover; I can read a printed book cover-to-cover, even a game book, but can read only small portions of a PDF book on screen.

Since so many people have published so much OSR material through venues like Lulu and OneBookShelf, I need to establish a rationale to limit my purchases and keep them relevant to my interests and play style. Since the OSR looks back to the earliest days of fantasy roleplaying games, I wanted to find rules incorporating elements of my favorite edition of D&D, the Basic/Expert rules edited by Tom Moldvay. These included a number of elements that appealed to me: a generally more streamlined and better organized presentation than AD&D at the time; races as classes (sacrificing some player options for streamlining simplicity); and a comprehensive approach to the game, incorporating everything needed to play in one book. While I appreciate games with approaches different than my own rationale – and own and have enjoyed many – for future acquisitions I’m limiting myself to material that might best suit my own gaming style. I’m also looking for quality supplements to expand my OSR experience; these don’t need to tie into one particular rules set as much as offer inspiration for fantasy roleplaying games. I still need to do my homework. I have free PDF copies of some of the games that interest me, but I need to more closely examine many to see if they follow my rationale enough that I’d want to add them to my print library.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Repurposing A Project

My recent missive on chit-and-board wargames caused me to look back on a forlorn, abandoned project and find new life in a different form. In the blog post I looked at current efforts in this “traditional” wargames sector and noted several factors I’d find appealing in new games, particularly more streamlined rules with fewer (and larger) pieces. I posted the article, then sat back and wondered, how could I create a traditional wargame that would satisfy my own criteria? In my mind I ran through the various historical periods that engage my interest, recalling particular battles with which I have some degree of familiarity or a good stock of research material in my personal library. I put the idea aside for a day or two, and then an idea dawned; I could repurpose an unpublished article on miniature wargaming the Battle of Ridgefield (April 27, 1777) into a chit-and-board wargame.

A few years ago I volunteered to help produce a regional wargaming club’s newsletter. It had languished for a while after having a good run with informative articles, news about club activities, and a listing of local resources for gaming. I thought I’d bring my years of publishing experience, both editorial and layout, and try giving the newsletter new life. The club representative told me they’d received another offer for a volunteer editor, so they asked us to work together. My grandiose vision for resurrecting the periodical and infusing it with engaging material and new life fell afoul of the co-editor syndrome (a good author friend once told me that co-authoring was twice as much work for half the pay...and in this case, my half of the “pay” was nothing in exchange for lots of work and some friction with my co-editor about what made a good wargaming newsletter). Although I was pleased with the final product, my experience was less than rewarding, so I just walked away. The club hasn’t published a newsletter since.

One of the articles I intended to contribute covered the Battle of Ridgefield during the American War of Independence, a subject dear to me since I grew up in that small, Connecticut town, was steeped in its history, and had seen a 200th anniversary reenactment of the skirmish as a kid. I relied on a very well-researched history of the event – Farmers Against the Crown by Keith Marshall Jones III – and drafted a summary history of the event, with a focus on the forces engaged, the terrain, deployment, and how miniature wargamers might stage the skirmish. I submitted it to the co-editor for comments, some of which helped focus my writing; however, I allowed my general dissatisfaction with the direction the newsletter was taking to temper my enthusiasm, and I shelved the article for a “future issue” which, of course, never materialized.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

My Favorite Flavor of D&D

Recently I’ve been seduced by all the buzz about the Old School Renaissance (OSR) games that hearken back to the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons in their mechanics and presentation. I’ve acquired a few print copies of various games and source material (including some quality ’zines). It’s all fueled by an interest in returning to my medieval fantasy gaming origins and thus to the nostalgic origins of my immersion in the adventure gaming hobby. While I appreciate a number of the OSR games I’ve seen – most notably Old School Hack, Basic Fantasy, Barbarians of Lemuria, and Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox rules (admittedly not all hardcore OSR) – I find myself returning to the original source of my early wonderment and inspiration in gaming: Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons.

Aside from the game I designed myself based on watching two friends muddle through some rooms in B2 Keep on the Borderlands, I started with the Moldvay-edition D&D Basic Set (received as an Easter present when I was 13); I quickly expanded my gaming activities that summer with the Expert set. Although I soon got the triumvirate of core books for first edition AD&D, most of my earliest gaming focused on Basic/Expert D&D. I certainly bought into the AD&D game line, playing several games and often borrowing scenario material for my own D&D experience, but I often felt AD&D had far too many rules and, as the line progressed under TSR, far too many supplements defining in detail various aspects of the mechanics and settings.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Chit-and-Board Wargames Still Live

I don’t often talk about chit-and-board wargames (or “traditional” wargames for brevity’s sake). Although the adventure gaming hobby evolved from this sector of gaming (and from its miniature wargaming cousin), it seems the prevalence of roleplaying games, board and card games, and more visually appealing miniature wargames have eclipsed their popularity. We don’t always hear about these through the usual buzz on the internet. News covers the latest OSR games and supplements, Euro-style games, major releases from publishers with pre-painted miniatures and numerous collectible powers to enhance tournament play, Kickstarter juggernauts, licensed games, and a host of flashier products.

Regrettably the days of traditional wargaming’s popularity have long passed. Giants like Avalon Hill and SPI have faded, though the former lives on under the auspices of Wizards of the Coast and focuses primarily on proven brands (such as Axis & Allies). Rare are massive bookcase game boxes with cardboard-mounted maps and hordes of half-inch, die-cut unit counters. Traditional wargaming has given way to the more visually appealing miniature wargaming hobby and to lighter “battle games” like Memoir ’44, Battle Cry, Wings of Glory, and the Axis & Allies Miniatures Game which incorporate more elements from board gaming with a wargame theme.

Yet that extremely niche portion of the hobby still remains active, with a handful of companies still producing new titles to satisfy this aspect of gamers’ interests. Some remain minimalist efforts, thin rulebooks with a half-sheet of counters (at best). Others revel in the massive boxed games packed with components, frequently financed by crowdfunding efforts like Kickstarter. I’ve come across a number of traditional wargame publishers who remain active; the list below is by no means comprehensive, but offers a relatively current glimpse at this sector of the adventure gaming hobby:

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Imitating Graphic Design

I’d had some graphic design experience in college and at my newspaper job before coming to West End Games to start editing the Star Wars Adventure Journal; but I learned some of my most valuable lessons from the company’s production manager, Richard Hawran, one of the oft-unknown people working behind the scenes who really kept the game lines and the company together. Rich managed to simultaneously keep the often-volatile creative egos of the editorial staff focused on projects instead of vendettas, moderate management’s intolerance for game designers and its intrusive bureaucratic whims, and ensure the company maintained a rigorous production schedule through a generous dose of troubleshooting and maneuvering. One of the first of many lessons I learned dealt with laying out a book: find a graphic design scheme in a product you like, a visual look that works for you, and imitate elements of it with practical modifications for your own project.

Certainly publishers and graphic designers bring to any project their own preconceived notions, parameters, and overall “vision” for a product’s appearance. We were already working under particular constraints determined by management’s strategy for the Adventure Journal: a digest-sized publication layout and set font choices from other Star Wars Roleplaying Game products for article subheads (Eras Bold) and text (Cheltenham). The head of the art department – who’d viewed the Journal layout as his domain – had been taken off the project for a variety of reasons: he had allegedly run late on numerous projects, did not seem open to working as a team with editorial staff, and no doubt clashed with management personalities and egos. (Regrettably these contentious attitudes seems standard for the roleplaying game industry, as anyone reading the four-volume history Designers & Dragons would know.) So Rich and I hunkered down and hammered out the layout for the Adventure Journal one snowy Saturday in January, a month before the first issue was due to head to distributors. For the first hour we looked at similarly sized publications to judge the pros and cons of how they presented their content. At the time few digest-sized publications approaching the 288-page count existed (or I would have suggested the little black Traveller books). Rich and I paged through two I remember, TV Guide and Reader’s Digest, both seemingly obsolete in today’s information-overload Internet Age. I can’t recall what specific graphic design revelations we gleaned from examining the layout of both magazines, but it holds an interesting lesson in using layout elements you like and that work for your intended publication (and, conversely, avoiding the ones you don’t like or don’t work).

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Revising the Any-System Key for OSR

Years ago I designed a simple, system-neutral framework enabling me to describe game stats for characters and creatures – as well as difficulty levels for various tasks – without committing myself to a single game engine. I called it the Any-System Key. It fit it on two pages, one for the basic concepts and the other a kind of worksheet for listing relevant skills and translating difficulty numbers (a third page added later offered some sample stats across genres). The system focused on using basic skill descriptions and three levels of adversaries (henchmen, boss, and mastermind) to give gamemasters some guidance adapting these notes to their preferred game system. The Any-System Key worked fine for the game material I was writing at the time, primarily pulp content like Heroes of Rura-Tonga and Pulp Egypt, using game engines like the D6 System that relied heavily on skills and difficulty levels to define play parameters.

But now I’m considering designing some supplements in the medieval fantasy genre, something more compatible with the class/level system of Dungeons & Dragons and the numerous retro-clones made popular over the last few years by the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR).

Like the Any-System Key, the OSR version seeks to describe characters, creatures, and other difficulties (such as those corresponding to saving throws, thief skills, and turning undead for clerics) in broad terms, providing enough material so gamemasters could port such setting concepts into their preferred OSR-style game engine.