Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter VI, Weakness and Strengths

After an inexcusably long hiatus from the Art of Dungeoneering series, I've finally motivated myself to divulge yet another chapter of Sun Tzu's immortal wisdom.  For those of you just tuning in, links to the previous chapters of the Art of Dungeoneering series can be found on the sidebar.

Chapter VI is pure gold and is chock full of useful advice; after a long lead-up we are finally getting into the meat and potatoes of how to beat your enemies.  Saddle up.

1. Generally, he who occupies the field of battle first and awaits his enemy is at ease; he who comes later to the scene and rushes into the fight is weary.

2. And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.

3. One able to make the enemy come of his own accord does so by offering him some advantage.  and one able to prevent him from coming does so by hurting him.

In terms of dungeoneering I interpret this as choosing your arena of battle then forcing your enemy to come to you by luring him into a tactically disadvantageous site.  I know I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: this is where exploring and mapping as much of the dungeon as possible before engaging in big battles pays dividends.  Scout the dungeon to become familiar with it, then fight in an area of your choosing.

Also think about rally points you can fall back to and defend if you need to retreat from a bad situation.  Such areas should have limited access points that are easily defended. "When a cat is at the rat hole, ten thousand rats dare not come out; when a tiger guards the ford ten thousand deer cannot cross."

4. When the enemy is at ease, be able to weary him; when well fed, to starve him; when at rest, to make him move.

These are tactics that any wily DM will also use against the players, and an excellent reason not to rest in the dungeon when you are low on hit points and out of spells.  It is far too easy for dungeon denizens to keep you from your much-needed rest.  Remember, there are more of them than there are of you and they have the numbers to keep the pressure on you indefinitely.

5. Appear at places to which he must hasten; move swiftly where he does not expect you.

6. That you may march a thousand li without wearying yourself is because you travel where there is no enemy.

7. To be certain to take what you attack is to attack a place the enemy does not protect.  To be certain hold what you defend is to defend a place the enemy does not attack.

8. Therefore, against those skilled in attack, an enemy does not know where to defend; against the experts in defence, the enemy does not know where to attack.

9. Subtle and insubstantial, the expert leaves no trace; divinely mysterious, he is inaudible.  Thus he is master of his enemy's fate.

Speed is life.  Move quickly, bypass the enemy's stronghold, and hit him where he least expects it.  As any veteran player knows, you don't just walk in the front door of the goblin lair - look for back door.  One way to ensure that you will hit the enemy where he least expects it to make him think that you are attacking somewhere else. At the risk of sounding callous, this is where hirelings can be gainfully employed to create a distraction.  Have them move and act as though about to attack by a particular avenue while you are quickly moving to another.

10. He whose advance is irresistible plunges into his enemy's weak positions; he who in withdrawal cannot be pursued moves so swiftly that he cannot be overtaken.

11. When I wish to give battle, my enemy, even though protected by high walls and deep moats, cannot help but engage me, for I attack a position he must succor.

If you need to defeat a well-entrenched foe, try luring him out by attacking things he needs to defend.  Desecrating his holy ground, befouling his water supply, etc. is sure to illicit a quick and ill-conceived response.

12. When I wish to avoid battle I may defend myself simply by drawing a line on the ground; the enemy will be unable to attack me because I divert him from going where he wishes.

Sometimes when your position is weak, allowing your opponent to see your weakness will create doubts in his mind.  He may see your weakness as a ruse intended to lure him into an ambush, and refuse to attack.  This is a strategy that can also be a lot of fun for the DM to employ.  Players are a deeply suspicious lot and if you drop hints that the treasure they seek is only weakly guarded by few goblins they will worry themselves sick fretting over what nasty trap you have prepared, and might even bypass it altogether.  Good times.

13. If I am able to determine the enemy's dispositions while at the same time I conceal my own then I can concentrate and he must divide.  And if I concentrate while he divides, I can use my entire strength to attack a fraction of his.  There I will be numerically superior.  Then, if I am able to use many to strike few at the selected point, those I deal with will be in dire straits.

14. The enemy must not know where I intend to give battle.  For if he does not know where I intend to give battle he must prepare in a great many places.  And when he prepares in a great many places, those I have to fight in any one place will be few.

15. For if he prepares to the front his rear will be weak, and if to the rear, his front will be fragile.  If he prepares to the left, his right will be vulnerable and if to the right, there will be few on his left.  And when he prepares everywhere he will be weak everywhere.

I see these points come into play every time I set up for a Warhammer 40K game, because one player must deploy his entire force before the other player begins to set up.  When deploying first you don't know where your opponent will deploy so you often have to spread your force out to cover every possibility.  The side that deploys last has no such disadvantage and can concentrate his forces wherever his opponent is weak.  To balance things out the player who deploys first gets the first turn...unless the other player can steal initiative, which happened to me in a game not long ago.  This should have given me a tremendous advantage, but my opponent - a canny and experienced player - set up his army in such a way that forced me to come to him, negating the advantage.  So, when you don't know your enemy's dispositions, but he knows yours it is often best to adopt a defensive position and wait him out.

16. One who has few must prepare against the enemy; one who has many makes the enemy prepare against him.

This is applies directly to dungeon adventures, where the adventuring party is almost always vastly outnumbered by the denizens and, thus, the onus is upon the players to prepare against their adversaries.

17. If one knows where and when a battle will be fought his troops can march a thousand li and meet on the field.  But if one knows neither the battleground nor the day of battle, the left will be unable to aid the right, or the right, the left; the van to support the rear or the rear, the van.  How much more is this so when separated by several tens of li, or, indeed, by even a few!

Suffice it to say that it is best to fight your battles at a time and place of your choosing.

18. Although I estimate the troops of Yueh as many, of what benefit is this superiority in respect to the outcome?

19. Thus I say that victory can be created.  For even if the enemy is numerous, I can prevent him from engaging.

By dictating the terms of the engagement you can ensure that you will know your enemy's dispositions, while he will not have the time to study yours and form a plan to counter them.  In this way a smaller force can defeat a larger.

20. Therefore, determine the enemy's plans and you will know which strategy will be successful and which will not;

21. Agitate him and ascertain the pattern of his movement.

22. Determine his dispositions and so ascertain the field of battle.

23. Probe him and learn where his strength is abundant and where deficient.

24. The ultimate in disposing one's troops is to be without ascertainable shape.  Then the most penetrating spies cannot pry in nor can the wise lay plans against you.

25. It is according to the shapes that I lay the plans for victory, but the multitude does not comprehend this.  Although everyone can see the outward aspects, none understands the way in which I have created victory.

26. Therefore, when I have won a victory I do not repeat my tactics but respond to circumstances in an infinite variety of ways.

It is when you become predictable and allow patterns in your behaviour to become obvious that your enemy can anticipate and preempt you.

27. Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness.

28. And as water shapes its flow in accordance with the ground, so an army manages its victory in accordance with the situation of the enemy.

29. And as water has no constant form, there are in war no constant conditions.

30. Thus, one able to gain the victory by modifying his tactics in accordance with the enemy situation may be said to be divine.

"Improvise, adapt, and overcome"
 - Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway (Heartbreak Ridge)

'Nuff said.

And, finally, some flowery philosophizing:

31. Of the five elements, none is always predominant; of the four seasons, none lasts forever; of the days, some are long and some short, and the moon waxes and wanes.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Epic Thursday!

In October of 1981 I was taking driver training during lunch hours at my high school, in eager anticipation of receiving my 'learner's licence,' one of the great rites of passage of adolescence.

That month's issue of Epic Illustrates sports a cover by Howard Chaykin:

There isn't too much I want to comment on in this issue because, aside from an installment of Metamorphosis Alpha, which is quickly winding to a close, the rest of the magazine is filled with fairly unremarkable short stories.  This, of course, is a reflection of my personal bias.  I've never really enjoyed short stories very much, especially in magazines like Epic and Heavy Metal.  I far prefer longer serials with their greater depth of story telling and character development.

So, here's a synopsis of this this issue's chapter of Metamorphosis Odyssey.  With the Zygoteans in hot pursuit, Aknaton and his companions race for the planet Dreamsend, resting place of Aknaton's apocalypse weapon, The Infinity Horn.  They arrive at the temple in which the horn has been kept for 100,000 years, just ahead of their pursuers. While Vanth remains outside to hold off the Zygoteans, Aknaton leads Juliet, Za, and Whis'par inside and down a seemingly infinite staircase to a different plane of existence - the mystic heart of the galaxy.  They arrive at Aknaton's Hall of Death and Mercy, which, surprise, surprise has the ubiquitous skull entrance.

"Let me guess, the dungeon has a skull entrance, right?"
Within, they retrieve the Infinity Horn, with which Aknaton hopes to destroy the galaxy and create a fresh start for Juliet, Za, and Whis'par to create a new and innocent race.  Aknaton then leaves them with the horn, and goes to make his last stand with Vanth at the temple entrance.

I have something of a preoccupation with old newspaper and magazine advertisements, and I find it interesting that most of the ads in Epic don't seem to be targeted at a particular audience, namely the fantasy/sci-fi crowd.  Instead, the ads are for mainstream products like TDK cassette tapes, Purolator oil filters, and Yukon Jack Whiskey (the "black sheep of Canadian liquors").  One of the only ads specifically targeted to Epic's readership is the series of Dungeons & Dragons adventure ads.  These are pretty neat because they have a sort of ongoing story line in each ad.

In this one we are treated to a synopsis of the dangers so far encountered by Auric, Tirra, and Khellek, who have slain the Jackalwere they encountered in the last ad.  They ponder what to do next, and Khellek advises that they delve deeper into the dungeon, to the deepest vaults where lie the Treasures of Roakire.

It kind of makes me want to play D&D.  Must be an effective ad.

Follow That Monster!

I am very pleased to announce the launch of a new publishing company, Hopeful Monster Creations, a collaboration between Shane Mangus (Swords Against the Outer Dark), and me.

I am really excited to be working with Shane on this.  He and I share so many common interests and viewpoints that coming together to form a creative partnership seems like the inevitable next step after nearly a year of sharing our individual project ideas by email.

I'm also excited by the projects we have under development, which you can read all about on our new blog.  This is where I will be posting all further design notes for the Covert Ops Role Playing System, so if you've been following its development, Hopeful Monster Creations is its new home.

See you there!

Monday, March 21, 2011


I pretty much lost this past weekend to playing the old TSR boardgame, Dungeon!  This is the first time I ever played and, I must say, I've really been missing out.  This game is a gem.

Ever since my daughter was born, I've been hunting around for a fantasy board game for young children that was similar to Dungeon!, but no such thing seems to exist.  I recently discovered that my wife had this game as a child and it was still at her parents' house.  It was a little the worse for wear, and the rules were missing, but after a quick Google search I found a PDF download of the rules, so we were good to go.

All it took was one quick game to turn my five-year-old into an addict.  She absolutely loves the game, and I'm not far behind her in enthusiasm.  This is great because a steady diet of Snakes and Ladders, Candy Land, and other 'vanilla' preschooler games was wearing pretty thin.

Each player gets to select a character.  Hero or Elf, and if you're playing the advanced game, Superhero, and Wizard as well.  You wander around the dungeon fighting monsters and collecting treasure and the object of the game is to make it back to the entry chamber with the gold you need to win.  Heroes and Elves need only 10,000 gold pieces, while Superheroes need 20,000 and Wizards need a whopping 30,000.  There are six levels to the dungeon with corresponding monster and treasure cards that are progressively deadlier and more lucrative.

The game, designed by David Megarry, is an elegant distillation of Dungeons and Dragons that is quick, easy, and best of all, FUN!  The artwork was produced by such notable TSR artists as Jim Holloway, Erol Otus, Harry Quin, Jim Roslof, and Stephen D. Sullivan.

I think that in many ways, Dungeon! was a game way ahead of its time.  Although it was intended as a gateway into D&D for younger children, I'm not sure how successful this was.  My wife, who spent countless hours playing this with her sisters when they were kids, had never even heard of D&D until she met me.  I suspect the game would be a bigger hit today, now that so many of us who grew up playing D&D now have families of our own.

I think it probably works better as a gateway to D&D today.  My daughter was wild with excitement when she defeated a dreaded Purple Worm, and she's learned all about the perils of Green Slime and Black Pudding, and she's become quite a dedicated little monster-hunter.  In a couple more years it will take only a slight nudge to push her into D&D, and it will already be a familiar concept to her.

Given the popularity of Steve Jackson Games' Munchkin, which is really a very similar, but board-less version of Dungeon!, if WotC brought this game back into production, I think it would do very well.  More's the pity since the only other way to get a copy, without pillaging your in-law's basement, is to turn to Ebay, where copies can sell for up to $100.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Epic Thursday!

Issue #5 of Epic Illustrated saw the magazine switch from quarterly to bi-monthly publication.  Almuric and the Elric story, The Dreaming City concluded in this issue, which is unfortunately missing from my collection.

Issue #6 from August, 1981, features a cover by Barry Windsor-Smith, an artist whose style I've never been able to appreciate.  He was the artist on the earliest issues of Savage Sword of Conan, and I always felt that his portrayal of Conan was too effeminate, his style too delicate for Savage Sword.  He also served a short stint as guest-artist on X-Men in the mid-'80's, which also didn't suit my fancy.  Nonetheless, his cover for this issue of Epic isn't bad at all, and though I dislike his characters I admire the scenery in this piece.

This issue was a bit weak, consisting mainly of short stories to fill the gap left by the end of two of the magazines previous serials.  Short stories are tough things to write well.  Since there is little time for character and plot development, many authors fall back on trick endings and try to be profound and clever.  Most fail, and the stories in this issue were well drawn, but are of little note.

In this installment of Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey, Lord Aknaton and Vanth return to pick up their allies, Juliet, Za, and Whis'par.  Aknaton reveals his plan to use the Infinity Horn to destroy the galaxy and end the Zygotean threat, hopefully paving the way for a new and better beginning.

The group's deliberations are interrupted by the arrival of a pair of Zygotean cruisers.

They board Vanth's heavily armed light cutter, which makes short work of the cruisers, but they are out of the frying pan only to land in the fire, as they find a Zygotean Dreadnought waiting in orbit.

Vanth employs some sneaky tactics to exploit a weakness in the Dreadnought's defenses, destroying it, and then the group is off to their last stop - a planet called Dreamsend.

There were some nostalgiac advertisements in this issue, including one for the Heavy Metal movie, which was released in August, and the first of a series of Dungeons & Dragons Adventure ads, which I'm sure many  of us will recall:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Covert Ops Sit-Rep

For the past week I've been so deeply immersed in the world of clandestine agents that I've begun to subconsciously check my rear-view mirror for tails, and I suspect everyone.  I've noticed that my daughter has lately started spending a lot of time with a little boy from her kindergarten class.  Could he be trying to cultivate her as an asset for a foreign power?  For that matter, could my daughter actually be a mole?  I didn't keep an eye on her every minute the day she was born.  She could have been swapped for an enemy agent at the hospital.  And, try as I might, I've had no luck in convincing my wife to refer to me as el Terrifico in public.  Is she trying to blow my cover?

Nonetheless, I've made quite a bit of progress on Covert Ops this week.  The character creation rules are done and I've even received some early feedback from our man in Havan - er- North Carolina, Shane Mangus, and he's given me some excellent suggestions and food for thought.  I've also got the skill resolution mechanics as well as the shooting and close combat system hammered out, and I'm pretty happy with how things are coming together.

The rules, though, are only a small part of the game.  The bulk of the book is going to be devoted to "stuff" you can use to run a campaign.  And this stuff is going to require a lot of time-consuming research.  I've been working on weapons tables for the better part of the week and I'm no where close to being finished.  Part of the problem is that I can't just borrow from existing role playing games - arms technology advances at such a rate that most of them are out of date, so everything needs to be researched from scratch, and I'm badly out of touch with modern military small arms.

My days as a naval officer are long behind me and in those days my small arms consisted of cold war relics like the FN FAL assault rifle, Stirling submachine gun, and Browning Hi-Power pistol, which have long since been replaced by the C-7 assault rifle, H&K MP-5, and Sig Sauer.  My knowledge of the small arms currently issued to foreign powers is likewise out of date, so it's back to school for me.

When it comes to small arms, it's an easy matter to brush up on recent developments, but when it comes to modern electronic intelligence and surveillance equipment, my heart quails.  I'm something of a technophobe and I don't own a cell phone.  The concept of 'smart phones' bewilders me, so I'm sure that modern spy gear is going to melt my brain.  I miss the days when "high tech" meant pocket telescopes, spy cameras, and shoe phones.

I've also finished an appendix on espionage related terminology and slang.

You can walk the walk, but can you talk the talk?

Maybe not yet, but after you've spent some time studying the Covert Ops terminology appendix you'll know how to protect an asset without getting splashed, service a dead drop, and avoid nightcrawlers and honeytraps at the local watering hole.

So, that's about all I've gotten done this week.  I'll come out of the cold on semi-regular intervals to provide updates on my progress, but now it's time to get back to work on an appendix of world intelligence organizations and, of course, keep plugging away at the weapons lists.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Epic Thursday!

1980 drew to a close with the release of issue #4 of Epic Illustrated while I suffered the disappointing sting of  high school's unrealized potential.  That's okay, by this time I was spending all my time playing D&D anyway.

Cover by Michael W. Kaluta
Jim Starlin's excellent serial, Metamorphosis Odyssey continues as Lord Aknaton and the guerilla fighter,Vanth, travel to the world of Delloran, a nuclear wasteland devastated by the Zygoteans in ages past.  The planet's sole inhabitant is an artificial man named Joenis Soule, whom Aknaton charged to safeguard the location of a powerful Orsirosian weapon, the Infinity Horn.

Soule, who has been guarding the key for 100,000 years, is weary of his duties and is more than happy to surrender it to Aknaton.  But after so long on Delloran, Soule has little interest in leaving and so declines Vanth's offer to take him with them and, instead opts for retirement.

In part two of The Dreaming City, Elric returns to Imrryr, in advance of the invasion, to retrieve his beloved Cymoril if he can, but finds, instead that the usurper Yyrkoon has placed her in an enchanted slumber that will kill her and send her soul into the deepest Hell should anyone attempt to wake her.

While in Cymoril's chamber, Elric is confronted by Yyrkoon who commands his soldiers to take Elric alive.  Elric slays the first few soldiers with Stormbringer, pledging their blood and souls to his demonic patron, Arioch, in exchange for aid.

Arioch manifests as an amorphous horror, slaying Yyrkoon's men and sucking out their souls, giving Elric time to escape and return to his fleet to prepare for the invasion of Immryr five days hence.

In the penultimate installment of Almuric, Esau Cairn and Altha are ambushed and captured, on their way back to Koth, by men of rival Thugra, led by Logar the Bonecrusher, a renegade Kothan who hates Cairn.  They are taken to Thugra where Cairn's tortures are interrupted by the invasion of a huge host of winged Yagas.  Esau and Altha are once again captured, this time by the Yagas, and are carried away to far off Yugga, the black city, stronghold of the Yaggas.

Cairn is brought before the Yasmeena, Queen of the Yaggas, who desires the pale-skined hairless barbarian.

Cairn's response, however, is characteristically blunt.

Esau makes good his inevitable escape, then captures a pursuing Yaga and forces him to carry Cairn away from Yagg into the blue mazes of the northwest.

These three serial chapters comprise the bulk of the issue, but there are a few short filler pieces as well, including a short story, Sleeping Dogs, by Harlan Ellison.

One of the fun things about reading old magazines is looking at the advertisements from days gone by.  One of the frequent advertisers in Epic is Brut cologne, whose message is short and simple: "Today's your Brut day."  We are also invited to "create a Champale moment with someone you like," and the ads for TDK cassette tapes are fantastically quaint by today's standards, but they were on the cutting-edge audio recording in these days.

Finally there is one ad, in particular that brings back memories: Ares Magazine, published by SPI.

I was never a regular buyer of Ares although I did pick up the occasional one.  The idea of including a complete game in each issue was really neat, but I think that might also have been the main reason I didn't buy it more often - I still haven't played all of the games I bought in the '80's, so there comes time when there is little point in having more.  Nonetheless, I do recall finding Ares hard to resist and I probably still would today.

Happy Birthday, Chuck!

In case you haven't heard, today is Chuck Norris's 71st birthday.  I realize that as a pop-culture icon, Chuck has been reduced to little more than a running series of internet jokes, but I'll always remember him as one of my cinema heroes of the '70's and '80's, not as the subject of ridicule.

Though he was the star of many popular movies, such as Lone Wolf McQuade, Forced Vengeance, and Silent Rage, my personal favourite has always been The Octagon.

Although the movie, admittedly has a few weak points, like endless flashbacks, and forcing us to listen to Chuck's thoughts echoing in his head, it gives us something none of the others did: Lee Van Cleef and lots of ninjas.  As far as I'm concerned you can never get enough of either.

So Happy Birthday, Chuck; keep on kicking!

Now to borrow a page from James' plan to use sex appeal to grow the OSR, I leave you with a bit of beefcake for the ladies.

Chuck Norris wants YOU for the OSR!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Basement Treasures

Although Winnipeg is still held fast in winter's icy grip, with temperatures in the -30's, it is inevitable that spring will arrive eventually.  Usually spring's arrival is eagerly anticipated, but this year it heralds the likelihood of severe flooding.  The Red and Assiniboine Rivers intersect in Winnipeg, both have severe flood forecasts, and I live a half block from the Red River.  I'm not too concerned about water levels reaching my house, but a sewer back-up is possible, so I thought I'd get a head-start on damage mitigation and move stuff off my basement floor.  By which, of course, I mean I've been sitting in the basement reading old comic books and digging through boxes that haven't been opened in fifteen years.

Today I unearthed a cache of Grenadier miniatures, including this box of Traveller Imperial Marines that I bought sometime in 1983 and completely forgot about.

This is even better than finding money in the pocket of an old coat!

Now that I have this box of power armoured marines, I'm not sure quite what to do with them.  I was originally using them as Viper Agents in my Champions campaign, which I'll never need them for again; and, as you can see by the truly atrocious paint job, they need to be repainted.  But as what?

There's also a nifty rocket launcher that I can always use, if for nothing else, as a Warhammer 40K objective marker:

Well, how to paint them will be a question that I will undoubtedly ponder in the days ahead as I sit in my basement procrastinating flood mitigation and root through even more old boxes.

Monday, March 7, 2011

On the Drawing Board: Covert Ops

I've been procrastinating making this announcement for some time, but I think that it's finally time to bite the proverbial bullet and officially throw my hat into the old-school home publishing ring.

I've recently renewed my long time interest in the clandestine world of the secret agent, and for the past little while I've been working on my own old-school espionage role playing game, Covert Ops, which is inspired largely by Top Secret.  This won't, strictly speaking, be a retro clone because Top Secret isn't covered by the OGL, so it won't be possible to faithfully reproduce the rules.  What I do aim to accomplish is to recreate the spirit of Top Secret and create a game that does what the original espionage game did: provide a tool-kit for sandbox play, and update it for the 21st century.

I think the time is ripe for such a game.  I believe the OSR, with its solid foundation of D&D retro clones, is now ready to expand into other genres from the golden age of gaming.  Goblinoid Games has already given us Mutant Future, and I hope that Covert Ops will secure a place in the hearts of gamers who enjoyed the original espionage rpg.

The genre, itself, is becoming more topically relevant these days, too.  After the end of the Cold War there was a sharp decline in the popularity of spy thrillers and many critics suggested that the authors of this genre would have to close shop and move on to new subjects in this dawning era of world peace.  I was skeptical; as far as I was concerned the world was about to get a whole lot scarier.

Unsurprisingly, my predictions were correct and we find ourselves in an increasingly unstable socio-political world climate and facing an uncertain future.  Here's the value of the escapist fantasy that a game like Covert Ops offers: instead of watching helplessly as forces beyond our control destabilize our world we can play characters that have the power to make an impact on global events.  Whether those characters hunt down a terrorist cell, engage in some industrial espionage to avert an economic or environmental disaster, or sneak into North Korea to give Kim Jong Il a well-deserved wedgie, this fantasy empowerment can be wonderfully cathartic.  Because, the reality is that that new era of world peace never dawned and it ain't gonna any time soon.

Many governments of the day, however, decided to cash in on the "peace dividend" by dramatically downsizing their military and intelligence infrastructures.  It was just this circumstance that was explored in the movie, Ronin, which has been my primary cinematic reference in developing Covert Ops; highly trained operatives cut loose by their governments to find employment by selling their services on the open market.  And these days, it's a seller's market.

So that's the plan.  But talk is cheap and I've got a long road ahead of me to turn this dream into a reality.  I'm woefully ignorant of the whole game publishing business, so I'm going to be floundering around for a while, but I figure the best way to learn is to jump in the deep end and start paddling.

I'll try to keep everyone up to date on my progress as well as share my thoughts on the genre, but for now it's time to stop talking and get to work.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

My Second-Favourite Game

If I were pressed to choose my next-favourite game after D&D, I'd probably be tempted to name either Traveller or Call of Cthulhu, but neither answer would be strictly true.  Traveller was the second role playing game I ever bought and I spent countless hours reading the books and drawing maps in my Judges Guild Astrogator's Chartbook, but I didn't spend anywhere near as much time actually playing the game as I did studying it.  Truth be told, I was a pretty mediocre Traveller game master; I wasn't wasn't well-read enough in the science fiction genre to design good adventures and what I ran was more like D&D in space than good sci-fi.

I played Call of Cthulhu even less.  I had difficulty convincing my friends to play a game of library research with death or madness as the final payoff.  Furthermore, running a multi-layered mystery while maintaining suspense and evoking a sense of fear required quite a bit more skill than I possessed.  Call of Cthulhu has been a big influence on my gaming ever since, but I've only ever run one short campaign.

The game that I actually played the most, after D&D, was TSR's Top Secret.  I didn't suffer from the same shortcomings as a Top Secret Administrator that I did as a CoC Keeper or Traveller Ref.  I was widely read in the genre, having consumed mass quantities of John Le Carre, Graham Greene, Frederick Forsyth, Len Deighton, and of course Ian Flemming.  And flipping through a newspaper gave me all the adventure ideas and plot hooks I could ever want.  It was a genre that I took to like a duck to water.

I owned, and played, most every other espionage game published in the '80's including Victory Game's James Bond 007, Hero Games' Espionage, and TSR's late '80's game Top Secret S.I., and all of them had some admirable qualities.  James Bond 007 was particularly popular but, in my opinion, neither it, nor any of the others held a candle to Top Secret.

The reason that I kept coming back to it is that Top Secret, written by Merle M. Rasmussen, is quite possibly one of the best role playing games ever written; certainly the most underrated.

But it wasn't until just recently that I've come to appreciate just how brilliant the Top Secret game is.  I took its many qualities for granted back in the days when I played it, but in light of the perspective that several decades has given me, I've come to realize that what Merle Rasmussen achieved with this game is truly remarkable.

The game's sixty-two pages of rules are crammed with more useful goodies than you'll find in contemporary games whose page counts are in the hundreds.  In this respect, Top Secret is perhaps the ultimate "tool-box" game.  It contains no chapters devoted to background information or setting, and no advice on how to run it.  Instead its pages are filled with tools you can use however you wish.

Consider the economy of the following Table of Missions:

The table provides a long list of jobs, with the base experience points and mission payment for each, along with relevant briefing information, information withheld, and possible complications.  This is one of the niftiest tables in the game and allows the administrator to quickly come up with missions on the fly and flesh them into full-fledged adventures with little effort.

There are also random tables for just about everything you could want.  Here's a list of tables just pertaining to police: number and type of vehicles pursuing, police weaponry carried on self, police weaponry carried in vehicle, and a police cuffing table.  This is the sort of stuff I really appreciate having tables for - it's the kind of information that I might need to have at the spur of the moment, and having a random table keeps me from inadvertently defaulting the same answers every time.

There are also rules for special vehicles, building custom weapons and equipment, and constructing a headquarters.  Whether you want to build an island villa on the Adriatic or a secret underground lair, you can calculate the construction costs then trick it out with all the security systems you might need, including guard towers, mine fields, and traps.  There's even a table of specialist personnel to staff your headquarters, and their annual salaries.

The appendices at the end of the book include a two-page list of espionage and terrorist organizations, a list of major languages of the world, and a five-page glossary of espionage-related terms

I could go on and on, listing all the awesome stuff included in this book, but I only wanted to illustrate what made Top Secret such a wonderful tool-box, not write 'cover-to-cover' review.  What makes the sheer volume of material even more remarkable is the fact that Merle Rasmussen wrote most of this game during his first year of university.  This is a time when most students are trying to adjust to a whole new academic tempo, and struggle just to keep ahead of their school work.  Rasmussen managed not only that, but also devoted an enormous amount of time researching and writing this magnum opus of espionage role playing.

So here's the beauty of the Top Secret rules: it gives you all the tools to play any way you want in just 62 pages, then it gets the hell out of your way.  I wish there were more games that adopted this philosophy.  I've never seen it's like since, and I doubt I ever will again.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Who Owns D&D?

There's been some chatter the last couple of days about how what WotC is doing has no relevance to the type of games that we are playing; that maybe it's time to find a new name for the games we play and leave Wizards to their brand name.

Except that Wizards of the Coast doesn't own D&D.  I do.  So do you, and so does everyone who has spent their lives playing the game and keeping it alive.  I figure that makes D&D our moral property, which to my mind trumps any claim to "intellectual property" made by a bunch of Hasbro executives who threw some greenbacks at a game they've never played and know nothing about.

I've was playing D&D long before Wizards of the Coast was a twinkle in anyone's eye, and I reckon I'll still be playing it long after Hasbro has lost what little interest they ever had in it.  That makes D&D mine, and I'm not giving it up to anyone; they can have it when they pry my dice and character sheets out of my cold dead fingers.

The idea of D&D transcends a mere brand name, it even transcends a particular set of rules.  D&D is a philosophy of play that no corporation can claim ownership of.  When my players want to know if there is a game on this weekend, they don't ask "hey, are we playing S&W this weekend?"  They ask, "are we playing D&D?"  They'd probably ask that regardless of the rule system I was actually using.  I could be running a campaign using GURPS and they'd still ask if we were playing D&D because that's my style of play - and I'm sticking with it.

Hasbro and WotC have long since given up any moral claim to D&D, what they are producing these days has nothing to do with the game created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax.  All they've got is legal use of a brand name that has no meaning anymore.  They could make a My Little Pony roleplaying game and call it Dungeons and Dragons if they want, but that doesn't make it so.  So they, and their followers, can play The Dungeons and Dragons Brand Roleplaying Game.  Me?  I'm playing D&D.

"Get your damn hands off my game, pilgrim"

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Epic Thursday!

The autumn of 1980 was a turning point in my young life: I started high school, attended my first rock concert (Prism), and best of all I discovered D&D.  This was also something of a turning point in Epic's young life as issue #3 hit the stands, chock full of awesome.  The magazine, which had suffered a slow start was beginning to hit it's stride.

The cover, by Paul Gulacy, is compelling and engimatic.  We've got a sexy woman with creepy eyes leading a small troop of soldiers across a desert hard-pan with a giant skeletal pterosaur in tow.  I have no idea what's going on here, but my imagination has spun out more than one tale over the years.  I think that's the sign of a great illustration - it leads you down a path to a story of your own telling.

The issue kicks off with an Elric story, The Dreaming City, adapted by Roy Thomas and illustrated by P. Craig Russel.  I enjoy Roy Thomas' adaptations of Robert Howard's works, but much of what I love about Moorcock is the eloquent flow of his writing, which doesn't translate well to a graphic adaptation such as this.  I'm also not to fond of the art work, so while I like the idea of an Elric adaptation, it didn't come off quite as well as I'd hoped.

Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey continues as Lord Aknaton travels to the planet Vega in search of a man named Vanth who wields a power sword that Aknaton had planted on Vega centuries ago.  Vanth makes his fortuitous appearance just in time to save Aknaton from a zygotean Alpha Team.

This issue's installment of Almuric picks up with Essau Cairn, captive of the beast men of Koth, battling their mightiest warrior, Ghor, in the arena.  When Cairn finally defeats Ghor he is taken before Khosuth Skullsplitter, the ruler of Koth, for judgement.  Skullsplitter proclaims Cairn to be a man of Koth and bestows the name Iron-Hand upon him.

One day, while hunting, Essau Iron-Hand happens upon a Kothian maiden, Altha, fleeing from a carnivorous terror-bird.  Essau slays the bird with his carbine and strikes up a conversation with Altha, whose beauty has obviously captured his fancy.  They are suddenly set upon by a flight of Yagas; evil, winged men who dwell in the grim city of Yugga, on the rock Yuthla, by the river Yogh, in the land of Yag (try saying that five times fast).  Naturally, during the battle, Athla is taken captive and borne away by the Yagas, and in fine pulp tradition, Essau follows in hot pursuit.  The chase leads Essau to some ancient ruins where he finds the dead bodies of the Yagas littering the court yard.

Heedless of the unknown horrors that lie within, Essau proceeds into the ruins in search of Altha.  He eventually finds her, taken by fearsome dog-headed men.  Just as Essau is in danger of being overcome by the  dog men, they flee the battle as an even more dangerous threat approaches from behind.

Essau quickly dispatches the horror by toppling a large block onto its head, then escorts Altha out of the ruins and they begin the long journey back to Koth.

The issue is rounded out by a number of excellent shorter stories including the beautifully drawn and disturbing dystopian tale, Libido, by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy, who will eventually team up on the Epic Comics science fiction series Six from Sirius, which I also collected throughout its run.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Do We Really Need a Rosetta Clone?

This is something I've been thinking about quite a bit the past few weeks, ever since reading this post on Uhluht'c Awakens, commenting on John Adams' announcement that Delving Deeper will become part of the Labyrinth Lord extended family.

The announcement appears to have been met with widespread approval and I've read plenty of suggestions that the OSR needs a 'Rosetta Clone' but, honestly, I don't see the point.  The main thrust of the arguments in favour of One Clone to Rule Them All seems to be that all subsequent old school supplements and adventures will speak the same language and be fully compatible.

Why is this important?  Every older edition of D&D and its retroclones already speaks the same language.  I don't recall anyone ever having any difficulty with using a B/X adventure in their AD&D game.  Heck, even when I was running Castles & Crusades I could use old D&D products and adventures 'out of the box' and compared to that, the mechanical differences between any two retroclones are minuscule.  Are people really finding cross-compatibility between existing games so insurmountable that we need to consolidate our games into a single rule set? Really?

The very idea of consolidating our hobby into a single rule set makes me shudder in dread.  Such a thing is utterly antithetical to my concept of the old school movement.  To me, the OSR is a return to the way we played during golden age of gaming, when new games burst onto the market like a popped zit.  I've seen a lot people sneer at the profusion of old school games that are currently being published, dismissing them as 'somebody's D&D house rules.'  Yeah, so what?  Most roleplaying games ever published started out as someone's house rules and many of them were someone's D&D house rules.  In the early days of the hobby, due to the vagueness of the original D&D books, everyone's house rules diverged from the source - many of them morphing into entirely different games.  I love that.  I love that we're seeing it happen again, and I love that today, thanks to the internet and the ease of home publishing, we can share it and revel in the glorious orgy of creative output within the old school community.

This is not to say that I think its useful to have multiple clones that contribute nothing new - and here I wonder if Delving Deeper may be nothing more than a version of Swords and Wizardry that is owned by Brave Halfling.  I haven't been following this game's development so I may be way off base here, but ultimately, as far as D&D retroclones are concerned, I would like to see one hi-fidelity clone for each of OD&D, Basic D&D, and AD&D, that reproduce these rules as closely as possible.  From there, though, folks should go nuts with their house-rule-derived games based on these touchstone publishing tools. Viva la difference!

I worry that the push for a Rosetta Clone will result in Labyrinth Lord coming to dominate the OSR in the same way that the D20 system dominated roleplaying for nearly decade.  Those were the bad old days as far as the health of the hobby was concerned, and I have no desire to see a return to it, even if only in our own small community.  This is particularly worrisome as folks start to publish games that diverge from the retroclones.  Attempting to shoe-horn a concept into an existing rule set can very quickly ruin the concept (anyone for some D20 Call of Cthulhu?).  Instead, rules should be developed to support the concept.  This is why TSR produced a whole suite of largely incompatible roleplaying games (Boot Hill, Gamma World, Top Secret, Gang Busters, etc.) instead of trying to fit them all into the D&D mechanics.

Universal systems, like GURPS can work very well, but you have to remember that GURPS was designed as a universal system from the outset.  D&D was not, nor is any retroclone based on D&D.  Yet we're already seeing other old school games, like Mutant Future that use the Labyrinth Lord rules.  I certainly can't fault Goblinoid Games for producing a game based on their own retroclone rule set, but I'd hate for everyone else to start doing it, too.

Consider this, then, a sober second thought about the need, and even the advisability, of jumping on the Rosetta Clone bandwagon.  We might just end up killing the spirit of creativity and individuality upon which the OSR was founded.