Thursday, January 29, 2015

Old School Gaming and the New Shiny

My rebuilding of my old campaign continues apace. I'm doing it in fits and starts, as I can grab a half an hour or so to myself. I am vacillating back and forth between dusting off old components and bringing them up to new 5th edition rules, and fleshing out 5th edition to meet my campaign's specific needs. For example, in my world, there are five city-states that wield considerable economic and political power. And one of the themes for this new/old campaign is territory expansion, along with warmongering. Because of the emphasis on this environment over say, a Middle Ages King and court, I wrote a background for Bureaucrat. It's a good background. I may post it later. I am working on a background for an exterminator, as well. Another necessary function of city government that could yield an advantage in a dungeon party.

Whilst I was looking over my old notes, drawings, and books, I couldn't help but notice the artwork in the original first edition AD&D books. I know that we consider the early stuff to be crude and unrefined, especially in the wake of what came after. I mean, by any criteria you care to apply, this is a beautiful piece of artwork.

It's well composed, makes good use of light and shadow, employs intelligent color choices, and is well painted and nicely rendered. It's a great piece of artwork. Really nice. And the fifth edition game is literally festooned--gloriously festooned--with hundreds of color plates. We live in an age of bountiful riches, we do.

And nice as the artwork is, and I don't want to hear any dissent from the lot of you, for it IS nice, I can't help at the same time feeling that the goblins are...what? Informed by popular culture? Maybe they feel like guys in suits? I don't know, exactly, but there's something in this realistic treatment that settles in on my brain rather than opens it up.

Which brings me back to the first edition artwork, and specifically, those artists who contributed so much to the three core books. Diss it all you want, sure, there may have been some pieces that were rough around the edges, but there was something also evocative to the work that I found stimulating rather than limiting. I did then, and I do today.

Here's just a few of my favorite pieces from the books. Granted, these aren't very big; back then, they didn't have to be, the way we pored over every square inch of those pages like they were actual magical tomes.

 I came late to the party where Erol Otus was concerned. His work had a slickness and a stiffness that I didn't understand at the time. Now I look at it and I think he was a genius. This is the standard troll from the monster manual, but drawn in scale with humans and in a setting that would make him infinitely more terrifying. Note the use of texture on the loincloth, the armor, and the hair. Otus was a master at that stuff.

Speaking of texture, this is a frontispiece by Jim Rosloff. He did a lot of the illustrations in the Deities and Demigods books. Remember that amazing picture of Thor fighting the Midgard Serpent? Rosloff. I love this pen and ink treatment here, and the dragon head is also really nice and stylized without being definitive. I mean, we don't really know what color dragon this is. Could be red. Could be gold. It's a mystery. But that's what makes this so cool.

Jeff Dee, along with Bill Willingham, came right after the initial clutch of hardcovers, and they brought a super hero sensibility to their artwork that really resonated with me. I won't post any of Bill's old work because he hates it when I do that, but Jeff is actively trying to recreate his stuff, so good on him.

This piece was unsigned in the Player's handbook, but this is exhibit A when someone says there was no good artwork in the early days of TSR. This is a beautiful penciled piece with dwarven adventurers encountering a magic mouth spell in the dungeon. First of all, look at the cool hallways. Now check out the dwarves. Or are they gnomes? A halfling? I dunno, but it doesn't look like anything I'd seen prior to discovering Dungeons and Dragons.

The new crop of halflings in the 5th edition book look a lot like these fellows. That's probably not an accident.

Finally, no discussion of the early AD&D artwork is complete without mentioning Dave Trampier. This guy was a machine, and he contributed so much to the books that you can't really comprehend it all. Small pieces of art, flavor pieces, you name it--oh, and only three fourths of the Monster Manual. Tramp did it all, Jack. And this piece, in the middle of the Dungeon Master's Guide, is a favorite of just about everyone. We join our adventurers in mid-scene, with this guy just riding through town, setting people on fire. What the hell? This guy is a dick! But hey, when you name yourself "Emirikol the Chaotic," you have to maintain a certain standard for yourself.

Apart from that, this piece gives us a lot of contextual clues to help us build a dungeons and dragons town. Brick buildings, flagstones, thatched roofs, covered archway, etc. This town setting that Emirikol is hell-bent of messing up became the basis for the city of Greyhawk, and later, my own towns. I used the Green Griffin as a go-to tavern name so much, they were like a Starbucks franchise in my kingdom.

There was something fun, something evocative, about this rough-around-the-edges first edition artwork. A kind of rustic charm, like woodcuts, that gave you enough information to allow you to understand what you were looking at, but not so much that it supplanted your own imagination.

We're a different world, now, and the production values. Kids these days, with their fancy new roller skates and their Jazz records, have different needs than us old timers. And so, we go for full-color, painted dreamscapes and why not? Now the company can afford to produce such a product. I'll never complain about the upgrades, but for my money, in my secret heart, I still prefer Rosloff's goblins to the new guys.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A few thoughts about role-playing games

Dice! Glorious, beautiful dice! The most heavily-fetishized
object at the gaming table by a huge margin.
Watching the third Hobbit movie got me jonesing to play Dungeons and Dragons again. I know a lot of Tolkien purists hate the films, but I don't, because I'm not. Oh, there's stuff I don't like about the movies; don't get me wrong. It's just that I happen to really like the way they've played fast and loose with Tolkien (two adjectives I'd never use to describe his work, which is why I'm not a fan, per se). Never mind the "video game sequence" that seems to be in every movie. Watch the PCs--excuse me, main characters--fight the wandering monst--I mean, the orc patrols--makes me want to roll to hit in the worst possible way.

So, I've been dusting off my old campaign (and by "old," I mean, like, ancient. I haven't cracked this material in over twenty years), and the results have been both daunting and humbling. Never mind trying to find four players who will work around my wonky schedule in Vernon By-God Texas, I have been embarrassed by the lack of verisimilitude in my old campaign notes (always thought to be golden and sacrosanct).  As a result, I've started a top-to-bottom refurbishment, from campaign map to dungeon door. Worldbuilding, now done with the eye of a writer who has been creating fictional worlds in prose for nearly two decades.

I'm having a blast, I really am, but I can see the rabbit hole approaching. I can tell I'm going to go down it, and throw together a ridiculous amount of material that my players will likely never see, nor need to see, because that's how I always did stuff like this. I burrowed in my youth, when I didn't know no better, and I tend to do it now, as a grown-ass man, when I certainly DO know better.

A first draft map of Riverton, the first city the players
will start out in. Huge, bustling, with three distinct
districts and lots of potential for trouble, both political
and otherwise. I love this stuff!

But let's face it; world building is fun. It's thirsty work, challenging, frustrating, and frequently headache-inducing. But once you start making choices, it becomes a blast. I forgot how much I loved making maps, writing descriptions, and working out things like trade routes, bandit lairs, thieves' guilds, and all of that nit-picky stuff. I really loved making my own tables and charts for things like wandering monsters, encounters, and reactions. And while I have some 5th edition rules (gifted to me from Christmas), and there are some great improvements in the system, to be sure, I have several Old School first edition knock-offs that I am looking seriously at; OSRIC and Adventurer Conqueror King both have a lot going for them with that stripped down, simplified set-up that we used to love so much.

Of course, I usually ran the games we played. And I got pretty lucky in that most of my players liked the collaborative idea of "let's create a story together" aspect of the game. I never had to be adversarial or vindictive. That's just not my style. I like to dazzle you with the world, and let you bounce around in it, or carve your initials onto it, as you see fit. That's the real fun of sitting down with people for literally dozens of hours to create this shared narrative.

My "New World" campaign setting is shaping up nicely. The map is drawn, and there's a lot of blank space for the players to explore. Or they can hug the cradle of the New Civilization and take their lumps there. It's wide open, and I foresee having enough basic info on hand to handle whatever goofy thing they decide to do.

I took a little break from the D&D fix to restart Skyim again. I played it up to the point where I got terrifically bored with the game and let it lapse for a year or so. Now I'm playing with more of an eye towards taking the world apart and critically examining it. I gotta tell you, I really don't like it that much. Not the game play or the way it's set up. All of that works great. No, it's the world. Granted, with all of the expansions, it's perhaps the greatest sandbox out there. But for all its vast scale and scope and size, you're still pigeonholed by two things: the "Main Quest" idea and the limits on what you can and cannot do.

First off, I hate dragons, okay? I hate dragons almost as much as I hate elves. And I loathe elves. So cliched, so broken, so, so, so what. Granted, my elves and dragons are specifically designed to be NOT that. But in Skyrim, not only are there dragons, and right out of the chute, at that, but you find out that YOU are "Dragon Borne." You can beat them. Speak their language. Ride them. Oh, lord, how horrible. Way to take something that's supposed to be primeval and a force of nature and reduce it to a collection of stuff you can loot. Welcome to Skyrim.

And what if I decide to take over the town? Kill the Jarl, take his place, etc. What do you mean, I can't do that? Not in Skyrim. Not unless there's a scripted story for it. Otherwise, you're just hacking up frozen undead and suicidal bandits and waiting for the next dragon to swoop down so you can shoot it from a distance and kill it and loot its corpse.

This is what I emphatically don't like about computer role-playing games. Skyrim is fun, as a Monty Haul Crawl kind of thing, but it's just not the same as looking over your screen at your players, who are hanging on to your every word, as you explain how the dragon lifts himself up...and up...and up...towering higher than anything they've ever seen in their lives, and watching them exchange looks as one another that say, "We may have bitten off more than we can chew."

Damn straight you have. It's called Dungeons and Dragons for a reason.

And those instant reactions, the inspired bits of dialogue, the interplay between player and GM, and the allowances for instant creation of material in the face of players doing the unexpected, is something that computers can never duplicate, or even imitate. Oh, maybe they could, but they won't, because of how much code it would take. That's why I'm making this campaign and starting over basically from scratch. I miss that interaction with other people.

I'll post more from the campaign if you're interested. Let me know in the comments, okay?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Making Schedules

Last year, I used my Google Calendar for the first time, and I mean, I really used it. I added dates, set up timers, the works, and baby, it was glorious...until the big-ass digital projection project landed and disrupted my space-time continuum for seven months. Then it was superfluous.

But for those first five months, I was on task and bright-eyed and bushy tailed, and oh, you betcha, stuff got done. So, in keeping with my stated goal of writing a half million words in a year's time, I'm going to do it again.

That's what I'm working on today, in between selling tickets to The Interview for tonight's show. See? here I am:
Note the Douche-Antenna in my ear, ensuring that whoever
I'm talking to will know how important I am. 

This is what my tentative schedule looks like for 2015. Keep in mind that it's all VERY tentative, especially the National shows, because I have to balance this with travel, the theater, and a bunch of other things. And it doesn't include writing, either, which gets done around all of this. Still, it's a heck of a line-up:

Feb 13-15

STAPLE! in Austin
March 7-8

PCA/ACA New Orleans
April 1 – 4

Robert E. Howard Days
June 11 – 14

June 26-28

July 24-26

Necronomicon Providence
August 20 – 23

Sept 4 – 7

Sept 25-27

As for writing, I have one thing on my plate that will get finished before I do anything else. I was supposed to finish it last year, and it got trampled by a play schedule. So: no play schedule, and I'm clearing the decks for what's coming up. What is coming up, you ask?