Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mae Govannen, 2014!

So, long time, no post. November 2013 was the month where my teaching and grading responsibilities combined with my familial duties to eat up my life. December 2013 was the month where Ms. Vargold suffered a pulmonary embolism and nearly left me a widower with two children under ten. (Luckily her heart was strong, and the doctors were sharp—she's back home on the mend.)

Up until now, I haven't really had the time or will to post as a result.

But I did want to check in one last time before the clock ticks over into 2014. The past year has been the blog's most productive year: 40 total posts (including this one), 12 more than the 28 posts I made in 2010. Moreover, until November went all pear-shaped, I managed to post at least once a month for ten months. Here's hoping that I can get back on that schedule in 2014!

2013 was also the year where 13th Age got me back in the GM's seat. Thanks to Pelgrane Press's organized play program, I've run (I believe) 5 sessions' worth of the game and plan on running more in the new year: the system is a blast to play!

Best wishes to everyone for a safe conclusion to 2013 and a pleasant beginning to 2014!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Best-Laid Syllabi o' Mice and Men Gang Aft Agley . . .

In my last post, I outlined my planned reading list for my Spring 2014 fantasy literature course here at Big Midwestern Flagship Public University. I was very excited about this reading list.

And then I had to submit my book order. And discovered that Patricia A. McKillip's Forgotten Beasts of Eld has gone "out of stock indefinitely"—effectively out of print. And learned that ordering the UK paperback of Poul Anderson's Broken Sword—the only in-print edition of that novel—was going to be more difficult than I had assumed. And realized that ten novels was going to be too much for the number of classes I had available for the spring semester.


I had to make up a new reading list on the spot. The key requirement for inclusion on this list: ready availability. The secondary requirement was that each text speak explicitly to one other text on the reading list. Here are the pairings I came up with:

Dunsany's King of Elfland's Daughter (1924) and McKillip's Winter Rose (1996)

The connection here is love that reaches beyond the fields we know into Elfland: a mortal man and an elf woman in Dunsany's case, a mortal woman and an elf man in McKillip's. I'm sad to lose Forgotten Beasts, but Winter Rose is  beautiful book as well.

Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) and McKinley's The Hero and the Crown (1984)

Two books from the last version of the reading list that make it into the next. Here the connection is dragon-slaying—a fairly tenuous theme, but a valid one. The evil of the wyrms Smaug and Maur lives on long after their deaths; in a sense, the dragons are just misdirection for the real evil of the tales.

Vance's Dying Earth (1950) and Lee's Night's Master (1978)

Decadence and exoticism drive this pair of books entering the reading list for the first time. I recently reread The Dying Earth for the first time since I was a teenager and came away incredibly impressed with what Vance achieved in those six stories; 12 or 13 was clearly too young for me to really grok them. As for Night's Master, I lost my copy of the Sci-Fi Book Club Tales of the Flat Earth omnibus back in the spring when the basement flooded. So this is my chance to finally read all of Night's Master.

Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and Miéville's Railsea (2012)

This pairing is so obvious I can't believe I missed it: thanks to Ceridwen Anne for the idea. Two young adult novels, two sailing stories, two great beasts (the Dragon of Pendor and Mocker Jack), and two tyro protagonists. I love Miéville's Scar, but I have included it on the reading list every time I've taught the fantasy course here—it may be suffering from overuse. So a change is good.

(Coincidentally, I'm interested in hearing suggestions for a book to pair with Le Guin's Voices—my favorite fantasy of hers—the next time I teach the course. I couldn't think of a candidate this time round.)

Pratchett's Wee Free Men (2003)

I needed a ninth book, so I decided to indulge myself and go with my favorite Pratchett of all time. What better rationale is there for a book besides Feegles? Crivens, I can't think of one!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Reading List for My Spring 2014 "Literature of Fantasy" Course

I'm scheduled to teach my university's "Literature of Fantasy" course in the Spring 2014 semester, and, while I have yet to write a description of the class, I do have a reading list drawn up for it. Some of the texts on this list will be familiar to those of you who've read my post on the reading list for my Summer 2013 "Intro to Fiction" fantasy class: J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is back for a second round, and so are Patricia A. McKillip's Forgotten Beasts of Eld and China Miéville's Scar.

Other texts are different offerings from authors I taught this past summer:

Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland's Daughter

Because the Spring 2014 fantasy course is scheduled to take place over fifteen weeks or so (instead of the eight weeks I had for the Summer 2013 course), I have the luxury of concentrating exclusively on longer works. In Dunsany's case, that means teaching his masterpiece. King of Elfland's Daughter is the quintessential journey "beyond the fields we know," and I enjoy teaching it as a time travel novel (even if the students aren't that interested in Dunsany's temporal musings).

Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

I really enjoyed teaching Le Guin's Voices this summer, but I needed to teach one of Le Guin's 1960s or 1970s fantasies to make my roughly decade-by-decade survey of fantasy work for the new course. So I "reluctantly" replaced Memer's story with Ged's. I thought about pairing Wizard with Tombs of Atuan (something I've done before), but my decision to teach a total of ten novels in the spring means that I had to streamline when possible. 

Finally, because I am a masochist, I decided that I just had to teach five authors for the very first time. (This is a bad habit of mine: I prioritize teaching over research . . . which just isn't done at an R-1 school!) Here are those new authors in chronological order:

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

There's a very simple albeit very embarrassing reason for putting the first book of Peake's Gormenghast trilogy on the reading list for Spring 2014: I've never been able to finish any of the books in that series. I made a good faith effort earlier this year to get through Titus Groan, but stalled out around Titus's christening. So teaching Peake becomes a way to force myself to actually read his books. (Plus it will help the students understand where Miéville is coming from!)

Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword

The other, much-neglected fantasy masterpiece from 1954. (The first was Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring.) Anderson's novel was a major influence on Michael Moorcock: for example, Stormbringer owes much to Anderson's titular blade. Of course, influencing Moorcock means influencing Miéville: there's a direct line from Uther Doul and Mightblade through Elric and Stormbringer to Skafloc and his sword. In fact, it's clear that Anderson's novel has had a much greater effect on British fantasists than his fellow Americans. I'm going to have to order the British edition of the book; there's no American edition in print for decades now.

Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown

Unlike Peake's Titus Groan, Robin McKinley's Hero and the Crown is a book I've read. But I'd like to become more familiar with it, so on the reading list it goes. More substantively, the novel stands in for the incredibly popular YA female fantasy hero tradition that emerges in the 1970s with characters like Anne McCaffrey's Menolly and leads to characters like Tamora Pierce's Alanna and Kristin Cashore's Katsa. I see the book playing well with Wizard of Earthsea.

Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm

I wanted some British satirical fantasy on the list, and I wanted to maintain the reading list's gender balance (five male authors, five female authors), so I turned to this wonderful book by Diana Wynne Jones. It's a hilarious piss-take on the portal quest fantasy C. S. Lewis perfected: the benighted inhabitants of a fantastic reality find themselves forced to more or less play "Tolkien" for tourists from our world.

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I'll end the course with this outstanding 2010 debut novel from N. K. Jemisin. It's about a society that has enslaved its gods, and the plan those gods have for turning the tables—provided the heroine is willing to go along with them. The book is also representative of an ongoing reaction to the Northern European focus of most modern fantasy fiction; Jemisin, like Charles Saunders and others, is trying to reimagine fantasy for a multi-racial, multi-cultural society.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

13th Age: Wyrd of the Wild Wood, Chapters 2-3

The last thing henchman Drogan saw before he was ripped in two.

I ran a group through the second and third chapters of "Wyrd of the Wild Wood" tonight. Attendance was low again: Sundays really do just bring out the board gamers. But we decided to persevere and go ahead with just two PCs. I augmented the group's numbers with a suggestion from the Google+ 13th Age community, giving them a panther animal companion reskinned as a human fighter henchman. If the players had rolled better, I think "Drogan the Fighter" would have been a bigger asset to the group. Unfortunately, while the players were rolling low all night, I kept rolling high. Given that the party consisted of two adventurers and a wimpy henchman, I tweaked numbers when necessary. This was especially the case with the "feral halfling" fight: the original number of "feral halflings" and "halfling madminds" appearing in the encounter was too high, guaranteeing some TPK action. But even with the correct numbers for a party of 2.5 adventurers, we felt that the "feral halflings" were too potent by half for level 2 mooks: their poison dart attack did both damage and "dazed (save ends)" on the first attack and then knocked targets "unconscious (save ends)" if they failed their first save against the poison.

The other fights went better . . . well, for certain values of better. The dark elf wizard found a ring of defense in the ruins of a blue dragon lair. Good. But in taking the ring he triggered the lair's magical defenses. Bad. The adventurers cleverly used a "Ray of Frost" ritual to cross a gaping chasm by constructing an ice bridge, and they deftly avoided the dangers of the Swamp of Flame Spurts (with its perilously close-to-copyright-violating Vermin of Unusual Size). Good. But the gnome rogue didn't see the otyugh in time and came within a single hit point of being swallowed alive. Bad.

The deadliest battle was the one with the emaciated owl bear. The creature was too much for a pair of adventurers and their henchman. So when it rolled a natural 20 on its attack against the henchman, I ruled that the owl bear treated the henchman like a strongman treats a phone book. The hungry creature got to return to its lair with half a henchman and the adventurers got to live to fight another day. Owl bears in 13th Age are creatures of respect.

I'm switching the game to Wednesday nights starting October 9th. We'll see if going head to head with the D&D Next Encounters crowd allows us to seduce a few folks to the 13th Age Side of the Force.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

13th Age: You Know You've Spent Too Much Time Reading OSR Blogs . . .

. . . when your response to the umpteenth Internet complaint about the simplicity of 13th Age's Barbarian, Ranger, and Paladin classes is to note that people seemed to get along just fine playing even less complex Barbarians, Rangers, and Paladins in AD&D.

(For me, the meat of 13th Age are the One Unique Things, Icon Relationships, and Backgrounds. The various class-specific Talents and the like are secondary to my fun.)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

13th Age: Wyrd of the Wild Wood, Chapter One

(The adventurers confront monsters disguised as dice.)

Today, as part of the Gamer Gathering celebration at Armored Gopher Games, I ran the first chapter of "Wyrd of the Wild Wood," the second in an ongoing series of organized play adventures for Pelgrane Press's 13th Age. The following characters made appearances:

Captain Nagal, Tiefling Fighter

One Unique Thing: "I'm the sole survivor of the Perilous Host, a mercenary company sworn to the service of the Crusader."

Icon Relationships: Crusader (Conflicted) 2, Diabolist (Negative) 1.

Backgrounds: Mercenary Captain +5, Nursemaid to an Ailing Mother +2, Hunted and Persecuted +1.

Gral, Human Paladin

One Unique Thing: "I occasionally gain glimpses of people's souls."

Icon Relationships: Crusader (Conflicted) 1, Emperor (Conflicted) 1, Priestess (Conflicted) 1.

Backgrounds: Courtly Upbringing +2, Fought for the Crusader +2, Student of Myth +2, Wandering Theologian +2.

Kadüm, Half-Orc Barbarian

One Unique Thing: "I'm the bastard son of the Orc Lord."

Icon Relationships: Orc Lord (Conflicted) 2, Lich King (Negative) 1.

Backgrounds: Black Dog Mercenary +3, Basic Imperial Training +2, Thieves' Guild Muscle +2, Banished to Abandoned Outpost +1.

Stick, Gnome Bard

One Unique Thing: "I'm the world's tallest gnome."

Icon Relationships: Crusader (Negative) 1, High Druid (Negative) 1, Orc Lord (Negative) 1.

Backgrounds: Has Performed in Every Slum in the Empire +5, Used to Life on the Road +3.

The adventure began on the floating island of Darkskye, a former magic crystal mine turned into an imperial prison. Gral and Stick were on Darkskye as investigators for the Priestess's Committee on Prison Reform (Gral because he believes in the Priestess's work, Stick because he had stolen the High Druid's stash and was trying to get as far away from the Wild Wood as possible); Captain Nagal was serving as one of the prison guards; and Kadüm was a prisoner (with a secret mission to mess with the Lich King's black market trade in Darkskye crystal dust).

Gral and Stick were asking Kadüm questions in Captain Nagal's presence about conditions at the prison when a powerful explosion shook the island. The floor of Kadüm's cell split open, nearly sending the half-orc falling into open air; only the quick reflexes of Captain Nagal saved him from disaster. Gral and Stick dove out of the way as a portion of the cell's ceiling collapsed onto the interview table, crushing it. The party decided that the best bet for survival was to stick together and make their way to the top of the island (rather than being crushed inside its bowels).

As they moved through the tunnels comprising the prison, they enjoyed scenes of disaster and madness. The explosion had supercharged the island's crystals, causing them to warp anything they penetrated. In one case, this meant a group of prisoners and guards from the mess hall. Transformed into hideous mutants, the unfortunate souls attacked the party. Doubly unfortunate because they were swiftly slain by the adventurers.

The prison continued to spiral out of control, and the adventurers were lucky to reach the island's top. When they did, they discovered that they were falling out of the sky above the Wild Wood. A stand of particularly tall trees stood within jumping distance of the lurching island, offering a means of escape. Before the party could take advantage of this fact, they found themselves facing a golem formed from the living crystals of the mines. Backing up the golem were a small hoard of crystalline minions. Things looked grim: the golem was laying into Gral, nearly beating the paladin into unconsciousness, and the other adventurers had suffered greatly from the razor-sharp storm of crystals swirling around the creature. But then Kadüm became a whirling dervish of death, destroying all of the minions and laying into the golem with his axe. The other adventurers rallied, making short order of the golem.

But they had no opportunity to celebrate their victory—the walls of the rainwater reservoir located on the island's surface crumbled with another lurch of the island, and a torrent of water rushed toward the party. Their only hope was the stand of trees. If they could leap over to them, then they would avoid the rushing flood and certain death by drowning.

Of course, every single character failed the DC 15 skill check needed to safely jump into the trees.

So the session ended with the party being swept over the side of Darkskye, plummeting to the Wild Wood below. Nothing like a good old-fashioned cliffhanger!

Some of the OOC highlights of the game: (1) the interview with Kadüm revealed that the Darkskye prisoners routinely dined on sky lobsters—caught with nets by flyers and cooked in delicious cloud butter; (2) barbarians are rough on mooks; Kadüm managed to crit his Whirlwind attack on the crystal minions for a total of 55 damage, singlehandedly wiping out all 10 mooks in a single standard action; and (3) a high-Charisma paladin can really lock down a big bad with Smite Evils.

I also felt that the simplified combat ranges of 13th Age (nearby and far away) worked quite well in play. As the photo at the start of this post indicates, we used minis for each PC and dice for the monsters. We didn't track exact position on a map, but used the minis and dice to indicate which combatants were engaged with one another. Everything else was "theatre of the mind."

I'm looking forward to running Chapter Two next weekend! Thanks to Pelgrane for a great game!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Beyond the Wall: Village and NPC Name Generator

Colin Chapman has put together Home by Any Other Name, a free PDF supplement for Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures. The PDF allows you to randomly generate medieval English names for both your characters' villages and their family members and fellow villagers.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Glenn Lord's Robert E. Howard Archive To Be Housed at the University of Texas

In awesome news for scholars, more than 15,000 pieces of Glenn Lord's Robert E. Howard archive have been donated by Lord's estate to the University of Texas at Austin's Henry Ransom Center. Lord's generosity to his fellow Texans (and, by extension, the worldwide Howard fan and scholar community) is touching. What a wonderful way to preserve not only Howard's legacy but Lord's as well!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Dog Days of Summer

I don't want July 2013 to slip by without a post to the blog, so here's a little update on just how crazy the last month has been.

When I last posted on June 17th, I was days away from closing on both the sale of my current home and the purchase of my new home. Within twenty-four hours of that post, though, I was thrust into limbo: our buyers' lender indefinitely postponed the closing, throwing our planned purchase of a home into doubt (since we needed the sale to cover our down payment). Three weeks of misinformation, miscommunication, and general bureaucratic hijinks ensued. The end result was that the buyers had their loan application rejected—the sale was off.

We put our house back on the market and looked around at other real estate comparable to the house we had hoped to buy. Nothing was really a valid alternative for our needs. So we decided to take a risk: we have applied for a bridge loan on our equity to pay for the down payment on the house we wanted all along. The danger, of course, is that we will get what we want without selling our current home and thus end up paying two mortgages and two sets of utility bills. I'm confident that the house will do well as the real estate market picks up after the summer vacation, though. Fingers crossed!

The other insanity that's plagued me for a month is my fantasy-themed "Intro to Fiction" course. Not the students—the students are great, and I've enjoyed all of our discussions about the authors on the syllabus. (This class was especially amazing when it came to discussions of China Miéville's Scar.) No, the problem is that I underestimated how much work is involved in keeping up with the grading for an Advanced Composition course with a required total of approximately thirty pages of writing. In a regular semester, that's a lot of labor, but it's spread out over fifteen weeks. Condensed into eight weeks, the same amount of grading becomes a desperate race against time!

Class ends tomorrow (with a final discussion of Ursula K. Le Guin's Voices), so the end is in sight. I'll have to use the weeks between the end of summer school and the start of the fall semester to catch up on some of my own paper writing, but I should be able to resume a more regular posting schedule.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Beyond the Wall: Free Bestiary Available!

The ever amazing Colin Chapman has produced What Lies Beyond, a free, extended bestiary for the Beyond the Wall neoclone. The supplement has a nice selection of mundane and exotic beasts (e.g., the grindylow depicted above in one of my favorite Brian Froud images) as well as a template system for making unique undead (similar to the template systems already introduced in the BtW corebook for making unique demons, dragons, and goblins). Check it out!

P. S. I will be getting back to the BtW village blogtest soon. This week, however, I am up to my neck in packing for the move to a new home several blocks away. It's hard to believe just how many books my family owns—and how many boxes it takes to pack those books away!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fantasy Course Now Underway

Although today was technically the second day of my Summer Session II ENGL 109 "Intro to Narrative" course, it was in actuality the first day that the students and I discussed fantasy literature. Our author for this week is Lord Dunsany, and our story for today's class was "The Sword of Welleran." I began by giving the students a mini-lecture on the concepts of liminality and threshold experiences in ritual and literature. There was much talk of weddings as liminal rites we all know from life, books, and mass media. There was also a nice exchange about Batman as a liminar. Then I shifted class into discussion mode by asking the students to identify all of the liminal elements in Dunsany's story. They did a great job of this and were also quite alert to Dusany's ironic conclusion to the tale (which I won't spoil here for those who might want to read it).

I won't bore you all further with regular updates about the class, but I thought that I'd at least mention it was up and running. Anyone who's interested further can look at my syllabus. We finish up Dunsany this week with "The Fall of Babbulkund" and "The Kith of the Elf-Folk," then it's on to Robert E. Howard and "The Phoenix on the Sword" next Monday.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Fate Accelerated: Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Underhill

This is my one hundredth post on Vargold: The Wolf-Time, so I thought I'd dedicate it to J. R. R. Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins, the character who sparked my love of fantasy fiction back in the spring of 1979. I've never liked most of the RPG write-ups that I've seen for Bilbo; he usually ends up being awkwardly shoe-horned into a system designed for sword-and-sorcery action, something that's very far from his tea, cakes, and handkerchief-laden wheelhouse. Fate Accelerated does a much better job of accounting for this genteel fish out of water, so that's what I've used to generate the character sheet below.

Bilbo Baggins

High Concept: Respectable Gentle-Hobbit
Trouble: A Took on His Mother's Side
Aspects: Would-Be Burglar


Clever +3, Careful +2, Sneaky +2, Forceful +1, Quick +1, Flashy +0


Because I am a Lover of Puzzles, I get a +2 whenever I Cleverly overcome obstacles generated by puzzles, riddles, and other conundrums.

I decided to express Bilbo's fuddy-duddy Baggins qualities in his High Concept, leaving his suppressed Tookish penchant for adventure to his Trouble. Most of "An Unexpected Party" is about the conflict between these two sides of our protagonist. His remaining Aspect—"Would-Be Burglar"—reflects his position within Thorin and Company and will be repeatedly compelled by the dwarves' players to make Bilbo take the risks they hope to avoid. Because it's so perfect for his character, I stole Bilbo's Stunt right out of the main FAE rulebook (p. 31); at the start of the novel, it's encapsulated in his fascination with Thrain's map. My assumption is that Bilbo's remaining Aspects and Stunts will be determined in play. (In fact, I'd be tempted to skip ahead to "Inside Information" and make use of Bilbo's list of self-epithets to generate them.)

Thanks again to all my readers for sticking through my first hundred posts; I'm hoping to take much less than three years to produce the next hundred!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Beyond the Wall Blogtest: My Dwarven Adventurer's Raw Numbers

Everyone in the Beyond the Wall blogtest has agreed to first present the results of our playbook dice rolls and then to discuss those results before generating final character descriptions. Handling the process this way will also help us to collaborate on the village map and NPC list (rather than having to back away from decisions made in isolation).

Brett has already posted his dice rolls for his Would-Be Knight; Henry has done the same for his Self-Taught Mage. What follows are my results for my Dwarven Adventurer.

According to the playbook, my character has the following stats before any dice are rolled: STR 10, CON 12, DEX 8, INT 8, WIS 8, CHA 6.

The first set of tables answer the question "How did you come to the lands of men?"

In this section, the first subquestion is "What is the history of your clan?" I rolled an 8: "They have always worked the deepest mines, mining the richest veins of precious metals and gems." The mechanical bonuses for this result are +2 STR, +2 CON, and Skill: Mining. This subquestion comes with a map icon, indicating that I get to add a location to the village map. Since my character is from out of town, this decision is a bit tougher than the ones the human characters' players have to make. Perhaps there is a jeweler in town or a goldsmith who purchased the minerals dug up by my character's clan?

The second subquestion is "What drove you from the lands of your people?" I rolled another 8, getting the tragic result of "Your hold was destroyed by goblins." My STR gets another +2 bonus; my CON, a +1. Was my character the only dwarf from the hold to survive?

The final subquestion in this section of the playbook asks "When you left your own people, you found it difficult to live with humans. However, the other characters became your fast friends. Who else became your friend?" My roll of 3 on this table turned up a rather strange result: "Most humans found you too strange, and were frightened of you. You spent much time alone." Since this subquestion is supposed to generate an NPC for the list, it seems counter-intuitive for the playbook to produce a result that provides no hook for generating an NPC. My inclination is to roll again, but I thought I would consult with the group first about doing so. The mechanical bonuses for my roll are +1 CON, +1 INT, and +1 WIS.

At this point, I'm done with the first of the playbook's two major questions. My character's abilities are now as follows: STR 14, CON 16, DEX 8, INT 9, WIS 9, and CHA 6. He also has Skill: Mining.

Becoming a Level 1 Warrior, the character gains the class abilities Weapon Specialization and Knacks as well as a craft skill of my choosing. Since the specific nature of my class abilities will be decided by subsequent rolls on the tables, I initially thought that this skill would be as well. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Since the character came from a precious metals mine, I decide to make this skill "Goldsmithing."

Now I move on to the playbook's second major question: "What have you learned on your adventures so far?"

The first subquestion here is "How do you plan to build your hoard?" My roll is a 4, "You hold in your memory the location of the entrances to several lost elven tombs and plan to take their faerie gold." The mechanical benefits are +2 CON and Skill: Trapping. Can anyone say "plot hook for the GM"? I thought you could!

The next subquestion is "Like all respectable dwarves, you bear the weapon of your fathers. What is it?" With a roll of 2, my ancestors' weapon is apparently "A short but broad blade of heirloom steel." I get +3 CON and Weapon Specialization (+1 to hit, +2 to damage) with the short sword. I'm also supposed to add a building to the village map. Since this entire table is all about weapons, my choices here seem a bit limited: blacksmith, armorer, guardhouse. I'll take votes from the rest of the group.

(I'll also note that my character has run afoul of Beyond the Wall's maximum in-chargen ability value of 19. After these two tables, his CON should be 21—but it can't, so I settle for the 19 and hope I don't get another CON bonus.)

On the third subquestion table ("What was your first big hassle amongst the tall people? The friend to your right was there with you."), I roll a 1: "You were waylaid by a pack of giant spiders near the mountains. Your friend burned their webs as they descended from the trees, and gains +1 STR." My mechanic bonus is a +2 to STR and the Knack: Defensive Fighter (+1 AC). The friend bonus is a good one, given that the player to my virtual right is Brett's Would-Be Knight; he can definitely use a STR boost. We've also learned that the village is near the mountains.

The final subquestion is "What treasure do you keep that first drew the other characters to you?" My roll of 5 gives me "An untarnished silver chalice," a useless CON boost of +2 (that's four points of extra CON down the drain, boo-hoo), and a "cup which purifies its drink." I expect that the other players met my character in the tavern where he routinely drank from his own cup, the one family heirloom he rescued from the destruction of his hold. An NPC creation is signaled here. Since I earned a cup from this table, I think the NPC has to be the man or woman who fills that cup with strong ale: either the bartender at the tavern or the barmaid.

At this point, I'm done rolling. My character's abilities are STR 16, CON 19, DEX 8, INT 9, WIS 9, and CHA 6. My skills are Mining, Goldsmithing, and Trapping. About as classic a dwarf as you could expect (albeit clumsier than most—was he injured escaping from the goblins?). Time for the rest of the players to make comments and suggestions, I think!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Beyond the Wall: It Takes a Crowd to Source a Village

One of the best parts of Flatland Games' Beyond the Wall & Other Adventures neoclone is the way that its character playbooks seamlessly merge character creation and setting creation: as the players generate their YA-fantasy heroes, they simultaneously build and populate the heroes' home village. I thought it would be interesting to go through this process publicly, and so I asked for some partners-in-crime over at the Google+ OSR community.

Our premise is that the participants' blogs are actually players sitting at a table and going through Beyond the Wall character creation. Each blog is "seated" to the right of another blog, so the character it creates will take part in another character's backstory (as per chart 6 in each Beyond the Wall playbook). In addition, the locations and NPCs generated by each blog will be combined into a single village map and NPC key.

Here's the list of participants, blogs, and playbook choices in the order in which they're seated at the virtual table:

+Rob Barrett of Vargold: The Wolf-Time is creating a Dwarven Adventurer.
+Brett Slocum of The Eye of Joyful Sitting Amongst Friends is creating a Would-Be Knight.
+Henry Wong of The Campaign Expanse is creating a Self-Taught Mage.
+Pearce Shea of games with others is creating a Witch's Prentice.
+Anthony Simeone of Once More Unto the Breach is creating a Young Woodsman.
+Mike Lizardi of Fear No Darkness is creating a Halfling Outrider.

Brett is to my right, Henry is to Brett's right, Pearce is to Henry's right, Anthony is to Pearce's right, Mike is to Anthony's right, and I'm to Mike's right. Playbooks were selected in reverse order (i.e., Mike got first choice, Anthony second, and so on).

Before we begin, I'd like to thank the others for agreeing to take part in this exercise. Look for the first character post soon!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fate Accelerated: Menolly of Half-Circle Sea Hold

Ever since I was a boy I've had a soft spot in my literary heart for Anne McCaffrey's first six Pern books: Dragonflight (1968), Dragonquest (1971), Dragonsong (1976), Dragonsinger (1977), The White Dragon (1978), and Dragondrums (1979). The three Harper Hall books—Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums--are my particular favorites, both because I prefer Menolly to Lessa as a protagonist and because I like empathic fire lizards better than telepathic dragons. It's also the case that the Bantam paperback edition of Dragonsong (the one with the amazing Elizabeth Malczynski cover, reproduced above) was the first Pern book I encountered—so I guess we Impressed one another.

I was always miffed that a tabletop Pern roleplaying game never came about. I did spend a little time on one of the Pern MUSHes in the 1990s, but I soon tired of playing an Ista Weyr guard while all the established MUSHers were off having tinysex with their dragons elseweyr.

When reading Fate Accelerated Edition, it occurred to me that here was the perfect ruleset to run a Harper Hall game. (I suspect that a Dragonriders game would be better served by Fate Core.) Menolly as depicted at the start of Dragonsong was the obvious choice for a sample character. Here she is:

Menolly of Half-Circle Sea Hold

High Concept: Apprentice to the Deceased Harper Petiron
Trouble: Only a Girl
Aspects: Youngest Child of Sea Holder Yanus, Tall and Lanky


Clever +3, Careful +2, Quick +2, Forceful +1, Sneaky +1, Flashy +0


Because I am a Musical Prodigy, I get a +2 to Cleverly create advantages when writing songs.

"Apprentice to the Deceased Harper Petiron" represents Menolly's musical skill and training, while "Only a Girl" (a direct quote from the first page of the novel) is the source of all her difficulties: women aren't supposed to be Harpers, period. "Youngest Child of Sea Holder Yanus" covers her family situation, her elevated position within Half-Circle Sea Hold, and her various fishing-related abilities. "Tall and Lanky" accounts for Menolly's athletic aptitudes even while it also undercuts her appropriateness for the female responsibilities forced upon her by her Trouble. I've left one Aspect slot open for Menolly's unprecedented Impressing of nine fire lizards (e.g., "More Fire Lizards Than Anyone Else on Pern"?).

"Musical Prodigy" is my first attempt at a Stunt; Menolly's playing is certainly skillful, but it's her song-writing ability and the intricacy of her tuning that makes her stand out. Once she picks up her fire lizard aspect, I envision giving her some sort of fire lizard stunt, possibly a defensive one (reflecting the overwhelming assault her lizards carry out when someone threatens Menolly).

Thoughts? Suggestions for improvement?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Beyond the Wall: Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings, Oh My!

Flatland Games has now released Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings, their second free supplement for the Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures neoclone. Once again there's an introductory booklet with new fae-themed spells (e.g., Elf Shot, which lets a character imbue an arrow with paralyzing power) and NPCs to use in adventures (e.g., the Erl-King, a powerful fae lord who is as likely to play tricks on the characters as serve as their patron). There are also six demi-human playbooks, two for each kindred: the Dwarven Adventurer (Warrior), the Dwarven Rune Caster (Warrior-Mage), the Elven Highborn (Warrior-Mage), the Elven Ranger (Rogue-Mage), the Halfling Outrider (Warrior-Rogue), and the Halfling Vagabond (Rogue). This time round the killer app is the Halfling Outrider's magic pony: you get a 1d6 roll to find out what your pony's special talent is. I'm partial to the pony who can open doors, climb stairs, and always find the good stuff the tavern-keeper otherwise hides.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

RIP, Ray Harryhausen

My favorite of Ray's many amazing monsters (although Medusa from Clash of the Titans runs a very close second). A giant has passed today.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Fate Accelerated: The Grey Mouser

I've been tinkering with the draft of Fate Accelerated Edition, the rules-light version of Evil Hat Publishing's upcoming Fate Core game, and thought I'd post this FAE version of Fritz Leiber's Grey Mouser for comment. It's based on my 2010 write-up of the Mouser for Barbarians of Lemuria, although I've opted for the Mouser of "Jewels in the Forest" (the first published Nehwon story) instead of the "Ill Met in Lankhmar" version I used before.

The Grey Mouser

High Concept: Rogue of All Trades
Trouble: Curiosity Killed the Cat
Aspects: Bromancing the Stone with Fafhrd, Failed Wizard's Apprentice, Surgeon with a Blade


Quick +3
Clever, Sneaky +2
Careful, Flashy +1
Forceful +0

I'm holding off on generating some stunts for the Mouser because I still don't fully grok them, even with the streamlined FAE rules. I do think that at least one stunt should handle the Mouser's noted ability with a sling while another might deal with the statement in "Jewels" that Mouser is an expert forger of documents and objects. With a Refresh of 3, the Mouser technically gets a third stunt, but I'm not sure what that could be.

Overall, I'm quite pleased with the way that FAE cuts to the chase. The approaches (how the character gets things done) are a nice alternative to skills, and I like the system's relegation of magic to little more than an aspect. Any changes that need making here?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Tom Scioli's American Barbarian

Since I've added comics to Vargold's blogging remit, I thought it might be nice to write a post about G0dland artist Tom Scioli's gonzo web-comic American Barbarian. Set in a post-apocalyptic American akin to that of Jack Kirby's Kamandi and the cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian, American Barbarian pits its Kirbyeseque hero, the red-white-and-blue-haired warrior Rick Yoosamon, against the villainous giant Two-Tank Omen. (He's a pharaoh with tanks for feet.) You can read the entire book on Scioli's website (linked above) or buy a hardcover copy from AdHouseBooks.

In this post, I want to focus on a gag of Scioli's that not only demonstrates the series' sense of humor but also shows the sort of artistic effect that comics can pull off effortlessly. Early on in the series, the forces of Two-Tank Omen attack and kill Rick's father and brothers. When Rick discovers his family's bodies, he fights through his grief to a sense of outrage and a desire for vengeance, a desire he makes permanent by marking it on his flesh:

The immediate reveal of what Rick carves on his fingertips is an unfortunate Photoshop job on what appears to be Scioli's own hands. Much better is the drawn reveal as Rick attempts to get close to Two-Tank Omen by pretending to want to join the villains' forces. The word balloons on the page contain the lies Rick tells Two-Tank Omen; the character POV in the last panel reveals the truth of what Rick feels in his heart:

Triple exclamation-points aside, this panel is not the gag's pay-off, however. That comes latter as Rick directly takes the fight to Two-Tank Omen in pitched battle. He makes short work of the villain's minions, but misses his chance to kill his family's murderer. Rick finds himself once again staring at his fingers—not with determination but with recrimination:

In the top tier of the page, Scioli replicates the POV of the earlier panel where Rick swears his "allegiance" to Two-Tank Omen. But he pulls back to a more distant position, isolating Rick and emphasizing the diminishment that comes with failure. We're not sharing Rick's POV here, but critically look at him. The bottom tier reverses the "camera" angle and zooms in, giving us a shot of Rick's expression as he considers his fingers. The grim punchline follows on the very next page. The implicit question is "Revenge!!!?" The answer is:

That top panel is one of my favorite in all comics. Scioli uses the mirror-image effect in Rick's pupil to turn heroic will into impotent failure, "revenge" into "never." He underlines the point by zooming in even further and adding red blood vessels to connect to the red scars on Rick's fingertips. It's a brilliant gag, and I can't see it being pulled off anywhere but comics. You could possibly do it in film, but it would appear contrived whereas here it appears wholly natural. American Barbarian is thus on one hand Kirby-pastiche but on another Tom Scioli's own artistic statement. I highly recommend it.

(BTW, if these pages don't convince you to read the book, how about this one?

"Robosaurs? I'm fucked!" is essentially more or less the cri-de-coeur of every Old School player character ever.)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Great Caesar's Ghost, Superman, You're 75 Today!

Seventy-five years ago today the first issue of Action Comics hit the newsstands, introducing the world to the Last Son of Krypton. Kal-el has changed a lot since then (the compassionate icon depicted above in my favorite page from Morrison and Quitely's All-Star Superman is not the brash young populist bulling his way around in Siegel and Shuster's early stories), but he's still just as super as ever. Happy Birthday, Big Blue!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Beyond the Wall: Nobility Playbooks Now Available

Flatland Games has just released The Nobility, the first in a series of free Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures add-ons. The supplement consists of a short introductory booklet (containing guidelines for working noble characters into BTW's village creation system as well as a collection of useful NPCs or "Castle Denizens") as well as six Noble playbooks: the Apprentice Court-Sorcerer (Mage), the Forgotten Child (Rogue), the Future Warlord (Rogue / Warrior hybrid), the Gifted Dilettante (Mage / Rogue hybrid), the Nobleman's Wild Daughter (Warrior), and the Novice Templar (Mage / Warrior hybrid). So far my favorite bit is item 6 on the Wild Daughter's "How did you finally earn the men's respect?" table: "You haven't . . . yet." Cue Alanna-esque hijinks!

S&W Appreciation Day: An Opening Reflection

To be perfectly honest, my first encounter with Matt Finch's work—a reading of his Quick Primer for Old School Gaming—initially helped to turn me off the Old School Renaissance. The Quick Primer is a manifesto, a polemic making a case for old-style games, and so, as genre dictates, it has to make strawmen of its opponents. Matt's depiction of a "new-style" GM is self-admittedly extreme, but it still rubbed me the wrong way back in early 2009—especially since I, who was playing and loving Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons at the time, considered myself to be a gamer of roughly equal vintage to the self-professed Old Schoolers. I didn't appreciate being lectured about "rulings, not rules" and a great many other "old-style" principles I had been applying to so-called "new-style" games for decades.

My reaction to the Quick Primer didn't make me charitable to the earliest versions of Swords & Wizardry either. What I saw in those texts was a version of D&D even more "extreme" than the one I had abandoned in the mid-1980s for such games as WEG Star Wars and the Second Edition of Talislanta. I came to D&D through first the Holmes and then the Moldvay Basic sets; I had no emotional or historical connection to OD&D. So I deleted my downloads of S&W and moved on.

Or so I thought. I loves me a good controversy, and so I had quietly followed the various flame wars between advocates of the OSR and the "new-style." I even took part in a few debates in the comments section of James Maliszewki's Grognardia, defending the honor of post-1985 games against James and his fellow Old Schoolers. Because I knew James personally from our 1990s days as freelancers for White Wolf, there was nothing personal in these exchanges. Moreover, I had to admit that there was an awful lot of awesomeness emanating from the Old School blogs: I didn't accept their basic premises, but I appreciated their creativity.

So when I decided to launch a Barbarians of Lemuria-themed blog of my own in February 2010, I did so with an eye toward dialogue with the sword-and-sorcery-inclined members of the OSR. James did me a solid by promoting Vargold on Grognardia, and I began adding OSR blogs to my blogroll. Updating the blogroll led in turn to lots of reading, and reading led to sympathy and a better understanding of what Old Schoolers were up to—even if I still occasionally find myself gritting my teeth in response to certain comments about "new-style" games and gamers. I was also playing Fourth Edition at Urbana's Armored Gopher Games just a few tables away from Jeff Rients's Wessex game, and it was easy to see and hear the raucous good time all those Old Schoolers were having.

(It didn't hurt that the OSR had Peter Mullen producing artistic gems like the covers of S&W White Box and S&W Core and Knockspell #1. I'm a visual guy, and the OSR's cultivation of interesting artists really spoke to me.)

Long-time readers of Vargold were there for this transition, reading along as I discovered such OSR games as Kevin Crawford's Stars Without Number, Chris Gonnerman's Basic Fantasy RPG, and John Stater's Blood & Treasure. I'm not a convert to the Old School: conversion reeks too much of purity for my taste, and so I've continued reading and playing newer games alongside older ones, Dungeon World in conjunction with Dungeon Crawl Classics. Not surprisingly, it's clear that my favorite OSR systems are precisely those presenting themselves as hybrids, neo-clones, and chimerae.

This was my mental state earlier this year when I gave S&W another look. I'll admit that it was the striking Erol Otus cover to S&W Complete that grabbed my attention: the illustration contains everything that I love about Otus's work without being a slavish recreation of his earlier glories (something I thought the Hackmaster covers indulged in too much). It's also true that I can't resist a $9.99 gaming PDF. I summoned PayPal and bought the game.

What impressed me most about S&W Complete was the capacious tone undertaken by Matt and his collaborators: optional sequences for combat, rules for ascending or descending Armor Class, guidelines for replacing demi-human level limits with XP penalties, and all manner of sidebars suggesting alternative approaches and solutions. This version of S&W seemed to me to be less about strict re-creation and more about awesome recreation. (I've subsequently downloaded the latest free versions of White Box and Core and found them to be similarly loosened up and self-conscious.)

There also seems to me to be a friendlier, less-defensive tone in the OSR community these days. Maybe it's the G+ interface, or maybe it's just that the OSR as a group more or less gave up its agon with Wizards of the Coast (or at least largely agreed to stop going on about it). Whatever the cause, I find that Old Schoolers are spending more time creating wonderful things than on policing their boundaries against "new-style" interlopers. I feel as though I can now confess to liking Barbarians of Lemuria and Crypts & Things at the same time without getting critiqued for doing so—and that's a significant change since 2008.

So that's how I've come to appreciate Swords & Wizardry. I'm still more likely to run the game in its Crypts & Things incarnation: the changes made to the system by Akrasia and Newt Newport are more to my liking. But I can also begin to see ways to work those changes back into the more traditional D&D-style setting that S&W assumes. Indeed, I'm sure that many of the posts published today will help me to do so. Thanks!

Up next: a party of Crypts & Things adventurers to send a-tomb-robbing.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

S&W Appreciation Day: Unleash the Hounds (and the Credit Cards)!

Since I have to both prep and teach my medieval literature class, my more creative offering for Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day will probably not be showing up until late Wednesday afternoon—i.e., after class. But I can at least direct those of you enjoying the S&W goodness to these two single-day sales of S&W merchandise:

1. Frog God Games has a coupon (code SWApprDay) worth 25% off all of their S&W merchandise, physical and otherwise.

2. The good folks at d20pfsrd.com are also offering a 25% off coupon (code SWAD252013) for their S&W-related PDF wares.

I'll be snagging myself a copy of S&W Complete to go alongside my copy of Crypts & Things

Modifying the Vargold "Brand"

Recently I've been feeling somewhat restrained by Vargold's exclusive focus on fantasy fiction and role-gaming—not because fantasy has lost its place as my favorite genre, but because I've been thinking of things I'd like to write about other genres and forms and media. I could do so on a separate blog (indeed, that was my original plan back in 2010 when I created Vargold to cover fantasy gaming and fiction and Krakalactaka! to cover comics), but I have found that maintaining multiple blogs is more or less a recipe for abandoning at least one of them.

I'm therefore "rebranding" Vargold by broadening its scope to take in comics and other species of speculative fiction. Fantasy will remain the primary focus of the blog, but it will no longer be the only lens through which I view nerd culture. To signal this shift, I've modified the blog description above to read "Barbaric Yawps on Comics, Role-Gaming, and Spec-Fic."

Monday, April 15, 2013

Beyond the Wall: Test-Driving the Character Playbooks

As promised in my last entry, here's my test-drive of one of the Beyond the Wall Character Playbooks. The game comes with six playbooks, two for each of the game's three classes: the Warrior is represented by the Village Hero and the Would-Be Knight; the Rogue, by the Untested Thief and the Young Woodsman; and the Mage, by the Self-Taught Mage and the Witch's Prentice. (There are other playbooks devoted to noble characters and demi-humans in layout right now.) To keep things simple, I'm going to start with one of the Warrior playbooks, the Village Hero. It's not exactly an Assistant Pig-Keeper, but it's as close as BTW currently gets to that archetype.

The Village Hero begins the character creation process with scores of 10 in STR and CON and scores of 8 in the remaining four abilities. These scores will change in response to my rolls on seven background tables, three detailing the character's childhood and four explaining how the character became a member of his or her class.

To discover what my character's parents did for a living, I roll 1d12 and consult the first table. A roll of 10 reveals that my father was a watchman, "stern but fair with child and stranger alike." In game terms, I increase the character's STR to 12, his CON to 11, and his CHA to 9. I also add the Athletics skill; in BTW, skills add +2 to relevant ability checks.

Attached to this table is an icon depicting a scroll. This icon tells me that I may now add a location to the village map and thus determine a fact about the characters' home town. (BTW's village map begins with a tavern icon in the center and then encourages the group to create the rest of the village as they move through the character creation process.) I don't have to link this location to my roll on the table, but I'll do so nonetheless, placing a town jail next to the tavern.

The second table asks me to roll 1d8 to learn what distinguished my hero as a child. My roll of 8 reveals that the character was fairly well-rounded as a lad, learning a bit of something from everyone. His DEX, INT, and WIS all increase to 9.

The third and final childhood table uses a 1d8 roll to determine which of the villagers befriended my character in his youth. (BTW assumes that the player characters were all best friends growing up, so this table is used to establish who else was particularly friendly.) I get another result of 8: "The grizzled mercenary who settled in town taught you a thing or two." I raise my hero's DEX and WIS to 10 and boost his CON to 12.

I also find another icon linked to the table, this time an image of a hand. The rules inform me that I may add an NPC to the list of villagers on the right side of the village map. Again I'll play things straight and make this NPC my character's mercenary mentor.

Three rolls into the process, I now have a warrior character with STR 12, DEX 10, CON 12, INT 9, WIS 10, and CHA 9. He also has the Athletics skill. Finally, I've made two explicit contributions to the party's home base: the town jail and a retired soldier. Perhaps the latter is my hero's father's deputy—or perhaps the mercenary was an amiable drunk who spend lots of time detoxing in the jail and thus got to know my character. There are lots of possibilities here.

I now move to the tables explaining how my character became a Level 1 Warrior. As a beginning Warrior, I acquire two class abilities: Weapon Specialization and Knacks. (The playbook instructs me that my rolls will determine the exact nature of these abilities.) I also pick up the Folklore skill.

Table Four asks me to roll 1d6 to determine how my hero made his name as a fighter. I get a 4 and discover that I saved one of the village children from a pack of ravenous wolves. A bonus of +3 increases my DEX to 13; I also acquire the Survival skill.

Next I roll 1d6 to establish where my character acquired his facility with arms. My result of 1 indicates that I stood in the shield wall during an enemy attack on the village, giving me +2 to CON (for a total of 14) and a Weapon Specialization with the Spear. There's a scroll icon linked to this table, giving me an opportunity to create another village location. Again I opt for the obvious choice and place a crumbling stone wall around the outside of the map.

The sixth table is one of the more interesting ones. It determines my hero's secret, but it also establishes that the hero of the player to my right shares this secret. I roll 1d6 and get a result of 2: apparently my hero once ran from danger—and so did my character's compatriot. My hero raises his DEX to 15 and gains the Fleet Knack; the other player's hero raises his character's DEX by 1.

The seventh and last table is used to determine one of my hero's key possessions. This table varies from playbook to playbook and class to class; in the Village Hero's case, it determines the character's reward for bravery from his fellow villagers. My roll of 3 indicates that the blacksmith made my character a "well-crafted" weapon; I raise my hero's STR to 14 and add a "very fine" spear to his inventory. Cued by the hand icon attached to the table, I also add the blacksmith to the list of villagers.

My hero is now ready for play. Here's his sheet:

STR 14 (+1 to hit and to damage in HTH combat)
DEX 15 (+1 to hit in ranged combat and +1 to AC)
CON 14 (+1 HP per level)
WIS 10

Skills: Athletics, Folklore, Survival

Class Abilities: Weapon Specialization with Spear (+1 to hit and +2 to damage with this weapon), Fleet Knack (+1 to initiative)

Equipment: knife (d4 base damage), peasant's clothing, finely made spear (d6 base damage), thickest shield in town (+2 AC), leathers (+2 AC), free food and lodging forever, and 9 silver pieces

Alignment: Lawful

Base Attack Bonus: +1 (when wielding his spear, my hero has a total hit bonus of +3 and a damage roll of 1d6+3)

Initiative: +3

AC: 15

Fortune Points: 3

HP: 11

Saving Throws: Poison 14, Breath Weapon 17, Polymorph 15, Spell 17, Magic Item 16

Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures: Initial Reactions

Back in February, when I blogged about the experiences that brought me to role-gaming, I mentioned my encounter with J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit as possibly the crucial factor in making me primarily a fan of fantasy (and thus only secondarily a fan of science-fiction). Tolkien was certainly the first author to introduce me to fantasy, but Lloyd Alexander followed right upon the Professor's heels. In fact, I'm almost certain that I picked up my copy of Alexander's The Black Cauldron (the 1980 Laurel-Leaf edition with the blue-edged pages and the Jean-Leon Huens cover illustration depicted above) at the same Book Fair where I acquired my first copies of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I thus came to Prydain only a few weeks after I first visited Middle-earth.

I also had the honor of speaking with Lloyd Alexander twice: first as a sixth-grader participating in a phone interview and then as a graduate student in Philadelphia attending a meet-and-greet at Chris's Corner bookstore. After the phone interview, my reading teacher Marty Podskoch gave me a publicity photo of Alexander playing the violin; said photo now hangs on my living room wall. The bookstore meet-and-greet resulted in an autographed hardcover of Black Cauldron that is probably my most carefully guarded book. So I guess you could say that Lloyd Alexander meant—and still means—a lot to me.

Which is why I'm always surprised that Alexander never had a greater effect on role-gaming. He was certainly a factor in my own early gaming: one of my first Tunnels & Trolls character was a rip-off of Gurgi, and I remember adding Gurgi's ever-full sack of food to a list of Dungeons & Dragons magic items I was writing up. But beyond my own initial games I don't recall Alexander having much of a significant influence.

Until now: Flatland Games has just published Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures, a D&D neoclone explicitly "Inspired by the works of Ursula K. Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander" (as the BTW website puts it). What distinguishes BTW from other neoclones is its focus on the party as a band of "young heroes finding their way in dangerous situations" (p. 2 of the Core Rules booklet). D&D as YA fantasy instead of sword-and-sorcery, if you will.

Although it appears that you can more or less run the game as a rules-light version of D&D, BTW's "killer app" is its use of Character Playbooks (randomized life-paths generating different versions of YA fantasy archetypes) and Out-of-the-Box Play (as the players generate their characters using the Playbooks, their dice rolls help to generate the party's home village and influence the GM's scenario—the adventure provided with the initial rules has blank spaces for GMs to insert character-specific information and hooks that shape the way the scenario plays out).

BTW's approach to fantasy thus aims right at the oracular-pig-shaped hole in my gaming heart. I'm going to take some time tonight to roll up a character using one of the Playbooks (either a Taran-esque "Village Hero" or an Eilonwy-esque "Witch's Prentice"). Since BTW assumes that the players will create their heroes as a group (the sixth table in every Playbook not only generates a stat bonus for the character in question, but for the character of the player to the right), this sample hero won't be a completely accurate test case for the game. But I think it will nicely get at just what BTW has to offer the role-gaming scene.

Friday, April 12, 2013

S & W Appreciation Day + Frog God Games Discount = Profit!

I've heard from the good folks at Frog God Games and d20PFSRD.com that they will be offering a 25% discount on all Swords & Wizardry products come Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day (April 17th, next Wednesday). The coupon code for this one-day sale will be sent out prior to the event, and I'll post it here on the blog.

Since I've been putting off snagging a hardcopy of Swords & Wizardry Complete, this announcement comes as good news.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

There's a Thing in My Crypt

As Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day (4/17/13) draws closer, I've been brainstorming about what to write as my contribution. Luckily my copy of Crypts & Things finally arrived in the mail to assist me in this process. It's a handsome book, much better looking in hardcopy than in PDF—even if some of the monster art didn't survive the printing process (there are some panels that have essentially gone black in my copy).

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hulks & Horrors: Faraday King, ABD

For once, I'm getting some actual play out of a game book I've purchased: I've rolled up a character for a PBP Hulks & Horrors game run by John Berry himself. The game will be taking place in theRPGsite's PBP forum under the rubric of "The Korathraz Conflict"; there are still a few spots open for characters from interested players.

The character is a Scientist named Faraday King, ABD. (For those not familiar with academic shorthand, "ABD" stands for "All But Dissertation.") He only has 4 hp, so I haven't done a lot of work fleshing him out. For now, he's just a wet-behind-the-ears graduate student who's been unleashed from the lab to carry out field research on the Precursor cultures of Korathraz Sector.

Name: Faraday King
Class: Scientist
Level: Intern (1st)
Languages: Tradespeak, Scilang, Precursor-A


Hit Die: d6
Saving Throw: +1 WIS
Weapons: Pistol, Dagger
Armor: Light
Preferred Environment: Oxygen, Medium Gravity
Starting Credits: 1,200


Hit Points: 4
Armor Class: 7
Melee To-Hit: +0
Ranged To-Hit: +0
Carrying Load: 55 lbs. (29 lbs. carried)


STR: 11
INT: 15 (Charge +2)
WIS: 10
DEX: 10
CON: 11
CHA: 14 (3 languages)


DEX: 10
CON: 11
WIS: 11


Charge Points: 4
Lvl 1 Programs: Detect Energy, Lock Opener


Science!: See above for multi-tool’s capacity.

What Is It, Doc?: Provided multi-tool still has Charge, adds +1 to INT checks to identity foreign objects.

Overload: By overloading and destroying multi-tool, can execute one final program regardless of Charge cost. Can only replace multi-tool at home base / home ship.


Laser Pistol: 2d6H damage, 2 lbs., 180 cr.
2 magazines: 15 shots each, 2 lbs., 36 cr.
Fiberweave: AC 7, 2 lbs., 100 cr.
Filter Mask: 50cr.
Rebreather: 1 lb., 100 cr.
EarPod: 100 cr.
Collapsible Solar Panels: 10 lbs., 200 cr.
Wrist Computer: 1 lb., 200 cr.
Filter Bottle: Holds 16 oz. of water; 1 lb., 30 cr.
Pocket Knife: 1 damage, 1 lb., 20 cr.
Backpack: Carries 50 lbs., 2 lbs., 40 cr.
Electronic Torch: lights 60’ area, 24 hr. charge, 1 lb., 20 cr.
Field Ration (x5): 1 day meal each, 5 lbs., 50 cr.
Clothing: 1 lb., 20 cr.


54 cr.