Saturday, June 16, 2012

Gamma World—Part I

Original drawing by Jeff Easley / Coloring by Sorvan
Gamma World was a game that had always fascinated me as a kid in the late '70s and early '80s, but somehow we never really got around to playing it back then. It became one of my bucket list games that I would spend free time musing about while busy playing other games for years. It wasn't until after finishing a long, multi-year campaign with 3E D&D that I realized my brain needed a rest from crunchy rules systems and swords and sorcery. I had a captive audience with my new gaming group, so I good-naturedly pressured them into playing Gamma World. Since most of my fellow gaming friends were slightly younger than me, and quite enjoyed modern game design, I wasn't really sure how well GW would go over, so I was pleasantly surprised when the players really dug into the game and we ended up playing a campaign that lasted over two years. (And is still not even close to being completed... we are just currently taking another genre break for a little while.) It was, in truth, the experiences of playing old-school GW that first triggered my interest in starting a gaming blog, although due to my slow-moving nature and general laziness, I didn't actually get around to starting until after putting our GW campaign on hiatus.

There are myriad subjects I wanted to touch upon in regards to playing first edition Gamma World, so I will just chip away at my notes as I feel inspired. One of the most visceral pleasures I had as a GM to a table full of fledgling GW players, was the fact the all the monsters would be new to them and completely mysterious. Hell, after close to thirty years, the monsters were pretty "new" to me as well! Each random encounter on the road would fill the party with dread (as is fit for any D&D-like RPG), but also a sense of wonder because they would be trying to figure out just what the fuck that crazy sounding beast was. The sensation kind of mixes together the two of the primary elements of RPGs... battle and exploration at the same time. I love all the classic D&D monsters, but to a certain extant, everybody at the table knows what you are getting when you encounter a goblin, or ghoul, or dragon. But what the hell are up against when the GM is describing a horl choo, a barl nep, or a yexil? Even the names are completely alien and beyond deciphering. I remember as a kid I was kind of tripped up by those weird names and the fact there were no monster illustrations (for the most part), but these days all that is fundamental to my enjoyment of the game.

I tried to stick to the essential power descriptions as listed in the rulebook (occasionally allowing for some ideas from the second edition rules as well), no matter how strange, and let that flavor my impression of the creature. For example, the arks have the weather control ability that didn't seem to mesh well with their other powers, but after some thought I decided that the arks were these witchy wolf-people that lived on the fringes of civilization, feeding on humans and spoiling the crops unless the humans were able to broker terrible deals with them. I also allowed the arks to summon the occasional lightning bolt with their weather abilities, just to make them more fearful and devastating.

On the other hand, there were some descriptions that proved too tortured (or boring) for my rationalizations as is... mainly with the shapechange ability of a few creatures. For example, the ability of cren tosh to morph into "any lizard" (boring), or the similar ability of fleshin to morph into sleeth. (Why sleeth? The two creatures are not overly similar, and sleeth are much more sophisticated and intelligent than fleshin.) I decided to keep as close to the rules as written as I could while injecting a small dose of rationalization into both those monsters. Basically, I made them the weird juvenile forms of the mature sleeth, the cren tosh being the males and the fleshin being the females. Each has the capacity to mimic the adult sleeth, although at a much diminished capacity... it's more of a disguise than anything else. Who knows what sort of strange and mysterious process finally transforms these adolescent creatures into full-blown sleeth? The cryptic sleeth guard the secrets of their culture well.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Thinking Out Loud

I think one of the best ways a DM can learn how to become better is to actually play the game as a player with some frequency. It helps to open up the lines of empathy to the player's situation as well as gives the DM a bit of a vacation... it is so much more relaxing to only have to be concerned about a single character rather than the whole milieu! One of the things I have learned as a player that I believe helps the game to move along is to think out loud. Let me try to explain.

The game revolves around the DM and the players sharing an imaginary landscape between them, wherein all the action takes place. The majority of the burden of description is with the DM, but the players are also responsible for a great deal of setting creation of their own. The key point is the fact that the world only exists in everybody's imagination and the only way a functional game can happen is if everybody is on the same page as to what is happening and what possibly could happen. Even a slight breakdown in that consensus reality can cause than whole game to grind to a screeching halt.

I've been a player in a game where the DM set up a complex trick room that required a lot of thought and experimentation. It was fun for a while until hours started to pass with no success on the horizon. (The situation was such that the characters retreating was not an option.) Things ended up breaking down into player hopelessness and DM frustration. Later, when everybody talked about what had happened and the DM explained the simplicity of the trigger, the players were convinced that they had already done that very thing trying to work out the trick room and had become dejected when nothing else would work either. The consensus reality between the DM and the players had broken down and left everybody feeling shitty about it. And it was on a very minor detail.

I am convinced that such a situation may have been avoided if the players had engaged in the simple activity of thinking out loud. If, from time to time, they reassessed the different ways they had attempted to trigger the trick room... out loud so that the DM could hear their line of reasoning... then the DM could decide if the players were on the same page as to what has actually happened in the situation, and amend the details if necessary. ("Oh wait... you guys think you dropped a gold coin into the left slot? I thought you said right slot... ") It is a simple way to occasionally reaffirm the consensus reality between the DM and the players.

I find myself doing this a lot when I am a player, because I have a tendency to hatch some pretty crazy plans in my head, plans that may not actually have a basis in the reality the DM is weaving. So, thinking out loud is also a way for the players to "test the waters" of some outlandish ideas. It gives the DM an opportunity to see into the heads of the players to a small degree and, if necessary, gives him a little advance warning about some wild-ass caper the players are hatching. If this gives the DM enough heads up to keep the game from getting derailed by a surprise course of action that he didn't plan on, then so much the better!

(Now, if you are playing in a game that you don't want the DM to know what you are planning to do, because you are worried that the DM will make sure your plan doesn't work if he gets advanced warning, then I am sorry for you.)

Friday, April 6, 2012


Ubue by Erol Otus
Illustration by Erol Otus

I have been running the orange-cover version of B3–The Palace of the Silver Princess in my current campaign, digging on the funky vibe of the whole dungeon, but also changing about 85% of the content to suit my needs. Most of the new monsters in the module are completely shitty, not even worth trying to fix (for those I just replace them with something else that inspires me more), but the ubue are in a class by themselves. It really comes down to the original illustration by Erol Otus... man, that is weird and wonderful! If it wasn't for that gnarly picture I would've kicked the ubue to the curb like the rest, but that picture demands that I use them in my dungeon. 

Well, I actually don't go for the whole "cave-man" style of the ubue as written in the module. I have shifted the flavor of B3's setting into something more like a lost unseelie castle, so the ubue have morphed into these strange beings that have evolved out of wild and evil magic from Faerie. I made them psionic and they like to scour old ruins in search of magical items and lore. They like to wear long, arm-less robes of fine bronze plates (kind of Klimt-esque) and dislike brutish combat, preferring mind powers. They still look ugly and weird, though, and have a bizarre blended sexuality.

Here are my preliminary stats for these guys as I work them out. (Yeah, I found some stats for them in Necromancer Games Tome of Horrors, but it was essentially the same "cave-man" creature from the original module, so that didn't work for me.)

large aberration (psionic)
hit dice: 3d8+12 (24)
initiative: -1
speed: 40 ft
armor class: 15 (-1 size, -1 dex, +3 thick skin, +3 bronze robe)
base attack/grapple: +2
attack: Slam +5 melee (1d6+4)
full attack: Slam +5 melee (1d6+4) and 2 slams +3 melee (1d6+4)
space/reach: 10 ft/10 ft
special attacks: Psi-like abilities, multi-attack
special qualities: Darkvision 60 ft, spell resistance 10, naturally psionic, power resistance +13
saves: Fort 7, Ref 2, Will 5
abilities: Str 19, Dex 8, Con 18, Int 14, Wis 9 , Cha 22
feats: Multiattack, Alertness
environment: Fey-touched ruins
organization: Solitary, pair, or clan (3–9)
challenge rating: 4 [?]
treasure: Standard
alignment: Usually chaotic neutral
advancement: By character class (Wilder)
level adjustment: base creature +2

psi-like abilities: 3/day—defensive precognition, empty mind, mind thrust; 1/day—force screen.  

[For now I just gave them the Phrenic template from the Psionics Handbook, thinking I will flesh out their mind powers more later. I am lazy and move in fits and starts.]

Friday, March 23, 2012

Mark E. Smith reading Lovecraft

In honor of the 75th anniversary of Lovecraft's death... Mark E. Smith from The Fall reading The Color Out of Space for a BBC Christmas special. Proof that, at times, life is indeed strangely wonderful.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Lake Goddess

About a week ago Zac S, from Playing D&D with Porn Stars, posted the above image in commemoration of the passing of Moebius. It caught my eye and started to weave little adventure seeds in my imagination...

The Lake Goddess sleeps in an alpine lake at the top of a mountain, and is a destination for many pilgrims world-wide. The trek is not an easy one, but the view certainly rewards the tenacious. The sleeping form of the goddess is watched over by a sect of monks that live in the mountain-top caldera that holds the lake. The lake water is warm, heated by volcanic plumes, which in turn keeps the environment of the caldera warm as well... a welcome grotto in a place that would otherwise be snow-covered due to the elevation.

The monks charge a tithe from all pilgrims that enter the caldera, and in turn keep the area relatively safe and clear from invading monsters. The monks also keep the environment clean from the pilgrim's trash, which includes the body of the Lake Goddess herself, for pilgrims are known to row out to her form and camp upon it seeking deeper visions and enlightenment. (This can be dangerous, for while it is known by all that sleeping overnight in the caldera can offer transcendent dreams to some... gifts from the Lake Goddess... actually sleeping on her recumbent form can be psychically dangerous, with nightmares wracking the unwary with threats of insanity or death.)

Will the Lake Goddess ever awaken? No one knows. Her body appears resistant to almost all forms of damage, physical or magical. Although, she does appear to feel, for exceedingly irritating attacks on her form have been known to generate deadly responses in the form of turbulent weather and lightning strikes, the appearance of crystal nixies in the water that lure intruders to their death, or even something as simple as a virulent curse.

Some philosophers have went as far as to ponder what it must be like inside the Lake Goddess, for indeed, her nostrils are large enough to allow entrance into her very body for those of small stature and exceedingly foolhardy temperament. Does her inner form liken to that of a human body, with organs and fluids, and an internal defense system? Or is it more like an echoing empty temple of rounded corners and blue marble? One trance-dazzled sage has even foretold that an ancient relic lies hidden in her belly, guarded by thousands of snakes.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mood Music

We have a long history of playing music during our game sessions, and it has nothing to do with generating a mood usually... or at least not a game-specific mood. It is used to engender a "fun" mood, because the game session is really nothing more than a concentrated little party of friends. So, we play whatever we feel like, leaning heavily in the rock department with some forays into rap, usually all of the somewhat more underground variety. (I am being simplistic here because we have broad tastes and to go into a list would take forever. We listen to lots of different stuff at the table.)

Before the guests arrive, though, and I am still preparing for the session... that is a different story. I usually need between one and three hours to get the room ready, go through my game notes and flesh out any specific ideas, and generally get myself in the proper state of mind for DMing. It's all about set and setting, so I have a specific group of records I play that help me to reach that state, depending on which particular game we might be playing.

  • Lustmord—Heresy: My theme music for taking our group through The Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. That set a real nice tone for an apocalypse cult.
  • Throbbing Gristle—The Third Mind Movements: This became the theme for my Gamma World campaign for it's slightly rabid, end-of-civilization vibe.
  • Tangerine Dream—Zeit: The current theme album for my low-level, sandbox campaign. A little spooky with a strong sense of mystery.
  • There Will Be Blood soundtrack: Sometimes I play this one before anything else, while I am cleaning the room, as an aperitif.
  • The Future Sound of London—Lifeforms: I almost always play this just as my friends are arriving and we are getting started. It is long and a good way to keep things focussed on getting the session rolling. Plus, it kind of acts as a mental trigger for the players. The music has a nice "universal traveler" vibe.
  • Sonic Youth—Silver Session: I actually have a number of Sonic Youth's SYR releases that are great noisy-spacy jams, but right now I am digging this album for it's sheer wall-of-noise value. Great for clearing out my head. (Reminiscent of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

GM Questionnaire

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?
Hard to say. I like ad-libbing random encounters together into some kind of coherent concept that actually adds a cool layer of interest to the overall "story" of the adventure. It's fun when something random turns into a persistent, important feature of the campaign.

2. When was the last time you GMed?
Last weekend.

3. When was the last time you played?
About a month or two ago.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.
Running the original Top Secret module Sprechenhaltestelle episodically, set in the late '50s, with the flavor of an Ian Fleming novel. 

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?
Figure out what the next random encounter may be, and how it ties into what is currently happening in the game.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?
Usually something salty, like chips or nuts, to balance the beer.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?
No. It can be mentally exhausting if I run a game two days in a row, though.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?
I got to play a old NPC cleric from my game as a PC in a friend's game... and disintegrated the side of a ship, sinking it, changing the whole flavor of the planned encounter. (The bad guys on the ship who survived ended up using magic to breathe water and marched across the lake bed to the shore, where the climatic battle then took place.)   

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?
Kind of both, really. Everybody plays to stay alive and they take that seriously, but it doesn't keep people from being silly and cracking up all the time.

10. What do you do with goblins?
Try to give different tribes a bit of flavor, but mostly just low-level mooks with a faerie slant that are sometimes good for a laugh.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?
I used some ideas from Neal Stephenson's Anathem to add some unique flavor into my Gamma World game. (It had to do with the language of the Ancients being a kind of continuously morphing cypher.)

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?
Geez, I am cracking up every session. I don't know... I guess I will have to think about some classic moment.

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?
Gary Gygax's Living Fantasy. It is in the restroom for casual browsing.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?
Depends on the game in question, but for simplicity sake, David Trampier. (Erol Otus being a close second.) I like a lot of the modern "old-school" type artists as well.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?
Afraid for their PCs lives? Yes, all the time. Afraid in a creeped out way? Maybe a little back in our Call of Cthulhu days. (I remember a friend being so shocked once he yelled "Gah!" and kicked the table, knocking over everybody's drinks.)

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever.)
Since I liberally use adventures I didn't write, this happens all the time... usually being whatever it is we are currently playing. But, I usually change quite a bit of the module, so if I only consider (recent) adventures that I changed almost nothing, I would say Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. It was pretty fun when the summoning of the apocalyptic dark god came down to a single dice roll.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?
Comfy, warm basement room with all the amenities. Big oak table with velvet surface, perhaps, for dice rolling. Good stereo system. No windows, though. I am too easily distracted by the world at large.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?
I am not sure how to answer this one. I have different RPGs of various genres, but they don't feel all that disparate to me. I guess I don't hang onto anything that is not really my style.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?
Most of my ideas some from just looking around me at the world at thinking about how I could add that level of detail into my games interestingly. As to "disparate" influence, I don't know, maybe details from outsider literature (Burroughs, Ballard, etc.) or stuff from Hermetic Qabbalism and the occult. 

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?
Someone open-minded to all the different aspects of the game. Mostly with a sense of exploration and adventure.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?
I do think the game needs a sense of mundane detail in order for the heroics to have contrast and meaning. So, I keep tabs on things like encumbrance and provisions and what-not.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?
A book like the original AD&D Rogue's Gallery, but for 3.5e. Basically, all the classes statted and geared out for levels 1–20, and then maybe an appendix of unique NPCs for quick and easy use. 

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?
My girlfriend. She gets a kick out of the weird stories.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Old School

I consider myself an old-school gamer, even though the version of D&D my group currently plays is relatively recent (3.5e). Why? Because I am old. I've been playing RPGs for roughly 33 years and, I have to admit, my style preferences were probably set a long time ago. Those preferences were largely informed by the writings of one man, Gary Gygax. Those original first edition rule-books and modules written by Gygax had a tone and style that felt mysterious, cryptic, and adult to me. It was a style I wanted to emulate, and to a degree, still do. When TSR kicked Gygax out of his own company and started pumping out second edition D&D I quit buying their products. I only picked up D&D again with the third edition because enough time had passed and I wanted to see how Wizards of the Coast had overhauled the system. Sure, a lot had changed in the rules between 1e AD&D and 3e D&D, and a case can be made that a game's rules set the overall tone of the game, but I actually found a lot in 3e that was reminiscent of the old, original game I enjoyed, just with updated game rules theory.

And then there is the fact I actually don't buy any new games. It is true that I bought 3e D&D when it came out, but I haven't bought any new RPGs since. (My set of 3.5e books was a gift from a player who wanted our group to have the "refined" rules. Cool by me... for free!) Since the time we first bought the 1e AD&D books as kids I had no intention of buying any more. Why should I? I had everything there I needed for a lifetime of gaming. And anything that felt broken could always be fixed with house-rules. My blood boils at the concept of game companies pumping out new editions of their game simply because they want to feel a renewed flush of profits. Fuck that.

The games I have sitting on my shelf waiting for the right mood to strike have been sitting there for decades. Call of Cthulhu, Villains & Vigilantes, Top Secret, Stormbringer, and the mighty Traveller. I even have a set of Dangerous Journeys that I am dying to play at least once in my life. All these games rate differently on the scale of complexity, but they all share a couple of things in common... they are all old, and they all have an awesome atmosphere and style to them. For me, that is "old-school".