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Dungeons of Dread S1-S4 review

May 6, 2013 Comments off

s_seriesWhen I started playing D&D in the late 80s, I was the youngest kid on the block. One of my friends showed me these crazy looking dice, we sketched out character sheets on notebook paper, and very likely followed very few of the rules. I did learn what Armor Class is, and what Hit points are, and had a fantastic time.

I was just young enough to miss most of these classic adventures gathered in Dungeons of Dread, but interestingly I did pick up White Plume Mountain in a garage sale when I was a teenager, not even really understanding what I had. Unfortunately that was sold along with so many other treasures from my childhood in the “going off to college” garage sale.

In my RPG renaissance of the last few years, I’ve had a great time gaming with a bunch of different guys, but of the main Skyland Games crew, I’m still the young kid on the block. Most of these guys have played D&D almost since the beginning, and have shelves of books and some of these very adventures. I would hear war stories from The Tomb of Horrors, or Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, but had never played them myself.

This collection offers a great opportunity to immerse yourself in D&D lore by collecting classic, iconic adventures written by the pioneers of the game. It includes the lethal Tomb of Horrors, the quirky and memorable White Plume Mountain, the zany gonzo Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and finally a little taste of Greyhawk in The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. This hardback format is great for looking through and preserving these in an archival sense, but would be pretty difficult to run from. One of the benefits of the old modules is you can lay them flat behind a DM screen, and show the players the illustrations a bit easier. Also, the maps are at the end of the adventure, so if you are trying to run one of these for a group, I would suggest investing in some page flags so you can easily find those sections while flipping between maps, illustrations, and room descriptions.

Fortuitously, Wizards has released the illustrations for the modules as stand-alone PDFs, making them a lot easier to show to the group. Hopefully, they’ll do something similar for the maps! The maps are in black and white, which I understand from a printing perspective, but they could have earned some serious nostalgia points if they used the original D&D light-blue that was so iconic of the old maps.

If you’re one of the old-guard grognards or a collector and own all these in their original print form, there is no sense purchasing them in this form. If you just missed the boat, or have heard all the old guys talk about how it was when THEY started playing, this is for you. I really enjoy having it on my shelf for reference and inspirational purposes, and look forward to adding the next archive to the shelf, Against the Slave Lords!

Categories: Adventure, Books, DnD, Lore, Retro, Reviews, RPGs

The Strange Case of David A. Trampier

February 18, 2013 Comments off

Grognards and other fans of 1st Edition D&D will remember some of the greatest illustrations in role-playing being drawn by David A. Trampier (aka ‘TRAMP’ or ‘DAT’). The original cover of the 1st Edition Players Handbook, plus plenty of monsters in both the 1st Edition Monster Manual and from the Gamma World Series were his creations. He designed or played a role in design of several games, like Titan and Divine Right, and was the creator of the long running Dragon Magazine comic strip Wormy. I was always a fan of his work, but never connected the dots that this illustration and this comic and this game all were from him, until much later. Trampier was not only in on the ground floor, but was moving to publish his own collected volume of Wormy, when something strange happened in April of 1988…

He disappeared.

Kim Mohan (editor of Dragon Magazine) advised that checks sent to Tramp’s house for work completed were returned uncashed. Phil Foglio (who worked on another strip in the magazine at the time What’s New with Phil & Dixie, and now best known for the excellent web comic Girl Genius) said later, “When an artist’s checks are returned uncashed, he is presumed dead.”

So what happened? Hit by a bus? Suicide? Those paying attention were baffled by Trampier’s disappearance, though Tom Wham (designer of Awful Green Things from Outer Space and Snit’s Revenge) indicated that he believed he was alive. Tom’s sister, Nina Wham, was married to Trampier at the time, indicating he had reason to know Trampier was still drawing breath. Still, Wham indicated that he himself had not been in touch since 1982.

Barbara Manui & Chris Adams, known for their work with another Dragon Magazine comic “Yamara” started information gathering and discovered the possible reason for the disappearance, which they posted from a verified source (name withheld) on their site here.

To summarize, it states that Tramp appeared to be upset, and perhaps delusional or paranoid in regard to events occurring at Dragon Magazine at the time. It goes on to state that he was an uncompromising and perhaps antagonistic artist that made life difficult for himself at the magazine.

While interesting, it still leaves us the mystery of his disappearance. As I began to research the issue, there still were no leads.

Then, in 2005, a reporter named Arin Thompson with the Daily Egyptian wrote a story titled, ‘Coffee, cigarettes and speed bumps: A night with a Carbondale cabby.’ It showed a picture of a bearded man, arm draped over the door of his cab. It was Dave Trampier, back from the dead.

trampier

This was groundbreaking. This not only proved that Trampier was alive, but that he was living or at least working in Carbondale, Illinois.

Within a short period of time, Trampier’s home address was accessible through the Jackson County, Illinois public records.

It appears that with this reemergence, a number of individuals attempted to contact Trampier. An individual identifying himself under the handle of “Baj” on the message board of Paizo.com indicated that they had contacted Trampier to discuss the purchase of original artwork. This initial contact began friendly, with Trampier expressing an eagerness for others to view his work, but became more withdrawn and negative over time.

Jolly Blackburn of Knights of the Dinner Table fame indicated that he contacted Trampier to make an offer for publishing his original Wormy strips.

“David was very polite but made it very clear he wanted nothing to do such a project and more importantly nothing to do with gaming and asked that I not contact him again. I got the impression his phone number had been passed around in the industry and I hadn’t been the first to call.”

Wizards of the Coast stated in their 30 year retrospective, “Thirty Years of Adventure” that Trampier was alive and well, but no longer worked in the gaming industry.

And that is where it appears it will stay for the foreseeable future. Luke Gygax posted:

“Tramp was a great old school artist and I wish he still contributed his artwork to the genre. Unfortunately he has no interest in gaming or art at all. I do not know what his reasons are, but I know two folks that have tracked him down and offered him work- one is his brother-in-law. He flatly refused both of them and asked them not to contact him again on the subject.” For reasons entirely his own, Trampier does not plan on submitting his work for publication or self-publishing in the foreseeable future.”

Despite this, his devoted fans remain surprisingly active. The Dave Trampier Fan Club Facebook page counts among its members Luke Gygax, Ernest Gary Gygax Jr., Jolly Blackburn and David Kenzer of Kenzer & Co., and Troll Lord Games. It’s a lot of fandom for an artist who hasn’t published a new piece of art in 25 years.

Others pay tribute through homage and imitation, such as Dungeon Crawl Classics featuring of numerous references or parodies of Trampier’s previous work, recalling classic Trampier art to evoke images core to fantasy role playing.

Whatever Trampier’s reasons for leaving, it is clear that his work is loved and appreciated throughout the gaming world, and should he choose to return, he will be welcome with open arms.

EDIT: We are sad to report that Dave Trampier died March 24, 2014 in Carbondale, IL at Helia Healthcare.  He was 59 years old.  Tragically, it appears that immediately prior to his death, he made plans to exhibit some of his artwork at a Carbondale Con called Egypt Wars 2014.  He advised the organizers that he was suffering from cancer, but that he was overcoming it and would need transportation to the convention.  A sample of the art he planned to exhibit is shown below.

The fact that just too late he started to return to the people and fans that loved his work so much absolutely breaks my heart.  But with his passing, we see many in the gaming community that loved him, and with it the promise that Dave Trampier will not be forgotten.

Tramp Art

The Gaming Ten Commandments

December 10, 2012 6 comments

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Veteran and novice gamers alike can find themselves sliding into bad habits now and again at the game table. We at Skyland Games have a real mixed bag at our tables: New gamers, old gamers, and old timers coming back to the game after a long hiatus. We’ve also been playing a lot of Pathfinder Society, which leads to a crap-shoot when it comes to the players you’re sitting down with and what they think makes for good game etiquette.

Even with the grognards, when things get exciting, or boring, or you just get distracted, you might find yourself in violation of one of the Gaming Ten Commandments.

1) THOU SHALT BE ON TIME

Especially with a four hour time slot for organized-play games, it’s disruptive for the GM and Players alike to start late. If you’ve got another slot to get to afterwards, doubly so. But mainly this, slows the game as a whole, and is inconsiderate of everyone else who made it in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, at Skyland Games, we’re all guilty of this one at some time or another.

2) THOU SHALT COME PREPARED

Nothing slows down play like missing your character sheet, not having dice or a pencil, not knowing what your abilities are or how your character works. It creates delay in the beginning for missing character issues, and slows the pace and play of the game at all other times. Any time you slow play due to your own laziness, you’re really wasting other people’s time. Don’t be that guy.

3) THOU SHALT LEARN THE RULES

Or at least try… Pathfinder, D&D 3.5, Champions, Shadowrun…. these systems are not necessarily easy, but you need to know how your character works before you sit down at the table, and know the basics of movement and combat so as to not impede play. Get a book and read it between sessions. Most if not all the material for Pathfinder and D&D 3.5 is online as an SRD. Add to that a variety of apps that pull up the rules pretty cheaply, and there’s really no excuse for not knowing the basics. Worst case scenario: Listen and learn.

4) THOU SHALT NOT CHEAT

The GM might be allowed to fudge some dice rolls, but as a player, for the good of the game, it’s imperative that you let the dice fall where they may. Some of the greatest stories I’ve seen in gaming come from the epic failures and epic subsequent successes arising from the bad roll, the epic mischance, or the divine blunder. We all sit down to see this story unfold organically, and Mulligans must be solicited from the almighty GM. It also puts other players at a disadvantage, and robs the sweetness from victory when it’s built on deception.

5) THOU SHALT NOT TALK OVER OTHERS

Okay, personal pet peeve, but I’ve played with folks that find that box text is a perfect opportunity to discuss character builds, what they ate for dinner, hilarious YouTube cat videos, etc. This makes it hard for others to keep track of what’s going on, distracts the GM reading it, and creates situations where information has to be repeated or explained to the player as the game unfolds. Some players will interrupt and talk over the GM, which is a great recipe for GM vengeance, but also makes for confusion and can damage the flow of the game. When it’s not the GM, it’s someone trying to have fun and tell their story. Don’t ruin it.

6) THOU SHALT PLAY ONLY THINE OWN CHARACTER

You may think you’re being helpful, telling the guy next to you what he ought to do on his turn, but you’re not. You’re probably breaking character, and possibly the laws of physics, by sharing your thoughts out of game, and generally inhibiting the other player and other character by imposing your vision on them. This also slows down the game as the player digests additional information, weighs new options presented through the advice, and quite often creates a need for the player to justify their character’s action. Novice players can always ask for help, and if they ask, give it to them. Otherwise, let ‘em take a stab at it, and if they’re going to err, let them err boldly.

7) THOU SHALT ABIDE

Sometimes things get a little heated in real life. It might be over loot, it might be incompatible player personalities, or it might be in-game character personalities leading to some real-life frustration. No matter the cause, don’t let things get to the point where it’s a problem. Each situation differs, but stepping away from the problem and communicating usually does the trick. You want to roll with the punches, which goes hand in hand with Commandment 8 and Commandment 10.

8) THOU SHALT WORK FOR THE GOOD OF THE GAME

Every player should work to make the game happen. Someone need a ride? Go five minutes out of your way to help them make the game. Snacks? Drinks? At least take care of yourself, if not everybody. Try to schedule around conflicts, and take affirmative steps to keep game night sacred. Don’t make the GM do all the cat-herding when it comes to scheduling. Return emails about the scenario you want to play. Correspond regularly. Most importantly, when gaming, apply Wheaton’s Law and “Don’t be a Dick”: Don’t fight over loot in game, don’t ragequit when the GM rules against you, don’t pout, and don’t take anything that involves ‘elves’ too seriously. That’s a good life rule, period, actually.

9) THOU SHALT HONOR THY GM AND THY HOST

It is sort of a classic axiom that the ‘GM is Always Right’. I prefer to think of it the way Tony Soprano contests Nietzsche’s hypothesis regarding God being Dead: He may not always be right, but you’re still going to kiss his ass. In the end, the GM can see both sides of the screen, and should (if they’re good at it) keep things challenging, interesting, and fun based on that perspective. Further, a game isn’t a democracy, and a final arbiter has to have supreme authority, right or wrong, so the game can move on.

As far as your host is concerned, it’s easy to forget that someone is cleaning up after you leave. Don’t trash their place, drink the last of their soda, drop food into their couch cushions, or leave your cans scattered and laying about for the ants into get into. Minimal courtesy indicates you should try to leave the space how you found it. If it’s in a game store, don’t bring in outside food and drink if they sell food and drink in store (or you might not have a game store much longer). If you’re in tight confines, make sure you’re maintaining some hygiene fundamentals for the benefit of your fellow gamers and the people who have to live there after you’ve left. Treat your play space better than your own, and you’ll be more likely to be invited back.

10) THOU SHALT HAVE FUN

Sometimes, it can be surprising how this rule gets overlooked, but we game because we like it. Especially in organized play, the objective of achieving a certain level, obtaining certain loot, or finishing certain missions can obscure the fact that the object is to have fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong, and need to reprioritize. It might be because you or your group aren’t following the Commandments, or might be because it’s just time for a change of scenery. But make sure you and your fellow gamers are enjoying yourself, and everything else will fall into place.

Many Sheets or One? The Character Builder Conundrum

September 14, 2012 5 comments

I’ve had the pleasure of participating in quite a few campaigns in the last 3 or 4 years. Some of which spanned 10-20 character levels. In 4e and increasingly in Pathfinder, the easiest way to level up your character was to open up the character builder, hit the “level up” button, and choose the appropriate options for your character and print it out. I think 4e was a worse offender in this arena, but often the character sheets were between 5-10 pages per PC. On Herolab for Pathfinder, if you’ve got an animal companion or heaven forbid a spellbook, the characters can easily get in to this range as well. My main problem with this is every time you level up, your printing again. If not, you have a game table filled with laptops and all the distractions they can bring.

For the Pirate campaign, I wanted to stop the madness. I printed out a Pathfinder Character sheet, double-sided, that I would use for the duration of that character’s existence. It’s easy on first level. Just run down the requirements for your given race/class combo, buy your gear and start rolling! As the levels progress, things get more complicated. You start getting more bonuses from magical loot you’ve found, or through feats and increasing your ability scores, and a standard character sheet can become a jumbled mess. My character in the pirate campaign is a elven ranger/rogue, and I have about worn a hole in both the ammunition spot on the sheet for my arrows, and the hit point area for when he takes damage.

Overall, I am really enjoying just having the one character sheet. I have kept notes on it from previous sessions, and it just feels more authentic to how I feel like a veteran character sheet should look. That being said, I had one session last week in which I forgot my sheet. I borrowed Steve’s laptop and did my best to recreate him in herolab as quickly as possible. It was wonderful to see all the options that applied to my character all laid out in front of me, allowing me to carefully way my decisions and draw from several source books worth of material quickly and easily. At the end of the process I printed him out: four pages. It would have taken me a lot longer to open all my books to the appropriate pages, evaluate the options, and add them to my existing stats. Even making a first level character with only Pathfinder books, a character sheet and a pencil can take hours if you consider all the possible archetypes and race/class combinations. It would have ground the session to a halt.

So what is the answer? Is one way better than the other? I suppose it comes down to personal preference. For me, I play role-playing games as an escape. I enjoy pouring over the books, and the art in those books. I like finding new things in them like a wizard discovering knowledge in a tome of ancient lore. I suppose it just comes down to personal preference: ease of use and a fair amount of waste, or piles of books and maybe missing out on the best option for your character while your sheet gets dingy with eraser marks and quickly scrawled notes. It all comes down to how you want to roll. How do you role/roll? One sheet or many?

Categories: 4e, DnD, Lore, Pathfinder, Pirates, Tips

Books for Gary, DCCRPG sells out!

July 22, 2012 Comments off

The first edition AD&D reprints are out, and I picked a set up for myself. It benefits the Gary Gygax Memorial fund, and I hope they do very well. I completely understand the perspective of those who are less than thrilled by the idea, but to me, I think its a really nice gesture and I never owned the originals but love looking back at the roots of the game. A few guys and I were pouring over them in our Friendly Local Gaming Store, and had a great time comparing sketches in the monster manual of iconic creatures that we’ve all come to know and love to their drawings in the original Monster Manual. Some of them are really cool black and white sketches, some look like the rejected doodles of a 7th grader, but that just adds to the charm! Something you can’t tell from the pictures online is the darker areas on the cover are actually raised, giving them a leather-bound classy feel, without actually being truly leather-bound. The pages are also gilded on the edges, which I think is a nice touch. Am I going to actually play 1e AD&D? Probably not anytime soon. For me, these are more reference or inspiration for when it’s time to write an adventure. Also, it’s for Gary and the thousands he has inspired in helping create a hobby where the only limit is your imagination.

In other news, it looks like WotC is reprinting 3.5 books. This seems like a bit of a surprising move, and we even joked in the store that anyone who wants to play 3.5 is probably playing Pathfinder by now, but maybe not. Now maybe those numbers are skewed by the fact that there is very little 3.5e stuff in print, so people wanting that stuff have to go searching the interwebs, but those numbers are pretty staggering. I don’t know that I will pick up that edition, as Pathfinder is enough to keep up with, and they are just different enough to confuse the heck out of this gamer.
Also of note, the first printing of DCCRPG has sold out! There are a few things that need correcting that will be taken care of in the second printing, and there will also be a new and different limited-edition cover! In fact, it seems gold-foil limited-edition covers are all the rage over at Goodman Games! Especially cool is the third printing of the Dungeon Alphabet! If you’re one of those “Modules? We don’t need no stinkin’ modules!” kind of GMs, this book is for you. I’ve mentioned it previously in my dungeon building resources articles and my review of the Fourthcore Alphabet (a product in a similar vein). If you love old school dungeons and page after page of awesome black and white art, this is a must-own.

Another very cool thing Goodman Games has going on is their Mystery Map Contest! Essentially the contest is to write an adventure using the map and the demon in the corner to create the best adventure possible! You get to fill in the details beyond the few that are already provided, and you must incorporate the weird creature in the bottom-right corner. The winner gets $1000 and becomes the Free RPG Day 2013 offering from Goodman Games! Get your submission in before Halloween! I think the Skyland Games guys will need to try their luck at this. If you enter, good luck!

Categories: Adventure, DCCRPG, DnD, Lore, News, Retro, Reviews Tags:

TMNT: Retro review

April 16, 2012 2 comments

The other night, a few of the Skyland Games crew had a chance to dust off an old classic from the gaming shelf. There were a lot of options: Car Wars, Mutants and Masterminds, Mekton Z, and TMNT amongst others. Eventually we’ll get to them all, but we decided to give Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ago. As kids who grew up steeped in 80s culture, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hold a special place in our hearts, as they were pretty much unavoidable from about 1987 to 1990.

Like a lot of older RPGs, character generation is a bit of a mini-game in and of itself. Also like older RPGs, game-balance is for the weak. Not all characters are created equal. This became readily apparent as we rolled up our dudes. You start out by rolling percentile dice to see what kind of animal origin you have. From there you roll up a mutation reason, and starting money for gear. Scott rolled up a raccoon scavenger with about $3000 worth of scavenged stuff. Pretty cool, certainly playable, and a fairly “realistic” background. My turn: Alligator assassin created by private industry! I escaped with $80,000 worth of stuff. After arming my guy with all the guns I could feasibly carry, I asked our GM what cars were available so we would have some mode of transport. Maybe like an A-team van, or something? “For $60,000 you can get a DeLorean…” SOLD. So while Scott’s guy was a scrappy ruffian, mine was a trained assassin, tons of guns, and his getaway car from his captors was a DeLorean. Wow. Somebody rolled high on the percentile tables.

The adventure was something that Steve, our intrepid GM, took from the headlines of our local newspaper. Recently the UNCA mascot dog, Rocky I, went missing. In our game he was a half-mutated bulldog man who ran a counterfeiting ring. In real life, he came back to his owner unscathed. In our game, after taking a few pot-shots at us with his revolver, he got mowed down by my assassin’s MAC-10.

The majority of our little session was sneaking around a warehouse trying to track down Rocky’s counterfeiting operation, and then mowing him down. We used skills based on percentile dice rolls, which I thought were pretty cool. The actual layout of the book is pretty atrocious, even for 1985 standards. Not only are tables and charts hard to read in the book, some of the layout is counter-intuitive. For instance, the skills section looks like a glossary layout, but you have to go through the entire entry to figure out what your base score is in any skill. When you level, you would have to go to each skill entry and see by how much each skill has arbitrarily increased. I did like the alignment system, in that there is no true-neutral. The true-neutral alignment never sat quite right with me. Neutral-Good, sure, Neutral-Evil, yeah, but to always be middle of the road? It doesn’t seem practical. Alignments in Palladium’s games are Principled, Scrupulous, Unprincipled, Anarchist, Miscreant, Aberrant, and Diabolic. That’s a pretty cool spectrum.

Overall, we had a really fun time with it. The system is a bit clunky, and Palladium is not known for their attention to detail at the editing desk, but if you’ve got a love for some mutants and don’t mind slogging through some weird mechanics, it can be a really fun time. If all else fails, just roll up characters all night, and let the dice fall where they may!

Categories: Lore, Retro, Reviews, RPGs Tags: ,

Delving Dungeons Doesn’t Disappoint

March 14, 2012 Comments off

It’s the oldest and most iconic form of fantasy RPG adventure. A bunch of adventurers of varied skills and backgrounds stumble across a hidden cave, or an entrance to an ancient tomb. Traps and foul creatures stand vigil over gleaming piles of treasure, long forgotten.

I’m prepping for tonight’s Pathfinder Society game. Tonight, I’m GMing one of the PFS intro scenarios, which are free, and pretty awesome. The second one in the series “To Delve the Dungeon Deep,” is about as classic as a dungeon crawl can be. I won’t spoil it for those who have yet to play it (including the guys tonight!), but this little delve has got it all; traps, mysterious lairs and runes, creatures, and plenty of options for PCs to make choices. Which way? Attack or parlay? Poke it with a stick or run screaming?

Recently, I adapted The Lost City for 4e. A classic D&D module, it proved to be one of the most fun 4e experiences I’ve ever had. My sincere hope is that DnDnext or 5e gets back to the classic feel of exploration and mystery. 4e as written seemed to get bogged down on the numbers side of things, (making sure encounters were balanced, treasure parcels were level appropriate, etc.) and lost some of the magic that came from not knowing what was behind the next door (let alone if the door was trapped!).

If you don’t have access to any old D&D adventures (I’m talking late 70s, early 80s) I recommend downloading Part 2 of the PFS intro scenarios. Heck, you might as well download them all. Even if you don’t play Pathfinder, the style of this delve can inspire a GM for any system. Things to consider: What is the history of the location of the delve? Who used to live there? Who calls it home now? What did the previous inhabitants leave behind? What have the new denizens added? Try and tie them all together with a cohesive theme, a goal for the adventurers (perhaps the classic MacGuffin?), and you will have at least one awesome night of gaming ahead of you! If it has been a long time since you’ve explored a forgotten place with a group of adventurers, grab a torch and a ten foot pole and conquer the unknown!

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