Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Word or Two About Gaming Discussions

I've added a little "mission statement" to the upper-left hand of the page. I think it states pretty clearly what I want my little blog to be about - fun discussions about gaming without emphasis on "this school" or "that school" or how "3tards" suck or "4ons" suck more, or how the Grognards got the shaft/whine too much.

There is way, way, wayyy too much negativity out there in gaming-land. Especially among the ranks of older gamers who feel the younger generations "just don't get it" anymore.

Case in point.

Young gamers today are "too soft" and have been coddled by newer games, because they can't handle (or don't enjoy) dungeon crawls that are "like (expletive deleted) VIETNAM"?

First off, you know what? Gaming isn't like Vietnam. I know this was just some sort of macho chest-thumping analogy meant to make "old school dungeon crawls" sound badass, but it's actually pretty damn insulting.

No gamer wakes up with nightmares every night for forty years about their best friend turning into a bloody mist after stepping on a land mine.

No gamer has to live with the horror of walking through an incinerated village filled with the charred husks of women and children because he called in a napalm strike on the wrong map grid.

No gamer lives homeless on the streets because he returned from a war he never wanted to fight and discovered that his own country had abandoned him when he needed comfort and understanding more than anything else in the world.

(Edit: It is possible that you might have Vietnam vets out there who played "old school D&D", and although a remote possibility, there may be some who even agree with the sentiment. I won't discount their opinion, but I will also maintain that they would be the ONLY ones who have any right to make such a claim. The same, these days, would to a lesser degree hold true to Iraqi War vets, although despite what some people say, this current war is NOT Vietnam, and shouldn't be compared as such. Here endeth the lesson.)

If you think I'm over-reacting a little to that thread, I am. I know people who fought and bled in Vietnam, and you probably do too. Comparing some little make-believe fantasyland to that Hell just makes me a little bit sick. But this "Hey FNG, you weren't there back in '79 when eight of us went into that dungeon and only TWO of us came back out alive, so go back to suckin' on your momma's teat and leave the REAL gaming to REAL men, Cherry!" BS permeates what could otherwise be some really fertile grounds for discussion.

And as an aside, the "macho dungeon-crawl adventure", while still fun, is not the end-all, be-all of old school gaming, and really wasn't even back in the day. I keep seeing this disconnect over and over where "new gaming" seems to boil down to MMORPG-wannabe 3.X/4.0 D&D complaining. Even by the late 70's, you had a number of games that stepped away from the dungeon-crawl mentality. You're looking at around 30 years of gaming that has nothing to do with the "dungeon-crawl", and yet it always gets pointed to as the bastion of "old school" gaming. What about Traveller? Gamma World? Call of Cthluhu? Top Secret?

I'll stop now before this stops being an admonishment and plunges headlong into a rant.

Too late? My apologies.

Anyhow, back to happier topics of discussion...sooner or later.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Korgoth, We Hardly Knew Ye!

When I first saw ads for this upcoming series on Cartoon Network, I almost passed out with glee. I wanted the power of barbarian awesomeness to fall out of heaven like a thunderbolt and blow garbage like Tom Goes to the Mayor into oblivion. I'm not a huge CN fan, but every so often I'll find myself there, watching Robot Chicken before bed or catching an episode of Metalocalypse.

Sadly, Korgoth of Barbaria was no more than a pilot episode. And despite all the fans out there who loved it and "got the joke", a lot of people howled about how stupid it was (yeah, like Tom Goes to the Mayor isn't stupid...), and for whatever reason, Adult Swim decided to pass on making Korgoth a full series, and encourage such "genius" as Assy McGee. That's right, a cartoon satire of all of the Sword & Sorcery / Metal / Gaming shticks you can mine from is a no-go, but a cartoon about a private detective who's nothing more than a pair of buttcheeks? Yeah, that needs to have multiple seasons. Or the television gold that is 12 oz. Mouse. Yeah, that show really was worth it.

Anyhow, Korgoth at least lives on in the land of YouTube. It's a fun, irreverent, and definitely not PC satire of many wonderful things, and I hope anyone who watches it can appreciate at least some of the humor in it. Here's the show, in all it's low-def glory:

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Bonus points for those people who get the "Golden Goblin" without having to Google it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

My Case Against Generic Systems

As I type this, I'm sitting in my home office next to my gaming bookshelf. I have discovered that I've literally run out of available space for my ever-growing collection of games, and my wish list remains mostly unpurchased (I did get Savage World of Solomon Kane recently, a topic for another column). Still, SWoSK comes in as the 42nd RPG system on my shelves at the moment. Of these systems, I'd only call five of them true "generic" systems - built to supposedly handle "any genre" sorts of systems. One of these is GURPS, of course. Another is Greg Porter's CORPS, a game that I'm rather ho-hum about - it's not a bad design, but it smacks of a little too much...hrm...not sure if "pretension" is the word I'm looking for. Ego perhaps? There's something in the way this game was done that just sticks in my craw. Another is called Infinite Domains, and I'm sure this thing died a sad, quiet death (found a harmless little Hungarian gaming website that gives a decent description of this game). The others are a handful of half-decent generics I found online that looked worthy of printing out - The XPress Core System and The Open Core Quick rules set. I've got a few others kicking around on my hard drives that I haven't had a chance to look at, but that's at least a sampling of what I have.

Along with those, I've got a good handful of "generic but genre-d" systems, such as RoleMaster, Chivalry & Sorcery, HARP, the Palladium RPG, Castles & Crusades, Hackmaster, Multiple editions of A/D&D, and on top of all this, at least half a dozen indie "generic fantasy" RPG systems - what Ron Edwards would label over at The Forge as "Fantasy Heartbreakers".

There's nothing inherently wrong with generic systems. They, like all RPG rules-sets, are tools to achieve two primary goals - Character Creation and Task Resolution. Most every RPG, when you boil it down, is pretty much just those two things - how to make PCs, and how to challenge them and find out if and how they succeed or fail those challenges. A lot of people would in fact argue that such is all you really need. I can't completely disagree with that, but in the end, there's always more to it under the surface. Yes, you need a way to make characters and rules for challenging them, but this right here doesn't make a game - it just gives you formulas and probabilities and statistics - it's all the math, and none of the...soul?

This is my first problem with generic systems. Contrary to popular belief, no one "plays D&D" or "plays GURPS". Rather, you play in worlds arbitrated using the rules of D&D or GURPS. Now, this is not the most major of the problems I have because lets face it, if you're into gaming, you probably have a laundry list of campaign world premises and genres and time periods you'd love to game in as long as your arm. Coming up with settings is the least of your problems, so the fact that there is no "D&D Setting" or "GURPS Setting" is not an issue.

Of course, both of these systems do in fact have their own (multiple) settings. It only makes sense. But it points to the first of the reasons why non-generic systems (or at least game products - they can use generic systems in them, like Savage Worlds etc.) have an edge in my book - people need a setting to populate their characters, and believe it or not, making a campaign setting takes a bit of practice and a lot of work. Getting someone else to do the work for you is often worth the $$$ you pay out for a non-generic RPG product. I mean, I could sit down and build the Star Wars universe into a RPG from the ground up using GURPS or CORPS...or I could just take down WEG's Star Wars RPG from the shelf and have at it. I do months of research into world history and technology circa 1600 AD (not a terrible task - pretty cool stuff really), or I could break out Savage World of Solomon Kane.

Tied into all this is my second, and bigger, problem with generic systems - they are either too massive and detailed for the task at hand, or too simple and require a great deal of added rules material supplied by the GM for their specific game. One of the most common problems people have with games like D&D or GURPS is that there are so many books and rules out there that half your work is determining what material you're not using for any particular campaign. I remember back in the days of AD&D 2E when the handbooks and supplements were coming out and suddenly all the players were trying to get Elven Bladesingers into their games, and man, that was back in, like, the mid-90's! I look at the absolutely staggering amount of material out there for D&D 3E and it blows my mind. I mean yeah, you can always stick to the "basic books" of any generic RPG, but come on...we're gamers. How long does it take before you pick up "just one of these supplements, cuz it looks kinda cool...and stuff...", and before you know it, you've got two dozen supplements sitting on your shelf that have upped the character and equipment options for your generic system by an order of magnitude.

And that's at the macro-RPG end. What about the lean little indie systems? The "generic lite systems"? I don't necessarily mind lightweight systems - I have a terrible time keeping overly-complex systems straight in my head as a GM - but for any but the most boilerplate-standard camapign setting types (generic pseudo-medieval fantasy, generic modern,
generic near-future sci-fi...), you're probably going to have to write your own material for almost everything. This will be an especially big pain if you need a magic system and the "generic lite system" either doesn't have one, or the one it has it completely unsuited to the game you want to run. And what if you need other special rules for running the campaign? What about immortality and sixth-sense rules for a Highlander-like campaign? What about rules for vampirism and lycanthropy for a modern monster/horror game? What about rules for psychic powers and space combat for a Space Opera-esque sci-fi game?

I know I'm being picky about all this, but for me, generic systems are more and more a case of Goldilocks and the Porridge. This system is too hot (Information Overload). This system is too cold (Skeletal Ultra-Light Rules Set). Where is the porridge that's just right?

Not every tailor-made RPG & its attendant system are successful. I've got the FASA Star Trek RPG (2nd Edition). As a summation of the ST universe in gaming terms, it's not bad. As a RPG, I think it's almost unplayable. I see Top Secret and The Morrow Project RPG in a similar light - great ideas, lousy games. Ron Edwards' Sorcerer RPG is a pretty interesting exercise in non-standard game design, but I can't imagine actually playing it as anything but a curiosity (I think Edwards has some really good ideas and a lot of talent - his Sorcerer & Sword supplement is one of the best treatises on S&S gaming I've ever read - but he is waaaay too arrogant and egotistical in my book to be taken seriously. I mean, really dude...it's a role playing game, not a theory on the creation of the universe).

But, I do think a lot of tailor-made games, or games "powered by" carefully sectioned-down generic systems, are wonderful products. The Solomon Kane RPG I keep mentioning is one good example, as is WEG's Star Wars. Most of Dream Pod 9's game are very well done, and I think Millennium's End, although not amazing mechanically, is one of the best "technothriller" games ever written. Call of Cthluhu is a freakin' masterpiece, and Feng Shui for me is a textbook on fast-and-loose pulpy gameplay. I'd much rather run a Mythic Greek campaign using Mazes & Minotaurs over D&D any day, and while TSR's Conan RPG and the D20 version put out by Mongoose both have problems, each has its merits (although Mongoose makes me angry - essentially three editions of the game in five years, at those prices and production values? No effing thanks...). White Wolf's behemoth of a system/world/metagame/whatever you can love or hate, but it definitely revolutionized gaming in the mid-90's. And even the two old rivals, D&D and GURPS, have good examples - Dark Sun is probably the most radical of the D&D worlds, turning most of the old D&D-isms on their ears and presenting things in a new and very specialized way. GURPS has their Traveller line, the WW 2 series, and Prime Directive, systems and campaigns ready to go "as is".

One thing I have noticed as I've grown up is that my time is at a premium. No longer do I have the energy and enthusiasm for sitting down and de-constructing/re-constructing systems to fit my every need. I have become an endothermic GM, requiring the energy needed to run games to come from outside of me - friends asking me to run something for them, or finding a really cool game to use, or a movie/show/book so awesome it drives me to run with it. My time and energy need efficiency in order to warrant being used up by gaming, and ready-to-go games, for me, provide the best ratio of effort to effect.

In the end, if something works for you, run with it. The above argument is just how I feel about generics, but hey, I've been playing D&D for 15 years, and GURPS is my second-biggest pile of gaming matierals, and some day I might actually get around to GMing it. If it happens, I'll let you know.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gordon's ALIVE!

Just finished watching Flash Gordon (1980). This movie is hilarious. Completely silly and ridiculous, but still a tremendous amount of fun. Flash Gordon is still #2 on the list of best "Earthman Battling to Survive on a Faraway World!" depictions (after John Carter of Mars, of course...), because the great blend of rapiers and rayguns, Hawkmen and Ming's whacky goatee, is just plain fun.

But what I am completely fixated on right now is Brian Blessed as the Hawkman Prince Vultan. So browsing YouTube (of course), I found this:

I so want to dress up as Prince Vultan the Hawkman for Halloween. I don't think anyone under the age of 40 is going to get it, but it would still be awesome. I am working on that maniacal laugh as I type this. The next time I play a Dwarf (and actually get to, you know, fight stuff, I will do my best to channel Brian Blessed as Vultan the Hawkman.

RPG Design Journal, Part I: Setting the Stage

So, yeah. RPG design. It has been a hobby of mine for as long as I've been a gamer. Back in the days of 2nd Edition AD&D I was constantly house-ruling this and tweaking that. When TSR released the Amazing Engine system, I began hacking away at it because it was my first real taste at a "generic RPG system" (I hadn't been exposed to GURPS or any others yet).

After college, I began work on my own "universal RPG system", which I entitled SCORE. It was heavily influenced by Rolemaster, GURPS, and D&D 3E, and I still think it's a good system, but like most generics, it suffers from A) Being somewhat bland - nothing more than really just a character generation machine and a conflict resolution system - and B) you have to re-invent the wheel in terms of skills lists, equipment, positive & negative traits etc. every time you radically switch genres. By the end I had it where I wanted it, but it still felt a little too much like just another semi-crunchy generic multi-genre RPG system, of which - by 2000-01 or so - there are hundreds out there on the web, never mind a number of published generics (I'll save all that for another post some time). I did, however, run two small campaign-arcs with SCORE in its "1.0" incarnation, and two larger campaigns with the revised "2.0" version, one of which, the Year of the Blood Wolf fantasy campaign, I consider the best campaign I've ever run.

A couple of years went by, and my gaming time slowed considerably. Eventually though, back around 2003-04, I began work on a lightweight system specifically designed for gaming in the classic Swords & Sorcery genre, the sort of fantasy sub-genre that fits my interests very well.

Well, the initial incarnation of that game wasn't bad, per se, but it had a bit of clunkiness to it that I didn't like, and felt again to me like just another set of generic mechanics that don't really carry a lot of the feel of the genre with them. So now, I'm setting about to work on creating a S&S-themed RPG that fits my needs and the way I see the genre best portrayed for gaming, at least in the way that I want to game with it. I'll be using this blog, in part, to put ideas out there for people to read over and comment on, and hopefully this will, in the end, help me create a stronger and more enjoyable product.

A couple of points that I'll expand on in another post:

1. I want this to be a light system, but not TOO light. A single, unified mechanic that I can do a lot with, but still has some flavor, is necessary. I want a new player to be able to sit down and read the Players Only material in 10 minutes or so - let the GM handle all the more convoluted bits.

2. I want the mechanics to reflect the genre and encourage players to stay within the spirit of the genre. This is something that I'll have to hash out a LOT. In essence, I want mechanics that encourage players to take a little risk, act decisively, and allow the PCs to quickly overwhelm "low-level" punks, while still keeping an element of danger (i.e., the PCs are very competent professionals, and can become masterful, but without them becoming unkillable demi-gods).

3. I want a system that not only allows for Episodic Play, but facilitates and encourages it. I want the inter-game periods to be important to the story and provide useful fodder for the game sessions. I have some ideas for this that I want to hash out sooner rather than later.

4. I want a game clean-edged enough that socketing in things like advanced fighting techniques, special weapon rules, or various forms of magic will not be difficult. One of the things that always troubles me with S&S game systems (and fantasy systems in general) is that if the magic system is too fully integrated into the rules, pulling it out and popping in a new one is a real chore. I want something where moving from one style of magic to the other is as easy as sliding out a few pages from the binder and sliding a few new ones in.

All right, that's all for the moment. Onwards and forwards, dog-brothers!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

When Rule #1 Gets Left Behind

If you have been involved in the gaming community for a while, you've probably come across the "First Rule in Gaming"; Whatever happens, remember that the goal of the game is to have fun.

This is a rule carried down from the olden days of D&D, and it's a rule that needs to be remembered, because at the end of the day, no matter how well-designed an adventure is, no matter how clever the puzzles or well developed the NPCs, no matter how evocative the setting or balanced the rules system is, if the game isn't fun, then really, what's the point? Granted, all those things help in achieving that goal, but like Frankenstein's Monster, a game without fun is a game without a life, and a game without a life is just a interconnected pile of parts - PCs, NPCs, Setting, Rules, Props - each adds to the whole, but without the spark of excitement and adventure connecting it all, you don't have a game, you have an exercise in world-building.

I've recently been put in a position to comment on this phenomenon from first-hand experience. I've been involved in a game now for about six months that, sadly, doesn't have much of a soul. Granted, we are all friendly with each other and as a social function, we have a good time. And to be fair, there are moments during the game when things are actually fun, at least for a couple of the party members at a time. But the problem is, the game has no sense of adventure, no sense of excitement or daring. Every challenge or problem is approached with several hours of debate amongst all the party members, where every risk is weighed carefully against every advantage, and the safest path is always the one agreed on. If this party was laying siege to a keep, I have a feeling the method of taking the place they would agree on would be just waiting them out and letting them starve.

In six day-long sessions so far, the most exciting thing my Dwarven warrior has done is to excavate what turned out to be a "Treasure Pit" , only when we did get to the treasure...yeah you guessed it...the chests were filled with lead ballast. Now I'll give you this, every so often letting your PCs run after a bit of a lark can be fun - it helps break up the expectations a little - but seriously, in six months (the group meets all day, once a month), my Dwarf has yet to raise his axe in anger even once. Digging that stupid hole in the ground was literally the most activity I've had in this game, and that's only because it took about six hours of real time to role-play it all out.

Now, how does this happen? The GM has been running this campaign off and on for 20+ years, and two of the players have been in it since the beginning. Some of the others range from being in the game from 2-4 years - people have cycled in and out of the game for a long time, and I'm just the latest addition, drawn in from another game run by another player. I get the feeling that this lack of "adventure" has more to do with the lethal effects of falling into a "gaming rut" than actually being a bad game. The GM put a lot of time and effort into designing his adventures, and certainly knows the setting and the rules very well. However, it's all for nothing if, at the end of the day, most of the PCs had little or nothing to do - there have been sessions where my PC (and / or a couple of the others) have literally just followed everyone else around all game, doing nothing and saying nothing the entire time. I even occasionally time how long I go without offering or being asked to offer any input - it can be hours.

Another thing I've noticed is that most of the players are also not what you'd call "typical gamers". For almost all of them, this is either the only game they've been in, or the only game they have played for a long, long time. Most also don't pay much attention to or read about other game systems (I've got about 40 different RPG systems sitting on my bookshelves right now...). So the other players, I feel, haven't really had much exposure (at least lately) to any other kind of gaming. To make matters worse, the "Old Guard" of the group are all in their mid to late 40's, and I feel they consider more "reckless" gaming ideas to be the purview of younger, more immature gamers.

In the end, I'm left in a bit of a quandry. On the one hand I don't really want to drop out of the game because I feel that there may be some way I can steer things in the direction of "fun", but on the other hand, I don't like flushing one Saturday a month down the toilet of crappy gaming (pun definitely intended). I have begun a campaign of passive resistance on the group's message board in the hopes that my dissatisfaction will become evident, but only time will tell if the GM gets the hint, and is willing to do anything about it.

Until then, I think I'm going to work on a game with pirates. And evil cults. And giant bugs.

There might even be ninjas...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

10,000 BC - A Sword & Sorcery Movie?

I have a confession to make.

I used to be that guy. You know, the one who'd watch a movie, and spend the whole time bitching and whining about every little flaw he saw in it. If it was an action movie, I'd pick apart every moment where someone fired more bullets from a gun than it had ammo. If it was planes, I'd freak every time they substituted an A-4 Skyhawk or F-21 for a MIG, or tried to pass some old Korean War era tank as a "new" Soviet design. If it was a historical flick, and I knew anything about the time period, I'd tear every historical inaccuracy apart and leave it whimpering on the floor. I demanded accuracy, damn it, and Hollywood was expected to deliver.

But you know what?

Somewhere along the way, I just stopped caring, sat back, and had fun. Suddenly, movies wee a lot more fun to watch. Sure, I'd notice the errors, and if a movie was really trying to pass itself off as accurate and made a bad botch of it, I'd be pissed (and if a movie tried too hard and was an obviously pretentious PoS, I'd get doubly annoyed - four years of film school sticks with you no matter what). But by and large, I just stopped worrying about every little deviation, and just started having a great time at the movies.

So yeah, 10,000 BC. I saw this last week, and felt compelled to write about it after seeing all the bad press it caught. For perspective's sake, I effing love Emmerich's Stargate. I've watched that movie probably a dozen times. It's just the sort of adventure + science fiction + pseudo-history BS that I can eat all day long with a silver spoon. Independence Day wasn't as good for me, but it still had it's amusing moments, and I actually quite enjoyed The Day After Tomorrow even though the cold-weather survivalist in me (born in AK, mofos...) had to struggle to keep from yelling at the screen. Godzilla was a piece of poop, but that just goes to show that Americans shouldn't be making giant monster movies (you hear that, JJ?).

Back to the movie. To begin, anyone who starts off criticizing this movie with regards to it's "historical inaccuracy" can just go shut the hell up and drown themselves in a bucket of mammoth pee. I say this for a couple of reasons. First, what we know about the cultures that existed twelve thousand years ago doesn't add up to much. This isn't a movie about Romans, or Spartans, or Vikings, or Conquistadors. This is a movie about cultures whose names we are completely ignorant of, because it was so friggin' long ago, no one was writing anything down. To pull a little quote off the Wikipedia entry for 'Writing' (shut up...):

"Historians draw a distinction between prehistory and history, with history defined by the advent of writing."

You historians out there are welcome to contest that by going right ahead and editing that Wikipedia page, but this sums up my thoughts pretty well. This movie is has all the historical validity of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but that's okay, because in my mind, once you step outside the bounds of what "history" covers, it's all up for grabs.

Heck, how do we even know none of this happened? There's been twelve thousand years for time to hide such events from us. Seriously - this movie doesn't say "here we are in the Blah Blah Mountain range, which will ne day be northern Anatolia" and "here we are now in the deserts of what will some day become Saudi Arabia". Pointing at any one thing in this movie and saying "that never happened" is virtually impossible, because there's not a whole lot out there to point at as proof, and as any archaeologist will tell you, just because you've got an example of something that points to Fact A, it doesn't mean next week someone isn't going to make the find of the decade that'll bring Fact B to light and prove Fact A to be nothing more than a misinterpretation or abberation. Everyone thought Troy was a myth until someone finally dug it up, and that was a city in one of the most consistantly populated areas of the world only three and change thousand years old. A freak bit of geological activity, weather, or even the hands of man could have made all those "anachronistic" pseudo-pyramids vanish long, long, centuries ago.

Anyhow, back to the title of this post. Before I go on - there will be spoilers. I doubt you actually give a crap, but I'm just sayin' it right now so I don't get any bitching and moaning about me "giving away" anything.

This is a Sword & Sorcery movie. Why, you might ask? Let's see.

1. There is magic. There are prophecies that come true, there are visions of the future and of events that have passed. There is what you could call either astral travel or clairvoyance, but either way, events taking place far away are known to certain characters. Also, there is the transfer of life energy across vast distances. There's also animal empathy that goes beyond the readily believable and into the realm of supernatural.

2. There are monsters. Okay, they're more like prehistoric beasts, but let's face it, they're monsters. Ever seen a documentary on what prehistoric animals were like? Or even the truly bizarre stuff that existed before and up through the time of the dinosaurs? Like gigantic millipedes several meters long and underwater scorpions the size of automobiles. Catch up on some of that, and then go crack open some REH stories. Huge freakin' snakes, giant lizards, monstrous spiders, deadly apes, and all sorts of other nasties from the Dawn of Time.

3. There are badass evil dudes riding on horses and looking all menacing, serving the whims of an ancient sorcerer/king/god. Seriously, the opening attack on the Mammoth People by the Four Legged Demons was straight out of the raid in the beginning of Conan the Barbarian, and I couldn't be more pleased.

4. You've got aliens, or Atlanteans, or both, or something. "Some say the Gods came down from the sky, while others say they came from across the great water when their own lands were swallowed by the waves". I might be a bit off, but that's a good paraphrase. Who else came from a land that would one day be "swallowed by the waves"? Hmmm, let's see...could that be...KULL: Exile of Atlantis? I think so!

Beyond all this, let's just say it's a fun adventure movie. If you're the sort of person that gripes that The 13th Warrior had "no plot" or "two-dimensional characters", then you probably will hate this movie. If you found The Scorpion King unwatchable because Akkadians were not a "race of assassins", just step away now. But if you are looking to put something on your Netflix queue that's perfect for Sunday morning around 11 AM, when you've just woken up and want to eat some cold pizza that's been sitting out from the night before and chill out in your boxers in front of the TV, this movie is for you.

EDIT: If you really feel the need to be a douchebag and argue with me about what we know concerning 10,000 BC, Here's a totally unreliable place to start.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Reflections on REH's Kull of Atlantis

A few days ago I finished Del Rey's Kull: Exile of Atlantis, part of their excellent Robert E. Howard collection. I had read Kull before when Baen Books put out their REH Library series back in the 90's, but I was more than willing to pay up and get my hands on this new, wonderfully illustrated collection of short stories.

Both David Drake in the forward to the Baen Books edition and Steve Tompkins in the Del Rey edition note that Kull is much more of a brooder and a thinker than Howards iconic Conan.

Many of the stories, such as The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune or The Cat and the Skull, are by and large discussions on the nature of reality, space and time, the relationship of man in the physical world to man in the world of dreams. Shorter stories like The Screaming Skull of Silence and The Striking of the Gong all but border on navel-gazing, something which seems totally out of place when compared to a lot of REH's other works.

But as anyone who has read a large body of his work can attest, Howard was no simpleton. He was a product of his environment, but I do not consider him a part of it, and I don't think he really did either. Corresponding with cerebralists like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, Howard's letters are filled with discussions of ancient cultures and peoples as well as ruminations on the nature of reality, the cosmos, gods, spirits, demons, and alternate planes of existence. While he might have been the most action-oriented writer in his circle of peers, Howard was still a scholar in his own right, or at least as much of a scholar as one could become confined to a place like Cross Plains, Texas.

Because of this philosophizing on the part of Howard, Kull is regarded as the most REH-like of his characters. After having read the stories again, and knowing what I do about Howard, I think Kull and Conan are two sides to the coin that is his personality. The Kull side is the one that looks about him in his rural Texan upbringing, seeing the poverty, the ignorance, and the violence, and as well the massive technological development sweeping through the world of the early 20th century, and the Kull side at once marvels at this civilization and at the same time, is too much of a thinker to ignore the way in which it can be unsettling. Kull never rests easily while in Valusia, just as I imagine Howard never rested easily in Cross Plains.

But on the other hand, the Conan side of him is the part that wished to forget all the worries and the troubles, and just delve into adventure. It's the part of him that I'm sure Howard wished he could have "let loose" more, but found that in the "civilized world", such a life could never be. He was truly a man born too late, and although that twist of fate has allowed us (and many generations both in the past and in the future) to enjoy his creations, I cannot help but wonder if it would have been a far fairer world if he had been born to the life of a Highlander, or Crusader, or an adventuring Conquistador or Roman Legionary.

In any event, all we can do now is mourn a man who died all too young, and remember him for what he was able to accomplish in a shockingly short span of time.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Why Did the Dark Sun Burn Out?

EDIT: Here's a thread about this post on the Dragonsfoot Forums.

So, I have a weird love/hate relationship with the Dark Sun setting from long-dead TSR.

It was the third D&D setting I bought, after Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms boxed sets. I really dug the fact that it was not another Tolkien ripoff, used the much-neglected psionics rules (which I really liked back in the day but never found a good chance to incorporate them into my games), ditched the pseudo-medieval trappings for something at once post-apocalyptic and pre-Greco-Roman at the same time (when I thought Athasian city-state, I thought of Ur or one of the other Bronze Age city-states in the Fertile Crescent region), and really created a look and feel that was unique among published D&D settings, and not that common even in other published RPGs at the time.

Yes, Dark Sun had Elves, it had Dwarves, it even had Halflings (hobbits...I hates me hobbits...). BUT, they weren't your "typical" Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings. The Elves were all untrustworthy bastards, the Dwarves were beardless and much more of a slave race than a "proud but dying race living under the mountains", and the halflings were a bunch of half-crazed jungle cannibals living on the edge of the world. Hello? Cannibal Hobbits? How effing awesome is that? Along with this you've got your Half-Dwarf slave-bred Muls, your Thri-Keen PCs (that's right, you get to play a seven-foot tall preying mantis badass), and even Half-Giants (yeah, you weren't that bright, but you were a freaking one-PC wrecking crew...).

So what went wrong? Why did Dark Sun wither on the vine just a few years after it came out? Granted, it showed up just a few years before TSR died out and D&D was bought up by WotC, but FR, Greyhawk, and DL soldiered on. Even Ravenloft re-appeared in the oughts, published by another company. A lot of good (or potentially good) settings died with that move, but Dark Sun had a unique appeal that could really have taken advantage of the "power up" that D&D got with 3E. But alas, it was not to be.

A couple of reasons come to mind. The first is that Dark Sun was challenging, but not very rewarding. We're talking a game so potentially deadly that players are told to create a "PC tree" of three characters because when (not if, when) one of them dies, you've got another PC ready to fall back on! We're talking a game where standard ability scores went up to 20, and that was BEFORE racial adjustments, which could take most demi-humans up to 22 in various stats (and Half-Giants could have a strength of up to 24, one shy of the maximum statline in the core 2E books...). Heck, 4d4+4 was the WEAKEST method of rolling PC stats in the book!

And yet, here's a setting where the big rewards of an andventure might be enough food and water to keep everyone alive and healthy for a few days, or a dagger made out of steel rather than bone or obsidian. Forget magical +5 greatswords that cast fireballs on command, or suits of full plate armor that turn you ethereal and let you fly, or chests filled with gold and sliver and gems. Just be happy that your character isn't starving, or dying of thirst, or drowning in the Silt Sea. That should be reward enough for Dark Sun players and their characters, right? There wasn't even the sort of "feast or famine" approach that a lot of Sword & Sorcery campaigns use - the idea that while PCs might amass great fortunes in an adventure, they will squander it all in gambling, booze, and whores to be left penniless in time for the next big adventure. Nope, it was a "be happy with what little you have, because it can be taken away at any time" approach, and I don't think that sat very well with players.

Another reason might have been the very things that make it unique - that TOO MUCH was changed in the natural way of playing what we know and love as "Dungeons & Dragons". Keep in mind that every PC had a Psionic wild talent, and not only was there the Psionicist class, you had two different kinds of cleric (Templars and Elementalists) as well as Druids, and you had both Defiler and Preserver mages. Magic became a LOT more complicated in Dark Sun, and once you throw Psionics into the mix, it became a lot to handle. Dark Sun was definitely not intended for newbie players or DMs, and I imagine with a big party things would have been terribly confusing.

Also, the presence of Psionics alone soured many players. Older players remembered Psionics from 1E and disliked them still in their newer version. Somewhat younger 2E-only players felt Psionics was either too weak or two powerful compared to the other classes (and some of the combinations of powers were indeed very dangerous, especially with Dark Sun attribute levels). Others liked the idea of Psionics in general but felt it should either exist in Science Fiction only (which to me is an odd belief, but one I see quite frequently), or if it was in a Fantasy setting, it should be there in place of magic, not in addition to it.

Beyond the mechanics and rules, there was also the setting itself. I personally like the whole post-apocalyptic genre, but if you look back at it, there's not much, erm...quality literary or theatrical background for it. Sure, you've got Mad Max, but how many people really wanted to play a D&D version of Mad Max? This sort of look and feel was considered a lot more "cheesy" than the traditional-fantasy D&D setting, which a lot of players still somehow clung to as representing a "serious" campaign setting, mostly because it emulated the most serious of all literary fantasy worlds - Middle Earth. I always thought this was a bit silly, since most of the post-apocalyptic type settings I've seen are incredibly bleak, harsh worlds with a lot of grim violence and savagery, while a lot of Middle Earth clones turn out to be little more than Elf & Hobbit tea parties.

And finally, there's the Prism Pentad - the five book series that introduced the Dark Sun world to readers of TSR fiction. They were pretty interesting (I'm re-reading the first one now, which is what prompted me to write this), but at the end...lets just say the series takes the boxed set's "current events" setting material and pretty much either lets loose what should be DM-only backstory (so you can't have your players read the books) or throws it out the window as very much old news and no longer applicable (lets just say at least one of the All-Powerful, Immortal Sorcerer-Kings of Athas gets hosed in the series). I know that a lot of DMs and players felt this somewhat ruined the setting for them in a big way, just as there were a lot of complaints about how the Dragonlance Chronicles ruined a lot of the DL setting material. Now granted, what happens in the TSR novels never has to happen in one's campaign setting, but it does carry a lot of weight, especially if the books are how your players got into the world or if you want to use them to introduce the world to the players.

So yeah, c'est la vie, I guess. I still think DS is a great setting with a lot of potential that went untapped. I would seriously consider doing a bit of re-vamping and applying another rules system to it - since most of the races and creatures are unique or uniquely altered to fit the setting, a creative GM has great latitude in doing whatever one wants to with it. I may just have to do a LBI re-write of Dark Sun as a creative exercise someday.