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First Day at GenCon 2010

I’m exhausted. That’s the best way to put it and I need to sleep, but I thought I’d post a quick note on Day 0, better known as the extremely active day before the Con starts.

I volunteered to help out at Auction this year, surmising that since I spend so much time there, it would be logical to help out. Well, of course the first couple of days are all about getting new material entered into the system, sorted and put up in the “warehouse” or “shop” as directed.

There’s a lot of gopher work involved and at my age that’s an interesting task to try and undertake. Most everyone there was exceptionally friendly and we all tried to have a good time despite the extreme amounts of work to be done. There were some minor “personality” issues with one person, but otherwise things went swimmingly. And sadly, I get to experience that being in a supervisory position for years has left me less than fit for runner work. Ah…age. 🙂

Otherwise, combined with my day job, I’m tired as hell and I’m going to turn in. I’ll discuss the Con more as the weekend progresses. Take care all.

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Told you I was busy working on something. 🙂 In this episode, I attack the issues brought up in some of my early posts about problem gamers and how to deal with them (and in some cases how I have dealt with them). Joining me is my good friend and EERIE co-host DK. This discussion ended up taking more than an hour (and likely could’ve taken several), so Part II will be on the way shortly. ENJOY!

Ok, now that I’ve figured out libsyn’s new and rather byzantine interface, I have uploaded Episode 1 of Tales of an Old School Gamer. My EERIE Radio cohort, Fizz, joined me for the inaugural episode. We discuss how we got into gaming a little bit and later on the demise of the Friendly Local Neighborhood Gaming Store (FLNGS). Enjoy! You can visit the web site or download it directly here.

Everybody’s got a story when it comes to munchkin gamers. They are the reason most convention-run games have pre-gens. They are also one of the highest causes of stress in a gaming environment a GM or player can face. Suffice it to say, if Steve Jackson writes a game parodying your existence, you’ve reached the level of epic problem in the hobby.

I suppose most of us at one time or another entertained the idea of or indulged in munchkin behavior. Consider it. Sure it’s well beneath you now, but in your past, perhaps when you were young, it was all about what you could accumulate rather than how your character or the campaign developed. Did you ever describe your character by starting with “Well, he’s (she’s) got a +5 Holy Avenger (Longbow, Demonslayer, whatever), Full Plate +5… blah blah blah blah blah” or perhaps mentioning some treasured and rare artifact that’s equally BLAH? If you did that, you suffered a bout with munchkinism. Most of us grew out of this in our early teenage years, but not all of us and it’s to those I’m referring in this article.

In my now decades of running and playing RPG’s, I’ve had the displeasure to be exposed to a whole variety of munchkin gamers. I suppose the question most people have when encountering one is to wonder why. Why are they doing this to my group/game? Do they get off on it? Do they have some inferiority complex that requires them to try and prove they’re better or that they can always win? Didn’t they grow out of it years ago like everyone else? I have yet to find the answer to this. All I can say with any degree of certainty is that if you aren’t one, you’re best hope is for you and/or your group to survive them and if you are one, well, I hope you’re enjoying World of Warcraft. Watch I say that and people will complain I’m picking on Warcraft. I play it too people. It’s called Warcrack for a reason.

How did we handle them in the old days? Well, a bar of soap in a sock did wonders…oh, you’re probably wondering more about in group setting. Mostly given that these were friends of ours we tolerated them to some degree and all stewed as we watched them try and ruin our GM’s (or my) carefully crafted setting. Then it became of game of making that player’s character miserable and ensuring that things happened to it that no amount of maxing hit points and equipment would solve; petty I will admit but immensely satisfying. The other option was, and this usually wrecked whatever campaign we were in, to join them. If they couldn’t be stopped, we would all go into this virtual arms race to see who could outdo the little treasure, sometimes with the assistance of the GM. The satisfaction of this avenue was also short-lived.

If such persons are irredemable in their quest to acquire as much loot as possible or be the most powerful player just to say they are, then often your option is simply to cut bait and move on. Some people, you just can’t reach (cue Struther). Ostracizing a friend or an otherwise good acquaintance isn’t a fun thing, but having them in your game environment just breeds animosity and contempt, so which is preferable?

That said, in another light the existence of perpetual munchkins does provide some of the best gaming stories out there. I shall never forget one almost archtypical example of the species who in his waning years in our group tried to consistently build characters who were “like a Jedi, but tougher”. Don’t get me started on the number of miraculously successful rolls that were made on such characters as well. Not like rolls don’t get fudged during any given game, but when you’re known for fudging every single roll, again that’s the kind of thing that indicates a problem.

If you have similar stories, I always like to hear them, so please sound off in comments. If I think up any, and I try not to on the advice of qualified mental health professionals, I’ll do the same and expand on the post.

Soon To Be Live…

When I first decided to start an RPG blog about a year ago, I had thoughts of eventually transitioning to a podcast format. I’ve done podcasting for other fields of endeavor for the past couple of years and since most of the people I enjoy that hobby with are also gamers, the natural conclusion for me was to mix the two.

Of course, everyone and their grandmother podcasts these days just as everyone and their assorted relatives started blogging a couple of years ago. How is this different, one might ask? I’m not sure there’s benefit in trying to be edgy, trendy or flashy, especially in terms of tabletop RPG’s. They’re not exactly cutting edge themselves anymore. My purpose for the blog also was mostly for a touch of nostalgia and reminiscing and thus that will be the focus of the podcast.

I’m sort of a people watcher. Watching people for me is an anthropological experiment. Gaming has been the ultimate for me in this regard. Not only have I gamed with numerous groups and personalities over the years, but I’ve attended conventions that have allowed me to do even more. You really get to explore the human condition and you don’t even have to like people that much or be that extroverted. 🙂 My lessons and our bs stories are a good portion of what I intend to share on the podcast, all at least loosely related to gaming of course.

Expect to see the first episode rolling off the truck within the month with more soon to follow.

With the explosive interest in the paranormal as a hobby, many forget that such trends have been cyclical and that times in even the recent past RPG’s were there to exploit that interest. Many games came out of the period just before and during the interest in the paranormal sparked by the series, The X-Files. Dark Conspiracy was in my opinion on of the very best.

The game was released from the long-lost Game Designer’s Workshop (GDW) in 1991, the brainchild of Lester Smith. It posited a near-future setting for a horror/conspiracy RPG centered on a decaying and failing United States and an encroaching and growing supernatural threat. Players took on the roles of those who stumbled upon this encroachment or who were pushed to that end and chose to fight it. The career-choices offered were varied and could be expanded upon, as the whole game was skill-based using the GDW House System.

Any discussion of this game will dwell on the amount of available equipment. In typical GDW fashion, there was a lot, even to the point of an entire book being released dedicated to new gear for the game. The reason for this was rather obvious. First, the GDW guys were gearheads and old wargamers. They liked equipment and they liked equipment variety. Look at any of their other games (Traveller, Twilight 2000, 2300AD, even Space 1889) to confirm this. If you’re a gearhead (and I am) then you really appreciate this level of detail, and if you’re not, who cares? You just ignore the extra pages.

I used the GDW House System for years in the various GDW games, but I was often frustrated by its limitations. It had a modest vehicle combat system, which almost no game at the time had (or likely still has), but I wanted more detail. This is why GURPS’ system eventually won me over in that regard. Want to make an eye shot or shoot the hand? Not so easy in GDW’s system. The skill set was good and expandable and the character career choices were quite acceptable. They expanded this as GDW lengthened their product line.

The back story was a real treat for me. It was just detailed enough to leave you wanting more and GDW added to it considerably with a major array of adventures and source books. Still, they left it open enough that you could customize it with considerable ease. No two conspiracies were exactly the same nor did they have to be and the influence of the antagonists was as much and as pervasive as the GM wanted it to be. I will always remember it as a game with an extremely high body count, at least for my campaign. I ran a campaign that spanned I think eight years of real time. Friend and foe alike saw huge kill tallies as I drove home just how brutal and deadly the world of Dark Conspiracy was to my players. They must have loved it, because they kept coming back for more. I might speak more on my campaign in a separate post.

This dovetails nicely into what I liked most about the game and that was that it tackled a genre that to that point had largely been limited to adaptations of existing science fiction/horror works like Call of Cthulhu. Also, in almost any setting such as that to date, monsters were nearly unkillable unless you had a special weapon, spell, etc. Guns almost always were useless. In Dark Conspiracy, bullets worked and boy did my players use ’em. To be sure, there were still unkillable creatures or hard to kill villains, but the run-of-the-mill Dark Minions were surprisingly allergic to copper and lead. This was immensely satisfying to the players, especially when faced with the knowledge that the worst were unkillable. It gave them a sense of hope, an often false sense but hope nonetheless.

As I noted previously, this game had a tremendous array of supporting material, most of which can still be found and at very good prices on the used market. Its mark was evident in the industry in terms of other companies trying their hands. Even Chaosium published “Delta Green” around this point, a similar “minion-hunter” style supplement to their Cthulhu line I think to answer similar concerns those players had. I’m sure Chaosium vets and fans might deny there was any correlation, but that it came out when Dark Con was still highly popular says it all for me. The great game Conspiracy X by Eden followed some years later and had a similar great run of supplements. I like to think that Dark Con’s popularity made such games much easier to pitch and develop knowing there was a market out there hungry for that sort of material.

Again, sadly, when GDW closed its doors, Dark Conspiracy became an orphan. An attempt was made, somewhat successfully, to revive it a few years later through Dynasty Publishing and it saw limited print release adapted from the unfinished 2nd edition rules that had languished since GDW’s closure. I had the distinct pleasure of play testing the second edition some years later directly with Lester (online no less – very high tech a decade ago) with some outstanding players (yeah, that’s a bit of a kissass, but so what?), but the game hadn’t matured with the industry. It was an early 90’s game in a market fast approaching 2000 and a lot of changes in game styles and gamer expectations had taken place by then.

A major rewrite of the system was probably in order, but there wasn’t the will, time or money to accomplish this. The market balked at the relic being polished up and brought out again for sale, but us die-hards bought it. We appreciated it even if others didn’t, although personally I wasn’t impressed with the team that handled its publication. Outside of Lester himself, who was great to work with, the rest of the team seemed almost uncaring in the quality or development of the new edition. That some of these same souls had been involved in the 4th Edition Traveller debacle wasn’t lost on me and I hate that my misgivings were proven to be correct.

One never knows what the future might bring, though and there are those of us who will always keep its memory alive however we can. I would point out three very worthwhile individuals, Mike Marchi, Geoff Skellams and Marcus Bone, who labored long and hard to develop the exceptionally high-quality fanzine for Dark Conspiracy and later all horror games, Demonground. They were the play testers I mentioned earlier and are some of the best gamers (in addition to my local crew) that I’ve ever had the privilege to know. I had the honor to contribute a few articles to that impressive magazine and if you are a fan of the paranormal in gaming, you could do a lot worse than give it a look. The art for the covers alone was mind-blowing. Should you ever read this, know that my hats off to you guys. You’re the best.

So not to finish off with further kissassing, but I did. I have a special place in my heart for this game, which is painfully obvious, but it’s well-deserved. Despite its dated nature and some issues with the game mechanics I still count it as one of the best RPG’s in its class of all time and if you like the paranormal, you should definitely give this game a look.

Anyone who’s read the earlier pages of this blog knows I’m an avid collector and that I’ve provided my own small, very small pearls of wisdom regarding the collection trade. I’m always on the lookout for helpful resources to assist me in my passion (some would say obsession) and I’ve lately acquired a new one that I thought worthy of noting to you gentle readers.

The book Heroic Worlds by Lawrence Schick was recommended to me as a guide to any collector whose focus was in any way on the earlier era of RPG’s. Schick through connections in the industry and a storied history himself of game play and research had compiled in the early 90’s the definitive tome and catalog of RPG’s. This work is seminal in its history of the industry, review of the hobby and again its completeness. Indexing and trends are even included. Even more interesting is that this book was published just a few years prior to the TCG blow-up that portended the end of the Golden Age of paper role-playing games, which makes it a time capsule of sorts for the hobby.

There’s almost a sadness that comes with looking through this old book. An index of gaming companies and their contact information reads like a casualty list from a great battle. So many companies are gone now or have merged with the survivors. Of course, so many new companies have sprung up since that time, so it’s not quite so depressing. However, it is a reminder that this industry is far from static and that things change and some are not restored.

The book begins appropriately enough with an outstanding reference set of information, such as the ubiquitous “What is a Role Playing Game” chapter found in almost every RPG main book, the history of RPG’s (this is a must-read) and the priceless though brief “Advice for Collectors”. Schick could have made this simply a catalog, but with this 50 pages or so of reference information, he makes it something so much more useful for gaming geeks such as myself.

I also appreciate the style of catalogs in the book. Schick chose to group games in genre and obviously company. Each product has a small blurb that describes it with the occasional side comment thrown in for good measure. One gets the impression that after so many hundred similar entries, Schick felt the urge to write “and yet another supplement that has traps or spells or a dungeon with insert-your-bad-guy-here for PC’s to fight.” Still he manages to maintain his composure and provide concise and effective information, especially for a collector.

Beginning each chapter is a description of the development of that particular genre of games, which games started when and which prospered. For example, although Mekton was the first significant mecha or giant robot game, Battletech came to define the market with Robotech right on its heels. Westerns sadly by this point had not been given much consideration as Boot Hill is the predominant entry for that category. This is one of the many ways in which the book shows its age, missing the advent of such incredible games as Pinnacle’s Deadlands or even GURPS Old West by several years and the Swashbucklers section if of course too early for the grand production, 7th Sea.

The last but certainly not least gem to be found in this book are priceless essays from some of the giants and founders of the industry. Remembrances of the industry, how they developed certain games and the importance of a diet of fried chicken in developing new mechanics are the bulk of what the reader will find in the words of old greats like Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Eric Wujcik and Mike Stackpole. It’s nice to see such things from these authors, not all of whom remain with us. I love old tidbits and war stories from the early days of gaming, because they help me remember why I got into this hobby and more importantly the remind me why its important to keep it alive.

It might be easy to imagine at this point that I consider this book a must-get for any collector or gaming history enthusiast. It is well laid out, packed full of useful information and most importantly still readily available. Such information should be as widely disseminated as possible.

This book was recommended to me specifically because the person knew I was a collector. If anyone else who reads this happens to know of other works that are as or nearly as valuable, I’d love to hear about them and I’m sure others would as well.

GURPS: My Favorite Campaigns

I’ve already commented on my hang-ups regarding GURPS. I do actually like the system, though. I like its ability to jump-start to almost any campaign setting or existing game imaginable. It’s always had flaws. No system is perfect, but GURPS comes about as close for a detail-oriented gamer as it gets.

The first time I ever played GURPS, I played as a villain in my friend’s Supers campaign. Chick, the GM, thought a pre-made villain would be a way to introduce a stubborn bastard like myself into a game for which I had hitherto refused to make a character. Through the steely eyes of a 20’s era hitman gangster turned-metal-man, I was allowed to take a series of shots at my friends who were playing a variety of classic supers.

There was perhaps no better way to introduce me to the system. In fact, I liked it so much I made my first Super, a skill monger named Backfire. Of course, he was an assassin-type turned good guy, because let’s face it there are few better ways to blow off steam than killing things in a game. 🙂

Our first group of Supers were all killers come to think of it. We typified the bash it with a stick mentality. Much to the frustration of our GM, we would barrel through most of his problems with brute force and then eliminate his well-crafted villains with extreme prejudice. Given a long-term campaign, which it was, we eventually had some near world-destroying entities coming to call every week as it seemed that was about all that could take us. This led to the eventual creation of a second generation of Supers, many geared towards less damaging powers and abilities.

Just yesterday I was recollecting to someone quite dear to me a perfect example of this. I created a small stable of heroes for this bold experiment, but first out of the gate was Dr. Otto, a super-intelligent gorilla. His sole method of fighting was, well, “gorilla-style” for lack of a better term. He was a scientist and a bit of an egg head, you see, and he didn’t like or know much how to fight, so when forced he fought like a gorilla…because he was one. I recall his first “field” mission was with an electronics/gizmo gearhead type and they were both confronted with a locked door to a suburban house. We in character spent several minutes debating on how best to enter the house (Disabling potential alarms, looking for key rocks, etc.) before actually gaining entry. Chick had this look of bemused fascination on his face as he watched us do this where our old characters would’ve just busted in the door.

Again I will always think on that as one of my favorite settings. GURPS Fantasy comes in pretty much in a tie, though. Chick again was our GM and he used the standard “Yrth” setting provided in the Fantasy and eventually Banestorm books put out by SJG.

We started out as a simple enough group. We consisted of a Reptile former gladiator (me), a swashbuckling swordsman, a ranger and a battlemage. For flavor we acquired a goblin thief to handle those duties. As an aside and oddly from my point of view, I’ve never known someone who liked to play a thief. We’ve never had a PC thief in any group of which I’ve been apart.

Our merry little band advanced from being simple mercenaries for hire to fighting in a war of survival for Caithness, one of the larger, but newer nations and then “dieing” only to be brought back to finish the war we’d started some years previous. From there we parlayed our war fortune into a piracy outfit centered around the Brig Hellshark, at least I think she was a brig. The same problem occurred as before. As our adventuring increased (it was a multi-year campaign in real time), our power increased and as our power increased our opponents became more and more ridiculous in power themselves.

The campaign lost much of its interest as our GM was unable to keep providing challenging scenarios, and like the Supers campaign ultimately folded with a whimper instead of a bang.

Both the Supers and Fantasy settings, very different in most aspects, sold me on a system I had boycotted for years. I began to truly appreciate just how flexible GURPS really was and applied elements of it to several games afterward that I myself ran. Most notable among those was my Traveller campaigns. I kept modifying the Traveller campaigns I ran, never content with the rules systems that were available. CT and MegaTrav’s settings had great character-building “Career path” systems, but everything else was very clunky. For combat, nothing matched GURPS’ level of detail and my players loved detail when it came to killing. So did I, I must confess. Not many games were out that would let you target an eye, finger or jugular with equal simplicity. I don’t know that that has changed. I began adding the GURPS elements to provide that level of detail and to keep my players happy; the ultimate goal of any GM.

For a system I had so stubbornly avoided, it was playing in it that ultimately broke through my curmudgeonly shell and let me finally realize its true potential. It reminded me that with much in the way of RPG’s, we really should give new ones a chance before writing them off altogether. Is that realistic? Our biases and personal idiosyncrasies tell me that in practice it is not, but small examples like this prove that it works.

If anyone has similar stories or favorite campaigns that come out of one GURPS book or another, and the beauty of that system is many excellent world and subject books exist, I’d like to hear about it. Write in the comments section if you feel so inclined to share.

I took a long time to come around to GURPS (the Generic Universal Role Playing System). Steve Jackson did his level best to make me not want to by his product. This may require some back story.

It certainly wasn’t the first product of his in which I had shown an interest. I was an avid fan of Car Wars and had most of the original “pocket sets” back when such things existed. Car Wars, Truck Stop, Crash City, Midville and a variety of Uncle Al’s guides graced my collection and my original group played several rounds of the game.

Steve had, it seemed, a hatred of my hometown, though and frankly this pissed me off. I hailed from Indianapolis, you see, and Steve had the town nuked by terrorists. The town that up through the 80’s was known for little else than racing had been nuked out of existence. That made about as little sense to me as anything could at the time and well my response was to not buy any of his crap for several years. Considering how much of my money went to gaming books, I figured I was denying him a significant market share of the industry at the time. Ask my now-retired pusher, I mean game store owner. He’ll attest to the amount of his kids’ college for which I paid.

I was lulled after many years to actually play GURPS Supers, although I still refused to by the book, and then I was slowly conned into playing in a GURPS Fantasy campaign, both I now consider among the best campaigns in which I ever played. Still, I was very slow, almost a decade in, in acquiring my first GURPS book. It was well into Third Edition before I acquired the Basic book and Compendiums.

It was about this time, I think, that Steve heard I was buying his books, because realizing he couldn’t have such a thing, he committed his second atrocity in my eyes. I have spoken before of the release of GURPS Traveller. I have also spoken about how furious I was that MegaTraveller and Traveller: New Era were being tossed aside in favor of his desire and Marc Miller’s to see the bloated Imperium campaign continue.

I was livid and again I delayed in acquiring his products. In time, I forgave and began my 3rd Edition collection, although about a third of my collection consists of $5 specials from GenCon as 3rd Edition was phased out and 4th was phased in. I’ve purchased one 4th Ed. book (Traveller: Interstellar Wars), but refuse to buy all the others again. I’ve already done that with other systems (bought the same book with revisions umpteen times) and I think I’ve finally reached my limit with GURPS. That or I still haven’t forgiven the son of a bitch completely. 🙂

If there was ever to be a science fiction game that had considerable promise, it was Star Frontiers. Granted, I may only think so highly of it because it was my first and thus most dear science fiction game, acquired I think around the tender age of 14. Its system was, as many are, unwieldy and not much good beyond basic play with basic tasks (combat, climbing, riding, etc.).

The universe was perhaps generic, but it was at the same time gifted with a certain unique twist in that the races were still very playable and amusing. We of course had our ubiquitous humans. What game doesn’t? Well, some but this had humans. There were gliding apes called Yazirians, who I assume were developed to fit the “wookie” role in the Star Frontiers universe. The inscrutable “Vulcan” like characters were oddly enough insectoid, Vrusk. Outside of Star Wars’ Verpine, rarely do you see PC insects in scifi. And lastly the fourth main race were the Dralasites, blobs of goo looking like Gloop and Gleep from the Herculoids that could shape themselves in any number of ways with any numbers of limbs and a ridiculous sense of humor that was equally pliable.

There were many subraces introduced over a series of adventure supplements, most NPC-level in detail, but these were the four main player races.

Naturally a villain race was introduced, the worm-like Sathar. And yes, they resembled nothing so much as an oversized earth worm with a penchant for large guns. Something that infuriated me as a teenager was the fact that TSR took great lengths to insist that any campaign should keep the Sathar a complete mystery to the PC’s. Some small things were found out about them near the end of the adventure series (in Face of the Enemy and War Machine), but by and large there was never any information produced on them. They killed themselves before capture and blew up their ships if they were losing a battle. I always longed for TSR to flesh them out, as it were, but to my knowledge they never did.

The modules were surprisingly enjoyable. The original “Volturnus” series for Star Frontiers was in my opinion a fun albeit somewhat predictable storyline. I own multiple copies of these adventures and always enjoy re-reading them. What’s not to love? Squirrel monkeys, land squids and desert-dwelling octopi mixing it up with bipedal super smart dinos. Yeah, have to call that one a winner in my book.

The unigov in this game was called, wait, United Planetary Federation (UPF) because the United Federation of Planets might be too obvious. That goverment mixed with local colonial governments gave quite a degree of flexibility in campaigns.

I was a huge fan of the fact that Star Frontiers had its own wargame, “Knight Hawks”. It allowed for UPF and Sathar space battles in a very standard wargame fashion. Everything from fighter to fighter to battleship to heavy cruiser was covered. Again the system was overly simple and not designed to survive much detail. Small detail criticals were included almost as an afterthought, it seemed, but the system was quite playable.

Both “Alpha Dawn”, the RPG set and “Knight Hawks” had maps and counters; a step above almost any other TSR fare at the time. In fact, it outdid a lot of games of its day in that regard. Most companies couldn’t afford all the extra bells and whistles.

Coming out of Star Trek and Star Wars at the time (this was about ’85), I was quite eager to play an actual scifi game and Traveller was not yet fully on my radar. Star Frontiers proved a remarkably simple and satisfying product for that need, but it left me wanting a lot more. I’ve often thought the setting should be modified for other systems, like GURPS, and maybe it has. I might look that up. Yep. I love the web.

If you’re looking for a simple system with great races and a very workable and expandable campaign setting, you can do a lot worse than go with the Star Frontiers setting. The products are highly collectible and even include some miniatures if you can find them. It amazes me how much money TSR threw at this project, but it was in its seriously flush days of the Frank Mentzer D&D sets, so it makes a bit of sense.

If any of you ever played this or it was also your “gateway drug” into other scifi games, I’d love to hear about it.