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Published in: on November 17, 2016 at 7:38 pm  Comments (3)  
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False advertising

DMGR1/2112. The Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide.

This is actually a pretty good reference book for DMs. There is general advice on designing dungeons and indoor environments, and lots of stuff about running a game — practical table-manners type stuff, managing players, DMing style, all that. World-building and mapping and even suggestions on the hows and whys of in-game dungeon construction. It’s co-written by Janelle Jaquay, an icon of early D&D. So it has to be good, right?

It’s a little unusual for a 2e splatbook, in that some of the art is pretty bloody (pages 9, 33, and to a lesser degree 89), and there seem to be a couple of half-orcs among the PCs in various illustrations (pages 11 & 96 — though the guy on page 96 could be full orc).

There are great sample maps of various structures and environments that you might run as “dungeons” (understood here in the most basic sense as an boundaried adventuring environment, limiting where you can go). A pyramid, caverns, a temple, that sort of thing. All done in Sutherland’s neat perspective mapping that he pioneered in the 1e “Survival Guides”.

But you what it hasn’t got? Catacombs. Nothing about them. Nada. The biggest word on the cover & title page, and as far as I can tell the word doesn’t even turn up in the text. Disappointing. That’s OK though; I have something in the works that will cover catacombs.

The other odd thing about this one is the annoying illustrations of a nerdy DM and his gaming group, which is so mocking as to be unsympathetic. It’s supposed to be comical but really comes off as pretty contemptuous.

I haven’t read any of the later editions’ Dungeon Master Guides so I can’t say how much of this was carried over to them — honestly I haven’t even read the 2e DMG in years so I don’t know if this redundant to stuff in there. It does give a very concise set of guidelines that you can use in any game, so it’s worth checking out for that and for the handful of maps in the back. For as much I hated most of the brown splatbooks of character options back in the day, this blue splatbook is surprisingly good.

 

 

 

Published in: on July 6, 2015 at 2:43 pm  Comments (2)  
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Random plots

I saw this web site, “The story starter,” recently — it was highlighted in a blog about writers. It just generates randomized sentences, and they are kind of goofy. Some examples:

The absent-minded dentist dialed the cell phone in Fort Knox on Wednesday for the Russians.

The religious trivia whiz jumped near the hidden room during the heatwave to clear the record.

The smart diamond cutter spoiled the joke near the huge truck four days ago to cover things up.

There is something to be said for specificity, but with so many random clauses, there’s almost too much to incorporate.

But the “junior” version is pretty cool. The prompts it generates are much simpler, and more evocative because of that.  Here are some examples:

The flower grower was following a treasure map near the volcano.

The fisherman was looking for clues on the moon.

The writer was crying near the lake.

See? There’s a lot less to go on, but for me anyway that gives the imagination more of a spur. Why is the writer crying, and why at the lake? is an interesting question that allows the story be sad, scary, funny, or whatever; the adult version sentences, being more detailed, seem to have fewer possibilities.

Naturally my thoughts also turned to using these sorts of things for quick adventure prompts for D&D. I started looking around for other story prompts or plot generators and was surprised at how many there are.

I particularly like a fairytale plot generator here and a fantasy plot generator at the same site. Actually I pretty much stopped looking once I got to that site. There is a full list of its plot-generators here. If you happen to roll up an interesting one, why not leave it in a comment here?

Published in: on May 25, 2015 at 9:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Not with a bang, but a whimper

That’s the way my campaigns end. That’s the way my campaigns end. That’s the way my campaigns end.

So I’ve noticed that of the campaigns I’ve run, they tend to end with a nod and wink and “this a hiatus, not the end” but whatever my intention might be, they don’t re-start. Both times it was more DM fatigue than anything else, and DM fatigue has also killed a lot of campaigns I’ve played in. But I’ve also played in way too many campaigns that ended because several players had real life/responsibilities overtake their ability or desire to play. Sadly, I am pretty sure I have never seen a campaign actually play through to a conclusion, or end game, or PC retirement. Well, there was one fairly short but epic campaign, now that I think of it, which I think ran over a winter break from college, had about 13 players, and ended with a massive battle involving several hundred minis and the PCs…though honestly I am not 100% sure that we finished the battle before fatigue overtook us. It was a chaotic, short-lived, and awesome campaign. Come to think of it, there have been a few campaigns that just ended with a TPK, and usually the players or the DM or more likely both were just done with the game for whatever reason.* Still, the vast majority just end with tons of loose threads.

Now I’m not necessarily complaining about stopping in media res. There is actually something satisfying about feeling like we’ve told part of a story, but the adventures might continue in Meinong’s Jungle.

But, I do wonder what it would be like to play a campaign all the way through. I am thinking the next campaign I run should take the end game into account more explicitly. I absolutely hate “budgeting” XP and loot but maybe that’s the secret.

 

 

**************************************

*Well-deserved TPKs that occur to me now:

  • A 3e game that had been drained of fun for the DM by one surly player’s constant rules-lawyering and min/maxing. (A dwarf cleric, because of course in 3e. But this was compounded by a loss of a player whose character was the reason all the PCs were working together. Actually I still kind of miss that campaign — Warhammer setting, 3e rules.)
  • A 3.5e game that petered out when the DM couldn’t take the players’ collective refusal to follow a railroad track. (The DM simply had his Mary Sues come and fireball us to hell. But we did burn down the town first.)
  • A 4e game where the players’ utter contempt for the system is probably best summarized by the party’s collective name: The Skullfuckers. (Contempt + hubris did us in, in this case — the party split up, some staying behind to loot corpses while others pursued some fleeing monsters, and we all ended up Ettercap food.)
Published in: on January 7, 2015 at 4:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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Help me, OSR Kenobi, you’re my only hope again, or, Once more unto the well…

The good news is that nieces and nephews and my child (ranging from 4th grade to high school) are totally into playing D&D tomorrow after Thanksgiving dinner at Nana’s house, and everyone is staying the night so we could potentially play more than an hour or two if we want. But as usual I’ve dropped the ball on planning anything. I’d like their first game of real D&D to be fun, and a good taste of what the game is about, not least because at least the oldest could probably start a campaign on her own for her friends and I want to set a good example.

I’m kind of thinking there should be:

  • an introductory fight to learn the ropes
  • some exploring
  • at least one trick or trap to overcome
  • at least one more fight they can avoid
  • at least one NPC to talk to
  • a final fight with a boss type

Is there a free starter adventure like that you know of? Maybe a One Page Dungeon, or something like that, not too tied to any system (I am thinking B/X aka “1981 Basic D&D” is the way to go with this). Even a suggestion regarding a trick/trap or NPC would be helpful, since the other stuff is pretty easy to improvise. Thanks in advance!

Published in: on November 26, 2014 at 11:35 am  Comments (10)  
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The Fiend Folio as implied setting

Some time ago, Jeff Rients posted something about running D&D with only the Fiend Folio as the monster manual.  I don’t remember exactly how detailed he got with that, and haven’t been able to find the exact post (this?  or this?) , but since I was looking over the Fiend Folio the other day, I started thinking about what the implied setting of the Fiend Folio might look like.

One thing that might stand out is that there are some knock-offs of standard monsters. Hoar foxes fill the niche of Winter wolves (though they are smaller, fewer HD, and not as evil), for example.

Another thing is that there are many references to standard races and monsters, so really you need to decide whether, say, Flinds require the reintroduction of Gnolls, Nilbogs require the presence of Goblins, the Norker entry allows in Hobgoblins, and so on. You could just ignore those references, or you could grandfather in the things that the FF listings assume. Either choice seems legitimate to me.

The first thought I had was how the options for PC races would look. There are no dwarves, no halflings, no elves other than the Drow, and no gnomes other than Svirfneblin. Drow elves do not seem appropriate for PCs due to their evil nature. Both dark elves and deep gnomes have so many inherent powers that you’d need to (ok: I’d want to…) introduce some kind of extra rules to ration them out as they gain levels, and that isn’t appealing to me either.  Lastly, those races are supposed to be enigmatic, barely-known races of the underdark, and having them as PCs would undermine (hah!) any attempt to keep the underworld mysterious, IMO. Githzerai and Githyanki may have become available as player races in 2e/Spelljammer, but they too seem so alien and mysterious they’d be better left as monsters.

If you wanted to allow some of the FF monsters to be player races, there are not a lot of good-aligned humanoids. I think alignment might matter because in AD&D as it stands, the allowed player races were all good-aligned in the Monster Manual — with the exception of half-orcs, who are not given a separate entry in the MM. Come to think of it, though, most of the human listings are neutral, so probably neutrals are ok too.

That leaves us with a few oddball humanoids, like the Aarakocra, which were ported in as player races in the 2e book of humanoids, and are also good-aligned, though their power of flight seems like a potential headache. The Quaggoth could be a neat mock-Mok, for a Thundar inspired campaign. The Qullan, which seem to be a source for the Talislantian Thralls (or at least share a common ancestor), would be ok as a colorful (hah hah!) option, perhaps replacing Half-orcs, and maybe Sulks could replace Halflings.

I’d be tempted to consider Grimlocks as a possible player race too, because although they are evil, there were several attempts to stat them up for players — both a semi-official Dragon article (#265) and a much older zine I no longer have (it was a small fanzine, I gave it away and don’t even recall the title). The idea of blind berserker is just too fun to leave out of your campaign.

One last thing on the player side of world-building is deities and religion. If you stick to the deities presented in the Fiend Folio, you get a very dark fantasy indeed! Lolth, the Elemental Princes of Evil, and two Slaad demigods. Oh, you also get the Aleax, which the gods send to punish you for varying from your stated alignment.  The Death dog, being descended from Cerberus, sort of implies that there could be Greco-Roman gods in the setting (and the Aleax, which also looks fairly Classical era, would be typical of the Greek gods’ screwing over mortals). Because Retrievers were designed by Demogorgon, I guess we have him too. The Sons of Kyuss mention an unnamed evil deity. The Eyes of Fear and Flame were created either by chaotic evil gods to destroy the lawful, or by neutral/lawful gods to test the lawful. The upshot, then, is that you better not look to the gods for hope or help in the Fiend Folio world.  If they notice you at all, it will probably mean they send an Aleax after you, who will fight you and either take half your XP and all your stuff, or if you are lucky, take you out of the campaign for a year and a day. Fortunately, most of the things that look like undead in the book are either not turnable or not really undead, so you won’t miss having a cleric (unless you encounter 4-40 Nilbogs, which can only be hurt by healing spells!).

So I’m getting the sense that this Fiend Folio world is really dark.

Anyway let’s look at the monsters that look like they might be undead.

Crypt thing

Obviously NOT undead

Turnable undead: Apparition, Coffer corpse, Huecuva, Penanggalan (flying head form), Poltergeist, Sheet ghoul, Sheet phantom, Son of Kyuss

Non-turnable undead: Death knight, Penanggalan (human form), Revenant, Skeleton warrior

Not actually undead & non-turnable: Adherer, Crypt thing, Eye of fear and flame, Gambado, Githyanki*, Necropidius, Vision, Yellow musk zombie

*Like the Meazel, the Githyanki are obviously based on the Iron Maiden mascot “Eddy”.

githyanki

Iron Maiden album art from “Somewhere in a dungeon”

githyanki

Githyanki

Only a minority are turnable, and most are turned as wights, wraiths, or specters, so your cleric has little chance.

All those non-turnable undead and pseudo-undead also remind me that the FF is sometimes criticized as consisting of a lot of screw-the-player gimmick monsters.  While there are a good number of gimmicks, you have to admit the Monster Manual has plenty of those too (Ear seekers, Shriekers, Gas spores, Rot grubs, Rust monsters, Yellow mold, Brown mold, and so on and on!).

I guess we should also look at the giants and dragons, as those are staples of fantasy, and I admit they are a little underwhelming. The giants are not bad — at 12 and 14 HD, they are as tough as anything in the Monster Manual, and the Mountain giant certainly looks like a classic storybook giant.  The Fog giant, with his surprise ability, looks deadly, though they should probably have the ability to generate fog too. The dragons, on the other hand, are maybe the weakest thing about the Fiend Folio world.  Instead of being the benevolent spiritual beings of Chinese folklore, or the destructive forces of nature of Western folklore, they seem to be inscrutable spirits of nature — not necessarily hostile, but capricious and dangerous.  Some demand tribute, some accept bribes, but none have much in the way of clear or useful motivation.  They are all shades of neutral, and that makes them seem more like animals than dragons, despite their generally high intelligence. The trolls of the Fiend Folio are all pretty good though — in fact I like them more than standard D&D trolls.  They are certainly more like Norse trolls, and the Ice trolls and Spirit trolls suggest they are more supernatural than standard D&D trolls.

So if I were to describe the world of the Fiend Folio, I think it suggests that monsters tend to be otherworldly — ethereal, elemental, or undead, or else they are beings from the underworld of dungeons and caverns. The animal-type monsters are mostly botched magical experiments like Gorilla-bears, or gigantic vermin like Giant Bats and Giant Hornets, or else super-predators like Babblers.

Babbler

Babbler

The humanoids are often alien (Kuo-toa, Firenewts) though some resemble the primitive or militaristic subhumans we find in the Monster Manual. So, it is certainly recognizable as D&D. It is just a little darker, a little wackier, and maybe a little more dangerous, since there are almost no “standard” low-level monsters that you can just fight (exceptions being things like Xvarts and Norkers, though the Norker’s high armor class makes them a real danger to first level PCs). For example, Quaggoths (HD 1+2) go berserk and fight to negative hp; Qullans (HD 2) have super-sharp swords that score bonuses to hit and damage (but of course the blades quickly lose this property when looted!)

Looking at the dungeon monster tables in the back of the book, all the “weak” monsters are thieves or ambushers like the Jermalaine, Mite, and Snyad. Humanoids like Bullywugs can make three attacks, or have boosted AC like the Norkers.  And that is just the level I monsters.  As you go to higher level charts, it seems that the FF monsters tend to have boosted AC, HD, or other powers, compared to their Monster Manual peers.  However, I have to say that dungeons stocked according to the FF charts would be a lot less predictable than the standard DMG tables.

So — and this looks like my second or third attempt to wrap up, I always sucked at conclusions — so anyway, the Fiend Folio world looks like something it could be pretty fun to run. It would slightly crank up the weird and the deadly, and downplay clerics and demi-humans. The only thing I’d really miss are the original dragons and some of the staple, dare I say iconic monsters like orcs, beholders, and rust monsters.  Instead, we’d have norkers, slaad, and disenchanters. Which is to say, the kid gloves would be off and the difficulty cranked up to Ultraviolence. Sounds like a plan!

C’mon in! The ichor is fine!

Published in: on October 1, 2014 at 8:00 am  Comments (12)  
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The world’s laziest posts, part 1: GIS dungeons

I’m terrible at drawing maps, and designing rational floor plans.  Sometimes I’ll Google image search (GIS) things like crypts or temples, which is always turns up tons of great stuff. Like this Egyptian temple:

Khonsu Temple Floor Plan

and this plan of Olympia:

Or this abbey:

 

But sometihng you might overlook are other types of plans, particularly those for old gardens. If you GIS “garden plans” (or better yet, “historical garden plans” so you don’t get as many modern drawings that are actually illustrations rather than plans).

The garden a the palace of Versailles is particularly vast and you’ll find lots of images like this map:

or this elevation:

Weird symbolic plans can be inspirational too:

Whether you were planning to run it as an outdoor maze or an underground dungeon, the unusual layouts can help break the monotony of halls and rooms.

Limiting your search line drawings or black & white makes even generic searches for “plans” useful.

 

Published in: on September 19, 2014 at 9:01 am  Comments (1)  
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Off the rails in the Undertavern

This weekend I had the rarest of game-related things, now that I’m older: a Saturday night game!  I’m happy with the mid-week campaigns I’ve been playing and running but there is a nice bit of nostalgia when you play on a weekend like a student.  More or less out of the blue, one of my old friends from back in high school suggested getting together for some gaming, so four of us used to be in a gaming circle gathered to reminisce, catch up on our respective stories, and do a little gaming.

I ran a one-page dungeon when I realized, at the last minute, that we hadn’t really talked about who GM or what we’d play.  I ran it in ACKS, my regular group’s current flavor of D&D, and used Telecanter’s “The undertavern”.   (Go ahead and check it out.)  I loved the central idea of a monster chained to a track that limits his mobility, but I had never read it through and unfortunately I realized there is a lot that DM needs to fill in … all the reasons for the bizarre scenery and NPCs.  Why all the blind baby mice? Why the straw dummies and model tavern?  What the hell happened with the beached behemoth?  What the hell is the undersky? (The Word version, also at the link above, is more detailed with NPCs etc. but never answers my questions either.)

If this had been more than a one-shot adventure for us — if I were going to run a campaign with this as an early side-adventure, I might have liked this more.  For one thing, the undersky area would be a neat entrance to a mythic underworld type dungeon.

However, I thought the whole thing was a little unsatisfying as a one-off, and really failed to work as a one-page dungeon, at least for me, since I expect OPDs to save me some time as DM.

The session was fun, despite a number of complications.  Since this was a one-shot, I unabashedly railroaded the party into taking the bait and going under the tavern.  I hate railroading but in the circumstances it was ok.  Another complication was the early PvP conflict, which changed the nature of the adventure considerably, though in a fun direction.  Also, the party was badly mauled by the main monster but managed to defeat it early on, so that the tension of having Gulo chase them did not work out.  In hindsight Twitch might have been a good ersatz pursuer (I should have just made him wear a straw cloak and drag the chain along the tracks to scare the PCs away).  In the event though I used a lot of the victims/prisoners as sources of replacement PCs, and good thing I did — two of the starting PCs had to be replaced early on, and a third replacement was needed a little later.

We certainly had fun, and I’d run the Undertavern again, but only with some careful planning to provide some veneer of explanation as to what all the rat references were about!

Published in: on August 11, 2014 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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One Page Dungeon Contest 2014

The One Page Dungeon contest is, unbelievably, entering its sixth year.  It began with a discussion about how minimal an adventure module could be, and the blogger ChgoWiz created a one-page template. The idea is construct an adventure that could be used on the spur of the moment by a competent DM and which fits — map, key, and anything else — on one side of a sheet of paper.

Honestly I sometimes wonder if the arbitrary limit of one page is really better than, say, a one sheet dungeon, or five pages, etc.  I do appreciate the fact that imposing a form or limit actually fuels creativity, though, and most importantly as a DM I find OPDs to be an incredibly important resource!  Whether I just steal a map, an idea, or use the whole thing, I have often found that a one-page summary of an adventure is a great tool to have on hand for those all-too-common days when you have 30 minutes or less to prepare for the gaming session because of work, family, and other obligations.  They are also great to have on hand for when the players change course unexpectedly, or want to see what’s just off the edge of what you’ve mapped out, and so on.

In 2011 I began “giving back” and I have entered an OPD each year since.  My first entry (“The Belly of the Beast”) actually won a prize, which was nice, as I’d specially created the adventure for the contest, but I was able to use it in play before the contest, and since then I have resisted the temptation to create dungeons especially for the contest. (Honestly, the bar has been set so high for artwork that I am not in the running anyway.) Instead I have been adapting adventure I’ve actually used to the OPD format.  The “Misty Pond” and the “Panopticon of Peril” were both pivotal adventures in my “Telengard” Campaign, and this year’s  entry — “The Pit” — is a site that has seen some use in two campaigns.  So unlike many entries, mine have always been play-tested in some format before the contest.

Though I greatly prefer the traditional “dungeon crawl” OPDs to the more, ahem, clever entries that push the boundaries of what a dungeon is, this year I am trying something a little more ambitious.  The Pit has a very simple map, and almost no pre-established encounters.  Instead, it is more of procedure or framework upon which you could build an extended campaign.  And like my campaign, The Pit is designed to easily accommodate OPDs, improvised dungeons, or entire modules.  Each circle of the open pit mine is themed, like a dungeon level, and the DM can stock it with encounters from the included chart, but it will really come to life if you add on other OPDs.  I’ve selected one OPD from prior years for each circuit of the Pit’s winding path down.   In effect, the “big idea” of my OPD this year is to create an explicit format for what a lot of DMs might already be doing — constructing a megadungeon out of OPDs and other small adventures designed by other people.

Anyway, if I can put together something scanning a markers drawing and using Google Drive to create a PDF document, ANYONE can.  And if you use MS Office or OpenOffice you can use Chgowiz’s templates!  Get on it, there is still time to enter the contest.

<Update — just looked at some of the entries and I am pretty impressed to see a lot of new names as well as some really talented people who have entered before.  FWIW my OPD can be downloaded over on the sidebar under downloads.

I decided to stick with my original, crude drawing which I’d made one night with markers on some funky grid + diagonals graph paper. After messing with Google Drive’s drawing tool for way too long, all managed was this:pitdrawingWhich was basically a trace of the original spiral and a bunch of Telecanter’s awesome, public domain silhouettes replacing my icons.  Pasting them in and shrinking them down in Drive was laborious and slow, so I gave up.>

Published in: on April 17, 2014 at 10:01 pm  Comments (2)  
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Best DM I’ve had

The last question in the challenge is at least a reasonably good one.  It’s pretty easy to answer too — the best DM I’ve had is my brother Tom.

Sure I’m biased but having been a gaming club in college and played some convention games and so on I’d guess I’ve played with at least 20 or 30 different people as DMs (or GMs in non-D&D systems).  Good DMs are few and far between and I could only think of two or three other DMs I’ve thought did a really good job, maybe a handful of competent ones, and the rest were kind of crappy.  Tom stands out for running memorable games — the only campaigns I ever really mourned when they ran out of steam.

He’s always been pretty good at improvising and making up interesting NPCs on the spot.  This has served him well as he avoids railroading and per-conceived plots most of the time.  As far as I can remember he’s never run an “out of the box” campaign and rarely used modules.  Having looked at a lot of the published modules now I think he was right.

What really makes Tom the best DM in my eyes though is the simple fact that he has been able to recruit new players very easily.  Once they play in one of his games they seem to be hooked.  Perhaps the down side to this is that when we were younger, we moved around some and in every gaming group we joined, Tom displaced the old DM.  This may have caused some hard feelings, although it was never an intentional power play.  What would happen was Tom would offer to run a session and nobody wanted to go back to the old DM.  Somehow he’d keep the balance between being adversarial and not challenging enough just right.  We always felt that surviving an adventure was an accomplishment and while we sometimes teased him about being a “killer DM” or bending the rules (one player in particular dubbed him the “freewheeling DM”), he was actually scrupulously fair.  He showed no favoritism, ever — not to me, not to his girlfriend, not to anyone.  He also never “had it in” for any player, and if anything was too charitable to kick unpopular players out.

His only weakness as a DM, in my opinion, is that he rarely keeps a campaign going for very long.  In fact he won’t call his games “campaigns.”  He prefers running low to mid-level adventures and enjoys episodic rather than continuous story lines, so I don’t think he ever really sets out to run a long-term game.  I could probably count the long-term campaigns he’s run on one hand, really, and I don’t think any were in D&D.  Still,  since I have been DMing for a few years in a current group run an ongoing campaign, I hold out hope that at some point he’ll want to DM again and might even try a long-term game for a change.

Published in: on September 30, 2013 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  
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