Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Very Geeky Holidays

I’m thankful that throughout my life the holidays have always been a time to indulge my inner geek and share it with others. It’s become a quiet tradition, not always something planned, but something that simply happens on its own. But before I wander into my rambling missive on the subject, I want to wish all Hobby Games Recce readers, everyone who supports my gaming efforts here, at Griffon Publishing Studio, and elsewhere, a joyous and geeky holiday season...or, if you prefer, Christma-yu-kwanza-kah-nalia (hopefully you can find your specific holiday somewhere in there).

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
The holidays bring out some of the most sacred family traditions among western cultures (and I’m assuming among some non-western cultures, too). Growing up we had some pretty standardized practices adjusted over time for our ages, involvement in religious rituals, and other changing factors: the Christmas tree went up and was lit according to a particular schedule; trains often ran around it to enhance the holiday’s playful spirit; we shared a traditional Christmas Eve dinner of ham, potatoes, pinkelwurst, and kale, with stollen and cookies for dessert, with a full turkey dinner on Christmas Day (I have no idea where my parents found the energy to do both); we opened presents, one at a time, taking turns in order from oldest to youngest (I assume as a lesson in patience for us younger folk); and, of course, we attended church at some point, first the early evening children’s pageant, later the spectacle of midnight mass with music, lights, and ceremony rivaling the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. Even though the years have passed and I’m married with a child of my own, our household’s new traditions have evolved, some carried over from our treasured past and others we establish together as a family. We still set up a tree and trains, but we also festoon the front of the house with modest holiday lights and, when I bother, decorate our eight foot-tall sasquatch stand-up, “Skookums,” in the front yard (left over from Halloween); I bake stollen to give as gifts to friends and family; we enjoy the traditional ham dinner, though we graze through leftovers on subsequent days; and we open presents Christmas morning instead of Christmas Eve with a sense of well-ordered chaos.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Game Company Ephemera

ephemera: 1. something of no lasting significance; 2. paper items (as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles.


I recently received an interesting Kickstarter project I backed: a print copy of Terence Gunn’s The Fantastic Worlds of Grenadier, a catalog-like overview of one of the first miniatures companies to cater to the roleplaying game community with continued strong support of numerous game lines and different genres. Although it doesn’t exhibit the kind of meticulous scholarship displayed in works like Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World, the book serves as an important record of a game product line from a company that no longer exists. The Fantastic Worlds of Grenadier contains 128 glossy pages reproducing box cover art, advertisements, and images of miniatures and sets, from original photos, the black-and-white boxed-set inserts, and other sources...an impressive array of ephemera related to fantasy miniatures and those for other niche genres. Accompanying text discusses how the company got its start, involvement of different sculptors, various product lines, and other corporate developments. For me it’s a valuable historiographical reference to a by-gone era in the earliest days of roleplaying games, a record of corporate ephemera that can help inform us where we’ve been, where we stand, and where we’re going with the adventure gaming hobby.

The adventure gaming hobby generates a lot of ephemera often lost amid the vast volumes of “official” publications. Certainly roleplaying gamers in particular generate volumes of character sheets, adventure notes, character portraits, adventure chronicles, and maps. Few survive for public view, finding their way into the trash or, at best, some forgotten file or envelope in a box of neglected roleplaying game books. One might dispute the importance of preserving and accessing these documents – they often have little meaning to those beyond the immediate users – yet they can illustrate the practical elements of roleplaying games beyond the framework provided in rulebooks and scenarios. One website, The Play Generated Map & Document Archive, strives to collect and display some of this player-generated ephemera; while it in no way claims to (or could possibly) collect all game-related ephemera ever made for roleplaying games, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the amateur creator’s mind. It serves as an archive for future reference to samples of this material.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Advancement Influences Tone

Most roleplaying games include some kind of advancement system to encourage players to join game sessions and improve their characters. It’s been an essential element of roleplaying games since their beginnings, this ability to continue playing to gain more experience and build a more powerful character over time. Yet the particular mechanics of how in-game action translates to character experience influences the tone of the game. Players naturally want to improve their heroes; characters’ in-game actions tend to focus on those that best reward them in the context of the specific game scenario. Games that reward experience for slain monsters and looted treasure have a different tone than those giving points for solving problems, gaming in-character, managing encounters, and achieving goals.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Level-Up Lifepath

Dungeons & Dragons and Old School Renaissance retro-clone games in particular often rely on the “zero to hero” idea that characters begin at first level and rise through the ranks by going on adventures, killing monsters, and taking their stuff...or die trying (emphasis on the latter). Of course nothing stops players from rolling up higher-level heroes simply by adding level adjustments to first-level characters. It’s an exercise in bookkeeping, adding levels and experience points, adjusting to-hit modifiers, adding spells and special abilities depending on the character race and class. This all seems shallow to me and doesn’t offer the roleplaying opportunities to enhance a character actual play provides. I started thinking how to change that, looked back at some classic, well-loved roleplaying games for inspiration (and one recent acquisition), and discovered the sometimes-used “lifepath” method could provide some enhancements when creating higher-level characters.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Holiday Gift Ideas for Non-Gamers & Kids

As we dive pell-mell into the holiday season some folks continue their quest to find the right presents for people on their list, each with their own parameters based on relationship, etiquette, interests, and budget. Even gamers can prove problematic since they often have quite exactingly specific tastes in games...and frequently own everything for game lines they particularly enjoy. I’m always looking for ways to draw newcomers into the adventure gaming hobby – both adults and kids – so this season I’ve assembled some low-cost gift ideas for people who might like joining readers at their gaming tables.

Some adult newcomers to gaming might find satisfaction with the many Eurogames and similar fare happily found in such ubiquitous venues as Target and Walmart. Solid standards like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, King of Tokyo, Carcassonne, Castle Panic, and Pandemic are good go-to games for adults seeking to break into the current popularity of board games, yet their prices tend to run higher than most casual gifts and they’re not always good for younger children. I’ve also featured a few specifically kid-friendly games – Dino Hunt Dice, Rory’s Story Cubes, Set, Dungeon!, Forbidden Island, Stratego Battle Cards Game, Robot Turtles, and the D&D Starter Set – in a similar holiday gift post two years ago; they’re all still valid recommendations.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Step Up & Give Thanks

[Years ago I worked for a local chamber of commerce and wrote a similarly themed piece as appears below – with some topical revisions – for the November newsletter one year. It’s still relevant today whether we’re part of a community of commerce seeking success, a geographical community of neighbors and citizens, a nation facing challenges ahead, or a community of gamers.]

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

* * *

It’s easy in these anxious times to succumb to the worrisome hype and fear of the unknown, the unsettling feeling that our lives might descend into hardship, sacrifice, and loss. We should resist the urge to complain and instead embrace the challenges before us by considering solutions to problems and stepping up to improve our own lives and those of others less fortunate.

All too often we take for granted the many things we do have. Gamers enjoy an engaging, dedicated community of players, creators, professionals, and friends who realize their combined well-being – and that of the adventure gaming hobby – is just as important as their individual strengths. Whether we’re part of a small circle of gaming friends or a greater community through online interaction or conventions, each new contact is more than a chance to improve our own gaming life; it offers an opportunity to enrich someone else’s.

In this season of thanksgiving – on the eve of the season of light-within-the-darkness – let us reflect on the many gifts we enjoy, both simple and extravagant, and commit to investing some of those in making our world a more positive place for our neighbors in need everywhere. Many local and online institutions strive year-round to help the community; they rely on donations of time and money from volunteers to continue their mission to help those in need. Are you seeking opportunities to make a positive difference in our community this holiday season? Thanksgiving and the holidays come once a year; but we should remember to always remain grateful for our blessings and continually seek to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

* * *

In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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, November 15, 2016

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I recently discovered a resource of adventure gaming historiography at the regional used bookstore that – besides providing an interesting and critical glimpse into the state of the hobby in 1980 – struck me by its relative lack of acknowledgment to individual game designers for their creations. I’m thankful that over the hobby’s more than 40 year history giving designers their due credit has become more the rule rather than the exception in today’s hobby gaming community.

Every few months I make a pilgrimage to the regional used bookstore with some (often futile) hope I’ll find a few books or even games catering to my varied interests at affordable prices. In the past few years the store has thankfully included a section for used games, ranging from vapid party games and kids fare to hardcore chit-and-board wargames and Eurogames. I also check out the hobby gaming shelves to look for adventures and supplements for games I’ve enjoyed in the past, newer fare to help me explore more recent games, and books about gaming in general. Alas, most of the choice roleplaying or wargame books and most of the interesting boxed games come with prices more suitable for exclusive collectors on ebay than average people browsing the shelves in used bookstores. I chuckle sadly to myself when I see a “Free RPG Day” release marked at $10.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Subscription Model for The Infinite Cathedral

Photo by David Schweighofer
I’ve been developing a medieval fantasy roleplaying game setting – The Infinite Cathedral – on-and-off for longer than I care to remember. It’s undergone refinements, revisions, and expansions as I’ve worked on different portions throughout the years. I’ve drafted and reworked various chapters to one degree or another. I have sections ready for publication and others consisting of sketchy notes, ideas in my head, and good intentions. But over time my expectations for the project’s format have evolved in line with my more recent reflections on publishing and my personal aesthetics about game material. What’s the best method – from the perspectives of both publisher and readers – to release this grand opus? Do I spend time building a vast sourcebook in the traditional publishing model or do I release bits as the inspiration energizes me and smaller portions reach completion? How can I establish the setting and expand upon it within the parameters of these forms? The conventional publisher part of my brain leans toward the standard sourcebook format, but the player within me (and the one seeking more timely remuneration) seeks a route that allows me to release short-but-sweet morsels on a more immediate schedule.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

WEG Memoirs: Player to Publisher

When I first began working at West End Games in 1993 I had to rapidly transition my mindset from that of a Star Wars gamer fan to that of an editor for an established Star Wars game line. I had experience on both fronts, having played roleplaying games since 1982, including the Star Wars game since its publication in 1987, and having worked for almost three years as a reporter and then an editor at a hometown weekly newspaper with a particularly exacting editorial mentor. My newspaper experience prepared me for various aspects of working at West End’s editorial department, yet my adventures with the Star Wars Roleplaying Game didn’t prepare me for managing with and in fact relying on the greater “Expanded Universe” that, even in those early days of Star Wars’ resurgence with fans, was rapidly growing out of hand.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Leacock Brings Chariot Race to Tabletop

I’ve been reigning in my spending on Kickstarter projects the past year or so. I’m supporting only the really outstanding roleplaying books or board games: those that cater to my interests with mechanics suitable for my young son yet intuitive and innovative enough for me, all at the right price. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Matt Leacock’s Chariot Race, even more so after I looked at the Kickstarter page and read the rules posted there. The game distills elements of a classic theme I enjoy and mixes them with some innovative mechanics for an exciting yet “casual” chariot racing board game.

I say “casual” in that it’s not serious fare like the classic Avalon Hill title Circus Maximus, which infused the ancient chariot racing theme with wargame-complexity rules. I don’t own a copy of that venerable game, but we’ve played it before at the friendly, regional game conventions in Williamsburg, VA. Someone usually brings their immense, 25mm-scale game mat, architectural embellishments, and detailed chariot models; each player gets a laminated sheet for chariot, horse, and charioteer stats, with a dry-erase marker to note stats and changes during the game. The Little Guy joined a game earlier this year and though he was a bit timid in his racing tactics, he seemed to enjoy the spectacle, especially when chariots overturned and crashed. Ancient history remains one of my many interests, so Circus Maximus intrigued me. Yet the complexity of the rules – even those probably simplified for more streamlined convention play with a knowledgeable referee – left me yearning for something more accessible. Certainly the spectacle of a huge 25mm-scale set-up at the convention impressed me, but I didn’t have the patience to track down an out-of-print wargame and then immerse myself in its intricate rules...or try to teach them to an easily distracted six year-old.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

SGAM Celebrates Solo Play

November is Solo Gaming Appreciation Month (SGAM), an annual, month-long celebration of solo gaming promoted primarily by the Lone Wolf Roleplaying community on Google+. Started by solo gaming enthusiast John Fiore in 2011, the movement receives less emphasis than various other game-focused commemorations like the birthdays of gaming pioneers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Free RPG Day, GM’s Day, and International Tabletop Day. Yet to me it remains a key celebration of an under-appreciated aspect of gaming.

Solitaire play has a place in the adventure gaming hobby. Some gamers came to the roleplaying game hobby through “interactive fiction” like the Choose Your Own Adventure books or TSR’s Endless Quest books or even solitaire tutorial adventures in later editions of the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rulebook. SPI founder and prolific writer James F. Dunnigan has asserted that wargamers prefer solitaire play to explore the nuances of various simulations and prepare their own strategies for head-to-head play. More games push the bounds of “traditional” gaming concepts: along with innovative “cooperative” board games comes the concept of games designed for a single player (or with single player options). Even BoardGameGeek.com hosts an annual solitaire print-and-play design contest that generates a host of innovative solo games.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Maps: Invitation to Exploration

The roleplaying game hobby can be visually stunning. As gamers we find inspiration in amazing artwork – the cover of our favorite version of Dungeons & Dragons, line art that fits our favorite character, iconic monster illustrations, the portrait of the perfect villain for our campaign – and fantastic maps enabling us to navigate wondrous fantasy worlds. This becomes even more significant considering the action envisioned in roleplaying games takes place in everyone’s imagination (albeit sometimes with the assistance of miniatures, game mats, and terrain). The graphic elements of a map – whether for a roleplaying game supplement or a fantasy novel – invite the viewer to explore that place, providing a visual medium for the quest and incentive to investigate its mysteries.

Maps remain one of the core elements of the roleplaying game hobby. They’re a visual medium that – unlike pages of adventure or gazetteer text – can make an immediate impression on gamers and quickly engage their imagination. Their prominence in roleplaying games – especially the earliest efforts – evolved from maps in the literature that helped stimulate the hobby. Maps of lands like Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Howard’s Hyborian Age setting continue inspiring gamers with their ties to rich literary resources. Dungeon floor plans scrawled on graph paper served as visual guides to the earliest D&D adventures. Show some gamemasters a blank map and they start scheming how to integrate it into their own game, populating it with monsters, treasures, and traps and developing a theme for an entertaining dungeon delve. Show players a wilderness map and their curiosity comes into play: where does the party start, what features should they explore, what’s in those ruins over there?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Minecraft Card Game? Ideal for Families

We recently bought the Minecraft Card Game? for our son, the six year-old “Little Guy,” because he’s immersed himself in the Minecraft universe. I don’t pretend to know much about Minecraft; I’ve accepted it as one of those fads I’m aware of yet encourage my son to explore. At his insistence I bought Minecraft for his tablet and many of his first-grade friends are into it, so it’s his “thing” now (having set aside Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Godzilla for the time being). So he now wants any associated Minecraft toys and, when he saw it, the card game. I was skeptical at first, thinking I was just pandering to his fad de-jour, but upon playing it several times with our family, discovered the Minecraft Card Game? did a nice job of merging an interesting theme with easy yet engaging mechanics.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Making Spellcasters More Effective at Low Levels

We continued our exploration of Hero Kids this week with a Thursday Game Night adventure I whipped up because the Little Guy wanted some action in a forest. My wife is playing a healer and the Little Guy is running a warrior. As we’re playing I’m appreciating how Hero Kids handles magic. Each spellcasting character has a magic-based attack they can use each round against a target within range. Each also has a special ability related to magic, such as the healer’s ability to brew replacement healing potions. I’m sure at some point we’ll transition to more involved roleplaying games, possibly even Basic Dungeons & Dragons, my personal favorite. Yet I’ve never been a fan of “Vancian” magic, in which spellcasters memorize a set of spells and, once used, can’t access them again until they find time to rest and study (with a similar prepare, use, and lose structure for clerics). Sure, I cut my teeth on B/X D&D and thus for many years just accepted the system as standard; spellcasters have a limited number of spells prepared from their spellbook, and they’re gone after cast until the character rests and memorizes them again. So I started thinking about an alternate magic system in my quest to make Basic D&D easier on beginning characters.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Thoughts on Playing Hero Kids

The Little Guy finally pestered me into running a roleplaying game for him the other night. He’s six-and-a-half years old, doing well in first grade, and has already sampled other games from Daddy’s varied adventure gaming hobbies, including miniature wargames and board games. I’ve had Hero Kids waiting in the wings for a few years, yet I just haven’t felt like the Little Guy was ready for something a bit more free-form than some of our other gaming fare. I ordered a print copy of the rulebook and printed out character cards, stand-up figures, and the Basement O Rats scenario back in August in case we had free time at a convention to run it; we didn’t, but it meant I was somewhat prepared when the Little Guy quite suddenly insisted we play it after dinner one night.

So Dad sat down with the Little Guy; Mom was a good sport and agreed to play so we wouldn’t have an awkwardly solitaire game session and to demonstrate the idea of an adventuring party helping each other overcome challenges. They chose characters from those I’d printed to cardstock. I took about 20 minutes to outline the various elements of their characters and answer questions, then we dove into the game. I ran the Basement O Rats scenario complete with printed map boards and cardstock character and monster stand-up figures. Using the recommended number of adversaries for two players (a helpful, balancing innovation) they explored the caves beneath the tavern, vanquished the rats, and rescued Roger, all within about 45 minutes (including a few quick asides to look up and clarify minor rules questions). The Little Guy enjoyed it so much he wanted me to run another scenario immediately....

I examined Hero Kids when I first got it and, from a basic reading, was impressed with the resources it offered: intuitive mechanics using six-sided dice; clear character sheets; lots of advice for running a roleplaying game for kids (or even newcomers); a setting focusing on the role of kids rather than typical fantasy heroes; and map “boards” and pieces for scenarios to help transition from more traditional games. After actually playing it, I realized most of my earlier impressions were spot-on, though, of course, actual play reveals some nuances:

Duration: Kids have limited attention spans, especially in this age of instant gratification from electronic devices. The concepts and mechanics behind Hero Kids took only a few minutes to introduce to new players, while the scenario itself ran in less than an hour. This was the perfect length of time to maintain interest while still offering a significant taste of the game play. Occasionally the Little Guy’s attention wandered off a little, but it was more a lack of patience with other players’ turns and the presence of natural distractions such as errant toys at the dinner table that tempted him.

Party Teamwork: The Little Guy played a warrior while Mom ran a healer; the combination, and their coordination during combat, helped illustrate how different party members could contribute to success. At times the Little Guy wanted to go off on his own, deny assistance to his Mom’s character, or even attack her (“Can I attack other players’ characters?” he asked...something I expect every gamer asks at some point). At each turn we gently demonstrated how party members depended on each other – offering coordinate attacks or healing each other at key moments – or how, sometimes, his own insistence didn’t matter, such as when his warrior scaled a wall with the healer’s help, then he didn’t offer the healer assistance...not that she needed it with a successful skill roll.

Skill Tests: I really liked the die pool system, especially for non-combat skill tests. In a fight players roll the appropriate die pool and compare the highest result against the opponent’s roll; for skills they compare a roll against a difficulty number (4, 5, or 6) for success. Each combat skill (melee, ranged, and magic) also serves as a skill (strength, dexterity, magic), and each player also gets a few non-combat skills like tracking or lore. Although the scenario depended on lots of combat, it also offered some purely skill-based challenges, like climbing a cave wall or figuring out which tunnel led to the rats. It offered a nice balance between hack-and-slash and problem solving.

Lack of Character Advancement: The Hero Kids rules don’t offer any mechanics for character advancement, though it’s easy enough to allow each player to assign an extra die to their character after several hard-won adventures. Yet the lack of an advancement system removes the emphasis on killing monsters and taking their treasure for personal gain and instead focuses on fulfilling the story elements. Rather than delving into the tavern basement seeking hoarded rat treasure, the heroes explore the tunnels and vanquish rats with the goal of rescuing their friend. While it might seem good to offer some motivation in the form of personal advancement (gold, experience points), it’s refreshing not to place emphasis on greed and killing.

Maps and Pieces: I’m undecided about using the maps and cardboard stand-up figures. They’re useful for transitioning players from traditional boards and pieces to a roleplaying game setting. They’re absolutely necessary for introductory Hero Kids games. They help everyone visualize what the environment looks like, where heroes and adversaries stand, and how everyone moves relative to other elements. Yet the reliance on physical components hinders the gamemaster’s ability to simply whip up a new scenario on the spot (at least without having a stock of ready-made maps and cardstock figures), as demonstrated by the Little Guy’s insistence I run another session right away. I started mentally fumbling around for ideas, all of which required me to look up some potential adversaries, jot down some scenario notes, draft gridded maps on a large enough scale to use figures, and then find or print said figures. I think for at least the next few game sessions I’ll have to either devise my own maps and use figures I have or rely on printing materials from the Hero Kids scenarios I have in PDF. That said, the game could easily transition to a more freeform system, even one with a purely verbal description.

When the Little Guy expressed an urge for me to run more Hero Kids, he demonstrated that he doesn’t quite understand the amount of preparation that goes into running a scenario. His tastes tend to run toward whatever electronic media he’s devouring at the moment. He’s looked at Daddy’s Basic Dungeons & Dragons rulebook but really wanted to try the Hercules & Xena game he spotted. He’s asked me to run a Star Wars roleplaying game session, though he prefers the prequels to Daddy’s cherished original trilogy. I think we’ll do more Hero Kids before we decide what direction to take next. He’ll be seven years old soon, a good age to continue our exploration of adventure gaming and expand it with some roleplaying game scenarios.

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, September 13, 2016

Considering Appendix N

Occasionally people discuss the merits and importance of the Dungeon Masters Guide’s infamous “Appendix N” and its corollary in the Moldvay edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons, the “Inspirational Source Material” list (henceforth referred to as the “ISM”). Are they “required reading” for Dungeons & Dragons? Do some titles and authors deserve to be on the list? People’s taste in fiction varies widely, even within a specific genre; not everyone enjoys the literary aspects that inspired roleplaying games. Like many elements of D&D and the Old School Renaissance (along with adventure gaming and other geeky pursuits in general) it generates a good number of heated arguments fueled by strong feelings and the usual irrational contrariness that seems to typify most online debates and, disturbingly, more real-world discussions. Various people online have attempted and encouraged others to read every book listed in these resources; occasional debates flog their relevance and the merits of individual titles and authors. I find the occasional focus on these resources surprising given the size of both Appendix N and the ISM relative to their sourcebooks: one of the many appendices in the Dungeon Masters Guide, Appendix N takes up about a quarter of a page (still not even half a page if you include Gygax’s comments on works that inspired D&D) in a 240-page rulebook; the ISM offers a somewhat more substantial list that covers an entire page in the Basic D&D rulebook, just one out of 64 pages...a somewhat more significant contribution than Appendix N, but still relatively small. I find both resources more useful as inspiration than instruction, a suggested reading list for those who also dabble in fantasy literature who might appreciate these titles both for ideas to integrate into a fantasy roleplaying game and the pure literary enjoyment they provide.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

WEG Memoirs: Star Wars Fleet Game

The Little Guy and I attended a wargaming convention in Williamsburg this past weekend, where he won a copy of Star Wars: Armada in the charity teacup raffle. We weren’t home long before the box was open, he was checking out the pre-painted ships, I was reading rules, and we both started popping out and organizing perforated cardstock game components. We gave it a try on my old three-foot-square felt starfield I painted years ago for West End Games demos and had a blast. It’s the kind of game West End could never have produced, though it did consider publishing a Star Wars tactical fleet-level game.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Romance of the Perilous Land: OSR Meets British Folklore

It’s almost a roleplaying game cliché that Dungeons & Dragons and its many retro-clones from the Old School Renaissance (OSR) often focus more on hack-and-slash dungeon delves than more story-driven fare. Mechanics in these games primarily focus on characters’ abilities in overcoming combat-oriented obstacles – armor class, hit points, to-hit bonuses, saving throws, spells – with other elements like thief abilities intended to safely grab treasure. What players do with these rules remains their own business; some engage in “murder-hobo” rampages in the full hack-and-slash mode, while others seek to infuse their games with more story elements despite the combat-oriented mechanics. Yet Scott Malthouse has deftly integrated old-school mechanics with more heroic, story-based themes from British folklore in his OSR game Romance of the Perilous Land. As a pay-what-you-want game it’s worth picking up to check out the setting-influenced innovations to OSR mechanics. Having recently featured the Kickstarter revision of the classic Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game, I think Perilous Land offers a similar game experience with the legendary trappings in an OSR-friendly package.

Perilous Land covers the usual old-school bases – ability scores, character classes, armor, equipment, spells – with some nice adjustments, combining some original interpretations of OSR game mechanics with some previously seen innovations. Unlike other “grinder” games the characters in Perilous Land are heroes with a solid set of rules designed to help them survive at lower levels and give them a sense that their actions matter even if they’re only first level.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Customizing the OSR Experience

Resources like Brent Newhall’s Old School Renaissance Handbook and Taxidermic Owlbear’s overview of retro-clone systems remind me of the OSR’s amazing diversity in mechanics. Each new OSR game provides the author’s own interpretation of the classic Dungeons & Dragons game system based on a beloved early edition, an amalgam of preferred mechanics, new innovations on those systems, or other inventive derivations. (And I’m not even mentioning setting interpretations incorporating those mechanics....) Although I like a single unifying “core mechanic” in my games – such as the dice-pool roll against a difficulty number in the D6 System – I grew up with the amalgam of different mechanics in the Basic/Expert D&D and Advanced D&D games. “Core mechanic” systems allow for a some degree of interpretation in fine tuning within the scope of the basic rules, yet so does D&D with its numerous individual rulings for resolving the host of situations that arise in the course of a game. D&D established the foundation for fantasy roleplaying game mechanics; the OSR demonstrates just how variations and innovations can vary to produce games with different play styles.

The process adjusts individual mechanics within the game to find the right balance of game play. Take a look at individual systems and notice how gamers can alter nearly every one for a particular play style or rules preference. Since roleplaying games focus on characters, many of these elements appear on the character sheet; many trickle down to other systems, particularly in handling monsters .Designers have adjusted existing rules to their liking, but for some they’ve devised original ways of handling mechanics while still evoking the spirit of early roleplaying games:

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Tips for Kid-Friendly Games

Our recent experiences at Historicon brought to light more tips for running games for kids. The more we game with kids – as parents, participants, even onlookers – the more we discover what works for engaging them in all kinds of adventure gaming: miniature wargames, board games, even roleplaying games. Noting what was and wasn’t done at some of our Historicon games offers some first-hand inspiration; we signed up for games based on my son, the Little Guy, and his preferences and ability levels. I’ve discussed some strategies for running kid-friendly games at conventions before. These brief tips add to those earlier observations to help stock the arsenal of ideas for those engaging kids in games. With some consideration for specific situations these tips can apply to games in the home and at public venues like library events and game conventions. They’re more for younger children sampling games than older tweens and teens who have a better sense of comprehension about more complex games; but don’t hesitate to adapt these for running games with adult newcomers to the hobby.

Some of these tips require planning beforehand; others one can implement at the gaming table. And while these emerged from my own personal experiences, they’ might not reflect your particular situations, so feel free to ignore or modify them to best suit your own games with kids:

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Prince Valiant Returns

Nocturnal Media plans to release a new, full-color edition of designer Greg Stafford’s Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game through a Kickstarter campaign. The news inspired my nostalgic memories of the game back when it was first published. I found a copy shortly after its release, immersed myself in its rich Arthurian legend and vivid artwork, and used it to satisfy my established gaming group and entertain a few casual gamers. It’s an oft-overlooked introductory game that uses basic yet elegant mechanics, offers a rich setting, and provides plenty of suggestions for novices. Although I’m on the fence about backing the Kickstarter edition, I heartily recommend it to anyone seeking a light roleplaying game with a legendary setting ideal for both experienced gamers and those seeking to explore the roleplaying game experience.

The original 128-page softcover rulebook looks pretty standard for games of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a few outstanding innovations that still resonate today. After the “One Page Prince Valiant” rules – an almost scripted walk-through of a brief adventure using pre-generated knight characters – the book covers the usual territory: the obligatory “What Is A Storytelling Game?”; the basic game rules (including character creation, core mechanics, and the “Fame” section central to the game); a good guideline section discussing player goals and lots of useful storytelling tips; advanced game rules for experienced gamers to add greater depth to their experience; and a reference section covering the Prince Valiant setting and its major characters. As introductory game rulebooks go it’s fairly traditional, going into detail expounding about rules and specific situations even within the basic game chapter...and yet it all still works, at least in the hands of a seasoned gamemaster.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

WEG Memoirs: The Schedule Boards

Back when I first started working at West End Games the company maintained a schedule board listing all the products set for publication in the coming months. The board displayed an impressive array of products, often two or three each month. The board was sacrosanct. Moving or, gasp, dropping a product plunged everything into chaos. Yet it enabled the company to efficiently produce and publish product to a distribution system and retailer network – and ultimately to customers – whose revenues enabled the company to persist. The schedule board demonstrates to me one of the differences between today’s throng of small-press, independent, and often single-creator publishers and the few remaining, well-established, corporate game publishers; one creates for love, the other for money.

West End’s offices occupied the second floor of an unobtrusive warehouse on Route 191 north of Honesdale, PA; the infamous Bucci Imports shoe business used the downstairs offices. Owner Scott Palter maintained his office on the first floor, but it is here where the schedule board first resided when I started working there as an editor in the summer of 1993. The oversized bulletin board contained an index card for every project in production, arranged beneath the upcoming 18 months. After a while – I don’t recall how long – something happened that necessitated the board migrating upstairs into the West End conference room, where everyone could check it when needed and passionately debate what titles needed to move for various reasons that seemed important at the time. No doubt it made more sense to put it in the meeting room to accommodate the growing ranks of West End’s editors instead of constantly cramming into the owner’s office. Staffers hastily covered it up with a sheet when visitors came to the offices, an extremely rare occurrence.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Wargaming with Stars & Crosses

I’ve discussed traditional chit-and-board wargames before – how they still have a following and occasionally infuse the market with new material – and lament they don’t enjoy greater popularity among gamers who often revel in complex rules. Doug Anderson recently released Stars & Crosses, a game covering company-level engagements in northwest Europe during World War II. It’s available in PDF from Wargame Vault (with a print-on-demand rulebook if you prefer) that can range from a print-and-play, hex-based board wargame to a full-fledged, 6mm micro-scale miniatures wargame with gorgeously crafted terrain. However you play it, Stars & Crosses provides an easy-to-learn wargame experience with basic and expert rules, modular board, and rich possibilities for extended and advanced play. At $2.99 for the PDF rulebook and printable component file, Stars & Crosses is a fantastic way to dive into the board or miniature wargame hobby.

(Note: I know Doug Anderson from various online community interactions focusing on gaming; he provided me a comp download of Stars & Crosses, though I bought a print-on-demand rulebook as physical reference at the game table.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Introducing Newcomers to Games: Theme & Mechanics

Last week’s post about “Attracting Newcomers to Roleplaying Games” inspired me to consider two factors that might influence people in trying new games. A game’s theme and complexity are usually topics discussed from the design standpoint: does one start with a theme and build game rules around it, or does one begin with a play mechanic and build a themed game around that? Yet theme and the complexity of mechanics also figure into the conundrum of how best to introduce people into any games within the adventure gaming hobby. For beginners – especially complete newcomers – I find an attractive theme can best engage their enthusiasm to try a game, while good mechanics (with light yet intuitive complexity) can provide an enjoyable play experience and bring them back to the table for a second try.

For many people a game’s theme initially interests them. Theme gets players to the table, understandable and engaging mechanics help transform that theme into a rewarding play experience. For instance, if I asked a five year-old if he wanted to play a game about hunting dinosaurs or one with a “push your luck” mechanic, he’s going to want to play something with dinosaurs; as it happens, these elements both describe Steve Jackson Games’ Dino Hunt Dice, yet new players hone in more on the enticing theme than the game rules.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Attracting Newcomers to Roleplaying Games

The recent discussion over at Tenkar’s Tavern and blog posts like Sword Peddler’s about the effectiveness of Free RPG Day started me thinking once again about how we as gamers, designers, and publishers can draw newcomers into the adventure gaming hobby. It’s a tricky gambit considering roleplaying games are still a very niche hobby, despite popular culture’s general acceptance of Dungeons & Dragons as a permissible geeky pursuit. Most people still associate roleplaying game exclusively with D&D without realizing how many amazing games exist from both established publishers and innovative individuals, in game stores and online, for sale and for free. How can we do a better job of sharing our hobby with curious newcomers?

Free RPG Day is an organized event meant to promote roleplaying games. Since it’s run by a game distributor it has the understandable bias of supporting sales at brick-and-mortar Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGS) that give them business anyway. Just as a distributor can’t force a store to conduct business a certain way, it can only offer unenforceable guidelines on what to do with the “free” loot provided for this event. Free RPG Day is, as its organizers freely admit, no longer about introducing newcomers to the hobby but more about rewarding the hobby’s ardent supporters with free gaming materials. This effort remains highly dependent on the FLGS whose facilities and enthusiasm in hosting these events vary immensely (as well as publishers providing appropriate material). I’ve heard of stores charging for the free items, hoarding them for later sale or giveaways, and not participating at all (like the two closest to me). I’ve also heard great reports of stores with busy play areas, gatherings of avid fans, and attempts at introducing newcomers to the hobby with demo games.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Artifacts from the Vault of Schweig

I’m culling some of my roleplaying game library and reorganizing the shelves to put more relevant material in more central areas. In doing so I uncovered a few intriguing artifacts I often forget about yet keep for various reasons. Some come from an appreciation of the designers, others for the significance of the games in the overall context of adventure gaming’s history. They offer an interesting window into what engaged me as a gamer over more than 35 year in the hobby and the diversity of publishing efforts from a variety of sources.

Cthulhu for President Pack: I ordered this by mail way back in 1992, possibly the first year Chaosium offered it. Despite leaning in one particular political direction thanks to my wife’s enlightening influence, I still staunchly believe in the Elder Party ticket. This packet came with a button, posters, leaflets, Elder Party membership card, and other goodies. I’m resisting the temptation to print a slew of flyers to leave around town, but I’m afraid they’d figure the guy with several Cthulhu-themed t-shirts and the Cthulhu “fish” on the back of his car was stirring up trouble....

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

WEG Memoirs: The TORG Map

West End Games' offices, Honesdale, PA, 1993
When I first began working at West End Game as the Star Wars Adventure Journal editor in the summer of 1993 I passed the massive TORG map every day. It sat in a windowless inner office in the second-floor offices (with the infamous shoe company and “management” downstairs). Someone had somehow acquired a huge, wall-spanning world map (possibly from National Geographic, it’s so long ago I don’t recall) and pinned on it different notations to show where each TORG cosm had invaded, such as triangles of yarn or construction paper circles. This was the map, the place where the game-designers could chart the progress of storm knights from across the gaming landscape. And it was already too late.

I never got into TORG, the game in which multiple dimensions or “cosms” of various genres invaded a near-future earth and the characters – heroic “storm knights” – had to foil their plans for world domination. But in its heyday in the early 1990s it tried charting new territory for roleplaying game campaigns...certainly new for West End Games. It launched in 1990 after an aggressive and enticing ad campaign. I remember seeing the color advertisements in Dragon Magazine, then perhaps still the best “pulse” of the gaming industry. They warned that a storm was brewing, with dark clouded, lightning-streaked backgrounds and ominous in-universe quotes from characters spanning several genres. The “Possibility Wars” were coming. It was going to be “A New Roleplaying Game Experience.” And it did pretty well initially. Several novels developed the setting from a literary perspective. The boxed set came with a slew of rule- and sourcebooks, three decks worth of cards, and two speckled 20-sided dice. The game line churned out an impressive slew of sourcebooks and scenarios, along with an occasional newsletter. I’d daresay it is one of the more notable creations from Greg Gorden and Bill Slavicsek.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Shields in OSR Games

Frequent readers know of my recent explorations in Old School Renaissance gaming (OSR) through my solitaire B/X Dungeons & Dragons exploits (my preferred old-school system). These activities help me examine what I like about various elements and how to improve those that don’t work for me. So I come to the shield conundrum: they seem underpowered. In looking at alternative shield mechanics I found myself questioning the very core rationale behind armor and shields in D&D combat.

(Throughout this post I refer to various bonuses to armor class as +1, etc., as I’m using ascending armor class; for the traditional descending armor class read that as -1. Either way, “bonus” means a benefit to armor class in the context of whatever system you’re using.)

I prefer a more heroic style of play rather than the deadly “grinder” style (as I’ve discussed before), so I look to provide my characters with every possible advantage within the bounds of the rules...and then house-rule some mechanics to offer some minor benefits. Of the three characters I’m running through various solitaire scenarios, two have shields and one has eschewed a shield in favor of two-handed weapons (the underpowered battle axe...a topic Jonathan Becker has discussed before at his B/X Blackrazor blog). While one of the shield-bearers has no ranged weapon, the other must set aside her shield if she chooses to use her long bow, temporarily shedding its armor class bonus. I’m examining the shield rules with an eye to making my low-level characters less monster-fodder and slightly more heroic.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Engaging Youth in History (& Games)

Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Albert Einstein

Getting young adults interested in anything these days seems difficult. They’re distracted by a sometimes-overwhelming amount of schoolwork focused more on scoring well on standardized tests than actually developing learning skills. They’re immersed in the complex social intrigues of school and friends. They’re plugged in to smart phones and tablets (much like a rapidly growing segment of the adult population...). How do parents and teachers tempt them to explore and possibly engage with new experiences? It’s easier when parent gently share and nurture their own interests with their kids – adventure games, comic books, sports, reading, hobbies – but children reach an age where they want to head off on their own...a journey that doesn’t always result in the discovery of some engaging academic or extracurricular interest. I recently explored two resources to help inspire an interest in history (and perhaps even games with historical themes): interactive fiction and speculative fiction

Both forms of fiction inspired many gamers; they certainly informed my own youthful exploration of adventure gaming. Fantasy and science fiction inspired many players to investigate roleplaying games that in turn encouraged further exploration of these genres. The infamous “Appendix N” in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide provided a wealth of such resources to investigate...or even a validation of past works read. Since the earliest emergence of roleplaying games fantasy fiction genres have evolved (much as those games have). Where once readers had only a few flavors of science fiction and fantasy they now can indulge in numerous sub-genre like steampunk, urban fantasy, cyberpunk, and alternate history (among many others).

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Evolving RPG Collection Habits

Right now I have this urge to tidy and organize everything. Maybe it’s that “spring cleaning” bug that bites people this time of year. Amid all the other household and parental organization projects tugging at my attention, I want want to re-organize my vast collection of roleplaying game materials acquired during more than 35 years of gaming. Recently I’ve seen many gamers I know trying to pare down their collections, especially given the great accessibility of new and classic materials through electronic publishing or print on demand. Yet I’m of an age where reading or referencing too much on a screen reduces my comprehension levels; I’d much rather page through a physical book and retain more information from the printed page. (Perhaps the physical act of turning a page slows me down, whereas scrolling through pages encourages me to mindlessly skim the material.) Sure, I’ve sold or traded many roleplaying game books that no longer interest me, won’t ever see actual play, or don’t cater to my latest role as a gaming parent; but I still have a large collection of materials I plan on keeping.

How did I acquire all these roleplaying games? All 23+ linear shelf feet of them? Kept through several arduous moves? Throughout my gaming life I passed through several stages as a player and consumer. Where I stood often influenced what and how much I bought.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Screen or No Screen?

The gamemaster screen remains a stereotypical part of roleplaying games. Even members of the general, non-gaming public with popularized impression of the hobby view the gamemaster as a guy hunched behind a screen secretly rolling dice and consulting esoteric charts.* The screen became popularized as a seemingly required accessory by early editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Numerous other roleplaying games issued gamemaster screens; traditional ones still publish screens even today, when some might view the accessory as outdated. In today’s varied landscape of games new and nostalgic, are gamemaster screens still an essential part of gaming? Using a screen remains one of those choices individual gamemasters make; it’s sometimes helpful but certainly never required.

In my early days of roleplaying a gamemaster screen of some kind was essential. Goodness, how else would a gamemaster keep all the scenario information and die rolls absolutely secret from the players? Although I never owned the AD&D screen, I did acquire one for B/X D&D, AC2 Combat Shield and Mini-Adventure, more because I could find it a the local hobby shop when the stock of AD&D screens had already been bought up by die-hard players. It was nice to have various reference tables from the B/X rulebooks in one handy place. Besides, having a screen between the players and gamemaster was just how the game was played; obviously if I didn’t have a screen I just wasn’t playing the game right.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Equipping the Party Off List

Paging through Kabuki Kaiser’s Ruins of the Undercity for a recent post I realized how much I liked this approach to buying equipment in Dungeons & Dragons or other Old School Renaissance (OSR) games. Rather than simply purchasing items off a few lists in a rulebook, readers can wander tables for aptly named shops filled with wares both conventional and extraordinary. I prefer the characters shopping in a setting than players buying stuff off a rulebook’s limited list. Yet from its earliest days D&D focused more on the dungeon delve than down time at the nearby base of operations; certainly this aspect of character creation and maintenance could form the basis of some adventurer base interactions that enhance both characters and setting.

Equipping characters remains an essential step in character creation. For OSR games and B/X D&D this step sometimes seems like one more bit of record-keeping on the character sheet, though choices like armor and weapons affect armor class and weapon damage. More recent entries into the fantasy roleplaying game stage have handled this differently, offering starting characters a choice of pre-determined kits based on race, class, or background. But after the initial adventure players can spend their characters’ gold as they please, often by perusing equipment lists like some medieval mail-order catalog, choosing the items they want, paying for them, and jotting them down on a character sheet.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Thoughts on the “War” on D&D

I’m not sure why a lot of “War on D&D” blips were flitting over my internet radar the past week or two, but they’ve shown up for some reason and attracted my interest. From my earliest days playing roleplaying games D&D has had controversy surrounding it, though for me it was thankfully playing out in the distant background and hardly affected me directly. Certainly it was unlike any other game the general public had ever seen, let alone understood. When combined with fear-driven sensationalist associations with suicide and Satanic rituals, D&D passed beyond mere curiosity and became a controversy. The reaction in public communities and private families varied from zealous opposition to quiet acceptance. Whether one might call it a “war” on D&D or simply society’s growing pains in understanding and accepting this creative phenomenon remains open for debate.

I never would have considered my experience in the “Golden Age of Roleplaying” (the early 1980s) anything like a war, though I was aware of a certain degree of controversy about D&D and kept my head down for the most part. I was fortunate to have parents who – though they might have had concerns about the effects of the game on young minds – encouraged my various interests, including roleplaying games. After my initial exposure to some neighborhood kids playing D&D I devised my own game, what later became the extremely basic Creatures & Caverns. After observing this interest my parents bought me the Moldvay edition Basic D&D boxed set...as an Easter gift in 1982. I played with neighborhood kids and school friends frequently throughout that year and into high school. Through these activities I made a few close, lifelong gaming friends who continued their enthusiasm for roleplaying games well into adulthood.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What Makes A Good Adventurer Base?

I recently indulged a nostalgic urge to check out some old beginner-level materials in my collection. My occasional foray into Old School Renaissance gaming (OSR) and my preference for Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons started me thinking about the towns new adventurers use as bases for their explorations of nearby dungeons. Recent solo gaming in this regard exposed me to the city-state of Cryptopolis in Kabuki Kaiser’s Ruins of the Undercity, which provides a diverse base of operations. I also pulled out the second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons boxed starter set, First Quest, since I recalled it included a town characters could use, and, of course, one of the classic B/X D&D modules, Gary Gygax’s B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. While investigating these three examples I came to a few conclusions on what essential elements make a satisfying adventurer base.

Adventurer bases cater to “downtime” character maintenance instead of core activities of exploration and combat. Certainly such an environment can take on a life of its own, but for some it’s a matter of finding a place to simply buy provisions, heal wounds, cash in treasure, level up, and tend to other technicalities marked on a character sheet. Providing the necessities to recover from the last dungeon delve and prepare characters for the next one stands as the bare-bones foundation of a base; yet it can, if artfully crafted, offer elements that interlock with and enhance other setting components. A good base fulfills three criteria: it provides a place where characters can find support, offers potential for future adventures, and reinforces the setting.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Dictionary of Adventure Gaming Biography

Way back in my high school days I frequently took refuge in the library. During the occasional free period each week (after suffering through mandatory “study hall” as a freshman) I’d hang out in the library using the now-extinct card catalog to research interesting subjects (mostly geared toward my Dungeons & Dragons hobby), browsing for science fiction to read (not much at the time), and even trying out new game designs with friends in the group study area (until a British librarian kicked us out for “gambling” because we were using six-sided dice...).

The school library had a full set of the Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB) which, as part of various English class projects, we occasionally consulted. I was delighted to find a volume covering fantasy and science fiction authors, many of whom had captured my imagination. While the articles didn’t help my academic pursuits, they showed me how various authors got their start and the scope of their literary accomplishments. My college library also had a set of the DLB which I occasionally consulted when seeking refuge among the labyrinthine stacks. The DLB still exists today, possibly as a relic in some libraries, but more prominently as a website accessible through paid subscription. While one might consult Wikipedia and other online repositories of group-contributed knowledge, the old DLB still holds authority (at least for me) with edited, well-researched materials under a tried-and-true brand.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Challenge of “Anything Can Be Attempted”

Role-playing games, however, aspire to an ideal where anything can be attempted, where the player can direct that a character attempt any action that one can plausibly contend a person in that situation might undertake – the referee...decides the results.”
– Jon Peterson, Playing at the World

I’ve done my fair share of writing across the various fields in the adventure gaming hobby: lots of roleplaying game material, some miniature wargaming rules, even dabbling in board game design. Each requires its own set of skills, a particular approach to organization and execution, and a great deal of work. By far writing roleplaying games, and particularly scenarios for them, remains the most difficult. Even the most fantastical wargames and board games have established rules, ordered turn sequences, limited, clear, yet meaningful player choices, and a relatively predictable set of outcomes. But, as Jon Peterson noted in Playing at the World, in roleplaying games “anything can be attempted.” And therein lies the challenge.

Board and wargames follow fairly rigid structures, both in general game presentation and in actual gameplay processes. Some have elaborate rules and numerous player choices, but overall these strive to establish patterns of action and steer players away from the concept that “anything can be attempted.” For instance, a board game usually has an outline of the player turn, often summarized on a card or reference sheet. A wargame follows predictable steps of movement, combat, and resolution (including casualties, morale, and reinforcements). Players try to achieve their goals within the scope of the actions the game allows them to choose.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Tanks Offers Gateway to Minis Games

Gale Force Nine recently announced it’s releasing Tanks: The World War II Tank Skirmish Game in April. With the rules currently online in PDF for review and a substantial preview on the company’s website, the game looks similar in spirit and in some mechanical elements to the popular X-wing Miniatures, Star Trek: Attack Wing, and D&D: Attack Wing games using the FlightPath maneuver system. At first glance Tanks looks like an accessible, affordable gateway to the miniatures wargaming hobby.

Frequent readers know I maintain an interest in World War II history and gaming, and have even developed my own tank-themed miniature wargame rules for kids, parents, and newcomers to the hobby (Panzer Kids...more on that at the end of the feature). I’m always interested to hear about new games in this period, particularly ones that don’t have a huge buy-in and have rules suitable for new players (especially children mature enough to dabble in such pursuits). So when I heard news of Tanks’ imminent release from Tabletop Gaming News, I dropped everything to investigate. Gale Force Nine’s website included a host of resources previewing the game and its components: a PDF of the full rulebook; photos and descriptions of the contents; and pages in the “How to Play” section demonstrating core mechanics.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Community & the Allure of the OSR

I’ve been exploring various games in the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR) for their varied interpretations of the core material, interesting settings, and overall nostalgic connection to the roleplaying games of my youth. Along the way I’ve realized something beyond the game mechanics and settings: by working with a game engine based on Dungeons & Dragons, the original and most popular fantasy roleplaying game, OSR designers tap into a vast community of fans (and potential customers) who share that familiar experience.

I’ve seen various arguments about what defines an OSR game, how the OSR emerged from the Open Game License (OGL) of the 2000s, and, of course, which OSR games are the most popular, true to the originals, and innovative in their own right. I certainly don’t wish to delve into those issues here (if at all); but the OSR capitalizes on a confluence of familiarity – for both the designer and audience – with not simply a core game system but a shared gaming experience through some iteration of D&D.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Star Wars Duels Redefines “War” Card Game

I recently picked up Star Wars Duels, a card game from Hasbro with an obviously popular theme, at the behest of the six year-old Little Guy, who saw it on sale at our grocery store and immediately wanted it to try for our weekly family game night. I’m not a huge fan of card games, though we have a number we enjoy because they’re right at the Little Guy’s level and work with engaging themes (particularly Godzilla Stomp and Otters). Star Wars Duels pleasantly fits into that category, combining modified “War” gameplay with colorful images of Star Wars characters kids love.

The 54-card deck comes with a rules flyer and a reference card for some of the symbols used in the game. They’re standard playing card-sized cards, though given the box size and the intended audience I somewhat expected slightly larger, more kid-friendly cards. Each card comes with a blue, red, or yellow border for the heroes, villains, and neutrals (mostly creatures); a full-color photograph of the character; their name; a card value from 1 to 10; and one or two symbols related to the character’s affiliation. The heroes and villains each have 23 cards, with 8 yellow cards devoted to neutrals. Card values seem a bit inconsistent, but vary from a standard playing card deck spread: 8 to 9 cards of the lower values (1–3); 4 to 7 cards of the middle values ( 4–6); and 3 to 4 cards of the highest values (7–10).

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Subscription Boxes

Every few months I get in a mood to rant about gaming magazines – how nostalgically wonderful they seemed in their print heyday, the effects of internet and PDF, and their dubious future – and I generally rein myself in, delete much of the tirade, and perhaps get a blog post out of what’s left (such as “Nostalgia for Gaming Magazines” and “The Vast Internet Versus Edited Periodicals”). I even have a rambling, admittedly confused missive about the viability of a D6 Adventure Journal sitting around somewhere that seems to have lost its point (if it ever had one in the first place). Yet news last week from GeekDad about War Games Supply reminded me I’d not yet discussed a similar concept, the subscription box approach, one pioneered in the gaming world in 2014 by Mythoard and now perpetuated by this latest venture catering to hobby gaming enthusiasts.

Frequent readers of my magazine missives know I enjoy well-curated periodicals delivering regular doses of quality game material. A good editor not only ensures writing, layout, and art reach certain standards but in a way also curates the readers’ experience to provide them with material they’ll find interesting that enhances and expands their enjoyment. Certainly I expect a particular magazine to deliver content consistent with a focused subject, but I’m always delighted to find a periodical pushing my boundaries, forcing me to examine issues differently, or revealing something previously unknown.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

WEG Memoirs: Young Writers Workshops

Sifting through boxes in the basement often uncovers lost bits of my past. My latest foray brought forth a small packet of papers: a pile of photocopied Star Wars line art from West End Games products, a sheaf of double-sided worksheet forms about creating planets and aliens, and some note cards with talking points for a seminar I gave way back in the mid-1990s. Long ago while working as an editor with West End I had several opportunities to participate in young writers’ workshops in my hometown. As a writer and editor who worked on the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and managed its quarterly Adventure Journal I found myself in a position to combine the exciting Star Wars universe and my career experiences to inspire creativity in young people. Having the resources and professional credentials to participate in these workshops remains one of several aspects of my work with West End I miss.

In my early adulthood I’d always maintained contacts with my old high school where I grew up in Connecticut. At the time I still knew teachers and administrators with whom I could work to share with students the professional skills and experiences I’d recently acquired. While working as a reporter and editor at the Ridgefield Press – where I gained a great deal of my professional editing experience – I ran an after-school writers workshop at one elementary school and occasionally spoke to classes on various journalism-related subjects. When I left to edit the Star Wars Adventure Journal for West End Games I was a little more than a two-hour drive from home; so occasionally participating in school-related presentations remained possible. At the time my mother was a third-grade teacher in the town’s school system, a connection which also offered opportunities to talk about writing and publishing with kids. Perhaps the most interesting activity was an annual kids writing workshop one Saturday every spring. Here students from the town’s third, fourth, and fifth grades could sign up for the day’s activities, which included a group assembly and talk from a notable author, two subject-specific seminars, and a wrap-up writing session with educators. Being only an hour north of New York City, the workshop drew many notable news media and publisher personalities for some very diverse offerings. For two years I volunteered to give workshop presentations related to my work on science fiction and Star Wars. The first year I went on my own; the second I brought several editors from West End who had ideas for their own workshops.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Basic RPG Game Engines

In my gradual shift from huge roleplaying game tomes to short-and-sweet mechanics I’ve come across a few very basic systems that appeal to me. They might not have the depth of complexity many other games offer – both simple and comprehensive – but they provide a core task resolution system with potential for expansion and an ease of adapting to various settings.

Since the dawn of roleplaying games in the 1970s gamers have tended to take existing systems and modify them to reflect their personal play style and expectations from the mechanics. Initially this came from deficiencies gamers found in the earliest versions of Dungeons & Dragons, classes, monsters, and other rules they felt the original rulebooks lacked (as Jon Peterson documents in Playing at the World). Wargamers had already been “modding” rules for years, creating new scenarios and variants for their favorite titles. The trend continued throughout roleplaying games’ further development. Some variations remained “house rules” among small groups, while others found momentum and support to become original games for publication. While I enjoy playing and house-ruling games to reflect my own expectations for established games, I find intuitive, basic core mechanics engage my urges toward more simplified systems to adapt to appealing settings.

Although the game systems that caught my eye recently have their merits (as outlined below), this trend toward basic mechanics with further adaptability isn’t new. S. John Ross accomplished this in Risus: The Anything RPG way back in the 1990s with its system of die pools assigned to broad (and often humorous) clichés; it remains one of the most elegantly intuitive roleplaying game systems with the potential to expand the core mechanic and ability to adapt to any setting. The system works well in both group and solitaire play, with the free solo adventure Ring of Thieves masterfully demonstrating the solo potential. The basic Fighting Fantasy system from the eponymous solitaire game books also provided a basic framework with its Skill, Stamina, and Luck stats, each working in their own way to determine attacks, absorb damage, and modify rolls. (The Sorcery! series also factored in a basic, memorization-based spell system). The mechanics worked well for the solitaire adventures, though the self-regulated combat often devolved into back-and-forth die-rolling contests between the hero and monsters. An ambitious gamer could easily adapt either system from its original form and modify it for a deeper complexity and specific setting (though Risus remains solid on its own without much system modification and encourages adaptability to any genre).