Friday, February 25, 2011

A Short Update On The State of the Blogger

Work continues to eat my brain, so I've not progressed on the Gray Box read-through.  Co-GM Rick and I are forging ahead on our M&M3 game, slated to begin in a few weeks.  My "C&C With Librarians, Mormons, and Army Sergeants" game kicks off on the 12th of next month.  And word is a new gamer sort (friend of mutual friends) is moving to my neck of the woods next week.

I've got no gaming scheduled for this weekend, but I did pick up the "Wrath of Ashardalon" board game and expect my son and I will take it for a test drive tomorrow or Sunday.

Here's hoping your weekend is full of fun and gaming.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Brief (And Sad) Departure

Yesterday, word of Dwayne McDuffie's death hit the internet.  For those unfamiliar with him and his work, he was a comics writer and television writer/producer.  A founder of Milestone Comics, his best known comics creation is probably Static Shock (which went on to become a most excellent TV series).  In animation, he produced and wrote many episodes of "Justice League Unlimited" and created "Ben-10."  In short, the man was responsible for many of my happiest memories and an absolute inspiration for my superhero games.

A few weeks ago, at the end of my OwlCon round, the players commented on how much the game felt like an episode of JLU.  It was flattering, but I know that if it did, that was largely due to the inspiration I got from the magic he shared with the world.

RIP, Mr. McDuffie, and thank you.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Grey Box Celebration Continues!

Now that I've made peace with the fact that I'm not going to be able to update daily, I feel much better.  Continuing with my examination of the original Forgotten Realms Gray Box set, let's turn our attention to the second volume, "Cyclopedia of the Realms."  This one is, more or less, meant for the players, or at least not just for the DM.  The first half of the book provides more scattershot overviews of general topics, and I do mean scattershot: in the course of four pages, we get the calendar, the "Roll of Years" (a naming convention based on prophecy), naming conventions based on race and class (actually, human names based on class, and all others just based on race), languages, and currency.  Also a sidebar on greetings and farewells I particularly like, even if they are almost to a word rather stiff and formal in tone.

This is followed by nine pages on religion, and a listing of the deities and demigods of the Forgotten Realms.  In keeping with the tone that seems inherent to 1st edition AD&D products, the deities largely line up along Human/Non-Human lines.  This always struck me as a bit odd, but 1st ed was quite human-centric.  All of the big names are here: Bane, Helm, Lathander, Mystra, Sune, and the others.  A number are mentioned as being the same gods/goddesses from Earthly mythologies and refer the reader to Legends & Lore for details.  No explanation is given for these imports, other than to fill a niche in the roster.  Each deity is given a couple of paragraphs description, along with a symbol and the inevitable alignment guidelines.

Non-Human deities on the other hand, are simply lifted straight out of Unearthed Arcana and Legends & Lore, and listed with no additional information.  At the time, this didn't bug me, but now it seems lazy.  But, again, I note that most of the NPCs of the Realms listed were human, and that back in 1st ed, humans still dominated the scene, thanks to class and level restrictions.  Still, it grates slightly.

The religion section closes out with a listing of "Forgotten Gods" a brief overview of deific alliances.  Interestingly enough, it's in this section where "foreign" gods are discussed.  The official explanation is portals or gates are responsible.

Finally, we get a listing of classes and professions lined up with the gods a practitioner is likely to worship based on alignment.  Interestingly enough, in the original Realms, pretty much all paladins followed Tyr and all Rangers Mielikki.  Since my favorite Faerunian PC was a Sunite paladin, I'm glad such restrictions were eased in later iterations of the setting.

Next up, I'll tackle the actual Cyclopedia, an alphabetic listing of places and things (mostly places).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Gray Box Celebration: The DM's Sourcebook Of The Realms

Having completely blown the notion of the Gray Box Week, I've switched to Celebration Mode.  Same output, less pressure.  I hope.

As previously mentioned, TSR provided two books in the original Gray Box Forgotten Realms set.  While they weren't numbered, I always thing of the DM's Sourcebook as the first volume, as it contains all the material introducing Faerun and how to set a game there.

The frontispiece contains a quote from Ed Greenwood's alter-ego, the iconic sage Elminster: "On my word as a sage, nothing within these pages is false, but not all of it may prove to be true."  I like it.  To me, it says to the DM, "Don't feel bound by what's in here, it's just a starting point."

We get introductions from the three principals involved in creating the book: Ed Greenwood, Jeff Grubb, and Karen Martin.  I'm always sort of surprised that Mr. Grubb doesn't get more credit when it comes to the Realms.  His task, as I understand it, was to take reams of raw information that Greenwood churned out (often in boxes straight from his basement) and turn it into something useful.  No small task that.  Of course, he also gave us the Azure Bonds material and wrote a bunch of Forgotten Realms comics for DC.

The book's organization shows that the notion of setting sourcebooks was still relatively new.  Information is presented in a stream of consciousness method almost worthy of the original DMG.  After the introductions, we get about three and a half pages (triple column text) on how to use the setting. A lot of this is fairly generic advice, complete with advice on how to bring characters from existing campaigns into the Realms (this seems to have been more common back then).  One interesting tidbit bears further mention:

"A Note on Future Products:

Certain areas of each of the enlarged maps of the Forgotten Realms will contain areas that will not have future adventures, modules, or sourcebooks set in them and are left solely for use by the DM for development without fear of some later product invalidating that portion of the campaign.  In the initial boxed set, those areas are:

The Serpent Hills (east of the High Moor)
The Wood of Sharp Teeth
The Desertedge Mountains (outside the Dales), and
The Nation of Sembia

The last mentioned, the nation of Sembia , is a large section of (partially) civilized land with the following boders:  starting with the west, the Vast Swamp, the Daerlun, the path through Kulta, Saerb, and Archenbridge (including parts of Archendale) to Ordulin, east to the Dragon Reach, and bordered on the south by the Sea of Fallen Stars.  This region, though discussed in the players' guide [By which I assume they mean the Cyclopedia of the Realms] and in this book, will not have further adventures set in it, nor will its cities be explored or detailed.  A DM with a campaign city or nation already designed may set that city in the area of Sembia without great difficulty caused by future products setting some epic adventures (or great disaster) in the same region."

Of course, as I recall, this went out the window in later years and editions, as every available piece of Faerunian real-estate was detailed, but it was a lovely idea at the time.

After this introduction, the next bit of information provided is instructions on filling out an Adventuring Company roster (available on the back of the Cyclopedia).  A bit of an odd departure, but I have to say it's a nice roster and the idea of Adventuring Companies has always appealed to me.

After this, we get a page showing side-by-side comparisons of the continental US and western Faerun.  Faerun is much, much larger, showing the DM how much room there is to place a campaign.  This is followed by a discussion of the provided maps and how to use them.  As I mentioned the other day, the maps are ungridded and quite lovely.  A handy transparent overlay is provided to allow hex-based movement without detracting from their appearance.  This rolls into a fairly detailed set of rules for overland movement that remind the reader that this was written for first edition AD&D and the wargame roots are still very apparent.

From overland movement, the topic flows more or less organically random encounters and we get more than a page of information on creating custom random encounter tables (a blank example is on the back cover of the book).  I've never used this method, but I think it's an interesting look under the AD&D "hood."

Encounters are followed with "A word about dragons."  Quite a few words, actually, and good ones all.  I can't speak for other old farts, but I found the 1e AD&D dragons rather uninspiring.  They lacked personality and "oomph."  In short, they were obstacles, not individuals.  "A word about dragons" set out to change this.  It made dragons faster, for one thing.  A lot faster.  It changed up the way their breath weapons worked. It made them harder to subdue.  It gave them the aura of dragonfear that's part and parcel of the critter today.  And it emphasized that if a dragon has magic, he'll wield it.  In less than two pages, D&D dragons got scary again.  I'm not sure, but I think when I first read this, it was when the Realms really grabbed my attention.

The next section is entitled "Selected NPCs of the Realms." At eighteen pages, it's one of the larger sections.  It provides capsule write ups of 76 NPCs.  While the section detailing them is called "Humans of Note," it contains Humans, Dwarves, Elves, Half-Elves, and a Beholder (though the vast majority are human).  Included are NPCs of all power levels, from local bandits to rulers of nations.  We also get our first real look at the Knights of Myth Drannor, who were clearly based on (or lifted whole-cloth) from the PCs in Greenwood's home campaign.  A few are illustrated by Clyde Caldwell (my least favorite of the 80s TSR artists); some have extensive histories, others a brief paragraph.  After the NPCs, we get a brief list of notable merchants and nearly two full pages detailing an almost 2,000 man strong mercenary company.  It's nice flavor material, I suppose, but I still don't know what one's supposed to actually do with it.

The next chapter is "Recent News and Rumors in the Realms."  I truly love this section without reservation.  It provides a month-by-month breakdown of events transpiring all across Faerun for the two years previous to the "current" campaign date.  It's not only full of adventure hooks hefty enough to hang a campaign on, but it does a tremendous job of conveying the non-static nature of the setting.  To me, the Realms was the first published setting where things happened whether or not the PCs were involved. It felt like a living, breathing place, something I strive for (and generally fail at) in my games.

After that, the reader is given two adventures with really no prologue whatsoever, "The Halls of the Beast Tamers" and "Lashan's Fall."  We're informed that "Lashan's Fall" was originally published in DRAGON #95 as "Into the Forgotten Realms."  Both adventures are set in the ruined elven city of Myth Drannor (One of those places that absolutely grabs my imagination and refuses to let go.  Seriously, I love that pile of rubble.)  "Hall of the Beast Tamers" is a pure exercise in dungeon exploration.  No reason for the PCs to be there is provided.  It's assumed they're exploring Myth Drannor and find the ancient underground halls of the Guild of Naturalists.  A number of creatures lie within, held by magical stasis.  It's a fairly undistinguished dungeon crawl, but I remember loving the map and how utilitarian it was.  It lacked the seemingly random twists and dead-ends that characterized so many published and self-made maps back in the day.

"Lashan's Fall," on the other hand, actually has a plot.  The PCs are posse, sent after a fleeing would-be conqueror of the Dalelands.  he's fled to the remains of a school of wizardry in Myth Drannor and the heroes have to root him out.  This adventure also features lovely, efficient maps, along with challenges that reflect the dangers of the setting (Let's face it, walking into the remains of a school of wizardry is not one of the safer activities in which one can engage.  Never mind that the dungeon is in a pile of demon-infested ruins.)  The adventure is remarkably well done, and the ending is downright unsettling, if played right.  It's one of my all-time favorites.

The final 32 pages are devoted to one of Ed Greenwood's strengths as a game designer:  Magic Books.  "Books of the Forgotten Realms" brings his full powers to bear, describing over a score of magical works, their appearance, their histories, and contents.  It's a chapter one can get lost in just on the fiction alone.  I mean, how can you resist things like:

"Orlajun, the white-haired High Mage of Silverymoon in the early days of the North (now believed dead), oversaw and took a large part in the construction of this work, designed to be a permanent repository for the most useful defensive spells he could provide for the continued safety and security of his beloved city in years to come.  But it never served so, for when Orjalun gave his staff of office to his chosen successor, Sepur, and left the city, Sepur revealed his true nature -- taking the Arbatel and staff as his own, he also left the fair city.

Sepur's fate is unknown, although the sage Alphontras recounts the finding of a broken staff atop a lonely, scorched tor in the Trollmoors.  The Arbatel is first identified in the village of Longsaddle by the Alphontras' colleague Eelombur the Learned, who observed in the possession of the sorcerer Arathur Harpell..."

And on and on like that.  I love fictional history, so this hits my sweet spot.

So there you have the first volume.  Hopefully, I can get to the Cyclopedia soon.  I think it will either need a couple of entries, or a lot of glossing over.  We'll see.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Gray Box Week: Unfortunate Delays

Work is being beastly and eating my time right now.  I will catch up yesterday's and today's intended posts, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gray Box Week, Day One: Memories and First Impressions

(This post has taken longer to get started on than planned.  I blame life's many distractions.)

Ah, the Gray Box.

I absolutely love that cover, by the way. It answers nothing, but raises all manner of questions.  Who is this guy?  Is he friend or foe?  Where is he, for that matter?  All I know is that I don't want to meet him in a dark alley.  Unless he's there to save my bacon.

For me, the Gray Box came out at a time when I'd come back to AD&D.  I'd gotten into it in high school, then moved on to newer and (in my opinion at the time) more sophisticated fare (Champions, RuneQuest, Stormbringer, Call of Cthulhu).  Mostly, I got back into it because of my job.  I was working at a bookstore, we carried lots of D&D stuff, and I could get it cheap on my employee discount.  As a result, I'd picked up the DragonLance stuff when it came out, thought it wasn't awful for what it was trying to do (provide more of a story-based approach to the game), and, as a result, I started messing around with the game again.

But I wasn't really happy with the DL setting.  It was too juvenile.  There were things about it that just seemed dumb (and still do, for that matter).  For instance, there was a line about steel and iron being the only metals of value.  Now, when I read that in the books, I thought "Hey, that's a cool way to make a statement about a world ruled by violent warlords."  But, as it turned out, they meant it literally, and gave us rules for steel coins and iron pennies, possibly the dumbest idea in the history of a fictional world.

But, I digress.

(I'd missed out on Greyhawk, by the way, as the publication of the boxed set happened during my anti-D&D phase, and back stock was hard to get from TSR through the sources I had available.)

I had also by this point, found the SCA, which very definitely colored my opinions of fantasy and gaming and what passed for realistic depictions of a wide number of things.  Opinions I have since revised, many, many (many many many) times.  At that point, however, I was very much into big sweeping fantasy fiction, with characters who were more than cardboard cutouts and worlds that felt alive.  Come to think of it, I still like that stuff.

The first mention I remember of the FR box was an ad in the back of a comic book. I can't find a copy of it online, unfortunately, but it featured a dragon's footprint, with the game box left behind, and I thought it looked plenty nifty.

And nifty it was.  One box, two books, four poster maps, and an awesome transparent hex overlay for the maps. All for fifteen bucks, which was a damned good deal even 1987 money. The two books were "DM's Sourcebook of the Realms" and "Cyclopedia of the Realms."  I've still got my print copies, and in the coming days, I'll be reviewing them in detail, but tonight, I'm more interested in how I remember seeing them originally.

The maps blew me away.  They still do, to be honest.  The fact that they were drawn first and foremost as maps, not gaming maps (no hexes or squares) gave the entire product a different feel than DL or GH.  It felt like a world converted to a game, not a game presented as an adventure setting.  Thumbing through the DM's Sourcebook, I saw descriptions of important NPCs and even just glancing at them, they felt like real people.

In fact, that's the real impression I got from the Gray Box:  here was a setting with a real sense of place.  It felt "lived-in," and if it was a little less detailed in places, that's because not every little bit of it was nailed down.  It felt wide open, but not empty.  In short, I couldn't wait to jump in and look around.

Tomorrow:  "The DM's Sourcebook of the Realms" in detail.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Next Week Is Gray Box Week

I realize I've been rather erratic on the update front recently.  I haven't been feeling very creative, and life has been providing too many distractions.  To try to get back into some semblance of writing discipline, next week will feature a series of posts about the original Gray Box-era Forgotten Realms setting.  Not just the box, but supplements from that original era, novels, whatever strikes my fancy.

So strap on your armor, chant an orizon to Tymora, and cloak yourself in the Art, we're headed to Faerun.

(Beginning Sunday night, since I'm going out of town for the next few days)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Game Plan

So, a week on from Owlcon, it looks like I've got two GMing opportunities on the horizon.

First up will be a supers game, using Mutants & Masterminds 3e.  It's going to be a bit different than most of my supers games, in that the plan is for me to co-GM is with my fellow Tuesday-Nighter, Rick.  We're just starting the setting creation process.  It's a bit of a departure from my usual approach to world-building, as it's a lot less solitary.

My other game will be one I'm running from home.  It has its origins in a conversation I had on this blog a few weeks ago, culminating in the following offer from the esteemed Mr. Justin Davis:

"And The Woman actually has a few pals (2 or 3 gals, in fact) interested in slangin' dice. It'll be just like "Playing D&D With Porn Stars", except with fewer porn stars and more librarians, army sarges, and Mormons."

Since then, Mr. Davis and I have been in touch.  This will indeed occur.  The plan is to use Castles & Crusades, and set it in (more or less) the Gray Box Forgotten Realms.  I think I'll actually start off letting them explore "Dyson's Delve," and then see what happens.  It's a few weeks away, but we're going to make it happen.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Speaking Of Gamer Crafts

When I was getting packed for Owlcon, I discovered I'd never unpacked my stuff from the last game I ran back in '10, a Lucha Libre Hero round ("Los Misterios Contra La Hija de Franquestein!").  For that game, I made little Luchadore faces mounted on Popsicle sticks the players could hold up when they were speaking in character.

Front Row (L to R):  Silver Sapphire, Caveman Cortez (the Wrestling Detective), El Espectro
Middle Row (L to R): Craneo Llameante, Supergran (the Atomic Aztec), Amazonia (the Jungle Princess)
Back Row:  "Franquesteins," aka Frankenstein monsters.  They had a killer 'stache and a goatee because it was a Luchadore movie, duh.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cheap And Easy Custom Gaming Tokens

So, I'm on vacation this week and I've received two single-page 'zines from Christian in the past few days, which tells me I really ought to be doing more with my time than sitting around surfing the internet and reading funnybooks.

At Owlcon this weekend, my game featured some custom Hero Point tokens I'd whipped up.  One of my buddies emailed me for directions on making them.  I've written about this before in less detail, so it may be old hat to some folks, but I haven't done so for this blog or with this much detail.

Materials Required:

Source Images:  The internet is the obvious treasure-trove for this, but I do most of my superhero counters using a program called Heromatic, which was produced by a guy from Brazil some years ago.  It's a lot like Hero Machine, but the output is in the style of Bruce Timm's DC Animated Universe artwork.  I've got a copy that runs locally, but you can find it, along with two newer versions that do more generic, less copyright-infringing styles here. At one point, the newer versions had an English language option, but I didn't see it when I looked, so be prepared to explore a bit unless you can read Portuguese.  I'm so used to the interface in the Animated version that it doesn't bug me, but it did take some getting used to.

Here's an example piece from the Heromatic, the classic Champions villain Firewing:

Of course, I can't use the entire image for a counter, so I then use a screen capture tool to crop out a useful head shot.  I use EasyCapture, a freeware utility because it allows me to take a perfectly square image, but you can use the Windows Snipping Tool or any of a number of programs to get what you need.

Repeat until you've got all the images you need.  If you're doing a sheet of mooks, you only need one piece of art and you can just reuse it multiple times.  I save the images as PNG files, as these seem to handle resizing quite well and they look good online.

The Counter Template:  Next up, you'll need a means of laying out the counters.  I use PageMaker, but you can set up something in Word or Open Office, or PowerPoint...pretty much any program that will allow you to create a consistent grid and paste/resize artwork over it.  My counter template is set up with half inch margins all around with a 1.5" grid.  I'll be making 1" counters, so the extra half inch gives me some leeway when I start punching them out.

Here we see the counter template with a Firewing's head and a few other head shots I had sitting on my hard drive:

Printing Stock:  Once the counters are laid out, it's time to print them.  What I print them on depends on how I'm going to mount them.  The portrait counters I usually print out on normal white paper.  However, for counters that might be in non-standard sizes or those that I'm going to affix to, say, a poker chip, in the case of the DC logo, I use Avery #8465 Shipping Labels.  These are full 8.5" x 11" sheets of label stock that haven't been pre-cut.  They're not cheap (about $30 for 100 sheets), but I've yet to go through an entire box.

Either way, I print the counters out on my faithful HP 5150 inkjet that I got at a thrift shop.  Nothing fancy here.

(Image courtesy of my crappy cellphone camera. You get the idea.)

A 1" Circle Punch:  Available at Michael's or Hobby Lobby for about ten bucks.  They're in the scrapbooking section.  There are a number of models out there.  I use this one, because it lets me line things up and see what the final product will look like:

So, once you've got things printed, punch them out.  I try to make sure I keep the face/point of focus centered nicely.  Here's the punched out counters, again courtesy of the crappy-cam.

Mounting:  The final step.  As I mentioned before, I either print these out on normal paper or on label stock depending on how I mount them.  For the 1" circular counters, I typically use these:

These are 1" wooden disks, with letters of the alphabet on one side, and a pre-applied sticker backing on the other.  They are PERFECT for these counters.  Just peel off the back and stick the punched paper on them.  And they only cost about two bucks for 52 disks.

When I first began doing this, I used blank disks and actually decoupaged the punched counters to them.  However, this was sticky, time-consuming, and the decoupage medium often made the ink run.  The ones that turned out WERE durable, though.  Also, for reasons I can't begin to comprehend, the blank disks are a lot more expensive than the alphabet/adhesive ones.

For my custom Hero Point tokens (the DC logo), I used my label stock and affixed the output to poker chips.

For larger or non-standard counters, I print them on label stock and mount them on lightweight craft foam (I'm using a few sheets as a backdrop for my photos of this project). It's cheap (I think I got 200 sheets for a dollar the last time I bought some), and can be cut with scissors.  So I just mount the counters and cut them out.  I've also used this technique for home-made dungeon tiles, since the craft foam resists sliding around on the tabletop.

Here's the finished products, along with one of the Hero Point tokens I made for last weekend and a non-standard counter from my old Champions game (the Foxbatmobile):

And that's all there is to it.  Any questions?