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 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 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.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Hulks & Horrors Has Docked at Vargold Station

My copy of John Berry's Hulks & Horrors arrived in the mail today. Published by Bedroom Wall Press, the game is a brilliant translation of D&D tropes into science fiction terms. It's also lovingly typeset in what appears to be the same Optima font as Traveller. Looking forward to giving the book a closer read and reporting back here.