The battle of Took’s Farm

I’ve been following the ‘Old school wargaming’ Yahoo group for a while and although they mostly stick to more traditional wargaming fare — Napoleonics and WWII and that sort of thing — once in a while I see some interesting ancient, medieval, and fantasy stuff.  Recently someone posted a link to their blog, with photos and some details of a game run using 1976 Mythical Earth minis (a line of Middle Earth style figures produced by Minifigs that just barely avoided blatant use of words that would incite the Tolkien estate).  Check out the vintage fantasy goodness here. (The rules mentioned, also circa 1976, are presumably unpublished house rules from the period.)

Published in: on December 31, 2012 at 3:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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Here’s a little nugget I stumbled across in a book on wargames. Georg Leopold von Reiswitz, the man who made the original wargame table for Friedrich Wilhelm III, and who also developed the rules in concert with other military staff.  He committed suicide for professional reasons* and his son later developed the rules further.  Anyway the interesting thing is:

A year after his death [i.e., 1828], a supplement** appeared that built on Reiswitz’s war game instruction manual without a single mention of it or him. Among the innovations of the supplement were the exceptional roll of the dice and an emergency die. If an improbable exceptional roll succeeded, the emergency die decided whether the exception took effect.  Because if the point was “not to exclude any case that is possible in war, even so improbable a case, the game must also permit exceptions to the rule that must, however, have their own rules in turn.”–War games : a history of war on paper / Philipp von Hilgers; translated by Ross Benjamin.  MIT Press, c2012.

So as early as 1828 game designers had the idea of ‘confirming’ improbable events.  This reminded me of ‘confirming’ criticals in WotC D&D.  I had no idea this rule had such a long pedigree.

Actually, the talk of “exceptions to the rule” “hav[ing] their own rules in turn” is pretty much a thumbnail sketch of 3rd edition as I understand it.  I’m beginning to wonder: is the divide between ‘old school’ and ‘new school’ D&D really a divide between which of the roots of D&D is more important (old school perhaps preferring the free-form Braunstein and new school hearkening back more towards the Prussian Kriegspiel)?  Maybe the influence of MMOs and collectible card games that old school edition warriors bemoan is less essnetial to WotC D&D than the echoes of Kriegspielers…

*That is, not over the game, but because his superiors passed him for promotion and gave him crummy assignments.  I will try to use the phrase “committed suicide for professional reasons” more though, it makes me smile.

**The anonymous supplement mentioned is cited as: “Supplement zu den bisherigen Kriegspiel-Regeln.” Zeitschrift für Kunst, Wissenschaft, und Geschichte des Krieges 13(4): 68-105. 1828.

Published in: on December 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm  Comments (5)  
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Old School Fantasy Miniatures apa Journal #1 on eBay

Only 25 copies of the first issue of the OSFMapa journal were printed — copies for contributors, a few copies for featured guests/interviewees, a couple of review copies, and few more reserved for sale.  Three copies were ‘lost’ in Customs but might resurface.  There have been a number of requests to buy a copy of the journal, but we had only one left over to sell to raise money for the APA (amateur press alliance), and so it was placed on eBay by our Central Mailer/editor Scott B.   You can gawk or bid here.  A few pages are scanned at the auction site too so even if you don’t bid, you can check out the auction to get a glimpse of the strange miniatures of Dean Carline and some figures painted back in the 1970s by artist Robin Wood!

(Yes, I wrote one of the articles in this journal; no, I am not profiting from this auction.)

Published in: on May 3, 2012 at 6:12 am  Leave a Comment  
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Marathon man

Here’s a film story I heard (& I think it’s probably apocryphal) which also seems, to me, applicable to RPGs.

During the filming of Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman stayed awake 24 hours straight and ran and ran and ran to be out of breath for certain scenes that take place during and after an epic running scene.  His costar Lawrence Olivier asked him what he was doing.  Hoffman said he wanted to be exhausted for the scene.  Olivier supposedly said, “Why don’t you try acting?”

This kind of sums up the communication breakdown in new school/old school edition war (which I sometimes fan the flames of here, being irascible myself).  The old schoolers are more like Olivier, I think.  For them, everything that happens in the game (characterization, awesome stunts, etc.) can be achieved by playing your character.  You don’t need something on your sheet to let you swing on a chandelier or whatever.  You don’t need five pages of character background and hooks to feed your GM.  You just play.

The new schoolers are more like Hoffman.  They want to prepare before the game (“building” a character, writing up goals and motivations, etc.) and want something in the game to specifically enable the awesome stuff they want to do.  Hoffman runs and runs to get sweaty and out of breath, so his character will be convincingly out of breath.  New schoolers want a  list of feats and a complement of combat options so they don’t “have to do the same thing over and over.” (OK, maybe the analogy is breaking down here.  But my idea is something like this: Hoffman wants his performance to be convincing, so he wants real beads of sweat … new schoolers want the results of their actions to be predictable, so they want skills and feats etc. written down on their sheets… capiche?)

Doesn’t mean either is a bad actor.

Published in: on December 4, 2011 at 8:00 am  Comments (11)  
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Old school wargaming

To a roleplaying game enthusiast, pretty much any wargame must look sort of “old school”.  But apparently there has been an old school revival among war gamers too!  If you follow that link you’ll see they are just as loosely defined as old school role-players.  The definition seems to encompass both the vintage “flats” miniatures that were popular fifty years ago (or actually: the only thing available) and the particular rules written by early luminaries in the hobby, from H.G. Wells’ Little wars to the Charge! rules written just 40 years ago by Peter Young.

Another interesting thing is that the author at the above link says that Old School Wargaming (OSW) is a reaction against both the increasing complexity of new rules sets and the bickering that goes on among the partisans of them.

Left to my own devices I prefer DBA (De Bellis Antiquitatus) and HOTT (Hordes of the Things).  Both are “old school” in the sense that they are very rules-light. HOTT is also old-school in the sense that it is very open to customization, as the “army lists” are all just suggestions and the only restrictions on a player’s choices are a few limits placed on how many of the most expensive/powerful units one can field.  Best of all, HOTT is still a free PDF online until until it goes back in print.  Check it out — it is a simple, elegant, and very fun set.  DBA version 2.2 is also posted freely, with permission granted to download and print one copy for personal use, at the DBA Yahoo group (you need to join to get at it!)  The “new” DBA 3.0 is expected later this year. The changes among the various “editions” are pretty minor. 

Anyway there is also a Yahoo group for Old School Wargaming which I just joined and from what i’ve seen so far, they are equally interested in preserving the past and forging ahead.  They also been around for quite a while (longer than the D&D old school revival anyway) and it looks like they had their own “one page” contest back in 2005, where members created one page rules sets for wargames!  That is incredibly cool. I have not had a chance to look at anthing in detail but I’ll probably report back on this eventually.

Published in: on June 21, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (8)  
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Old school figures part three: some sculptors

Some sculptors have blogs, fan sites or shrines. Others seem to have moved on to other fields or gone into more mainstream art (Andy Chernak and John Dennett of Grenadier both do mainstream pewter sculptures now, from what I can tell, Dennett perhaps being more into large resin kits). An occasional project of mine has been to try to gather information on the sculptors I knew about back in what I still think of as a golden age of minis, the late 70s- through the 1980s. Of course there are some absolutely awesome companies and sculptors who came later but the old stuff is what appeals to me the most.

I’ll revise and repost this, or add posts, as I gather more info.

  • Tom Meier, the wunderkind of Ral Partha, has a blog here, and his own company. Lately he’s been working on some great stuff, including a line of minis inspired by his kids.
  • Max Carr of Heritage. (Any relation to Mike Carr of TSR?) All a quick Google picked up was this, and also possibly this, but I can’t be sure that the second is the same guy, although he is listed as a ‘dungeon master’ among other things. I guess this one will takemore than just Googling. But there is always the Heritage models yahoo groups which are frequented by some former Heritage staff who will likely have more info. <update: Max Carr has started a new minis company, Barony Miniatures, which has some cool medievals along with his own rules sets. >
  • Nick Lund, who ran Chronicle Miniatures (until bought out by Citadel) and also worked for Grenadier UK, writing the Fantasy Warriors rules and also sculpting most of the miniatures for the Fantasy Warriors line. I understand there was some bad blood when Grenadier folded.
  • Julie Guthrie does not seem to have a web site. I think she worked for Ral Partha before joining Grenadier in 1987 or so. Last I heard she is still going to conventions and sculpting minis (I believe she works mostly for Reaper nowadays).  MegaMinis is still casting a lot of her old Grenadier sculpts.  They were not my favorites (very shallow detailing) but I have a number of them.
  • Sandra Garrity has a nice interview here which includes her contact info.

This leaves out too many others, still…Mark Copplestone, the Citadel staff, and more.  Please feel free to drop a comment especially if you have links or contact info for the sculptors that worked for Heritage, Grenadier, Ral Partha, and the other companies from the old days.

Published in: on March 1, 2011 at 9:00 pm  Comments (9)  

Phraints in the pants: The OSR & “originality”

People with more time to think and write about this than me have already raised good points in the discussion about whether the OSR is stagnating because everything is so alike or whatever. You say “retread,” I say “let a million flowers bloom.”  I love reading about all the different things people are doing in their campaigns, from Jeff Rients’ “Surfeit of eels” to Planet Algol.  Retreads?  Whatever.

Not enough attention is being paid to some of the seriously innovative (and still Old School in all the right ways) stuff Scottsz is doing at The Sorcerers  of Doom.  Scott’s taking the four page rules for DM-less dungeoneering published by Heritage USA (a long defunct miniatures company) and making them into a cool as hell game.  It’s not exactly a RPG but it isn’t meant to be.  Here’s the mission statement:

Project Mission

Beginning with old Heritage Dungeon Dwellers rules, Sorcerers of Doom expands the game to be: 

1. A fun solo experience enhanced by more players.

2. A useful fast testing tool for RPG adventure writing.

3. An exploration of the middle ground between board games and role playing games.

4. A method of transitioning young people from board games to role playing games.

I can’t thank Scott enough for taking up this project and sticking with it (it’s been a lot more than year in the making…this is his third blog on it, in fact).
I’m doing the full-blown D&D thing right now but I love a beer & pretzels dungeon crawl.  Some time when I don’t feel DMing or we can’t “reach a quorum” to play I should break out the Cavern of Doom.
Anyway sorry about the post title…I came up with it when I was thinking it was “phrants” in Arduin but it’s “phraints.”
Published in: on January 9, 2011 at 12:39 am  Comments (7)  
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Scary, kids!

GURPS Horror, one of the early GURPS sourcebooks, has a mechanic called the “Fright check” that GMs can use to sort of enforce fear on characters. The way it works, as far as I can remember, is you see/hear/feel something scary and roll against Intelligence (plus/minus modifiers if you have advantages/disadvantages that are relevant, such as a phobia). If you fail the roll, the amount you miss by causes some involuntary reaction, ranging from screaming to fainting to puking. At the time I first saw this I thought it was pretty clever but after while it dawned on me, probably while discussing it with my brother, who has DMed D&D and GURPS and everything in between, that this is kind of a crappy idea.

It’s all right for simulating fear in the character, but does it really do anything to create fear or horror in the game, particularly for the player? Maybe a little. I guess knowing your PC might faint when the werewolf shows up creates some tension, although munchkiny selection of ads/disads might reduce or even prevent failed Fright Checks. This is probably symptomatic of something in game design which I’d need to think about more, but my sense is that there has been a long tradition of inserting rules to create effects that a good GM (and players) can probably create with story telling and immersion in the game. The most obvious contrast for me is what makes the undead scary in D&D. (Note: I’ve only played in about one session of a Ravenloft game, back in the 2e days, so I don’t know if there was a similar mechanic to a “Fright check” there but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t!)

Anyway, what makes the undead scary in D&D? Why do players actually get a little scared when a mummy or wight pops out of a coffin, or a band of ghouls drop down from the ceiling? I think the obvious answer is the fact that from the earliest incarnations, D&D provided undead monsters with some seriously character-wrecking powers. Paralysis (ghouls, thouls, & ghasts), retching (ghasts), aging (ghosts), save-or-die (banshees), tomb rot (mummies), and the ever popular energy drain (wights, wraiths, specters, and vampires). Most of these have permanent consequences, or are life threatening, and your precious PC may even rise as an undead monster afterward. The horror!

I wish I’d played more Call of Cthulhu so I could comment on how fear is generated in that game, but I think, at least in the first edition which I played a little, the main mechanism was loss of Sanity points, which to my mind is more like the D&D way than the GURPS way — a potentially permanent, character-wrecking mechanic that players should fear. So I guess the basic difference is you can simulate fear in characters, or actually instill some fear in the players. I’m not saying it’s got to be one or the other, but I am seriously impressed with how the D&D mechanics managed to have the consequence (intentional or not) of making the undead truly scary.

In all fairness to GURPS, the Horror book also gives a lot of good advice on creating atmosphere and scaring the players too, and I should say that after D&D, GURPS is by far my favorite RPG.  GURPS gets a lot of things right.

Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 6:00 am  Comments (4)  
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C&C session report: September 16, 2010

Sometimes the dicegods shit all over you.

It wasn’t quite that bad last night, but there were tons of problems outside the game. On my drive home it was raining torrentially, making me take an extra 45 minutes to get home, so the DM & one player were waiting in my driveway. Another player couldn’t make it*, as we changed the game night at the last minute due to the DM’s work load. When we were finally ready to begin, I got a call from my wife asking me to pick up my daughter from the babysitter’s. It didn’t register to me that they weren’t home when I got there, as she often takes Riley to a playdate or something on D&D night! And I had just picked up a piece of pizza…

So we didn’t really start playing until 8 PM, and being short our cleric we decided to recruit another NPC meatshield, and then had to decide whether or not to allow an NPC Lawful Evil assassin to join the party. (It sounds pretty stupid but we did. Hey, we needed a thief! Also, we had information that he was honorable and, the paladin thought, redeemable.)

We had decided last session to bring the fight to one of the (many) big baddies in the campaign, the Goblin King. But to get there we needed to cross a large prarie held by Gleep Wurp, the beholder/mage we’d tangled with before.


  • A wandering hill giant tried to carry off one of the party’s horses (we are now up to 10 characters, even though there are only four players, and we have quite the managerie: 19 light and one heavy warhorse, a pack mule, and a wagon drawn by two more mules)
  • the next day on the prairie we were attacked by wave after wave of Gas Spores. These bastards were also rigged to spy for Gleep Wurp, which would lead to trouble. I think this is the first time I ever fought Gas Spores, but I knew they couldn’t be beholders as two appeared the first time.

  • deciding that the wagon was slowing us down too much, and an NPC’s concern about the amount of poison known to be used by the guards of the dwarven mine we plan to use to sneak into the Goblin King’s castle, made us decide to turn back
  • our way was blocked by 20 heavily armed and armored hobgoblins led by a witch. We rode around them rather than fight
  • My illusionist had to sneak into the town (under guard by more hobgoblins, alerted by Gleep Wurp) to get antivenom and torches (we need a piquet of torches to see the gas posres, which seem to infest the prairie and are active both night and day
  • We finally ditch the wagon and head out with the torches on horseback, determined to outrun any pursuers

That was about five or six Gas Spore encounters, a Hill Giant, and two more hobgoblin encounters, all finished in two hours with plenty of time to roleplay recruitment of NPCs and debate torching the whole damn the prairie, which was tall and dry in the late summer (our druid wouldn’t have it). I’m glad we are playing something rules light! I doubt we’d get through a couple encounters in two hours in later editions of D&D….

<I will try to stage & post some pictures later, but may not have time since we’re camping this weekend!>

*No doubt the source of all the bad karma! I rather cavalierly insisted on gaming without him rather than wait until next week!

Published in: on September 17, 2010 at 1:58 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Dungeon Alphabet and Exquisite Corpses, as reviewed by my 5 year old

The Dungeon alphabet, by Michael Curtis.

“I don’t like the pictures of being mean. Fighting is being mean.”  So the awesome endpaper illustration by Peter Mullen and many of the interior pictures are out.

But she did like:

1) this guy of the cover:

2) the troll hiding in the mushrooms in the C is for caves illustration

3) the flowers in the W is for weird illustration

4) the N is for No stone left unturned illustration

5) the slimes in the O is for Ooze illustration and on the other Peter Mullen panoramic illustration

Exquisite corpses, by Steven Poag.

I was thinking this would go over a little better, because she loves a similar board book that has a bunch of faces you can change by flipping different tops, middles, and bottoms.  She liked a lot of the illustrations here.  She enjoyed flipping through them and laughed at almost every combination.  She particularly liked Horse-head, the centaur with a horses’ head.

Buy both of these immediately.

My review is that each of these books are astonishing examples of the kind of stuff you can see thanks to the “Old School Renaissance.”  I understand The Dungeon alphabet grew out of some posts on the blog The society of Torch, Pole, and Rope. As a concept it is ingenious; the finished product with illustrations by talents like Erol Otus and Pete Muller is beautiful.   If you don’t know this book it has a series of short essays, usually with a selection of tables, each on some aspect of dungeon design.  It is offered both as a guide to newbies and as a tonic to the jaded souls of experienced DMs.  It is definitely inspirational.  The first printing sold out.  A second printing is now on sale.

Exquisite corpses is a labor of love by Steven Poag. It is a sort of monster-construction manual  rather than a monster manual.  You have to cut about 2/3 of the pages into three strips to accomplish the flip-book effect.  There are 26 monster types (including a brain-headed alien, Lovecraftean horrors, leeches and snakes, etc.) which can be swapped around.  Many of the monsters are interesting as presented but mixing and match makes all kind of unusual chimeras.  The interior illustration is sort of comix/underground cartooning with a ton of character.  It is hard to compare it to anything else, which makes me think it is really good.  You can see the cover, a painting.  The text explains the dadaist game which the title refers to, and then how to use the book.  It is pretty fun.  The illustrations are badass, and the idea as a sort of artist’s book is very cool.  It really needs to be published on heavy, glossy stock.  (I printed my own from the pdf, which was free download for a while, but I’m not too happy with the “Office store” spiral binding; I can’t say how well Lulu handles this.)

You should buy both books if have any interest in awesome black and white illustration, D&D, or both.

Published in: on May 16, 2010 at 4:51 am  Comments (4)  
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