Jul 30, 2009

Late to the Debate

I just became aware of this raging debate on RPG.net called "Old School: Freedom Or Fascism?".

The basic question is the OSR (old school renaissance) looking at OD&D through rose-colored glasses, or was OD&D really all that great?

The correct answer is no we are not looking at it through rose-colored glasses and yes it really was (and is!) that great a game.

I only recently discovered this thread because Mr. Lizard updated his website and posted it on there. It looks like an interesting site with some interesting RPG related topics. As far as I'm concerned this world is big enough to include all types of gamers, all types of fans, and all types of RPG's. Personally I love the "cutting-edge" independent RPG's as well as slick modern RPG's and everything in between. But my heart is really in that period just before the release of 2nd edition D&D, when it felt like I could participate in the creativity of the game. I didn't have to have a rulebook that spelled everything out. I didn't need a fully-fleshed out campaign world with modules that had the story all worked out for me. That mid-1st edition era is the sweet spot for me. Dragon magazine from issue 1 to 100 was a consistant level up in quality. Before the trending down of the 2nd edition era. (Oh, there where some bright spots in that period too. Dark Sun was very interesting, and Planescape was extremely imaginative).

Of course, all of this is my experience with the game. Everyone had a different experience. And really to call anything better or worse is based more on personal taste than on anything we could remotely call objective.

But from this vantage point, 35 years after the game was first published, looking back at it all. I can say there have been a lot of variations, a lot of interesting ideas, but that original boxed set of 3 booklets contained the essentials of RPG's and have yet to be bested. Polished, tweaked, better production values? Sure. But the basic set-up has yet to be improved on: a DM, players with defined characters, some rules that were more common guideline than law, a set of odd dice, your imagination, and a destination filled with adventure and mystery.

Jul 28, 2009

Top Ten Round-Up

1. Dungeon Master's Guide (1e)
2. Player's Handbook (1e)
3. Dragon Magazine #83
4. Village of Hommlet
5. Ravenloft
6. Gamma World (2e)
7. Rogues Gallery
8. Dragonlance: Dragons of Desolation
9. Star Frontiers
10. D&D Expert Set

Runners up: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, Against the Cult of the Reptile God. And it's a travesty I didn't squeeze the Rules Cyclopedia in. In many ways it deserves the number 1 spot since over the years it has grown so much in stature.

I thought doing a top 10 was a great idea to buy time while I got ahead on the Monastery Ruins project. Instead it turned out to be incredibly hard to sort out what my favorites where - and in the end I realized that it is really impossible to categorize these beloved products in this manner. Even now I would probably make a very different list.

Top 10 favorite TSR products, #1 Dungeon Master's Guide

Here we are, #1. Should be no surprise that it is the original Dungeon Master's Guide. I've mentioned before how this book was my first exposure to D&D. I had no understanding of how the game played but this book evoked a fantasy world and a mystery that intrigued me deeply.

Some of my favorite things were the explanations of unfamiliar words like milieu and campaign. Expert hirelings - for some reason the sage was interesting to me. Aerial combat. The sample dungeon! Stronghold construction and siege - something sadly lost in later editions. Artifacts, in particular Baba Yaga's hut and eye/hand of Vecna of course. Random Dungeon generation - which inspired Dungeoneer. The random city encounters table is particularly good. Alphabetical monster charts - which I'd read before ever seeing the Monster Manual. All those wonderful random charts in the back were inspiring and useful.

Then of course were those great illustrations. There is no honor among thieves. Darlene's scratchboard illustration on the page discussing infravision/ultravision. The guy trapped in a flooding room with the skeleton coming towards him. Sutherland's footer illustrations under the random dungeon generation pages. Emerikol the Chaotic!

This book still holds an enchantment on me and just looking at it stirs the imagination.

Jul 27, 2009

Mouse Guard the RPG

I just got back from Comic Con, what a great show! This is the first year since the 90's I have gone not to work an artist's table, but as just a fan enjoying the show. I forgot that the convention is actually fun, not just work. I saw so many great things, but there was one in particular that really inspired me:

David Petersen's Mouse Guard.

Mouse Guard is a sort of medieval Secret of Nimh (one of the best 2d animations ever btw), where the courageous Mouse Guard protects the trade routes between the mouse cities in a dangerous world where everything is larger than them and wants to eat them. It is a tale of bravery and character and of loyalty and treachery - all the stuff that happens to make for a great role playing game. I consumed the entire first collected series while on the plane back from San Diego and am hungry for more. If you like good graphic novels, heck if you just like good stories, get Mouse Guard!

While this blog is an old-school RPG fan blog, allow me to indulge in the part of me that still geeks out on new, exciting role playing games - especially of the independent flavor. I have long been impressed with Luke Crane's Burning Wheel RPG system and in particular its adaptation to Christopher Moeller's Iron Empires universe in the inspiring (and dense) Burning Empires RPG.

Luke Crane has taken his keen writing and game designer's sensibilities and applied them to the Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game, co-written and illustrated by David Petersen. It is really a gorgeous book. The writing is sharp and it looks really fun. I hope to get a chance to play it soon.

Yeah, I have a thing for artist-driven RPG's.

Jul 23, 2009

Top 10 favorite TSR products, #2 Player's Handbook

It's almost a cliche' to even mention this, one of the greatest RPG books of all time. The Player's Handbook!

Hey, wait a minute...something's not right here. I don't even recognize this book! Where did it come from?

Ok, ok. Here it is. The TRUE Player's Handbook!
Words fail to describe the awesomeness of this masterpiece. Gygaxian rambling, I mean prose. Ability tables that have modifiers all over the place. But what made this book really special was the shear ambition it encompassed and the flavorful character it possessed. Full color hard cover, 128 pages, profusely illustrated was unheard of in it's day for the burgeoning RPG market. Instead of me telling you about it, look for yourself.

Jul 22, 2009

D&D art that could have been

The passing of Ellie Frazetta has gotten me to thinking about a particular era of fantasy art that holds a special place in my heart. And one of my favorite artists from that time was Jeffrey Jones.
What if Greyhawk looked like this?

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if Gary & co. had different taste in art and had access to different kinds of artists when D&D was first published.
From 1967 to 1976 Jeffrey Jones worked as a freelance illustrator, starting in comics and moving to novel covers, many of them fantasy. His style of fantasy, to some degree inspired by Frank Frazetta, is best described as "romantic fantasy" a style considered quaint by today's standards. Yet a type of art I am still very much enamored by. Though I dare not let a hint of it show in my current work if I want to still get commissions.
Jeffrey Jones left working commercially in order to pursue "fine art" in 1976, joining a studio with Barry Windsor Smith and the great Michael Kaluta. The aesthetic of these artists is radically different from the kind of fantasy art that was being published by TSR during the same time period. I'm qualified to say their work was considerably more sophisticated in terms of their design and technical skill.
Of course there is so much nostalgia tied up in that old D&D art that today it is difficult to separate feelings from the equation. And as with all discussions regarding beauty the eye of the beholder reigns supreme. Still, there is one painting Jeffrey Jones did that it is remarkably easy to make a side-by-side comparison.
In these strikingly similar compositions it is easy to imagine what the original books could have looked like. (Though the intensity and darkness of this piece is unlike most of Jones' work.) Jeffrey Jones has always been one of those artists who other artists admire tremendously, but he never saw as much commercial success as this admiration would seem to warrant. An excellent compilation of his work was published a few years ago that I highly recommend.
Imagine if Gamma World looked like this.

I confess that Frank Frazetta would be my dream artist for old D&D, but he was already too famous by the time D&D was invented. Jeffrey Jones was just at the height of his commercial work at this time, and I would have been happy to have been influenced by his work as a young developing artist. I didn't discover him until well into my 20's.

The one edge, and really the most important edge, that the D&D artists had was their sense of narrative - their ability to convey what happened in the imagination of D&D players, as the cover of the 1st edition Player's Handbook so elegantly demonstrates. However I have little doubt that given the same task Jeffrey Jones could have risen to the occasion and delivered that special imagination and artistry of his own.

Jul 14, 2009

Top 10 favorite TSR products, #3 Dragon Magazine #83

The greatest issue of Dragon magazine ever published: #83
It also happens to be the first issue I ever bought. I strolled into Kay Bee Toys, which had a meager selection of TSR products - and they just happened to have a stack of the latest issue of Dragon magazine. I had seen earlier issues of this magazine before. Fleeting glimpses of other kid's copies seeing just enough to be intrigued as I nervously got on the school bus, hoping for a decent seat. It took all the allowance money I could muster $3...and it was mine!

This cover was filled with rich imagination, done before Dragon covers were about pushing a particular product line or IP. Den Beauvais was one of the greatest artists to ever put paint to the D&D world. I think he was just as much an influence on me as the late, great Keith Parkinson was.

The contents of this magazine still stand up as some of the best articles to see the late magazine.

The ecology of the stirge. By this point the ecologies were a fairly regular feature, but this was the first time I'd seen or read one. To think of a simple Monster Manual entry in such rich, detailed terms changed my view of the nasty little bloodsuckers forever in my mind.

The test of the twins. Our first glimpse of the Dragonlance world. I enjoyed this story, but it was "A Stone's Throw Away" by Roger Moore in issue 85 that lured me into Dragonlance (the tale of Tasselhoff and Demogorgon).

The Dancing Hut. This is the reason #83 is the greatest. This is my favorite adventure published in any of the TSR magazines. Roger Moore brought Baba Yaga to life and made her one of the best arch-villains of all time. The map was based on a tesseract - a purely mathematical construct - which can be best understood as a polyhedron layed flat, each "side" is a room, but the sides still connect the same. Roger Moore's work in Dragon is some of the finest to grace the magazine.

How to finish fights faster. A much better unarmed combat system than the one described in the DMG (which was nearly unplayable). We tried this a few times and it worked fine, but really, unarmed combat didn't happen in our adventures all that much.

A look at AOK's. An article for Top Secret, a game I never played.

SF/gaming convention calendar. This was how I discovered that groups of D&D fans got together in conventions and played! It was years until I was finally able to go to one (Dundracon in San Ramon, CA being my first).

Good evening, Mr. Bond. A review of the 007 RPG. This review made me want to get the game, but I never saw it in stores. It intrigued me far more than Top Secret ever did.

Wormy. So great, so well drawn.

What's New? The hilarious Phil Foglio doing what he does best. This was one of the few that didn't mention Sex & D&D. Still funny though.

Snarfquest. My first exposure to our long-snouted friend, to this day this is still one of my favorite episodes. Willie "the duck" is awakened from Suthaze's spell and remembers she is Kizarvexious! As much as I like Elmore's early D&D paintings, I loved his pen & inks even more.

It's not all highlights though. There is a rather mundane article on gems with information any encyclopedia set could provide.

Thumbing through my copy I smile at all the old ads. This was when D&D was just about to hit its widest audience and there were so many hopefuls advertising their products in this mag. I see Avalon Hill promising their new gaming mag "Heroes". I've never seen a copy.

Witch Hunt. Man, Myth & Magic. Other Suns. Compleat Fantasy. Space Opera. Aftermath. Bushido. - I remember these ads but to this day I don't think I've ever seen a copy of the actual game.

To this day the magic still lingers on my copy of old #83.

Jul 6, 2009

Top 10 favorite TSR products, #4 Village of Hommlet

The Village of Hommlet. It is to AD&D what Keep on the Borderlands was to Basic. The start of so many adventurer's careers. I remember it being one of my first times playing D&D. We raided a peasant's hovel and I felt horribly guilty. This pulled me into the adventure emotionally and I felt the need to right wrongs and defend the village from the evil out there. Personally I always loved this version with the Dave Trampier cover over the later green cover with Jeff Dee art.
There were nefarious individuals, plotting, planning evil things in the 'innocent' little village. The nearby moathouse (yep, ruins, the best place for adventures) held unknown dangers and treasures. And the suggestion of a still greater evil unwakened - the mysterious Temple of Elemental Evil - it seemed like we waited forever to be published, and boy did it not dissapoint! The first of the "supermodules", packed with more entertainment for your dollars than any book or movie could deliver.
This is the highest ranking module on my list. It was hard to choose, there were so many great contenders. The honorable mentions are:

WG4 Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, which has a special place in my heart. While most of the adventure was typical, it was the weird lower levels where Tharizdun was imprisoned that made this adventure so special. And the art was appropriately strange and unlike any other thing TSR published.

The drow series is so famous I hardly felt the need to mention it. N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God had an incredible - nearly impossible - ending "boss" monster and the lead up to it was scrumptious. S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth felt like Gary Gygax mercilessly unleashing his imagination, it was such a great adventure and it had the best sourcebook included. I could go on.

But as great as all these other adventures were the Village of Hommlet will always rule my imagination and memories as the best module I ever played and DM'd.

Jul 3, 2009

Top 10 favorite TSR products, #5 Ravenloft

Those maps. That villain. The random plot generator. The gothic mood before goth was in. This is nearly my favorite adventure module of all time, there is only one better. But that's for a future post.