Monday, August 25, 2014

#10 Favorite Game Fiction - The Maze of Peril #RPGaDAY

Let's face it, most game fiction isn't very good.

Many examples of game fiction tend to break the rules of the game's universe or adhere too closely to the game's format and just end up with mediocre stories. Not every good game designer is a good fiction writer (but many think they are). They often get tangled up in serious, epic, wanna-be Lord of the Rings, everything-depends-on-us quests to save the world and miss out on the fun of adventure gaming. To belabor the famous Joker quote, "Why so serious?"

I've read some of the earliest game fiction novels ever printed. Veteran author Andre Norton's Quag Keep (1978) is notable as a historical, early peek into Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk/The Great Kingdom setting. The sequel, Return to Quag Keep, loses the Greyhawk setting and the small amount of charm the original held.

The oldest game novel I've found is War-Gamers' World (1978) by Hugh Walker (pen name for Hubert Stra├čl). It was first published in German as Reiter der Finsternis (Rider of Darkness) in 1975 and is the first book of the Magira series. It is based on the German fantasy wargame/proto-RPG hybrid Armageddon developed by the gaming group FOLLOW in 1966. Since that time, the setting spawned several RPGs. This first novel opens with a player getting sucked into the game's fantasy world. There are several references to seeing the world as interconnected hexagons. Not recommended except as another historical oddity.

I give a hearty recommendation for my favorite piece of game fiction: The Maze of Peril, a short novel written by the original Basic D&D rules editor, Dr. John Eric Holmes.

SPOILER ALERT: They don't save the world
Contrary to the publisher's blurb. Our heroes don't try to save the world. Boinger the halfling and Zereth the elf are just out to make a buck without having to get a real job. They undertake adventures to make quick cash and live the life of Riley at the Green Dragon Tavern for a few months. When the gold runs thin and the landlord comes a knockin', they undertake another delve into the Underworld to relieve some nasty monsters of their glittering treasures.
Boinger, another party member and Zereth relieving some nasty monster of its glittering treasure (art by Jim Roslof from "The Sorcerer's Jewel")
It is so refreshing to read an adventure story without the gloom and doom of the ultimate destruction of everything good folk hold sacred due to the megalomaniacal plans of some evil Sauron look-alike dark lord. These are two good friends just struggling to get by and maybe, someday, hit it rich. Their camaraderie and their humor really comes through in Holmes' writing. In a good way, it reminds me of the early Star Wars comic books by Marvel. The galaxy was safe from the ultimate apocalypse weapon, the Death Star, and the raised stakes of The Empire Strikes Back hadn't come into play yet. Han, Luke, Leia and their friends were free to adventure and freewheel their way across the galaxy.

Bardan the dwarf's fate (as portrayed by Barely A. Dwarf in "Were-shark," an early version of The Maze of Peril's chapter 2 published as a stand-alone short story, art by Chris Holmes)

Nothing world-shattering is at stake; Boinger &co's quests are of a personal nature. During an early foray into the Underworld, one of the party fighters, Bardan the dwarf, perishes in combat. They bury his body in the cemetary but disturbingly find his grave exhumed and coffin empty a few days later. Boinger implores the party to return to the dungeon to thwart the revenge plans the evil-doers have for his friend's corpse.

The Maze of Peril adventures run the gamut from dungeon delve, urban adventures, bureaucratic red tape cutting, carousing, burglary, back to dungeon delve, Lovecraftian horror and even naval combat. Also, the book features one of the funniest uses of a petrification gaze that I would totally allow to happen if it comes up in a game.


Holmes had several short stories about Boinger, Zereth (a.k.a. Xoreth) and their fellow adventurers published in Dragon magazine and Alarums & Excursions APA-zine. It is no secret that these tales were based on Holmes' home D&D campaign; Boinger was the player character of Chris Holmes, Dr. Holmes' son and occasional illustrator. These stories give us a window into Dr. Holmes' campaign and even how he interpreted certain D&D rules.

One famously unclear rule regards magic-users and their restriction from using armor and swords. In the days of OD&D, even famous, accomplished gamers were unclear on the ruling* and many cried foul against the sword restriction (after all, Gandalf used a sword). What logical reason (besides gameplay balance) could there be for this restriction?

Holmes succinctly gives his reasoning in two sentences. On page 34 of The Maze of Peril, Zereth removes all metal from his body, washes up and puts on a wizard robe before casting a spell. He explains to a confused Boinger that he:

"Can't have iron touching the body anywhere; no iron, even nails in the boot heels. It drains the flow of force from the other world."
No further explanation is required. Boinger asks, "It does? How?" Zereth tells him to, "Keep quiet," and no more is said on the matter.

This prevents magic-users from even wearing leather armor (with iron buckles). Presumably, a wizard's dagger must be made of bronze, silver or another non-ferrous metal. This stems from old folklore about iron's protective properties against magical creatures and has become a modern trope. It fits with Tim Powers' piratey fantasy novel On Stranger Tides (HIGHLY recommended reading) where magic disappears from the world as iron spreads with the advances of western civilization. The faerie-folks' aversion to iron seen in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (also recommended) resonates as well.
Boinger vs. a one-armed troll (art by Chris Holmes from "Trollshead")
This leads to another rule: elves are combination fighters and magic-users and the OD&D rules state they "freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure" (Men & Magic, p. 8). How does that apply to spellcasting and armor/weapon use? Holmes gives another example with Zereth in the short story "Trollshead" in The Dragon magazine #31, p. 41:
"Zereth took off his sword belt and helmet and laid them on the ground... He lay flat on his belly and reached into an inner pocket of his linen tunic to produce a pinch of fine sand. This he tossed into the air, mumbling rapidly as he did so."
To switch from fighter to magic-user, Zereth removes his sword belt and helmet (the only iron on his body) before casting a sleep spell on some unexpecting half-orcs. This goes against his own "elves must decide" ruling in his Basic D&D manuscript that states that elves cannot change in the middle of an adventure. In later stories, such as "The Sorcerer's Jewel"** (Dragon #46), Zereth wears armor while casting spells. It is assumed that Holmes was playing AD&D by this time, which does allow for spellcasting, armored, multiclassed magic-users.

Another question arises: just what are the "dungeons" in the world of Dungeons & Dragons? Why is there a near-endless number of underground labyrinths filled with nasty creatures and fabulous treasures? Zereth ponders the titular maze in The Maze of Peril, p. 3:

"Somewhere beneath the surface of this ancient land the tunnels and corridors of some prehistoric race coiled and raveled, delved, and probed unimaginable depths into the core of the world... What race or races had built the original maze no one knew. It seemed in the opinions of the sages and magicians of the time, that there must have been many layers of dungeons and underworlds laid down, one atop the other, as the world crust was formed, so that now no one knew, or even guessed, how many levels it extended below the surface."

Here, in one (wordy) sentence is the justification for a world of dungeons. It explains just enough to give the game world some logic yet leaves plenty of mystery for players to discover in their journeys into the Underworld. Of course, the truth may be very different from what the sages and magicians assume as fact.

Gary Gygax first hinted at such an Underworld with the D series of modules starting in 1978 (about the time The Maze of Peril was written). Later D&D authors would call this subterranean realm the Underdark and give their own reasons for its existence.
Zereth and Boinger (art by Donna Barr from "In the Bag")

In Conclusion:

The Maze of Peril is my favorite piece of game fiction because it feels most like the D&D games I've played. Rarely did we adventure to save the kingdom/world/multiverse. We were a bunch of friends looking for some excitement and quick cash together. We'd hatch elaborate schemes, find ourselves in deep trouble, then put our heads together to make sure they didn't roll off our shoulders come the dawn. We were comrades, bonded in the face of danger, celebrating each success until wanderlust crept back into our hearts and we were off on another wild quest.

Those are good times, and so is this book.


Watch for Fight On! magazine issue #15 dedicated to J. E. Holmes coming soon! Read my heavily researched character write-ups for Boinger, Zereth and their "pal" Murray the Mage, along with guidelines for iron-restricted spellcasting, in my article, "Holmes Town Heroes."

The 1000 copy print run of The Maze of Peril is getting harder to find, but still available. Check out Holmes' short stories from Dragon magazine:

"Trollshead" The Dragon #31
"The Sorcerer's Jewel" Dragon #46
"In the Bag" Dragon #58

Complete Holmes Bibliography

* UK game designer Ian Livingstone (Games Workshop co-founder, Fighting Fantasy game books co-creator, etc.) erroneously wrote in his 1982 book Dicing with Dragons: An Introduction to Role-Playing Games when explaining D&D classes: "Each class has restrictions as well. For instance, The Magic User may only wear leather armour or no armour at all..."

** Although The Maze of Peril (1986) was published 5 years after "The Sorcerer's Jewel" (1981), we know Maze was completed earlier as Holmes states that it was ready to publish in an L.A. Times interview from 1979.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

#9 Favorite Dice - Random Number Generators of Chaos and Entropy #RPGaDAY

I already wrote about my favorite die and how it started me on the path of gaming over 30 years ago. I use it in a set with some of my other oldest dice when feeling nostalgic (which is often).

But one of my other favorite sets is my Chaos Dice.

Can't you feel the CHAOS!? Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!
Blood red on obsidian black is the perfect color scheme for Servants of Chaos laying waste to all Order in the world. Unfortunately, it is a terrible color scheme to read unless the lighting is really bright. In sub-optimal conditions, I'll use a set with stronger contrast.
I rolled an 8... I think
These are Chessex's old "Arrows of Chaos" dice. I purchased them when they first became available and built the rest of the set from other Chessex dice. They look cool but, like most specialty dice, are a real pain to read. I supplement the set with a brick of smaller, matching d6s with normal pips, perfect for those high-level fireballs (not pictured here because I can't find them... darned entropy!).

Monday, August 18, 2014

#8 Favorite Character - Wonko the Sane #RPGaDAY

My favorite character is my silver-haired, half-elf jester, Wonko the Sane (yes, named after the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy character).
Wonko's main stats

I first rolled Wonko up in November, 1990 - a 1st edition AD&D character using the Jester NPC rules from the pages of Dragon magazine (revised and reprinted in Best of Dragon Vol. IV). When 2nd edition AD&D and the Complete Splat Books were all released, I used the Jester kit rules from The Complete Bard's Handbook. Those rules were notably less silly (no more punfighting).

Wonko playing his electric mandolin, still smiling at only 2 HP
Wonko is a lot of fun to draw, especially with his striped leisure suit jacket, polka-dotted cape and checkered trousers. In the top image, you see Wonko wielding his Short Sword +1/+4 Vs. Reptiles and another strange weapon.  It is a stick with an Odie stuffed animal on one end and a Rug of Smothering with the command word "Don't Make Me Laugh!" on the other. Wonko must need his Buck and a Quarter Quarterstaff weapon proficiency to wield it.

Other unusual supplies on his character sheet include his electric mandolin (see second image), a hanging fern, one can of WD-40, a dust rag and "five belts of priestly origin" that I am assuming came from some Gygaxian adventure.

Lars Leafblower is fed up with Wonko's tomfoolery
Wonko survived to 10th level, annoying a number of nasty bad guys along the way, including Strahd von Zarovich in I6 Ravenloft and whoever was in "A Rose for Talakara" (which I have in my notes as "A Rose for Somebody"). Like most jesters, he had a tendency to annoy his fellow party members as well. In the third image, we see what happens when you push a druid too far.*

Want to a jester in an old-school campaign? This website compiles all the early Jester rules for D&D, including errata and Gary Gygax's musings on the class.

* My friend Duane came up with some of the goofiest character names. In addition to Lars Leafblower he ran another memorable druid: Waz Weedwhacker.

#7 Most "Intellectual" RPG Owned - It's not the game, it's the setting #RPGaDAY

How does one define an "intellectual" game?

I never owned or played Mage: the Ascension, Ars Magica, In Nomine or Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth - all games known for being intellectual or, at least, pretentious.

Call of Cthulhu comes to mind as most player characters are intellectuals: academics, scientists and librarians. However, the game tends to push the characters (and sometimes players) to their emotional breaking points. Close, but it doesn't quite fit.

Jonathan Tweet's Everway system generates random results by interpreting draws from a tarot-like Fortune deck. Players "read" paintings in the game's Vision deck to create their character concepts.This has the potential for the most intellectual title. I'd like to see a game played while touring a museum, always interpreting the next piece of art whenever a random result is needed.

Ultimately, I don't think it is the system that is so intellectual so much as the campaign and setting. For that, I give the "most intellectual" award to a Traveller: 2300 AD inspired campaign played with GURPS rules I played back in 1994.
My character, Tachi, and some photocopied pages from the GURPS Space rule book. Even intellectual game characters need samurai swords.
The GM was an excellent world designer and the campaign made us take a hard look at a possible after-Earth, near-future humanity. There were no extreme technologies like hyperdrives and black hole guns. Most of the human diaspora lived in the colonies of the Moon, Mars, Titan and a few LaGrange Points after a poorly-understood cataclysm left the Earth uninhabitable. Our characters were troubleshooters in the largest human settlement: the interconnected Lunar colonies. The opaque, brown, toxic atmosphere obscuring the Earth above served as an ever-present reminder that mankind may never go home again.

The reason behind the Earth's catastrophe was never important. What we explored and focused on was how humanity and its culture changes moving forward in a post-Terran existence. Different societies perpetuated their respective cultures in pockets divided by their ancestral homelands, like ex-pat communities settling in Chinatowns, Japan Towns and Little Italys of major American cities. Those country origins of yore meant less and less with each generation as the true differences were between so-called Martians, Moonies, Titanians and the others.

For example, my character was Tachi, the tactician and weapons expert of the group and the only Mars native. Growing up in little over 1/3 of Earth's gravity, she was 6 feet tall and somewhat strong for a Martian. Compared to the Lunar natives who grew up in only 1/6 of Earth's gravity, she was very short and brawny! I was the "bruiser" of the party with an 11 Strength.

As someone who loves futurist books like Ben Bova's underappreciated The High Road, this game was easy to get into. The world was exotic yet familiar (bicycle was the common mode of transportation) and altogether plausible. This was a thoughtful campaign still punctuated by scenes of excitement and combat (often instigated by my character, ahem).

It was hard sci-fi at its best and it made us think.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

#6 Favorite RPG Never Get to Play - The Original Edition #RPGaDAY

There are plenty of choices for games that I have played in the past but don't get to play enough - Call of Cthulhu, James Bond 007, West End's Star Wars RPG, Powers & Perils and Gamma World come to mind. There are other games I own that I never played - Dallas ("The Television Role-Playing Game"), Gangbusters, Hawkmoon, Behind Enemy Lines and Boot Hill would all be fun for different reasons.

There is one game I know backwards and forwards, own every rule supplement for, and yet never officially played: the Original Edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

My complete set of OD&D digest-sized rule books
How did this happen? When I started playing in 1982, AD&D 1st ed. was the new hawtness. This edition had already faded into the mythic past like the contents of the Library of Alexandria. I did play nearly every other edition of the game (B/X, BECMI, 1st ed, 2nd ed, 3.0 ed, 3.5 ed).

My first exposure to this edition was a photocopy of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes that somebody gave me in the late 80s. It wasn't the entire book; just the Hyborian and Melnibonean mythos. In the mid 90s, I was blessed with luck and found a near-perfect "white box" OD&D set at a comic book store for $10. I picked up Chainmail from a dealer at the San Diego Comic-Con for $9.95. I assembled the rest of the set piece by piece, finally completing with Swords & Spells (invaluable for its definitions of OD&D spell ranges and durations).

I also have a copy of Tractics, perfect for combining with OD&D into a game of Sturmgeschutz & Sorcery!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

#5 Most old school RPG owned - Older than Braunstein #RPGaDAY

My oldest RPG might be a controversial choice - "Proto RPG" is a better term. This predates 1974's release of Dungeons & Dragons and 1971's Chainmail. It is older than the first Braunstein game played in 1967, direct inspiration for Dave Arneson's Blackmoor.

When this game was released, The Milton Berle Show was still on the air and the Apollo Program was yet to launch its first, fateful mission.

Modern War in Miniature by Michael F. Korns

This is Michael F. Korns' 1966 game Modern War in Miniature (MWIM), probably self-published by Korns and a partner in Kansas under "M & J Research Co." I believe the rules are still available in reprint as part of the book More Wargaming Pioneers from The History of Wargaming Project.

MWIM is an unusual WWII, skirmish-level wargame. As normal, two players act as commanders (one Allied, one Axis), directing their combat units in battle. Miniatures are moved across the terrain on a sand table. What is unusual is that a Judge mediates all actions and is the only one with full access to the sand table. The judge is the only one who needs to know the rules and randomly determines the outcomes of all actions. He talks to the Allied and Axis players individually, out of earshot of each other, describing what they can see and hear in 2-second segments of time. It sort of takes the adversarial roles and judge's mediations of a Braunstein game into short time-span, tactical turns. Everything is on a personal scale making it different from a typical wargame.

Partial example of gameplay
The above example of gameplay shows that the player is expected to embrace their role and step into the boots of the commanding officer. This reads much like samples of gameplay in many RPGs, with the players stating what "I" do in the situation to the GM. Only the adversarial rather than cooperative roles of the players are different.

Note that any TEXT IN ALL-CAPS is said loud enough for both players to hear. "Schmeisser" is used here as a colloquial term for a German MP38 or MP40 sub-machine gun (which always annoyed me since they were designed by Heinrich Vollmer, not Hugo Schmeisser).

How to generate random percentile numbers with d6s
How do you generate random percentile or fractional results without percentile dice? This chart, a subject of discussion on Jon Peterson's Playing at the World blog, shows how to use a 2d6 result for rough percentages. As Peterson mentions, Mike Carr adapted this chart for use in the 1972 edition his game Fight in the Skies (it is titled "Percentage Index" in my 6th edition TSR rules). This shows that the gamers in the Twin Cities of Minnesota were aware of MWIM.

Small Unit Tactical Combat Referee's Rule Book
Modern War in Miniature eventually developed into Small Unit Tactical Combat (SUTC) in 1971. Above, you see my 2nd edition Referee's Rule Book from 1972. Several other SUTC products were released  published by "The Limpex Company" of Mountain View, CA. From what I could gather, Korns lived and gamed there during that time. Coincidentally, I moved to that area in 2005.

A Monster Manual of WWII combat forces
SUTC is very similar to its MWIM predecessor. Gone is the chart of simulating random percentile results with 2d6; now there is a chart of random two-digit numbers for the referee to pick from. It appears that this alternate evolutionary line of gaming died out after SUTC. I can't find any games that Korns published after that.

Was MWIM an influence on Gary Gygax? Probably not for Dungeons & Dragons, but according to Peterson, it did insppire Leon Tucker, Gygax's and Mike Reese's co-designer in the development of Tractics.

Friday, August 15, 2014

#4 Most Recent RPG purchase - 2 of 9 Doctrines of Darkness #RPGaDAY

I've been focused on studying gaming books from the earliest era of role-playing: anything before 1981, by my reckoning. My most recent acquisition was two related adventures published by Dimension Six, Inc.
The Nine Doctrines of Darkness and The Nine Doctrines of Darkness: The Second Adventure were both written by Randy Fraser and published in 1980 and 1981, respectively. These appear to be designer's only contributions to the hobby. I knew of publisher Dimension Six from their marginally useful Compleat Fantasist book of tables to translate characters from one game to another.

Each adventure focuses on recovering one of the nine titular doctrines of darkness, a set of evil artifact tomes detailing the nine principles that uphold all Evil (that's capital-E evil) as written by Lord Erlich, and Evil Arch Mage, before he perished in his final evil destruction brought on by the evil knowledge of perfect evil. Before collapsing evilly onto the floor, he polymorphed each doctrine into an ordinary object and scattered them around the world. Now, the polymorph spells are wearing off and the elf king's favorite wineskin just turned into a powerful, evil grimoire of evil evil evil.

Why a party would undertake these adventures depends on its alignment. Good characters must prevent the Doctrines from falling into the wrong hands. Evil characters are those wrong hands who want to use the powers of the Doctrines. The first adventure plays very differently due to this duality of interests. A non-evil party comes to the elf king's side to help protect him from every evil-doer looking to claim the Doctrine. An evil party assaults the elf king's castle and steal the book for themselves.

These adventures must have been created for evil parties. It is much more fun to assault or infiltrate the good castle than to patrol the forest kingdom fighting random encounters. The second adventure is loaded with awesome magic items that non-evil characters can't touch without, at best, suffering damage. The lone +3 holy sword doesn't compare to the evil staff that shoots 20d6 lightning bolts (among other powers). Good characters can't even destroy the books as, "no efforts either magical or physical can harm the Doctrine in any way."

The first adventure is short, sparsely detailed and luridly illustrated. There are some odd new monsters (Shammy: a red-furred gorilla wielding a huge axe). The second adventure is about thirteen pages longer than the first and includes some decent room illustrations to be shown to the players (much like S1 Tomb of Horrors). In addition to some wilderness adventuring (complete with some decent hooks for further adventuring) it has a thoroughly detailed, three-level temple complex to explore. This is more of a typical dungeon delve. There are some good tricks, traps and challenges but, like many adventures of the day, it misses details that give the temple the feel of a functioning place. For example, there are guard rooms filled with ninja guards (!) and umber hulks (!!) near the front door but nobody is posted to guard duty.

Since only the first two adventures were published, it begs the question, "what happened to the other seven Doctrines of Darkness?" We may never know, but I know that Catacomb Librarian was subjecting his gaming group to these adventures recently. Whatever became of them? Cat. Lib. also found an old review of the first adventure by Aaron Allston (R.I.P.).

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

#3 First RPG Purchased - Holmes Basic blue box on the cheap #RPGaDAY

I first started role-playing when I was nine years old, learning from friends at school and playing with their books. With an allowance limited to less than one dollar per week, I relied on birthday or Christmas gifts for my first RPG books. I could afford to buy a few dice or miniatures for myself but would take all summer to save up for one AD&D hardback manual.

My mother was an antique dealer and visited thrift stores in a hunt for underpriced artifacts to resell in her shop. I was often in tow and would always scour the games, toys and books. It was on one of these trips that I made my first RPG purchase: an unplayed copy of the original 1st edition Basic D&D boxed set edited by Dr. John Eric Holmes.
Not my original Holmes Basic set, but a close replacement

I was pleased but puzzled as I'd never seen a D&D set like this one. I knew the 2nd edition basic set edited by Tom Moldvay. This game, I was sure, must be the original D&D set: the near-mythical 0th edition (that wasn't quite right, but it was still a good find). The price was right (probably 75 cents - the cost of one new lead miniature) and I took it to the register.
A tale of two B2 spear-wielding, armored minotaurs. Erol Otus' original Holmes-era illustration on the left and Bill Willingham's Moldvay-era version on the right

Once I got home and read the rules, I was even more puzzled. This was a D&D set from an alternate universe. Cardboard chits instead of dice? All weapons deal 1d6 damage? Why does this copy of The Keep on the Borderlands have different illustrations like that goofy minotaur eating a drumstick? Most importantly, where is Morgan Ironwolf?
Instant adventure: just add dice

Long before the days of "edition wars" we used whatever rule books we had together in a mishmosh of Basic/Expert/Advanced D&D. I'd alternate between the Moldvay and Holmes rule books, but defaulted to Moldvay for any rules differences. Soon thereafter, I completely switched to AD&D and rarely played the B/X or BECMI rules after that. We still played some of the modules (B4 The Lost City is still a personal favorite) but adopted them to play with AD&D.

For more on The Keep on the Borderlands and the Holmes edition basic set, be sure to bookmark Zenopus Archives and the Zenopus Archives Blog. Zenopus' latest project is a fascinating, page-by-page examination of Holmes' original manuscript for his rule book and a comparison with the printed version. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

#2 First RPG Gamemastered - Beyond the Secret of the Lizard King's Sinister Crystal Tomb #RPGaDAY

My 1982 era elementary school role-playing group played the Moldvay Basic/Expert D&D rules augmented with the AD&D Monster Manual and any other items we could get our hands on. A typical adventure would be to slaughter everyone in the Keep on the Borderlands or hunt dinosaurs on the Isle of Dread with our plate-armored fighter/magic-users brandishing magic shields and +5 two-handed swords. We were typical munchkins of the day.

I vaguely recall creating adventures in that time. One probably from 1983 was influenced by the arcade game hit Dragon's Lair as the dungeon was populated with Giddy Goons instead of orcs and goblins. I'm sure that other adventures stole from The Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story and The Black Cauldron. I was not influenced by The Dungeonmaster.*

Soon enough, I left the "childish" basic rules behind for Advanced D&D (I was entering junior high school, it was time to man up!). By late 1984, I had my own PHB, MM and DMG. I was already an avid reader before Gygax's purple prose cast its lurid dweomer on me, transfixing my orbs to these weighty, bloated tomes.

The dice and tomb that distracted me from Chuck E. Cheese's arcade games

It is around this time that I started game mastering in earnest. My first AD&D module was a gift from a friend at my Chuck E. Cheese's birthday party: I2 Tomb of the Lizard King (the gift included my first d8 and d12 - good friend). I've run that module many times over the last 30+ years and it is still one of my favorites. I still remember adding an Obliviax from my Monster Cards as an extra challenge early in the adventure. Like it needed more of a challenge! In 1991, one group finally managed to kill the "end boss," but that was after losing three members of the party:
Tol Skullsplitter, Silvarius and Overkill were all victims of the Tomb

Another of my first game mastered modules was developed by TSR's UK office: U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh.  It is a classic adventure and a great twist on the haunted house cliche that made Dungeon magazine's 2004 list of the 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time. UK1 Beyond the Crystal Cave was another British module in my earliest collection but I never got to run it. I left it at a friend's house during a big sleepover where we all played rounds of the James Bond 007 RPG, the Star Trek III Starship Combat Game and other games (I asked him to give it back repeatedly but he refused - bad friend).

In my earliest DM sessions, it was hard to get a large group together. I usually played with a single player with one character. However, these adventures were all designed for parties of at least four adventurers. Sometimes I'd run an NPC companion to lend the player a hand, such as with Saltmarsh. In the case of Lizard King, I remember solving the problem by letting my stepbrother use my high-powered munchkin character: Goldleaf (Ugh... I must've been naming my characters after paint colors).

* The Dungeonmaster (a.k.a. Ragewar) is a schlocky, low-budget movie with no connection to D&D. In fact, newspaper ads for the film read, "This film is not endorsed by, or associated with T.S.R. Inc., publishers of the Advanced Dungeon and Dragons game." I rented this oddity on VHS around 1988. Bull from Night Court plays an evil wizard. The LA metal band W.A.S.P. performs. The computer geek star was the boy lost in a pool in the final episode of The Twilight Zone. The film's goofiness deserves its own blog post and many have already written about it.
With Stone Golem
Without Stone Golem

I leave you with one piece of trivia: The hero must battle a stop-motion-animated living statue in some fantasy landscape. Now, I recognize that landscape as Stoney Point Park in Los Angeles, a popular site for rock climbers that I used to live down the street from. Fortunately, they cleared out the stone golems and churlish dwarfs before I moved there.

Monday, August 11, 2014

#1 First RPG Played - Also, first game designed #RPGaDAY

I didn't have a clue what a role-playing game was until I was nine years old. Most of my gaming experiences were with my family playing Sorry!, Uno, Mille Bornes, Dogfight (my first "wargame") and Star Wars: Escape from the Death Star. I was obsessed with video games, but had no home game system or easy access to arcades to satisfy me.

Back in 1981 or 1982 when I was in 4th or 5th grade, I went to my elementary school library during lunch. There I saw a few older boys I didn't know seated around a table, poring over a collection of books, papers and odd dice. The library was empty, so they were free to speak openly about some strange adventure. I invited myself to sit at the table, transfixed.

G3 Treasure Coffer illustration by Dave A. Trampier
One image from their adventure remains emblazoned in my mind: a treasure chest filled with gold rings. They must have been playing through Gary Gygax's G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King, the only adventure in which I could find such an image (in Gygaxian semantics, it is a treasure coffer and not a treasure chest). Of course, the first image I have from D&D would be an illustration by Dave Trampier, the same artist I've written  about many, many, many times and had the unfortunate duty to report his death to many readers.

After that lunch, I was left to puzzle over the experience I'd just witnessed. This was both a game and an adventure story in one, like a much better version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. It was all about exploring old castles and labyrinths, fighting monsters and claiming great treasures. It had a lot of books, but its core was about graph paper and dice.

I had graph paper and some six-siders, but where would I get the other dice?

A few days later, I had my answer. My class was all marching single-file back to our classroom after lunch or recess or something. As we walked past the library building, I spied a shining ruby in the muddy grass by the sidewalk. I snatched the gem from the ground: my first d20!

Still rolling true after all these years
It remains my favorite die to this day. The numbers were hard to read (a year later I learned to mark the numbers in with crayon) but now I had the key to role-playing. I just needed a game to play, so I designed one of my own.

This was a design of need. I didn't know the older boys I saw in the library. I didn't know anyone else who played. I didn't know where to get the rule books and, as a kid, I couldn't afford them. It was far easier and cheaper to make something myself.

I drew out a labyrinth on graph paper, draw in nasty creatures guarding treasure chests (I remember populating it with giant spiders and bats) and trace my way through the maze as a solo adventurer. I had a rudimentary combat system using the d20 and a d6 (probably stolen from some board game) and drew up a small chart of monsters and their stats. I created a custom folder to hold my game, complete with a "pocket" made of construction paper and tape to hold the dice, so I could safely transport my game to and from school. I never played it with anyone else; this was a solitary, meditative pursuit.

My d20 is the only material from that game to survive the ages. I can't remember any further details about the game system or how many labyrinths and creatures I designed. I abandoned the game when, a few months later, a friend taught me how to play from Moldvay's purple box Basic D&D set. I created a fighter, learning new words like "Dexterity" and "Chaos" and that "Constitution" doesn't always mean the paper upon which our founding fathers created the American government. My ignoble fighter battled a few guards and got killed, but I was hooked.

I also had no idea how many games I would design in the years to follow.

#0 Late to the Party - RPG a Day a.k.a. #RPGaDAY

To celebrate Gen Con, the latest writing challenge on the game blogosphere is RPGaDAY. Brainchild of Autocratik, RPGaDAY challenges bloggers to write about their earliest, strangest and favorite (er, favourite) game experiences.

As usual, I am several days late to this party. Some of the challenges forced me to think back to my earliest gaming experiences over 30 years ago. This was not just the start of my role-playing hobby; this was the germ of game designing that launched what is now my career. How did I approach design in that awkward, nascent age? Also, it is an excuse to write about some unusual items in my collection.

I will create links to my entire series here as I post them.

#1 First RPG Played - Also, first game designed
#2 First RPG Gamemastered - Beyond the Secret of the Lizard King's Sinister Crystal Tomb
#3 First RPG Purchased - Holmes Basic blue box on the cheap
#4 Most Recent RPG purchase - 2 of 9 Doctrines of Darkness
#5 Most old school RPG owned - Older than Braunstein
#6 Favorite RPG Never Get to Play - The Original Edition
#7 Most Intellectual RPG Owned - It's not the game, it's the setting
#8 Favorite Character - Wonko the Sane
#9 Favorite Die/Dice Set - Random Number Generators of Chaos and Entropy
#10 Favorite Game Fiction - The Maze of Peril
#11 Weirdest RPG Owned - The All Australian Role Playing Game
#12 Old RPG You Still Play/Read -
#13 Most Memorable Character Death - 
#14 Best Convention Purchase - 
#15 Favorite Convention Game - 
#16 Game You Wish You Owned - 
#17 Funniest Game You've Played - 
#18 Favorite Game System - 
#19 Favorite Published Adventure - 
#20 Will Still Play in 20 Years Time - 
#21 Favorite Licensed RPG - 
#22 Best Secondhand RPG Purchase - 
#23 Coolest Looking RPG Product - 
#24 Most Complicated RPG Owned - 
#25 Favorite RPG No One Else Wants to Play - 
#26 Coolest Character Sheet - 
#27 Game You'd like to See a New/Improved Version of - 
#28 Scariest Game You've Played - 
#29 Most Memorable Encounter - 
#30 Rarest RPG Owned - 
#31 Favorite RPG of All Time -

Your guide to #RPGaDAY