Friday, July 29, 2016

16 Great Television Shows for Kids: Introduction

For the honor of love!

No, this won't be some ponderous list of Traditionalist Catholic approved, Very-Holy-and-Very-Good-for-You efforts.

Not that there's anything wrong with it.

Rather, the operative word here is fun.

And I certainly don't think any of them are objectionable.

Yes, you don't want to go to Mass dressed like She-Ra. You probably don't want to go anywhere dressed like She-Ra. But this is reality and She-Ra is fantasy. She's a beautiful princess who fights evil, and (in my opinion) it's okay to do that without being encumbered by too many loose clothes, especially if the context (for children, at least) involves zero sexuality. Also, it's an 80's thing. 

Like many parents, my wife and I believe that much of contemporary culture and entertainment is either too "adult" or in and of itself pernicious, especially for children. Naturally we want to protect our two 2-year-olds and two 5-year-olds from it.

At this point that's not very difficult. Our older children are being home schooled and our friends - who might be hosting our kids for a play date or whatever - generally have similar values or attitudes when it comes to these things. 

But we do watch a fair amount of television, both together as a family and as something the kids do on their own. Since we live in a quasi-open loft and the kids still haven't learned how to operate the four remotes that control our byzantine-like structure of connected devices, "on their own" does not mean "unsupervised."

I don't think television or television watching is in and of itself a bad thing. Of course it's bad if one is watching something bad, or it might be bad to the extent that it takes time away from doing other valuable things - such as reading or engaging in imaginative play. But I'm not anti-TV by any stretch, and the DVD and streaming revolutions make it a lot easier to expose kids to "quality" or at least non-brain-numbing fare. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that television is another way for kids to learn - and I'm not referring merely to "educational" programs.

On just what might be good or bad to watch, one way that I might differ a bit with some parents is that I don't think violence per se is something that must be censored or kept away from kids. I feel like I didn't put that last sentence quite right, so let me try again. Obviously gory violence is bad, as is anything that either implicitly glorifies violence as some sort of end in itself or continually portrays it in an amoral fashion. And of course you don't want your kids having nightmares, or at least you don't want to be causing them. But I actually think that kids seeing good guys fighting bad guys (or ghosts or monsters or whatever) can be positive moral reinforcement, though I don't want to put too much stress on that. Stimulating their imagination - whether it's contemplating cowboys (which my kids have never seemed to be that interested in), space pilots or girl detectives - is even more important.

And, as mentioned above, there's that other important element: Fun.

So I've put together a list of sixteen television shows that I like and that my children have liked. Obviously, some of them were initially "proposed" by me to my kids because I liked them as a child - Lost in Space and Star Trek. Others were shows that I missed for one reason or another but that I discovered as an adult (with my kids in mind) - She-Ra and Jonny Quest. And still others were basically discovered by my kids - Octonauts and Thomas the Train.

But whatever their provenance, all of them have been greatly enjoyed by Oliver, Lydia, Edmund and Crispin.

I'm going to divide the shows among four posts. I hope they resonate with some of you. And if you haven't seen some of them (or haven't had your kids see them), I hope I "turn you on" to a few. But that doesn't mean, obviously, that I'm some super authority. And of course, what you want or allow your kids to watch should and will be always up to you.

It will be in alphabetical order and the commentary will start with the next post. Not to be too much of a tease but the first four are:

Dungeons & Dragons
He-Man/She-Ra
Jonny Quest
Lost in Space

As the song goes at the end of each She-Ra episode:

For the honor of love
We have the power
So can you!

It's not one of the Ten Commandments, exactly, and it doesn't mention God. But "for the honor of love" isn't a bad start. And in its way, I think it works.

Every young girl should have a sword. At least in her imagination.


Cross posted at Mahound's Paradise.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Giant Spreadsheet of OD&D, Holmes, AD&D and B/X Spells


In preparation for writing some new material for Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, I made an Excel spreadsheet of most of the canonical old school spells.

Others have put together similar lists, but I haven't found any that did it in this format.

If you like, you may download it from my public Dropbox here. I hope you find it useful.

The spreadsheet has a distinct line for each spell (including an additional line for its reversed version, if applicable) and lists which publication(s) it appeared in, including how it was named and numbered within that publication.

I did this fairly quickly so undoubtedly I made some mistakes. If anyone finds any, I would be grateful if you would point them out.

I count 482 distinct spells with an additional 55 reversed versions. They were introduced in this sequence:  

Men & Magic (1974): 90
Greyhawk (1975): 65
Strategic Review - Illusionists (1975): 25
Eldritch Wizardry - Druids (1976): 36
Holmes Basic (1977): 9
Players Handbook (1978): 122
Moldvay Basic set (1981): 0
Cook Expert set (1981): 1
Unearthed Arcana (1985): 134

Total: 482
Additional Reversed: 55

General Notes:
  1. I included the Illusionist spells in Strategic Review #4 because they would later become part of the canon. I did not include any other spells from Strategic Review or Dragon Magazine, although some would of course turn up later in Players Handbook or Unearthed Arcana.
  2. The publication dates are rough and may be off by a month or two. Obviously some spells had their genesis before they were officially published.
  3. The Cook Expert set seemed to include one spell - Striking - which I could not find in any other source. That seems odd to me and it's possible I missed the fact that it has some other name in AD&D.
  4. I didn't include cantrips. I am not a masochist or insane.
  5. Each distinct spell also includes its lowest and highest level according to the different versions by class and publication. All but 17 spells varied by no more than one level. The three greatest variances were Maze - 9th level Magic-User spell in Greyhawk, 5th level Illusionist spell in Players Handbook - Confusion and Create Water - 1st level Cleric spell in Players Handbook, 4th level Cleric spell in Cook Expert. Obviously, the precise description of these spells varied accordingly.
  6. Each spell also points to its reversed version, if any.
Notes on Seven Voyages of Zylarthen Spells:
  1. The spreadsheet also lists its Zylarthen counterpart, if any. As many of you know, for Zylarthen I ditched the Cleric as a player character, but gave non-player character High Priests, Evil High Priests and Witches their own somewhat distinct lists.
  2. In keeping with my methodology of including material only through mid-1975, most 1st to 6th level Magic-User spells from Men & Magic and Greyhawk were included as Zylarthen Magic-User spells, but the list was rounded out with some Cleric spells.
  3. High Priests and Evil High Priests were given many of the Cleric spells I didn't use, plus some 7th to 9th level spells from GreyhawkWitches were given a mix of extra Cleric, high-level Greyhawk and Illusionist spells. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Seven Voyages of Zylarthen/The Haunted Tower Play Report, Part 2: Towers in RPG Modules are Larger Than They Appear

A Candy Cane Golem

Clarification: Chris Gonnerman commented after Part 1 that much of the module was really the work of Stuart Marshall. I should have pointed this out, as there's a bit about the genesis of it in the PDF. Again, you may download The Haunted Tower here.

Before the play report, a quick digression:

Towers in RPG Modules are larger than they should be. I discovered this while designing my own module and comparing the size of the "tower" in it with famous real towers.

It swamped them.

The tower in "The Haunted Tower" is 90' x 90'. This is only slightly smaller than the famous "White Tower" (118' x 105') in the Tower of London. Even though the height (90') of the White Tower is less than its width, for many years it was the tallest building in London.

Judging from the cover, the Haunted Tower looks three or four times as high as its width. This would make it at least three times the height of the White Tower and, say, twice the height of the Tower of Pisa. So it would be quite a structure for an expat mid-level alchemist to construct on a hill outside of town.

It would be almost as large as five Highclere Castles (the real Downton Abbey) stacked on top of one another.

I think part of the problem is that "indoor" floorpans are often way out of proportion, probably due to the use of 10' squares as building blocks. While 10' may not seem large in the context of a cave or underground area, it's actually a sizable space within a room. For example, my relatively spacious-seeming loft apartment is (I think) no more than 20' wide, if that. Expressed in 10' square units, rooms in houses or even towers and castles are not really that large.

Not that it really matters. But there it is.

Back to the play report.

Ollie the Fighting-Man (my son Ollie's character), Zinda the Hobbit (my daughter Lydia's character) and Linda the Magic-User (my daughter's doll Betsy's character) were ready to proceed.

But first we had to pick figures. There was much rummaging around the thirty-year old unpainted Ral Parthas--many of which had their swords broken or curled.

My wife get's annoyed when I mention this, but there was a bit of transgenderism (which for some reason seems to be a staple of my games). Lydia picked the only painted figure--a tall Gandalf with a beard--as Linda's figure. And she said that she wanted her character--the Hobbit--to be disguised as a man. She rejected many of the thief types as looking too evil. "I'm not evil--I'm a thief. I steal things so I can get treasure," she earnestly explained.

Who said RPGs couldn't teach your kids ethics?

Ollie was adamantly against choosing a fighter with an axe. So we rummaged some more to find one with an unbroken sword.

We were ready.

The module has a hook where after you open the front door, you then walk a few steps down a hall and plunge down a chute to the basement level, where presumably the adventure usually starts. Remember that it's written with solo play in mind. But with three characters, one of whom was wielding a ten-foot pole, this was problematic.

Ollie fell into the chute (a foreshadowing of another fall he would have later) but was then pulled out by the others. There was no way they were all going down into that darkened basement.

They then walked into a sort of classroom where they found a Read Magic scroll and a sort of love letter in one of the desks. There was an "injured giant rat" hiding in the corner, but they didn't really stay long enough to discover it. And I ruled that the rat would be afraid to challenge a group of three characters. Perhaps they'll encounter it later.

Next was the "Candy Cane Golem Workshop" where they discovered an apparently lifeless Candy Cane Golem in two halves. On the table was a sort of cookbook that explained how a mixture of water and sugar could be used to glue the Golem back together. There was no debate as to whether or not this might be a good idea (it was obvious to them that the Candy Cane Golem was a "good" monster), and suddenly Ollie and Lydia were telling me how they had a lot of water (true) and sugar (false) in their backpacks.

Politely saying that they almost certainly didn't bring any sugar with them was their first introduction to resource management.

Then it was up the stairs to the next level (without checking the other rooms on the first floor). I don't know about the rest of you, but whenever I read a module I always make a conscious or unconscious assumption about the route the players will follow, which to some degree informs what things I pay the most attention to, or pay the most attention to before the first session. I always forget that this assumption will almost always turn out to be wrong--whether the players are forty...or four.

For those of you who have played D&D with young children, do you find that they are constantly playing with their figures--either moving them around or just playing with them? Or is it just my kids?  I'm probably  a wimpy referee but I hesitated to stop them since they seemed to be getting so much joy out of it. But the "marching order" was continually changing as giant hands swooped down to handle the figures.

The first room on the second floor contained a set of three shelves with a total of fifteen chests.

Now remember, my children have never played this sort of game before. Pretty much everything they know is from cartoons or stories or just four-year-old common sense. So the following reflected that mixture of ignorance and intuition.

My daughter announced that she wanted to open one of the chests by standing back and carefully lifting the lid with her sword. That floored me. I have absolutely no idea where she got that from.

Inside was a "small glass vial containing bubbly pale green liquid." Lydia said, "yuck" and put it back in the chest. It then hit me that after her initial surprising display of careful chest opening prowess, Lydia had no idea that Zylarthen/D&D features "potions" as treasures. I debated somehow telling her but then figured that discovering that herself would be part of the fun. I did have Linda the Magic-User suggest that she had nothing to lose by taking the vial with her.

Linda found another vial with a "slightly milky liquid"--eliciting another "yuck!" from the party, and then Ollie found a common lamp wrapped in straw, which elicited "oohs" and "ahs"--another example of the effect of having no preconceptions.

It was very important for them to each open a chest. But with twelve more to go, they didn't seem to have much interest in the others. So it was up the stairs to the next level, again busting my preconceptions--I had skimmed over that level, assuming it would be the last one they explored.

Here they would have their first fight. Notably, for an adventure that is pretty non-lethal--most of the monsters do only 1 point of damage, or you can easily run away from them, etc.--Ollie would almost die.

My wife and I briefly discussed this before the first session. Do Oliver and Lydia know that their characters can die? Should they know they can die? Should they die?

We'll have to leave Ollie's rude encounter with a planet for Part 3, but that's not what almost killed him. What did? One word:

Kobolds...

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Seven Voyages of Zylarthen/The Haunted Tower Play Report, Part 1


So this is the first game of Zylarthen/OD&D that my kids have played.

I didn't impose it on them. They asked to play after becoming fascinated with the Fiend Folio and Monster Manual. They don't even really know its name--"Seven Voyages of Zylarthen" or "Dungeons & Dragons" They simply call it "Daddy's game" or "the game with the figures."

Oliver and Lydia are almost five.

The module is The Haunted Tower by multiple authors, edited by Chris Gonnerman of Basic Fantasy fame. It's designed as an introductory adventure for children. There are all sorts of neat treasures, some fun "kid" monsters such as a Candy Cane Golem, and it is not very lethal--although it is certainly possible to die (and as we'll see, my son almost did). It's designed as a solo module, though one can play with two or three characters and just multiply the monsters (or not).

I like the module a lot and I had played it before, five or so years ago, with my nephew. It is available for free download here. If I am occasionally flippant about it, no criticism is intended.

The game system is Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, my OD&D neo-clone.

The figures are unpainted Ral Parthas from thirty years ago, plus some odds and ends such as some painted and unpainted Call of Cthulhu figures and a few printable paper minis from Arion Games. My daughter said the paper minis looked "really valuable."

In Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, you roll 3d6 in order with no mulligans, but ability scores are themselves less determinative or restrictive. If you want to play a Fighting-Man with a strength score of 5, you easily can. So, in a sense, it works for kids who have their own ideas of what might be fun to play.

But it's uncanny how often high scores seem to come up by rolling 3d6s. I knew my son wanted to play a "knight." On his very first roll (strength) he got an 18. And no, he didn't cheat.

They all rolled up characters. Here's what resulted:

Player: Oliver (Ollie)
Character Name: Ollie
Class: Fighting-Man
Level: 1st (Fighter)
Distinguishing Characteristics: Very strong, wears leather armor, uses a sword and shield and carries a mace for backup, speaks Bugbear (determined randomly) as an additional language.

Player: Lydia
Character Name: Zinda
Class: Hobbit (Thief)
Level: 1st (Borrower)
Distinguishing Characteristics: Very dexterous (17--again, rolled with 3d6), wears leather armor, uses a sword and buckler and carries a sling, also carries paint & brushes.

Now we also had a third character. Lydia asked whether her doll Betsy could have one. I said, why not?

Player: Betsy (Lydia's doll)
Character Name: Linda
Class: Magic-User
Level: 1st (Famulus)
Distinguishing Characteristics: Has a dexterity of 4 and a constitution of 6, knows Read Magic, Pyrotechnics and Speak with Animals, speaks Hill Giant (again, determined randomly).

Buying equipment went quickly--much more quickly than it usually does with adults. 

Without prompting, Lydia drew a picture of her character on her character sheet. Ollie followed. And Lydia drew Linda with a Wizard's hat containing a star. I'm not saying my kids are necessarily any cleverer than the average. But there's an intuitive aspect to the play of the game that children seem to pick up on.

They were ready to go. The Haunted Tower has a backstory--something about an alchemist being attacked by a werewolf and thus abandoning (?) his tower. But I found the backstory somewhat confusing (no offense to Chris--I often think that of backstories) and so I ditched it.

They were ready to go explore The Haunted Tower, for no other reason than the sheer adventure of it.

In Part Two, Ollie is hit by a planet...  

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Zylarthen Drow

Actual Size

This is a follow-up to yesterday's post, showing what I came up with.

Most obviously, I call them "Dark Elves" not "Drow." If I thought I could do it without offending too many people, I would consider calling them "Black Elves" to make them slightly stranger sounding and to further distinguish them from the AD&D version.

It's mainly a simplified AD&D Drow--but in miniature, like the Seven Voyages of Zylarthen Gnome (which I have included for comparison). Their spells are Zylarthen Witch spells, which I thought would be appropriate:

GNOMES: Hit Dice: ½. Armor Class: 5. Move: 6/3. Alignment: 50% chance of Law, 50% chance of Neutrality. Languages: Type E. Number Appearing: 40-400. % In Lair: 60%. Treasure: Class 1. Description: Gnomes are barely over 1 foot in height and can move through solid earth (though not necessarily stone) as easily as men move through air. They will only be encountered far beneath “the sunlit lands” in deep dungeons or caverns. Missiles: die 1 = none, die 2-4 = spear, die 5 = sling, die 6 = bow.

DARK ELVES: Hit Dice: ½. Attacks: 1-6 - poisoned bolts - spells. Armor Class: 4. Move: 12. Alignment: Chaos. Languages: Type E. Number Appearing: 5-50. % In Lair: 0%. Treasure: Class 10, plus 5-30 G.P. and 50%: 2-12 gems ea. Description: Dark Elves are the counterparts to Gnomes but unfortunately are much more dangerous. Like Gnomes they are barely over one foot in height. Also like Gnomes, they will only be encountered far beneath “the sunlit lands.” Dark Elves do not have the ability to burrow through the earth, but they may move silently and near-invisibly so as to suddenly appear virtually anywhere (surprising on a 1-4). Due to their small size and use of enchanted weapons and armors, Dark Elves always have a +4 bonus to hit and impose a -4 penalty on those trying to hit them. They fight with a variety of weapons but most also carry a small crossbow that can be operated with one hand—the bolts being envenomed and causing sleep (save at -4). All Dark Elves may use these spells once per day: Clairvoyance, Dancing Lights, Darkness, 5’ Radius, Detect Lie, Detect Magic, Dispel Magic, Faerie Fire, Levitate and Suggestion. In addition, for every 10 Dark Elves, there will be a Diabolist. For every 20 Dark Elves there will be an Haruspex. And for every 50 Dark Elves there will be a Prince or Sorceress (each equivalent to a 12th level Wizard). Dark Elf Magic-Users use the same spell lists as Witches. All Dark Elves are 50% resistant to spells.

New Spells:

Dancing Lights: At a range of up to 100’ the caster may create either: a) 1-4 lights that look in the darkness like bobbing torches or lanterns, b) glowing or blinking “will-o-wisp” like spheres or c) a faintly glowing man-like shape. These shapes may move as desired within the range of the spell. Duration: 10 melee turns. 

Faerie Fire: This spell allows the caster to draw an outline of blue “Faerie Fire” around one or more objects or creatures. The Faerie Fire will be visible for 80’ in the dark and 40’ in bright light and may even make invisible creatures visible. An outline of to 60’ length may be drawn—equivalent to four man-sized creatures, spaced fairly closely together. Being outlined in such a way is not in and of itself harmful but it will give opponents a +2 bonus to hit. Duration: 20 melee turns, Range: 80’.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Top Ten Reasons Why I Hate Drow

Boring

One of my current projects is rewriting or reimagining most of the monsters in the Fiend Folio, in among other things a more minimalist OD&D or Seven Voyages of Zylarthen style. As I implied in a previous post, it was my four-year-old son who inspired me to give the Fiend Folio another look.. And if I ever publish the damn thing, it will be dedicated to him.

Zak S made a fine start on it here, which I intentionally stopped reading so as not to bias myself and unintentionally steal stuff. Also, of course, some of Zak's ideas aren't exactly kid friendly.

The project is fun but it's also annoying. There are a number of monsters I don't want to rewrite or reimagine--either because I think they are silly or pointless and I can't quickly think of an alternative, or because their descriptions are lengthy and complicated and I'm too lazy to adequately understand or parse them.

So I follow the same strategy I followed when I took the SATs. When I come to a monster that I don't want or know how to deal with, I skip over it, intending to come back later.

I've skipped over Drow three times.

On Saturday, I drew the line. I would deal with Drow once and for all. And so I spent most of the day thinking about what to do with them.

And in the process I realized I hated their guts.

Why?

Here are ten reasons.

I did eventually reimagine the Drow in a way that I found satisfactory, but this post will take me a much shorter time to write. I will never get back those three hours.

Ten Reasons Why I Hate Drow:
  1. Ideally, all elves should be dangerous, mysterious and somewhat creepy. Creating a new category of elves that are almost defined as such, effectively means that elves in general (all the other elves) will not be dangerous, mysterious and somewhat creepy.
  2. Drow did not appear in the three little brown books or the supplements. They were introduced in AD&D. For this OD&D curmudgeon, that makes then prima facie suspect.
  3. Teenage girls like them. Or at least they're the sort of thing that I imagine teenage girls liking.
  4. Some of the very worst "new school" art depicts Drow. Indeed, the "Drow vibe" almost defines new school art.
  5. In 4e, everyone looked like Drow.
  6. They're too complicated in terms of text length. No monster should have multi-page descriptions. If you cannot grasp a monster in a few minutes or a paragraph, it's too complicated.
  7. They're too complicated in terms of...complexity. Drow are Fighter/Magic-Users and Fighter/Clerics. The males may progress to X level as a Fighter and possibly Z level as a Magic-User. The females may progress to Y level as a fighter and Z level as a Magic-User. Only females may be Clerics and they may only progress to X level, while still being Fighters who progress to Y level. But only on Wednesday. And only if you have a double Fizbin.
  8. Drow encourage an annoying faux engagement with the occult.
  9. Drow exemplify social ecology bloat par excellence. I don't know and I don't care about the rivalries and intrigue  between "House Focker" and "House Flying Focker."
  10. Ed Greenwood called Drow "Gary Gygax's greatest, most influential fantasy creation."
I rest my case with 10.

Drow should all be enveloped, flumphed or tirapheged to death.

Or overwhelmed by hordes of Men & Magic Goblins, Kobolds or anyone else with two sentence descriptors.

Ooh, they're so dark!

No, actually. Just boring.


Blog post picture is by Helmuttt.      

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Tabletop Library: Now You Can Keep Your Shirtless Heroes Where Your Husband Can't See Them


The post title is my unsolicited attempt to create fake banner ad text for the new Tabletop Library. It was inspired by this real banner ad:
Tabletop Library: Digital games that won't stack up where your wife can see them.
This ad ran on what I assume is a gaming discussion board or at least was grabbed by someone from somewhere and put up on the board. The screenshot is from RPG Pundit:



The Pundit also captured Christopher Helton's silly attempt to show off his feminist, or anti-genderist or anti-whateverist cred.

I'm sure this is an extremely minor tempest and that Tabletop Library wasn't trying to be ideological or political or anything else. I'm not saying that Tabletop Library has any particular agenda or would even necessarily agree with what I'm saying here.

But that's sort of the point. It's just an ad.

On RPG Pundit's post, Tenkar* commented that it's simply a fact that 85% of all RPG gamers are men--a proportion that's probably even higher in the OSR.

That of course is absolutely true, even though it's a general fact and not true in every particular case (as most general facts are not true in every particular case).

But even to the extent (15%) that it's not always true, the ad is still, well, funny. To lift my own comment from the Pundit's post:
You should be able to joke in a friendly way about silly differences between the sexes even when they're only general differences. And the joke is partly self-deprecating. It's just as much about men being silly hoarders of stupid stuff. It's also a silly joke about the minor "strains" (which of course aren't really strains) of marriage. That anyone would have a problem with this sort of thing is insane.
That 14 people (or whatever) would "like" Helton's dumb comment--"yeah, you tell those sexist bastards what's what, Chris!" is just another example of how busybodies with nothing else to do love spoiling things.

On a brighter note, it looks like the new Tabletop Library is doing quite well. Now I just have to figure out how to hide all those $3.99 digital gaming purchases from my wife when she looks at the credit card bill.

*At Tenkar's Tavern, there is also a funny self-referential riff on this.