Sunday, August 24, 2014

Coolest Looking RPG Product: Dungeons & Dragons Original Boxed Set

What could be cooler than the 1st printing of the 1st edition of well, the first RPG product?

The 5th printing of the 1st edition of the first RPG product.


First, let's go back a step. In my view, the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the best RPG product ever, both in terms of content and physical production. I know that might earn a sneer from some-especially regarding the physical production. The booklets were printed entirely in black and white with the minor exception of the red, green and blue titles. The interior font was primitive and much of the art was amateurish (or so it has been claimed).

But I like the look of it. I prefer the simple, clear and non-distracting font and layout. The tasteful line drawings of characters and monsters stimulate the imagination as opposed to mimicking a screenshot from the latest video game. Interestingly, in the three original edition booklets, despite the important place combat plays in the game, there is only one obvious illustration of an actual combat scene (it's a drawing of a Lycanthrope about to hurl someone to his doom). Contrast this with the myriad full color spreads of battle in, say, any of the 4th edition books, where each scene, with its desperate or angry facial expressions, poised weapons, jaws, claws and so on, appears to be capturing THE MOST EXCITING POSSIBLE MOMENT, again as if trying to qualify for a best screenshot contest. Here are two examples:


Wait, haven't I seen those two somewhere before…


It's so EXCITING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Now, I know that many would prefer the modern style. Indeed, almost by definition it would seem that the majority of current RPG purchasers prefer it. I don't. But enough said about that.

To return to the original edition, in actuality there aren't that many differences in content or production between the seven plus printings from 1974 to 1979. The excellent Acaeum breaks down what differences there are. The first three printings featured a wood colored box with a picture of a mounted warrior on a rearing horse (also originally present on the cover of Men & Magic). This was replaced in the 4th printing with a white box featuring a Wizard firing a wand at a group of goblins (or could he indeed be striking with some kind of magic sword?).  

Apparently, the first four printings used a relatively hard to read type setting. The 5th printing switched to a more friendly Helvetica font. The 6th printing kept the more readable font while excising or renaming for legal reasons most of the Tolkien elements-Hobbits, Ents, Balrogs and so on.

So I would go for the 5th printing-a readable font without the Tolkien excising-the version available, as far as I can gather, for most of 1976.

It sold for $10.00, or about $45.00 in inflation adjusted currency.

For that you got the box, three booklets, a stapled set of "Reference Sheets" and probably a one page set of errata. Curious and enterprising players might by that time already have purchased one or more of the supplements, or have gotten their hands on the small but growing number of newsletters and accessory products from Judges Guild or Tactical Studies Rules itself.

Or they were starting to buy and paint lead figures.

Not a bad way to while away the waning months of the Ford Administration.

(Later Edit: it's now clear to me that the heading picture is of the 6th printing, not the 5th. It's got that little star thing that says "Original Collectors Edition.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Favorite Published Adventure: A4 In the Dungeons of the Slavelords

The neat thing about this adventure, or so it seemed to me at the time, was starting the players off waking up in a sandy cave, presumably deep in some underground maze, where they had nothing but loincloths--no weapons, armor, equipment, precious magic items or memorized spells. Also, it was pitch dark. There were things scuttling about that would scuttle even faster during the earthquake tremors that would go off at increasing frequency. Did I mention that it was pitch dark?

To get out, they had to be smart about things they found--bones they could use as clubs, tar for improvised torches, etc.--but also needed to put up with a certain, so to speak, grossness level--making friends with fungus people via a disgusting spore ritual, climbing a bridge made of dead giant ant husks, and so on. 

I purchased the module along with the others in the Slavelords series, shortly after it came out. It seemed incredibly cool to me and I couldn't wait until my players were powerful enough to try it. I had to wait a year or so, as I remember.

Looking back, this "tournament" module violated a number of "old school" tenets, or at least it did the way I used it. First off, I had to "railroad" my players into the predicament--indeed more than railroad them, I had to throw a set of antagonist at them that they obviously couldn't defeat or run away from. They actually made a good run at winning against, I think, an 8th level party, so I had to make use of the deus ex machina of sleep gas. As I remember it, one of the players threw me a look as if to say, "That's so obviously unfair. What's your game, anyway?" He found out when he woke up in the dark wearing nothing but a loincloth.

Secondly, the module instructed the DM to make the players think the cavern or (as they would later discover) island would blow up at any time. But of course, if one had railroaded them into the thing in the first place, imposing a volcanic TPK on characters the players had been playing for over a year of real time would have been mean. So that was also sort of fake.

Nevertheless, it was still amazingly fun.

When the party emerged from the caverns onto the beach of the volcanic lake, their patron, Rellian, the 18th level Wizard, was there to meet them with all of their "lost" equipment and magic items. Triumphant, they flew out on the back of a tame Red Dragon, watching the world explode far below...

Monday, August 4, 2014

Most Recent RPG Purchase: Hideouts & Hoodlums

Actually, I first bought Hideouts & Hoodlums over two years ago. It comprised three small booklets that correspond to the three little brown books of OD&D-Men and Supermen, Mobsters and Trophies and The Underworld and Metropolis Adventures. However, two weeks ago I purchased a heap of accessories to the game-an adventure module-Sons of the Feathered Serpent-the first three supplements-National, All-American and Better Quality-and the first fifteen issues of the associated newsletter/magazine-The Trophy Case.

It's a brilliant effort that tracks the mechanics, tone and aesthetics of OD&D but adapts it to the era of Golden Age Comics, circa the late 1930's.

The author, Scott Casper, has en encyclopedic knowledge of the material and an obvious love for the genre that comes across on every page. And the OD&D/Swords & Wizardry based rules fit the subject matter surprisingly well, arguably creating a more satisfying, authentic and playable rules set than any of the myriad of other superhero offerings-classic or contemporary. At the very least, anyone familiar with OD&D can pretty much grasp the rules within an hour or so.

Casper writes 90% of the material for Great Scott! games, though he does have a few other collaborators, among them, Steve Lopez of this RPG and comics blog.

All in all it's a formidable set of material. The Trophy Case has roughly tracked the timing and output of Tactical Studies Rules' 1975-76 The Strategic Review, with articles on the game, scholarly seeming but fun essays on Golden Age Comics topics, and various other related odds and ends.

And all the materials-currently available in PDF form-are cheap at the price, which speaks to its affordability not its quality.

A full review of Hideouts & Hoodlums will be forthcoming. Stay tuned, as I assume they might have said in 1939 (although no doubt Casper could correct me on that). Until then, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

First RPG Purchased: Advanced D&D Players Handbook

I bought the Players Handbook after discovering Dungeons & Dragons in the Winter of 1978-79. Thirty years later Tim Kask would declare:

So I guess I was late to the party, as always.

In seriousness, I agree with Kask that the seeds of what was to later go wrong with the game were contained in that book--the legalistic codification of the rules, the excessive detail offered in the spell descriptions, the further importance placed on superior ability scores and thus the ability score "inflation" that went with it, and finally the additional class and race options for player-characters--something that at the time probably seemed like an undeniable good, but would lead down the road to "kits" and "builds" and all sorts of other horribles.

But, we're taking about the seeds. Both at the time and looking back, the book itself was stunning--perhaps the best single RPG product ever.

And of course it began with the art. That cover summed up Dungeons & Dragons for me--and it still does: In a room, presumably somewhere deep in the dungeon, we are witness not to a scene of combat but to the aftermath of one. Two characters (thieves?) are attempting to pry the jewel out of the eye of a grinning idol. Two others are consulting a map--where to go next? A fighter is sharpening his sword next to the bloodied corpses of some kind of reptile, while a magic-user, leaning on a staff, looks on.

The interior art by Trampier, Sutherland and others contains some of the best illustrations the genre has ever produced. For me, this piece in particular is iconic:

And of course there was Gary Gygax' wonderful prose and, well, opinions:

You will find no pretentious dictums herein, no baseless limits arbitrarily placed on female strength or male charisma, no ponderous combat systems for greater "realism", there isn't a hint of a spell point system whose record keeping would warm the heart of a monomaniacal statistics lover, or anything else of the sort.

Let's give him the last word:

All in all, this is a game for enjoyment. We are certain that it will provide endless hours of entertainment and excitement. That is the sole purpose for its creation. So enjoy, and may the dice be good to you!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

First RPG Gamemastered: Dungeons & Dragons

Note: I edited the last post to add a year to the dates. I played Melee, Wizard and Death Test in the fall of 1978, and first encountered Dungeons & Dragons in the winter of 1978-79. I was in 10th grade.

At the start of 1979 the final book of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons trilogy, The Dungeon Masters Guide, was nine months away from being published. I believe that the three little brown books and the supplements were still technically in print, but I don't remember them being easily obtainable or something that new players sought out. The Holmes Basic Set was on sale, but I think my view of it and the view of other high schoolers in my circle was that it was the "baby" edition, only suitable for one's kid brother, or whatever.

So I used the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets for combat tables. Dragon Magazine also had a "preview" of the Dungeon Masters Guide featuring attack and saving throw tables that we circulated Xeroxed copies of.

The only TSR AD&D modules available were high level adventures such as Against the Giants or the Drow series. (The low level modules were for "Basic D&D". Again, kids stuff.) Therefore, I didn't draw from any published examples. 

I don't know where I obtained a list of magic items, but I must have gotten them somewhere, as my dungeon was full of them.

So the point is that during (what I now know) what was an explosive period in the game, the rules were in flux and incomplete. Kids were patching them together from all sorts of sources, "official" and not.

But it didn't matter. The game was glorious.

My "megadungeon" had five levels, drawn out on 8 1/2 x 11 inch graph paper. I think it was an abandoned Dwarven (or perhaps Gnomish) mine. You had to travel for weeks through a secret Gnome tunnel under the mountains to get to the underground entrance.

And after passing through the great double door, you encountered The Stirge Room.

I didn't design it to be deadly. But it turned out to be. I think three parties TPK'd before one of them defeated the resilient critters and was thus able to move on.

I suppose looking back there were a number of "lessons":

1. Characters died quickly and often (at least at first) but that was fun. It became a challenge: "This time we're going to kill those blood-sucking bastards."

2. Alignments were silly (or at least they were the way we played them). My characters were usually Chaotic Evil (I think my players thought that gave them more freedom) but when it came to their relationship with other party members they were practically holy. I remember, during the final TPK, the Chaotic Evil Fighter shouting (as he was being pecked to death by Stirges), “Fly, friends! Go through the north door. Don’t worry about me! I’ll hold them off!” I haven’t talked to him in a while but I think he’s now the chairman of a Philosophy Department.

3. The concept of a dungeon was fun and interesting: “Let’s go down to second level!" “No, we’re not ready!" “I don’t care. I don’t want to go back and forth through that bloody underground tunnel again. What if they rebuild things before we return?” “Okay, we’re powerful enough now. Let’s just clean out those Goblins (whatever level they live on) once and for all. We owe them that!” And so on.

This wasn't based on anything, let alone, reading old school blogs (obviously) or whatever. It just happened.

Here's to you, Soma, Bromarle the Green Wizard, Khumzaal, Peras, Corwin and all the rest of the crew. You killed the Goblin King (on the fifth level) and moved on to defeat the Slavers and the minions of the Temple of Elemental Evil.

I remember.

May God grant you peace, wherever you are.

Friday, August 1, 2014

First RPG Played: Death Test

Back in July, Tom Chapman of Autocratik proposed that everyone spend each day in August talking about one RPG, framed by these questions:

1st - First RPG Played
2nd - First RPG Gamemastered
3rd - First RPG Purchased
4th - Most recent RPG purchase
5th - Most Old School RPG owned
6th - Favorite RPG Never get to play
7th - Most “intellectual” RPG owned
8th - Favorite character
9th - Favorite Die / Dice Set
10th - Favorite tie-in Novel / Game Fiction
11th - Weirdest RPG owned
12th - Old RPG you still play / read
13th - Most Memorable Character Death
14th - Best Convention Purchase
15th - Favorite Convention Game
16th - Game you wish you owned
17th - Funniest Game you’ve played
18th - Favorite Game System
19th - Favorite Published Adventure
20th - Will still play in 20 years time…
21st - Favorite Licensed RPG
22nd - Best Secondhand RPG Purchase
23rd - Coolest looking RPG product / book
24th - Most Complicated RPG Owned
25th - Favorite RPG no one else wants to play
26th - Coolest character sheet
27th - Game You’d like to see a new / improved edition of…
28th - Scariest Game you’ve played
29th - Most memorable encounter
30th - Rarest RPG Owned
31st - Favorite RPG of all time

The idea seems to have taken off like, well, like Dungeons & Dragons circa 1978.

My answer to the first question is two answers really—The Fantasy Trip’s Death Test (if it counts as an RPG) in the fall of 1978, or (if Death Test doesn’t count), Dungeons & Dragons in the winter of 1978-79, played (presumably) with the three little brown books plus supplements.

As I remember it, Death Test was an expansion of the $2.95 “micro” games Melee and Wizard, giving rules for creating a “dungeon” to test a group of warriors created with the Melee and Wizard rules. Since it was usually played one-on-one with one player as referee and the other controlling all the “characters”, and since it was pretty one-dimensional in terms of stressing combat, it’s unclear whether it really qualifies as an RPG.

Melee and Wizard were pretty nifty as pocket games to take out and play for an hour or two, but the “extended” Death Test got boring pretty quickly. Or so it seemed to me after slogging solo through room after room of my friend’s original creation—“This time it’s NINE GOBLINS in an L-SHAPED ROOM, ha ha ha!!!”

I played Death Test once with my father who was always on a different wavelength where RPGs were concerned. He had never read a fantasy novel and didn’t believe in God-for I think the same sorts of reasons. And RPGs just confused him. It bugged him that one player got to “control” everything. He didn’t understand the “angle”.  But he didn’t mind a bit of controlling when the opportunity presented itself. In his first and only “dungeon”, created just for me, each room was named after an American president. The rooms didn’t have labels or anything. He just announced, when I opened a certain door, that I was now entering the John Adams room, or whatever (and three dragons, seven goblins and a minotaur were suddenly fast approaching). So I’d slam the door, go down the hall and open another door and “You’re now in the Dwight D. Eisenhower room” (five gargoyles and a wizard). And so on. I never did find out what it all meant. I suspect he didn’t know either.

For Dungeons & Dragons, I say “presumably” the three little brown books, based on the dates, and because I had no idea what was going on. “I had my hand cut off. I had my hand cut off!” my best friend screamed with joy after playing D&D for the first time (he had tried to open a trap or something), “this is the greatest game ever!” The next night, he dragged me to a secret gathering of pimpled wallflowers (or so I liked to think of them—I thought I was different) in the back room of my favorite wargame store. As I remember, I tried to pick one of the pimpled guys’ pockets (I didn’t yet understand the cooperative aspect of the game) and was then invited to a back room of the back room where I was summarily psionicked to death.