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Dungeons and Donations: Encounter at Barrier Peaks

December 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Dungeons and Donations starts this Friday at The Wyvern’s Tale in Asheville, NC and on twitch.tv for an amazing fifth year! This year will feature a slightly modified version of the classic adventure Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Judging from the theme on the website and the staff shirts, it looks like an old school Star Trek aesthetic.

For those unfamiliar with previous years, Dungeons and Donations is a 24-hour D&D 5e marathon that benefits Extra Life, the gaming charity for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. In the past the graphics for the stream itself had a retro SSi-Gold Box type of feel that added to the nostalgia of playing through such classic adventures as Tomb of Horrors, Keep on the Borderlands, Shrine of Tamoachan, and White Plume Mountain.

If you are anywhere near the Asheville area, you can play and be on the stream! See how long your character can survive the deadly perils that await the party.

If you can’t make the trip, you can still affect the game! Donations can purchase boons (help the party) or banes (hurt the party). A $5 donation will buy a roll on either table. The peril level dictates what options are available based on how many people are in line waiting to play. The longer the player line, the more deadly the banes. If less players are waiting, the more beneficial the boons!

Can the heroes survive the alien ship and save the children? Join us this Friday for another year of incredible fun! For the children!

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Categories: 5e, DnD, Epic, News, Retro, Technology

The pros and cons of sourcebooks and settings

July 23, 2018 Comments off

The Skyland Games crew was a bit divided about the release of the Han Solo movie. Some felt it was unnecessary and was a movie no one was asking for about characters of which we already know the fate. Others felt it expanded both the story and the universe in very cool ways. We can see an analog in RPGs and their respective supplements and expansions.

Today Wizards of the Coast announced two new worlds for 5e D&D: Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron and Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravinica. The Eberron update is digital only (at least for now) and the book for Ravinica won’t be released until November and represents the first cross-pollination of Magic: The Gathering lore making an appearance on the D&D side of the WotC fence.

This news comes on the heels of Fantasy Flight Games reprinting a special 30th anniversary of the West End Games Star Wars RPG. Recently I purchased both it, and two Force and Destiny sourcebooks: Knights of Fate and Unlimited Power. Staring at my formidable shelf of FFG Star Wars got me thinking: at what point is a system too diluted by supporting materials?

Fans of RPGs are familiar with the cycle: A core rulebook (or three) comes out for a system. Adventures, supplements and sourcebooks follow. Perhaps errata or an updated print run or seven. Finally the bottom of the barrel is scraped (for D&D often in the form of the Tome of Vile Darkness), and a new edition is released. Most recently we have seen this with Pathfinder and X-wing.

Reading through the old WEG Star Wars is a pretty wild contrast from a recent FFG sourcebook. The bibliography (they included one!) at the back of the WEG sourcebook is most telling: the original trilogy, their novelizations, a Han Solo trilogy of novels, a Lando Trilogy, and some art books for visual reference. In fairness, that was probably everything in print about Star Wars in 1987. Almost impossible to imagine thirty years later.

The player section for the entire system weighs in at 24 pages, and a full one-third of that is dedicated to a solitaire choose-your-own-adventure style introduction to the concept of roleplaying: making decisions and rolling dice to see what happens.

“This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster. An elegant weapon… for a more civilized age.”   – Obi-wan Kenobi

Is the system perfect? Certainly not. There are awkward combat mechanics, especially when it comes to starship combat. However, it does get you into playing the game quickly, and emphasizes not stressing the details as the GM. Between the two 144-page books included in the 30th anniversary reprint, you have everything you need to evoke the feel of the original trilogy and have a fantastic game.

On the flip side of the coin, I love having a Star Wars sourcebook library that is now the size of an old Encyclopedia Britannica collection. Each book is filled with inspiration from settings, equipment, encounters, and adversaries. However, it can be daunting for new players creating a character. It would be an awesome compromise for FFG to produce not pre-gens, but templates similar to WEG: familiar archetypes to which you can add a few skills, a description, a background and a motivation and get to rolling.

For D&D, each world at the peak of system bloat that was second edition seemed to have its own feel: Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Ravenloft, Dragonlance, and yes, Forgotten Realms. I imagine these new 5e options will provide that same sort of tone-setting characteristics to make each memorable. Maybe that is one way to think of it – not as dilution, but a particular flavor.

Dungeon Crawl Classics has taken a similar approach with setting box sets: The Chained Coffin (Shudder Mountains), The Purple Planet, and very soon Lankhmar. Goodman Games has also recently released a post-apocalyptic version of their system called Mutant Crawl Classics (which is awesome and will get a much more in-depth review later).

Ultimately it comes down to playing the style of game you want to play. There are pretty excellent RPGs that fit on a single sheet of paper. In my years of gaming, it has mattered less what system or edition we were playing and more that we had an excuse to get together every week and have a great time. Nerds tend to desire an encyclopedic knowledge of subjects they enjoy. This works out nicely for publishers. Is it necessary? Maybe not, but it sure is fun.

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.

The Value of Unplugging

October 10, 2016 Comments off

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So after observing that our kids fight constantly when exposed to a lot of TV and Video games, we decided (okay, my wife decided) there’d be no electronics during the week (with a few very specific exceptions) during the regular school year.

Harsh.

I was waiting for the kids to drive her nuts, and for everyone to then drive me nuts, and for that rule to be abolished and things to go back to normal.  To my surprise, after a day or two there were few complaints. The kids starting fighting less, and started actually “doing” more.  They slept better, got more exercise, and generally seemed less cranky. And best of all, we started spending more time together, with them taking an interest in RPG’s and Board games.

If you’re reading this and you’re a millennial tabletop gamer, I salute you.  The discretion to play role-playing games or board games when you’ve grown up with a plethora of media options was an unlikely one; streaming video, various video game platforms with multiplayer functionality, not to mention cell phone games and apps… it took a lot for you to even care enough to try to play a role-playing or board game where humans had to assemble in person around a table after learning rather complex rules.  If you’re older, you may understand that in the 80’s, when G.I. Joe went off the air for the day at 4:30, there was only the news and later Miami Vice or the A-Team to look forward to.  That downtime needed to be filled with something that wasn’t TV, and there was a limit to how much ATARI you could play before ragequitting.

Hence, in my day, tabletop role-playing games, board games , and war games were what we turned to.  And of course, books, sports, etc.  But on your basic rainy day or evening, we poured over the books and made characters or pulled out Talisman or O.G.R.E and had at it. Unwittingly, my wife has re-created that experience for my kids, and now they’re looking with renewed interest at my hobbies as a way to pass some enjoyable time.

I previously blogged about how my son showed some enjoyment from playing Dungeons & Dragons, but since he’s not quite old enough to be literate, he’s not catapulted into it like I had hoped.  My older daughter is a voracious reader, however, and after finishing Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle books, she’s showing a lot more appreciation for the concepts in fantasy RPG gaming than she ever has previously.

Both, as it turns out, love painting miniatures.

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I’ve had to set some restrictions to make sure they don’t paint things I have plans for, and not everything is a gem, but some are actually quite good, from both the younger one and the older.

Moreover, they’ve both become eager players of board games.  We’ve finally been able to start working through my massive collection of board games, half of which have stayed in the shrink-wrap due to the difficulty finding time with other gamers when we’ve got an RPG schedule that doesn’t allow the time.  Exposure to some of the board games like Wizards of the Coast’s Temple of Elemental Evil has got her interested in a more RPG-like experience.  It’s helpful her friends have read the same books and also enjoy painting miniatures as well (enough to shop for their own figures on reapermini.com).  For better or worse, we may just have a tween girls gaming group in the making.  You can bet I’ll blog about that, should it happen.

The time we’ve spent together has been fun for all of us, and we’re talking and sharing and growing closer as a family when this is going on, which is contrary to the quietude of zoning out in a show or game that doesn’t invite the distraction of conversation.  Of course, you don’t have to unplug to share this time, but you may just find that there’s peace that comes with cutting out those unhealthy distractions and getting back to a simpler time before Netflix.

I got on today to write board game reviews from the new games we have been playing, but realized this was maybe the more important part of the story.  Next week and for hopefully weeks to come, I’ll be sharing more of what we’re playing and how it works with younger players as well.

Back to the Classics: Returning to the Temple of Elemental Evil

February 8, 2015 6 comments

The Temple

When I realized the 5th Edition was built with a mind to accommodate classic concepts, I started thinking what I do when any edition of D&D comes out…. TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL.

I love this module, LOVE IT.  When I was a kid I played it three times, read it cover to cover, and played it a few more times over the intervening years. I ran it for a group in college, and some variation of those characters and that group for 15 years.  It, like the other classics of D&D (Slave Lords, Giants, and Demonweb Pits, to  name a few) are amazing, iconic stories that are world defining.  When I realized that quite a number of our local grognards had somehow missed the opportunity to play this classic, I knew it was time to see what 5th Edition Temple looked like.

Conversion to a new system is always a crap shoot.  There is always a temptation to convert straight over from the original, without considering the change in difficulty from older editions of the game to the new.  Right now I’m in the early conversion stages (having converted over the Village of Homlett) with a tentative readiness to recalibrate everything after the first TPK. The problem for me is that 5th Edition is so new, and my experience with it so limited (Beginner Box and a couple of Adventurer’s League mods) that am not sure how powerful I can anticipate the players will be.  I know that in the Beginner Box, they took on and defeated a monster or two that I would never have thought possible at that level in any other edition.  5th Edition has a way of letting half the party get knocked to negatives in any combat but suddenly be all up and triumphant by the end.  It’s really confusing to plan around for a conversion and CR’s seem almost irrelevant.  So far, I’m doing a straight conversion to what’s in the monster manual and waiting to see what happens.  I anticipate things are going to become unhinged when they walk into their first room full of bugbears, as apparently 5E thinks very highly of bugbears.  Very highly.  But Temple was tough, and characters died. And that’s something that’s been missing from games for me lately… I’m a little worried death won’t even be a concern in 5th edition, but the Temple always seems to come through in that department, so for now I’m relaxing and seeing what happens.

There are a number of encounters that I look forward to running that genuinely kicked the crap out of my characters every time we went through them, and I’m sure the first encounter most people remember from this series is the most deadly.  I remember our cleric casting his two healing spells and limping back to town and sleeping for three days . Strange though it may sound, it’s exactly that kind of experience I want my players to have…  Not the hopeless slaughter but the challenge and the peril and the overcoming of incredible obstacles.  I want them to never think about a giant tick as being something to sneeze at.  I want them to start carving up the bellies of each monster they find in the hope that there is hidden loot inside.  I want the citizens of Homlett to come alive and become single name icons for a type of character or personality trait (‘Stop being such an Elmo’). Some of the oddball characters that can rise to the fore in a game like this can be surprising.  A few bad guys became good guys in our campaign, and a few good guys became bad guys in others.  Some nobodies became demi-gods (Gwyneth Lilburne, the Silver Stitch; Black Jay, the Patron Saint of Gnollish worship of St. Cuthbert….. yeah, that). I want it to breathe for them the way it breathes for me.

The thing about Temple of Elemental Evil is it is largely a sandbox.  After playing Paizo’s adventure paths for years, it’s refreshing to play a sandbox game where you can really open up options to the players.  I was surprised and amused when one player expressed slight concern that it was ‘too sandboxy’.  I was puzzled that it could be a downside, but I think that kind of freedom can be a little daunting when you’re not used to it.  I think after getting  a taste of it, people are going to wonder why they ever did it any other way.

However, I will say that I have a few fears and reservations.  Going back over the module and reading the campy box text about seeking fame and fortune, I noticed that a lot of the memories that were in this mod were placed there by great GM’s and great players.  Many towns folk are just named ‘Farmer’ and ‘Wainright’.  Much of the rich story has been added in my brain, and the justifications elaborated on to the point where memory greatly surpasses the actual published text.  What if you can’t go home again? What if you can’t go back to Homlett? There’s a legitimate fear there, that maybe this module doesn’t stand up to the test of time, that others might not appreciate it for what it is.  Maybe my low standards and youthful enthusiasm made up for a lot of shortcomings that my older self won’t enjoy.  My feeling is it will prove itself, but there is that fear.

The Good Ol’ Moathouse

Wizard’s announcement that the Temple of Elemental Evil was going to be a feature of this season’s campaign theme strikes me both as a sign of the merits of this series and also as a maybe an unwelcome travelling companion on this journey.  If they redo it, what will it be like?  Will it distract from, enhance, mitigate or overdevelop elements of my story, the old module, the known universe?  Will it be set in my beloved Greyhawk? What will it do?

Temple has been a known quantity for over 20 years.  Changing the mythos tempts fate.  Maybe they do it right, maybe not.  My understanding is that the new material is different than the Temple itelf  Maybe that falls in line… complimenting, not changing.

While this blog post is about the why of starting up Temple, future ones will be the how.  Look back for conversion tips from the Village of Homlett under the category Elemental Evil.  I’d post more now but Wednesday, we head for the Moathouse!

Dungeons and Donations

December 8, 2014 Comments off

This post, brought to you by Guest Blogger, and resident gamer girl, Brett!

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Greetings Gamers!
Would you like to give back a little this Holiday season? Pay it forward? Do the right thing? Milk of human kindness and all that stuff! It’s called DUNGEONS & DONATIONS!

Our local Gaming establishment – The Wyvern’s Tale, is having a 24 hour Pen and Paper Game-a-Thon for the Children’s Miracle Network! HERE’S THE BLURB!

 
The evil lich Acererak has kidnapped the children of Greyhawk, and holds them hostage within his Tomb of Horrors! Heroes throughout the land journey to their rescue–will you answer the call?

 
We’ll be running a 24-hour live Twitch stream of heroes trekking through the classic deadly adventure module Tomb of Horrors! $5 gets you a seat at the table, but how long can you hold it? If the perils of the Tomb prove too lethal for your character, you’ll have to pay to keep your seat–or yield to the next player in line!

 
Spectators will have the option to donate various amounts to help or hinder the party on their path. Will you give them the boon of a much-needed potion of healing–or would you rather send them a Beholder instead?

 
ALL money raised will go to Extra Life, benefiting Children’s Miracle Network! Come join us for 24 hours of perilous (and charitable) fun! Our Extra Life page is here

 
As a personal note, I’ve contributed to several Extra Life 24 hour game-a-paloozas, hosted by TheZestyMan and emilieraptor on Twitch. I’ve even been in a few of them, though never hosted one myself. If you have a tiny bit of tech savvy and are willing, it’s a great way to help out the Children’s Miracle Network.

 
You don’t have to watch all 24 hours, but checking in every now-and-again to see how your favorite heroes are doing is a lot of fun!
p.s. – The Twitch app for Android works pretty well. (Editor’s note: and iOS!)

Home or Away: Pondering the Prudence of Published Adventures

June 9, 2014 Comments off

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I debate the owners of our FLGS, The Wyvern’s Tale, as to what is valuable in gaming as a player all the time.  I believe that gaming is best experienced when it comes in the context of a shared experience with as large of a group of people as possible.  That doesn’t mean that you have a table with 15 players, but I appreciate published material, and completing published material.  Declan, the Shop owner, has the opposite opinion: that material generated by the GM has the capability of addressing the players more individually and is therefore more enjoyable and valuable to the player and GM.

You probably have an immediate feeling about this debate and where you stand on the issue.  Let me justify my point of view, and I’ll play devil’s advocate and take Declan’s side too.

The Published Scenario (or Modules, as us Grognards would call them): The Shared Human Experience

Everyone who has gamed for any period of time has at least one or two crazy stories regarding how things went down in a game.  When I went to my first GenCon, I remember talking with different people about Temple of Elemental Evil and how their character handled this or that challenge, and comparing notes.  It was fascinating to me how our experiences were diverse, but also held commonalities. Gamers could relate to those shared experiences, with little additional explanation, and find them personally relevant  It was back then that I realized that there was a lot of value to the published scenarios my group had played over the vast amount of homespun that we had undertaken.

Additionally, there was a certain sense of accomplishment in completing a published scenario — like reading a book or finishing a TV series or the like.  Knowing that you have “done” the module or adventure path is checking something off a list and closing a door on it, but in a way that provides a sense of completion rather than like losing a friend.  We’ve started printing up patches in our group when we finish Paizo’s Adventure Paths, suitable for stitching on your game bag, like a passport or luggage sticker.

And of course, there is some minimal level of quality that goes into a module or scenario that at least ensures that a story is being told, and hopefully makes enough sense for someone to publish it.  While many a wiseass is warming up his keyboard at this statement with choice examples of shite publishing, you have never played ‘homespun’ games with my buddies from high school, where a whole afternoon may have been wasted with what was, in essence, gibberings of madmen.  If it’s published, someone took a few minutes to write it down, which is at the very least an advantage over the things pouring out of someone’s head that may or may not make any sense.  And less cynically, there are some great stories that change and develop published game worlds and illuminate the reader and player as to mysteries of that game world (Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk is a real eye-opener, explaining many of Greyhawk’s mysteries and being a fine adventure revisiting the original Greyhawk Ruins Module, if you get the chance).

Shared experiences in known worlds, telling stories that can be related to friends and gaming colleagues, providing a sense of accomplishment.  This is the merit of playing published material.

The Original Home Game: The Personal Touch

For years I only played games out of my head, with very little published material. I hated published worlds like Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, in fact, not liking to have to conform to their ideas of what D&D was (note, I am a big fan, nowadays, but back then, wouldn’t touch them).  My own world was a soup of the deities listed in the Deities and Demigods book, coupled with a few of my own.  While sort of a mess, everyone seemed to love what we were doing (though we were much younger then and may have had lower expectations).  Still, the merits behind the Homespun game remain.

Complete Freedom to create, and complete ability to adapt are the primary advantages of the homemade game.  From single scenario to long running Campaign, the GM can craft a story that embraces each players viewpoint and storyline, and build a story around that character and what the character and player want to see happen.  The story can be played out in any which way they prefer, and the unpredictability of player and character can be fully expressed without fear of ‘walking off the map’ or the GM’s overzealous railroading.  Ideally, anyway.

Making a game personal and relevant is one of the best ways to make that game memorable.  While the details may not be something that can be shared with outsiders, sharing is overrated.  How many times have you been cornered by a guy in a game story who wants to tell you about his character for 20 minutes?  See?  Not so great, is it?  What matters is that the player experience is meaningful to them while playing.  The camaraderie at the table is given higher value under this approach, as it should be.

Published Scenarios often tend to be repetitive, lackluster or just endlessly ponderous. The limitations of forcing someone back on track rather than letting them explore the world freely takes away one of the greatest aspects of table top gaming which is the ability to improvise and make decisions that fall outside of the preconfigured parameters of the game. It’s the primary advantage RPG’s have over a video game — Go anywhere, do anything.

Invention, improvisation, and personalized story telling are the greatest assets of the Homespun Game.

The Truth of it?

Surely, somewhere in between is where we have to find the middle ground that exemplifies the sweet spot in gaming.  A published module or adventure path, without personalization, can become dull and drag on (especially since it often takes a year to finish one).  A great GM takes published material and adapts it to his own use.  He inserts side quests and adds in NPC’s that make the story personal, and acknowledges each players desire to see their story told and their needs addressed so that they are made whole and come to life.  Great GM’s are not afraid to go off script, to turn the game on it’s ear, or even to walk away from the plot line entirely if players want to go in a different direction.  Guiding them back into the story or adapting the story to make it work with their new chosen path is where the GM’s craft really comes in.

It’s a fine art.  And even after playing and running for nearly 30 years, it’s one I still struggle to find.  But we have a lot of fun trying, and in the end, that’s the only thing that matters.

I’d like to hear your opinions… What do you think?  And what shared experiences have you had with other gamers that showed you a new approach to the same problem?