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History Check: Gary Gygax High School Yearbook

December 17, 2017 Comments off

A facebook group I frequent auctions numerous gaming items, sometimes common and sometimes very rare.  Several of the members are known gaming industry talents, and others are just collectors like myself.   At the end of November, Garrett Ratini put up an item that was a rare gem from his collection. It wasn’t a game book, but books containing a surprisingly rare set of photos that made up a part of gaming history. And how the auction ended is where the real surprise happened.

The items auctioned were the 1953 and 1954 years of the Geneva Log, the Lake Geneva High School yearbook.  It was during these years that Gary Gygax, Don Kaye and Mary Powell were all in attendance.  A treasure for the gamer who wants to own a piece of history, but especially for the rarity of the photos inside.  To appreciate just how rare, you have to know a little something about the history of these three individuals.

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Gary Gygax, for one, did not finish high school, though did finish his degree years later.  A few months after his father passed, he dropped out of high school in his junior year.  These volumes then contained rare pictures of him as a student.

Secondly, Don Kaye is depicted in the book as well.  Don Kaye, a close childhood friend of Gygax from age 6, co-founded Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) with Gygax and made one of the first Dungeons & Dragons characters, the infamous Murlynd.  While the depiction of these two legends in one book might not appear to be noteworthy in itself, it is one of the few rare pictures of Don Kaye.

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TSR was founded in 1973 by Gygax and Kaye.  Later, Brian Blume bought in and supplied the capital to allow the publication of Dungeons and Dragons.  However, Kaye suffered from a heart condition and needed surgery.  He never disclosed this to his partners, and died of a heart attack before the scheduled surgery could take place, dying at age 36 just as Dungeons and Dragons was beginning to gain momentum.  As a result, few public pictures of Don Kaye exist.

Mary Jo Powell was a friend of Kaye and Gygax, and was wooed by Kaye for some time.  However, Gygax was also smitten, and proposed marriage at 19 years old.  Kaye was upset enough to not attend the wedding, though they later reconciled. Ernie Gygax recently posted a picture of Mary Jo the day after the proposal, shown below:

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Mary Jo once suspected Gary of having an affair while she was pregnant with her second child, but going to confront him in a friend’s basement, found him sitting with friends around a map covered table.  She may have been the first of what my wife calls “Gaming Widows” (being spouses left by the wayside for the husband that games too much).


Garrett Ratini put these items up for auction, and the true collectors of gaming history began to come out to bid.  The buyout price for the books was $1,200.00 and likely that number would have been met, I suspect, knowing the habits of this community of bidders.  But an unexpected bidder placed a bid at somewhere around the $400 mark, and that was Luke Gygax himself, founder of Gary Con and Gary Gygax’s son.

With the permission of all involved, Garrett terminated the auction and gifted the books to Luke.  Now, these books and images of his mother and father are with him, where they truly belong.

Pre-digital history like this is easily lost, and is not on the radar of many historians, with the exception of Michael Witwer and Shannon Appelcline. Hopefully books like this will make it into the archives like the one held at GenCon 50 this past year.  Fortunately, I believe we can anticipate  these books being treasured by the Gygax family, both for themselves and for posterity.

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DCC 94 – Neon Knights Review

August 27, 2017 Comments off

Neon Knights, Dungeon Crawl Classics #94 was released at Gen Con 50. This adventure is pretty difficult to discuss without some major spoilers, so if you don’t plan on judging this one, I would suggest not reading any further.

For those judges who remain: Brendan LaSalle has created an excellent 3rd level adventure that works well as a one-shot con game, or as a bridge from a typical core DCC fantasy world to the Purple Planet for an existing campaign. It could fairly easily be adapted to be a bridge from Lankhmar or any other world to the Purple Planet as well. The Purple Planet boxed-set is not required in any way to run this adventure, but for those who own it, there is a sidebar that provides suggestions on how to incorporate those materials if the PCs remain on the planet.

Brendan outlines a clear four part plot that experienced judges could time well for a convention slot. It isn’t exactly a sandbox, but isn’t a typical dungeon crawl either. This allows the judge to allow PCs to explore, or move on to the next plot point as time allows. The PCs are charged with figuring out a strategy to break a siege surrounding the city they are in (specifics for a city are suggested at the back, but details in the beginning are left intentionally vague so judges can adapt to the city in an existing campaign) when they are whisked away to a mysterious tower and commanded to defend an old wizard from creatures attacking his tower. PCs notice pink trails as they move and their eyes glow with a pink neon light that remains visible only to each other once they return to their home plane.

It is up to the PCs to discover how these events are related and discover a way to end the siege. The ending of this adventure can go a lot of different ways depending on how the party handles the wizard, the artifact used to summon them, and what they do with knowledge discovered in the wizard’s tower in the sea of dust. This is a great adventure for experienced judges that are used to rolling with what the players come up with, and improvising based on those choices. Vazhalo’s tower is an interesting locale that would make the most traditional type of dungeon exploration portion of the adventure. Once the PCs are back in their home city, a few NPCs are detailed that will help the party research both the artifact and experience of being summoned by this far off wizard, allowing characters to role-play with these NPCs and perhaps form a plan should they be whisked away again. This provides a great balance between different play styles, and attempts to account for most possible solutions for the end. I imagine when I get a chance to run this, the PCs will come up with something entirely unexpected. That is all part of the fun!

There are extensive details provided about the artifact itself, and its use in summoning heroes. Appropriately, one of the features in this adventure is a massive gong, which played a prominent role in the Gen Con 50 DCC tournament.

Overall, if you are new to judging DCC, or aren’t comfortable with something that diverges from a more traditional dungeon crawl like Sailors on the Starless Sea, Portal under the Stars or Doom of the Savage Kings this may not be the one for you. However, if you’ve embraced the chaos and amazing potential this system brings, this adventure may serve as a very memorable convention game, or the gateway to the incredible adventures that await the party on the Purple Planet!

Bob Ross: The Unexpected Hero of Gen Con 50

August 22, 2017 5 comments

Gen Con 50 was my first Gen Con, so I was prepared to be overwhelmed by the experience. What I was not prepared for was a Bob Ross board game to steal the show. The publishers of the game, Big G Creative, had a tiny booth. In fact, it was about a quarter of booth 431 rented from Arc Dream publishing. No one said you had to have a lot of floor space to have a hit!

The main idea of this game is to paint different elements of actual licensed Bob Ross paintings, mixing colors on your palette and using various brushes and techniques to gain the most chill points. Happy little trees? Absolutely. The components of this game are fairly simple, thematic, and well designed. The game is easy to learn and plays in about 30-45 minutes depending on how many of the 2-4 players you have gathered around the table.

Each turn involves rolling the custom die which generally provides the player a bonus card or action. If you roll Bob, you flip a chill card which may provide some additional point bonus for painting a feature using a certain color or brush when you complete a feature, and usually advances his token along the painting. This represents Bob’s progress on the current painting. Bonus chill points are also awarded for completing feature before Bob reaches them on the Bob track along the bottom of each painting. In our initial two-player play through we painted about two and a half paintings before my wife reached the end of the chill meter, ending the game. It was very close the entire time, and was a pleasure to play. The paintings sit on a little plastic easel which looks really cool, but may be difficult to position so everyone can see it for a four player game. You could just lay the painting on the table, but where is the fun in that?

The true genius in marketing this game was in some clever guerilla marketing via Bob Ross cosplay, a conspicuous little banner outside the entrance to the exhibitor hall, and only releasing 125 copies a day. This prevented a Thursday sell-out, and created quite a bit of buzz and discussion from attendees. I checked out the game in the board game geek Hot Games room in the Hyatt. I went to the booth on Friday, and was told they were sold out for today, but would have more on Saturday. You can imagine I was among several forming a line waving money for a chance to own this one early. This game is a Target exclusive, and won’t be widely available until October 1st.

Overall, this game is an excellent balance of strategy and randomness for my taste. If you are a cutthroat hardcore strategy gamer, a game with Chill in the title is likely not the game for you. Despite that, it does have plenty of opportunities to form a strategy, and compete against your fellow painters to become more chill than Bob Ross. Quite a lofty goal indeed.

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