Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Temple of Elemental Evil boardgame coming

This just in from our friends in Renton...
Other products tied into the Elemental Evil storyline include the Temple of Elemental Evil Adventure System Board Game and pre-painted collectible miniatures, both from WizKids Games. WizKids has also partnered with Perfect World Entertainment to bundle in-game items for Neverwinter with the Temple of Elemental Evil Adventure System Board Game and miniatures boosters. 
This is something of a change, since up until now all I've heard of (in the tabletop realm, anyway) was connected to the Princes of the Apocalypse storyline set in the Forgotten Realms.

A Temple of Elemental Evil board game? Count me in!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Making Temple of Elemental Evil bigger

Some of the criticism of T1-4 over the years has been around the idea that it's just too big. There's too much detail in there, too many things going on for the DM to get a grasp of. I beg to differ. As I've gone through my (literal) deconstruction of the module, I've come to the conclusion that it's not big enough.

Indeed, The Temple of Elemental Evil shouldn't even be on the players' radar initially. I envision a campaign set in the eastern Kron Hills and western Gnarley Forest. The players, being the agents of Celene, Verbobonc, Furyondy, and/or Veluna, are investigating a rise in banditry and humanoid raiding in the region. Nobody suspects the Temple; it was overthrown years ago, and all that remains of it are ruins. And besides, Y'dey and Otis would surely know if anything was going on on that front.

There would need to be a whole set of fleshed-out villages in the forest, complete with deep-cover agents of the now-resurgent Temple. Why would there just be a moathouse thirty miles southwest of the Temple? Surely that would have been only one of a whole system of outworks. There could be a watchtower to the south, originally to keep an eye on Celene and give the humanoids coming up from the Pomarj a place to aim for. And a fort on Imredys Run, now used by river pirates. And an opening in a mine in the central Kron Hills, leading to the Underoerth, whence come those drow that have been seen around the region. All of the former Temple fortifications don't have to have a direct tie-in, but some of them can.

And while Hommlet was described in detail, Nulb was left for the DM to flesh out, after a few detailed locales were given. And Sobanwych remains nothing more than a name. But Verbobonc itself is a hive of Temple operatives, keeping an eye on the forces of Good to the north. I'd like to see a treatment of the whole city, or at least the features that the module says the DM should make sure are described. Could there be evil gnomes in Namburil in the Temple's employ? And what about Corustraith? In later years it's the center of activity for the Rangers of the Gnarley, but in CY 576 it could be a lot more open. They all want full treatments, describing both the agents of the Temple slowly recruiting bandits and humanoids, and the agents of the surrounding Good powers working to keep an eye out.

And maybe Narwell on the Wild Coast also has an interest, but isn't as dedicated to seeing the Temple's resurrection thwarted. And Dyvers? Their interest is in keeping the trade routes open, and maybe knocking Verbobonc down a peg to get a better slice of tariffs on the river trade.

Maybe they're both playing both sides against one another, and hoping to make out with the best deal. That shifty-looking guy in the tavern? Yes, he's not what he seems, but he's not working for the Temple, he's working for Narwell. Lots of factions, lots of intrigue, lots of chances for role-playing and false leads to follow up. Lovely.

The campaign would unfold in typical Gygaxian fashion. The PCs would be sent to take out a particular bandit group, which would lead to another, and another, with the layers of the onion leading to the Temple agents in various villages and locales, leaving the PCs to figure out that there are powers behind the bandits, and then powers behind those powers, leading to the Temple. They spiral in on the Temple over time, rather than that being the obvious goal from the outset.

So rather than the "you arrive at a seemingly peaceful village near the evil Temple", it becomes "you're rooting out some ordinary-seeming bandits, and learn that there's a shadowy figure behind them, and then there's some sort of weird cult behind him, and now it looks like that cult is tied to the Temple, but they also have their tentacles into the government of Verbobonc who hired you in the first place, so just who can you trust?"

I find that a lot more satisfying. Turn the whole thing from two villages and two dungeons into a whole wilderness campaign with multi-layered political intrigues, bandit fighting, clearing out former(?) Temple locales, eventually culminating in the assault on the Temple itself.

And of course once you get there, you realize that the Temple itself is riven with factions, and there's a whole shrine to the Elder Elemental God that nobody, not even the evil priests in the Temple, expects to be there, and loosing Zuggtmoy could strengthen or even loose the EEG inadvertently (and won't Lolth be pleased if THAT happens*)...

Just a snapshot into what my little "fix the ToEE" project is morphing into. It's huge, and sprawling, and wonderfully complex. No idea what will ever become of it.


* Something just occurred to me. Falrinth, the high-level magic-user on level 3 of the dungeon, is obviously an agent of Lolth in the Temple (he's got a small shrine to her in his quarters). He also has the Golden Orb of Death, which could be used to free Zuggtmoy, but seems to be sitting on it for some reason. What if he had instructions from Lolth not to use it or remove it from the premises, not only because she's happy to see Zuggtmoy helpless, but also because she intuits that doing so might lead to the Elder Elemental God (with whom she has a great rivalry and history) being freed from his prison on a distant star? Ohhh, I like that.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Table rules vs. between-game rules

Back when I was playing AD&D 1st edition on a nearly continual basis, there seemed to be two kinds of rules.

The first set of rules were the ones that got used all the time at the table during play. Combat, spellcasting, movement, climbing walls; that sort of thing. That was the sort of stuff that we either had memorized, could flip to the proper table in the DMG, PH, or UA by reflex, or just hand-waved.

However, there was a whole other set of rules that by their nature didn't really come up during the actual game, but had to do with things that happened during down-time. This is when we poured over our character sheets making sure we had enough sacks for our coins, and our backpacks could hold all the iron spikes we carried. When we calculated how many pages our spellbooks had to be to hold all our spells (and whether we needed a traveling spellbook or a regular one). When we figured out height and weight and all that stuff. When we calculated the cost of building manors and fortifications, and hired mercenaries (were hobilars the most efficient use of our money?). Hired criers to advertise for henchmen.

All that down-time activity was incredibly fiddly, and really did require us to stop and read through rules that we didn't use all the time, and carefully work out costs and such in the days before Excel. But it didn't matter, because that was the sort of thing we did on our own, in between games, and if there weren't miniatures that needed painting the time might as well be profitably spent figuring out the total carrying capacity of our hirelings (thanks to the carrying capacity rules that for some reason were only found in the instructions on the Permanent Character Record.

And when we were done, the DM didn't even bother to check the work, because we all trusted each other, and we got on with the game. But those fiddly in-between bits were like a solo game unto themselves, and there are times I miss having the free time to while away the hours figuring out those minutiae.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Greyhawk Gold Box now available in pdf

The "gold box" set of the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting (for AD&D 1st edition), considered by many fans to be the definitive treatment of the setting, is now available in an official pdf version from DnDClassics.com.

You get three pdfs in the package; one for the Guide, one for the Glossography, and one for the maps. The books themselves are text that has been OCR'd, not just a scan of the pages, and are quite nice and legible.

The maps are at once nice and frustrating. They're given at full size, which is great, but as they seem to have been photographed rather than scanned, the creases on the maps are very visible and give a slightly bowed effect (and a lot of glare) in the places where they're not completely flat. But the most frustrating thing about the maps is the fact that they're presented on two separate pages in the pdf, rather than put together as a single image. Given what they are, it's doubtful that anyone is going to find having to flip from one map to another particularly useful, and it robs them of their grand effect as a gorgeous unified whole.

Still, on the whole that's a minor quibble, as anyone with a decent pdf editor will be able to put the maps together the way the Gods and Gygax intended. The fact that the boxed set is now available is a huge plus, and at $9.95 it's a steal even if you already have the hardcopy like I do.

Monday, December 22, 2014

For all those serving this Christmas

As a veteran myself, I would like to extend my thanks and everlasting appreciation for the millions of men and women who do, and have, spent their Christmas away from family, whether on a safe and secure Air Force base like I did, or in the face of hostile guns, as many still do today. They embody the true spirit of giving.

In their honor, I present the original Merry Christmas, My Friend by LCpl James M. Schmidt, written in 1986. Although written about a Marine, the wonderful sentiment crosses all service boundaries.

Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone, 
In a one bedroom house made of plaster & stone. 

I had come down the chimney, with presents to give 
and to see just who in this home did live 

As I looked all about, a strange sight I did see, 
no tinsel, no presents, not even a tree. 
No stocking by the fire, just boots filled with sand. 
On the wall hung pictures of a far distant land. 

With medals and badges, awards of all kind, 
a sobering thought soon came to my mind. 
For this house was different, unlike any I'd seen. 
This was the home of a U.S. Marine. 

I'd heard stories about them, I had to see more, 
so I walked down the hall and pushed open the door. 
And there he lay sleeping, silent, alone, 
Curled up on the floor in his one-bedroom home. 

He seemed so gentle, his face so serene, 
Not how I pictured a U.S. Marine. 
Was this the hero, of whom I’d just read? 
Curled up in his poncho, a floor for his bed? 

His head was clean-shaven, his weathered face tan. 
I soon understood, this was more than a man. 
For I realized the families that I saw that night, 
owed their lives to these men, who were willing to fight. 

Soon around the Nation, the children would play, 
And grown-ups would celebrate on a bright Christmas day. 
They all enjoyed freedom, each month and all year, 
because of Marines like this one lying here. 

I couldn’t help wonder how many lay alone, 
on a cold Christmas Eve, in a land far from home. 
Just the very thought brought a tear to my eye. 
I dropped to my knees and I started to cry. 

He must have awoken, for I heard a rough voice, 
"Santa, don't cry, this life is my choice 
I fight for freedom, I don't ask for more. 
My life is my God, my country, my Corps." 

With that he rolled over, drifted off into sleep, 
I couldn't control it, I continued to weep. 

I watched him for hours, so silent and still. 
I noticed he shivered from the cold night's chill. 
So I took off my jacket, the one made of red, 
and covered this Marine from his toes to his head. 
Then I put on his T-shirt of scarlet and gold, 
with an eagle, globe and anchor emblazoned so bold. 
And although it barely fit me, I began to swell with pride, 
and for one shining moment, I was Marine Corps deep inside. 

I didn't want to leave him so quiet in the night, 
this guardian of honor so willing to fight. 
But half asleep he rolled over, and in a voice clean and pure, 
said "Carry on, Santa, it's Christmas Day, all secure." 
One look at my watch and I knew he was right, 
Merry Christmas my friend, Semper Fi and goodnight.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Goblins vs. humanoids

I've long felt that the "goblinoid races" (goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, and norkers) form a sort of sub-group within the broader category of humanoids in the implied (A)D&D universe, but this implicit unifying feature has almost always been ignored. I think that portraying goblins and their kin as keeping themselves aloof from the other humanoid races (gnolls, kobolds, orcs, and xvarts) gives them a sort of character and differentiating feature that is often sorely lacking.

While the goblinoids can be used as a coherent whole, there is definitely a hierarchy amongst them, with goblins being at the bottom of the totem pole, followed by hobgoblins, norkers, and finally bugbears at the top of the list. The "Humanoid Racial Preferences Table" from p. 106 of the original DMG is illustrative of the dynamic:

Bugbears prefer bugbears, have goodwill towards goblins, and will bully hobgoblins.

Hobgoblins (and presumably norkers) tolerate bugbears, bully goblins, and hate hobgoblins belonging to other tribes.

Goblins have goodwill towards bugbears, prefer the company of other goblins, and tolerate the bullying of the hobgoblins.

This leads me to think that the bugbears don't like the way that the hobgoblins bully the goblins, and will interfere with such if given the chance, and the goblins reciprocate by fawning over the bugbears. The hobgoblins, caught in the middle, resent the bugbears as being more powerful, as well as for interfering with their own bullying of the goblins.

Given the fact that the non-goblinoid races never seem to get along with the goblinoid races (with the exception of goblins and kobolds, who doubtless get along because they're both on the bottom end of the totem pole, strength-wise), a dynamic of goblinoids vs. the other humanoids does seem to be implied.

In a campaign setting, this has obvious utility. One could see relatively unified goblinoid settlements and even nations, who aren't particularly friendly with the local orcs, kobolds, and gnolls (and vice versa). I vastly prefer this to the relatively undifferentiated "humanoid stew" that one usually sees, where orcs, goblins, etc. all mill around shoulder-to-shoulder under some strong leader. It certainly gives a little more color to the vast ranks of the humanoids, which I always like.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Gamergate the Card Game has arrived

The so-objectionable-it-couldn't-be-sold-by-DriveThruStuff Gamergate: The Card Game came today. Obviously I haven't had a chance to play it, but on its face, having skimmed through the cards, it seems a cute little bit of sarcastic social commentary that skewers the participants on both sides of the larger Gamergate controversy. Perhaps that's the game's greatest offense in some peoples' eyes; it makes fun of both sides, which I guess makes it worse than a game about child rape.

The cards, at least, seem reminiscent of Illuminati (which is somewhat ironic, given that Steve Jackson Games also reportedly banned it).

Looking forward to taking this for a spin.

This is what all the hubbub was about.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Interview with Steve Wieck re: Gamergate the Card Game

For those who haven't heard, recently OneBookShelf (the purveyors of online gaming retail websites such as DnDClassics, DriveThruRPG, DriveThruCards, and RPGNow, among others) decided to ban a game by Postmortem Studios (run by James Desborough) entitled Gamergate: The Card Game. It has also apparently been banned by Warehouse23, which is run by Steve Jackson Games.

In the wake of this decision and the resulting controversy, I reached out to OneBookShelf CEO Steve Wieck and asked if he would consent to answer some questions on the controversy.

Mr. Wieck was gracious enough to do so (although several of my follow-up questions went unanswered as he understandably didn't want to take the whole weekend on the subject), and I present the email interview below. Follow-up questions are presented in the order they were asked and answered. The questions that were not answered are not given below; if he should subsequently answer them, I will happily update the interview accordingly.

It should be noted that the hard copy version of the game in question is still available for sale via The Game Crafter, and a print-and-play version is available from Gumroad. I myself have not seen the game yet, but a copy is winging its way to me even as I type this. In the interests of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that I sell products through the various OneBookShelf sites myself, and have consistently recommended them highly at conventions and online.

Q: Given that the various OneBookShelf websites sell a great many things that many people find objectionable, including games that feature child rape, misogyny, and Holocaust themes, not to mention another game based on GamerGate (that has since been pulled by the publisher for reasons unknown), what was it about Desborough's Gamergate The Card Game specifically that warranted its being pulled from your websites when all those other games remain?

A: Any artistic work, including games, can deal with objectionable material but not be objectionable itself. You can have movies like Schindler's List that deal with the Holocaust, but are not morally objectionable movies. Likewise you can have works that deal with objectionable material in a way that does not seem appropriate. We felt that the Gamergate card game fell into this latter category. I am certain that others would differ on that opinion, and I don't think its fruitful to try to dissect the game into minutia.

Q: Do you have any plans to review those questionable products that are still for sale on your sites?

A: No

Q: What or who brought Mr. Desborough's game to your attention?

A: Who didn't? What your readers may not realize is that publishers who use our marketplaces are able to set-up titles on our marketplace and activate them for sale. No one at OneBookShelf / DriveThru reviews the titles before they are live for sale or automatically fed to our Twitter new release feed. After this title went live we started to get a lot of complaints through our customer service contact page and social media channels. We then took an initial look at the title and decided to take it off the marketplace while we reviewed it in more detail.

Q: At what level in your company was the decision made to pull the game from your sites? Were you involved in the decision directly?

A:  The decision to ban the title was made during a group meeting through robust debate. As CEO, the responsibility for the decision is mine.

Q: Did anyone from your company review the contents of the game itself prior to its being pulled from your sites? Or was it pulled based on the topic alone?

A: I reviewed the contents prior to the title being suspended for further review. Part of what we have discussed at OneBookShelf is a different process to handle this should a similar situation ever arise again. We will probably opt to leave the title viewable by the public, but not for sale, rather than pulling the title completely from public view. This would allow people to discuss the title on site should they be so inclined. It also makes it more clear that we are reviewing the title, not that the title has been pulled, or pulled permanently, off the site.

Q: Mr. Desborough is well-known for producing games that push the envelope of what is considered acceptable in certain quarters, and for being not Politically Correct. Do you have any plans to review his other products current for sale, or future products such as the upcoming Gor RPG?

A: Many of Mr. Desborough's other games have already received numerous complaints, especially when they first went on sale on our marketplaces. In those cases we reviewed the titles and left them for sale. Those titles remain on sale today. We have no plans to review them again. I can safely say that carrying Mr. Desborough's titles at all has cost us more than they will ever make us in sales, but such is the cost of keeping an open marketplace, or now mostly-open marketplace for those who would split hairs.

While the Gor fiction series is criticized for being misogynistic, it does not have real world violence associated to it. As a game based on a work of fiction, it is difficult to imagine not allowing the Gor RPG on our marketplace. As I've said before OneBookShelf staff liking or agreeing with a title's contents is not a prerequisite for our carrying it on our marketplaces.

Q: The decision to pull the Gamergate card game has been criticized in some quarters for being arbitrary, since it wasn't based on any set of guidelines. Will there be a set of guidelines forthcoming that publishers can turn to to determine in advance if their games will be deemed too offensive? If not, do you think there will be a "chilling effect" as publishers decide to self-censor and avoid controversial topics rather than risk having their products removed from the sites?

A: As we had never before banned a game for its content in this way, we previously had no need for such a guideline. After we made the decision on this title, we discussed whether we should set such a guideline. We discussed the US Supreme Court case where Justice Potter Stewart wrote the famous quote "I'll know it when I see it". I don't think that line was meant to be glib or authoritarianly arrogant. I think it simply and candidly acknowledged the extreme difficulty inherent in writing a guideline that defines when material crosses a threshold into being objectionable. In 13 years of operation and tens of thousands of titles, we've only ever found one title to cross that line for us. As you have noted, it's not for lack of content on site that some might find objectionable. We have managed to keep an open marketplace. We therefore did not think it was an efficient use of our time to attempt to define a content guideline when much wiser people like Justice Stewart had already tacitly acknowledged that a similar task was too difficult for them to accomplish.
I think self-censoring would be silly and self-defeating.

Q: Did you offer Mr. Desborough any opportunity to appeal your decision?

A: No

Q: As you made plain in your statement, almost none of the people complaining about it had enough time to actually receive a copy of it and examine the contents for themselves. Did you get similar subject-based complaints to the other Gamergate-based game from Machine Age Productions that was also announced on your Twitter feed? If not, how do you account for the discrepancy?

A: We were not aware of the Machine Age title until it was brought to our attention. The Twitter feed is automated and we do not review titles from established publishers before they go public on the marketplace. I don't know why we did not receive complaints or notices around that title. I have not read or reviewed that title.

Q: Can you foresee a circumstance when the Desborough Gamergate card game would be allowed back on your sites? At what point does enough time pass to make such a thing no longer "too current"?

A: I would like to review the game again in a few years' time.

Q: Your use of the quote from Justice Stewart is well taken, but I hope you'll admit that it does open the question up to a great deal of subjectivity and uncertainty, which can be the kiss of death for a business trying to plan for the future. Now that the precedent has been set, can you offer any assurances to publishers using your service that other products, perhaps next time an RPG or fiction product, won't be taken down because "you knew it when you saw it" even if the designer might not have seen it?

A: When my brother and I were in high school and putting out the fifth issue of White Wolf magazine, we felt we had graduated up from using our high school's photocopier to using a local print shop to print the issue. We prepared the issue, took it to the local print shop in our rural Georgia town and waited two weeks. We returned to pick up the printed magazine copies only to find the printer did not print it and get evangelized about demons from said printer. Attempting to explain that the medusa on the cover was from Greek myth not a demon didn't help.

Fast forward to mid 1990's when Vampire was taking off. The hobby game distribution channels in the USA were still mostly made up of hobby/craft/model train stores that had expanded to offer D&D and these other weird games. TSR was purging D&D of demons and devils. Meanwhile we had the audacity to include the word "fuck" in character dialogue in a vampire supplement we published at White Wolf. This nearly got the title banned from some hobby retail chains and from one of the major distributors at the time.

These and other cases in my professional life have led me to have a severe loathing for banning or censorship.

RPG publishers tend to be good at probability math (except maybe those diceless game designers anyway...) I think before publishers worry about this they can look at the odds and calculate that we've banned one title out of the tens of thousands that we have accepted for sale and then decide from there if this is worth their time and energy to worry about.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What the MCU and the Marx Brothers have in common

It might be odd to think that the creators of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has been phenomenally successful and either has or will spawned many would-be imitators, might have something in common with the likes of the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and their like. But they do, and it's something that is (and was) vital to their common success.

The Marx Brothers did not simply spring fully formed and start making movies. They had been around in vaudeville for years, on grueling schedules that often featured multiple performances a day, and often back-to-back days for weeks on end. They were, of course, responsible for writing their own material, so in those years they had to keep coming up with new jokes, new bits, and new songs.

Too, they honed the material they already did have, discarding what didn't work, tweaking what did work, and constantly trying new material out. By the time they got to the movie-making stage of their career, the system was in place, and while they were working on the script for one of their films, they were still touring, trying out the dialogue, the jokes, and bringing them to a point of perfection.

Abbott and Costello, coming out of the burlesque circuit and endless shows for the USO during World War II, were in a similar situation. Constantly make up new material, keep what gets the laughs, drop what doesn't.

Essentially, they were using a refining process, like removing the impurities from iron ore.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has exactly the same advantage. Marvel has been making comic books for decades. That's often dozens of titles a month, month after month, year after year. Over those years they turned out a lot of crap, if one's brutally honest (see right). But in there was gold as well, and it stood out. They can now go back into those archives and pick out the best of the best, and adapt it to their MCU films.

They have decades of trial and error as to what works, what doesn't, and often tons of analysis and feedback from fans as to why. That's why you'd never see a Secret Wars 2 adaptation, even if they could get all the rights needed to do it correctly, but we are going to see a Civil War adaptation, which was received very well by most fans.

Obviously everyone's opinions are going to vary, and doubtless someone will pop up in the comments that liked SW2 and hated CW; such are the vagaries of taste; I'm sure someone out there is dying for a Dazzler movie to be made, and I'll be happy for a ROM Space Knight film, as long as it's part of a larger Dire Wraith invasion storyline*.

They don't even need to be straight adaptations of story lines. Even in terms of characterization, interactions between characters, themes, appearance/costumes, etc. they can see what worked and what didn't, and write the movies accordingly.

Now, even Marvel doesn't use this strategic advantage consistently, and there have been some shaky films to prove it (Hulk, for instance). But on the whole, I think their almost-universal success can be tied to that enormous reservoir of experience.

Fox has the same advantage with X-Men, and finally figured it out after four movies. It's no mistake that Days of Future Past and Apocalypse are being used, but House of M is not. Why Sony hasn't quite gotten the message is puzzling, but maybe if the rumors are true and some sort of Sony-Marvel alliance is still possible, that may change and we can get the Kraven's Last Hunt or The Night Gwen Stacy Died stories that we should have.

* I will also be content if Squirrel Girl is the one who finally takes out Thanos in Infinity War Part 2.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Merry Yuletide!

I thought some carols might be in order:

Edit: I just had to include this one as soon as I saw it: